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Sight Tech Global is live! Join top AI technologists and accessibility innovators to discuss the future of assistive tech

By Ned Desmond

Today and tomorrow, from 8 a.m. PST to 12:30 p.m. PST the first annual, virtual event Sight Tech Global is streaming on TechCrunch. The event looks at how AI-based technologies are rapidly changing the field of accessibility, especially for blind people and those with low vision. Today’s programming includes AI giants Amnon Shashua and Kai-Fu Lee, as well as accessibility innovators from Waymo, Microsoft, Google and more. Check out the event’s full agenda.

The Sight Tech Global project aims to showcase the remarkable community of technologists working on accessibility-related products and platforms. It is a project of the nonprofit Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is based in Silicon Valley. The Vista Center is the recipient of all donations and sponsorships.

This year’s event sponsors include: Waymo, Verizon Media, TechCrunch, Ford, Vispero, Salesforce, Mojo Vision, iSenpai, Google, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, Amazon, Eyedaptic, Verizon 5G, Humanware, APH, and accessiBe. Our production partners: Cohere Studio (design),  Sunol Media Group (video production), Fable (accessibility crowd testing), Clarity Media (speaker prep), Be My Eyes (customer service), 3Play and Vitac  (captioning).

Virta Health’s behavioral diabetes treatment service is now worth over $1 billion

By Jonathan Shieber

A new $65 million investment led by the growth capital and public investment arm of Sequoia Capital will give Virta Health, a developer of a behavioral-focused diabetes treatment, a valuation of over $1 billion.

Virta’s approach, which uses a combination of approaches to change diet and exercise to reverse the presence of type 2 diabetes and other chronic metabolic conditions, has shown clinical success and attracted 100 healthcare payers to endorse the company’s treatments.

“We partnered with Virta for their ability to deliver unmatched health improvement and cost savings—two clear differentiators from other offerings on the market,” said William Ashmore, CEO of the State Employees’ Insurance Board of Alabama, in a statement. “Especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital that we provide our members the life-changing results Virta is known for delivering, through expert, virtual care delivered right to their home.”

The company said it would use the funding to expand sales and marketing efforts for its services as well as expand its research and development into other non-pharmaceutical therapies for metabolic conditions.

The financing came from Sequoia Capital Global Equities and Caffeinated Capital and brings the company’s total funding to over $230 million, and gives it a $1.1 billion valuation, according to a statement.

Diabetes has long been an attractive condition for startups and has been the first target that companies focused on behavior changes to influence metabolic conditions aim to address. The reason why there are so many diabetes-focused businesses is because of the prevalence of the disease in the U.S. Almost half of adults in the U.S. suffer from obesity, pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, and the disease kills 30 people every hour. Diabetes also doubles the risk of death from COVID-19 infections.

Beyond the risks, the costs of treatment are skyrocketing. According to data from the American Diabetes Association released in March 2018, the total costs of treating diagnosed diabetes have risen to $327 billion in 2017 from $245 billion in 2012, when the cost was last examined.

“Given the scope of the metabolic crisis in the U.S. and globally, it cannot be understated how game-changing Virta’s results and care delivery are,” said Patrick Fu, managing partner at Sequoia Capital Global Equities, in a statement. “Virta’s technology-driven, non-pharmaceutical approach has fundamentally changed how diabetes is cared for, and our collective belief in what is possible for population health improvement. This is the future of chronic disease care.”

2-year-old CRED valued at $800 million after $80 million funding round

By Manish Singh

CRED, a two-year-old startup that is helping credit card users in India improve their financial behaviour, has raised $80 million in a new financing round, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The new financing round, a Series C for CRED, was led by existing investor DST Global. Much of the round — in fact, if not whole — has been financed by existing investors including Sequoia Capital and Ribbit Capital that are doubling down on Kunal Shah’s startup, the source said on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The new round gives CRED a post-money valuation of about $800 million, the source said. That’s up from about $450 million valuation that CRED attained after its $120 million Series B round last year.

A CRED spokesperson declined to comment.

On CRED, customers are offered a range of features, including the ability to better track their spendings across various credit cards, and get reminders. Moreover, CRED incentivizes customers to pay their bill on time by rewarding them points, which they can use to subscribe to a range of premium services and get a discount on purchase of high-quality products.

The platform is not available to all credit card holders in India. The startup requires a customer to have a certain credit score — about 750 — to be able to sign up for the service. This way, CRED has built a customer base that comprise of some of the most sought-after people in India.

CRED is 2 years old now. As a founder it’s a privilege to build a missionary company with immense support from the whole ecosystem. I am eternally grateful to everyone who’s helped us become better everyday.

We are far from perfect, but heading in the right direction. Thank you.

— Kunal Shah (@kunalb11) November 26, 2020

In recent quarters, CRED has introduced a number of additional services including allowing customers to pay their rent using their credit card, and bulked up its e-commerce store. What other ways Shah, who previously ran mobile wallet service Freecharge and is celebrated for delivering one of the few successful exits in the nation’s 15-year-old startup ecosystem, wants to serve these customers remains a big question.

“CRED has the richest Indians as customers already,” wrote Anmol Maini, a San Francisco based engineer, who closely tracks the Indian startup ecosystem. “Kunal Shah has the luxury of time for building CRED into the company he envisions it to be. He has that luxury because he has access to capital and talent, knows how to build and scale companies and he definitely knows how to generate returns for his investors.”

The new funds come at a time when CRED is enjoying a surge in its growth. The startup, which was one of the sponsors of recently concluded IPL cricket tournament, ran a number of clever and fun advertisements during the tournament featuring Indian legends. And those ads worked.

IPL campaigns are on fire .. today I found out @CRED_club is up 6-7x in terms of daily sign ups after launch of IPL campaign 🚀🚀

You guys crushed it @AnilKapoor @kunalb11 🙏🙏

— Shailendra J Singh (@singh_sequoia) September 24, 2020

What will tomorrow’s tech look like? Ask someone who can’t see

By Ned Desmond
Will Butler Contributor
Will Butler is a writer, producer and podcast host from California. Legally blind since age of 19, Will has written and produced numerous stories about adjusting to vision loss. Will joined Be My Eyes as its VP in 2019 after four years at Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. You can listen to Will’s interviews with leaders from the world of blindness and accessibility on The Be My Eyes podcast and the 13 Letters podcast.

When I was pronounced legally blind in 2009, I didn’t know one other person who called themselves blind – least of all “low vision” or “visually impaired.” Today, I manage the largest blindness community in the world, Be My Eyes, a support platform where more than 4 million people and companies use live video to support users in almost 200 languages. And though the growth of our collective community is a crucial step making our lives better, it’s just one piece of what makes today, as I’ve heard many others say, “a great time to be blind.”

That’s because in the past 10 years, “sight tech” has taken off. What we might have once called “assistive” or “special needs” technology has gone mainstream – and the technology developed by and for people with disabilities is now used by you, your kids, your grandparents – regardless of whether you identify as having a disability or not.

Sight tech – or more broadly, eyes-free tech – now touches every part of our lives and the devices that we depend on. And it’s not just blind and visually impaired people who are benefitting. It’s everyone. That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting the first ever Sight Tech Global conference on December 2 and 3, to sit down with the tech world’s most important figures in sight tech and talk about the past, present and future of how designing for the blind informs and affects all of our lives. Registration is free; sign up today.

What is Sight Tech?

Inventions to help the blind “see” have quietly been spurring innovation for decades. Often, idealistic inventors create with a charitable mindset – to help the needy or return something lost – but the real technological advances in sight tech have done a lot more than simply suggest a cure for human disability. They’ve created new abilities for everyone, and opened new doors to unpredictable innovation: The 12-inch record, the computer keyboard, and the text recognition software that laid the foundation for the modern database were all brought to market, initially, for blind consumers.

There was a time when a personal assistant, someone to read to you or a car at your door, were once thought of as “special” – but no longer. Today, every device shipped by Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft includes these capabilities and more, not as a bonus but as a necessity to compete in today’s competitive hardware and software markets. So whether you use your phone in dark mode or talk to Siri while you’re driving, you too use “sight tech” that was invented initially for the visually impaired.

Over and over again, designing for blind consumers has shown an ROI far beyond helping the needy. Audiobooks, which were heavily resisted by publishers when first developed for blind readers in 1934, now are the book industry’s only growing business. Likewise, coding your website for a blind person’s screen reader might seem like extra work until you realize it optimizes your SEO and makes your website more usable to about a billion other non-standard device users, as well. The world of sight tech is absolutely full of these types of happy surprises; unexpected synchronicities and wide applicability that started with designing for a seemingly small group.

Founded by former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond earlier this year, Sight Tech Global provides a new venue for those who are passionate about AI, blind tech, digital inclusion and equal access for all to gather and hear from the accessibility community’s greatest thinkers and doers. Best of all, this free, all-virtual conference is a benefit for the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired which has been helping individuals with blindness or low vision for the past 75 years.

Here’s a little preview of what we’ll be unveiling, cheering, arguing and dreaming about at Sight Tech Global. I hope you’ll join us! Here is a link to the full agenda.

Achieving perfect mobility

For most, the self-driving car is a long-promised luxury. For those of us who can’t get a driver’s license, it’s the key to an unprecedented level of independence. Researchers at Waymo are intent on making sure that, when the first self-driving taxi arrives on your doorstep, it shouldn’t matter whether you can see or not: You should be able to hop in and take a ride.

Similarly, maps are much more than just a handy tool for those of us with visual impairments. In many cases, they’re the only option for finding your bearings – the difference between independence and codependence. Blind and sighted inventors alike have been pushing for better, more exact navigational tools for decades, and today the team at GOOD Maps has harnessed the power of lidar, data and and faster-than-ever processors to make sure that someone with no sight can get themselves within arm’s reach of exactly what they’re looking for.

Join product managers from Waymo, Waymap, Goodmaps and more to hear about the future of getting from point A to point B.

The next talking computer

Since the late 1980s, companies like Freedom Scientific and Humanware have laid the foundation for accessible computing, writing software and building devices that can convert visual information into sound or touch. Those devices were operating computers, rendering digital Braille and delivering audio books to readers long before there was an app for that.

Today, mainstream tech giants Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are creating screen readers and assistive devices of their own, not to mention the thousands of third-party apps for navigation, sensory optimization, recognizing text and images and more. And with this new functionality native to operating systems, established assistive tech companies are evolving, too.

We’ll take a deep dive into what’s next for the “screen reader” – and how new tech from AI to AR, and headgear to haptics are shaking up interfaces and reshaping paradigms across our industry.

Over the course of two days, we’ll be hearing from the accessibility leaders at Apple, Microsoft, Google, Vispero, Humanware, Amazon and more.

Tech that doesn’t discriminate

Even the greatest new tech creates great new problems. And as AI swoops in to save the day, allowing blind and visually impaired people to overcome barriers in their work and social lives, AI can also introduce new biases that we never expected. When training our systems to recognize, categorize and interact with real people, how do we account for disability and a diverse range of functional needs? How do we make machines that don’t inherit our own cultural prejudices?

We’ll also be joined by some of the blindness and disability community’s greatest advocates: people like Lainey Feingold, Haben Girma and George Kerscher, who will take a hard look at access to information as a civil right, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in the era of AI.

Sight Tech Global is December 2-3 – all-virtual and 100% free. All sponsorship proceeds benefit the Vista Center for the Blind. It’s not too late to sponsor – learn more here.

 

 

Tiger Global invests in India’s Unacademy at $2 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

Unacademy, an online learning platform in India, has added two more marquee investors to its cap table. The Bangalore-based startup, which focuses on K-12 online education, said on Wednesday it has raised new funds from Tiger Global Management and Dragoneer Investment Group.

The funding round, which is between $75 million to $100 million in size (according to a person familiar with the matter; Unacademy has not disclosed the figure), valued the four-and-a-half-year-old startup at $2 billion, up from about $500 million in February this year when Facebook joined its list of backers, and $1.45 billion in September, when SoftBank led the round.

“Our mission from Day One has been to democratise education and make it more affordable and accessible. We have consistently built the most iconic products that deliver high quality education to everyone. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Tiger Global and Dragoneer as our partners in the journey. They are both marquee global investors with a history of partnering with innovative companies that are making an impact on people’s lives,” said Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, in a statement.

Unacademy helps students prepare for competitive exams to get into college, as well as those who are pursuing graduate-level courses. On its app, students watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. In recent months, the startup has held several online interviews of high-profile individuals, such as Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, on a range of topics, which has expanded its appeal beyond its student base.

The platform has amassed over 47,000 educators, who teach students in 5,000 cities in India in more than 14 languages. Over 150,000 live classes are conducted on the platform each month and the collective watch time across platforms is more than 2 billion minutes per month, the startup said.

“The opportunity to improve lives through online education is enormous because of its sheer accessibility. The Unacademy team has innovated rapidly to build a leading platform that is taking education to the farthest corners of India. We are very excited to partner with Unacademy and look forward to seeing it scale further,” said Scott Shleifer, partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Spend on education in India is among the highest globally (Source: A report from analysts at Goldman Sachs to clients earlier this year)

Scores of education startups in India have reported skyrocketing growth in recent months as schools remain shut across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even as most Indians tend not to pay for online services — just ask Google and Facebook, both of which count India as their biggest market by users but make little in the country — the education category is an outlier. Indian families continue to spend heavily on their children’s education in hopes of paving the way for a better future.

Mobile banking app Current raises $131M Series C, tops 2 million members

By Sarah Perez

U.S. challenger bank Current, which has doubled its member base in less than six months, announced this morning it raised $131 million in Series C funding, led by Tiger Global Management. The additional financing brings Current to over $180 million in total funding to date, and gives the company a valuation of $750 million.

The round also brought in new investors Sapphire Ventures and Avenir. Existing investors returned for the Series C, as well, including Foundation Capital, Wellington Management Company and QED.

Current began as a teen debit card controlled by parents, but expanded to offer personal checking accounts last year, using the same underlying banking technology. The service today competes with a range of mobile banking apps, offering features like free overdrafts, no minimum balance requirements, faster direct deposits, instant spending notifications, banking insights, check deposits using your phone’s camera and other now-standard baseline features for challenger banks.

In August 2020, Current debuted a points rewards program in an effort to better differentiate its service from the competition, which as of this month now includes Google Pay.

When Current raised its Series B last fall, it had over 500,000 accounts on its service. Today, it touts over 2 million members. Revenue has also grown, increasing by 500% year-over-year, the company noted today.

“We have seen a demonstrated need for access to affordable banking with a best-in-class mobile solution that Current is uniquely suited to provide,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp, in a statement about the fundraise. “We are committed to building products specifically to improve the financial outcomes of the millions of hard-working Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, and whose needs are not being properly served by traditional banks. With this new round of funding we will continue to expand on our mission, growth and innovation to find more ways to get members their money faster, help them spend it smarter and help close the financial inequality gap,” he added.

The additional funds will be used to further develop and expand Current’s mobile banking offerings, the company says.

AliveCor, which helps its users manage their heart health, scores another FDA approval

By Connie Loizos

Last week, AliveCor, a nine-year-old, 92-person company whose small, personal electrocardiogram devices help users detect atrial fibrillation, bradycardia, and tachycardia from heart rate readings taken from their own kitchen tables, raised $65 million from investors.

Today, it’s clearer why investors — who’ve now provided the Mountain View, Ca., company with $169 million altogether —  are excited about its prospects. AliveCor just received its newest FDA clearance under the agency’s software as a medical device designation for an upgrade that generates enough detail and fidelity that AliveCor says its cardiological services can now serve as stand-in for the vast majority of cases when cardiac patients are not in front of their doctor.

Specifically, the company says the FDA-cleared update can detect premature atrial contractions, premature ventricular contractions, sinus rhythm with wide QRS.

In a world where the pandemic continues to rage and people remain hesitant to visit a hospital, these little steps add up. In fact, CEO Priya Abani, along with AliveCor founder and chief medical officer David Albert, formerly the chief clinical scientist of cardiology at GE, say AliveCor’s “Kardia” devices have been used to record nearly 15 million EKG recordings since March of this year, which is up over 70% year-over-year.

They also claim a 25% increase year-over-year in what they call physician-patient connections, meaning doctors specifically asking their patients to use the device, either at their medical office or at the patient’s home. Indeed, the pair says that while the company has focused historically on consumer sales, so much new business is coming through doctor referrals that roughly one out of every two of its devices is now sold through these recommendations.

Patients still need to pay out of pocket for AliveCor’s personal EKG devices, one of which currently sells for $89 while a more sophisticated model sells for $139.

The company also more recently rolled out a subscription product for $99 per year that “unlocks” additional features, including monthly summaries of a customer’s heart data, and hopefully soon, says Abani, access to cardiologists who will be able to answer questions in lieu of one’s own cardiologist.

Abani — who joined AliveCor last year from Amazon, where she was a general manager and director of Alexa — says other offerings are also in the works that should help customers measure their hypertension and blood pressure. She adds that the company more broadly sees itself as becoming a way for people to manage chronic conditions from home and that, if things go AliveCor’s way, employers will begin offering the service to employees as a way for them to take better care of their own heart health.

In the meantime, AliveCor’s bigger push into the enterprise appears tied not only to COVID and its ripple effects but also to competition on the consumer front from Apple Watch, which also now enables wearers to records the electrical pulses that make one’s heart beat and to determine whether the upper and lower chambers are their heart are in rhythm.

Though the company has sung Apple’s praises for raising awareness around heart health, last year, owing to shrinking sales, AliveCor stopped making an earlier product called the KardiaBand that was an FDA-cleared ECG wristband designed for use with Apple Watches.

AliveCor’s products are currently sold in 12 countries, including India, South Korea, and Germany, and it has clearance to sell in more than 37 altogether.

In addition to selling directly to customers through its site, its devices are available to buy through Best Buy, CVS, and Walgreens.

Very worth noting: Neither Apple nor AliveCor can detect actual heart attacks. While both can detect atrial fibrillation, acute heart attacks are not associated with atrial fibrillation.

Relativity Space raises $500 million as it sets sights on the industrialization of Mars

By Darrell Etherington

3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space has closed $500 million in Series D funding (making official the earlier reported raise), the company announced today. This funding was led by Tiger Global Management, and included participation by a host of new investors, including Fidelity Management & Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Iconiq Capital, General Catalyst and more. This brings the company’s total raised so far to nearly $700 million, as the startup is poised to launch its first-ever fully 3D-printed orbital rocket next year.

LA-based Relativity had a big 2020, completing work on a new 120,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach. Its rocket construction technology, which is grounded in its development and use of the largest metal 3D printers in existence, suffered relatively few setbacks due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and work stoppages as it involves relatively few actual people on the factory floor managing the 3D printing process, which is handled in large part by autonomous robotic systems and software developed by the company.

Relativity also locked in a first official contract from the U.S. government this year, to launch a new experimental cryogenic fluid management system on behalf of client Lockheed Martin, as part of NASA’s suite of Tipping Point contracts to fund the development of new technologies for space exploration. It also put into service its third-generation Stargate 3D metal printers — the largest on Earth, as mentioned.

The company’s ambitions are big, so this new large funding round should provide it with fuel to grow even more aggressively in 2021. It’s got new planned initiatives underway, both terrestrial and space-related, but CEO and founder Tim Ellis specifically referred to Mars and sustainable operations on the red planet as one possible application of Relativity’s tech down the road.

In prior conversations, Ellis has alluded to the potential for Relativity’s printers when applied to other large-scale metal manufacturing — noting that the cost curve as it stands makes most sense for rocketry, but could apply to other industries easily as the technology matures. Whether on Mars or on Earth, large-scale 3D printing definitely has a promising future, and it looks like Relativity is well-positioned to take advantage.

We’ll be talking to Ellis at our forthcoming TC Sessions: Space event, so we’ll ask him more about this round and his company’s aspirations, too.

Genomatica’s expanded Aquafil partnership brings biomaterials to more consumer goods

By Jonathan Shieber

In a deal that has potentially big implications for the sustainability of consumer packaged goods, biomaterial manufacturing technology developer Genomatica and the massive nylon material manufacturer Aquafil have partnered on a new demonstration scale facility.

Nylon-6 is used to make everything from toothbrush bristles to pantyhose and industrial materials like carpeting and other heavy-duty fabrics.

The material will be used to develop renewable products and showcase goods that can be brought to market as more companies look to clean up their supply chains and make products that have fewer negative consequences for the environment at the end of their life.

The deal is a 50-fold expansion of previous production levels for Genomatica and represents a significant expansion of Genomatica’s capabilities.

The textile industry is a $960 billion business, and it’s one of the most polluting in the world — both in terms of chemical treatments and greenhouse gas emissions. According to data cited by the World Economic Forum, the textile industry accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per-year — nearly as much as the auto industry. Nylon production alone is responsible for about 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to the companies.

The multi-year agreement with European-based Aquafil expands on the two companies’ existing relationship. Earlier this year the two companies produced the first ton of bio-nylon-6 precursor material at a pilot scale. Now, the move to a demonstration scale plant will give Genomatica the ability to move ahead with supply agreements to certain brand partners.

Clothing maker Far Eastern New Century uses Genomatica’s products in its clothes, and other partnerships are in the works, the company said.

Genomatica is backed by Casdin Capital, Viking Global Investors, which continues as Genomatica’s largest shareholder, and organism engineering partner Ginkgo Bioworks .

“Bio-nylon is positioned to replace a material that’s used in millions of applications every day,” said Christophe Schilling, Genomatica CEO. “Our research shows that despite health and economic turmoil, 56% of Americans still want brands to prioritize sustainability. With this scale, Genomatica is offering our brand partners a key way to meet their sustainability objectives, differentiate themselves, and meet surging consumer demand.”

Aquafil is building the plant in Slovenia, where the Genomatica biological precursor material will be converted into bio-nylon-6 yarns, films and engineered plastics.

 

Perkins, ACB, Benetech, Salesforce and more announce breakout sessions at Sight Tech Global

By Ned Desmond

Sight Tech Global is little more than two weeks out, and today we published the detailed agenda for Dec. 2 & 3. The show runs from 8 a.m. to noonish Pacific standard time. If you have not already grabbed a free pass to the 100% virtual event, now is the time!

Sight Tech Global will present 35 speakers in 15 sessions focused on the cutting edge of AI-related technologies and accessibility, especially for the blind and visually impaired. A few of the remarkably accomplished speakers include OrCam founder Amnon Shashua, Seeing AI co-founder Saqib Shaikh, human rights lawyer Haben Girma, computer vision researcher Danna Gurari, Amazon L126 researcher Josh Miele and AI-expert and investor Kai-Fu Lee.

The agenda also includes ten breakouts that run in parallel to the main stage sessions. These 30-minute segments are produced by partners who are excited about the strong profile of Sight Tech Global’s 1200+ registered attendees to date. The list of breakouts is below.

As ever, we are grateful to the excellent sponsors of Sight Tech Global, including Waymo, Salesforce, Mojo Vision, Ford, Vispero, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Wells Fargo, Comcast, accessiBe, Eyedaptic, APH, HumanWare, Verizon Media, Verizon 5G and TechCrunch. Sponsorships benefit the non-profit Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has been serving the Silicon Valley are for 75 years.

Sponsorship opportunities are still available. 

Please have a look at complete agenda. Here are the breakout sessions so far!

Perkins Access: Users aren’t an add-on: building the user perspective into the design process

Comcast and Perkins Access (the digital accessibility consulting division of Perkins School for the Blind) will share insights for creating accessible experiences, with an emphasis on building the user perspective into the design process. This ensures that all teams understand the specific challenges, and unique needs, of blind and visually impaired users. Panelists include the authors of Perkins Access’ Inclusive Design Guide, which will be released at Sight Tech and available for download.

  • Gary Aussant, Director of Consulting, Perkins Access
  • Geoff Freed, Director of Consulting, Perkins Access
  • Jerry Berrier, Director of Education Technology, Perkins School for the Blind
  • Karyn Georgilis, MBA candidate, Harvard Business School
  • Tom Wlodkowski, Vice president Accessibility and Multicultural, Technology and Product, Comcast

American Council of the Blind: Get Up & get moving – A call for leveraging technology to improve health and wellness

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the global challenges that technology can experience when pushed to the limits. This realty check has not only been disproportionately burdensome for individuals who are blind and visually impaired, but it has also exposed the pre-existing barriers that have harmed the physical, social, and psychological well-being within this community over the years. Join the American Council of the Blind for an empowering panel on how technology can break down barriers to a full and enriched life, and how we can all get up and get moving toward full equality in the health and wellness arena.

  • Clark Rachfal, Director of Advocacy, American Council of the Blind
  • Eric Bridges, Executive Director, American Council of the Blind
  • Brian Charlson, member, American Council of the Blind

Benetech: Using artificial intelligence to unlock STE(A)M education

Artificial Intelligence is a term that has been around for decades and AI applications and techniques are already being used in everything from HR and healthcare to e-commerce. But what is the future of AI in supporting accessibility and inclusive education? This session will provide a basic understanding of various AI techniques, including Machine Learning and Computer Vision, and how Benetech is applying these techniques to transform complex books. For accessible formats, text is easy but equations, images and other non-text content is not straightforward. Join us to hear more about the future of Assistive Technology and how it is opening new worlds for the blind and visually impaired.

  • Brad Turner, VP and GM, Global Education and Literacy, Benetech

Salesforce: The new Office of Accessibility – Explained.

It’s been a year since Salesforce announced the launch of their Office of Accessibility, a new corporate team that partners with internal stakeholders to highlight accessibility needs and develop improvement plans, build workforce development programs, and evangelize Salesforce and their employees, customers, and other important work across the industry, all under one roof. 

In this breakout session, Kristian Burch, Senior Manager of Global Accessibility Compliance, and Richard Boardman, Senior Director of UX Engineering, Accessibility will discuss what led to this groundbreaking move, how the Office interacts with other teams and more specifically Product Accessibility, what’s worked, and what they would change looking back.

  • Kristian Burch, Senior Manager of Global Accessibility Compliance
  • Richard Boardman, Senior Director of UX Engineering, Accessibility

Fable: The barriers to Utopia: Why feedback comes first.

A lot of conversations these days are about the latest technology, and how it promises to solve all of our problems. But what about people? Join the CEO and the Community Lead of Fable, Alwar Pillai and Samuel Proulx, as they discuss how to collect authentic feedback from people living with disabilities.

  • Alwar Pillai, CEO, Fable
  • Samuel Proulx, Community lead

Eyedaptic: Simulated natural vision technology & one user’s low vision journey

Eyedaptic is an AR (Augmented Reality) visual aid company, which helps those with retina-related vision loss, such as AMD, simulate natural vision. Eyedaptic’s novel software adapts to the user’s vision, as well as their environment and habits, and optimizes the user’s remaining vision. Samuel Newman will discuss his own low vision challenges that he has overcome and the low vision technologies he has tried.  

  • Jay Cormier, Founder and CEO, Eyedaptic
  • Samuel Newman, Clinical specialist & Low vision Technology User

Vispero: The engineering experience of adding a voice assistant to ZoomText and JAWS

Roxana and Sriram talk about their experiences in adding Voice Assistant to a mainstream Windows screen reader and magnifier.  They explore the new input mechanic’s benefits and limitations and the guideposts they used to create the initial command set.  They also talk about the Voice assistant’s data and conversational privacy aspects and how Vispero is approaching them.

  • Sriram Ramanathan, Senior Software Engineer, Vispero
  • Roxana Fischer, Software Developer, Vispero

Humanware: Plotting the course – delving into the past, present, and future of assistive technology for the visually impaired community through the lens of artificial intelligence

This session will spotlight the trajectory of HumanWare and how current technological trends impact the future of product development. Join Eric Beauchamp, Francois Boutrouille and Peter Tucic for a discussion of how the previous 32 years of HumanWare’s development of blindness and low vision technology has evolved and will continue to do so with the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Participants will develop a better understanding of how the challenge of providing products that solved singular tasks has now shifted to integrate the complexities of deep learning technology to interact with dynamic objectives in real-time.

  • Peter Tucic, Brand Ambassador of Blindness Products, HumanWare
  • Eric Beauchamp, Director of Product Management, HumanWare
  • François Boutrouille, Emerging Technologies Leader, HumanWare

Teach Access: Teaching accessibility to tomorrow’s builders

Teach Access, a national coalition of institutions of higher ed, corporations (mostly tech-centered) and advocates with disabilities, will be conducting a roundtable with recent college students to discuss how the teaching of accessible design and development at the university level can help close the accessibility skills gap for the emerging generation of participants in the new digital economy.

  • Kate Sonka, Executive Director, Teach Access; Assistant Director of Academic Technology, Michigan State University
  • Larry Goldberg, Co-founder, Teach Access; Head of Accessibility, Verizon Media

Treviranus, Butler and Fruchterman to speak at Sight Tech Global

By Ned Desmond

 

Sight Tech Global goes live the week after Thanksgiving on December 2-3, and now’s the time to pick up a free pass! The agenda for this virtual, global event on AI-related technology and accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired just keeps getting better.

Today we’re delighted to announce two new sessions as well as our host for Sight Tech Global, Will Butler, a vice-president at Be My Eyes and host to the popular Be My Eyes and 13 Letters podcasts. Butler will run the Sight Tech Global virtual “desk,” where he will offer a running commentary on the sessions as well as introduce speakers and moderators. Be My Eyes is also the attendee-support partner for Sight Tech Global, and volunteers will be standing by to assist anyone who has questions during the event.

Butlers joins several TechCrunch moderators for sessions at the event, including Matthew Panzarino, Megan Rose Dickey, Kirsten Korosec, and Devin Coldewey.

Here are the two new panels on the agenda:

AI, Fairness and Bias: What technologists and advocates need to do to ensure that AI helps instead of harms people with disabilities

While it’s clear that AI-based technologies like natural language processing and computer vision are powerful tools to help with accessibility, there are also areas where AI technologies inject bias against people with disabilities by contrasting them against “norms” established in databases. This panel will look at examples of where that is happening – in employment software, benefits determination or even self-driving cars, for example, – and approaches that will help address these issues from the ground up.

Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Center

Lydia Brown, Policy Counsel, Privacy and Data Project

Moderator, Jim Fruchterman, Founder, Benetech

Inventors invent: Three new takes on assistive technology

Inventors have long been inspired to apply their genius to helping blind people. Think of innovators like Louis Braille and Ray Kurzweil, to name just two. Today’s ambitious pioneers have the cheap sensors, high speed data networks, and data and compute “in the cloud” to do more than ever before. In this session, three founders present products that have just or will soon enter production that they believe will improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Keith Kirkland, Wayband

Khartik Mahadevan, Envision Glasses

Andres Forsland, Cognixion

Moderator, Ned Desmond

Sight Tech Global is a production of the non-profit  Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has served people on the San Francisco Bay area for 75 years. All proceeds from the event, which is run entirely by volunteers, go directly to support the Vista Center’s work with blind and low vision people. We are very grateful for the sponsors who are backing Sight Tech Global, including Waymo, Salesforce, Mojo Vision, Ford, Vispero, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Wells Fargo, Comcast, Accessibe, Eyedaptic, APH, Humanware, Verizon Media and TechCrunch. Sponsorship opportunities are still available. 

 

Secureframe raises $4.5M to help businesses speed up their compliance audits

By Frederic Lardinois

While certifications for security management practices like SOC 2 and ISO 27001 have been around for a while, the number of companies that now request that their software vendors go through (and pass) the audits to be in compliance with these continues to increase. For a lot of companies, that’s a harrowing process, so it’s maybe no surprise that we are also seeing an increase in startups that aim to make this process easier. Earlier this month, Strike Graph, which helps automate security audits, announced its $3.9 million round, and today, Secureframe, which also helps businesses get and maintain their SOC 2 and ISO 27001 certifications, is announcing a $4.5 million round.

Secureframe’s round was co-led by Base10 Partners and Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. BoxGroup, Village Global, Soma Capital, Liquid2, Chapter One, Worklife Ventures and Backend Capital participated. Current customers include Stream, Hasura and Benepass.

Image Credits: Secureframe

Shrav Mehta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, spent time at a number of different companies, but he tells me the idea for Secureframe was mostly born during his time at direct-mail service Lob.

“When I was at Lob, we dealt with a lot of issues around security and compliance because we were sometimes dealing with very sensitive data, and we’d hop on calls with customers, had to complete thousand-line security questionnaires, do exhaustive security reviews, and this was a lot for a startup of our size at the time. But it’s just what our customers needed. So I started to see that pain,” Mehta said.

Secureframe co-founder and CEO Shrav Mehta

Secureframe co-founder and CEO Shrav Mehta

After stints at Pilot and Scale AI after he left Lob in 2017 — and informally helping other companies manage the certification process — he co-founded Secureframe together with the company’s CTO, Natasja Nielsen.

“Because Secureframe is basically adding a lot of automation with our software — and making the process so much simpler and easier — we’re able to bring the cost down to a point where this is something that a lot more companies can afford,” Mehta explained. “This is something that everyone can get in place from day one, and not really have to worry that, ‘hey, this is going to take all of our time, it’s going to take a year, it’s going to cost a lot of money.’ […] We’re trying to solve that problem to make it super easy for every organization to be secure from day one.”

The main idea here is to make the arcane certification process more transparent and streamline the process by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks of getting ready for an audit (and it’s virtually always the pre-audit process that takes up most of the time). Secureframe does so by integrating with the most-often used cloud and SaaS tools (it currently connects to about 25 services) and pulling in data from them to check up on your security posture.

“It feels a lot like a QuickBooks or TurboTax-like experience, where we’ll essentially ask you to enter basic details about your business. We try to autofill as much of it as possible from third-party sources — then we ask you to connect up all the integrations your business uses,” Mehta explained.

The company plans to use much of the new funding to staff up and build out these integrations. Over time, it will also add support for other certifications like PCI, HITRUST and HIPAA.

Jam raises $3.5 million to Figma-tize product collaboration

By Lucas Matney

The web of collaboration apps invading remote work toolkits have led to plenty of messy workflows for teams that communicate in a language of desktop screenshots and DMs. Tracing a suggestion or flagging a bug in a company’s website forces engineers or designers to make sense of the mess themselves.  While task management software has given teams a funnel for the clutter, the folks at Jam question why this functionality isn’t just built straight into the product.

Jam co-founders Dani Grant and Mohd Irtefa tell TechCrunch they’ve closed on $3.5 million in seed funding and are ready to launch a public beta of their collaboration platform which builds chat, comments and task management directly onto a website, allowing developers and designers to track issues and make suggestions quickly and simply

The seed round was led by Union Square Ventures, where co-founder Dani Grant previously worked as an analyst. Version One Ventures, BoxGroup and Village Global also participated alongside some noteworthy angels including GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and former Robinhood VP Josh Elman.

Like most modern productivity suites, Jam is heavy on integrations so users aren’t forced to upend their toolkits just to add one more product into the mix. The platform supports Slack, Jira, GitHub, Asana, Loom and Figma, with a few more in the immediate pipeline. Data syncs from one platform to the other bidirectionally so information is always fresh, Grant says. It’s all built into a tidy sidebar.

Grant and Irtefa met as product managers at Cloudflare, where they started brainstorming better ways to communicate feedback in a way that felt like “leaving digital sticky notes all over a product,” Grant says. That thinking ultimately pushed the duo to leave their jobs this past May and start building Jam.

The startup, like so many conceived during this period, has a remote founding story. Grant and Irtefa have only spent four days together in-person since the company was started, they raised their seed round remotely and most of the employees have never met each other in-person.

The remote team hopes their software can help other remote teams declutter their workflows and focus on what they’re building.

“On a product team, the product is the first tab everyone opens and closes,” Grant says. “So we’re on top of your product instead of on some other platform”

Jam’s interface

Austin-based Verifiable raises $3 million for its api toolkit to verify healthcare credentials

By Jonathan Shieber

Before Nick Macario launched Verifiable, the Austin-based company that just raised $3 million for its api toolkit that verifies healthcare credentials, he ran a series of other businesses designed to offer public credentials for professionals.

His first foray into the world of identity management services was the personal website builder, branded.me. After that company was sold, Macario launched Remote.com, an outsourced provider of human resources services that was constantly running background checks and verifying employee credentials.

That’s where Macario got the idea for Verifiable and struck on a market opportunity that’s exploding thanks to the proliferation of telemedicine and on-demand services, and the shortage of qualified medical candidates to fill positions and meet growing demand.

This boom in remote medical services is one reason why Macario, working with co-founder and chief technology officer, Vivekanand Rajkumar, was able to raise $3 million from investors including Tiger Global, Liquid2 Ventures, Struck Capital, Soma Capital, Jack Altman, Max Mullen, and Sahil Lavingia.

“We’re at an inflection point with healthcare,” said Macario. “There are large volumes of healthcare verifications and certifications that are being verified manually… and the lack of infrastructure and credentialing is a big part of the bottleneck holding healthcare back.”

Verifiable uses Dock, a blockchain based ledger company that issues digital credentials and anchors them to a public ledger.

Verifiable provides an API that connects to hundreds of primary sources to keep updated records on the 17 million licensed healthcare providers working in the U.S.

Companies like Talkspace, Sesame and Verge Health are already using the  API to automate real-time verifications for more than 50,000 healthcare providers.

“From a broader scale, we’re automating credentialing processes, but specifically we’re automating licensing verification and monitoring,” Macario said.

The Verifiable chief executive estimates that several billions of dollars in revenue and fines are lost every year because healthcare providers don’t keep up with the credentialing and licensing practitioners need to work in the U.S.

“It’s not a one-and-done verification,” says Macario. “You need to check on a monthly basis to make sure that providers are compliant.”

Verifiable’s management service can range anywhere from two to ten dollars depending on how deeply a potential employer wants to dive to confirm the standing and licensing of their practitioners. The price is based on the number of verifications and the number of healthcare providers that need to be verified.

And while Verifiable is starting with a specific focus on verification, the company has much bigger vision. “Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data. It connects to many different areas of healthcare,” Macario said.

We’re starting in a specific focus with verification.. Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data… it connects to many different areas of healthcare. 

 

Lee Fixel is already raising a massive second fund

By Connie Loizos

On Friday, former Tiger Global Management investor Lee Fixel registered plans for the second fund of his new investment firm, Addition, just four months after closing the first. According to a report on Friday by the Financial Times, the outfit spent last week finalizing the fundraising for the $1.4 billion fund, which Addition reportedly doesn’t plan to begin investing until next year.

But a source close to the firm now says the capital has not been raised. That’s perhaps good news for investors who were shut out of Addition’s $1.3 billion debut fund and who might be hoping to write a check this time around.

The mere fact that Fixel is back in the market already has tongues wagging about the dealmaker, one whose reluctance to talk on the record with media outlets seems only to add to his mystique. Forbes published a lengthy piece about Fixel this summer, in which Fixel seems to have provided just one public statement, confirming the close of Addition’s first fund and adding little else. “We are excited to partner with visionary entrepreneurs, and with our 15-year fund duration, we have the patience to support our portfolio companies on their journey to build impactful and enduring businesses,” it read.

According to Forbes, that first fund — which Fixel is actively putting to work right now — intends to invest one-third of its capital in early-stage startups and two-thirds in growth-stage opportunities.

Whether that includes some of the special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs, that are coming together right and left, isn’t yet known, though one imagines these might appeal to Fixel, who has long seemed to be at the forefront of new trends impacting growth-stage companies in particular. (A growing number of SPACs is right now looking to transform into public companies some of the many hundreds of richly valued private companies in the world.)

Clearer is that Addition is wasting little time in writing some big checks. Among its announced deals is Inshorts, a seven-year-old, New Delhi, India-based popular news aggregation app that last week unveiled $35 million new funding led by Fixel.

The deal represents Addition’s first India-based bet, even while Fixel knows both the country and the startup well. He previously invested in Inshorts on behalf of Tiger; he’s also credited for snatching up a big stake in Flipkart on behalf of Tiger, a move that reportedly produced $3.5 billion in profits when Flipkart sold to Walmart.

Addition also led a $200 million round last month in Snyk, a five-year-old, London-based startup that helps companies securely use open-source code. The round valued the company at $2.6 billion — more than twice the valuation it was assigned when it raised its previous round 10 months ago.

And in August, Addition led a $110 million Series D round for Lyra Health, a five-year-old, Burlingame, California-based provider of mental health care benefits for employers that was founded by former Facebook CFO David Ebersman.

A smaller check went to Temporal, a year-old, Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform. Last week, the company announced $18.75 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital, but Addition also joined the round, having been an earlier investor in the company.

According to PitchBook data, Addition has made at least 17 investments altogether.

Fixel — whose bets while at Tiger include Peloton and Spotify — isn’t running Addition single-handedly, though according to Forbes, he is the single “key man” around which the firm revolves, as well as the biggest investor in Addition’s first fund.

He has also brought aboard at least three investment principals from Wall Street and a head of data science who worked formerly for Uber (per Forbes). Ward Breeze, a longtime attorney who worked formerly in the emerging companies practice of Gunderson Dettmer, is also working with Fixel at Addition.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Fixel’s newest fund was already raised, per the FT.)

Frontegg raises $5M to help SaaS companies build SaaS faster

By Frederic Lardinois

Frontegg, a Tel Aviv-based startup that helps SaaS companies build their products faster by giving them access to a set of enterprise-ready building blocks for often-used features like authentication and notifications, today announced that it has raised a $5 million seed round. The round was led by Pitango, with backing from i3 Equity and Global Founders Capital.

The founders of Frontegg, Sagi Rodin (CEO) and Aviad Mizrachi (CTO), met during their time at security company Check Point, where Mizrachi managed an R&D group and Rodin’s last role was that of director in its cloud security organization. Both have extensive experience in various management and engineering roles at other companies.

“Most of the SaaS products today kind of feel and act the same,” Rodin explained. “They provide the same capabilities and the same user experience around things like authentication, security, notification, reporting dashboards and capabilities like that. These are capabilities that have become the facto standard in the landscape of modern SaaS products.”

Frontegg, he hopes, can become the new standard for SaaS companies to build these kinds of features into their products.

“Over the last decade, the SaaS market has matured and customer expectations for SaaS features have become firmly established,” said Ayal Itzkovitz, managing partner at Pitango Early Stage, who will join the company’s board of directors. “SaaS companies building products powered by the Frontegg platform can supercharge SaaS innovation, simplifying the development process while delivering solutions with the confidence they will be secure, stable and scalable, all the while meeting high customer expectations for experience and performance.”

Image Credits: Frontegg

For the most part, these are also table stakes that take a long time to develop — or involve bringing in expensive third-party services — but that don’t help these companies differentiate and that take focus away from developing their own products. The idea behind Frontegg is to give dev teams the building blocks to integrate all of these capabilities into their own products.

Right now, the team is focusing on building out tools around three main areas: security, connectivity and engagement. That includes the ability to add enterprise-level authentication through third-party identity providers, setting up roles and permissions for users and audit logs, for example, as well as features like in-app alerts, push notifications and various reporting capabilities.

In part, the company’s philosophy is also to give these companies the ability to allow their own customers to self-manage everything on their own, so a lot of these building blocks focus on giving SaaS companies the ability to build these self-service capabilities into their products.

Interestingly, Rodin noted that a lot of companies that are using the service today aren’t starting from zero but are looking to integrate new capabilities quickly because their users are demanding them.

Right now, the one-year-old company has 16 employees, with plans to use the new funding to expand the team and build out the product.

Image Credits: Frontegg

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.”

Here’s the curtain raise on the Sight Tech Global agenda

By Ned Desmond

The goal of Sight Tech Global, a virtual, global event on December 2-3, 2020, is to gather the world’s top experts who are applying advanced technologies, notably AI, to the future of accessibility and assistive tech for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Today we’re excited to roll out most of the agenda. There are another half-dozen sessions and breakouts still to come, notably sessions on AI bias and civil rights. What we’ve discovered over the many weeks of research and conversation is a consistent, strong interest on the part of researchers, technologists and product and design thinkers to convene and talk over the future — its promises, challenges and even threats.

We’re delighted to have top-level talent from virtually every leading technology company, many research universities and some startups ready for fireside chats and small panel discussions with expert moderators. Some sessions will take questions from our audience as well.

When the event dates are closer, we will add dates and times to each of these sessions as well as announce additional speakers. Register today to get a free pass and please browse the first edition of the Sight Tech Global agenda below.

Seeing AI: Where does Microsoft’s blockbuster app go from here?

With ever more powerful computer and data resources available in the cloud, Microsoft’s Seeing AI mobile app is destined to become a steadily better ally for anyone with vision challenges. Co-founder Saqib Shaikh leads the engineering team that’s charting the app’s cloud-enabled future.

Saqib Shaikh, co-founder of Seeing AI, Microsoft
Moderator: Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch

The future according to OrCam

As AI-based computer vision, voice recognition and natural language processing race ahead, the engineering challenge is to design devices that can perceive the physical world and communicate that information in a timely manner. Amnon Shashua’s OrCam MyEye is the most sophisticated effort yet to merge those technologies in a seamless experience on a dedicated device.

Amnon Shashua, co-founder of OrCam and Mobileye
Moderator: Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch

Accessibility from the wheels up: The Waymo self-driving taxi

If people who are blind or visually impaired find Uber and Lyft liberating, imagine how they will feel summoning a self-driving ride from an app on their mobile phones. But wait, how exactly will they locate the cars and what happens when they climb in? Presenter Clem Wright is responsible for the self-driving taxi’s accessibility, and he will be joined by leadership from two organizations closely involved in that effort: The Lighthouse for the Blind SF and the Foundation for Blind Children.

Clem Wright, Accessibility product manager, Waymo
/> Marc Ashton, CEO, Foundation for Blind Children
Bryan Bashin, CEO, Lighthouse for the Blind
Moderator: Kirsten Korosec, TechCrunch

Our AI future is already here

Whether it’s Alexa, Tesla or Facebook, AI is already deeply embedded in our daily lives. Few understand that better than Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a scientist who developed the first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, led Google in China and held senior roles at Microsoft and Apple. Today, Dr. Lee runs Sinovation Ventures, a $2 billion fund based in China, is president of the Sinovation’s Artificial Intelligence Institute and has 50 million followers on social media.

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO, Sinovation Ventures
/> Moderator: Ned Desmond, Sight Tech Global

The future of AT devices and the companies that make them

Dedicated devices versus accessible platforms? Victor Reader Stream versus iPhones and Alexa? How will AT companies take advantage of a world with cloud data and edge computational power, AI algorithms and more demanding customers than ever? Humanware, eSight and APH are already looking far into that future.

Gilles Pepin, CEO, Humanware
Greg Stilson, head of Global Innovation, APH
Charles Lim, CTO, eSight
Moderator: Betsy Beaumon, CEO, Benetech

If the Jetsons had screen readers, would they be using keyboard commands?

The screen reader is arguably the most consequential digital technology ever for people who are blind or visually impaired. At the same time, screen readers depend on a dizzying array of keyboard commands, and — when it comes to reading websites in a browser — they struggle with the ugly reality of poor website accessibility. New technologies may lead the way to better outcomes.

Glen Gordon, Software fellow, Vispero; architect, JAWS
James Teh, Accessibility engineer, Mozilla; co-founder, NVDA
Léonie Watson, director, TetraLogical
Moderator: Matt King, Accessibility technical program manager, Facebook

Alexa, what is your future?

When Alexa launched six years ago, no one imagined that the voice assistant would reach into millions of daily lives and become a huge convenience for people who are blind or visually impaired. This fall, Alexa introduced personalization and conversational capabilities that are a step-change toward more human-like home companionship. Amazon’s Josh Miele and Anne Toth will discuss the impact on accessibility as Alexa becomes more capable.

Anne Toth, director, Alexa Trust at Amazon
Josh Miele, principal accessibility researcher, Lab126 at Amazon
/> Moderator: Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch

Augmented reality and perception: What’s the best way to get the message across?

It’s one thing for an AI-based system to “know” when it’s time to turn left, who came through the door or how far away the couch is: It’s quite another to convey that information in a timely fashion with minimal distraction. Researchers are making use of haptics, visual augmented reality (AR), sound and language to figure out the right solutions.

Amos Miller, Product strategist, Microsoft AI and Research
Ashley Tuan, VP Medical Devices, Mojo Vision
Sile O’Modhrain, associate professor, Performing Arts Technology, University of Michigan
Moderator: Nick Giudice, professor of Spatial Informatics, University of Maine

Wayfinding: Finding the mark

Map apps on mobile phones are miraculous tools accessible via voice output, but mainstream apps don’t announce the detailed location information (which people who are blind or visually impaired really want), especially inside buildings and in public transportation settings. Efforts in the U.S. and U.K. are improving accessible navigation.

Tim Murdoch, founder and CEO, Waymap
Nick Giudice, professor of Spatial Informatics, University of Maine
Moderator: Mike May, chief evangelist, GoodMaps

Computer vision, AI and accessibility: What’s missing from this picture?

For an AI to interpret the visual world on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired, the AI needs to know what it’s looking at, and no less important, that it’s looking at the right thing. Mainstream computer vision databases don’t do that well — yet.

Danna Gurari, assistant professor and director of the Image and Video Computing Group, University of Texas
Patrick Clary, product manager, AI and accessibility, Google
/> Moderator: Roberto Manduchi, professor CS and Engineering, UC Santa Cruz

Keep an out for more sessions and breakouts later this month. In the meantime, registration is open. Get your pass today!

Sight Tech Global is eager to hear from potential sponsors. We’re grateful to current sponsors Amazon, Ford, Google, Microsoft, Mojo Vision, Waymo, Wells Fargo and Humanware. All sponsorship revenues go to the nonprofit Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has been serving the Silicon Valley area for 75 years.

Special thanks to the Sight Tech Global advisors — Tech Matters Jim Fruchterman, UC Santa Cruz’s Roberto Manduchi, Verizon Media’s Larry Goldberg, Facebook’s Matt King and Be My Eyes’ Will Butler — who are playing an invaluable role on this project.

Postmates cuts losses in Q2 as it heads towards tie-up with Uber

By Danny Crichton

Popular food delivery service Postmates is in the process of merging with Uber in a blockbuster $2.65 billion deal that would see it join forces with its food delivery competitor, Uber Eats. The deal remains under antitrust scrutiny, and has not yet been approved for closing. The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2021.

However, a new SEC filing posted after hours this Friday gives us a glimpse on how Postmates is faring in the new world of global pandemics and sit-in dining closures across the United States.

Postmates posted a loss of just $32.2 million in Q2, compared to a loss of $73 million in Q1, nearly cutting its cash burning in half. That compares to Uber Eats’ results, which showed a loss of $286 million in the first quarter of 2020 and a loss of $232 million in the second quarter — an improvement of roughly 20%, according to Uber’s most recent financial reports.

Altogether, Postmates lost $105.2 million in the first half of 2020, compared to a loss of $239.0 million in the same period of 2019.

Uber through its filing today also disclosed the cap table for Postmates in full detail for the first time. On a fully-diluted basis, the largest shareholder in Postmates is Tiger Global, which owns 27.2% of the company. Following up is Founders Fund with 11.4%, Spark Capital with 6.9%, and GPI capital with 5.3%. At Uber’s $2.65 billion all-stock deal, that nets Tiger Global roughly $720 million and Founders Fund roughly $302 million, not including some stock preferences and dividends that certain owners of the company hold.

While the companies continue to go through the antitrust review process at the federal level, the companies also face legal pressures in their own backyards. Uber noted in its filing today that it and Postmates face headwinds due to California’s AB5 bill, which is designed to give additional employment protections to freelance workers. However, the company notes that such litigation “may not, in and of itself, give rise to a right of either party to terminate the transaction.”

JAWS architect Glen Gordon is joining Sight Tech Global, a virtual event Dec. 2-3

By Ned Desmond

For people who are blind or visually impaired, JAWS is synonymous with freedom to operate Windows PCs with a remarkable degree of control and precision with output in speech and Braille. The keyboard-driven application makes it possible to navigate GUI-based interfaces of web sites and Windows programs. Anyone who has ever listened to someone proficient in JAWS (the acronym for “Job Access With Speech”) navigate a PC can’t help but marvel at the speed of the operator and the rapid fire machine-voice responses from JAWS itself.

For nearly 25 years, JAWS has dominated the field of screen readers, and is in use by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It is inarguably one of the greatest achievements in modern assistive technology. We are delighted to announce that Glen Gordon, the architect of JAWS for over 25 years, is joining the agenda at Sight Tech Global, which is a virtual event (December 2-3) focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and registration is open.

Blind since birth, Gordon’s interest in accessibility developed out of what he calls “a selfish desire to use Windows at a time when it was not at all clear that graphical user interfaces could be made accessible.” He has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School, and he learned software development through “the school of hard knocks and lots of frustration trying to use inaccessible software.” He is an audio and broadcasting buff and host of FSCast, the podcast from Freedom Scientific.

The latest public beta release of JAWS contains a glimpse of the future for the storied software: It now works with certain user voice commands — “Voice Assist” — and provides more streamlined access to image descriptions, both thanks to AI technologies that the JAWS team at Freedom Scientific is using in JAWS as well as FUSION (which combines JAWS and ZoomText, a screen magnifier). Those updates address two of JAWS’ challenges — the complexity of the available keyboard command set that intimidates some users and “alt tags” on images that don’t always adequately describe the image.

“The upcoming versions of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion use natural language processing to allow many screen reader commands to be performed verbally,” says Gordon. “You probably wouldn’t want to speak every command, but for the less common ones Voice assist offers a way to minimize the key combinations that you need to learn.”

“Broadly speaking, we’re looking to make it easier for people to use a smaller command set to work efficiently. This fundamentally means making our products smarter, and being able to anticipate what a user wants and needs based on their prior actions. Getting there is an imprecise process and we’ll continue to rely on user feedback to help guide us towards what works best.”

The next generation of screen readers will take advantage of AI, among other technologies, and that will be a major topic at Sight Tech Global on December 2-3. Get your free pass now.

Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo. The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.

Pictured above: JAWS Architect Glen Gordon in his home audio studio. 

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