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Swimm raises $5.7M to help teams document their code

By Frederic Lardinois

Most developers don’t enjoy writing documentation for their code and that makes life quite a bit harder when a new team member tries to get started on working on a company’s codebase. And even when there are documentation or in-line comments in the source code, that’s often not updated and over time, that information becomes close to irrelevant. Swimm, which today announced that it has raised a $5.7 million seed round, aims to automate as much of this process as possible after the initial documentation has been written by automatically updating it as changes are made.

The funding round was led by Pitango First, with TAU Ventures, Axon Ventures and Fundfire also investing in this round, together with a group of angel investors that include the founder of developer platform Snyk.

Image Credits: Swimm

Swimm’s marketing mostly focuses on helping teams speed up onboarding, but it’s probably a useful tool for any team. Using Swimm, you can create the standard — but auto-updated — documentation, but also walkthroughs and tutorials. Using its code browser, you can also easily find all of the documentation that relates to a given file.

The nifty part here is that while the tool can’t write the documentation for you, Swimm will automatically update any code examples in the documentation for you — or alert you when there is a major change that needs a manual update. Ideally, this will reduce the drift between the codebase and documentation.

Image Credits: Swimm

The founding team, Oren Toledano (CEO), Omer Rosenbaum (CTO), Gilad Navot (Chief Product Officer) and Tom Ahi Dror (Chief Business Officer), started working on this problem based on their experience while running Israel Tech Challenge, a coding bootcamp inspired by the training program used by the Israeli Defence Forces’ 8200 Intelligence Unit.

“We met with many companies in Israel and in the US to understand the engineering onboarding process,” Toledano told me. “And we felt that it was kind of broken — and many times, we heard the sentence: ‘we throw them to the water, and they either sink or swim.'” (That’s also why the company is called Swimm). Companies, he argues, often don’t have a way to train new employees on their code base, simply because it’s impossible for them to do so effectively without good documentation.

“The larger the company is, the more scattered the knowledge on the code base is — and a lot of this knowledge leaves the company when developers leave,” he noted.

With Swimm, a company could ideally not just offer those new hires access to tutorials that are based on the current code base, but also an easier entryway to start working on the production codebase as well.

Image Credits: Swimm

One thing that’s worth noting here is that developers run Swimm locally on a developer’s machine. In part, that’s because this approach reduces the security risks since no code is ever sent to Swimm’s servers. Indeed, the Swimm team tells me that some of its early customers are security companies. It also makes it easier for new users to get started with Swimm.

Toledano tells me that while the team mostly focused on building the core of the product and working with its early design partners (and its first set of paying customers), the plan for the next few months is to bring on more users after launching the product’s beta.

“Software development is now at the core of every modern business. Swimm provides a structured, contextual and transparent way to improve developer productivity,” said Yair Cassuto, a partner at Pitango First who is joining Swimm‘s board. “Swimm’s solution allows for rapid and insightful onboarding on any codebase. This applies across the developer life cycle: from onboarding to project transitions, adopting new open source capabilities and even offboarding.”                                                                                   

TikTok update will change privacy settings and defaults for users under 18

By Sarah Perez

TikTok announced today it’s making changes to its app to make the experience safer for younger users. The company will now set the accounts for users ages 13 to 15 to private by default, as well as tighten other controls for all users under 18, in terms of how they can interact with other users and TikTok content itself. TikTok is also announcing a partnership with nonprofit Common Sense Networks, an education and advocacy group that helps parents and educators navigate today’s media landscape, including children’s use of technology.

The partnership will see Common Sense Networks working with TikTok to provide additional guidance on the appropriateness of its content for users under 13.

The social video app in 2019 had been fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating U.S. children’s privacy laws. The FTC had begun looking into the app back when it was known as Musical.ly. The earlier version, prior to its acquisition by ByteDance, had collected personal information for children under 13 without parents’ consent.

As a result of that ruling, TikTok created a new, legally compliant experience for younger users in the U.S. with age-appropriate content and no ability to publish videos.

Now, TikTok will restrict the experience for other minors using the app who are over 13, too.

For children ages 13 to 15, accounts will be set to private by default and TikTok will turn the setting “Suggest your account to others” to Off. This will allow users’ videos to only be seen by those they approve as a follower and limits their account from being recommended to others elsewhere in the app.

Commenting controls are also being locked down for these users.

They’ll now be able to choose between “Friends” or “No One” in terms of who can comment on their videos, and the “Everyone” option will be removed. The Dueting and Stitching features will also be removed, which limits how these younger users can engage with other TikTok users and their content. They won’t be able to make their videos downloadable either.

For those ages 16 to 17, the default setting for Duet and Stitch will be set to “Friends,” and they’ll only be able to download videos created by users 16 and over as a result of the lockdowns for younger users. Downloads for their own videos will also be set to Off by default, but they can enable this, if they choose.

TiTok had already restricted younger users’ accounts before today in various ways, including not only through the under-13 age gated experience, but also by restricting direct messaging and hosting live streams to accounts 16 and over, and restricting virtual gifts to users over 18. Parents additionally have had the option to control their child’s experience through the Family Pairing feature, which offers parental controls and screen time limits, among other things.

Of course, any of these restrictions can be worked around for those who lie about their age upon sign-up. But it’s still fairly unusual for a large social network to do more than look the other way when it knows that minors are on its app.

In TikTok’s case, however, it has a large underage user base — some estimates had said that 41% of TikTok is between ages 16 and 24. But in the U.S., TikTok has attracted a particularly large teenage userbase. The company said in 2020 that 60% of its 26.5 million monthly active users in the U.S. were between 16 and 24. Even some of TikTok’s biggest stars, like Charli D’Amelio, are still just teenagers.

The attention to minor safety and parental controls gathered TikTok praise from notable youth safety experts, which the company also shared.

Today, TikTok is touting praise it’s received from the National PTA, ConnectSafely, NCMEC, Family Online Safety Institute, and WeProtect Global Alliance. The groups believe the changes will help teens be able to use the app more safely, responsibility, and without the further risk of exploitation.

“We couldn’t be more pleased about partnering with TikTok to develop better content experiences for users under the age of 13,” added Eric Berger, CEO of Common Sense Networks, in reference to his organization’s partnership with the social video platfrom. “At Common Sense Networks, we see this engagement as an opportunity to double down on our commitment to elevate the quality of children’s digital media so that age-appropriate content is the rule in our industry and not the exception,” he said.

The changes will roll out starting today.

 

E-commerce infrastructure startup Nacelle closes $18M Series A

By Lucas Matney

Consumer online shopping habits have led to a windfall of revenues for these web storefronts, but COVID-era trends have also breathed new life into the market for developer tools that help e-commerce sites operate more smoothly for shoppers.

LA-based Nacelle is one of many e-commerce infrastructure startups to earn attention from investors amid COVID.

The web services company helps streamline the backends of e-commerce websites with a so-called “headless” platform that shifts how the front-end of websites interact with content in the backend. The startup claims its tech can boost performance, promote better scalability, cut down on hosting costs and offer developers a more streamlined experience.

Nacelle has closed an $18 million Series A led by Inovia with participation from Accomplice, Index Ventures, High Alpha, Silas Capital and Lerer Hippeau. The company just closed a $4.8 million seed round in mid-2020, the speedy pace of their Series A’s close seems to speak to the investor enthusiasm that has deepened around companies operating in the e-commerce world.

“It’s not secret that commerce has done well during COVID,” CEO Brian Anderson tells TechCrunch. “Not only did we get this subtle structural change with COVID that I believe is long-lasting, but merchants have been focusing more on performance.”

One of the startup’s central points of focus has been ensuring that they can bring customers onboard its platform without causing undue headaches. It can be “very painful to migrate data” with other services, Anderson says. The company’s service is “anti rip-and-replace,” meaning potential customer can integrate “without having to be rebuild their stores.”

The firm’s customer base is largely made up of small to medium-sized e-commerce sites. Nacelle works closely with agencies for customer referrals, also tapping on Anderson’s past contacts from his days running a Shopify Plus agency.

This past August, data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index suggested that pandemic trends had accelerated the consumer shift from primarily visiting to physical stores to shopping on e-commerce storefronts by roughly five years.

Uber and Moderna partner on COVID-19 vaccine access and information

By Darrell Etherington

Uber and pharmaceutical company Moderna have announced a partnership around COVID-19 vaccination, which will include a number of different initiatives. To start, it’s only confirmed component is to provide users with credible, factual information about COVID-19 vaccine safety through Uber’s consumer app, but the companies have also discussed additional “options” including building ride scheduling via Uber directly into the immunization appointment booking process.

Still in its early days, the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination program is already beset with challenges, including providing timely access to vaccines to swaths of the population who need it most. The inoculation program also has to contend with significant misinformation proliferating on social media about vaccine safety, and any app with the surface area of something like Uber has a chance to get positive messages and accurate information in front of a lot of people, so that’s good news on its own.

But one of the very real challenges to an effective vaccination campaign remains logistical, and getting people to make their initial and follow-up appointments for the first round of the Moderna vaccine, and its second shot booster, is a bigger challenge than many might suspect. I spoke to Healthvana CEO Ramin Bastani about their work with  LA County on creating an immunization record that integrates with Apple Wallet to provide patients with timely info and reminders about vaccination appointments, but integrating a ride-booking service or appointment reminder directly in the Uber app that most users already have on their phone anyway could be another very effective way to increase success rates for first and follow-up inoculation visits.

Uber has already offered up free and discounted rides to help lower the friction of actually going out and getting a vaccine, but a product-level integration could do a lot more than that by providing easy, user-friendly access. As noted, this is still just one of the options being discussed, but if Uber and Moderna are willing to commit it to print, that at least means they’re serious about trying to find a way. We’re holding them to account, too, so rest assured we’ll follow up on their progress as this collaboration develops.

UK tests ‘Space Tug’ capable of refiring its engine several times in orbit, and collecting space junk

By Mike Butcher

UK SpaceTech startup Skyrora is currently the only private company capable of launching rockets from UK soil. On Christmas Eve at its testing facility in Fife, Scotland, the team performed a third-stage static fire engine test onboard a new vehicle that will ultimately carry satellites to their final destination. But what’s more interesting is that the vehicle can refire it’s engine several times in orbit and conduct multiple missions in a single trip. This makes it “Space Tug” able to perform a number of maneuvers in space including the extraction of space junk or maintenance if are satellites already in orbit.

Skyrora went rough one of the early Space Camp accelerator programme from Seraphim Capital.

The Space Tug is the first “mission ready” vehicle of its kind to be developed in the UK and once in orbit it can navigate to any location under its own power, with the ability to make multiple stops etc.

The Space Tug is powered by a 3D-printed 3.5kN engine and the first stage of is launch is fueled using an eco-friendly fuel (Ecosene) made in part from waste plastics

Volodymyr Levykin, CEO Skyrora commented: “We have been deliberately quiet about this aspect of our Skyrora XL launch vehicle as we had huge technical challenges to get it to this stage and we wanted to ensure all tests had a satisfactory outcome, which they now have. With the current climate and a real shortage of good news, we feel it is the right time to share this with the world… We aim not only to conduct efficient launches from UK soil in the most environmentally friendly way, but then also to ensure that each single launch mission has the possibility of conducting the level of work that would have historically taken multiple launches.”

Sir Tim Peake, Astronaut, commented: “It’s fantastic that companies such as Skyrora are persisting in their ambition to make the UK a “launch state”. By driving forward and constantly investing into their engineering capabilities, the UK continues to benefit from these impressive milestones achieved. In undertaking a full fire test of their third stage, which fulfils the function of an Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle capable of delivering satellites into precision orbits, Skyrora is one step closer to launch readiness. This vehicle will also be able to perform vital services such as satellite removal, refuelling and replacement and debris removal from orbit.”

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.

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

By Jonathan Shieber

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

It’s worth noting that Parler and Gab aren’t the only companies to see users numbers soar after the Trump bans. MeWe Network, OANN, Newsmax and Rumble have also seen adoption soar, according to data from the analytics company Apptopia.

The company noted that Parler was the #1 app on the iOS app store for two days surging from 18th on Thursday and 592 on Wednesday. Overall, the app was the 10th most downloaded social media app in 2020 with 8.1 million new installs.

“It is an event driven app though,” a company analyst noted. “After events like the election, BLM protests, Twitter first applying labels to Trump’s Tweets, we see bursts of downloads and usage but it will then drop off.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

 

Parler removed from Google Play store as Apple App Store suspension reportedly looms

By Lucas Matney

Shortly after Twitter announced Friday afternoon that they were permanently suspending the account of President Trump, Google shared that they were removing Parler, a conservative social media app, from their Play Store immediately, saying in a statement that they were suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

Parler’s Play Store page is currently down.

The conservative platform garnered attention this week after posts surfaced detailing threats of violence and planning around Tuesday’s chaotic Capitol building riots which led to the deaths of 5 people including a Capitol police officer. While more mainstream social media sites raced to take down violent content related to the riots, death threats and violence were easy to find across the Parler platform.

The app hosts accounts from a variety of conservative figures including many in the President’s family, though not the President himself.

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

The app remains available in the App Store, though users are currently complaining of technical issues.

We have reached out to Apple for additional comment.

Endeavor BioMedicines raises $62 million to combat pulmonary disease

By Darrell Etherington

A new startup has officially emerged for stealth with the raise of its $62 million Series A funding round. Endeavor BioMedicines is led by co-founder and CEO John Hood, who previously led Impact Biomedicines, and its new funding comes from Omega Funds and Longitude Capital, as well as the company’s own management team. Endeavor is also co-founded by Miguel de los Rios, who serves as its Chief Science Officer and who was previously CEO of Rift Biotherapeutics.

Endeavor’s goal is to develop treatments specifically to address pulmonary disease, and the startup is putting its funding towards two Phase 2 clinical trials that will seek to determine whether their therapeutic candidate can reverse or slow the progression of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a very common type of pulmonary fibrosis that results in long tissue scarring which causes difficulty in breathing for affected patients.

IPF has a significant and worrying fatality rate – the condition comes with “an estimated mean survival of 2-5 years from time of diagnosis,” according to Hood in a press release. Endeavor’s new treatment candidate, called ‘taladegib,’ is an inhibitor that addresses what’s known as the ‘Hedgehog’ pathway for IPF. This pathway, which is primarily responsible for cell differentiation during embryonic development, can also play a role in development of harmful conditions in adults when they malfunction while regulating the regeneration of mature tissues.

Hood’s last company Impact Biomedicines exited in a sale to Celgene Corp worth put to $7 billion, depending on performance milestones set in the terms of the acquisition for passing certain regulatory and sales conditions. That company focused on treatment development specifically for myelofibrosis, a type of blood cancer, using an inhibitor for a specific type of protein kinase.

Mark Zuckerberg announces Trump banned from Facebook and Instagram for ‘at least the next two weeks’

By Darrell Etherington

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced via his platform that Donald Trump will be blocked from using both Facebook and Instagram “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” The company blocked his accounts temporarily on Wednesday following Trump’s posting of content that incited his followers to violence, but now Zuckerberg says the ban is extended “indefinitely,” extending at least until Biden takes over as president.

Both Facebook and Instagram removed Trump’s video post yesterday, in which the president called for rioters who laid siege to the Capitol building in Washington to go home — but in which he also said “we love you” to the same violent terrorists. They followed that action with a 24-hour account lock, preventing Trump from posting via his Facebook and Instagram accounts during that period.

Zuckerberg acknowledges that Trump content has in the past been labeled or removed when found to violate its policies, but that he had been allowed up until now to “use our platform consistent with our own rules.” He says that has now changed, due to “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

There’s a lot of careful, heavily PR’d language doing heavy lifting here — Zuck is careful to say that use until now has lined up with the platform’s rules in place, and not instead been an exception to them, and he’s also careful not to say Trump has directly incited violent insurrection in leaving an actor out of that particular sentence. Still, this is the strongest action by far from the platform to date to limit Trump’s access.

Facebook’s decision to suspend the president’s account, even temporarily, is a shocking reversal from its longstanding attitude toward the world leader. Of course, that leader only remains in power for a few more days. With Trump out on January 20, Facebook will be dealing with President-elect Joe Biden and a Congress and administration very interested in imposing regulations on its business.

Historically, Facebook has been very permissive of Trump’s bad behavior on the platform, perhaps most famously when it did nothing to the president’s account after he called for state violence against racial justice protesters. Trump’s phrasing, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” echoed the same statement famously made by a racist Miami police chief in the 1960s.

That situation alone plunged Facebook into internal turmoil, as employees pushed back against the company’s attitude toward Trump. Yesterday, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook shut down internal conversations about the Trump supporters who staged an insurrection at the Capitol, freezing comment threads calling for Trump to be removed from the platform.

Throughout his administration, Facebook has gone out of its way to accommodate Trump’s use of the platform. In 2019, facing pressure to take a more principled stance, Mark Zuckerberg struck a defiant pose in a grand speech at Georgetown, doubling down on the idea that Facebook had no responsibility to remove dangerous political content.

“We can either stand for free expression… or we can decide the cost is simply too great,” Zuckerberg said. “We must continue to stand for free expression.”

Here’s the full post from Zuckerberg:

The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden.

His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.

Following the certification of the election results by Congress, the priority for the whole country must now be to ensure that the remaining 13 days and the days after inauguration pass peacefully and in accordance with established democratic norms.

Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.

We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.

And a post from Instagram lead Adam Mosseri:

Given the exceptional circumstances, and the fact that the President has decided to condone rather than condemn yesterday’s violence at the Capital, we are extending the block we have placed on his accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.

— Adam Mosseri 😷 (@mosseri) January 7, 2021

Meanwhile, Twitter on Thursday revealed that Trump has complied with its requirement to delete three offending tweets before reinstating access to his locked account on that platform — meaning Trump will regain access to his account 12 hours from the time of deletion, or later on Thursday.

Developing…

 

Elon Musk says SpaceX to double launch pad usage for Starship tests, Super Heavy flights coming in a ‘few months’

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is set to significantly ramp up its Starship development program in the new year, in more ways than one. SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk noted on Twitter on Thursday that the company will seek to make use of both of its two launch pads at its development facility in Boca Chica, Texas with prototype rockets set up on each, and that it will begin flight testing its Super Heavy booster (starting with low-altitude ‘hops’) in as few as “a few months” from now.

Recently, SpaceX has set up its SN9 prototype of Starship (the ninth in the current series) at Pad B at its Texas testing facility, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. SN9 will be next to undergo active testing, after SpaceX successfully flew its predecessor SN8 to an altitude of around 40,000 feet, and then executed a crucial belly flop maneuver that will be used to help control the powered landing of the production version. SN8 was destroyed when it touched down harder than expected, but SpaceX still achieved all its testing goals with the flight – and more.

SN9 will now undergo ground tests before hopefully doing its own flight test later on. That’ll provide the team with even more valuable data to carry on to further tests – with the ultimate goal of eventually achieving orbit with a Starship prototype vehicle. Musk’s tweet that two prototypes will be stood up next to each other on both Pad A and Pad B at the Boca Chica site could indicate the pace of these test flights might speed up, to match the fast clip at which SpaceX is constructing new rocket iterations.

Meanwhile, news that Super Heavy could be undergoing testing soon is also reason to get excited about 2021 for SpaceX and Starship. Super Heavy is the booster that SpaceX will eventually use to fly Starship for orbital launches, and to eventually help propel it to deep space – for destinations including Mars. Super Heavy will be around 240-feet tall, and will include 28 Raptor engines to provide it with the lift capacity needed to break Earth’s gravity well when it’s stacked with a Starship loaded down with cargo.

Nikola’s stock crashes after announcing cancelation of contract with Republic Services for 2,500 garbage trucks

By Matt Burns

The undoing of Nikola continues. Today, the company announced the termination of its contract with Republic Services for 2,500 garbage trucks. Announced back in August, the deal had Nikola building garbage trucks in 2023 with on-road testing scheduled for 2024. This is the latest deal to unravel for Nikola as it tries to patch up following devastating reports.

According to Nikola, the separation of the two companies was mutual though it’s hard to picture Nikola’s SEC troubles didn’t weigh heavily upon Republic Services.

“This was the right decision for both companies given the resources and investments required,” said Nikola CEO Mark Russell said in a released statement. “We support and respect Republic Services’ commitment to achieving environmentally responsible, sustainable solutions for their customers. Nikola remains laser-focused on delivering on our battery-electric and fuel-cell electric commercial truck programs, and the energy infrastructure to support them.”

News of this deal is sending Nikola’s stock down 10% in pre-market trading. If this level holds upon the stock market’s open, Nikola will be trading at its lowest levels following it’s monumental rise over the summer months.

The deal with Republic Services was originally a victory banner for the once-high flying electric vehicle startup. Signaled as mainstream acceptance of the company, Republic Services’ contract came before a mega $2 billion investment from General Motors. That deal is also cancelled following several key revelations about the company that lead to an SEC investigation and the company’s chairman stepping down.

In a statement, Nikola says deliveries will begin of Nikola Tre battery-electric semi-trucks in the US in 2021 and the company expects to break ground on its first commercial hydrogen station in 2021, too. And then in 2023, the company expects to produce its fuel-cell-electric semi-trucks at Nikola’s Coolidge, Arizona facility.

Watch SpaceX fly its Starship spacecraft during its first high-altitude test live

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is all set to conduct a high-altitude test of its Starship rocket – a first for the spacecraft prototype design. The test will see Starship serial number 8 (SN8) fly from SpaceX’s development site in Cameron County, Texas, climb to a max height of around 41,000 feet, and then return to Earth during a controlled landing using its Raptor engines, if all goes exactly to plan. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has noted that things likely won’t go exactly to plan with this test, saying he anticipates they’ll achieve maybe 1/3 of their goals with this attempt.

This is the first time that Starship will be flying with three Raptor engines on board – prior short hop tests of earlier prototypes used just one. It’ll also involve a key maneuver that the Starship will ultimately be required to get right in order to achieve its reusability goal and return safely through Earth’s atmosphere when landing – a mid-air belly flop of sorts to orient it correctly to avoid burning up during re-entry.

SpaceX has flown Starship prototypes to a height of just under 500 feet, and successfully landed both with a controlled descent. This attempt will also include an attempt to relight Starship’s engines and return it to Earth in a vertical orientation, but those are much less likely to be successful at this stage vs. the earlier stage goals just reaching that max altitude and then ideally completing that ‘belly flop’ maneuver. Conducting tests like this with low likelihood of successful outcomes is absolutely par for the course for rocket development programs, but SpaceX is one of the few companies that conducts these out in the open – and perhaps the only that does so with live-streamed access for all.

Ultimately, Starship will prove the central component of a new generation of launch vehicle that SpaceX hopes to use to reach Mars – and to replace all of its current launch activities with Falcon vehicles, as well as to provide high-altitude point-to-point flights between destinations on Earth for hyper-fast travel. The production Starship will be paired with a Super Heavy rocket for additional thrust for high mass cargo missions and long-duration deep space trips.

The test launch today could happen anytime between roughly 9 AM EST (6 AM PST) and 6 PM EST (3 PM PST), and SpaceX says that it will begin the livestream shortly before the actual launch attempt, so stay tuned to the video above and our Twitter account for updates.

PrimaHealth Credit offers a buy-now, pay-later lending service for elective procedures

By Jonathan Shieber

The Newport Beach, Calif.-based healthcare lending service PrimaHealth Credit  is now pitching point-of-sale lending services for elective medical procedures.

Taking the kinds of financial lending services that have been popularized by companies like Klarna and Affirm, PrimaHealth Credit is bringing them into elective surgical space for things like cataract surgery, orthodontic work, dental care, or LASIK.

“For many dental, orthodontics, LASIK, and cataract surgery patients, our BNPL product is a ‘last resort’ – the difference between getting the treatment they need, or not,” said Brendon Kensel, founder and CEO of PrimaHealth Credit, in a statement.

The company expects that patients will pay somewhere between 25% and 50% of the cost of their treatment up front with repayment durations for the loans ranging between two and four months.

Rates for the loans will range from 19.99% to 24.99% APR with average loan sizes coming in at around $1,800 across dental, orthodontics, and LASIK, according to the company.

“Until now, when providers couldn’t approve patients for an existing payment plan, they’d either forego providing them care or take them on anyway, exposing themselves to significant liability as they struggle with adequately assessing creditworthiness and properly servicing and collecting loans,” Kensel said.

The program not only handles loan origination for healthcare practices, but handles the back-office tasks for payment and servicing.

“Our goal as a company is to remove barriers to patient acceptance and help people who have the means but not necessarily the credit score to get the quality care that everyone deserves,” Kensel said.

Using the PrimaHealth Credit mobile app, patients can receive instant credit decisions and choose the payment plan that works best for them. The company said the service is currently available in Arizona, California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas and will be expanded to all 50 states by 2021.

 

Govtech intelligence platform, The Atlas for Cities, bought by Government Executive Media Group

By Jonathan Shieber

The Atlas for Cities, the 500 Startups-backed market intelligence platform connecting tech companies with state and local governments, has been acquired by the Growth Catalyst Partners-backed publishing and market intelligence company Government Executive Media Group.

The San Diego-based company will become the latest addition to a stable of publications and services that include the Route Fifty, publication for local government and the defense-oriented intelligence service, DefenseOne.

The Atlas provides peer-to-peer networks for state and local government officials to share best practices and is a marketing channel for the startups that want to sell services to those government employees. Through The Atlas, government officials can talk to each other, find case studies for best practices around tech implementations, and post questions to crowdsource ideas.

Government contractors can use the site to network with leadership and receive buyer intent data to inform their strategy in the sector, all while getting intelligence about the problems and solutions that matter to state and local jurisdictions across the nation. 

The Atlas delivers on GEMG’s promise to look for companies that complement and supplement the full suite of offerings that we provide to our partners to reach decision makers across all facets of the public sector,” said Tim Hartman, CEO of Government Executive Media Group, said in a statement.

Led by Ellory Monks and Elle Hempen, The Atlas for Cities launched in 2019 and is backed by financing from individual investors and the 500 Startups accelerator program. It now counts 21,000 government officials across 3,400 cities on its platform.

“State and local governments in the United States spend $3.7 trillion per year. That’s almost 20% of GDP,” said Elle Hempen, co-founder of The Atlas. “Our mission to increase transparency and access for local leaders has the opportunity to transform this enormous, inefficient market and enable tangible progress on the most important issues of our times.”

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.

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.

Google acquires Actifio to step into the area of data management and business continuity

By Ingrid Lunden

In the same week that Amazon is holding its big AWS confab, Google is also announcing a move to raise its own enterprise game with Google Cloud. Today the company announced that it is acquiring Actifio, a data management company that helps companies with data continuity to be better prepared in the event of a security breach or other need for disaster recovery. The deal squares Google up as a competitor against the likes of Rubrik, another big player in data continuity.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the announcement; we’re looking and will update as we learn more. Notably, when the company was valued at over $1 billion in a funding round back in 2014, it had said it was preparing for an IPO (which never happened). PitchBook data estimated its value at $1.3 billion in 2018, but earlier this year it appeared to be raising money at about a 60% discount to its recent valuation, according to data provided to us by Prime Unicorn Index.

The company was also involved in a patent infringement suit against Rubrik, which it also filed earlier this year.

It had raised around $461 million, with investors including Andreessen Horowitz, TCV, Tiger, 83 North, and more.

With Actifio, Google is moving into what is one of the key investment areas for enterprises in recent years. The growth of increasingly sophisticated security breaches, coupled with stronger data protection regulation, has given a new priority to the task of holding and using business data more responsibly, and business continuity is a cornerstone of that.

Google describes the startup as as a “leader in backup and disaster recovery” providing virtual copies of data that can be managed and updated for storage, testing, and more. The fact that it covers data in a number of environments — including SAP HANA, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, PostgreSQL, and MySQL, virtual machines (VMs) in VMware, Hyper-V, physical servers, and of course Google Compute Engine — means that it also gives Google a strong play to work with companies in hybrid and multi-vendor environments rather than just all-Google shops.

“We know that customers have many options when it comes to cloud solutions, including backup and DR, and the acquisition of Actifio will help us to better serve enterprises as they deploy and manage business-critical workloads, including in hybrid scenarios,” writes Brad Calder, VP, engineering, in the blog post. :In addition, we are committed to supporting our backup and DR technology and channel partner ecosystem, providing customers with a variety of options so they can choose the solution that best fits their needs.”

The company will join Google Cloud.

“We’re excited to join Google Cloud and build on the success we’ve had as partners over the past four years,” said Ash Ashutosh, CEO at Actifio, in a statement. “Backup and recovery is essential to enterprise cloud adoption and, together with Google Cloud, we are well-positioned to serve the needs of data-driven customers across industries.”

Space Perspective raises $7M for its plan to ferry tourists to the edge of space

By Darrell Etherington

Space tourism startup Space Perspective has raised a new $7 million in seed funding, from investors including Prime Movers Lab and Base Ventures . The company, founded by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, who previously founded stratospheric balloon company World View, is focused on developing Spaceship Neptune, a pressurized passenger capsule that is meant to be carried by an ultra-high altitude balloon to the very edge of space to provide passengers with an unparalleled view.

Spaceship Neptune is designed to carry up to eight passengers per trip, on a six-hour journey that will include two hours spent at the upper edge of Earth’s atmosphere and a water landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The first test flight is currently targeted for the end of the first quarter of 2021, according to Space Perspective, and it will involve flying an uncrewed Neptune capsule prototype, which also won’t have the pressurized cabin of the final version.

From there, the plan is to test and develop systems necessary for Neptune to take up its first human passengers, with the goal of doing that by sometime around 2024, with ticket pre-sales launching from 2021 for interested, deep-pocketed parties.

Poynter and MacCallum’s prior venture World View originally included human stratospheric space tourism trips as part of its business model, but the company has since pivoted to focus on scientific and commercial communication and observation payloads exclusively under its current leadership. World View appointed Ryan Hartman as CEO in 2018, replacing Poynter in the top spot.

Elon Musk says SpaceX will attempt uncrewed Mars flight in two years, human landing in four to six

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was given an award from media giant Axel Springer on Tuesday, and he sat down to provide a wide-ranging interview that covered topics including space, Tesla, AI and even underpopulation. Musk addressed SpaceX’s Mars ambitions first, providing current timelines he’s working towards for reaching the red planet with SpaceX’s Starship, the next-generation spacecraft it hopes to fly in a new high-altitude test sometime later this week.

Musk said that he expects humans will land on Mars in around six years, and that he’s “fairly confident” in that timeline. That’s based on the fact that Earth and Mars are in sync in terms of their relative orbits around the Sun around every 26 months, and plans to do an uncrewed launch and landing on Mars hopefully at the next opportunity in about two years from now. He added that with luck, a first human landing could happen during the next Mars-Earth synchronization after that, so in four years instead of six.

Asked when Musk’s own first trip to orbit would happen, he answered possibly two or three years,” though he qualified that his primary focus is to ensure the technology is in place to enable “a lot of people to go to Mars and make life interplanetary, and to have a base on the Moon,” downplaying his own personal spaceflight goals.

He also reiterated his ambition to eventually be buried on Mars (though not due to accidental death on impact in a spacecraft crash) and talked about how while he believes that becoming a spacefaring society is existential in his opinion, and will ultimately be necessary for human survival, he also hopes to make it fun, exciting and attractive rather than a necessary risk.

Starship is gearing up for its first big high-altitude flight test, as mentioned. It’ll be flying at SpaceX’s Texas development facility, and that test launch could happen as early as later this week, though the company still has to conduct a key static engine test fire of its prototype ahead of an actual flight.

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