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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

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.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

This startup wants to use technology to help solve Austin’s housing shortage problem

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The sheer volume of people migrating to Austin from all over the country, but particularly from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been making headlines for a while now.

One result of this continued migration is a steady surge in housing prices due to increased demand and low inventory that dropped to nearly zero earlier this year. Now, Homebound, a Santa Rosa, California-based tech-enabled homebuilding startup, is entering the Austin market with the goal of helping ease some of the pain felt in the city by offering an alternative to buying existing homes.

Homebound has raised about $73 million over the years from the likes of Google Ventures, Fifth Wall, Khosla, Sound Ventures, Atomic and Thrive Capital. It raised a $35 million Series B last April and then closed on a $20 million convertible note late last year. CEO Nikki Pechet and Atomic managing partner Jack Abraham founded the company in 2017 after Abraham lost his home to wildfires.

Essentially serving as a virtual general contractor, Homebound combines technology and a network for “vetted” and licensed building “experts” to manage the new home construction from the design phase to completion. The startup has developed tools to track and manage hundreds of unique tasks associated with building a home.

Up until this point, Homebound has been focused on helping homeowners navigate the challenges and complexities of rebuilding after wildfires in California. But this month, Homebound will be expanding to Austin, its first non-disaster market, with the goal of taking learnings from those rebuilds and applying the same “streamlined, tech-enabled building process” to make custom homebuilding an option for local homeowners.

I talked with Homebound’s CEO and co-founder, Nikki Pechet, to learn more.

With Homebound, she said, the company is out to serve as a “next gen” homebuilder to make it possible “for anyone, anywhere to build a home.”

Austin’s housing market is definitely overheated, with homes going 10-30% above asking in some cases (I should know, I live here).

“Homeowners have been reaching out to us from across the country asking us to come to their market,” Pechet said. “We’re already seeing Austin grow faster than any of our other markets did in their early days. It’s going to be a huge market for us.”

It’s a model Pechet envisions replicating in other cities with similar housing supply issues such as Miami, Tampa, Raleigh and Charlotte.

“This is just the start,” Pechet said. “We’re taking the platform to markets across the country to help exactly with this issue.”

The company starts by helping a potential homeowner identify land they want to build on, or help them find a lot among the inventory Homebound has already built up. From there, it can help with everything from architectural plans to design to actual construction via its platform. Homebound offers a set of plans for people to choose from, with varying levels of customization.

Building costs for a typical single-family home in the Austin area will start around $300,000 depending on the size, complexity of house, lot size and location. That does not include land cost. Some people are opting to build second units on existing properties.

“In most cases, people can build a new home for less than they can pay for an existing home just because of the dynamics,” Pechet said.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

Former Amazon exec gives Chinese firms a tool to fight cyber threats

By Rita Liao

China is pushing forward an internet society where economic and public activities increasingly take place online. In the process, troves of citizen and government data get transferred to cloud servers, raising concerns over information security. One startup called ThreatBook sees an opportunity in this revolution and pledges to protect corporations and bureaucracies against malicious cyberattacks.

Antivirus and security software has been around in China for several decades, but until recently, enterprises were procuring them simply to meet compliance requests, Xue Feng, founder and CEO of six-year-old ThreatBook, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Starting around 2014, internet accessibility began to expand rapidly in China, ushering in an explosion of data. Information previously stored in physical servers was moving to the cloud. Companies realized that a cyber attack could result in a substantial financial loss and started to pay serious attention to security solutions.

In the meantime, cyberspace is emerging as a battlefield where competition between states plays out. Malicious actors may target a country’s critical digital infrastructure or steal key research from a university database.

“The amount of cyberattacks between countries is reflective of their geopolitical relationships,” observed Xue, who oversaw information security at Amazon China before founding ThreatBook. Previously, he was the director of internet security at Microsoft in China.

“If two countries are allies, they are less likely to attack one another. China has a very special position in geopolitics. Besides its tensions with the other superpowers, cyberattacks from smaller, nearby countries are also common.”

Like other emerging SaaS companies, ThreatBook sells software and charges a subscription fee for annual services. More than 80% of its current customers are big corporations in finance, energy, the internet industry, and manufacturing. Government contracts make up a smaller slice. With its Series E funding round that closed 500 million yuan ($76 million) in March, ThreatBook boosted its total capital raised to over 1 billion yuan from investors including Hillhouse Capital.

Xue declined to disclose the company’s revenues or valuation but said 95% of the firm’s customers have chosen to renew their annual subscriptions. He added that the company has met the “preliminary requirements” of the Shanghai Exchange’s STAR board, China’s equivalent to NASDAQ, and will go public when the conditions are ripe.

“It takes our peers 7-10 years to go public,” said Xue.

ThreatBook compares itself to CrowdStrike from Silicon Valley, which filed to go public in 2019 and detect threats by monitoring a company’s “endpoints”, which could be an employee’s laptops and mobile devices that connect to the internal network from outside the corporate firewall.

ThreatBook similarly has a suite of software that goes onto the devices of a company’s employees, automatically detects threats and comes up with a list of solutions.

“It’s like installing a lot of security cameras inside a company,” said Xue. “But the thing that matters is what we tell customers after we capture issues.”

SaaS providers in China are still in the phase of educating the market and lobbying enterprises to pay. Of the 3,000 companies that ThreatBook serves, only 300 are paying so there is plentiful room for monetization. Willingness to spend also differs across sectors, with financial institutions happy to shell out several million yuan ($1 = 6.54 yuan) a year while a tech startup may only want to pay a fraction of that.

Xue’s vision is to take ThreatBook global. The company had plans to expand overseas last year but was held back by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a handful of inquiries from companies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There may even be room for us in markets with mature [cybersecurity companies] like Europe and North America,” said Xue. “As long as we are able to offer differentiation, a customer may still consider us even if it has an existing security solution.”

Patreon triples valuation to $4 billion in new raise

By Lucas Matney

Patreon has tripled its valuation to $4 billion in a $155 million funding round led by Tiger Global, the company confirmed to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. 

The creator economy platform, which allows artists to be directly funded by their fans, received new attention amid the Covid-19 pandemic as creators were forced to push more of their work online. The creator payments space has seen a multitude of new entrants in recent months but the eight-year-old Patreon has already built up an extensive network. In a blog post last year, Patreon noted that more than 30,000 creators signed up for the service in the first weeks of March.

The company wrapped a $90 million round in September that valued the company at $1.2 billion. Patreon makes money by taking a 5-12 percent fee from creators depending on which of the company’s services they use.

Other investors in this new round include Woodline Partners, Wellington Management, Lone Pine Capital and New Enterprise Associates, the report notes. 

ILM shows off the new Stagecraft LED wall used for season 2 of ‘The Mandalorian’

By Devin Coldewey

The first season of The Mandalorian last year wasn’t just a great show, it was the result of an entirely new paradigm in film and TV production. Stagecraft, the enormous LED-wall volume ILM used to shoot that season has since been expanded and updated to be better, faster, and easier to use.

In a behind-the-scenes video, directors and others from the production weigh in on how the system makes everything easier, and enumerate the improvements for the 2.0 version.

The most recognizable piece of Stagecraft is “the volume,” an enormous space inside a two stories and a roof of high-resolution LED-based displays. With physical sets placed in the center, the feeling of being in a larger space is real — and if you shoot it right, you can’t tell a virtual background from a real one.

Fundamentally this is huge, allowing “on location” shoots to combine with intricate sets (and regardless of weather or travel schedules), but far more gracefully than the soundstages or portable green screens that actors have stood in front of for decades. Not only that but it pulls together many disparate parts of the production process into one shared process.

“What’s wonderful about this system is now everyone is on the same page,” said Robert Rodriguez, who directed several episodes of the show (as well as numerous films), in the ILM video. “It inspires the actors, it inspires the filmmaker to now see what they’re shooting. You know, it’s like you’re painting with the lights on finally.”

But while it would be difficult to call Stagecraft anything but a rousing success, it’s still very much a work in progress. As an end-to-end system it must integrate with dozens of renderers, color suites, cameras, pre- and post-production software, and of course the LED walls themselves, which are always improving.

Producers look at a bank of screens with images from the set of The Mandalorian on them.

Image Credits: ILM

“By the second season, ILM developed some software that was specific to this technology and to what the hardware was capable of,” said Jon Favreau, executive producer of the show and indefatigable patron of new technology in cinema.

There were lots of specific requests from various members of the team, plus the usual bug squashing and performance improvements, leading to an improved workflow. Plus the volume itself has gotten bigger and better.

“It also has forced us into having a more efficient workflow that draws pre-production, post-production, production, all into one continuous pipeline,” Favreau said. Not only is it more natural and better looking than ordinary location or green screen techniques, it’s faster — they’re working through 30-50 percent more script pages per day, which any producer will tell you is unbelievable.

I plan to dig deeper into the technical improvements and pipelines that ILM, Disney, Unreal, and other companies have put together to make this all possible. In the meantime you can watch the behind the scenes video below:

Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace and Hippo’s Assaf Wand are joining us on Extra Crunch Live

By Jordan Crook

As the world changes rapidly, so too do the most traditional of industries. That includes property tech and insurtech. Luckily for us, two of the top minds in those spaces are joining us on an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live.

On April 21 at noon PT/3pm ET, Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace and Hippo’s Assaf Wand will hang out with us to discuss fundraising across these evolving verticals and explain specifically how fundraising went down for Hippo. The duo will also take a look at pitch decks sent in by the audience and give their live feedback. (If you’d like your deck to be featured on a future episode of Extra Crunch Live, hit up this link.)

But first, a little more information on our guests.

Brendan Wallace is cofounder and managing partner at Fifth Wall, one of the top VC firms dealing in property tech, future of work, new retail and more. Fifth Wall portfolio companies include OpenDoor, Classpass, AllBirds, Clutter, Eden, Lime, and Lyric, among others.

Before Fifth Wall, Wallace was an entrepreneur himself, cofounding Identified (acquired by Workday) and Cabify, a huge ridesharing service in Latin America. He was also an angel investor, with investments in Bonobos, Dollar Shave Club, Lyft, and SpaceX, to name a few.

The TL;dr version on Wallace is that he’s been around the block in the tech world plenty of times, and has experience across a variety of sectors. There’s lots to learn here.

Assaf Wand is cofounder and CEO of Hippo, a home insurance provider for the digital age. Wand is also a serial entrepreneur, founding a company that designed and developed consumer products called Sabi. It was acquired in 2015.

Interestingly, Wand has also worn the hat of an investor, serving as strategic investor for Intel Capital and also spending time at McKinsey as a consultant.

Hippo has raised more than $700 million from investors that include Bond, Felicis, Comcast and Horizons.

Wallace invested in Hippo’s Series B round, and we’re anxious to hear why Wand and Wallace chose each other, how they work together today, and what advice they have for founders looking to raise capital and scale their businesses.

The episode goes down at noon PT/3pm ET on April 21 and is free to all who want to check it out live. On-demand access to the content is reserved for Extra Crunch members only. Register to come hang out with us here.

Cryptocurrency wallet and blockchain tech startup imToken raises $30 million Series B

By Catherine Shu

imToken, the blockchain tech startup and crypto wallet developer, announced today it has raised $30 million in Series B funding led by Qiming Venture Partners. Participants included returning investor IDG Capital, and new backers Breyer Capital, HashKey, Signum Capital, Longling Capital, SNZ and Liang Xinjun, the co-founder of Fosun International.

Founded in 2016, the startup’s last funding announcement was for its $10 million Series A, led by IDG, in May 2018. imToken says its wallet for Ethereum, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies now has 12 million users and over $50 billion in assets are currently stored on its platform, with total transaction value exceeding $500 billion.

The company was launched in Hangzhou, China, before moving to it current headquarters to Singapore, and about 70% of its users are in mainland China, followed by markets including South Korea, the United States and Southeast Asia.

imToken will use its latest funding to build features for “imToken 3.0.” This will include keyless accounts, account recovery and and a suite of decentralized finance services. It also plans to expand its research arm for blockchain technology, called imToken Labs and open offices in more countries. It currently has a team of 78 people, based in mainland China, the United States and Singapore, and expects to increase its headcount to 100 this year.

In a press statement, Qiming Venture Partners founding managing partner Duane Kuang said, “In the next ten to twenty years, blockchain will revolutionize the financial industry on a global scale. We believe that imToken is riding this trend, and has strongly positioned itself in the market.”

Notarize raises $130M, tripling valuation on the back of 600% YoY revenue growth

By Mary Ann Azevedo

When the world shifted toward virtual one year ago, one service in particular saw heated demand: remote online notarization.

The ability to get a document notarized without leaving one’s home suddenly became more of a necessity than a luxury. Pat Kinsel, founder and CEO of Boston-based Notarize, worked to get appropriate legislation passed across the country to make it possible for more people in more states to get documents notarized digitally.

That hard work has paid off. Today, Notarize has announced $130 million in Series D funding led by fintech-focused VC firm Canapi Ventures after experiencing 600% year over year revenue growth. The round values Notarize at $760 million, which is triple its valuation at the time of its $35 million Series C in March of 2020. This latest round is larger than the sum of all of the company’s previous rounds to date, and brings Notarize’s total raised to $213 million since its 2015 inception.

A slew of other investors participated in the round, including Alphabet’s independent growth fund CapitalG, Citi Ventures, Wells Fargo, True Bridge Capital Partners and existing backers Camber Creek, Ludlow Ventures, NAR’s Second Century Ventures, and Fifth Wall Ventures.

Notarize insists that it “isn’t just a notary company.” Rather, Canapi Ventures Partner Neil Underwood described it as the ‘last mile’ of businesses (such as iBuyers, for example). 

The company has also evolved to “also bring trust and identity verification” into those businesses’ processes.

Over the past year, Notarize has seen a massive increase in transactions and inked new partnerships with companies such as Adobe, Dropbox, Stripe and Zillow Group, among others. It’s seen big spikes in demand from the real estate, financial services, retail and automotive sectors.

“In 2020, the world rushed to digitize. Online commerce ballooned, and businesses in almost every industry needed to transition to digital basically overnight so they could continue uninterrupted,” Kinsel said. “Notarize was there to help them safely close these deals with trust and convenience.”  

The company plans to use its new capital to expand its platform and product and scale “to serve enterprises of all sizes.” It also plans to double down on hiring in the next year.

“Notarize is disrupting outdated business models and technologies, and there’s massive potential, particularly in the financial services space, as more companies will need to offer secure digital alternatives to in-person transactions,” Canapi’s Underwood said.

Notarize’s success comes after a difficult 2019, when the company saw “critical financing” fall through and had to lay off staff, according to Kinsel. Talk about a turnaround story.

Neighbor raises $53M for self-storage marketplace after 5x YoY revenue growth

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, announced Wednesday that it has raised $53 million in a Series B round of funding.

Fifth Wall led the financing, which notably also included participation from returning backer Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and new investors DoorDash CEO Tony Xu and StockX CEO Scott Cutler. Xu and Cutler will join former Uber CEO Ryan Graves as investors and advisors to the Lehi, Utah-based startup. A16z led Neighbor’s $10 million Series A in January of 2020.

At a time when the commercial real estate world is struggling, self-storage is an asset class that continues to perform extremely well. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.

Colton Gardner, Joseph Woodbury and Preston Alder co-founded Neighbor.com in 2017 with the mission of giving people a more accessible and personal alternative to store their belongings. 

Image Credits: Neighbor

The $40 billion self-storage industry is ripe for a shake-up, considering that most people are used to renting space out of buildings located in not necessarily convenient locations. 

Neighbor has developed a unique peer-to-peer model, connecting “renters” in need of storage space with “hosts” in their neighborhood who are willing to lease storage space in their home, garage or even driveway. The company says it has hosts on the platform making more than $50,000 a year in passive income.

“We really grew into a national business over the last year and now have active renters in more states than Public Storage, which is a $43 billion publicly traded company,” CEO Woodbury said.

Neighbor makes money by charging a service fee (a sliding-scale percentage) of each rent. Its algorithms provide suggested rental fees for hosts.

COVID has only accelerated Neighbor’s business, with revenue growing “5x” and organic reservations increasing “7x” year over year.

“If you think about it, fundamentally on the demand side, everyone’s moving out of these major metro areas like New York and San Francisco, and are moving to these more rural locations. All that moving activity has created a lot more storage demand,” Woodbury told TechCrunch. “In addition to that, people are just spending more time at home and cleaning out their homes more. And they no doubt need storage as a result of that.”

 It also doesn’t hurt that the company claims the self-storage offered on its marketplace on average is priced about 40% to 50% less than traditional storage facilities.

Neighbor also partners with commercial real estate operators to turn their under-utilized or vacant retail, multifamily or office space into self-storage. This provides new revenue streams to landlords hurting from the pandemic keeping so many people at home. And that increased demand led to Neighbor’s commercial real estate footprint growing 10x in 2020. 

With its new capital, the company plans to expand its nationwide network of hosts and renters as well as continue to spread awareness of its marketplace.

“We have tens of millions of square feet of self storage on the platform,” Woodbury said. “The beauty of that square footage is that it’s in every single state. But we want to continue to expand nationally and as we grow and mature, we’ll turn our eyes globally as well.”

Interestingly, before leading the round for Neighbor, Fifth Wall approached the company about business development opportunities. Partner Dan Wenhold said he offered to introduce the concept to the real estate venture firm’s LPs, which include more than 65 of the world’s largest owners and operators of real estate from 15 countries. For example, Fifth Wall partners Acadia Realty Trust and Jamestown are already onboarding properties onto Neighbor’s platform. 

“We are sort of the bridge between the largest owners and operators of physical real estate assets and the most disruptive technologies that are impacting those property managers and landlords, Wenhold said. “And Neighbor fits perfectly into that thesis for us.”

After introducing Neighbor to a short list of Fifth Wall’s strategic LP partners, the feedback the firm got “was fantastic,” Wenhold said. 

“A lot of owners in retail, office and even multi-family expressed interest in working with Neighbor to help monetize space,” he added.

The company’s mission also has a sustainable component considering that creating self-storage space out of existing property can help minimize the amount of new construction that takes place.

Fifth Wall, Wenhold added, is aware of the waste and the emissions that come from the construction process to build new space and admires Neighbor’s role in minimizing that.

“Our firm ardently pursued the opportunity to invest in a transformative proptech business like Neighbor,” he said.

Cross-border fintech Airwallex raises $100M Series D extension at new valuation of $2.6B

By Catherine Shu

Airwallex, the fintech company for cross-border businesses, announced today it has added $100 million more to its Series D round, bumping its valuation up to $2.6 billion. The extension was led by Greenoaks, with participation from Grok Ventures and returning investors Skip Capital and ANZi Ventures.

Co-founder and chief executive officer Jack Zhang told TechCrunch that the new funding will be used for Airwallex’s United States launch in the second quarter of this year, expand its payment coverage to new regions like the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and add more products, including physical cards.

This latest extension brings Airwallex’s Series D round to $300 million, and total equity raised so far to $500 million. Airwallex first announced its Series D in April 2020 after raising $160 million, then another tranche that added $40 million in September 2020.

Airwallex reached unicorn valuation after its Series C in March 2019. The company was founded in Melbourne in 2015, and now has more than 600 employees across 12 offices in Australia, China, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States. In its announcement today, Airwallex said it is also hiring for more than 500 positions.

Airwallex’s products for cross-border businesses include foreign currency accounts and multi-currency debit cards with Visa, international money transfers and a suite of APIs that allow companies to do things like accept and manage international payments, and manage their foreign exchange risk.

 

A newly-wormable Windows botnet is ballooning in size

By Zack Whittaker

Researchers say a botnet targeting Windows devices is rapidly growing in size, thanks to a new infection technique that allows the malware to spread from computer to computer.

The Purple Fox malware was first spotted in 2018 spreading through phishing emails and exploit kits, a way for threat groups to infect machines using existing security flaws.

But researchers Amit Serper and Ophir Harpaz at security firm Guardicore, which discovered and revealed the new infection effort in a new blog post, say the malware now targets internet-facing Windows computers with weak passwords, giving the malware a foothold to spread more rapidly.

The malware does this by trying to guess weak Windows user account passwords by targeting the server message block, or SMB — a component that lets Windows talk with other devices, like printers and file servers. Once the malware gains access to a vulnerable computer, it pulls a malicious payload from a network of close to 2,000 older and compromised Windows web servers and quietly installs a rootkit, keeping the malware persistently anchored to the computer while also making it much harder to be detected or removed.

Once infected, the malware then closes the ports in the firewall it used to infect the computer to begin with, likely to prevent reinfection or other threat groups hijacking the already-hacked computer, the researchers said.

The malware then generates a list of internet addresses and scans the internet for vulnerable devices with weak passwords to infect further, creating a growing network of ensnared devices.

Botnets are formed when hundreds or thousands of hacked devices are enlisted into a network run by criminal operators, which are often then used to launch denial-of-network attacks to pummel organizations with junk traffic with the aim of knocking them offline. But with control of these devices, criminal operators can also use botnets to spread malware and spam, or to deploy file-encrypting ransomware on the infected computers.

But this kind of wormable botnet presents a greater risk as it spreads largely on its own.

Serper, Guardicore’s vice president of security research for North America, said the wormable infection technique is “cheaper” to run than its earlier phishing and exploit kit effort.

“The fact that it’s an opportunistic attack that constantly scans the internet and looks for more vulnerable machines means that the attackers can sort of ‘set it and forget it’,” he said.

It appears to be working. Purple Fox infections have rocketed by 600% since May 2020, according to data from Guardicore’s own network of internet sensors. The actual number of infections is likely to be far higher, amounting to more than 90,000 infections in the past year.

Guardicore published indicators of compromise to help networks identify if they have been infected. The researchers do not know what the botnet will be used for but warned that its growing size presents a risk to organizations.

“We assume that this is laying the groundwork for something in the future,” said Serper.

$5.7M stolen in Roll crypto heist after hot wallet hacked

By Zack Whittaker

A security breach at cryptocurrency platform Roll allowed a hacker to obtain the private key to its hot wallet and steal its contents — worth about $5.7 million.

In a statement, the company said it was investigating the breach, which happened early Sunday.

“As of this writing, it seems like a compromise of the private keys [sic] of our hot wallet and not a bug in the Roll smart contracts or any token contracts,” the statement said. Roll said the attacker had already sold the tokens for Ethereum.

“There is no further user action suggested at this stage. We are temporarily disabling withdraw from the Roll wallet of all social money until we have migrated our hot wallet,” the statement added.

It’s not clear how the attacker broke in and obtained the private key — akin to the password for Roll’s hot wallet. Hot wallets are designed to be connected to the internet to send and receive cryptocurrency, but typically only store a fraction of a cryptocurrency owner’s total reserves, given the inherent security risk of an internet-connected wallet. A cold wallet, or storage device that isn’t connected to the internet, is typically used for holding the bulk of an owner’s cryptocurrency for longer-term periods.

Roll allows creators to mint and distribute their own Ethereum-based cryptocurrency, known as social tokens, under which the creators can decide how the currency is spent. There are hundreds of different kinds of social currency on the platform, including $WHALE, $RARE and $PICA tokens — which plummeted in value in the aftermath of the breach.

The creator of the $WHALE token said in a tweet more than 2% of its tokens were stolen in the Roll breach, but that the hack was “minimally detrimental” to the project.

Others weren’t so lucky. One person said they had “lost everything,” while others criticized for not going far enough Roll’s new $500,000 fund to help affected creators.

Roll said it will hire a third-party to audit its security infrastructure to prevent another breach. “We will also run a forensic analysis to figure out how the key was compromised,” the statement said.


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Rising encrypted app Signal is down in China

By Rita Liao

Chinese users of the instant messenger Signal knew that the good times wouldn’t last long. The app, which is used for encrypted conversations, is unavailable in mainland China as of the morning of March 16, a test by TechCrunch shows. The website of the app has been banned in mainland China since March 15, according to censorship tracking website Greatfire.org.

Signal could not be immediately reached for comment.

The encrypted chat app was one of the few Western social networks that remained accessible in China without the use of a virtual private network. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have long been blocked. In some way, a ban is a badge of honor, signifying a foreign app has reached a substantial user base in China that catches the attention of local authorities.

Signal is still available for download on Apple’s China App Store as of March 16, an indication that Apple hasn’t received a government order to remove the app, which is gradually gaining ground among China’s tech-savvy, privacy-conscious users. The app has 4.9 out of 5 from 37,000 ratings on the Chinese App Store.

Android stores in China are operated by a slew of third-party Chinese tech firms, which tend to comply strictly with local censors and don’t list Signal. Google Play is unavailable in the country.

The iOS version of Signal has been installed close to 510,000 times to date in China and recently crossed 100 million downloads across Apple’s App Store and Google Play combined globally, app analytics firm Sensor Tower told TechCrunch on March 16.

Signal and rival Telegram have seen a surge in downloads after WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy sparked panic among users in January. While the impact is limited in China, where Tencent’s WeChat commands a formidable share in social networking with 1.1 billion monthly users, both Signal and Telegram have seen small user upticks in China.

As of January, Telegram had amassed about 2.7 million installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads for Signal and 9.5 million times for WhatsApp. Like Signal, both Telegram and WhatsApp are still present on the China App Store, though access appears to require virtual private networks.

China’s elaborate Great Firewall has made many internet users experts on censorship circumvention. App bans are often layered as the Clubhouse case shows.

While the drop-in audio app wasn’t found on the Chinese App Store, users discovered ways to install it in foreign App Stores and used it freely without censorship-fighting tools until the app’s API was blocked. Even after that, China-based users realized they could listen once they entered a chat room through a VPN, as Clubhouse’s audio technology provider Agora remains accessible in China.

Foreign apps and websites are occasionally cut off in China and brought back, as with Microsoft’s search engine Bing. It’s unclear whether the Signal ban is permanent, but given the app’s growth, this could mark the end of its short life in China.

Proptech startup Knock secures $20M to grow SaaS platform for property managers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In recent years, the U.S. has seen more renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data. 

Competition for renters is fierce and property managers are turning to technology to get a leg up.

To meet that demand, Seattle-based Knock – one startup that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge – has raised $20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.

Existing backers Madrona Venture Group, Lead Edge Capital, Second Avenue Partners and Seven Peaks Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total capital raised to $47 million.

Demetri Themelis and Tom Petry co-founded Knock in 2014 after renting “in super competitive markets” such as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. 

“After meeting with property management companies, it was eye-opening to learn about the total gap across their tech stacks,” Themelis recalled.

Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords. 

“Apartment buildings, like almost every customer-driven business, compete with each other by attracting, converting and retaining customers,” Themelis said. “For property management companies, these customers are renters.”

The startup — which operates as a SaaS business — has seen an uptick in growth, quadrupling its revenue over the past two years. Its software is used by hundreds of the largest property management companies across the United States and Canada and has more than 1.5 million apartment units using the platform. Starwood Capital Group, ZRS, FPI and Cushman & Wakefield (formerly Pinnacle) are among its users.

As Petry explains it, Knock serves as the sales inbox (chat, SMS, phone, email), sales calendar and CRM systems, all in one. 

“We also automate certain sales tasks like outreach and appointment scheduling, while also surfacing which sales opportunities need the most attention at any given time, for both new leases as well as renewals,” he said.

Image Credit: Knock

The company, Themelis said, was well-prepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our software supports property management companies, which operate high-density apartment buildings that people live and work in,” he told TechCrunch. “You can’t just ‘shut them down,’ which has made multifamily resilient and even grow in comparison to retail and industrial real estate.”

For example, when lockdowns went into effect, in-person property tours declined by an estimated 80% in a matter of weeks.

Knock did things like help property managers transition to a centralized and remote leasing model so remote agents could work across a large portfolio of properties rather than in a single on-site leasing office, noted Petry.

It also helped them adopt self-guided, virtual and live video-based leasing tools, so prospective renters could tour properties in person on their own or virtually.

“This transformation and modernization became a huge tailwind for our business in 2020,” Petry said. “Not only did we have a record year in terms of new customers, revenue growth and revenue retention, but our customers outperformed market averages for occupancy and rent growth as well.”

Looking ahead, the company says it will be using its new capital to (naturally!) hire across product, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance and human resources divisions. It expects to grow headcount by 40% to 50% before year-end. It also plans to expand its product portfolio to include AI communications, fraud prevention, applicant screening and leasing, and intelligent forecasting. 

Fifth Wall partner Vik Chawla, who is joining Knock’s board of directors, pointed out that the macroeconomic environment is driving institutional capital into multifamily real estate at an accelerated pace. This makes Knock’s offering even more timely in its importance, in the firm’s view.

The startup, he believes, outshines its competitors in terms of quality of product, technical prowess and functionality.

“The Knock team has accomplished so much in just a short period of time by attracting very high quality product design and engineering talent to ameliorate a nuanced pain point in the tenant acquisition process,” Chawla told TechCrunch.

In terms of fitting with its investment thesis, Chawla said companies like Knock can both benefit from Fifth Wall’s global corporate strategic partners “and simultaneously serve as a key offering which we can share with real estate industry leaders in different countries as a potential solution for their local markets.”

Beijing’s Ban on Clubhouse Won't Deter Some Listeners

By Will Knight
The audio app hosted discussions on sensitive topics such as Taiwan and Uighurs before it was removed from the App Store. Some users have found workarounds.

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

By Zack Whittaker

All change in the capital as the Biden administration takes charge, and thankfully without a hitch (or violence) after the attempted insurrection two weeks earlier.

In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery. Plus, the news in brief.


THE BIG PICTURE

Google says SolarWinds exposure “limited,” more breaches confirmed

The cyberattack against SolarWinds, an ongoing espionage campaign already blamed on Russia, claimed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as another federal victim this week. The attack also hit cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, the company’s chief executive confirmed. Marcin Kleczynski said in a blog post that attackers gained access to a “limited” number of internal company emails. It was the same attackers as SolarWinds but using a different intrusion route. It’s now the third security company known to have been targeted by the same Russian hackers after a successful intrusion at FireEye and an unsuccessful attempt at CrowdStrike.

Today, I disclosed publicly that @Malwarebytes had been targeted by the same nation state actor that attacked SolarWinds. This attack is much broader than SolarWinds and I expect more companies will come forward soon.

— Marcin Kleczynski (@mkleczynski) January 19, 2021

Robots Invade the Construction Site

By Will Knight
Boosted by advances in sensors and artificial intelligence, a new generation of machines is automating a tech-averse industry.
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