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Yesterday — April 4th 2020Your RSS feeds

New guidance on SBA loans means most startups are still excluded from $349 billion stimulus

By Jonathan Shieber

Under new guidance issued by the Small Business Administration it seems non-profits and faith-based groups can apply for the Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to keep small business afloat during the COVID-19 epidemic, but most venture-backed companies are still not covered.

Late Friday night, the Treasury Department updated its rules regarding the “affiliation” of private entities to include religious organizations but keep in place the same rules that would deny most startups from receiving loans.

(b) If you are a faith-based organization, *no affiliation rules apply to you,* because the SBA just said so. Out of nowhere. At like 10pm on a Friday night.

It doesn't matter if you have a zillion employees; as long as any 1 entity has <500 employees, it can get a #PPPloan.
4/ pic.twitter.com/V0x3Vx6G7x

— Doug Rand (@doug_rand) April 4, 2020

The NVCA and other organizations had pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to clarify the rules regarding startups and their potential eligibility for loans last week. And House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy even told Axios that startups would be covered under the revised regulations.

Apparently that didn’t happen, as Mark Suster, the managing partner of Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures, noted in a tweet.

2/ There are rumors that the PPP Loan program may still fix the Affiliate Rule next week. Until fixed, it's nearly impossible for most VC-backed startups to apply because it would require huge legal lift to amend all of the charters of these companies to change control provisions

— Mark Suster (@msuster) April 4, 2020

At its essence, the issue for startups seems to be centered on the board rights that venture investors have when they take an equity stake in a company. For startups with investors on the board of directors, the decision-making powers that those investors hold means the startup is affiliated with other companies that the partner’s venture firm has invested in — which could mean that they’re considered an entity with more than 500 employees.

“[If] there’s a startup that’s going gangbusters right now, they shouldn’t apply for a PPP loan,” wrote Doug Rand, the co-founder of Seattle-based startup Boundless Immigration, and a former Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, in a direct message. “But most startups are getting killed because, you know, the economy is mostly dead.”

The $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump was designed to help companies that are adversely affected by the economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak in the US and their employees — whether those businesses are directly affected because their employees can’t leave home to do their jobs or indirectly, because demand for goods and services has flatlined.

While some tech startups have seen demand for their products actually rise during these quarantined days, many companies have watched as their businesses have gone from one to zero.

The sense frustration among investors across the country is palpable. As the Birmingham-based investor, Matt Hottle, wrote, “After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the SBA PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.”

After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the @SBAgov PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.

— Matt Hottle (@MattRedhawk) April 4, 2020

And although the rules around whether or not many startups are eligible remain unclear, it’s probably wise for companies to file an application, because, as the program is currently structured, the $349 billion in loans are going to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis, as Suster flagged in his tweets on the subject.

General Catalyst is advising its companies that are also backed by SBIC investors to apply for the loans, because that trumps any other rules regarding affiliation, according to an interview with Holly Maloney Burbeck, a managing director at the firm.

And there’s already concerns that the money could run out. In a tweet, the President announced that he would request more money from Congress “if the allocated money runs out.”

I will immediately ask Congress for more money to support small businesses under the #PPPloan if the allocated money runs out. So far, way ahead of schedule. @BankofAmerica & community banks are rocking! @SBAgov @USTreasury

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2020

“Congress saw fit to allow Darden to get a forgivable small business loan—actually a taxpayer-funded grant—for like every Olive Garden in America. But Congress somehow neglected to provide comparable rescue measures for actual small businesses that have committed the sin of convincing investors that they have the potential to employ a huge number of people if they can only survive,” Rand wrote in a direct message. “The Trump administration has full authority to ride to the rescue, and they did… but only for large religious organizations.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

GM and Honda are co-developing two new electric vehicles due to arrive in 2024

By Kirsten Korosec

GM and Honda will jointly develop two new electric vehicles slated for 2024, the latest move by the two automakers to deepen their existing partnership.

Under the plan, the automakers will focus on their respective areas of expertise. Honda will design the exterior and interiors of the new electric vehicles; GM will contribute its new electric vehicle architecture and Ultium batteries. This new architecture, which GM unveiled last month to showcase its own EV plans, is capable of 19 different battery and drive-unit configurations. The architecture includes large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint venture between LG Chem and GM.

The vehicles, which will have a Honda nameplate, will incorporate GM’s OnStar safety and security services. GM’s hands-free advanced driver assistance technology, known as Super Cruise, will also be available in the new vehicles.

The vehicles will be produced at GM plants in North America. Sales are expected to begin in the 2024 model year in Honda’s U.S. and Canadian markets.

The aim is to pull the strengths of both companies to unlock economies of scale around electric vehicles, according to Rick Schostek, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., who added that the two companies are already in discussions about further extending the partnership.

GM and Honda have worked together on projects before. The two automakers partnered on hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicle batteries, and are both invested in autonomous vehicle company Cruise .

The automakers formed a joint venture in 2017 to produce hydrogen fuel cell systems. A year later, the companies announced an agreement for Honda to use battery cells and modules from GM in electric vehicles built for the North American market.

GM acquired Cruise in 2016; Honda later committed $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and its self-driving technology subsidiary Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle. Cruise Origin, an electric, self-driving and shared vehicle and the first product of that arrangement, was revealed January 21.

Valispace raises $2.4M to become the ‘Github for hardware’, joins fight against COVID-19

By Mike Butcher

Hardware engineering is mostly document-based. A typical satellite might be described in several hundred thousand PDF documents, spreadsheets, simulation files and more; all potentially inconsistent between each other. This can lead to costly mistakes. NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units, for instance.

Germany-HQ’d Valispace, which also has offices in Portugal, dubs itself as “Github for hardware”. In other words, it’s a collaboration platform for engineers, allowing them to develop better satellites, planes, rockets, nuclear fusion reactors, cars and medical devices, you name it. It’s a browser-based application, which stores engineering data and lets the users interconnect them through formulas. This means that when one value is changed, all other values are updated, simulations re-run and documentation rewritten automatically.

That last point is important in this pandemic era, where making and improving medical ventilators has become a huge global issue.

Indeed, the company is currently partnering with initiatives that develop open-source hardware solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. They are partnering with several initiatives that gather thousands of engineers working on the problem, most prominently the CoVent-19 Challenge and GrabCAD, as well as Helpful Engineering. Engineers working on ventilators can apply here for free accounts or email engineering-taskforce@valispace.com.

Valispace has now raised a Seed Extension funding round of €2.2M / $2.4M lead by JOIN Capital in Berlin and was joined by HCVC (Hardware Club), based in Paris.

The funding will be used to expand into new industries (e.g. medical devices, robotics) and expansion of the existing ones (aeronautics, space, automotive, energy). The company is addressing the Systems Engineering Tool market in Europe which is worth €7Billion, while the US market is at least as big. It’s competitors include RHEA CDP4, Innoslate, JAMA and the largest player Status Quo.

Marco Witzmann, CEO of Valispace said: “Valispace has proven to help engineers across industries to develop better hardware. From drones to satellites, from small electronic boxes to entire nuclear fusion reactors. When modern companies like our customers have the choice, they chose an agile engineering approach with Valispace.”

Tobias Schirmer from JOIN Capital commented: “Browser-based collaboration has become a must for any modern hardware company, as the importance of communication across teams and offices increases.”

The company now counts BMW, Momentus, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Airbus as customers.
Witzmann previously worked on Europe’s biggest Satellite Program (Meteosat Third Generation) as a Systems Engineer, while his Portugal-based co-founder Louise Lindblad (COO) worked at the European Space Agency, developing satellites and drones.

As satellite engineers, both were surprised that while the products they were working on were cutting edge, the tools to develop them seemed to be from the 80s. In 2016 they launched Valispace as a company, convincing Airbus to become one of their first customers.

Google is now publishing coronavirus mobility reports, feeding off users’ location history

By Natasha Lomas

Google is giving the world a clearer glimpse of exactly how much it knows about people everywhere — using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users go and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.

In a blog post today the tech giant announced the publication of what it’s branding ‘COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports‘. Aka an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a worldwide scramble for tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.

Google’s data dump looks intended to dangle a similar idea of public policy utility while providing an eyeball-grabbing public snapshot of mobility shifts via data pulled off of its global user-base.

In terms of actual utility for policymakers Google’s suggestions are pretty vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings”, it writes.

“Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing,” it goes on. “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”

The location data Google is making public is similarly fuzzy — to avoid inviting a privacy storm — with the company writing it’s using “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day”, as it puts it.

“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”

“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” it adds, tacitly linking an existing offering in Google Maps to a coronavirus-busting cause.

The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.

So, for example, a March 29 report for the whole of the US shows a 47 per cent drop in retail and recreation activity vs the pre-CV period; a 22% drop in grocery & pharmacy; and a 19% drop in visits to parks and beaches. While the same date report for California shows a considerably greater drop in the latter (down 38% compared to the regional baseline); and slightly bigger decreases in both retail and recreation activity (down 50%) and grocery & pharmacy (-24%).

Google says it’s using “aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential”. The trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior, it adds.

The company says it’s not publishing the “absolute number of visits” as a privacy step, adding: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”

Google’s location mobility report for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the extent of the change from lockdown measures applied to the population — with retail & recreation dropping 94% vs Google’s baseline; grocery & pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.

The same report shows an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity at workplaces; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) of activity in residential locations — as many Italians stay at home, instead of commuting to work.

It’s a similar story in Spain — another country hard-hit by COVID-19. Though Google’s data for France suggests instructions to stay-at-home may not be being quite as keenly observed by its users there, with only an 18% increase in activity at residential locations and a 56% drop in activity at workplaces. Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although numbers of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise across the region.

While policymakers have been scrambling for data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fuelled efforts on individual rights, while also querying the wider utility of some of this tracking.

And yes, the disclaimer is very broad. I'd say, this is largely a PR move.

Apart from this, Google must be held accountable for its many other secondary data uses. And Google/Alphabet is far too powerful, which must be addressed at several levels, soon. https://t.co/oksJgQAPAY

— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) April 3, 2020

Contacts tracing is another area where apps are fast being touted as a potential solution to get the West out of economically crushing population lockdowns — opening up the possibility of people’s mobile devices becoming a tool to enforce lockdowns, as has happened in China.

“Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,” is the succinct warning of a trio of academics from London’s Imperial College’s Computational Privacy Group, who have compiled their privacy concerns vis-a-vis COVID-19 contacts tracing apps into a set of eight questions app developers should be asking.

Discussing Google’s release of mobile location data for a COVID-19 cause, the head of the group, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, gave a general thumbs up to the steps it’s taken to shrink privacy risks.

Although he also called for Google to provide more detail about the technical processes it’s using in order that external researchers can better assess the robustness of the claimed privacy protections. Such scrutiny is of pressing importance with so much coronavirus-related data grabbing going on right now, he argues.

“It is all aggregated, they normalize to a specific set of dates, they threshold when there are too few people and on top of this they add noise to make — according to them — the data differentially private. So from a pure anonymization perspective it’s good work,” de Montjoye told TechCrunch, discussing the technical side of Google’s release of location data. “Those are three of the big ‘levers’ that you can use to limit risk. And I think it’s well done.”

“But — especially in times like this when there’s a lot of people using data — I think what we would have liked is more details. There’s a lot of assumptions on thresholding, on how do you apply differential privacy, right?… What kind of assumptions are you making?” he added, querying how much noise Google is adding to the data, for example. “It would be good to have a bit more detail on how they applied [differential privacy]… Especially in times like this it is good to be… overly transparent.”

While Google’s mobility data release might appear to overlap in purpose with the Commission’s call for EU telco metadata for COVID-19 tracking, de Montjoye points out there are likely to be key differences based on the different data sources.

“It’s always a trade off between the two,” he says. “It’s basically telco data would probably be less fine-grained, because GPS is much more precise spatially and you might have more data points per person per day with GPS than what you get with mobile phone but on the other hand the carrier/telco data is much more representative — it’s not only smartphone, and it’s not only people who have latitude on, it’s everyone in the country, including non smartphone.”

There may be country specific questions that could be better addressed by working with a local carrier, he also suggested. (The Commission has said it’s intending to have one carrier per EU Member State providing anonymized and aggregated metadata.)

On the topical question of whether location data can ever be truly anonymized, de Montjoye — an expert in data reidentification — gave a “yes and no” response, arguing that original location data is “probably really, really hard to anonymize”.

“Can you process this data and make the aggregate results anonymous? Probably, probably, probably yes — it always depends. But then it also means that the original data exists… Then it’s mostly a question of the controls you have in place to ensure the process that leads to generating those aggregates does not contain privacy risks,” he added.

Perhaps a bigger question related to Google’s location data dump is around the issue of legal consent to be tracking people in the first place.

While the tech giant claims the data is based on opt-ins to location tracking the company was fined $57M by France’s data watchdog last year for a lack of transparency over how it uses people’s data.

Then, earlier this year, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) — now the lead privacy regulator for Google in Europe — confirmed a formal probe of the company’s location tracking activity, following a 2018 complaint by EU consumers groups which accuses Google of using manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.

“The issues raised within the concerns relate to the legality of Google’s processing of location data and the transparency surrounding that processing,” said the DPC in a statement in February, announcing the investigation.

The legal questions hanging over Google’s consent to track likely explains the repeat references in its blog post to people choosing to opt in and having the ability to clear their Location History via settings. (“Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline,” it writes in one example.)

In addition to offering up coronavirus mobility porn reports — which Google specifies it will continue to do throughout the crisis — the company says it’s collaborating with “select epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic”.

“Data of this type has helped researchers look into predicting epidemics, plan urban and transit infrastructure, and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” it adds.

HBO makes some top shows, movies and documentaries free to stream on HBO NOW and HBO GO

By Jonathan Shieber

Giving people even more of a reason to stay home and follow the social distancing measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., HBO said it would be making 500 hours of programming free to stream over HBO NOW and HBO GO without a subscription, starting Friday, April 3.

Shows that audiences can stream include some of the best television shows ever made, like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” and other very good HBO shows like “Veep” and “Six Feet Under.”

Movie titles like “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and back catalog gems like (one of my favorite movies of all-time) “Empire of the Sun” join docuseries including “McMillion$” and “The Case Against Adnan Syed” as free-to-stream offerings as well.

Viewers who want to watch what is inarguably the best show ever made (it’s “The Wire”) can download the HBO NOW or HBO GO apps or visit HBONOW.com or HBOGO.com.

The network’s distribution partners will also make the shows available to stream for free in the coming days, the company said. This offer marks the first time that HBO has made this amount of programming available for free outside of the paywall on either of its apps, the company said.

The full list of HBO content available to stream without a subscription includes:

  • Ballers (5 Seasons)

  • Barry (2 Seasons)

  • Silicon Valley (6 Seasons)

  • Six Feet Under (5 Seasons)

  • The Sopranos (7 Seasons)

  • Succession (2 Seasons)

  • True Blood (7 Seasons

  • Veep (7 Seasons)

  • The Wire (5 Seasons)

10 Docuseries and Documentaries

  • The Apollo

  • The Case Against Adnan Syed

  • Elvis Presley: The Searcher

  • I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter

  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

  • Jane Fonda in Five Acts

  • McMillion$

  • True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality

  • United Skates

  • We Are the Dream: The Kids of the MLK Oakland Oratorical Fest

20 Warner Bros. Theatricals

  • Arthur

  • Arthur 2: On the Rocks

  • Blinded By the Light

  • The Bridges of Madison County

  • Crazy, Stupid, Love

  • Empire of the Sun

  • Forget Paris

  • Happy Feet Two

  • Isn’t It Romantic?

  • The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

  • Midnight Special

  • My Dog Skip

  • Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

  • Pan

  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu

  • Red Riding Hood

  • Smallfoot

  • Storks

  • Sucker Punch

  • Unknown

Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

By Darrell Etherington

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet, however – and it’s been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the ‘How We Feel’ app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang, and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social sincere and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well – and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info including name, phone numb or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of ‘differential privacy,’ and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means – Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to non-profit feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, non-profit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far fro a 100 percent accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Henry Ford Health System to conduct first large US study of hydroxychloroquine’s ability to prevent COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Despite false assertions by the president to the contrary, any potential treatments to counter or prevent COVID-19 are still only at the stage of early investigations, which include one-off treatment with special individual case authorizations, and small-scale clinical examinations. Nothing so far has approached the level of scrutiny needed to actually say anything definitively about their actual ability to treat COVID-19 or the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it, but the first large-scale U.S. clinical study for one treatment candidate is seeking volunteers and looking to get underway.

The study will be conducted by the Henry Ford Health System, which is seeking 3,000 volunteers from healthcare and first responder working environments. Depending on response, the researchers behind the study are looking to begin as early as next week. Study lead researcher Dr. William W. O’Neil said in a press release announcing the study that the goal is to seek a more definitive scientific answer to the question of whether or not hydroxychloroquine might work as a preventative medicine to help protect medical front-line workers with greater risk exposure from contracting the coronavirus.

Hydroxychloroquine (as well as chloroquine) has been in the spotlight as a potential COVID-19 treatment due mostly to repeated name-check that President Trump has given the drug during his daily White House coronavirus task force press briefings. Trump has gone too far in suggesting that the drug, which is commonly used both as an anti-malarial and in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, could be an effective treatment and should be thrust into use. At one point, he claimed that he FDA had granted an emergency approval for its use as a COVID-19 treatment, but Dr. Anthony Fauci clarified that it was not approved for that use, and that clinical studies still need to be performed to evaluate how it works in addressing COVID-19.

Studies thus far around hydroxychloroquine have been small-scale, as mentioned. One, conducted by researchers in France, produced results that indicated the drug was effective in treating those already infected, particularly when paired with a specific antibiotic. Another, more recent study from China, showed that there was no difference in terms of viral duration or symptoms when comparing treatment with hydroxychloroquine with treatment using standard anti-viral drugs, already a common practice in addressing cases of the disease.

This Henry Ford study looks like it could provide better answers to some of these questions around the drug, though the specific approach of seeking to validate prophylactic (preventative) use will mean treatment-oriented applications will still have to be studied separately. The design of the study will be a true blind study, with participants split into three groups that receive “unidentified, specific pills” (possibly anti-virals or some equivalent); hydroxychloroquine; or placebo pills, respectively. They won’t know which they’ve received, and they’ll be contacted weekly by researchers running the study, then in-person both at week four and week eight to determine if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, or any side effects from the medication. They’ll get regular blood draws, and the results will be compared to see if there’s any difference between each cohort in terms of how many contracted COVID-19.

These are front-line healthcare workers, so in theory they should unfortunately be at high risk of contracting the disease. That, plus the large sample size, should provide results that provide much clearer answers about hydroxychloroquine’s potential preventative effects. Even after the study is complete, other competing large-scale trials would ideally be run to prove out or cast doubt on these results, but we’ll be in a better position than we are now to say anything scientifically valid about the drug and its use.

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

Forward launches ‘Forward At Home’ primary care service to address COVID-19 healthcare crunch

By Darrell Etherington

The global coronavirus pandemic has already caused a tremendous strain on healthcare resources around the world, and it’s leading to a shift in how healthcare is offered. Startup Forward, which debuted in 2016 and has since expanded its tech-focused primary care medical practice to locations in major cities across the U.S., is launching a new initiative called ‘Forward At Home’ that reflects those changes and adapts its care model accordingly.

Forward’s primary differentiator is its focus on what it terms a patient’s ‘baseline,’ which is established by an in-person visit they make when they join that employs a body scanner at a doctor’s office to take a number of readings and produce an interactive chart displayed on-screen in the doctor’s exam room. Forward founder and CEO Adrian Aoun, who previously led special projects at Google before building the health tech company, said that as the company has ramped its efforts to support patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through in-clinic and drive-through testing, it also wanted to address the ongoing need for care for non-COVID patients.

“If people aren’t leaving their homes, and frankly, you don’t really want them to leave their homes unless you need them to, you have to figure out how to do all that remotely,” Aoun said in an interview, referring to Forward’s comprehensive biometric data gathering process. “So we’ve we’ve implemented a bunch of different things as rapidly as possible. The first is, how do we collect some biometrics – so we put together a kit that has a bunch of sensors in it that we actually mail to you. This includes an EKG, a connected thermometer, connected blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter.”

This approach provides a whole new level of remote care, over and above what’s typically defined as “telemedicine,” which generally amounts to little more than video calls with doctors, Aoun points out. Forward’s approach includes automated vitals monitoring for alerting a doctor if a patient needs intervention, and a patient has access to all their own data in the app as well. The Forward At Home product also take their exam room smart display and brings it to their mobile devices, presenting it for shared consultation between doctor and patient during viral visits, which are available 24/7 to Forward members.

At launch, the service also includes home visits to collect urine and blood samples, as an added measure designed specifically to help patients adhere to CDC and health agency guidelines around self-isolation while also getting a detailed and thorough level of care. Aoun says that this part of the offering doesn’t make sense at scale, and will likely revert to in-clinic visits once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

The rest of the model, though spurred into deployment because of the coronavirus conditions, and the need to limit the number of people going in to medical facilities and hospital all across the country unless they absolutely need to, is here to stay, however. Aoun says that Forward’s goal has always been to address the need for tech-friendly, advanced and comprehensive primary care for everyone, but that it took an approach similar to Tesla’s by addressing the top end of the market first in order to be able to fund development of more broadly available services later on.

Meanwhile, the need to shift as much care as possible to in-home is pressing, and evidence from countries around the world is increasingly pointing to how important that is to stopping the spread.

“The big thing to flatten the curve, the whole point of it, is that the hospitals are going to be overrun,” Aoun said. “So you want to take as many cases as you can, where they don’t actually have to be in the ICU, and treat them outside of the ICU – that’s your first principle. Then your second principle is, and China kind of discovered this early […] they started moving to getting people out of the hospitals, as much as possible for a second reason, which is not that the hospitals are overloaded, but that the hospitals are one of the fastest ways to spread COVID-19.”

That’s a perspective also supported by lessons shared from Italian medical professionals in their effort to deal with the COVID-19 situation there, which has essentially decimated large parts of their medical facility infrastructure.

Forward is also still continuing the other work it’s doing to address COVID-19 needs, including providing its risk assessment screening tool to all, as well as offering testing via clinics and drive-throughs to members, as well as mental health support. It’s also looking to expand its drive-through testing to new sites across the U.S. The Forward At Home initiative, meanwhile, will help ensure that clients who have other pressing health needs aren’t left behind while the effort to combat COVID-19 continues.

Amazon begins running temperature checks and will provide surgical masks at warehouses

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon has detailed someone  measures its taking to prevent any further spread of COVID-19 at its warehouse facilities in the U.S. and Europe, according to Reuters, including taking temperature checks and distributing facemasks to employees at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores. The commerce giant has seen a dramatic increase in demand as countries and regions globally have ordered lock-down and varying degrees of self-isolation and quarantine measures, and has also seen confirmed cases of COVID-19 among warehouse workers across the U.S.

Amazon has already described some precautions it’s been taking, including mandatory paid 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive, as well as increased cleaning and sanitization efforts of families and infrastructure. The new measures to be introduced next week include taking temperatures of employees at the entrances to warehouses, with any individuals wth a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to be sent home, where they’ll have to have three consecutive days without fever to return to work. Employees will also be provided with surgical masks starting next week, the company says, once it receives shipments of orders of “millions” placed a few weeks ago.

In addition to these measures, Amazon will also be using machine-learning powered software to monitor footage from cameras in and around buildings to ensure that employees are maintaining the safe, recommended distances from one another during shifts.

There have been a number of employee actions in response to Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, which led to the firing of the worker who led the action. Employees at a Detroit Amazon warehouse are also planning a walkout to protest what they cite as dangerous working conditions.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also staffing up to deal with the increased need for warehouse and fulfilment employees. The company previously announced a plan to hire as many as 100,000 new workers to handle the uptick, and told Reuters on Wednesday that it has already hired 80,000 since making that goal.

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

By Natasha Lomas

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

Pre-school edtech startup Lingumi raises £4m, adds some free services during COVID-19

By Mike Butcher

At these difficult times, parents are concerned for their children’s education, especially given so much of it has had to go online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about pre-schoolers who are missing out?

Pre-school children are sponges for information but don’t get formal training on reading and writing until they enter the classroom when they are less sponge-like and surrounded by 30 other children. Things are tougher for non-English speaking children who’s parents want them to learn English.

Lingumi, a platform aimed at toddlers learning critical skills, has now raised £4 million in a funding round led by China-based technology fund North Summit Capital – a fund run by Alibaba’s former Chief Data Scientist Dr Min Wanli – alongside existing investors LocalGlobe, ADV and Entrepreneur First.

The startup, launched in 2017, is also announcing the launch of daily free activity packs and videos to support children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has pledged to donate 20% of its sales during this period to the Global Children’s Fund.

Lingumi’s interactive courses offer one-to-one tutoring with a kind “social learning” and its first course helps introduce key English grammar and vocabulary from the age of 2.

Instead of tuning into live lessons with tutors, which are typically timetabled and expensive, Lingumi’s lessons are delivered through interactive speaking tasks, teacher videos, and games. At the end of each lesson, children can see videos of Lingumi friends speaking the same words and phrases as them. Because the kids are watching videos, Lingumi is cheaper than live courses, and thus more flexible for parents.

The company launched the first Lingumi course in China last year, focused on teaching spoken English to non-English speakers. The platform is now being used by more than 100,000 families globally, including in mainland China, Taiwan, UK, Germany, Italy and France. More than 1.5 million English lessons have taken place in China over the past six months, and 40% of active users are also playing lessons daily. Lingumi says its user base grew 50% during China’s lockdown and it has had a rapid uptake in Europe.

“Lingumi’s rapid expansion in the Chinese market required a strategic local investor, and Dr Min and the team had a clear-sighted understanding of the technology and scale opportunity both in China, and globally.”

Dr Wanli Min, general partner at North Summit Capital, commented: “It is only the most privileged children who can access native English speakers for one-on-one tutoring… Lingumi has the potential to democratize English learning and offer every kid a personalized curriculum empowered by AI & Lingumi’s ‘asynchronous teaching; model.”

Competitors to include Lingumi include live teaching solutions like VIPKid, and learning platforms like Jiliguala in China, or Lingokids in the West.

Uber Eats beefs up its grocery delivery offer as COVID-19 lockdowns continue

By Natasha Lomas

Uber Eats has beefed up grocery delivery options in three markets hard hit by the coronavirus.

Uber’s food delivery division said today it’s inked a partnership with supermarket giant Carrefour in France to provide Parisians with 30 minute home delivery on a range of grocery products, including everyday foods, toiletries and cleaning products.

The service is starting with 15 stores in the city, with Uber Eats saying it plans to scale it out rapidly nationwide “in the coming weeks”.

In Spain it’s partnered with the Galp service station brand to offer a grocery delivery service that consists of basic foods, over the counter medicines, beverages and cleaning products in 15 cities across the following 8 provinces: Badajoz, Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia.

Uber Eats said there will be an initial 25 Galp convenience stores participating. The service will not only be offered via the Uber Eats app but also by phone for those without access to a smartphone or Internet.

The third market it’s inked deals in is Brazil, where Uber said it’s partnering with a range of pharmacies, convenience stores and pet shops in Sao Paulo to offer home delivery on basic supplies.

“Over the counter medicines will be available from the Pague Menos chain of pharmacies, grocery products from Shell Select convenience stores and pet supplies from Cobasi — one of the largest pet shop chains in the country,” it said. “The new services will be available on the Uber Eats app, with plans to launch in other Brazil states and cities in the coming weeks.”

The grocery tie-ups are not Uber Eats’ first such deals. The company had already inked partnerships with a supermarket in Australia (Coles) and the Costcutter brand in the UK, where around 600 independent convenience stores are offered via its app.

Uber Eats also lets independent convenience stores in countries around the world self listed on its app. However the latest tie-ups put more branded meat on the bone of its grocery offer in Europe and LatAm — with the Carrefour tie-up in France marking its first partnership with a major supermarket in Europe.

It’s worth noting Spain’s food delivery rival, Glovo, has an existing grocery-delivery partnership with the French supermarket giant in markets including its home country — which likely explains why Uber Eats has opted for a different partner in Spain.

Asked whether it’s looking to further expand grocery deliveries in other markets hit by the public health emergency Uber Eats told us it’s exploring opportunities to partner with more supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers around the world.

As part of its response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has switched all deliveries to contactless by default — with orders left at the door or as instructed by a user.

It also told us it’s providing drivers and delivery people with access to hand sanitiser, gloves and disinfectant wipes, as soon as they become available. And said it’s dispensing guidance to users of its apps on hygiene best practice and limiting the spread of the virus.

Uber Eats has previously said it will provide 14 days of financial support for drivers and delivery people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading the virus, with the amount based on their average earnings over the last six months or less.

The policy is due for review on April 6.

Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3,671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus, up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

The FDA just okayed multiple 15-minute blood tests to screen for coronavirus, but there are caveats

By Darrell Etherington

On Thursday, the FDA amended their emergency policy around diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Following on a change made March 16, the agency opened the door for a number of specific private entities and labs to develop and distribute tests that can provide results on the spot in as little as 15 minutes – but there are some pretty big caveats to keep in mind as you hear about more of these coming to market.

The tests, which are ‘serological,’ meaning they identify the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood, differ considerably from the molecular testing that is currently in use under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by FDA-approved labs and drive-through testing sites. The serological tests show that a person has developed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, which means they very likely came into contact with it (and either have it, or have already recovered from having it). The molecular tests actually detect the presence of viral DNA in the blood stream, which is a much more definitive indicator that they currently have an active infection (at least at the time the swab was taken).

Serological tests have still been used widely in countries where the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to be effective, including in China, Taiwan and Singapore. They’ve also been used in different communities in the U.S., based on earlier guidelines around private lab diagnostics, but on March 26 the FDA named 29 entities who had provided notification to the agency as required and are now therefore able to distribute their tests.

It’s important to note that these tests have not been reviewed or validated by the FDA, unlike those molecular tests that are included in the organizations emergency use category. Instead, the FDA “does not intend to object to the development and distribution by commercial manufacturers” of these tests, provided they meet a number of criteria, including qualifying the results of their reported test results with the following information:

  • This test has not been reviewed by the FDA.
  • Negative results do not rule out SARS-CoV-2 infection, particularly in those who have been in contact with the virus. Follow-up testing with a molecular diagnostic should be considered to rule out infection in these individuals.
  • Results from antibody testing should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose or exclude SARS-CoV-2 infection or to inform infection status.
  • Positive results may be due to past or present infection with non-SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus strains, such as coronavirus HKU1, NL63, OC43, or 229E.

The FDA specifically notes in its emergency use FAQ that these entities have reported their own validation of these tests, and that they won’t be pursuing Emergency Use Authorization. That said, there’s now nothing stopping the entities on this list from distributing their tests, which means they will be able to be put to use in testing Americans and painting a larger picture of the potential spread of the novel coronavirus – with the caveat noted above that the FDA doesn’t consider these tests used alone to be positive confirmation of a definite SARS-CoV-2 case, or conversely, a sure indicator that someone doesn’t have the virus.

Still, in the absence of better options like expanded available of the tests that are approved under the EUA, these serological tests (many of which can provide on-site results with just a pinprick of blood) will be useful in painting a more accurate picture of the overall spread and reach of the coronavirus, especially for smaller clinics, GP clinics and local labs that don’t have priority access to the equipment and supplies needed for the molecular testing efforts.

For instance, ne test on this list, the Healgen Scientific COVID-19 IgG/IgM (Whole Blood/Serum/Plasma) Rapid Test Device, requires no instrumentation and can provide results in just 15 minutes. Distributor Ideal Rehab Care is working with its legal representation Fox Rothschild to begin importing the tests from Singapore for use “as soon as possible.”

The FDA updating its website with Healgen as one of the entities that have notified it of intent to use its serological test is what unlocked the ability for the company to begin distribution: It’s still illegal for anyone not on this list to do so, and the FDA still also specifically prohibits the use of at-home serological tests on its official guidelines.

OneWeb to file for bankruptcy as effort to secure funding, including from investor SoftBank, falls through

By Darrell Etherington

Broadband constellation satellite operator OneWeb will file for bankruptcy protection in the U.S., likely some time Friday, after attempts to secure new funding, including from existing investor SoftBank, fell through, TechCrunch has learned. The Financial Times also reported on the failure of its funding attempt on Friday, based on its own separate sources. The company will be laying off most of its staff, with a team remaining in place to continue to operate its existing satellites in space, according to our sources.

OneWeb, founded in 2012 as WorldVu Satellites, had been seeking to build out a constellation of broadband internet satellites that would operate in low Earth orbit, providing low-cost connections to customers on the ground with coverage that extends into more remote and hard-to reach areas that are not addressed by current ground-based networks.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that OneWeb had been considering a bankruptcy protection filing, while also weighing other options. One of those other options was a new funding round targeting a raise of around $2 billion. The company had previously raised $3 billion over multiple rounds, including a $1.3 billion and $1.2 billion round in 2019 and 2016 respectively, both of which had SoftBank as lead investor.

OneWeb also just completed a launch earlier in March, bringing the total number of its satellites in orbit to 74. The company then reduced its headcount by as much as 10% through layoffs we reported last week.

This latest step essentially means that OneWeb had exercised all other options for continued cash to stay afloat, and it required considerable reserves in order to continue its planned rapid pace of launches, with the ultimate aim of putting over 650 satellites in orbit in order to provide its service globally. SoftBank backing away as an investor leaves a big hole that’s difficult to fill in terms of scale and depth of pockets among the rest of the VC field, and the company has been stepping away from a number of its more high-profile investments since encountering difficulties of its own in terms of returning value on the biggest checks its cut, including for WeWork .

OneWeb’s funding situation can’t have been helped by the current global comic climate, also, rocked as it has been by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Reports suggest that at least some investors are taking a more conservative approach, suggesting that traditional routes to securing more investment may have proven more difficult to unlock than usual.

Tesla to reduce on-site staff at Nevada gigafactory by 75%

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla is reducing the number of on-site workers at its Nevada gigafactory by 75% in response to the growing spread of COVID-19, according to an update from Storey County, where the massive plant is located.

The information, which was first reported by Bloomberg, was part of a larger update on the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center and its response to COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus. The privately owned privately owned 107,000-acre industrial park, known as TRIC, is home to the Tesla gigafactory, Google and Switch as well as a Walmart distribution center and Petsmart.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Companies in TRIC are taking COVID-19 serious and are regularly report measures being taken to adhere to the established guidelines while maintaining essential operations, Storey County Manager Austin Osborne said in the letter posted on the county’ website. Those measures include checking employee temperatures, creating central access, allowing remote work and creating distance between work stations.

Tesla’s decision to reduce staff follows a move by its gigafactory partner Panasonic to pull all 3,500 of its employees from the site over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Panasonic said March 20 that it would ramp down operations this week and then close for 14 days. That move only affected Panasonic employees. Tesla also employs thousands of workers at the so-called Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada.

Gigafactory 1, which broke ground in June 2014, is a critical ingredient in Tesla’s goal to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy by expanding global battery capacity and reducing the cost of electric vehicles. And Panasonic has been its most important partner as a supplier and partner in that project.

The factory produces Model 3 electric motors and battery packs, in addition to Tesla’s energy storage products, Powerwall and Powerpack. Panasonic makes the cells, which Tesla then uses to make battery packs for its electric vehicles.

Tesla has several two factories in the U.S., including in Fremont, Calif., where it produces the Model X, Model S, Model 3 and now the Model Y. Tesla has reduced staff at the Fremont plant from more than 10,000 workers to about 2,500.

Earlier this week, the company sent out an email informing workers that two Tesla employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The internal email, which was viewed by TechCrunch, didn’t indicate where these employees worked.

Tesla employs more than 48,000 people at locations throughout the U.S. These two employees had been working at home for nearly two weeks, according to the email. The employees were not symptomatic in the office, and both are quarantined at home and recovering well, according to the email from Tesla’s EHS department head Laurie Shelby.

Clearstep’s COVID-19 chat-based screener goes in-depth to preserve healthcare resources

By Darrell Etherington

There are a growing number of symptom checker and screening tools that you can use at home if you suspect you might have contracted the new coronavirus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these are relatively simple, including around three or four questions that basically cover the top reported symptoms experienced by anyone who has confirmed to have had the disease. Chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus.

The reason Clearstep’s tool is designed to go a step further than most is simple, according to co-founder and COO Bilal Naved – the symptoms reportedly suffered by those affected by COVID-19 include many that could indicate other serious conditions, including an impending heart attack. More effective and comprehensive screening can also help reduce the burden on an already heavily-taxed healthcare system, which seems likely to only get busier over time as the number of cases across the U.S. continues to climb.

Naved and cofounder Adeel Malik, both of whom have worked in health at Johns Hopkins University and been involved in a number of academic scientific publications, developed Clearstep as a front-line way to connect patients with the right care, using remote screening facilitated via chatbot on their desktop or mobile device. Clearstep’s aim fits naturally with one of the key needs in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – effective screening that can provide individuals with clear and accurate guidance about what steps they need to take to seek care, and when.

“Our country is entering a time of a lot of uncertainty, but but also a time where there could be a true, critical threat to the integrity of the healthcare system,” Naved said in an interview. “If the rate of infection of this really reaches some projections, we might not have enough hospital beds or ICU beds to deal with all of this […] So it’s all about urgency and speed here and rapid response, but also being able to deliver the highest quality product. We are built off of nurse protocols, and we’re the only ones that have access to this in a publicly available chatbot format that has been used in over 200 million encounters in over 95% of the call centers around the country.”

Clearstep’s screener asks a range of questions about symptoms, travel, potential contact with anyone either diagnosed with COVID-19 or likely to have it based on their own travel and other factors. Once you go through the questions, which are presented in a fairly standard and easy-to-follow chat message format, the tool provides you an evaluation of what next steps you should take. It’ll provide you advice about whether or not you need testing for COVID-19 based on current CDC guidelines about who should be tested – and alert you about whether you should seek care for any other reason, independent of your potential coronavirus exposure.

The Clearstep team is also making sure to stay on top of new research as it emerges regarding the presentation and likelihood of symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Their approach focuses on data-driven representation of the symptoms that most people are likely to have, and then also taking the less likely presenting symptoms and building a model wherein those compound and add up to a total. The team is “keeping a pulse in the literature” published in peer-reviewed sources and adapting its screener as it needs to, as well, Naved says.

Ultimately, Naved thinks that where Clearstep can contribute is in its ability to integrate quickly with healthcare providers, providing a triage tool that can give frontline responders a way to interface with the public safely, while also helping to ensure that all the health issues that are not related to COVID-19 but that are still serious and require care don’t get left behind.

“We were able to go from first conversation to contract signed to configured and implemented in total of nine days,” Naved says about their speed of response. “The contracts took six days and in three days, we we customized, put in behind their branding, integrate itd and deployed it out to an entire population in Florida for a health system there […] The symptom checkers that are being put out there need to be able to integrate with those places that are seeing the massive influx of volume and may not be able to handle it, because that’s our responsibility right now.”

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale.

The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.

TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.

The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

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