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SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the US

By Jonathan Shieber

As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

Jamaica’s immigration website exposed thousands of travelers’ data

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse by a Jamaican government contractor has exposed immigration records and COVID-19 test results for hundreds of thousands of travelers who visited the island over the past year.

The Jamaican government contracted Amber Group to build the JamCOVID19 website and app, which the government uses to publish daily coronavirus figures and allows residents to self-report their symptoms. The contractor also built the website to pre-approve travel applications to visit the island during the pandemic, a process that requires travelers to upload a negative COVID-19 test result before they board their flight if they come from high-risk countries, including the United States.

But a cloud storage server storing those uploaded documents was left unprotected and without a password, and was publicly spilling out files onto the open web.

Many of the victims whose information was found on the exposed server are Americans.

The data is now secure after TechCrunch contacted Amber Group’s chief executive Dushyant Savadia, who did not comment when reached prior to publication.

The storage server, hosted on Amazon Web Services, was set to public. It’s not known for how long the data was unprotected, but contained more than 70,000 negative COVID-19 lab results, over 425,000 immigration documents authorizing travel to the island — which included the traveler’s name, date of birth and passport numbers — and over 250,000 quarantine orders dating back to June 2020, when Jamaica reopened its borders to visitors after the pandemic’s first wave. The server also contained more than 440,000 images of travelers’ signatures.

Two U.S. travelers whose lab results were among the exposed data told TechCrunch that they uploaded their COVID-19 results through the Visit Jamaica website before their travel. Once lab results are processed, travelers receive a travel authorization that they must present before boarding their flight.

Both of these documents, as well as quarantine orders that require visitors to shelter in place and several passports, were on the exposed storage server.

Travelers who are staying outside Jamaica’s so-called “resilient corridor,” a zone that covers a large portion of the island’s population, are told to install the app built by Amber Group that tracks their location and is tracked by the Ministry of Health to ensure visitors stay within the corridor. The app also requires that travelers record short “check-in” videos with a daily code sent by the government, along with their name and any symptoms.

The server exposed more than 1.1 million of those daily updating check-in videos.

An airport information flyer given to travelers arriving in Jamaica. Travelers may be required to install the JamCOVID19 app to allow the government to monitor their location and to require video check-ins. (Image: Jamaican government)

The server also contained dozens of daily timestamped spreadsheets named “PICA,” likely for the Jamaican passport, immigration and citizenship agency, but these were restricted by access permissions. But the permissions on the storage server were set so that anyone had full control of the files inside, such as allowing them to be downloaded or deleted altogether. (TechCrunch did neither, as doing so would be unlawful.)

Stephen Davidson, a spokesperson for the Jamaican Ministry of Health, did not comment when reached, or say if the government planned to inform travelers of the security lapse.

Savadia founded Amber Group in 2015 and soon launched its vehicle-tracking system, Amber Connect.

According to one report, Amber’s Savadia said the company developed JamCOVID19 “within three days” and made it available to the Jamaican government in large part for free. The contractor is billing other countries, including Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, for similar implementations, and is said to be looking for other government customers outside the Caribbean.

Savadia would not say what measures his company put in place to protect the data of paying governments.

Jamaica has recorded at least 19,300 coronavirus cases on the island to date, and more than 370 deaths.


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Certific, a health tech startup from the founder of TransferWise, aims to be the rails for certified home testing

By Steve O'Hear

Certific, a health tech startup co-founded by TransferWise’s Taavet Hinrikus, is breaking cover today with the launch of what it claims is the first “certified” remote COVID-19 testing service.

The British-Estonian company is using techniques borrowed from the worlds of fintech and telemedicine, including asking users to film themselves while taking the at-home test, in a bold attempt to solve remote testing’s adherence and trust problem.

Initially targeting private individuals and businesses in the U.K., with other markets to follow, tests can be ordered online and are carried out remotely with the promise of a certified result the following day for PCR tests and in under 90 minutes for antigen tests.

More broadly, the Certific app and user journey is designed to increase trust in remote testing and ensure that self-performed tests reach the same standard as those carried out in a clinical setting.

“When the pandemic hit, we started toying around with the first finger prick tests to see if you have antibodies, and thinking, ‘hey, is there a way to make use of these to help the world along,’ ” Hinrikus told me during an interview earlier this week. “[But] then it turned out that these kind of antibody tests, and the end immunity, was a very unclear concept. And so we kind of put it on hold, but we kept on thinking about what better things we can do to make testing more trustworthy and easier”.

Then late last year he and Certific’s other co-founders — physician Dr. Jack Kreindler and CEO Liis Narusk — realised that there were things “that we can and should be doing to come up with a more democratised way of medical testing, and apply this to the pandemic”.

Hinrikus doesn’t quite say it, but as the founder of TransferWise and a prolific angel investor, including backing Estonian verification platform Veriff, there’s little doubt that Certific is partly inspired by the authentication techniques that have gained prominence in fintech, such as video selfies used to onboard new customers at digital banks. In addition, medical director Kreindler has experience with anti-doping in close-combat sports.

Coupled with more traditional identity checks, the Certific app asks you to film yourself while you take the test. The recording and test result is securely uploaded to Certific and checked by a qualified physician to ensure you have adhered to the manufacturer’s instructions properly. A medical certification containing the test result is then delivered back to the app. PCR tests cost £64, and the soon to be available rapid antigen tests will be sold in 12-packs for £249 (making the price of a single antigen test £20.75).

But how easy would it be to cheat the test and therefore fake a result? “That’s one thing we definitely are very, very focused on solving,” says Certific CEO Narusk. “Our experience in all the anti-fraud and anti-cheat areas means that we went far and beyond to make sure that you can’t actually tamper with the process. So when you record the video, and after you have recorded the video, it is checked by our test verification officers who make sure that you haven’t moved the tests away from the screen”.

In addition, Certific ensures that the test you have used is actually the test that you ordered and contains the same unique ID, and that you are the person who was supposed to do the test.

That in itself isn’t entirely fraud proof, and Hinrikus clarifies that Certific is initially focusing on ensuring that a test is carried out medically correctly. He says that a higher-priced tier will be offered at a later stage with enhanced video verification, such as a live operator acting as a witness.

This could be particularly useful for businesses, such as live events or travel, where there could be incentives for individuals to cheat and where operators may be required to prove to insurance companies or government authorities that they are COVID-19 safe.

Kreindler, Certific’s medical director, contrasts this with key workers that are currently permitted by U.K. authorities to carry out coronavirus home-testing without any additional verification, but who aren’t nearly as likely to want to fake a result.

“If you think about it, those public servants are not at a great disadvantage if they test positive, because they still get paid. So there’s less of an incentive to cheat. And the challenge comes where you are doing point of care testing in an environment where there actually is some incentive or a big disadvantage [to testing positive]”.

Kreindler also says it’s not just about individuals and that Certific has worked with academics in Estonia, North America and in the U.K. to develop a computational risk model for mass testing for “super spreader” environments, such as large events. People will not only be able to take a test at home before attending, but a risk model that continually learns and takes into account “democratised decentralised testing” and an understanding of vaccination and immunity, could enable further mitigations to be put in place to make sure there’s no net spread of the virus back into the community. “That’s very core to our thinking going forward,” he says. “It’s not just about certifying testing, it’s also about certifying crowds”.

Zooming out even further — and beyond the current coronavirus pandemic — Certific has been built to be entirely test agnostic. Combining speed, convenience, adherence and trust, the company aims to be the rails on which existing and future home tests can run (my words, not theirs). In the future, this could span testing for sexually transmitted diseases (SDIs) to anti-doping tests in sports. And, of course, new types of COVID-19 tests as they come on stream.

Notable Health seeks to improve COVID-19 vaccine administration through intelligent automation

By Sophie Burkholder

Efficient and cost-effective vaccine distribution remains one of the biggest challenges of 2021, so it’s no surprise that startup Notable Health wants to use their automation platform to help. Initially started to help address the nearly $250 billion annual administrative costs in healthcare, Notable Health launched in 2017 to use automation to replace time-consuming and repetitive simple tasks in health industry admin. In early January of this year, they announced plans to use that technology as a way to help manage vaccine distribution.

“As a physician, I saw firsthand that with any patient encounter, there are 90 steps or touchpoints that need to occur,” said Notable Health medical director Muthu Alagappan in an interview. “It’s our hypothesis that the vast majority of those points can be automated.”

Notable Health’s core technology is a platform that uses robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing (NLP), and machine learning to find eligible patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. Combined with data provided by hospital systems’ electronic health records, the platform helps those qualified to receive the vaccine set up appointments and guides them to other relevant educational resources.

“By leveraging intelligent automation to identify, outreach, educate and triage patients, health systems can develop efficient and equitable vaccine distribution workflows,” said Notable Health strategic advisor and Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board Member Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, in a press release.

Making vaccine appointments has been especially difficult for older Americans, many of whom have reportedly struggled with navigating scheduling websites. Alagappan sees that as a design problem. “Technology often gets a bad reputation, because it’s hampered by the many bad technology experiences that are out there,” he said.

Instead, he thinks Notable Health has kept the user in mind through a more simplified approach, asking users only for basic and easy-to-remember information through a text message link. “It’s that emphasis on user-centric design that I think has allowed us to still have really good engagement rates even with older populations,” he said.

While the startup’s platform will likely help hospitals and health systems develop a more efficient approach to vaccinations, its use of RPA and NLP holds promise for future optimization in healthcare. Leaders of similar technology in other industries have already gone on to have multi-billion dollar valuations, and continue to attract investors’ interest.

Artificial intelligence is expected to grow in healthcare over the next several years, but Alagappan argues that combining that with other, more readily available intelligent technologies is also an important step towards improved care. “When we say intelligent automation, we’re really referring to the marriage of two concepts: artificial intelligence—which is knowing what to do—and robotic process automation—which is knowing how to do it,” he said. That dual approach is what he says allows Notable Health to bypass administrative bottlenecks in healthcare, instructing bots to carry out those tasks in an efficient and adaptable way.

So far, Notable Health has worked with several hospital systems across multiple states in using their platform for vaccine distribution and scheduling, and are now using the platform to reach out to tens of thousands of patients per day.

19 Face Masks We Actually Like to Wear

By Adrienne So
Plus, updated tips on how to wear them most effectively—whether you're running, going to work, or just trying to stay safe and stylish.

We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

By Megan Molteni
The WHO’s fact-finding mission into the origins of Covid-19 was limited and late. But there are models to help prepare for the next crisis.

Wyndly aims to bring allergy drops to the masses

By Megan Rose Dickey

Chronic allergy sufferers know well the daily discomfort of seasonal allergies and environmental allergies. They also likely know about allergy shots — the treatment that requires you to go into an office to get shots on a weekly or monthly basis. But there is a lesser-known treatment, allergy drops, that requires a bit less effort. Wyndly, a startup participating in Y Combinator’s current batch, aims to make allergy drops more accessible to people.

Before the pandemic, Dr. Manan Shah, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, throat doctor), would have his patients come in for an evaluation and then prescribe them personalized allergy drops to train their immune system to fight off allergy triggers.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Shah, began treating his patients suffering from allergies via telemedicine. That went well so Dr. Shah and his cousin, Aakash Shah, took their idea to Y Combinator. They showed their idea was working well in Denver, Colorado but wanted help taking it nationwide.

Through Wyndly, Dr. Shah can conduct both allergy testing and treatment via telemedicine. Unlike allergy shots, allergy drops can be taken at home. Wyndly aims to treat environmental allergies, like cats, dogs, dust mites, mold, pollen, trees, grasses and weeds.

“Most people don’t realize there is this other option,” Dr. Shah said. “I think most people think the only option for allergies are shots or taking antihistamines every day. we educate people there is this wonderful therapy and we can make it available to you in the most convenient way.”

Wyndly works by first evaluating a patient’s allergies. Patients can either submit a recent allergy test to Wyndly, or take Wyndly’s at-home finger prick test. Next, Wyndly prepares personalized allergy drops for the patient and sends a vial to the patient’s home. Then, at some point during the day, patients take five drops under the tongue. Dr. Shah said most patients see a decrease in their symptoms after taking these drops daily for six months.

Wyndly costs $99 per month for allergy drop treatment, which could come out to around $594 in total, if a patient takes them for six months. If you become a patient, the allergy test costs $0 but if you don’t become a patient, the test costs $200.

While allergy drops are easy to take, there’s a caveat. Insurance companies typically do not cover the cost of the treatment, while they generally do for allergy shots. But Wyndly says it aims to be the same cost as what someone would pay for insurance-covered allergy shots plus co-pays.

It’s also worth noting that these allergy drops are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. While they are made using the same medications that are FDA-approved for allergy shots, the compounded medication is not itself approved and regulated by the FDA, Dr. Shah said.

Down the road, Wyndly may look to treat food allergies but Shah says there’s not enough data about its safety.

“I just want to see a little more research and for the field to reach a consensus on safety,” Shah said. “We hope to do food in the future if it ends up being proven to be really effective.”

Wyndly is has been in Y Combinator for a little over a month now and has been slowly expanding its offerings. Through partnerships with physicians, Wyndly is able to offer its services in 38 states throughout the country. By the end of 2022, Wyndly hopes to be in all 50 states.

Vaccine Progress, New Mask Guidelines, and More News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

Ember names former Dyson head as consumer CEO, as the startup looks beyond the smart mug

By Brian Heater

Ember today announced that founder Clay Alexander will transition to Group CEO effective February 16. In his place, the Los Angeles-based smart mug company is bringing on Jim Rowan as Consumer CEO. The executive served as CEO of Dyson from 2017 to 2020, after five years as COO.

It’s a big get for a relatively small company like Ember, which is best known for its smart, heated mugs. Founded in 2012, the hardware startup most recently raised a $20 million Series D in early 2019, bringing its total funding up to just shy of $50 million.

Alexander’s continued role at the company points to additional categories for Ember beyond consumer. “When I founded Ember, I knew there were endless applications for our temperature control technology and with Jim joining our team, we’ll be able to focus on our emerging healthcare vertical and use our technology to help improve and even save lives,” the exec said in a statement.

Courtesy of clever technology and smart design, the company has built a pretty sizable footprint for what might otherwise be a fairly niche product, expanding retail sales to Target, Costco, Best Buy and Starbucks, among others. The startup has done so while maintaining a low headcount of around 100 staffers.

“They have great IP, great design and great innovation, all around precise temperature control,” Rowan said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Obviously that started with the temperature control mugs and flasks, but that IP lends itself to so many other application. For me, that golden thread of being able to use that in myriad of different industries and markets is really, really exciting. One of them, of course, is the cold chain, which has become a lot more important since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good indication of how you can disrupt and innovate in new markets.

Rowan has previously served as the COO of BlackBerry and as a senior exec at Flextronics. After exiting Dyson, he joined both PCH International and KKR as an advisor. It’s Dyson, however, that provides the most direct analogy for what the executive hoping to do at Ember. At its core, Dyson is a company that moves air. That translates to vacuums, fans, hairdryers and myriad other product categories.

The underlying question is how Ember’s proprietary heating and cooling tech can translate to other fields. On an industrial level, it means, potentially, helping keep foodstuff and medicine at a predetermined temperate while shipping in the international cold chain. It also means additional consumer products built around the same underlying tech.

“There will be a lot more products that come out, beyond the current mugs and travel mugs,” Rowan says. “There’s a whole bunch of new products which are in the consumer pipeline and will launch in the next year or couple of years. And then you have the expansion into new geographies with existing products.”

That largely means Asia (Rowan will remain based in Singapore) and Europe. Thus far Ember’s footprint has been U.S.-centric, though a push toward online commerce amid the pandemic has helped expand it some. There does, however, remain a question of how high the ceiling is on adoption for a $130 electric smart mug. Ember has yet to release any actual numbers, and Rowan, whose experience at Dyson has more than familiarized him with selling premium products at a premium price point, isn’t ready to commit to a lower price point or less premium take on the space.

It’s worth noting, of course, that low end of the mug category is ready available at your local 99 cent store, and that’s not likely a space Ember is raring to compete in. And certainly those products — unlike its current lineup — likely wouldn’t end up in Apple Stores. Instead, it seems likely the company will continue a play as a premium consumer brand into additional categories at a more rapid pace. “The actual technology can expand into a whole bunch of new areas beyond just beverages because of the temperature control technology,” Rowan said.

Premature Babies and the Lonely Terror of a Pandemic NICU

By Eva Holland
Baby Olivia weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces. Her doctors faced a stressful paradox: giving her the healing power of a parent's touch, while keeping the virus out.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines

By Darrell Etherington

Web infrastructure company Cloudflare is releasing a new tool today that aims to provide a way for health agencies and organizations globally tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue – completely free of charge. The company’s ‘Project Fair Shot’ initiative will make its new Cloudflare Waiting Room offering free to any organization that qualifies, essentially providing a way from future vaccine recipients to register and gain access to a clear and constantly-updated view of where they are in line to receive the preventative treatment.

“The wife of one of Cloudflare’s executives in our Austin was trying to register her parents for the COVID-19 vaccine program there,” explained Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince via email. “The registration site kept crashing. She said to her husband: why doesn’t Cloudflare build a queuing feature to help vaccine sites? As it happened, we had exactly such a feature under development and scheduled to be launched in early February.”

After realizing the urgency of the need for something like this tool to help alleviate the many infrastructure challenges that come up when you’re trying to vaccinate a global population against a viral threat as quickly as possible, Cloudflare changed their release timetable and devoted additional resources to the project.

“We talked to the team about moving up the scheduled launch of our Waiting Room feature,” Prince added. “They worked around the clock because they recognized how important helping with vaccine delivery was. These are the sorts of projects that really drive our team: when we can use our technical expertise and infrastructure to solve problems with broad, positive impact.”

On the technical side, Cloudflare Waiting Room is simple to implement, according to the company, and can be added to any registration website built on the company’s existing content delivery network without any engineering or coding knowledge required. Visitors to the site can register and will receive a confirmation that they’re in line, and then will receive a follow-up directing them to a sign-up page for the organization administering their vaccine when it’s their turn. Further configuration options allow Waiting Room operators to offer wait time estimates to registrants, as well as provide additional alerts when their turn is nearing (though that functionality is coming in a future update).

As Prince mentioned, Waiting Room was already on Cloudflare’s project roadmap, and was actually intended for other high-demand, limited supply allocation items: Think must-have concert tickets, or the latest hot sneaker release. But the Fair Shot program will provide it totally free to those organizations that need it, whereas that would’ve been a commercial product. Interested parties can sign up at Cloudflare’s registration page to get on the waitlist for availability.

“With Project Fair Shot we stand ready to help ensure everyone who is eligible can get equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines and we, along with the rest of humanity, look forward to putting this disease behind us,” Prince explained.

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

By Rita Liao

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments.

It’s still unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets, which are Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand.

“We will share more details locally as vaccinations roll out and our local support plans are finalized,” said a spokesperson for the company.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

To ensure passenger and driver safety, the company rolled out a mask detection technology last year for in-car cameras across China and some of its overseas markets.

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents in 2018. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

In all, Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables more than 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. Outside China, it has over 20 million users and 2.8 million drivers and couriers.

The company has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

The story was updated with more details of the fund on January 22, 2021.

Hims, the telehealth startup, saw its shares slip in their trading debut — and that’s fine with its CEO

By Connie Loizos

Hims & Hers, a San Francisco-based telehealth startup that sells sexual wellness and other health products and services to millennials, began trading publicly today on the NYSE after completing a reverse merger with the blank-check company Oaktree Acquisition Corp.

Its shares slipped a bit, ending the day down 5% from where they started, but the company, which was founded in 2017 and now claims nearly 300,000 paying subscribers for its various offerings, has never been focused on a splashy headline about its first-day performance, co-founder and CEO Andrew Dudum told us earlier today.

On the contrary, Dudum says that while Hims might have once imagined a traditional IPO, it decided to go the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) route because of their pricing mechanisms and because it was approached by a SPAC led by renowned money manager Howard Marks, the founder of the global alternative investment firm Oaktree Capital Management. (“We fell in love with the Oaktree team and the capital market experience and deep resources they have.”)

We talked with Dudum about that SPAC’s structure; the lockups involved now that Hims’ shares are trading; and how much of the business still centers around one of its first offerings, which was a generic version of erectile dysfunction pills. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You’re a Bay Area-based company selling to a mostly U.S. audience. How are you thinking about expanding that footprint geographically?

AD: We do have a small operation selling in the U.K.; we’re getting our feet wet in that market and building out a team and infrastructure and fulfillment. If you look at the regulatory landscape, there’s a huge amount of room [to grow] in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and Asia, and so in that order, we’ll start to [move into those markets].

TC: What is your average customer cost? 

AD: It has come down from $200 when we first launched, to roughly $100 last year, and we make, on average, close to $300 in the first couple of years in terms of a patient’s lifetime value.

TC: How quickly do customers churn?

AD: We break down lifetime value projections by quarter cohorts, and quarter over quarter, year over year, we’re monetizing each of these cohorts better, with high-margin profiles.

As of last quarter, the business was growing 90% year-over-year, with 76% gross margins and greater cash efficiency, and that’s because as we provide more offerings, there is more cross-purchasing. Also, word of mouth is becoming more of a dynamic, with more than 50% of the traffic to the site free at this point because we have built a brand with a young demographic.

TC: When are you projecting that you’ll turn profitable?

AD: We’ve reduced our annual burn and increased our margin efficiency and organic growth, so on a quarterly basis, we think in the next couple of years is a real possibility.

Image Credits: Hims & Hers

TC: Hims’ first wellness offerings included pills for male pattern hair loss and erectile dysfunction. How much revenue does that ED business account for?

AD: What we’ve disclosed is that roughly half [of our revenue] is that sexual health category — which includes [medicines for] generic erectile dysfunction, birth control, STDs, UTIs and premature ejaculation. The other half is predominately dermatology, including hair care [to address hair loss] and acne, and we’ve more recently moved into primary care and behavioral health.

TC: For retail investors, how do you differentiate the business from that of your rival Ro, which heavily promotes its ED products?

AD: There are a number of core differences between us and public and private players. First is our real focus on diversifying our offerings. With our focus on sexual health, dermatology, primary care and behavioral health, it’s in our DNA to quickly expand into new businesses.

We also think we’re different from most [rivals] in that we really invest time in building deep relationships with [those who represent] the future of healthcare markets — people in their teens, 20s and 30s. This demographic has a different set of tech expectations and consumer expectations than people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and if we want to build for the future, that means building for the largest body of payers in the future.

Traditional healthcare companies monetize only the sick, but optimizing around that demographic precludes you from understanding what the next generation really needs and wants. I’ve never seen such a divergence between a patient population and legacy experience, and that’s a real advantage to us as a business.

TC: Hims just went public through a SPAC in a deal that gives the company around $280 million in cash — $205 million of that from Oaktree’s blank-check company and another $75 million through a private placement deal. How much runway does that give you?

AD: The company doesn’t burn a tremendous amount — between $10 million and $20 million a year — so a relatively long runway if we keep operating the business as is. But it does allow us to expand and grow into new businesses, too, including into big categories like sleep, infertility, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

TC: What about acquisitions?

AD: We’ll keep an eye open for strategic opportunities and consolidation opportunities. More than a dozen businesses a month come to us to be consolidated into the brand, but generally speaking, we’ve had the belief that so much is in front of us that we don’t want to be distracted.

TC: Is there a lockup period for anyone?

AD: There’s a traditional lockup for executives and employees and the board.

TC: Did your SPAC sponsors get a board seat?

AD: No.

TC: How much do they now own of the company, and can they sell?

AD: Oaktree owns a couple percent and [the syndicate they brought to do the private placement] [owns] 12%. But the very reason we went with them was the quality of the team and the organization . . . and they have the added incentive for the next year or two from a compensation standpoint for the company to succeed and to prove [out their thesis that Hims is a smart investment].

TC: Do you think the traditional IPO process is broken?

AD: The traditional IPO market hasn’t changed. It takes 12 to 18 months of preparation, which is a crazy amount of time for management to be distracted, then there’s this one-day PIPE that gives institutions a tremendous amount of money instantaneously. Maybe it makes for a good CNBC headline, but at tremendous cost to the company. It’s atrocious. If you were a founder or employee and getting diluted twice as much as you have to be, you’d be really upset. It’s no surprise to me that founders like myself are looking at other modalities with better pricing and better structures.

Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally

By Mike Butcher

Omnipresent, which helps companies employ remote-working local teams worldwide, has closed a $15.8M Series A funding round. The fundraise was led by an undisclosed investor with participation from existing investors, Episode 1, Playfair Capital and Truesight Ventures. The company said it closed the round five months after it’s July 2020 $2m in seed round.

Founders Matthew Wilson and Guenther Eisinger started the company as part of Entrepreneur First’s London cohort in 2019.

Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it would if the company did it on their own, by using Omnipresent’s platform to onboard employees compliantly in 150 countries. It provides employees with local contracts, tax contributions, and local and international benefits such as health insurance, pensions and equity options. 

In a joint statement, Guenther Eisinger and Matthew Wilson, Co-CEOs of Omnipresent said: “Even before the pandemic we recognized the revolutionary potential of breaking down legal and administrative barriers of international employment. As former business owners, we had first-hand experience of what a headache it is to navigate the complexity and bureaucracy of building global teams. Now with the pandemic and the global shift towards remote working it’s confirmed that we are on the right track.”

Wilson told me in an interview: “For instance, in Canada, we have a Canadian entity and we enter into an employment relationship with that person in Canada, on behalf of our client, so they don’t have to set up any of the legal infrastructure themselves in Canada, or any of the 149 countries that we operate in. We then manage all the ongoing administration of the employment relationship, whether that’s from an HR perspective, from an employee benefits perspective, or if they want to get health care for instance.”

The company competes with other firms like Remote.com and Boundless HQ.

Carina Namih, General Partner at Episode 1 Ventures commented: “While talent is evenly distributed around the world, for too long, opportunities have not been. I have experienced first hand the challenge of hiring globally. Omnipresent has already become a crucial piece of infrastructure for global teams working across different countries.”

Joe Thornton, General Partner at Playfair Capital commented: “Remote work undoubtedly represents the future of the modern workforce. The sooner companies adapt, the sooner they will reap the massive competitive advantage associated with a globally distributed workforce, including increased workforce productivity and satisfaction and a larger and more diverse pool of talent from which to recruit workers.”

Omnipresent said its own employer surveys show that over 85% of employers will be employing remote or international employees in 2021.

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

By Sarah Buhr

In TechCrunch investor surveys of years past, we’ve seen a big focus on fixing what’s broken or bringing the infrastructure into the modern era. But the world has dramatically changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More of us saw our doctor on video than ever before in 2020 — reaching a 300-fold increase in telehealth visits. It was the year healthcare finally moved fully into the digital space with data management solutions as well. And, though those digital visits have fallen slightly from the beginning of the pandemic, it doesn’t look like people want to go back to the way things were in the foreseeable future.

Now we’re onto the next phase where more people will be getting vaccinated, more of us will likely start to return to the office towards the end of the year, and there’s now a slew of new tech solutions to the issues 2020 presented. If you are investment-minded, as so many of our TechCrunch readers are, you will likely see a lot of potential in this space in 2021.

So we asked some of our favorite health tech VCs from The TechCrunch List where we are headed in the next year, what they’re most excited about and where they might be investing their dollars next. We asked each of them the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity:


Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocker, partners, Venrock

Do you see more consumer demand for digital services? How does this trend affect what you are looking to invest in for 2021?
The pandemic certainly intensified pressure on the legacy, fee-for-service, activity-based healthcare system since volumes dried up for several months. People were scared to go to the doctor and doctors who are only paid when they see patients saw their revenue evaporate overnight. Telemedicine offered some revenue salvation fee-for-service healthcare but it was impossible to do as many tests and procedures so they have by and large, since summer 2020, reverted back to in-person as much as possible for increased revenue capture.

On the other hand, value-based providers were, in the short term, more insulated as they are paid based on typical levels of utilization. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has motivated more providers to embrace value-based care because it offers much more stable cash flows and does not depend on the tyranny of cramming more patients into the daily schedule.

With value-based care, the incentives are strongly aligned for more, and continued, tech-enabled virtual care since it is more profitable for those clinicians when they detect diseases earlier and take action to avoid hospitalizations. The beauty of virtual and tech-enabled care is that it can be delivered more frequently and group visits can be facilitated easily, with multiple specialists or people supporting a patient, to improve coordination and speed of action. Also, much more data can be brought to bear to make these interactions higher quality. Imagine how much better blood pressure is controlled when a doctor has not just the in-office reading but also all of the daily readings, or diabetic control when it is informed by all the data from a patient’s continuous glucose monitor, or post-surgical care when a surgeon can review daily pictures of the surgical site.

The enormity of the opportunity to make healthcare more productive and recession-proof growth from our aging population will attract more entrepreneurs and more capital to healthcare IT.

Digital health funding broke records in 2020, with investors pouring in over $10 billion in the first three quarters and a jump in deals overall, compared to the previous year. Do you see that trend continuing as we move back to offices and out of this pandemic or do you think this was a blip due to special circumstances?

We think growth in healthcare IT has been and will continue to be, driven by (1) better businesses and business models via aligned economic incentives and information and (2) some big wins in the space via Teladoc-Livongo merger and JD Health IPO — so both sides of the supply (great businesses) — demand (investor interest) equation. For payers, many healthcare providers and patients, it is in their interest to adopt more cost-effective approaches for care delivery and to access new data to derive insights and remove arbitrages. These prerequisites are strongly aligned in favor of more healthcare IT company formation, rapid growth and successful exits.

While people may spend more time receiving in-person HC in the future than today, we think the rapid adoption of virtual care in 2020 coupled with ever-stronger incentives for the healthcare system to emulate consumer technology usability and the never-ending imperative of improving affordability, will continue to drive demand for startups. We also think that downward cost pressures will drive demand for technology to replace fax-machine-era, labor-first administrative processes too.

What do you think are the biggest trends to look out for in the digital healthcare industry this next year, given we are likely toward the end of the year to see more workers return to the office and everyone resuming activities as they did before this pandemic hit?

We think that telehealth will become the “Intel Inside” for many of the full stack healthcare IT businesses — Medicare Advantage payers, navigation companies, virtual pharmacies, virtual primary care practices — and that patients will continue to embrace telehealth. As a result, payers will increasingly redesign how insurance benefits work to encourage every patient to start with a telehealth visit every time. In many cases, telehealth will be able to fully resolve the problem and if not, guide the patient, along with the relevant data, to the best next step in care. This will improve responsiveness and reduce costs. We do think that brick-and-mortar players will lag behind since they continue to have strong incentives for in-person care and procedures to cover their large fixed costs.

COVID-19 has also made inescapable the inadequacy of behavioral healthcare in America. We have observed this firsthand through our investment in Lyra Health, which experienced dramatic growth in 2020. We think greater access to behavioral health, better coordination of behavioral health and primary care, better use of medications and tech-enabled care for more complex behavioral health conditions are all large opportunities.

We also foresee virtual care growing in more specialty care areas as patients demand more convenient ways to access specialist expertise and value-based primary care doctors desire more rapid and cost-effective ways to co-manage patients.

How will the Biden administration possibly affect your funding strategy in the digital health field now that there’s a change of the guard?

Economic incentives to lower healthcare cost growth and the desire to use information and data to find arbitrages and insights are as aligned as ever. Remember, the law driving the adoption of new payment models is MACRA, which passed the Senate in a bipartisan 92-8 vote in 2015. This implies an uninterrupted effort to drive the adoption of value-based care in Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid. A Biden administration will also continue efforts to create more interoperable data systems and support telehealth adoption.

A Biden administration also reduces uncertainty around the permanence of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They instead will focus their efforts on expanding coverage through enhanced subsidies to buy insurance, more marketing of ACA plans, greater support for e-broker enrollment and strong incentives for states to expand Medicaid. And we do not think Medicare for All will be seriously considered by a ~50/50 Senate, although it will likely be spoken about periodically and loudly by the far left.

What’s the biggest category in your mind for digital health this next year? Why is that?

“Technology-enabled, virtual-everything” as the initial journey in healthcare, until you need to visit a facility because in-person is necessary. In 2020, we witnessed about a decade of user adoption compressed into six months as COVID-19 made it scary, or even impossible, to access in-person healthcare. Nearly every clinician in America, and at about half of the population, conducted a virtual healthcare visit in 2020. What happened? Patients liked it. Clinicians found virtual visits useful. And going forward we think that most care will incorporate aspects of virtual care, asynchronous communication and in-person encounters only when a procedure is needed. As importantly, payers found these approaches to be more cost-effective since care was delivered more rapidly and with only the most necessary diagnostics tests ordered.

Finally, are there any rising startups in your portfolio we should keep our eyes on at TechCrunch? 

We have two portfolio companies that may be very compelling candidates:  Suki and NewCo Health.

Suki has created a virtual medical assistant that acts as a voice user interface for electronic health records, enabling a doctor to write their clinical notes, enter orders, view information and exchange data with other providers dramatically and more efficiently. They have launched primary care and specialist doctors across dozens of health systems in 2020.

NewCo Health is a startup trying to democratize access to world-class cancer outcomes. Starting initially in Asia, they are tech-enabling the diagnosis, treatment planning and care management processes for cancer patients, connecting expert clinicians to every cancer case.

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

By Mike Butcher

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Amazon offers Biden resources for COVID-19 vaccine rollout

By Brian Heater

Following Joseph Biden’s swearing in as the 46th president of the United States, Amazon is offering help in the administration’s stated goals for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. In a letter provided to TechCrunch, Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark congratulates Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, while promising, “to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration.”

The note references a pledge set by Biden while introducing members of the pandemic team during a press conference in December of last year.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” the then-president-elect said. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”

More recently, COVID-19 task force member epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called the goal “aspirational […] but doable,” adding that it would take time to ramp up.

In his letter, Clark details Amazon’s response to the virus, as many warehouse and other workers were employed throughout as essential workers. Included in the resources on offer are deals with healthcare providers who can administer vaccines on-site.

“We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities,” Clark writes. “We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available. Additionally, we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

 

Vaping Won't Keep Young People From Smoking Cigarettes Later

By Sara Harrison
It won't prevent teens from later becoming smokers. But some health experts say that focusing on the risk of addicting new smokers cuts off a chance to help adults quit.

Biden’s Covid Plan Will Define His Presidency

By Adam Rogers
It’s not just about the pandemic. How the new administration handles Covid-19 will be a test of every one of its policies—and its values.

Wendy Xiao Schadeck becomes Northzone’s first New York partner

By Anthony Ha

Northzone‘s new partner Wendy Xiao Schadeck isn’t new to the firm — she actually joined back in 2015.

Before entering the venture world, Schadeck co-founded co-working and childcare startup CoHatchery. And as a Northzone principal, she’s already been involved in the firm’s investments in Spring Health (mental health), 3box (cloud infrastructure), Livepeer (blockchain-based video transcoding), Magic.link (user authentication) and Main Street (helping companies apply for tax credits).

More broadly, Northzone says Schadeck helped to develop the firm’s investment theses around crypto, consumer technology, health, developer/web 3.0 infrastructure.

“Wendy has already proven herself through very insightful sector-driven thought leadership and has solidified our position in the New York ecosystem,” said General Partner Pär-Jörgen Pärson in a statement. “She has defined and redefined an honest, authentic and inspiring dialogue between herself as an investor and the entrepreneurs she supports.”

Schadeck told me that her interests have “crystallized” around three key areas — “open data, open finance and open community.” And she said that with her promotion to partner, she will be able to work even more closely with founders, a topic she’s become “obsessed” with.

“We’ve all seen this VC meme, ‘How can I be helpful?’ and I’ve sometimes accidentally literally said it,” Schadeck said. “But we mean it: Other than providing capital, first and foremost, on good terms, what other dimensions are there that are becoming more and more important? … How can I customize my approach to provide what the founder needs from me?”

While Schadeck is Northzone’s first New York-based partner (its other partners are in London and Stockholm), she said she will make investments outside the region.

“We’ve tried to do this matrix approach, where we both have sectors that we’re pretty excited about and build expertise and experience in, as well as relationships” she said. “And those relationships are better with local entrepreneurs.”

 

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