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Watch Sacha Baron Cohen skewer Zuckerberg’s ‘twisted logic’ on hate speech and fakes

By Natasha Lomas

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate about social media regulation.

In an award-acceptance speech to the Anti-Defamation League yesterday, the creator of Ali G and Borat delivered a precision take-down of what he called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “bullshit” arguments against regulating his platform.

The speech is well worth watching in full as Cohen articulates, with a comic’s truth-telling clarity, the problem with “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (aka social media platform giants) and how to fix it: Broadcast-style regulation that sets basic standards and practices of what content isn’t acceptable for them to amplify to billions.

“There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

Attacking social media platforms for promulgating “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet,” he pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.

“This can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind,” he said. “I believe that’s it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”

“Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people,” he added.

Cohen also rubbished Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University in which the Facebook founder sought to appropriate the mantle of “free speech” to argue against social media regulation.

“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people — including some of the most reprehensible people in history — the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

“We are not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society, we just want them to be responsible on their platforms,” Cohen added.

On Facebook’s decision to stick by its morally bankrupt position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hatefully propaganda, Cohen also had this to say: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’ ”

Ouch.

YouTube also came in for criticism during the speech, including for its engagement-driven algorithmic recommendation engine which Cohen pointed out had single-handedly recommended videos by conspiracist Alex Jones “billions of times.”

Just six people decide what information “so much of the world sees,” he noted, name-checking the “silicon six” — as he called Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

“All billionaires, all Americans, who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism,” he went on. “Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

“It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”

Cohen ended the speech with an appeal for societies to “prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses” and thereby save democracy from the greed of “high tech robber barons.”

Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

By Jake Bright

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and communications and media.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource plans to upgrade the features of its platform. It also opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers — to determine the problems their trying to solve and their sources of input data — and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

Samasource converted to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on the $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with Samasource. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder thinks that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grow,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased staff in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150% in 2020, its CEO said.

San Diego-based Founders First Capital Partners gets $100 million for revenue-based fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.

The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.

The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.

Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.

At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.

The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.

The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.

It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.

“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.

Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.

Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.

But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.

“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth.  We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”

Clumio raises $135M Series C for its backup as a service platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Clumio, a 100-people startup that offers a SaaS-like service for enterprise backup, today announced that it has raised a $135 million Series C round, led by existing investor Sutter Hill Ventures and new investor Altimeter Captial. The announcement comes shortly after the company’s disclosure in August that it had quietly raised a total of $51 million in Series A and B rounds in 2017 and 2018. The company says it plans to use this new funding to “accelerate its vision to deliver a globally consolidated data protection service in and for the public cloud.”

Given the amount of money invested in the company, chances are Clumio is getting close to a $1 billion valuation, but the company is not disclosing its valuation at this point.

The overall mission of Clumio is to build a platform on public clouds that gives enterprises a single data protection service that can handle backups of their data in on-premises, cloud and SaaS applications. When it came out of stealth, the company’s focus was on VMware on premises. Since then, the team has expanded this to include VMware running on public clouds.

“When somebody moves to the cloud, they don’t want to be in the business of managing software or infrastructure and all that, because the whole reason to move to the cloud was essentially to get away from the mundane,” explained Clumio CEO and co-founder Poojan Kumar.

The next step in this process, as the company also announced today, is to make it easier for enterprises to protect the cloud-native applications they are building now. The company today launched this service for AWS and will likely expand it to other clouds like Microsoft Azure, soon.

The market for enterprise backup is only going to expand in the coming years. We’ve now reached a point, after all, where it’s not unheard of to talk about enterprises that run thousands of different applications. For them, Clumio wants to become the one-stop-shop for all things data protection — and its investors are obviously buying into the company’s vision and momentum.

“When there’s a foundational change, like the move to the cloud, which is as foundational a change, at least, as the move from mainframe to open systems in the 80s and 90s,” said Mike Speiser, Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures . “When there’s a change like that, you have to re-envision, you have to refactor and think of the world — the new world — in a new way and start from scratch. If you don’t, what’s gonna end up happening is people make decisions that are short term decisions that seem like they will work but end up being architectural dead ends. And those companies never ever end up winning. They just never end up winning and that’s the opportunity right now on this big transition across many markets, including the backup market for Clumio.”

Speiser also noted that SaaS allows for a dramatically larger market opportunity for companies like Clumio. “What SaaS is doing, is it’s not only allowing us to go after the traditional Silicon Valley, high end, direct selling, expensive markets that were previously buying high-end systems and data centers. But what we’re seeing — and we’re seeing this with Snowflake and […] we will see it with Clumio — is there’s an opportunity to go after a much broader market opportunity.”

Starting next year, Clumio will expand that market by adding support for data protection for a first SaaS app, with more to follow, as well as support for backup in more regions and clouds. Right now, the service’s public cloud tool focuses on AWS — and only in the United States. Next year, it plans to support international regions as well.

Kumar stressed that he wants to build Clumio for the long run, with an IPO as part of that roadmap. His investors probably wouldn’t mind that, either.

Sweden drops rape investigation into WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange

By Natasha Lomas

Sweden has dropped an investigation into WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, on allegations of suspected rape.

In a statement today the country’s prosecution authority said the evidence has “weakened considerably” in the almost a decade that’s elapsed since the events in question.

“I would like to emphasise that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events. Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed; however, my overall assessment is that the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation,” said Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecution.

The prosecutor had only announced in May that it was reopening an investigation into allegations of sexual offences which date back to August 2010. The investigation was earlier discontinued in 2017 but reopened at the request of the lawyer for the alleged victim following Assange’s arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after the country withdrew diplomatic immunity.

After his arrest Assange was convicted for violating bail conditions and sent to Belmarsh prison in London where he remains.

He is now facing potential extradition to the US which quickly instigated extradition proceedings against him — initially charging Assange with conspiracy to hack into a classified computer, and then additional charges under the Espionage Act.

The extradition hearing is due to take place in February 2020 after a UK judge denied a request by Assange’s lawyers to delay proceedings to give him more time to prepare his defence.

When Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 it was an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden. The WikiLeaks founder claimed he would be at risk of extradition to the US. But after spending some seven years of self-imposed incarceration in Knightsbridge he faces a major legal fight to stave off the same outcome.

Salesforce wants to bring voice to the workplace

By Frederic Lardinois

At its annual Dreamforce mega-conference in San Francisco, Salesforce today introduced the next steps in its Einstein Voice project, which it first announced last year. Einstein Voice is the company’s AI voice assistant. You can think of it as Salesforce’s Alexa or Google Assistant, but with a more focused mission.

During a briefing ahead of the event, Salesforce Chief Product Officer Bret Taylor showed off an Einstein and Alexa enabled Einstein speaker (Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff was supposed to be at the meeting, too, but for unknown reasons, he didn’t show) — and yes, it looked like Salesforce’s Einstein cartoon figure and its voluminous white hair lit up when it responded to queries. The company isn’t planning on making these devices available to the public, but it does show off the work the company has done with Amazon to integrate the service (though is by no means an Amazon -exclusive since the company is also working to bring Einstein to Google devices).

The theory here, as Taylor explained, is that having access to Salesforce data through voice will enable salespeople to quickly enter data into Salesforce when they are on the go and to ask the system questions about their data. The company argues that while voice assistants have found a place in the home, there are a lot of upsides to bringing it to businesses as well. That means a system has to account for the security needs of enterprises, too, as well as the fact that there is a wide range of different user personas it has to account for.

“We’re really excited about the idea of voice in businesses — the idea that every business can have an AI guide to their business decisions,” Taylor said. “I view it as part of this progression of technology. Computers and software started in the terminal with a keyboard, thanks to Xerox Parc moved to a mouse and graphic user interface, and then thanks to Steve Jobs, moved to a touchscreen, which I think is probably the dominant form factor for computers nowadays. And voice is really that next step.”

This next step, Taylor argues, will allow companies to rethink how people interact with software and data. With voice, Einstein, which is Salesforce’s catch-all name for its AI products, has a “seat at the table,” he noted because you can simply as the system a question if you need additional data during a conversation. But the real mission here is to bring these tools to every business — not just to Salesforce’s executive meetings.

To enable this, Salesforce is launching a tool that will allow anybody within a company to quickly build basic Einstein skills to pull up data from Salesforce. These skills focus on data input and relatively basic queries, for now. During a demo ahead of the event, the team showed off how easy it would be to enable a manager to ask about the current sales performance of his team, for example. By now means, though, is this tool as rich as products like Google’s DialogFlow or Microsoft’s Azure Bot Service. It’s nowhere near as flexible yet, but the team notes that it’s still early days and that it is working on enabling the ability to have more complex dialogs with Einstein in the future, for example.

To be honest, it’s hard not to look at this as a bit of a gimmick. There are probably real use cases here, that every company will have to define for itself. Maybe there are salespeople who indeed want to use a voice interface to update their CRM system after a customer meeting, for example. Or they may want to ask about the value of an account while they are in the car. In many ways, though, this feels like a technology looking for a problem, despite Salesforce’s protestations that customers are asking for this.

Some of the other uses cases here, which the company didn’t really highlight all that much in its briefing, seem far more compelling. It’s using Einstein Voice to coach call center agents by analyzing calls to pull out insights and trends from sales call transcripts. It’s also launching Service Cloud Voice, which integrates telephony inside the company’s Service Cloud. Using a built-in transcription service, Einstein can listen to the call in real time and proactively provide sales teams and call center agents with relevant information. Those use cases may not be quite as exciting, but in the end, they may generate for more value for companies than having yet another voice assistant for which they have to build their own skills, using what is, at least for the time being, a rather limited tool.

Gremlin brings Chaos Engineering as a Service to Kubernetes

By Ron Miller

The practice of Chaos Engineering developed at Amazon and Netflix a decade ago to help these web scale test their systems for worst case scenarios before they happened. Gremlin was started by a former employee of both these companies to make it easier to perform this type of testing without a team of Site Reliability Engineers (SREs). Today, the company announced that it now supports chaos engineering-style testing on Kubernetes clusters.

The company made the announcement at the beginning of KubeCon, the Kubernetes conference taking place in San Diego this week.

Gremlin co-founder and CEO Kolton Andrus says that the idea is to be able to test and configure Kubernetes clusters so they will not fail, or at least reduce the likelihood. He says to do this it’s critical to run chaos testing in live environments, whether you’re testing Kubernetes clusters or anything else, but it’s also a bit dangerous to do be doing this. He says to mitigate the risk, best practices suggest that you limit the experiment to the smallest test possible that gives you the most information.

“We can come in and say I’m going to deal with just these clusters. I want to cause failure here to understand what happens in Kubernetes when these pieces fail. For instance, being able to see what happens when you pause the scheduler. The goal is being able to help people understand this concept of the blast radius, and safely guide them to running an experiment,” Andrus explained.

In addition, Gremlin is helping customers harden their Kubernetes clusters to help prevent failures with a set of best practices. “We clearly have the tooling that people need [to conduct this type of testing], but we’ve also learned through many, many customer interactions and experiments to help them really tune and configure their clusters to be fault tolerant and resilient,” he said.

The Gremlin interface is designed to facilitate this kind of targeted experimentation. You can check the areas you want to apply a test, and you can see graphically what parts of the system are being tested. If things get out of control, there is a kill switch to stop the tests.

Gremlin Kubernetes testing screen. Screenshot: Gremlin

Gremlin launched in 2016. Its headquarters are in San Jose. It offers both a freemium and pay product. The company has raised almost $27 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Bolt Bikes launches e-bike subscription platform for gig delivery workers in US, UK

By Kirsten Korosec

Bolt Bikes, the Sydney, Australia-based startup founded in 2017, is taking its electric bike platform designed for gig economy delivery workers to the U.S. and UK.

The company is expanding on the heels of a $2.5 million seed round led by Maniv Mobility, European e-mobility firm Contrarian Ventures, individual investors and former executives of Uber and Deliveroo . The company was founded by Mina Nada, former Deliveroo and Mobike executive) and Michael Johnson, a former Bain & Co executive.

Bolt Bikes now provides its flexible subscriptions, which include vehicle servicing, in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, San Francisco and London. The company sells its electric bikes. But the main premise is to rent them out for commercial use. The electric bikes are rented on a week-to-week contract for $39.

The Bolt Bikes platform includes a the electric bike, fleet management software, financing and servicing. Subscribers get 24-hour access to the bike. A battery charger, phone holder, phone USB port, secure U-Lock and safety induction is included. Bolt Bikes also offers the first week as a free trial.

“Being in the food delivery industry since its inception, we saw that light electric vehicles were the real future of ‘last mile’ logistics, yet no-one was offering the right vehicle, financing or maintenance solution,” Nada said in a statement.

Bolt Bikes has piqued the interest of more than investors. Postmates has been piloting a Bolt Bikes rental program in San Francisco since June.

And the company has aspirations to increase its fleet and to expand to more cities in the U.S., UK and Australia.

These sneakers vibrate

By Jordan Crook

Sometimes it seems like you can hear a song all the way in your toes. With these new sneakers, you actually can.

Meet the new EP 01 sneakers out of DropLabs. Yes, you read that right. We’re talking about sneakers.

Invented by a man named Ross Seiler, and led by former Beats by Dre CEO Susan Paley, DropLabs aims to take audio to a whole new level by syncing music, movies and other audio to shoes that vibrate the soles of your feet.

It started when Seiler, who works in the music industry, was standing in a side room at a recording studio while a band was recording. He could feel every beat and low note in the song in his feet while standing over this particular patch of floor, and wanted to experience all music like that, as though he could feel the energy of the stage itself.

Eventually, Paley signed on as CEO of DropLabs and the EP 01 was born.

The EP 01 is a slightly chunky sneaker that’s equipped with Bluetooth, a speaker-grade transducer, and a power source to sync with almost any audio. As a movie or music or video game plays, the sneaker picks up the audio and sends it as a perfectly synced vibration right to the soles of your feet. For big, thunderous steps of a T-Rex in Jurassic World, the vibrations are heavy and full. For the pitter patter of the townspeoples’ footsteps in Red Dead Redemption II, the vibrations are light and muted.

What’s more, the vibrations are slightly directional. Noise that’s coming from the right vibrates on the right, and vice versa, which can be particularly impactful while playing video games.

Indeed, Paley sees gaming as a huge opportunity to enter the market. Audio, and particularly good directional audio, is incredibly important for gamers who compete at a high level. The growth of esports has allowed a number of brands to emerge as the “X for gamers”, not least of which being energy drinks.

DropLabs has an opportunity to market to gamers, offering a more immersive experience across their games and potentially even a competitive advantage.

Paley explained to TechCrunch that the brain actually functions at a higher level when three or more of the senses are engaged. Feeling something, alongside hearing and seeing it, flips a switch when it comes to processing information.

For this reason, Paley sees a huge potential to target gamers as an early demographic, particularly big name streamers and gaming influencers.

In fact, DropLabs has given the shoes to various researchers and universities around the country to learn more about how these shoes might be used. After meeting with them, Paley believes that there are applications that extend well beyond entertainment and into the health space.

I got a chance to try on the shoes and play around with them for a little while last week, and while I’d like to reserve my complete thoughts for a proper review, it goes without saying that wearing the shoes surely leaves an impression.

[gallery ids="1911372,1911373,1911374,1911375,1911376"]

But the EP 01 have challenges ahead.

For one, the shoes cost upwards of $500. It’s a mighty high price point for a gadget that most folks will need to try before they feel committed to buying.

“Whenever you create a new category and a new product, you have the challenge of asking consumers to change their behavior,” said Paley. “And this, in particular, is so visceral. How do you communicate viscerally what is an emotional experience? You can talk about it, but it’s very different to put someone in the shoe.”

The EP 01 must also find their place in a category that’s defined by fashion and personal style. Our shoes say something about us, and for now, the EP 01 comes in one style and one color (black). It’s as universal a shoe as it can be, considering all the electronics packed in there, but it doesn’t leave customers many options to change up their own look.

Of course, DropLabs is deep in the learning phase, soaking up as much information about its first-gen sneaker as possible as it looks to iterate for v2.

The EP 01 is available for pre-order now, and DropLabs has plans to launch pop-up shops and other IRL experiences for folks interested in the shoes.

Corporate, public investments spur interest in Pacific Northwest startups

By Walter Thompson
Dan Burgar Contributor
Dan Burgar is President of the Vancouver VR/AR Association, where he has helped develop the city's ecosystem into the second largest VR/AR hub globally. He's also a partner at Shape Immersive, which creates innovative solutions for top brands and enterprises.
Kate Wilson Contributor
Kate Wilson is a Vancouver-based journalist. Previously technology editor at the Georgia Straight, Western Canada’s largest news and entertainment weekly, she has also written for The Independent, BetaKit, BC Business, and others.

Cities have always been America’s centers of power, driving the economy forward through competition. But now, they’re ceasing to lead the country’s innovation.

As jobs and talent have clustered, expertise has spilled over urban boundaries. In locations like the Gulf Coast, Texas Triangle, Great Lakes and Southern California, metropolitan areas are cooperating across borders to share new ideas. Eleven of these have earned the title of “megaregion,” and they host some of the continent’s cutting-edge centers of technology.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor — the strip of land down the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada to Portland, Oregon — is perhaps the best example. Home to powerhouses like Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Lululemon, Boeing and Intel, the area has seen large investments from companies hoping to encourage further cooperation. Over the past five years, state and provincial governments have signed formal agreements for collaboration, and executive-filled conferences are being held to encourage new partnerships.

Why are businesses and government organizations investing so much into the region? Challenge Seattle CEO and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire believes it’s the evolution of a trend that’s been unfolding for decades.

“For many years, a number of international companies from Seattle have been putting Canadian headquarters in Vancouver,” she says. “So without anybody deliberately thinking about how we could work together, it was already actually happening. These organizations have decided to capitalize on [what] was happening from the ground up, and build out a vision, and bring us all together so we can really magnify the success of what’s already happening on the ground.”

Local support

The West Coast’s urban centers are linked by more than shared geography and, as Gregoire jokes, a love of the Seattle Seahawks — the Pacific Northwest is characterized by an open and inclusive culture, heterogeneous populations and creating technology with a focus on social good. Economically, too, there are similarities. West Coast cities have historically turned to Asian and South Asian markets for trade, as well as looking to each other. Washington State exports more to British Columbia than it does to all other Canadian provinces combined, and if Washington State were a country, it would represent B.C.’s third-largest international export market

For Bill Tam, a member of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee and former president of BC Tech, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have different reasons to support the megaregion.

“In Vancouver, which has a great startup ecosystem, a lot of those companies and a lot of the research organizations have really bought into this idea of being part of something bigger and more substantive,” he says. “I think on the U.S. side, what was interesting was that we saw the impetus come from larger companies — particularly Microsoft, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone from the Nordstroms to the REIs really see the value in learning and working together to try and build leverage, and to accelerate the things they want to do.”

Tam’s hope for the region’s success comes from its ability to share resources across cities. Vancouver, for instance, is known for its highly-educated workforce: the location’s nature-filled setting and welcoming immigration policies attracts many qualified tech employees. With its industry focused on startups, though, it lacks larger brands and anchor companies that would help propel it onto the global stage. 

The Seattle area, however, has the opposite problem. America’s tight immigration regulations make it hard for companies to secure qualified talent, but the influence of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon mean the city is a hotbed for international investment and innovation. By joining forces — and by integrating Portland, which sits somewhere between both poles — the Cascadia region, Tam believes, can emerge as a powerful global competitor. 

“I think the long-term vision for Cascadia is to feel like it is an economic region that is not only the best place to build new innovations, but also a cohesive area that understands the values of collaboration,” he says. “It ties together all the responsible aspects of how we live — whether it’s on the sustainability agenda, the environment agenda, and how we actually treat each other as an open and diverse society.”

Vancouver Skyline, (lee robinson) unsplash

Photo: Lee Robinson/Unsplash

Areas of expertise

Aside from giants Amazon and Microsoft’s dominance in ecommerce, software, and cloud-based computing, the area has spawned niche areas of expertise. President and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia Greg D’Avignon believes those sectors will help elevate Cascadia’s profile.

“There’s a myriad of interesting companies here in British Columbia that are driving innovation,” he says. “In the quantum space, there’s D-Wave Systems, 1QBit, and others. D-Wave is the first commercial quantum computing company in the world, and it’s driving significant and complex computations on datasets to try to resolve issues that are endemic to challenges we have in terms of climate, personal health, aging, and growing populations. Life sciences is another important sector. There are some very interesting companies in the personalized medicine and health business — we’ve got Zymeworks […] and a myriad of other companies [that] are changing the nature of population-based healthcare.”

The region is also well-regarded in the virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) space. Microsoft developed one of the leading AR headsets — the HoloLens — in the Pacific Northwest, and Vancouver has since been recognized as the world’s second-largest VR and AR ecosystem. More than 230 companies are located in the city, drawing on its history of gaming and visual effects to develop everything from surgical-training software to AAA-aspiring titles.

As well as individual successes in the consumer blockchain space with viral game Cryptokitties and data aggregation with Hootsuite, Cascadia is known for technical apparel, with the likes of Lululemon, REI, Eddie Bauer, Arc’teryx, and Nike choosing the region as their home. With Amazon’s monopoly on online retail, the West Coast leads North America in merchandizing tech.

“When we talk about some of the foundational pillars in the corridor, we’re talking about the movement of people and goods across the border,” D’Avignon says. “We’re talking about bringing together postsecondary in a way that is important. That’s all rooted deeply in how we look at making this region better. And then as we learn, how do we share that learning and those commercial opportunities with the rest of the world?”

Talking to Zero Motorcycles’ CEO and taking home the 2020 SR/F

By Jake Bright

The motorcycle industry is shifting to electric. Harley-Davidson signaled the trend this year, becoming the first big gas manufacturer to release a street-legal e-motorcycle in the U.S., the LiveWire.

But before Harley’s EV pivot, California-based startup Zero Motorcycles had been selling e-motos for years.

“We’re an electric motorcycle and power-train manufacturer founded in 2006 in Santa Cruz, California…we’re sold in over 30 countries,” Zero CEO Sam Paschel told TechCrunch.

“Fundamentally we aim to transform and elevate the motorcycling experience and by doing that we expect to make a huge dent in transforming transportation globally.”

Toward that aim, Zero recently released the all-new 2020, SR/F — a $19K high-performance e-motorcycle and competitor to Harley Davidson’s $29K LiveWire.

TechCrunch took an SR/F home to experience going full e-moto. The biggest distinction between e-motorcycles — versus gas two-wheelers — is lightning acceleration and uninterrupted forward movement.

Zero’s SRF has a magnet motor and one gear — with no clutch or shifting — and fewer mechanical parts to put the 14.4 kWh battery’s 140 ft-lbs of torque to the pavement.

You simply twist and go.

The SR/F is a fully digital, IoT motorcycle that syncs to a smartphone and the cloud to monitor charge status or adjust performance. It has preset riding modes  — Eco, Street, Sport, and Rain — for different combinations of power and range. The EV also allows for customized riding modes dialed in via smartphone.

Zero Ride Mode GIFOne can power Zero’s sporty e-moto from a household outlet or use fast-charging networks — like ChargePoint — for a full battery in around 80 minutes.

Zero’s SR/F has a range of up to 161 miles in the city, where it can recharge itself marginally through regenerative braking. For a combination of city, highway, an sport riding, I averaged around 100 miles a charge, alternating between riding modes.

On performance, Zero’s new sport-entry hauls ass. Going 0 to 60 at full power on the new SR/F is a rush, while 60 to 100 speed is so fast it’s downright frightening.  Overall, the e-moto’s acceleration is stronger and more constant than internal combustion machines, with no emissions and little sound.

Zero’s CEO Sam Paschel thinks the distinct electric motorcycle experience can convert gas riders

“We have what we consider enthusiasts…These are people that are avid motorcycle riders…What we find with them is they throw a leg over a Zero…have an electric motorcycle experience, it’s fundamentally different…They fall in love, they buy one,” he said.

Zero’s e-motos — starting at around $9K for the entry level FX — are also attracting a younger generation, according to the startup’s CEO.

“They’re an early adopter of new technology. They love the idea — whether it’s the performance elements the riding experience, green or eco elements of having electric vehicle — and we’re actually drawing them into the sport in a way that they wouldn’t have been drawn in by internal combustion,” he said.

Zero Chargepoint 1Paschel is undaunted by Harley’s EV debut or the other big gas motorcycle manufacturers entering the E-market.

“You have a major OEM that’s launched a bike into the space that we have been defining and creating for over a decade. Of course, the nature of that relationship is fundamentally competitive,” he said.

“The question I get more often is…are we concerned? Are we worried or scared of any OEMs entering? And The answer is no. This is actually the most exciting thing that’s happened in the space in a long time,” said Paschel.

“A rising tide is going to lift all ships, and…I’m more than confident that we will capture more than our fair share of a rapidly growing market simply because this is all we do. And we spent 13 years, millions of miles, and a lot of time doing this just right.”

Both Zero and Harley are banking on e-motos to reboot a flailing U.S. motorcycle industry. New bike sales dropped 50% since 2008 — with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40.

Zero has worked to close gaps on price, range, charge times, and performance compared to petrol-powered motorcycles.

The startup is not alone. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S. Other competitors include California based Lightning Motorcycles and e-moto startup Fuell, with plans to release its $10K, 150 mile range Flow this year.

Of course, there’s already been some speed-bumps and market attrition, with three e-moto startups — Alta Motors, Mission Motors, and Brammo — forced to power down over the last several years.

Zero looks to its head start and proprietary technology to win in the electric conversion of motorcycles.

The company has also received partnership inquiries

“It’s not something that we are actively seeking…I will tell you that there’s a lot of inbound interest. I think people were waking up and realizing that that transition is much closer than they thought it was…We’ve had conversations from a list of OEMS, many of whom you would recognize,” said Paschel.

Still, Zero is likely to ride on alone, according to its CEO.

“Right now it’s an inherently competitive relationship with a lot of those guys, so it would have to be the right deal…But right now we’re fiercely competitive company. We’re in a competition with all these brands.”

ZERO SRF TC IIZero’s SR/F could be the sweet spot of tech, price, range, and performance it has been striving toward to finally go mass market and compete with those brands.

And with Zero and Harley growing e-moto market share, expect big names still on the sidelines — Honda, Ducati, Kawasaki — to debut production EVs soon.

With that, the electrification of the motorcycle industry will become another facet of the transformation of global mobility.

Where top VCs are investing in fintech

By Arman Tabatabai

Over the past several years, ‘fintech’ has quietly become the unsung darling of venture.

A rapidly swelling pool of new startups is taking aim at the large incumbent institutions, complex processes and outdated unfriendly interfaces that mar billion dollar financial services verticals, such as insurtech, consumer lending, personal finance, or otherwise.  

In just the past summer, the startup community saw a multitude of hundred-million dollar fintech fundraises. In 2018, fintech companies were the source of close to 1,300 venture deals worth over $15 billion in North America and Europe alone according to data from Pitchbook. Over the same period, KPMG estimates that over $52 billion in investment pour into fintech initiatives globally. 

With the non-stop stream of venture capital flowing into the never-ending list of spaces that fall under the ‘fintech’ umbrella, we asked 12 leading fintech VCs who work at firms that span early to growth stages to share where they see the most opportunity and how they see the market evolving over the long-term.

The participants touched on a number of key trends in the space, including rapid innovation in fintech infrastructure, fintech companies embedding themselves in specific verticals and platforms, rebundling and unbundling of financial services offerings, the rise of challenger banks and the state of fintech valuations into 2020.

Charles Birnbaum, Partner, Bessemer Venture Partners

The great ‘rebundling’ of fintech innovation is in full swing. The emerging consumer leaders in fintech — Chime, SoFi, Robinhood, Credit Karma, and Bessemer portfolio company Betterment — are moving quickly to increase their share of wallet with their valuable customers and become a one-stop-shop for people’s financial lives.

In 2020, we anticipate continued entrepreneurial activity and investor enthusiasm around the infrastructure and middleware layers within the fintech ecosystem that are enabling further rebundling and a rapid convergence of product themes and business models across the consumer fintech landscape.

Many players now look like potential challenger bank models more akin to what we have seen unfold in Europe the past few years. Within consumer fintech, we at Bessemer are more focused on demographically-specific product offerings that tap into underserved themes, whether that be the financial problems facing the aging population in the US or new models to serve the underbanked or underserved population of consumers and small businesses.

Ian Sigalow, Co-founder & Partner, Greycroft

What trends are you most excited in fintech from an investing perspective? 

I suspect that many enterprise software companies become fintech companies over time — collecting payments on behalf of customers and growing revenues as your customers grow. We have seen this trend in many industries over the past few years. Business owners generally prefer a model that moves IT expenditures from Operating Expenses into Cost of Goods Sold, because they can increase prices and pass their entire budget onto the customer.

On the consumer side, we have already made investments in branchless banking, insurance (auto, home, health, workers comp), cross-border payments, alternative investments, loyalty cards/services, and roboadvisor services. The companies we funded are already a few years old, and I think we will have some interesting follow-on activity there over the next few years. We have been picking spots where we think we have an unfair competitive advantage.

Our fintech portfolio is also more global than other sectors we invest in. This is because there are opportunities to achieve billion dollar outcomes in fintech, even in countries that are much smaller than the United States. That is not true in many other sectors.

We have also seen trends emerge in the US and move abroad. As an example we seeded Flutterwave, which is similar to Stripe, and they have expanded across Africa. We were also the lead investor in Yeahka, which is similar to Square in China. These products are heavily localized —tin for instance Yeahka is the largest processor of QR code payments in the world, but QR code payments are not popular in the US yet.

How much time are you spending on fintech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

Fintech is about a quarter of my time right now. We continue to see interesting new ideas and the valuations have been more or less consistent over time. The broader market doesn’t impact us very much because we tend to have a 10 year holding period.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

The 7 most important announcements from Microsoft Ignite

By Frederic Lardinois

It’s Microsoft Ignite this week, the company’s premier event for IT professionals and decision-makers. But it’s not just about new tools for role-based access. Ignite is also very much a forward-looking conference that keeps the changing role of IT in mind. And while there isn’t a lot of consumer news at the event, the company does tend to make a few announcements for developers, as well.

This year’s Ignite was especially news-heavy. Ahead of the event, the company provided journalists and analysts with an 87-page document that lists all of the news items. If I counted correctly, there were about 175 separate announcements. Here are the top seven you really need to know about.

Azure Arc: you can now use Azure to manage resources anywhere, including on AWS and Google Cloud

What was announced: Microsoft was among the first of the big cloud vendors to bet big on hybrid deployments. With Arc, the company is taking this a step further. It will let enterprises use Azure to manage their resources across clouds — including those of competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. It’ll work for Windows and Linux Servers, as well as Kubernetes clusters, and also allows users to take some limited Azure data services with them to these platforms.

Why it matters: With Azure Stack, Microsoft already allowed businesses to bring many of Azure’s capabilities into their own data centers. But because it’s basically a local version of Azure, it only worked on a limited set of hardware. Arc doesn’t bring all of the Azure Services, but it gives enterprises a single platform to manage all of their resources across the large clouds and their own data centers. Virtually every major enterprise uses multiple clouds. Managing those environments is hard. So if that’s the case, Microsoft is essentially saying, let’s give them a tool to do so — and keep them in the Azure ecosystem. In many ways, that’s similar to Google’s Anthos, yet with an obvious Microsoft flavor, less reliance on Kubernetes and without the managed services piece.

Microsoft launches Project Cortex, a knowledge network for your company

What was announced: Project Cortex creates a knowledge network for your company. It uses machine learning to analyze all of the documents and contracts in your various repositories — including those of third-party partners — and then surfaces them in Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams and its Office apps when appropriate. It’s the company’s first new commercial service since the launch of Teams.

Why it matters: Enterprises these days generate tons of documents and data, but it’s often spread across numerous repositories and is hard to find. With this new knowledge network, the company aims to surface this information proactively, but it also looks at who the people are who work on them and tries to help you find the subject matter experts when you’re working on a document about a given subject, for example.

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Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

What was announced: Microsoft is combining its ConfigMgr and Intune services that allow enterprises to manage the PCs, laptops, phones and tablets they issue to their employees under the Endpoint Manager brand. With that, it’s also launching a number of tools and recommendations to help companies modernize their deployment strategies. ConfigMgr users will now also get a license to Intune to allow them to move to cloud-based management.

Why it matters: In this world of BYOD, where every employee uses multiple devices, as well as constant attacks against employee machines, effectively managing these devices has become challenging for most IT departments. They often use a mix of different tools (ConfigMgr for PCs, for example, and Intune for cloud-based management of phones). Now, they can get a single view of their deployments with the Endpoint Manager, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described as one of the most important announcements of the event, and ConfigMgr users will get an easy path to move to cloud-based device management thanks to the Intune license they now have access to.

Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

What was announced: Microsoft’s Chromium-based version of Edge will be generally available on January 15. The release candidate is available now. That’s the culmination of a lot of work from the Edge team, and, with today’s release, the company is also adding a number of new privacy features to Edge that, in combination with Bing, offers some capabilities that some of Microsoft’s rivals can’t yet match, thanks to its newly enhanced InPrivate browsing mode.

Why it matters: Browsers are interesting again. After years of focusing on speed, the new focus is now privacy, and that’s giving Microsoft a chance to gain users back from Chrome (though maybe not Firefox). At Ignite, Microsoft also stressed that Edge’s business users will get to benefit from a deep integration with its updated Bing engine, which can now surface business documents, too.

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You can now try Microsoft’s web-based version of Visual Studio

What was announced: At Build earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would soon launch a web-based version of its Visual Studio development environment, based on the work it did on the free Visual Studio Code editor. This experience, with deep integrations into the Microsoft-owned GitHub, is now live in a preview.

Why it matters: Microsoft has long said that it wants to meet developers where they are. While Visual Studio Online isn’t likely to replace the desktop-based IDE for most developers, it’s an easy way for them to make quick changes to code that lives in GitHub, for example, without having to set up their IDE locally. As long as they have a browser, developers will be able to get their work done..

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

What was announced: Power Virtual Agents is Microsoft’s new no-code/low-code tool for building chatbots. It leverages a lot of Azure’s machine learning smarts to let you create a chatbot with the help of a visual interface. In case you outgrow that and want to get to the actual code, you can always do so, too.

Why it matters: Chatbots aren’t exactly at the top of the hype cycle, but they do have lots of legitimate uses. Microsoft argues that a lot of early efforts were hampered by the fact that the developers were far removed from the user. With a visual too, though, anybody can come in and build a chatbot — and a lot of those builders will have a far better understanding of what their users are looking for than a developer who is far removed from that business group.

Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

What was announced: Cortana lives — and it now also has a male voice. But more importantly, Microsoft launched a few new focused Cortana-based experiences that show how the company is focusing on its voice assistant as a tool for productivity. In Outlook on iOS (with Android coming later), Cortana can now read you a summary of what’s in your inbox — and you can have a chat with it to flag emails, delete them or dictate answers. Cortana can now also send you a daily summary of your calendar appointments, important emails that need answers and suggest focus time for you to get actual work done that’s not email.

Why it matters: In this world of competing assistants, Microsoft is very much betting on productivity. Cortana didn’t work out as a consumer product, but the company believes there is a large (and lucrative) niche for an assistant that helps you get work done. Because Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of consumer data, but does have lots of data about your work, that’s probably a smart move.

GettyImages 482028705 1

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 02: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bonus: Microsoft agrees with you and thinks meetings are broken — and often it’s the broken meeting room that makes meetings even harder. To battle this, the company today launched Managed Meeting Rooms, which for $50 per room/month lets you delegate to Microsoft the monitoring and management of the technical infrastructure of your meeting rooms.

TC Sessions: Mobility returns In 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Companies are racing to deploy autonomous vehicles and flying cars, scale their scooter operations and adjust to headwinds in the vehicle subscription and car-sharing businesses. At the center of the mobility maelstrom is TechCrunch. 

TechCrunch held its inaugural TC Sessions: Mobility event in summer 2019 with a mission to do more than highlight the next new thing. We aimed to dig into the how and why, the cost and impact to cities, people and companies, as well as the numerous challenges that lie along the way, from technological and regulatory to capital and consumer pressures.

We met our goal, and now we’re back to push further with TC Sessions: Mobility 2020.

Attendees of TC Sessions: Mobility can expect interviews with founders, investors and inventors, demos of the latest tech, breakout sessions, dozens of startup exhibits and opportunities to network and recruit.

If you’re wondering what to expect, take a look at some of the speakers we had onstage at the first event:

  • Amnon Shashua, Mobileye, co-founder, president and CEO
  • Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo, CTO
  • Summer Craze Fowler, Argo AI, chief security officer
  • Katie DeWitt, Scoot, VP of Product
  • Karl Iagnemma, Aptiv, president
  • Seleta Reynolds, head of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation
  • Caroline Samponaro, Lyft, head of Micromobility Policy
  • Ted Serbinski, Techstars, founder and managing director of The Mobility Program
  • Ken Washington, Ford, CTO
  • Sarah Smith, Bain Capital Ventures, partner
  • Dave Ferguson, Nuro, co-founder and president
  • Michael Granoff, Maniv Mobility, founder and managing partner
  • Jesse Levinson, Zoox, CTO and co-founder

TechCrunch will announce in the coming weeks and months the participants of TechCrunch Mobility’s fireside chats, panels and workshops.

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Africa Roundup: Goldman leads $30M Twiga raise, China grows tech influence, Jumia weathers lockup-expiry

By Jake Bright

Kenya’s Twiga Foods raised a total of $30 million in October from lenders and investors led by Goldman Sachs.

This adds to the list of African startups the U.S. financial firm has backed, including e-commerce venture Jumia and South African fintech startup Jumo.

Twiga, a B2B food distribution company, will use its funds to set up a distribution center in Nairobi and deepen its conversion to offering supply chain services for both agricultural and FMCG products.

The startup is also targeting Pan-African expansion to French speaking West Africa by third quarter 2020, CEO Peter Njonjo told TechCrunch.

The venture has moved quickly on diversifying its supply-chain product mix. “We’re not just doing fruits and vegetables…I’d say we’re at 50/50 now between FMCG  and fresh,” said Njonjo.

Twiga doesn’t plan to move toward entering or supplying B2C e-commerce, where it could become a competitor to other online retailers, such as Jumia.

But the company has factored for advantages in the B2C e-commerce space. “If you’re able to serve Nairobi’s 180,000 retailers, it means that the furthest customer would be less than two kilometers away from any shop. That’s the power of building a B2C business on top of a B2B platform. So definitely, the potential is there,” said Njonjo.

China is known for its relationship with Africa based on trade and infrastructure, but not so much for tech. That’s changing with a number of Chinese actors increasing the country’s digital influence across the continent’s tech markets.

This includes Africa focused mobile phone Transsion’s IPO and planned expansion in Africa and recent moves on the continent by Alibaba and Chinese owned Opera.

In an ExtraCrunch feature, TechCrunch detailed China’s growing tech ties with Africa and what they could mean for the continent’s innovation ecosystem and Africa’s relationship with China overall.

In two stories in Ocotober, TechCrunch followed Jumia’s IPO lockup expiry and volatile share-price ahead of the Jumia’s November third-quarter earnings call.

The Africa focused e-commerce company — with online verticals in 14 countries —  has had a bumpy ride since becoming the first tech venture operating in Africa to list on a major exchange. Jumia saw its opening share price of $14.50 jump 70% after its NYSE IPO in April.

Then in May, Jumia’s stock tumbled when it came under assault from a short-seller, Andrew Left, who accused the company of fraud in its SEC filings.

In August, Jumia’s 2nd quarter earnings showed upside and downside: revenue growth still with big losses. Much of it may have been overshadowed by Jumia’s own admission of a fraud perpetrated by some employees and agents of its JForce sales program.

Jumia’s core investors appeared to show continued confidence in the company in October, when there wasn’t a big sell-off after the IPO lockup period expired.

It appears that what Jumia disclosed does not validate the claims in Citron Research’s May report. But the markets still seem wary of the company’s stock, which now stands at roughly half its opening IPO price.

Jumia will have a chance to clear up any lingering confusion and showcase its latest numbers on its third-quarter earnings call November 12.

PhutiMahanyele Dabengwa 52TechCrunch reported additional details to two big African tech market events that happened over the last year. First, Naspers Foundry’s new leader, Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, confirmed the 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) VC arm of South Africa’s Naspers is accepting pitches.

Announced in late 2018, Naspers Foundry will make equity investments in various amounts, primarily from Series A up to Series B in South African ventures. Founders from other parts of Africa with startup operations in South Africa can be considered for funding, Mahanyele-Dabengwa clarified.

CcHub and iHub CEO Bosun Tijani revealed more detail about the recent merger of both names. CcHub – iHub will pursue more operating revenue from consulting and VC investing, vs. grants, according to Tijani. The new Nigeria and Kenya based innovation network will also look to bring an Africa startup tour to the U.S. and is considering opening an office in San Francisco, he said.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

Africa can list more gazelles at home than unicorn IPOs abroadKenyan telco Safaricom’s Alpha incubator faces uncertain futureNigeria’s #StopRobbingUs campaign could spur tech advocacy group, CEOs saySahara Reporters founder Sowore remains detained in Nigeria

At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop suggested that Silicon Valley’s unicorn IPO model might not be right for African startups. The is largely because the …

African tech around the ‘net

Kenya’s BitPesa secures $15M debt funding as it rebrands

SA’s SweepSouth banks $3.95M to expand, launch new services

TLCom hosts first summit for African female tech founders in Nigeria

 

 

 

 

 

 

Startups Weekly: Understanding Uber’s latest fintech play

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about how SoftBank is screwing up. Before that, I noted All Raise’s expansion, Uber the TV show and the unicorn from down under.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.


Uber Head of Payments Peter Hazlehurst addresses the audience during an Uber products launch event in San Francisco, California, on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP PACHECO/AFP/Getty Images)

The sheer number of startup players moving into banking services is staggering,” writes my Crunchbase News friends in a piece titled “Why Is Every Startup A Bank These Days.”

I’ve been asking myself the same question this year, as financial services business like Brex, Chime, Robinhood, Wealthfront, Betterment and more raise big rounds to build upstart digital banks. North of $13 billion venture capital dollars have been invested in U.S. fintech companies so far in 2019, up from $12 billion invested in 2018.

This week, one of the largest companies to ever emerge from the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, Uber, introduced its team focused on developing new financial products and technologies. In a vacuum, a multibillion-dollar public company with more than 22,000 employees launching one new team is not big news. Considering investment and innovation in fintech this year, Uber’s now well-documented struggles to reach profitability and the company’s hiring efforts in New York, a hotbed for financial aficionados, the “Uber Money” team could indicate much larger fintech ambitions for the ride-hailing giant.

As it stands, the Uber Money team will be focused on developing real-time earnings for drivers accessed through the Uber debit account and debit card, which will itself see new features, like 3% or more cash back on gas. Uber Wallet, a digital wallet where drivers can more easily track their earnings, will launch in the coming weeks too, writes Peter Hazlehurst, the head of Uber Money.

This is hardly Uber’s first major foray into financial services. The company’s greatest feature has always been its frictionless payments capabilities that encourage riders and eaters to make purchases without thinking. Uber’s even launched its own consumer credit card to get riders cash back on rides. It’s no secret the company has larger goals in the fintech sphere, and with 100 million “monthly active platform consumers” via Uber, Uber Eats and more, a dedicated path toward new and better financial products may not only lead to happier, more loyal drivers but a company that’s actually, one day, able to post a profit.


VC deals


Meet me in Berlin

The TechCrunch team is heading to Berlin again this year for our annual event, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe. We announced the agenda this week, with leading founders including Away’s Jen Rubio and UiPath’s Daniel Dines. Take a look at the full agenda.

I will be there to interview a bunch of venture capitalists, who will give tips on how to raise your first euros. Buy tickets to the event here.


Listen to Equity

This week on Equity, I was in studio while Alex was remote. We talked about a number of companies and deals, including a new startup taking on Slack, Wag’s woes and a small upstart disrupting the $8 billion nail services industry. Listen to the episode here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast and all the casts.

The Station: Volvo evolves, Skip trips and touchscreen tech

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is back for another week of news and analysis on all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future. As always, I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter at TechCrunch.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This week, we’re looking at factories in China, scooters in San Francisco and touchscreens in cars, among other things.

Please reach out anytime with tips and feedback. Tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome to micromobbin’ — a weekly dive into the tiny but mighty chaotic world of micromobility. This also happens to be a place where Megan Rose Dickey reigns. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Uber, Lime and Spin each deployed 500 electric scooters in San Francisco as part of the city’s permitting program. This means residents in SF can now choose from Uber-owned JUMP, Lime, Spin or Scoot scooters. Unfortunately for Skip, the company did not receive a permit to continue operating in the city, which means layoffs at the local level are afoot, Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko unveiled Tortoise, an autonomous repositioning software for micromobility operators. The idea is to help make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed.

Let’s close this section with the obligatory funding round. Wheels, a pedal-less electric bike-share startup, raised a $50 million round led by DBL Partners. That brought its total funding to $87 million.

Oh, but wait, TC reporter Romain Dillet reminded us that micromobbin’ happens outside of the U.S. too. Uber also announced this past week that it has integrated its app with French startup Cityscoot, which has a fleet of free-floating moped-style scooters.

This is the latest example of Uber’s plan to become a super mobility app that goes well beyond its own network of ride-hailing vehicles.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Snapshot: Touchscreen tech

We’ve seen a lot of different approaches when it comes to engaging with connected car services: head-up displays on the windshield, small screens perched on the dashboard, interactive voice and, of course, connections and mounts for smartphones.

But how about if your whole car becomes the touchscreen? A startup called Sentons is working on technology that could make that happen. The company uses a technique involving processors and AI that emit and read ultrasound to detect physical movement on a surface, such as touch, force or gestures, and users can create “virtual controls” on the fly that work on these surfaces.

This week, it released SurfaceWave, a software and hardware stack that works on glass, metal and plastic surfaces of smartphones.

CEO Jess Lee says the next iterations are going to be the kinds of materials that are used to make car dashboards and other interior surfaces you find inside the vehicle, including leather, thicker plastic and other materials. The company is already engaging with automotive companies, Lee told TechCrunch.

I can see a lot of possibilities for this in the human-driven vehicles of today. We’ve already seen how Tesla has changed how we think about infotainment systems in cars. And then there’s electric vehicle startup Byton, which plans to bring a vehicle to market with a touchscreen that extends along the entire dashboard.

The real opportunity for Sentons will be with autonomous vehicles, a product that will afford its passengers more leisure time.

— Ingrid Lunden

Made in China

the station china

Earlier this week, Tesla was given the OK to begin producing vehicles at its $2 billion factory in Shanghai. Tesla was added to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s list of approved automotive manufacturers.

Now we’ll watch and wait to see if production starts this month. Expect the topic of China and this factory to come up during Tesla’s earnings call with analysts October 23.

In other China factory news, we hear that electric vehicle startup Byton plans to host a splashy opening ceremony in early November for its new plant. The event will include lots of Chinese officials, company executives and maybe a preview of a near-final production version of its M-Byte vehicle.

Byton’s factory in Nanjing covers some 800,000 square meters (8.6 million square feet) funded with a total investment of more than $1.5 billion. Over the summer, the walls and roof went up, equipment was installed and commissioning began in five major workshops: stamping, welding, paint, battery and assembly.

The plant will begin trial production in late 2019.

This all sounds great, but there have been challenges, and the constant requirement for capital is one of them. Byton has delayed the launch of the production version of the M-Byte by two quarters. It’s now looking like commercial production will begin by the end of the second quarter of 2020.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits for those manufacturing geeks out there:

  • The stamping shop completes one panel every 3 seconds on average. Byton claims it will be one of the fastest stamping production lines in China.
  • The welding shop incorporates 335 welding robots supplied by KUKA and boosts the automation rate to 99%, according to Byton.
  • The paint shop is equipped with a “3 Coating 2 Baking” system and thin film pre-treatment as well as the transverse “Eco-Incure” oven technology.
  • The battery shop will produce and assemble battery packs, designed independently by Byton. Battery maker CATL provides the battery cells and modules and aluminum maker Constellium supplies the aluminum battery tray.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. A little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip.

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What does systems engineering in AVs mean?

the station autonomous vehicles1

I recently spoke to Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics, about the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis. STPA is the foundation for Ike’s product development.

The company also released a wickedly long safety report (it’s halfway down that landing page in the link provided).

The complete interview was included in the emailed newsletter. Yet another reason to subscribe to this free newsletter. Here’s one quote from the interview with Aikin:

We asked the question, what do we have to prove to ourselves and demonstrate in order to be on a public road safely? It’s the same question that we’re going to have to answer for the product as well, which is, what do we need to prove to assure that we’re safe to operate without a human in the cab?

It’s one of the huge unproven hypotheses. Anybody in this space that doesn’t consider that to be a huge technical challenges is ignoring a really thorny and important question.

Who will own the future of transportation?

Our mobility coverage extends to Extra Crunch. Check out my latest article on who will own the future of transportation based on insights from Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The idea here is to explore some of the nuances of this loaded question.

Extra Crunch requires a paid subscription and you can sign up here.

 

Work management platform Asana launches new automation tools

By Frederic Lardinois

Work management platform Asana today announced the launch of a new feature that will take the work out of some of the most mundane and repetitive tasks on its platform. Asana Automation, as the new feature is called, allows users to create their own “if this then that” rules, but also features a new voice transcription service, as well as an OCR tool and new smart templates that integrate some of the service’s machine learning smarts.

“Earlier this year we launched Workload, empowering teams to be more agile when planning, monitoring and managing their efforts,” said Asana head of product said Alex Hood. “Now with Automation, we’re introducing the ability to automate your routine tasks so you can spend more energy on your craft and leave the repetitive busywork to Asana.”

Automation Rule and integration

The rule builder comes with over 70 pre-build and preset rules at launch, but users can obviously build their own rules as well. Asana customers can use the service to automatically route tasks to a specific team member, for example. Like with the rest of the new features the company announced today, the idea here is to automate many of the processes that keep teams busy all day, doing “work about work.”

The new OCR and transcription services, which are now available in Asana’s iPhone app, are pretty self-explanatory. They make it easier to capture what was said in a meeting or written on a whiteboard, which users can then assign to a given task in Asana.

Smart project templates, too, take some of the grunt work out of using Asana. “Now when using a template, such as an event plan or campaign launch, a complete workback schedule can be instantly layered on,” the company explains. “When a conflict arises between task deadlines, Asana will automatically correct, enabling teams to spend less time setting up projects and workflows, and more time getting work done.”

Edge computing startup Pensando comes out of stealth mode with a total of $278 million in funding

By Catherine Shu

Pensando, an edge computing startup founded by former Cisco engineers, came out of stealth mode today with an announcement that it has raised a $145 million Series C. The company’s software and hardware technology, created to give data centers more of the flexibility of cloud computing servers, is being positioned as a competitor to Amazon Web Services Nitro.

The round was led by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lightspeed Venture Partners and brings Pensando’s total raised so far to $278 million. HPE chief technology officer Mark Potter and Lightspeed Venture partner Barry Eggers will join Pensando’s board of directors. The company’s chairman is former Cisco CEO John Chambers, who is also one of Pensando’s investors through JC2 Ventures.

Pensando was founded in 2017 by Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, Luca Cafiero and Soni Jiandani, a team of engineers who spearheaded the development of several of Cisco’s key technologies, and founded four startups that were acquired by Cisco, including Insieme Networks. (In an interview with Reuters, Pensando chief financial offier Randy Pond, a former Cisco executive vice president, said it isn’t clear if Cisco is interested in acquiring the startup, adding “our aspirations at this point would be to IPO. But, you know, there’s always other possibilities for monetization events.”)

The startup claims its edge computing platform performs five to nine times better than AWS Nitro, in terms of productivity and scale. Pensando prepares data center infrastructure for edge computing, better equipping them to handle data from 5G, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things applications. While in stealth mode, Pensando acquired customers including HPE, Goldman Sachs, NetApp and Equinix.

In a press statement, Potter said “Today’s rapidly transforming, hyper-connected world requires enterprises to operate with even greater flexibility and choices than ever before. HPE’s expanding relationship with Pensando Systems stems from our shared understanding of enterprises and the cloud. We are proud to announce our investment and solution partnership with Pensando and will continue to drive solutions that anticipate our customers’ needs together.”

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

By Kirsten Korosec

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is  used by Arriva  Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in over 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the UK in early 2019.

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