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Europe will push to work with the US on tech governance, post-Trump

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union said today that it wants to work with US counterparts on a common approach to tech governance — including pushing to standardize rules for applications of technologies like AI and pushing big tech to be more responsible for what their platforms amplify.

EU lawmakers are anticipating rebooted transatlantic relations under the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden .

The Commission has published a new EU-US agenda with the aim of encouraging what it bills as “global cooperation — based on our common values, interests and global influence” in a number of areas, from tackling the coronavirus pandemic to addressing climate change and furthering a Western geopolitical agenda.

Trade and tech policy is another major priority for the hoped for reboot of transatlantic relations, starting with an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021.

Relations have of course been strained during the Trump era as the sitting US president has threatened the bloc with trade tariffs, berated European nations for not spending enough on defence to fulfil their Nato commitments and heavily implied he’d be a lot happier if the EU didn’t exist at all (including loudly supporting brexit).

The Commission agenda conveys a clear message that the bloc’s lawmakers are hopeful of a lot more joint working — toward common goals and interests — once the Biden administration takes office early next year.

Global AI standards?

On the tech front the Commission’s push is for alignment on governance.

“The EU and the US need to join forces as tech-allies to shape technologies, their use and their regulatory environment,” the Commission writes in the agenda. “Using our combined influence, a transatlantic technology space should form the backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies with a shared vision on tech governance and a shared commitment to defend it.”

Among the proposals it’s floating is a “Transatlantic AI Agreement” — which it envisages as setting “a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values”.

While the EU is working on a pan-EU framework to set rules for the use of “high risk” AIs, some US cities and states have already moved to ban the use of specific applications of artificial intelligence — such as facial recognition. So there’s potential to align on some high level principles or standards.

(Or, as the EU puts it: “We need to start acting together on AI — based on our shared belief in a human-centric approach and dealing with issues such as facial recognition.”)

 

“Our shared values of human dignity, individual rights and democratic principles make us natural partners to harness rapid technological change and face the challenges of rival systems of digital governance. This gives us an unprecedented window of opportunity to set a joint EU-US tech agenda,” the Commission also writes, suggesting there’s a growing convergence of views on tech governance.

Talks on tackling big tech

Here it also sees opportunity for the EU and the US to align on tackling big tech — saying it wants to open discussions on setting rules to tackle the societal and market impacts of platform giants.

“There is a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that online platforms and Big Tech raise issues which threaten our societies and democracies, notably through harmful market behaviours, illegal content or algorithm-fuelled propagation of hate speech and disinformation,” it writes.

“The need for global cooperation on technology goes beyond the hardware or software. It is also about our values, our societies and our democracies,” the Commission adds. “In this spirit, the EU will propose a new transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms, which would set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges. We should also work closer together to further strengthen cooperation between competent authorities for antitrust enforcement in digital markets.”

The Commission is on the cusp of unveiling its own blueprint for regulating big tech — with a Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act due to be presented later this month.

Commissioners have said the legislative packages will set clear conditions on digital players, such as for the handling and reporting of illegal content, as well as setting binding transparency and fairness requirements.

They will also introduce a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called gatekeeper platforms that wield significant market power (aka big tech) — with such players set to be subject to a list of dos and don’ts, which could include bans on certain types of self-preferencing and limits on their use of third party data, with the aim of ensuring a level playing field in the future.

The bloc has also been considering beefing up antitrust powers for intervening in digital markets.

Given how advanced EU lawmakers are on proposals to regulate big tech vs US counterparts there’s arguably only a small window of opportunity for the latter to influence the shape of EU rules on (mostly US) big tech.

But the Commission evidently takes the view that rebooted relations, post-Trump, present an opportunity for it to influence US policy — by encouraging European-style platform rules to cross the pond.

It’s fond of claiming the EU’s data protection framework (GDPR) has set a global example that’s influenced lawmakers around the world. So its intent now looks to be to double down — and push to export a European approach to regulating big tech back where most of these giants are based (even as the bloc’s other institutions are still debating and amending the EU proposals).

Next-gen mobile security

Another common challenge the document points to is next-gen mobile connectivity. This has been a particular soapbox of Trump’s in recent years, with the ALL-CAPS loving president frequently taking to Twitter to threaten and bully allies into taking a tough line on allowing Chinese vendors as suppliers for next-gen mobile infrastructure, arguing they pose too great a national security risk.

“We are facing common challenges in managing the digital transition of our economies and societies. These include critical infrastructure, such as 5G, 6G or cybersecurity assets, which are essential for our security, sovereignty and prosperity — but also data, technologies and the role of online platforms,” the Commission writes, easing into the issue.

EU lawmakers go on to say they will put forward proposals “for secure 5G infrastructure across the globe and open a dialogue on 6G” — as part of what they hope will be “wider cooperation on digital supply chain security done through objective risk-based assessments”.

Instead of a blanket ban on Huawei as a 5G supplier the Commission opted to endorse a package of “mitigating measures” — via a 5G toolbox — at the start of this year, which includes requirements for carriers to beef up network security and risk profile assessments of suppliers.

So it looks to be hoping the US can be convinced in the value of a joint approach to standardizing these sorts of security assessments — aka, ‘no more nasty surprises’ — as a strategy to reduce the shocks and uncertainty that have hit digital supply chains during Trump’s presidency.

Increased cooperation around cybersecurity is another area where the EU says it will be pressing US counterparts — floating the idea of joint EU-US restrictions against attributed attackers from third countries in the future. (A proposal which, should it be taken up, could see coordinated sanctions against Russia, which has previously been identified by US and European intelligence agencies running malware attacks targeted at COVID-19 vaccine R&D, for example.)

Easing EU-US data flows

A trickier area for the tech side of the Commission’s plan to reboot transatlantic relations is EU-US data flows.

That’s because Europe’s top court torpedoed the Commission’s US adequacy finding this summer — stripping the country of a privileged status of ‘essential equivalence’ in data protection standards.

Without that there’s huge legal uncertainty and risk for US businesses that want to take EU citizens’ data out of the region for processing. And recent guidance from EU regulators on how to lawfully secure data transfers makes it clear that in some instances there simply won’t be any extra measures or contractual caveats which will fix the risk entirely.

The solution may in fact be data localization in the EU. (Something the Commission’s Data Governance Act proposal, unveiled last week, appeared to confirm by allowing for Member States to set conditions for reuse of the most sensitive types of data — such as prohibiting transfers to third countries.)

“We must also openly discuss diverging views on data governance and see how these can be overcome constructively,” the Commission writes on this thorny issue, adding: “The EU and the US should intensify their cooperation at bilateral and multilateral level to promote regulatory convergence and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high standards and safeguards.”

Commissioners have warned before that there’s no quick fix for the EU-US data transfer issue — but a longer term solution would be a convergence of standards in the areas of privacy and data protection.

And, again, that’s an area where US states have been taking action. But the Commission’s agenda pushing for “regulatory convergence” to ease data flows sums to trying to convince US counterparts of the economic case for reforming Section 702 of FISA…

Digital tax and tech-trade cooperation

Digital tax reform is also inexorably on the EU agenda since no agreement has been possibly under Trump on this stickiest of tech policy issues.

It writes that both the EU and the US should “strongly commit to the timely conclusion of discussions on a global solution within the context of OECD and G20” — saying this is vital to create “a fair and modern economy, which provides market-based rewards for the best innovative ideas”.

“Fair taxation in the digital economy requires innovative solutions on both sides of the Atlantic,” it adds. 

Another proposal the EU is floating is to establish a EU-US Trade and Technology Council — to “jointly maximise opportunities for market-driven transatlantic collaboration, strengthen our technological and industrial leadership and expand bilateral trade and investment”.

It envisages the body focusing on reducing trade barriers; developing compatible standards and regulatory approaches for new technologies; ensuring critical supply chain security; deepening research collaboration and promoting innovation and fair competition — saying there should also be “a new common focus on protecting critical technologies”.

“We need closer cooperation on issues such as investment screening, Intellectual Property rights, forced transfers of technology, and export controls,” it adds.

The Commission announced its own Intellectual Property Action Plan last week, alongside the Data Governance Act proposal — which included support for SMEs to file patents. It also said it will consider whether reform the framework for filing standards essential patents, encouraging industry to engage in forums aimed at reducing litigation in the meanwhile.

The Station: Lime scoots towards profitability, a framework for AVs, and another electric vehicle SPAC

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hi folks, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

Let’s get right to it. Companies tried to pack in the news before the Thanksgiving holiday, which means we have a lot to um, digest.

Email me anytime at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

COVID-19 has obliterated entire business models, while boosting others. Micromobility startups were some that suffered in the early days of the pandemic. However, there appears to be a recovery. Lime is the latest example.

Lime said this week it has moved beyond the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is now largely profitable. Alex Wilhelm and I raised our eyebrows at this and asked for more detail. As you might know, there are all kinds of tricks to be able to claim profitability. What we learned from the company — and yes, reader I know, it’s a private company and therefore no public filing — was rosier than we expected.

Lime said it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021. In general, cash flow positivity is an important threshold for a startup to reach because it implies that the company can largely self-fund from that point forward, limiting its dependency on external cash for survival.

Lime also claimed that it “reached EBIT positive at the company level over the summer.” The specifics of the phrase “EBIT positive” are important. Was the company employing strict EBIT on its math and not discounting share-based compensation, or was it measuring using adjusted EBIT as many startups do, removing the cost of share-based compensation that shows up in GAAP results? According to the company the number did exclude share-based compensation, making the news slightly smaller.

And finally, the last most bullish data point. The company said it expects to be full-year profitable in 2021. TechCrunch asked for specifics because again how one measures profitability matters. It turns out, Lime is basing this projection on EBIT, as opposed to more traditional net income. For a startup this is not a surprising decision, but before we declare Lime fully “profitable,” we’ll want some more GAAP metrics.

In other Lime news …

The company launched its fourth-generation scooter in Paris, a device designed to last more than two years. The Gen4 will roll out across Europe in early 2021. Much of the Gen4 work was done by engineers at Uber’s Jump micromobility unit. Lime did some tweaking to the Jump team’s work, specifically improving the scooter’s durability and swapped out some parts that would allow the company to reuse parts from existing Lime vehicles.

Lime also teased that a “third mode,” beyond bikes and scooters, is also in the works for the first quarter of 2021, as well as the addition of third-party companies to its platform.


I recommend that you take the time to read an article by two of TechCrunch’s European reporters Natasha Lomas and Romain Dillet. The pair examined the urban transformation that is underway in Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, specifically policy decisions aimed reclaiming streets for feet and two wheels.

A few highlights include Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s efforts to create a “15-minute city” and Barcelona’s ambitious pedestrianization plan focused on creating ‘superilles’ or ‘superblocks.’

Grab a coffee and get comfortable for this detailed breakdown.

Oh! wait … a couple of other micromobbin’ items …

Voi, another European electric scooter startup, is equipping its devices with computer vision sensors to detect pedestrians and sidewalks. The aim, VentureBeat reports, is to help users avoid collisions and comply with local legal requirements.

Zipp Mobility, the Irish micromobility startup, is now operating in two Buckinghamshire towns under a year-long pilot program. The company will launch with 25 electric scooters in each area, with plans to increase the fleet size to 300 scooters over the next two months.

Deal of the week

money the station

The summer of the SPAC has spilled over into fall and is threatening to continue into 2021. Startups aiming to produce and sell electric vehicles seem to be particularly fond of this path to becoming a public company. We have Canoo, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, Hyliion, Nikola and now Arrival.

Arrival was an unknown UK startup that operated quietly for about five years until bursting on the public scene in January with a $110 million investment from Hyundai and Kia. It soon became one of the UK’s most valuable startups with a valuation of $3.4 billion.

Arrival’s aim is to produce electric vehicles that are competitive in price with traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles and lower than other EVs. Arrival’s pitch is that its modular electric “skateboard” platform, which can be used on a range of different vehicle types, along with its use of microfactories are the key ingredients to its price competitive sauce. So far, the company has two vehicles — an electric van and bus. Production of its buses are expected to start in the fourth quarter 2021 and its vans in 2022.

OK, so the gist of the deal is this: Arrival agreed to merge with special purpose acquisition company CIIG Merger Corp. with a market valuation up to $5.4 billion. Arrival raised $400 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, from investors that included Fidelity Management & Research Company, Wellington Management, BNP Paribas Asset Management Energy Transition Fund and funds managed by BlackRock. Arrival will have about $660 million in cash proceeds.

On a side note, the company was founded by Denis Sverdlov, who also created Roborace.

Arrival electric bus van

Image Credits: Arrival

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Electric Last Mile Solutions, a Michigan-based electric vehicle startup founded by former Accuride and Ford executive Jason Luo, is in talks to go public through a merger with Forum Merger III Corp., Bloomberg reported. The startup aims to produce mre than 100,000 vehicles a year at a plant in Indiana. Caveat: the terms are not finalized.

Fenix, a new Abu Dhabi micromobility startup, raised $3.8 million in a seed round investment led by Israel-based venture firm Maniv Mobility. The deal is notable for a few reasons. Remember Circ? It’s the Middle East scooter company that Bird acquired and then shuttered in several cities. The founders of Circ, Jaideep Dhanoa and IQ Sayed (who were also colleagues at Careem), started Fenix. Maniv Mobility founder and managing partner Michael Granoff told me this is the first Israeli VC to invest in a UAE-based tech company. Granoff is joining the Fenix board. “Aside from more momentum toward clean and practical urban mobility, I think it heralds an amazing new age of cooperation in the Middle East,” Granoff wrote me in an email touting the deal.

Forto, a digital freight forwarder, raised $50 million in a funding round led by Inven Capital, a growth fund out of the Czech Republic. Additional investment came from Iris Capital as well as existing investors Rider Global, Northzone, Cherry Ventures, Unbound (Shravin Mittal) and the Italian venture fund H14.

Gojek, the ride-hailing firm, raised $150 million from Indonesia’s biggest telecom network Telkomsel. This is being sold as a “strategic partnership,” and seems to expand upon the companies’ existing relationship. Since 2018, Gojek and Telkomsel have maintained a deal to subsidize the cost of mobile data consumed by the ride-hailing firm’s driver partners.

Lightning EMotors, a Colorado-based fleet electrification company, is in advanced talks to go public through a merger with blank-check firm GigCapital3 Inc., Bloomberg reported. There is still some ways to go on this deal, however. GigCapital3 is trying to raise about $100 million in new equity to support a transaction that would create a combined entity worth $700 million to $1 billion, including debt.

Loadsmart, an on-demand digital freight platform, raised $90 million in a Series C funding round co-led by funds under management by BlackRock and Chromo Invest. Strategic investor TFI International, a leader in the logistics space, also participated in this round. Maersk, a global oceanic shipping leader and one of Loadsmart’s strategic backers since its Series A round, also participated.

Ride Vision, an Israeli startup building an AI-driven safety system to prevent motorcycle collisions,  raised a $7 million Series A round led by crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd. YL Ventures, Mobilion VC and motorcycle mirror manufacturer Metagal also participated in this round. The company has now raised a total of $10 million.

Strava, the activity and fitness data-tracking platform, raised $110 million in new funding, in a Series F round led by TCV and Sequoia, and including participation by Dragoneer group, Madrone Capital Partners, Jackson Square Ventures and Go4it Capital.

Election day mobility: scooters

Spin, the micromobility subsidiary of Ford, sent me an interesting graphic and some data points about its ridership on Election Day.

Now, this is just one company’s data. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and make wild presumptions. Think of this an interesting tidbit on how some people were getting around November 3 and one company’s strategy to encourage ridership to the polls.

Spin recorded a 31.45% overall increase in ridership on Election Day from the previous Tuesday. The company offered a $10 discount for riders commuting to the polls November 3 under its SpinToVote campaign, which certainly helped push those ridership numbers higher. Spin said nearly 3,000 riders used the SpintoVote discount.

Cities with the highest increases in ridership on Election Day were Chicago with a whopping 243% rise, Cleveland with 193%, San Francisco with 25% and Atlanta with a10% increase. Spin also tracked use of its “Spin to Vote” campaign. Riders in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, San Diego and Washington D.C. had the highest opt in for that discounted ride campaign.

Update: Lime sent me some of their data, which they also posted in a blog. The company said riders used the Lime to the Polls promotion code for 20% of all U.S. trips on Election Day. This is double the percentage of trips taken during the company’s first Lime to the Polls campaign for the 2018 midterm elections.

How did you get to your polling location? (for those who didn’t mail in their ballot)

spin-election day statistics

Image Credits: Spin

Notable reds and other tidbits

Seriously, folks. So.much.news.

California Public Utilities Commission approved Thursday two new programs to allow permitted companies to provide and charge for shared rides in autonomous vehicles. While the industry mostly cheered the news, some have argued that the approval process to secure one of these permits adds unnecessary bureaucracy that could delay deployments by more than two years.

General Motors had a bunch of announcements this week. First up, the company is getting back into the insurance biz, but this time more in step with the connected-car era. The service, called OnStar Insurance, aims to leverage the vast amounts of data captured through its OnStar connected car service, which today has more than 16 million members in the United States.

The U.S. automaker also upped its budget for electric vehicles and automated technology by 35%. GM said it will spend $27 billion over the next five years on EVs and AVs. GM is also accelerating its go-to-market timeline and adding more EVs to its portfolio plans. The new plan is to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025.

Lordstown Motors said it plans to establish an automotive R&D center in Farmington Hills with support from the Michigan Strategic Fund, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced today. The project is expected to create 141 jobs.

Luminar locked in a supplier deal to furnish Intel subsidiary Mobileye with lidar for its fleet of autonomous vehicles. The deal will see a rising star paired with a company that has long dominated the automotive industry. I breakdown why this is seemingly small deal is worth paying attention to.

Motional, the Aptiv-Hyundai $4 billion joint venture aimed at commercializing autonomous vehicles, received approval from the state of Nevada to test fully driverless vehicles on public roads. The company plans to begin driverless testing on public roads in Las Vegas sometime in early 2021.

National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration officials released an advance notice of proposed rule-making for automated driving. Remember last week when I said rumor had it that U.S. regulators planned to make some moves that will affect the autonomous vehicle industry? Specifically, I noted that UL 4600, a standard created by Underwriters Laboratories that offers a guide for how to build the safety case for an AV design, is rumored to be the front runner.

Welp … the framework released this week includes a whole section for UL 4600. You can view the NHSTA Framework for Automated Driving here.

NYT does a deep dive into the arms race in car stereos.

Panasonic signed a preliminary agreement with the Nordic energy company Equinor and engineering and industrial company Norsk Hydro to collaborate on building a battery business in Northern Europe. Ok, I know, it’s a “preliminary agreement.” This got my attention because of the battery supplier battle that between LG Chem and Panasonic. And as TechCrunch’s Jonathan Shieber notes: Panasonic’s push into Northern Europe alongside two big regional players in hydrocarbons and renewable energy is a sign of the potential that exists in the European market beyond automotive.

GM ups electric and autonomous vehicle spending to $27 billion through 2025

By Kirsten Korosec

General Motors said it will spend $27 billion over the next five years on the development of electric vehicles and automated technology, a 35% increase that exceeds the automaker’s investment in gas and diesel and is an effort to bring products to market faster.

More than half of GM’s capital spending and product development team will be devoted to electric and electric-autonomous vehicle programs, the company said.

The U.S. automaker is also accelerating its go-to-market timeline and adding more EVs to its portfolio plans. GM laid out Thursday an ambitious plan to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025. The company had previously committed to 20 EVs by 2023. More than two-thirds of those launches will be available in North America and every one of GM’s brands, including Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Buick, will be represented, according to the automaker.

The acceleration of GM’s plans, which includes pushing the launch of its Cadillac Lyriq SUV ahead by nine months to the first quarter of 2022, comes amid a flurry of EV activity in the automotive industry. Numerous startups have announced mergers with special purpose acquisition companies to become publicly traded companies — a move aimed at securing the capital needed to scale. Legacy automakers like Ford and VW Group are ramping their own EV plans. Tesla, the established electric automaker in the field, is building a factory in Austin and another in Berlin to boost production and add more vehicles to its portfolio. By the end of next year, consumers will have more EV options than ever before, including the Lucid Motors Air, Rivian R1T pickup truck and Ford’s Mustang Mach-E.

“We don’t want to just participate, we want to lead,” said Doug Parks, GM executive vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, during a call with reporters ahead of the announcement. “Tesla’s got a good jump, and they’ve done great things and so they’re formidable competitors. There’s a lot of startups and everyone else invading the space, and we’re not going to secede leadership there.”

GM’s strategy is to condense the typical 50-month development cycle by scrapping traditional methods and adopting a less bureaucratic team-focused approached, Parks said. For instance, the design to market timeline for the electric GMC Hummer will be 26 months, he said. Parks added that the early work on its Ultium battery architecture and drive units — the underlying foundation of its next-generation EV program — is allowing the company to move quickly.

As a result, Parks said GM is moving up three GMC electric vehicles — all of which are using its new Ultium battery — and four Chevrolet EVs, including a pickup and a compact crossover, as well as four Cadillacs. GM said Buick’s lineup will include two Ultium-based EVs.

GM is also on a hiring spree in a bid to keep pace and ultimately surpass its competition. The company said earlier this month it is hiring 3,000 electric system, infotainment software and controls engineers, plus developers for Java, Android, iOS and other platforms.

GM also has a joint venture with LG Chem to develop and supply the battery cells for its modular architecture. This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” (same as the battery) will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front, rear and all-wheel drive configurations. At the heart of the new modular architecture will be the large-format pouch battery cells manufactured at this new factory.

The two companies previously committed to invest up to $2.3 billion into the new joint venture, as well as establish a battery cell assembly plant on a greenfield manufacturing site in the Lordstown area of Northeast Ohio that will create more than 1,100 new jobs.

The factory, which is already under construction, will be able to produce 30 gigawatts hours of capacity annually. To put that into perspective, Tesla’s factory in Sparks, Nevada, which is part of a partnership with Panasonic, has a 35 GW-hour capacity.

Verizon partners with Apple to launch 5G Fleet Swap

By Frederic Lardinois

Apple and Verizon today announced a new partnership that will make it easier for their business partners to go all-in on 5G. Fleet Swap, as the program is called, allows businesses to trade in their entire fleet of smartphones — no matter whether they are currently a Verizon customer or not — and move to the iPhone 12 with no upfront cost and either zero cost (for the iPhone 12 mini) or a low monthly cost.

(Disclaimer: Verizon is TechCrunch’s corporate parent. The company has zero input into our editorial decisions.)

In addition, Verizon also today announced its first two major indoor 5G ultra wideband services for its enterprise customers. General Motors and Honeywell are the first customers here, with General Motors enabling the technology at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, the company’s all-electric vehicle plant. To some degree, this goes to show how carriers are positioning 5G ultra wideband as more of an enterprise feature than the lower-bandwidth versions of 5G.

“I think about how 5G [ultra wide band] is really filling a need for capacity and for capability. It’s built for industrial commercial use cases. It’s built on millimeter wave spectrum and it’s really built for enterprise,” Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin told me.

It’s important to note that these two projects are not private 5G networks. Verizon is also in that business and plans to launch those more broadly in the future.

“No matter where you are on your digital transformation journey, the ability to put the power of 5G Ultra Wideband in all of your employees’ hands right now with a powerful iPhone 12 model, the best smartphone for business, is not just an investment for growth, it’s what will set a business’s future trajectory as technology continues to advance,” Erwin said in today’s announcement.

As for 5G Fleet Swap, the idea here is obviously to get more businesses on Verizon’s 5G network and, for Apple, to quickly get more iPhone 12s into the enterprise. Apple clearly believes that 5G can provide some benefits to enterprises — and maybe more so than to consumers — thanks to its low latency for AR applications, for example.

“The iPhone 12 lineup is the best for business, with an all-new design, advanced 5G experience, industry-leading security and A14 Bionic, the fastest chip ever in a smartphone,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps and Services. “Paired with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband going indoors and 5G Fleet Swap, an all-new device offer for enterprise, it’s now easier than ever for businesses to build transformational mobile apps that take advantage of the powerful iPhone 12 lineup and 5G.”

In addition, the company is highlighting the iPhone’s secure enclave as a major security benefit for enterprises. And while other handset manufacturers launch devices that are specifically meant to be rugged, Apple argues that its devices are already rugged enough by design and that there’s a big third-party ecosystem to ruggedize its devices.

Abacus.AI raises another $22M and launches new AI modules

By Frederic Lardinois

AI startup RealityEngines.AI changed its name to Abacus.AI in July. At the same time, it announced a $13 million Series A round. Today, only a few months later, it is not changing its name again, but it is announcing a $22 million Series B round, led by Coatue, with Decibel Ventures and Index Partners participating as well. With this, the company, which was co-founded by former AWS and Google exec Bindu Reddy, has now raised a total of $40.3 million.

Abacus co-founder Bindu Reddy, Arvind Sundararajan and Siddartha Naidu. Image Credits: Abacus.AI

In addition to the new funding, Abacus.AI is also launching a new product today, which it calls Abacus.AI Deconstructed. Originally, the idea behind RealityEngines/Abacus.AI was to provide its users with a platform that would simplify building AI models by using AI to automatically train and optimize them. That hasn’t changed, but as it turns out, a lot of (potential) customers had already invested into their own workflows for building and training deep learning models but were looking for help in putting them into production and managing them throughout their lifecycle.

“One of the big pain points [businesses] had was, ‘look, I have data scientists and I have my models that I’ve built in-house. My data scientists have built them on laptops, but I don’t know how to push them to production. I don’t know how to maintain and keep models in production.’ I think pretty much every startup now is thinking of that problem,” Reddy said.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

Since Abacus.AI had already built those tools anyway, the company decided to now also break its service down into three parts that users can adapt without relying on the full platform. That means you can now bring your model to the service and have the company host and monitor the model for you, for example. The service will manage the model in production and, for example, monitor for model drift.

Another area Abacus.AI has long focused on is model explainability and de-biasing, so it’s making that available as a module as well, as well as its real-time machine learning feature store that helps organizations create, store and share their machine learning features and deploy them into production.

As for the funding, Reddy tells me the company didn’t really have to raise a new round at this point. After the company announced its first round earlier this year, there was quite a lot of interest from others to also invest. “So we decided that we may as well raise the next round because we were seeing adoption, we felt we were ready product-wise. But we didn’t have a large enough sales team. And raising a little early made sense to build up the sales team,” she said.

Reddy also stressed that unlike some of the company’s competitors, Abacus.AI is trying to build a full-stack self-service solution that can essentially compete with the offerings of the big cloud vendors. That — and the engineering talent to build it — doesn’t come cheap.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

It’s no surprise then that Abacus.AI plans to use the new funding to increase its R&D team, but it will also increase its go-to-market team from two to ten in the coming months. While the company is betting on a self-service model — and is seeing good traction with small- and medium-sized companies — you still need a sales team to work with large enterprises.

Come January, the company also plans to launch support for more languages and more machine vision use cases.

“We are proud to be leading the Series B investment in Abacus.AI, because we think that Abacus.AI’s unique cloud service now makes state-of-the-art AI easily accessible for organizations of all sizes, including start-ups. Abacus.AI’s end-to-end autonomous AI service powered by their Neural Architecture Search invention helps organizations with no ML expertise easily deploy deep learning systems in production.”

 

‘Resident Evil’ game maker Capcom confirms data breach after ransomware attack

By Zack Whittaker

Capcom, the Japanese game maker behind the “Resident Evil” and “Street Fighter” franchises, has confirmed that hackers stole customer data and files from its internal network following a ransomware attack earlier in the month.

That’s an about-turn from the days immediately following the cyberattack, in which Capcom said it had no evidence that customer data had been accessed.

In a statement, the company said data on as many as 350,000 customers may have been stolen, including names, addresses, phone numbers and, in some cases, dates of birth. Capcom said the hackers also stole its own internal financial data and human resources files on current and former employees, which included names, addresses, dates of birth and photos. The attackers also took “confidential corporate information,” the company said, including documents on business partners, sales and development.

Capcom said that no credit card information was taken, as payments are handled by a third-party company.

But the company warned that the overall amount of data stolen “cannot specifically be ascertained” due to losing its own internal logs in the cyberattack.

Capcom apologized for the breach. “Capcom offers its sincerest apologies for any complications and concerns that this may bring to its potentially impacted customers as well as to its many stakeholders,” the statement read.

The video games maker was hit by the Ragnar Locker ransomware on November 2, prompting the company to shut down its network. Ragnar Locker is a data-stealing ransomware, which exfiltrates data from a victim before encrypting its network, and then threatens to publish the stolen files unless a ransom is paid. In doing so, ransomware groups can still demand a company pays the ransom even if the victim restores their files and systems from backups.

Ragnar Locker’s website now lists data allegedly stolen from Capcom, with a message implying that the company did not pay the ransom.

Capcom said it had informed data protection regulators in Japan and the United Kingdom, as required under European GDPR data breach notification rules. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual revenue for falling foul of GDPR rules.

Funded by Connect Ventures, Purple Dot plans to take on Klarna-style purchase debt

By Mike Butcher

In recent times startups have appeared offering credit at an e-commerce basket checkout so that a customer can buy a product without needing to pay right away. Klarna or Clearpay are the two most notable in this field. But what if you flipped the model around so that consumers could buy the item at a lower price later on, and the retailer could reduce waste? This is the model of Purple Dot, which bills itself as a “worth-the-wait” payment option for fashion brands.

It’s now raised a seed round of £1.35 million, led by Connect Ventures, with support from AI Seed, Moxxie Ventures, Andy Chung and Philipp Moehring from AngelList, Alex Roetter (former SVP of Engineering at Twitter) and the family office of Paul Forster, co-founder of Indeed.com.

Founded in August 2019 by senior Skyscanner employees Madeline Parra (CEO) and John Talbott (CTO), Purple Dot allows consumers to request a “worth-the-wait” lower price. The advantage for retailers is that they can then decide whether or not to release a fashion product mid-season at a slightly reduced rate in order to secure the sale.

The customers still pays upfront and then waits to have the item confirmed, receiving a full refund if not. The Purple Dot payment method sits alongside “buy now, pay later” finance options.

Unlike Klarna, we don’t encourage consumers to buy stuff they can’t afford.

This “worth-the-wait” price does not usually fall below a 10-20% reduction from the recommended retail price, thus reducing losses from end-of-season discounting, where discounts are much deeper. The advantage for the consumer is that they don’t then rack up debt on their purchases.

The startup says it’s already in talks with a number of major U.K. and U.S. high street brands but has already secured menswear retailer Spoke, which will also use the tech for “pre-ordering”. This means they can test out new styles, designs and fabrics in a limited manner, thus reducing waste (and therefore carbon emissions) when they commit to a new line of clothing.

Madeline Parra, CEO of Purple Dot, commented: “When shopping online today, customers can either pay the retail price or walk away. When they do walk away, the item goes through the discounting process, becomes unprofitable for the merchant and is resigned to landfill. This binary system isn’t working for anyone – the customer loses out on the item, because it may go out of stock in their size before they attempt to purchase it again, and the merchant loses the sale. Purple Dot tackles this problem head-on by providing a new way to shop, taking on unsustainable, unrelenting consumerism, poor pricing tactics and profit-crunching sales at the same time.”

Speaking to TechCrunch she also added that “Unlike Klarna, we don’t encourage consumers to buy stuff they can’t afford.”

Pietro Bezza, general partner at Connect Ventures, commented: “Purple Dot’s innovative proposition benefits retailers by creating a solution to their inventory problems. End of season ‘panic sales’ have long caused financial uncertainty for retailers and a negative impact on the environment in equal measure.”

Render raises $4.5M for its DevOps platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Render, the winner of our Disrupt SF 2019 Startup Battlefield, today announced that it has added another $4.5 million onto its existing seed funding round, bringing total investment into the company to $6.75 million.

The round was led by General Catalyst, with participation from previous investors South Park Commons Fund and a group of angels that includes Lee Fixel, Elad Gil and GitHub CTO (and former VP of Engineering at Heroku) Jason Warner.

The company, which describes itself as a “Zero DevOps alternative to AWS, Azure and Google Cloud,” originally raised a $2.25 million seed round in April 2019, but it got a lot of inbound interest after winning the Disrupt Battlefield. In the end, though, the team decided to simply raise more money from its existing investors.

Current Render users include Cypress.io, Mux, Bloomscape, Zelos, 99designs and Stripe.

“We spoke to a bunch of people after Disrupt, including Ashton Kutcher’s firm, because he was one of the judges,” Render co-founder and CEO Anurag Goel explained. “In the end, we decided that we would just raise more money from our existing investors because we like them and it helped us get a better deal from our existing investors. And they were all super interested in continuing to invest.”

What makes Render stand out is that it fulfills many of the promises of Heroku and maybe Google Cloud’s App Engine. You simply tell it what kind of service you are going to deploy and it handles the deployment and manages the infrastructure for you.

“Our customers are all people who are writing code. And they just want to deploy this code really easily without having to worry about servers, or maintenance, or depending on DevOps teams — or, in many cases, hiring DevOps teams,” Goel said. “DevOps engineers are extremely expensive to hire and extremely hard to find, especially good ones. Our goal is to eliminate all of that work that DevOps people do at every company, because it’s very similar at every company.”

Image Credits: Render

One new feature the company is launching today is preview environments. You can think of them as disposable staging or development environments that developers can spin up to test their code — and Render promises that the testing environment will look the same as your production environment (or you can specify changes, too). Developers can then test their updates collaboratively with QA or their product and sales teams in this environment.

Development teams on Render specify their infrastructure environments in a YAML file and turning on these new preview environments is as easy as setting a flag in that file.

Image Credits: Render

“Once they do that, then for every pull request — because we’re integrated with GitHub and GitLab — we automatically spin up a copy of that environment. That can include anything you have in production, or things like a Redis instance, or managed Postgres database, or Elasticsearch instance, or obviously APIs and web services and static sites,” Goel said. Every time you push a change to that branch or pull request, the environment is automatically updated, too. Once the pull request is closed or merged, Render destroys the environment automatically.

The company will use the new funding to grow its team and build out its service. The plan, Goel tells me, is to raise a larger Series A round next year.

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

By Mike Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This serial founder is taking on Carta with cap table management software she says is better for founders

By Connie Loizos

Yin Wu has cofounded several companies since graduating from Stanford in 2011, including a computer vision company called Double Labs that sold to Microsoft, where she stayed on for a couple of years as a software engineer. In fact, it was only after that sale she she says she “actually understood all of the nuances with a company’s cap table.”

Her newest company, Pulley, a 14-month-old, Mountain View, Ca.-based maker of cap table management software aims to solve that same problem and has so far raised $10 million toward that end led by the payments company Stripe, with participation from Caffeinated Capital, General Catalyst, 8VC, and numerous angel investors.

Wu is going up against some pretty powerful competition. Carta was reportedly raising $200 million in fresh funding at a $3 billion valuation as of the spring (a round the company never official confirmed or announced). Last year, it raised $300 million. Morgan Stanley has meanwhile been beefing up its stock plan administration business, acquiring Solium Capital early last year and more newly purchasing Barclay’s stock plan business.

Of course, startups often manage to find a way to take down incumbents and a distraction for Carta, at least, in the form of a very public gender discrimination lawsuit by a former VP of marketing, could be the kind of opening that Pulley needs. We emailed with Yu yesterday to ask if that might be the case. She didn’t answer directly, but she did mention “values,” as long as shared some more details about what she sees as different about the two products.

TC: Why start this company? Has Carta’s press of late created an opening for a new upstart in the space?

YW: I left Microsoft in 2018 and started Pulley a year later. We skipped the seed and raised the A because of overwhelming demand from investors. Many wanted a better product for their portfolio companies. Many founders are increasingly thinking about choosing with companies, like Pulley, that better align with their values.

TC: How many people are working for Pulley and are any folks you pulled out of Carta?

YW: We’re a team of seven and have four people on the team who are former Y Combinator founders. We attract founders to the team because they’ve experienced firsthand the difficulties of managing a cap table and want to build a better tool for other founders. We have not pulled anyone out of Carta yet.

TC: Carta has raised a lot of funding and it has long tentacles. What can Pulley offer startups that Carta cannot?

YW: We offer startups a better product compared to our competitors. We make every interaction on Pulley easier and faster. 409A valuations take five days instead of weeks, and onboarding is the same day rather than months. By analogy, this is similar to the difference between Stripe and Braintree when Stripe initially launched. There were many different payment processes when Stripe launched. They were able to capture a large portion of the market by building a better product that resonated with developers.

One of the features that stands out on Pulley is our modeling feature [which helps founders model dilution in future rounds and helps employees understand the value of their equity as the company grows]. Founders switch from our competitors to Pulley to use our modeling tool [and it works] with pre-money SAFEs, post-money SAFEs, and factors in pro-ratas and discounts. To my knowledge, Pulley’s modeling tool is the most comprehensive product on the market.

TC: How does your pricing compare with Carta’s?

YW:  Pulley is free for early-stage companies regardless of how much they raise. We’re price competitive with Carta on our paid plans. Part of the reason we started Pulley is because we had frustrations with other cap table management tools. When using other services, we had to regularly ping our accountants or lawyers to make edits, run reports, or get data. Each time we involved the lawyers, it was an expensive legal fee. So there is easily a $2,000 hidden fee when using tools that aren’t self-serve for setting up and updating your cap table.

TC: Is there a business-to-business opportunity here, where maybe attorneys or accountants or wealth managers private label this service? Or are these industry professionals viewed as competitors?

YW: We think there are opportunities to white label the service for accountants and law firms. However, this is currently not our focus.

TC: How adaptable is the software? Can it deal with a complicated scenario, a corner case?

YW: We started Pulley one year ago and we’re launching today because we have invested in building an architecture that can support complex cap table scenarios as companies scale. There are two things that you have to get right with cap table systems, First, never lose the data and second, always make sure the numbers are correct. We haven’t lost data for any customer and we have a comprehensive system of tests that verifies the cap table numbers on Pulley remain accurate.

TC: At what stage does it make sense for a startup to work with Pulley, and do you have the tools to hang onto them and keep them from switching over to a competitor later?

YW: We work with companies past the Series A, like Fast and Clubhouse. Companies are not looking to change their cap table provider if Pulley has the tool to grow with them. We already have the features of our competitors, including electronic share issuance, ACH transfers for options, modeling tools for multiple rounds, and more. We think we can win more startups because Pulley is also easier to use and faster to onboard.

TC: Regarding your paid plans, how much is Pulley charging and for what? How many tiers of service are there?

YW; Pulley is free for early-stage startups with less than 25 stakeholders. We charge $10 per stakeholder per month when companies scale beyond that. A stakeholder is any employee or investor on the cap table. Most companies upgrade to our premium plan after a seed round when they need a 409A valuation.

Cap table management is an area where companies don’t want a free product. Pulley takes our customers data privacy and security very seriously. We charge a flat fee for companies so they rest assured that their data will never be sold or used without their permission.

TC: What’s Pulley’s relationship to venture firms?

YW: We’re currently focused on founders rather than investors. We work with accelerators like Y Combinator to help their portfolio companies manage their cap table, but don’t have a formal relationship with any VC firms.

As Blizzard sunsets StarCraft II, some of its key creators raise cash for a new gaming studio

By Jonathan Shieber

Even as Blizzard pulls the plug on new updates for its StarCraft II game, nearly a decade after its launch, gaming investors are financing the next new thing coming from key members of the game’s early development team.

Blizzard vets Tim Morten, the former production director for StarCraft II; and Tim Campbell, the lead campaign designer for WarCraft III; have launched a new studio with a number of colleagues from Blizzard to bring real time strategy games to a bigger audience.

The new company, Frost Giant Studios, has picked up $4.7 million in seed funding from the gaming and synthetic media focused investment firm, Bitkraft Ventures, along with participation from 1 Up Ventures, GC Tracker, Riot Games, and Griffin Gaming Partners, the company said.

“Frost Giant Studios is on a mission to bring one of the most beloved genres to a broader audience,” said Scott Rupp, Founding General Partner at Bitkraft Ventures. “We are excited to see some of the most experienced leaders in real-time strategy game development come together to build a game that will secure the future growth of the RTS genre while staying true to the core player fantasy of RTS.”

Building on their experience developing StarCraft II over the past ten years, the Frost Giant Studios strategy is focused on making gameplay better, easier, and more collaborative.

Think of it as taking some of the best elements of the battle royal genre and bringing them into real-time strategy games with an eye toward playability and competitive opportunities in esports.

“Real-time strategy players are an incredibly passionate community, and they deserve not just a great new game, but one they can share broadly with friends. Building a worthy successor will take time, but we’re incredibly excited and grateful to carry real-time strategy forward at Frost Giant Studios,” said Tim Morten, Frost Giant Studios CEO.

Proterra, which makes big honkin’ battery systems and electric buses, raises $200 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Proterra, the battery system technology developer for heavy-duty electric vehicles, said it has raised $200 million in a new round of funding.

The new cash comes from Cowen Sustainable Investment Advisors, which led the round, along with money from Soros Fund Management, Generation Investment Management and Broadscale Group.

Cowen took the bulk of the round with $150 million while Soros, Generation and Broadscale forked over another $50 million.

This new capital infusion follows a year’s worth of speculation about a potential public offering for the big honkin battery systems developer. TechCrunch last reported in August 2019 that Proterra had hit a $1 billion valuation according to investors and would be seeking a potential IPO at the time.

The company said the new money would go to support the company’s ongoing research and development efforst into battery and electric drivetrain technologies and business development to increase the company’s footprint in additional commercial vehicle segments.

Proterra’s also looking at charging and energy management technology development to lower fleet management costs associated with operating electric fleets.

To date, Proterra has raised equity and debt totaling at least roughly $1 billion from investors including G2VP, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Constellation Ventures, Mitsui & Co. as well as BMW i Ventures, Edison Energy, the Federal Transportation Administration, General Motors’s venture arm and Tao Capital Partners .

Proterra, mainly makes buses for local, state and federal agencies that can travel 350 miles on a single charge. The Burlingame, Calif. company, which has a number of former Tesla employees in leadership positions, including the company’s former chief executive Ryan Popple, has also diversified its business to provide its power trains to other heavy- and medium-duty commercial electric vehicle manufacturers.

The company is now working with OEMs like Thomas Built Bus, Van Hool, FCCC, BusTech and Optimal-EV to bring 100% battery-electric vehicles powered by its technology to market, the company said in a statement.

“As demand grows for battery-electric vehicles and 100% zero-emission fleets, we are excited to collaborate with CSI as well as our other investors to accelerate the transition to clean, quiet transportation for all and deliver even more Proterra Powered vehicles around the world,” said Jack Allen, Proterra’s current chairman and chief executive.

BofA Securities acted as sole placement agent on this transaction.

Merging Airbnb and the traditional hotel model, Mexico City’s Casai raises $23 million to grow in Latin America

By Jonathan Shieber

With travel and tourism rising across Latin America, Casai, a startup combining Airbnb single unit rentals with hotel room amenities, has raised $23 million to expand its business across Latin America.

The company, which initially was as hit hard by regional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as other businesses in the hospitality industry has recovered to reach nearly 90 percent of total capacity on the 200 units it manages around Mexico City.

The company was co-founded by chief executive Nico Barawid, a former head of international expansion at Nova Credit and consultant with BCG, and chief operating officer María del Carmen Herrerías Salazar, who previously worked at one of Mexico’s largest hotel operators, Grupo Presidente.

The two met two years ago at a barbecue in Mexico City and began speaking about ways to update the hospitality industry taking the best of Airbnb’s short term rental model of individual units and pairing it with the quality control and standards that guests expect from a hotel chain.

“I wanted to define a product from a consumer angle,” said Barawid. “I wanted this to exist.”

Before the SARS-Cov-2 outbreak Casai’s units were primarily booked through travel partners like HotelTonight or Expedia. Now the company has a direct brisk direct booking business thanks to the work of its chief technology officer, a former engineer at Google named Andres Martinez.

The company’s new financing was led by Andreessen Horowitz and included additional commitments from the firm’s Cultural Leadership Fund, Kaszek Ventures, Monashees Capital, Global Founders Capital, Liquid 2 Ventures, and individual investors including the founders of Nova Credit, Loft, Kavak and Runa.

Casai also managed to nab a debt facility of up to $25 million from TriplePoint Capital, bringing its total cash haul to $48 million in equity and debt.

Image Credit: Casai

The big round is in part thanks to the company’s compelling value proposition, which offers guest not only places to stay equipped with a proprietary smart hardware hub and the Casai app, but also a Google Home, smart lights, and Chromecast-kitted televisions, but also a lounge where guests can stay ahead of their check-in or after check-out.

And while the company’s vision is focused on Latin America now, its management team definitely sees the opportunity to create a global brand and business.

The founding team also includes a chief revenue officer, Alberto Ramos, who worked at McKinsey and a chief growth officer, Daniel Hermann, who previously worked at the travel and lifestyle company, Selina. The head of design, Alexa Backal, used to work at GAIA Design, and its vice president of experience, Cristina Crespo, formerly ran WeWork’s international design studio.

“To successfully execute on this opportunity, a team needs to bring together expertise from consumer technology, design, hospitality, real estate and financial services to develop world-class operations needed to deliver on a first-class experience,” said Angela Strange, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, who’s taking a seat on the Casai board. “It was obvious when I met Nico and Maricarmen that they are operationally laser-focused and have uniquely blended expertise across verticals, with unique views on the consumer experience.”

Menlo Micro, a startup bringing semiconductor tech to the humble switch, is ready for its closeup

By Jonathan Shieber

Sixteen years ago a group of material scientists and engineers at General Electric banded together to reinvent the circuit breaker. Now, Menlo Microsystems, the spinoff commercializing that technology, is ready to bring its revolutionary new switches to market, with huge implications for everything from 5G technologies to quantum computing.

Based in Irvine, Calif., Menlo Micro takes its name from the Menlo Park, NJ research lab where Thomas Edison patented the first light switch back in 1893 and the company’s ties to GE run deep.

Researchers at GE spent more than a decade working internally on Menlo Micro’s core technology, a novel process that applies semiconductor manufacturing techniques to the production of micro electro-mechanical systems, before spinning it out into a new business five years ago.

Using a novel alloy, Menlo Micro is able to reduce the size of the switches it makes to 50 microns by 50 microns, or roughly the width of a human hair. This miniaturization can enable hardware manufacturers to come up with completely new designs for a host of products that used to require much larger components.

“The micro electro-mechanical system that we use to make this… that’s not new,” said Russ Garcia, the company’s chief executive. “The problem was — the first level innovation is how do you take a mechanical switch like the light switch or a relay and scale that down to a wafer.”

Many companies have tried to make MEMs contact switches, spending hundreds of millions of dollars, but Garcia said that the reliability and durability of the switches was always an issue. The material science behind Menlo’s switches solves the problem, he said.

Menlo’s switches pack lots and lots of MEMS relays onto a single chip that can function like a massive mechanical relay, reducing something that was the size of a fist to something the size of a microchip.

The company’s founders think the potential uses are pretty limitless, thanks to the massive size reduction and increased durability that its switches offer.

Close up of a Menlo Micro switch. Image Credit: Menlo Micro

Initial markets for commercialization

“One way to look at this is in edge and IOT applications,” said company co-founder Chris Giovanniello, a former vice president of business development at GE Ventures and Menlo Micro’s current senior vice president of worldwide marketing.  “What we tend to think about and what most of the industry thinks about is low energy bluetooth and wifi and low power processing for decision making. Once you’ve sensed it, communicated it, and made a decision, you have to do something about it.”

Initially Menlo Micro spun out from GE with Giovanniello and co-founders including chief technology officer, Chris Keimel, and Jeff Baloun, the senior vice president of operations. Garcia, who saw the company’s initial pitch at a semiconductor conference where GE was touting the technology, was brought on board by one of Menlo Micro’s early investors Paladin Capital Group. 

Paul Conley of Paladin Capital sent me this deck and said ‘Wow there might be something there.’ We met Chris and then met up with the other Chris they wanted me to help out with strategy,” Garcia said. He wound up coming on board as a founding executive. 

Current solid state technologies tasked with making something happen based on the data currently use more power than the rest of the systems that they’re tied to. Menlo Micro’s chips would substantially reduce energy loss and improve the efficiency of entire systems, he said. 

“If you think of the light switch in your house, it’s two metal contacts that come together. If that contact is really good and clean the electricity flows through very efficiently and when you turn it off… no electricity can flow through and [nothing] happens at all,” said Garcia, a longtime executive in the MEMS industry. “In a semiconductor, there’s loss in that contact. When you run a transistor on it allows the energy to flow through but loses some of that energy in heat and when you turn it off it allows some of that energy to flow through. When you take the billions of switches… all of that incremental energy is completely lost.”

The benefits of the technology mean demand from the defense industry, which wants to put the new switches in radar, radio, and satellite networks. Commercial applications include wi-fi connectivity, 5G cell networks, for radio frequency and microwave switching. Consumers could see the switches in cell phones meaning fewer dropped calls, higher speeds and capacity for data, and longer battery life.

Menlo has already sent samples from its production line to 30 lead customers in aerospace and defense, telecommunications and testa and measurement. And the company has raised $44 million in new funding from investors including Nest founder Tony Fadell’s Future Shape Group to boost its production capacity to meet potential demand.

“The concept of an ‘ideal switch’ was theoretical – something companies have been working to  achieve for decades – until Menlo Micro,” said Marianne Wu, the former head of GE Ventures and current Managing Director of 40 North Ventures, which led Menlo Micro’s latest round. “We are incredibly excited to work with such a dynamic, experienced team on a core  technology that is disrupting nearly every industry.” 

Series of Menlo Micro switches on a circuit board. Image Credit: Menlo Micro

Thinking beyond 5G, defense and industrial IOT

Over the last 30 months, Menlo Micro said it has completed the transfer and qualification of its manufacturing process, moving from a 4-inch research fab to a new 8-inch high volume manufacturing line.

That means the company is able to increase production for its initial products and boost its capacity. With the qualification in hand, the company expects to bring production up to over 100,000 units per month by the end of 2020 and reach production capacity for millions of switches per month in 2021.

So beyond telecommunications and defense, there are target markets in energy storage, automotive, aerospace because of the miniaturization — while quantum computing companies are interested in the technology because of its durability.

“The relay is a large mechanical devices that you can hold in yourhand and used in many applications for turning on and off the power that goes to an industrial piece of equipment to your car to motors that need to be driven,” said Giovanniello. “They’re very hard to integrate because they’re so big. We can take the electrical characteristics of having a true metal to metal on low loss connection and then, when it’s open there’s an air gap that no current can flow through.. We can integrate [the switches] into completely different architectures.” 

Ultimately, Giovanniello said the go-to-market strategy is to focus on the “rule of 99”.

“We’re able to reduce the size, the weight, and the power fo the box that [the switch] is going into by up to 99%. That’s a huge improvement in infrastructure and cost,” he said.

For companies developing quantum computers, the value proposition is not just about the size of the MEMS, but the durability of the alloy that Menlo Micro has developed. “For quantum, you have to have devices that operate at close to absolute zero… Semiconductors don’t work down to those temperatures so they use old-fashioned mechanical relays [which] can take hours to get back to temperature,” Giovanniello said. “Our materials are so robust they work [at temperatures] down to a few milikelvins.”

It’s this flexibility and the potential redesign of old industrial technologies that haven’t been updated for nearly a century that has enabled the company to bring in $78 million in funding from investors including Piva, Paladin Capital Group, Vertical Venture Partners, Future Shape and strategic investors like Corning and Microsemi.

“For 40+ years, the industry has been searching for a switch that has the perfect combination of  the electromechanical relay and the silicon transistor,” said Tony Fadell, in a statement. “[This technology] is a tiny,  efficient, reliable micro-mechanical switch with unmatched RF-performance and, counterintuitively, high-power handling of 1,000s of Watts. As our world moves to the  electrification and wireless of everything, Menlo Micro’s deep innovation is already triggering  massive cross-industry upheaval.”

If the ad industry is serious about transparency, let’s open-source our SDKs

By Walter Thompson
Erick Fang Contributor
Erick Fang is the chief executive officer of Mintegral, where he oversees management, customer relationships and product development for this global mobile advertising platform.

Year after year, a lack of transparency in how ad traffic is sourced, sold and measured is cited by advertisers as a source of frustration and a barrier to entry in working with various providers. But despite progress on the protection and privacy of data through laws like GDPR and COPPA, the overall picture regarding ad-marketing transparency has changed very little.

In part, this is due to the staggering complexity of how programmatic and other advertising technologies work. With automated processes managing billions of impressions every day, there is no universal solution to making things more simple and clear. So the struggle for the industry is not necessarily a lack of intent around transparency, but rather how to deliver it.

Frustratingly, evidence shows that the way data is collected and used by some industry players has played a large part in reducing people’s trust in online advertising. This is not a problem that was created overnight. There is a long history and growing sense of consumer frustration with the way their data is being used, analyzed and monetized and a similar frustration by advertisers with the transparency and legitimacy of ad clicks for which they are asked to pay.

There are continuing efforts by organizations like the IAB and TAG to create policies for better transparency such as ads.txt. But without hard and fast laws, the responsibility lies with individual companies.

One relatively simple yet largely spurned practice that would engender transparency and trust for the benefit of all parties (brands, consumers and ad/marketing providers) would be for the industry to come together and have all parties open their SDKs.

Why open-sourcing benefits advertisers, publishers and the ad industry

Open-source software is code that anyone is free to use, analyze, alter and improve.

Auditing the code and adjusting the SDKs functionality based on individual needs is a common practice — and so too are audits by security companies or interested parties who are rightly on the lookout for app fraud. By showing exactly how the code within the SDK has been written, it is the best way to reassure developers and partners that there are no hidden functions or unwanted features.

Everyone using open-source SDKs can learn exactly how it works, and because it is under an open-source license, anyone can suggest modifications and improvements in the code.

Open source brings some risks, but much bigger rewards

The main risk from opening up an SDK code is that third parties will look for ways to exploit it and insert their own malicious code, or else look at potential vulnerabilities to access back-end services and data. However, providers should be on the lookout and be able to fix the potential vulnerabilities as they arise.

As for the rewards, open-sourcing engenders trust and transparency, which should certainly translate into customer loyalty and consumer confidence. After all, we are all operating in a market where advertisers and developers can choose who they want to work with — and on what terms.

Selfishly but practically speaking, opening SDKs can also help companies in our industry protect themselves from others’ baseless claims that are simply intended to promote their products. With open standards, there are no unsubstantiated, false accusations intended for publicity. The proof is out there for everyone to see.

How ad tech is embracing open source

In the ad tech space, companies such as MoPub, Appodeal and AppsFlyer are just a few that have already made some or all of their SDKs available through an open-source license.

All of these companies have decided to use an open-source approach because they recognize the importance of transparency and trust, especially when you are placing the safety and reputation of your brand in the hands of an algorithm. However, the majority of SDKs remain closed.

Relying on forward-thinking companies to set their own transparency levels will only take our industry so far. It’s time for stronger action around trust and data transparency. In the same way that GDPR and COPPA have required companies to address privacy and, ultimately, to have forced a change that was needed, open-sourcing our SDKs will take the ad-marketing space to new heights and drive new levels of trust and deployment with our clients, competitors, legislators and consumers.

The industry-wide challenge of transparency won’t be solved any time soon, but the positive news is that there is movement in the right direction, with steps that some companies are already taking and others can easily take. By implementing measures to ensure brand-safe placements and helping limit ad fraud; improving relationships between brands, agencies, and programmatic partners; and bringing clarity to consumer data use; confidence in the advertising industry will improve and opportunities will subsequently grow.

That’s why we are calling on all ad/marketing companies to take this step forward with us — for the benefit of our consumers, brands, providers and industry at large — to embrace open-source SDKs as the way to engender trust, transparency and industry transformation. In doing so, we will all be rewarded with consumers who are more trusting of brands and brand advertising, and subsequently, brands who trust us and seek opportunities to implement more sophisticated solutions and grow their business.

General Motors finally gets serious about in-car tech, taps Unreal Engine for next-gen interface

By Matt Burns

The upcoming GMC Hummer EV will feature a new in-car user interface powered by Unreal Engine . This powerful platform underpins the latest video games and is well-suited to provide vehicle occupants with a dynamic and robust experience.

Epic Games made the announcement yesterday while unveiling the latest development tools for its human-machine interface program.

Here’s the ugly truth: General Motors’ current crop of in-car user interfaces are among the worst on the market. As one of the world’s leading auto manufacturers, it’s surprising, but the infotainment system constantly underwhelms me in Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles.

Compared to competitors, GM’s cars’ systems are slow, boring and lack the advanced features found in competing vehicles.

Unreal Engine is a powerful platform and should provide GM’s engineers with plenty of space to accommodate the latest features and interfaces car shoppers can find elsewhere.

As Epic Games, the company behind Unreal Engine, explains, the platform features a comprehensive set of developer tools that should improve designers’ and engineers’ workflow.

This news doubles down on the notion that the Hummer EV is a pivotal product for General Motors. The company unveiled the project at the beginning of 2020 with a Super Bowl ad spot and has since revealed little about the upcoming electric vehicle.

It’s unclear if GM intends to use Unreal Engine in additional vehicles.

Zira raises $3.1M for its shift-scheduling service that helps manage hourly workers

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Zira raised $3.1 million in a seed round. The startup provides software that helps businesses schedule their hourly workforce in a more intelligent manner.

Software often fails to reach non-information workers, so it’s nice to see a startup focus on a somewhat forgotten demographic. General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures led the round, which also saw participation from a number of angel investors.

This is the company’s first known investment, according to Crunchbase data.

The technology that Zira sells looks neat from the outside. It can automatically set team schedules, taking a task that can be rife with favoritism or bias and making it a bit more standardized. Its service can also handle clocking in and out for workers, and provides a chat feature to help groups of workers stay in sync.

And most interesting of all, Zira’s platform has an automation feature, allowing managers to create triggers to replace missing staff for a shift, or provide rewards to the workers who come top in a category, like attendance.

Zira’s service costs $4 per employee, per month, or $3 if paid annually. It also executes custom deals with larger clients, for whom we presume discounts can be had.

The round

To better understand the round itself, TechCrunch asked Zira what the new capital will unlock for its business. Tito Goldstein, a founder at the company, responded that the funds will allow his company to scale its development team, “hone” its product and work on its sales function.

“We started with a product that was meeting customer expectations and winning deals against incumbent platforms,” Goldstein said in an email, “but now we want to really differentiate ourselves.” Hiring more developers should help the company move more quickly in that direction, and without money it’s rather hard to hire engineers.

On the sales front, Goldstein said that after depending on “referral or local connections” to secure customers, COVID has made those channels “increasingly difficult.” That means Zira needs a more traditional sales function, and capital.

Zira declined to share growth metrics, saying that it hopes to do so by the end of the year. That means we’ll check back in with Zira in a few months to get the data. Until then, it’s a fun startup with a neat idea. Let’s see how far it gets with its new capital.

Collective, a back-office platform that caters to ‘businesses of one,’ just landed a hefty seed round

By Connie Loizos

Americans and other global citizens are increasingly self-employed, thanks to great software, the need for flexibility and because skilled services especially can pay fairly well, among other reasons.

In fact, exactly one year ago, the Freelancers Union and Upwork, a digital platform for freelancers, released a report estimating that 35% of the U.S. workforce had begun freelancing. With COVID-19 still making its way around the country and globe, prompting massive and continued job dislocation for many tens of millions of people, that percentage is likely to rise quickly.

Unsurprisingly, savvy startups see the economic power of these individuals — many of whom aren’t interested in managing anyone or anything other than the steady growth of their own businesses. A case in point is Collective, a 2.5-year-old, 20-person San Francisco-based startup that’s been quietly building back-office services like tax preparation and bookkeeping for what it dubs “business of one” owners, and which just closed on $8.65 million in seed funding.

General Catalyst and QED Investors co-led the round, joined by a string of renowned angel investors, including Uber cofounder Garrett Camp, Figma founder Dylan Field and DoorDash executive Gokul Rajaram.

We talked yesterday with cofounder and CEO Hooman Radfar about Collective’s mission to “empower, support and connect the self-employed community” — and what, exactly, it’s proposing.

TC: You previously founded a company and, even before it sold to Oracle in 2016, you had jumped over to VC, working with Garrett Camp at his startup studio Expa. Why shift back into founder mode?

HR: What I saw across AddThis and Expa and my angel investing is that managing finances is hard. Accounting, taxes, compliance — all that set-up as a small business is annoying.

Two years ago, [Collective cofounder] Ugur [Kaner] came into Expa and he basically pitched me on a startup-in-a-box-type program that we were talking about building from an incubation perspective, but [with more of a pointed focus on back office issues]. He’s an immigrant like me, and because he didn’t quite understand the system, he wound up having tax penalties — penalties that are even worse when you’re a freelancer. Some startups have come up with a  bespoke version of what we offer, but we were like, ‘Why do they have to do it?’ These are commodities, but if you put them together in a platform, they can can be powerful.

TC: So is what you’ve created proprietary or are you working with third parties?

HR: Both. We’re an online concierge that’s focused on the back office as the core, meaning accounting and tax services. We also form an S Corp for you because you can save a lot of money [compared with forming a business as an LLC, which features different tax requirements]. So there’s an integration layer plus a dashboard on top of that. If you’re an S Corp, you need to have payroll, so we have partnership with Gusto that comes with your subscription. We have a partnership with QuickBooks. We work with a third party on compliance. Our vision is to make this easy for you and to set this on autopilot because we understand that time is literally money.

TC: How much are you charging?

For taxes, accounting, business banking, and payroll, for the core package, it’s $200 a month. We are piloting bookkeeping and a fuller service package that’s probably [representative of] the direction we’ll head over time, and that will be an additional fee.

TC: How can you persuade these businesses of one that it’s worth that cost?

HR: There are almost three million people in the U.S. who [employ only themselves and] are making more than $100,000 a year and if you think about how many of these [different products] they are already using, it’s a great deal. QuickBooks and Gusto is cheaper with us. You see savings through expensing. The magic is really running your S Corp the right way. Part of that is normal income tax, but you also have a distribution and it’s taxed differently than an income — it’s taxed less. So we pull in salary data and look at expenses and across states, and say, ‘This is what we’d recommend to you based on how your cash flow is coming in, so you recognize this distribution in a compliant way.’

TC: Interesting about this useful data that you’ll be amassing from your customers. How might you use it? 

HR: Our first concern is making sure the right people are seeing it [meaning we’re focused on privacy]. But there’s a lot we can do with the aggregation of that data once we’ve earned the right to use it. Among the things we could do, theoretically, includes creating a new level of scoring. If you’re a business of one, for example, it’s very difficult to get mortgages and loans, because credit agencies don’t have the tools to assess you. But if we have your financial history for years, can we represent that you’re a great person, you have a great business.

Another interesting direction as we reach more members — we’ll get to 2,000 soon — would be to use our power as a collective to get our members less expensive insurance, [help facilitate] credit, [help them with a] 401(k).

TC: There are a lot of other things you can get into presumably, too, from project management to graphic design . . .

HR: Right now, we’re want to make sure our core service is nailed.

Think about the transparency and peace of mind that Uber brought to ride-sharing, or that Uber Eats brings to food delivery. You know when something is cooking, when it’s on its way, when it’s arriving. We’ve gotten used to that level of transparency and accountability with so many things, but when it comes to accounting, it’s not there and that’s crazy. This is your money. We want to change that.

TC: Going after “businesses of one” means you’re addressing a highly fragmented market. What kinds of partnerships are you striking to reach potential customers?

HR: We’re having those conversations now, but you can imagine neo banks make sense, along with vertical marketplaces for nurses and doctors and realtors and writers. There are a lot of possibilities.

Pictured, left to right, Collective’s cofounders: CTO Bugra Akcay, CEO Hooman Radfar, and CPO Ugur Kaner.

4 things to remember when adapting AI/ML learning models during a pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Pedro Alves Contributor
Pedro Alves is the founder and CEO of Ople.AI, a software startup that provides an automated machine learning platform to empower business users with predictive analytics.

The machine learning and AI-powered tools being deployed in response to COVID-19 arguably improve certain human activities and provide essential insights needed to make certain personal or professional decisions; however, they also highlight a few pervasive challenges faced by both machines and the humans that create them.

Nevertheless, the progress seen in AI/machine learning leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. This global economic and public health crisis brings with it a unique opportunity for updates and innovation in modeling, so long as certain underlying principles are followed.

Here are four industry truths (note: this is not an exhaustive list) my colleagues and I have found that matter in any design climate, but especially during a global pandemic climate.

Some success can be attributed to chance, rather than reasoning

When a big group of people is collectively working on a problem, success may become more likely. Looking at historic examples like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there were several analysts credited with predicting the crisis. This may seem miraculous to some until you consider that more than 200,000 people were working in Wall Street, each of them making their own predictions. It then becomes less of a miracle and more of a statistically probable outcome. With this many individuals simultaneously working on modeling and predictions, it was highly likely someone would get it right by chance.

Similarly, with COVID-19 there are a lot of people involved, from statistical modelers and data scientists to vaccine specialists, and there is also an overwhelming eagerness to find solutions and concrete data-based answers. Following appropriate statistical rigor, coupled with machine learning and AI, can improve these models and decrease the chances of false predictions that arrive from too many predictions being made.

Automation can help in maintaining productivity if used wisely

During a crisis, time-management is essential. Automation technology can be used not only as part of the crisis solution, but also as a tool for monitoring productivity and contributions of team members working on the solution. For modeling, automation can also greatly improve the speed of results. Every second a piece of software can perform automation for a model, it allows a data scientist (or even a medical scientist) to conduct other more important tasks. User-friendly platforms in the market now give more people, like business analysts, access to predictions from custom machine learning models.

Privacy data management innovations reduce risk, create new revenue channels

By Walter Thompson
Mark Settle Contributor
Mark Settle is a seven-time CIO, three-time CIO 100 award winner and two-time book author. His most recent book is "Truth from the Valley: A Practical Primer on IT Management for the Next Decade."
Tomer Y. Avni Contributor
Tomer Y. Avni is an MBA/MS student at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Privacy data mismanagement is a lurking liability within every commercial enterprise. The very definition of privacy data is evolving over time and has been broadened to include information concerning an individual’s health, wealth, college grades, geolocation and web surfing behaviors. Regulations are proliferating at state, national and international levels that seek to define privacy data and establish controls governing its maintenance and use.

Existing regulations are relatively new and are being translated into operational business practices through a series of judicial challenges that are currently in progress, adding to the confusion regarding proper data handling procedures. In this confusing and sometimes chaotic environment, the privacy risks faced by almost every corporation are frequently ambiguous, constantly changing and continually expanding.

Conventional information security (infosec) tools are designed to prevent the inadvertent loss or intentional theft of sensitive information. They are not sufficient to prevent the mismanagement of privacy data. Privacy safeguards not only need to prevent loss or theft but they must also prevent the inappropriate exposure or unauthorized usage of such data, even when no loss or breach has occurred. A new generation of infosec tools is needed to address the unique risks associated with the management of privacy data.

The first wave of innovation

A variety of privacy-focused security tools emerged over the past few years, triggered in part by the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) within the European Union in 2018. New capabilities introduced by this first wave of innovation were focused in the following three areas:

Data discovery, classification and cataloging. Modern enterprises collect a wide variety of personal information from customers, business partners and employees at different times for different purposes with different IT systems. This data is frequently disseminated throughout a company’s application portfolio via APIs, collaboration tools, automation bots and wholesale replication. Maintaining an accurate catalog of the location of such data is a major challenge and a perpetual activity. BigID, DataGuise and Integris Software have gained prominence as popular solutions for data discovery. Collibra and Alation are leaders in providing complementary capabilities for data cataloging.

Consent management. Individuals are commonly presented with privacy statements describing the intended use and safeguards that will be employed in handling the personal data they supply to corporations. They consent to these statements — either explicitly or implicitly — at the time such data is initially collected. Osano, Transcend.io and DataGrail.io specialize in the management of consent agreements and the enforcement of their terms. These tools enable individuals to exercise their consensual data rights, such as the right to view, edit or delete personal information they’ve provided in the past.

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