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Europe’s top court slaps down ‘zero rating’ again

By Natasha Lomas

Europe’s top court has dealt another blow to ‘zero rating’ — ruling for a second time that the controversial carrier practice goes against the European Union’s rules on open Internet access.

‘Zero rating’ refers to commercial offers that can be made by mobile network operators to entice customers by excluding the data consumption of certain (often popular) apps from a user’s tariff.

The practice is controversial because it goes against the ‘level playing field’ principle of the open Internet (aka ‘net neutrality’).

EU legislators passed the bloc’s first set of open Internet/net neutrality rules back in 2015 — with the law coming into application in 2016 — but critics warned at the time over vague provisions in the regulation which they suggested could be used by carriers to undermine the core fairness principle of treating all Internet traffic the same.

Some regional telcos have continued to put out zero rating offers — which has led to a number of challenges to test the robustness of the law. But the viability of zero rating within the EU must now be in doubt given the double slap-down by the CJEU.

In its first major decision last yearrelating to a challenge against Telenor in Hungary — the court found that commercial use of zero rating was liable to limit the exercise of end users’ rights within the meaning of the regulation.

Its ruling today — which relates to a challenge against zero rating by Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland in Germany (this time with a roaming component) — comes to what looks like an even clearer conclusion, with the court giving the practice very short shrift indeed.

“By today’s judgments, the Court of Justice notes that a ‘zero tariff’ option, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, draws a distinction within internet traffic, on the basis of commercial considerations, by not counting towards the basic package traffic to partner applications. Such a commercial practice is contrary to the general obligation of equal treatment of traffic, without discrimination or interference, as required by the regulation on open internet access,” it writes in a (notably brief) press release summarizing the judgement.

“Since those limitations on bandwidth, tethering or on use when roaming apply only on account of the activation of the ‘zero tariff’ option, which is contrary to the regulation on open internet access, they are also incompatible with EU law,” it added.

We’ve reached out to Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland for comment on the ruling.

In a statement welcoming the CJEU’s decision, the European consumer protection association BEUC’s senior digital policy officer, Maryant Fernández Pérez, subbed the ruling “very positive news for consumers and those who want the internet to stay open to all”.

“When companies like Vodafone use these ‘zero tariff’ rates, they essentially lock-in consumers and limit what the Internet can offer to them. Zero-rating is detrimental to consumer choice, competition, innovation, media diversity and freedom of information,” she added.

Oviva grabs $80M for app-delivered healthy eating programs

By Natasha Lomas

UK startup Oviva, which sells a digital support offering, including for Type 2 diabetes treatment, dispensing personalized diet and lifestyle advice via apps to allow more people to be able to access support, has closed $80 million in Series C funding — bringing its total raised to date to $115M.

The raise, which Oviva says will be used to scale up after a “fantastic year” of growth for the health tech business, is co-led by Sofina and Temasek, alongside existing investors AlbionVC, Earlybird, Eight Roads Ventures, F-Prime Capital, MTIP, plus several angels.

Underpinning that growth is the fact wealthy Western nations continue to see rising rates of obesity and other health conditions like Type 2 diabetes (which can be linked to poor diet and lack of exercise). While more attention is generally being paid to the notion of preventative — rather than reactive — healthcare, to manage the rising costs of service delivery.

Lifestyle management to help control weight and linked health conditions (like diabetes) is where Oviva comes in: It’s built a blended support offering that combines personalized care (provided by healthcare professionals) with digital tools for patients that help them do things like track what they’re eating, access support and chart their progress towards individual health goals.

It can point to 23 peer-reviewed publications to back up its approach — saying key results show an average of 6.8% weight loss at 6 months for those living with obesity; while, in its specialist programs, it says 53% of patients achieve remission of their type 2 diabetes at 12 months.

Oviva typically sells its digitally delivered support programs direct to health insurance companies (or publicly funded health services) — who then provide (or refer) the service to their customers/patients. Its programs are currently available in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France — but expanding access is one of the goals for the Series C.

“We will expand to European markets where the health system reimburses the diet and lifestyle change we offer, especially those with specific pathways for digital reimbursement,” Oviva tells TechCrunch. “Encouragingly, more healthcare systems have been opening up specific routes for such digital reimbursement, e.g., Germany for DiGAs or Belgium just in the last months.”

So far, the startup has treated 200,000 people but the addressable market is clearly huge — not least as European populations age — with Oviva suggesting more than 300 million people live with “health challenges” that are either triggered by poor diet or can be optimised through personalised dietary changes. Moreover, it suggests, only “a small fraction” is currently being offered digital care.

To date, Oviva has built up 5,000+ partnerships with health systems, insurers and doctors as it looks to push for further scale by making its technology more accessible to a wider range of people. In the past year it says it’s “more than doubled” both people treated and revenue earned.

Its goal is for the Series C funding is to reach “millions” of people across Europe who need support because they’re suffering from poor health linked to diet and lifestyle.

As part of the scale up plan it will also be growing its team to 800 by the end of 2022, it adds.

On digital vs face-to-face care — setting aside the potential cost savings associated with digital delivery — it says studies show the “most striking outcome benefits” are around uptake and completion rates, noting: “We have consistently shown uptake rates above 70% and high completion rates of around 80%, even in groups considered harder to reach such as working age populations or minority ethnic groups. This compares to uptake and completion rates of less than 50% for most face-to-face services.”

Asked about competition, Oviva names Liva Healthcare and Second Nature as its closest competitors in the region.

“WW (formally Weight Watchers) also competes with a digital solution in some markets where they can access reimbursement,” it adds. “There are many others that try to access this group with new methods, but are not reimbursed or are wellness solutions. Noom competes as a solution for self-paying consumers in Europe, as many other apps. But, in our view, that is a separate market from the reimbursed medical one.”

As well as using the Series C funding to bolster its presence in existing markets and target and scale into new ones, Oviva says it may look to further grow the business via M&A opportunities.

“In expanding to new countries, we are open to both building new organisations from the ground up or acquiring existing businesses with a strong medical network where we see that our technology can be leveraged for better patient care and value creation,” it told us on that.

 

Data scientists: don’t be afraid to explore new avenues

By Ram Iyer
Ilyes Kacher Contributor
Ilyes Kacher is a data scientist at autoRetouch, an AI-powered platform for bulk-editing product images online.

I’m a native French data scientist who cut his teeth as a research engineer in computer vision in Japan and later in my home country. Yet I’m writing from an unlikely computer vision hub: Stuttgart, Germany.

But I’m not working on German car technology, as one would expect. Instead, I found an incredible opportunity mid-pandemic in one of the most unexpected places: An ecommerce-focused, AI-driven, image-editing startup in Stuttgart focused on automating the digital imaging process across all retail products.

My experience in Japan taught me the difficulty of moving to a foreign country for work. In Japan, having a point of entry with a professional network can often be necessary. However, Europe has an advantage here thanks to its many accessible cities. Cities like Paris, London, and Berlin often offer diverse job opportunities while being known as hubs for some specialties.

While there has been an uptick in fully remote jobs thanks to the pandemic, extending the scope of your job search will provide more opportunities that match your interest.

Search for value in unlikely places, like retail

I’m working at the technology spin-off of a luxury retailer, applying my expertise to product images. Approaching it from a data scientist’s point of view, I immediately recognized the value of a novel application for a very large and established industry like retail.

Europe has some of the most storied retail brands in the world — especially for apparel and footwear. That rich experience provides an opportunity to work with billions of products and trillions of dollars in revenue that imaging technology can be applied to. The advantage of retail companies is a constant flow of images to process that provides a playing ground to generate revenue and possibly make an AI company profitable.

Another potential avenue to explore are independent divisions typically within an R&D department. I found a significant number of AI startups working on a segment that isn’t profitable, simply due to the cost of research and the resulting revenue from very niche clients.

Companies with data are companies with revenue potential

I was particularly attracted to this startup because of the potential access to data. Data by itself is quite expensive and a number of companies end up working with a finite set. Look for companies that directly engage at the B2B or B2C level, especially retail or digital platforms that affect front-end user interface.

Leveraging such customer engagement data benefits everyone. You can apply it towards further research and development on other solutions within the category, and your company can then work with other verticals on solving their pain points.

It also means there’s massive potential for revenue gains the more cross-segments of an audience the brand affects. My advice is to look for companies with data already stored in a manageable system for easy access. Such a system will be beneficial for research and development.

The challenge is that many companies haven’t yet introduced such a system, or they don’t have someone with the skills to properly utilize it. If you finding a company isn’t willing to share deep insights during the courtship process or they haven’t implemented it, look at the opportunity to introduce such data-focused offerings.

In Europe, the best bets involve creating automation processes

I have a sweet spot for early-stage companies that give you the opportunity to create processes and core systems. The company I work for was still in its early days when I started, and it was working towards creating scalable technology for a specific industry. The questions that the team was tasked with solving were already being solved, but there were numerous processes that still had to be put into place to solve a myriad of other issues.

Our year-long efforts to automate bulk image editing taught me that as long as the AI you’re building learns to run independently across multiple variables simultaneously (multiple images and workflows), you’re developing a technology that does what established brands haven’t been able to do. In Europe, there are very few companies doing this and they are hungry for talent who can.

So don’t be afraid of a little culture shock and take the leap.

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

By Sarah Perez

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Element Ventures pulls in $130M to double-down on the fintech enterprise trend

By Mike Butcher

With the rise of Open Banking, PSD2 Regulation, insurtech and the whole, general fintech boom, tech investors have realized there is an increasing place for dedicated funds which double down on this ongoing movement. When you look at the rise of banking-as-a-service offerings, payments platforms, insurtech, asset management and infrastructure providers, you realize there is a pretty huge revolution going on.

European fintech companies have raised $12.3 billion in 2021 according to Dealroom, but the market is still wide open for a great deal more funding for B2B fintech startups.

So it’s no surprise that B2B fintech-focused Element Ventures has announced a $130 million fund to double down on this new fintech enterprise trend.

Founded by financial services veterans Stephen Gibson and Michael McFadgen, and joined by Spencer Lake (HSBC’s former vice chairman of Global Banking and Markets), Element is backed by finance-oriented LPs and some 30 founders and executives from the sector.

Element says it will focus on what it calls a “high conviction investment strategy,” which will mean investing in only around a handful of companies a year (15 for the fund in total) but, it says, providing a “high level of support” to its portfolio.

So far it has backed B2B fintech firms across the U.K. and Europe, including Hepster (total raised $10 million), the embedded insurance platform out of Germany which I recently reported on; Billhop (total raised $6.7 million), the B2B payment network out of Sweden; Coincover (total raised $11.6 million), a cryptocurrency recovery service out of the U.K.; and Minna (total raised $25 million), the subscription management platform out of Sweden.

Speaking to me over a call, McFadgen, partner at Element Ventures, said: “Stephen and I have been investing in B2B fintech together for quite a long time. In 2018 we had the opportunity to start element and Spencer came on board in 2019. So Element as an independent venture firm is really a continuation of a strategy we’ve been involved in for a long time.”

Gibson added: “We are quite convinced by the European movement and the breakthrough these fintech and insurtech firms in Europe are having. Insurance has been a desert for innovation and that is changing. And you can see that we’re sort of trying to build a network around companies that have those breakthrough moments and provide not just capital but all the other things we think are part of the story. Building the company from A to C and D is the area that we try and roll our sleeves up and help these firms.”

Element says it also will be investing in the U.S. and Asia.

Untitled Ventures joins the scramble for Russian & Eastern European startups with a $118M warchest

By Mike Butcher

Sorry Mr. Putin, but there’s a race on for Russian and Eastern European founders. And right now, those awful capitalists in the corrupt West are starting to out-gun the opposition! But seriously… only the other day a $100 million fund aimed at Russian speaking entrepreneurs appeared, and others are proliferating.

Now, London-based Untitled Ventures plans to join their fray with a €100 million / $118M for its second fund to invest in “ambitious deep tech startups with eastern European founders.”

Untitled says it is aiming at entrepreneurs who are looking to relocate their business or have already HQ’ed in Western Europe and the USA. That’s alongside all the other existing Western VCs who are – in my experience – always ready and willing to listen to Russian and Eastern European founders, who are often known for their technical prowess.

Untitled is going to be aiming at B2B, AI, agritech, medtech, robotics, and data management startups with proven traction emerging from the Baltics, CEE, and CIS, or those already established in Western Europe

LPs in the fund include Vladimir Vedeenev, a founder of Global Network Management>. Untitled also claims to have Google, Telegram Messenger, Facebook, Twitch, DigitalOcean, IP-Only, CenturyLinks, Vodafone and TelecomItaly as partners.

Oskar Stachowiak, Untitled Ventures Managing Partner, said: “With over 10 unicorns, €1Bn venture funding in 2020 alone, and success stories like Veeam, Semrush, and Wrike, startups emerging from the fast-growing regions are the best choice to focus on early-stage investment for us. Thanks to the strong STEM focus in the education system and about one million high-skilled developers, we have an ample opportunity to find and support the rising stars in the region.”

Konstantin Siniushin, the Untitled Ventures MP said: “We believe in economic efficiency and at the same time we fulfill a social mission of bringing technological projects with a large scientific component from the economically unstable countries of the former USSR, such as, first of all, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but not only in terms of bringing sales to the world market and not only helping them to HQ in Europe so they can get next rounds of investments.”

He added: “We have a great experience accumulated earlier in the first portfolio of the first fund, not just structuring business in such European countries as, for example, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Cyprus and Latvia, but also physically relocating startup teams so that they are perceived already as fully resident in Europe and globally.”

To be fair, it is still harder than it needs to be to create large startups from Eastern Europe, mainly because there is often very little local capital. However, that is changing, with the launch recently of CEE funds such as Vitosha Venture Partners and Launchub Ventures, and the breakout hit from Romania that was UIPath.

The Untitled Ventures team:
• Konstantin Siniushin, a serial tech entrepreneur
• Oskar Stachowiak, experienced fund manager
• Mary Glazkova, PR & Comms veteran
• Anton Antich, early stage investor and an ex VP of Veeam, a Swiss cloud data management company
acquired by Insight Venture Partners for $5bln
• Yulia Druzhnikova, experienced in taking tech companies international
• Mark Cowley, who has worked on private and listed investments within CEE/Russia for over 20 years

Untitled Ventures portfolio highlights – Fund I
Sizolution: AI-driven size prediction engine, based in Germany
Pure app – spontaneous and impersonal dating app, based in Portugal
Fixar Global –  efficient drones for commercial use-cases, based in Latvia,
E-contenta – based in Poland
SuitApp – AI based mix-and-match suggestions for fashion retail, based in Singapore
• Sarafan.tech, AI-driven recognition, based in the USA
Hello, baby – parental assistant, based in the USA
Voximplant – voice, video and messaging cloud communication platform, based in the USA (exited)

Bielefeld survey highlights an emerging B2B, crypto, deep tech ecosystem

By Mike Butcher

Welcome to the city survey of Bielefeld, Germany, part of our ongoing survey into European cities. If you’d like your city featured, just fill in this form and add your city name. Once we have enough entries from a city, we will put your city on TechCrunch!

According to local media reports, Bielefeld’s has experienced a tech boom in recent years, with accelerators like the local Founders Foundation (backed by the Bertelsmann Foundation) and Garage 33 (at the University of Paderborn) attracting a new wave of young company founders to the East Westphalia-Lippe region.

Notable startups to emerge include Semalytix, Valuedesk, Zahnarzt-Helden, StudyHelp, PartWorks and AMendate.

Unfortunately, Bielefeld suffers from the same ailment the rest of Germany is subject to: Most startups gravitate to Berlin, followed by Munich, then Hamburg (according to an initiative from UnternehmerTUM in Munich).

However, as Business Punk magazine found earlier this year, the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region in northern North Rhine-Westphalia is home to some of Germany’s biggest companies. That means startups aiding large organizations to digitize post-pandemic have ready access to some of Germany’s largest companies and institutions.

Our survey respondents pointed out that the region is strong in sectors such as B2B because of the many old-school B2B companies in the manufacturing area. There is fairly ready access to many large family offices such as Dr. Oetker, Miele, CLAAS, Schüco and Bertelsmann, so there is a lot of capital available.

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“The region has a good momentum for startups in general, [largely] because of Founders Foundation. At the same time, them being the only institutional driver leads to a certain monoculture,” said one.

Deep tech technologies are a feature of the ecosystem, but there are “almost no B2C or direct-to-consumer” startups, said another respondent.

Commenting on the investment scene in the city, survey respondents said investors have “strong bonds to the industry and Mittelstand.” However, another commented that there are “only very few local investors with NRW or OWL focus like EnjoyVenture (Technologiefonds OWL), but not much more.”

That said, companies get decent attention from “national” investors, and Founders Foundation has really boosted the scene in the region. Angels are also becoming more active, and “there is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld who have been really supportive of the new startup scene.”

We surveyed:

Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Stefan Trockel, founder and CEO, Mercury.ai

Jasper Steinlechner, CTO, Pektogram

Victoria Erdbrügger, co-founder and managing director, circuly

Manuel Rüsing, CTO, Synctive

Conner Kuhlmeyer, founder, reportio

Miriam Kleiner, talent acquisition manager, Founders Foundation

 


Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
We are strong in the cryptotrading ecosystem. We are most excited by the adoption of Bitcoin as a financial asset by corporates and institutions as well as the ongoing network effect and adoption by the masses. We need to add support for DeFi trading venues alongside the centralized exchanges we already support.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Semalytix, Zahnarzt-Helden, Coindex and Valuedesk.

What is the tech investment scene like in Bielefeld? What’s their focus?
Since Founders Foundation started in Bielefeld in 2016 the startup scene has exploded. We joined the first accelerator and since then 24 startups have been founded and come through its programs. There is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld that has been really supportive of the new startup scene.

With the shift to remote working, do you think will people stay in Bielefeld, move out, or will people move in?
We switched completely to home office once the pandemic got underway. For us, it has worked really well and we now have three employees who work outside of Bielefeld. Everything is more flexible now.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?
Sebastian Borek (CEO of the Founders Foundation), Eduard R. Doerrenberg (managing director, Dr. Wolff Group).

Where do you think Bielefeld’s tech scene will be in five years?
As Bielefeld is in the heart of the German “Mittelstand”, there are huge opportunities for tech startups to help these large industries take a leap forward with technical solutions using AI, blockchain and other technologies. The city is well served by Bielefeld University, which turns out highly qualified CS graduates every year. Especially with the superb backing of the Founders Foundation, the startup ecosystem in Bielefeld has a bright future.

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
B2B, deep tech technologies.

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