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What private tech companies should consider before going public via a SPAC

By Annie Siebert
Drew N. Goodwin Contributor
Drew N. Goodwin is a senior associate with Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco.
Alex Reese Contributor
Alex Reese is a partner with Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco.

The red-hot market for special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, has “screeched to a halt,” according to CNN. As the SPAC market grew in the past six months, it seemed that everyone was getting into the game, with celebrities from Shaquille O’Neal to former House Speaker Paul Ryan leading their own SPACs.

But shareholder lawsuits, huge value fluctuations and warnings from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have all thrown the brakes on the SPAC market, at least temporarily. So what do privately held tech companies that are considering going public need to know about the SPAC process and market?

Despite some warning signs, there are still hundreds of SPACs on the market looking to close deals, and this process can still have plenty of upsides.

SPAC perks

First, the upside of SPACs: They’re a much more efficient way for a private company to go public than a traditional IPO. By merging with a SPAC instead of launching an IPO, a private company can avoid the rigamarole of working with underwriters, hosting roadshows, preparing a prospectus and other complexities of the public filing process.

Furthermore, it can potentially be a fast track into an IPO with a seasoned partner who has experience navigating the process.

There are also big potential financial upsides. For example, stockholders of the private company will often roll over their stock and provide significant cash liquidity. SPACs also offer more certainty about a private company’s valuation than a traditional IPO, and some experts believe that a SPAC can add up to 20% to a company’s sale price compared to a typical private equity transaction.

And, especially when the SPAC market was hot, multiple SPACs could create a bidding war to increase value and generate more favorable terms for a transaction than through the traditional capital markets.

Lastly, partnering with an experienced management team and impressive industry insiders can help a private company accelerate its financial growth and create long-term value.

Warning signs

All these benefits led to a dramatic increase in SPAC transactions in late 2020 and early 2021. But the market cooled substantially in April, in part because of high-profile problems in the market and signs that the SEC will be scrutinizing the entities more closely in the future.

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Charm Industrial (@CharmIndustrial) April 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple and Google pressed in antitrust hearing on whether app stores share data with product development teams

By Sarah Perez

In today’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, Apple and Google representatives were questioned on whether they have a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevent them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple, in particular, was called out for the practice of copying other apps by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said the practice had become so common that it earned a nickname with Apple’s developer community: “sherlocking.”

Sherlock, which has its own Wikipedia entry under software, comes from Apple’s search tool in the early 2000s called Sherlock. A third-party developer, Karelia Software, created an alternative tool called Watson. Following the success of Karelia’s product, Apple added Watson’s same functionality into its own search tool, and Watson was effectively put out of business. The nickname “Sherlock” later became shorthand for any time Apple copies an idea from a third-party developer that threatens to or even destroys their business.

Over the years, developers claimed Apple has “sherlocked” a number of apps, including Konfabulator (desktop widgets), iPodderX (podcast manager), Sandvox (app for building websites) and Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X) and, in more recent years, F.lux (blue light reduction tool for screens) Duet and Luna (apps that makes iPad a secondary display), as well as various screen-time-management tools. Now Tile claims Apple has also unfairly entered its market with AirTag.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Apple and Google’s representatives at the hearing — Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer and Wilson White, Google’s senior director of Public Policy & Government Relations, respectively — if they employed any sort of “firewall” in between their app stores and their business strategy.

Andeer somewhat dodged the question, saying, “Senator, if I understand the question correctly, we have separate teams that manage the App Store and that are engaged in product development strategy here at Apple.”

Blumenthal then clarified what he meant by “firewall.” He explained that it doesn’t mean whether or not there are separate teams in place, but whether there’s an internal prohibition on sharing data between the App Store and the people who run Apple’s other businesses.

Andeer then answered, “Senator, we have controls in place.”

He went on to note that over the past 12 years, Apple has only introduced “a handful of applications and services,” and in every instance, there are “dozens of alternatives” on the App Store. And, sometimes, the alternatives are more popular than Apple’s own product, he noted.

“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Andeer stated.

His argument may hold true when there are strong rivalries, like Spotify versus Apple Music, or Netflix versus Apple TV+, or Kindle versus Apple Books. But it’s harder to stretch it to areas where Apple makes smaller enhancements — like when Apple introduced Sidecar, a feature that allowed users to make their iPad a secondary display. Sidecar ended the need for a third-party app, after apps like Duet and Luna first proved the market.

Another example was when Apple built screen-time controls into its iOS software, but didn’t provide the makers of third-party screen-time apps with an API so consumers could use their preferred apps to configure Apple’s Screen Time settings via the third-party’s specialized interface or take advantage of other unique features.

Blumenthal said he interpreted Andeer’s response as to whether Apple has a “data firewall” as a “no.”

Posed the same question, Google’s representative, White, said his understanding was that Google had “data access controls in place that govern how data from our third-party services are used.”

Blumenthal pressed him to clarify if this was a “firewall,” meaning, he clarified again, “do you have a prohibition against access?”

“We have a prohibition against using our third-party services to compete directly with our first-party services,” White said, adding that Google has “internal policies that govern that.”

The senator said he would follow up on this matter with written questions, as his time expired.

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

By Rita Liao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lidar camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply challenges

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

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

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

Taking on robotaxis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden’s cybersecurity dream team takes shape

By Zack Whittaker

President Biden has named two former National Security Agency veterans to senior government cybersecurity positions, including the first national cyber director.

The appointments, announced Monday, land after the discovery of two cyberattacks linked to foreign governments earlier this year — the Russian espionage campaign that planed backdoors in U.S. technology giant SolarWinds’ technology to hack into at least nine federal agencies, and the mass exploitation of Microsoft Exchange servers linked to hackers backed by China.

Jen Easterly, a former NSA official under the Obama administration who helped to launch U.S. Cyber Command, has been nominated as the new head of CISA, the cybersecurity advisory unit housed under Homeland Security. CISA has been without a head for six months after then-President Trump fired former director Chris Krebs, who Trump appointed to lead the agency in 2018, for disputing Trump’s false claims of election hacking.

Biden has also named former NSA deputy director John “Chris” Inglis as national cyber director, a new position created by Congress late last year to be housed in the White House, charged with overseeing the defense and cybersecurity budgets of civilian agencies.

Inglis is expected to work closely with Anne Neuberger, who in January was appointed as the deputy national security adviser for cyber on the National Security Council. Neuberger, a former NSA executive and its first director of cybersecurity, was tasked with leading the government’s response to the SolarWinds attack and Exchange hacks.

Biden has also nominated Rob Silvers, a former Obama-era assistant secretary for cybersecurity policy, to serve as undersecretary for strategy, policy, and plans at Homeland Security. Silvers was recently floated for the top job at CISA.

Both Easterly and Silvers’ positions are subject to Senate confirmation. The appointments were first reported by The Washington Post.

Former CISA director Krebs praised the appointments as “brilliant picks.” Dmitri Alperovitch, a former CrowdStrike executive and chair of Silverado Policy Accelerator, called the appointments the “cyber equivalent of the dream team.” In a tweet, Alperovitch said: “The administration could not have picked three more capable and experienced people to run cyber operations, policy and strategy alongside Anne Neuberger.”

Neuberger is replaced by Rob Joyce, a former White House cybersecurity czar, who returned from a stint at the U.S. Embassy in London earlier this year to serve as NSA’s new cybersecurity director.

Last week, the White House asked Congress for $110 million in new funding for next year to help Homeland Security to improve its defenses and hire more cybersecurity talent. CISA hemorrhaged senior staff last year after several executives were fired by the Trump administration or left for the private sector.

Nigeria’s SEC warns investment platforms to stop trading ‘unregistered’ foreign securities

By Tage Kene-Okafor

In a circular released by Nigeria’s capital market regulator SEC today, investment platforms providing access to foreign securities might be treading on dangerous grounds.

According to the SEC regulations that have just been brought to light, these platforms are trading foreign securities not registered in the country and have been warned to stop doing so. Capital market operators in partnership with them have also been warned to renege on providing brokerage services for foreign securities.

Over the past three years, Robinhood-esque platforms like Bamboo, Trove, Chaka and Rise have sprung forth in the Nigerian fintech space. They offer Nigerians access to stocks, bonds and other securities in both local and international markets. These platforms have grown in popularity among the middle class and provide a haven to protect earnings from naira devaluations.

That said, there’s a vast difference in how they operate when compared to Robinhood. In addition to being a trading app, Robinhood offers online brokerages (introducing and clearing) and also zero commission trading. Nigerian investment platforms do not, and while any trading platform can get a brokerage license in the U.S., it can be a Herculean task to obtain one in Nigeria. This is where capital market operators (local and foreign brokerage firms in this case) come into play, forming strategic partnerships with these companies so Nigerians can access both local and foreign fractional securities.

After a series of regulatory onslaught from different government bodies on tech startups last year, the SEC followed suit in December. It singled out Chaka, one of the platforms and accused it of selling and advertising stocks. The regulator’s definition of the alleged offence was that Chaka “engaged in investment activities, including providing a platform for purchasing shares in foreign companies such as Google, Amazon, and Alibaba, outside the Commission’s regulatory purview and without requisite registration.”

The company’s CEO, Tosin Osibodu, denied any wrongdoing, and since the turn of the year, not much has been heard from the SEC and Chaka regarding this matter until the release of today’s circular. Unsurprisingly, the regulator continued from where it left off, only this time, all investment platforms including brokerage firms — not just Chaka — are involved. SEC’s subtle directive is to stop selling, issuing or offering for sale any foreign securities not listed on any exchange registered in Nigeria.

What this inherently means from now on is that investment platforms will have their work cut out and might only offer individuals access to only local stocks and securities. This affects the business models of these startups. And the core value they provide, which is to help Nigerians store monetary value and hedge against naira devaluation is at the threat of being wiped out.

Here’s the information released by the regulator as seen on its website:

The attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the Commission) has been drawn to the existence of several providers of online investment and trading platforms which purportedly facilitate direct access of the investing public in the Federal Republic of Nigeria to securities of foreign companies listed on Securities Exchanges registered in other jurisdictions. These platforms also claim to be operating in partnership with Capital Market operators (CMOs) registered with the Commission.

The Commission categorically states that by the provisions of Sections 67-70 of the Investments and Securities Act (ISA), 2007 and Rules 414 & 415 of the SEC Rules and Regulations, only foreign securities listed on any Exchange registered in Nigeria may be issued, sold or offered for sale or subscription to the Nigerian public. Accordingly, CMOs who work in concert with the referenced online platforms are hereby notified of the Commission’s position and advised to desist henceforth.

The Commission enjoins the investing public to seek clarification as may be required via its established channels of communication on investment products advertised through conventional or online mediums.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Last two crewmembers named for SpaceX’s first all-civilian human spaceflight mission

By Darrell Etherington

We now know the names of all four individuals who will fly on the historic Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian spaceflight in history. In addition to previously revealed crew members Jared Isaacman (who’s footing the entire bill) and St. Jude Children’s Hospital employee Haley Arceneaux, Inspiration4 will include Dr. Sian Proctor and Christopher Sembroski as the final two civilian astronauts. The mission will use a SpaceX Dragon capsule and is set to fly no earlier than later this year.

Dr. Proctor takes the state reserved for the online business competition portion of the crew selection process, which saw entrants taken from submissions based on people who had created businesses on Isaacman’s Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. Sembroski won his seat by contributing to the ongoing St. Jude fundraising drive Isaacman is hosting as part of the mission’s promotional campaign.

Inspiration4 crew member Dr. Sian Proctor

Both Proctor and Sembroski have specific sets of skills relative to spaceflight that seem likely to have factored Ito their selection for the crew. Proctor is a trained pilot, for instance, and Sembroski is a veteran aerospace employee, most recently at Lockheed Martin, and also a literal veteran, having served in the U.S. Air Force.

Inspiration4 crew member Christopher Sembroski

As part of this final crew reveal, Inspiration4 also shared how many entries it received in each category. Somewhat surprisingly, the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform competition only drew a total of “approximately” 200 entries — and use of ‘approximately’ suggests fewer — while the charity drive drew 72,000 entries, and has raised around $113 million to date. That’s still short of the campaign’s $200 million goal, and includes Isaacman’s personal commitment of $100 million, but the drive continues and there are additional awards to be one, even if the top prize of the trip to space is gone.

This whole mission campaign has honestly been one of the most bizarre stories in spaceflight in recent memory, beginning with the big announcement, which included a press conference with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joining Isaacman to discuss the flight, and seemingly not being aware of any relevant details about mission specifics. Isaacman also dedicated $100 million of his own money to the charity drive for St. Jude, as mentioned, but clearly donations from the community aren’t living up to expectations with around 13% of the total target raised from those to date.

That “approximately 200” entries in the Shift4Payments build-a-business competition might be the most perplexing, since the award was a free trip to space. In retrospect, this seems like it was the path to space with the most likelihood of working out, even if you had to convince an oddly stunt cast panel of judges to select yours as the winner.

US cuts trade ties to Myanmar, leaving internet access uncertain

By Zack Whittaker

The U.S. government has cut trade ties to Myanmar, two months after the country’s military staged a coup overthrowing the country’s president and also its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and killed at least 200 protesters resulting from its offensive.

In a statement, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the trade suspension would be “effective immediately” and will remain in place “until the return of a democratically elected government.”

“The United States supports the people of Burma in their efforts to restore a democratically elected government, which has been the foundation of Burma’s economic growth and reform,” said Tai. “The United States strongly condemns the Burmese security forces’ brutal violence against civilians. The killing of peaceful protestors, students, workers, labor leaders, medics, and children has shocked the conscience of the international community. These actions are a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the efforts of the Burmese people to achieve a peaceful and prosperous future,” the statement read.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) and the U.S. began trading in 2013 following the easing of U.S. sanctions a year earlier after elections saw Suu Kyi’s party win by a landslide.

The trade suspension is designed to target the ruling military junta, but leaves millions of internet users across Myanmar in uncertainty as U.S. cloud and internet companies wrangle with the U.S. government order, at a time where protesters are struggling to stay online amid government-ordered internet shutdowns across the country.

Myanmar already blocked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram “until further notice.”

Sanctions are designed to prevent the shipping of goods, money and certain services to other countries. Companies operating in the U.S. have to follow U.S. sanctions or face heavy financial penalties. ZTE pleaded guilty in 2017 to violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by knowingly shipping products to the country, and agreed to pay a near-$1 billion fine.

But cloud companies fall into a gray area and have different interpretations of the rules. Quartz reported in 2016 that internet users across Syria, Cuba, and Iran — all subject to U.S. trade sanctions — couldn’t access sites hosted by IBM because the U.S. cloud host blocked visitors from those countries from accessing its services. Rackspace and Linode, two other large cloud providers, do not block internet traffic to users in embargoed countries but instead prevented users from those countries from signing up for their service.

Myanmar has about 17 million internet users, some 30% of the wider population.

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Elon Musk declares you can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin in the U.S.

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla made headlines earlier this year when it took out significant holdings in bitcoin, acquiring a roughly $1.5 billion stake at then-prices in early February. At the time, it also noted in an SEC filing disclosing the transaction that it could also eventually accept the cryptocurrency as payment from customers for its vehicles. Now, Elon Musk says they’ve made that a reality, at least for customers in the U.S., and he added that the plan is for the automaker to ‘hodl’ all their bitcoin payments, too.

In terms of its infrastructure for accepting bitcoin payments, Tesla isn’t relying on any third-party networks or wallets — the company is “using only internal & open source software & operates Bitcoin nodes directly,” Musk said on Twitter. And when customers pay in bitcoin, those won’t be converted to fiat currency, the CEO says, but will instead presumably add to the company’s stockpile.

You can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2021

In February when Tesla revealed its bitcoin purchase, observers either lauded the company’s novel approach to converting its cash holdings, or criticized the plan for its attachment to an asset with significant price volatility. Many also pointed out that the environmental cost of mining bitcoin seems at odds with Tesla’s overall stated mission, given its carbon footprint. Commenters today echoed these concerns, noting the irony of Tesla accepting the grid-taxing cryptocurrency for its all-electric cars.

As for how the bitcoin payment process works today, Tesla has detailed that in an FAQ. Customers begin the payment process from their own bitcoin wallet, and have to set the exact amount for a vehicle deposit based on current rates, with the value of Tesla’s cars still set in U.S. dollars. The automaker further notes that in the case of any refunds, it’s buyer-beware in terms of any change in value relative to the U.S. dollar from time of purchase to time of refund.

Musk also said that the plan is to expand Bitcoin payments to other countries outside the U.S. by “later this year.” Depending on the market, that could require some regulatory work, but clearly Musk thinks it’s worth the effort. Meanwhile, Bitcoin is up slightly on the news early Wednesday morning.

Shell’s Gamechanger Accelerator selects three companies for its energy transition accelerator

By Jonathan Shieber

Yesterday, the European oil and gas major producer Shell announced the latest cohort selected to participate in its Shell GameChanger Accelerator (GCxN), focused on supporting companies developing tech for the transition away from fossil fuels.

The three companies will have access to technical resources through Shell that can serve to aid in their commercialization.

“GCxN’s fourth cohort will help prove that electrochemistry technologies can replace carbon-intensive legacy processes. As renewable energy costs continue to drop, cross-industry initiatives and partnerships will prove that it’s possible to cost-effectively scale these technology applications and achieve real-world impact,” said Haibin Xu, Shell’s GCxN program manager.

Shell’s acceleartor provides startups selected for the program with up to $250,000 in non-dilutive financing. Participants are nominated by network partners coming from incubators, accelerators, and universities and then are subjected to a screening process by Shell and NREL. 

Graduates of the program have raised $52 million in the three prevoius batches and have added 51 new jobs to the green economy, according to a statement.

Each of the new companies in the cohort are focused on creating ways to reduce carbon emissions in sectors that are carbon intensive and hard to transition to more sustainable practices, according to a statement. 

So without further ado, here’s the latest batch of startups backed by Shell:

  • Air Company — This Brooklyn-based business is turning carbon dioxide into alcohols, spirits, fragrances, sanitizers and products for consumer industries. It eventually wants to get into the synthetic fuel business. 
  • Ionomr Innovations — Green hydrogen production, hydrogen fuel cells and carbon capture technologies require ion-exchange membranes and polymers, and this Vancouver-based company wants to make those components cheaper and more environmentally friendly.  
  • Versogen Hailing from President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, the company formerly known as W7 energy is producing high performance hydroxide exchange membranes to drive down the cost of fuel cells. 

“Almost every aspect of our modern lives depends on certain materials and fuels, but with great consequence. For example, the American manufacturing industry is on-track to become the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions within the next ten years,” said Katie Richardson, GCxN program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in a statement. “The selected GCxN startups are restructuring essential building blocks to reduce the carbon impact of essential goods and services.” 

SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the US

By Jonathan Shieber

As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

For the first time the US DOT is carving out budget for climate and environmental justice projects

By Jonathan Shieber

As part of the grant-making associated with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, the agency will for the first time carve out some of that program’s $889 million budget for projects addressing climate change and environmental justice.

The projects will be evaluated on whether they were planned as part of a comprehensive strategy to address climate change, or whether they support strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as deploying zero-emission-vehicle infrastructure or encouraging shifts in modes of transportation or vehicle miles traveled, the agency said in an announcement.

“As we work to recover and emerge from this devastating pandemic stronger than before, now is the time to make lasting investments in our nation’s infrastructure,” said Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a statement. “We are committed to not just rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, but building back in a way that positions American communities for success in the future—creating good paying jobs, boosting the economy, ensuring equity, and tackling our climate crisis. The INFRA grant program is a tremendous opportunity to help achieve these goals.

Racial equity will also be considered, according to the agency’s announcement. With requirements including equity-focused community outreach and projects designed to benefit underserved communities privileged, along with projects that are located in opportunity, empowerment, or promise zones or choice neighborhoods.

The new programs show just how quickly federal dollars could be made available to startups that are looking at electrification and provide more strength to the tailwinds already propelling the electric vehicle industry — and its attendant charging networks forward.

Large infrastructure projects could receive grants of $25 million or more while small projects must have grant requirements that meet a minimum threshold of at least $5 million, according to the DOT.

Eligible project costs could include: reconstruction, rehabilitation, acquisition of property (including land related to the project and improvements to the land), environmental mitigation, construction contingencies, equipment acquisition, and operational improvements directly related to system performance.

Opportunities for applications are going to be open through Friday, March 19.

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