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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

By Zack Whittaker

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

As ExxonMobil asks for handouts, startups get to work on carbon capture and sequestration

By Jonathan Shieber

Earlier this week, ExxonMobil, a company among the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions and a longtime leader in the corporate fight against climate change regulations, called for a massive $100 billion project (backed in part by the government) to sequester hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide in geologic formations off the Gulf of Mexico.

The gall of Exxon’s flag-planting request is matched only by the grit from startup companies that are already working on carbon capture and storage or carbon utilization projects and announced significant milestones along their own path to commercialization even as Exxon was asking for handouts.

These are companies like Charm Industrial, which just completed the first pilot test of its technology through a contract with Stripe. That pilot project saw the company remove 416 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere. That’s a small fraction of the hundred million tons Exxon thinks could be captured in its hypothetical sequestration project located off the Gulf Coast, but the difference between Exxon’s proposal and Charm’s sequestration project is that Charm has actually managed to already sequester the carbon.

The company’s technology, verified by outside observers like Shopify, Microsoft, CarbonPlan, CarbonDirect and others, converts biomass into an oil-like substance and then injects that goop underground — permanently sequestering the carbon dioxide, the company said.

Eventually, Charm would use its bio-based oil equivalent to produce “green hydrogen” and replace pumped or fracked hydrocarbons in industries that may still require combustible fuel for their operations.

1/ Today we're announcing we've delivered @stripe's 416 ton CO₂e carbon removal purchase ahead of schedule, just 12 months after inventing our new carbon removal pathway. The carbon is now in permanent geological storage. https://t.co/ZIy2plK6n9

— Charm Industrial (@CharmIndustrial) April 20, 2021

While Charm is converting biomass into an oil-equivalent and pumping it back underground, other companies like CarbonCure, Blue Planet, Solidia, Forterra, CarbiCrete and Brimstone Energy are capturing carbon dioxide and fixing it in building materials. 

“The easy way to think about CarbonCure we have a mission to reduce 500 million tons per year by 2030. On the innovation side of things we really pioneered this area of science using CO2 in a value-added, hyper low-cost way in the value chain,” said CarbonCure founder and chief executive Rob Niven. “We look at CO2 as a value added input into making concrete production. It has to raise profits.”

Niven stresses that CarbonCure, which recently won one half of the $20 million carbon capture XPrize alongside CarbonBuilt, is not a hypothetical solution for carbon dioxide removal. The company already has 330 plants operating around the world capturing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering them in building materials.

Applications for carbon utilization are important to reduce the emissions footprints of industry, but for nations to achieve their climate objectives, the world needs to move to dramatically reduce its reliance on emissions spewing energy sources and simultaneously permanently draw down massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

It’s why the ExxonMobil call for a massive project to explore the permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide isn’t wrong, necessarily, just questionable coming from the source.

The U.S. Department of Energy does think that the Gulf Coast has geological formations that can store 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (which the company says is more than 130 years of the country’s total industrial and power generation emissions). But in ExxonMobil’s calculation that’s a reason to continue with business-as-usual (actually with more government subsidies for its business).

Here’s how the company’s top executives explained it in the pages of The Wall Street Journal:

The Houston CCS Innovation Zone concept would require the “whole of government” approach to the climate challenge that President Biden has championed. Based on our experience with projects of this scale, we estimate the approach could generate tens of thousands of new jobs needed to make and install the equipment to capture the CO2 and transport it via a pipeline for storage. Such a project would also protect thousands of existing jobs in industries seeking to reduce emissions. In short, large-scale CCS would reduce emissions while protecting the economy.

These oil industry executives are playing into a false narrative that the switch to renewable energy and a greener economy will cost the U.S. jobs. It’s a fact that oil industry jobs will be erased, but those jobs will be replaced by other opportunities, according to research published in Scientific American.

“With the more aggressive $60 carbon tax, U.S. employment would still exceed the reference-case forecast, but the increase would be less than that of the $25 tax,” write authors Marilyn Brown and Majid Ahmadi. “The higher tax causes much larger supply-side job losses, but they are still smaller than the gains in energy-efficiency jobs motivated by higher energy prices. Overall, 35 million job years would be created between 2020 and 2050, with net job increases in almost all regions.”

ExxonMobil and the other oil majors definitely have a role to play in the new energy economy that’s being built worldwide, but the leading American oil companies are not going to be able to rest on their laurels or continue operating with a business-as-usual mindset. These companies run the risk of going the way of big coal — slowly sliding into obsolescence and potentially taking thousands of jobs and local economies down with them.

To avoid that, carbon sequestration is a part of the solution, but it’s one of many arrows in the quiver that oil companies need to deploy if they’re going to continue operating and adding value to shareholders. In other words, it’s not the last 130 years of emissions that ExxonMobil should be focused on, it’s the next 130 years that aim to be increasingly zero-emission.

Forget the piggy bank, Till Financial’s kids’ spend management app gets Gates’ backing

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Today’s children and teens want more power and control over their spending.

And while there are a number of financial services and apps out there aimed at helping this demographic save and invest money (Greenlight being among the most popular and well-known), one startup is coming at the space from another angle: helping younger people also better manage their spend.

Till Financial describes itself as a collaborative family financial tool that aims to empower kids to become smarter spenders. The New York-based company’s banking platform is designed to encourage “open and honest” discussions between parents and their kids. And it has just raised $5 million to help it advance on that goal.

A slew of investors put money in the round, including Elysian Park Ventures, Melinda Gates’ venture fund Pivotal Ventures with Magnify Ventures, Afore Capital, Luge Capital, Alpine Meridian Ventures, The Gramercy Fund, SM Ventures (the family office of the founders/CEOs of Stadium Goods) and Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Scout Fund. Also participating were angel investors such as the founders of fintech Petal, the founders of alcohol marketplace Drizly, the president of Transactis, and the president of 1800Flowers.

Part of Till’s goal is to help kids “learn by doing” and gain confidence in spending decisions. It arms them with a bank account, digital and physical debit card and goal-based savings. For example, say a teen wants to buy an iPad, they can set up an account that they can save toward that iPad and give family members (such as grandparents, for example) the opportunity to pitch in the same amount, or more. They can also set up recurring payments for things like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions so they can get a taste of what it’s like to pay regular bills.

“Parents and the current banking options miss the point when they just focus on savings. We need to first prepare kids to be Smarter Spenders, supported by savings and investing,” said Taylor Burton, who founded the company with Tom Pincince. “On Till, kids learn to spend with intention and purpose, while parents gain confidence and trust based on transparency and accountability.”

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

“The legacy banks really don’t care about this young person and the early digital players are really missing the mark,” he said. 

And despite the plethora of apps targeting the demographic, Pincince believes there’s plenty of room for the right players.

“The reality is you’re talking about a swath of kids under the age of 18 and over the age of eight that is the single largest unbanked population,” he said. “We’re not fighting to be the top of your son’s wallet. We’re fighting to be the first product into that wallet.”

Indeed, it’s a big market — the average middle-class family in the U.S. spends $284,570 per child by the time they turn 18.

The platform is free to all families and, early on, attracted the attention of Peggy Mangot, operating partner/COO of PayPal Ventures. She invested personally in Till in its pre-seed rounds. Prior to PayPal, Mangot ran development of Greenhouse, Well Fargo’s fee-free mobile banking app that aimed to help younger users build responsible spending habits.

Mangot has three kids and recalls that when they were shopping online, she’d give them her credit card. Or, if they were going to the corner store or meeting with friends, she’d give them cash.

“But that way, the money is meaningless to them. They didn’t really know how to understand what things cost and there was no sense of ownership,” she said. “It was just me handing over cash or a card.”

What attracted her the most about Till, Mangot said, was the team’s approach to treat younger people “with respect and agency.”

She also believes that by helping children and teens understand important financial lessons at a younger age, the world will ultimately be full of more responsible adults.

“By putting these tools in the hands of these young people early, they’ll have years and years of experience before they’re more independent and have to manage their paycheck and bills,” Mangot told TechCrunch. “Once you have mass adoption, it’s going to create a much more financially literate, confident and in control set of young adults than we’ve ever had.”

Besides making money on interchange fees, Till aims to earn revenue by partnering with merchants to offer rewards to users. It also plans to earn referral fees by referring the teens to other financial institutions when they get older and have different needs.

“It’s not our intention to be your son or daughter’s forever bank. It’s our intention to be the first bank,” Pincince said. “So, they hit the age of maturity, we’re actually giving them a high-five off of our platform and introducing them to maybe their first college loan or their first credit card.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Facebook’s decision-review body to take ‘weeks’ longer over Trump ban call

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook’s self-styled and handpicked ‘Oversight Board’ will make a decision on whether or not to overturn an indefinite suspension of the account of former president Donald Trump within “weeks”, it said in a brief update statement on the matter today.

The high profile case appears to have attracted major public interest, with the FOB tweeting that it’s received more than 9,000 responses so far to its earlier request for public feedback.

It added that its commitment to “carefully reviewing all comments” after an earlier extension of the deadline for feedback is responsible for the extension of the case timeline.

The Board’s statement adds that it will provide more information “soon”.

(2/2): The Board’s commitment to carefully reviewing all comments has extended the case timeline, in line with the Board’s bylaws. We will share more information soon.

— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) April 16, 2021

Trump’s indefinite suspension from Facebook and Instagram was announced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on January 7, after the then-president of the U.S. incited his followers to riot at the nation’s Capitol — an insurrection that led to chaotic and violent scenes and a number of deaths as his supporters clashed with police.

However Facebook quickly referred the decision to the FOB for review — opening up the possibility that the ban could be overturned in short order as Facebook has said it will be bound by the case review decisions issued by the Board.

After the FOB accepted the case for review it initially said it would issue a decision within 90 days of January 21 — a deadline that would have fallen next Wednesday.

However it now looks like the high profile, high stakes call on Trump’s social media fate could be pushed into next month.

It’s a familiar development in Facebook-land. Delay has been a long time feature of the tech giant’s crisis PR response in the face of a long history of scandals and bad publicity attached to how it operates its platform. So the tech giant is unlikely to be uncomfortable that the FOB is taking its time to make a call on Trump’s suspension.

After all, devising and configuring the bespoke case review body — as its proprietary parody of genuine civic oversight — is a process that has taken Facebook years already.

In related FOB news this week, Facebook announced that users can now request the board review its decisions not to remove content — expanding the Board’s potential cases to include reviews of ‘keep ups’ (not just content takedowns).

This report was updated with a correction: The FOB previously extended the deadline for case submissions; it has not done so again as we originally stated

Hadrian is building the factories of the future for rocket ships and advanced manufacturing

By Jonathan Shieber

If the eight person team behind the new startup Hadrian has their way, they’ll have transformed the manufacturing industry within the next decade.

At least, that’s the goal for the new San Francisco-based startup, founded only last year, which has set its sights on building out a new model for advanced manufacturing to enable the satellite, space ship, and advanced energy technology companies to build the future they envision better and faster.

We view our job as to provide the world’s most efficient space and defense component factory,” said Hadrian founder, Chris Power.

Initially, the company is building factories to make the parts that go on rocket ships, according to Power, but the business has implications for any company that needs bespoke components to make their equipment.

“Let me tell you how bad it is at the moment and what’s going to happen over the next 20 years. Right now everyone in space and defense, [including] SpaceX and Lockheed Martin, outsources their parts and manufacturing to small factories across the country. They’re super expensive, they’re unreliable and they’re completely invisible to the customers,” said Power. “This causes big problems with space and defense manufacturers in the design phase, because the lead time is so long and the iteration time is super long. Imagine running software and being able to iterate on your product once every 20 days? If you can imagine a Gantt chart of how to build a rocket, about 60% of that is buffer time… A lot of the delays in launches and stuff like that happen because parts got delivered three months ago. It’d be like running a McDonalds and realizing that your fries and burger providers could not tell you when the food would arrive.”

It’s hard to overstate the strategic importance of the parts suppliers to the operations of aerospace, defense, and advanced machining companies. As no less an authority on manufacturing than Elon Musk noted in a tweet, “The factory is the product.” It’s also hard to overstate the geopolitical importance of re-establishing the U.S. as a center of manufacturing excellence, according to Hadrian’s investors Lux Capital, Founders Fund, and Construct Capital. Which is one reason why they’re investing $9.5 million into the very early stage business.

“America made massive strategic mistakes in the early 90s which have left our national manufacturing ecosystem completely dilapidated,” said Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov. “The only way to get out of this disaster is to re-invent the most basic input into our aerospace and defense supply chains, machining metal parts quickly and with high tolerance. Right now, America’s most innovative company, SpaceX, relies on a network of near-retired machinists to produce space-worthy metal parts, and no one in technology is. focused on solving this.”

 

The factory is the product

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 11, 2021

Power got to understand the problem at his previous company, Ento, which sold workforce management software to blue collar customers. It was there he realized the issue of. the aging workforce and the need for manufacturers to upgrade almost every aspect of their own technology stack. “I realized that the right way to bring technology to the industrial space is not to sell software to these companies, it’s to build an industrial business from scratch with software.”

Initially, Hadrian is focusing all of its efforts on the space industry, where the component manufacturing problem is especially acute, but the manufacturing capabilities the company is building out have broad relevance across any industry that requires highly engineered components.

“The demand for manufacturing from both the large SpaceX and Blue Origin all the way to this growing long tail of companies from Anduril to Relativity to Varda,” said Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe. “Most of these guys are using mom and pop machine shops… [and] those shops are horribly inefficient. They’re not consistent, and they’re not reliable. Between the software automation, the hardware, you can cut down on inefficiency every step of the process… I like to think of value creation as waste reduction… so mundane things like quoting, scheduling, bidding, and planning all the way to the programming of the manufacturing… every one of those things takes hours to tens of hours to days and weeks, so if you can do that in minutes, it’s just a no-brainer. [Hadrian] will be the cutting edge choice for all of the new and explicitly dedicated and focused aerospace and defense companies.”

Power envisions a network of manufacturing facilities that can initially cover roughly 65% of all space and defense components, and will eventually take that number up to 95% of components. Already several of the biggest launch vehicle and satellite manufacturers are in talks with the company to produce hundreds of units for them, Power said. Some of those companies just happen to be in the Construct, Lux, and Founders Fund portfolio.

And the company’s founder sees this as a new way to revitalize American manufacturing jobs as well. “Manufacturing jobs in space and defense can easily be as high paying as a software engineering job at Google,” he said. In an ideal world, Hadrian would like to offer an onramp to high paying manufacturing careers in the 21st century in the same way that automakers provided good union jobs in the twentieth.

“We haven’t built any of this. If you look at the sheer number of people that we need to train and hire on our new technology and new systems, that people problem and that training problem is part of growing our business.”

A render of Axiom’s future commercial space station design.

Facebook to test new business discovery features in U.S. News Feed

By Sarah Perez

Facebook announced this morning it will begin testing a new experience for discovering businesses in its News Feed in the U.S. When live, users to tap on topics they’re interested in underneath posts and ads in their News Feed in order to explore related content from businesses. The change comes at a time when Facebook has been arguing how Apple’s App Tracking Transparency update will impact its small business customers — a claim many have dismissed as misleading, but nevertheless led some mom and pop shops to express concern about the impacts to their ad targeting capabilities, as a result. This new test is an example of how easily Facebook can tweak its News Feed to build out more data on its users, if needed.

The company suggests users may see the change under posts and ads from businesses selling beauty products, fitness or clothing, among other things.

The idea here is that Facebook would direct users to related businesses through a News Feed feature, when they take a specific action to discover related content. This, in turn, could help Facebook create a new set of data on its users, in terms of which users clicked to see more, and what sort of businesses they engaged with, among other things. Over time, it could turn this feature into an ad unit, if desired, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

“People already discover businesses while scrolling through News Feed, and this will make it easier to discover and consider new businesses they might not have found on their own,” the company noted in a brief announcement.

Facebook didn’t detail its further plans with the test, but said as it learned from how users interacted with the feature, it will expand the experience to more people and businesses.

Image Credits: Facebook

Along with news of the test, Facebook said it will roll out more tools for business owners this month, including the ability to create, publish and schedule Stories to both Facebook and Instagram; make changes and edits to Scheduled Posts; and soon, create and manage Facebook Photos and Albums from Facebook’s Business Suite. It will also soon add the ability to create and save Facebook and Instagram posts as drafts from the Business Suite mobile app.

Related to the businesses updates, Facebook updated features across ad products focused on connecting businesses with customer leads, including Lead Ads, Call Ads, and Click to Messenger Lead Generations.

Facebook earlier this year announced a new Facebook Page experience that gave businesses the ability to engage on the social network with their business profile for things like posting, commenting and liking, and access to their own, dedicated News Feed. And it had removed the Like button in favor of focusing on Followers.

It is not a coincidence that Facebook is touting its tools for small businesses at a time when there’s concern — much of it loudly shouted by Facebook itself — that its platform could be less useful to small business owners in the near future, when ad targeting capabilities becomes less precise as users vote ‘no’ when Facebook’s iOS app asks if it can track them.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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Deepfake video app Avatarify, which processes on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

By Mike Butcher

Making deepfake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deepfake videos directly on their phone rather than in the cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deepfake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a U.S. HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life and Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the app for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture they want to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Co-founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent two hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

They posted the code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1 million in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deepfake videos remain, such as using these apps to make nonconsensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

Triller owner gets a new CEO with acquisition of Amplify.AI; also acquires livestreaming service FITE TV

By Sarah Perez

Would be TikTok competitor Triller, operated by parent company TrillerNet, is gaining a new CEO, the company announced today. The short-form video app said it’s acquiring an A.I.-based customer engagement platform, Amplify.AI, whose co-founder Mahi de Silva will now become TrillerNet’s CEO. Existing CEO Mike Lu will transition to president of TrillerNet and will focus on investor relations. The company separately announced the acquisition of FITE TV, a live event and pay-per-view combat sports streaming platform.

New CEO Mahi de Silva had been closely involved with Triller before today. The company’s press release today says he’s been serving as non-executive chairman since 2016, but his LinkedIn notes the year was 2019 (which would be following Triller’s 2019 funding by Proxima Media, when the press release at the time noted he was assuming the role of “chairman.”)  These are both wrong, the company discovered when we reached out for clarity. The correct year is 2018.

Ahead of the acquisition, de Silva had been serving as CEO and co-founder to Amplify.AI since 2017, and before that was CEO of Opera Mediaworks, the marketing and advertising arm of Opera Software, and co-founder and CEO of Botworx.

Amplify.AI, which works with brands in CPG, financial services, automotive, telecom, politics and digital media, among others, will continue to operate as a subsidiary of TrillerNet following the deal. Other team members include former RSA and VeriSign executive Ram Moskovitz who helped design and develop the digital certificates for SSL and code signing; and Amplify.ai co-founder and CTO Manoj Malhotra, a pioneer in B2C SMS messaging, the company notes.

TrillerNet also today announced it’s acquiring another strategic property to help shift its business further into the direction of live events: FITE TV. This deal gives Triller more of a foothold in the live events and pay-per-view streaming market, it says. As a result, FITE, which touts 10 million users, will become the exclusive digital distributor of all Triller Fight Club boxing events going forward.

“Acquiring FITE is part of the larger Triller strategy to bring together content, creators and commerce for the first time and the only place where they truly interact,” said Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh, the former head of movie studio Relativity Media (and controversial figure) whose Proxima Media became Triller’s majority investor in 2019. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and believe we have created a better more efficient e-commerce content platform,” he added.

The acquisition follows several others TrillerNet has made to expand into live events, now that becoming a TikTok replacement in the U.S. is no longer a viable option, as the Trump ban was put on hold by the Biden administration. Triller also in March acquired live music streaming platform Verzuz, founded by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it operates Triller Flight Club in partnership with Snoop Dogg, as well as a streaming platform Triller TV.

While specific deal terms were not revealed, Triller told TechCrunch it’s spent $250 million in the aggregate on its acquisitions, including Halogen, Mashtraxx, Verzuz, FITE and Amplify today.

 

Dear Sophie: How can I get an H-1B without the lottery?

By Annie Siebert
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

For the past few years, our company has put very promising candidates into the annual H-1B lottery. None of them have been selected — and none of them meet the requirements for other work visas like an O-1A.

We lost out again in this year’s H-1B lottery. Are there any other ways we can obtain H-1Bs for our team members?

— Soldiering On in Sunnyvale

Dear Soldiering:

Thank you for your timely question — you are not alone! Many employers face the same frustration given that the number of H-1B visas the government issues each year is capped at 85,000, while typically more than twice that number are sought by employers annually.

At my Silicon Valley immigration law firm, we’ve been delighted for the opportunity to collaborate with the nonprofit Open Avenues Foundation to support private companies with a Plan B: a cap-exempt, concurrent H-1B for their employees, without needing to go through the H-1B lottery.

It’s a timely, predictable solution that supports teams whether the beneficiary is currently outside or inside the United States.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

I recently interviewed Danielle Goldman, co-founder and executive director of Open Avenues, on my podcast. Through the Global Talent Fellowship program, the foundation offers a unique solution for employers like you to have a Plan B for H-1Bs: It’s possible to obtain an H-1B visa for an existing or prospective employee without going through the H-1B lottery process — or the randomness and timing restrictions that come with it. Goldman refers to the program as “innovation within legislation.”

So how does that work? Well, first off, you should know that four categories of employers are exempt from the annual H-1B lottery, meaning they can apply for an H-1B visa at any time of year and their pool of H-1B visas is not capped. The four categories of employers that are eligible for cap-exempt H-1Bs include:

Pale Blue Dot aims to be Europe’s premier early-stage climate investor and has $100 million to prove it

By Jonathan Shieber

When Hampus Jakobsson, Heidi Lindvall, and Joel Larsson, all well-known players in the European venture ecosystem, began talking about their new firm Pale Blue Dot, they began by looking at the problems with venture capital.

For the three entrepreneurs and investors, whose resumes included co-founding companies and accelerators like The Astonishing Tribe (Jakobsson) and Fast Track Malmö (Lindvall and Larsson) and working as a venture partner at BlueYard Capital (Jakobsson again), the problems were clear.

Their first thesis was that all investment funds should be impact funds, and be taking into account ways to effect positive change; their second thesis was that since all funds should be impact funds, what would be their point of differentiation — that is, where could they provide the most impact.

The three young investors hit on climate change as the core mission and ran with it.

As it was closing on €53 million ($63.3 million) last year, the firm also made its first investments in Phytoform, a London headquartered company creating new crops using computational biology and synbio; Patch, a San Francisco-based carbon-offsetting platform that finances both traditional and frontier “carbon sequestration” methods; and 20tree.ai, an Amsterdam-based startup, using machine learning and satellite data to understand trees to lower the risk of forest fires and power outages.

Now they’ve raised another €34 million and seven more investments on their path to doing between 30 and 35 deals.

These investments primarily focus on Europe and include Veat, a European vegetarian prepared meal company; Madefrom, a still-in-stealth company angling to make everyday products more sustainable; HackYourCloset, a clothing rental company leveraging fast fashion to avoid landfilling clothes; Hier, a fresh food delivery service; Cirplus, a marketplace for recycled plastics trading; and Overstory, which aims to prevent wildfires by giving utilities a view into vegetation around their assets. 

The team expects to be primarily focused on Europe, with a few opportunistic investments in the U.S., and intends to invest in companies that are looking to change systems rather than directly affect consumer behavior. For instance, a Pale Blue Dot investment likely wouldn’t include e-commerce filters for more sustainable shopping, but potentially could include investments in sustainable consumer products companies.

The size of the firm’s commitments will range up to €1 million and will look to commit to a lot of investments. That’s by design, said Jakobsson. “Climate is so many different fields that we didn’t want to do 50% of the fund in food or 50% of the fund in materials,” he said. Also, the founders know their skillsets, which are primarily helping early stage entrepreneurs scale and making the right connections to other investors that can add value.

“In every deal we’ve gotten in co-investors that add particular, amazing, value while we still try to be the shepherds and managers and sherpas,” Jakobsson said. “We’re the ones that are going to protect the founder from the hell-rain of investor opinions.”

Another point of differentiation for the firm are its limited partners. Jakobsson said they rejected capital from oil companies in favor of founders and investors from the tech community that could add value. These include Prima Materia, the investment vehicle for Spotify founder Daniel Ek; the founders of Supercell, Zendesk, TransferWise and DeliveryHero are also backing the firm. So too, is Albert Wenger, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

The goal, simply, is to be the best early stage climate fund in Europe.

“We want to be the European climate fund,” Lindvall said. “This is where we can make most of the difference.” 

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

By Rita Liao

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

FBI launches operation to remove backdoors from hacked Microsoft Exchange servers

By Zack Whittaker

A court in Houston has authorized an FBI operation to “copy and remove” backdoors from hundreds of Microsoft Exchange email servers in the United States, months after hackers used four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities to attack thousands of networks.

The Justice Department announced the operation on Tuesday, which it described as “successful.”

In March, Microsoft discovered a new China state-sponsored hacking group — Hafnium — targeting Exchange servers run from company networks. The four vulnerabilities when chained together allowed the hackers to break into a vulnerable Exchange server and steal its contents. Microsoft fixed the vulnerabilities but the patches did not close the backdoors from the servers that had already been breached. Within days, other hacking groups began hitting vulnerable servers with the same flaws to deploy ransomware.

The number of infected servers dropped as patches were applied. But hundreds of Exchange servers remained vulnerable because the backdoors are difficult to find and eliminate, the Justice Department said in a statement.

“This operation removed one early hacking group’s remaining web shells which could have been used to maintain and escalate persistent, unauthorized access to U.S. networks,” the statement said. “The FBI conducted the removal by issuing a command through the web shell to the server, which was designed to cause the server to delete only the web shell (identified by its unique file path).”

The FBI said it’s attempting to inform owners via email of servers from which it removed the backdoors.

Assistant attorney general John C. Demers said the operation “demonstrates the Department’s commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions.”

The Justice Department also said the operation only removed the backdoors, but did not patch the vulnerabilities exploited by the hackers to begin with or remove any malware left behind.

It’s believed this is the first known case of the FBI effectively cleaning up private networks following a cyberattack. In 2016, the Supreme Court moved to allow U.S. judges to issue search and seizure warrants outside of their district. Critics opposed the move at the time, fearing the FBI could ask a friendly court to authorized cyber-operations for anywhere in the world.

Other countries, like France, have used similar powers before to hijack a botnet and remotely shutting it down.

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department commented by press time.

Republican antitrust bill would block all Big Tech acquisitions

By Taylor Hatmaker

There are about to be a lot of antitrust bills taking aim at Big Tech, and here’s one more. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) rolled out a new bill this week that would take some severe measures to rein in Big Tech’s power, blocking mergers and acquisitions outright.

The “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act” would ban any acquisitions by companies with a market cap of more than $100 billion, including vertical mergers. The bill also proposes changes that would dramatically heighten the financial pain for companies caught engaging in anti-competitive behavior, forcing any company that loses an antirust suit to forfeit profits made through those business practices.

At its core, Hawley’s legislation would snip some of the red tape around antitrust enforcement by amending the Sherman Act, which made monopolies illegal, and the Clayton Act, which expanded the scope of illegal anti-competitive behavior. The idea is to make it easier for the FTC and other regulators to deem a company’s behavior anti-competitive — a key criticism of the outdated antitrust rules that haven’t kept pace with the realities of the tech industry.

The bill isn’t likely to get too far in a Democratic Senate, but it’s not insignificant. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, proposed legislation earlier this year that would also create barriers for dominant companies with a habit of scooping up their competitors. Klobuchar’s own ideas for curtailing Big Tech’s power similarly focus on reforming the antitrust laws that have shaped U.S. business for more than a century.

Click to access The%20Trust-Busting%20for%20the%20Twenty-First%20Century%20Act.pdf

The Republican bill may have some overlap with Democratic proposals, but it still hits some familiar notes from the Trump era of hyperpartisan Big Tech criticism. Hawley slams “woke mega-corporations” in Silicon Valley for exercising too much power over the information and products that Americans consume. While Democrats naturally don’t share that critique, Hawley’s bill makes it clear that antitrust reform targeting Big Tech is one policy area where both political parties could align on the ends, even if they don’t see eye to eye on the why.

Hawley’s bill is the latest, but it won’t be the last. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who spearheads tech antitrust efforts in the House, previously announced his own plans to introduce a flurry of antitrust reform bills rather than one sweeping piece of legislation. Those bills, which will be more narrowly targeted to make them difficult for tech lobbyists to defeat, are due out in May.

Risk startup LogicGate confirms data breach

By Zack Whittaker

Risk and compliance startup LogicGate has confirmed a data breach. But unless you’re a customer, you probably didn’t hear about it.

An email sent by LogicGate to customers earlier this month said on February 23 an unauthorized third-party obtained credentials to its Amazon Web Services-hosted cloud storage servers storing customer backup files for its flagship platform Risk Cloud, which helps companies to identify and manage their risk and compliance with data protection and security standards. LogicGate says its Risk Cloud can also help find security vulnerabilities before they are exploited by malicious hackers.

The credentials “appear to have been used by an unauthorized third party to decrypt particular files stored in AWS S3 buckets in the LogicGate Risk Cloud backup environment,” the email read.

“Only data uploaded to your Risk Cloud environment on or prior to February 23, 2021, would have been included in that backup file. Further, to the extent you have stored attachments in the Risk Cloud, we did not identify decrypt events associated with such attachments,” it added.

LogicGate did not say how the AWS credentials were compromised. An email update sent by LogicGate last Friday said the company anticipates finding the root cause of the incident by this week.

But LogicGate has not made any public statement about the breach. It’s also not clear if LogicGate contacted all of its customers or only those whose data was accessed. LogicGate counts Capco, SoFi, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City as customers.

We sent a list of questions, including how many customers were affected and if the company has alerted U.S. state authorities as required by state data breach notification laws. When reached, LogicGate chief executive Matt Kunkel confirmed the breach but declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation. “We believe it’s best to communicate developers directly to our customers,” he said.

Kunkel would not say, when asked, if the attacker also exfiltrated the decrypted customer data from its servers.

Data breach notification laws vary by state, but companies that fail to report security incidents can face heavy fines. Under Europe’s GDPR rules, companies can face fines of up to 4% of their annual turnover for violations.

In December, LogicGate secured $8.75 million in fresh funding, totaling more than $40 million since it launched in 2015.


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Facebook tests video speed dating events with ‘Sparked’

By Sarah Perez

Facebook confirmed it’s testing a video speed-dating app called Sparked, after the app’s website was spotted by The Verge. Unlike dating app giants such as Tinder, Sparked users don’t swipe on people they like or direct message others. Instead, they cycle through a series of short video dates during an event to make connections with others. The product itself is being developed by Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team, but had not been officially announced.

“Sparked is an early experiment by New Product Experimentation,” a spokesperson for Facebook’s NPE Team confirmed to TechCrunch. “We’re exploring how video-first speed dating can help people find love online.”

They also characterized the app as undergoing a “small, external beta test” designed to generate insights about how video dating could work, in order to improve people’s experiences with Facebook products. The app is not currently live on app stores, only the web.

Sparked is, however, preparing to test the experience at a Chicago Date Night event on Wednesday, The Verge’s report noted.

Image Credits: Facebook

 

During the sign-up process, Sparked tells users to “be kind,” “keep this a safe space,” and “show up.” A walkthrough of how the app also works explains that participants will meet face to face during a series of 4-minute video dates, which they can then follow up with a 10-minute date if all goes well. They can additionally choose to exchange contact info, like phone numbers, emails, or Instagram handles.

Facebook, of course, already offers a dating app product, Facebook Dating.

That experience, which takes place inside Facebook itself, first launched in 2018 outside the U.S., and then arrived in the U.S. the following year. In the early days of the pandemic, Facebook announced it would roll out a sort of virtual dating experience that leveraged Messenger for video chats — a move came at a time when many other dating apps in the market also turned to video to serve users under lockdowns. These video experiences could potentially compete with Sparked, unless the new product’s goal is to become another option inside Facebook Dating itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the potential reach, Facebook’s success in the dating market is not guaranteed, some analysts have warned. People don’t think of Facebook as a place to go meet partners, and the dating product today is still separated from the main Facebook app for privacy purposes. That means it can’t fully leverage Facebook’s network effects to gain traction, as users in this case may not want their friends and family to know about their dating plans.

Facebook’s competition in dating is fierce, too. Even the pandemic didn’t slow down the dating app giants, like Match Group or newly IPO’d Bumble. Tinder’s direct revenues increased 18% year-over-year to $1.4 billion in 2020, Match Group reported, for instance. Direct revenues from the company’s non-Tinder brands collectively increased 16%. And Bumble topped its revenue estimates in its first quarter as a public company, pulling in $165.6 million in the fourth quarter.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, on the other hand, has remained fairly quiet about its dating efforts. Though the company cited over 1.5 billion matches in the 20 countries it’s live, a “match” doesn’t indicate a successful pairing — in fact, that sort of result may not be measured. But it’s early days for the product, which only rolled out to European markets this past fall.

The NPE Team’s experiment in speed dating could ultimately help to inform Facebook of what sort of new experiences a dating app user may want to use, and how.

The company didn’t say if or when Sparked would roll out more broadly.

Tech talent can thrive in the public sector but government must invest in it

By Annie Siebert
Josh Mendelsohn Contributor
Josh Mendelsohn is the founder and managing partner of Hangar, a public sector investment firm focused on building and scaling innovative startups.

Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.

But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.

That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.

One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.

Chart of Facebook R&D spending vs. DARPA annual budget

Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar

Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.

Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.

From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.

My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.

Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.

A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.

NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.

One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.

There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

Memic raises $96M for its robot-assisted surgery platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Memic, a startup developing a robotic-assisted surgical platform that recently received marketing authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, today announced that it has closed a $96 million Series D funding round. The round was led by Peregrine Ventures and Ceros, with participation from OurCrowd and Accelmed. The company plans to use the new funding to commercialize its platform in the U.S. and expand its marketing and sales efforts outside of the U.S., too.

The company previously raised a total amount of $31.8 million, according to Crunchbase, including about $12.5 million raised through crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd.

Memic team photo

Image Credits: Memic

The Hominis, as the company calls its platform, has been authorized for use in “single site, natural orifice laparoscopic-assisted transvaginal benign surgical procedures including benign hysterectomy.” It’s worth noting that the robot doesn’t perform the surgery without human intervention. Instead, surgeons control the device — and its robotic arms — from a central console. The company notes that the instruments are meant to replicate the motions of the surgeon’s arms. And while it’s currently only authorized for this one specific type of procedure, Memic is looking at a wide range of other procedures where a system like this could be beneficial.

“The Hominis system represents a significant advancement in the growing multi-billion-dollar robotic surgery market. This financing positions us to accelerate our commercialization efforts and bring Hominis to both surgeons and patients in the months ahead,” said Dvir Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Memic.

It’s worth noting that there are a wide range of similar, computer-assisted surgical systems on the market already. Only last month, Asensus Surgical received FDA clearance for its laparoscopic platform to be used in general surgery, for example. Meanwhile, eye surgery robotics startup ForSight recently raised $10 million in seed funding for its platform.

Memic’s Hominis is the first robotic device approved for benign transvaginal procedures, though, and the company and its investors are surely betting on this being a first stepping stone to additional use cases over time.

“Given the broad potential of Hominis combined with a strong management team, we are proud to support Memic and execution of its bold vision,” said Eyal Lifschitz, managing general partner of Peregrine Ventures.

Austin’s newest unicorn: The Zebra raises $150M after doubling revenue in 2020

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The Zebra, an Austin-based company that operates an insurance comparison site, has raised $150 million in a Series D round that propels it into unicorn territory.

Both the round size and valuation are a substantial bump from the $38.5 million Series C that Austin-based The Zebra raised in February of 2020. (The company would not disclose its valuation at that time, saying now only that its new valuation of over $1 billion is a “nice step up.”)

The Zebra also would not disclose the name of the firm that led its Series D round, but sources familiar with the deal said it was London-based Hedosophia. Existing backers Weatherford Capital and Accel also participated in the funding event.

The round size also is bigger than all of The Zebra’s prior rounds combined, bringing the company’s total raised to $261.5 million since its 2012 inception. Previous backers also include Silverton Partners, Ballast Point Ventures, Daher Capital, Floodgate Fund, The Zebra CEO Keith Melnick, KDT and others. 

According to Melnick, the round was all primary, and included no debt or secondary.

The Zebra started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. The company partners with the top 10 auto insurance carriers in the U.S. Over time, it’s also “naturally” evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. It recently launched a dedicated home and auto bundled product, although much of its recent growth still revolves around its core auto offering, according to Melnick.

Like many other financial services companies, The Zebra has benefited from the big consumer shift to digital services since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And we know this because the company is one of the few that are refreshingly open about their financials. The Zebra doubled its net revenue in 2020 to $79 million compared to $37 million in 2019, according to Melnick, who is former president of travel metasearch engine Kayak. March marked the company’s highest-performing month ever, he said, with revenue totaling $12.5 million — putting the company on track to achieve an annual run rate of $150 million this year. For some context, that’s up from $8 million in September of 2020 and $6 million in May of 2020.

Also, its revenue per applicant has grown at a clip of 100% year over year, according to Melnick. And The Zebra has increased its headcount to over 325, compared to about 200 in early 2020.

“We’ve definitely improved our relationships with carriers and seen more carrier participation as they continue to embrace our model,” Melnick said. “And we’ve leaned more into brand marketing efforts.”

The Zebra CEO Keith Melnick. Image courtesy of The Zebra

The company was even profitable for a couple of months last year, somewhat “unintentionally,” according to Melnick.

“We’re not highly unprofitable or burning through money like crazy,” he told TechCrunch. “This new raise wasn’t to fund operations. It’s more about accelerating growth and some of our product plans. We’re pulling forward things that were planned for later in time. We still had a nice chunk of money sitting on our balance sheet.”

The company also plans to use its new capital to do more hiring and focus strongly on continuing to build The Zebra’s brand, according to Melnick. Some of the things the company is planning include a national advertising campaign and adding tools and information so it can serve as an “insurance advisor,” and not just a site that refers people to carriers. It’s also planning to create more “personalized experiences and results” via machine learning.

“We are accelerating our efforts to make The Zebra a household name,” Melnick said. “And we want a deeper connection with our users.” It also aims to be there for a consumer through their lifecycle — as they move from being renters to homeowners, for example.

And while an IPO is not out of the question, he emphasizes that it’s not the company’s main objective at this time.

“I definitely try not to get locked on to a particular exit strategy. I just want to make sure we continue to build the best company we can. And then, I think the exit will make itself apparent,” Melnick said. “I’m not blind and am very aware that public market valuations are strong right now and that may be the right decision for us, but for now, that’s not the ultimate goal for me.”

To the CEO, there’s still plenty of runway.

“This is a big milestone, but I do feel like for us that this is just the beginning,” he said. “We’ve just scratched the surface of it.”

Early investor Mark Cuban believes the company is at an inflection point.

” ‘Startup’ isn’t the right word anymore,” he said in a written statement. “The Zebra is a full fledged tech company that is taking on – and solving – some of the biggest challenges in the $638B insurance industry.”

Accel Partner John Locke said the firm has tripled down on its investment in The Zebra because of its confidence in not only what the company is doing but also its potential.

“In an increasingly noisy insurance landscape that includes insurtechs and traditional carriers, giving consumers the ability to compare everything in one place is is more and more valuable,” he told TechCrunch. “I think The Zebra has really seized the mantle of becoming the go-to site for people to compare insurance and then that’s showing up in the numbers, referral traffic and fundraise interest.”

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