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Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

By Jake Bright

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and communications and media.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource plans to upgrade the features of its platform. It also opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers — to determine the problems their trying to solve and their sources of input data — and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

Samasource converted to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on the $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with Samasource. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder thinks that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grow,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased staff in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150% in 2020, its CEO said.

San Diego-based Founders First Capital Partners gets $100 million for revenue-based fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.

The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.

The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.

Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.

At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.

The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.

The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.

It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.

“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.

Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.

Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.

But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.

“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth.  We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”

New York State Attorney General reportedly investigating WeWork

By Catherine Shu

WeWork is reportedly being investigated by the New York State Attorney General. According to Reuters, the NYAG’s questions include if WeWork founder and former CEO Adam Neumann engaged in self-dealing.

A WeWork spokesperson said in an email that “we have received an inquiry from the office of the New York State Attorney General and are cooperating in the matter.” TechCrunch also contacted the New York State Attorney General’s office for comment. WeWork is headquartered in New York City.

This comes less than a week after Bloomberg reported WeWork is the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into potential rule violations related to its cancelled IPO.

WeWork’s parent company, The We Company, announced on Sept. 30 that it was withdrawing its S-1 filing for an initial public offering, shortly after Neumann stepped down as CEO. In addition to questions about the company’s financial state, red flags for investors included that Neumann had borrowed against his WeWork shares and leased properties he owned back to the company.

An entity Neumann controlled also sold the company the right to use the word “We” for $5.9 million, though he later asked the company to unwind the agreement and returned the money after public criticism.

After receiving a lifeline from investor SoftBank worth up to $8 billion, WeWork is now engaging in major cost-cutting measures, including layoffs at Meetup, which it acquired for $200 million in 2017.

Earth is headed for its second warmest year in recorded history (the record was three years ago)

By Jonathan Shieber

Data from the U.S. government sure seems to indicate that the Earth is warming (despite what the current leadership may say).

Apparently, the globe just experienced the second-hottest October ever recorded and is on track for the second-hottest year to date on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only are we experiencing a run of hot Octobers (this is the tenth year that temperatures have hit recorded-history highs since 2003 and all five of the highest temperature years were in the past five years), but arctic ice has also shrunk to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.

Even as the Trump Administration enacts policies to reverse course on curbing the emissions that seem to be leading to a changing global climate, federal agencies like the NOAA keep releasing reports that reveal exactly how much the planet is changing.

Earlier this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began the process of formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. As with most momentous events of the Administration, the world was notified via Twitter.

Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 4, 2019

While Secretary Pompeo was praising the nation’s approach to “reducing all emissions”, Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands hit historic record-setting temperatures and the world’s average sea surface temperature hit its second-warmest ever-recorded temperature.

Meanwhile, new projections are revising the risk that cities face from rising sea levels that are caused by melting glaciers due to warmer temperatures.

Maps created by the research organization Climate Central, and published in the journal Nature Communications indicate that rising seas could flood land that’s currently home to some 150 million people at high-tide by 2050, if steps aren’t taken to improve the resiliency of cities to flooding or reverse course on climate.

Even the Federal Reserve is waking up to climate change risks. The regulator responsible for U.S. monetary policy convened an event earlier this month to focus on the financial impacts of climate change.

“By participating more actively in climate-related research and practice, the Federal Reserve can be more effective in supporting a strong economy and a stable financial system,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board in Washington, said in prepared remarks at the same event, according to a report in The New York Times. 

MacBook Pro 16” first impressions: Return of the Mack

By Matthew Panzarino

In poker, complacency is a quiet killer. It can steal your forward momentum bit by bit, using the warm glow of a winning hand or two to cover the bets you’re not making until it’s too late and you’re out of leverage. 

Over the past few years, Apple’s MacBook game had begun to suffer from a similar malaise. Most of the company’s product lines were booming, including newer entries like the Apple Watch, AirPods and iPad Pro. But as problems with the models started to mount — unreliable keyboards, low RAM ceilings and anemic graphics offerings — the once insurmountable advantage that the MacBook had compared to the rest of the notebook industry started to show signs of dwindling. 

The new 16” MacBook Pro Apple is announcing today is an attempt to rectify most, if not all, of the major complaints of its most loyal, and vocal, users. It’s a machine that offers a massive amount of upsides for what appears to be a handful of easily justifiable tradeoffs. It’s got better graphics, a bigger display for nearly no extra overall size, a bigger battery with longer life claims and yeah, a completely new keyboard.

I’ve only had a day to use the machine so far, but I did all of my research and writing for this first look piece on the machine, carting it around New York City, through the airport and onto a plane where I’m publishing this now. This isn’t a review, but I can take you through some of the new stuff and give you thoughts based on that chunk of time. 

This is a re-think of the larger MacBook Pro in many large ways. This is a brand new model that will completely replace the 15” MacBook Pro in Apple’s lineup, not an additional model. 

Importantly, the team working on this new MacBook started with no design constraints on weight, noise, size or battery. This is not a thinner machine, it is not a smaller machine, it is not a quieter machine. It is, however, better than the current MacBook Pro in all of the ways that actually count.

Let’s run down some of the most important new things. 

Performance and thermals

The 16” MacBook Pro comes configured with either a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 or a 2.3GHz 8-core i9 from Intel . These are the same processors as the 15” MacBook Pro came with. No advancements here is largely a function of Intel’s chip readiness. 

The i7 model of the 16” MacBook Po will run $2,399 for the base model — the same as the old 15” — and it comes with a 512GB SSD drive and 16GB of RAM. 

Both models can be ordered today and will be in stores at the end of the week.

The standard graphics configuration in the i7 is an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel UHD graphics 630 chip. The system continues to use the dynamic handoff system that trades power for battery life on the fly.  


The i9 model will run $2,699 and comes with a 1TB drive. That’s a nice bump in storage for both models, into the range of very comfortable for most people. It rolls with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of memory.

You can configure both models with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Both models can also now get up to 8TB of SSD storage – which Apple says is the most on a notebook ever – and 64GB of 2666 DDR4 RAM but I’d expect those upgrades to be pricey.

The new power supply delivers an additional 12w of power and there is a new thermal system to compensate for that. The heat pipe that carries air in and out has been redesigned, there are more fan blades on 35% larger fans that move 28% more air compared to the 15” model. 

The fans in the MacBook Pro, when active, put out the same decibel level of sound, but push way more air than before. So, not a reduction in sound, but not an increase either — and the trade is better cooling. Another area where the design process for this MacBook focused on performance gains rather than the obvious sticker copy. 

There’s also a new power brick which is the same physical size as the 15” MacBook Pro’s adapter, but which now supplies 96w up from 87w. The brick is still as chunky as ever and feels a tad heavier, but it’s nice to get some additional power out of it. 

Though I haven’t been able to put the MacBook Pro through any video editing or rendering tests I was able to see live demos of it handling several 8K streams concurrently. With the beefiest internal config Apple says it can usually handle as many as 4, perhaps 5 un-rendered Pro Res streams.

A bigger display, a thicker body

The new MacBook Pro has a larger 16” diagonal Retina display that has a 3072×1920 resolution at 226 ppi. The monitor features the same 500 nit maximum brightness, P3 color gamut and True Tone tech as the current 15”. The bezels of the screen are narrower, which makes it feel even larger when you’re sitting in front of it. This also contributes to the fact that the overall size of the new MacBook Pro is just 2% larger in width and height, with a .7mm increase in thickness. 

The overall increase in screen size far outstrips the increase in overall body size because of those thinner bezels. And this model is still around the same thickness as the 2015 15” MacBook Pro, an extremely popular model among the kinds of people who are the target market for this machine. It also weighs 4.3 lbs, heavier than the 4.02 lb current 15” model.

The display looks great, extremely crisp due to the increase in pixels and even more in your face because of the very thin bezels. This thing feels like it’s all screen in a way that matches the iPad Pro.

This thick boi also features a bigger battery, a full 100Whr, the most allowable under current FAA limits. Apple says this contributes an extra hour of normal operations in its testing regimen in comparison to the current 15” MacBook Pro. I have not been able to effectively test these claims in the time I’ve had with it so far. 

But it is encouraging that Apple has proven willing to make the iPhone 11 Pro and the new MacBook a bit thicker in order to deliver better performance and battery life. Most of these devices are pretty much thin enough. Performance, please.

Speakers and microphone

One other area where the 16” MacBook Pro has made a huge improvement is the speaker and microphone arrays. I’m not sure I ever honestly expected to give a crap about sound coming out of a laptop. Good enough until I put in a pair of headphones accurately describes my expectations for laptop sound over the years. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the sound coming out of this new MacBook and it was, no crap, incredibly good. 

The new array consists of six speakers arranged so that the subwoofers are positioned in pairs, antipodal to one another (back to back). This has the effect of cancelling out a lot of the vibration that normally contributes to that rattle-prone vibrato that has characterized small laptop speakers pretty much forever.

The speaker setup they have here has crisper highs and deeper bass than you’ve likely ever heard from a portable machine. Movies are really lovely to watch with the built-ins, a sentence I have never once felt comfortable writing about a laptop. 

Apple also vents the speakers through their own chambers, rather than letting sound float out through the keyboard holes. This keeps the sound nice and crisp, with a soundstage that’s wide enough to give the impression of a center channel for voice. One byproduct of this though is that blocking one or another speaker with your hand is definitely more noticeable than before.

The quality of sound here is really very, very good. The HomePod team’s work on sound fields apparently keeps paying dividends. 

That’s not the only audio bit that’s better now though, Apple has also put in a 3-mic array for sound recording that it claims has a high enough signal-to-noise ratio that it can rival standalone microphones. I did some testing here comparing it to the iPhone’s mic and it’s absolutely night and day. There is remarkably little hiss present here and artists that use the MacBook as a sketch pad for vocals and other recording are going to get a really nice little surprise here.

I haven’t been able to test it against external mics myself but I was able to listen to rigs that involved a Blue Yeti and other laptop microphones and the MacBook’s new mic array was clearly better than any of the machines and held its own against the Yeti. 

The directional nature of many podcast mics is going to keep them well in advance of the internal mic on the MacBook for the most part, but for truly mobile recording setups the MacBook mic just went from completely not an option to a very viable fallback in one swoop. It really has to be listened to in order to get it. 

I doubt anyone is going to buy a MacBook Pro for the internal mic, but having a ‘pro level’ device finally come with a pro level mic on board is super choice. 

I think that’s most of it, though I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the Keyboard

Ah yes. I don’t really need to belabor the point on the MacBook Pro keyboards just not being up to snuff for some time. Whether you weren’t a fan of the short throw on the new butterfly keyboards or you found yourself one of the many people (yours truly included) who ran up against jammed or unresponsive keys on that design — you know that there has been a problem.

The keyboard situation has been written about extensively by Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern and complained about by every writer on Twitter over the past several years. Apple has offered a succession of updates to that keyboard to attempt to make it more reliable and has extended warranty replacements to appease customers. 

But the only real solution was to ditch the design completely and start over. And that’s what this is: a completely new keyboard.

Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard in homage to the iMac’s Magic Keyboard (but not identically designed). The new keyboard is a scissor mechanism, not butterfly. It has 1mm of key travel (more, a lot more) and an Apple-designed rubber dome under the key that delivers resistance and springback that facilitates a satisfying key action. The new keycaps lock into the keycap at the top of travel to make them more stable when at rest, correcting the MacBook Air-era wobble. 

And yes, the keycaps can be removed individually to gain access to the mechanism underneath. And yes, there is an inverted-T arrangement for the arrow keys. And yes, there is a dedicated escape key.

Apple did extensive physiological research when building out this new keyboard. One test was measuring the effect of a keypress on a human finger. Specifically, they measured the effect of a key on the pacinian corpuscles at the tips of your fingers. These are onion-esque structures in your skin that house nerve endings and they are most sensitive to mechanical and vibratory pressure. 

Apple then created this specialized plastic dome that sends a specific vibration to this receptor making your finger send a signal to your brain that says ‘hey you pressed that key.’ This led to a design that gives off the correct vibration wavelength to return a satisfying ‘stroke completed’ message to the brain.

There is also more space between the keys, allowing for more definitive strokes. This is because the keycaps themselves are slightly smaller. The spacing does take some adjustment, but by this point in the article I am already getting pretty proficient and am having more grief from the autocorrect feature of Catalina than anything else. 

Notably, this keyboard is not in the warranty extension program that Apple is applying to its older keyboard designs. There is a standard 1 year warranty on this model, a statement by the company that they believe in the durability of this new design? Perhaps. It has to get out there and get bashed on by more violent keyboard jockeys than I for a while before we can tell whether it’s truly more resilient. 

But does this all come together to make a more usable keyboard? In short, yes. The best way to describe it in my opinion is a blend between the easy cushion of the old MacBook Air and the low profile stability of the Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s truly one of the best feeling keyboards they’ve made in years and perhaps ever in the modern era. I reserve the right to be nostalgic about deep throw mechanical keyboards in this regard, but this is the next best thing. 

Pro, or Pro

In my brief and admittedly limited testing so far, the 16” MacBook Pro ends up looking like it really delivers on the Pro premise of this kind of machine in ways that have been lacking for a while in Apple’s laptop lineup. The increased storage caps, bigger screen, bigger battery and redesigned keyboard should make this an insta-buy for anyone upgrading from a 2015 MacBook Pro and a very tempting upgrade for even people on newer models that have just never been happy with the typing experience. 

Many of Apple’s devices with the label Pro lately have fallen into the bucket of ‘the best’ rather than ‘for professionals’. This isn’t strictly a new phenomenon for Apple, but more consumer centric devices like the AirPods Pro and the iPhone Pro get the label now than ever before. 

But the 16” MacBook Pro is going to alleviate a lot of the pressure Apple has been under to provide an unabashedly Pro product for Pro Pros. It’s a real return to form for the real Mack Daddy of the laptop category. As long as this new keyboard design proves resilient and repairable I think this is going to kick off a solid new era for Apple portables.

Startups Weekly: Understanding Uber’s latest fintech play

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about how SoftBank is screwing up. Before that, I noted All Raise’s expansion, Uber the TV show and the unicorn from down under.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.


Uber Head of Payments Peter Hazlehurst addresses the audience during an Uber products launch event in San Francisco, California, on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP PACHECO/AFP/Getty Images)

The sheer number of startup players moving into banking services is staggering,” writes my Crunchbase News friends in a piece titled “Why Is Every Startup A Bank These Days.”

I’ve been asking myself the same question this year, as financial services business like Brex, Chime, Robinhood, Wealthfront, Betterment and more raise big rounds to build upstart digital banks. North of $13 billion venture capital dollars have been invested in U.S. fintech companies so far in 2019, up from $12 billion invested in 2018.

This week, one of the largest companies to ever emerge from the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, Uber, introduced its team focused on developing new financial products and technologies. In a vacuum, a multibillion-dollar public company with more than 22,000 employees launching one new team is not big news. Considering investment and innovation in fintech this year, Uber’s now well-documented struggles to reach profitability and the company’s hiring efforts in New York, a hotbed for financial aficionados, the “Uber Money” team could indicate much larger fintech ambitions for the ride-hailing giant.

As it stands, the Uber Money team will be focused on developing real-time earnings for drivers accessed through the Uber debit account and debit card, which will itself see new features, like 3% or more cash back on gas. Uber Wallet, a digital wallet where drivers can more easily track their earnings, will launch in the coming weeks too, writes Peter Hazlehurst, the head of Uber Money.

This is hardly Uber’s first major foray into financial services. The company’s greatest feature has always been its frictionless payments capabilities that encourage riders and eaters to make purchases without thinking. Uber’s even launched its own consumer credit card to get riders cash back on rides. It’s no secret the company has larger goals in the fintech sphere, and with 100 million “monthly active platform consumers” via Uber, Uber Eats and more, a dedicated path toward new and better financial products may not only lead to happier, more loyal drivers but a company that’s actually, one day, able to post a profit.


VC deals


Meet me in Berlin

The TechCrunch team is heading to Berlin again this year for our annual event, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe. We announced the agenda this week, with leading founders including Away’s Jen Rubio and UiPath’s Daniel Dines. Take a look at the full agenda.

I will be there to interview a bunch of venture capitalists, who will give tips on how to raise your first euros. Buy tickets to the event here.


Listen to Equity

This week on Equity, I was in studio while Alex was remote. We talked about a number of companies and deals, including a new startup taking on Slack, Wag’s woes and a small upstart disrupting the $8 billion nail services industry. Listen to the episode here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast and all the casts.

HuffPost is reportedly on the auction block

By Jonathan Shieber

Late last night the Financial Times reported that HuffPost, arguably one of the crown jewels of Verizon Media Group’s remaining network of media properties (which includes TechCrunch), is up for sale.

Verizon has been shedding media properties in a retreat from the strategy that it had begun to execute with the acquisition of AOL for $4.4 billion back in 2015. Through the AOL deal, chief executive Tim Armstrong became the architect of the telecommunications company’s media and advertising strategy.

Armstrong’s vision was to roll up as much online real estate as he could while creating a high technology advertising architecture on the back-end that could better target consumers based on their media consumption (which the telecom company would also own).

The idea was to provide a broad-based competitor to the reach of ad platforms on Google and Facebook which were also targeting users based on their browsing history and interests. The benefit that Google and Facebook had was that they had a more holistic view of what consumers did online and they positioned themselves as a distribution channel between media companies and users — essentially redistributing their articles and videos and hoovering up the ad dollars that had previously gone to those media companies.

The multi-billion dollar land grab continued when Verizon paid $4.5 billion for Yahoo in 2017.

Now it appears that Verizon has a multi-billion dollar case of buyer’s remorse. Part of the billions that Verizon spent on Yahoo was for the early social network Tumblr, which Yahoo had acquired for $1.1 billion back in 2013.

Earlier this year Verizon unloaded Tumblr for the cost of a luxury Manhattan apartment. That $3 million sale was presaged by the significant fall from grace of other former high-flying media and tech properties.

Vice was once worth $5.7 billion at the height of the media investment bubble, but earlier this year Disney wrote down its stake in the company to virtually nothing.

At least Vice is emerging as a survivor. the company has rolled up Refinery29. Vox Media is also doing well in the new world of media. It bought Recode back in 2015 and recently acquired the publisher behind New York Magazine to expand its purview into paper publications and get its hands on the popular New York websites Intelligencer, The Cut, Vulture, and Grub Street.

Other publications like Hello Giggles, which was founded by the actress Zooey Deschanel, were sold to Time Magazine. High-fliers like Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Vice and Vox have all had to lay off staff in recent months.

It’s been a wild ride for HuffPost, which began in 2005 as a collection of celebrity bloggers brought together under the auspices of Arianna Huffington, from whom the site took its name.

AOL acquired The Huffington Post back in 2011 in a deal that was valued at $315 million less than a year after picking up TechCrunch for $25 million.

Verizon announced layoffs across its media properties at the beginning of the year. It cut roughly 7 percent of its staff — or around 800 jobs — including some at HuffPost.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Verizon said that it would not comment on rumors and speculation.

Neither Verizon Media nor HuffPost responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

By Kirsten Korosec

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is  used by Arriva  Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in over 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the UK in early 2019.

How ‘the Internet broke America’ with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz

By Arman Tabatabai

When Elizabeth Warren took on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook earlier this week, it was a low moment for what New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz calls “techno-utopianism.”

That the progressive, populist Massachusetts Senator and leading Democratic Presidential candidate wants to #BreakUpBigTech is not surprising. But Warren’s choice to spotlight regulating and trust-busting Facebook was nonetheless noteworthy, because of what it represents on a philosophical level. Warren, along with like-minded political leaders, social activists, and tech critics, has begun to offer the first massively popular alternative to the massively popular wave of aggressive optimism and “genius” ambition that characterized tech culture for the past decade or two.

“No,” Warren and others seem to say, “your vision is not necessarily making the world a better place.” This is a major buzzkill for tech leaders who have made (positive) world-changing their number one calling card — more than profits, popularity, skyscrapers like San Francisco’s striking Salesforce Tower, or any other measure.

Enter Marantz, a longtime New Yorker staff writer and Brooklyn, N.Y. resident who has recently trained his attention on tech culture, following around iconic figures on both sides of what he sees as the divide of our time — not between tech greats whose successes make us all better and those who would stop them, but between the alternative figures on the “new right” and the self-understood liberals of Silicon Valley who, according to Marantz, have both contributed to “hijacking the American conversation.”

Author Photo Andrew Marantz credit Luke Marantz fix

Image via Penguin Random House

Marantz’s first book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” will be released next week, and I recently had a chance to talk with him for this series the ethics of technology.

Greg Epstein: Congratulations on your absolutely fascinating new book Antisocial, and on everything you’ve been up to.

Thinkful confirms data breach days after Chegg’s $80M acquisition

By Zack Whittaker

Thinkful, an online education site for developers, has confirmed a data breach, just days after it confirmed it would be acquired.

“We recently discovered that an unauthorized party may have gained access to certain Thinkful company credentials so, out of an abundance of caution, we are notifying all of our users,” said Erin Rosenblatt, the company’s vice-president of operations, in an email to users.

“As soon as we discovered this unauthorized access, we promptly changed the credentials, took additional steps to enhance the security measures we have in place, and initiated a full investigation,” the executive said.

At the time of writing, there has been no public acknowledgement of the breach beyond the email to users.

Thinkful, based in Brooklyn, New York, provides education and training for developers and programmers. The company claims the vast majority of its graduates get jobs in their field of study within a half-year of finishing their program. Earlier this month, education tech giant Chegg bought Thinkful for $80 million in cash.

But the company would not say when the breach happened — or if Chegg knew of the data breach prior to the acquisition announcement.

A spokesperson for Chegg did not respond to a request for comment. Thinkful spokesperson Catherine Zuppe did not respond to several emails of questions about the breach.

The email to users said the stolen credentials could not have granted the hacker access to certain information, such as government-issued IDs and Social Security numbers, or financial information. But although the company said it’s seen “no evidence” of any unauthorized access to user’s account data, it did not rule out any improper access to user data.

Thinkful said it is requiring all users to change their passwords.

We also asked Thinkful what security measures it has employed since the credentials breach, such as employing two-factor authentication, but did not hear back.

Just months earlier, Chegg confirmed a data breach, which forced the online technology giant to reset the passwords of its 40 million users.

At least Thinkful is now in good company.

Groww, an investment app for millennials in India, raises $21.4M

By Manish Singh

Of the 1.3 billion people who live in India, more than 100 million of whom are using digital payment apps each day, only about 20 million today invest in mutual funds and stocks. An Indian startup that is betting on changing that figure by courting millennials has just received a big backing.

Groww, a Bangalore-based startup, said today it has raised $21.4 million in a Series B financing round that was led by US-based VC firm Ribbit Capital. Existing investors Sequoia India and Y Combinator also participated in the round, said the two-year-old startup that has raised about $29 million to date.

Groww allows users to invest in mutual funds, including systematic investment planning (SIP) and equity-linked savings. The app, which maintains a very simplified user interface to make it easier for its largely millennial customer base to comprehend the investment world, offers every fund that is currently available in India.

Lalit Keshre, co-founder and CEO of Groww, told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this week that the market of the mutual funds is increasingly widening in India and the startup is hoping to accelerate its growth with the fresh capital. Other than that, he plans to double Groww’s headcount to 200 in the coming months.

Groww has amassed about 2.5 million registered users, two-thirds of which are first-time investors, Keshre said. Groww is currently free to use and does not charge any commission on transactions. The startup eventually plans to offer a paid service as it looks to monetize its user base, but Keshre declined to share a timeline on how soon that would happen.

Groww will also soon begin to offer the ability to purchase stocks from its eponymous app, said Keshre, a former executive at Flipkart who co-founded Groww with three other Flipkart colleagues (Harsh Jain, Neeraj Singh and Ishan Bansal).

In a statement, Micky Malka, founder of Ribbit Capital, said, “We backed the Groww team because we believe in their mission. They have built the most trusted product in this space and are on the path to create a category-defining product.”

Ribbit Capital has made a number of investments in India in recent months. Last month, it invested in Cred, a startup that is trying to improve the financial behavior of credit card holders, and BharatPe, a payments solution for businesses.

In recent years, a number of startups such as INDWealth and Cube Wealth have emerged in India to offer wealth management platforms to country’s growing internet population.

Ashish Agarwal, a principal partner at Sequoia Capital India, said, “Investment products such as mutual funds and stocks were traditionally sold offline through financial advisors, who were mis-incentivized to sell high commission products. Groww is taking a refreshing approach with a zero-commission mobile first model, enabling investors to make their own investment choices through a slick and easy user interface.”

How to get your ads working, and whether PR is worth it

By Arman Tabatabai
Julian Shapiro Contributor
Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing agency that trains you to become a marketing professional. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you’re going stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice you can’t get elsewhere.

Our community consists of 600 startup founders paired with VP’s of growth from later-stage companies. We have 300 YC founders plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo, and Ritual.

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group, or marketing training programSee past growth reports here.

Without further ado, onto the advice.


How to get customer testimonials from hard-to-reach executives

Based on insights from Guillaume Cabane.

A customer testimonial from a well-known executive may be the social proof that improves conversion rates on your landing pages or in sales collateral. But executives of reputable companies are generally busy and difficult to reach.

Here’s how to get the testimonial:

  • Contract with a freelance journalist who’s written for a reputable publication like the New York Times.
  • Reach out to your executive customers with something like “Hey, we have a journalist who has previously written for NYT who’s interested in speaking to a few of our customers for a piece. Do you have 15 minutes for a quick call?”
  • For $200 in freelancer time, you get a testimonial you can use (in the words you want) from a reputable executive. Be sure to figure out some way to make it worth the executive’s time.

The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya

By Arman Tabatabai

People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

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Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize). 

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

image 4

Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.

New investment firm wants to change the way we fund early stage companies — from New Hampshire

By Ron Miller

The three founders of York IE have a vision about how to change the way early stage startups get funding. They have experience shattering norms, having built a successful startup, Dyn, in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is not exactly a hot-bed of startup activity.

The founders want to take that same spirit and apply it to investing, while maintaining its headquarters in New Hampshire (and Boston). In fact, the three founders — Kyle York, Joe Raczka and Adam Coughlin — launched Dyn and built it to $30 million in ARR before taking a dime in venture funding. They went onto raise $88 million before being acquired by Oracle in 2016. They believe they can apply the lessons that they learned to other early stage startups.

“We think, especially in B2B and SaaS, there is a way to build a scalable, effective and efficient business without chasing massive fund raises, diluting your company, bringing on traditional venture investors and chasing those kind of on-paper vanity metrics,” company CEO and co-founder Kyle York told TechCrunch.

For the past five years, while working at Oracle after the acquisition, the founders have been testing their theories while advising startups and acting as angel investors. They believed it was time to take all of those learnings and apply it to their own firm.

“I started thinking about how to transition out of Oracle, and what I wanted to do from a career perspective and we wanted to build a modern investment firm less focused on how to deploy as much capital as possible for the limited partners, and more on working with the entrepreneurs to help coach them on a path to success,” York said.

The company still wants to act as investors, and to make money along the way, but they want to help build more solid, grounded companies. York says that they want the founders truly understand that they are selling a part of their company in exchange for those dollars, and that it makes sense to have a strong foundation before taking on money.

York wants to change this culture of fund raising for fund raising’s sake. He acknowledges that some companies with deep tech or deep infrastructure require that kind of substantial up-front investment to get off the ground, but SaaS companies are supposed to be able to take advantage of modern technology to build companies more easily, and he wants to see them build solid companies first and foremost.

“The goal shouldn’t be to raise more capital. The goal should be to build a healthy successful, scalable company,” he said.

To put their money where their mouth is, the new firm will not take management fees. “We are investing like a normal investor and coming through with equity position, but we are betting on the future. In essence, if the startup wins, then we win.”

Africa Roundup: Goldman backs Kobo360, Rwanda commits to EVs, Interswitch IPO update

By Jake Bright

Nigerian freight logistics startup Kobo360 raised a $20 million Series A round led by Goldman Sachs and $10 million in working capital financing from Nigerian commercial banks.

The company — with an Uber-like app that connects truckers and companies to delivery services — will use the funds to upgrade its platform and expand to 10 new countries beyond current operating markets of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Kenya.

Kobo360 looks to grow beyond its Nigeria roots to become a truly Pan-African company, co-founder Obi Ozor told TechCrunch .  He co-founded the venture in 2017 with fellow Nigerian Ife Oyedele II.

Since its launch in Lagos, the startup has continued to grow its product offerings, VC backing and customer base. Kobo360 claims a fleet of more than 10,000 drivers and trucks operating on its app. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, Dangote and DHL.

Kobo360’s latest round is also notable for Goldman Sachs’ involvement. Goldman’s participation tracks a growing list of African venture investments made by the U.S. based finance firm.

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch.

The company — which has a robust Africa sales network — could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Headquartered in Shenzhen — where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility — Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

The government of Rwanda will soon issue national policy guidelines to eliminate gas motorcycles in its taxi sector in favor of e-motos, according to a preview of the plan by President Paul Kagame at a public-rally

The director general for the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Patrick Nyirishema, confirmed Kagame’s comments were ahead of a national e-mobility plan in the works for the East African nation.

“The president’s announcement is exactly the policy direction we’re in…it’s about converting to electric motos…The policy is prepared, it’s yet to be passed…and is going through the approval process,” Nyirishema told TechCrunch on a call from Kigali.

Motorcycle taxis in Rwanda are a common mode of transit, with estimates of 20 to 30 thousand operating in the capital of Kigali.

Nyirishema explained that converting to e-motorcycles is part of a national strategy to move Rwanda’s entire mobility space to electric. The country will start with public transit operators, such as moto-taxis, and move to buses and automobiles.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand, a Kigali-based e-moto startup, has already begun to pilot EVs and charging systems in Rwanda and will work with the country’s government on the moto-taxi conversion.

In an ExtraCrunch feature, TechCrunch delved into tech talent accelerator Andela — one of the most recognized and well funded startups operating in Africa.

In a byte, Andela is Series D stage startup ― backed by $180 million in VC ― that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.

CEO Jeremy Johnson dished on the company’s strategy toward profitability and responded to some of the criticism it receives ― namely a claim the startup is creating a second brain-drain when software developers leave Andela and Africa, to take positions with global companies.

Today Andela has offices in New York and five African countries: Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt ― which largely align with the continent’s top tech VC markets.

Across this network the company recruits software developers, builds software engineers, and deploys teams of software engineers.

Johnson disclosed numbers on Andela’s expected new hires for the year, current developer staff, how many departures the company expects, and how many of those will likely leave their home countries―which actually amounts to a fairly small percentage.

TechCrunch checked in with Nigerian fintech company Interswitch for the latest on its anticipated dual-listing London and Lagos stock exchanges.

A Bloomberg News story (based on background sourcing) revived speculation the IPO could happen this year for the company — which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure and has expanded its operations presence and payments products across Africa and globally.

Reports that Interswitch could be one of the earliest big tech companies out of Africa to go public trace back to 2016, when CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch the company was considering a listing before the end of that year.

Last month, an Interswitch spokesperson would neither confirm or deny a pending IPO, per a TechCrunch inquiry. So, it’s still tough to say if or when the company could list. But there are still several reasons why the business (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on, which we detailed in the update story.

 

One could be an eventual increase in venture funding to African startups, that could come from Interswitch. Another could be an Interswitch IPO adding another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia — the e-commerce company that became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE in April.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

 

Another US visa holder was denied entry over someone else’s messages

By Zack Whittaker

It has been one week since U.S. border officials denied entry to a 17-year-old Harvard freshman just days before classes were set to begin.

Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student living in Lebanon, had his student visa canceled and was put on a flight home shortly after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport. Customs & Border Protection officers searched his phone and decided he was ineligible for entry because of his friends’ social media posts. Ajjawi told the officers he “should not be held responsible” for others’ posts, but it was not enough for him to clear the border.

The news prompted outcry and fury. But TechCrunch has learned it was not an isolated case.

Since our story broke, we came across another case of a U.S. visa holder who was denied entry to the country on grounds that he was sent a graphic WhatsApp message. Dakhil — whose name we have changed to protect his identity — was detained for hours, but subsequently had his visa canceled. He was sent back to Pakistan and banned from entering the U.S. for five years.

Since 2015, the number of device searches has increased four-fold to over 30,200 each year. Lawmakers have accused the CBP of conducting itself unlawfully by searching devices without a warrant, but CBP says it does not need to obtain a warrant for device searches at the border. Several courts have tried to tackle the question of whether or not device searches are constitutional.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch that device searches and subsequent denials of entry had become the “new normal.”

This is Dakhil’s story.

* * *

As a a Pakistani national, Dakhil needed a visa to enter the U.S. He obtained a B1/B2 visa, which allowed him to temporarily enter the U.S. for work and to visit family. Months later, he arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, tired but excited to see his cousin for the first time in years.

It didn’t take long before Dakhil realized something wasn’t right.

Dakhil, who had never traveled to the U.S. before, was waiting in the immigration line at the border when a CBP officer approached him to ask why he had traveled to the U.S. He said it was for a vacation to visit his family. The officer took his passport and, after a brief examination of its stamps, asked why Dakhil had visited Saudi Arabia. It was for Hajj and Umrah, he said. As a Muslim, he is obliged to make the pilgrimages to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. The officer handed back his passport and Dakhil continued to wait in line.

At his turn, Dakhil approached the CBP officer in his booth, who repeated much of the same questions. But, unsatisfied with his responses, the officer took Dakhil to a small room close but separate from the main immigration hall.

“He asked me everything,” Dakhil told TechCrunch. The officer asked about his work, his travel history and how long he planned to stay in the U.S. He told the officer he planned to stay for three months with a plan to travel to Disney World in Florida and later New York City with his wife and newborn daughter, who were still waiting for visas.

The officer then rummaged through Dakhil’s carry-on luggage, pulling out his computer and other items. Then the officer took Dakhil’s phone, which he was told to unlock, and took it to another room.

For more than six hours, Dakhil was forced to sit in a bright, cold and windowless airport waiting room. There was nowhere to lie down. Others had pushed chairs together to try to sleep.

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A U.S. immigration form detailing Dakhil deportation.

Dakhil said when the officer returned, the questioning continued. The officer demanded to know more about what he was planning to do in the U.S. One line of questioning focused on an officer’s accusation that Dakhil was planning to work at a gas station owned by his cousin — which Dakhil denied.

“I told him I had no intention to work,” he told TechCrunch. The officer continued with his line of questioning, he said, but he continued to deny that he wanted to stay or work in the U.S. “I’m quite happy back in Karachi and doing good financially,” he said.

Two more officers had entered the room and began to interrogate him as the first officer continued to search bags. At one point he pulled out a gift for his cousin — a painting with Arabic inscriptions.

But Dakhil was convinced he would be allowed entry — the officers had found nothing derogatory, he said.

“Then the officer who took my phone showed me an image,” he told TechCrunch. It was an image from 2009 of a child, who had been murdered and mutilated. Despite the graphic nature of the image, TechCrunch confirmed the photo was widely distributed on the internet and easily searchable using the name of the child’s murderer.

“I was shocked. What should I say?” he told TechCrunch, describing the panic he felt. “This image is disturbing, but you can’t control the forwarded messages,” he explained.

Dakhil told the officer that the image was sent to him in a WhatsApp group. It’s difficult to distinguish where a saved image came from on WhatsApp, because it automatically downloads received images and videos to a user’s phone. Questionable content — even from unsolicited messages — found during a border search could be enough to deny the traveler entry.

The image was used to warn parents about kidnappings and abductions of children in his native Karachi. He described it as one of those viral messages that you forward to your friends and family to warn parents about the dangers to their children. The officer pressed for details about who sent the message. Dakhil told the officer that the sender was someone he met on his Hajj pilgrimage in 2011.

“We hardly knew each other,” he said, saying they stayed in touch through WhatsApp but barely spoke.

Dakhil told the officer that the image could be easily found on the internet, but the officer was more interested in the names of the WhatsApp group members.

“You can search the image over the internet,” Dakhil told the officer. But the officer declined and said the images were his responsibility. “We found this on your cellphone,” the officer said. At one point the officer demanded to know if Dakhil was organ smuggling.

After 15 hours answering questions and waiting, the officers decided that Dakhil would be denied entry and would have his five-year visa cancelled. He was also told his family would also have their visas cancelled. The officers asked Dakhil if he wanted to claim for asylum, which he declined.

“I was treated like a criminal,” Dakhil said. “They made my life miserable.”

* * *

It’s been almost nine months since Dakhil was turned away at the U.S. border.

He went back to the U.S. Embassy in Karachi twice to try to seek answers, but embassy officials said they could not reverse a CBP decision to deny a traveler entry to the United States. Frustrated but determined to know more, Dakhil asked for his records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request — which anyone can do — but had to pay hundreds of dollars for its processing.

He provided TechCrunch with the documents he obtained. One record said that Dakhil was singled out because his name matched a “rule hit,” such as a name on a watchlist or a visit to a country under sanctions or embargoes, which typically requires additional vetting before the traveler can be allowed into the U.S.

The record did not say what flagged Dakhil for additional screening, and his travel history did not include an embargoed country.

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CBP’s reason for denying entry to Dakhil obtained through a FOIA request.

One document said CBP denied Dakhil entry to the U.S. “due to the derogatory images found on his cellphone,” and his alleged “intent to engage in unauthorized employment during his entry.” But Dakhil told TechCrunch that he vehemently denies the CBP’s allegations that he was traveling to the U.S. to work.

He said the document portrays a different version of events than what he experienced.

“They totally changed this scenario,” he said, rebutting several remarks and descriptions reported by the officers. “They only disclosed what they wanted to disclose,” he said. “They want to justify their decision, so they mentioned working in a gas station by themselves,” he claimed.

The document also said Dakhil “was permitted to view the WhatsApp group message thread on his phone and he stated that it was sent to him in September 2018,” but this was not enough to satisfy the CBP officers who ruled he should be denied entry. The document said Dakhil stated that he “never took this photo and doesn’t believe [the sender is] involved either,” but he was “advised that he was responsible for all the contents on his phone to include all media and he stated that he understood.”

The same document confirmed the contents of his phone was uploaded to the CBP’s central database and provided to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Dakhil was “found inadmissible” and was put on the next flight back to Karachi, more than a day after he was first approached by the CBP officer in the immigration line.

A spokesperson for Customs & Border Protection declined to comment on individual cases, but provided a boilerplate statement.

“CBP is responsible for ensuring the safety and admissibility of the goods and people entering the United States. Applicants must demonstrate they are admissible into the U.S. by overcoming all grounds of inadmissibility including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds,” the spokesperson said. “This individual was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”

CBP said it also has the right to cancel visas if a traveler is deemed inadmissible to the United States.

It’s unlikely Dakhil will return to the U.S., but he said he had hope for the Harvard student who suffered a similar fate.

“Let’s hope he can fight and make it,” he said.

Update on Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch and its speculative IPO

By Jake Bright

Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch has been circulating in business news around a possible IPO on the London Stock Exchange.

Last month Bloomberg News ran a story—based on unnamed sources—reporting the financial services firm had hired investment banks to go public on the LSE later in 2019. The piece spurred additional aggregated press.

That Interswitch—which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure—could become one of Africa’s earliest tech companies to list on a global exchange isn’t exactly news.

It’s more deja vu of a story that began several years ago.

As TechCrunch reported, Interswitch was poised to launch on the LSE in 2016. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe confirmed “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.

Two additional sources wired into Nigeria’s tech market and close to Interswitch’s investors also said the public launch would happen by the end of that year.

The IPO would have made Interswitch Africa’s first tech company to go from startup to a billion-dollar plus unicorn valuation status. Of course, it didn’t happen in 2016.

In 2017, TechCrunch checked in with Interswitch on the delay and was told the company could not comment on its pending IPO.  In other public interviews, executives Mitchell Elegbe and Divisional Chief Executive Officer Akeem Lawal named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay and reaffirmed a likely dual Longon-Lagos listing by the end of 2019.

After the latest round of IPO buzz, TechCrunch asked Interswitch this week about the Bloomberg reporting and an imminent public stock listing. ““Interswitch does not comment on market speculation,” was the only info a public spokesperson could offer.

So, its tough to say if or when the company could list. There are still a few reasons why the company (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on.

One is Interswitch’s growing role as a nexus for payments and financial services infrastructure in Nigeria (home of Africa’s largest economy), across Africa, and between Africa and the world. Back in 2002, the company became the pioneer for creating infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-is-king based economy.

Interswitch QuicktellerInterswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The Nigerian company (which is now well beyond startup phase) has expanded with physical presence in Uganda, Gambia, and Kenya—the latter being home-turf of M-Pesa and Safaricom, which are largely responsible for making Kenya the mobile-money capital of Africa.

Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries, through bank partnerships, and has presence abroad. Through its Verve Global Card product, the company’s cardholders can now make payments in the U.S., UK, and UAE. Interswitch launched a partnership this month for Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network. The first transaction for the partnership was placed in New York, with an advertisement for the Nigerian company’s payment product flashing across Times Square. Verve Times Square Interswitch  Another facet to a possible Interswitch IPO is its potential to spark more corporate venture arm and acquisition activity in African fintech, which as a sector receives the bulk of the continent’s startup capital. Interswitch launched a venture arm in 2015called its global ePayment Growth Fundthat made two investments, but then went largely quiet.

A windfall of IPO capital and increasing competition from fintech startups could spur Interswitch to fire up its venture investing activity again. Startups such as Flutterwave and TeamAPT (formed by a former Interswitch alum) have already entered some of Interswitch’s product territory. If a public listing led Interswitch to ramp up investing in (or even acquiring) startups, the net effect would be more capital and exits in Africa’s fintech sector.

And finally, if Interswitch does IPO on the London and Lagos stock exchanges, it could provide another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia. This spring the e-commerce company became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE.

So far, Jumia’s IPO has been an up and down affair. The company gained investor and analyst confidence out of the gate, but also came under a short-sell assault and share-price volatility.

Two successful global IPOs of tech companies from Africa would and could become the best-case scenario for the continent’s startup scene. But for that to be a possibility, Interswitch will have to confirm the speculation and finally list as a publicly traded fintech firm.

 

What is Andela, the Africa tech talent accelerator?

By Jake Bright

As someone who covers Africa’s tech scene, I’m frequently asked about Andela . That’s not surprising, given the venture gets more global press (arguably) than any startup in Africa.

I’ve found many Silicon Valley investors have heard of Andela but aren’t exactly sure what it does.

In a bite, Andela is Series D stage startup―backed by $180 million in VC―that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.

The revenue-focused venture is often misread as a charity. In 2017, Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson described the organization as “a mission-driven for-profit company” ― a model for the concept “that you can actually build businesses that create real impact.”

I asked Johnson recently to clarify the objective behind Andela’s drive. “It’s the exact same mission as when we started, based around our founding principle… that brilliance and talent are distributed equally around the world, but opportunity is not,” he said.

“We’re about breaking down the walls that prevent brilliance and opportunity from connecting to each other.”

A major barrier for Africa’s software engineers, according to Johnson, is simply the fact that the continent has been totally off the network that companies look to for developer talent.

Urbvan raises $9 million for its private shuttle service in Mexico

By Jonathan Shieber

As cities in emerging markets grapple with increasingly traffic-clogged and dangerous streets, Urbvan, a startup providing private, high-end transportation shuttles in Mexico, has raised $9 million in a new round of financing.

Co-founded by Joao Matos Albino and Renato Picard, Urbvan is taking the reins from startups like the now-defunct Chariot and tailoring the business for the needs of emerging-market ecosystems.

Hailing from Portugal, Albino arrived in Mexico City as a hire for the Rocket Internet startup Linio. Although Linio didn’t last, Albino stayed in Mexico, eventually landing a job working for the startup Mercadoni, which is where he met Picard.

The two men saw the initial success of Chariot as it launched from Y Combinator, but were also tracking companies like the Indian startup Shuttl.

“We wanted to make shared mobility more accessible and a little bit more efficient,” says Albino. “We studied the economics and we studied the market and we knew there was a huge urgency in the congested cities of  Latin America.”

Unlike the U.S. — and especially major cities like San Francisco and New York — where public transportation is viewed as relatively safe and efficient, the urban environment of Mexico City is seen as not safe by the white-collar workers that comprise Urbvan’s principal clientele.

The company started operating back in 2016. At the time it had five vans that it leased and retrofitted to include amenities like Wi-Fi and plenty of space for a limited number of passengers. The company has expanded significantly since those early days. It now claims more than 15,000 monthly users and a fleet of 180 vans.

Urbvan optimized for safety as well as comfort, according to Albino. The company has deals with WeWork, Walmart and other retailers in Mexico City, so that all the stops on a route are protected and safe. The company also vets its drivers and provides them with additional training because of the expanded capacity of the vans.

Each van is also equipped with a panic button and cameras inside and out for additional monitoring.

Customers either pay $3 per ticket or sign up for a monthly pass that ranges from $100 to $130.

Financing for the company came from Kaszek Ventures and Angel Ventures, with previous investor Mountain Nazca also participating.

For Albino, who went to India to observe Shuttl’s operations, the global market for these kinds of services is so large that there will be many winners in each geography.

“Each city is different and you need to adapt. The technology needs to be adaptable to the city’s concerns, and where it can, add more value,” says Albino. “The Indian market is super different from Latin America… It’s a huge market with a lot of congestion… But the value proposition is a bit more basic [for Shuttl].”

Urbvan is currently operating in Mexico City and Monterrey, but has plans to expand into Guadalajara later this year.

Y Combinator graduate PredictLeads helps VCs hunt for unicorns

By Kate Clark

The Slovenian founders behind PredictLeads, another recent Y Combinator graduate, applied to the prestigious accelerator five times before they were admitted.

Their business, which helps venture capital firms and sales teams identify high growth companies, i.e. potential investments and potential customers, had come a long way since it was founded in 2016. And earlier this year — finally — YC gave them the green light to complete its three-month accelerator program.

“We almost ran out of money in 2017 and then I took a loan from my mother because that bank wouldn’t give me the loan at that point,” PredictLeads chief executive officer Roq Xever tells TechCrunch. “But by then, the data was getting much better and we were able to make higher-value sells and that got us to profitability.”

You read that right. Unlike most of today’s tech startups, PredictLeads is profitable, though, only out of pure necessity: “We didn’t know we would ever get into YC to raise the money we needed, so we structured the company to make more money than we spent.”

Xever leads the small PredictLeads team alongside marketing chief Miha Stanovnik and chief technology officer Matic Perovsek. Xever tells TechCrunch it wasn’t until they realized the opportunity to sell their product to VCs that YC became interested. Today, PredictLeads has eight venture firms as customers, the names of which they were not able to disclose.

The tool helps investors track companies they’ve considered in the past. PredictLeads notifies users if certain companies start getting traction so they can reevaluate the deal and helps investors become aware of startups they may not have otherwise heard of.

More and more venture capital firms are turning to third-party tools to help them make sense of and leverage data in the investment and company-tracking process, leading to the birth of new data-focused companies. Social Capital co-founder Chamath Palihapitiya is spinning out a company from his venture capital fund-turned-family-office, TechCrunch learned earlier this year. The new entity, temporarily dubbed CaaS (short for capital-as-a-service) Technologies, will focus on providing data-driven insights to VC firms, for example.

Startups have also realized the importance of data. Narrator, another recent YC graduate, is betting big on this trend. The startup wants to become the operating system for data science by providing companies software that claims to fulfill the same service as a data team for the price of an analyst.

PredictLeads, for its part, collects data from websites, press releases, news articles, blogs and career sites, then uses supervised machine learning to extract and structure the data. The startup tracks 20 million public and private companies.

Now that it’s a graduate of YC, the team is in the process of moving its headquarters to the U.S. Either New York or San Francisco, says Xever, who’s currently navigating the difficult visa application process.

The startup is today raising a $1.5 million seed financing at a $10 million valuation. They plan to use the capital to expand their service to cater to quant funds, build a Salesforce app to better support sales teams, and, of course, expand their small team.

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