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Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+ hands-on

By Brian Heater

During an Unpacked event that featured the announcement of five key new devices, the Galaxy Tab S7 didn’t get a ton of love. Understandable, perhaps. It doesn’t quite have the star power of the Note line, nor does it have the novelty of a new foldable or Bluetooth earbuds. Tablets in general just aren’t exciting the way they once were.

But Samsung’s continued to plug away. The company makes a lot of tablets. That’s just kind of its thing. Why make one when you can make a dozen, each with different price points and target audiences? It’s the Galaxy Tab line, however, that’s always been the one to watch, providing a premium slate experience designed to complement its Galaxy handsets.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In fact, in a world where Android tablets are largely the realm of budget devices, Samsung remains one of the few out there still manufacturing a device that can go head-to-head with the iPad. The latest model brings a number of key features, though the biggest of all isn’t available on the Tab S7+ review unit the company sent along.

The device will be among the first tablets to receive 5G connectivity. Pricing and availability are still forthcoming on that SKU, though, honestly, I don’t imagine a ton of people are going to be demanding cellular connectivity on their tablets as long as so many people continue working from home. When travel finally starts up again, that might be a different story.

That said, the model Samsung sent along just after the Unpacked event is a beast. It’s the specced-up version of the Tab S7+, which starts at $849. The higher tier bumps the RAM up from 6GB to 8GB and the storage from 128GB to 256GB. Add in the bleeding-edge Snapdragon 865+, and you’ve got an extremely capable machine on your hands here.

The design matches the premium specs. Gone is the plasticky design of early models, traded up for a sleek and sturdy glass and aluminum design. It’s a tablet that looks and feels as premium as its price tag indicates. It’s a bit heavy, though, at 1.26 pounds for the 12.4-inch model, versus 1.41 pounds for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The truth about these devices is they’re no longer designed to be held up above your face as you lie in bed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

They are, of course, intended to be real multitasking work/play machines. I should note that I’m writing this as someone who continues to use a laptop for all of his work, but I can certainly appreciate the advances the category has made in recent years. I also know a handful of people who have mostly successfully traded in their work machines for a tablet, be it an Android device, Surface or iPad.

A tablet’s worth as a work machine is, of course, only as good as its case — a statement you can’t reasonably make about most products. Along with the device itself, Samsung has upgraded the case in a couple of nice ways. The typing experience doesn’t quite match a devoted laptop keyboard, but it’s been pretty well refined. The keys have a decent amount of travel and a nice spring for a laptop cover. The leather case also detaches into two pieces, so the back can be used as a stand, without the keyboard present. Of course, the trade-off for this sort of case is the fact that it can’t really be used on one’s lap without things falling and pieces detaching.

It wouldn’t be a Samsung tablet without the S Pen, of course. The peripheral is, thankfully, included. There’s no slot for the stylus (something I keep asking for but never get; life’s hard sometimes), but it does snap magnetically to the top of the device, albeit a bit weakly. Samsung has certainly built up a nice little ecosystem for the input device, and I’m pretty consistently impressed that it’s able to recognize and convert my chicken scratch. Seriously, my already terrible penmanship has only atrophied over time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Points, too, for a beautiful OLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate. Depending on what you’re looking to do with it, you might need to toggle that to save on battery life. Both models are pretty solid on that front, with 8,000 and 10,900 mAh, respectively, but the 5G models will no doubt take a hit.

Samsung is really pushing DeX hard — even harder than it has in the past. You can set it to automatically trigger the desktop approximation when you plug in the keyboard. The interface is an attempt to approximate something akin to the Windows desktop experience, but a number of apps still don’t support the interface and overall it still feels clunky. It’s easy to extrapolate a bit and imagine how it will improve things like multitasking, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite all the way there.

Conversational analytics are about to change customer experiences forever

By Walter Thompson
Evan Kohn Contributor
A digital marketing and customer experience leader, Evan Kohn is chief business officer at Pypestream, where he created PypePro, an AI onboarding methodology used by Fortune 500 firms.

Companies have long relied on web analytics data like click rates, page views and session lengths to gain customer behavior insights.This method looks at how customers react to what is presented to them, reactions driven by design and copy. But traditional web analytics fail to capture customers’ desires accurately. While marketers are pushing into predictive analytics, what about the way companies foster broader customer experience (CX)?

Leaders are increasingly adopting conversational analytics, a new paradigm for CX data. No longer will the emphasis be on how users react to what is presented to them, but rather what “intent” they convey through natural language. Companies able to capture intent data through conversational interfaces can be proactive in customer interactions, deliver hyper-personalized experiences, and position themselves more optimally in the marketplace.

Direct customer experiences based on customer disposition

Conversational AI, which powers these interfaces and automation systems and feeds data into conversational analytics engines, is a market predicted to grow from $4.2 billion in 2019 to $15.7 billion in 2024. As companies “conversationalize” their brands and open up new interfaces to customers, AI can inform CX decisions not only in how customer journeys are architected–such as curated buying experiences and paths to purchase–but also how to evolve overall product and service offerings. This insights edge could become a game-changer and competitive advantage for early adopters.

Today, there is wide variation in the degree of sophistication between conversational solutions from elementary, single-task chatbots to secure, user-centric, scalable AI. To unlock meaningful conversational analytics, companies need to ensure that they have deployed a few critical ingredients beyond the basics of parsing customer intent with natural language understanding (NLU).

While intent data is valuable, companies will up-level their engagements by collecting sentiment and tone data, including via emoji analysis. Such data can enable automation to adapt to a customer’s disposition, so if anger is detected regarding a bill that is overdue, a fast path to resolution can be provided. If a customer expresses joy after a product purchase, AI can respond with an upsell offer and collect more acute and actionable feedback for future customer journeys.

Tap into a multitude of conversational data points

Register for our next pitch-off happening on August 13

By Marquise Foster

Here’s a shout-out to all the early-stage founders attending Disrupt 2020. Don’t forget to register for our next Pitchers & Pitches — on August 13 — and get ready to hone your 60-second pitch to a razor’s edge.

If you’re not in the know, our ongoing Pitchers & Pitches webinar series is a pitch-off-masterclass-mashup. It’s a chance to deliver your best pitch to a panel of experts who will provide invaluable critique to help you craft a more compelling pitch. Better pitches equal more opportunities, amirite?

Anyone can benefit by attending Pitchers & Pitches, but only companies exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley can compete. Want to be eligible to pitch in next week’s event? Buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package here.

We’ll randomly select five startups to pitch, receive direct feedback and have a shot at taking the top prize. We love prizes…especially the kind that help build a better startup. The winning founders receive a consulting session with cela, a company that connects early-stage startups to accelerators and incubators that can help scale their businesses.

Here’s another great reason to exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. You get exclusive access to our three-part interactive webinar series. Check the dates and topics below:

  • August 12: The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press
  • August 19: COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World
  • August 26: Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices

We’ll announce the pitching lineup — and the specific VC judges those founders need to impress — on August 12. Remember, only startups exhibiting at Disrupt 2020 are eligible to pitch. If you want in on the action, get yourself a Digital Startup Alley Package today.

Register here and join us for the next Pitchers & Pitches on August 13. And hey, even if you don’t compete, you’ll hear loads of good advice on ways to improve your presentation skills and make the most of your 60-second pitch.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Chinese Hackers Have Pillaged Taiwan's Semiconductor Industry

By Andy Greenberg
A campaign called Operation Skeleton Key has stolen source code, software development kits, chip designs, and more.

Why Do Razor Blades Get Dull So Quickly?

By Eric Niiler
An MIT team tackled the mystery of why something as soft as hair can erode a steel blade, hoping to figure out how to make shaving tools last longer.

The Feds Want These Teams to Hack a Satellite—From Home

By Sarah Scoles
Meet the hackers who, this weekend, will try to commandeer an actual orbiter as part of a Defcon contest hosted by the Air Force and the Defense Digital Service.

Dutch Hackers Found a Simple Way to Mess With Traffic Lights

By Andy Greenberg
By reverse engineering apps intended for cyclists, security researchers found they could cause delays in at least 10 cities from anywhere in the world.

Instagram Launches Reels, Its TikTok Clone, in the US

By Arielle Pardes
The company is wooing creators with features they know and love, on a platform President Trump doesn’t publicly hate.

An ’80s File Format Enabled Stealthy Mac Hacking

By Andy Greenberg
The now-patched vulnerability would have let hackers target Microsoft Office using Symbolic Link—a file type that hasn't been in common use in over 30 years.

Watch SpaceX launch its tenth Starlink mission to build out its satellite internet constellation

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is getting ready for a third try at launching its tenth Starlink mission, after two prior attempts were scrubbed, first in June and then again in July. Meanwhile, SpaceX has accomplished a lot — including another launch of a GPS satellite, and returning astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth from the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon.

This Starlink mission attempt is scheduled for Friday, August 7 at 1:12 AM EDT (10:12 PM PDT on August 6) and will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There’s also a backup opportunity scheduled for Saturday, August 8 at 12:50 AM EDT (Augut 7 at 9:50 PM PDT).

The payload for this mission includes, predictably, Starlink satellites — 57 in total that will join the constellation already in low Earth orbit as SpaceX gets ready to begin its beta test, which it says will kick off this summer. Starlink aims to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband to customers who don’t currently have great access to that kind of connectivity, with a beta set to start in parts of the U.S. and Canada this year. The Starlink satellites on this flight are all equipped with a special extendable solar visor to prevent reflections from their radio surfaces from obscuring the night sky from Earth.

This mission also carries two BlackSky satellites, which is one of SpaceX’s customers through launch services provider Spaceflight. It’s the second time that SpaceX has carried another payload alongside its own Starlink satellites on one of these flights, showing its spacefaring rideshare business model in action.

The live feed for the launch will start around 15 minutes prior to launch time, so at roughly 12:57 AM EDT (9:57 PM PDT).

Google launches the final beta of Android 11

By Frederic Lardinois

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, though, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

Hackers say ‘jackpotting’ flaws tricked popular ATMs into spitting out cash

By Zack Whittaker

In 2010, the late Barnaby Jack, a world-renowned security researcher, hacked an ATM live on stage at the Black Hat conference by tricking the cash dispenser into spitting out a stream of dollar bills. The technique was appropriately named “jackpotting.”

A decade on from Jack’s blockbuster demo, security researchers are presenting two new vulnerabilities in Nautilus ATMs, albeit virtually, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Security researchers Brenda So and Trey Keown at New York-based security firm Red Balloon say their pair of vulnerabilities allowed them to trick a popular standalone retail ATM, commonly found in stores rather than at banks, into dispensing cash at their command.

A hacker would need to be on the same network as the ATM, making it more difficult to launch a successful jackpotting attack. But their findings highlight that ATMs often have vulnerabilities that lie dormant for years — in some cases since they were first built.

Barnaby Jack, the late security researcher credited with the first ATM “jackpotting” attacks. Now, 10 years later, two security researchers have found two new ATM cash-spitting attacks. Credit: YouTube

So and Keown said their new vulnerabilities target the Nautilus ATM’s underlying software, a decade-old version of Windows that is no longer supported by Microsoft. To begin with, the pair bought an ATM to examine. But with little documentation, the duo had to reverse-engineer the software inside to understand how it worked.

The first vulnerability was found in a software layer known as XFS — or Extensions for Financial Services — which the ATM uses to talk to its various hardware components, such as the card reader and the cash dispensing unit. The bug wasn’t in XFS itself, rather in how the ATM manufacturer implemented the software layer into its ATMs. The researchers found that sending a specially crafted malicious request over the network could effectively trigger the ATM’s cash dispenser and dump the cash inside, Keown told TechCrunch.

The second vulnerability was found in the ATM’s remote management software, an in-built tool that lets owners manage their fleet of ATMs by updating the software and checking how much cash is left. Triggering the bug would grant a hacker access to a vulnerable ATM’s settings.

So told TechCrunch it was possible to switch the ATM’s payment processor with a malicious, hacker-controlled server to siphon off banking data. “By pointing an ATM to a malicious server, we can extract credit card numbers,” she said.

Bloomberg first reported the vulnerabilities last year when the researchers privately reported their findings to Nautilus. About 80,000 Nautilus ATMs in the U.S. were vulnerable prior to the fix, Bloomberg reported. We contacted Nautilus with questions but did not hear back.

Successful jackpotting attacks are rare but not unheard of. In recent years, hackers have used a number of techniques. In 2017, an active jackpotting group was discovered operating across Europe, netting millions of euros in cash.

More recently, hackers have stolen proprietary software from ATM manufacturers to build their own jackpotting tools.


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849 or send an encrypted email to: zack.whittaker@protonmail.com

UK reported to be ditching coronavirus contacts tracing in favor of ‘risk rating’ app

By Natasha Lomas

What’s going on with the UK’s coronavirus contacts tracing app? Reports in the national press today suggest a launch of the much delayed software will happen this month but also that the app will no longer be able to automatically carry out contacts tracing.

The Times reports that a repackaged version of the app will only provide users with information about infection levels in their local area. The newspaper also suggests the app will let users provide personal data in order to calculate a personal risk score.

The Mail also reports that the scaled back software will not be able to carry out automated contacts tracing.

We’ve reached out to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) with questions and will update this report with any response. DHSC is the government department leading development of the software, after the NHS’s digital division handed the app off.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world this year, digital contacts tracing has been looked to as a modern tool to COVID-19 by leveraging the near ubiquity of smartphones to try to understand individual infection risk based on device proximity.

In the UK, an earlier attempt to launch an NHS COVID-19 app to support efforts to contain the virus by automating exposure notifications using Bluetooth signals faltered after the government opted for a model that centralized exposure data. This triggered privacy concerns and meant it could not plug into an API offered by Apple and Google — whose tech supports decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

At the same time, multiple countries and regions in Europe have launched decentralized contacts tracing apps this year. These apps use Bluetooth signals as a proxy for calculating exposure risk — crunching data on device for privacy reasons — including, most recently, Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

However in the UK’s case, after initially heavily publicizing the forthcoming app — and urging the public to download it in its daily coronavirus briefings (despite the app not being available nationwide) —  the government appears to have stepped almost entirely away from digital contacts tracing, claiming the Apple -Google API does not provide enough data to accurately calculate exposure risk via Bluetooth.

Decentralized Bluetooth coronavirus contacts tracing apps that are up and running elsewhere Europe have reported total downloads and sometimes other bits of data. But there’s been no comprehensive assessment of how well they’re functioning as a COVID-fighting tool.

There have been some reports of bugs impacting operation in some cases, too. So it’s tricky to measure efficacy. Although the bald fact remains that having an app means there’s at least a chance it could identify contacts otherwise unknown to users, vs having no app and so no chance of that.

The Republic of Ireland is one of the European countries with a decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing app (which means it can interoperate with Northern Ireland’s app) — and it has defended how well the software is functioning, telling the BBC last month that 91 people had received a “close contact exposure alert” since launch. Although it’s not clear how many of them wouldn’t have been picked up via manual contacts tracing methods.

A government policy paper published at the end of last month which discussed the forthcoming DHSC app said it would allow citizens to: identify symptoms; order a test; and “feel supported” if they needed to self isolate. It would also let people scan a QR codes at venues they’ve visited “to aid contact tracing and help understand the spread of the virus”.

The government paper also claimed the app would let users “quickly identify when they have been exposed to people who have COVID-19 or locations that may have been the source of multiple infections” — but without providing details of how that would be achieved.

“Any services that require more information from a citizen will be provided only on the basis of explicit consent,” it added.

Ahead of the launch of this repackaged app it’s notable that DHSC disbanded an ethics committee which had been put in place to advise the NHS on the app. Once development was handed over to the government, the committee was thanked for its time and sent on its way.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One program today, professor Lilian Edwards — who was a member of the ethics committee — expressed concern at the reports of the government’s latest plans for the app.

“Although the data collection is being presented as voluntary it’s completely non-privacy preserving,” she told the program, discussing The Times’ report which suggests users will be nudged to provide personal data with the carrot of a ‘personal risk score’. “It’s going to involve the collection of a lot of personal, sensitive data — perhaps your health status, your retirement status, your occupation etc.

“This seems, again, an odd approach given that we know one of the reasons why the previous app didn’t really take off was because there was rather a loss of public trust and confidence in it, because of the worries partly about privacy and about data collection — it not being this privacy-preserving decentralized approach.”

“To mix the two up seems a strange way to go forward to me in terms of restoring and embedding that trust and confidence that your data won’t be shared with people you don’t want it to be,” Edwards added. “Like maybe insurers. Or repurposed in ways that you don’t know about. So it seems rather contrary to the mission of restoring trust and confidence in the whole test and trace endeavour.”

Concerns have also been raised about another element of the government’s digital response to the coronavirus — after it rushed to ink contracts with a number of tech giants, including Palantir and Google, granting them access to NHS data.

It was far less keen to publish details of these contracts — requiring a legal challenge by Open Democracy, which is warning over the impact of “Silicon Valley thinking” applied to public health services.

In another concerning development, privacy experts warned recently that the UK’s test and trace program as a whole breaches national data protection laws, after it emerged last month that the government failed to carry out a legally required privacy impact assessment ahead of launch.

5 VCs on the future of Michigan’s startup ecosystem

By Matt Burns

The Michigan startup scene is growing and venture capitalists see several key areas of opportunities. What follows is a survey of some of the top VCs in the state and how they see COVID-19 affecting the growth of Detroit, Ann Arbor and all of Michigan’s startup ecosystem. According to the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), there are 144 venture-backed startup companies in Michigan, which is an increase of 12% over the last five years.

The amount of capital available in the state hit a four-year high in 2019 after shrinking from record levels in 2015. The MVCA says the total amount of VC funds under management in Michigan is $4.3 billion. Out of that, 71% of the capital has been invested into companies and the MVCA states its members estimate an additional $1.2 billion of venture capital is needed to “adequately fund the growth of Michigan’s 144 startup companies in the next two years.”

As the VCs say below, life sciences is a large part of the Michigan ecosystem, attracting 38% of all investments made in the state. Information technology comes in second, receiving 34% of the total capital invested, with 85% going to those focused on software. Mobility, often thought as Michigan’s mainstay, only received 7% of the capital in 2019. Here’s who we spoke to:

  • Chris Stallman, partner, Fontinalis Partners
  • Patricia Glaza, EVP and managing director, ID Ventures
  • Chris Rizik, CEO and fund manager, Renaissance Venture Capital
  • Tim Streit, partner, Grand Ventures
  • Turner Novak, general partner, Gelt VC

VCs remain bullish on Michigan’s life science startups

Michigan has long been a hub for life science startups and the venture capitalists polled expect that to continue. Chris Stallman of Fontinalis Partners points to Michigan’s long-standing reputation in this field and expects this to continue.

Tim Streit of Grand Ventures agrees and sees the pandemic as accelerating the sector’s growth. In recent weeks he says his firm has seen a “number of promising digital therapeutics deals based in or near Michigan … and the timing couldn’t be more perfect for these kinds of companies to succeed.”

Chris Rizik of Renaissance Venture Capital notes that drug development will continue to drive growth around the country and is a strength of the Michigan ecosystem. He also points to Jeff Williams, CEO of NeuMoDx, as a leader in the life science community and who has led a number of Michigan’s most successful startups.

The notable exception to this are startups directly serving hospitals, according to Patricia Glaza of ID Ventures. She sees this as a challenging market in the era of COVID-19, saying “Hospitals are bleeding cash without elective surgeries and hard to prioritize nonessential technologies.”

Ann Arbor is becoming a hub for security companies

Duo Security’s impressive exit to Cisco in 2018 is still resonating in the scene. As such, many venture capitalists are seeing Ann Arbor becoming a home for security startups.

Stallman of Fontinalis states, “I think the cybersecurity realm will be a bright spot as some of those spillover effects from the 2018 acquisition of Duo Security by Cisco take hold (this is still in its early days — employees will reach the end of their employment agreements and will start new companies, etc.).” Rizik of Renaissance Venture Capital said something similar: “The success of Duo Security highlighted Michigan’s growing reputation as a cybersecurity hub. The University of Michigan has always been strong in this area, and we now see a number of interesting startups in this field popping up around Ann Arbor.”

When asked about leaders in the Michigan startup scene, nearly all of the VCs listed Duo Security founders Dug Song and Jon Oberheide as key players. Perhaps Rizik said it best: “Dug Song is a great leader, who not only created a monster success for the region with Duo Security, but also has devoted much of his time to strategically working to help Michigan move forward as a responsible, startup-friendly community.”

Michigan is well-suited to benefit from remote work

Of course Michigan-based venture capitalists would be bullish on their own state, but nearly all of the VCs share the same reasons on why Michigan is a good place. They list low cost of living, amazing STEM-focused schools and a community of founders, VCs and business leaders eager to help each other.

Few VCs mention mobility as a bright spot for Michigan startups

Surprisingly, few of the VCs in the survey mention mobility or automotive as a highlight of the Michigan startup scene, which runs counter to the national narrative. Stallman sums up the situation this way: “The mobility space will see both headwinds and tailwinds. Companies vying for automotive customers may find that the industry’s challenges have resulted in a shorter ‘priority list’ for many automakers and suppliers; on the other side, companies helping to remove enterprise risk through innovation in supply chain, automation, workforce efficiency, etc. will have arguably more opportunity going forward.”

Chris Stallman, partner, Fontinalis Partners

How much is local investing a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

We have always been a thematically focused investor rather than a geographically focused investor; prior to COVID-19, we had invested 99% of our capital outside of Michigan. With that said, we’d love to invest more in Michigan and support more local founders.

What do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Detroit/Ann Arbor/Michigan longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub?

Southeast Michigan has always been a story of two different startup worlds: health/life sciences and hardware/software tech. On the life sciences side, this region has a long-standing reputation of innovation and university research, and I expect that to remain largely the same going forward. It would seem to me that life sciences companies may not have as easy of a time adapting to new remote-work environments since much of the innovation work remains lab/clinic/facility-based.

For the world of other technology, I think there will certainly be more embracing of remote work and distributed teams — this area has always had some degree of that since it’s not uncommon to see companies with another office elsewhere or a few remote employees that come from very specific backgrounds that are hard to recruit for locally. Since this area has always had some of that, I could see a case that this new paradigm will be an easier adjustment for this region. However, the flip side of that is that so much of tech innovation and developing an ecosystem is about density and serendipitous collisions — for an area that was still on the come-up, losing what ground had been gained in recent years will no doubt make the spillover benefits of this aspect harder to come by. I worry a bit that angel and seed activity will slow locally (and hopefully that the growth in seed funds nationally will offset that).

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

I think a larger theme that is arising out of this COVID-19 situation is that people have a heightened sense of health, safety and security. Life sciences will remain resilient so long as there’s funding for continued research, and I think the cybersecurity realm will be a bright spot as some of those spillover effects from the 2018 acquisition of Duo Security by Cisco take hold (this is still in its early days — employees will reach the end of their employment agreements and will start new companies, etc.).

The mobility space will see both headwinds and tailwinds. Companies vying for automotive customers may find that the industry’s challenges have resulted in a shorter “priority list” for many automakers and suppliers; on the other side, companies helping to remove enterprise risk through innovation in supply chain, automation, workforce efficiency, etc. will have arguably more opportunity going forward.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Michigan’s startup scene?

Detroit has not yet hit a full critical mass from a startup ecosystem standpoint, and that is most evident in the more limited amount of angel and seed capital available to companies here; and, to a lesser extent, a more shallow pool of mentors and advisors for founders than what you would find in SF, LA, NYC, Boston, etc.

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

Here are some of the prominent ones (note that we have invested in any): Dug Song and Jon Oberheide (Duo Security), Mina Sooch (has founded and led several prominent biotech companies), Amanda Lewan (Bamboo Detroit), Kyle Hoff (Floyd), Josh Luber and Greg Schwartz (StockX).

A lot of Bay Area founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Michigan?

Quality research institutions, access to talent locally and ability to pull from Toronto/Ohio/etc., significant industry (automotive, logistics, manufacturing and financial services) in its footprint, supportive state programs for startups, cost of living, international airport with easy access (when the world moves again, that is), etc.

Patricia Glaza, EVP and managing director, ID Ventures

TikTok announces first data center in Europe

By Natasha Lomas

TikTok, the Chinese video sharing app that’s found itself at the center of a geopolitical power struggle which threatens to put hard limits on its global growth this year, said today it will build its first data center in Europe.

The announcement of a TikTok data center in the EU also follows a landmark ruling by Europe’s top court last month that put international data transfers in the spotlight, dialling up the legal risk around processing data outside the bloc.

TikTok said the forthcoming data center, which will be located in Ireland, will store the data of its European users once it’s up and running (which is expected by early 2022) — with a slated investment into the country of around €420M (~$497M), according to a blog post penned by global CISO, Roland Cloutier.

“This investment in Ireland… will create hundreds of new jobs and play a key role in further strengthening the safeguarding and protection of TikTok user data, with a state of the art physical and network security defense system planned around this new operation,” Cloutier wrote, adding that the regional data centre will have the added boon for European users of faster load times, improving the overall experience of using the app.

The social media app does not break out regional users — but a leaked ad deck suggested it had 17M+ MAUs in Europe at the start of last year.

The flipside of TikTok’s rise to hot social media app beloved of teens everywhere has been earning itself the ire of US president Trump — who earlier this month threatened to use executive powers to ban TikTok in the US unless it sells its US business to an American company. (Microsoft is in the frame as a buyer.)

Whether Trump has the power to block TikTok’s app is debatable. Tech savvy teenagers will surely deploy all their smarts to get around any geoblocks. But operational disruption looks inevitable — and that has been forcing TikTok to make a series of strategic tweaks in a bid to limit damage and/or avoid the very worst outcomes.

Since taking office the US president has shown himself willing to make international business extremely difficult for Chinese tech firms. In the case of mobile device and network kit maker, Huawei, Trump has limited domestic use of its tech and leant on allies to lock it out of their 5G networks (with some success) — citing national security concerns from links to the Chinese Communist Party.

His beef with TikTok is the same stated national security concerns, centered on its access to user data. (Though Trump may have his own personal reasons to dislike the app.)

TikTok, like every major social media app, gathers huge amounts of user data — which its privacy policy specifies it may share user data with third parties, including to fulfil “government inquiries”. So while its appetite for personal data looks much the same as US social media giants (like Facebook) its parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, is subject to China’s Internet Security Law — which since 2017 has given the Chinese Chinese Communist Party sweeping powers to obtain data from digital companies. And while the US has its own intrusive digital surveillance laws, the existence of a Chinese mirror of the US state-linked data industrial complex has put tech firms right at the heart of geopolitics.

TikTok has been taking steps to try to insulate its international business from US-fuelled security concerns — and also provide some incentives to Trump for not quashing it — hiring Disney executive Kevin Mayer on as CEO of TikTok and COO of ByteDance in May, and promising to create 10,000 jobs in the U.S., as well as claiming US user data is stored in the US.

In parallel it’s been reconfiguring how it operates in Europe, setting up an EMEA Trust and Safety Hub in Dublin, Ireland at the start of this year and building out its team on the ground. In June it also updated its regional terms of service — naming its Irish subsidiary as the local data controller alongside its UK entity, meaning European users’ data no longer falls under its US entity, TikTok Inc.

This reflects distinct rules around personal data which apply across the European Union and European Economic Area. So while European political leaders have not been actively attacking TikTok in the same way as Trump, the company still faces increased legal risk in the region.

Last month CJEU judges made it clear that data transfers to third countries can only be legal if EU users’ data is not being put at risk by problematic surveillance laws and practices. The CJEU ruling (aka ‘Schrems II’) means data processing in countries such as China and India — and, indeed, the US — are now firmly in the risk frame where EU data protection law is concerned.

One way of avoiding this risk is to process European users’ data locally. So TikTok opening a data center in Ireland may also be a response to Schrems II — in that it will offer a way for it to ensure it can comply with requirements flowing from the ruling.

Privacy commentators have suggested the CJEU decision may accelerate data localization efforts — a trend that’s also being seen in countries such as China and Russia (and, under Trump, the US too it seems).

EU data watchdogs have also warned there will be no grace period following the CJEU invalidating the US-EU Privacy Shield data transfer mechanism. While those using other still valid tools for international transfers are bound to carry out an assessment — and either suspend data flows if they identify risks or inform a supervisor that the data is still flowing (which could in turn trigger an investigation).

The EU’s data protection framework, GDPR, bakes in stiff penalties for violations — with fines that can hit 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. So the business risk around EU data protection is no longer small, even as wider geopolitical risks are upping the uncertainty for global Internet players.

“Protecting our community’s privacy and data is and will continue to be our priority,” TikTok’s CISO writes, adding: “Today’s announcement is just the latest part of our ongoing work to enhance our global capability and efforts to protect our users and the TikTok community.”

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go

By Natasha Lomas

Uber has bought UK based Autocab, which sells SaaS to the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, with the aim of expanding the utility of its own platform by linking users who open its app in places where it doesn’t offer trips to local providers who do.

No acquisition price has been disclosed and Uber declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Autocab has a SaaS presence in 20 countries globally at this stage, according to an Uber spokeswoman. We’ve asked whether it will be closing a marketplace service which connects local taxi firms with trip bookers in any locations as a result of the Uber acquisition.

The Manchester-based veteran taxi software maker — which sells booking and despatch software as well as operating a global marketplace (iGo) which local firms can plug into to get more trips — was founded back in 1989, per Crunchbase.

Uber’s spokeswoman said it plans to support Autocab’s expansion of SaaS and iGo internationally — suggesting the tech giant hopes to be able to integrate the marketplace across its own global footprint in order to be able to offer users a less patchy service.

The move also looks intended to create more opportunities for Uber drivers to pick up jobs from outside its own platform, including delivery work.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Uber said “thousands of people” open its app every month in places where they can’t get a trip. It lists 15 UK towns which fall into this category — headed by Oxford (with 67,099 app opens monthly) and Tunbridge Wells (46,150); or at the other end Colchester (16,540) and Ipswich (16,539).

“Through Autocab’s iGo marketplace, Uber will be able to connect these riders with local operators who choose to take their booking. In turn, operators should be able to expand their operations and offer more earnings opportunities to local drivers. Uber will also explore providing drivers with additional revenue opportunities related to its platform for other services, such as delivery,” it added.

According to Bloomberg, Uber won’t be integrating Autocab’s marketplace in markets where it already offers a service, such as London — so there does look to be an element of Uber using the purchase to shore up its own key markets by closing down the chance of a little locally flavored competition.

Uber’s rides business has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squeezed demand for on-demand transportation, as many professionals switching to remote work at home. Social distancing requirements have also hit the nightlife industry, further eating into demand for Uber’s service.

All of which makes life hard for Uber’s ‘self employed‘ drivers — giving the company an incentive to find ways to retain their service during a leaner time for on-demand trips when they may otherwise abandon the platform, damaging its ability to provide a reliable service.

For Autocab’s part, the acquisition offers a road to further global expansion. It will remain independent with its own board after the acquisition, per the pair’s press release — retaining its focus on serving the taxi and private hire vehicle industry globally.

Commenting in a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern & Eastern Europe, said: “Autocab has worked successfully with taxi and private hire operators around the world for more than thirty years and Uber has a lot to learn from their experience. We look forward to working with the Autocab team to help local operators grow and provide drivers with genuine earnings opportunities.”

Autocab CEO, Safa Alkatab, added: “Autocab has been working with local operators across the world to provide the technology to make them more efficient and open up a marketplace to provide more trips. Working with Uber we can scale up our ambitions, providing hundreds of thousands of additional trips for our customers, and help cement the place of licenced operators in their local community.”

Infermedica scores $10M Series A for its ‘AI-driven’ diagnosis and triage platform

By Steve O'Hear

Infermedica, the Poland-founded health tech startup that offers an AI-driven platform for preliminary diagnosis and triage, has raised just over $10 million in Series A funding.

The round is led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and digital health fund Heal Capital. Existing investors Karma Ventures, Inovo Venture Partners and Dreamit Ventures also participated.

Infermedica says the investment will be used for platform R&D to further enhance its patient triage and symptom-checking features and clinical decision support analysis. The company is also planning to expand operations in Germany and the U.S. The new capital means the startup has raised $15 million in total to date.

Founded in 2012 in Wrocław by CEO Piotr Orzechowski, Infermedica describes itself an “AI-driven, customisable, multi-language” platform that aids patient care and healthcare service delivery. Like a plethora of competitors, such as Ada Health, Babylon and Your.MD, it combines the expertise of doctors with its own algorithms to offer symptom triage and advice to patients.

Image Credits: Infermedica

Notably, the company operates a B2B model, working with insurance companies, telemedicine companies and health systems that want to offer digitally delivered symptom-checks. It positions itself as “API-first,” as well as whitelabeling its platform on behalf of customers.

“We’re focused on improving the way patients make decisions about their symptoms,” explains Orzechowski. “According to studies, the majority of internet users search online when they’re feeling unwell, but it’s hard to find accurate and personalized answers about our own health. To help everyone evaluate their symptoms in a quick and reliable way, we’ve developed a carefully curated AI platform that asks diagnostic questions and computes likelihoods of primary care conditions. With nearly 40,000 hours of physician work and 6,000,000 completed user checkups, we are among the most trusted vendors of symptom checking technology.”

To that end, current Infermedica clients include health insurance companies, such as Allianz, Global Excel and Medis, where digital triage claims to help optimise healthcare costs. The startup also sells into hospital systems, including Sana Kliniken, and is used to identify the urgency of a patient’s case and to collect information prior to a hospital visit. In addition, its API is used by technology companies, such as Microsoft’s integration of the platform into its health bot.

On competition, Orzechowski says there are several “great companies” in the space, but argues that each of them does something different in terms of their product or marketing focus. “What makes Infermedica unique is that we are API-first,” he says. “We’re solely focused on providing the most powerful AI triage and pre-diagnosis component, and we integrate easily with all other platforms such as chatbots, patient portals and EHRs. We want to become like Stripe, but for medical diagnosis.”

Meanwhile, Infermedica makes money by licensing its technology to its B2B clients. The startup’s SaaS model sees it charge based on the number of performed API calls or completed patient checkups.

Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

By Walter Thompson
Will Hutchins Contributor
Will Hutchins is a managing director at Espresso Capital, a leading provider of innovative growth financing and venture debt solutions.

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

Twitter says Android security bug gave access to direct messages

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter says a security bug may have exposed the direct messages of Android app users, but said that there was no evidence that the vulnerability was ever exploited.

The bug could have allowed a malicious Android app running on the same device to siphon off a user’s direct messages stored in the Twitter app by bypassing Android’s in-built data permissions.

Twitter said, however, that the bug only worked on Android 8 (Oreo) and Android 9 (Pie), and has since been fixed.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that the bug was reported by a security researcher through Twitter’s bug bounty platform, HackerOne, a “few weeks ago” and was investigated and fixed.

“Since then, we have been working to keep accounts secure,” said the spokesperson. “Now that the issue has been fixed, we’re letting people know.” Twitter said it waited to let its users know in order to prevent someone from learning about the issue and taking advantage of it before it was fixed — a common approach to reporting security flaws.

The notice sent to affected Twitter users. (Image: TechCrunch)

Twitter said about 4% of users are still running a vulnerable version of Twitter for Android, and will be notified to update the app as soon as possible. Many users began noticing in-app pop-ups notifying them of the issue.

News of the security issue comes just weeks after the company was hit by a hacker, who gained access to an internal “admin” tool, which along with two other accomplices hijacked high-profile Twitter accounts to spread a cryptocurrency scam that promised to “double your money.” The hack and subsequent scam netted over $100,000 in scammed funds.

The Justice Department charged three people — including one minor — allegedly responsible for the incident.

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