Today we bring you another edition of “Dear Sophie,” an advice column that answers readers’ questions about immigration for tech.
“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, 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.”
Today I’m sharing answers to the most frequently asked questions following up to the last H-1B Dear Sophie. Fortunately, the government has provided a lot more details over the last few weeks. Additional info about the electronic registration process is available on my H-1B podcast. Enjoy!
No, there is no limit to how many times a company can sponsor an individual. A lot of companies tend to do it three times because candidates can often work for you for three years with OPT and STEM OPT, but the law doesn’t set out an upper limit. Also, you can sponsor current F-1 students as well as people who have accepted your offers who are currently outside the United States.
You can access my.uscis.gov starting February 24, 2020 at 10 a.m. (EST) to create your profile for the electronic registration process. However, employers will not be able to create registrations for your employees and candidates until March 1st at noon.
This is counterintuitive. If you’re working with an attorney, on the Account Type screen, don’t select the box for “I am an applicant, petitioner, or requestor.” Instead, select the “I am an H-1B registrant” box.
The initial registration period starts March 1, 2020 and is supposed to run through March 20, 2020. USCIS will announce the actual end date of the initial registration period on its website. If not enough people register (unlikely), USCIS can decide to re-open registrations.
Your attorney will provide a “representative passcode” that you need to enter. This will take you to the G-28 page where you can accept your representative. Talk to your attorney about whether they prefer that you have USCIS send notices to you or their firm.
You can enter up to 250 people in one batch and you can review them before you submit.
You should be able to delete entries even after having submitted them. The website will warn you if there is missing information, but cannot warn you about inaccurate information.
No, don’t do it. It’s against the rules and you will forfeit this person’s opportunity to get an H-1B.
For each of your selected candidates, you will receive a selection notice listing the 90-day filing window deadline and the physical mailing address to send the petition package. Therefore, most petitions will be submitted April through June.
USCIS is trusting your company to act in good faith. Make sure that for any candidate you electronically register, they have accepted a position with your company and you actually intend to follow through with hiring them. However, there is currently no requirement to notify USCIS if you won’t be following through with filing the full petition for a selected registration.
The advanced degree exemption to the H-1B lottery is for candidates who have received master’s degrees and PhDs from U.S. universities. They have a higher chance of lottery selection. Under the new electronic registration system, you have to prove eligibility at the time of filing the physical petition, not at the time of electronic registration. So if somebody is graduating in May or June, you check the Master’s cap box for them in March. However, it’s safest to wait to get their proof of graduation before submitting the full I-129 package.
Last year, there were more than 200,000 petitions. There are 65,000 available H-1Bs plus 20,000 for the Master’s cap. Just how many petitions will be filed with the new electronic registration system remains to be seen.
I don’t know, my crystal ball isn’t giving me information on this one right now. ;)
Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here.
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Hot Wheels will ship you a Cybertruck long before Tesla is likely to make any deliveries on their electric retro-future wheeled trapezoid: The toy maker just unveiled two different RC Cybertruck models, including a 1:64 scale model at just $20, and a much larger 1:10 scale version for $400.
These are available to pre-order now, but like most of Tesla’s cars, just because they’re introduced doesn’t mean you can go out and buy one immediately. They’re set to ship in time for the holidays, however, with a December 15, 2020 estimated availability date, according to the Hot Wheels website.
These look like very faithful representations of the Cybertruck that Tesla unveiled at a special event back in November, and the large version includes a “reusable cracked window vinyl sticker” that you can use to recreate the onstage flub that happened at the actual reveal. You’ll have to supply your own large metal medicine ball.
Other features of the 1:10 scale Cybertruck include functioning headlights and taillights, all-wheel drive, true to form “Chill” and “Sport” modes, a removable tonneau cover, a working telescopic tailgate and more.
The smaller and much more affordable version is just three inches long, which is basically what you’d expect from a traditional Hot Wheels mini model, and it can achieve an “up to 500mph scale speed,” which someone who is better than me at math can figure out what that translates to.
These are available to people in the U.S. and Canada, but I expect them to be pretty hot sellers based on the general fervor and interest around all things Cybertruck to date.
Electriphi, a provider of charging management and fleet monitoring software for electric vehicles, has joined the scrum of startups looking to provide services to the growing number of electric vehicle fleets in the U.S.
The San Francisco-based company has just raised $3.5 million in seed funding from investors including Wireframe Ventures, the Urban Innovation Fund, and Blackhorn Ventures. Lemnos Labs and Acario Innovation also participated in the round.
Electriphi’s pitch has resonated with school districts. It counts the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif. as one of its benchmark customers.
“Twin Rivers Unified School District has the largest fleet of electric school buses in North America, and our ambition is to transition to a fully electric fleet in the coming years,” said Tim Shannon, transportation services director, Twin Rivers Unified School District, in a statement. “This is a significant undertaking, and we needed a trusted partner that could provide us state-of-the-art charging management and help us with data collection and monitoring.”
There are several companies pursuing this market — all with either a bit of a head start, significant corporate backers, or more capital. Existing offerings from EVConnect, GreenLots, GreenFlux, AmplyPower all compete with Electriphi.
The company is betting that the experience of co-founder, Muffi Ghadiali, a former senior director at ChargePoint who led hardware and software development for fast charging infrastructure, can sway customers. Joining Ghadiali is Sanjay Dayal, who previously worked at Agralogics, Tibco, Xamplify, Versata and Sybase .
There’s also the sheer scale of the opportunity, which is likely to see multiple companies emerge as winners.
“There are millions of public and commercial fleet vehicles in the U.S. alone that we rely on daily for transportation, delivery and services, ” said Paul Straub, managing partner, Wireframe Ventures. “Many of these are beginning to consider electrification and the opportunity is tremendous.”
Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.
For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.
Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.
Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.
The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.
Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.
The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.
“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”
Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.
For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”
Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz
Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them.
“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”
It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.
Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.
In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.
“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”
During the days when Snapchat’s popularity was booming, investors thought the company would become the anchor for a new Los Angeles technology scene.
Snapchat, they hoped, would spin-off entrepreneurs and angel investors who would reinvest in the local ecosystem and create new companies that would in turn foster more wealth, establishing LA as a hub for tech talent and venture dollars on par with New York and Boston.
In the ensuing years, Los Angeles and its entrepreneurial talent pool has captured more attention from local and national investors, but it’s not Snap that’s been the source for the next generation of local founders. Instead, several former SpaceX employees have launched a raft of new companies, capturing the imagination and dollars of some of the biggest names in venture capital.
“There was a buzz, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of bench of people that investors wanted it to become,” says one longtime VC based in the City of Angels. “It was a company in LA more than it was an LA company.”
Perhaps the most successful SpaceX offshoot is Relativity Space, founded by Jordan Noone and Tim Ellis. Since Noone, a former SpaceX engineer, and Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer, founded their company, the business has been (forgive the expression) a rocket ship. Over the past four years, Relativity href="https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/01/relativity-a-new-star-in-the-space-race-raises-160-million-for-its-3-d-printed-rockets/"> has raised $185.7 million, received special dispensations from NASA to test its rockets at a facility in Alabama, will launch vehicles from Cape Canaveral and has signed up an early customer in Momentus, which provides satellite tug services in orbit.
Google has buried a major change in legal jurisdiction for its UK users as part of a wider update to its terms and conditions that’s been announced today and which it says is intended to make its conditions of use clearer for all users.
It says the update to its T&Cs is the first major revision since 2012 — with Google saying it wanted to ensure the policy reflects its current products and applicable laws.
“We’ve updated our Terms of Service to make them easier for people around the world to read and understand — with clearer language, improved organization, and greater transparency about changes we make to our services and products. We’re not changing the way our products work, or how we collect or process data,” Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry said in a statement.
Users of Google products are being asked to review and accept the new terms before March 31 when they are due to take effect.
Reuters reported on the move late yesterday — citing sources familiar with the update who suggested the change of jurisdiction for UK users will weaken legal protections around their data.
However Google disputes there will be any change in privacy standards for UK users as a result of the shift. it told us there will be no change to how it process UK users’ data; no change to their privacy settings; and no change to the way it treats their information as a result of the move.
We asked the company for further comment on this — including why it chose not to make a UK subsidiary the legal base for UK users — and a spokesperson told us it is making the change as part of its preparations for the UK to leave the European Union (aka Brexit).
“Like many companies, we have to prepare for Brexit,” Google said. “Nothing about our services or our approach to privacy will change, including how we collect or process data, and how we respond to law enforcement demands for users’ information. The protections of the UK GDPR will still apply to these users.”
Heather Burns, a tech policy specialist based in Glasgow, Scotland — who runs a website dedicated to tracking UK policy shifts around the Brexit process — also believes Google has essentially been forced to make the move because the UK government has recently signalled its intent to diverge from European Union standards in future, including on data protection.
“What has changed since January 31 has been [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson making a unilateral statement that the UK will go its own way on data protection, in direct contrast to everything the UK’s data protection regulator and government has said since the referendum,” she told us. “These bombastic, off-the-cuff statements play to his anti-EU base but businesses act on them. They have to.”
“Google’s transfer of UK accounts from the EU to the US is an indication that they do not believe the UK will either seek or receive a data protection adequacy agreement at the end of the transition period. They are choosing to deal with that headache now rather than later. We shouldn’t underestimate how strong a statement this is from the tech sector regarding its confidence in the Johnson premiership,” she added.
Asked whether she believes there will be a reduction in protections for UK users in future as a result of the shift Burns suggested that will largely depend on Google.
So — in other words — Brexit means, er, trust Google to look after your data.
“The European data protection framework is based around a set of fundamental user rights and controls over the uses of personal data — the everyday data flows to and from all of our accounts. Those fundamental rights have been transposed into UK domestic law through the Data Protection Act 2018, and they will stay, for now. But with the Johnson premiership clearly ready to jettison the European-derived system of user rights for the US-style anything goes model,” Burns suggested.
“Google saying there is no change to the way we process users’ data, no change to their privacy settings and no change to the way we treat their information can be taken as an indication that they stand willing to continue providing UK users with European-style rights over their data — albeit from a different jurisdiction — regardless of any government intention to erode the domestic legal basis for those rights.”
Reuters’ report also raises concerns about the impact of the Cloud Act agreement between the UK and the US — which is due to come into effect this summer — suggesting it will pose a threat to the safety of UK Google users’ data once it’s moved out of an EU jurisdiction (in this case Ireland) to the US where the Act will apply.
The Cloud Act is intended to make it quicker and easier for law enforcement to obtain data stored in the cloud by companies based in the other legal jurisdiction.
So in future, it might be easier for UK authorities to obtain UK Google users’ data using this legal instrument applied to Google US.
It certainly seems clear that as the UK moves away from EU standards as a result of Brexit it is opening up the possibility of the country replacing long-standing data protection rights for citizens with a regime of supercharged mass surveillance. (The UK government has already legislated to give its intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to snoop on ordinary citizens’ digital comms — so it has a proven appetite for bulk data.)
Again, Google told us the shift of legal base for its UK users will make no difference to how it handles law enforcement requests — a process it talks about here — and further claimed this will be true even when the Cloud Act applies. Which is a weasely way of saying it will do exactly what the law requires.
Google confirmed that GDPR will continue to apply for UK users during the transition period between the old and new terms. After that it said UK data protection law will continue to apply — emphasizing that this is modelled after the GDPR. But of course in the post-Brexit future the UK government might choose to model it after something very different.
Asked to confirm whether it’s committing to maintain current data standards for UK users in perpetuity, the company told us it cannot speculate as to what privacy laws the UK will adopt in the future…
We also asked why it hasn’t chosen to elect a UK subsidiary as the legal base for UK users. To which it gave a nonsensical response — saying this is because the UK is no longer in the EU. Which begs the question when did the UK suddenly become the 51st American State?
Returning to the wider T&Cs revision, Google said it’s making the changes in a response to litigation in the European Union targeted at its terms.
This includes a case in Germany where consumer rights groups successfully sued the tech giant over its use of overly broad terms which the court agreed last year were largely illegal.
In another case a year ago in France a court ordered Google to pay €30,000 for unfair terms — and ordered it to obtain valid consent from users for tracking their location and online activity.
Since at least 2016 the European Commission has also been pressuring tech giants, including Google, to fix consumer rights issues buried in their T&Cs — including unfair terms. A variety of EU laws apply in this area.
Here, among the usual ‘dead cat’ claims about not ‘selling your information’ (tl;dr adtech giants rent attention; they don’t need to sell actual surveillance dossiers), Google writes that it doesn’t use “your emails, documents, photos or confidential information (such as race, religion or sexual orientation) to personalize the ads we show you”.
Though it could be using all that personal stuff to help it build new products it can serve ads alongside.
Even further towards the end of its business model screed it includes the claim that “if you don’t want to see personalized ads of any kind, you can deactivate them at any time”. So, yes, buried somewhere in Google’s labyrinthine setting exists an opt out.
The change in how Google articulates its business model comes in response to growing political and regulatory scrutiny of adtech business models such as Google’s — including on data protection and antitrust grounds.
For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.
Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.
Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.
Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.
Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.
PocketPills, which bills itself as the sole online pharmacy operating in Canada, has raised $7.35 million in new financing as it expands across the country.
Through partnerships with insurers like Pacific Blue Cross the company provides co-insurance reductions for prescriptions. “We have an option for you to come and join our platform just like any pharmacy,” says company co-founder and chief operating officer, Harj Samra.
Samra launched the company in 2018 with Raj Gulia, a fellow proprietor of pharmacies across Canada, and the serial entrepreneur and co-founder of RocketFuel Abhinav Gupta. After RocketFuel’s public offering, Gupta was toying with several ideas for direct to consumer companies when he was approached by Gulia and Samra.
Together the three men launched PocketPills to bring the online pharmacy model to Canada as a way to save money for insurers.
The problem for insurers is that the use of generic drugs in Canada lags behind that of the U.S., says Gupta. “The difference is quite substantial. The U.S is about 90% generic fill rate and in Canada that number is at 70%,” he says.
PocketPills covers everything that a regular Canadian pharmacy would outside of controlled substances and narcotics. The bulk of the company’s prescriptions to date are for medications for chronic conditions.
Now the company is looking to expand across the country, opening fulfillment locations in Nova Scotia and soon in Quebec.
To back that growth and continue its development, PocketPills turned to a large Canadian family office and the investment firm Waterbridge to finance its $7.35 million round.
“PocketPills is timed well for massive value creation in the Canadian health care industry through its technology innovations. It has captured a sweet spot at the intersection of cost (insurers and employers), convenience (patients) and care (chronic diseases),” said Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner, WaterBridge Ventures, in a statement.
Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.
The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.
The list of new companies include:
The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator
Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).
Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.
California-based mobility startup Zero Motorcycles has a new e-moto in its lineup — the fully-faired SR/S, unveiled today in New York.
The company’s CEO Sam Paschel pulled the cover off the two-wheeled EV, which is based on the platform of the company’s SR/F, released last year.
The new SR/S has similar stats to the SR/F: a 124-mph top-speed, up to 200 miles of range, 140 ft-lbs of torque and charge-time of 60 minutes to 95%, Paschel told TechCrunch at the debut.
Zero’s latest EV is an IoT motorcycle and manages overall performance — including engine output and handling characteristics — through digital riding modes.
The major differences on the SR/S over the SR/F are the addition of the full-fairing, a more relaxed riding position (through re-positioning of the bars and pegs) and a 13% improvement in highway range, from improved aerodynamics.
The fairing brings around 20 pounds more weight to to the SR/S over the 485-pound SR/F.
On price, the base version of the SR/S is $19,995 — a dash over the SR/F’s $19,495 — and a premium SR/S (with a higher charging capacity) comes in at $21,995.
The SR/S starts shipping today to Zero’s global dealer network, which stands at 91 in the U.S. and 200 globally — the largest for any e-motorcycle company, according to Paschel.
He positioned the SR/S as more of a sport-touring machine than the the SR/F, which has a naked-bike set up that includes a more aggressive riding position and less aerodynamics on the highway.
Zero’s latest entries — the SR/F and the SR/S — come at a time when startups are pushing the motorcycle industry toward electric, though it’s not evident there’s enough demand to buy up all the new models.
The American motorcycle market has been stagnant for over a decade and is becoming crowded with EV offerings. New motorcycle sales in the U.S. dropped by roughly 50% since 2008 — with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40 — and have never recovered, according to Motorcycle Industry Council stats.
In a bid to revive sales and the interest of younger riders, in 2019 Harley-Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S. — the LiveWire — which is a forerunner to an HD product-line of electric-powered two-wheelers.
Harley-Davidson’s EV debut, the LiveWire
Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — Alta Motors, Mission Motors and Brammo — and put HD in the market with existing EV ventures, such as Zero.
That list is growing.
High-performance Italian EV company Energica has expanded marketing and sales in the U.S., along with Cake — a Swedish e-moto maker. This year should also see e-moto debuts by California-based Lightning Motorcycles and Fuell, a French and American-founded company with plans to release the $10,000, 150-mile range Flow.
Zero appears to have created an edge up on Harley’s LiveWire — coming in at $10,000 less than the $29,799 HD — though it’s hard to know how they stacked up against each other in 2019 since e-moto sales stats aren’t reliably tallied in the U.S.
Zero doesn’t release their sales numbers (though I tried my darnedest to pry them out of CEO Sam Paschel).
That price advantage over Harley’s LiveWire will carry over on Zero’s new SR/S, which could find its biggest competitor in the anticipated release of Damon’s Hypersport.
The Vancouver e-moto startup plans to go to market with its 200-mph e-motorcycle debut. The $24,995 Hypersport is targeted toward Tesla owners and brings proprietary digital safety technology and adjustable ergonomics that are absent in Zero’s offerings — and pretty much anything else on the motorcycle market.
Time, burn rate and sales will tell which companies can find market-traction and turn a profit across all these new e-moto offerings.
Zero doesn’t divulge financials, but among the startups, they could be furthest along. The company, with $120 million in VC in its rear-mirrors — per Crunchbase — has no plans to raise more, according to Paschel.
“We don’t need it,” he told TechCrunch, adding that the venture’s biggest challenge in 2019 was keeping production up to speed with buyer demand for their SR/F.
Zero is likely hoping for that good kind of a problem with its new SR/S in 2020.
TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.
In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.
Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.
8:30 AM – 4:00 PM
Registration Open Hours
General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.
10:00 AM – 10:05 AM
10:05 AM – 10:25 AM
The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
10:25 AM – 10:45 AM
Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.
10:45 AM – 11:05 AM
Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space.
11:05 AM – 11:15 AM
Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club
11:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.
11:35 AM – 12:05 PM
Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.
12:15 PM – 1:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.
1:00 PM – 1:25 PM
Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.
1:15 PM – 2:00 PM
Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage
1:25 PM – 1:50 PM
Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.
1:50 PM – 2:15 PM
As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.
2:15 PM – 2:40 PM
Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here.
2:15 PM – 3:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI
Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.
3:10 PM – 3:35 PM
This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.
3:15 PM – 4:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.
3:35 PM – 4:00 PM
In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.
4:00 PM – 4:10 PM
Live Demo from Somatic
4:10 PM – 4:35 PM
Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.
4:35 PM – 5:00 PM
The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.
5:00 PM – 5:25 PM
Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.
5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only)
Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley
We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.
Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.
Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!
The 400,000 distribution yards located in the U.S. are critical hubs for the supply chain. Now one startup is aiming to make the yard truck — the centerpiece of the distribution yard — more efficient, safer and cleaner, with an autonomous system.
Outrider, a Golden, Colo. startup previously known as Azevtec, came out of stealth Wednesday to announce that it has raised $53 million in seed and Series A funding rounds led by NEA and 8VC. Outrider is also backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, warehousing giant Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures and Goose Society of Texas.
Outrider CEO Andrew Smith said distribution yards are ideal environments to deploy autonomous technology because they’re well-defined areas that are also complex, often chaotic and with many manual tasks.
“This is why a systems approach is necessary to automate every major task in the yard,” Smith said.
Outrider has developed a system that includes an electric yard truck equipped with a full stack self-driving system with overlapping suite of sensor technology such as radar, lidar and cameras. The system automates the manual aspect of yard operations, including moving trailers around the yard as well as to and from loading docks. The system can also hitch and unhitch trailers, connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, and monitor trailer locations.
The company has two pilot programs with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies in designated sections of their distribution yards. Over time, Outrider will move from operating in specific areas of these yards to taking over the entire yards for these enterprise customers, according to Smith.
“Because we’re getting people out of these yard environments, where there’s 80,000 pound vehicles, we’re delivering increased efficiency,” Smith told TechCrunch in a recent interview. That efficiency is not just in moving the trailers around the yard, Smith added. It also helps move the Class 8 semi trailers used for hauling freight long distances through the system and back on the road quickly.
“We can actually reduce the amount of time the over-the-road guys are stuck sitting at a yard trying to do a pickup or drop-off,” Smith said.
Smith sees a big opportunity to demonstrate the responsible deployment of autonomy as well as clean up yards filled with diesel-powered yard trucks.
“If there was ever a location for near-term automation and electrification of the supply chain, it’s here,” he said. “Our customers and suppliers understand there’s a big opportunity for these autonomy systems to accelerate the deployment of 50,000 plus electric trucks in the market because they are a superior platform for automation.”
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This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.
Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.
The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.
Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.
Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.
Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.
Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.
Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.
Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.
Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.
Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.
Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early-Bird pricing applies.
Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in Europe this week — attending a security conference in Germany over the weekend where he spoke about the kind of regulation he’d like applied to his platform ahead of a slate of planned meetings with digital heavyweights at the European Commission.
“I do think that there should be regulation on harmful content,” said Zuckerberg during a Q&A session at the Munich Security Conference, per Reuters, making a pitch for bespoke regulation.
He went on to suggest “there’s a question about which framework you use”, telling delegates: “Right now there are two frameworks that I think people have for existing industries — there’s like newspapers and existing media, and then there’s the telco-type model, which is ‘the data just flows through you’, but you’re not going to hold a telco responsible if someone says something harmful on a phone line.”
“I actually think where we should be is somewhere in between,” he added, making his plea for Internet platforms to be a special case.
At the conference he also said Facebook now employs 35,000 people to review content on its platform and implement security measures — including suspending around 1 million fake accounts per day, a stat he professed himself “proud” of.
The Facebook chief is due to meet with key commissioners covering the digital sphere this week, including competition chief and digital EVP Margrethe Vestager, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton and Věra Jourová, who is leading policymaking around online disinformation.
The timing of his trip is clearly linked to digital policymaking in Brussels — with the Commission due to set out its thinking around the regulation of artificial intelligence this week. (A leaked draft last month suggested policymaker are eyeing risk-based rules to wrap around AI.)
More widely, the Commission is wrestling with how to respond to a range of problematic online content — from terrorism to disinformation and election interference — which also puts Facebook’s 2BN+ social media empire squarely in regulators’ sights.
Another policymaking plan — a forthcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) — is slated to upgrade liability rules around Internet platforms.
The detail of the DSA has yet to be publicly laid out but any move to rethink platform liabilities could present a disruptive risk for a content distributing giant such as Facebook.
Going into meetings with key commissioners Zuckerberg made his preference for being considered a ‘special’ case clear — saying he wants his platform to be regulated not like the media businesses which his empire has financially disrupted; nor like a dumbpipe telco.
On the latter it’s clear — even to Facebook — that the days of Zuckerberg being able to trot out his erstwhile mantra that ‘we’re just a technology platform’, and wash his hands of tricky content stuff, are long gone.
Russia’s 2016 foray into digital campaigning in the US elections and sundry content horrors/scandals before and since have put paid to that — from nation-state backed fake news campaigns to livestreamed suicides and mass murder.
Facebook has been forced to increase its investment in content moderation. Meanwhile it announced a News section launch last year — saying it would hand pick publishers content to show in a dedicated tab.
The ‘we’re just a platform’ line hasn’t been working for years. And EU policymakers are preparing to do something about that.
With regulation looming Facebook is now directing its lobbying energies onto trying to shape a policymaking debate — calling for what it dubs “the ‘right’ regulation”.
Here the Facebook chief looks to be applying a similar playbook as the Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai — who recently tripped to Brussels to push for AI rules so dilute they’d act as a tech enabler.
In a blog post published today Facebook pulls its latest policy lever: Putting out a white paper which poses a series of questions intended to frame the debate at a key moment of public discussion around digital policymaking.
Top of this list is a push to foreground focus on free speech, with Facebook questioning “how can content regulation best achieve the goal of reducing harmful speech while preserving free expression?” — before suggesting more of the same: (Free, to its business) user-generated policing of its platform.
Another suggestion it sets out which aligns with existing Facebook moves to steer regulation in a direction it’s comfortable with is for an appeals channel to be created for users to appeal content removal or non-removal. Which of course entirely aligns with a content decision review body Facebook is in the process of setting up — but which is not in fact independent of Facebook.
Facebook is also lobbying in the white paper to be able to throw platform levers to meet a threshold of ‘acceptable vileness’ — i.e. it wants a proportion of law-violating content to be sanctioned by regulators — with the tech giant suggesting: “Companies could be incentivized to meet specific targets such as keeping the prevalence of violating content below some agreed threshold.”
It’s also pushing for the fuzziest and most dilute definition of “harmful content” possible. On this Facebook argues that existing (national) speech laws — such as, presumably, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (aka the NetzDG law) which already covers online hate speech in that market — should not apply to Internet content platforms, as it claims moderating this type of content is “fundamentally different”.
“Governments should create rules to address this complexity — that recognize user preferences and the variation among internet services, can be enforced at scale, and allow for flexibility across language, trends and context,” it writes — lobbying for maximum possible leeway to be baked into the coming rules.
“The development of regulatory solutions should involve not just lawmakers, private companies and civil society, but also those who use online platforms,” Facebook’s VP of content policy, Monika Bickert, also writes in the blog.
“If designed well, new frameworks for regulating harmful content can contribute to the internet’s continued success by articulating clear ways for government, companies, and civil society to share responsibilities and work together. Designed poorly, these efforts risk unintended consequences that might make people less safe online, stifle expression and slow innovation,” she adds, ticking off more of the tech giant’s usual talking points at the point policymakers start discussing putting hard limits on its ad business.
SpaceX has launched a batch of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit, marking its fifth overall launch of a group of 60 of the small spacecraft and its third this year alone. This launch brings the total constellation to 300 satellites for Starlink on orbit, extending SpaceX’s lead as the largest commercial satellite operator in the world.
The Starlink project sees SpaceX deploying a constellation of small, low Earth orbit satellites that will work with one another in concert to deliver high-speed, low-cost broadband internet connectivity to users. The current goal is to launch enough satellites to begin providing service to customers in the U.S. and Canada later this year, followed by eventual rollout of service globally pending further expansion of the constellation.
SpaceX did something a little different with this Starlink mission, deploying them from the launch vehicle much earlier in the mission, after just one burn of the rocket’s second stage, into an elliptical orbit from which they’ll use their own thrusters to climb to their target orbit around Earth. It’s a trickier maneuver to accomplish, but also saves SpaceX time, fuel and money in terms of launch costs.
Today’s launch not only furthered SpaceX’s Starlink work, but also included some crucial steps in the company’s ongoing efforts to develop and improve its launch system reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used on today’s launch was flown previously three times in 2019, for instance, and represents the fastest turnaround of a re-used booster yet for SpaceX, with just 62 days between its last flight and today.
SpaceX also attempted to land the booster once again during this launch — what would’ve been its 50th successful landing of a booster to date — but it missed the intended landing. The rocket first-stage returned to Earth and fired its landing engine burst as planned, but a live video feed from the drone ship landing pad operated by SpaceX appeared to show exhaust plumes, suggesting it came down in the ocean wide of its mark instead of landing on the pad as planned. SpaceX last missed with a landing in June when the centre core of its Falcon Heavy vehicle failed to nail the landing, but has otherwise mostly been able to land its boosters in recent years. The booster did apparently have a soft landing on the water, and is intact with the potential for recovery, according to SpaceX.
This launch also continued a trend SpaceX has had recently of trying to recover both halves of the fairing, a protective shell that encloses the payload of satellites aboard the rocket as they fly through Earth’s atmosphere on their way to space. The company will attempt to catch both sides of that shell, using two ships in the Atlantic Ocean with giant nets strung across struts extending from their hull, as they parachute back. We’ll update this post with the results of that recovery attempt when we get the news.
We won’t have to wait long for another Starlink launch, as SpaceX is set to send more of its satellites up to orbit sometime next month, according to its current plans.
SpaceX is launching another batch of 60 Starlink satellites to join its existing constellation, which will bring the total to 300 and be the third Starlink launch this year already. The launch will also be a potentially record-setting demonstration of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusability, with the shortest turnaround time for a Falcon 9 first stage between its previous mission and its next.
The Falcon 9 booster being used today has already flown three times before, including in May, July and then again in December of 2019. That December flight, which happened on December 16, was only 63 days before today’s launch – while the quickest turnaround to date for a Falcon 9 after flying has been 72 days. SpaceX is using a newer iteration of its rocket that it first introduced in 2018 which is designed to increase its reusability further still vs. earlier versions.
SpaceX can clearly turn these around pretty quickly now and is probably more bound by mission cadence than other factors – this mission was originally set to fly on February 13 but was delayed twice until today.
In addition to the launch, which will also look to deploy the Starlink satellites much earlier than in prior launches of the satellites at around 15 minutes after launch, SpaceX will be looking to recover both the booster and the fairing halves that protect the satellite cargo prior to their release in space. The Falcon 9 booster will return for a landing on SpaceX’s ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ mobile automated seafaring landing pad, while its ‘Ms. Tree’ and ‘Ms. Chief’ ships will try to catch the fairings as they descend via parachute using giant nets suspended above their hulls.
SpaceX has pretty much perfected its booster landing process, but the fairing catch is still very much in the refinement stage. During the last SpaceX Starlink launch, the company caught one half of the protective covers but not the other, bringing its total successful recoveries to a count of three. It’s attempted 12 catches so far, and has also recovered fairings by retrieving them intact from the ocean after a water landing, although that process is more difficult and costly so it’s really hoping to improve the success rate of the net-based catches.
Later this year, SpaceX intends to turn Starlink on, with the constellation then providing broadband internet connectivity to customers in the U.S. and Canada, with a global rollout planned to follow after additional launches.
The broadcast of the launch today will begin roughly 15 minutes prior to liftoff. Liftoff is currently set for 10:05 AM EST (7:05 AM PST), and the livestream should kick off at around 9:50 AM EST (6:50 AM PST).
In case you haven’t heard, TC Sessions: Mobility is back for second year. This one-day event, which will be held May 14 in San Jose, promises to feature some of best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.
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.
We have announced several speakers for the event, including Klaus Zellmer, the president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, Waymo’s href="https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/08/tc-sessions-mobility-2020-boris-sofman-of-waymo-and-nancy-sun-of-ike/">Boris Sofman, Ike Robotics co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan and Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber.
And now we have another star to add to our TC Sessions: Mobility list. TechCrunch is excited to announce that Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility will be joining us on stage this year. Sakkers is a founding partner at Maniv Mobility, a global fund investing in mobility.
Maniv started out with a focus on transportation and mobility-related startups in Israel, with a few in investments in the U.S. It expanded its mission to the global stage, a move buoyed by a $100 million fund that it closed last July with backing from 12 corporations, including the venture arms of Aptiv, BMW, Hyundai, Lear Corp., LG Electronics, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Shell and Valeo.
Maniv’s portfolio includes vehicle security company Owlcam, peer-to-peer car-sharing company Turo, teleoperations startup Phantom Auto, autonomous vehicle-focused chipmaker Hailo, shared electric moped company Revel, Spain-based car subscription startup Bipi and in-vehicle software management firm Aurora Labs.
Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.
And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.
Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.
If you’re an early-stage, mobility startup, make sure you grab an exhibitor package to get your startup in front of today’s leading mobility leaders. Packages come with 4 tickets each and are just $2000. Book yours here.
Facebook has been left red-faced after being forced to call off the launch date of its dating service in Europe because it failed to give its lead EU data regulator enough advanced warning — including failing to demonstrate it had performed a legally required assessment of privacy risks.
Late yesterday Ireland’s Independent.ie newspaper reported that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) had sent agents to Facebook’s Dublin office seeking documentation that Facebook had failed to provide — using inspection and document seizure powers set out in Section 130 of the country’s Data Protection Act.
In a statement on its website the DPC said Facebook first contacted it about the rollout of the dating feature in the EU on February 3.
“We were very concerned that this was the first that we’d heard from Facebook Ireland about this new feature, considering that it was their intention to roll it out tomorrow, 13 February,” the regulator writes. “Our concerns were further compounded by the fact that no information/documentation was provided to us on 3 February in relation to the Data Protection Impact Assessment [DPIA] or the decision-making processes that were undertaken by Facebook Ireland.”
Facebook announced its plan to get into the dating game all the way back in May 2018, trailing its Tinder-encroaching idea to bake a dating feature for non-friends into its social network at its F8 developer conference.
It went on to test launch the product in Colombia a few months later. And since then it’s been gradually adding more countries in South American and Asia. It also launched in the US last fall — soon after it was fined $5BN by the FTC for historical privacy lapses.
At the time of its US launch Facebook said dating would arrive in Europe by early 2020. It just didn’t think to keep its lead EU privacy regulator in the loop — despite the DPC having multiple (ongoing) investigations into other Facebook-owned products at this stage.
Which is either extremely careless or, well, an intentional fuck you to privacy oversight of its data-mining activities. (Among multiple probes being carried out under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, the DPC is looking into Facebook’s claimed legal basis for processing people’s data under the Facebook T&Cs, for example.)
The DPC’s statement confirms that its agents visited Facebook’s Dublin office on February 10 to carry out an inspection — in order to “expedite the procurement of the relevant documentation”.
Which is a nice way of the DPC saying Facebook spent a whole week still not sending it the required information.
“Facebook Ireland informed us last night that they have postponed the roll-out of this feature,” the DPC’s statement goes on.
Which is a nice way of saying Facebook fucked up and is being made to put a product rollout it’s been planning for at least half a year on ice.
The DPC’s head of communications, Graham Doyle, confirmed the enforcement action, telling us: “We’re currently reviewing all the documentation that we gathered as part of the inspection on Monday and we have posed further questions to Facebook and are awaiting the reply.”
“Contained in the documentation we gathered on Monday was a DPIA,” he added.
This begs the question why Facebook didn’t send the DPIA to the DPC on February 3 — unless of course this document did not actually exist on that date…
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and to ask when it carried out the DPIA.
We’ve also asked the DPC to confirm its next steps. The regulator could ask Facebook to make changes to how the product functions in Europe if it’s not satisfied it complies with EU laws.
Under GDPR there’s a requirement for data controllers to bake privacy by design and default into products which are handling people’s information. And a dating product clearly is.
While a DPIA — which is a process whereby planned processing of personal data is assessed to consider the impact on the rights and freedoms of individuals — is a requirement under the GDPR when, for example, individual profiling is taking place or there’s processing of sensitive data on a large scale.
Again, the launch of a dating product on a platform such as Facebook — which has hundreds of millions of regional users — would be a clear-cut case for such an assessment to be carried out ahead of any launch.
U.S. femtech startup CurieMD is offering menopause diagnosis and treatment prescription via a telehealth platform — beginning in California, where it launched late last year.
Founder Dr Leslie Meserve says the goal is to widen access to treatment and support services for mid-life women, spying a business opportunity in offering an auxiliary digital service targeting an area of women’s health which she says is often overlooked within standard health service provision and suffers from a lack of trained physicians.
She also suggests there is a “unique fear” in the U.S. around the use of hormone therapy for treating the menopause that’s left an access gap in support services — blaming concerns sparked by misleading publicity attached to the 2003 Women’s Health Initiative study which implied a link with breast cancer.
“The authors of the study released a press release prematurely that then became an overnight sensationalized story about hormone therapy causing breast cancer,” she explains. “What they didn’t say was that in the estrogen-only arm of the trial there was actually a lower incidence of breast cancer. So that was never stated anywhere. The other thing they failed to state was that the slight increased risk was not statistically significant… They did women a huge disservice by releasing this press release prematurely.”
More than fifteen years on, Meserve believes the time is right for telehealth services to help plug the information and support gap that still orbits the menopause, in part as a consequence of “deeply rooted” but misplaced fear of hormone therapy.
Investment in products targeted women’s health and wellness has also been jumping up in recent years as VCs cotton on to an underinvested opportunity which more founders are also focusing on — led by female entrepreneurs driving attention toward women’s issues.
“There is a lot more interest in telehealth and I believe the time is absolutely right for more information to be given to the world… to make sure that women know that going through menopause is not the end of anything — it’s the beginning of a wonderful second half of life,” she suggests, arguing that the regular healthcare services women are accessing often don’t have the time to dedicate to discussing menopausal symptoms and potential treatments with their patients.
“Telehealth is not going to be appropriate for every single medical issue that’s for sure of but the diagnosis and treatment of menopausal symptoms is really based on a discussion,” she says. “We do let patients know that we are an adjunct to the regular care that they need to be receiving from their gynecologist and primary care physicians. But menopausal treatment requires a lot of discussion, a lot of talk therapy — it’s a very cognitive diagnosis and treatment. And many OB-GYNs and primary care doctors really don’t have the time needed to explain the pros and cons of hormone therapy to their patients.
“They do the physical. They address immediate, urgent needs but they may not have the time to address something that doesn’t feel as urgent. Menopausal symptoms — from insomnia to hot flushes — they don’t feel as urgent to practitioners so I don’t think that they’re always given the time needed. And we know that physicians and other practitioners are very rushed. The way our insurance models go they have to see patients every nine to 15 minutes and sometimes a 15 minute office visit just isn’t enough to perform both a pap smear, a physical and answer all of these questions. So we’re an adjunct. We’re not in place of their regular physical exams — we’re an addition to those.”
Meserve practiced in primary care for close to two decades before moving into specializing in menopause services herself — a shift that led to the idea of setting up a company to address mid-life women’s health issues via a web-based telehealth platform.
“I’ve kind of grown up with my patients and a few years ago I was noticing that my patients were having lots of menopausal symptoms so I self-trained in the treatment of menopause and then became a certified menopause practitioner,” she tells TechCrunch, explaining her own transition from practicing in primary care to focusing on menopause care.
“I realized obviously I was only going to be able to see a very small number of patients and patients in my community. And I know that women across the country are suffering with these symptoms and they’re not able to find physicians that are comfortable talking about menopause and treating menopause. And so, through friends of friends, I was connected to another physician in our community, along with his friend who has expertise in startups and we had the idea [for the company].”
“We know that there’s a lack of trained physicians in this area, we know that women want this relief — they want symptom relief, they want to live wonderful lives,” she adds, saying the key idea is to use telehealth consultations and algorithmic triage to reach “as many women as are wanting the treatment”.
CurieMD patients fill in an online quiz about themselves and their symptoms to get treatment suggestions — which can include a prescription for an oral contraceptive or, in cases where there may be a risk associated with taking estrogen, an antidepressant for perimenopausal symptom relief; and a plant-based hormone therapy for menopausal women — with the startup using an algorithm to help the telehealth practitioners offer the right treatment suggestions.
“Based on the way that patients answer questions in our questionnaire they’re driven down a certain path to help our practitioners choose the right therapy,” she explains, noting that they’re not using AI to drive recommendations. Rather patients’ responses are used to determine which additional questions they get asked to get pull out other relevant information — in a classic decision tree algorithm.
“The first thing we have to determine is whether they’re in perimenopause or menopause,” she says, discussing the decision flow. “So in perimenopause their cycles are fluctuating, their ovaries are coming in and out of retirement. That happens in their 40s. And women start to have perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms at that time — many of them do. So they”ll be having hot flushes, night sweats, irritability, mood symptoms. But the treatment for perimenopause is different from menopause. Perimenopausal patients can be treated very effectively with low dose oral contraceptive pills — so one of the algorithm’s branches is, first of all, are you in menopause or perimenopause?
“And then for menopausal patients they have the option of choosing bioidentical hormone therapy. And if they have had a hysterectomy they only need estrogen — and so they would go down the pathway asking about their estrogen needs. And then if they still have a uterus they will need both estrogen and progesterone. So then they have the choice of what type of estrogen they want to choose — whether they want oral estrogen or estrogen delivered through the skin, which is a patch.”
In cases where a woman is having vasomotor symptoms such as insomnia and hot flushes but has had breast cancer or where there’s another contra-indication to estrogen (such as having previously had a blood clot) CurieMD’s platform may prescribe an antidepressant to treat her symptoms.
“They are candidates for an antidepressant called Venlafaxine [that’s] very effective for treating vasomotor symptoms in all patients — but we use it mostly for women who are unable to take estrogen,” says Meserve.
For now the platform has just three doctors performing remote consultations for the “dozens” of early sign ups it’s seen so far — with a third party company supplying the trained physicians that are conducting the remote consultations.
“We’re working with a large, national company that hires physicians who have chosen to provide telehealth,” she says. “They’re board certified and we provide additional training in women’s health for them — especially in the medications… that we offer.”
Per Meserve CurieMD applies “narrower” prescribing guidelines than an in-person physician might use — exactly “because it is a telehealth company”.
She gives the example of a patient who has had a blood clot in the past — where an in-person physician might be able to discuss with a patient’s haematologist and come up with a plan for them to be on a very low dose estrogen patch. In this case CurieMD’s remote service would not be able to offer such a joined-up approach to prescribing a treatment.
“In telehealth we don’t know all the physicians in each patient’s community so we’re not going to be able to do co-ordinated care as well with specialist, outside of the box patients,” she says. “So if they have any risk factors, such as a history of clotting, or of course if they have a history of breast cancer we’re not going to be able to treat those patients with hormone therapy. So if they really want hormone therapy that’s going to be an in-person visit with a physician.”
Another exception would be patients who have migraines and who may want to be on an oral birth control pill. “It depends on the type of migraines they have,” she says. “So that’s beyond the scope of what we’re going to prescribe.”
As part of the questionnaire process patients are also asked to rate the severity of their symptoms. Meserve says she’s confident this will enable it to not only demonstrate to individual patients the efficacy of the prescribed treatment but also enable it to present findings to the wider medical community — with the aim of demonstrating “the safety and efficacy of telehealth” for this particular use-case.
“One of the things that I’d like to make sure that we’re doing is really convincing the medical community at large about the safety of telehealth in certain medical conditions,” she says. “It’s not appropriate for every medical condition… There are certain things that need to have an in person visit. But the medical community is starting to understand and adapt and trust telehealth — but I think the more data that we have the more we’re going to be able to convince them that this is a nice adjunct to in person visits.”
“Patients are more accepting of [telehealth] than physicians are. Physicians are very conservative and very slow to change and so I feel that one of our missions is to present the data to physicians and help them understand that this is not a substitute for good in-person care, it’s just an addition,” she adds.
The business model for the service is direct to patient — which means CurieMD is not plugging into the US insurance healthcare market. Rather there’s a sign up fee (currently waived), a per consultation fee and recurring subscription (taken via credit card) for any ongoing prescriptions which are shipped to patients by a mail-order pharmacy contracted for that piece of the service. (In an FAQ on its website startup claims its consultation fees “are lower than that of most copays and our medication pricing is competitive with that of most pharmacies”.)
The team has raised around $1M in angel and VC investment to fund development of the business so far.
Meserve says the plan is to scale nationwide, taking a state by state approach to building out coverage in order to get the necessary contracts and physician licences in place.
“I would like to be in another 20 states by the end of this year,” she adds.
In terms of differentiation vs the growing number of femtech startups that have also supported an opportunity to offer menopause-related treatment support she says: “We believe we’re the only one that contracts with a pharmacy and has the prescription delivered through a mail order service.”
She also flags that the hormone therapy CurieMD’s service prescribes — and delivers “right to the door in discreet packaging” — is a bioidentical plant-based “FDA-approved” treatment, suggesting that’s another point of differentiation for its approach.
California’s new privacy law was years in the making.
The law, California’s Consumer Privacy Act — or CCPA — became law on January 1, allowing state residents to reclaim their right to access and control their personal data. Inspired by Europe’s GDPR, the CCPA is the largest statewide privacy law change in a generation. The new law lets users request a copy of the data that tech companies have on them, delete the data when they no longer want a company to have it, and demand that their data isn’t sold to third parties. All of this is much to the chagrin of the tech giants, some of which had spent millions to comply with the law and have many more millions set aside to deal with the anticipated influx of consumer data access requests.
But to say things are going well is a stretch.
Many of the tech giants that kicked and screamed in resistance to the new law have acquiesced and accepted their fate — at least until something different comes along. The California tech scene had more than a year to prepare, but some have made it downright difficult and — ironically — more invasive in some cases for users to exercise their rights, largely because every company has a different interpretation of what compliance should look like.
Alex Davis is just one California resident who tried to use his new rights under the law to make a request to delete his data. He vented his annoyance on Twitter, saying companies have responded to CCPA by making requests “as confusing and difficult as possible in new and worse ways.”
“I’ve never seen such deliberate attempts to confuse with design,” he told TechCrunch. He referred to what he described as “dark patterns,” a type of user interface design that tries to trick users into making certain choices, often against their best interests.
“I tried to make a deletion request but it bogged me down with menus that kept redirecting… things to be turned on and off,” he said.
Despite his frustration, Davis got further than others. Just as some companies have made it easy for users to opt-out of having their data sold by adding the legally required “Do not sell my info” links on their websites, many have not. Some have made it near-impossible to find these “data portals,” which companies set up so users can request a copy of their data or delete it altogether. For now, California companies are still in a grace period — but have until July when the CCPA’s enforcement provisions kick in. Until then, users are finding ways around it — by collating and sharing links to data portals to help others access their data.
“We really see a mixed story on the level of CCPA response right now,” said Jay Cline, who heads up consulting giant PwC’s data privacy practice, describing it as a patchwork of compliance.
PwC’s own data found that only 40% of the largest 600 U.S. companies had a data portal. Only a fraction, Cline said, extended their portals to users outside of California, even though other states are gearing up to push similar laws to the CCPA.
But not all data portals are created equally. Given how much data companies store on us — personal or otherwise — the risks of getting things wrong are greater than ever. Tech companies are still struggling to figure out the best way to verify each data request to access or delete a user’s data without inadvertently giving it away to the wrong person.
Last year, security researcher James Pavur impersonated his fiancee and tricked tech companies into turning over vast amounts of data about her, including credit card information, account logins and passwords and, in one case, a criminal background check. Only a few of the companies asked for verification. Two years ago, Akita founder Jean Yang described someone hacking into her Spotify account and requesting her account data as an “unfortunate consequence” of GDPR, which mandated companies operating on the continent allow users access to their data.
The CCPA says companies should verify a person’s identity to a “reasonable degree of certainty.” For some that’s just an email address to send the data.
Others require sending in even more sensitive information just to prove it’s them.
Indeed, i360, a little-known advertising and data company, until recently asked California residents for a person’s full Social Security number. This recently changed to just the last four-digits. Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) wants its customers and users to upload their driver’s license or state ID to verify their identity. Comcast asks for the same, but goes the extra step by asking for a selfie before it will turn over any of a customer’s data.
Comcast asks for the same amount of information to verify a data request as the controversial facial recognition startup, Clearview AI, which recently made headlines for creating a surveillance system made up of billions of images scraped from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help law enforcement trace a person’s movements.
As much as CCPA has caused difficulties, it has helped forge an entirely new class of compliance startups ready to help large and small companies alike handle the regulatory burdens to which they are subject. Several startups in the space are taking advantage of the $55 billion expected to be spent on CCPA compliance in the next year — like Segment, which gives customers a consolidated view of the data they store; Osano which helps companies comply with CCPA; and Securiti, which just raised $50 million to help expand its CCPA offering. With CCPA and GDPR under their belts, their services are designed to scale to accommodate new state or federal laws as they come in.
Another startup, Mine, which lets users “take ownership” of their data by acting as a broker to allow users to easily make requests under CCPA and GDPR, had a somewhat bumpy debut.
The service asks users to grant them access to a user’s inbox, scanning for email subject lines that contain company names and using that data to determine which companies a user can request their data from or have their data deleted. (The service requests access to a user’s Gmail but the company claims it will “never read” users’ emails.) Last month during a publicity push, Mine inadvertently copied a couple of emailed data requests to TechCrunch, allowing us to see the names and email addresses of two requesters who wanted Crunch, a popular gym chain with a similar name, to delete their data.
(Screenshot: Zack Whittaker/TechCrunch)
TechCrunch alerted Mine — and the two requesters — to the security lapse.
“This was a mix-up on our part where the engine that finds companies’ data protection offices’ addresses identified the wrong email address,” said Gal Ringel, co-founder and chief executive at Mine. “This issue was not reported during our testing phase and we’ve immediately fixed it.”
For now, many startups have caught a break.
The smaller, early-stage startups that don’t yet make $25 million in annual revenue or store the personal data on more than 50,000 users or devices will largely escape having to immediately comply with CCPA. But it doesn’t mean startups can be complacent. As early-stage companies grow, so will their legal responsibilities.
“For those who did launch these portals and offer rights to all Americans, they are in the best position to be ready for these additional states,” said Cline. “Smaller companies in some ways have an advantage for compliance if their products or services are commodities, because they can build in these controls right from the beginning,” he said.
CCPA may have gotten off to a bumpy start, but time will tell if things get easier. Just this week, California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra released newly updated guidance aimed at trying to “fine tune” the rules, per his spokesperson. It goes to show that even California’s lawmakers are still trying to get the balance right.
But with the looming threat of hefty fines just months away, time is running out for the non-compliant.