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Google launches the first developer preview of Android 12

By Frederic Lardinois

Almost exactly a year after Google announced the first developer preview of Android 11, the company today released the first developer preview of Android 12. Google delayed the roll-out of Android 11 a bit as the teams and the company’s partners adjusted to working during a pandemic, but it looks like that didn’t stop it from keeping Android 12 on schedule. As you would expect from an early developer preview, most of the changes here are under the hood and there’s no over-the-air update yet for intrepid non-developers who want to give it a spin.

Image Credits: Google

Among the highlights of the release so far — and it’s important to note that Google tends to add more user-facing changes and UI updates throughout the preview cycle — are the ability to transcode media into higher quality formates like the AV1 image format, faster and more responsive notifications and a new feature for developers that now makes individual changes in the platform togglable so they can more easily test the compatibility of their apps. Google also promises that just like with Android 11, it’ll add a Platform Stability milestone to Android 12 to give developers advance notice when final app-facing changes will occur in the development cycle of the operating system. Last year, the team hit that milestone in July when it launched its second beta release.

“With each version, we’re working to make the OS smarter, easier to use, and better performing, with privacy and security at the core,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “In Android 12 we’re also working to give you new tools for building great experiences for users. Starting with things like compatible media transcoding, which helps your app to work with the latest video formats if you don’t already support them, and easier copy/paste of rich content into your apps, like images and videos. We’re also adding privacy protections, refreshing the UI, and optimizing performance to keep your apps responsive.”

Image comparison from AVIF has landed by Jake Archibald

Obviously, there are dozens of developer-facing updates in Android 12. Let’s look at some in detail.

For the WebView in Android 12, Google will now implement the same SameSite cookie behavior as in Chrome, for example. Last year, the company slowed down the roll-out of this change, which makes it harder for advertisers to track your activity across sites,  in Chrome, simply because it was breaking too many sites. Now, with this feature fully implemented in Chrome, the Android team clearly feels like it, too, can implement the same privacy tools in WebView, which other apps use to display web content, too.

As for the encoding capabilities, Burke notes that, “with the prevalence of HEVC hardware encoders on mobile devices, camera apps are increasingly capturing in HEVC format, which offers significant improvements in quality and compression over older codecs.” He notes that most apps should support HEVC, but for those that can’t, Android 12 now offers a service for transcoding a file into AVC.

Image Credits: Google

In addition, Android 12 now also supports the AV1 Image File Format as a container for images and GIF-like image sequences. “Like other modern image formats, AVIF takes advantage of the intra-frame encoded content from video compression,” explains Burke. “This dramatically improves image quality for the same file size when compared to older image formats, such as JPEG.”

As with every Android release, Google also continues to tinker with the notification system. This time, the team promises a refreshed design to “make them more modern, easier to use, and more functional.” Burke calls out optimized transitions and animations and the ability for apps to decorate notifications with custom content. Google now also asks that developers implement a system that immediately takes users from a notification to the app, without an intermediary broadcast receiver or service, something it recommended before.

Android 12 will now also offer better support for multi-channel audio with up to 24 channels (a boon for music and other audio apps, no doubt), spatial audio, MPEG-H support, and haptic-coupled audio effects with the strength of the vibration and frequency based on the audio (a boon for games, no doubt). There’s also improved gesture navigation and plenty of other optimizations and minor changes across the operating system.

Google also continues to drive its Project Mainline forward, which allows for an increasing number of the core Android OS features to be updated through the Google Play system — and hence bypasses the slow update cycles of most hardware manufacturers. With Android 12, it is bringing the Android Runtime module into Mainline, which will then let Google push updates to the core runtime and libraries to devices. “We can improve runtime performance and correctness, manage memory more efficiently, and make Kotlin operations faster – all without requiring a full system update,” Burke says. “We’ve also expanded the functionality of existing modules – for example, we’re delivering our seamless transcoding feature inside an updatable module.”

You can find a more detailed list of all of the changes in Android 12 here.

Image Credits: Google

Developers who want to get started with bringing their apps to Android 12 can do so today by flashing a device image to a Pixel device. For now, Android 12 supports the Pixel 3/3 XL, Pixel 3a/3a XL, Pixel 4/4 XL, Pixel 4a/4a 5G and Pixel 5. You can also use the system image in the Android Emulator in Google’s Android Studio.

Census raises $16M Series A to help companies put their data warehouses to work

By Frederic Lardinois

Census, a startup that helps businesses sync their customer data from their data warehouses to their various business tools like Salesforce and Marketo, today announced that it has raised a $16 million Series A round led by Sequoia Capital. Other participants in this round include Andreessen Horowitz, which led the company’s $4.3 million seed round last year, as well as several notable angles, including Figma CEO Dylan Field, GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Notion COO Akshay Kothari and Rippling CEO Parker Conrad.

The company is part of a new crop of startups that are building on top of data warehouses. The general idea behind Census is to help businesses operationalize the data in their data warehouses, which was traditionally only used for analytics and reporting use cases. But as businesses realized that all the data they needed was already available in their data warehouses and that they could use that as a single source of truth without having to build additional integrations, an ecosystem of companies that operationalize this data started to form.

The company argues that the modern data stack, with data warehouses like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery and Snowflake at its core, offers all of the tools a business needs to extract and transform data (like Fivetran, dbt) and then visualize it (think Looker).

Tools like Census then essentially function as a new layer that sits between the data warehouse and the business tools that can help companies extract value from this data. With that, users can easily sync their product data into a marketing tool like Marketo or a CRM service like Salesforce, for example.

Image Credits: Census

Three years ago, we were the first to ask, ‘Why are we relying on a clumsy tangle of wires connecting every app when everything we need is already in the warehouse? What if you could leverage your data team to drive operations?’ When the data warehouse is connected to the rest of the business, the possibilities are limitless.” Census explains in today’s announcement. “When we launched, our focus was enabling product-led companies like Figma, Canva, and Notion to drive better marketing, sales, and customer success. Along the way, our customers have pulled Census into more and more scenarios, like auto-prioritizing support tickets in Zendesk, automating invoices in Netsuite, or even integrating with HR systems.

Census already integrates with dozens of different services and data tools and its customers include the likes of Clearbit, Figma, Fivetran, LogDNA, Loom and Notion.

Looking ahead, Census plans to use the new funding to launch new features like deeper data validation and a visual query experience. In addition, it also plans to launch code-based orchestration to make Census workflows versionable and make it easier to integrate them into enterprise orchestration system.

Atlanta area gets a 5G incubator courtesy of T-Mobile and Georgia Tech

By Jonathan Shieber

The Atlanta area is getting a new incubator for startups working with 5G technology courtesy of T-Mobile and Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the companies announced today.

It’s an expansion of the T-Mobile Accelerator program and part of the big carrier’s efforts to boost 5G innovation.

Located in the Atlanta-adjacent exurb of Peachtree Corners’ technology development park, which is already equipped with T-Mobile’s 5G services, the incubator will help developers build and test 5G use cases including autonomous vehicles, robotics, industrial drone applications, mixed reality training and entertainment, remote medical care and personal health, the company said.

Startups working with the 5G Connected Future program will work directly with folks at T-Mobile’s accelerator, Georgia Tech and Curiosity Lab, an initiative in the Peachtree Corners campus.

“In addition to the normal startup concerns, entrepreneurs in the 5G space face a unique set of challenges such as regulatory issues at the state and local levels, network security, and integration testing,” said ATDC Director John Avery.

Peachtree Corners’ setup may help folks navigate that rollout. As part of its involvement, ATDC will offer programing, recruit and evaluate startups, and hire staff to manage the vertical in Peachtree Corners, the organization said.

“This collaboration is a great opportunity for ATDC and Georgia Tech, the city of Peachtree Corners and Curiosity Lab, and T-Mobile, a Fortune 50 company, to create a unique collection to work with these companies, refine their ideas into scalable companies, and bring these solutions to market more quickly,” Avery said.

Such a partnership underscores “Georgia Tech’s commitment to enabling tomorrow’s technology leaders, which remains as strong as when ATDC was founded 41 years ago,” said Chaouki T. Abdallah, Georgia Tech’s executive vice president for research. “Innovation cannot take place in a vacuum, which is why entrepreneurs and startups require the knowledge and resources provided through partnerships such as ours.”

Astra hires longtime Apple veteran Benjamin Lyon as Chief Engineer

By Darrell Etherington

New Space startup Astra, which is currently focused on commercial rockets, but which plans to eventually build satellites, too, has hired one of Apple’s key engineering leaders to head its own engineering efforts. Benjamin Lyon spent over two decades at Apple, where he worked on everything from the iPhone, to input devices and sensor hardware, to special projects: the department at Apple working on autonomous vehicle technology.

“When I’ve looked at what to do next at Apple, it has always been this combination of ‘What is the most impactful thing that I can do for humanity?’ – the iPhone was very much one of these,” Lyon told me in an interview. “Phones were awful [at the time], and if we could fundamentally come up with a new interface, that would completely change how people interact with devices.”

Creating a mobile device with an interface that was “completely flexible and completely customizable to the application” was what seemed so transformative to Lyon about the iPhone, and he sees a direct parallel in the work that Astra is doing to lower the barrier of access to space through cheap, scalable and highly-efficient rocketry.

“Astra me feels very, very much like redefining what it means for a phone to be smart,” Lyon said. “I think the Astra vision is this magical combination of fundamentally taking the rocket science out of space. How do you do that? Well, you better have a great foundation of a team, and a great foundation of core technologies that you can bring together in order to make a compelling series of products.”

Foundations are the key ingredient according not only to Lyon, but also to Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, who explained why an experienced Apple engineer made the most sense to him to lead a rocket startup’s engineering efforts.

“We did not want anyone from aerospace – I’ll just I’ll say that out of the gate,” Kemp told me. “Aerospace has not figured out how to build rockets at scale, or do anything profitably – ever. So I found no inspiration from anyone I talked to who had anything to do with with any of the other space-related companies. We do feel that there are people that are at SpaceX and Blue Origin who are really good at what they do. But in terms of the culture that we’re trying to establish at Astra, if you look back at Apple, and the things that that Benjamin worked on there over many decades, he really took on not only designing the the thing, but also designing the thing that makes the thing, which was more important than the thing itself.”

Kemp’s alluding to Apple’s lauded ability to work very closely with suppliers and move fundamental component engineering in-house, crafting unique designs for things like the system-on-a-chip that now powers everything from the iPhone to Macs. Apple often designs the processes involved in making those fundamental components, and then helps its suppliers stand up the factories required to build those to its exacting specifications. Astra’s approach to the space industry centers around a similar approach, with a focus on optimizing the output of its Alameda-based rocket factory, and iterating its products quickly to match the needs of the market while keeping pricing accessible.

And Astra’s definition of ‘iteration’ matches up much more closely with the one used by Silicon Valley than that typically espoused by legacy aerospace companies – going further still in questioning the industry’s fundamentals than even watershed space tech innovators like SpaceX, which in many ways still adheres to accepted rocket industry methods.

“You don’t do the iPhone X at iPhone 1 – you start with the iPhone 1 and you work your way to the iPhone X,” Lyon told me. “You’re going to see that with Astra as well, there’s going to be this amazing evolution, but it’s going to be tech company-rate evolution, as opposed to an ‘every 20 years’ evolution.”

That sentiment lines up with Astra and Kemp’s approach to date: The company reached space for the first time late last year, with a rocket that was the second of three planned launches in a rapid iteration cycle designed to achieve that milestone. After the first of these launches (Rocket 3.1 if you’re keeping track) failed to make space last September, Astra quickly went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design to come back for its successful attempt in December (Rocket 3.2) – an extremely fast turnaround for an aerospace company by any measure. The company is now focused on its Rocket 3.3 launch, which should only require software changes to achieve a successful orbit, and put it on track to begin delivering commercial payloads for paying customers.

Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.

Astra’s rocket is tiny compared to the mammoth Starship that SpaceX is currently developing, but that’s part of the appeal that drew Lyon to the startup in the first place. He says the goal of “design[ing] a rocket to match the application,” rather than simply “design[ing] a rocket to end all rockets” makes vastly more sense to serve the bourgeoning market.

“And that’s just the beginning,” he added. “Then you’ll take the next step, which is if you look at the technology that’s in a satellite, and a bunch of the smart technology that’s in a rocket, there’s a tremendous amount of duplication there. So, get rid of the duplication – design the rocket and the satellite together as one system.”

Eventually, that means contemplating not only launch and satellite as a single challenge, but also managing “the entire experience of getting to space and managing a constellation” as “a single design problem,” according to Lyon, which is the level of ambition at Astra that he views as on par with that of Steve Jobs at Apple at the outset of the iPhone project.

Ultimately, Astra hopes to be able to provide aspiring space technology companies with everything they need so that the actual space component of their business is fully handled. The idea is that startups and innovators can then focus on bringing new models and sensing technologies to Astra, worrying only about payload – leaving launch, integration and eventually constellation management to the experts. It’s not unlike what the App Store unlocked for the software industry, Lyon said.

“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in aerospace, which is to really scale the production of rockets, and also focus on the overall economics of the business,” Kemp explained about additional advantages of having Lyon on board. “As we become a public company, in particular, we have very aggressive EBITDA targets, and very aggressive production targets, much the same way Apple does. We also want to have a new rocket every year, just like [the iPhone] and so to some degree, we found every aspect of Benjamin’s ethos aligned with our values, and the culture that we’re creating here at Astra of relentless, constant innovation and iteration.”

Edgybees raises $9.5M Series A for its aerial video augmentation service

By Frederic Lardinois

Edgybees, a company that helps businesses, first responders and military users accurately geotag and augment their aerial video streams in real time, today announced that it has raised a $9.5 million Series A round. The news comes almost exactly two years after the company announced its $5.5 million seed round. Seraphim Capital, which specializes in space tech investments, led this new round. New investors Refinery Ventures, LG Technology Ventures, Kodem Growth, as well as existing investors OurCrowd, 8VC, Verizon Ventures and Motorola Solutions Venture Capital also participated.

“Our mission is to ensure positive human outcomes during life-saving missions,” says Edgybees co-founder and CEO Adam Kaplan. “Our new partners will be key to continuing to push our mission forward. With their unique industry expertise, we are poised to expand our global footprint and drive innovation within the industry. We look forward to the next phase of growth, meeting the critical demands of the defense, public safety and critical infrastructure markets.”

Using the company’s Visual Intelligence Platform, users can easily register and track assets in video show by a drone, for example. The standard use case here would be to help first responders get an accurate picture of an evolving emergency on top of live images from the scene, with the ability to track all of their assets and personnel in real time. But Edgybees has also shown other use cases that range from tracking and visualizing golf games to insurance and defense use cases.

About a year ago, Edgybees, which had its start in Israel but is now based in San Diego, launches its Argus platform, which makes it easier for users to bring their own drone and other live video platforms to the service’s geo-registration engine.

Image Credits: Edgybees

“Edgybees solves a huge problem in spatial computing: how do you really know what you are seeing through fast moving airborne or other video feeds? Edgybees brings together the real and virtual worlds and helps first responders save lives, industrial drone users save money, and defense teams get the mission done,” Ourcrowd CEO Jon Medved explained.

Similarly, Seraphim managing partner and CEO Mark Boggett noted that he thinks of Edgybees as a Google Maps fused with live video. “Their geo-referencing capability is a breakthrough technology that brings a new level of insight and usability to video streams from space, drones or bodycams. We are very excited about Edgybees, not only for the innovation it brings to public safety and defense, but because its ability to be utilized in a wide range of industries,” he said.

Image Credits: Edgybees

LA-based Metropolis raises $41 million to upgrade parking infrastructure

By Jonathan Shieber

Metropolis is a new Los Angeles-based startup that’s looking to compete with BMW-owned ParkMobile for a slice of the automated parking lot management market.

Upgrading ParkMobile’s license plate-based service with a computer vision based system that recognizes cars as they enter and leave garages has been Metropolis’ mission since founder and chief executive Alex Israel first formed the business back in 2017.

Israel, a serial entrepreneur, has spent decades thinking about parking. His last company, ParkMe, was sold to Inrix back in 2015. And it was with those earnings and experience that Israel went back to the drawing board to develop a new kind of parking payment and management service.

Now, the company is ready for its closeup, announcing not only its launch, but $41 million in financing the company raised from investors including the real estate managers Starwood and RXR Realty; Dick Costolo’s 01 Advisors; Dragoneer; former Facebook employees Sam Lessin and Kevin Colleran’s Slow Ventures; Dan Doctoroff, the head of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs initiative; and NBA All star and early stage investor, Baron Davis. 

According to Alex Israel, the parking payment application is the foundation for a bigger business empire that hopes to reimagine parking spaces as hubs for a broad array of urban mobility services.

In this, the company’s goals aren’t dissimilar from the Florida-based startup, REEF, which has its own spin on what to do with the existing infrastructure and footprint created by urban parking spaces. And REEF’s $700 million round of funding from last year shows there’s a lot of money to be made — or at least spent — in a parking lot.

Unlike REEF, Metropolis will remain focused on mobility, according to Israel. “How does parking change over the next 20 years as mobility shifts?” he asked. And he’s hoping that Metropolis will provide an answer. 

The company is hoping to use its latest funding to expand its footprint to over 600 locations over the course of the next year. In all, Metropolis has raised $60 million since it was formed back in 2017.

While the computer vision and machine learning technology will serve as the company’s beachhead into parking lots, services like cleaning, charging, storage and logistics could all be part and parcel of the Metropolis offering going forward, Israel said. “We become the integrator [and] we also in some cases become the direct service provider,” Israel said.

The company already has 10,000 parking spots that it’s managing for big real estate owners, and Israel expects more property managers to flood to its service.

“[Big property owners] are not thinking about the infrastructure requirements that allow for the seamless access to these facilities,” Israel said. His technology can allow buildings to capture more value through other services like dynamic pricing and yield optimization as well.

“Metropolis is finding the highest and best use whether that be scooter charging, scooter storage, fleet storage, fleet logistics, or sorting,” Israel said.  

 

After raising $150 million in equity and debt, Nature’s Fynd opens its fungus food for pre-orders

By Jonathan Shieber

Nature’s Fynd, the food technology company with a new food offering cultivated from fungus found in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, is releasing its first products for pre-order. 

Pitching both a non-dairy cream cheese and meatless breakfast patties, Nature’s Fynd had managed to attract some serious investors including Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management and the Bill Gates-backed investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The company most recently raised $80 million in its last round of funding.

The company is part of a wave of innovative products using a range of bacteria, fungi, and plants to create meat alternatives.  Last year, companies developing meat alternatives raised well over $1 billion in financing and investors show no sign of slowing down in their commitments to the industry.

The commercial launch of the Fy Breakfast Bundle, vegan and non-GMO alternatives to traditional breakfast products will be the first commercial test for Nature’s Fynd as it looks to go to market.

These limited release bundles are available for $14,99 plus shipping, according to the company, and the products will be available across the 48 contiguous U.S. states.

The company’s product is grown using fermentation technology to cultivate the bacteria that Nature’s Fynd’s chief scientists discovered during their research into organisms around Yellowstone National Park.

Nature’s Fynd touts the resilience and efficiency of the microbe it discovered, leading to a more sustainable production process that uses a fraction of the land, water, and energy resources that traditional animal husbandry requires, the company said.

“We choose optimism so that we can find a way to do more with less. Using our novel liquid-air surface fermentation technology, we’re creating a range of sustainable foods that nourish our bodies and nurture our planet for generations to come. We’re really excited to be at the beginning of this journey with the launch of our first-ever limited release of Fy Breakfast Bundles,” said Nature’s Fynd CEO Thomas Jonas. “We’ve deeply studied our consumers and we know that Fy’s unique versatility, which delivers great tasting meat and dairy alternatives for every occasion, is highly appealing.” 

Nature’s Fynd chief executive, Thomas Jonas. Image Credit: Nature’s Fynd

Severe weather, blackouts show the grid’s biggest problem is infrastructure, not renewables

By Jonathan Shieber

It’s becoming harder for the U.S. to ignore the very real effects of global climate change — and despite the efforts of naysayers, it’s not a push to renewables that’s to blame for the outages sweeping the nation. It’s the country’s energy infrastructure.

Severe weather conditions caused by global warming have now caused massive blackouts across some of the largest cities in the United States. The inability of the U.S. power grid to withstand the stresses caused by extreme weather events shows that the nation needs a massive investment plan to upgrade energy infrastructure in an effort to make it more resilient.

These problems are now painfully apparent to the 29 million residents of Texas who are now subject to rolling blackouts caused by the frigid weather sweeping across the country.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said it had “entered emergency conditions and initiated rotating outages at 1:25 a.m. today,” in a statement. The Texas grid shed 10.5 gigawatts of load — or enough to power 2 million homes at its peak.

“Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units – across fuel types – to trip offline and become unavailable,” the energy provider said in a statement.

Part of the problem lies with natural gas generators that supply much of the power to the grid in Texas, according to Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment.

Citing a market participant, Jenkins noted on Twitter that roughly 26 gigawatts of thermal energy is offline because natural gas is being diverted to provide heat instead of power. Only about 4 gigawatts of wind is offline because of icing, Jenkins noted.

Confidential info from a market participant in ERCOT: As of ~10 AM Eastern time, the system has ~30 GW of capacity offline, ~26 GW of thermal — mostly natural gas which cant get fuel deliveries which are being priorities for heating loads — and ~4 GW of wind due to icing. https://t.co/Bfpn0WeRIq

— JesseJenkins (@JesseJenkins) February 15, 2021

The current blackouts have nothing to do with renewables and everything to do with cold weather slowing down natural gas production because of freeze offs and spiking demand for heating at the same time.

As Dr. Emily Grubert, an assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and, by courtesy, of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noted, the problem is more of a total systems issue than one associated with renewable power.

“Let us be absolutely clear: if there are grid failures today, it shows the existing (largely fossil-based) system cannot handle these conditions either,” Grubert wrote on Twitter. “These are scary, climate change-affected conditions that pose extreme challenges to the grid. We are likely to continue to see situations like this where our existing system cannot easily handle them. Any electricity system needs to make massive adaptive improvements.”

Renewable energy and energy storage can potentially provide a solution to the problem and help contribute to a more resilient grid. Residential energy developer Swell Energy raised $450 million in financing late last year to begin development of several projects across three states that would pair distributed, residential solar energy generation with battery storage to create what are called virtual power plants that can ease stress on energy grids in times of increased demand.

“Utilities are increasingly looking to distributed energy resources as valuable ‘grid edge’ assets,” said Suleman Khan, CEO of Swell Energy, in a statement, at the time of the announcement. “By networking these individual homes and businesses into virtual power plants, Swell is able to bring down the cost of ownership for its customers and help utilities manage demand across their electric grids.”

Other companies, like Evolve Energy or Griddy, try to help consumers manage costs by charging them wholesale rates for power. Those companies can only be economical when the rates for wholesale power are low. Right now, with demand for power skyrocketing, prices for energy in the ERCOT have surged above $5,000 per MW and hit the $9,000 cap in many nodes, according to Bloomberg Energy reporter Javier Bias.

The blackouts in Texas today and in California in January show that the current grid in the United States needs an overhaul. Whether it’s heavily regulated markets like California or a free market like Texas, current policy can’t stop the weather from wreaking havoc and putting people’s lives at risk.

 

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines

By Darrell Etherington

Web infrastructure company Cloudflare is releasing a new tool today that aims to provide a way for health agencies and organizations globally tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue – completely free of charge. The company’s ‘Project Fair Shot’ initiative will make its new Cloudflare Waiting Room offering free to any organization that qualifies, essentially providing a way from future vaccine recipients to register and gain access to a clear and constantly-updated view of where they are in line to receive the preventative treatment.

“The wife of one of Cloudflare’s executives in our Austin was trying to register her parents for the COVID-19 vaccine program there,” explained Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince via email. “The registration site kept crashing. She said to her husband: why doesn’t Cloudflare build a queuing feature to help vaccine sites? As it happened, we had exactly such a feature under development and scheduled to be launched in early February.”

After realizing the urgency of the need for something like this tool to help alleviate the many infrastructure challenges that come up when you’re trying to vaccinate a global population against a viral threat as quickly as possible, Cloudflare changed their release timetable and devoted additional resources to the project.

“We talked to the team about moving up the scheduled launch of our Waiting Room feature,” Prince added. “They worked around the clock because they recognized how important helping with vaccine delivery was. These are the sorts of projects that really drive our team: when we can use our technical expertise and infrastructure to solve problems with broad, positive impact.”

On the technical side, Cloudflare Waiting Room is simple to implement, according to the company, and can be added to any registration website built on the company’s existing content delivery network without any engineering or coding knowledge required. Visitors to the site can register and will receive a confirmation that they’re in line, and then will receive a follow-up directing them to a sign-up page for the organization administering their vaccine when it’s their turn. Further configuration options allow Waiting Room operators to offer wait time estimates to registrants, as well as provide additional alerts when their turn is nearing (though that functionality is coming in a future update).

As Prince mentioned, Waiting Room was already on Cloudflare’s project roadmap, and was actually intended for other high-demand, limited supply allocation items: Think must-have concert tickets, or the latest hot sneaker release. But the Fair Shot program will provide it totally free to those organizations that need it, whereas that would’ve been a commercial product. Interested parties can sign up at Cloudflare’s registration page to get on the waitlist for availability.

“With Project Fair Shot we stand ready to help ensure everyone who is eligible can get equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines and we, along with the rest of humanity, look forward to putting this disease behind us,” Prince explained.

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

By Darrell Etherington

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called “robomorphic computing” to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new — if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations — like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increasing manufacturing speed and efficiency — though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

By Mike Butcher

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Eight Roads Ventures Europe appoints Lucile Cornet to Partner

By Mike Butcher

Lucile Cornet has been appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.

Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.

Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”

Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”

Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.

France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.

Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”

Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”

In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.

Wireless charging tech developer Powermat pivots to industrial applications with Jetsons Robotics partnerhsip

By Jonathan Shieber

When the two year-old Indian company Jetsons Robotics began searching for a partner to help design charging stations for their autonomous rooftop solar installation cleaning robots, the Israeli company Powermat was an obvious choice.

While the company had made its name as the designer for wireless charging technologies for consumer electronics, over the past two years the company was shifting its focus to more industrial applications. So it made sense to work with the Indian company on new form factors and applications for its charging technologies.

Indeed, the consumer market that Powermat had hoped to capture had been, by that point, broadly commoditized, so the tech developer needed a new direction.

Cleaning rooftop solar installations can be a costly endeavor, running companies anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per year, according to Jetsons Robotics chief executive, Jatin Sharma. The use of robots to replace human labor can save money, but the autonomous solution that the company wanted to build necessitated some kind of wireless charging dock, he said.

Contact-based charging meant too many variables in the outdoor environment, but an inductive charger would be too costly. Until the company worked with Powermat on a solution, Sharma said.

Backed by 100x.vc, Sharma’s robots are already cleaning roughly 1.7 megawatts of solar installations on a daily basis.

For Powermat, the solar cleaning robots are a good test of the company’s new industrial focus, according to chief technology officer Itay Sherman.

“You can look at it like maturation of the market,” Sherman said. “Powermat had been a pioneer in driving wireless technology. This market is maturing and we are moving on to markets where the technology and innovation is important. We have decided to shift our efforts to these emerging markets. Robotics is one, medical devices, IOT, and the automotive market are others.”

 

Miami-based Ironhack raises $20 million for its coding bootcamps as demand for coders continues

By Jonathan Shieber

Ironhack, a company offering programming bootcamps across Europe and North and South America, has raised $20 million in its latest round of funding.

The Miami-based company (with locations in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, Paris and São Paulo) said it will use the money to build out more virtual offerings to complement the company’s campuses.

Over the next five years, 13 million jobs will be added to the tech industry in the U.S., according to Ironhack co-founder Ariel Quiñones. That’s in addition to another 20 million jobs that Quiñones expects to come from the growth of the technology sector in the EU.

Ironhack isn’t the only bootcamp to benefit from this growth. Last year, Lambda School raised $74 million for its coding education program.

Ironhack raised its latest round from Endeavor Catalyst, a fund that invests in entrepreneurs from emerging and underserved markets; Lumos Capital, which was formed by investors with a long history in education technology; Creas Capital, a Spanish impact investment firm; and Brighteye, a European edtech investor.

Prices for the company’s classes vary by country. In the U.S. an Ironhack bootcamp costs $12,000, while that figure is more like $3,000 for classes in Mexico City.

The company offers classes in subjects ranging from web development to UX/UI design, and data analytics to cybersecurity, according to a statement. 

“We believe that practical skills training, a supportive global community and career development programs can give everyone, regardless of their education or employment history, the ability to write their stories through technology,” said Quiñones.

Since its launch in 2013, the company has graduated more than 8,000 students, with a job placement rate of 89%, according to data collected as of July 2020. Companies who have employed Ironhack graduates include Capgemini, Siemens and Santander, the company said.

 

MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

By Darrell Etherington

Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

Drone-focused construction startup TraceAir raises $3.5M

By Brian Heater

Bay Area-based construction startup TraceAir today announced a $3.5 million Series A. Led by London-based XTX Ventures, this round brings the company’s total funding up to $7 million. The raise includes existing investor Metropolis VC, along with new additions Liquid 2 Ventures, GEM Capital, GPS Ventures and Andrew Filev.

We first noted the company back in 2016, when it pitched a method for using drones to spot construction errors before they become too expense. It’s a pretty massive field that various technology companies are attempting to solve through a variety of different means, ranging from quadrupedal robots to site-scanning hard hats.

Last February, TraceAir announced a new drone management tool. “Haul Router provides the best mathematically objective hauls for each given drone scan,” the company noted at the time. “Any employee can use the tool to design a haul road and export the results to feed into grading equipment.”

The pandemic has thrown the construction industry for a loop (along with countless others). But unlike other sectors, demand still remains high in many places. TraceAir is hoping its solution will prove beneficial as many outfits seek a way to continue the process in spite of uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 pandemic created new challenges for the U.S. and worldwide construction industries, resulting in delayed projects and growing unemployment rates,” CEO Dmitry Korolev said in a release tied to the news. “Our platform allows industry leaders to manage projects more efficiently and collaborate with their teams remotely, minimizing the need for a physical presence on-site.”

TraceAir says the additional funding will go toward its sales and marketing, along with future product developments, including an unnamed product set for release this quarter.

K Health expands into virtual childcare and raises $132 million at a $1.5 billion valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

K Health, the virtual healthcare provider that uses machine learning to lower the cost of care by providing the bulk of the company’s health assessments, is launching new tools for childcare on the heels of raising cash that values the company at $1.5 billion.

The $132 million round raised in December will help the company expand and help pay for upgrades including an integration with most electronic health records — an integration that’s expected by the second quarter.

Throughout 2020 K Health has leveraged its position operating at the intersection of machine learning and consumer healthcare to raised $222 million in a single year.

This appetite from investors shows how large the opportunity is in consumer healthcare as companies look to use technology to make care more affordable.

For K Health, that means a monthly subscription to its service of $9 for unlimited access to the service and physicians on the platform, as well as a $19 per-month virtual mental health offering and a $19 fee for a one-time urgent care consultation.

To patients and investors the pitch is that the data K Health has managed to acquire through partnerships with organizations like the Israel health maintenance organization Maccabi Healthcare Services, which gave up decades of anonymized data on patients and health outcomes to train K Health’s predictive algorithm, can assess patients and aid the in diagnoses for the company’s doctors.

In theory that means the company’s service essentially acts as a virtual primary care physician, holding a wealth of patient information that, when taken together, might be able to spot underlying medical conditions faster or provide a more holistic view into patient care.

For pharmaceutical companies that could mean insights into population health that could be potentially profitable avenues for drug discovery.

In practice, patients get what they pay for.

The company’s mental health offering uses medical doctors who are not licensed psychiatrists to perform their evaluations and assessments, according to one provider on the platform, which can lead to interactions with untrained physicians that can cause more harm than good.

While company chief executive Allon Bloch is likely correct in his assessment that most services can be performed remotely (Bloch puts the figure at 90%), they should be performed remotely by professionals who have the necessary training.

There are limits to how much heavy lifting an algorithm or a generalist should do when it comes to healthcare, and it appears that K Health wants to push those limits.

“Drug referrals, acute issues, prevention issues, most of those can be done remotely,” Bloch said. “There’s an opportunity to do much better and potentially cheaper. 

K Health has already seen hundreds of thousands of patients either through its urgent care offering or its subscription service and generated tens of millions in revenue in 2020, according to Bloch. He declined to disclose how many patients used the urgent care service vs. the monthly subscription offering.

Telemedicine companies, like other companies providing services remotely, have thrived during the pandemic. Teladoc and Amwell, two of the early pioneers in virtual medicine have seen their share prices soar. Companies like Hims, that provide prescriptions for elective conditions that aren’t necessarily covered by health, special purpose acquisition companies at valuations of $1.6 billion.

Backing K Health are a group of investors led by GGV Capital and Valor Equity Partners. Kaiser Permanente’s pension fund and the investment offices of the owners of 3G Capital (the Brazilian investment firm that owns Burger King and Kraft Heinz), along with 14W, Max Ventures, Pico Partners, Marcy Venture Partners, Primary Venture Partners and BoxGroup, also participated in the round. 

Organizations working with the company include Maccabi Healthcare; the Mayo Clinic, which is investigating virtual care models with the company; and Anthem, which has white labeled the K Health service and provides it to some of the insurer’s millions of members.

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

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