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The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

By Annie Siebert
Ariel Katz Contributor
Ariel Katz is the founder and CEO of H1, a global healthcare platform that helps life sciences companies, hospitals, academic medical centers and health systems connect with providers, find clinical research, locate industry experts and benchmark their organization.

In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos gave a seminal TED Talk titled “The Electricity Metaphor for the Web’s Future.” In it, he argued that the internet will enable innovation on the same scale that electricity did.

We are at a similar inflection point in healthcare, with the recent movement toward data transparency birthing a new generation of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data. What’s the main difference?

This sector is still somewhat nascent — we are in the first wave of innovation, with much more to come.

Anonymized data is much more freely available, while personal data is being locked even tighter (as it should be) due to regulations like GDPR, CCPA and their equivalents around the world.

The former trend is enabling a host of new vendors and services that will ultimately make healthcare better and more transparent for all of us.

These new companies could not have existed five years ago. The Affordable Care Act was the first step toward making anonymized data more available. It required healthcare institutions (such as hospitals and healthcare systems) to publish data on costs and outcomes. This included the release of detailed data on providers.

Later legislation required biotech and pharma companies to disclose monies paid to research partners. And every physician in the U.S. is now required to be in the National Practitioner Identifier (NPI), a comprehensive public database of providers.

All of this allowed the creation of new types of companies that give both patients and providers more control over their data. Here are some key examples of how.

Allowing patients to access all their own health data in one place

This is a key capability of patients’ newly found access to health data. Think of how often, as a patient, providers aren’t aware of treatment or a test you’ve had elsewhere. Often you end up repeating a test because a provider doesn’t have a record of a test conducted elsewhere.

Deepfake tech takes on satellite maps

By Devin Coldewey

While the concept of “deepfakes,” or AI-generated synthetic imagery, has been decried primarily in connection with involuntary depictions of people, the technology is dangerous (and interesting) in other ways as well. For instance, researchers have shown that it can be used to manipulate satellite imagery to produce real-looking — but totally fake — overhead maps of cities.

The study, led by Bo Zhao from the University of Washington, is not intended to alarm anyone but rather to show the risks and opportunities involved in applying this rather infamous technology to cartography. In fact their approach has as much in common with “style transfer” techniques — redrawing images in an impressionistic, crayon, and arbitrary other fashions — than with deepfakes as they are commonly understood.

The team trained a machine learning system on satellite images of three different cities: Seattle, nearby Tacoma, and Beijing. Each has its own distinctive look, just as a painter or medium does. For instance, Seattle tends to have larger overhanging greenery and narrower streets, while Beijing is more monochrome and — in the images used for the study — the taller buildings cast long, dark shadows. The system learned to associate details of a street map (like Google or Apple’s) with those of the satellite view.

The resulting machine learning agent, when given a street map, returns a realistic-looking faux satellite image of what that area would look like if it were in any of those cities. In the following image, the map corresponds to the top right satellite image of Tacoma, while the lower versions show how it might look in Seattle and Beijing.

Four images show a street map and a real satellite image of Tacoma, and two simulated satellite images of the same streets in Seattle and Beijing.

Image Credits: Zhao et al.

A close inspection will show that the fake maps aren’t as sharp as the real one, and there are probably some logical inconsistencies like streets that go nowhere and the like. But at a glance the Seattle and Beijing images are perfectly plausible.

One only has to think for a few minutes to conceive of uses for fake maps like this, both legitimate and otherwise. The researchers suggest that the technique could be used to simulate imagery of places for which no satellite imagery is available — like one of these cities in the days before such things were possible, or for a planned expansion or zoning change. The system doesn’t have to imitate another place altogether — it could be trained on a more densely populated part of the same city, or one with wider streets.

It could conceivably even be used, as this rather more whimsical project was, to make realistic-looking modern maps from ancient hand-drawn ones.

And should technology like this be bent to less constructive purposes, the paper also looks at ways to detect such simulated imagery using careful examination of colors and features.

The work challenges the general assumption of the “absolute reliability of satellite images or other geospatial data,” said Zhao in a UW news article, and certainly as with other media that kind thinking has to go by the wayside as new threats appear. You can read the full paper at the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science.

Billion-dollar B2B: cloud-first enterprise tech behemoths have massive potential

By Annie Siebert
Dharmesh Thakker Contributor
Dharmesh Thakker is a general partner at Battery Ventures and a former managing director at Intel Capital.

More than half a decade ago, my Battery Ventures partner Neeraj Agrawal penned a widely read post offering advice for enterprise-software companies hoping to reach $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

His playbook, dubbed “T2D3” — for “triple, triple, double, double, double,” referring to the stages at which a software company’s revenue should multiply — helped many high-growth startups index their growth. It also highlighted the broader explosion in industry value creation stemming from the transition of on-premise software to the cloud.

Fast forward to today, and many of T2D3’s insights are still relevant. But now it’s time to update T2D3 to account for some of the tectonic changes shaping a broader universe of B2B tech — and pushing companies to grow at rates we’ve never seen before.

One of the biggest factors driving billion-dollar B2Bs is a simple but important shift in how organizations buy enterprise technology today.

I call this new paradigm “billion-dollar B2B.” It refers to the forces shaping a new class of cloud-first, enterprise-tech behemoths with the potential to reach $1 billion in ARR — and achieve market capitalizations in excess of $50 billion or even $100 billion.

In the past several years, we’ve seen a pioneering group of B2B standouts — Twilio, Shopify, Atlassian, Okta, Coupa*, MongoDB and Zscaler, for example — approach or exceed the $1 billion revenue mark and see their market capitalizations surge 10 times or more from their IPOs to the present day (as of March 31), according to CapIQ data.

More recently, iconic companies like data giant Snowflake and video-conferencing mainstay Zoom came out of the IPO gate at even higher valuations. Zoom, with 2020 revenue of just under $883 million, is now worth close to $100 billion, per CapIQ data.

Graphic showing market cap at IPO and market cap today of various companies.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures via FactSet. Note that market data is current as of April 3, 2021.

In the wings are other B2B super-unicorns like Databricks* and UiPath, which have each raised private financing rounds at valuations of more than $20 billion, per public reports, which is unprecedented in the software industry.

Google says Google Earth is getting its biggest update since 2017

By Frederic Lardinois

Google Earth now features a timelapse mode that brings together 24 million satellite photos from the last 37 years. And… that’s it. Google says it’s the biggest update to Google Earth — a product you’ve likely forgotten even existed — since its redesign in 2017.

To be fair, Google Earth hasn’t gotten any major new features updates since then. So by default, I guess this qualifies as the biggest update to Earth in a while. It’s worth noting, though, that Google Earth timelapses launched a few years already, but on a dedicated site and only in 2D. Now it’s in 3D. Exciting stuff — for five minutes (or really depressing, if you look at the Earth’s glaciers and rain forests).

What’s fueling hydrogen tech?

By Kirsten Korosec

Hydrogen — the magical gas that Jules Verne predicted in 1874 would one day be used as fuel — has long struggled to get the attention it deserves. Discovered 400 years ago, its trajectory has seen it mostly mired in obscurity, punctuated by a few explosive moments, but never really fulfilling its potential.

Now in 2021, the world may be ready for hydrogen.

This gas is capturing the attention of governments and private sector players, fueled by new tech, global green energy legislation, post-pandemic “green recovery” schemes and the growing consensus that action must be taken to combat climate change.

Joan Ogden, professor emeritus at UC Davis, started researching hydrogen in 1985 — at the time considered “pretty fringy, crazy stuff.” She’s seen industries and governments inquisitively poke at hydrogen over the years, then move on. This new, more intense focus feels different, she said.

The funding activity in France is one illustration of what is happening throughout Europe and beyond. “Back in 2018, the hydrogen strategy in France was €100 million — a joke,” Sabrine Skiker, the EU policy manager for land transport at Hydrogen Europe, said in an interview with TechCrunch. “I mean, a joke compared to what we have now. Now we have a strategy that foresees €7.2 billion.”

The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance forecasts public and private sectors will invest €430 billion in hydrogen in the continent by 2030 in a massive push to meet emissions targets. Globally, the hydrogen generation industry is expected to grow to $201 billion by 2025 from $130 billion in 2020 at a CAGR of 9.2%, according to research from Markets and Markets published this year. This growth is expected to lead to advancements across multiple sectors including transportation, petroleum refining, steel manufacturing and fertilizer production. There are 228 large-scale hydrogen projects in various stages of development today — mostly in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Hydrogen breakdown

When the word “hydrogen” is uttered today, the average non-insider’s mind likely gravitates toward transportation — cars, buses, maybe trains or 18-wheelers, all powered by the gas.

But hydrogen is and does a lot of things, and a better understanding of its other roles — and challenges within those roles — is necessary to its success in transportation.

Hydrogen is already being heavily used in petroleum refineries and by manufacturers of steel, chemicals, ammonia fertilizers and biofuels. It’s also blended into natural gas for delivery through pipelines.

Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier — one with exceptional long-duration energy storage capabilities, which makes it a complement to weather-dependent energies like solar and wind. Storage is critical to the growth of renewable energy, and greater use of hydrogen in renewable energy storage can drive the cost of both down.

However, 95% of hydrogen produced is derived from fossil fuels — mostly through a process called steam-methane reforming (SMR). Little of it is produced via electrolysis, which uses electricity to split hydrogen and oxygen. Even less is created from renewable energy. Thus, not all hydrogen is created equal. Grey hydrogen is made from fossil fuels with emissions, and blue hydrogen is made from non-renewable sources whose carbon emissions are captured and sequestered or transformed. Green hydrogen is made from renewable energy. 

Where the action is

The global fuel cell vehicle market is hit or miss. There are about 10,000 FCVs in the U.S., with most of them in California — and sales are stalling. Only 937 FCVs were sold in the entire country in 2020, less than half the number sold in 2019. California has 44 hydrogen refueling stations and about as many in the works, but a lack of refueling infrastructure outside of the state isn’t helping American adoption.

Embedded procurement will make every company its own marketplace

By Annie Siebert
Merritt Hummer Contributor
Merritt Hummer is a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, where she invests in the fintech, e-commerce and proptech sectors.

In 2019, my colleague Matt Harris coined the term “embedded fintech” to describe how virtually all software-driven companies will soon embed financial services into their applications, from sending and receiving payments to enabling lending, insurance and banking services, an idea that quickly spread within the fintech community.

Vertical apps such as Toast for restaurants, Squire for barbershops and Shopmonkey for car repair shops will deliver financial services to businesses in the future rather than traditional, stodgy financial institutions.

Embedded procurement is the natural evolution of embedded fintech.

The embedded fintech movement has just begun, but there is already a sister concept percolating: embedded procurement. In this next wave, businesses will buy things they need through vertical B2B apps, rather than through sales reps, distributors or an individual merchant’s website.

If you own a coffee shop, wouldn’t it be convenient to schedule recurring orders for beans and milk from the same software portal where you process payments, manage accounting and handle payroll? The companies that figured out how to monetize financial services via embedded fintech are well positioned to monetize through procurement, too.

Embedded procurement is the natural evolution of embedded fintech. The salon software company Fresha is a typical embedded fintech story. Fresha’s platform is an online and mobile platform specially designed for spas and salons, encompassing appointment scheduling, reporting and analytics, marketing promotions, and point-of-sale capabilities. The software is free for salons; Fresha monetizes through payment processing.

In the future, Fresha will undoubtedly turn to embedded procurement, becoming a logical place for business owners to order and manage inventory like shampoo, scissors, brushes and other supplies. In turn, Fresha can aggregate demand from thousands of spas to place orders with its suppliers, leveraging its scale to negotiate more favorable pricing on behalf of its customers. Borrowing a concept from the healthcare world, vertical software companies will become group purchasing organizations in every sector.

Apple Maps adds COVID-19 travel guidance for over 300 airports worldwide

By Darrell Etherington

Apple has updated its native Maps app with more helpful information designed to assist with travel while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Apple Maps on iPhone, iPad and Mac will now show COVID-19 health measure information for airports when searched via the app, either through a link to the airport’s own COVID-19 advisory page, or directly on the in-app location card itself.

The new information is made available through a partnership with the Airports Council International and provides details on COVID-19 safety guidelines in effect at over 300 airports worldwide. The type of information provided includes requirements around COVID-19 testing, mask usage, screening procedures and any quarantine measures in effect, and generally hopes to help make the process of traveling while the global pandemic continues easier, and as vaccination programs and other counterefforts are set to prompt a global travel recovery.

Earlier this month, Apple also added COVID-19 vaccination locations within the U.S. to Apple Maps, which can be found when searching either via text, with Siri, or using the “Find nearby” location-based feature. Last year, the company added testing sites in various locations around the world and added COVID-19 information modules to cards for other types of businesses.

Google promises better 3D maps

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.

Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.

Image Credits: Google

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

Image Credits: Google

As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).

Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.

And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).

Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.

And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.

Automakers, suppliers and startups see growing market for in-vehicle AR/VR applications

By Abigail Bassett

Augmented and virtual reality have been used for years in gaming, design and shopping. Now, a new battle for market share is emerging — inside vehicles.

Safety-glass windshields offer a new opportunity for suppliers, manufacturers and startups that are starting to adapt this technology: AR overlays digital information or images on what a user sees in the real world, while VR creates a seemingly real experience that changes as they move through it.

The potential for monetizing AR/VR is hamstrung by a number of factors: The long, expensive timelines required to develop, tool and test an automotive-grade product has constrained development to a small subset of startups and several large suppliers.

And despite all of the pomp and promises about the technology’s potential, there isn’t a clear understanding of market demand for bringing AR and VR to cars, trucks and passenger vans. Estimates of the global market range from $14 billion by 2027 to as much as $673 billion by 2025. That wide range shows just how nascent the market currently is and how much opportunity is present.

“At the vehicle manufacturer level, companies are witnessing a complete shift of emphasis of what their product offering is, to the user. Because of that change of emphasis, there’s a whole new paradigm of what the car is,” said Andy Travers, the CEO of Ceres, a Scottish company that specializes in creating holographic glass for AR applications. “There is a huge interest in AR and transparent displays because a car is no longer really differentiated by its engine size, especially as we get into electric vehicles. They are going to be identical skateboards. The question then becomes, how do you differentiate an electric car? You push it toward the user experience.”

It’s no surprise that the implementation of automotive AR (and in limited situations, VR) has been and will continue to be slow. It will largely lag the wider AR and VR market for a number of reasons. Vehicle systems — especially those using computing power and technology needed for AR and VR — must be robust enough to handle tremendous temperature swings, rough jostling and impacts over anywhere from three to 10 years, even if Tesla says that “it is economically, if not technologically, infeasible to expect that such components can or should be designed to last the vehicle’s entire useful life.”

These systems have to be nearly indestructible in extreme conditions for a very long period of time. They must also be compact and power-efficient, especially as electric vehicles become more prevalent. You don’t want your AR or VR system draining your battery and leaving you stranded.

As an example of just how much the automotive technology landscape differs from the consumer realm, consider how long it took for touchscreens to show up in vehicle cockpits. While Buick offered a rudimentary touchscreen in its 1986 Riviera, it was not the easy-to-use interface we’re used to today thanks to the advent of the iPhone.

This is partially due to the three- to seven-year iteration cycles most vehicle makers are on and because the technology simply wasn’t familiar enough to the consumer market to make widespread adoption profitable. In their current form, AR and VR have seen a far more successful uptake rate in industrial usage and application, in part because the technology is still so pricey.

It would be a mistake to exclude a discussion about the development of autonomous driving in this AR and VR conversation, too. The technology is instrumental in the development of fully autonomous vehicles, and while there are no full -autonomous vehicles on the road today, automakers are pushing to make them more than just vaporware.

The players

Many well-established brands like Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen already offer a suite of AR features in their top-end vehicles. Automotive suppliers like Continental, Denso, Visteon, ZF, Nvidia, Bosch, Panasonic and others are the biggest players in the AR and VR automotive space, supplying and making head-up displays (HUDs) and related components for a variety of established automakers.

Most of the AR features in these vehicles are focused on overlaying directional guides over camera images to help drivers navigate in unfamiliar territories or identify a particular building or landmark. Virtual reality, thus far, has been largely applied to the design, sales, demonstration and education of consumers about new technology and features in vehicles, although companies like Audi spinoff Holoride are working to offer passengers VR experiences that can help cut down on in-car motion sickness while simultaneously offering gaming, entertainment or business applications. Even ride-hailing companies are getting in on the AR and VR game, with Lyft and Uber exploring AR and VR options for riders.

The return of neighborhood retail and other surprising real estate trends

By Eric Eldon

The pandemic made remote work and on-demand delivery normal far faster than anyone expected. Today, as the world beings to emerge from the pandemic, location doesn’t matter like it did a year ago.

As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses.

Modern society produced superstar cities filled with skyscraper office and residential buildings. Now, the populations that once thrived in these urban centers are deciding how to repurpose them for a post-pandemic world.

I caught up with ten top investors who focus on real estate property technology to get a sense of how they’re betting on the future.

They are optimistic overall, because the typically glacial real estate industry now sees proptech as essential to its future. However, they are the most unsure about the office sector, at least as we knew the concept before the pandemic.

They expect remote work to be part of the future in a significant way and foresee ongoing high housing demand in the suburbs and smaller cities. They are especially positive about fintech and SaaS products focused on areas like single-family home sales and rentals. Many are continuing to invest in big cities, but around alternative housing (co-living, accessory dwelling units) and climate-related concepts.

Most surprisingly, some investors are actually excited about physical retail. I examined the latest evidence and found myself agreeing. As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses. Details farther down.

(And before we dig in below, please note that Extra Crunch subscribers can separately read the following people responding fully in their own words, with lots of great information I wasn’t able to explore below.)

When the office is more of a luxury

The pandemic combined with existing trends has made office renters “more akin to a consumer of a luxury product,” explains Clelia Warburg Peters, a venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures and long-time proptech investor and real estate operator.

Landlords who have “largely been in a position of power since the 1950s” now have to put the customer first, she says. The “best landlords will recognize that they are going to be under pressure to shift from simply providing a physical space, to helping provide tenants with a multichannel work experience.”

This includes tangible additional services like software and hardware for managing employees as they travel between various office locations. But the market today also dictates a new attitude. “These assets will need to be provided in the context of a much more human relationship, focusing on serving the needs of tenants,” she says. “As lease terms inevitably shorten, tenants will need to be courted and supported in a much more active way than they have been in the past.”

The changes in office space may be more favorable to the supply side in suburban areas.

“Companies are going to have to offer employees space in an urban headquarters,” Zach Aarons of Metaprop tells me. But many will also want to offer ”some sort of office alternative in the suburbs so the worker can leave home sometimes but not have to take a one-hour train ride to get to the office when needed.”

“If we were still purchasing hard real estate assets like many of us on the MetaProp team used to do in previous careers,” he added, “we would be looking aggressively to purchase suburban office inventory.”

Most people thought that remote work was here for good and would impact the nature of office space in the future.

Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing director of Wilshire Lane Partners, is generally bullish on big cities, but he notes that startups themselves are already untethering from specific places. This is a key leading indicator, in TechCrunch’s opinion.

“Something that has been interesting to watch over the past year is how startups themselves have begun to evolve due to newfound geographic flexibility from the pandemic,” he observes. “Previously, startups (especially real-estate-related startups) felt pressure to be ‘headquartered’ near where their customers, prospective capital sources and pools of talent were located. However, we’ve seen this change over the past few months.”

In fact, a recent report by my former colleague Kim-Mai Cutler, now a partner at Initialized Capital, highlights these trends in a regular survey of its portfolio companies. When the pandemic began, the Bay Area was still the number one place that founders said they’d start a company. Today, remote-first is in first place. Meanwhile, the portfolio companies are either going toward remote-first or a hub-and-spoke model of a smaller headquarters and more far-flung offices. Those who maintain some sort of office say they will require significantly less than five days a week. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would also not adjust salaries based on location!

That’s a small sample but as Demuyakor says, “Startups (a) are frequently the most adept at utilizing the types of technology necessary for effective remote work and (b) simultaneously have to compete ferociously for talent. As such, I think we may be able to infer what the ‘future of work’ may look like as we observe what startups choose to do as the pandemic passes.”

Some landlords (with big loans) and large cities (with big budgets) are making a push to repopulate their offices quickly, and some large companies are loading up on office space or reaffirming their commitments to current locations.

Maybe efforts like these, plus the natural desire to network live, will bring back the industry clusters and pull everyone back to the old geographies? Maybe something close to 100% of what we saw before? What does that look like?

In such a scenario, some pandemic-era changes will persist, says Christopher Yip, a partner and managing director at RET Ventures. “A populace that has become sensitized to public health considerations may well gravitate toward solo forms of transportation (cars and bicycles) instead of mass transit, and parking-related and bike-sharing tech tools may likely thrive. From a real estate management perspective, technology that makes high-density living more comfortable and healthier will also increase, as consumers will become increasingly attracted to touchless technology and tools that facilitate self-leasing.”

Here’s the other scenario that he lays out “if a large number of jobs remain fully remote.”

“In theory, retail and office properties could structurally continue to suffer, and there has been some talk from government officials in certain regions about converting office properties into affordable housing,” he details. “If market-rate vacancies in cities remain high, there will be increasing demand for short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and Kasa, which enable landlords to gain revenue from hotel-type stays even in a market where residential demand is not strong.”

Vik Chawla, a partner at Fifth Wall, sketches out a middle-of-the-road scenario. “We believe that major cities will continue to attract knowledge workers and top talent post-pandemic,” he says, “though we expect remote work to become an increasingly critical component to the work economy, meaning that there will be increased flexibility in terms of time spent in the office versus elsewhere.”

This would still mean some sort of long-term price decline. “At a city level, this means that rents should taper relative to pre-pandemic levels due to lesser demand,” he believes. “That said, the real estate ecosystems in cities that have experienced growth throughout the pandemic will enter a period of innovation, and with it, see an increase in housing density, ADUs and modular building techniques.”

Andrew Ackerman, managing director of UrbanTech for DreamIt Ventures, also sees a gentle deflation of commercial office prices over time, followed by some complex space-management questions.

“[T]he return to work will likely result in more flexible work arrangements rather than the demise of the office which, as leases renew over the next 5-10 years, will lead to a gradual meaningful-but-not-catastrophic reduction in the demand for office space. The question is, what then happens to the excess office space?”

“Office to residential conversion is tricky,” he elaborates. “Layout is a major constraint. Many modern offices have deep, windowless interior space that is hard to repurpose. But even with narrow layouts, the structural elements are often in the wrong place. Drilling thousands of holes in structural concrete so you can move plumbing and gas to the right places is a heavy lift.”

This might just lead to new types of still-valuable uses? “One of the areas that I’m still investigating is whether co-living or microunits might be a more attractive conversion option. Turning an office break room and interior bullpens into a shared kitchen, dining area, and recreation or work flexspace may be a better way to repurpose deep interior space without a very costly retrofit. And if you don’t have to reroute too much plumbing, it may even be possible to convert (and convert back!) individual floors as market demand for office and residential space fluctuates over time.”

All respondents saw proptech being a core part of the next era of big cities (of course), however bullish or bearish they may be about the office itself.

A new equilibrium for residential

Housing availability has become even more limited in most places during the pandemic, with many more people looking to buy and fewer people wanting to sell. This is even though the previously hottest cities have seen major rental price drops.

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is staying focused on the housing problem, and solutions to it like co-living. “Despite the pandemic, it is still difficult for millennials and Gen Z to afford to live in the most expensive cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.) at current wage levels,” he says. “As such, we believe that we will continue to see demand for products and solutions that can continue to help alleviate costs and burdens of living in major cities. For example, we think that at its core, co-living is an economic decision. Solutions that continue to help people live where they want to live more easily (ADUs are another example of this) will continue to thrive.”

Casey Berman, managing director and general partner of Camber Creek, thinks that “cities will continue to attract people to live, work and play because they offer density and opportunities for experiences that people crave even more now. To the extent all of this is true, there will be renewed demand for urban spaces and properties to take advantage of that demand.”

He says that the firm has been investing in products to make dense living safer and more convenient and “we expect those solutions will become increasingly popular. Flex allows tenants to pay rent online in easier-to-manage installments and in the process makes it more likely that landlords will receive payment on time. Latch’s access control devices are in one out of 10 new multifamily buildings. A lot of people purchased a pet over the past year. PetScreening makes it easy to manage pet records and confirm when a pet is a service or support animal.”

Robin Godenrath and Julian Roeoes, partners at Picus Capital, generally share this viewpoint and describe how new living arrangements in cities could allow for more radical changes to how people live.

“Flexible living solutions will allow remote workers to spend time across different cities with a fully managed, affordable and safe rental option for short-to-long-term urban living,” he says, “while commercial conversion to residential will play a key role in driving down per square foot prices enabling long-term returning residents to afford less densified space. Although co-living densifies multifamily buildings, we believe it will remain an interesting sector as the continued shift to remote work will make living communities increasingly important considering the reduced social interaction on the job.”

But modern proptech is also making the suburbs and beyond more appealing in the long run, according to many. Great new technologies for living can exist anywhere you are.

Proptech has also helped fuel the new suburban boom. “There is an ongoing trend of reverse urban migration causing an uptick in the demand for suburban-style living,” he says. “Proptech companies have played a significant role in enabling this shift, specifically via digitizing the home buying, selling and renting transaction processes (e.g., iBuyers, alternative financing models and tech-enabled brokerages). Additionally, proptech companies have played a key role in reducing physical interactions through remote appraisals, 3D/VR viewings and digital communications thus enabling homebuyers and sellers to efficiently and safely transact throughout the pandemic.”

Ultimately, the same technologies that could make cities more affordable will also help out in the suburbs. “We strongly believe that the acceleration of the digitalization of the home transaction process coupled with the significant increase in demand for suburban-style housing and evolving buyer profiles (e.g., tech-savvy millennials) opens up a multitude of opportunities for proptech to significantly impact suburban living across construction, access and lifestyle. This includes companies focusing on built-to-rent developments, modular homebuilding, affordable housing, community building and digital amenities.

Many investors who we talked to highlighted the single-family rental market trend. Here’s Christopher Yip again from RET.

“One of the unheralded trends of the past decade has been the rise of the single-family rental (SFR) market,” he says “with a significant number of major investors moving into this asset class. The SFR space is poised to benefit from the migration from cities, and the tech that supports SFR will likely have positive ripple effects across the industry.”

“SFR portfolios are particularly challenging to operate efficiently and at scale; compared with a multifamily property, they have more distinct unit layouts and are more spread out geographically,” he explains. “Technology has the ability to streamline operations and maintenance for SFR operators, with smart home tools like SmartRent facilitating self-touring and management of these distributed portfolios. We’re bullish on this space and are keeping a close eye on proptech tools that serve this market.”

Andrew Ackerman of DreamIt agrees. “Single-family has been neglected, slowly growing more interesting both from an asset and proptech perspective for some time. For example, we invested in startups like NestEgg and Abode who service this ecosystem … prior to the pandemic. COVID has been good to these startups and brought more attention to the opportunities in single-family in general.”

Stonly Baptiste and Shaun Abrahamson, co-founders of Urban.us, already see a world of options unfolding across geographies, with choices like co-living and short-term rentals letting people find new lifestyles. “Portfolio companies like Starcity are really thriving as co-living doesn’t just solve for cost, but also for a key overlooked issue — access to community. We also see room for more nomadic lifestyles. A lot of the discussion about Miami is about people moving there, but it seems like a more interesting question for a lot of places is maybe whether or not people will spend a few months of the year there. So for remote workers this might mean places near specific activities like mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding etc. Starcity makes it easy to move between city locations and Kibbo takes this far beyond the city by building communities around van life.”

Here’s how all these changes are adding up for the suburban market, as mapped out by Clelia Warburg Peters of BCV.

“The residential transaction disruption is now settling in three core categories: iBuyers (who buy homes directly from sellers and ultimately hope to own the sell-side marketplace), neobrokers (who generally employ their agents and use secondary services such as title mortgage and insurance to increase their revenue) and elite agent tools (platforms or tools focused on the top agents).”

This combination of innovations are changing residential real estate as we know it. “[C]onsumers are increasingly open to alternative financing tools, including home-equity-based financing models (where you sell a stake in your home, or you buy into full ownership in a home over time). The growth and proliferation of these new models are consolidating the whole residential market so that brokerage sales commissions and commission from the sale of mortgage, title and home insurance are now functionally one large and intertwined disruptable market.”

The surprising revival of neighborhood retail

Humans seem to love the concept of a traditional Main Street full of bustling, walkable local businesses. But the hits have kept coming to the people trying to successfully operate independent retail storefronts.

E-commerce began cutting into traditionally thin margins with the rise of Amazon and the 90s wave of “e-tailers.” More recently, art galleries, high-end restaurants and boutiques became a harbinger of gentrification in many cities. Many commercial retail landlords in these locations aggressively priced rents as more residents moved in who could afford higher prices, ultimately contributing to gluts of empty storefronts in prime locations.

The pandemic seemed to be the final blow, with even the most loyal shoppers turning to order online while local businesses stayed closed.

And yet, a range of investors are strangely optimistic. Even though the pandemic upended social and economic activity for more than a year, most agreed that IRL retail experiences are an essential aspect of modern life.

“Humans are fundamentally social animals and I think we will all be hungry for in-person experiences once it is safe to return to them. Additionally, I think the shift away from working five days a week in the office is going to create a greater desire for ‘third spaces’ — not home, not a formal office environment,” said Peters.

“I do think we will continue to see more ‘Apple store’-type retail experiences, where the focus is less on selling inventory and more on creating an environment for customers to physically interact with goods and experience the brand ethos beyond a website. Because I anticipate that retail rents are going to be meaningfully lower at the end of the pandemic, I actually think we will see even more experimentation than we did pre-COVID. It will be a very interesting period for retail.”

Many others held views in this direction, whether they are investing specifically in retail-related tech or more generally in third-space ideas.

“It’s true that retail has been in flux for more than a decade; the list of common e-commerce purchases has expanded from books and clothing to prepared meals and groceries. It’s also true that the pandemic has accelerated e-commerce’s growth, to the detriment of brick-and-mortar retail,” says RET’s Yip. “But people are still human and crave in-person experiences. Even if cities never bounce back fully, major metropolises will still have enough foot traffic to support a fair amount of retail, and innovative models like pop-up shops can be brought in to help address vacancies. It should also be noted that the public markets still have some confidence in the retail space. While the major REITs struggled in early to mid-2020, many have recovered substantially, and several have actually surpassed their pre-pandemic figures. It has been a bad decade for retail — and a very bad year — but it is just too soon to close the book on the sector.”

Godenrath and Roeoes of Picus say movie theaters are just one example of a retail sector poised for success when public life resumes at scale post-pandemic.

“Cinemas, many of which are key shopping center anchor tenants, were already reinventing the traditional theater experience by offering a more holistic experiential solution (e.g., reserved seating, 4DX visuals, in-theater restaurants, cafes and bars) and the pandemic has led to an expansion of these offerings (i.e., private theater rentals and events). We have the opinion that this trend will continue to expand across the entire retail real estate industry from restaurants (immersive culinary experiences) to traditional retail (integrated online and offline shopping experiences) and believe that proptech will play a defining role in helping retail real estate owners identify potential tenants and market properties as well as in helping retailers drive in-store customer engagement and gain key insights into the customer journey.”

The internet is also a friend these days, surprisingly! “We also see a lot of potential for hybrid models combining online and offline experiences without friction,” they say. “Taking the fitness sectors as an example we can imagine a new normal where in-studio courses are broadcasted to allow a broader participant group and apps tracking fitness and health progress throughout in-studio visits and at-home workouts.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear from any of the investors I interviewed.

You can also see how retail intersects with many other solutions investors are betting on, particularly to improve the appeal of cities and solve for macro problems like climate change.

“Cities have some massively underutilized assets, perhaps the biggest being public spaces that are allocated to cars,” Baptiste and Abrahamson say. “So one change we think will become permanent is reallocating parking spaces away from private vehicles to micromobility (bike/scooter/board lanes, parking, etc.). We’re seeing a lot of demand for portfolio companies like Coord (manages curb space starting with commercial vehicles and smart zones), Qucit (manages bike and scooter share operations in many large cities) and Oonee (secure bike/scooter/board parking).”

That’s just the start of the virtuous cycle they foresee.

“As [car removal] happens, the use cases like logistics can shift to electric micro-EVs. Similarly, parklets or seating areas increase social spaces. The EU is setting the pace for banning cars, but overall reduced access to streets for cars is going to be a big change. And likely will make cities attractive — yes, you give up private living space, but you’re going to get a lot more common/social space. This is also likely to drive more co-living so you can decrease the cost basis for being in a city, but get a lot more from shared spaces, which have no real comparison in lower density communities.”

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is betting in the same direction.

“One of the key tenets of our overall strategy has always been a focus on space utilization and identifying the best ways technology can monetize underutilized spaces. This can be seen clearly with many of our newest investments: Stuf and Neighbor (monetization of basements, parking garages and other vacant spaces), MealCo (monetization of vacant kitchens), WorkChew (monetization of restaurant seating areas, hotel lobbies and conference rooms), and Saltbox (monetization of empty warehouses). We believe that landlords can certainly use these types of strategies to help mitigate increased levels of vacancies that we’re seeing across the real estate industry today in the medium term.”

If this thesis pans out, retail may become more about shared spaces. “With WorkChew in particular, which just announced funding this week, we’re seeing a ton of demand for their product both on the demand side and the supply side. Hotels and restaurants are excited to partner with them to monetize their less-utilized spaces and infrastructure,” said Demuyakor. “And of course, employers and companies love [it] as an easy amenity that can be offered to their hybrid workforces that increasingly want to spend more time out of the HQ office.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear explicitly from the investors I interviewed.

  • First, millions of new businesses have been created during the pandemic, to the surprise of even economists and policymakers. A large portion appear to have a very local angle, whether food delivery (cupcakes) or services (on-site haircuts) or internet-first products with strong local followings (much of Etsy). These entrepreneurs went internet-first and now, as commercial rents plummet, they have sufficient revenue to support a physical presence.
  • Second, most local business that have sustained themselves during the COVID-19 era figured out how to succeed on the internet. To see which ones in your vicinity are weathering the storm, just open one of your preferred on-demand delivery and services apps and place an order.
  • Third, as noted by respondents and available data, landlords are already starting to drop prices, creating a renter’s market for the first time in decades.
  • Fourth, there are whole new types of financing opening up to more traditional businesses that could enable any company with a successful online side hustle, hobby (or perhaps larger project) to get funding for expansion. (This reason is perhaps the most speculative, but we are trying to figure out the future here at TechCrunch.) For example, Shopify has just invested in Pipe.com, a new “platform for trading recurring revenue.” Although the companies are not saying much now about the relationship, it’s possible to imagine a bunch of successful small(ish) businesses on Shopify suddenly getting a new kind of capital infusion right as the math is suddenly much better for a storefront location.

If you roll all of this up with other broader shifts in how we think about cities, like making them more climate-friendly through allowing density and bike lanes, you can start to see a world emerging that sounds a lot more like the fantasies of a New Urbanist than the world before the pandemic.

At the same time, these concepts are being deployed across smaller cities, suburbs and towns: All will compete to offer the highest quality of living — unless the old network effects of industry clusters return miraculously.

And let’s say the industry clusters don’t cluster like they used to. It’s possible that many landlords, lenders and city budgets will have to retrench soon, creating a drag on the economies of otherwise-attractive cities.

Even in this case, you can imagine a rebirth for places like New York and San Francisco focused around housing, retail and amenities. Maybe one day, we’ll look back at recent decades as the bad old days before we collectively bottomed out during the pandemic and had to decide on the right answers for the long-term.

And with that, I invite readers to go check out the full sets of responses from the investors I interviewed. Each person offered a lot more than I was able to fit into this already-too-long article and is worth reading in detail. Extra Crunch subscription required, so you can support our ongoing coverage of these changes.

I’ll be covering the future of proptech and cities more soon. Have other thoughts about all of this? Email me at eldon@techcrunch.com.

Sivo, a young “Stripe for debt” led by a veteran operator, seems to have investors clamoring

By Connie Loizos

Kate Hiscox is having a moment. Her company, Sivo, founded eight months ago, has already raised $5 million from investors at a post-money valuation of $100 million, and she is in active talks with others who would like her to consider accepting Series A funding from them.

Partly, the attention owes to the fact that Hiscox is part of the newest graduating class of the popular accelerator Y Combinator, along with roughly 350 other companies, and if there’s anything venture capitalists like, it’s freshly minted YC grads. Partly, fintech continues to be seen as a hugely lucrative area of investment.

But they also like what Sivo aims to do, which is to strike deals with debt providers for gigantic credit lines that it will then, through its API, work with both big and small companies to disburse via their own lending products. Yes, Sivo is making interest off money that it’s simply divvying up into smaller amounts. But the real magic, says Hiscox, is in the risk management that Sivo provides. It doesn’t just parcel out debt; it helps its customers that don’t have their own risk management practices figure out who is worthy of a loan and how much.

Hiscox — who has founded a number over the years, one of which she took public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2018 — calls it a Stripe for debt. But one question is how Stripe, among its other rivals, might feel about Sivo. Stripe was also once a YC company, it also lends debt to its customers, and it seemingly doesn’t like when its investors fund emerging potential threats. Another question is how a company like Sivo fares when interest rates rise and the debt it borrows is no longer cheap.

Hiscox suggests she’s not worried about many roadblocks right now. We talked with her on Friday about the company in a conversation that follows, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You’re building what you describe as Stripe for debt. But isn’t Stripe’s loan business competitive with yours?

KH: No. Sivo is the first YC company that’s building debt as a service.

The reason why is that it’s very difficult for fintechs and neobanks and gig platforms to be able to raise enough capital to be able to lend money to their users at scale; that generally takes a couple of years. What we’re building gets these companies access to debt capital on day one. Our team has decades of experience with risk and raising debt and building enterprise tech at companies like Goldman Sachs and NASA and Revolut and Citigroup.

TC: Give me a use case.

KH: So we have more than 100 companies now in our customer pipeline, including Uber. In the case of Uber, they want to be able to offer financial products to their drivers. Maybe it’s to fund a vehicle or provide a payday advance. But Uber really can’t do that because it doesn’t want to look like an employer, and it also doesn’t want to necessarily deal with risk modeling, meaning who in their big driver base has the right risk profile [to rationalize a loan]. You plug in Sivo, and we will cycle through the Uber driver base to figure out to whom it makes sense to make a loan offer, and we do it all this through the API.

TC: But Uber is not yet a paying customer.

KH: No, we go live next month; that’s an example of how Uber would use us. There are also a lot of neobanks that are three- to five-years-old and want to start lending and really don’t know have that risk experience they need to get access to debt capital in order to have the money to be able to lend to their customers. With something like Sivo, they’re able to integrate our service through our API, and we’re able to pretty much tell them who they should be lending to, how much they should lend, and then we offer the debt funding.

TC: Do you have any debt deals in place?

KH: We signed a debt deal last week for $100 million and we’re working on another debt deal for close to $1 billion that will be announced next month.

TC: Who is your debt partner and how have you convinced them to lend so much to such a young outfit?

KH: I’m not sure I can say publicly yet who we’re working with, but we source our capital through all the usual suspects — mutual funds, pension funds, banks — and we’re able to do this is because as soon as we announced that we were going to start doing this as a product, we had tons of customers come and say, ‘I want this. [Trying to do this ourselves] is long and complex and painful, and we want just want to be able to do it in a simple way, like we would use Stripe for payments.’ We could fill our boots, quite frankly, with YC companies forever.

I also have a lot of experience because I’d taken a company public and have lots of connections in the capital markets, and so does our CFO.

And there are actually a lot of banks that would love more exposure to fintechs and to a basket of YC-backed fintechs in particular because they can get yield, but the check sizes are too small for a bank. There’s also concern that the fintechs don’t really have a lot of risk experience. Meanwhile, our team has a lot of gray hair as far as risk is concerned.

TC: What kind of economic agreement do you have with that debt lender and what percentage of each loan will you charge your customers?

KH: I really can’t tell you, including because it’s going to vary from fintech to fintech; some have more complicated user models, some have bigger user bases, some operate in different regions around the world. What I can say is that it’s an incredible time for us to access debt capital from institutions because interest rates are so low and even negative in some parts of Europe. You just have to have the right team to know where to go and get it.

TC You’re also raised $5 million in seed equity funding already at a post-money valuation of $100 million, including from Andre Charoo of Maple VC, who says he’s written you his biggest check yet. Are you done raising equity funding for now? That’s already a very high valuation.

KH: We’re trying to decide now if we’re going direct to a Series A. This is our first raise, but everybody ‘gets’ our business model, so we’ve had an avalanche of investors, and some very big VCs now have reached out.

TC: Obviously, interest rates will go up. What then?

KH: When interest rates go up, all lending gets more expensive. I mean, there’s a pandemic right now and a lot of cash in the system, and there’s some talk about inflation, but we don’t really see interest rates going up for a few years.

Of course they will eventually rise, but when that happens, everybody’s rates will go up, whether you borrow on a credit card or from a traditional bank or a fintech.

Farmland could be the next big asset class modernized by marketplace startups

By Jonathan Shieber

Jim Jackson developed timber and farmland in Eastern Washington, protected from coastal rains by the peaks of the Cascade mountains, building out a clutch of apple farms and other properties on the state’s sunny side for 40 years.

Traditionally, he raised money to expand operations for his farms through his existing network, which meant asking previous investors to pool together and come up with the cash.

But more recently, Jackson turned to a fundraising platform that operates entirely online. Like hundreds of other farmers, he’s using a service called AcreTrader to raise money for agricultural development projects. AcreTrader is one of a growing number of companies revolutionizing the way farm and forestland are acquired, developed and commercialized across the United States.

There’s lots of farmland in the U.S. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the world’s third-richest man, is the nation’s largest owner of farmland, holding roughly 242,000 acres. That number seems high until you compare it with the 897.4 million acres of land that are currently arable and used for farming in the U.S.

Another 823 million acres of forests dot the United States, the majority of which are privately owned.

Taken together, that’s a massive amount of real estate with economic potential that’s traditionally been accessible only to the ultra-wealthy to acquire and finance for development. Now, startups like AcreTrader and others including Tillable, ($8.3 million) FarmTogether ($3.7 million), and Harvest Returns are bringing marketplace models to the farming world — potentially bringing hundreds of thousands of investable acres to financiers looking to diversify.

Serimmune launches new immune response mapping service for COVID-19

By Sophie Burkholder

Immune intelligence startup Serimmune hopes to better understand the relationship between antibody epitopes (the parts of antigen molecules that bind to antibodies) and the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The company’s proprietary technology, originally developed at UC Santa Barbara, provides a new and specific way of mapping the entire array of an individual’s antibodies through a small blood sample. They do this through the use of a bacterial peptide display—a sort of screening mechanism that can isolate plasmid DNA from antibody-bound bacteria in the sample. This DNA can then be sequenced to identify epitopes, which provide information about both which antigens someone may have been exposed to, as well as how his or her immune system responded to them.

“It’s a very highly multiplexed and exquisitely specific way of looking at the epitopes found by antibodies in a specimen,” said Serimmune CEO Noah Nasser, who has a degree in molecular biology from UC San Diego and has previously worked for several diagnostics companies.

This week, Serimmune announced the launch of a new application of their core technology to help understand the disease states of and immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, or the virus that causes COVID-19.

“So what we do is we take these antibody profiles we build, and we’re able to then map those back with about a 12 amino acid specificity to the SARS-CoV-2 proteome,” said Nasser. “And what we find is that antibody expression is highly correlated to disease state, so we can distinguish mild, moderate, severe and asymptomatic disease on the basis of antibodies that are present in the specimen.”

The more patient data Serimmune can collect, the better its core technology becomes at finding patterns across different antigen exposure and disease severity. Noticing those patterns sooner won’t only help physicians and researchers to better understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus operates, but can also inform new approaches to diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for any antigen.

Serimmune’s launch of its new COVID antibody epitope mapping service is a way of making this data more accessible to customers like vaccine companies, government agencies, and academic labs that have shown interest in better understanding the immune response to SARS-CoV-2.

“The key was to zero in on the information that researchers wanted to know and standardize that,” said Nasser. “We can actually now provide these results back in as few as two days from sample receipt.”

Beyond this new service, Serimmune also has plans to launch a longitudinal clinical study on immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Using a painless at-home collection kit, study participants send in small blood samples to Serimmune, which then uses its core technology to outline an individual immunity map.

“We provide their results back to them in the form of a personal immune landscape to COVID,” said Nasser. “And what we’re trying to do is to understand over time how that immune response changes, and what happens to that immune response on repeated exposure to COVID.”

The mapping technology is now so specific that it can tell whether or not a patient has antibodies from natural exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus or from a vaccine, he added.

While the primary focus for Serimmune remains these applications to the COVID-19 pandemic for now, Nasser also mentioned that the company has plans to move into personalized medicine, potentially offering their mapping service directly to interested patients.

“We believe that this has value to individual patients in understanding their immune status and what antigens they’ve been exposed to,” he said. Until then, Serimmune plans to continue growing its database with more patient samples.

Google Maps users can now pay for parking or their transit fare right from the app

By Kirsten Korosec

Drivers throughout the United States will now have the option to pay for street parking right from Google Maps as part of an expanded partnership with transportation software companies Passport and Parkmobile. Google also announced it was extending this contactless payment feature to public transit users.

Google Maps’ pay for parking feature will expand first via Android to more than 400 U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. The feature will be available through the iOS version of the Google Maps app soon, the company said. The transit feature will include more than 80 transit agencies globally.

The parking feature, which integrates with Passport’s operating system, launched in Austin last year. The two companies indicated, at the time, that the feature would eventually roll out in other U.S. cities. While the expansion was expected, it’s still a boon for the North Carolina-based startup, which is now integrated in one of the most widely used navigation apps. The same goes for Parkmobile, which is also embedded in Google Maps.

The aim, according to Google Maps product manager Vishal Dutta and Google Pay’s Fausto Araujo, is to help drivers users pay for parking without having to touch a meter — a compelling feature in this era of COVID-19.

When navigating with Google Maps on iOS and Android, drivers in certain cities in the U.S. will see an option to pay for parking with Google Pay as they approach their destination. This means a user has to set up a Google Pay account, which is linked to a credit or debit card. From there, drivers add their meter number, the amount of time they wish to pay for, and complete the payment via Google Pay. Parkers can also add time to their meter from their Google Pay app without returning to their vehicle.

Google said the payment feature has been extended to including transit fares for more than 80 transit agencies around the world. “Now you’ll be able to plan your trip, buy your fare, and start riding without needing to toggle between multiple apps,” Google wrote in a blog post.

The transit pay option pops up in Google Maps in the user’s directions. In places like San Francisco, users will also be able to buy a digital Clipper card directly from Google Maps. Once they’ve purchased their fare, the user just needs tap their phone on the reader or show their digital ticket.

India lifts restrictions on mapping and surveying to help local firms

By Manish Singh

India said on Monday local firms will no longer need license or other permission to collect, generate, store and share geospatial data of the country, bringing sweeping changes to its earlier stance that it admitted hindered innovation.

Until now, New Delhi required Indian firms to seek licenses and additional approvals to create and publish topographical data. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said today’s “deregulation” step will help the country become more self-reliant and reach its $5 trillion GDP goal.

“The regulations that apply to geospatial data and maps henceforth stand radically liberalised. The Department of Science and Technology is announcing sweeping changes to India’s mapping policy, specifically for Indian companies. What is readily available globally does not need to be restricted in India and therefore geospatial data that used to be restricted will now be freely available in India,” New Delhi said in a statement.

In its guidelines, New Delhi said local firms will be permitted access to “ground truthing/verification” that includes access to Indian ground stations and augmentation services for real-time positioning. Indian firms will also be provided access to terrestrial mobile mapping survey, street view survey and surveying in Indian territorial waters.

New Delhi said in the guidelines that only Indian firms shall be permitted access to the aforementioned surveys. Google has previously made unsuccessful attempts to launch its Street View service in India. A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company was reviewing the guidelines and had no immediate comment to offer.

“Foreign companies and foreign owned or controlled Indian companies can license from Indian Entities digital Maps/Geospatial Data of spatial accuracy/value finer than the threshold value only for the purpose of serving their customers in India. Access to such Maps/Geospatial Data shall only be made available through APIs that do not allow Maps/Geospatial Data to pass through Licensee Company or its servers. Re-use or resale of such map data by licensees shall be prohibited,” the guidelines added.

Devdatta Tengshe, who works in the GIS space, told TechCrunch that the government’s move today was significant for the local ecosystem including citizens as previous restrictions had created an uncertainty on what precisely was permitted.

“Today’s announcement makes it explicitly clear that Indian entities can perform any location data collection and we can collect data on our own,” he said. “Additionally, the location data from agencies like municipality will be made available to Indian entities.”

Flipkart-backed 25-year-old firm MapMyIndia said today’s move by the government is “historic” as it opens up maps and the geospatial sector and ushers the self-reliance era in “strategic areas of maps to empower all 1.3 billion Indians and give unprecedented opportunities and growth for Indian companies.”

Modi said: “The reforms will unlock tremendous opportunities for our country’s start-ups, private sector, public sector and research institutions to drive innovations and build scalable solutions. India’s farmers will also be benefited by leveraging the potential of geo-spatial & remote sensing data. Democratizing data will enable the rise of new technologies & platforms that will drive efficiencies in agriculture and allied sectors. These reforms demonstrate our commitment to improving ease of doing business in India by deregulation.”

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