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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.

 

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.

Learn how enterprise startups win big deals at TechCrunch’s Enterprise show on Sept. 5

By Frederic Lardinois

Big companies today may want to look and feel like startups, but when it comes to the way they approach buying new enterprise solutions, especially from new entrants. But from the standpoint of a true startup, closing deals with just a few big customers is critical to success. At our much anticipated inaugural TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5, Okta’s Monty Gray, SAP’s DJ Paoni, VMware’s Sanjay Poonen, and Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory will discuss ways for startups to adapt their strategies to gain more enterprise customers (p.s. early-bird tickets end in 48 hours – book yours here).

This session is sponsored by SAP, the lead sponsor for the event.

Monty Gray is Okta’s Senior Vice President and head of Corporate Development. In this role, he is responsible for driving the company’s growth initiatives, including mergers and acquisitions. That role gives him a unique vantage point of the enterprise startup ecosystem, all from the perspective of an organization that went through the process of learning how to sell to enterprises itself. Prior to joining Okta, Gray served as the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at SAP.

Sanjay Poonen joined VMware in August 2013, and is responsible for worldwide sales, services, alliances, marketing and communications. Prior to SAP, Poonen held executive roles at Symantec, VERITAS and Informatica, and he began his career as a software engineer at Microsoft, followed by Apple.

SAP’s DJ Paoni has been working in the enterprise technology industry for over two decades. As president of SAP North America, DJ Paoni is responsible for the strategy, day-to-day operations, and overall customer success in the United States and Canada.

These three industry executives will be joined on stage by Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory, who will provide the venture capitalist’s perspective. She joined Sapphire Ventures in 2014 and leads the firm’s CXO platform, a network of Fortune CIOs, CTOs, and digital executives. She got her start in the industry as an analyst for IDC, before joining SAP and leading product for its business travel solution.

Grab your early-bird tickets today before we sell out. Early-bird sales end after this Friday, so book yours now and save $100 on tickets before prices increase. If you’re an early-stage enterprise startup you can grab a startup demo table for just $2K here. Each table comes with 4 tickets and a great location for you to showcase your company to investors and new customers.

U.S. Treasury just designated China as a currency manipulator, so expect more economic shocks

By Jonathan Shieber

The U.S. Treasury has just taken the extraordinary step of designating China as a currency manipulator, something no administration has done since the days of Bill Clinton.

With the action, the trade war between the U.S. and China has entered a new phase that will likely see both countries stepping up both their rhetoric and actions in the trade dispute that has now dragged on for over a year.

As a result of the ongoing hostilities between the U.S. government and China, the flood of investment dollars that once came from Chinese technology companies and investors into U.S. technology companies has slowed. Acquisitions and investments made by Chinese companies have been unwound over concerns from the Committee of Foreign Investments in the U.S. and tariffs slapped on Chinese imports have hit U.S. stock prices (including in the technology sector).

The news of Treasury’s move comes less than 24 hours after the Chinese government announced a complete halt on U.S. agricultural imports. More significantly, the Bank of China has let the country’s currency slide in value against the U.S. dollar to above the seven-to-one figure that was considered a line-in-the-sand for trade.

Given the escalation, economists’ fears that global markets could slip into a recession within the next nine months are more likely to be realized, according to reports from Morgan Stanley, quoted by CNBC.

“We take its literal message of planned tariffs quite seriously. There’s a pattern of responding to insufficient negotiation progress with escalation,” Morgan Stanley said in an analyst report.

The move to label China as a currency manipulator means that the U.S. will plead its case before the International Monetary Fund to take steps to curb what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “the unfair competitive advantage created by China’s latest actions.”

If anything, China’s actions have actually been to prop up the country’s currency in the face of internal pressures to break the seven-to-one floor that had previously been set on the Renminbi’s value versus the dollar. China’s economy is slowing — in part due to tariffs imposed by the U.S., but also because economies in Europe and Asia are slowing down, which is hitting exports in the country. Indeed, much of the current growth in China’s economy has been fueled by debt-financed big infrastructure projects.

That could change as Chinese goods become cheaper thanks to the falling value of the nation’s currency. However, as Axios notes, what China is doing doesn’t actually fall under the definition of currency manipulation as it’s legally defined.

Because to be a currency manipulator a country needs to spend 2% of its gross domestic product over a 12-month period on currency manipulation. If anything, China was boosting the yuan in the face of calls to reduce its value until the President called for sanctions last week.

Even if the country’s currency devaluation does juice exports, it could have unforeseen consequences on China’s infrastructure spending and could backfire as a tool in the ongoing trade dispute.

A weaker currency means that Chinese consumers and businesses have to pay more for goods and services that are dollar-denominated. It also means that while the country is awash with cash, it could lose its competitive edge in a fight to lure top talent to the country. Losses in spending power could push the developers and programmers the country needs to transition from a manufacturing-focused economy to look elsewhere.

Stock markets are already taking note of the new U.S. action on trade. Futures show the Dow trading down about 350 points and the Nasdaq and S&P 500 indices both trading sharply lower.

Vizio rolls out its Apple AirPlay and HomeKit integrations to its SmartCast TV platform

By Ingrid Lunden

Ahead of Apple launching its big video streaming initiative Apple TV+ this autumn, an integration is going live today that brings Apple closer to working with third-party TV makers and making its services available on a wider array of devices. Today Vizio said it would start to roll out support for AirPlay2 and HomeKit to its SmartCast TV sets, making it possible to stream video and other media from Apple devices to its TVs and control the sets using Apple’s Home app and through its Siri voice assistant.

The support is coming by way of an over-the-air update to SmartCast 3.0, the system that underpins Vizio’s smart TVs. Notably, using the Apple services will not necessarily mean buying new Vizio TVs: the service is backwards-compatible to TVs dating back to 2016. New sets range in prices from $259.99 to $3,499.99.

“SmartCast 3.0 is full of added value for VIZIO customers. With both AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support, users can now share movies, TV shows, music and more from their favorite apps, including the Apple TV app, directly to SmartCast TVs, and enable TV controls through the Home app and Siri,” said Bill Baxter, chief technology officer, VIZIO. “We are thrilled to offer an even more compelling value proposition to our users with a smart TV experience that supports all three major voice assistants. This broad range of compatibility enables VIZIO SmartCast to seamlessly integrate into any household with Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa — giving users more ways to sit back and enjoy the entertainment they love.” Vizio still appears to be the only smart TV maker that’s offering support on its sets for all of the major voice assistants.

Vizio’s integration for Apple’s media services was first announced in January at CES, when Vizio said it would be getting rolled out later in the year.

The news was notable at the time for a couple of reasons. First, it underscored how Vizio was stepping up its growth efforts after a tough couple of years involving lawsuits, regulatory investigations and a failed M&A attempt.

Second, it was part of a bigger theme of Apple branching out into a wider consumer electronics ecosystem for its push into the world of TV and video. The latter still stands in stark contrast to Apple’s approach around smartphones, computers and watches, where it has spent years building hardware, operating systems and walled gardens.

That’s a story that is still playing out. The timing of the Vizio news is notable given that it’s just one day after Apple’s quarterly earnings report, where the company revealed a solid quarter that beat analyst expectations but also continued to show slowing growth, largely on the back of an ongoing decline in unit sales for the iPhone (amid a similar, bigger market trend for smartphones overall). To offset that story, Apple has been working hard to build new product categories in newer hardware areas like wearables (the Apple Watch), smart home hubs (HomePod) and Services, which includes Apple’s efforts in areas like video and music.

Services came in at $11.455 billion — missing analysts expectations but still growing 13% on a year ago. The promise — or perhaps more accurately, the hope — is that adding TV and gaming into the mix later in the year will boost that even more. This is where integrations such as the one getting announced today with Vizio will fit in: they will help expand the number of people who might be using the services, and of course the number of screens where the content can be consumed.

Vizio does not specify how many sets it currently has in the market — the last number it gave me earlier in the year was “millions” — but it generally is behind Samsung, which currently leads in the smart TV category.

It notes that the service will work by way of tapping an AirPlay icon within SmartCast to be able to stream 4K and Dolby VisionTM HDR movies and TV shows from Apple TV, along with other AirPlay-compatible video apps. Mirroring (which you can also do with non-smart TVs) will also be supported. AirPlay 2 also lets users play content across multiple rooms (provided you have the sets, HomePods or other AirPlay 2 speakers installed).

Porsche Taycan reservations surpass 30,000 ahead of world debut

By Kirsten Korosec

Porsche has secured 30,000 deposits for the Taycan more than a month before the German automaker will unveil the all-electric sports cars, numbers that suggest there’s enough demand to support the company’s plans to produce 40,000 units in its first year.

The latest reservation numbers were cited by Bloomberg and Porsche HR head Andreas Haffner in an interview with German business publication Handelsblatt.

Porsche initially targeted 20,000 Taycan electric vehicles for the first year of production. But interest in the vehicle prompted the automaker to double its planned annual production to 40,000 in its first year. Reservations require a 2,500 euro deposit ($2,785).

If Porsche is able to produce and then deliver 40,000 Taycans in its first year of production, the electric sports car would leap ahead of some of its iconic internal combustion models, including the 718 Boxster and the 911. Porsche sold 35,573 911s and 24,750 718 vehicles globally in 2018.

The Taycan would still trail Porsche’s other popular crossover and SUV models such as the Cayenne and Macan.

The Taycan could also put pressure on the Tesla Model S, the popular luxury electric sedan that has long dominated this niche in the industry. Tesla combines Model S and X delivery numbers. In 2018, the company delivered 99,394 Model S and X vehicles.

The Model S has had a number of updates since production began in 2012, but it hasn’t had a significant facelift since April 2016 when the front fascia was changed to look more like the Model X.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said earlier this month that the company doesn’t plan to “refresh” its Model X or Model S vehicles. In automotive speak, refreshed typically means small revisions to a vehicle model that extend beyond the typical yearly updates made by manufacturers. A refresh is not a major redesign, although there’s often a noticeable change to the vehicle model.

The company will make minor ongoing changes to the luxury electric sedan and sport utility vehicle, Musk said at that time. Even with those continuous updates, potential customers could opt for the newer Taycan.

Porsche isn’t resting on the novelty of its first electric vehicle to drive sales. The company is rolling out other incentives, notably plans to give owners of the Taycan three years of free charging at hundreds of Electrify America public stations across the United States. Electrify America is the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal.day.

The automaker also is making an additional $70 million investment to add DC fast chargers to Porsche dealerships.

Tesla focuses on service with 25 new service centers in Q2, rate of new openings to ‘increase’

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is set to aggressively ramp up the rate at which it opens new service facilities, according to CEO Elon Musk’s guidance on the company’s Q2 2019 earnings call. In total, Tesla opened 25 new service centers during the quarter, and added 100 new service vehicles to its existing fleet — which is in contrast to an earlier statement made by Musk that they’d look to close most of their physical stores in an effort to reduce costs.

Notably, Musk referred to the locations only as “service centers” during his comments on the subject on Wednesday’s earnings call, and never as stores — asked about “retail locations,” he corrected the analyst asking and again said that what Tesla opened were “service centers” specifically. He also emphasized the importance of ensuring that service scales in line with the size of Tesla’s overall fleet of vehicles in active use. Musk mentioned that the number of Tesla cars on the road doubled in the last year alone, meaning it’s seeing exponential growth in terms of the total size of the fleet it needs to service.

“Service scales not just with new production, but as the whole fleet sales,” Musk said, adding that they want to grow their service capabilities in a way that’s responsible when it comes to cost, but that that is “quite difficult” when it comes to the rate at which the company’s sales and shipments are increasing.

Even so, Tesla is taking on still more of its service work itself, rather than outsourcing to external vendors.

“We’ve in-sourced a great deal of the collision repair activities, which I think had quite a good impact on customer happiness,” Musk said. “This will continue in the months to come.” Musk also noted that the company is working hard to reset its processes in order to ensure that parts are available on-hand when and where needed for service, which is a gap that has prompted customer complaints in the past.

The Tesla CEO said that he meets with the Tesla service team “multiple times a week” to “get updates on the reliability of the vehicle,” noting the best service possible is “no service” because that would represent maximum reliability (and of course, lowest possible ongoing costs for Tesla). He also said that they’ve seen “fewer and fewer service visits for the most recent cars that we’re building, so we’re on a good trend there.”

Jerome Guillen, President of Automotive at Tesla also noted that the number one reason for service visits is actually people looking to learn how to use Autopilot, and in general education represents a high percentage of visits.

Tesla CFO Zach Kirkhorn addressed a question about the service center expansion later in the call, adding that the company is pursuing a path of systematic “focus on service and supercharging, as opposed to a retail presence.” He also noted that he believes efforts to improve their parts distribution, with a focus on ensuring that parts are available on-hand in inventory at the service centers where they’re needed will actually help bring down costs overall versus housing them centrally or ordering on-demand from suppliers and Tesla’s own fabrication facilities.

VCs double down on data-driven investment models

By Kate Clark

Social Capital co-founder Chamath Palihapitiya is spinning out a company from his venture capital fund-turned-family-office, TechCrunch has learned. The new entity, temporarily dubbed CaaS (short for capital-as-a-service) Technologies, will focus on providing data-driven insights to VC firms.

Data informs investment decisions at VC funds more than ever, as new technologies make way for increasingly quantitative approaches to deal-making. But when it comes to third-party data analysis tools, there are few options tailored to VCs.

Palihapitiya’s latest effort will operate as a standalone business, automating the time-sucking process of evaluating a company’s health prior to investing. Zafer Younis, former partner at San Francisco accelerator 500 Startups, has been named CEO of the business, which is expected to launch this fall.

Palihapitiya did not respond to a request for comment. Younis could not be reached for comment.

According to Younis’ LinkedIn profile, which indicates he spent nine months at Social Capital in 2018, CaaS Technologies is “a collection of quantitative diligence tools developed to help VCs evaluate investment opportunities and make better data-driven decisions. CaaS reduces diligence time and offers investors insights that are otherwise a burden to the founder and investment team to process and prepare. Founders are using CaaS to improve their pitches and drive investor conviction using transparent and defendable data.”

CaaS Technologies’ approach resembles that of Social Capital’s “magic 8-ball,” a quantitative tool for due diligence built by former Social Capital partner Jonathan Hsu several years ago. The goal of 8-ball was to develop a standardized method of determining product-market fit in early-stage startups. In 2016, Social Capital decided to open-source 8-ball, granting startups access to its basic features.

Palihapitiya is choosing to monetize Social Capital’s IP shortly after Tribe Capital, a relatively new fund managed by a trio of former Social Capital data wizards including Hsu, began investing in startups using 8-ball’s methodology.

Hsu declined to comment for this story.

In addition to hiring Younis, CaaS Technologies has formed a small team complete with engineers, raised capital and formed relationships with more than a dozen institutional venture funds, sources tell TechCrunch. We have not yet identified any of the venture funds working with CaaS Technologies.

Co-founder Social Capital, Chamath Palihapitiya, speaks onstage during “The State of the Valley: Where’s the Juice?” at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 19, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

‘Craftsman-at-scale’

Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Brad Twohig said he wasn’t aware of CaaS Technologies efforts to team with VCs, rather, LSVP has opted to develop a data science team in-house.

Twohig declined to disclose the size of LSVP’s data-focused team; a representative for LSVP said the size and scale of the team is part of the firm’s “secret sauce.”

“You have to strike a balance between being well-informed people with a data advantage by using all the tools and software while avoiding the temptation to go too far,” Twohig tells TechCrunch. “At the end of the day, this is still something where we are looking to take a craftsman-at-scale approach to our investing as opposed to just ‘hey, we’ve got an algorithm and it’s gonna spit out whether we fund you or not.'”

“When people are building stealth-fighter jets, they are handcrafted, they are highly informed by data and architectural drawings but they are still hand built with a lot of precision,” he added.

As data insights become an integral part of the diligence process for startup investing, firms like LSVP are tapping new talent, developing data-first investment theses or establishing funds reliant on algorithms. Tribe Capital recently launched with a data-supported strategy, for example. Spotify-backer EQT Ventures touts the success of its machine learning system Motherbrain, claiming the algorithm can identify future unicorns.

‘Augmentation of an analyst’

TruValue Labs, a startup headquartered in San Francisco, offers a third-party data analysis platform to Wall Street investors. The company sells a subscription-based AI product to investment managers at hedge and private equity funds, helping them lower the risk profile of a given investment by better understanding the health of a business using thousands of unstructured data sources.

“There’s a huge spur from large asset managers trying to build tools themselves using ML tech and AI but can all asset managers attract engineering talent to do this themselves? Absolutely not.” TruValue co-founder and CEO Hendrik Bartel tells TechCrunch. “I don’t think all asset managers have it in them to become a software company. I’ve seen more and more third party platforms come out of nowhere.”

TruValue focuses on evaluating public market investment opportunities on the basis of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues. Recently, it’s seen a greater demand for transparency in the private markets.

“Private equity investors want to have greater transparency into their investments, and from a due diligence perspective, they want to know more about these companies before they invest in them,” Bartel said.

Bartel refers to his approach — and that of CaaS Technologies — as “an augmentation of an analyst.” At venture capital firms, analysts are often charged with researching businesses and perusing available business and financial records to help a firm decide whether to move forward with a startup.

“It’s virtually impossible for an analyst or an asset manager to cover all the companies in its portfolio,” Bartel said. “To read all the information about a publicly held company, it would take an analyst six years.”

Ultimately, leveraging a thoughtful tool and the expertise of an experienced team may make a lot more sense for a VC firm than building out their own data science teams. Not only are data scientists costly and competitive, but data scientists well-versed in the venture capital asset class are fewer and farther between.

As for CaaS Technologies specifically, an attempt to monetize the features that made Social Capital one of the top venture capital funds, albeit for a short time period, is a logical path forward for the team.

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