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Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more

By Sarah Perez

Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced today it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements, and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once, and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

Now, its focus is turning towards creators. Twitter Spaces will soon support multiple co-hosts, and creators will be able to better market and even charge for access to their live events on Twitter Spaces. One feature, arriving in the next few weeks, will allow users to schedule and set reminders about Spaces they don’t want to miss. This can also help creators who are marketing their event in advance, as part of the RSVP process could involve pushing users to “set a reminder” about the upcoming show.

Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its Townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

Image Credits: Twitter

But while Clubhouse recently launched in-app donations feature as a means of supporting favorite creators, Twitter will soon introduce a more traditional means of generating revenue from live events: selling tickets. The company says it’s working on a feature that will allow hosts to set ticket prices and how many are available to a given event, in order to give them a way of earning revenue from their Twitter Spaces.

A limited group of testers will gain access to Ticketed Spaces in the coming months, Twitter says. Unlike Clubhouse, which has yet to tap into creator revenue streams, Twitter will take a small cut from these ticket sales. However, it notes that the “majority” of the revenue will go to the creators themselves.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter also noted that it’s improving its accessibility feature, live captions, so they can be paused and customized, and is working to make them more accurate.

The company will be hosting a Twitter Space of its own today around 1 PM PT to further discuss these announcements in more detail.

FAA authorizes SpaceX’s next three Starship test launches

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is continuing its Starship spacecraft testing and development program apace, and as of this afternoon it has authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct its next three test flights from its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Approvals for prior launch tests have been one-offs, but the FAA said in a statement that it’s approving these in a batch because “SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”

SpaceX is set to launch its SN15 test Starship as early as this week, with the condition that an FAA inspector be present at the time of the launch at the facility in Boca Chica. The regulator says that has sent an inspector, who is expected to arrive today, which could pave the way for a potential launch attempt in the next couple of days.

The last test flight SpaceX attempted from Boca Chica was the launch of SN11, which occurred at the end of March. That ended badly, after a mostly successful initial climb to an altitude of around 30,000 feet and flip maneuver, with an explosion triggered by an error in one of the Raptor engines used to control the powered landing of the vehicle.

In its statement about the authorization of the next three attempts, the FAA noted that the investigation into what happened with SN11 and its unfortunate ending is still in progress, but added that even so, the agency has determined any public safety concerns related to what went wrong have been alleviated.

The three-launch approval license includes flights of SN16 and SN17 as well as SN15, but the FAA noted that after the first flight, the next two might require additional “corrective action” prior to actually taking off, pending any new “mishap” occurring with the SN15 launch.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has at time criticized the FAA for not being flexible or responsive enough to the rapid pace of iteration and testing that SpaceX is pursuing in Starship’s development. On the other side, members of Congress have suggested that the FAA has perhaps not been as thorough as necessary in independently investigating earlier Starship testing mishaps. The administration contends that the lack of any ultimate resulting impact to public safety is indicative of the success of its program thus far, however.

Click Studios asks customers to stop tweeting about its Passwordstate data breach

By Zack Whittaker

Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.

Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.

In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.

But news of the breach only became public after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.

Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.

In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”

“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.

Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.

It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.

Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests (from TechCrunch) for comment. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”

TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.

Blue Origin will start selling tickets for New Shepard space tourism flights on May 5

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin seems very close to flying paying customers on its New Shepard sub-orbital rocket, having conducted a dress rehearsal of astronaut loading and unloading on its latest mission. Today, it also revealed that it will be selling the first ticket (tickets?) on board its inaugural commercial flight starting next week, on Wednesday, May 5.

The ‘when, and how much’ are the two burning questions that remain around the Jeff Bezos-backed space company’s first commercial passenger flights. Blue Origin has been in the process of testing, developing and flight-certifying its spacecraft for human use for the past few years, and in its most recent missions the focus has squarely been on what are essentially finishing touches, like the aforementioned dress rehearsal, and a test of cabin comfort, communication and control features on a flight before that earlier this year.

We’ve tried asking Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith about the cost of flights a number of times before, but he declined to provide specifics, beyond saying that it’ll be in the “hundreds of thousands” of dollars range. That’s not a surprising ticket price given the ride, which includes a trip to space in the reusable New Shepard capsule stage that allows passengers to spend multiple minutes totally weightless in zero gravity, with ample window real estate to take in the space-based perspective of Earth.

Blue Origin isn’t share much more right now about what we’ll see next week when it starts selling its first passenger capacity, but did say we can expect more details come Wednesday, so stay tuned.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched another batch of Starlink satellites, adding 60 more to the constellation on orbit. This is the 24th Starlink launch in total, and means SpaceX has now sent up over 1,500 Starlink spacecraft, with around 1,438 of those still in operation. This is the first Starlink launch since April 7 — which, surprisingly, is the biggest gap between these launches in quite a while.

This year, SpaceX’s overall launch calendar has been dominated by Starlink launches, as the company seeks to expand the availability, quality and coverage of its low Earth orbit broadband internet network. SpaceX also opened up availability of Starlink service this year, and now seems to be mostly supply-constrained on the consumer receiver terminal side, rather than necessarily on network capacity or regional ability.

Regarding that few week gap in the Starlink launch pace, it’s not like SpaceX was slacking in the meantime; the launcher sent up its second crew of astronauts destined for the International Space Station in a flight just last week. Plus, it has two three additional Starlink launches tentatively scheduled to happen in May.

This latest launch took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 11:44 PM EDT (8:44 PM PDT) on Wednesday, and it used a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage booster, which was used on six prior missions, including four Starlink launches.

The SPAC boom isn’t just here to stay, it’s changing consumer tech

By Ram Iyer
Mike Murphy Contributor
Mike Murphy is the founder and CEO of Rosecliff Ventures, a New York City-based investment firm focused on venture capital and private equity opportunities.

Consumer technology is an inherently risky investment sector: even the best idea can fall flat if the story of the product is not sold properly to the end user. The stats can only take you so far, and, eventually, customers want to believe in the product.

Traditionally, companies that have successfully told their story and become market leaders have taken the initial public offering route — pitching their story to institutional investors on banker-led roadshows rather than to the people that buy their products.

But the last 18 months have seen a new door open for companies seeking to skip the bankers, partner with good managers, and gain a more direct route to public capital: merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, or SPAC.

For the right consumer technology companies — for which the story is often just as, if not more, important than the financial figures — a SPAC deal offers a more direct access to public capital. Instead of walking institutional investors through the P&L, these companies can spend more time telling investors, including the retail investors using the products, what the company can be long-term.

There is no denying the growing popularity of this avenue to public exchanges: more than 200 companies went public via a SPAC deal in 2020. But as with any asset that grows hot, there will be parties out there expecting it to blow up.

Lessons have been learned and we probably have more coming, but those who treat SPACs as a sign of the end-days of economic recovery are wrong. These vehicles offer a legitimate route to the public markets while stripping out traditional gatekeepers and allowing individual investors to decide if they want to buy — or sell — a company’s story.

The SPAC bubble claim

First, it is important to address the naysayers’ concerns. Given the meteoric rise in SPAC activity, analysts speculate that the trend is overblown; they argue that companies are listing too early and that money losers are getting access to public capital before they deserve it.

But when is it “too early” to enter the public market? DraftKings, one of the most successful SPAC stories of 2020, went public about eight years after it was founded, and Facebook was private for a similar length of time before its IPO. Meanwhile, Apple, the most profitable company in the world, listed less than four years after its founding. Tenure may be a factor in investors’ minds, but lack thereof has never stopped a company from listing on the public markets.

Profitability has also rarely been a requirement for an IPO. Uber, Tesla, and Amazon are all prime examples of unprofitable businesses that listed while reporting losses.

In all these examples, clear, coherent visions, strong leadership teams, and patience from investors to see leaders execute on their vision overcame the traditional financial barometers of success.

The market knows how to value a story

The public markets are obsessed with quarterly results. A company can miss analysts’ expectations for earnings per share by just a cent and its stock will be sent tumbling. However, not all companies are assessed this way: Many companies are valued on their vision for the future and their progress towards their goals. SPACs are an effective way to invest in a strong team or vision even when there’s not enough financial data to back a traditional investment.

Biotech firms are an excellent and timely example of the way investors are looking at the market, especially post-pandemic. Biotechs usually describe a treatment they are developing and the patients it could help; they provide estimates of the addressable market, the price they could charge, and the timeline they could expect to get through clinical trials. However, an early-phase biotech could be years away from selling any drugs, let alone turning a profit. The FDA estimates the time to complete Phase II and Phase III trials, the final phases before applying for approval, can total up to six years.

Yet, investors pour money into these companies. Analysts estimate the likelihood of a drug advancing in its trials after detailed scrutiny, but these companies can see their stocks rise for years while losing money. The markets will expect high returns for taking these risks, but they can arrive at a price nonetheless.

The storytellers of consumer tech

The SPAC route is a match made in heaven for consumer tech companies: SPACs put more of a focus on the management team and the vision than traditional IPOs, which is a boon for the sector, as this industry has always been dominated by visionaries.

Looking ahead, the savviest investors in SPACs will be paying close attention to direct-to-consumer technology, but not in the traditional, limited sense of D2C.

Consumers are looking for goods and services that they can access more quickly and reliably than ever before. Conveniently, the companies that tend to succeed in ramping up these options through technology are natural storytellers that know how to bring their product directly to the end-user. Inevitably, these firms are going to be on the radar of SPAC investors.

For example, fintech, in many ways, has become direct-to-consumer because it offers customers banking features directly on their phones. In just the last year, innovation in telemedicine has brought most health appointments from the waiting room to the living room, and forced outdated healthcare administration practices to embrace digital systems.

Products you could only buy at physical stores, like mattresses, can now be delivered straight to your door with companies like Casper and Purple. Certain auto companies will allow you to even design and buy a car as easily as ordering a pizza.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend by exposing the need for faster, tech-driven access to services, and our “return to normal” means this trend is only going upwards. SPACs will be around to bring these ideas to market faster and provide the capital these companies need to meet the demand.

The road ahead

Despite the speculation, naysaying and “bubble” talk, SPACs have been around for decades and aren’t going to disappear in a flash. Indeed, the pace of SPAC deals might cool down and carry a higher risk premium as the trend continues, but just like the changes in consumer technology, SPACs themselves will evolve to best serve their consumers.

In many ways, the SPAC model is very similar to the way consumer technology has developed: It encourages disruption of established constructs. What’s more, investors in pre-acquisition SPACs get access to venture-like opportunities without the capital traditionally required for such investments.

In the end, a company’s success will depend on it meeting or exceeding targets, or if something pulls demand forward. The rules have not changed, and neither has the risk or the reward.

Investors eat up Orbillion Bio’s plans for lab-grown Wagyu beef, elk and bison

By Jonathan Shieber

Orbillion Bio’s plans to make high-end meats in a lab have investors lining up for a seat at the company’s cap table.

Mere weeks after launching from Y Combinator’s famous accelerator program, the Silicon Valley-based potential purveyor of premium lamb loins, elk steaks, bison burgers and more has managed to haul in $5 million in financing.

The company is led by Patricia Bubner, Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay and Samet Yildirim, who between them have more than 30 years working in bioprocessing and the biopharmaceuticals industry.

A little over a month ago, Orbillion held its first public tasting event, where meats mixed with its elk, beef and sheep were on offer straight from the petri dish to the table.

Investors in the $5 million round include: At One Ventures, which has also backed Finless Foods and Wild Earth; Metaplanet Holdings; the European investment firm k16 ventures; FoundersX Ventures, which also invested in SpaceX; Prithi Ventures, which backed Mission Barns and Turtle Tree Labs; and angel investors including Jonghoon Lim, the CEO of Hanmi Pharmaceuticals; Kris Corzine; Ethan Perlstein, the CEO of Perlara, the first biotech PBC; and a well-known university endowment. 

“We were immediately struck by Orbillion’s focus on high-end, flavorful, hard-to-find meats like lamb, elk, wagyu beef, and bison, their strong science, business, and engineering backgrounds, and the fact that they are so focused on flavor that they literally have a Master Butcher on their advisory board,” said Ali Rohde, GP at Outset Capital, an early-stage venture fund run by Rohde along with repeat entrepreneurs Kanjun Qiu and Josh Albrecht. “Lab-grown meat is the future, and Orbillion Bio is already paving the way.” 

The company said it would use the cash to bring its first product, a Wagyu beef offering, to pilot production.

NASA Launches Astronauts to the ISS on a Reused SpaceX Rocket

By Eric Niiler
The six-month mission is another step toward a moonshot, as SpaceX's Elon Musk says he will land Starship on the lunar surface by 2024.

Passwordstate users warned to ‘reset all passwords’ after attackers plant malicious update

By Zack Whittaker

Click Studios, the Australian software house that develops the enterprise password manager Passwordstate, has warned customers to reset passwords across their organizations after a cyberattack on the password manager.

An email sent by Click Studios to customers said the company had confirmed that attackers had “compromised” the password manager’s software update feature in order to steal customer passwords.

The email, posted on Twitter by Polish news site Niebezpiecznik early on Friday, said the malicious update exposed Passwordstate customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. Once installed, the malicious update contacts the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers. The email also told customers to “commence resetting all passwords contained within Passwordstate.”

🚨 Manager haseł PasswordState został zhackowany a komputery klientów zainfekowane.

Producent informuje ofiary e-mailem.

Ten manager haseł jest "korporacyjny", więc problem będzie dotyczyć przede wszystkim firm… Auć!

(Informacja od Tajemniczego Pedro) pic.twitter.com/PGHhmEKpje

— Niebezpiecznik (@niebezpiecznik) April 23, 2021

Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but emailed customers with a security fix.

The company also said the attacker’s servers were taken down on April 22. But Passwordstate users could still be at risk if the attacker’s are able to get their infrastructure online again.

Enterprise password managers let employees at companies share passwords and other sensitive secrets across their organization, such as network devices — including firewalls and VPNs, shared email accounts, internal databases, and social media accounts. Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.

Although affected customers were notified this morning, news of the breach only became widely known several hours later after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack.

Click Studios chief executive Mark Sanford did not respond to a request for comment outside Australian business hours.

Read more:

Two investors weigh in: Is your SPAC just a PIPE dream?

By Ram Iyer
Hope Cochran Contributor
Hope Cochran is an investor at Madrona Venture Group, where she invests in early stage Fintech and ML/AI Applications for the business environment.
Ishani Ummat Contributor
Ishani Ummat is an investor at Madrona Venture Group who focuses on sourcing and evaluating new investment opportunities, as well as supporting the growth and strategy of current portfolio companies.

This past year has brought many new developments to a historically traditional process: taking a company public. Many of the standard levers in an initial public offering (IPO) are being redefined as we write.

The emergence of direct listings is just one example. Even in more traditional IPOs, we have seen unique lock-up provisions, different auction approaches, virtual and rapid roadshows become the norm, and company-centric approaches to investor allocations.

But clearly the most disruptive trend of the past 12 months has been the predominance of the Special Purpose Acquisition Company, commonly known as SPAC. A SPAC is a company with no commercial operations that is formed strictly to raise capital through an IPO for the purpose of acquiring an existing, private company.

Also known as “blank check companies,” these entities typically have 24 months to find a company to buy or merge with.

That process essentially makes the acquired company a publicly traded one. SPACs can, and generally do, raise additional capital in the form of a PIPE (Private Investment in Public Equity) in order to reaffirm the SPAC valuation and raise additional capital with the identified target company.

SPACs have been around for decades, but they took the 2020 IPO market by storm. For some context: 2020 had more than 248 SPACs — more than the sum of the SPACs in the previous decade. And while SPACs and the general sentiment around them continue to evolve, 2021 started off strong with 298 newly formed blank-check companies to date that have raised a collective $95 billion (vs. $83 billion in 2020). It’s worth noting that there has since been some slow down in new SPAC formation and an uptick in regulatory caution. We expect such shifts to continue in these early days.

For a SPAC, finding a company to merge with in 24 months might sound like a good amount of time, but in reality, the diligence and SEC process can easily consume six months or more. So identifying the target company relatively quickly becomes critical. As a result of this new trend, many private companies are being approached and courted by a number of newly formed SPACs.

SPAC gross proceeds & count

Image Credits: Madrona Venture Capital

At Madrona, we invest in companies early in their journey (often Day One), and walk with them through the years of opportunities, challenges and financing goals. As such, for many of our companies, the conversation around raising capital via a SPAC transaction has come up, and more than once.

How to evaluate the pros and cons of SPACs relative to other financing options can be convoluted and confusing, to say the least.

Are you ready to be a public company?

The fundamental thing to remember about the SPAC process is that the result is a publicly traded company open to the regulatory environment of the SEC and the scrutiny of public shareholders.

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.

This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.

Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.

This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.

SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.

Watch SpaceX launch its second crew of Space Station astronauts on a flight-proven Falcon 9 live

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is set to launch its second operational commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for NASA, with a liftoff time of 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM PDT) on Friday morning. The flight will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA, one from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and one from the ESA (European Space Agency), to the station, where they will begin a regular tour of duty conducting science experiments, and maintaining and upgrading the orbital platform.

This is the second commercial crew mission for SpaceX, which officially qualified its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket for human flight last year. NASA then launched four astronauts using SpaceX’s human-certified launch system later that year in November, becoming the first private company to deliver people to the ISS, and the first American vehicle to do so since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since the end of that program, NASA has relied on buying rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to keep up its representation on the ISS.

There’s already a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the Space Station from that Crew-1 launch last year, and it was relocated to another port on the station earlier this month in preparation for the arrival of the one flying for Crew-2. The Crew-1 Dragon capsule is set to return back to Earth with astronauts on board once they’re relieved by this flight’s crew, likely later this month on April 28.

One major notable change for this launch is the use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster. SpaceX has previously used new boosters fresh from the factory for its human launches, though it has a spotless track record when it comes to booster re-use for its cargo flights. It’s also the first re-use of a dragon spacecraft, and both components of this launch system actually previously supported human launches, with the first stage serving during Crew-1, and the Dragon capsule providing the ride for Demo-2, which flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

The astronauts on today’s flight are Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, as well as Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA and Thomas Pesquet from the ESA. As mentioned, liftoff time is set for 5:49 AM EDT, but SpaceX will begin streaming live hours in advance at approximately 1:30 AM EDT on Friday (10:30 PM PDT on Thursday).

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.

Attack of the robotic SPACs

By Brian Heater

That thing I said the other week about robotics SPACs being relatively few and far between is becoming less and less true. It’s like someone walked down to the local robotics club, explained the admittedly somewhat convoluted methods around robotics mergers and the rest of the industry decided that they, too, wanted to get in on this action.

Joining the list that already includes warehouse automation firm Berkshire-Gray and exoskeleton company Sarcos is Vicarious Surgical. The surgical category is definitely one to keep an eye on going forward for these deals. Not only is it a massive industry with intricate and expensive procedures, it’s one that’s been proven out for several decades now, thanks in no small part to players like Intuitive, which received FDA approval more than 20 years ago for its da Vinci system.

Vicarious has been kicking around since 2015 and has raised $43.2 million to date. The company’s got some big names in its corner, including Bill Gates via the Gates Frontier Fund, as well as backing from the likes of Marc Benioff. The company utilizes virtual reality so surgical operations can be performed remotely. The SPAC deal values the firm at $1.1 billion and will net Vicarious up to $425 million.

Sizable round from Canvas last week, as well. No, not the autonomous cart company acquired by Amazon Robotics a couple of years back. The San Francisco-based robotic drywall startup raised a $24 million Series B. One of the most interesting things we’re seeing out of the robotics construction space isn’t just the potential size of the industry, but the breadth of applications. There are just so many different places where robotics and automation could play a key role in the future.

Image Credits: ANYbotics

One of the bigger surprises of the week is the commercial arrival of ANYbotics’ ANYmal robot. We’ve seen the quadrupedal robot in a number of different iterations over the years. The comparisons to Boston Dynamics’ Spot system is, of course, unavoidable, though the Swiss company has been working on their proprietary tech for several years now.

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising that the first commercial application for the robot is similar to that of Spot. Specifically, it’s designed to patrol potentially unsafe working spaces, including electrical and industrial plants. ANYmal has a customizable array of sensors up top for visual and audio inspections, among others.

Image Credits: University of Tubingen

Here’s a neat project out of Germany’s University of Tubingen. Researchers designed a robot to mimic the movements of an elephant trunk. This early version is comprised of low-cost (and colorful) 3D-printed components that are capable of grasping a range of different objects. The group hopes to one day adapt the technology for industrial grasping applications.

Facebook tests topic targeting for in-stream video ads

By Anthony Ha

Facebook is announcing some new capabilities for video advertisers on Facebook and Instagram, as well as new numbers about the potential audience that those ads might reach.

Numbers first: The company says that there are now 2 billion people each month who watch videos that eligible for in-stream ads. It also says that 70 percent of in-stream ads are watched to completion, with its studies showing that by adding a Facebook In-Stream campaign to ad purchases that already include News Feed and Stories, advertisers saw a median 1.5x increase in ad recall.

When discussing the news with Carolyn Everson, the vice president of Facebook’s global business group, I wondered whether traditional advertisers are comfortable with the company’s metrics. (Back in 2016, the company had to admit that due to an error, it had been inflating video view times, and is still facing criticism about how it handled the situation.)

Everson said Facebook is aiming to be “very specific” with its numbers. She also noted that the company only places in-stream ads in videos that are three minutes or longer, with the ad only playing after a viewer has watched at least 45 seconds (or more, depending on the video).

“I do believe that we are going to be very competitive and consistent with the marketplace,” she said. “Everyone measures these things a little bit differently, but these are numbers that people are going to be very excited about.”

Facebook Video Topics

Image Credits: Facebook

On the product side, the company is starting a global test of In-Stream Video Topics, which will allow advertisers to target their ads not just by audience, but also based on the topic of a given video. In a blog post, Facebook says the initial targeting will include “over 20 Video Topics, like Sports, and over 700 hundred sub-topics such as Baseball, Basketball, Golf, or Swimming.”

Everson said the company will use machine learning technology to classify eligible videos, as well as to ensure that they meet Facebook’s brand safety guidelines.

In addition, Facebook is announcing that it will start testing ads in its short-form Instagram Reels format, initially in India, Brazil, Germany and Australia. These ads can be up to 30 seconds long, and users can interact with them in the same ways they interact with organic Reels content (liking, sharing, skipping).

Facebook sticker ads

And Facebook is testing the sticker ads that it announced last month, which will allow brands to create custom stickers, which creators can then include in their Facebook Stories.

Looking at all the announcements together, Everson (who joined Facebook in 2011) said, “Frankly, for the last 10 years, I’ve been so excited for the moment where we are absolutely ready for prime time in our discussions of online video solutions for marketers. With our news that we are announcing today, we have more than arrived.”

Satellite Vu’s $5M seed round will fuel the launch of its thermal imaging satellites

By Devin Coldewey

Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.

The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

You could verify, for instance, which parts of a power plant are active, when.

Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.

CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.

Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).

“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”

They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.

Simulated image of a Satellite Vu imaging satellite.

Image Credits: Satellite Vu

Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.

It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:

The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.

Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

Another example of the simulated satellite imagery – same camera as will be in orbit, but degraded to resemble shots from that far up.

“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”

With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.

Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.

NASA Lands Ingenuity, the First-Ever Mars Helicopter

By Max G. Levy
The copter safely whirled its way up and back down, demonstrating the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Daily Crunch: Squarespace files to go public

By Anthony Ha

Squarespace is going public, Apple shares some music payment details and Twitter bans the founder of the right-wing media organization Project Veritas. This is your Daily Crunch for April 16, 2021.

The big story: Squarespace files to go public

Squarespace has filed to go public via direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange, under the ticker symbol SQSP. The company behind the popular website builder has seen its revenue grow 28% year-over-year, from $484.8 million in 2019 to $621.1 in 2020. And it reported net income of $30.6 million last year.

Also worth noting: The majority of voting power still rests with founder and CEO Anthony Casalena.

The tech giants

Apple Music streaming revenue detailed in letter to artists — Things start at around a penny-per-stream, which is about double what Spotify pays out.

Google misled consumers over location data settings, Australia court finds — The case relates to personal location data collected by Google through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018.

Twitter bans James O’Keefe of Project Veritas over fake account policy — O’Keefe has already said that he will sue the company for defamation.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Level raises $27M from Khosla, Lightspeed ‘to rebuild insurance from the ground up’ — Level aims to give companies a more flexible way to offer benefits to employees.

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network — Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations.

Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy — Customers ship their products to Soona, then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

The IPO market is sending us mixed messages — Summing up the IPO news from UiPath, Coinbase, Grab, AppLovin and Zenvia.

Data scientists: Bring the narrative to the forefront — In our collective infatuation with data, what’s often overlooked is the role that storytelling plays in extracting real value from it.

Enterprise security attackers are one password away from your worst day — Exabeam’s Ralph Pisani argues that the world has changed, but cybersecurity hasn’t kept pace.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Reform the US low-income broadband program by rebuilding Lifeline — America’s Lifeline program is a monthly subsidy designed to help low-income families afford critical communications services.

GM’s second $2.3B battery plant with LG Chem to open in late 2023 — The plant will supply the automaker with the cells needed for the 30 electric vehicle models it plans to launch by mid decade.

Pakistan temporarily blocks social media — The Pakistani government ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram for several hours today.

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 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

SpaceX wins NASA contract to develop human landing system for returning to the moon

By Darrell Etherington

The winner of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract award is SpaceX, which bid $2.9 billion for the privilege of developing the means by which NASA astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. SpaceX was in the running alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics, but reportedly undercut both those prospective suppliers considerably with its bid, according to The Washington Post.

SpaceX proposed using its Starship spacecraft, currently under development, as the landing vehicle for astronauts once they arrive at their lunar destination. The HLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will begin with uncrewed flights, followed by a Moon fly-by with a human crew, and eventually a human lunar landing at the South Pole of the Moon, during a mission which had been targeting 2024 as its fly date.

NASA announced that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics made up the entirety of its field of approved vendors for bidding on the HLS contracts back in April last year. Since then, both Blue Origin (which bid alongside a “national team” that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics have built full-scale models of their system and submitted proposals detailing their plans for the functional versions to NASA for consideration. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been actively testing functional prototypes of its Starship spacecraft in Texas, and is also in the process of developing the Super Heavy booster that will propel it to the Moon once it’s ready.

The plan here was for NASA to have chosen all three companies to build out initial versions in order to satisfy the early requirements of the contract, and then ultimately, it was generally thought that the agency would select a couple from the list of three to build human landers, in order to provide it with some flexibility when it comes to means of getting to the lunar surface. That’s essentially how NASA operated with its Commercial Crew program for the International Space Station, which saw awards for both SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut transport spacecraft. SpaceX has already qualified and begun to operate its vehicle, and Boeing hopes to bring its option online either late this year or early next.

SpaceX has won a lot of trust at NASA by delivering on the Commercial Crew program with a reliable, reusable human-rated spacecraft in the Crew Dragon. The Post also says that in addition to its attractive pricing, NASA wasn’t drawn to Starship’s flexibility and cargo capacity, since it’s aiming to be able to fly not just humans, but also large quantities of supplies and materials to the Moon, and eventually, beyond.

Starship is a long way off from that goal at the moment, however; SpaceX has been quickly developing new iterations in a rapid prototyping approach to its test phase, but the most recent Starship high-altitude flight ended poorly with an explosion prior to landing. Other elements of the test program, however, including showing that Starship can successfully reorient itself in mid-air and slow its decent for landing, have been more successful on past tests. None of the tests so far have left Earth’s atmosphere, however, nor have they involved any human flight testing, both of which will require a lot more development before the spacecraft is deemed mission-ready.

SpaceX was also the launch provider chosen to deliver components of the Lunar Gateway satellite in 2024, working with Maxar, which will produce the actual Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. These, however, will be delivered via Falcon Heavy, which has already had multiple successful launches.

Squarespace files for a direct listing on the NYSE

By Alex Wilhelm

Today Squarespace, a well-known software-and-hosting provider for SMB websites, released its S-1 filing. The company is pursuing a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange, or NYSE. It will trade under the ticker symbol “SQSP.”

The company’s financial results paint the picture of a rapidly growing company that has a history of profitability. Squarespace also has listed financial results that are inclusive of some share conversions, among other matters. Its pro forma results presume that “all shares of our convertible preferred stock had automatically converted” into different types of common stock. The pro forma results are also inclusive of a private placement, and its recent acquisition of Tock.

It will take some time to unspool that particular knot. For now we’ll stick to Squarespace’s historical results through 2020 without those accoutrements; if you intend to buy shares in the company, you’ll want to understand the more complicated math. For now let’s focus on Squarespace’s own metrics.

In 2019, Squarespace generated revenues of $484.8 million, leading to gross profit of $402.8 million, operating income of $61.3 million and net income of $58.2 million. In 2020 those numbers changed to revenues of $621.1 million, gross profit of $522.8 million, operating income of $40.2 million and net income of $30.6 million.

Squarespace’s revenue grew just over 28% in 2020, compared to 2019.

For reference, its pro forma results for 2020 include a modest revenue gain to $644.2 million, gross profit of $530.5 million, an operating loss of $246.4 million and a net loss of $267.7 million.

Squarespace has a history of cash generation, including operating cash flow of $102.3 million in 2019 and $150.0 million in 2020. The company’s cash flow data explains why Squarespace is not pursuing a traditional IPO. As Squarespace can self-fund, it does not need to sell shares in its public debut.

Turning to Squarespace-specific metrics, the company’s “unique subscriptions” rose from 2.984 million in 2019 to 3.656 million in 2020. Its annual recurring revenue (ARR) rose from $549.2 million to $705.5 million in 2020.

Squarespace’s ARR grew around 28.5% in 2020, a faster pace of expansion than its GAAP revenues.

Per the company’s IPO filing, the company “completed its estimate of the fair value of its Class A common stock for financial reporting purposes as a weighted-average $63.70 per share for shares granted prior to March 11, 2021.” That should help form a reference price measuring stick for now.

Finally, who owns the company? Major shareholders include the company’s founder and CEO Anthony Casalena, who owns just around 76% of the company’s Class B shares, or 49,086,410 total units. Accel has 15,514,196 Class A shares. General Atlantic has 22,361,073 Class A shares and 4,958,345 Class B shares, while Index Ventures has 19,460,619 of the Class A equity.

The majority of voting power rests with the company’s CEO, with 68.2% control. Public market investors will have to vet how much they like having zero say in the company’s future direction.

Regardless, this is going to be a fascinating debut. More shortly.

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