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2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change

By Jonathan Shieber

It’s official. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record either edging out or coming in just behind 2016 for the warmest year in recorded history according to data from US government agencies.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had the year just tied with 2016, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the figure just behind 2016’s totals.

No matter the ranking, the big picture for the climate isn’t pretty according to scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and the Washington, DC-based NOAA.

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt, in a statement. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”

That’s a dire message for the nation considering the cost of last year’s record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters. At least 262 people died and scores more were injured by climate-related disasters, according to the NOAA.

And the combination of wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, tornados, tropical cyclones, and severe weather events like hail storms in Texas and the derecho that wrecked the Midwest cost the nation $95 billion.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020.

Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. – As of the late hours of August 18,2020 the Hennessey fire has merged with at least 7 fires and is now called the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Dozens of fires are burning out of control throughout Northern California as fire resources are spread thin. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Both organizations track temperature trends to get some sort of picture of the impact that human activities — specifically greenhouse gas emissions — have on the planet. The image that comes into focus is that human activity has already contributed to increasing Earth’s average temperature by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age took hold in the late 19th century.

Most troubling to scientists is that this year’s near record-setting temperatures happened without a boost from the climatic weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which is a large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming.

“The previous record warm year, 2016, received a significant boost from a strong El Niño. The lack of a similar assist from El Niño this year is evidence that the background climate continues to warm due to greenhouse gases,” Schmidt said, in a statement.

The warming trends the word is experiencing are most pronounced in the Arctic, according to NASA. There, temperatures have warmed three times as a fast as the rest of the globe over the past 30 years, Schmidt said. The loss of Arctic sea ice — whose annual minimum area is declining by about 13 percent per decade — makes the region less reflective, which means more sunlight is being absorbed by oceans, causing temperatures to climb even more.

These accelerating effects of climate change could be perilous for the world at large, Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

“What keeps us climate scientists up in the dead of night is wondering what we don’t know about the self-reinforcing or vicious cycles in the Earth’s climate system,” Hayhoe wrote. “The further and faster we push it beyond anything experienced in the history of human civilization on this planet, the greater the risk of serious and even dangerous consequences. And this year, we’ve seen that in spades… It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get.”

Amazon is removing products promoting the QAnon conspiracy

By Jonathan Shieber

Amazon has begun the process of removing QAnon-related products from its platform.

A spokesperson for the company said that the process may take a few days. Any sellers that attempt to evade the company’s systems and list products will be subject to action, including a blanket selling ban across Amazon stores.

News of the ban was first reported by The New York Times.

The company is shutting down the nation’s newest favorite conspiracy theory by removing products sold by QAnon adherents from its platform after supporters were prominently on display at the riot in the nation’s Capitol last week.

Amazon’s ban of Q-related products follows the company’s decision to remove Parler from its web servers and cloud services platform.

The ban applies to any self-published books that promote QAnon or any clothing, posters, stickers, or other merchandise related to the Q conspiracy theory.

Amazon has policies that prohibit products that “promote, incite, or glorify hate or violence toward any person or group,” the company said.

A cursory search of the company’s platform on Monday revealed that the ban isn’t being applied to all of the Q-related products for sale.

Seven pages of Q-related products were surfaced under the search for “WWG1WGA” an acronym for the Q-related phrase, “Where we go one, we go all.”

The widely discredited Q conspiracy theory was born from a stew of different conspiracy theories that emerged from the 4chan message boards back in 2017.

Since its emergence, the conspiracy theory has grabbed the attention of conservative activists, and its supporters were highly visible among the group of rioters that stormed the Capitol building last week — even as at least one Q-believer joined Congress the same week.

Amazon’s decision to ban the sale of Q-related goods comes many, many, many years after the movement was first linked to violence, as TechCrunch previously reported.

Criminal acts committed by believers have included the fatal shooting a mob boss in Staten Island and blocking the Hoover Dam bridge in an armed standoff.

The conspiracy’s followers have also interfered with legitimate child safety efforts by hijacking the hashtag #savethechildren, and exporting their extreme ideas into mainstream conversation under the guise of helping children. Facebook, which previously banned QAnonlimited the hashtag’s reach in late 2020 because of the interference.

Healthvana’s digital COVID-19 vaccination records are about communication, not passports for the immune

By Darrell Etherington

As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.

“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”

Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.

“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”

That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.

While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.

“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”

Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.

Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.

SilviaTerra wants to bring the benefits of carbon offsets to every landowner everywhere

By Jonathan Shieber

Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilivaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue generating carbon offsets.

As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multi-billion dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated ten years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.

That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the 1 trillion trees initiative, Marc Benioff .

“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere*. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”

For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.

After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SiliviaTerra.

SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilivaTerra

The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.

While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S. the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the US each year.

The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for moset landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.

There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.

To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SiliviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.

That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.

Working with AI for Earth, TierraSilva created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes ofsatellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the US Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.

With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.

Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and try to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”

The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.

Landowners involved in SilivaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”

Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.

It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”

The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways its an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.

Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.

“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.” 

Michelle Obama calls on Silicon Valley to permanently ban Trump and prevent platform abuse by future leaders

By Darrell Etherington

In a new statement issued by former First Lady Michelle Obama, she calls on Silicon Valley specifically to address its role in the violent insurrection attempt by pro-Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday. Obama’s statement also calls out the obviously biased treatment that the primarily white pro-Trump fanatics faced by law enforcement relative to that received by mostly peaceful BLM supporters during their lawful demonstrations (as opposed to Wednesday’s criminal activity), but it includes a specific redress for the tech industry’s leaders and platform operators.

“Now is the time for companies to stop enabling this monstrous behavior – and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms and putting in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection,” Obama wrote in her statement, which she shared on Twitter and on Facebook.

Like all of you, I’ve been feeling so many emotions since yesterday. I tried to put my thoughts down here: pic.twitter.com/9xzRvrpk7y

— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) January 7, 2021

The call for action goes beyond what most social platforms have done already: Facebook has banned Trump, but though it describes the term of the suspension as “indefinite,” it left open the possibility for a restoration of his accounts in as little as two weeks’ time once Joe Biden has officially assumed the presidency. Twitter, meanwhile, initially removed three tweets it found offended its rules by inciting violence, and then locked Trump’s account pending his deletion of the same. Earlier on Thursday, Twitter confirmed that Trump had removed these, and that his account would subsequently be restored twelve hours after their deletion. Twitch has also disabled Trump’s channel at least until the end of his term, while Shopify has removed Trump’s official merchandise stores from its platform.

No social platform thus far has permanently banned Trump, so far as TechCrunch is aware, which is what Obama is calling for in her statement. And while both Twitter and Facebook have discussed how Trump’s recent behavior have violated their policies regarding use of their platform, neither have yet provided any detailed information regarding how they’ll address any potential similar behavior from other world leaders going forward. In other words, we don’t yet know what would be different (if anything) should another Trump-styled megalomaniac take office and use available social channels in a similar manner.

Obama is hardly the only political figure to call for action from social media platforms around “sustained misuse of their platforms to sow discord and violence,” as Senator Mark Warner put it in a statement on Wednesday. Likely once the dust clears from this week’s events, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al. will face renewed scrutiny from lawmakers and public interest groups around any corrective action they’re taking.

Kanarys raises $3 million for its data-driven platform to assess diversity and inclusion efforts

By Jonathan Shieber

Mandy Price was already a highly successful lawyer in private practice before she took the jump into entrepreneurship alongside two co-founders to launch Kanarys a little over one year ago.

The Harvard Law School graduated didn’t have to start her company, which helps businesses measure the efficacy of their diversity and inclusion efforts using hard data, but she needed to start the company.

Now, a year after its launch, the company counts companies like Yum Brands, the Dallas Mavericks, and Neiman Marcus among the dozen or so companies using its service and has $3 million in seed funding to help it expand.

For Price, the drive to launch Kanarys came from her own experiences working in law. It wasn’t the microagressions, or the lower pay, or casually dismissive attitude of colleagues toward her well-earned success that led Price to start Kanarys, but the knowledge that her experience wasn’t unique and that thousands of other women and minorities faced the same experiences daily.

I have had many things happen to me in the workplace that is similar to what many other women and women of color have dealt with and didn’t want to have my children have to go through similar issues,” Price said. 

So alongside her husband, Bennie King (himself a serial entrepreneur in the Dallas area), and her University of Texas at Austin and Harvard classmate, Star Carter, Price launched Kanarys in late 2019.

The company uses Equal Employment Opportunity reports and assessments of various policies involving promotion, recruitment, and benefits to track how a company is performing in relation to its industry peers.

“A lot of the inequities we see are from a structural and systemic standpoint. That is where Kanarys can see how they’re perpetuating inequity,” Price said. 

Kanarys starts with an independent assessment of a company’s policies and practices and then conducts quarterly surveys with employees of its customers to see how well they are meeting their stated goals and objectives. They also integrate with existing human resources systems to track things like pay equity and promotions.

The service has attracted the attention of the Rise of the Rest fund, Morgan Stanley, Jigsaw Ventures, Segal Ventures and Zeal Capital Partners, which led the company’s $3 million seed round.

“Organizations have typically tried to address this with individual interventions,” said Price. “What we’re saying is we have to address it on both fronts. So much of the inequities that we see are based off of institutional and systemic policies and practices.”

Not only does Kanarys track information on diversity and inclusion efforts for customers, but for job seekers there’s a database of about 1,000 companies which operates like Glassdoor . The focus is not just on worker satisfaction, but on how employees view the diversity efforts their employers are undertaking.

Notably, Kanarys founders join the (far-too-few) ranks of Black entrepreneurs launching businesses and raising venture capital. In 2017, studies showed that 98 percent of venture capital raised in the U.S. went to men, according to data provided by the company. Black entrepreneurs in general receive less than one percent of venture capital, and Black women founders make up only 0.6 percent of venture capital funding raised. 

“We know that a focus on DEI in business is not just the right thing to do for employees, it also makes good business sense,” said Price, CEO and co-founder of Kanarys, in a statement. “Kanarys’ DEI data arms companies, for the first time, to make precise, immediate, and informed decisions using real, intersectional metrics around their diversity goals and inclusion programs that ultimately drive bottom-line business objectives.”

 

VergeSense raises $12M Series B for its workplace analytics service

By Frederic Lardinois

VergeSense, a startup that uses machine vision to help businesses better understand how their office spaces are being utilized, today announced that it has raised a $12 million Series B funding round led by Tola Capital.

Including the company’s $9 million Series A round, which it raised earlier this year, VergeSense has now raised a total of $22.6 million. Previous investors include JLL Spark, Allegion Ventures, MetaProp, Y Combinator, Pathbreaker Ventures and West Ventures.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s maybe no surprise that VergeSense would be seeing quite a bit of demand for its service and sensors. While the company was seeing strong growth since its launch in 2017, the pandemic is accelerating the move to smarter office spaces. As VergeSense CEO and co-founder Dan Ryan told me, over the course of the last few months, the company added new features to help businesses manage social distancing, for example, and to better understand where in a given office they should intensify their cleaning protocols.

VergeSense sensor

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that even after we get the pandemic under control, office spaces — and office work — will look radically different. “It’s going to be a sort of a hybrid model of working, which, pre-pandemic, was already something that was happening — companies were experimenting with this — but now it’s been turbocharged,” Ryan said. “We never anticipated any of this, but I think it’s a great example of the possibilities that you can help support when you have this intelligent infrastructure all around you that allows you to almost program the physical world.”

Another new feature the company launched this year allows its tools to register when a seat is likely occupied, even though nobody is in it right now, by looking for backpacks and other signs that would signal that a desk is in use.

VergeSense currently has customers in 29 countries. These include the likes of Shell, Quicken Loans, Roche, Cisco and Telus. In total, the company’s tools watch more than 40 million square feet of space now.

Image Credits: VergeSense

As Ryan told me, the company saw quite a bit of inbound interest from investors this year and the team wanted to capitalize on the current trends. “As we look forward to ’21, especially now that this transition to an agile hybrid seating model is going to be turbocharged, we were preparing for and planning for additional growth there as well. So this was sort of opportunistic opportunity to team up with Tola to help go to the next level,” Ryan explained.

The company plans to use the new funding to continue to work on its core computer vision capabilities and hardware, but as Ryan noted, one of the focus areas for VergeSense in 2021 will also include new partnerships and integrations with tools for booking desks and rooms, as well as building automation systems. To do so, it plans to double its headcount and hire across all departments.

VergeSense is obviously not the only company playing in this space. Swiss startup Locatee, for example, raised a Series A round for its service earlier this year, though it uses network data to measure occupancy and not the kind of dedicated sensors that VergeSense is developing. Other players include the likes of Density, Basking and SteerPath.

Astroscale ships its space junk removal demonstration satellite for March 2021 mission

By Darrell Etherington

Japanese startup Astroscale has shipped its ELSA-d spacecraft to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, where it will be integrated with a Soyuz rocket for a launch scheduled for March of next year. This is a crucial mission for Astroscale, since it’ll be the first in-space demonstration of the company’s technology for de-orbiting space debris, a cornerstone of its proposed space sustainability service business.

The ELSA-d mission by Astroscale is a small satellite mission that will demonstrate two key technologies that enable the company’s vision for orbital debris removal. First will be a targeting component, demonstrating an ability to locate and dock with a piece of space debris, using positioning sensors including GPS and laser locating technologies. That will be used by a so-called “servicer” satellite to find and attach to a “target” satellite launched at the same time, which will stand in for a potential piece of debris.

Astroscale intends to dock and release with the “target” using its “servicer” multiple times over the course of the mission, showing that it can identify and capture uncontrolled objects in space, and that it can maneuver them for controlled de-orbit. This will basically prove out the feasibility of the technology underlying its business model, and set it up for future commercial operations.

In October, Astroscale announced that it had raised $51 million, making its total raised to date $191 million. The company also acquired the staff and IP of a company called Effective Space Solutions in June, which it will use to build out the geostationary servicing arm of its business, in addition to the LEO operations that ELSA-d will demonstrate.

Researchers say hardcoded passwords in GE medical imaging devices could put patient data at risk

By Zack Whittaker

Dozens of medical imaging devices built by General Electric are secured with hardcoded default passwords that can’t be easily changed, but could be exploited to access sensitive patient scans, according to new findings by security firm CyberMDX.

The researchers said that an attacker would only need to be on the same network to exploit a vulnerable device, such as by tricking an employee into opening an email with malware. From there, the attacker could use those unchanged hardcoded passwords to obtain whatever patient data was left on the device or disrupt the device from operating properly.

CyberMDX said X-ray machines, CT and MRI scanners, and ultrasound and mammography devices are among the affected devices.

GE uses hardcoded passwords to remotely maintain the devices. But Elad Luz, head of research at CyberMDX, said some customers were not aware that their devices had vulnerable devices. Luz described the passwords as “hardcoded,” because although they can be changed, customers have to rely on a GE engineer to change the passwords on-site.

The vulnerability has also prompted an alert by Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisory unit, CISA. Customers of affected devices should contact GE to change the passwords.

Hannah Huntly, a spokesperson for GE Healthcare, said in a statement: “We are not aware of any incident where this potential vulnerability has been exploited in a clinical situation. We have conducted a full risk assessment and concluded that there is no patient safety concern. Maintaining the safety, quality, and security of our devices is our highest priority.”

It’s the latest find by the New York-based healthcare cybersecurity startup. Last year the startup also reported vulnerabilities in other GE equipment, which the company later admitted could have led to patient injury after initially clearing the device for use.

CyberMDX, which works primarily to secure medical devices and improve hospital network security through its cyber intelligence platform while conducting security research on the side, raised $20 million earlier this year, just a month into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bristol entrepreneur who exited for $800M doubles-down on the city with deep-tech incubator and VC fund

By Mike Butcher

Harry Destecroix co-founded Ziylo while studying for his PhD at the University of Bristol. Ziylo, a university spin-out company, developed a synthetic molecule allowing glucose to bind with the bloodstream more effectively. Four years later, and by then a Phd, Destecroix sold the company to Danish firm Novo Nordisk, one of the biggest manufacturers of diabetes medicines, which had realized it could use Ziylo’s molecule to develop a new type of insulin to help diabetics. He walked away with an estimated $800m.

Destecroix is now embarking on a project, “Science Creates”, to repeat the exercise of creating deep-tech, science-based startups, and it will once more be based out of Bristol.

To foster this deep tech ecosystem it will offer a specialized incubator space able to house Wet Labs, a £15 million investment fund and a network of strategic partners to nurture science and engineering start-ups and spin-outs.

The Science Creates hub, in partnership with the University of Bristol and located in the heart of the city, is aspiring to become a sort of ‘West Coast’ for England, and the similarities, at least with an earlier version of Silicon Valley, are striking.

The Bay Area of old was cheaper than the East Coast of the US, had a cornerstone university, access to capital, and plenty of talent. Bristol has all that and for capital, it can access London, less than 90 minutes by train. But what it’s lacked until now is a greater level of “clustering” and startup-focused organization, which is clearly what Destecroix is planning to fix.

In a statement for the launch, he explained: “Where a discovery is made has a huge bearing on whether it’s successfully commercialized. While founding my own start-up, Ziylo, I became aware of just how many discoveries failed to emerge from the lab in Bristol alone. No matter the quality of the research and discovery, the right ecosystem is fundamental if we are going to challenge the global 90% failure rate of science start-ups, and create many more successful ventures.”

Science Creates is be grown out of the original incubator, Unit DX, that Destecroix set up in collaboration with the University of Bristol in 2017 to commercialize companies like his own.

The Science Creates team

The Science Creates team

The ‘Science Creates ecosystem’ will comprise of:

Science Creates Incubators: Unit DX houses 37 scientific and engineering companies working on healthtech, the environment and quality of life. The opening of a second incubator, Unit DY, close to Bristol Temple Meads train station, will mean it can support 100 companies and an estimated 450 jobs. The Science Creates’ physical footprint across the two units will reach 45,000 sq ft.

Science Creates Ventures: This £15 million EIS venture capital fund is backed by the Bristol-based entrepreneurs behind some of the South-West’s biggest deep tech exits.

Science Creates Network: This will be a portfolio of strategic partners, mentors and advisors tailored to the needs of science and engineering start-ups.

Destecroix is keen that the startups nurtured there will have more than “Wi-Fi and strong coffee” but also well-equipped lab space as well as sector-specific business support.

He’s betting that Bristol, with its long history of academic and industrial research, world-class research base around the University of Bristol, will be able to overcome the traditional challenges towards the commercialization of deep tech and science-based startups.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Bristol, commented: “We are delighted to support the vision and help Science Creates to build a thriving deep tech ecosystem in our home city. Great scientists don’t always know how to be great entrepreneurs, but we’ve seen the impact specialist support can have in helping them access the finance, networks, skills, and investment opportunities they need. Working with Science Creates, we aim to support even more ground-breaking discoveries to progress outside the university walls, and thrive as successful commercial ventures that change our world for the better.”

Ventures in Unit DX so far include:
– Imophoron (a vaccine tech start-up that is reinventing how vaccines are made and work – currently working on a COVID vaccine)
– Cytoseek (a discovery-stage biotech working on cell therapy cancer treatment)
– Anaphite (graphine-based science for next gen battery technology).

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Destecroix went on to say: “After my startup exited I just got really interested in this idea that, where discovery is actually founded has a huge bearing on whether something is actually commercialized or not. The pandemic has really taught us there is a hell of a lot more – especially in the life sciences, and environmental sciences – that has still yet to be discovered. Vaccines are based on very old technology and take a while to develop.”

“Through this whole journey, I started trying to understand it from an economic perspective. How do we get more startups to emerge? To lower those barriers? I think first of all there’s a cultural problem, especially with academically-focused universities whereby entrepreneurship a dirty word. I had to go against many of my colleagues in the early days to spin out, then obviously universities own all the IP. And so you’ve got to go through the tech transfer office etc and depending on what university you are at, whether it’s Imperial, Cambridge or Oxford, they’re all different. So, and I put the reason why there were no deep terch startups in Bristol down to the fact that there was no incubator space, and not enough investment.”

“I’ve now made about 14 angel investments. Bristol has now catapulted from 20th in the league tables for life sciences to six in the country in the last three years and this is largely due to the activities that we’ve been helping to encourage. So we’ve helped streamline licensing processes for the university, and I’ve helped cornerstone a lot of these deals which has resulted in a wave of these technology startups coming in.”

“I thought, now’s the time to professionalize this and launch a respectable Bristol-based venture capital firm that specializes in deep technologies.”

SunCulture wants to turn Africa into the world’s next bread basket, one solar water pump at a time

By Jonathan Shieber

The world’s food supply must double by the year 2050 to meet the demands from a growing population, according to a report from the United Nations. And as pressure mounts to find new crop land to support the growth, the world’s eyes are increasingly turning to the African continent as the next potential global breadbasket.

While Africa has 65% of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, according to the African Development Bank, the countries on the continent face significant obstacles as they look to boost the productivity of their agricultural industries.

On the continent, 80% of families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but only 4% use irrigation. Many families also lack access to reliable and affordable electricity. It’s these twin problems that Samir Ibrahim and his co-founder at SunCulture, Charlie Nichols, have spent the last eight years trying to solve.

Armed with a new financing model and purpose-built small solar power generators and water pumps, Nichols and Ibrahim, have already built a network of customers using their equipment to increase incomes by anywhere from five to ten times their previous levels by growing higher-value cash crops, cultivating more land and raising more livestock.

The company also has just closed on $14 million in funding to expand its business across Africa.

“We have to double the amount of food we have to create by 2050, and if you look at where there are enough resources to grow food and a lot of point — all signs point to Africa. You have a lot of farmers and a lot of land, and a lot of resources,” Ibrahim said.

African small farmers face two big problems as they look to increase productivity, Ibrahim said. One is access to markets, which alone is a huge source of food waste, and the other is food security because of a lack of stable growing conditions exacerbated by climate change.

As one small farmer told The Economist earlier this year, ““The rainy season is not predictable. When it is supposed to rain it doesn’t, then it all comes at once.”

Ibrahim, who graduated from New York University in 2011, had long been drawn to the African continent. His father was born in Tanzania and his mother grew up in Kenya and they eventually found their way to the U.S. But growing up, Ibrahim was told stories about East Africa.

While pursuing a business degree at NYU Ibrahim met Nichols, who had been working on large scale solar projects in the U.S., at an event for budding entrepreneurs in New York.

The two began a friendship and discussed potential business opportunities stemming from a paper Nichols had read about renewable energy applications in the agriculture industry.

After winning second place in a business plan competition sponsored by NYU, the two men decided to prove that they should have won first. They booked tickets to Kenya and tried to launch a pilot program for their business selling solar-powered water pumps and generators.

Conceptually solar water pumping systems have been around for decades. But as the costs of solar equipment and energy storage have declined the systems that leverage those components have become more accessible to a broader swath of the global population.

That timing is part of what has enabled SunCulture to succeed where other companies have stumbled. “We moved here at a time when [solar] reached grid parity in a lot of markets. It was at a time when a lot of development financiers were funding the nexus between agriculture and energy,” said Ibrahim.

Initially, the company sold its integrated energy generation and water pumping systems to the middle income farmers who hold jobs in cities like Nairobi and cultivate crops on land they own in rural areas. These “telephone farmers” were willing to spend the $5000 required to install SunCulture’s initial systems.

Now, the cost of a system is somewhere between $500 and $1000 and is more accessible for the 570 million farming households across the word — with the company’s “pay-as-you-grow” model.

It’s a spin on what’s become a popular business model for the distribution of solar systems of all types across Africa. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into the development of off-grid solar energy and retail technology companies like M-kopa, Greenlight Planet, d.light design, ZOLA Electric, and SolarHome, according to Ibrahim. In some ways, SunCulture just extends that model to agricultural applications.

“We have had to bundle services and financing. The reason this particularly works is because our customers are increasing their incomes four or five times,” said Ibrahim. “Most of the money has been going to consuming power. This is the first time there has been productive power.”

 SunCulture’s hardware consists of 300 watt solar panels and a 440 watt-hour battery system. The batteries can support up to four lights, two phones and a plug-in submersible water pump. 

The company’s best selling product line can support irrigation for a two-and-a-half acre farm, Ibrahim said. “We see ourselves as an entry point for other types of appliances. We’re growing to be the largest solar company for Africa.”

With the $14 million in funding, from investors including Energy Access Ventures (EAV), Électricité de France (EDF), Acumen Capital Partners (ACP), and Dream Project Incubators (DPI), SunCulture will expand its footprint in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire, the company said. 

Ekta Partners acted as the financial advisor for the deal, while CrossBoundary provided additional advisory support, including an analysis on the market opportunity and competitive landscape, under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Kenya Investment Mechanism Program

Okay nabs funding from Sequoia to build performance dashboards for engineering managers

By Lucas Matney

Amid the pandemic, workplace cultures have been turned on their heads, meanwhile investment and growth haven’t slowed for many tech companies, requiring them to still onboard new engineering managers even while best practices for remote management are far from codified.

Because of remote work habit shifts, plenty of new tools have popped up to help engineers be more productive, or quickly help managers interface with direct-reports more often. Okay is taking a more observatory route, aiming to give managers dashboards that quantify the performance of their teams so that they can get a picture of where they have room to improve.

The startup, which launched out of Y Combinator earlier this year, tells TechCrunch they’ve raised $2.2 million in funding led by Sequoia and are launching the open beta of their service.

Co-founders Antoine Boulanger and Tomas Barreto met while working at Box — Boulanger as a senior director of engineering and Barreto as a VP of engineering. They told TechCrunch that in the process of building out a suite of in-house tools designed to help managers at Box understand their teams better, they realized the opportunity for a subscription toolset that could help managers across companies. For the most part, Boulanger says that today Okay is largely replacing tools built in-house as well.

Getting a picture of an engineering team’s productivity means plugging into these toolsets and gathering data into a digestible feed. Okay can be integrated with a number of toolsets, including software like GitHub, PagerDuty, CircleCI and Google Calendar.

“Part of the problem for managers is that there are so many tools, so how do you get signal from the noise?” Barreto tells TechCrunch.

A large part of Okay’s sell seems to be ensuring that managers can keep an active eye on the common pitfalls of rapid scaling and keep them in check so that can keep direct-reports satisfied. On the individual basis, managers can quickly see stats related to how much of an individual manager’s time is being spent in meetings compared to un-interrupted “maker time” where they actually have the ability to get work done.

People don’t like to be micro-managed and the idea that everything you do is feeding into a pie chart that judges whether you’re a good employee or not isn’t the most savory sell for engineers. Okay’s founders hope they can strike a balance and give managers data that they’re not tempted to over-rely on, instead defaulting to team-level insights when they can so that managers are dialed into general trends like how long projects are taking on average or how long it takes for pull requests to be reviewed.

Investors have been bankrolling remote work tools at a heightened pace for the last several months and things have been especially fortunate for young companies that were ahead of the trend. Barreto, for his part, has served as a scout at Sequoia since 2018 according to his LinkedIn.

The team says their product, as it stands today, is best fit for companies with 50-200 engineers that are high-growth and perhaps going through some of those growing pains. The company’s early customers include teams at Brex, Plaid and Split.

Fylamynt raises $6.5M for its cloud workflow automation platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Fylamynt, a new service that helps businesses automate their cloud workflows, today announced both the official launch of its platform as well as a $6.5 million seed round. The funding round was led by Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. Mango Capital and Point72 Ventures also participated.

At first glance, the idea behind Fylamynt may sound familiar. Workflow automation has become a pretty competitive space, after all, and the service helps developers connect their various cloud tools to create repeatable workflows. We’re not talking about your standard IFTTT- or Zapier -like integrations between SaaS products, though. The focus of Fylamynt is squarely on building infrastructure workflows. While that may sound familiar, too, with tools like Ansible and Terraform automating a lot of that already, Fylamynt sits on top of those and integrates with them.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

“Some time ago, we used to do Bash and scripting — and then [ … ] came Chef and Puppet in 2006, 2007. SaltStack, as well. Then Terraform and Ansible,” Fylamynt co-founder and CEO Pradeep Padala told me. “They have all done an extremely good job of making it easier to simplify infrastructure operations so you don’t have to write low-level code. You can write a slightly higher-level language. We are not replacing that. What we are doing is connecting that code.”

So if you have a Terraform template, an Ansible playbook and maybe a Python script, you can now use Fylamynt to connect those. In the end, Fylamynt becomes the orchestration engine to run all of your infrastructure code — and then allows you to connect all of that to the likes of DataDog, Splunk, PagerDuty Slack and ServiceNow.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

The service currently connects to Terraform, Ansible, Datadog, Jira, Slack, Instance, CloudWatch, CloudFormation and your Kubernetes clusters. The company notes that some of the standard use cases for its service are automated remediation, governance and compliance, as well as cost and performance management.

The company is already working with a number of design partners, including Snowflake.

Fylamynt CEO Padala has quite a bit of experience in the infrastructure space. He co-founded ContainerX, an early container-management platform, which later sold to Cisco. Before starting ContainerX, he was at VMWare and DOCOMO Labs. His co-founders, VP of Engineering Xiaoyun Zhu and CTO David Lee, also have deep expertise in building out cloud infrastructure and operating it.

“If you look at any company — any company building a product — let’s say a SaaS product, and they want to run their operations, infrastructure operations very efficiently,” Padala said. “But there are always challenges. You need a lot of people, it takes time. So what is the bottleneck? If you ask that question and dig deeper, you’ll find that there is one bottleneck for automation: that’s code. Someone has to write code to automate. Everything revolves around that.”

Fylamynt aims to take the effort out of that by allowing developers to either write Python and JSON to automate their workflows (think “infrastructure as code” but for workflows) or to use Fylamynt’s visual no-code drag-and-drop tool. As Padala noted, this gives developers a lot of flexibility in how they want to use the service. If you never want to see the Fylamynt UI, you can go about your merry coding ways, but chances are the UI will allow you to get everything done as well.

One area the team is currently focusing on — and will use the new funding for — is building out its analytics capabilities that can help developers debug their workflows. The service already provides log and audit trails, but the plan is to expand its AI capabilities to also recommend the right workflows based on the alerts you are getting.

“The eventual goal is to help people automate any service and connect any code. That’s the holy grail. And AI is an enabler in that,” Padala said.

Gradient Ventures partner Muzzammil “MZ” Zaveri echoed this. “Fylamynt is at the intersection of applied AI and workflow automation,” he said. “We’re excited to support the Fylamynt team in this uniquely positioned product with a deep bench of integrations and a nonprescriptive builder approach. The vision of automating every part of a cloud workflow is just the beginning.”

The team, which now includes about 20 employees, plans to use the new round of funding, which closed in September, to focus on its R&D, build out its product and expand its go-to-market team. On the product side, that specifically means building more connectors.

The company offers both a free plan as well as enterprise pricing and its platform is now generally available.

Europe will push to work with the US on tech governance, post-Trump

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union said today that it wants to work with US counterparts on a common approach to tech governance — including pushing to standardize rules for applications of technologies like AI and pushing big tech to be more responsible for what their platforms amplify.

EU lawmakers are anticipating rebooted transatlantic relations under the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden .

The Commission has published a new EU-US agenda with the aim of encouraging what it bills as “global cooperation — based on our common values, interests and global influence” in a number of areas, from tackling the coronavirus pandemic to addressing climate change and furthering a Western geopolitical agenda.

Trade and tech policy is another major priority for the hoped for reboot of transatlantic relations, starting with an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021.

Relations have of course been strained during the Trump era as the sitting US president has threatened the bloc with trade tariffs, berated European nations for not spending enough on defence to fulfil their Nato commitments and heavily implied he’d be a lot happier if the EU didn’t exist at all (including loudly supporting brexit).

The Commission agenda conveys a clear message that the bloc’s lawmakers are hopeful of a lot more joint working — toward common goals and interests — once the Biden administration takes office early next year.

Global AI standards?

On the tech front the Commission’s push is for alignment on governance.

“The EU and the US need to join forces as tech-allies to shape technologies, their use and their regulatory environment,” the Commission writes in the agenda. “Using our combined influence, a transatlantic technology space should form the backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies with a shared vision on tech governance and a shared commitment to defend it.”

Among the proposals it’s floating is a “Transatlantic AI Agreement” — which it envisages as setting “a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values”.

While the EU is working on a pan-EU framework to set rules for the use of “high risk” AIs, some US cities and states have already moved to ban the use of specific applications of artificial intelligence — such as facial recognition. So there’s potential to align on some high level principles or standards.

(Or, as the EU puts it: “We need to start acting together on AI — based on our shared belief in a human-centric approach and dealing with issues such as facial recognition.”)

 

“Our shared values of human dignity, individual rights and democratic principles make us natural partners to harness rapid technological change and face the challenges of rival systems of digital governance. This gives us an unprecedented window of opportunity to set a joint EU-US tech agenda,” the Commission also writes, suggesting there’s a growing convergence of views on tech governance.

Talks on tackling big tech

Here it also sees opportunity for the EU and the US to align on tackling big tech — saying it wants to open discussions on setting rules to tackle the societal and market impacts of platform giants.

“There is a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that online platforms and Big Tech raise issues which threaten our societies and democracies, notably through harmful market behaviours, illegal content or algorithm-fuelled propagation of hate speech and disinformation,” it writes.

“The need for global cooperation on technology goes beyond the hardware or software. It is also about our values, our societies and our democracies,” the Commission adds. “In this spirit, the EU will propose a new transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms, which would set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges. We should also work closer together to further strengthen cooperation between competent authorities for antitrust enforcement in digital markets.”

The Commission is on the cusp of unveiling its own blueprint for regulating big tech — with a Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act due to be presented later this month.

Commissioners have said the legislative packages will set clear conditions on digital players, such as for the handling and reporting of illegal content, as well as setting binding transparency and fairness requirements.

They will also introduce a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called gatekeeper platforms that wield significant market power (aka big tech) — with such players set to be subject to a list of dos and don’ts, which could include bans on certain types of self-preferencing and limits on their use of third party data, with the aim of ensuring a level playing field in the future.

The bloc has also been considering beefing up antitrust powers for intervening in digital markets.

Given how advanced EU lawmakers are on proposals to regulate big tech vs US counterparts there’s arguably only a small window of opportunity for the latter to influence the shape of EU rules on (mostly US) big tech.

But the Commission evidently takes the view that rebooted relations, post-Trump, present an opportunity for it to influence US policy — by encouraging European-style platform rules to cross the pond.

It’s fond of claiming the EU’s data protection framework (GDPR) has set a global example that’s influenced lawmakers around the world. So its intent now looks to be to double down — and push to export a European approach to regulating big tech back where most of these giants are based (even as the bloc’s other institutions are still debating and amending the EU proposals).

Next-gen mobile security

Another common challenge the document points to is next-gen mobile connectivity. This has been a particular soapbox of Trump’s in recent years, with the ALL-CAPS loving president frequently taking to Twitter to threaten and bully allies into taking a tough line on allowing Chinese vendors as suppliers for next-gen mobile infrastructure, arguing they pose too great a national security risk.

“We are facing common challenges in managing the digital transition of our economies and societies. These include critical infrastructure, such as 5G, 6G or cybersecurity assets, which are essential for our security, sovereignty and prosperity — but also data, technologies and the role of online platforms,” the Commission writes, easing into the issue.

EU lawmakers go on to say they will put forward proposals “for secure 5G infrastructure across the globe and open a dialogue on 6G” — as part of what they hope will be “wider cooperation on digital supply chain security done through objective risk-based assessments”.

Instead of a blanket ban on Huawei as a 5G supplier the Commission opted to endorse a package of “mitigating measures” — via a 5G toolbox — at the start of this year, which includes requirements for carriers to beef up network security and risk profile assessments of suppliers.

So it looks to be hoping the US can be convinced in the value of a joint approach to standardizing these sorts of security assessments — aka, ‘no more nasty surprises’ — as a strategy to reduce the shocks and uncertainty that have hit digital supply chains during Trump’s presidency.

Increased cooperation around cybersecurity is another area where the EU says it will be pressing US counterparts — floating the idea of joint EU-US restrictions against attributed attackers from third countries in the future. (A proposal which, should it be taken up, could see coordinated sanctions against Russia, which has previously been identified by US and European intelligence agencies running malware attacks targeted at COVID-19 vaccine R&D, for example.)

Easing EU-US data flows

A trickier area for the tech side of the Commission’s plan to reboot transatlantic relations is EU-US data flows.

That’s because Europe’s top court torpedoed the Commission’s US adequacy finding this summer — stripping the country of a privileged status of ‘essential equivalence’ in data protection standards.

Without that there’s huge legal uncertainty and risk for US businesses that want to take EU citizens’ data out of the region for processing. And recent guidance from EU regulators on how to lawfully secure data transfers makes it clear that in some instances there simply won’t be any extra measures or contractual caveats which will fix the risk entirely.

The solution may in fact be data localization in the EU. (Something the Commission’s Data Governance Act proposal, unveiled last week, appeared to confirm by allowing for Member States to set conditions for reuse of the most sensitive types of data — such as prohibiting transfers to third countries.)

“We must also openly discuss diverging views on data governance and see how these can be overcome constructively,” the Commission writes on this thorny issue, adding: “The EU and the US should intensify their cooperation at bilateral and multilateral level to promote regulatory convergence and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high standards and safeguards.”

Commissioners have warned before that there’s no quick fix for the EU-US data transfer issue — but a longer term solution would be a convergence of standards in the areas of privacy and data protection.

And, again, that’s an area where US states have been taking action. But the Commission’s agenda pushing for “regulatory convergence” to ease data flows sums to trying to convince US counterparts of the economic case for reforming Section 702 of FISA…

Digital tax and tech-trade cooperation

Digital tax reform is also inexorably on the EU agenda since no agreement has been possibly under Trump on this stickiest of tech policy issues.

It writes that both the EU and the US should “strongly commit to the timely conclusion of discussions on a global solution within the context of OECD and G20” — saying this is vital to create “a fair and modern economy, which provides market-based rewards for the best innovative ideas”.

“Fair taxation in the digital economy requires innovative solutions on both sides of the Atlantic,” it adds. 

Another proposal the EU is floating is to establish a EU-US Trade and Technology Council — to “jointly maximise opportunities for market-driven transatlantic collaboration, strengthen our technological and industrial leadership and expand bilateral trade and investment”.

It envisages the body focusing on reducing trade barriers; developing compatible standards and regulatory approaches for new technologies; ensuring critical supply chain security; deepening research collaboration and promoting innovation and fair competition — saying there should also be “a new common focus on protecting critical technologies”.

“We need closer cooperation on issues such as investment screening, Intellectual Property rights, forced transfers of technology, and export controls,” it adds.

The Commission announced its own Intellectual Property Action Plan last week, alongside the Data Governance Act proposal — which included support for SMEs to file patents. It also said it will consider whether reform the framework for filing standards essential patents, encouraging industry to engage in forums aimed at reducing litigation in the meanwhile.

Orbit raises $4M for its community experience platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Orbit, a startup that is building tools to help organizations build communities around their proprietary and open-source products, today announced that it has raised a $4 million seed funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Martin Casado. A number of angel investors, including Chris Aniszczyk, Jason Warner and Magnus Hillestad, as well as the a16z’s Cultural Leadership Fund, also participated, in addition to previous backers Heavybit and Harrison Metal.

The company describes its service as a “community experience platform.” Currently, Orbit’s focus is on Developer Relations and Community teams, as well as open-source maintainers. There’s no reason the company couldn’t branch out into other verticals as well, though, given that its overall framework is really applicable across all communities.

Orbit team: Patrick Woods, Nicolas Goutay and Josh Dzielak

As Orbit co-founder Patrick Woods told me, community managers have generally had a hard time figuring out who was really contributing to their communities because those contributions can come in lots of forms and often happen across a wide variety of platforms. In addition, the sales and marketing teams also often don’t understand how a community impacts a company’s bottom line. Orbit aggregates all of these contributions across platforms.

“There is a lack of understanding around the ways in which community impacts go-to-market and business value,” Woods told me when I asked him about the genesis of the idea. “There’s a big gap in terms of the tooling associated with that. Many companies agree that community is important, but if you put $1 in the community machine today, it’s hard to know where that’s going to come out — and is it going to come out in terms of $0.50 or $100? This was a set of challenges that we noticed across companies of all sizes.”

Image Credits: Orbit

Especially in open-source communities, there will always be community members who create a lot of value but who don’t have a commercial relationship with a company at all. That makes it even harder for companies to quantify the impact of their communities, even if they agree that community is an important way to grow their business and that, in Orbit’s words, “community is the new pre-sales.”

At the core of Orbit (the company) is Orbit the open-source community framework. The founding team of Woods (CEO) and Josh Dzielak (CTO) developed this framework to help organizations understand how to best build what the team calls a “high gravity community” to attract new members and retain existing ones — and how to evaluate them. You can read more about the concept here.

Image Credits: Orbit

“We’re trying to reframe the discussion away from an extractive worldview that says how much value can we generate from this lead? It’s actually more about how much love can we generate from these community members,” Woods said. “Because, if you think about the culture associated with what we’re trying to do, it’s fundamentally creative and generative. And our goal is really to help people think less about value extraction and more about value creation.”

At the end of the day, though, no matter the philosophy behind your community-building efforts, there has to be a way to measure ROI and turn some of those community members into paying customers. To do that, Orbit currently pulls in data from sources like GitHub, Twitter and Discourse, with support for Slack and other tools coming soon. With that, the service makes it far easier for community managers to keep tabs on what is happening inside their community and who is participating.

Image Credits: Orbit

In addition to the built-in dashboards, Orbit also provides an API to help integrate all of this data into third-party services as well.

“One of the key understandings that drives the Orbit vision is that a community is not a funnel and building a community is not about conversions, but making connections; cultivating dialog and engagement; being open and giving back; and creating value versus trying to capture it,” a16z’s Casado writes. “The model has proven to be very effective, and now Orbit has built a product around it. We strongly believe Orbit is a must-have product for those building developer-focused companies.”

The company is already working with just under 150 companies and its users include the likes of Postman, CircleCI, Kubernetes and Apollo GraphQL.

The company will use the new round, which closed a few weeks ago, to, among other things, build out its go-to-market efforts and develop more integrations.

Loon’s stratospheric balloons are now teaching themselves to fly better thanks to Google AI

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has been using algorithmic processes to optimize the flight of its stratospheric balloons for years now – and setting records for time spent aloft as a result. But the company is now deploying a new navigation system that has the potential to be much better, and it’s using true reinforcement learning AI to teach itself to optimize navigation better than humans ever could.

Loon developed the new reinforcement learning system, which it says is the first to be used in an actual product aerospace context, with its Alphabet colleagues at Google AI in Montreal over the past couple of years. Unlike its past algorithmic navigation software, this one is devised entirely by machine – a machine that’s able to calculate the optimal navigation path for the balloons much more quickly than the human-made system could, and with much more efficiency, meaning the balloons use much less power to travel the same or greater distances than before.

How does Loon know it’s better? They actually pitted the new AI navigation against their human algorithm-based prior system directly, with a 39 day test that flew over the Pacific Ocean. The reinforcement learning model kept the Loon balloon aloft over target areas for longer continuous periods, using less energy than the older system, and it even came up with some new navigational moves that the team has never seen or conceived of before.

After this and other tests proved such dramatic successes, Loon actually then went ahead and deployed across its entire production fleet, which is currently deployed across parts of Africa to serve commercial customers in Kenya.

This is one of few real-world examples of an AI system that employs reinforcement learning to actively teach itself to perform better being used in a real-life setting, to control the performance of real hardware operating in a production capacity and serving paying customers. It’s a remarkable achievement, and definitely one that will be watched closely by others in aerospace and beyond.

Florida-based logistics provider ShipMonk raises $290 million on the back of rising eCommerce demand

By Jonathan Shieber

Jan Bednar started ShipMonk with $70,000 in winnings from a string of student business plan competitions and launched the business that just closed on $290 million in new funding from a small warehouse with no air conditioning in the middle of Florida.

While Bednar’s new offices are still inside the warehouse his company operates, they now have air conditioning… and a $290 million financing round from Summit Partners to grow its business.

The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based ShipMonk provides a slew of shipping and logistics services for small to medium-sized eCommerce businesses and right now — given the continuing COVID-19 pandemic — business is good.

We help SMBs and mid-market direct to consumer companies manage their supply chains. Help get their products from suppliers to facilities and connect with all of their sales channels including B2B … order management, transportation management, reverse logistics,” said Bednar. 

The company’s largest customers can book anywhere from $150 million to $250 million in revenue, but most of ShipMonk’s customers are actually small businesses pulling in between $1 million and $10 million on average.

It’s for these businesses that ShipMonk will fill its warehouses in Pennsylvania, California and Florida with 60,000 stock keeping units — managing around 50 different items for each customer it serves.

Bednar said ShipMonk would use the new cash to continue to upgrade its automation services and increase its staffing while also looking to expand internationally.

Profitable from the outset, ShipMonk just came off one of its best years, taking in upwards of $140 million in revenue. 

Bednar began the business alone, but quickly brought on co-founders Kevin Seitz, who handles marketing for the business, and Bosch Jares, a fellow native of the Czech Republic (like Bednar) who serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

The story of how Jares joined the business is indicative of the type of hustle that’s allowed Bednar to grow a booming tech and logistics business from the Ft. Lauderdale beaches.

It was the Florida weather that sold Jares, a college student from one of the Czech Republic’s top technical institutions, on the move to ShipMonk. Bednar had posted an internship opportunity to work (unpaid, but offering room and board) at his company on a college job board in the middle of January. The applications came pouring in, but it was Jares, a programmer who had been working with computers since age 14 who took the slot.

The rest… is ShipMonk history. Jares built the bulk of the backend for the company’s initial services spending nearly 20 hours a day coding.

 The thriftiness and hard work has won ShipMonk a booming business that has grown from 15,000 square feet of warehousing space into nearly 1 million square feet of storage space and a logistics service that spans the U.S. 

Timing for the new round couldn’t be better, as National Retail Federation estimates are banking on a 20% bump in new online sales — which could reach $202 billion this year. 

Black Friday alone raked in $9 billion in online purchases, according to data from Adobe Analytics provided by the company, and consumer spending is only going to continue to move online as the pandemic continues to threaten the health and safety of American consumers.  

ShipMonk’s technology integrates with shopping cart and marketplace platforms like Shopify to import orders across sales channels, which are then processed at the company’s warehouse locations. Customers can save up to 50% on their operational costs, according to the company.

“We believe ShipMonk truly demonstrates the power of a bootstrapped, durable growth mindset. Jan identified a significant gap in the market and, together with the ShipMonk team, has scaled the business in a deliberate and capital efficient manner to address that need. The results have been impressive,” said Christopher Dean, a Managing Director at Summit Partners who is taking a seat on the company’s board. 

 

Novakid’s ESL app for children raises $4.25M Series A led by PortfoLio and LearnStart investors

By Mike Butcher

With the pandemic playing havoc with children’s education EdTech startups have been on a roll. A new fundraising seems to come almost every week at this point.

Today it’s Novakid’s turn. This EdTech startup is yet another ‘learning English as a second language for children’ startup. But it at least has a chance among the plethora of solutions out there, having raised a $4.25 million Series A financing led by Hungary-based PortfoLion (part of OTP, a leading banking group in Eastern Europe), alongside a prominent EdTech-focused US fund LearnStart. LearnStart is part of the LearnCapital VC which has previously backed VIPKID and Brilliant.org. TMT Investments and Xploration Capital also joined the round. Both seed investors – South Korea-based BonAngels, as well as LETA Capital, took part in this financing round in January this year, of $1.5M.

Novakid’s teaching method is based around the ideas of language acquisition by Asher, Thornbury, Krashen and Chomsky, and it is specifically suited for children aged 4-12. It is incorporated in the US with development and customer support around Europe.

Max Azarow, Co-founder and CEO said: “Novakid is reinventing English learning for kids in countries where English is not a primary spoken language. There, English would usually be taught as an abstract subject, with focus on grammar and with little live practice offered. Novakid on the other hand, implements a unique format that combines a highly-interactive digital curriculum and with individual live tutor sessions where students & tutor only speak English for a 100% language immersion.”

Aurél Påsztor, Partner at PortfoLion, commented: “Novakid attracted investor attention due to its excellent traction, which resulted in over 500% growth year-on-year both in terms of number of students and in terms of revenue. Other attractive points were strong customer retention, international business footprint and a solid monetization via paid subscriptions.”

Thousands of U.S. lab results and medical records spilled online after a security lapse

By Zack Whittaker

NTreatment, a technology company that manages electronic health and patient records for doctors and psychiatrists, left thousands of sensitive health records exposed to the internet because one of its cloud servers wasn’t protected with a password.

The cloud storage server server was hosted on Microsoft Azure and contained 109,000 files, a large portion of which contained lab test results from third-party providers like LabCorp, medical records, doctor’s notes, insurance claims, and other sensitive health data for patients across the U.S., a class of data considered protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Running afoul of HIPAA can result in steep fines.

None of the data was encrypted, and nearly all of the sensitive files were viewable in the browser. Some of the medical records belonged to children.

TechCrunch found the exposed data as part of a separate investigation. It wasn’t initially clear who owned the storage server, but many of the electronic health records that TechCrunch reviewed in an effort to trace the source of the data spillage were tied to doctors and psychiatrists and healthcare workers working at hospitals or networks known to use nTreatment. The storage server also contained some internal company documents, including a non-disclosure agreement with a major prescriptions provider.

The data was secured on Monday after TechCrunch contacted the company. In an email, NTreatment co-founder Gregory Katz said the server was “used as a general purpose storage,” but did not say how long the server was exposed.

Katz said the company would notify affected providers and regulators of the incident.

It’s the latest in a series of incidents involving the exposure of medical data. Earlier this year we found a bug in LabCorp’s website that exposed thousands of lab results, and reported on the vast amounts of medical imaging floating around the web.

The Supreme Court will hear its first big CFAA case

By Zack Whittaker

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in a case that could lead to sweeping changes to America’s controversial computer hacking laws — and affecting how millions use their computers and access online services.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was signed into federal law in 1986 and predates the modern internet as we know it, but governs to this day what constitutes hacking — or “unauthorized” access to a computer or network. The controversial law was designed to prosecute hackers, but has been dubbed as the “worst law” in the technology law books by critics who say it’s outdated and vague language fails to protect good-faith hackers from finding and disclosing security vulnerabilities.

At the center of the case is Nathan Van Buren, a former police sergeant in Georgia. Van Buren used his access to a police license plate database to search for an acquaintance in exchange for cash. Van Buren was caught, and prosecuted on two counts: accepting a kickback for accessing the police database, and violating the CFAA. The first conviction was overturned, but the CFAA conviction was upheld.

Van Buren may have been allowed to access the database by way of his police work, but whether he exceeded his access remains the key legal question.

Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Van Buren vs. United States was an “ideal case” for the Supreme Court to take up. “The question couldn’t be presented more cleanly,” he argued in a blog post in April.

The Supreme Court will try to clarify the decades-old law by deciding what the law means by “unauthorized” access. But that’s not a simple answer in itself.

“The Supreme Court’s opinion in this case could decide whether millions of ordinary Americans are committing a federal crime whenever they engage in computer activities that, while common, don’t comport with an online service or employer’s terms of use,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at Stanford University’s law school. (Pfefferkorn’s colleague Jeff Fisher is representing Van Buren at the Supreme Court.)

How the Supreme Court will determine what “unauthorized” means is anybody’s guess. The court could define unauthorized access anywhere from violating a site’s terms of service to logging into a system that a person has no user account for.

Pfefferkorn said a broad reading of the CFAA could criminalize anything from lying on a dating profile, sharing the password to a streaming service, or using a work computer for personal use in violation of an employer’s policies.

But the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling could also have broad ramifications on good-faith hackers and security researchers, who purposefully break systems in order to make them more secure. Hackers and security researchers have for decades operated in a legal grey area because the law as written exposes their work to prosecution, even if the goal is to improve cybersecurity.

Tech companies have for years encouraged hackers to privately reach out with security bugs. In return, the companies fix their systems and pay the hackers for their work. Mozilla, Dropbox, and Tesla are among the few companies that have gone a step further by promising not to sue good-faith hackers under the CFAA. Not all companies welcome the scrutiny and bucked the trend by threatening to sue researchers over their findings, and in some cases actively launching legal action to prevent unflattering headlines.

Security researchers are no stranger to legal threats, but a decision by the Supreme Court that rules against Van Buren could have a chilling effect on their work, and drive vulnerability disclosure underground.

“If there are potential criminal (and civil) consequences for violating a computerized system’s usage policy, that would empower the owners of such systems to prohibit bona fide security research and to silence researchers from disclosing any vulnerabilities they find in those systems,” said Pfefferkorn. “Even inadvertently coloring outside the lines of a set of bug bounty rules could expose a researcher to liability.”

“The Court now has the chance to resolve the ambiguity over the law’s scope and make it safer for security researchers to do their badly-needed work by narrowly construing the CFAA,” said Pfefferkorn. “We can ill afford to scare off people who want to improve cybersecurity.”

The Supreme Court will likely rule on the case later this year, or early next.

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