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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Podcast recording platform Riverside.fm raises $9.5M

By Brian Heater

The past year has changed the way we work, on so many levels — a fact from which podcasters certainly weren’t immune. I can say, anecdotally, that as a long-time podcaster, I had thrown in the towel on my long-standing insistence that I do all of my interviews in-person — for what should probably be obvious reasons.

2020 saw many shows shifting to a remote format and experimenting with different remote recording tools, from broad teleconferencing software like Zoom to more bespoke solutions like Zencastr. Tel Aviv-based Riverside.fm (originally from Amsterdam) launched right on time to ride the remote podcasting wave, and today the service is announcing a $9.5 million Series A.

The round is led by Seven Seven Six and features Zeev-ventures.com, Casey Neistat, Marques Brownlee, Guy Raz,  Elad Gil and Alexander Klöpping. The company says it plans to use the money to increase headcount and build out more features for the service.

“As many were forced to adapt to remote work and production teams struggled to deliver the same in person quality, from a distance—Gideon and Nadav saw an opportunity to not only solve a great need for creators, but to build an extraordinary product,” Seven Seven Six founder Alexis Ohanian said in a release. “As a creator myself, I can say from experience that Riverside’s quality is unmatched and the new editing capabilities are peerless.”

Riverside.fm is a remote video and audio platform that records lossless audio and 4K video tracks remotely to each user’s system, saving the end result from the kind of technical hiccups that come with spotty internet connections.

Along with the funding round, the company is also rolling out a number of software updates to its platform. At the top of the list is brand new version of its iPhone app, which instantly records and uploads video, a nice extension as more users are looking to record their end on mobile devices.

On the desktop front, “Magic Editor” streamlines the multi-step process of recording, editing and uploading. There’s also a new “Smart Speakerview” feature that automatically switches between speakers for video editing, while not switching for accidental noises like sneezing and coughing.

It’s a hot space that’s only heating up. Given how quickly the company was able to piece their original offering together, it will be interesting to see what they’re able to do with an additional $9.5 million in their coffers.

 

Tiger Global backs Indian crypto startup at over $500M valuation

By Manish Singh

Coinswitch Kuber, a startup that allows young users in India to invest in cryptocurrencies, said on Thursday it has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market and also the place where the future of private cryptocurrencies remains uncertain for now.

Tiger Global financed the entire Series B funding round of Coinswitch Kuber and valued the three-year-old Indian startup at over $500 million. The announcement of Series B comes just three months after Coinswitch closed its $15 million Series A round from Ribbit Capital, Sequoia Capital India, and Kunal Shah. The Bangalore-based startup has raised $41.5 million to date.

TechCrunch reported earlier this month that the New York-headquartered technology hedge fund had led or was in advanced stages of talks to lead investments in many Indian startups including Coinswitch.

Coinswitch Kuber is one of the handful of startups operating in the cryptocurrency space today. The crypto exchange allows users to buy slivers of several popular cryptocurrencies. A user on Coinswitch, for instance, can buy small sachets of bitcoin and other currencies for as low as 100 Indian rupees ($1.3)-worth.

The startup said it has amassed over 4.5 million users, more than half of whom are aged 25 or younger. In the past 11 months, Coinswitch Kuber said it processed transactions over $5 billion.

But how the startup, which aims to add 5.5 million by the end of this year, performs in the future is not entire in its hand.

While trading of private cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is currently legal in India, New Delhi is widely expected to introduce a law that bans all private cryptocurrency.

Ashish Singhal, co-founder and chief executive of Coinswitch Kuber, said he is optimistic that India will not ban private cryptocurrencies, but said the startup closed the financing round with Tiger Global before New Delhi’s indication to formulate a law.

“This investment round brings us at par with some of the most sought after cryptocurrency companies in the world and sets us up for the long run,” said Singhal.

In recent months, some crypto startups in India have started to explore a contingency plan in the event the nation does end up banning cryptocurrency trading in the country. Many startups are today building in India, but focusing on serving customers overseas.

“As they build India’s leading cryptocurrency platform, CoinSwitch is well positioned to capture the tremendous growing interest in crypto among retail investors. We are excited to partner with CoinSwitch as they innovate in this emerging asset class,” said Scott Shleifer, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Apple and Google pressed in antitrust hearing on whether app stores share data with product development teams

By Sarah Perez

In today’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, Apple and Google representatives were questioned on whether they have a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevent them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple, in particular, was called out for the practice of copying other apps by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said the practice had become so common that it earned a nickname with Apple’s developer community: “sherlocking.”

Sherlock, which has its own Wikipedia entry under software, comes from Apple’s search tool in the early 2000s called Sherlock. A third-party developer, Karelia Software, created an alternative tool called Watson. Following the success of Karelia’s product, Apple added Watson’s same functionality into its own search tool, and Watson was effectively put out of business. The nickname “Sherlock” later became shorthand for any time Apple copies an idea from a third-party developer that threatens to or even destroys their business.

Over the years, developers claimed Apple has “sherlocked” a number of apps, including Konfabulator (desktop widgets), iPodderX (podcast manager), Sandvox (app for building websites) and Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X) and, in more recent years, F.lux (blue light reduction tool for screens) Duet and Luna (apps that makes iPad a secondary display), as well as various screen-time-management tools. Now Tile claims Apple has also unfairly entered its market with AirTag.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Apple and Google’s representatives at the hearing — Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer and Wilson White, Google’s senior director of Public Policy & Government Relations, respectively — if they employed any sort of “firewall” in between their app stores and their business strategy.

Andeer somewhat dodged the question, saying, “Senator, if I understand the question correctly, we have separate teams that manage the App Store and that are engaged in product development strategy here at Apple.”

Blumenthal then clarified what he meant by “firewall.” He explained that it doesn’t mean whether or not there are separate teams in place, but whether there’s an internal prohibition on sharing data between the App Store and the people who run Apple’s other businesses.

Andeer then answered, “Senator, we have controls in place.”

He went on to note that over the past 12 years, Apple has only introduced “a handful of applications and services,” and in every instance, there are “dozens of alternatives” on the App Store. And, sometimes, the alternatives are more popular than Apple’s own product, he noted.

“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Andeer stated.

His argument may hold true when there are strong rivalries, like Spotify versus Apple Music, or Netflix versus Apple TV+, or Kindle versus Apple Books. But it’s harder to stretch it to areas where Apple makes smaller enhancements — like when Apple introduced Sidecar, a feature that allowed users to make their iPad a secondary display. Sidecar ended the need for a third-party app, after apps like Duet and Luna first proved the market.

Another example was when Apple built screen-time controls into its iOS software, but didn’t provide the makers of third-party screen-time apps with an API so consumers could use their preferred apps to configure Apple’s Screen Time settings via the third-party’s specialized interface or take advantage of other unique features.

Blumenthal said he interpreted Andeer’s response as to whether Apple has a “data firewall” as a “no.”

Posed the same question, Google’s representative, White, said his understanding was that Google had “data access controls in place that govern how data from our third-party services are used.”

Blumenthal pressed him to clarify if this was a “firewall,” meaning, he clarified again, “do you have a prohibition against access?”

“We have a prohibition against using our third-party services to compete directly with our first-party services,” White said, adding that Google has “internal policies that govern that.”

The senator said he would follow up on this matter with written questions, as his time expired.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Consumer groups and child development experts petition Facebook to drop ‘Instagram for kids’ plan

By Sarah Perez

A coalition of 35 consumer advocacy groups along with 64 experts in child development have co-signed a letter to Facebook asking the company to reconsider its plans to launch a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13, which Facebook has confirmed to be in development. In the letter, the groups and experts argue that social media is linked with several risk factors for younger children and adolescents, related to both their physical health and overall well-being.

The letter was written by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group that often leads campaigns against big tech and its targeting of children.

The group stresses how influential social media is on young people’s development, and the dangers such an app could bring:

“A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to adolescents. Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers,” it states. “The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing. Younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges, as they are learning to navigate social interactions, friendships, and their inner sense of strengths and challenges during this crucial window of development,” the letter reads.

Citing public health research and other studies, the letter notes that excessive screen time and social media use can contribute to a variety of risks for kids including obesity, lower psychological well-being, decreased quality of sleep, increased risk of depression and suicide ideation, and other issues. Adolescent girls report feeling pressured to post sexualized selfies for attention from their peers, the letter said, and 59% of U.S. teens have reported being bullied in social media, as well.

Another concern the groups have is the use of the Instagram algorithm which could suggest what kids would see and click on next, noting that children are “highly persuadable.”

They also point out that Facebook knows there are already children under 13 who have lied about their age using the Instagram platform, and these users will be unlikely to migrate to what they’ll view as a more “babyish” version of the app than the one they’re already using. That means Facebook is really targeting an even younger age group who don’t yet have an Instagram account with this “kids version.”

Despite the concerns being raised, Instagram’s plans to compete for younger users will not likely be impacted by the outcry. Already, Instagram’s top competitor in social media today — TikTok — has developed an experience for kids under 13. In fact, it was forced to age-gate its app as a result of its settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which had investigated Musical.ly (the app that became TikTok) for violations of the U.S. children’s privacy law COPPA.

Facebook, too, could be in a similar situation where it has to age-gate Instagram in order to properly direct its existing underage users to a COPPA-compliant experience. At the very least, Facebook has grounds to argue that it shouldn’t have to boot the under-13 crowd off its app, since TikTok did not. And the FTC’s fines, even when historic, barely make a dent in tech giants’ revenues.

The advocacy groups’ letter follows a push from Democratic lawmakers, who also this month penned a letter addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to express concerns over Facebook’s ability to protect kids’ privacy and their well-being. Their letter had specifically cited Messenger Kids, which was once found to have a design flaw that let kids chat with unauthorized users. The lawmakers gave Facebook until April 26 to respond to their questions.

Zuckerberg confirmed Facebook’s plans for an Instagram for kids at a Congressional hearing back in March, saying that the company was “early in our thinking” about how the app would work, but noted it would involve some sort of parental oversight and involvement. That’s similar to what Facebook offers today via Messenger Kids and TikTok does via its Family Pairing parental controls.

The market, in other words, is shifting towards acknowledging that kids are already on social media — with or without parents’ permission. As a result, companies are building features and age gates to accommodate that reality. The downside to this plan, of course, is once you legitimize the creation of social apps for the under-13 demographic, companies are given the legal right to hook kids even younger on what are, arguably, risky experiences from a public health standpoint.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood also today launched a petition which others can sign to push Facebook to cancel its plans for an Instagram for kids.

Instagram Letter by TechCrunch on Scribd

Social audio startup Stationhead looks beyond music as it hits 100K monthly active users

By Anthony Ha

When I’ve written about Stationhead in the past, I’ve focused on how the startup aims to recapture bring personality and interactivity of a live radio broadcast to streaming music. But CEO Ryan Star said his ambitions are broader now: “We’re going to be the largest social audio platform in the world.”

The startup says it’s growing quickly, with 100,000 monthly active users — a number that’s growing by 65% each month — and 500,000 total users. There are 6,300 hosts on the platform, and they created nearly 2 million live and recorded streams in the first three months of the year.

COO Murray Levison told me that the pandemic has brought more artists to the platform as they look for new ways to reach their fans. For example, Cardi B joined the fan show Bardigangradio last month, prompting 132,000 paid streams of her new single on Apple Music and Spotify during the broadcast. (Stationhead integrates with both music streaming services — when a DJ cues up a song, it’s actually playing through your account.)

At the same time, both Star (who co-founded the company due to his own frustrations as an independent musician) and Levison suggested that playing music is not quite as central to their vision as it used to be. Instead, they said Stationhead is all about live audio broadcasting, with or without music.

From a product perspective, Levison said they’re trying to build “the best broadcasting tools for creators and everybody people to use.” At the same time, he added, “Music is still at the core of what we’ve built. Just like games are to Twitch, music is our social glue.”

Ryan Star CEO Photo credit Shervin Lainez

Image Credits: Shervin Lainez / Stationhead

While the company emphasizes the live experience (which Levison described as “the core value prop”), Stationhead also supports recording shows for listening later, and apparently 50% of users are listening to both live and recorded shows. It has also been beta testing a tipping feature that will allow broadcasters to monetize their shows.

Of course, you can’t talk about social audio without talking about Clubhouse, which was attracting 2 million active users each week in January, according to CEO Paul Davison. Levison suggested that the buzz around Clubhouse has also benefited Stationhead as potential acquirers and investors get more excited about social audio. And Star argued that the companies are taking very different approaches.

“It’s in the name Clubhouse, it’s exclusive,” Star said. “It’s about social climbing and getting closer to the stage. [Stationhead is] living in the world where Cardi B was excited to meet her fans. We are for the 99 percent.”

Feels is a new dating app with profiles that look more personal

By Romain Dillet

Meet Feels, a new French startup that wants to change how dating apps work. According to the company, scrolling through photos and reading descriptions tend to be a boring experience. Feels want to improve profiles so that navigating the app feels more like watching TikTok videos or browsing stories.

“For the past 10 years, there’s been little innovation in the industry,” co-founder and CEO Daniel Cheaib told me. “The reason why many people uninstall dating apps is that it’s boring. Profiles all look the same and we feel like we’re browsing a catalog.”

In that case, Cheaib is thinking about Tinder, but also other dating apps that feel like Tinder but aren’t exactly Tinder, such as Bumble, Happn, etc.

Feels’ founding team has spent two years iterating on the app to find out what works and what doesn’t. Now that retention metrics are where they’re supposed to be, the company is now ready to launch more widely.

A screenshot of the app Feels

Image Credits: Feels

If you want to show interesting content to your users in a dating app, you have to rethink profiles. Arguably, this has been the most difficult part of the development phase. When you install the app, it takes around 15 minutes to create your profile.

At first, only 30% of new users finished the onboarding process. Now, around 75% of new users reach the end of the signup flow.

So what makes a profile on Feels different? In many ways, a profile looks more like a story, or TikTok posts. Users can record videos, add text and stickers, share photos, answer questions and more.

“When you’re done with the onboarding process, you have consistent profiles with people sharing content about them,” Cheaib said.

Like other dating apps, there are many options when it comes to gender identity — you’re not limited to woman or man. You can then say that you want to see all profiles or just some profiles based on various criteria.

After that, you can look at other profiles. Once again, Feels tries to change the basic interaction of dating apps. Most dating apps require you to swipe left or right, or give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. When you think about it, it’s a binary choice that requires a ton of micro decisions.

Sometimes, you don’t have any strong feelings about someone. Or maybe you just want to go to the next profile. And the fact that you have to triage profiles like this leads to a lot negativity, whether it’s conscious or subconscious — you keep rejecting people, after all.

When you’re looking at a profile on Feels, it fills up your entire screen. Videos start playing, you can see what the person likes and who they are in front of a camera. You can react on some content or you can simply move on by swiping up. There’s no heart or like button.

When the startup thought they finally were going somewhere, they raised a $1.3 million funding round (€1.1 million) from a long list of business angels, such as somebody in Atomico’s business angel program, Blaise Matuidi, Eric Besson, René Ricol, Ricardo Pereira , Yohan Benalouane, Nampalys Mendy, Jean Romain Lhomme, Julien Radic and Jean Michel Chami.

Now, Feels plans to attract new users with organic TikTok posts, some TV ads and more. The company wants to reach one million users by the end of the year with a big focus on France for now. There are 100,000 users right now.

When it comes to monetization, Feels started offering a premium subscription to unlock more features. The company is still iterating on that part.

Feels is just getting started in a crowded and competitive industry. Unlike other companies, Feels has invested heavily in its own product before working on user acquisition and paid installs. It’s an ambitious strategy but it has a lot of potential as it could lead to a truly different dating app.

Yak Tack is a super simple app to boost vocabulary

By Natasha Lomas

Word nerds with a love for linguistic curiosities and novel nomenclature that’s more fulsome than their ability to make interesting new terms stick will be thrilled by Yak Tack: A neat little aidemémoire (in Android and iOS app form) designed for expanding (English) vocabulary, either as a native speaker or language learner.

Yak Tack uses adaptive spaced repetition to help users remember new words — drawing on a system devised in the 1970s by German scientist Sebastian Leitner.

The app’s core mechanic is a process it calls ‘tacking’. Here’s how it works: A user comes across a new word and inputs it into Yak Tack to look up what it means (definition content for words and concepts is sourced from Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Wikpedia via their API, per the developer).

Now they can choose to ‘tack’ the word to help them remember it.

This means the app will instigate its system of space repetition to combat the routine problem of memory decay/forgetting, as new information tends to be jettisoned by our brains unless we make a dedicated effort to remember it (and/or events conspire to make it memorable for other, not necessarily very pleasant reasons).

Tacked words are shown to Yak Tack users via push notification at spaced intervals (after 1 day, 2,3,5,8, and 13; following the fibonacci sequence).

Tapping on the notification takes the user to their in-app Tack Board where they get to re-read the definition. It also displays all the words they’ve tacked and their progress in the learning sequence for each one.

After the second repeat of a word there’s a gamified twist as the user must select the correct definition or synonym — depending on how far along in the learning sequence they are — from a multiple-choice list.

Picking the right answer means the learning proceeds to the next fibonacci interval. An incorrect answer moves the user back to the previous interval — meaning they must repeat that step, retightening (instead of expanding) the information-exposure period; hence adaptive space repetition.

It’s a simple and neat use of digital prompts to help make new words stick.

[gallery ids="2139025,2139022,2139023,2139024,2139026"]

The app also has a simple and neat user interface. It actually started as an email-only reminder system, says developer Jeremy Thomas, who made the tool for himself, wanting to expand his own vocabulary — and was (intentionally) the sole user for the first six months after it launched in 2019. (He was also behind an earlier (now discontinued) vocabulary app called Ink Paste.)

For now Yak Tack is a side/passion project so he can keep coding (and indulge his “entrepreneurial proclivities”, as he wordily puts it), his day job being head of product engineering at Gusto. But he sees business potential in bootstrapping the learning tool — and has incorporated it as an LLC.

“We have just over 500 users spread across the world (17 different timezones). We’re biggest in Japan, Germany, and the U.S.,” he tells TechCrunch.

“I’m funding it myself and have no plans to take on investment. I’ve learned to appreciate technology companies that have an actual business model underneath them,” he adds. “There’s an elegance to balancing growth and business fundamentals, and given the low cost of starting a SaaS business, I’m surprised more companies don’t bootstrap, frankly.”

The email-only version of Yak Tack still works (you send an email to word@yaktack.com with the word you’d like to learn as the subject and the spaced repeats happen in the same sequence — but over email). But the mobile app is much more popular, per Thomas.

It is also (inevitably) more social, showing users words tacked by other users who tacked the same word as them — so there’s a bit of word discovery serendipity thrown in. However the user who will get the most out of Yak Tack is definitely the voracious and active reader who’s ingesting a lot of text elsewhere and taking the time to look up (and tack) new and unfamiliar words as they find them.

The app itself doesn’t do major lifting on the word discovery front — but it will serve up random encounters by showing you lists of latest tacks, most-tacked this month and words from any other users you follow. (There’s also a ‘last week’s most tacked words’ notification sent weekly.)

Taking a step back, one of the cruel paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while it’s made education for kids harder, as schooling has often been forced to go remote, it’s given many stuck-at-home adults more time on their hands than usual to put their mind to learning new stuff — which explains why online language learning has seen an uplift over the past 12 months+.

And with the pandemic remaining the new dystopian ‘normal’ in most parts of the world, market conditions seem pretty conducive for a self-improvement tool like Yak Tack.

“We’ve seen a lot of good user growth during the pandemic, in large part because I think people are investing in themselves. I think that makes the timing right for an app like Yak Tack,” says Thomas.

Yak Tack is freemium, with free usage for five active tacks (and a queue system for any other words you add); or $5 a year for unlimited tacks and no queue.

“I figure the worldwide TAM [total addressable market] of English-learners is really big, and at that low price point Yak Tack is both accessible and is a huge business opportunity,” he adds.

Flipkart to acquire online travel firm Cleartrip

By Manish Singh

Flipkart said on Thursday it has agreed to acquire online travel firm Cleartrip as the Walmart-owned e-commerce firm looks to expand its offerings in the world’s second largest internet market.

The deal values Cleartrip, which raised about $75 million prior to the acquisition, at about $40 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Indian news outlet MoneyControl reported about the two companies exploring the deal last month.

Cleartrip is also a partner of Amazon in India, powering the ticketing engine for the American e-commerce group. Asked if Amazon was fine with Cleartrip exploring buyout deal with Flipkart, the company did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Flipkart Group is committed to transforming customer experiences through digital commerce. Cleartrip is synonymous with travel for many customers, and as we diversify and look at new areas of growth, this investment will help strengthen our wide range of offerings for customers. We welcome the Cleartrip team with their deep industry knowledge and technology capabilities to the Flipkart Group and look forward to providing deeper value and travel experiences for customers together,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart Group, in a statement.

Challenger bank N26 to offer insurance products

By Romain Dillet

Fintech startup N26 is launching N26 Insurance as it plans to offer insurance products that you can access from the company’s mobile app and website. The first insurance product is a smartphone insurance plan for German customers.

But the startup doesn’t plan to stop there. N26 says it is also working on private liability insurance, home insurance, life insurance, pet insurance and coverage for bikes, electronics and large purchases.

The idea is that you’ll be able to purchase coverage, manage your plans and initiate claims within the N26 app. As N26 already has your personal information, it should be easier to sign up to a new insurance product through N26 compared to creating a new account in a separate app.

The challenger bank isn’t becoming an insurtech company overnight. Instead, it is partnering with other companies, such as Simplesurance, for those products.

“The big thing we’re doing in Q1 and Q2 is a big focus on the marketplace,” co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me a few months ago. “Early on we always tried to integrate the full experience.”

N26 Insurance is the first release of this new API-driven strategy. Partners will be able to integrate their products on their own and N26 will make it easy to share KYC files (‘know your customer’), transfer money between N26 and partners, etc.

“Most fintech startups are super low frequency,” Stalf said. He mentioned mortgage as one financial product that you set up once and never touch again. These companies have high customer acquisition costs, so N26 can help on that front. For instance, if you purchase a bike online, N26 could recommend a bike insurance product after your purchase.

As for phone insurance launching today, prices will vary depending on your phone. If you spent a lot of money on your phone, your insurance plan is going to be more expensive. N26 lets you opt for annual plans to save a bit of money.

Phone insurance also contributes to the freemium strategy of N26. The company offers free and paid accounts that start at €4.90 per month. The most expensive plan, N26 Metal, costs €16.90 per month and includes phone insurance.

Some customers who might want to insure their phone might be tempted to switch to N26 Metal to insure their phone and get more features, such as travel insurance.

N26 started revamping its plans in November 2020 by introducing a new mid-tier plan called N26 You. In Germany, N26 no longer sends you a plastic debit card if you create a free account. You have to pay €4.90 per month.

Offering new products in the app and pushing users toward paid subscriptions should definitely help N26 when it comes to profitability. The startup has grown tremendously over the past few years and the company is focused on consolidating the business as much as possible now.

TikTok funds first episodic public health series ‘VIRAL’ from NowThis

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is taking another step towards directly funding publishers’ content with today’s announcement that it’s financially backing the production of media publisher NowThis’ new series, “VIRAL,” which will feature interviews with public health experts and a live Q&A session focused on answering questions about the pandemic. The partnership represents TikTok’s first-ever funding of an episodic series from a publisher, though TikTok has previously funded creator content.

Through TikTok’s Instructive Accelerator Program, which was formerly known as the Creative Learning Fund, other TikTok publishers have received grants and hands-on support from TikTok so they could produce quality instructive content for TikTok’s #LearnOnTikTok initiative. The program today is structured as four, eight-week cycles during which time publishers post videos four times per week.

NowThis had also participated in the Creative Learning Fund last year and was selected for the latest cycle of the Instructive Accelerator Program. But its “VIRAL” series is separate from these efforts.

NowThis says it brought the concept for the show to TikTok earlier this year outside of the accelerator program, and TikTok greenlit it. TikTok then co-produced the series and provided some funding. Neither NowThis nor TikTok would comment on the extent of the financial backing involved, however.

The “VIRAL” series itself is hosted by infectious disease clinical researcher Laurel Bristow, who spent the last year working on COVID treatments and research. Every Thursday, Bristow will break down COVID facts in easy-to-understand language, NowThis says, including things like vaccine efficacy, transmission timelines, and treatment. The show will also bust COVID myths, provide information about ongoing public health risks, and feature interviews with a cross-section of experts.

Each episode of the will be 45 minutes in length and will also include an interactive segment where the TikTok viewing audience will be able to engage in a real-time Q&A session about the show’s content. In total, five episodes are being produced, and will air starting on Thursday April 15 at 6 PM ET and will run through Thursday May 13 on the @NowThis main TikTok page.

@nowthisTune in to our new TikTok live show VIRAL on Thursdays at 6pm ET with host @kinggutterbaby

♬ original sound – nowthis

NowThis has become one of the most-followed news media accounts on TikTok, with 4.6 million followers across its news and politics channels, since launching a little over a year ago. Because of its focus on video, it’s been a good fit for the TikTok’s platform.

The approach TikTok is taking with “VIRAL’s” production, it’s worth noting, stands in contrast to how other social media platforms are handling the pandemic and COVID-19 information. While most, including TikTok, have pledged to fact check COVID-19 information, remove misinformation and conspiracies, point users to official sources for health information, and provide other resources, TikTok is directly funding public health content featuring scientists and researchers, and then promoting it on its network.

The company explained to TechCrunch its thinking on the matter.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, we think it’s important to provide our community an outlet to dispel misinformation and communicate with public health experts in real-time,” said Robbie Levin, Manager of Media Partnerships at TikTok. “NowThis has consistently been a great partner that produces engaging and informative content, so we felt this series would be an impactful and important avenue for our users to receive credible information on our platform,” Levin noted.

While the pandemic has driven the topic of choice here, paying creators for content is not new. And TikTok isn’t the only one to do so. Instagram and Snapchat are both funding creator content for their TikTok clones, Reels and Spotlight, respectively. And new social platforms like Clubhouse are funding creators’ shows, as well.

TikTok says it’s not currently talking to other publishers to produce more series like “VIRAL,” but it isn’t ruling out the idea of expanding its creator funding and producing efforts. In addition to its accelerator program, which is continuing, TikTok says if “VIRAL” proves successful and the community responds positively, it will pursue similar opportunities in the future.

Deepfake video app Avatarify, which processes on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

By Mike Butcher

Making deepfake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deepfake videos directly on their phone rather than in the cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deepfake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a U.S. HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life and Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the app for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture they want to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Co-founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent two hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

They posted the code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1 million in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deepfake videos remain, such as using these apps to make nonconsensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

Triller owner gets a new CEO with acquisition of Amplify.AI; also acquires livestreaming service FITE TV

By Sarah Perez

Would be TikTok competitor Triller, operated by parent company TrillerNet, is gaining a new CEO, the company announced today. The short-form video app said it’s acquiring an A.I.-based customer engagement platform, Amplify.AI, whose co-founder Mahi de Silva will now become TrillerNet’s CEO. Existing CEO Mike Lu will transition to president of TrillerNet and will focus on investor relations. The company separately announced the acquisition of FITE TV, a live event and pay-per-view combat sports streaming platform.

New CEO Mahi de Silva had been closely involved with Triller before today. The company’s press release today says he’s been serving as non-executive chairman since 2016, but his LinkedIn notes the year was 2019 (which would be following Triller’s 2019 funding by Proxima Media, when the press release at the time noted he was assuming the role of “chairman.”)  These are both wrong, the company discovered when we reached out for clarity. The correct year is 2018.

Ahead of the acquisition, de Silva had been serving as CEO and co-founder to Amplify.AI since 2017, and before that was CEO of Opera Mediaworks, the marketing and advertising arm of Opera Software, and co-founder and CEO of Botworx.

Amplify.AI, which works with brands in CPG, financial services, automotive, telecom, politics and digital media, among others, will continue to operate as a subsidiary of TrillerNet following the deal. Other team members include former RSA and VeriSign executive Ram Moskovitz who helped design and develop the digital certificates for SSL and code signing; and Amplify.ai co-founder and CTO Manoj Malhotra, a pioneer in B2C SMS messaging, the company notes.

TrillerNet also today announced it’s acquiring another strategic property to help shift its business further into the direction of live events: FITE TV. This deal gives Triller more of a foothold in the live events and pay-per-view streaming market, it says. As a result, FITE, which touts 10 million users, will become the exclusive digital distributor of all Triller Fight Club boxing events going forward.

“Acquiring FITE is part of the larger Triller strategy to bring together content, creators and commerce for the first time and the only place where they truly interact,” said Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh, the former head of movie studio Relativity Media (and controversial figure) whose Proxima Media became Triller’s majority investor in 2019. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and believe we have created a better more efficient e-commerce content platform,” he added.

The acquisition follows several others TrillerNet has made to expand into live events, now that becoming a TikTok replacement in the U.S. is no longer a viable option, as the Trump ban was put on hold by the Biden administration. Triller also in March acquired live music streaming platform Verzuz, founded by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it operates Triller Flight Club in partnership with Snoop Dogg, as well as a streaming platform Triller TV.

While specific deal terms were not revealed, Triller told TechCrunch it’s spent $250 million in the aggregate on its acquisitions, including Halogen, Mashtraxx, Verzuz, FITE and Amplify today.

 

Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

By Devin Coldewey

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

Gay dating site Manhunt hacked, thousands of accounts stolen

By Zack Whittaker

Manhunt, a gay dating app that claims to have 6 million male members, has confirmed it was hit by a data breach in February after a hacker gained access to the company’s accounts database.

In a notice filed with the Washington attorney general’s office, Manhunt said the hacker “gained access to a database that stored account credentials for Manhunt users,” and “downloaded the usernames, email addresses and passwords for a subset of our users in early February 2021.

The notice did not say how the passwords were scrambled, if at all, to prevent them from being read by humans. Passwords scrambled using weak algorithms can sometimes be decoded into plain text, allowing malicious hackers to break into their accounts.

Following the breach, Manhunt force-reset account passwords began alerting users in mid-March. Manhunt did not say what percentage of its users had their data stolen or how the data breach happened, but said that more than 7,700 Washington state residents were affected.

The company’s attorneys did not reply to an email requesting comment.

But questions remain about how Manhunt handled the breach. In March, the company tweeted that, “At this time, all Manhunt users are required to update their password to ensure it meets the updated password requirements.” The tweet did not say that user accounts had been stolen.

Manhunt was launched in 2001 by Online-Buddies Inc., which also offered gay dating app Jack’d before it was sold to Perry Street in 2019 for an undisclosed sum. Just months before the sale, Jack’d had a security lapse that exposed users’ private photos and location data.

Dating sites store some of the most sensitive information on their users, and are frequently a target of malicious hackers. In 2015, Ashley Madison, a dating site that encouraged users to have an affair, was hacked, exposing names, and postal and email addresses. Several people died by suicide after the stolen data was posted online. A year later, dating site AdultFriendFinder was hacked, exposing more than 400 million user accounts.

In 2018, same-sex dating app Grindr made headlines for sharing users’ HIV status with data analytics firms.

In other cases, poor security — in some cases none at all — led to data spills involving some of the most sensitive data. In 2019, Rela, a popular dating app for gay and queer women in China, left a server unsecured with no password, allowing anyone to access sensitive data — including sexual orientation and geolocation — on more than 5 million app users. Months later, Jewish dating app JCrush exposed around 200,000 user records.

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Instagram’s new test lets you choose if you want to hide ‘Likes,’ Facebook test to follow

By Sarah Perez

Instagram today will begin a new test around hiding Like counts on users’ posts, following its experiments in this area which first began in 2019. This time, however, Instagram is not enabling or disabling the feature for more users. Instead, it will begin to explore a new option where users get to decide what works best for them — either choosing to see the Like counts on others’ posts, or not. Users will also be able to turn off Like counts on their own posts, if they choose. Facebook additionally confirmed it will begin to test a similar experience on its own social network.

Instagram says tests involving Like counts were deprioritized after Covid-19 hit, as the company focused on other efforts needed to support its community. (Except for that brief period this March where Instagram accidentally hid Likes for more users due to a bug.)

The company says it’s now revisiting the feedback it collected from users during the tests and found a wide range of opinions. Originally, the idea with hiding Like counts was about reducing the anxiety and embarrassment that surrounds posting content on the social network. That is, people would stress over whether their post would receive enough Likes to be deemed “popular.” This problem was particularly difficult for Instagram’s younger users, who care much more about what their peers think — so much so that they would take down posts that didn’t receive “enough” Likes.

In addition, the removal of Likes helped reduce the sort of herd mentality that drives people to like things that are already popular, as opposed to judging the content for themselves.

But during tests, not everyone agreed the removal of Likes was a change for the better. Some people said they still wanted to see Like counts so they could track what was trending and popular. The argument for keeping Likes was more prevalent among the influencer community, where creators used the metric in order to communicate their value to partners, like brands and advertisers. Here, lower engagement rates on posts could directly translate to lower earnings for these creators.

Both arguments for and against Likes have merit, which is why Instagram’s latest test will put the choice back into users’ own hands.

This new test will be enabled for a small percentage of users globally on Instagram, the company says.

If you’ve been opted in, you’ll find a new option to hide the Likes from within the app’s Settings. This will prevent you from seeing Likes on other people’s posts as you scroll through your Instagram Feed. As a creator, you’ll be able to hide Likes on a per-post basis via the three-dot “…” menu at the top. Even if Likes are disabled publicly, creators are still able to view Like counts and other engagements through analytics, just as they did before.

The tests on Facebook, which has also been testing Like count removals for some time, have not yet begun. Facebook tells TechCrunch those will roll out in the weeks ahead.

Making Like counts an choice may initially seem like it could help to address everyone’s needs. But in reality, if the wider influencer community chooses to continue to use Likes as a currency that translates to popularity and job opportunities, then other users will continue to do the same.

Ultimately, communities themselves have to decide what sort of tone they want to set, preferably from the outset — before you’ve attracted millions of users who will be angry when you later try to change course.

There’s also a question as to whether social media users are really hungry for an “Like-free” safer space. For years we’ve seen startups focused on building an “anti-Instagram” of sorts, where they drop one or more Instagram features, like algorithmic feeds, Likes and other engagement mechanisms, such as Minutiae, Vero, Dayflash, Oggl, and now, newcomers like troubled Dispo, or under-the-radar Herd. But Instagram has yet to fail because of an anti-Instagram rival. If anything is a threat, it’s a new type of social network entirely, like TikTok –where it should be noted getting Likes and engagements is still very important for creator success.

Instagram didn’t say how long the new tests would last or if and when the features would roll out more broadly.

“We’re testing this on Instagram to start, but we’re also exploring a similar experience for Facebook. We will learn from this new small test and have more to share soon,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.

Facebook tests video speed dating events with ‘Sparked’

By Sarah Perez

Facebook confirmed it’s testing a video speed-dating app called Sparked, after the app’s website was spotted by The Verge. Unlike dating app giants such as Tinder, Sparked users don’t swipe on people they like or direct message others. Instead, they cycle through a series of short video dates during an event to make connections with others. The product itself is being developed by Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team, but had not been officially announced.

“Sparked is an early experiment by New Product Experimentation,” a spokesperson for Facebook’s NPE Team confirmed to TechCrunch. “We’re exploring how video-first speed dating can help people find love online.”

They also characterized the app as undergoing a “small, external beta test” designed to generate insights about how video dating could work, in order to improve people’s experiences with Facebook products. The app is not currently live on app stores, only the web.

Sparked is, however, preparing to test the experience at a Chicago Date Night event on Wednesday, The Verge’s report noted.

Image Credits: Facebook

 

During the sign-up process, Sparked tells users to “be kind,” “keep this a safe space,” and “show up.” A walkthrough of how the app also works explains that participants will meet face to face during a series of 4-minute video dates, which they can then follow up with a 10-minute date if all goes well. They can additionally choose to exchange contact info, like phone numbers, emails, or Instagram handles.

Facebook, of course, already offers a dating app product, Facebook Dating.

That experience, which takes place inside Facebook itself, first launched in 2018 outside the U.S., and then arrived in the U.S. the following year. In the early days of the pandemic, Facebook announced it would roll out a sort of virtual dating experience that leveraged Messenger for video chats — a move came at a time when many other dating apps in the market also turned to video to serve users under lockdowns. These video experiences could potentially compete with Sparked, unless the new product’s goal is to become another option inside Facebook Dating itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the potential reach, Facebook’s success in the dating market is not guaranteed, some analysts have warned. People don’t think of Facebook as a place to go meet partners, and the dating product today is still separated from the main Facebook app for privacy purposes. That means it can’t fully leverage Facebook’s network effects to gain traction, as users in this case may not want their friends and family to know about their dating plans.

Facebook’s competition in dating is fierce, too. Even the pandemic didn’t slow down the dating app giants, like Match Group or newly IPO’d Bumble. Tinder’s direct revenues increased 18% year-over-year to $1.4 billion in 2020, Match Group reported, for instance. Direct revenues from the company’s non-Tinder brands collectively increased 16%. And Bumble topped its revenue estimates in its first quarter as a public company, pulling in $165.6 million in the fourth quarter.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, on the other hand, has remained fairly quiet about its dating efforts. Though the company cited over 1.5 billion matches in the 20 countries it’s live, a “match” doesn’t indicate a successful pairing — in fact, that sort of result may not be measured. But it’s early days for the product, which only rolled out to European markets this past fall.

The NPE Team’s experiment in speed dating could ultimately help to inform Facebook of what sort of new experiences a dating app user may want to use, and how.

The company didn’t say if or when Sparked would roll out more broadly.

5 questions about Grab’s epic SPAC investor deck

By Alex Wilhelm

As expected, Southeast Asian super-app Grab is going public via a SPAC, or blank check company.

The combination, which TechCrunch discussed over the weekend, will value Grab on an equity basis at $39.6 billion and will provide around $4.5 billion in cash, $4.0 billion of which will come in the form of a private investment in public equity, or PIPE. Altimeter Capital is putting up $750 million in the PIPE — fitting, as Grab is merging with one of Alitmeter’s SPACs.

Grab, which provides ride-hailing, payments and food delivery, will trade under the ticker symbol “GRAB” on Nasdaq when the deal closes. The announcement comes a day after Uber told its investors it was seeing recovery in certain transactions, including ride-hailing and delivery.

Uber also told the investing public that it’s still on track to reach adjusted EBITDA profitability in Q4 2021. The American ride-hailing giant did a surprising amount of work clearing brush for the Grab deal. Extra Crunch examined Uber’s ramp towards profitability yesterday.

This morning, let’s talk through several key points from Grab’s SPAC investor deck. We’ll discuss growth, segment profitability, aggregate costs and COVID-19, among other factors. You can read along in the presentation here.

How harshly did COVID-19 impact the business?

The impact on Grab’s operations from COVID-19 resembles what happened to Uber in that the company’s deliveries business had a stellar 2020, while its ride-hailing business did not.

From a high level, Grab’s gross merchandise volume (GMV) was essentially flat from 2019 to 2020, rising from $12.2 billion to $12.5 billion. However, the company did manage to greatly boost its adjusted net revenue over the same period, which rose from $1.0 billion to $1.6 billion.

Clubhouse rolls out payments to over 60K creators following initial test

By Sarah Perez

Clubhouse is rapidly expanding access to payments, its first revenue-generating feature for creators, since its launch into testing earlier this month. At the beginning of April, Clubhouse said it would give a “small test group” of creators the ability to accept payments from their fans and supporters through the social audio app. These donations go 100% to the creators, Clubhouse noted at the time. Though tests began with just 1,000 users, Clubhouse this weekend rolled out payments to another 60,000-plus users in the U.S., the company said during its Town Hall weekly event. And it expects to have payments roll out to everyone over the next few weeks.

That’s a fast pace of development for an app that’s now being challenged on all sides from companies including Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Reddit, Discord and even LinkedIn. By making payments more quickly available, Clubhouse could potentially better retain its top creators who could otherwise be influenced to jump ship for a rival app with a broader reach.

During Clubhouse’s Town Hall event, co-founder Paul Davison noted that another 66,000 creators gained the ability receive payments this weekend, following the launch of the original test. To send a payment, users can visit a creator’s profile, then tap on the button at the bottom that says “Send Money.” This will launch a screen that suggests amounts like $5, $10, or $20, or you can fill in your own amount. The feature is being powered by Stripe and currently requires a debit or credit card to work.

Image Credits: Clubhouse screenshot

Davison again noted that creators will receive the full amount users send, while the fees paid on transactions will go to its partner Stripe to cover the payment processing fees. He added, too, that users should not send Clubhouse team members like himself payments, even though their profiles include the feature. Though he didn’t say why — only noting that all such donations would be given to charity — the reason has to do with how in-app purchases work on the App Store.

Apple a couple of years ago carved out an exception to its rules around commissions on in-app purchases in those cases where the business wasn’t profiting in any way from the donations or tips being sent to creators using the app. That’s why Clubhouse has stressed that it doesn’t take a cut of creator revenue at this time and why it’s emphasizing that it doesn’t keep any donations sent its way, either.

The company also cleared up some rumors around who would first gain access to payments, noting that users didn’t have a start a “club” on Clubhouse in order to be considered. Instead, Davison said the app was prioritizing those users who had been recently active and who didn’t have any violations. But otherwise, the initial testers have been a largely random sampling.

In-app payments are only one of the avenues Clubhouse plans to explore to generate revenue both for creators, and longer-term, for itself. The company is also considering features like subscriptions for creators and clubs, ticketed events, and brand deals.

Clubhouse also offered an update on its plans for Creator First program. The company last month announced the program, which will help creators get their first shows off the ground with Clubhouse’s help. Selected creators will receive equipment, promotional and marketing support, help with booking guests, and even income.

To date, Clubhouse has fielded over 5,000 submissions from interested users. To narrow down the field, the company said it will host a “pilot season” of sorts beginning April 23, where 60 yet-to-be-announced creators will debut shows at a pace of one episode over a three-week period. The Creator First program participants will then be selected based on feedback from a panel of judges and the Clubhouse community. Those initial 60 finalists will be announced April 23, the company said.

Meroxa raises $15M Series A for its real-time data platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Meroxa, a startup that makes it easier for businesses to build the data pipelines to power both their analytics and operational workflows, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Drive Capital. Existing investors Root, Amplify and Hustle Fund also participated in this round, which together with the company’s previously undisclosed $4.2 million seed round now brings total funding in the company to $19.2 million.

The promise of Meroxa is that can use a single platform for their various data needs and won’t need a team of experts to build their infrastructure and then manage it. At its core, Meroxa provides a single Software-as-a-Service solution that connects relational databases to data warehouses and then helps businesses operationalize that data.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“The interesting thing is that we are focusing squarely on relational and NoSQL databases into data warehouse,” Meroxa co-founder and CEO DeVaris Brown told me. “Honestly, people come to us as a real-time FiveTran or real-time data warehouse sink. Because, you know, the industry has moved to this [extract, load, transform] format. But the beautiful part about us is, because we do change data capture, we get that granular data as it happens.” And businesses want this very granular data to be reflected inside of their data warehouses, Brown noted, but he also stressed that Meroxa can expose this stream of data as an API endpoint or point it to a Webhook.

The company is able to do this because its core architecture is somewhat different from other data pipeline and integration services that, at first glance, seem to offer a similar solution. Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools on top of these data streams.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“We aren’t a point-to-point solution,” Meroxa co-founder and CTO Ali Hamidi explained. “When you set up the connection, you aren’t taking data from Postgres and only putting it into Snowflake. What’s really happening is that it’s going into our intermediate stream. Once it’s in that stream, you can then start hanging off connectors and say, ‘Okay, well, I also want to peek into the stream, I want to transfer my data, I want to filter out some things, I want to put it into S3.”

Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools to utilize the real-time data stream. With this flexibility, Hamidi noted, a lot of the company’s customers start with a pretty standard use case and then quickly expand into other areas as well.

Brown and Hamidi met during their time at Heroku, where Brown was a director of product management and Hamidi a lead software engineer. But while Heroku made it very easy for developers to publish their web apps, there wasn’t anything comparable in the highly fragmented database space. The team acknowledges that there are a lot of tools that aim to solve these data problems, but few of them focus on the user experience.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“When we talk to customers now, it’s still very much an unsolved problem,” Hamidi said. “It seems kind of insane to me that this is such a common thing and there is no ‘oh, of course you use this tool because it addresses all my problems.’ And so the angle that we’re taking is that we see user experience not as a nice-to-have, it’s really an enabler, it is something that enables a software engineer or someone who isn’t a data engineer with 10 years of experience in wrangling Kafka and Postgres and all these things. […] That’s a transformative kind of change.”

It’s worth noting that Meroxa uses a lot of open-source tools but the company has also committed to open-sourcing everything in its data plane as well. “This has multiple wins for us, but one of the biggest incentives is in terms of the customer, we’re really committed to having our agenda aligned. Because if we don’t do well, we don’t serve the customer. If we do a crappy job, they can just keep all of those components and run it themselves,” Hamidi explained.

Today, Meroxa, which the team founded in early 2020, has over 24 employees (and is 100% remote). “I really think we’re building one of the most talented and most inclusive teams possible,” Brown told me. “Inclusion and diversity are very, very high on our radar. Our team is 50% black and brown. Over 40% are women. Our management team is 90% underrepresented. So not only are we building a great product, we’re building a great company, we’re building a great business.”  

Getlabs, an at-home medical labs company, launches with a $3 million raise

By Marcella McCarthy

When you’re not feeling well and your doctor asks you to get labs drawn, you know that can increase the time between a diagnosis and care. But Getlabs, a company that brings the lab to you with its at-home, blood-drawing service, is aiming to eliminate that friction, and today announced a $3 million seed round led by PivotNorth Capital. The funding will be used to launch in Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Dallas, all of which have been soft launches so far.

“Seventy percent of all medical decisions are based on lab results, yet 30% of patients are non-compliant and skip their lab orders,” Getlabs said in a statement. For many, getting their labs drawn is just one more tedious step in getting the care they need.

With Getlabs, once a phlebotomist draws your blood, it can get processed in any lab of your choice, though the company has partnerships with Labcorp and Quest Diagnostics.

The company charges for drawing the labs, but insurance pays for the blood work to be processed, as it normally would. To get your blood drawn at home, Getlabs charges the patient between $29-$49, and it’s based on when you want them to come to you. 

“[Brick and mortar] labs usually charge a $25 blood drawing fee, which isn’t covered by insurance, so the $29 fee charged by Getlabs is only a couple more dollars,” Kyle Michelson, Getlabs founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

Kyle Michelson, founder and CEO, Getlabs. Image Credits: Getlabs

Getlabs is the result of a challenge Michelson himself faced.

“I needed my labs done all the time while I was in Y Combinator [for another idea],” he said. “I was there for three months, and you’re scrambling to build a business, and I had no time, and the little time I had I spent driving to the lab and waiting for an hour. So it was just a miserable experience,” he said.

“I started looking into why people didn’t get their labs done, and the top reason was inconvenience,” he added.

Getting healthcare today often includes four trips: going to the doctor, the lab, back to the doctor and then the pharmacy. But with the massive growth of virtual care and with companies like Capsule, Amazon Pharmacy and PillPack (owned by Amazon) offering prescription delivery to your door, Michelson saw a gap in the market for a more convenient lab service, too.

Getlabs, which is fully remote and has 37 employees, plans to use the funding to expand to Phoenix, Philadelphia and Dallas and also to expand to other verticals of home health. Other investors in the round include Tusk Venture Partners, Rosecliff Ventures, Liquid 2 Ventures, CityLight Capital, Karlin Asset Management and angel investor Matthew Dellavedova.

“I believe Getlabs is the final step in delivering at-home healthcare that will be so crucial as more organizations and individuals see the benefits of telemedicine,” said Tim Connors, founder and managing partner at PivotNorth Capital.

While not all ailments can be treated virtually, when possible, “The end goal for Getlabs is to fully partner with telemedicine services so patients never have to leave the home,” the company said. 

According to Edvard Engesaeth, co-founder of Nurx, “Getlabs could play an important part for healthcare companies like Nurx to treat more complex conditions where in-person blood draws are required by providing remote care in the home.”

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