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Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app

By Lucas Matney

Gowalla is coming back.

The startup, which longtime TechCrunch readers will likely recall, was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare before an eventual $3 million acquihire in 2011 brought the company’s talent to Facebook.

The story certainly seemed destined to end there, but founder Josh Williams tells TechCrunch that he has decided to revive the Gowalla name and build on its ultimate vision by leaning on augmented reality tech.

“I really don’t think [Gowalla’s vision] has been fully realized at all, which is why I still want to scratch this itch,” Williams tells TechCrunch. “It was frankly really difficult to see it shut down.”

After a stint at Facebook, another venture-backed startup and a few other gigs, Williams has reacquired the Gowalla name, and is resurrecting the company with the guidance of co-founder Patrick Piemonte, a former Apple interface designer who previously founded an AR startup called Mirage. The new company was incubated inside Form Capital, a small design-centric VC fund operated by Williams and Bobby Goodlatte .

Founders Patrick Piemonte (left) and Josh Williams (right). Image credit: Josh Williams.

Williams hopes that AR can bring the Gowalla brand new life.

Despite significant investment from Facebook, Apple and Google, augmented reality is still seen as a bit of a gamble with many proponents estimating mass adoption to be several years out. Apple’s ARKit developer platform has yielded few wins despite hefty investment and Pokémon Go — the space’s sole consumer smash hit — is growing old.

“The biggest AR experience out there is Pokémon Go, and it’s now over six years old,” Williams says. “It’s moved the space forward a lot but is still very early in terms of what we’re going to see.”

Williams was cryptic when it came to details for what exactly the new augmented reality platform would look like when it launches. He did specify that it will feel more like a gamified social app than a social game, though he also lists the Nintendo franchise Animal Crossing as one of the platform’s foundational inspirations.

A glimpse of the branding for the new Gowalla. Image credit: Josh Williams

“It’s not a game with bosses or missions or levels, but rather something that you can experience,” Williams says. “How do you blend augmented reality and location? How do you see the world through somebody else’s eyes?”

A location-based social platform will likely rely on users actually going places, and the pandemic has largely dictated the app’s launch timing. Today, Gowalla is launching a waitlist, Williams says the app itself will launch in beta “in a number of cities” sometime in the first-half of next year. The team is also trying something unique with a smaller paid beta group called the “Street Team,” which will give users paying a flat $49 fee early access to Gowalla as well as “VIP membership,” membership to a private Discord group and some branded swag. A dedicated Street Team app will also launch in December.

Human Capital: Prop 22 puts the ‘future of labor’ at stake

By Megan Rose Dickey

Welcome back to Human Capital, where we look at the latest in tech labor and diversity and inclusion.

Because election day is quickly approaching and given that California’s Prop 22 puts the “future of labor” at stake, as Instacart worker and co-organizer at Gig Workers Collective Vanessa Bain told TechCrunch this week, we’re paying close attention to this ballot measure. Gig companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have put more than $180 million into Prop 22, which seeks to keep their drivers and delivery workers classified as independent contractors.

Before we jump in, friendly reminder that Human Capital will soon be a newsletter…starting next week! Sign up here so you don’t miss it.


Gig Work


Instacart began asking workers to pass out Yes on Prop 22 propaganda to customers

Vanessa Bain, Instacart shopper and co-founder of Gig Workers Collective, tweeted about how she was instructed to pass out Yes on 22 stickers to customers. Many people, including Bain, questioned whether it was legal or not. 

Unbelievable. @Instacart is now requiring Shoppers to do the uncompensated work of distributing Prop 22 propaganda to customers —against our own self-interests. Even *if* (big if) this is legal, it is reprehensible and establishes a dangerous precedent for workers. #NOonProp22 pic.twitter.com/NXVblutvsh

— Vanessa Bain ✊❤🛒 #BlackLivesMatter #NOonProp22 (@hashtagmolotov) October 10, 2020

Instacart, however, told CNN the initiative was allowed under campaign finance rules. Additionally, I reached out to the Fair Political Practices Commission, but was told by Communications Director Jay Wierenga that “only an investigation by FPPC Enforcement (or a DA or the AG’s Office) determines whether someone or group violated the Political Reform Act.” 

What is clear, however, is that it goes against what many workers want. We actually caught up with Bain ahead of the relaunch of TechCrunch Mixtape, where she discussed why she’s anti Prop 22. The episode goes live next week, but here’s a bit of a teaser from our conversation:

“The future of labor is at stake,” Bain told us earlier this week. “I would argue the future of our democracy, as well. The reality is that, you know, it establishes a dangerous precedent to allow companies to write their own labor laws…This policy was created to unilaterally benefit companies at the detriment of workers.”

Hundreds took to SF’s streets in protest of Prop 22

In San Francisco, there was a massive protest against Prop 22. While Prop 22 would provide more benefits than workers currently have, many drivers and delivery workers say that’s not enough. For example, Prop 22 would institute healthcare subsidies, but it falls short of complete healthcare.

Y’all there are hundreds of people here, starting our drivers caravan outside Uber’s HQ.

We’re all demanding #NoOnProp22.

Drivers deserve living wages, healthcare, & benefits.

We’re gonna fight to get them. pic.twitter.com/EEVZcVRKqX

— Gig Workers Are Voting No On Prop 22 (@GigWorkersRise) October 15, 2020

Speaking of SF, 76% of app-based workers in the city are people of color

And 39% are immigrants, according to the latest survey of gig workers conducted by the Local Agency Formation Commission and UC Santa Cruz Professor Chris Benner.

This study surveyed 259 workers who drive or deliver for DoorDash, Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Other findings were:

  • 71% of workers get at least 3/4 of monthly income from gig work
  • 57% of workers completely rely on gig work for their monthly income
  • On average, workers make $450 per week. After expenses, that averages drops to $270 per week.

California appeals court heard arguments in the Uber, Lyft gig worker classification case

CA 1st District Court of Appeal judges heard arguments from Uber and Lyft about why they should be able to continue classifying their drivers as independent contractors. The hearing was a result of a district judge granting a preliminary injunction that would force Uber and Lyft to immediately reclassify their workers as employees. Uber and Lyft, however, appealed the ruling and now here we are.

As Uber and Lyft have argued drivers would lose flexibility if forced to be employees, an appeals court judge asked what part of AB 5 would require companies to take away that flexibility. Spoiler alert: there’s nothing in AB 5 that requires such a thing.

But a lawyer for Lyft, which has said it would leave California if forced to reclassify its workers, said he doesn’t “want the court to think that if the injunction is affirmed, that these people will continue to have these earnings opportunities because they won’t.”

Uber’s survey of workers on Prop 22 shows strong support for the ballot measure

But it’s important to note that of the more than 200,000 Uber drivers in California, only 461 workers participated in the study. Uber conducted this survey from September 23 through October 5 to see how drivers felt about Prop 22 and being an independent contractor. In that survey, 54% of respondents said they would definitely vote yes on 22 if the election were today while 13% said they would definitely vote no.

Image Credits: Uber

Those surveyed also weighed in on whether they prefer to be independent contractors. 54% of those surveyed said they strongly prefer being an independent contractor while 9% said they strongly prefer being an employee.

Image Credits: Uber

This week, Uber also encouraged riders to talk to their drivers about Prop 22 to see how they feel about it.

“First and foremost, the conversation about Proposition 22 should be about what gig workers actually want,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “That’s why we are encouraging everyone who uses Uber or Uber Eats to ask their driver or delivery person how they really feel about Prop 22.”

Based on the wording of the in-app message, Uber seems confident most drivers do support Prop 22.

Image Credits: Uber


Stay woke


Facebook and Twitter ban Holocaust-denial posts 

Both Facebook and Twitter took a step in their ongoing battles against hate this week by removing posts that deny the Holocaust, the systematic and state-sponsored mass murder of around 6 million Jewish people. On Monday, Facebook announced it would block posts that deny the Holocaust. Facebook said its decision was driven by the rise in anti-Semitism and “the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especally among young people.” On Wednesday, Twitter announced a similar stance.

BLCK VC launches Black Venture Institute

In partnership with Operator Collective, Salesforce Ventures and U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, BLCK VC’s Black Venture Institute wants to help more Black entrepreneurs become angel investors. The goal is to train 300 students over the next three years to be in a position of writing checks. 

“It is these closed networks that have helped contribute to the lack of access for the Black community over the years,” BLCK VC co-founder Frederik Groce told TC’s Ron Miller. “Black Venture Institute is a structural attempt to create access for Black operators — from engineers to product marketing managers.”

GV finally has a Black female partner, Terri Burns

Terri Burns recently made partner at GV, formerly known as Google Ventures. Burns is now the only Black female partner at GV, which is wild. But, you know, progress not perfection. 

Throwback to when Burns spoke a bit about racial justice in tech and venture capital. 

“Venture capital certainly plays a role,” Burns, then a principal at GV, told TechCrunch about the overall lack of diversity in tech. “VC is a tool that can enable businesses to scale greatly and quickly, and historically, this tool hasn’t been equally distributed. For example, VC has traditionally focused on founders from a small number of institutions and pedigrees that are not particularly diverse (in 2016 we learned from Richard Kerby, general partner at Equal Ventures, that 40% of VCs went to either Harvard or Stanford). With more equal distribution of funds across backgrounds, underrepresented people will have a greater chance at success.”

The Wing co-founder admits her mistakes 

Audrey Gelman, the former CEO of The Wing who resigned in June, posted a letter she sent to former employees of The Wing last week. In it, Gelman apologized for not taking action to combat mistreatment of women of color at The Wing. She also acknowledged that her drive for success and scaling quickly “came at the expense of a healthy and sustainable culture that matched our projected values, and workplace practices that made our team feel valued and respected.”

That meant, Gelman said, The Wing “had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler [sic], gentler version.”

Here are some other highlights from her letter:

  • “Members’ needs came first, and those members were often white, and affluent enough to afford The Wing’s membership dues.”
  • “White privilege and power trips were rewarded with acquiescence, as opposed to us doubling down on our projected values.”
  • “When the realization set in that The Wing wasn’t institutionally different in the ways it had proclaimed, it hurt more because the space we claimed was different reinforced the age-old patterns of women of color and especially Black women being disappointed by white women and our limited feminist values.”

Human Capital launches as a newsletter next Friday. Sign up here to get this delivered straight to your inbox. 

The Wing co-founder admits the co-working space upheld ‘the kind of social inequality we set out to upend’

By Megan Rose Dickey

Audrey Gelman, the former CEO of The Wing who resigned in June, today posted a letter she sent to former employees of The Wing last week. In it, Gelman apologized for not taking action to combat mistreatment of women of color at The Wing. She also acknowledged that her drive for success and scaling quickly “came at the expense of a healthy and sustainable culture that matched our projected values, and workplace practices that made our team feel valued and respected.”

That meant, Gelman said, The Wing “had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler [sic], gentler version.”

Here are some other highlights from her letter:

  • “Members’ needs came first, and those members were often white, and affluent enough to afford The Wing’s membership dues.”
  • “White privilege and power trips were rewarded with acquiescence, as opposed to us doubling down on our projected values.”
  • “When the realization set in that The Wing wasn’t institutionally different in the ways it had proclaimed, it hurt more because the space we claimed was different reinforced the age-old patterns of women of color and especially Black women being disappointed by white women and our limited feminist values.”

A public apology from Gelman and The Wing COO Lauren Kassan is just one of the demands from members of Flew the Coup, a group of former staffers at The Wing. Another demand is for The Wing to drop the non-disclosure agreements in their contracts.

“Collectively, we have faced racism and anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric from management, HQ staff, and members,” the group wrote on Instagram back in June. “We have faced physical and psychological violence within the various Wing locations, and discrimination when attempting to move up within the company.”

The group went on to say that while The Wing was built on the idea of being a safe and inclusive place for women and non-binary folks, “we have continuously seen the exact opposite of this mission.”

The Wing has raised $117.5 million from a number of investors, including New Enterprise Associates, AlleyCorp, Sequoia Capital, Serena Williams and Kerry Washington. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Washington told me a bit about how she felt about the drama at The Wing.

“Well, you know, I’m not new to scandal, so there’s that,” Washington said. “I was and I am really deeply still inspired by the original vision of the company. And, I think like a lot of companies in this time, because of the several pandemics that we’re facing, whether it’s our awareness around racial injustice, or COVID, lots of people are in a moment of recalibration and self-reflection. So I think that there is incredible space to improve the dynamics. And as somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.”

Over the past few months, Washington said her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” as well as expressing to those leaders a “deep desire” for transparency and accountability.

The Wing, like many other tech companies, struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, The Wing laid off or furloughed “the majority” of its workers, the company said. Then, in July, The Wing laid off another 56 people.

As part of Flew the Coup’s organizing, it’s also raising money to help support people who were laid off from The Wing. As of today, the group has raised more than $15,000 for its grant program. Its goal is to raise $100,000.

We’ve reached out to The Wing and will update this story if we hear back.

Bumble balances gender representation of C-suite with two new hires

By Sarah Perez

Women-friendly dating and networking app Bumble announced today it’s expanding its C-suite with two new hires: Anu Subramanian as Bumble’s chief financial officer, who hails from Univision, and Selby Drummond as chief brand officer, who is joining from Snap. The additions also create something of a milestone for Bumble, as the company can now claim it has equal male-to-female representation across its C-suite, which is, unfortunately, still unusual for a company of Bumble’s size.

Before the new hires, Bumble’s C-suite included CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, Chief Strategy Officer Sarah Jones Simmer, General Counsel Mariko O’Shea, Chief of Staff Caroline Roache, President Tariq Shaukat, CMO Dominic Gallello, Chief Product Officer Miles Norris, CTO Ronen Benchetrit, CCO Robbie McKay and Chief People Officer Tran Taylor.

Subramanian is joining Bumble from Univision Digital, where she had served as the senior vice president and chief financial officer. In this position, she helped lead Univision’s digital assets, including its direct-to-consumer business. Before Univision, Subramanian had worked at VICE Media, where she was the chief financial officer of the company’s global digital business. She also worked in the past at Scripps Networks in various roles, including CFO of digital.

Drummond, meanwhile, had been Snapchat’s first-ever global head of Fashion and Beauty Partnerships. Her work at Snap included leading strategy and launch efforts for Snapchat’s new fashion and shopping features, as well as content initiatives across the Snapchat, Bitmoji and Spectacles products. Before Snap, Drummond worked at American Vogue for eight years, where she had been a senior fashion editor. In her last role, she had risen to Accessories and Special Projects director, working on brand partnerships with Off-White, Air Jordan, Kith and Proenza Schouler, and was involved with the magazine, website and events like the Met Gala.

The two new additions to Bumble’s executive lineup arrive shortly after the company’s recent hires of its first-ever president, Tariq Shaukat and chief technology officer, Ronen Benchetrit.

Bumble says Subramanian and Drummond will partner with Bumble’s new and legacy executive leaders to support the company’s plans to expand its app to more countries and support its growth in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The news follows what’s been a busy year for the dating and networking app. At the end of last year, Bumble took control of its business from its main backer, Badoo, valuing the now-profitable dating app at $3 billion. The deal also allowed Bumble CEO Wolfe Herd to run Bumble and other previously Badoo-backed dating apps, including Badoo, Lumen and Chappy.

According to reports, Bumble hit 100 million users this summer and is preparing to IPO in 2021, possibly at a $6 billion-plus valuation.

“The additions of Anu and Selby underscore our commitment, along with Blackstone, to strengthen our bench with world class talent that deeply epitomize our mission and values, said Wolfe Herd in a statement about the hiring news. “Not only will their contributions provide a powerful impact on our businesses, they’ve also brought equal representation of women and men on our executive leadership team — a milestone that means a great deal to me on many levels,” she added.

Venture capital gets less diverse in 2020

By Alex Wilhelm

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. You can subscribe here.


First, a big congrats on making it through the week. If you live in the United States, you just endured one of the wildest news weeks ever. Rapid-fire headlines and nigh-panic have been our lot since last Friday when the president announced he was COVID-19 positive. We’re all very tired. You get points for just surviving.

Second, I wanted to bring you something uplifting this weekend, as you deserve it. Sadly, that’s not what we’re going to talk about.

On Friday, The Exchange covered new data concerning the venture capital results of female founders during the third quarter. The data set was U.S.-focused, but we can presume that it is illustrative of global trends. Regardless of that nuance, the data was depressing.

In the third quarter, U.S.-based female founders and co-founders raised 136 rounds worth $434 million, per PitchBook data. That was a handful more rounds than Q2 2020, but far fewer dollars. And it was down across the board compared to Q3 2019. Even more, as we noted in the piece, the aggregate venture capital world did very well.

Here’s some PwC data making that point, and a bit more from my old employer Crunchbase. What matters is that female founders are doing worse when VCs are super active. This will only perpetuate inequalities and inequities in the startup market.

Speaking of which, here’s some more bad news. Vern Howard Jr., the co-founder and CEO of Hallo, a startup that has raised nearly $2 million, according to Crunchbase, compiled some data on Black founders’ VC performance in Q3. Here’s what he set out to do:

[W]e wanted to put hard numbers behind the promises of so many venture capitalists and create a benchmark for how we can track the investment into black founders over time. So our team pulled a list from Crunchbase of all the startups globally with a total funding amount of $500,000 — $20,000,000 and who raised a round between July 1 and October 1. There were over 1383 companies here and our team went through one by one, to see how many Black founders there were.

There were 31.

Now, you could open up the funding bands to include both smaller and larger funding events, but regardless of the data boundaries, the resulting number — just 2.2% of the total — is a disgrace.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

  • Continuing our coverage of the savings and investing boom that fintech startups around the world have been riding this year, Freetrade, a British Robinhood if you will, told The Exchange that it crossed £1 billion in September order volume. That’s not bad!
  • Freetrade also recently launched a paid version of its service, as the payment-for-order-flow method of generating revenue that Robinhood is growing on the back of is not allowed across the pond.
  • Sticking to the fintech world, Yotta Savings is a startup that provides a savings option to its users, with the added chance of winning a big monetary prize for having stored their money with the startup. Folks have been whispering in my ear about the company for a bit, but I’ve held off writing about it until now as it was not clear to me if the model was merely a gimmick, or something that would actually attract customers.
  • Well, Yotta grew from 8,000 accounts to more than 30,000 in the past few weeks and has reached the $100 million deposit mark. So, I guess we now care.
  • Coinbase lost one in 20 employees to its new strategy of standing neutral during political times on anything that its CEO deems as unrelated to its core mission, which, as a for-profit company with tectonic financial backing, is making money.
  • On the same topic, Can from The Margins made a salient point that “no politics is a political stance.” Correct, and it is a very conservative one at that.
  • Even more, Coinbase’s CEO made noise about how his company will “work to create an environment where everyone is welcome and can do their best work, regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, gender, age, etc.” Whether he likes it or not, this is a political stance, and one that has nothing to do with the company’s stated core mission. And a political fight earned it — namely, equal access to the workplace.
  • I’ll toss in a plug for this piece on the matter from a VC that TechCrunch published, and these thoughts from a tech denizen on how to guarantee that your company lands on the wrong side of history on essentially everything.
  • Wrapping our grab-bag this week, Ping Identity bought ShoCard. Ping is now a public company, so normally its deals would land outside our wheelhouse. But we care in this case because TechCrunch has covered ShoCard (2015: “ShoCard Is A Digital Identity Card On The Blockchain”), and because the startup does crypto-related work.
  • Seeing a public company snap up a blockchain startup for real money, on purpose and out loud, doesn’t happen every day. More here if you want to read about the deal.

Wrapping, this newsletter is a lot of fun and I appreciate your reading it. It is, also, a work in progress. So feel free to hit respond to it and let me know what you want to see more of. Or hit respond and send me a cute pic of your pet. Either is fine by me.

Chat soon,

Alex

Greylock and MLT are trying to diversify tech’s wealth cycle

By Megan Rose Dickey

Greylock Partners has teamed up with Management Leadership for Tomorrow to address issues of diversity and inclusion in the technology industry.

“Our view is this has to be a comprehensive approach,” MLT Founder and CEO John Rice told TechCrunch. “This is not just a coding program, mentor program, fellowship program. There are plenty of great ones. They’re important. But what we’re saying is you have to work on all these levers and take a long-term view. Our view is we can really move the needle exponentially to grow minority participation in the highest leverage areas of the tech ecosystem.”

For starters, the multi-faceted partnership will enable Greylock to tap into MLT’s network of around 8,000 Black, Latinx and Indigenous professionals and connect them with potential roles at the firm’s portfolio companies. Additionally, Greylock and MLT will work together to support retention at those companies, as well as help MLT professionals pursue careers in venture capital.

“Being at Greylock and seeing the tech ecosystem over the last 20 years — it’s become pretty clear that, at no surprise to us, modern technology is one of the greatest opportunities for wealth creation,” Greylock Partner David Sze told TechCrunch. “Has been one of the greatest creators for wealth and is likely to be so in the future — in the foreseeable future.”

But the greatest financial returns accrue to founders, early employees and investors. That creates this network where those early employees and alumni from top companies like Facebook or Google then go on to become founders of the next generation of startups in the wealth creation cycle, Sze said.

“And the cycle repeats itself,” Sze said.

Then, VCs are eager to back teams with people who used to work at those high-growth companies, he said.

“That’s just how the Valley works,” Sze said. “It’s a social network in and of itself. […] But the issue is that Black and Latinx and Native American people really largely have been left out of tech startups and venture capital and those networks. And as a result, it actually is a compounding factor.”

For those folks in the system, it compounds in their favor but that means for those left out, it becomes harder to figure out how to break into it, Sze said.

“And look, VCs and tech startups — we just have to be honest that we’ve been really bad at getting this right,” Sze said. “Historically, I mean, we’ve let the system sort of evolve without much top down oversight in regards of diversity and inclusion and we just really need to change that.”

That’s a key reason why Greylock and MLT are partnering to try to get more Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in these tech startups. And it’s not that there is a pipeline problem because there is plenty of available talent, Sze said. But he said that if there is a pipeline problem, “the problem is actually on our side.”

“It’s not on the talent side,” Sze said. “There is plenty of talent out there. It’s that the networks and systems that have existed and grown over time in the valley have not been conducive to allowing the inclusion of that group.”

Greylock’s partners also donated $5 million to anchor MLT’s first-ever impact fund, which allows MLT to be a limited partner in Greylock’s latest fund, a $1 billion fund.

“We have a long history with our LPs,” Sze said. “We do not let new LPs in very often and we’re super excited to have them involved because we think it’s a force multiplier.”

The hope with this partnership is that it’ll spur ideas for other collaborations with VC funds, Sze said. For Rice, he hopes that other leaders in tech will take note and get on board with moving the needle.

“Leaders need to be at this time, at this critical juncture, be much better informed about why we are where we are,” Rice said. “[…] Leaders not only need to be well-informed but also be willing to hold themselves accountable to be more informed. And that doesn’t require them to be experts on the history of racism. It requires them to understand like they understand, you know, AI and bitcoin and things like that. Understand this stuff.”

Leadership, Rice said, also looks like committing to a comprehensive approach with the same level of rigor that venture capitalists apply to how they invest in companies, and that tech companies apply to their growth.

“If we don’t have that same level of rigor in our approach and we just think that we can move the needle with random acts of diversity, then we’re done. We’re not going to move the needle. It’s going to require, you know, a comprehensive approach.”

Black founders face a unique set of challenges

By Megan Rose Dickey

The notion that Black people in America need to work twice as hard as others to succeed may be a depressing sentiment, but it has been deeply ingrained into the psyches of many African-Americans.

At TechCrunch Disrupt, several Black founders spoke about some of the burdens that come along with being a Black person in tech. Many of us are familiar with imposter syndrome, where one feels like they’re a fraud and fear being “found out.” But another idea that came up was representation syndrome.

Representation syndrome centers around this idea that because there are so few Black people in tech, being one of the only ones comes with this added pressure to be successful. Otherwise, one may feel that if they fail as one of the only Black people in tech, they will inadvertently make it harder for other Black people to be embraced by this homogeneous industry. That’s a heavy load to carry. 

As Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO at Uncharted Power said:

When we raised our Series A, the immediate thing I thought was, ‘Oh, man. I can not lose these people’s money.’ This is huge and if we don’t work, it’s not even about us, it’s about every other person who looks like me.

Matthews said she hopes for a world where her daughter “can be mediocre as hell and still raise funding.”  In 2016, she launched the Harlem Tech Fund, a nonprofit organization focused on STEM. 

“You know, we would tell people we’re going to be the first billion-dollar tech company in Harlem, but we do not want to be the last,” she said.

Human Capital: Moving away from ‘master/slave’ terminology

By Megan Rose Dickey

TGIF, am I right? Welcome back to Human Capital, where we explore some of the latest news in labor, diversity and inclusion in tech.

This week, we’re looking at the use of “master/slave” terminology in computer programming and the current state of gig workers in California.

Human Capital will soon be available as a weekly newsletter. You can sign up here.


Stay Woke


GitHub to sunset master/slave terminology 

This probably isn’t news to developers, but it was news to me when I found out many tech companies still use slave-master language. Now, Microsoft-owned GitHub is gearing up to remove these references to slavery by naming primary code repositories “main” instead of “master.” These changes will go into effect on October 1.

GitHub talked about making these changes as early as June, when CEO Nat Friedman tweeted that it was something the company was already working on. But GitHub is by no means the first company to consider and make these changes. In 2014, open-source platform Drupal moved to replace “master/slave” with “primary/replica.” 

One of its reasons for making the change was, “The word ‘slave’ has negative connotations (although this might or might not be relevant in the naming of a technical term) including multi-century history of slavery to benefit European colonial powers, prison laborers today forced to work in conditions at times resembling that slavery, young girls sold into sex slavery in many parts of the world today.”

Then, in 2018, programming language Python ditched the racist terminology. Meanwhile, Twitter began taking steps to replace those terms earlier this year and hopes to finish replacing that terminology by the end of 2021, according to CNET

What’s wild is that these terms ever existed in the first place and are just now being addressed. While Los Angeles city officials way back in 2003 asked its manufacturers and suppliers to stop using the terminology, they did not require it.

So perhaps it’s no wonder why some tech companies struggle to retain Black employees. In 2019, for example, Google reported its attrition rates of Black and Latinx talent — which indicate the rate at which employees leave on an annual basis — were higher than the national average. When racism is built into the technical framework of a company, it perpetuates a false idea that white people are superior to Black people. 


Gig Work


The latest in the battle over Prop 22 and AB 5

Two big things are happening pertaining to gig workers: Prop 22, the California bill backed by Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash that seeks to keep workers classified as independent contractors and lawsuits rooted in AB 5, the California law that went into effect earlier this year that lays out how to properly classify gig workers.

Let’s start with Prop 22. A new poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that it’s going to be a close election. In a survey of 5,900 likely voters, UC Berkeley’s IGS found that 39% of voters would vote yes on Prop 22 while 36% said they would vote no. The other 25% are undecided.

As we mentioned last week, the Yes on 22 campaign has put in about $180 million into the campaign while the No on 22 side has put in about $4.6 million. Meanwhile, we’re seeing ads for Yes on 22 inside on-demand apps.

Image Credits: Screenshot of DoorDash app via TechCrunch

On the AB 5 side of things, Uber and Lyft are still in court after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with city attorneys from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco sued the companies, alleging they are misclassifying their workers. In the appeals court, which granted a stay on the preliminary injunction that would force Uber and Lyft to immediately reclassify their drivers, a number of amicus briefs have been filed.

In a brief filed by the National Employment Law Group, the ACLU and other civil rights groups, they say Uber and Lyft harm workers of color by classifying them as independent contractors:

Many poor workers of color and immigrants are stuck in a separate and unequal economy where they are underpaid, put in harm’s way on the job, and left to fend for themselves without access to paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and other protections. By insisting that their drivers are not employees, Lyft and Uber further distance workers of colors from the bedrock workplace rights that provide real flexibility and economic security. Instead, their business models trap poor workers into intractable cycles of poverty and economic exclusion.

In the event Uber and Lyft are forced to reclassify their drivers, both Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft CEO Logan Green filed sworn statements earlier this month that confirmed they both have plans to comply with an order requiring them to reclassify their respective workforces.

In Khosrowshahi’s statement, he simply said “Uber has developed implementation plans” to comply with an order within no more than 30 days. In Green’s statement, he said “such an implementation may include ceasing rideshare operations in all or some parts of California.”


Don’t Miss


Have tips? Comments? Send me an email at megan@techcrunch.com 

And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020 is… Canix

By Lucas Matney

We started this competition with 20 impressive startups. After five days of fierce pitching in a wholly new virtual Startup Battlefield arena, we have a winner.

The startups taking part in the Startup Battlefield have all been hand-picked to participate in our highly competitive startup competition. It was an unprecedented year as we moved all of the nail-biting excitement of our physical contest to a virtual stage. They all presented in front of multiple groups of VCs and tech leaders serving as judges for a chance to win $100,000 and the coveted Disrupt Cup.

After hours of deliberations, TechCrunch editors pored over the judges’ notes and narrowed the list down to five finalists: Canix, Firehawk AerospaceHacWare, Jefa and Matidor.

These startups made their way to the finale to demo in front of our final panel of judges, which included: Caryn Marooney (Coatue Management), Ilya Fushman (Kleiner Perkins), Michael Seibel (Y Combinator), Sonali De Rycker (Sequoia), Troy Carter (Q&A) and Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch).

We’re now ready to announce that the winner of TechCrunch Battlefield 2020 is…

Winner: Canix

Canix has built a robust enterprise resource planning platform designed to reduce the time it takes cannabis growers to input data. It integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software, as well as Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform. The founders say their platform can help growers increase margins through improved labor costs.

You can read more about Canix here.

Runner-up: Matidor

Matidor is building a project platform for consultants and engineers to keep track of projects and geospatial data in a single dashboard. It offers an all-in-one data visualization suite for customers in the energy and environmental services fields.

You can read more about Matidor here.

Watch the announcement below:

How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research

By Zack Whittaker

The headlines aren’t always kind to the National Security Agency, a spy agency that operates almost entirely in the shadows. But a year ago, the NSA launched its new Cybersecurity Directorate, which in the past year has emerged as one of the more visible divisions of the spy agency.

At its core, the directorate focuses on defending and securing critical national security systems that the government uses for its sensitive and classified communications. But the directorate has become best known for sharing some of the more emerging, large-scale cyber threats from foreign hackers. In the past year the directorate has warned against attacks targeting secure boot features in most modern computers, and doxxed a malware operation linked to Russian intelligence. By going public, NSA aims to make it harder for foreign hackers to reuse their tools and techniques, while helping to defend critical systems at home.

But six months after the directorate started its work, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and large swathes of the world — and the U.S. — went into lockdown, prompting hackers to shift gears and change tactics.

“The threat landscape has changed,” Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “We’ve moved to telework, we move to new infrastructure, and we’ve watched cyber adversaries move to take advantage of that as well,” she said.

Publicly, the NSA advised on which videoconferencing and collaboration software was secure, and warned about the risks associated with virtual private networks, of which usage boomed after lockdowns began.

But behind the scenes, the NSA is working with federal partners to help protect the efforts to produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, a feat that the U.S. government called Operation Warp Speed. News of NSA’s involvement in the operation was first reported by Cyberscoop. As the world races to develop a working COVID-19 vaccine, which experts say is the only long-term way to end the pandemic, NSA and its U.K. and Canadian partners went public with another Russian intelligence operation aimed at targeting COVID-19 research.

“We’re part of a partnership across the U.S. government, we each have different roles,” said Neuberger. “The role we play as part of ‘Team America for Cyber’ is working to understand foreign actors, who are they, who are seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine information — or more importantly, disrupt vaccine information or shake confidence in a given vaccine.”

Neuberger said that protecting the pharma companies developing a vaccine is just one part of the massive supply chain operation that goes into getting a vaccine out to millions of Americans. Ensuring the cybersecurity of the government agencies tasked with approving a vaccine is also a top priority.

Here are more takeaways from the talk, and you can watch the interview in full (embedded above).

Why TikTok is a national security threat

TikTok is just days away from an app store ban, after the Trump administration earlier this year accused the Chinese-owned company of posing a threat to national security. But the government has been less than forthcoming about what specific risks the video sharing app poses, only alleging that the app could be compelled to spy for China. Beijing has long been accused of cyberattacks against the U.S., including the massive breach of classified government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Neuberger said that the “scope and scale” of TikTok’s app’s data collection makes it easier for Chinese spies to answer “all kinds of different intelligence questions” on U.S. nationals. Neuberger conceded that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google also collect large amounts of user data. But that there are “greater concerns on how [China] in particular could use all that information collected against populations other than its own,” she said.

NSA is privately disclosing security bugs to companies

The NSA is trying to be more open about the vulnerabilities it finds and discloses, Neuberger said. She told TechCrunch that the agency has shared a “number” of vulnerabilities with private companies this year, but “those companies did not want to give attribution.”

One exception was earlier this year when Microsoft confirmed NSA had found and privately reported a major cryptographic flaw in Windows 10, which could have allowed hackers to run malware masquerading as a legitimate file. The bug was so dangerous that NSA reported the vulnerability to Microsoft, which patched the bug.

Only two years earlier, the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

As a spy agency, NSA exploits flaws and vulnerabilities in software to gather intelligence on the enemy. It has to run through a process called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows the government to retain bugs that it can use for spying.

What makes Checkout.com different from Stripe

By Romain Dillet

While Checkout.com has kept a low profile for many years, the company raised $380 million within a year and reached an impressive valuation of $5.5 billion. It wants to build a one-stop shop for all things related to payments, such as accepting transactions, processing them and detecting fraud.

You might think that it sounds a bit like Stripe. In an interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, I asked founder and CEO Guillaume Pousaz what makes Checkout.com different from Stripe, Adyen and other companies in the payment space. It comes down to a very different philosophy when it comes to product and market approach.

“We only do enterprise. We really only work with the big merchants. There are a few exceptions here and there but it’s mostly enterprise-only and it’s purely online,” Pousaz said.

“I once met [Stripe CEO] Patrick Collison and I joked with him. I said ‘you might have a million merchants, I have 1,200 merchants but I know every single one by name and they all process tens of millions every year.’ So I think it’s just a different business,” he added later in the interview.

Checkout.com now has a ton of money sitting in its bank account, but it has been a long and slow journey to reach that level. The company has been around for many years and reached profitability in 2012. It has been spending very meticulously over the years.

When talking about the early days of the company, Pousaz said the team grew really slowly. “We can hire one employee this month. Now we can hire two employees this month,” he said.

Today, the company still tries to remain as lean as possible. “It’s really a matter of discipline. All these companies, they raise a lot of money, they spend a lot of money and I don’t challenge that model. For us, embedding that discipline and frugality in the company in how we run it is something that was important to us,” Pousaz said.

“There’s no problem with spending. Just make sure that when you’re spending, you’re wise about it. You just don’t spray and pray. You see this unfortunately too much with tech companies.”

That’s why Checkout.com mostly invests in its own product. Nearly two-thirds of the company is working in product, IT and engineering. Only 13% of the company is working in sales, which is much less than some of its competitors.

But why did Checkout.com raise hundreds of millions of dollars then? “At some point, you need validation. And the validation was really important for us. When you have Insight, DST, Coatue, GIC, Blossom it changes your dimension,” Pousaz said.

When talking about regulators, Checkout.com has licenses in Brazil, the U.K. and France (for contingency), Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. It’s a never-ending process as the company is still working on licenses in other key markets, such as Japan.

“These regulators are super thorough. You don’t pass because you’re a nice guy, you pass because you have the right processes,” Pousaz said.

I challenged that notion and mentioned the Wirecard collapse. He obviously thinks that Wirecard and Checkout.com are in a different position right now.

“All my money is sitting with JP Morgan, it’s pretty simple. There’s no bank account in the Philippines and funny stuff,” Pousaz said. “The Wirecard story is so big that the real question is — go and ask the question to the auditors. Because the auditors that I have, which for the record is PwC, ask me to show them the bank statements and everything. And they are super thorough, it’s a super long process.”

“How did the Wirecard story happen? I don’t know,” he added.

Calling VCs in Zurich & Geneva: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our survey of VCs in Zurich and Geneva will capture how those cities are faring in terms of investment, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again.)

We’d like to know how the Zurich and Geneva startup scenes are evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19 and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey.

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Zurich or Geneva, but would like to take part? European VC investors can STILL fill out the survey, as we will be putting a call out to your city next anyway!

The survey is covering almost every European country on the continent of Europe (not just EU members, btw), so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

3 VCs discuss the state of SaaS investing in 2020

By Alex Wilhelm

Yesterday during Disrupt 2020 I sat down with three investors who know the SaaS startup market very well, hoping to get my head around how hot things are today. Coming on the heels of the epic Snowflake IPO (more to come on that in this weekend’s newsletter), it was a great time for a chat.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


I’ve boiled our 40-minute discussion down to my favorite parts, getting you the goods in quick fashion.

What follows are notes on:

  • how fast the SaaS investing market is today
  • why Snowflake priced where it did and what that tells us about today’s market
  • how SaaS companies are seeing different growth results based on their sales motion
  • why some private-market SaaS multiples can get so high
  • which software sectors are accelerating
  • and what I learned about international SaaS.

There are more things to pull out later, like the investors’ thoughts regarding diversity in their part of the venture world and SaaS startups, but I want to give that topic its own space.

So, into today’s SaaS market with an eye on the future, guided by commentary from Canaan’s Maha Ibrahim, Andreessen Horowitz’s David Ulevitch and Bessemer’s Mary D’Onofrio.

Inside SaaS

To help us get through a good bit of the written word without slowing down, I’ll introduce an idea, share a quote and provide a little commentary. This should be good fun.

VCs have to train themselves to ‘ask the stupid questions,’ says Hoxton Ventures’ Hussein Kanji

By Steve O'Hear

If venture capitalists could predict the future, why wouldn’t they just start companies themselves? That’s the question Hussein Kanji, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, asked rhetorically at Disrupt 2020.

“If anyone says that they have predictive power in this industry and says they know where the future is gonna be, I just question the wisdom of this,” he said during a session exploring how VCs seek out new markets before they even exist. “Because if you could figure it out, you could come up with the idea, you’re capable enough to be able to put all the pieces together, why would you not found the business?”

Instead, the key to betting on the future is to learn to ask the stupid questions. “I think it’s actually perfectly fine in the venture industry to not be the smart person and to kind of train yourself to be stupid and ask the stupid questions,” said Kanji. “I think a lot of people are probably too shy to do that. And a lot of people [are] probably too risk averse to then write the check when they don’t really understand exactly what it is that they’re investing into. But a lot of this stuff is a light bulb moment.”

One of those light bulb moments was Hoxton Ventures’ investment in Deliveroo, the takeout food delivery service that competes with Uber Eats and helped turn almost every restaurant into a food delivery service. However, Kanji reminded us that the European unicorn wasn’t the first company to try takeout delivery, but new technology, in the form of cheap smartphones coupled with GPS and routing algorithms, meant the timing was now right.

“People did try delivery,” he said, “they tried it back in the 90s. Everyone forgets about that. There’s a company in New York City called Cosmo that would go off and like get you a pint of ice cream on demand. You know, it never worked because they used pagers. Like, do you remember pagers? Like, that’s how they ran the fleet. They couldn’t move the fleet around. They couldn’t get the driver to the apartment and the driver to the store in any kind of efficient way… The breakthrough for delivery, and for that whole industry, was you had smartphones, you could give smartphones to the drivers, you could track what the driver was doing, which is good because then you could route logistics, you know, with a smartphone… light bulb moment.”

Kanji said that, although they are very different businesses and markets, Hoxton’s two other unicorns, Babylon and Darktrace, involved similar light bulb moments. Yet you don’t get that light bulb moment until someone walks in the door and explains it to you. “Then your natural question is… why now… what’s actually changed? Like, what makes this so interesting? Why didn’t someone come up with this a year ago? There’s almost always usually a reason for that kind of stuff. And then the harder part of the job is… are you really picking number one?”

Entering or helping to create new markets is often not without controversy — which both Babylon and Deliveroo has attracted for different reasons. As real disruption inevitably creates societal consequences, it often raises ethical questions that, the Hoxton co-founder argues, aren’t always possible to anticipate early on. However, as the picture becomes clearer, he says VCs should absolutely care, along with, of course, founders and CEOs.

“One of the constant criticisms in the tech industry is, I think the maturity of our industry… we behave more like teenagers. And it’s great to be libertarian, it’s great to be free markets and say markets are gonna sort it out. But you’re gonna have touch points with a lot of other places in society. You’ve got to figure out, and I think, get ahead in terms of…what the impact is going to be, and be more responsible.”

Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19 — Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted

By Catherine Shu

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, more than 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets — Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.

Meet the five startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt 2020

By Anthony Ha

TechCrunch hosted an unusual Startup Battlefield this week — the founders, judges, audience and moderator (me) were all in different locations, doing our best to interact over WebEx.

But the 20 startups still demonstrated their products and explained their visions, then were grilled by expert judges. And those judges helped the TechCrunch team select our five finalists.

Those finalists will be presenting tomorrow at 10:40 a.m. Pacific for a whole new set of judges, and you can watch the live stream by logging into TechCrunch. (Also: It’s not too late to sign up for the full Disrupt experience.) Those judges will choose a runner-up and a winner, and the winner will take home $100,000, equity-free.

Here are the finalists:

Canix

Canix has built a robust enterprise resource planning platform designed to reduce the time it takes cannabis growers to input data. It integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software, as well as Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform. You can read more about Canix here.

Firehawk Aerospace

Hybrid rockets aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Firehawk Aerospace is building a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel engine that employs industrial-scale 3D printing to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous designs. You can read more about Firehawk Aerospace here.

HacWare

Tiffany Ricks founded HacWare in Dallas, Texas, in 2017 to help bring better email security awareness to small businesses. The technology sits on a company’s email server and uses machine learning to categorize and analyze each message for risk. You can read more about HacWare here.

Jefa

Jefa is building a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. It focuses on solving the problems that women face when opening a bank account and managing it. You can read more about Jefa here.

Matidor

Matidor is building a project platform for consultants and engineers to keep track of projects and geospatial data in a single dashboard. It offers an all-in-one data visualization suite for customers in the energy and environmental services fields. You can read more about Matidor here.

Boston Dynamics delivers plan for logistics robots as early as next year

By Devin Coldewey

Boston Dynamics is just months away from announcing their approach to logistics, the first real vertical it aims to enter, after proving their ability to build robots at scale with the quadrupedal Spot. The company’s new CEO, Robert Playter, sees the company coming into its own after decades of experimentation.

Playter, interviewed on the virtual main stage of Disrupt 2020, only recently ascended from COO to that role after many years of working there, after longtime CEO and founder Marc Raibert stepped aside to focus on R&D. This is Playter’s first public speaking engagement since taking on the new responsibility, and it’s clear he has big plans for Boston Robotics.

The recent commercialization of Spot, the versatile quadrupedal robot that is a distant descendant of the famous Big Dog, showed Playter and the company that there is a huge demand for what they’re offering, even if they’re not completely sure where that demand is.

“We weren’t sure exactly what the target verticals would be,” he admitted, and seemingly neither did the customers, who have collectively bought about 260 of the $75,000 robots and are now actively building their own add-ons and industry-specific tools for the platform. And the price hasn’t been a deterrent, he said: “As an industrial tool this is actually quite affordable. But we’ve been very aggressive, spending a lot of money to try to build an affordable way to produce this, and we’re already working on ways to continue to reduce costs.”

boston dynamics spot

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The global pandemic has also helped create a sense of urgency around robots as an alternative to or augmentation of manual labor.

“People are realizing that having a physical proxy for themselves, to be able to be present remotely, might be more important than we imagined before,” Playter said. “We’ve always thought of robots as being able to go into dangerous places, but now danger has been redefined a little bit because of COVID. The pandemic is accelerating the sense of urgency and, I think, probably opening up the kinds of applications that we will explore with this technology.”

Among the COVID-specific applications, the company has fielded requests for collaboration on remote monitoring of patients, and automatic disinfection using Spot to carry aerosol spray through a facility. “I don’t know whether that’ll be a big market going forward, but we thought it was important to respond at the time,” he said. “Partly out of a sense of obligation to the community and society that we do the right thing here.”

The “Dr Spot” remote vitals measurement program at MIT.

One of the earliest applications to scale successfully was, of course, logistics, where companies like Amazon have embraced robotics as a way to increase productivity and lower labor costs. Boston Dynamics is poised to jump into the market with a very different robot — or rather robots — meant to help move boxes and other box-like items around in a very different way from the currently practical “autonomous pallet” method.

“We have big plans in logistics,” Playter said. “we’re going to have some exciting new logistics products coming out in the next two years. We have customers now doing proof of concept tests. We’ll announce something in 2021, exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have product available in 2022.”

The company already offers Pick, a more traditional, stationary item-picking system, and they’re working on the next version of Handle, a birdlike mobile robot that can grab boxes and move them around while taking up comparatively little space — no more than a person or two standing up. This mobility allows it to unload things like shipping containers, trucks and other confined or less predictable spaces.

In a video shown during the interview (which you can watch above), Handle is also shown working in concert with an off-the-shelf pallet robot, and Playter emphasized the need for this kind of cooperation, and not just between robots from a single creator.

“We’ll be offering software that lets robots work together,” he said. “Now, we don’t have to create them all. But ultimately it will take teams of robots to do some of these tasks, and we anticipate being able to work with a heterogeneous fleet.”

This kinder, gentler, more industry-friendly Boston Dynamics is almost certainly a product of nudging from SoftBank, which acquired the company in 2018, but also the simple reality that you can’t run a world-leading robotics R&D outfit for nothing. But Playter was keen to note that the Japanese tech giant understands that “we’re only in the position we’re in now because of the previous work we’ve done in the last two decades, developing these advanced capabilities, so we have to keep doing that.”

One thing you won’t likely see doing real work any time soon is Atlas, the company’s astonishingly agile humanoid robot. It’s just not practical for anything just yet, but instead acts as a kind of prestige project, forcing the company to constantly adjust its sights upward.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

“It’s such a complex robot, and it can do so much it forces us to create tools we would not otherwise. And people love it — it’s aspirational, it attracts talent,” said Playter.

And he himself is no exception. Once a gymnast, he recalled “a nostalgic moment” watching Atlas vault around. “A lot of the people in the company, including Marc, have inspiration from the athletic performance of people and animals,” Playter said. “That DNA is deeply embedded in our company.”

Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn on getting funding for crazy ideas

By Frederic Lardinois

It’s not easy getting funding for any startup, but when Cloudflare launched at one of our early events 10 years ago, most investors sure thought its idea was a bit out there. Today, Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn joined us at our virtual Disrupt event to talk with our enterprise reporter Ron Miller about those early days and how the team managed to get investors on board with its plan.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, what were we thinking? But really, I hope — as other entrepreneurs listen — that you do think, ‘hey, how can I be more bold?’ Because actually, that’s where a lot of greatness comes from,” Zatlyn said.

It’s maybe no surprise then that she found that when the team went to the Bay Area in the summer of 2009, trying to sell a product that democratized a service that was previously only available to the internet giants of that time, not everybody was ready.

“A lot of eyes glazed over,” she said. They kind of brushed us aside because we really had a big vision — we certainly did not lack in vision. So that was a lot of the conversations, but there were some conversations where people really leaned in and they’re like: ‘Oh, wow, tell me more.’ And maybe they knew a lot about cybersecurity or maybe they were really worried about the democratization of the internet and going behind guarded walls. And those people really got excited. And that’s how we found kind of our initial investors or initial teammates.”

Over time, the team found investors and an initial set of employees, but it wasn’t easy. “It was bold then and not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some people looked at us like we’re crazy, but I’d like to say that when people look at you like you’re crazy, you’re probably onto something big.”

While a lot of people looked at Cloudflare as a CDN in its early days, it was always meant to be a security product that needed the CDN to work (the company sometimes describes itself as an “accidental CDN” because of that). Ten years ago, the focus was mostly on web spammers, and because that was something everybody could relate to, it made its ability to combat that very explicit in its pitch deck.

“We literally had a slide in our pitch deck that had quotes from real-life IT administrators from some medium-sized businesses, small businesses and developers, explaining in their own words — and their very hard-hitting words — how much they despise like these cyber threats that were online. […] Even if you knew nothing about cybersecurity or global performance, you could all understand wow, there’s something here, right?” And of course, it helped that there was no real protection against these threats available at the time.

Still, getting early customers didn’t come easy, either, Zatlyn noted, because some just didn’t understand what the company was doing. But the team took that as feedback and improved how it explained itself.

“Early on as an entrepreneur, you got to try a lot of things. And you don’t need to know every single corner of your business, but you need to really have a high rate of learning. Actually, that’s an entrepreneur’s best friend. How fast can you learn, how fast can you take the feedback and iterate on it?”

You can watch the rest of the conversation, including Zatlyn’s thoughts about going public, below:

Fabletics’ Adam Goldenberg and Kevin Hart on what’s next for the activewear empire

By Lucas Matney

Like plenty of other modern direct-to-consumer companies, influencer marketing has been an essential part of Fabletics’ journey. Actress Kate Hudson co-founded the company and co-CEO Adam Golderberg believes that its network of spokespeople has been key to the company’s growth.

We were joined on our virtual TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 stage by Goldenberg and comedian Kevin Hart who has been working as a brand partner for Fabletics.

“You can have the best product, which we believe we have, but if you can’t get it out there then you’re not going to be the leader that you want to be,” Goldenberg told us. “By having a very broad and diverse ambassador and influencer network, it allows us to become a very inclusive brand.”

Hart joined the company as an official brand partner earlier this year just as the pandemic took hold stateside and the company launched a menswear line. For Hart, the partnership is one of many relationships with brands and startups, but fits into his own lifestyle and thus made a lot of sense for him to work with, he says. 

“[A company I invest in] has to coincide with myself and my lifestyle. If I’m going to talk about it, I have to be true to it,” Hart told TechCrunch. “There’s a plethora of things that I’m involved with that people would be shocked to know I was a part of, but it’s because I have the eyesight for it and a love for it.”

The Fabletics menswear line that Hart has advertised, and served as a brand spokesman for, has seen major growth amid a broader spike in athleisure wear sales. Goldenberg is bullish on just how much growth Fabletics will see from its men’s line so early in its lifecycle.

“It’s a big goal, but I think we could do $75-100 million in sales next year with Fabletics Men, which is our first full year with this line, which would be very, very fast growth,” Goldenberg says.

As the company firms up its offering in activewear, they’re also keeping an eye on what trends will help them grow. Fabletics has already been building out technology trying to connect online and offline user habits in its stores. On the heels of Lululemon’s major acquisition of Mirror, which it announced in late June, moderator Jordan Crook inquired whether Fabletics had its own interests in expanding its footprint beyond activewear.

“We really believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle, so we’re not ready to share it yet, but we’re going to be doing something very large incorporating fitness into Fabletics,” Goldenberg said.

Check out the interview with Hart and Goldenberg below.

Jennifer Doudna sees CRISPR gene-editing tech as a Swiss Army knife for COVID-19 and beyond

By Devin Coldewey

Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, thinks the biotech tool could be an essential one for combating COVID-19 and future pandemics. Due to its capacity to be “reprogrammed” like software, CRISPR could eventually be integral to countless tests and treatments.

In an interview at Disrupt 2020, Doudna was all optimism for the technique, which has already proven to be extremely useful in less immediately applicable situations.

“One thing that’s so intriguing about the whole CRISPR technology, it’s a toolbox and there’s many ways to repurpose it for manipulating genomes, but also for detection, even getting virus materials and the kinds of reagents that you need for an effective vaccine,” she explained.

This is all because of CRISPR’s main asset: its ability to home in on incredibly specific sequences or structures and manipulate them. Certainly one way to use that is to snip out a potentially harmful bit of DNA, but that bit could also be amplified for easy detection.

“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and re-purposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” Doudna said.

The advantages CRISPR offers are threefold, Doudna explained: first, it’s a “direct” method of detection. Current tests rely on enzymes and proteins that are indirect evidence of infection, which limits their reliability and timing — you can’t, for instance, detect the virus before it starts producing that secondary evidence. CRISPR detects RNA from the viral genome itself.

“We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus,” she said.

Second, the sequence that the CRISPR complex searches for can easily be changed. “That means that scientists can reprogram the CRISPR system trivially, to target different sections of the coronavirus to make sure that we’re not missing viruses that have mutated,” Doudna said. “We’re already working on a strategy to co-detect influenza and coronavirus; as you know, it’s really important to be able to do that, but also to pivot very quickly to detect new viruses that are emerging.”

Very long GIF of a CRISPR Cas-9 protein seeking, finding, and snipping out a piece of DNA. Image credits: UC Berkeley

“I don’t think any of us thinks that viral pandemics are going away,” she continued. “The current pandemic is a call to arms; we have to make sure that scientifically we’re ready for the next attack by a new virus.”

And third, a CRISPR-based test wouldn’t be manufactured with the same materials as other tests, making it easier to manufacture alongside them. Managing supply chains effectively will be crucial for getting vaccines, tests and treatments to people as quickly as possible.

The barrier to CRISPR, however, is not theoretical but practical: It’s still more or less lab-bound because therapies using the technology are still very much under review. It is in clinical trials in some forms and COVID-19-related applications could be fast-tracked, but its novelty means it will be slower to reach those who need it. Not to mention the cost.

“This underscores what I think is one of the key challenges that we face in this age of advancing biotechnologies,” said Doudna. “That is, how do we make a technology like CRISPR affordable and accessible to a lot of people? I’d like to see a day when CRISPR is the standard of care for treating a rare genetic disease, and it’s going to take some real R&D to get there.”

Perhaps one of the avenues for advancement will be the newly discovered sibling technique, CRISPR Cas-Φ (that’s a “phi”), which works similarly but is much more compact, owing to its origin as, apparently, a countermeasure by viruses that invade CRISPR-bearing bacteria. “Who knew they carried around their own form of CRISPR?” mused Doudna. “But they do, and it’s a very interesting protein, because it’s very small compared to the original formats for CRISPR that allows a much, much smaller protein to be able to do [this] kind of editing.”

Doudna had much more to say about the possibilities for the technique of which she was one of the chief creators. You can watch the rest of the interview below.

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