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Today — July 14th 2020Your RSS feeds

Legaltech startup Orbital Witness scores £3.3M to create a ‘universal risk rating’ for real estate

By Steve O'Hear

Orbital Witness, a U.K.-based legaltech startup developing “AI-powered” software to transform the £4 billion U.K. property due diligence market, has raised £3.3 million in seed funding.

The round is led by LocalGlobe and Outward VC, with participation from previous investors, including Seedcamp and JLL Spark. It brings Orbital Witness’s total funding to £4.5 million.

Launched with its first customer in September 2018 and now used by numerous large law firms, including four of the five so-called “Magic Circle” firms, Orbital Witness’ long-term vision is to build a “universal risk rating” for real estate. “Think of a credit risk check for land and property,” Orbital Witness co-founder and COO Will Pearce tells me.

To do this, the startup is employing machine learning technology that it hopes can mirror the process a lawyer goes through when gathering and checking property information. The idea is to use AI to “predetermine” issues that constitute a potential risk.

“Our technology is adept at trawling through and extracting key issues from the wide range of sources that a property lawyer considers, including HM Land Registry and local authorities,” explains Pearce. “For example, a user is alerted to third party rights, charges and restrictions that might block a sale. In our current state of product development, this allows Orbital Witness to act as an ‘early warning system’ for property lawyers”.

Zooming out further, Pearce says real estate is the world’s largest asset class, but that the process of recording and reporting on property rights has not materially changed in 150 years. This sees real estate lawyers having to manually collect and review information from an array of disparate sources, which can often take weeks to arrive before they can even start. Meanwhile, the various real estate stakeholders — from banks making lending decisions, large commercial real estate PE funds, to residential homebuyers — can’t sign off transactions until the lawyers have completed their due diligence.

“Anyone who has ever bought a home will appreciate the frustrations of dealing with this legal due diligence process, and in commercial real estate, where Orbital Witness is initially focussed, many of these problems are amplified,” says Pearce.

The longer term plan is to ingest a broader range of data, so that Orbital Witness can eventually become trusted to provide a universal risk rating for real estate. This will see its risk modelling solutions wired to also include geographic information (e.g. flood risk), privately held information that can be uploaded to the platform (e.g. rights of lights reports), and also non-legal information (e.g. financial data from public records and ratings agencies).

Adds the Orbital Witness co-founder: “Very importantly, risk in real estate is dependent on the context of a transaction. For a real estate investor purchasing a block of flats, they are interested in understanding the security of rental income derived from the leaseholds. However, a property developer transacting on the same building, may be more interested in any hidden covenants that could prevent the ability to build or redevelop the site”.

Yesterday — July 13th 2020Your RSS feeds

Rapid Huawei rip-out could cause outages and security risks, warns UK telco

By Natasha Lomas

The chief executive of UK incumbent telco BT has warned any government move to require a rapid rip-out of Huawei kit from existing mobile infrastructure could cause network outages for mobile users and generate its own set of security risks.

Huawei has been the focus of concern for Western governments including the US and its allies because of the scale of its role in supplying international networks and next-gen 5G, and its close ties to the Chinese government — leading to fears that relying on its equipment could expose nations to cybersecurity threats and weaken national security.

The UK government is widely expected to announce a policy shift tomorrow, following reports earlier this year that it would reverse course on so called “high risk” vendors and mandate a phase out of use of such kit in 5G networks by 2023.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, BT CEO Philip Jansen said he was not aware of the detail of any new government policy but warned too rapid a removal of Huawei equipment would carry its own risks.

“Security and safety in the short term could be put at risk. This is really critical — because if you’re not able to buy or transact with Huawei that would mean you wouldn’t be able to get software upgrades if you take it to that specificity,” he said.

“Over the next five years we’d expect 15-20 big software upgrades. If you don’t have those you’re running gaps in critical software that could have security implications far bigger than anything we’re talking about in terms of managing to a 35% cap in the access network of a mobile operator.”

“If we get a situation where things need to go very, very fast then you’re in a situation where potentially service for 24M BT Group mobile customers is put into question,” he added, warning that “outages would be possible”.

Back in January the government issued a much delayed policy announcement setting out an approach to what it dubbed “high risk” 5G vendors — detailing a package of restrictions it said were intended to mitigate any risk, including capping their involvement at 35% of the access network. Such vendors would also be entirely barred them from the sensitive “core” of 5G networks. However the UK has faced continued international and domestic opposition to the compromise policy, including from within its own political party.

Wider geopolitical developments — such as additional US sanctions on Huawei and China’s approach to Hong Kong, a former British colony — appear to have worked to shift the political weather in Number 10 Downing Street against allowing even a limited role for Huawei.

Asked about the feasibility of BT removing all Huawei kit, not just equipment used for 5G, Jansen suggested the company would need at least a decade to do so.

“It’s all about timing and balance,” he told the BBC. “If you wanted to have no Huawei in the whole telecoms infrastructure across the whole of the UK I think that’s impossible to do in under ten years.”

If the government policy is limited to only removing such kit from 5G networks Jansen said “ideally” BT would want seven years to carry out the work — though he conceded it “could probably do it in five”.

“The current policy announced in January was to cap the use of Huawei or any high risk vendor to 35% in the access network. We’re working towards that 35% cap by 2023 — which I think we can make although it has implications in terms of roll out costs,” he went on. “If the government makes a policy decision which effectively heralds a change from that announced in January then we just need to understand the potential implications and consequences of that.

“Again we always — at BT and in discussions with GCHQ — we always take the approach that security is absolutely paramount. It’s the number one priority. But we need to make sure that any change of direction doesn’t lead to more risk in the short term. That’s where the detail really matters.”

Jansen fired a further warning shot at Johnson’s government, which has made a major push to accelerate the roll out of fiber wired broadband across the country as part of a pledge to “upgrade” the UK, saying too tight a timeline to remove Huawei kit would jeopardize this “build out for the future”. Instead, he urged that “common sense” prevail.

“There is huge opportunity for the economy, for the country and for all of us from 5G and from full fiber to the home and if you accelerate the rip out obviously you’re not building either so we’ve got to understand all those implications and try and steer a course and find the right balance to managing this complicated issue.

“It’s really important that we very carefully weigh up all the different considerations and find the right way through this — depending on what the policy is and what’s driving the policy. BT will obviously and is talking directly with all parts of government, [the National] Cyber Security Center, GCHQ, to make sure that everybody understands all the information and a sensible decision is made. I’m confident that in the end common sense will prevail and we will head down the right direction.”

Asked whether it agrees there are security risks attached to an accelerated removal of Huawei kit, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre declined to comment. But a spokesperson for the NCSC pointed us to an earlier statement in which it said: “The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the U.K.’s networks.”

We’ve also reached out to DCMS for comment.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Smartwatch hack could trick patients to ‘take pills’ with spoofed alerts

By Zack Whittaker

Security researchers say a smartwatch, popular with the elderly and dementia patients, could have been tricked into letting an attacker easily take control of the device.

These watches are designed to help patients to easily call their carers and for carers to track the location of their patients. They come with their own cellular connection, so that they work anywhere.

But researchers at U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners found that they could trick the smartwatch into sending fake “take pills” reminders to patients as often as they want, they said.

“A dementia sufferer is unlikely to remember that they had already taken their medication,” wrote Vangelis Stykas in a blog post. “An overdose could easily result.”

Researchers triggering the “take pill” alert on a vulnerable smartwatch. (Image: Pen Test Partners/supplied)

The vulnerabilities were found in the back-end cloud system, known as SETracker, which powers the smartwatch. The same cloud system also powers millions of other white-label smartwatches and vehicle trackers across Europe, all of which were vulnerable to basic attacks, the researchers said.

The researchers found a copy of the source code that powers the back-end cloud system, allowing the researchers to find security weaknesses in the code. One of the major flaws found was that the server was using a hardcoded key which, if used, an attacker could have sent any commands to remotely control any one of these devices.

With this key, an attacker could trigger the “take pills” alert, secretly make phone calls from the device, send text messages, or — in the case of vehicle trackers — cutting the engine altogether.

The code also had passwords and tokens to SETracker’s cloud storage, which the researchers believe — based on the code — stored data uploaded by these devices. But the researchers were unable to check as doing so would have broken U.K. computer hacking laws.

The researchers said that the vulnerabilities have now been fixed. It isn’t known if the flaws had been exploited by someone else.

This latest research comes just months after Pen Test Partners found similar vulnerabilities in another widely-used white-label child-tracking smartwatches.

Security, or a lack of, is a growing trend among smart device makers, often which build devices with little consideration for good cybersecurity practices. That prompted the U.K. government to propose new legislation that would help improve their security by mandating that smart devices must be sold with a baseline level of security, such as unique passwords.

Review: Handsome and nippy, new VanMoof e-bikes could be the shape of cities to come

By Mike Butcher

I have to admit, I was an e-bike virgin. Sure, I’d tried out Uber’s Jump bikes and similar e-bikes, but these are more like normal bikes “with a little extra help.” So when I was offered the chance to try out the new VanMoof S3, an e-bike that has literally been built from the ground up, I was excited at how different the experience might be.

Perhaps more significantly, I had a particular task in mind for it. In the current COVID-19 pandemic much has been made of cities being transformed into proverbial deserts, as traffic and pedestrians disappeared. Now, with many cities coming out of lockdown, governments have advised their citizens to go back to work, desperate to get their economies moving. And they are pushing cycling as a viable alternative to public transport, where the virus is more likely to be found. So what better time would there be to try out an e-bike as a viable alternative to commuting to and from the suburbs of a large city?

Indeed, the U.K. government has unleashed a £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking.

In the U.S., New York City recently committed to adding protected bike lanes across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Berlin is extending some of its already extensive bike lanes. And Milan will introduce a five-mile cycle lane to cut car use after the lockdown. New York City has reported a 50% increase in cycling compared to this time last year, and cycling in Philadelphia has increased by more than 150% during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But much of the official advice is to avoid public transport where possible, due to the near-impossibility of social distancing.

So with cycling a viable option in many cities, but distance still the old adversary, many consumers are looking to e-bikes as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Not only can you socially distance, but you can also take the bikes on much longer commutes than is possible with traditional bikes and, dare I say it, traditional legs.

With London still on lockdown recently, I decided to try out the new VanMoof S3 on the deserted streets, cycling from the deep London suburbs right into the empty center of the city.

The bike
For starters, it’s worth saying that the VanMoof S3 is a handsome bike. As a significant upgrade to its previous version, it is similar in its good looks, but what’s “under the bonnet” is what counts.

The S3 is a full-size bike with 28-inch wheels. It has a 24-inch wheeled sister called the X3, which is more compact and it therefore technically “nippier” in the city; however, I found the S3 perfectly suited to London. In fact, its “chopper-like” handling felt very reassuring over London’s bumpy and often unkempt roads.

The S3 and X3 both cost $2,000. Both also come with four-speed automatic shifting and hydraulic brakes. They are cheaper than the previous S2 and X2 models, which only had two-speed automatic shifting and cable brakes. Although the frame construction is unchanged, VanMoof says it has achieved savings by making production more efficient. The bikes weigh about 41 pounds, which is very acceptable for an electric bike. You can get front and rear racks as accessories for pannier bags, cargo boxes or a child seat.

The range per charge varies somewhere between 37 and 93 miles, depending which power level you select on the smartphone app. Level 0 turns off the electric pedal assist, leaving the bike quite heavy to pedal, and level 4 boosts the bike continuously. For my jaunt around London I used Level 4 all the time and managed to get a full, and quick, 45 miles out of the bike without even breaking a sweat, showing that even the heaviest users would be well served by the S3. If you are concerned about your battery charge level, this is displayed on top of the cross-bar, which also shows you current speed. It takes four hours to charge the bike to 100%, but just under an hour and a half to get to 50%.

The VanMoof is driven by a front hub motor and in “European mode” gives a continuous power of 250 watts. But to get more speed you can select the U.S. setting, tick a disclaimer and get 350W of continuous power, with peak power-hitting 500W via the Boost button on the right handlebar. That means you can take off at the lights very easily and quickly get ahead of the traffic, while the normal pedal assist will suffice for most needs. The Boost is particularly useful when going up hills, which the S3 seemed to devour on my ride through London.

Thieves will find this bike frustrating. The rear brake locks when you tap the button near the rear hub. All parts apart from the handlebars and seat post require a special tool to undo. The headlight and taillight are integrated into the frame. The tires are large and puncture-resistant and covered by large metal fenders with integrated mud flaps.

If a thief tries to wheel away the bike when it’s locked it will immobilize the rear wheel and belt out a loud alarm. If the thief persists, a more shrill alarm will sound, the headlights and taillight will flash, a notification will appear on your phone and the bike will refuse to work at all. Only VanMoof can then re-enable the bike using the bike’s built-in cellular data connection and Bluetooth. The bike will sense the phone in your pocket as you approach, allowing you to unlock the rear wheel — and the app always shows the bike’s current location.

VanMoof’s three-year, $340 “Peace of Mind” plan means that it guarantees to find or replace your bike if it gets stolen (assuming it was locked). In the meantime, you will get a bike on loan, although this plan is only available in cities where VanMoof has a presence.

One possible drawback of having the battery welded inside the bike is the necessity of needing to be near a power outlet every time it needs charging. This drawback will be limited to those who are unable to take the bike up to an apartment, or fear for the bike’s safety if it has to charge outside a house. Yes, the hard-wired battery might well be a security “feature,” but this may well be a deal breaker for many, forcing them to look to other bikes which have removable batteries. That said, you are likely to pay more for the bike in the first place.

The journey
As for my test around London, to put the bike through its paces I cycled from the deep suburbs right into the heart of the West End. I’d like to say people asked me about the bike, but no one was around to impress! At the time of the test, London was in full lockdown and eerily quiet.

Hitting the Boost button felt like the “Punch it, Chewy” moment form Star Wars, as I pulled away from traffic. I unwittingly rode the bike at Level 4 all the way there and back, which meant that after about four hours and about 45 miles I ran out of charge on the last mile home. However, this was not a problem as I could cycle the last leg, despite it being a bit of a strain without any electrical assistance. Level 2 or 3 would probably have been a more ideal combination of power and range.

When you drive a Tesla you drive differently, zipping in and out of lanes. Similarly with this bike I realized I could overtake “normal” bikes effortlessly. Overall I’d say this is an excellent electric bike.

VanMoof, which was was founded in 2009 by Taco and Ties Carlier, two Dutch brothers, has now attracted a €12.5 million ($13.5 million) investment from London VC Balderton Capital and SINBON Electronics, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer which is VanMoof’s bike assembly partner. So expect to see this company ramp up its presence across Europe and the U.S.

Admittedly they are not the only VC-backed e-bike on the market. Brussels-based Cowboy is an e-bike startup which only appeared in 2017 but which has since raised $19.5 million from Tiger Global and London’s Index Ventures.

It looks like the e-bike wars have begun, they have.

[All pictures by Mike Butcher]

Decrypted: Police hack criminal phone network; Randori raises $20M Series A

By Zack Whittaker

Last week was, for most Americans, a four-day work week. But a lot still happened in the security world.

The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agencies warned of two critical vulnerabilities — one in Palo Alto’s networking tech and the other in F5’s gear — that foreign, nation state-backed hackers will “likely” exploit these flaws to get access to networks, steal data or spread malware. Plus, the FCC formally declared Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE as threats to national security.

Here’s more from the week.


THE BIG PICTURE

How police hacked a massive criminal phone network

Last week’s takedown of EncroChat was, according to police, the “biggest and most significant” law enforcement operation against organized criminals in the history of the U.K. EncroChat sold encrypted phones with custom software akin to how BlackBerry phones used to work; you needed one to talk to other device owners.

But the phone network was used almost exclusively by criminals, allowing their illicit activities to be kept secret and go unimpeded: drug deals, violent attacks, corruption — even murders.

ENCROCHAT DISMANTLED!

An encrypted phone network used to exchange millions of messages between criminals to plan serious crimes across Europe.

A joint investigation by #Europol, @Eurojust @justice_gouv @Gendarmerie @Het_OM @Politie @EU_Justice @EUHomeAffairs @EC_AVService pic.twitter.com/t1QnY3QMno

— Europol (@Europol) July 2, 2020

That is, until French police hacked into the network, broke the encryption and uncovered millions of messages, according to Vice, which covered the takedown of the network. The circumstances of the case are unique; police have not taken down a network like this before.

But technical details of the case remain under wraps, likely until criminal trials begin, at which point attorneys for the alleged criminals are likely to rest much of their defense on the means — and legality — in which the hack was carried out.

The UK government to acquire satellite company OneWeb in deal funded in part by India’s Bharti Global

By Darrell Etherington

Distressed satellite constellation operator OneWeb, which had entered bankruptcy protection proceedings at the end of March, has completed a sale process, with a consortium led by the UK Government as the winner. The group, which includes funding from India’s Bharti Global – part of business magnate Sunila Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises – plan to pursue OneWeb’s plans of building out a broadband internets satellite network, while the UK would also like to potentially use the constellation for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services in order to replace the EU’s sat-nav resource, which the UK lost access to in January as a result of Brexit.

The deal involves both Bharti Global and the UK government putting up around $500 million each, respectively, with the UK taking a 20 percent equity stake in OneWeb, and Bharti supplying the business management and commercial operations for the satellite firm.

OneWeb, which has launched a total of 74 of its planned 650 satellite constellation to date, suffered lay-offs and the subsequent bankruptcy filing after an attempt to raise additional funding to support continued launches and operations fell through. That was reportedly due in large part to majority private investor SoftBank backing out of commitments to invest additional funds.

The BBC reports that while OneWeb plans to essentially scale back up its existing operations, including reversing lay-offs, should the deal pass regulatory scrutiny, there’s a possibility that down the road it could relocate some of its existing manufacturing capacity to the UK. Currently, OneWeb does its spacecraft manufacturing out of Florida in a partnership with Airbus.

OneWeb is a London-based company already, and its constellation can provide access to low latency, high-speed broadband via low Earth orbit small satellites, which could potentially be a great resource for connecting UK citizens to affordable, quality connections. The PNT navigation services extension would be an extension of OneWeb’s existing mission, but theoretically, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to leverage planned in-space assets to serve a second purpose.

Also, while the UK currently lacks its own native launch capabilities, the country is working towards developing a number of spaceports for both vertical and horizontal take-off – which could enable companies like Virgin Orbit, and other newcomers like Skyrora, to establish small-sat launch capabilities from UK soil, which would make maintaining and extending in-space assets like OneWeb’s constellation much more accessible as a domestic resource.

Growth capital investor Kennet raises $250M fund, backed by Edmond de Rothschild

By Mike Butcher

Venture capital is “not the only fruit” for entrepreneurs, as the often quieter ‘Growth Capital’ can also see great returns for entrepreneurs who prefer to retain a lot of ownership and control but are also willing to bootstrap over a longer period in order to reach revenues and profits. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing millions of people online, tech investors of all classes are now reaping the dividends in this accelerated, Coronavirus-powered transition to digital.

Thus it is that Kennet Partners, a leading European technology growth equity investor, has raised $250m (€223m) for its fifth fund, ‘Kennet V’, in partnership with Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity, the Private Equity division of the Edmond de Rothschild Group.

Kennet is perhaps best know for its involvement in companies such as Receipt Bank, Spatial Networks and its exist from Vlocity, IntelePeer, and MedeAnalytics. It’s also invested in Eloomi, Codility, Nuxeo and Rimilia. In raising this new fund, Kennet says it exceeded its target and secured new investors from across Europe and Asia.

The Kennet V fund has already started to deploy the capital into new investments in B2B, SaaS across the UK, Europe and the US.

Typically, Kennet invests in the first external funding that companies receive and is used to finance sales and marketing expansion, particularly internationally. It’s cumulative assets managed are approximately $1 billion.

Hillel Zidel, managing director, Kennet Partners, told me by phone that: “We were fortunate in that most of the capital was raised just before Covid hit. But we were still able to bring additional investors in. Had we been designing a fund for now, then this would have been it, because people have rushed towards technology out of necessity. So this has brought forward digitization but at least five years.”

Johnny El-Hachem, CEO, Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity said in a statement: “We partnered with Kennet, because we liked the dynamism of the team coupled with their strategy of financing businesses providing mission-critical technology solutions. The COVID crisis has underscored the importance of many of these tools to business continuity.”

Could developing renewable energy micro-grids make Energicity Africa’s utility of the future?

By Jonathan Shieber

When Nicole Poindexter left the energy efficiency focused startup, Opower a few months after the company’s public offering, she wasn’t sure what would come next.

At the time, in 2014, the renewable energy movement in the US still faced considerable opposition. But what Poindexter did see was an opportunity to bring the benefits of renewable energy to Africa.

“What does it take to have 100 percent renewables on the grid in the US at the time was not a solvable problem,” Poindexter said. “I looked to Africa and I’d heard that there weren’t many grid assets [so] maybe I could try this idea out there. As I was doing market research, I learned what life was like without electricity and I was like.. that’s not acceptable and I can do something about it.”

Poindexter linked up with Joe Philip, a former executive at SunEdison who was a development engineer at the company and together they formed Energicity to develop renewable energy microgrids for off-grid communities in Africa.

“He’d always thought that the right way to deploy solar was an off-grid solution,” said Poindexter of her co-founder.

At Energicity, Philip and Poindexter are finding and identifying communities, developing the projects for installation and operating the microgrids. So far, the company’s projects have resulted from winning development bids initiated by governments, but with a recently closed $3.25 million in seed financing, the company can expand beyond government projects, Poindexter said.

“The concessions in Benin and Sierra Leone are concessions that we won,” she said. “But we can also grow organically by driving a truck up and asking communities ‘Do you want light?’ and invariably they say yes.” 

To effectively operate the micro-grids that the company is building required an end-to-end refashioning of all aspects of the system. While the company uses off-the-shelf solar panels, Poindexter said that Energicity had built its own smart meters and a software stack to support monitoring and management.

So far, the company has installed 800 kilowatts of power and expects to hit 1.5 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Poindexter.

Those micro-grids serving rural communities operate through subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and currently serve thirty-six communities and 23,000 people, the company said. The company is targeting developments that could reach 1 million people in the next five years, a fraction of what the continent needs to truly electrify the lives of the population. 

Through two subsidiaries, Black Star Energy, in Ghana, and Power Leone, in Sierra Leone, Energicity has a 20-year concession in Sierra Leone to serve 100,000 people and has the largest private minigrid footprint in Ghana, the company said.

Most of the financing that Energicity has relied on to develop its projects and grow its business has come from government grants, but just as Poindexter expects to do more direct sales, there are other financial models that could get the initial developments off the ground.

Carbon offsets, for instance, could provide an attractive mechanism for developing projects and could be a meaningful gateway to low-cost sources of project finance. “We are using project financing and project debt and a lot of the projects are funded by aid agencies like the UK and the UN,” Poindexter said. 

The company charges its customers a service fee and a fixed price per kilowatt hour for the energy that amounts to less than $2 per month for a customers that are using its service for home electrification and cell phone charging, Poindexter said.

While several other solar installers like M-kopa and easy solar are pitching electrification to African consumers, Poindexter argues that her company’s micro-grid model is less expensive than those competitors.

“Ecosystem Integrity Fund is proud to invest in a transformational company like Energicity Corp,” said James Everett, managing partner, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, which backed the company’s. most recent round. “The opportunity to expand clean energy access across West Africa helps to drive economic growth, sustainability, health, and human development.  With Energicity’s early leadership and innovation, we are looking forward to partnering and helping to grow this great company.”

Daily Crunch: Twitter rolls out audio tweets

By Anthony Ha

Twitter tries to make audio tweets a thing, the U.K. backtracks on its contact-tracing app and Apple’s App Store revenue share is at the center of a new controversy.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 18, 2020.

1. Twitter begins rolling out audio tweets on iOS

Twitter is rolling out audio tweets, which do exactly what you’d expect — allow users to share thoughts in audio form. The feature will only be available to some iOS users for now, though the company says all iOS users should have access “in the coming weeks.” (No word on an Android or web rollout yet.)

This feature potentially allows for much longer thoughts than a 280-character tweet. Individual audio clips will be limited to 140 seconds, but if you exceed the limit, a new tweet will be threaded beneath the original.

2. UK gives up on centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app — switches to testing model backed by Apple and Google

The U.K.’s move to abandon the centralized approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising, but the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.

3. Apple doubles down on its right to profit from other businesses

Apple this week is getting publicly dragged for digging in its heels over its right to take a cut of subscription-based transactions that flow through its App Store. This is not a new complaint, but one that came to a head this week over Apple’s decision to reject app updates from Basecamp’s newly launched subscription-based email app called Hey.

4. Payfone raises $100M for its mobile phone-based digital verification and ID platform

Payfone has built a platform to identify and verify people using data (but not personal data) gleaned from your mobile phone. CEO Rodger Desai said the plan for the funding is to build more machine learning into the company’s algorithms, expand to 35 more geographies and to make strategic acquisitions to expand its technology stack.

5. Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra says recession is the ‘perfect time’ to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

We had an extensive conversation with Vohra as part of Extra Crunch Live, also covering why the email app still has more than 275,000 people on its wait list. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Stockwell, the AI-vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega, is shutting down July 1

Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures — people hated how it was referenced and poorly “disrupted” mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop — and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and how it reshaped our lifestyles.

7. Apply for the Startup Battlefield

With TechCrunch Disrupt going virtual, this is your chance to get featured in front of our largest audience ever. The post says you’ve only got 72 hours left, but the clock has been ticking since then — the deadline is 11:59pm Pacific tomorrow, June 19. So get on it!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

UK gives up on centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app — will ‘likely’ switch to model backed by Apple and Google

By Natasha Lomas

The UK has given up building a centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app and will instead switch to a decentralized app architecture, the BBC has reported. This suggests its any future app will be capable of plugging into the joint ‘exposure notification’ API which has been developed in recent weeks by Apple and Google.

The UK’s decision to abandon a bespoke app architecture comes more than a month after ministers had been reported to be eyeing such a switch. They went on to award a contract to an IT supplier to develop a decentralized tracing app in parallel as a backup — while continuing to test the centralized app, which is called NHS COVID-19.

At the same time, a number of European countries have now successfully launched contracts-tracing apps with a decentralized app architecture that’s able to plug into the ‘Gapple’ API — including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland. Several more such apps remain in testing. While EU Member States just agreed on a technical framework to enable cross-border interoperability of apps based on the same architecture.

Germany — which launched the decentralized ‘Corona Warning App’ this week — announced its software had been downloaded 6.5M times in the first 24 hours. The country had initially appeared to favor a centralized approach but switched to a decentralized model back in April in the face of pushback from privacy and security experts.

The UK’s NHS COVID-19 app, meanwhile, has not progressed past field tests, after facing a plethora of technical barriers and privacy challenges — as a direct consequence of the government’s decision to opt for a proprietary system which uploads proximity data to a central server, rather than processing exposure notifications locally on device.

Apple and Google’s API, which is being used by all Europe’s decentralized apps, does not support centralized app architectures — meaning the UK app faced technical hurdles related to accessing Bluetooth in the background. The centralized choice also raised big questions around cross-border interoperability, as we’ve explained before. Questions had also been raised over the risk of mission creep and a lack of transparency and legal certainty over what would be done with people’s data.

So the UK’s move to abandon the approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising — although the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL — who has been involved in the development of the DP3T decentralized contacts-tracing standard, which influenced Apple and Google’s choice of API — welcomed the UK’s decision to ditch a centralized app architecture but questioned why the government has wasted so much time.

“This is a welcome, if a heavily and unnecessarily delayed, move by NHSX,” Veale told TechCrunch. “The Google -Apple system in a way is home-grown: Originating with research at a large consortium of universities led by Switzerland and including UCL in the UK. NHSX has no end of options and no reasonable excuse to not get the app out quickly now. Germany and Switzerland both have high quality open source code that can be easily adapted. The NHS England app will now be compatible with Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and also the many destinations for holidaymakers in and out of the UK.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK ministers are now heavily de-emphasizing the importance of having an app in the fight against the coronavirus at all.

The Department for Health and Social Care’s, Lord Bethell, told the Science and Technology Committee yesterday the app will not now be ready until the winter. “We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” he said.

Yet the centralized version of the NHS COVID-19 app has been in testing in a limited geographical pilot on the Isle of Wight since early May — and up until the middle of last month health minister, Matt Hancock, had said it would be rolled out nationally in mid May.

Of course that timeframe came and went without launch. And now the prospect of the UK having an app at all is being booted right into the back end of the year.

Compare and contrast that with government messaging at its daily coronavirus briefings back in May — when Hancock made “download the app” one of the key slogans — and the word ‘omnishambles‘ springs to mind…

NHSX relayed our request for comment on the switch to a decentralized system and the new timeframe for an app launch to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) — but the department had not responded to us at the time of publication.

Earlier this week the BBC reported that a former Apple executive, Simon Thompson, was taking charge of the delayed app project — while the two lead managers, the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis — were reported to be stepping back.

Back in April, Gould told the Science and Technology Committee the app would “technically” be ready to launch in 2-3 weeks’ time, though he also said any national launch would depend on the preparedness of a wider government program of coronavirus testing and manual contacts tracing. He also emphasized the need for a major PR campaign to educate the public on downloading and using the app.

Government briefings to the press today have included suggestions that app testers on the Isle of Wight told it they were not comfortable receiving COVID-19 notifications via text message — and that the human touch of a phone call is preferred.

However none of the European countries that have already deployed contacts-tracing apps has promoted the software as a one-stop panacea for tackling COVID-19. Rather tracing apps are intended to supplement manual contacts-tracing methods — the latter involving the use of trained humans making phone calls to people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to ask who they might have been in contact with over the infectious period.

Even with major resource put into manual contacts-tracing, apps — which use Bluetooth signals to estimate proximity between smartphone users in order to calculate virus expose risk — could still play an important role by, for example, being able to trace strangers who are sat near an infected person on public transport.

Update: The DHSC has now issued a statement addressing reports of the switch of app architecture for the NHS COVID-19 app — in which it confirms, in between reams of blame-shifting spin, that it’s testing a new app that is able to plug into the Apple and Google API — and which it says it may go on to launch nationally, but without providing any time frame.

It also claims it’s working with Apple and Google to try to enhance how their technology estimates the distance between smartphone users.

“Through the systematic testing, a number of technical challenges were identified — including the reliability of detecting contacts on specific operating systems — which cannot be resolved in isolation with the app in its current form,” DHSC writes of the centralized NHS COVID-19 app.

“While it does not yet present a viable solution, at this stage an app based on the Google / Apple API appears most likely to address some of the specific limitations identified through our field testing.  However, there is still more work to do on the Google / Apple solution which does not currently estimate distance in the way required.”

Based on this, the focus of work will shift from the current app design and to work instead with Google and Apple to understand how using their solution can meet the specific needs of the public,” it adds. 

We reached out to Apple and Google for comment. Apple declined to comment.

According to one source, the UK has been pressing for the tech giants’ API to include device model and RSSI info alongside the ephemeral IDs which devices that come into proximity exchange with each other — presumably to try to improve distance calculations via a better understanding of the specific hardware involved.

However introducing additional, fixed pieces of device-linked data would have the effect of undermining the privacy protections baked into the decentralized system — which uses ephemeral, rotating IDs in order to prevent third party tracking of app users. Any fixed data-points being exchanged would risk unpicking the whole anti-tracking approach.

Norway, another European country which opted for a centralized approach for coronavirus contacts tracing — but got an app launched in mid April — made the decision to suspend its operation this week, after an intervention by the national privacy watchdog. In that case the app was collecting both GPS and Bluetooth —  posing a massive privacy risk. The watchdog warned the public health agency the tool was no longer a proportionate intervention — owing to what are now low levels of coronavirus risk in the country.

EU digs in on digital tax plan, after US quits talks

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission has reiterated its commitment to pushing ahead with a regional plan for taxing digital services after the US quit talks aimed at finding agreement on reforming tax rules — ramping up the prospects of a trade war.

Yesterday talks between the EU and the US on a digital services tax broke down after U.S. treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, walked out — saying they’d failed to make any progress, per Reuters.

The EU has been eyeing levying a tax of between 2% and 6% on the local revenues of platform giants.

Today the European Commission dug in in response to the US move, with commissioner Paolo Gentiloni reiterating the need for “one digital tax” to adapt to what he dubbed “the reality of the new century” — and calling for “understanding” in the global negotiation.

However he also repeated the Commission’s warning that it will push ahead alone if necessary, saying that if the US’ decision to quit talks means achieving global consensus impossible it will put “a new European proposal on the table”.

C’è bisogno di una #DigitalTax adeguata alla realtà del nuovo secolo. Serve un’intesa nel negoziato globale. Se lo stop americano la rendesse impossibile, la @EU_Commission metterà sul tavolo una nuova proposta europea.

— Paolo Gentiloni (@PaoloGentiloni) June 18, 2020

Following the break down of talks, France also warned it will go ahead with a digital tax on tech giants this year — reversing an earlier suspension that had been intended to grease the negotiations.

The New York Times reports French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, describing the US walk-out as “a provocation”, and complaining about the country “systematically threatening” allies with sanctions.

The issue of ‘fair taxes’ for platforms has been slow burning in Europe for years, with politicians grilling tech execs in public over how little they contribute to national coffers and even urging the public to boycott services like Amazon (with little success).

Updating the tax system to account for digital giants is front and center for Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission — which is responding to the widespread regional public anger over how little tech giants pay in relation to the local revenue they generate.

European Commission president von der Leyen, who took up her mandate at the back end of last year, has said “urgent” reform of the tax system is needed — warning at the start of 2020 that the European Union would be prepared to go it alone on “a fair digital tax” if no global accord was reached by the end of this year.

At the same time, a number of European countries have been pushing ahead with their own proposals to tax big tech — including the UK, which started levying a 2% digital services tax on local revenue in April; and France, which has set out a plan to tax tech giants 3% of their local revenues.

This gives the Commission another clear reason to act, given its raison d’être is to reduce fragmentation of the EU’s Single Market.

Although it faces internal challenges on achieving agreement across Member States, given some smaller economies have used low national corporate tax rates to attract inward investment, including from tech giants.

The US, meanwhile, has not been sitting on its hands as European governments move ahead to set their own platform taxes. The Trump administration has been throwing its weight around — arguing US companies are being unfairly targeted by the taxes and warning that it could retaliate with up to 100% tariffs on countries that go ahead. Though it has yet to do so.

On the digital tax reform issue the US has said it wants a multilateral agreement via the OECD on a global minimum. And a petite entente cordiale was reached between France and the US last summer when president Emmanuel Macron agreed the French tech tax would be scraped once the OECD came up with a global fix.

However with Trump’s negotiators pulling out of international tax talks with the EU the prospect of a global understanding on a very divisive issue looks further away than ever.

Though the UK said today it remains committed to a global solution, per Reuters which quotes a treasury spokesman.

Earlier this month the US also launched a formal investigation into new or proposed digital taxes in the EU, including the UK’s levy and the EU’s proposals, and plans set out by a number of other EU countries, claiming they “unfairly target” U.S. tech companies — lining up a pipeline of fresh attacks on national plans.

New UK-US agreement allows US companies to launch from UK spaceports

By Darrell Etherington

In a new move designed to encourage more economic and scientific collaboration between spacefaring nations, the UK and US governments have signed a new agreement that would make it possible for US companies to take part in space launches from the UK, including its many ind=-development spaceports.

The dal sounds one-way – but the nature of the agreement is designed to bolster the supply, development and customer pipeline for UK’s bourgeoning spaceport industry. The agreement now in place not only allows US companies to launch from UK spaceports, but also means that US tech companies active in any portion of the launch industry supply chain will be able to contribute to UK-based launch site setup and operation.

The goal for the UK space industry is to start active launches sometime this year, and UK regulators and government funding sources have come together to achieve this goal. The country is working on a number of spaceports, including both horizontal launch sites for launch vehicles like those operated by Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, as well as vertical spaceports for more traditional rockets.

Commercial space is an increasingly lucrative market in terms of launch contracts and payload development and integration. UK companies already participate actively in the US-based private launch industry, which is already up and running thanks to private launch companies including SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as active spaceports in the US including the Mojave Air and Spaceport from which Virgin Orbit operates.

Spaceport Cornwall is one of the sites currently in development, and launch startup Skyhrorar has also been launching from a site in Scotland as it continues its own rocket testing and certification program.

UK-based space industry organization Access Space co-founder and director Tony Azzarelli provided the following statement to TechCrunch regarding this development:

We are thrilled that the UK has signed such agreement as it would boost the space sector in the UK, both from lending a hand to US launchers, as well as increasing the importance of the UK as a launching state and thus investment from government to promote its own launch industry sector, e.g., Skyrora, Orbex, Reaction Engines, Rocket Plane, Spaceport Cornwall, Astroscale, etc.

Remessa Online raises $20 million to become the TransferWise of Latin America

By Jonathan Shieber

Remessa Online, the Brazilian money transfer service, said it has closed on $20 million in financing from one of the leading Latin American venture capital firms, Kaszek Ventures, and Accel Partners’ Kevin Efrusy, the architect of the famed venture capital firm’s Latin American investments.

Since its launch in 2016, Remessa Online has provided a pipeline for over $2 billion worth of international transfers for small and medium-sized businesses in the country. The company now boasts over 300,000 customers from 100 countries and says its fees are typically one eighth the cost of the local money transfer options.

“We understand that transferring money is just the beginning, and we are eager to build a global financial system that will make life easier for global citizens and businesses alike,” Liuzzi said.

Money transfer services are a huge business that startups have spent the last decade trying to improve in Europe and the US. European money transfer company, TransferWise has raised over $770 million alone in its bid to unseat the incumbents in the market. Meanwhile, the business-to-business cross-border payment gateway, Payoneer, has raised roughly $270 million to provide those services to small businesses.

Remessa Online already boasts a powerful group of investors and advisors including André Penha, the co-founder of apartment rental company Quinto Andar, and the former chief operating officer of Kraft Heinz USA, Fabio Armaganijan. With the new investment from Kaszek, firm co-founder Hernan Kazah, the co-founder of the Latin American e-commerce giant, MercadoLibre, and co-founder of Kaszek Ventures, will take a seat on the company’s board.

“We developed an online solution that is faster and substantially cheaper than traditional banking platforms, with digital and scalable processes and an omnichannel customer support offered by a team of experts”, said Remessa Online’s co-founder and strategy director Alexandre Liuzzi, in a statement.

Last year, the company expanded its money transfer service to the UK and Europe, allowing Brazilians abroad to invest money, pay for education or rent housing without documentation or paperwork. The company’s accounts now come with an International Banking Account Number that allows its customers to receive money in nine currencies.

With the new year, Remessa has added additional services for small and medium-sized businesses and expanded its geographic footprint to include Argentina and Chile.

Latin American countries — especially Brazil — have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. While much of the economy is still reeling, the broad trends that are moving consumers and businesses to adopt ecommerce and mobile payment solutions are just as pronounced in the region as they are in the US, according to investors like Kazah.

“This crisis is accelerating the digitization process of several industries around the world and Remessa Online has taken the lead to transform the cross-border segment in Brazil , specially for SMBs,” he said in a statement.

Founded in 2016,  by Fernando Pavani, Alexandre Liuzzi, Stefano Milo, and Marcio William, Remessa Online was born from the founders own needs to find an easier way to send and receive money from abroad, according to the company.

In 2018, after a $4 million investment from Global Founders Capital and MAR Ventures, the company developed international processing capabilities and a more robust compliance tool kit to adhere to international anti-money laundering and know your customer standards. In the latter half of 2019, the company entered the SMB market with the launch of a toolkit for businesses that had been typically ignored by larger financial services institutions in Brazil.

“We believe in a world without physical borders. Our mission is to help our clients with their global financial needs, so that they can focus on what matters: their international dreams,” said Liuzzi.

Triumph releases e-bicycle but no word on e-motorcycle debut

By Jake Bright

U.K. motorcycle manufacturer Triumph released an e-bicycle today, the Trekker GT — with 90 miles of riding range, a 250 watt motor and a 504 watt hour battery.

With a five-hour charge time, the bike weighs 52 pounds (24 kilograms) and can produce up to 60 Nm (or 29 ft-lbs) of torque. Triumph’s Trekker GT will be available for $3,750 at Triumph dealerships in the U.S. and abroad.

The question is how this connects to the ultimate debut of a Triumph e-motorcycle. The manufacturer, which is a major global supplier of gas machines, has yet to release an e-moto — but did announce an EV concept in 2019, the TE-1.

The Trekker GT appears linked to development of a production e-motorcycle by Triumph, though the company wasn’t able to provide a timeline on when that could be available.

“The launch of the Trekker GT is a unique strategy from our research into electric motorcycles,” Adam VanderVeen, marketing director of Triumph North America told TechCrunch.

“We’ve introduced this e-bicycle in response to the growth of the e-cycle market, while we separately continue to research motorcycle engine platforms, including electric-powered.”

Image Credit: Triumph

Most of the big-name motorcycle manufacturers —  Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki — have been slow to develop production e-motorcycles. That’s with the exception of Harley-Davidson, which became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S. — the $29,000, 105-horsepower LiveWire in 2019.

Austria’s KTM offers an off-road production e-moto for sale in the U.S. — the Freeride E-XC. Italian high-performance motorcycle manufacturer Ducati hasn’t released an e-moto concept yet, but debuted e-mountain bikes in Europe last year.

Ducati, like Triumph, appears to view an e-bicycle as a soft-pivot toward the e-motorcycle market.

Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson has already entered the EV arena with several e-moto startups that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.

One of the leaders is California startup Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Zero introduced a LiveWire competitor last year, the $19,000 SR/F, with a 161-mile city range, one-hour charge capability and a top speed of 124 mph. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.

And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year. The e-powered machine sports proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

I have to admit, the release of e-bikes by major motorcycle manufacturers as a substitute for full e-motos is a bit of a yawn at this point.

We’ve been testing advanced EV models by Zero and Energica for several years now. And Harley Davidson’s electric pivot in 2019 should have served as a wake up call to manufacturers to bring full electric motorcycle concepts to market.

It’s notable that Harley-Davidson acquired a youth electric scooter maker, Stacyc, in 2019 and has committed to produce e-scooters and e-mountain bikes as part of its EV program. The strategy is to use these platforms to create a new bridge for young people to motorcycles in the on-demand mobility world.

With the Trekker GT, Triumph may be following that game plan in the run up to its first full e-moto. The difference is HD has already created an e-motorcycle to offer on the other side of the bridge and has new models on the way.

Halal fintech startup Wahed closes $25M led by Saudi Aramco’s investment arm

By Mike Butcher

New York-based fintech startup Wahed (meaning “One” in Arabic) describes itself as a digital Islamic investment platform and as the world’s first “halal robo adviser.” It has now closed a $25 million investment round led by Saudi Aramco Entrepreneurship Ventures (also known as Wa’ed Ventures), a venture capital investment arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Existing investors BECO and CueBall Capital participated, as well as Dubai Cultiv8, and Rasameel. The funds will be used to expand internationally, including developing the company’s subsidiary in Saudi Arabia. The platform is currently running in the US and UK, and has more than 100,000 clients globally. It plans to grow in the largest Muslim markets including Indonesia, Nigeria, India and the CIS. The three-year-old company has already received a license to operate in Saudi Arabia, and aims to get regulatory approval in 20 countries.

According to Crunchbase, Wahed has now raised a total of $40 million in funding since its 2015 founding by Junaid Wahedna.

Last October, Wahed launched in Malaysia after the Malaysian Securities Commission awarded the company the country’s first Islamic Robo Advisory license. The firm is also considering listing its Islamic ETF on the Saudi stock exchange

Ethical investment and Islamic finance is growing in popularity in Muslim countries so long as it is in line with Islamic ethics, so Wahed looks set to benefit.

Commenting on the investment, Junaid Wahedna, CEO of Wahed, said: “We’re excited to have the support of Aramco Ventures as we foray into the Saudi market. We consider Aramco a strategic long term partner in both the Kingdom and the rest of the world.”

Wassim Basrawi, Managing Director at Wa’ed Ventures, said: “We believe in Wahed’s mission to provide ethical investing. The company has taken the lead in delivering investment services to one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors – Islamic Finance. Wahed is also, in the true spirit of FinTech, helping to broaden the investment landscape. This latest funding round will enable Wahed to make Saudi their regional MENA hub and contribute towards a fast-growing FinTech ecosystem.”

UK’s COVID-19 health data contracts with Google and Palantir finally emerge

By Natasha Lomas

Contracts for a number of coronavirus data deals that the U.K. government inked in haste with U.S. tech giants, including Google and Palantir, plus a U.K.-based AI firm called Faculty, have been published today by openDemocracy and law firm Foxglove — which had threatened legal action for withholding the information.

Concerns had been raised about what is an unprecedented transfer of health data on millions of U.K. citizens to private tech companies, including those with a commercial interest in acquiring data to train and build AI models. Freedom of Information requests for the contracts had been deferred up to now.

In a blog post today, openDemocracy and Foxglove write that the data store contracts show tech companies were “originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data.”

“Government lawyers have now claimed that a subsequent (undisclosed) amendment to the contract with Faculty has cured this problem, however they have not released the further contract. openDemocracy and Foxglove are demanding its immediate release,” they add.

The big story, so far, is that the original agreements didn't protect IP very well. AI firms like Faculty could easily have profited off their unprecedented access to NHS data. HMG say they fixed it after our FOI, but haven't given us the version they say cures the problem. https://t.co/Fd2EKeIDH9

— Foxglove (@Foxglovelegal) June 5, 2020

They also say the contracts show that the terms of at least one of the deals — with Faculty — were changed “after initial demands for transparency under the Freedom of Information Act.”

They have published PDFs of the original contracts for Faculty, Google, Microsoft and Palantir. Amazon Web Services was also contracted by the NHS to provide cloud hosting services for the data store.

An excerpt from the Faculty contract regarding IP rights

Back in March, as concern about the looming impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) took hold, the government revealed plans for the health service to work with the aforementioned tech companies to develop a “data platform” — to help coordinate its response, touting the “power” of “secure, reliable and timely data” to inform “effective” pandemic decisions.

However the government’s lack of transparency around such massive health data deals with commercial tech giants — including the controversial firm Palantir, which has a track record of working with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track individuals, such as supplying tech to ICE to aid deportations — raises major flags.

As does the ongoing failure by the government to publish the amended contracts — with the claimed tightened IP clauses.

The (now published, original) Google contract — to provide “technical, advisory and other support” to NHSX to tackle COVID-19 — is dated March 1, and specifies that services will be provided by Google to the NHS for zero charge. 

The Palantir contract, for provision of its Foundry data management platform services, is dated as beginning March 12 and expiring June 11 — with the company charging a mere £1 ($1.27) for services provided.

While the Faculty contract — providing “strategic support to the NHSX AI Lab” — has a value in excess of £1M (including VAT), and an earlier commencement date (February 3), with an expiry date of August 3.

The government announced its plan to launch an AI Lab within NHSX, the digital transformation branch of the health service, just under a year ago — saying then that it would plough in £250 million to apply AI to healthcare related challenges, and touting the potential for “earlier cancer detection, discovering new treatments and relieving the workload on our NHS workforce.”

The lab had been slated to start spending on AI in 2021. Yet the Faculty contract, in which the AI firm is providing “strategic support to the NHSX AI Lab,” and described as an “AI Lab Strategic Partner,” suggests the pandemic nudged the government to accelerate its plan.

We’ve reached out to the Department of Health with questions.

Last month, NHS England and NHS Improvement responded to an FOI request that TechCrunch filed in early April asking for the contracts — but only to say a response was delayed, already around a month after our original request. (The normal response time for U.K. FOIs is within 20 working days, although the law allows for “a reasonable extension of time to consider the public interest test.”)

Earlier this month, The Telegraph reported that Google-owned DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman — who has since moved over to work for Google in a policy role — was temporarily taken on by the NHS in March, in a pro bono advisory capacity that reportedly included discussing how to collect patient data.

An NHSX spokesperson told Digital Health that Suleyman had “volunteered his time and expertise for free to help the NHS during the greatest public health threat in a century,” and denied there had been any conflict of interest.

The latter refers to the fact that when Suleyman was still leading DeepMind the company inked a number of data-sharing agreements with NHS Trusts — gaining access to patient health data as part of an app development project. One of these contracts, with the Royal Free NHS Trust, was subsequently found to have breached U.K. data protection law. Regulators said patients could not have “reasonably expected” their information to be shared for this purpose. The Trust was also reprimanded over a lack of transparency.

Google has since taken over DeepMind’s health division and taken on most of the contracts it had inked with the NHS — despite Suleyman’s prior insistence that NHS patient data would not be shared with Google.

 

Fitbit gains FDA authorization for its low-cost emergency ventilator

By Darrell Etherington

Fitbit has secured an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Fitbit Flow emergency ventilator. The ventilator hardware is low-cost, and doesn’t require very much training or expertise to use, making it a good solution for deployment in scenarios where healthcare systems are overwhelmed by resource strain stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Fitbit ventilator is based on the MIT E-Vent system, as well as specs provided by the UK government for ventilators to be used by hospitals in that country during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. I’s an automated resuscitator-style ventilator, which essentially replicates the function of the types of manual resuscitation bags used by paramedics and EMTs in the field.

This is a style of emergency ventilator that has become popular in light of the pandemic, in part because they can be built using relatively affordable and readily available components vs. the standard style of medical ventilators healthcare facilities typically use. Fitbit says it believes that its design is particularly effective, with the right combination of sensors, automated alarms and other patient monitoring features that supplement the automation of resuscitation bag pump.

While a lot of the attention around the need for emergency use ventilators has subsided in recent weeks, the need still exists, and will likely resurge along with new waves of COVID-19 transmission in the coming months. Projects like the Fitbit Flow aim to provide options should they be required, and the FDA EUA means that the company can now work with its existing manufacturing partners to build these in large volumes to address need.

Ventilators like the Flow aren’t designed to replace existing, traditional medical ventilators – instead, they’re intended as stopgaps, to be used only when that hardware isn’t available in quantities needed to treat patients.

Uber UK launches Work Hub for drivers to find other gig jobs during COVID-19

By Natasha Lomas

Uber UK has launched a Work Hub for drivers to view a selection of temporary work opportunities with other companies as a way to supplement pandemic-hit ride-hailing earnings during the coronavirus crisis.

The Work Hub sits within the Uber driver app and displays offers of work from third party providers — including jobs that involve using a car to make deliveries — offering alternative gigs to drivers whose earnings have been affected by weak demand for ride-hailing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ride-hailing giant rolled out a similar feature in the US back in April, offering drivers there the ability to respond to job postings from around a dozen other companies, as well as the ability to receive orders through other Uber units: Eats, Freight and Works.

The UK flavor of the feature has fewer external suppliers (three at launch) — and seemingly no other internal Uber work gigs on offer.

From today, Uber said UK drivers can access “thousands” of “temporary job postings” and “flexible earning opportunities” with other companies — initially delivery firms Hermes and Yodel.

The recruiter, Adecco Group, is also offering temp work via the UK Work Hub for drivers.

“We’ll continue to add new partnerships and listings to the Work Hub as we find more opportunities for you, so check the Driver app regularly for updates,” Uber adds in a blog post announcing the launch.

The company has previously emailed UK drivers encouraging them to sign up for delivery work with the online supermarket Ocado, as demand for grocery delivery has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s now made this signposting more formal, via the Work Hub — and says the “thousands” of jobs are additional to any Ocado opportunities it had already emailed to UK drivers.

It’s not clear why Uber UK is not offering drivers the ability to pick up Uber Eats orders to tide themselves over.

However the Eats vs Uber ride-hailing labor force in the country likely has relatively little overlap, with cycle and motorbike couriers dominating UK Eats deliveries. Additionally, no UK cities keen to encourage extra cars to hit the streets right now — so Uber may have multiple reasons not to want to cross those streams in Europe.

“Drivers are doing essential work to keep our communities moving as we fight this virus, but with fewer trips happening they need more ways to earn. With the Work Hub, drivers can find these additional earning opportunities with other companies, working flexibly around driving on the Uber app if they choose to do so,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern and Eastern Europe, in a statement.

The Work Hub initiative generally looks intended to encourage drivers to supplement (pandemic-hit) Uber earnings with other gig jobs. And — cynics might say — discourage an essential platform workforce from looking elsewhere for permanent work.

Uber will need its pool of drivers to be there still, owning a car and available for gig work, when normalcy returns if it’s ride-hailing business is to bounce back.

Aside from the US and the UK, other markets where Uber has already launched the Work Hub for drivers are Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico, Portugal and South Africa.

While the feature has been born in a crisis, Uber had already made moves into the broader temp work space — launching a shift finder app, called Uber Works, in Chicago last year. And the company told us it sees longer term opportunity for the Work Hub, as a vehicle to broaden the type of earning opportunities it can put in front of drivers, saying the initiative will continue to evolve.

A 12 year journey ends as Skimlinks is acquired by retail marketing platform Connexity

By Mike Butcher

Connexity, a lead-gen platform for online retailers, has acquired Skimlinks, a UK platform for publishers to make money through affiliate links. Terms of the deal were undisclosed. According to Crunchbase, Skimlinks had raised a total of $25.5M and reached a late a Series C stage of funding, the final round coming from Frog Capital which invested $16M.

An early Seed investor was Sussex Place Ventures way back in 2009. For context, San Francisco-based competitor VigLink, which has raised a total of $27.3 million, remains an independent company.

Sources in the VC industry indicate that the acquisition was a “decent one” that may even have hit three figures, with a possible a large-ish earnout and equity component. Certainly, this was not a ‘firesale,’ by any means.

Although coy on the price of the acquisition, co-founder and President Alicia Navarro said: “Every party, including many staff, has made money out of this deal and is very happy.”

Cofounded in 2007 by Navarro and Joe Stepniewski, Skimlinks rode the wave of online activity as publishers struggled to monetize their ballooning online operations in the mid-teens of the last decade. Affiliate programs allow publishers to get a cut of the revenue when their link drives a purchase on an e-commerce site. Skimlinks makes the process easier through automation.

Originally spinning out of an idea Navarro had about consumer online commerce habits — a startup called Skimbit which resembled Pinterest in some respects — it had scaled to the US by the time I interviewed Navarro in 2012.

In 2013 it took on a growth financing round led by Greycroft Partners.

A couple of years later the platform was driving more than $500 million in e-commerce sales for publishers.

By 2016 editorial content from its publisher network of 1.5M domains had driven nearly $1 billion of ecommerce transactions and the company said it was on a path to profitability.

In 2018 Navarro stepped away from the CEO position, taking on the role of President, and handed the reigns to Sebastien Blanc, previously Chief Revenue Officer.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Navarro said the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated the growth of the business as more publishers in its network monetized the massively increased online traffic, brought about by global lockdown policies.

Bill Glass, CEO of Connexity said in a statement: “Our solutions help retailers acquire new customers and sales while enabling ecommerce-oriented publishers to monetize engaged shopping audiences. Combining the companies creates more scale on both sides of the marketplace.”

Sebastien Blanc, CEO of Skimlinks said: “By marrying Connexity’s CPC search budgets with the broad CPA affiliate monetization coverage of Skimlinks, we provide best-in-class monetization for publishers. Our combined scale will fortify Connexity as a critically important customer acquisition channel for retailers and will strengthen publisher monetization solutions.”

And what of the founders? Stepniewski has taken on a senior role with Facebook UK. Navarro is now working on a fresh startup she bills as “AirBnB-meets-Calm as a service” allowing founders or executives to unplug and get into what is known as ‘Deep Work’.

She is now in the process of early-stage fundraising, so her entrepreneurial journey is clearly going to continue.

Greyparrot bags $2.2M seed to scale its AI for waste management

By Natasha Lomas

London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.

The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.

Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.

By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.

Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.

Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.

It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.

“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”

“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.

Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc. 

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