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Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

By Natasha Lomas

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

Pre-school edtech startup Lingumi raises £4m, adds some free services during COVID-19

By Mike Butcher

At these difficult times, parents are concerned for their children’s education, especially given so much of it has had to go online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about pre-schoolers who are missing out?

Pre-school children are sponges for information but don’t get formal training on reading and writing until they enter the classroom when they are less sponge-like and surrounded by 30 other children. Things are tougher for non-English speaking children who’s parents want them to learn English.

Lingumi, a platform aimed at toddlers learning critical skills, has now raised £4 million in a funding round led by China-based technology fund North Summit Capital – a fund run by Alibaba’s former Chief Data Scientist Dr Min Wanli – alongside existing investors LocalGlobe, ADV and Entrepreneur First.

The startup, launched in 2017, is also announcing the launch of daily free activity packs and videos to support children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has pledged to donate 20% of its sales during this period to the Global Children’s Fund.

Lingumi’s interactive courses offer one-to-one tutoring with a kind “social learning” and its first course helps introduce key English grammar and vocabulary from the age of 2.

Instead of tuning into live lessons with tutors, which are typically timetabled and expensive, Lingumi’s lessons are delivered through interactive speaking tasks, teacher videos, and games. At the end of each lesson, children can see videos of Lingumi friends speaking the same words and phrases as them. Because the kids are watching videos, Lingumi is cheaper than live courses, and thus more flexible for parents.

The company launched the first Lingumi course in China last year, focused on teaching spoken English to non-English speakers. The platform is now being used by more than 100,000 families globally, including in mainland China, Taiwan, UK, Germany, Italy and France. More than 1.5 million English lessons have taken place in China over the past six months, and 40% of active users are also playing lessons daily. Lingumi says its user base grew 50% during China’s lockdown and it has had a rapid uptake in Europe.

“Lingumi’s rapid expansion in the Chinese market required a strategic local investor, and Dr Min and the team had a clear-sighted understanding of the technology and scale opportunity both in China, and globally.”

Dr Wanli Min, general partner at North Summit Capital, commented: “It is only the most privileged children who can access native English speakers for one-on-one tutoring… Lingumi has the potential to democratize English learning and offer every kid a personalized curriculum empowered by AI & Lingumi’s ‘asynchronous teaching; model.”

Competitors to include Lingumi include live teaching solutions like VIPKid, and learning platforms like Jiliguala in China, or Lingokids in the West.

Uber Eats beefs up its grocery delivery offer as COVID-19 lockdowns continue

By Natasha Lomas

Uber Eats has beefed up grocery delivery options in three markets hard hit by the coronavirus.

Uber’s food delivery division said today it’s inked a partnership with supermarket giant Carrefour in France to provide Parisians with 30 minute home delivery on a range of grocery products, including everyday foods, toiletries and cleaning products.

The service is starting with 15 stores in the city, with Uber Eats saying it plans to scale it out rapidly nationwide “in the coming weeks”.

In Spain it’s partnered with the Galp service station brand to offer a grocery delivery service that consists of basic foods, over the counter medicines, beverages and cleaning products in 15 cities across the following 8 provinces: Badajoz, Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia.

Uber Eats said there will be an initial 25 Galp convenience stores participating. The service will not only be offered via the Uber Eats app but also by phone for those without access to a smartphone or Internet.

The third market it’s inked deals in is Brazil, where Uber said it’s partnering with a range of pharmacies, convenience stores and pet shops in Sao Paulo to offer home delivery on basic supplies.

“Over the counter medicines will be available from the Pague Menos chain of pharmacies, grocery products from Shell Select convenience stores and pet supplies from Cobasi — one of the largest pet shop chains in the country,” it said. “The new services will be available on the Uber Eats app, with plans to launch in other Brazil states and cities in the coming weeks.”

The grocery tie-ups are not Uber Eats’ first such deals. The company had already inked partnerships with a supermarket in Australia (Coles) and the Costcutter brand in the UK, where around 600 independent convenience stores are offered via its app.

Uber Eats also lets independent convenience stores in countries around the world self listed on its app. However the latest tie-ups put more branded meat on the bone of its grocery offer in Europe and LatAm — with the Carrefour tie-up in France marking its first partnership with a major supermarket in Europe.

It’s worth noting Spain’s food delivery rival, Glovo, has an existing grocery-delivery partnership with the French supermarket giant in markets including its home country — which likely explains why Uber Eats has opted for a different partner in Spain.

Asked whether it’s looking to further expand grocery deliveries in other markets hit by the public health emergency Uber Eats told us it’s exploring opportunities to partner with more supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers around the world.

As part of its response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has switched all deliveries to contactless by default — with orders left at the door or as instructed by a user.

It also told us it’s providing drivers and delivery people with access to hand sanitiser, gloves and disinfectant wipes, as soon as they become available. And said it’s dispensing guidance to users of its apps on hygiene best practice and limiting the spread of the virus.

Uber Eats has previously said it will provide 14 days of financial support for drivers and delivery people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading the virus, with the amount based on their average earnings over the last six months or less.

The policy is due for review on April 6.

Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3,671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus, up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Duolingo’s new app teaches children how to read and write

By Frederic Lardinois

Until now, Duolingo‘s focus was always squarely on teaching languages, but today, the company launched Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app for children ages 3 to 6. Originally, the company had planned on unveiling this app later in the year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it decided to launch it early to help parents who are now suddenly finding themselves homeschooling their children.

The ad-free app is now available in the U.S., UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It includes over 300 short lessons that teach basic reading and writing skills.

For now, the app is only available in English and on iOS, though Duolingo will likely add support for other platforms in the future.

“We created Duolingo ABC to tackle the global problem of illiteracy,” Duolingo founder and CEO Luis von Ahn said. “Teaching people how to read and write can change lives. By taking everything we know about how people learn languages, and how to keep learners motivated with gamification, we believe we can make a dent in global literacy rates.”

It’s interesting to see Duolingo branch out from its sole focus on those who want to learn new languages. ABC not only focuses on native speakers but also on a far younger audience than the rest of its courses. It’ll be interesting to see if this heralds a push into the wider education space for Duolingo or just a one-off app.

Dyson and Gtech answer UK call for ventilator design and production to support COVID-19 response

By Darrell Etherington

Companies around the world are shifting production lines and business models to address the needs of governments and healthcare agencies in their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Two companies answering that call are Dyson and Gtech, both of which are working on ventilator hardware, leveraging their experience building vacuums and other motor-driven airflow gadgets to spin up new designs and get them validated and produced as quickly as possible.

Dyson, the globally recognized appliance maker, is working with The Technology Partnership (TTP) on a brand new ventilator design called the CoVent. This design is meant to be made quickly and at high volumes, and leverages Dyson’s existing Digital Motor design, as well as the company’s air purification products, to deliver safe and consistent ventilation for COVID-19 patients, according to an internal email from founder James Dyson to Dyson employees and provided to TechCrunch.

Dyson was reacting to a request from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson for ventilator supplies, and intends to first fulfill an order of 10,000 units for the U.K. government. Its ventilator still needs to be tested and its production process approved by the government and the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (the MHRA, its FDA equivalent), but Dyson says in the email that “the race is now on to get it into production.” The company notes that experts from both the U.K.’s national healthcare agency and the MHRA have been involved throughout its design process, which should help expedite approvals.

The CoVent meets the specifications set out by clinicians for ventilator hardware, and is both bed-mounted and portable with a battery power supply, for flexible use across a variety of settings, including during patient transportation. Because it uses a lightly modified version of Dyson’s existing Digital Motor design, the company says that the fan units needed for its production are “available in very high volume.”

“I am proud of what Dyson engineers and our partners at TTP have achieved. I am eager to see this new device in production and in hospitals as soon as possible,” Dyson wrote in his email. “This is clearly a time of grave international crisis, I will therefore donate 5,000 units to the international effort, 1,000 of which will go to the United Kingdom.”

Meanwhile, Gtech, another U.K. home appliance and vacuum maker, has likewise done what it can to answer the government’s call for ventilator hardware. The company’s owner Nick Grey said that it received a request to build up to 30,000 ventilators in just a two-week span, which promoted them to quickly set about figuring out what went into the design of this medical hardware.

Gtech’s team developed a ventilator that can be made from parts easily obtained from abundant stock materials, or off-the-shelf pre-assembled parts. The company says that it can spin up production of around 100 per day within a week or two, so long as it can source steel fabrication and CNC machining suppliers.

In addition to its own production capacity, Gtech is making its ventilator designs available for free to the broader community in order to ramp production. The company says that “there’s no reason why thousands of emergency ventilators can’t be made each day” in this way, according to an interview with Grey and CTV News. Like the Dyson model, Gtech’s design will need assessment and certification from the U.K. government and regulators before they can be put into use.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Giga New York will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible. We will do anything in our power to help the citizens of New York.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2020

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

Qatar Airways adds 10K seats while other airlines draw down their schedules

By Frederic Lardinois

While most domestic and international airlines are cutting thousands of flights from their schedules due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways is taking another route. The airline is actually stepping up some of its flying again, after also announcing some cuts in the last few days, by adding 10,000 extra seats back to its network.

It’s doing so by adding extra flights to Paris, Perth and Dublin from its hub in Doha, and by using its A380 fleet for flights to Frankfurt, London Heathrow and Perth. In addition, it’s adding charter service to Europe from the U.S. and Asia.

Unlike other airlines, Qatar still serves 75 destinations, including to the U.S., though the airline acknowledges that this could quickly change as some countries adopt tighter restrictions.

In many ways, Qatar’s decision seems counterintuitive, especially given that even its local competitors like Emirates have cut most of their schedules and many U.S. airlines now only serve a handful of international destinations. But Qatar argues that its mission right now is to “reunite stranded passengers with their loved ones.” The company’s data backs this up, with planes to the U.K., France and Germany leaving with about 80% of their seats sold, but outbound flights only being 36% full. The airline says it flew about 100,000 passengers in the last seven days.

The demand here clearly is from passengers trying to get home. That likely won’t last and Qatar, too, will end up shutting down more of its routes. But for the time being, it’s one of the few airlines still offering flights on many of these routes, something it can do because its hub in Doha also remains open for transit passengers. Emirates and Etihad, for example, would likely keep some of its flights going, too, but their hub airports are now closed and other major hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong have banned all transit passengers.

Babbel makes its language learning app free for all US students

By Frederic Lardinois

Babbel, the Berlin-based paid language learning app, today announced that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is making its service available for free to all K-12 and college students until the end of the term. Previously, the company offered a similar deal for students in Italy, the U.K., Germany, Spain and France.

The service currently offers courses for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Turkish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Indonesian and English. Students who want to sign up (or whose parents force them to do so) only need a valid school address to get started.

“The number of students being affected by high school and college closures across the U.S. is increasing daily, and the education system is anticipated to be further disrupted in the coming weeks,” said Julie Hansen, Babbel’s U.S. CEO. “As students are being forced to stay at home, Babbel is in a position to help right now and that is exactly what we want to do. At this time of global concern, we are reminded of the similarities we have with other people around the world, rather than that which divides us.”

The company also tells me that it is seeing increased demand from schools that are looking for ways to keep their students practicing their language skills while they are out of the classroom. Even without taking these students into account, though, Babbel’s overall subscriber numbers are actually up right now, which comes as a bit of a surprise, given that most people are probably not currently thinking about learning the basics of a language for their next vacation.

“Since people globally are bound to their homes we see a steep uptake in learning activity,” said Babbel CEO Arne Schepker. “More than ever, large numbers of people are currently starting a new language journey with Babbel. This is something that makes us extremely humble and grateful. If our work helps to make your day just a little bit better I think this is more than we ever could have asked for.”

Across geographies, Babbel is seeing the same trends, where new subscriptions slow down as the pandemic first becomes top of mind and then picks up again once school closing and rules like shelter-in-place go into effect. The same also holds true for existing subscribers, who, on average, are now more active, too. Unsurprisingly, though, “travel” isn’t quite the motivator for new learners that it was before this pandemic hit.

The popular free language learning app Duolingo, too, is seeing similar growth. The company tells me its new user growth is up 40% worldwide, and especially high in countries that have been aggressive about their isolation measures. In the last week alone, Duolingo saw a 91% increase in new users in the U.S., and even higher growth in European countries like France and Spain. With TOEFL and IELTS testing centers in China and other countries closed, Duolingo’s certification program is also seeing close to 300% growth in China and Korea.

UK turns to WhatsApp to share coronavirus information

By Zack Whittaker

Three years ago, the U.K. government chastised WhatsApp for enabling end-to-end encryption by default. Today, it’s relying on the encrypted messaging app as a vital service for sharing information about the coronavirus pandemic.

The new chatbot, supplied by the U.K. government, will let anyone subscribe to official advice about the pandemic, known as COVID-19, in the hope of reducing the burden on its national health system.

Send “hi” to 07860 064422 (or +44 7860 064422 for international users) over WhatsApp to start receiving updates.

The U.K. government’s official WhatsApp account, which it’s using to share information about the coronavirus pandemic (Image: TechCrunch)

The U.K. government said the service will also allow the government to send messages to all opted-in users if required.

Currently the U.K. does not have a national emergency alert system, unlike the U.S., to notify citizens en masse about incidents or emergencies. South Korea was praised for its use of sending up-to-date emergency alerts to citizens, which experts say has helped “flatten the curve” of infections, a reference to slowing the rate of infection to help ease the burdens on hospitals.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a national lockdown on Tuesday, ordering all non-essential citizens and residents to stay at home in an effort to fight the spread of the pandemic.

U.K. authorities had faced criticism for failing to issue the stay-at-home order sooner. Several other countries and cities with spiking infection rates, including Italy and New York, had ordered their citizens to remain at home.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 438,000 confirmed global cases of COVID-19, with 19,000 deaths recorded.

UK researchers develop new low-cost, rapid COVID-19 test that could even be used at home

By Darrell Etherington

A new type of test developed by UK researchers from the Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey can provide COVID-19 detection in as little as 30 minutes, using hand-held hardware that costs as little as £100 (around $120 USD) with individual swab sample kits that cost around $5 per person. The test is based on existing technology that has been used in the Philippines for testing viral spread in chickens, but it’s been adapted by researchers for use with COVID-19 in humans, and the team is now working on ramping mass production.

This test would obviously need approval by local health regulatory bodies like the FDA before it goes into active use in any specific geography, but the researchers behind the project are “confident it will respond well,” and say they could even make it available for use “within a few weeks.” The hardware itself is battery-operated and connects to a smartphone application to display diagnostic results and works with nasal or throat swabs, without requiring that samples be round-tripped to a lab.

There are other tests already approved for use that use similar methods for on-site testing, including kits and machines from Cepheid and Mesa Biotech. These require expensive dedicated table-top micro-labs, however, which is installed in dedicated healthcare facilities including hospitals. This test from UK scientists has the advantage of running on inexpensive hardware, with testing capabilities for up to six people at once, which can be deployed in doctor’s offices, hospitals and even potentially workplaces and homes for truly widespread, accessible testing.

Some frontline, rapid results tests are already in use in the EU and China, but these are generally serological tests that rely on the presence of antibodies, whereas this group’s diagnostics are molecular, so it can detect the presence of viral DNA even before antibodies are present. This equipment could even potentially be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals who are self-isolating at home, the group notes, which would go a long way to scoping out the portion of the population that’s not currently a priority for other testing methods, but that could provide valuable insight into the true extend of silent, community-based transmission of the coronavirus.

New coronavirus research suggests vaccines developed to treat it could be long-lasting

By Darrell Etherington

A new study from Italian researchers suggests that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which is the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic currently causing a global health crisis, is relatively slow to mutate – meaning that any effective vaccine that is developed to prevent people from getting infected should be broadly effective across geographically separated populations, and over a relatively long period of time.

The research, conducted by two independent teams working separate from one another, including scientists at the “Lazzaro Spallanzani” National Institute for Infectious Diseases (IRCCS) in Rome and the Forensic Division of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Public Health (DSBSP) at Ancona University Hospital, performed genetic sequencing tests using tech developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific on samples of the virus taken from Italian patients. They then compared these samples to a reference genome that was sequenced from a sample of the virus taken from the original Wuhan outbreak some two months prior.

The differences between the two virus samples was very small, speaking in terms of genetic variation – only five new variants appeared in the later Italian samples, which is an early indication that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus remains fairly stable even over the course of a long train of transmission across multiple individuals and populations.

This is heartening news, especially given that other coronaviruses can be quick to mutate. Consider the standard seasonal flu: it essentially constantly mutates, which is why each year a new flu vaccine is developed, with researchers essentially racing the clock to anticipate which newly mutated strains will pose the greatest threat in each flu season, adapting the inoculation and urging the public to get their updated shot.

Other viruses either mutate very slowly, or don’t mutate at all, and the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19 appears to be among the former. In addition to this Italian study, work done by John Hopkins University and other health science researchers around the world have supported this view. An endeavor by a UK consortium to more comprehensively track mutations over time should provide an even clearer view.

As far as the COVID-19 pandemic goes, this new support for the theory that the virus behind it is a slow-moving one in terms of its genetic makeup is very good news indeed. Any vaccine is still likely at least a year way, but this research at least suggests that when it does arrive, it’ll be effective broadly, and for at least a few years at a time.

Ford, 3M, GE and the UAW to build respirators, ventilators and faceshields for coronavirus fight

By Darrell Etherington

Ford announced the details of its current manufacturing efforts around building much-needed medical supplies for front-line healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients on Tuesday. Its efforts include building Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) with partner 3M, including a new design that employs existing parts from both partners to deliver effectiveness and highly-scalable production capacity.

Ford says that it’s also going to be building face shields, leaning on its 3D printing capabilities, with an anticipated production rate of over 100,000 units per week. These are key pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by frontline healthcare staff to protect them against virus-containing droplets that are spread by patients through coughing and sneezing in clinical settings. The company has designed a new face shield, which will be tested with the first 1,000 units this week at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospitals in Michigan to evaluate their efficacy. Provided they perform as planned, Ford anticipates scaling to building 75,000 by end of week, with 100,000 able to be made in one of the company’s Plymouth, MI production facilities each week thereafter.

The automaker is also going to be working with GE on expanding production capacity for GE Healthcare’s ventilator, with a simplified design that should allow for higher volume production. That’s part of a response to a U.S. government request for more units to support healthcare needs, the company said. On top of its U.S.-focused ventilator project with GE, Ford is also working on a separate effort to spin up ventilator production targeting the UK based on a request for aid from that country’s government, and it’s also shipping back 165,000 N95 respirator masks that were sent by the company from the U.S. to China earlier this year, since the need for that equipment is now greater back in the U.S., the company said, and China’s situation continues to improve.

Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that U.S. automakers, including Ford, GM and Tesla had received the “go ahead” to make “ventilators and other metal products, fast.”

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said at the time in a statement to TechCrunch . “It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

Based on this update, it seems like Ford did indeed move quickly to take stock of where it could contribute, and in what capacity. The company will be looking at using both its own and partner facilities to produce this much-needed medical equipment, it said on Tuesday during a press conference call about the announcement, and it’ll also be leveraging existing parts and equipment to speed production capabilities and capacity.

The PAPRs that Ford is building, for instance, will use off-the-shelf components from the automaker’s F-150 truck’s cooled seating, as well as 3M’s existing HEPA filters. These respirators could potentially offer significant advantages in use compared to N95s, since they are battery-powered and can filter airborne virus particles for up to eight hours on a single, swappable standard power tool battery pack worn at the waist. Asked about production timelines and capacity, 3M Global Technical Director Mike Kesti said that they’re still working that out, with a focus on how Ford can supplement existing PAPR production before moving into producing their new version.

“[Ford is] helping us expand the capacity of our existing units,” Kesti said. “So impact will be over the next days and weeks to just increase capacity of our existing [PAPR]. But we’re also working closely together with them the leverage components both from Ford, that they have available, and 3M, particularly our filters that meet the NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] regulatory requirements, and trying to integrate that into a modified design that will meet the NIOSH regulation performance requirements, and scale it up as as quickly as possible.”

Ford is also assisting 3M with ramping production of its existing N95 respiratory masks, Kesti said.

Ford and GE don’t yet have a timeline, or estimates of production capacity for the new types of ventilators they’re working on either, but the team is “working feverishly to get to the release point,” according to GE Healthcare VP and Chief Quality Officer Tom Westrick.

“We don’t have specific timelines and numbers related to the to the design and the release of the new ventilators,” he said. “Although, obviously this is of utmost importance to both us and Ford.”

LetsBeatCOVID.net launches to track the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK/US

By Mike Butcher

A startup behind one of the world’s most successful tech platforms for doctors has launched a new initiative to try and track the spread of the Coronavirus, initially in the UK but soon in the US.

Developed by MedShr – the app used by a million doctors to aid them in the diagnostic process – LetsBeatCOVID.net is designed to allow members of the public to complete a short survey about their health and exposure to COVID-19 in order that health services can save more lives.

Members of the public are asked to complete a short anonymous survey about themselves and are able to add information for others in their household or family. They can then update their responses if their situation changes using a randomly generated code to log back in. MedShr says users will, therefore, be able to hide their identity if they are concerned about their privacy. They will, however, be asked to verify their location via the phone’s browser in order to generate more accurate data about the spread of symptoms.
 
Anyone who completes the survey and chooses to enter their email will also get personalized guidance to help them understand their personal situation.

The not-for-profit initiative is led by Dr Asif Qasim, a Consultant Cardiologist based in London, England. Dr Qasim founded MedShr, an online network that enables doctors to connect and share data and knowledge with each other, in 2013.

Dr. Qasim said: “A million doctors around the world are working very hard to protect patients with COVID-19 in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We are hearing from them that they don’t have the information they need to plan services and avert a crisis such as the one Italy is now facing. We believe this app could help.” Dr. Qasim says the data will be shared with health authorities fighting the pandemic.

LetsBeatCOVID.net could make it easier for members of the public to provide the information urgently needed by hospitals and governments by allowing hospitals to understand how many people are: more likely to require medical help or hospitalization; have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 but do not have any symptoms; have mild symptoms of COVID-19; or believe or know they have already had COVID-19 and recovered.

The spread and devastating impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is unprecedented. Hospitals in China and Italy have struggled to care for the large numbers of people who become infected with the virus, especially those who needed Intensive Care and breathing support with a ventilator. Doctors and scientists believe that the UK, US and many other countries could be just a few weeks away from the devastating death toll that Italy is now experiencing. 

MedShr is a HIPAA and GDPR compliant professional network for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals currently used by over one million members in 190 countries.

Using 25% lower bandwidth, Disney+ launches in UK, Ireland and 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

By Ingrid Lunden

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching across 7 markets in Europe — but doing so using reduced bandwidth given the strain on broadband networks as more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic. From today, it will be live in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland; Disney also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7. It’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

Caught in the crossfire of Covid-19

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught in the crossfire of world events.

The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming media. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home, and many people are turning to their televisions and other screens for diversion and information.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain or distract people who are now sheltering in place. And that has put a huge strain on broadband networks. So, to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) that it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.”

There are now dozens of places to get an online video fix, but Disney has a lot of valuable cards in its hand, specifically in the form of a gigantic catalog of famous, premium content, and the facilities to produce significantly more at scale, dwarfing the efforts (valiant or great as they are) from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple .

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years.

In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Jumia adapts Pan-African e-commerce network in response to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia is adapting its digital retail network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — announced a series of measures on Friday. Jumia will donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has offered African governments use of of its last mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers. Jumia will also reduce fees on its JumiaPay finance product to encourage digital payments over cash, which can be a conduit for the spread of coronavirus.

Governments in Jumia’s operating countries have started to engage the private sector on a possible COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, according to Jumia CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“I don’t have a crystal ball and no one knows what’s gonna happen,” he told TechCrunch on a call. But in the event the virus spreads rapidly on the continent, Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” Poignonnec said.

Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm. “About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s latest stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

Dr. Moeti noted that many socioeconomic factors in Africa — from housing to access to running water — make common measures to curb COVID-19, such as social-distancing or frequent hand washing, challenging. She went on to explain that the World Health Organization is looking for solutions that are adoptable to Africa’s circumstances, including working with partners and governments to get sanitizing materials to hospitals and families.

As coronavirus cases and related deaths grow, governments in Africa are responding. South Africa, which has the second highest COVID-19 numbers on the continent, declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Kenya has imposed its own travel and crowd restrictions and the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta urged citizens and businesses to opt for digital-payments as a safer means for transactions.

Across Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has seen significant growth in startups and now receives $2 billion in VC annually — a number of actors are stepping up.

Jumia Nigeria Fleet

Image Credit: Jumia

In addition to offering its logistics and supply-chain network, Jumia is collaborating with health ministries in several countries to use its website and mobile platforms to share COVID-19 related public service messages.

Heeding President Kenyatta’s call, last week Kenya’s largest telecom Safaricom waived fees on its M-Pesa mobile-money product (with over 20 million users) to increase digital payments use and lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through handling of cash.

Africa’s largest innovation incubator CcHub announced funding and a call for tech projects aimed at reducing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

A looming question for Africa’s tech scene is how startups in major markets such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa will weather major drops in revenue that could occur from a wider coronavirus outbreak.

Jumia is well capitalized, after going public in a 2019 IPO on the New York stock exchange, but still has losses exceeding its 2019 revenue of €160 million.

On managing business through a possible COVID-19 Africa downturn, “We’re very long-term oriented so it’s about doing what’s right with the governments and thinking about how we can help,” said Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“Revenue wise, it’s really to early to tell. We do believe that e-commerce in Africa is a trend that goes beyond this particular situation.”

Ford, GM, Tesla given the ‘go ahead’ to produce ventilators, Trump says

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford, GM and Tesla have been given the “go ahead” to make ventilators to help alleviate a shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump said in a tweet Sunday that ended with a challenge to auto executives to show how good their companies are.

Ventilators are a critical piece of medical equipment for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

The tweet follows a plea Sunday morning from NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the federal government to nationalize medical supply acquisition instead of leaving it to individual states. Cuomo is one of a growing group of officials to call for Trump to order companies to produce medical supplies under the Defense Production Act, a law that allows the federal government to compel private industry to produce materials needed for national defense.

Without the nationalization, states are competing against each other for supplies, Cuomo said. Prices have spiked as a result, putting more pressure on a health care system.

Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! @fema Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are? @RepMarkMeadows @GOPLeader @senatemajldr

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2020

Trump has issued an executive order that invokes the Defense Production Act, but it’s unclear if it has been used. Trump said last week during a press conference that it had been, but Federal Emergency Management Agency head Peter Gaynor told reporters Sunday that the president has not yet ordered any companies to make more critical supplies.

I’m calling on the Federal Government to nationalize the medical supply chain.

The Federal Government should immediately use the Defense Production Act to order companies to make gowns, masks and gloves.

Currently, states are competing against other states for supplies.

— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 22, 2020

Several automakers said last week they were looking into the feasibility of producing ventilators. GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators that are needed by a growing number of hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemics spreads throughout the U.S. The partnership is part of StopTheSpread.org, a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to COVId-19, a disease caused by coronavirus.

Ford told TechCrunch in an email Sunday that it stands ready to help the administration, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment.

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” the Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said. “It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Saturday that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. He had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Addressing #COVID19 is a group effort. We are grateful for the discussion with @ElonMusk and @Tesla as we work across industries to solve problems and get patients and hospitals the tools they need to continue saving lives. We're all in this together. https://t.co/MdZ3u8k2nR

— Medtronic (@Medtronic) March 21, 2020

US threatens to pull big tech’s immunities if child abuse isn’t curbed

By Zack Whittaker

The Department of Justice is proposing a set of voluntary principles that take aim at tech giants in an effort to combat online sexual abuse.

The principles are part of a fresh effort by the government to hold the tech companies accountable for the harm and abuse that happens on their platforms, amid the past two years of brewing hostilities between the government and Silicon Valley. But critics also see it as a renewed push to compel tech companies to weaken or undo their “warrant-proof” encryption efforts under the guise of preventing crime and terrorism.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the proposals at the Justice Department on Thursday with international partners from the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The principles, built by the five countries and tech leaders — including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter — aim to incentivize internet companies and social media giants to do more to prevent child sexual abuse on their platforms.

Barr said he hopes that the principles “set new norms” across the tech industry to “make sure there’s no safe space on the internet for offenders to operate.”

The principles come ahead of anticipated bipartisan legislation to Congress — the so-called Earn-It Act, which reports say could effectively force the tech companies’ hands by threatening to pull their legal immunities for what their users post if the companies fail to aggressively clamp down on online child sexual abuse.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are expected to announce the legislation on Wednesday.

Justice takes aim at big tech’s immunities

Barr warned that the government is “analyzing the impact” of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from legal liability for content created by their users.

Under Barr, the Justice Department has taken a particular interest in dismantling Section 230. Last month, the Justice Department hosted a “workshop” on Section 230, arguing that the immunity it provides interferes with law enforcement and needs to be reexamined.

“We must also recognize the benefits that Section 230 and technology have brought to our society, and ensure that the proposed cure is not worse than the disease,” Barr said last month.

Any change to Section 230, widely regarded as the legal underpinning of all online platforms, could radically alter the landscape of the modern internet and give the government more power to control online speech. Privacy advocates view the government’s interest in wielding Section 230 as a cudgel as an existential threat to the internet as we know it.

Last month, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, one of Section 230’s co-authors, condemned the Trump administration’s scrutiny of the law and argued that repealing the law would not be a successful punishment for large tech companies. “… The biggest tech companies have enough lawyers and lobbyists to survive virtually any regulation Congress can concoct,” Wyden wrote. “It’s the start-ups seeking to displace Big Tech that would be hammered by the constant threat of lawsuits.”

Encryption enters the limelight

UK Security Minister James Brokenshire lauded the initiative’s existing six tech partners, encouraging the rest of the industry to fall in line. “It’s critical that others follow them by endorsing and acting on these principles.” The minister claimed that plans to encrypt tech platforms are “sending predators back into the darkness” and away from “artificial intelligence advances that can expose them.”

Brokenshire admitted that encryption “remains the elephant in the room.”

But privacy groups remain wary of legislative action, fearing that any law could ultimately force the companies to weaken or break encryption, which government officials have for years claimed helps criminals and sexual predators evade prosecution.

End-to-end encryption has become largely the norm in the past few years since the Edward Snowden revelations into the vast surveillance efforts by the U.S. and its Five Eyes partners.

Apple, Google, and Facebook have made encryption as standard in its products and services, a frequent frustration for investigators and prosecutors.

But last year, the Five Eyes said it would contemplate forcing the matter of encryption if tech giants wouldn’t acquiesce to the pact’s demands.

The government has called for “responsible encryption,” a backdoor-like system that allows governments access to access encrypted communications and devices with a key that only it possesses. But security experts have universally panned the idea, arguing that there is no way to create a “secure backdoor” without it somehow being vulnerable to hackers.

The anticipated bill has already received heavy opposition. Facebook said that child safety is a “top priority,” but warned that the Earn-It Act would “roll back encryption, which protects everyone’s safety from hackers and criminals.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the bill would “undermine the law that undergirds free speech on the internet.” Firefox browser maker Mozilla said the bill “creates problems rather than offering a solution.”

“The law enforcement community has made it clear this law is another attempt to weaken the encryption that is the bedrock of digital security,” said Heather West, Mozilla’s head of Americas policy. “Encryption ensures our information — from our sensitive financial and medical details to emails and text messages — is protected.”

“Without it, the world is a far more dangerous place,” said West.

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