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Today — January 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

By Rita Liao

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments.

It’s still unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets, which are Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand.

“We will share more details locally as vaccinations roll out and our local support plans are finalized,” said a spokesperson for the company.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

To ensure passenger and driver safety, the company rolled out a mask detection technology last year for in-car cameras across China and some of its overseas markets.

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents in 2018. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

In all, Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables more than 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. Outside China, it has over 20 million users and 2.8 million drivers and couriers.

The company has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

The story was updated with more details of the fund on January 22, 2021.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

African edtech startup uLesson lands a $7.5 million Series A

By Natasha Mascarenhas

ULesson, an edtech startup based in Nigeria that sells digital curriculum to students through SD cards, has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Owl Ventures, which closed over half a billion in new fund money just months ago. Other participants include LocalGlobe and existing investors, including TLcom Capital and Founder Collective.

The financing comes a little over a year since uLesson closed its $3.1 million seed round in November 2019. The startup’s biggest difference between now and then isn’t simply the millions it has in the bank, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its entire value proposition.

ULesson launched into the market just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The startup, which uses SD cards as a low-bandwidth way to deliver content, saw a wave of smart devices enter homes across Africa as students adapted to remote education.

“The ground became wet in a way we didn’t see before,” founder and CEO Sim Shagaya said. “It opens up the world for us to do all kinds of really amazing things we’ve wanted to do in the world of edtech that you can’t do in a strictly offline sense,” the founder added.

Similar to many edtech startups, uLesson has benefited from the overnight adoption of remote education. Its positioning as a supplementary education tool helped it surface 70% month over month growth, said Shagaya. The founder says that the digital infrastructure gains will allow them to “go online entirely by Q2 this year.”

It costs an annual fee of $50, and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

With fresh demand, Shagaya sees uLesson evolving into a live, online platform instead of an offline, asynchronous content play. The startup is already experimenting with live tutoring: it tested a feature that allowed students to ask questions while going through pre-recorded material. The startup got more than 3,000 questions each day, with demand so high they had to pause the test feature.

“We want you to be able to push a button and get immediate support from a college student sitting somewhere in the continent who is basically a master in what you’re studying,” he said. The trend of content-focused startups adding on a live tutoring layer continues when you look at Chegg, Quizlet, Brainly and others.

The broader landscape

E-learning startups have been booming in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s led to an influx of tutoring marketplaces and content that promises to serve students. One of the most valuable startups in edtech is Byju’s, which offers online learning services and prepares students for tests.

But Shagaya doesn’t think any competitors, even Byju’s, have cracked the nut on how to do so in a digital way for African markets. There are placement agencies in South Africa and Kenya and offline tutoring marketplaces that send people to student homes, but no clear leader from a digital curriculum perspective.

“Everybody sees that Africa is a big opportunity,” Shagaya said. “But everybody also sees that you need a local team to execute on this.”

Shagaya thinks the opportunity in African edtech is huge because of two reasons: a young population, and a deep penetration of private school-going students. Combined, those facts could create troves of students who have the cash and are willing to pay for supplementary education.

The biggest hurdle ahead for uLesson, and any edtech startup that benefitted from pandemic gains, is distribution and outcomes. ULesson didn’t share any data on effectiveness and outcomes, but says it’s in the process of conducting a study with the University of Georgia to track mastery.

“Content efforts and products [will] live or die at the altar of distribution,” Shagaya said. The founder noted that in India, for example, pre-recorded videos do well due to social nuances and culture. ULesson is trying to find the perfect sauce for videos in markets around Africa and embed that into the product.

Amazon offers Biden resources for COVID-19 vaccine rollout

By Brian Heater

Following Joseph Biden’s swearing in as the 46th president of the United States, Amazon is offering help in the administration’s stated goals for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. In a letter provided to TechCrunch, Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark congratulates Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, while promising, “to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration.”

The note references a pledge set by Biden while introducing members of the pandemic team during a press conference in December of last year.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” the then-president-elect said. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”

More recently, COVID-19 task force member epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called the goal “aspirational […] but doable,” adding that it would take time to ramp up.

In his letter, Clark details Amazon’s response to the virus, as many warehouse and other workers were employed throughout as essential workers. Included in the resources on offer are deals with healthcare providers who can administer vaccines on-site.

“We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities,” Clark writes. “We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available. Additionally, we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

 

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union is preparing the ground for vaccine passports. A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance”, the Commission said today, adding that it wants “an appropriate trust framework” to be agreed upon by the end of January — “to allow Member States’ certificates to be rapidly useable in health systems across the EU and beyond”.

“Vaccination certificates allow for a clear record of each individual’s vaccination history, to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects,” it writes, adding that: “A common EU approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable certificates would allow people to use their records in other Member States. Though it is premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection, an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future.”

It’s not clear what form (or forms) these pan-EU coronavirus vaccine certificates will take as yet — but presumably there will be both paper-based and digital formats, to ensure accessibility.

Nor is it clear exactly how EU citizens’ identity and medical data will be protected as checks on vaccination status take place. Or, indeed, who the trusted entities storing and managing sensitive health data will be. All that detail is to come — and may well vary by Member State, depending on how immunity certification verification systems get implemented.

Last week a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, announced involvement in a separate, cross-industry effort to establish a universal standard for vaccination status that they said would build on existing standards, such as the SMART Health Cards specification which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

That tech-backed effort is pushing for an “encrypted digital copy of [a person’s] immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for those not wanting or able to use a smartphone. The PR also talked about a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Nothing so specific is being proposed for the common EU approach as yet. And it looks clear that a number of vaccine credential standards will be put forward globally — as a potential universal standard. (The Commission is touting its forthcoming framework on that front too.)

Whatever is devised in the EU must ensure compliance with the region’s data protection framework (which bakes in requirements for security and privacy by design and default when processing people’s information). So it could offer better privacy protection than a private sector-led effort, for example.

The EU’s eHealth Network — a body which includes representatives from relevant Member States’ authorities who are supported by a wider European Joint Action body, called eHAction — will be responsible for defining the minimum dataset needed for vaccination certificates used at the EU level, per the Commission.

It says this must include “a unique identifier and an appropriate trust framework ensuring privacy and security”.

Expect relevant stakeholders such as Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor and Data Protection Board to weigh in with expert advice, as happened last year with coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

“The Commission will continue to work with Member States on vaccination certificates which can be recognised and used in health systems across the EU in full compliance with EU data protection law — and scaled up globally through the certification systems of the World Health Organisation,” EU lawmakers add, saying the forthcoming framework will be presented in the WHO “as a possible universal standard”.

Commenting in the challenges ahead for developing privacy-safe vaccination verification, Lukasz Olejnik, a Europe-based independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, told TechCrunch: “It is tricky to follow privacy by design for this particular [use-case]. It is unclear if anyone will be interested in identifying possible innovative privacy-preserving frameworks such as anonymous cryptographic credentials.

“In the end perhaps we will end up with some approach using verifiable credentials, but establishing trust will remain a challenge. What will be the source of trust? Is it possible to prove a particular status without the need to disclose the user identity? These are the core questions.”

“I hope this proposal will be public and transparent,” he added of the EU framework.

It’s worth emphasizing that all this effort is a bit ‘cart before the horse’ at this stage — being as it’s still not confirmed whether any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been developed primarily to protect the recipient from serious illness, also prevent transmission of the disease or not.

Nonetheless, systems for verifying proof of immunization status are fast being spun up — ushering in the possibility of ‘vaccine passport’ checks for travellers within the EU down the road, for example. It’s also not hard to envisage businesses requesting COVID-19 vaccination certification before granting access to a physical facility or service, in a bid to reassure customers they can spend money safety — i.e. once such documentation exists and can be verified in a standardized way.

Standardized frameworks for vaccination credentials could certainly have very broad implications for personal freedoms in the near future, as well as wide ramifications for privacy — depending on how these systems are architected, managed and operated.

Europe’s privacy and security research community mobilized heavily last year as the pandemic triggered early proposals to develop coronavirus contacts tracing apps — contributing to a push for exposure notification apps to be decentralized to ensure privacy of individuals’ social graph. However efforts toward establishing vaccination certification systems don’t appear to have generated the same level of academic engagement as yet.

In an analysis of the implications of immunity certificates, published last month, Privacy International warned that any systems that require proof of vaccination for entry or a service would be unfair “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine” — a bar that remains far off indeed.

European countries, which are among the global leaders on COVID-19 vaccination rollouts, have still only immunized tiny minorities of their national populations so far. (Even as the Commission today urged Member States to set targets to vaccinate a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 by March 2021; and at least 70% of the total adult population by summer — targets which look like fantastical wishful thinking right now.)

“Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes which do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices,” the rights group further urged, also warning that COVID-19 immunity should not be used as a justification for expanding or instating digital identity schemes.

Faster Vaccinations, New Mutations, and More Coronavirus News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

A Virus Variant Spreads, Vaccine Efforts Accelerate, and More

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

Why Sapphire’s Jai Das thinks the Salesforce-Slack deal could succeed

By Alex Wilhelm

Who says that chats about enterprise software have to be boring? They don’t, we learned during our conversation earlier this week with Sapphire’s Jai Das, a pleasant time that touched on a host of topics including startup sectors, his investing group’s capital base and, of course, the Slack-Salesforce deal.

Our conversation took place about an hour before the deal was formally announced, but the tea leaves had been read by the market far in advance, so we were able to chat about it as if it was already consummated. Which it became a little while later.


Our conversation with Das was part of our Extra Crunch Live series, which you can learn more about here. If you’re not a member, head here to get started. Extra Crunch Live has previously hosted Bessemer’s Byron Deeter and Sequoia’s Roelof Botha, among others.


The whole chat with Das was interesting and good, but his comments explaining why Slack’s sale to the larger CRM giant stuck with me all week. Using Salesforce’s acquisition of MuleSoft (a company in which Das invested) as a prism, here’s how the venture capitalist discussed the plusses and minuses of selling to a bigger company.

After noting that MuleSoft might have been able to earn a larger revenue multiple as an independent company in today’s markets than it managed by selling to Salesforce, Das then detailed the sort of boost that a huge company can bring to one that is merely big (quote has been edited and condensed):

Going into your question about Salesforce and Slack, Salesforce, like any large company, does add a lot of value. When I talked to [former MuleSoft CEOs] Simon [Parmett] and Greg [Schott], they were astonished how much account control these large companies have with CIOs and CMOs.

MulesSoft would be beating on the door to get a meeting with the CIO and it wouldn’t happen. And you know, the Salesforce management team would just make one phone call, and Simon and Greg would be presenting to the CEO on down.

So I think that is the thing that people forget, that these large companies have so much ability to increase your sales velocity with large accounts, [so] it makes a lot of sense for some of these [smaller] companies to end up in Salesforce or SAP or Oracle, or WorkDay.

So perhaps Slack will find more oomph under Salesforce’s auspices than it could as a solo project. We spent the majority of our time talking about startups and smaller companies, so hit the jump for the full video and a few more quotes I transcribed for you.

Have fun!

Jai Das

This is a good time to start a proptech company

By Walter Thompson
Colton Pace Contributor
Colton Pace is an investor at Fika Ventures. He previously held roles investing at Vulcan Capital and Madrona Venture Labs.
More posts by this contributor

Like many things in life, building great businesses is all about timing. We’ve seen multibillion dollar failures from the dot-com era such as Pets.com and Webvan be reincarnated a decade later as Chewy and Instacart — this time as runaway successes.

The same could be said about real estate technology companies, but startups in this category have not gotten the same opportunity and attention as their peers in other sectors.

For decades, proptech has received the short end of the stick. Real estate is the world’s largest asset class worth $277 trillion, three times the total value of all publicly traded companies. Still, fintech companies have received seven times more VC funding than real estate companies.

These lower levels of investment were previously attributed to the slow rate of technology adoption and digitalization within the real estate industry, but this is no longer the case. Companies in real estate are adopting innovation faster than ever. Now, 81% of real estate organizations plan to use new digital technologies in traditional business processes and spending on tech and software is growing at over 11% per year. Technological adoption has even accelerated throughout the pandemic as enterprises were forced to quickly adapt.

Historically, the strength or weakness of the broader economy and the real estate industry have been tightly coupled and correlated. While some may point to COVID-19’s negative impact on certain parts of real estate as evidence that proptech can only thrive in boom times, I believe building a successful proptech company is less about anticipating economic upswings and markets and more about timing and taking advantage of the right technological trends. In short, this is as good of a time as any to start a proptech company if you know where to look.

History is littered with examples of companies that have done just this. Let’s take a look at three:

Procore

  • Founded: 2002.
  • Early traction: Used by celebrity housing projects in California.
  • Inflection point: 2012 (people start using iPads and smartphones on job sites).
  • Today: $5 billion valuation as of May 2020.

Procore was founded in 2002 in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, well before widespread WiFi and five years before the iPhone. The company saw the capability for software and technology to transform the construction industry long before practitioners did. Its team faithfully and stubbornly kept at it through the financial crisis, but only had $5 million in revenue by 2012. Here’s where the timing kicks in: At this time, iPads and smartphones had become more common on worksites, enabling widespread adoption.

Realizing this change in-market and adapting to it, Procore strategically priced its product as a subscription, rather than based on headcount, as was typical in the industry. In this way, early customers like Wieland and Mortenson got their subcontractors and temp employees to use the product, which then created a flywheel effect that spread Procore to other projects and clients. Fast forward to today, Procore now has more than $290 million in ARR and is valued over $5 billion.

Procore’s persistence and agility ultimately enabled it to capitalize on the right technological trends and shifts, despite what initially seemed like a poorly timed decision to start a software company in a recession. Procore is now on a venture exit path as it continues to acquire new-age proptech companies like Avata Technologies, Honest Buildings and BIMAnywhere.

Zillow

  • Founded: 2006.
  • Early traction: Launched with 1 million website visits.
  • Inflection point: 2009 (financial crisis mindset).
  • Today: Public — $27 billion market capitalization.

Zillow was founded by the co-founders of Hotwire and Expedia. While that might not seem relevant, the vision to bring transparency to consumers is the connecting line, the mission being to provide access to siloed data and knowledge to previously convoluted industries. Before Zillow, homeowners did not know how much their house was worth. With Zillow’s Zestimate, consumers can put a price tag on every roof across North America.

The UK approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s medicines regulator has approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for emergency use, the companies said today.

The UK is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use — paving the way for some of the most “high risk” citizens, such as elderly care home residents, to get the jab before the end of the year.

The BBC reports that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the vaccine is safe to be rolled out from next week.

The request for emergency authorization was submitted by BioNTech and Pfizer to the MHRA last month — as well as to regulators in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S., none of which have yet given the go ahead.

The UK approval is based on trial data, including a worldwide Phase 3 clinical study carried out by BioNTech/Pfizer  which demonstrated an efficacy rate for the vaccine of 95% and raised no serious safety concerns.

The vaccine was also shown to be effective both in participants who had not previously contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and those who had — based on measuring efficacy seven days after the second dose.

Efficacy was also reported as consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics, with an observed efficacy in adults age 65 and over of more than 94%, they said.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted the news of the formal authorization this morning — writing that the vaccine will “begin to be made available across the UK from next week”.

It’s fantastic that @MHRAgovuk has formally authorised the @Pfizer/@BioNTech_Group vaccine for Covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week. (1/2)

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 2, 2020

The UK has ordered 40M doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, or enough vaccine for 20M people (as it requires two doses), though it will take time for the country to receive all the doses ordered.

“The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts,” the companies write in a press release.

“Now that the vaccine is authorized in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses. The first doses are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming days, with complete delivery fulfilment expected in 2021,” they added.

The UK’s National Health Service is gearing up for what NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens, described as “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”. Per the BBC, some 50 hospitals are on standby and vaccination centers in venues such as conference centres are being set up.

Moderna claims 94% efficacy for COVID-19 vaccine, will ask FDA for emergency use authorization today

By Darrell Etherington

Drugmaker Moderna has completed its initial efficacy analysis of its COVID-19 vaccine from the drug’s Phase 3 clinical study, and determined that it was 94.1% effective in preventing people from contracting COVID-19 across 196 confirmed cases from among 30,000 participants in the study. Moderna also found that it was 100% effective in preventing severe cases (such as those that would require hospitalization) and says it hasn’t found any significant safety concerns during the trial. On the basis of these results, the company will file an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday.

Seeking an EUA is the next step towards actually beginning to distribute and administer Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, and if granted the authorization, it will be able to provide it to high-risk individuals in settings where it could help prevent more deaths, such as with front-line healthcare workers, ahead of receiving a full and final regulatory approval from the U.S. healthcare monitoring agency. Moderna will also seek conditional approval from the European Medicines Agency, which will enable similar use ing the EU.

Moderna’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, which provides genetic instructions to a person’s body that prompts them to create their own powerful antibodies to block the receptor sites that allows COVID-19 to infect a patient. It’s a relatively new therapeutic approach for human use, but has the potential to provide potentially even more resistance to COVID-19 than do natural antibodies, and without the risk associated with introducing any actual virus, active or otherwise, to an inoculated individual in order to prompt their immune response.

In mid-November, Moderna announced that its COVID-19 vaccine showed 94.5% efficacy in its preliminary results. This final analysis of that same data hews very close to the original, which is promising news for anyone hoping for an effective solution to be available soon. This data has yet to be peer reviewed, though Moderna says that it will now be submitting data from the Phase 3 study to a scientific publication specifically for that purpose.

Moderna’s vaccine candidate is part of the U.S’s Operation Warp Speed program to expedite the development, production and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, initiated earlier this year as a response to the unprecedented global pandemic. Other vaccines, including one created by Pfizer working with partner BioNTech, as well as an Oxford University/AstraZeneca-developed candidate, are also far along in their Phase 3 testing and readying for emergency approval and use. Pfizer has already applied with the FDA for its own EUA, while the Oxford vaccine likely won’t be taking that step in the U.S. until it completes another round of final testing after discovering an error in the dosage of its first trial – which led to surprising efficacy results.

AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

By Darrell Etherington

AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

YouTube suspends and demonetizes One America News Network over COVID-19 video

By Brian Heater

YouTube today confirmed that it has suspended right-wing cable channel One America News Network (OAN or OANN for short). The penalty comes after a violation of YouTube’s stated COVID-19 misinformation guidelines. As a result, the network will be barred from posting new videos for a week, while its existing videos will also be demonetized for that period.

A spokesperson for the Google-owned video service offered the following statement to TechCrunch:

Since early in this pandemic, we’ve worked to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation associated with COVID-19 on YouTube. After careful review, we removed a video from OANN and issued a strike on the channel for violating our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content claiming there’s a guaranteed cure. Additionally, due to repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policy and other channel monetization policies, we’ve suspended the channel from the YouTube Partner Program and as a result, its monetization on YouTube.

The service has a three-strikes policy in place, with the first two strikes carrying their own policies. In addition to the above actions, the offending video has been pulled from the channel. This is OAN’s first strike. Per the site:

If we find your content doesn’t follow our policies for a second time, you’ll get a strike.

This means you won’t be able to do the following for one week:

  • Upload videos, live streams, or stories
  • Create custom thumbnails or Community posts
  • Created, edit, or add collaborators to playlists
  • Add or remove playlists from the watch page using the “Save” button

Full privileges will be restored automatically after the 1-week period, but your strike will remain on your channel for 90 days.

A second strike in a 90-day period would result in a two-week suspension. A third strike in a 90-day period would result in the channel’s termination.

OAN has become a personal favorite for Trump and his administration recently, particularly in the wake of fallout between the president and Fox News, after that long-favorite cable network called the recent election for opponent Joe Biden.

One America News also came under fire for videos like “Trump Won,” which falsely reported on the election’s results. YouTube opted not to pull that video over disinformation concerns, instead adding a warning and removing ads from the video, noting, “[w]e will continue to be vigilant in the post-election period.”

Uber refused permission to dismiss 11 staff at its EMEA HQ

By Natasha Lomas

Uber has been refused permission to dismiss 11 people at its EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam by the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), the ride hailing company has confirmed.

The affected individuals did not take up an earlier severance offer as part of wider Uber layoffs earlier this year.

Uber announced major global layoffs of around 15% of its workforce in May — which included around 200 staff based in Amsterdam — blaming the cuts on changes to demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week, Dutch newspaper NRC reported that Uber had been refused permission to fire the staff as the UWV had found there were no grounds for dismissal.

Per its report, affected Uber employees had faced pressure to accept Uber’s severance offer — saying they were disconnected from its internal systems the day after being informed of termination via Zoom video call and were then sent daily reminders to accept dismissal with Uber telling them ‘their position was ceasing to exist’.

Dutch law requires employers to obtain approval from the UWV for planned redundancies. But the majority of the affected staff in this instance accepted its severance offer before the agency had made a decision. Local press reports suggest many of those affected were expats — who may have been unaware of their labor rights under Dutch law.

We reached out to Uber with questions — and a company spokesperson sent us this statement:

Earlier this year we made the difficult decision to reduce our global headcount due to the dramatic impact of the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature of any eventual recovery. The headcount reductions in our EMEA Headquarters in Amsterdam are part of those efforts.

Uber also told us it does not agree with the UWV’s decision to refuse permission for it to dismiss the 11 employees who had not accepted severance, adding that it will review the decision before determining how to proceed.

It said the severance packages offered to the ~200 affected employees included at least 2.5 months of salary, health benefits to the end of the year, outplacement/recruitment support and additional support for Uber-sponsored visa holders.

Pfizer Seeks Approval, the CDC Urges Restraint, and More News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today

By Darrell Etherington

Two of the companies behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their preventative treatment with an application to be delivered today. Pfizer and BioNTech, who revealed earlier this week that their vaccine was 95% effective based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, are submitting for the emergency authorization in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.K., and says that could pave the way for use of the vaccine to begin in “high-risk populations” by the end of next month.

The FDA’s EUA program allows therapeutics companies to seek early approval when mitigating circumstances are met, as is the case with the current global pandemic. EUA’s still require that supporting information and safety data are provided, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process typically used for new drugs and treatments that come before they’re able to actually be administered broadly.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate, which is an mRNA-based vaccine that essentially provides a recipient’s body with instructions on how to produce specific proteins to block the ability of SARS-CoV-19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to attach to cells. The vaccine has recently been undergoing a Phase 3 clinical trial, that included 43,661 participants so far. The companies are submitting supporting information they hope will convince the FDA to grant the EUA, including data from 170 confirmed cases from among the participants, and safety information actively solicited from 8,000 participants, and supplementary data form another 38,000 who that was passively collected.

While production is ramping globally for this and other vaccines in late stage development, and EUA will potentially open up access to high-risk individuals including frontline healthcare workers, it’s worth pointing out that any wide vaccination programs likely aren’t set to begin until next year, and likely later in 2021.

Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in final clinical trial results analysis

By Darrell Etherington

Drugmaker Pfizer has provided updated analysis around its COVID-19 vaccine Phase 3 clinical trial data, saying that in the final result of its analysis of the 44,000-participant trial, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate proved 95% percent effective. This is a better efficacy rate than Pfizer reported previously, when it announced a 90% effectiveness metric based on preliminary analysis of the Phase 3 trial data.

This result also follows a preliminary data report from Moderna about their own Phase 3 trial of their vaccine candidate, which they reported showed 94.5% effectiveness. Pfizer and partner BioNTech’s vaccine is an mRNA-based preventative treatment, similar to the Moderna one, and now it looks like they should be roughly similar in efficacy – at least in the early offing, based on a limited sample of total cases and prior to peer review by the scientific community, which is yet to come.

The Pfizer data in its final analysis shows that among a total of 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far among the 44,000 people who took part in the study, 162 cases came from the placebo group while only eight were from the group of those who received the actual vaccine candidate. The company also reported that 9 out of 10 of the severe cases among those who were infected occurred in the placebo group, suggesting that even in the rare occasion that the vaccine didn’t prevent contraction of COVID-19, it helped reduce its severity.

This should help Pfizer make its case that it be granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be able to provide the vaccine early pending full and final approval as an emergency measure. Earlier this week, the company reported that it has already collected two months’ worth of follow-up data about participants in its trial, which is a required component for said approval, and it’s pursuing it with hopes of achieving that EUA before year’s end. The company intends to ramp production of its vaccine beginning later this year, and achieving a run rate of up to 1.3 billion doses by next year.

Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

By Walter Thompson
Allison Xu Contributor
Allison Xu is an investor at Bain Capital Ventures, where she focuses on investments in the fintech and property tech sectors.

In the wake of COVID-19 this spring, construction sites across the nation emptied out alongside neighboring restaurants, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments. Debates ensued over whether the construction industry’s seven million employees should be considered “essential,” while regulations continued to shift on the operation of job sites. Meanwhile, project demand steadily shrank.

Amidst the chaos, construction firms faced an existential question: How will they survive? This question is as relevant today as it was in April. As one of the least-digitized sectors of our economy, construction is ripe for technology disruption.

Construction is a massive, $1.3 trillion industry in the United States — a complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, architects, general contractors, subcontractors and more. While each construction project has a combination of these key roles, the construction process itself is highly variable depending on the asset type. Roughly 41% of domestic construction value is in residential property, 25% in commercial property and 34% in industrial projects. Because each asset type, and even subassets within these classes, tends to involve a different set of stakeholders and processes, most construction firms specialize in one or a few asset groups.

Regardless of asset type, there are four key challenges across construction projects:

High fragmentation: Beyond the developer, architect, engineer and general contractor, projects could involve hundreds of subcontractors with specialized expertise. As the scope of the project increases, coordination among parties becomes increasingly difficult and decision-making slows.

Poor communication: With so many different parties both in the field and in the office, it is often difficult to relay information from one party to the next. Miscommunication and poor project data accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction job sites, costing the industry over $31 billion annually according to FMI research.

Lack of data transparency: Manual data collection and data entry are still common on construction sites. On top of being laborious and error-prone, the lack of real-time data is extremely limited, therefore decision-making is often based on outdated information.

Skilled labor shortage: The construction workforce is aging faster than the younger population that joins it, resulting in a shortage of labor particularly for skilled trades that may require years of training and certifications. The shortage drives up labor costs across the industry, particularly in the residential sector, which traditionally sees higher attrition due to its more variable project demand.

A construction tech boom

Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper. The lack of tech sophistication on construction sites materially contributes to job delays, missed budgets and increased job site safety risk. Technology startups are emerging to help solve these problems.

Here are the main categories in which we’re seeing construction tech startups emerge.

1. Project conception

  • How it works today: During a project’s conception, asset owners and/or developers develop site proposals and may work with lenders to manage the project financing.
  • Key challenges: Processes for managing construction loans are cumbersome and time intensive today given the complexity of the loan draw process.
  • How technology can address challenges: Design software such as Spacemaker AI can help developers create site proposals, while construction loan financing software such as Built Technologies and Rabbet are helping lenders and developers manage the draw process in a more efficient manner.

2. Design and engineering

  • How it works today: Developers work with design, architect and engineering teams to turn ideas into blueprints.
  • Key challenges: Because the design and engineering teams are often siloed from the contractors, it’s hard for designers and engineers to know the real-time impact of their decisions on the ultimate cost or timing of the project. Lack of coordination with construction teams can lead to time-consuming changes.
  • How technology can address challenges: Of all the elements of the construction process, the design and engineering process itself is the most technologically sophisticated today, with relatively high adoption of software like Autodesk to help with design documentation, specification development, quality assurance and more. Autodesk is moving downstream to offer a suite of solutions that includes construction management, providing more connectivity between the teams.

Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The coronavirus has erased a large chunk of college’s value proposition: the on-campus experience.

Campuses are closed, sports have been paused and, understandably, students don’t want to pay the same tuition for a fraction of the services. As a result, enrollment is down across the country and university business models are under unrelenting pressure.

The entire athletics program at East Carolina University has been furloughed with pay cuts. Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated a number of programs to save $4 million a year. And Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University lost 1,000 students to online school within weeks of reopening its campus, sacrificing $3.5 million in room and board fees.

And that’s just in the last few weeks.

As universities struggle, edtech is being positioned as a solution for their largest problem: remote teaching. Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC), created a campus product to help schools quickly offer digital coursework. Podium Education raised millions last month to offer universities for-credit tech programs. Eruditus brought on more than $100 million in the last few months to create programming for elite universities. In some ways, the growth is the story of edtech’s ongoing surge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Remote schooling has forced institutions to piece together third-party solutions to keep operations afloat.

However, while some startups are helping universities offer virtual programming overnight, professors on the ground are warning their institutions to think long-term about what kind of technologies are net positive to adopt.

It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.

‘We’re talking about the next evolution of textbooks’

As the last eight months have taught us, Zoom-based school is a lackluster alternative to the in-person experience. College campuses, thus, are tasked with finding a more creative way to offer engaging virtual content to students who are stuck in their dorm rooms.

Coursera launched Coursera for Campus to help colleges bring on online courses (credit optional) with built-in exams; more than 3,700 schools across the world are using the software.

“Professors would really want super-high-quality branded content that has assessments built into it if they’re going to deliver that learning for credit,” CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said. “That’s not the kind of learning you can get on YouTube.”

For now, though, Maggioncalda says he doesn’t think the death of a physical college campus experience is the future. He’s betting that the product can help colleges save money on faculty costs and reinvest that same money into the campus.

“There will be schools that will continue to offer residential experience, and I think what they’re gonna find is, if your real value proposition is that residential experience, then lead into that heavily,” he said. “But make sure that you’ve got really good content and credentials that are available so that your students don’t have to sacrifice.”

Georgia Tech professor David Joyner says that MOOCs like Coursera “are good for outreach and access, but are not good for accreditation.” Instead, he thinks edtech needs to be built first and foremost for universities to be most effective.

Podium Education, for example, builds courses in partnership with universities to offer for-credit courses. The newly launched startup raised $12 million in October and works with more than 20 colleges. Eruditus, an edtech startup that raised over $100 million in September, creates courses in collaboration with more than 30 elite universities, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, IIT and more.

Coursera, Podium and Eruditus are all signaling a future where universities could be getting a plug-and-play model of asynchronously taught curriculum.

Moderna reports its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5% effective in first data from Phase 3 trial

By Darrell Etherington

Following fast on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement of its COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, Moderna is also sharing positive results from its Phase 3 trial on Monday. The biotech company says that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate has shown efficacy of 94.5% in its first interim data analysis, which covers 95 confirmed COVID cases among its study participants, of which 90 were given the placebo, and only 5 received Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccine. Further, of 11 severe cases of COVID-19, none were found among those who received the actual vaccine candidate.

This is another very promising sign for the potential of having effective vaccines available to the public in some kind of significant volume at some point next year. As mentioned, it’s worth pointing out that this is just a first interim report, but it is data that comes from the safety board overseeing the trial appointed by the National Institutes of Health, which is an independent body not affiliated with Moderna, so it’s a reliable result that provides hope for continued and final analysis.

Moderna says that it will be submitting for an Emergency Use Authorization of its vaccine candidate based on the results within the coming weeks, looking to get approval from the FDA to use it in emergency circumstances ahead of a full and final approval. That EUA, should it be granted, will be based on data from 151 confirmed cases among the Phase 3 participant group (which included 30,000 participants in total), and data from follow-ups extending on average over two months after case confirmation.

All final data will also be submitted to the scientific community for independent peer review, which is a standard part of the ultimate vaccine trial and approval process.

Both this and Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, which it developed in partnership with BioNTech, are mRNA-based vaccines. These are relatively new in terms of human use, and differ from traditional vaccines in that they use messenger RNA to instruct a recipient’s cells to generate effective antibodies, without actually exposing them to any virus, whereas more traditional vaccines in general use typically use either small, safe doses of active or inactive virus in order to trigger a patient’s immune system to generate their own antibodies.

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