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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Medchart raises $17M to help businesses more easily access patient-authorized health data

By Darrell Etherington

Electronic health records (EHR) have long held promise as a means of unlocking new superpowers for caregiving and patients in the medical industry, but while they’ve been a thing for a long time, actually accessing and using them hasn’t been as quick to become a reality. That’s where Medchart comes in, providing access to health information between businesses, complete with informed patient consent, for using said data at scale. The startup just raised $17 million across Series A and seed rounds, led by Crosslink Capital and Golden Ventures, and including funding from Stanford Law School, rapper Nas and others.

Medchart originally started out as more of a DTC play for healthcare data, providing access and portability to digital health information directly to patients. It sprung from the personal experience of co-founders James Bateman and Derrick Chow, who both faced personal challenges accessing and transferring health record information for relatives and loved ones during crucial healthcare crisis moments. Bateman, Medchart’s CEO, explained that their experience early on revealed that what was actually needed for the model to scale and work effectively was more of a B2B approach, with informed patient consent as the crucial component.

“We’re really focused on that patient consent and authorization component of letting you allow your data to be used and shared for various purposes,” Bateman said in an interview. “And then building that platform that lets you take that data and then put it to use for those businesses and services, that we’re classifying as ‘beyond care.’ Whether those are our core areas, which would be with your, your lawyer, or with an insurance provider, or clinical researcher — or beyond that, looking at a future vision of this really being a platform to power innovation, and all sorts of different apps and services that you could imagine that are typically outside that realm of direct care and treatment.”

Bateman explained that one of the main challenges in making patient health data actually work for these businesses that surround, but aren’t necessarily a core part of a care paradigm, is delivering data in a way that it’s actually useful to the receiving party. Traditionally, this has required a lot of painstaking manual work, like paralegals poring over paper documents to find information that isn’t necessarily consistently formatted or located.

“One of the things that we’ve been really focused on is understanding those business processes,” Bateman said. “That way, when we work with these businesses that are using this data — all permissioned by the patient — that we’re delivering what we call ‘the information,’ and not just the data. So what are the business decision points that you’re trying to make with this data?”

To accomplish this, Medchart makes use of AI and machine learning to create a deeper understanding of the data set in order to be able to intelligently answer the specific questions that data requesters have of the information. Therein lies their longterm value, since once that understanding is established, they can query the data much more easily to answer different questions depending on different business needs, without needing to re-parse the data every single time.

“Where we’re building these systems of intelligence on top of aggregate data, they are fully transferable to making decisions around policies for, for example, life insurance underwriting, or with pharmaceutical companies on real world evidence for their phase three, phase four clinical trials, and helping those teams to understand, you know, the the overall indicators and the preexisting conditions and what the outcomes are of the drugs under development or whatever they’re measuring in their study,” Bateman said.”

According to Ameet Shah, Partner at co-lead investor for the Series A Golden Ventures, this is the key ingredient in what Medchart is offering that makes the company’s offering so attractive in terms of long-term potential.

“What you want is you both depth and breadth, and you need predictability — you need to know that you’re actually getting like the full data set back,” Shah said in an interview. “There’s all these point solutions, depending on the type of clinic you’re looking at, and the type of record you’re accessing, and that’s not helpful to the requester. Right now, you’re putting the burden on them, and when we looked at it, we were just like ‘Oh, this is just a whole bunch of undifferentiated heavy lifting that the entire health tech ecosystem is trying to like solve for. So if [Medchart] can just commoditize that and drive the cost down as low as possible, you can unlock all these other new use cases that never could have been done before.”

One recent development that positions Medchart to facilitate even more novel use cases of patient data is the 21st Century Cures Act, which just went into effect on April 5, provides patients with immediate access, without charge, to all the health information in their electronic medical records. That sets up a huge potential opportunity in terms of portability, with informed consent, of patient data, and Bateman suggests it will greatly speed up innovation built upon the type of information access Medchart enables.

“I think there’s just going to be an absolute explosion in this space over the next two to three years,” Bateman said. “And at Medchart, we’ve already built all the infrastructure with connections to these large information systems. We’re already plugged in and providing the data and the value to the end users and the customers, and I think now you’re going to see this acceleration and adoption and growth in this area that we’re super well-positioned to be able to deliver on.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Reform the US low-income broadband program by rebuilding Lifeline

By Annie Siebert
Rick Boucher Contributor
Rick Boucher was a Democratic member of the U.S. House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

“If you build it, they will come” is a mantra that’s been repeated for more than three decades to embolden action. The line from “Field of Dreams” is a powerful saying, but I might add one word: “If you build it well, they will come.”

America’s Lifeline program, a monthly subsidy designed to help low-income families afford critical communications services, was created with the best intentions. The original goal was to achieve universal telephone service, but it has fallen far short of achieving its potential as the Federal Communications Commission has attempted to convert it to a broadband-centric program.

The FCC’s Universal Service Administrative Company estimates that only 26% of the families that are eligible for Lifeline currently participate in the program. That means that nearly three out of four low-income consumers are missing out on a benefit for which they qualify. But that doesn’t mean the program should be abandoned, as the Biden administration’s newly released infrastructure plan suggests.

Now is the right opportunity to complete the transformation of Lifeline to broadband and expand its utilization by increasing the benefit to a level commensurate with the broadband marketplace and making the benefit directly available to end users.

Rather, now is the right opportunity to complete the transformation of Lifeline to broadband and expand its utilization by increasing the benefit to a level commensurate with the broadband marketplace and making the benefit directly available to end users. Instead, the White House fact sheet on the plan recommends price controls for internet access services with a phaseout of subsidies for low-income subscribers. That is a flawed policy prescription.

If maintaining America’s global competitiveness, building broadband infrastructure in high-cost rural areas, and maintaining the nation’s rapid deployment of 5G wireless services are national goals, the government should not set prices for internet access.

Forcing artificially low prices in the quest for broadband affordability would leave internet service providers with insufficient revenues to continue to meet the nation’s communications infrastructure needs with robust innovation and investment.

Instead, targeted changes to the Lifeline program could dramatically increase its participation rate, helping to realize the goal of connecting Americans most in need with the phone and broadband services that in today’s world have become essential to employment, education, healthcare and access to government resources.

To start, Lifeline program participation should be made much easier. Today, individuals seeking the benefit must go through a process of self-enrollment. Implementing “coordinated enrollment” — through which individuals would automatically be enrolled in Lifeline when they qualify for certain other government assistance benefits, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid — would help to address the severe program underutilization.

Because multiple government programs serve the same constituency, a single qualification process for enrollment in all applicable programs would generate government efficiencies and reach Americans who are missing out.

Speaking before the American Enterprise Institute back in 2014, former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, “In most states, to enroll in federal benefit programs administered by state agencies, consumers already must gather their income-related documentation, and for some programs, go through a face-to-face interview. Allowing customers to enroll in Lifeline at the same time as they apply for other government benefits would provide a better experience for consumers and streamline our efforts.”

Second, the use of the Lifeline benefit can be made far simpler for consumers if the subsidy is provided directly to them via an electronic Lifeline benefit card account — like the SNAP program’s electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. Not only would a Lifeline benefit card make participation in the program more convenient, but low-income

Americans would then be able to shop among the various providers and select the carrier and the precise service(s) that best suits their needs. The flexibility of greater consumer choice would be an encouragement for more program sign-ups.

And, the current Lifeline subsidy amount — $9.25 per month — isn’t enough to pay for a broadband subscription. For the subsidy to be truly meaningful, an increase in the monthly benefit is needed. Last December, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit to provide low-income Americans up to a $50 per month discount ($75 per month on tribal lands) to offset the cost of broadband connectivity during the pandemic. After the emergency benefit runs out, a monthly benefit adequate to defray the cost of a broadband subscription will be needed.

In order to support more than a $9.25 monthly benefit, the funding source for the Lifeline program must also be reimagined. Currently, the program relies on the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which is financed through a “tax” on traditional long-distance and international telephone services.

As greater use is made of the web for voice communications, coupled with less use of traditional telephones, the tax rate has increased to compensate for the shrinking revenues associated with landline phone services. A decade ago, the tax, known as the “contribution factor,” was 15.5%, but it’s now more than double that at an unsustainable 33.4%. Without changes, the problem will only worsen.

It’s easy to see that the financing of a broadband benefit should no longer be tied to a dying technology. Instead, funding for the Lifeline program could come from a “tax” shared across the entire internet ecosystem, including the edge providers that depend on broadband to reach their customers, or from direct congressional appropriations for the Lifeline program.

These reforms are realistic and straightforward. Rather than burn the program down, it’s time to rebuild Lifeline to ensure that it fulfills its original intention and reaches America’s neediest.

Facebook faces ‘mass action’ lawsuit in Europe over 2019 breach

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on 533M+ accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.

Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it’s commencing a “mass action” to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that’s set out in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a ‘right to compensation and liability’ for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.

The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breach — via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) — and sign up to join the case if so.

Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation.

The tech giant’s European headquarters is located in Ireland — and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.

A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations — including the length of time it’s taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true of Facebook.

With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook’s business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.

(The closest it’s come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook’s EU to US data transfers. However that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC’s processes).

Since May 2018 the EU’s data protection regime has — at least on paper — baked in fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover for the most serious violations.

Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450k (~$547k) sanction against Twitter — which works out to around just 0.1% of the company’s full-year revenue.

That penalty was also for a data breach — but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook’s failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claimed to fix by September 2019 — which led to the leak of 533M accounts now — suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.

However even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog’s caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that’s only now a few days old.

Judging by past performance it’ll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak — which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class-action style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.

“Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not,” DRI writes on its website.

It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was “also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts”.

It’s clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages — with a number of other mass actions announced last year.

In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose — claiming it’s ‘old data’ — a deflection that ignores the fact that dates of birth don’t change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).

Plenty of the ‘old’ data exposed in this latest massive Facebook data leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users — and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.

How startups can ensure CCPA and GDPR compliance in 2021

By Annie Siebert
Beth Winters Contributor
Beth Winters, JD/MBA, is the solutions marketing manager of Aparavi, a data intelligence and automation software and services company that helps companies find and unlock the value of data.

Data is the most valuable asset for any business in 2021. If your business is online and collecting customer personal information, your business is dealing in data, which means data privacy compliance regulations will apply to everyone — no matter the company’s size.

Small startups might not think the world’s strictest data privacy laws — the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — apply to them, but it’s important to enact best data management practices before a legal situation arises.

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes.

For example, failing to comply with the GDPR can result in legal fines of €20 million or 4% of annual revenue. Under the CCPA, fines can also escalate quickly, to the tune of $2,500 to $7,500 per person whose data is exposed during a data breach.

If the data of 1,000 customers is compromised in a cybersecurity incident, that would add up to $7.5 million. The company can also be sued in class action claims or suffer reputational damage, resulting in lost business costs.

It is also important to recognize some benefits of good data management. If a company takes a proactive approach to data privacy, it may mitigate the impact of a data breach, which the government can take into consideration when assessing legal fines. In addition, companies can benefit from business insights, reduced storage costs and increased employee productivity, which can all make a big impact on the company’s bottom line.

Challenges of data compliance for startups

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes. For example, Vodafone Spain was recently fined $9.72 million under GDPR data protection failures, and enforcement trackers show schools, associations, municipalities, homeowners associations and more are also receiving fines.

GDPR regulators have issued $332.4 million in fines since the law was enacted almost two years ago and are being more aggressive with enforcement. While California’s attorney general started CCPA enforcement on July 1, 2020, the newly passed California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) only recently created a state agency to more effectively enforce compliance for any company storing information of residents in California, a major hub of U.S. startups.

That is why in this age, data privacy compliance is key to a successful business. Unfortunately, many startups are at a disadvantage for many reasons, including:

  • Fewer resources and smaller teams — This means there are no designated data privacy officers, privacy attorneys or legal counsel dedicated to data privacy issues.
  • Lack of planning — This might be characterized by being unable to handle data privacy information requests (DSARs, or “data subject access requests”) to help fulfill the customer’s data rights or not having an overall program in place to deal with major data breaches, forcing a reactive instead of a proactive response, which can be time-consuming, slow and expensive.

Cado Security locks in $10M for its cloud-native digital forensics platform

By Ingrid Lunden

As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent Solar Winds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active, and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.

As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $10 million in funding to expand its business.

Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.

The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.

The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.

The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes are part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: this means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.

Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)

Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.

A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”

In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”

However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.

The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.

“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.

Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like Solar Winds could have been better mitigated.

The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”

“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”

TikTok Duets Are Reviving the Exquisite Corpse

By Angela Watercutter
Dances, duets, and other challenges differ greatly from the work of the Surrealists. But that doesn’t mean they’re not creating a new art form all their own.

Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

By Ram Iyer
Travis Clinger Contributor
Travis Clinger is SVP, head of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, a data connectivity platform safely moving data through the pipes connecting most every brand, tech platform, publisher and advertiser on the open internet.
Jeff Nienaber Contributor
Jeff Nienaber is senior director, global audience ads at Microsoft Advertising, which provides intelligent solutions that empower advertisers to deliver engaging, personalized experiences to over half a billion people worldwide.

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookie-less world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming, and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks, and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Upstack raises $50M for its platform and advisory to help businesses plan and buy for digital transformation

By Ingrid Lunden

Digital transformation has been one of the biggest catchphrases of the past year, with many an organization forced to reckon with aging IT, a lack of digital strategy, or simply the challenges of growth after being faced with newly-remote workforces, customers doing everything online and other tech demands.

Now, a startup called Upstack that has built a platform to help those businesses evaluate how to grapple with those next steps — including planning and costing out different options and scenarios, and then ultimately buying solutions — is announcing financing to do some growth of its own.

The New York startup has picked up funding of $50 million, money that it will be using to continue building out its platform and expanding its services business.

The funding is coming from Berkshire Partners, and it’s being described as an “initial investment”. The firm, which makes private equity and late-stage growth investments, typically puts between $100 million and $1 billion in its portfolio companies so this could end up as a bigger number, especially when you consider the size of the market that Upstack is tackling: the cloud and internet infrastructure brokerage industry generates annual revenues “in excess of $70 billion,” the company estimates.

We’re asking about the valuation, but PitchBook notes that the median valuation in its deals is around $211 million. Upstack had previously raised around $35 million.

Upstack today already provides tools to large enterprises, government organizations, and smaller businesses to compare offerings and plan out pricing for different scenarios covering a range of IT areas, including private, public and hybrid cloud deployments; data center investments; network connectivity; business continuity and mobile services, and the plan is to bring in more categories to the mix, including unified communications and security.

Notably, Upstack itself is profitable and names a lot of customers that themselves are tech companies — they include Cisco, Accenture, cloud storage company Backblaze, Riverbed and Lumen — a mark of how digital transformation and planning for it are not necessarily a core competency even of digital businesses, but especially those that are not technology companies. It says it has helped complete over 3,700 IT projects across 1,000 engagements to date.

“Upstack was founded to bring enterprise-grade advisory services to businesses of all sizes,” said Christopher Trapp, founder and CEO, in a statement. “Berkshire’s expertise in the data center, connectivity and managed services sectors aligns well with our commitment to enabling and empowering a world-class ecosystem of technology solutions advisors with a platform that delivers higher value to their customers.”

The core of the Upstack’s proposition is a platform that system integrators, or advisors, plus end users themselves, can use to design and compare pricing for different services and solutions. This is an unsung but critical aspect of the ecosystem: We love to hear and write about all the interesting enterprise technology that is being developed, but the truth of the matter is that buying and using that tech is never just a simple click on a “buy” button.

Even for smaller organizations, buying tech can be a hugely time-consuming task. It involves evaluating different companies and what they have to offer — which can differ widely in the same category, and gets more complex when you start to compare different technological approaches to the same problem.

It also includes the task of designing solutions to fit one’s particular network. And finally, there are the calculations that need to be made to determine the real cost of services once implemented in an organization. It also gives users the ability to present their work, which also forms a critical part of the evaluating and decision-making process. When you think about all of this, it’s no wonder that so many organizations have opted to follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of digital strategy.

As technology has evolved, the concept of digital transformation itself has become more complicated, making tools like Upstack’s more in demand both by companies and the people they hire to do this work for them. Upstack also employs a group of about 15 advisors — consultants — who also provide insight and guidance in the procurement process, and it seems some of the funding will also be used to invest in expanding that team.

(Incidentally, the model of balancing technology with human experts is one used by other enterprise startups that are built around the premise of helping businesses procure technology: BlueVoyant, a security startup that has built a platform to help businesses manage and use different security services, also retains advisors who are experts in that field.)

The advisors are part of the business model: Upstack’s customers can either pay Upstack a consulting fee to work with its advisors, or Upstack receives a commission from suppliers that a company ends up using, having evaluated and selected them via the Upstack platform.

The company competes with traditional systems integrators and consultants, but it seems that the fact that it has built a tech platform that some of its competitors also use is one reason why it’s caught the eye of investors, and also seen strong growth.

Indeed, when you consider the breadth of services that a company might use within their infrastructure — whether it’s software to run sales or marketing, or AI to run a recommendation for products on a site, or business intelligence or RPA — it will be interesting to see how and if Upstack considers deeper moves into these areas.

“Upstack has quickly become a leader in a large, rapidly growing and highly fragmented market,” said Josh Johnson, principal at Berkshire Partners, in a statement. “Our experience has reinforced the importance of the agent channel to enterprises designing and procuring digital infrastructure. Upstack’s platform accelerates this digital transformation by helping its advisors better serve their enterprise customers. We look forward to supporting Upstack’s continued growth through M&A and further investment in the platform.”

South Africa’s Quro Medical comes out of stealth with $1.1M to expand its hospital-at-home service

By Tage Kene-Okafor

For a continent with such stark inequality, Africa has seen limited innovation to increase access to healthcare and reduce healthcare delivery costs. Over the years, there has been continued investment in traditional care models despite the overwhelming evidence of inefficiency and escalating costs. The pandemic also laid these problems bare, exposing the vulnerabilities of the continent’s healthcare system.

Health tech startup Quro Medical is trying to scale alternative models for African healthcare starting from its home country, South Africa. The company, which provides services to manage ill patients in the comfort of their homes, is emerging from stealth to announce the close of its $1.1 million round. The round was led by Kenya-based Enza Capital and South African VC firm Mohau Equity Partners.

Quro Medical was founded by Dr Vuyane Mhlomi, Zikho Pali and Rob Cornish in 2018. CEO Mhlomi understood the pressing need for South African healthcare innovation from his own experience before and after he became a doctor

It is known that hospitals in Africa experience excessive demands, which places strain on bed capacity. At the same time, it hinders effective patient treatment and recovery. Raised in Cape Town by his parents, Mhlomi experienced this firsthand. His parents suffered from chronic health conditions and he had to spend hours in clinics and hospitals waiting to see doctors.

Later, an opportunity to study medicine took him to the University of Oxford. Upon completion, he returned to South Africa where he knew the problem he faced previously was one to solve, hence Quro Medical

“We were connected by our belief that the private healthcare sector can and should be doing more to shoulder the burden of healthcare provision in this country and on the continent generally,” Mhlomi told TechCrunch. “These escalating costs are the primary barrier to accessing healthcare in the private sector, leaving an overwhelming burden on our public health system.” 

The CEO argues that acute patient care at home leads to better clinical outcomes and improved patient experience. This is the principle on which Quro Medical is established. In the long run, it wants to build the largest virtual hospital ward in Africa, with superior clinical outcomes to conventional care at a lower cost.

Quro Medical

Unlike hospitals, getting healthcare at home can feel safer, which is an extra proposition for Quro Medical. According to COO Pali, apart from hospitals’ high costs, patients are at risk of getting hospital-acquired infections. But while it might appear that Quro Medical is offering the same old traditional home care with a mix of telemedicine service, that’s not precisely the case. Pali says the company incorporates clinical data and remote healthcare monitoring to provide real-time, data-driven clinical interventions. “We are focused on saving lives and enhancing patient care. The technology is the enabler, making all of this possible,” adds Mhlomi.

Patients are admitted into the company’s care in lieu of a general ward hospital admission. Then Quro Medical makes revenue from filing a claim with medical aid and insurance companies paid via reimbursement. The healthtech startup also collects out-of-pocket payments from patients.

The pandemic reinforced the company’s importance in offering remote patient monitoring services, a significant aspect of its business that garnered a check from Enza Capital.

“As our collective healthcare systems struggle to care for patients beyond the walls of a hospital, which we’ve seen exacerbated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote patient monitoring and healthcare delivery will undoubtedly form a core part of the lasting solution,” said Mike Mompi, partner and CEO at the firm.

Nevertheless, this period has seen health tech startups offering out-of-hospital services struggle to have their services reimbursed. So how has Quro fared? Pretty well, apparently. The company claims to successfully convert most of its major medical schemes (health insurance) in South Africa as clients. They account for more than 90% of the total medical scheme market in the country.

Quro Medical has grown to work with about 150 doctors. Mhlomi believes his company is a first mover in Africa, meaning that he expects other players’ arrival in line with the trends in other markets. The company that has grown to work with 150 doctors now has plans to accelerate its hospital-at-home services and scale its operations across the country to meet its growing client base’s demands. It also wants to attract and retain talent and extend into other African markets. 

Speaking on the investment for Mohau Equity Partners, CEO Dr Penny Moumakwa said, “We are very excited to be invested in Quro, they are a dynamic management team, building out a global medical solution, that will showcase the ability of entrepreneurs on the African continent in advanced digital healthcare.” 

African crypto usage spurs Luno as customers reach 7M

By Tage Kene-Okafor

The crypto industry as a whole has seen a momentous year of growth, heavily spurred on by the entrance of institutional investors adopting bitcoin due to its store of value properties. The 2020 spike bitcoin experienced was also accelerated by its global adoption as the number of global cryptocurrency users surpassed 100 million in Q3 2020.

For Luno, a U.K.-based crypto company founded by Marcus Swanepoel and Timothy Stranex in 2013, it grew to 6 million customers from January 2020 to January 2021. However, that number has since gone up to 7 million. Today the company, headquartered in London, has nearly 400 employees across London, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Singapore, with customers in 40 countries globally

According to CEO Swanepoel, Luno’s numbers have been increasing month-on-month over the last seven years. However, this is the first time it is observing an acceleration of this magnitude.

There are a couple of reasons for Luno’s surge in numbers (like any other crypto exchange startup). Generally, despite talks of bitcoin being used in everyday life by crypto enthusiasts and interests from institutional entrants like BNY Mellon, Mastercard and Tesla, it is a long shot before becoming mainstream.

For now, crypto mainly serves investment purposes. This singular factor has particularly made it very popular with Africans — a demographic that has been a major part of Luno’s growth and the huge traction it is witnessing.

Last year, the company surveyed the markets in which it currently operates. It featured 15,000 respondents from South Africa, U.K., France, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria; the answers helped Luno understand how the pandemic influenced attitudes towards the current financial system. According to the survey, 54% of Africans were ready to adopt a single global digital currency, compared to 41% for Asia and 35% for Europe

Africa’s dominance also shows in its numbers. Out of the 7 million customers it has globally, 4.7 million people are in Africa. This number was 2.3 million in January 2020. Luno’s app installs across the continent have increased by 271% within this time frame, and trading volumes skyrocketed 12x, from $555 million to $7 billion. For context, Luno did $8.3 billion in total trading volume.  

But a large part of this growth is down to Luno’s early play in the market. Over the last few years, infrastructure in parts of the world that could not previously support the crypto market has improved substantially. Luno has played a vital role as one of the first platforms to improve the crypto marketplace experience by including local currencies. It also helped to lay the groundwork for educating people on digital currencies.  

“The last time bitcoin went up as it did during the past year was in 2017 and 2018, and it was mostly driven by retail, but it was still very difficult to buy crypto. There were trust issues; it would take days to get your account verified and even set up a wallet,” Swanepoel told TechCrunch. “Now, over the last three years, companies like ours, especially in Africa, have built up this infrastructure, KYCs, new payment methods, customer experience and support. The experience is much better and education levels are a lot higher. To me, I think that’s played a large role in crypto adoption in the continent.”

In September last year, Luno got acquired by Digital Currency Group (DCG), an investment firm that builds, buys and invests in blockchain companies. Some of its portfolio companies include Coindesk, Genesis and Grayscale Investments. Before acquiring Luno, BCG first invested in the company’s seed round in 2014. Then last year, Swanepoel said he saw the opportunity to take Luno to a larger scale after noticing the immense growth and adoption on its platform.

“The first five to six years for us was on a small scale and now, we want to go big. So it helps to have a global platform like DCG to do it from because they have large amounts of capital and are committed to investing in Africa as well as outside the continent,” he remarked

The CEO adds that DCG has more visibility on the crypto industry and trends. The acquisition was simply for Luno to leverage DCG’s insights and stay ahead of the curve, which looks to have paid off. Since the acquisition, Luno has seen the number of active users increase by 167%. As of January, the average user held more than $7,000 in their wallet, up 56% from December 2020.

Nothing lasts forever, but if the crypto market bull run is anything to go by, crypto isn’t the fad people once thought it was. In Q1 2021, companies like Coinbase (going public Wednesday) and Robinhood experienced monster numbers showing strong growth projections. For Luno, it expects to continue growing exponentially, a trajectory that sets the company on track to reach 1 billion customers by 2030.

Crypto trading on Robinhood spiked to 9.5M customers in first quarter

By Mary Ann Azevedo

It’s been a big year for crypto, and Robinhood shared some stats today providing more evidence that the crypto boom is more than just hype — at least for now.

In a blog, Christine Brown, Robinhood’s head of crypto operations, revealed that in the first quarter of 2021, 9.5 million of its customers traded crypto via the company’s platform. That’s up big time from the 1.7 million customers who traded crypto in the 2020 fourth quarter.

Brown says the company’s intent behind launching Robinhood Crypto in the first place was to give its customers the opportunity to buy and sell cryptocurrency in addition to the range of assets offered through its brokerage, Robinhood Financial.

Robinhood Crypto currently offers seven tradeable coins: Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin SV, Dogecoin, Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, and Litecoin. 

Brown also noted that Robinhood’s crypto team has already more than tripled since the beginning of the year, although it’s not entirely clear how many staffers it currently has on that team. There are a number of crypto-related openings on its careers site, including an open “Crypto CFO” role.

The company is making clear that crypto is an important part of its overall business and part of its mission to democratize access to the masses.

“All it takes to spend, trade, and store cryptocurrency, theoretically, is an internet connection — you don’t need access to a big line of credit, or startup capital,” Brown wrote. “You don’t even have to be awake at a certain time of day to trade. The crypto market doesn’t close. Crypto was born out of a mission to take power away from institutions and return it to the people.”

Last August, Robinhood raised $200 million more at a new, higher $11.2 billion valuation in its third raise of the year before filing to go public in March. The company has had a tumultuous past year or so that was filled with time in front of Congress, bad PR from a user’s suicide, and settlements with the SEC.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch also reported earlier this week that in the first quarter of 2021, American consumer cryptocurrency trading giant Coinbase grew sharply, generating strong profits at the same time. Specifically, the company notched revenue of $1.8 billion in Q1 2021, up from $585.1 million in Q4 2020. Net income totaled “approximately $730 million to $800 million,” up from $178.8 million in Q4 2020.

UK’s Digital Markets Unit starts work on pro-competition reforms

By Natasha Lomas

A new UK public body that will be tasked with helping regulate the most powerful companies in the digital sector to ensure competition thrives online and consumers of digital services have more choice and control over their data has launched today.

The Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which was announced in November last year — following a number of market reviews and studies examining concerns about the concentration of digital market power — does not yet have statutory powers itself but the government has said it will consult on the design of the new “pro-competition regime” this year and legislate to put the DMU on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Concerns about the market power of adtech giants Facebook and Google are key drivers for the regulatory development.

💻 Our new Digital Markets Unit, launched today, will help make sure tech giants can’t exploit their market dominance to crowd out competition and stifle innovation online.

Find out more: https://t.co/PCBCYwuA3o pic.twitter.com/Ybvn81uuBK

— Competition & Markets Authority (@CMAgovUK) April 7, 2021

As a first job, the unit will look at how codes of conduct could work to govern the relationship between digital platforms and third parties such as small businesses which rely on them to advertise or use their services to reach customers — to feed into future digital legislation.

The role of powerful intermediary online gatekeepers is also being targeted by lawmakers in the European Union who proposed legislation at the end of last year which similarly aims to create a regulatory framework that can ensure fair dealing between platform giants and the smaller entities which do business under their terms.

The UK government said today that the DMU will take a sector neutral approach in examining the role of platforms across a range of digital markets, with a view to promoting competition.

The unit has been asked to work with the comms watchdog Ofcom, which the government named last year as its pick for regulating social media platforms under planned legislation due to be introduced this year (aka, the Online Safety Bill as it’s now called).

While that forthcoming legislation is intended to regulate a very wide range of online harms which may affect consumers — from bullying and hate speech to child sexual exploitation and other speech-related issues (raising plenty of controversy, and specific concerns about associated implications for privacy and security) — the focus for the DMU is on business impacts and consumer controls which may also have implications for competition in digital markets.

As part of its first work program, the government said the secretary of state for digital has asked the DMU to work with Ofcom to look specifically at how a code would govern the relationships between platforms and content providers such as news publishers — “including to ensure they are as fair and reasonable as possible”, as its press release puts it.

This suggests the DMU will be taking a considered look at recent legislation passed in Australia — which makes it mandatory for platforms to negotiate with news publishers to pay for reuse of their content.

Earlier this year, the head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which the DMU will sit within, told the BBC that Australia’s approach of having a backstop of mandatory arbitration if commercial negotiations between tech giants and publishers fail is a “sensible” approach.

The DMU will also work closely with the CMA’s enforcement division — which currently has a number of open investigations into tech giants, including considering complaints against Apple and Google; and an in-depth probe of Facebook’s Giphy acquisition.

Other UK regulators the government says the DMU will work closely with include the data protection watchdog (the ICO) and the Financial Conduct Authority.

It also said the unit will also coordinate with international partners, given digital competition is an issue that’s naturally globally in nature — adding that it’s already discussing its approach through bilateral engagement and as part of its G7 presidency.

“The Digital Secretary will host a meeting of digital and tech ministers in April as he seeks to build consensus for coordination on better information sharing and joining up regulatory and policy approaches,” it added.

The DMU will be led by Will Hayter, who takes up an interim head post in early May following a stint at the Cabinet Office working on Brexit transition policy. Prior to that he worked for several years at the CMU and also Ofcom, among other roles in regulatory policy.

 

Avant doubles down on digital banking with Zero Financial acquisition

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Avant, an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity, announced today that it has acquired Zero Financial and its neobank brand, Level, to further its mission of becoming a digital bank for the masses.

Founded in 2012, Chicago-based Avant started out primarily as an online lender targeting “underserved consumers,” but is evolving into digital banking with this acquisition. The company notched gross revenue of $265 million in 2020 and has raised capital over the years from backers such as General Atlantic and Tiger Global Management.

“Our path has always been to become the premier digital bank for the everyday American,” Avant CEO James Paris told TechCrunch. “The massive transition to digital over the last 12 months made the timing right to expand our offerings.” 

The acquisition of Zero Financial and its neobank, Level (plus its banking app assets), will give Avant the ability to offer “a full ecosystem of banking and credit product offerings” through one fully digital platform, according to Paris. Those offerings include deposits, personal loans, credit cards and auto loans.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed other than the fact that the acquisition was completed with a combination of cash and stock.

Founded in 2016, San Francisco-based Zero Financial has raised $147 million in debt and equity, according to Crunchbase. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led its $20 million Series A in May of 2019.

Level was unveiled to the public in February of 2020, created by the same California-based team that founded the “debit-style” credit card offering Zero, according to this FintechFutures piece. The challenger bank was created to target millennials dissatisfied with the incumbent banking options.

Zero Financial co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen said that Avant shared his company’s mission “to challenge the status quo by bringing innovative financial services products to consumers who might otherwise be unable to access them.”

Avant, notes Paris, uses thousands of AI-driven data points to determine credit risk. With this acquisition, that lens will be expanded with data, such as a deposit customer’s cash flow, how they manage their finances and whether they pay their bills on time. 

“This will allow us to make credit decisions faster and deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, at any and every stage of their financial journey,” Paris told TechCrunch. “It will also build long-term engagement and loyalty and help grow our reach beyond the 1.5 million customers we’ve served to date.”  

Like a growing number of fintechs, Avant operates under the premise that a person’s ability to get credit shouldn’t be dictated by a credit score alone.

“A significant amount of Americans have poor, bad or no credit at all. For these people, accessing credit isn’t exactly easy and often comes with extra fees,” Paris said. That’s why, he added, Avant has focused on providing options for such consumers with “transparent, rewards-driven products.”

Level’s branchless, all-digital platform offers things such as cashback rewards on debit card purchases, a “competitive APY” on deposits, early access to paychecks and no hidden fees, all of which are especially beneficial for consumers on the path to financial freedom, according to Paris.

Since its inception in 2012, Avant has connected more than 1.5 million consumers to $7.5 billion in loans and 400,000 credit cards. The company launched its credit card in 2017 and over the past two years alone, it has grown its number of credit card users by 170%.

Coinbase to direct list on April 14th, provide financial update on April 6th

By Alex Wilhelm

Today Coinbase, an American cryptocurrency trading platform and software company, said that it will begin to trade via a direct listing on April 14th. In a separate release the company also said that it will provide a financial update on April 6th, after the close of trading.

Coinbase’s impending public debut comes at an interesting market moment. As some tech companies delay their offerings over demand concerns, Coinbase is pushing ahead with its flotation perhaps in part because it will not price its debut in the traditional sense; direct listings forgo raising capital at a specific price point, and instead merely begin to trade, albeit with a reference price attached.

That Coinbase will release new numbers before beginning to trade is at once interesting and pedestrian. It’s interesting as TechCrunch cannot recall a private company looking to go public holding a similar event. And, Coinbase deciding to share “first quarter 2021 estimated results” and “provide a financial outlook for 2021” is also in part a common move, as many companies provide updated financials in their S-1 documents if time passes from when they first file to when they actually trade.

We’ll be tuned into that call, as the numbers shared will impact not only how Coinbase trades when it does float, but will also provide insight into how active consumer trading is writ large, and particularly in the cryptocurrency space; more than one startup in the market today depends on trading incomes to generate top-line, so seeing new numbers from Coinbase will be welcome.

The company will trade under the ticker symbol “COIN.”

UK’s antitrust watchdog takes a closer look at Facebook-Giphy

By Natasha Lomas

Potential threats to the free flow of GIFs continue to trouble the UK’s competition watchdog.

Facebook’s $400M purchase of Giphy, announced last year, is now facing an in-depth probe by the CMA after the regulator found the acquisition raises competition concerns related to digital advertising. It now has until September 15 to investigate and report.

The watchdog took a first look at the deal last summer. It kept on looking into 2021. And then last week the CMA laid out its concerns — saying the (already completed) Facebook-Giphy acquisition could further reduce competition in the digital advertising market where the former is already a kingpin player (with over 50% share of the display advertising market).

The regulator said it had found evidence that, prior to the acquisition, Giphy had planned to expand its own digital advertising partnerships to other countries, including the UK.

“If Giphy and Facebook remain merged, Giphy could have less incentive to expand its digital advertising, leading to a loss of potential competition in this market,” it wrote a week ago.

The CMA also said it was worried a Facebook-owned Giphy could harm social media rivals were the tech giant were to squeeze the supply of animated pixels to others — or require rivals to sign up to worse terms (such as forcing them to hand over user data which it might then use to further fuel its ad targeting engines, gaining yet more market power).

On March 25 the companies were given five days by the regulator to address its concerns — by offering legally binding proposals intended to allay concerns.

An in-depth ‘phase 2’ investigation could have been avoided if concessions were offered which were acceptable to the regulator but that is evidently not the case as the CMA has announced the phase 2 referral today. And given the announcement has come just five working days after the last notification it appears no concessions were offered.

We’ve reached out to Facebook and the CMA for comment.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We will continue to fully cooperate with the CMA’s investigation. This merger is good for competition and in the interests of everyone in the UK who uses Giphy and our services — from developers to service providers to content creators.”

While Facebook has already completed its acquisition of Giphy, the CMA’s investigation continues to put a freeze on its ability to integrate Giphy more deeply into its wider business empire.

Albeit, given Facebook’s dominant position in the digital advertising space, its business need to move fast via product innovation is a lot less pressing than years past — when it was building its market dominance free from regulatory intervention.

In recent years, the CMA has been paying close mind to the digital ad market. Back in 2019 it reported report substantial concerns over the power of the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook. Although in its final report it said it would wait for the government to legislate, rather than make an intervention to address market power imbalances itself.

The UK is now in the process of setting up a pro-competition regulator with a dedicated focus on big tech — in response to concerns about the ‘winner takes all’ dynamics seen in digital markets. This incoming Digital Market Unit will oversee a “pro-competition” regime for Internet platforms that will see fresh compliance requirements in the coming years.

In the meanwhile, the CMA continues to scrutinize tech deals and strategic changes — including recently opening a probe of Google’s plan to depreciate support for third party cookies in Chrome after complaints from other industry players.

In January it also announced it was taking a look at Uber’s plan to acquire Autocab. However on Monday it cleared that deal, finding only “limited indirect” competition between the pair, and not finding evidence to indicate Autocab was likely to become a significant and more direct competitor to Uber in the future.

The regulator also considered whether Autocab and Uber could seek to put Autocab’s taxi company customers that compete against Uber at a disadvantage by reducing the quality of the booking and dispatch software sold to them, or by forcing them to pass data to Uber. But its phase 1 probe found other credible software suppliers and referral networks that the CMA said these taxi companies could switch to if Uber were to act in such a way — leading to it to clear the deal.

Lowkey raises $7 million from a16z to help game streamers capitalize on short-form video

By Lucas Matney

While the growth of game-streaming audiences have continued on desktop platforms, the streaming space has felt surprisingly stagnant at times, particularly due to the missing mobile element and a lack of startup competitors.

Lowkey, a young gaming startup that builds software for game streamers, is aiming to build out opportunities in bit-sized clips. The startup wants to be a hub for both creating and viewing short gaming clips but also sees a big opportunity in helping streamers cut down their existing content for distribution on platforms like Instagram and TikTok where short-form gaming content sees a good deal of engagement.

The startup announced today that they’ve closed a $7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from a host of angel investors including Figma’s Dylan Field, Loom’s Joe Thomas and Plaid’s Zach Perret & William Hockey.

We last covered Lowkey in early 2020 when the company was looking to build out a games tournament platform for adults. At the time, the company had already pivoted after going through YC as Camelot but which allowed audiences on Twitch and YouTube pay creators to take on challenges. This latest shift brings Lowkey back to the streaming world but more focused on becoming a tool for streamers and a hub for viewers.

One of the challenges for streamers has been adapting widescreen content for a vertical video form factor, but CEO Jesse Zhang says that it’s not really a problem with most modern games. “Games inherently want to focus you attention on the center of the screen,” Zhang tells TechCrunch. “So, almost all clips extend really cleanly to like a mobile format, which is what we’ve done.”

Twitch and YouTube Gaming have proven to be pretty uninterested in short-form content, favoring the opportunities of long-form stream that allow streamers to press broadcast and upload 30 minutes+ streams. Lowkey users can easily upload footage captured from Lowkey’s desktop app or directly import a linked stream. This allows content creators to upload and comment on their own footage or remix and respond to another streamer’s content.

Lowkey’s desktop app is available on Windows and their new mobile app is now live for iOS.

5 Years After the Oculus Rift, Where Do VR and AR Go Next?

By Peter Rubin
A lot’s happened since Facebook’s first headset brought virtual reality to the masses. Facebook might have been a first mover, but it also wants to be the last one.

Cryptocurrency wallet and blockchain tech startup imToken raises $30 million Series B

By Catherine Shu

imToken, the blockchain tech startup and crypto wallet developer, announced today it has raised $30 million in Series B funding led by Qiming Venture Partners. Participants included returning investor IDG Capital, and new backers Breyer Capital, HashKey, Signum Capital, Longling Capital, SNZ and Liang Xinjun, the co-founder of Fosun International.

Founded in 2016, the startup’s last funding announcement was for its $10 million Series A, led by IDG, in May 2018. imToken says its wallet for Ethereum, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies now has 12 million users and over $50 billion in assets are currently stored on its platform, with total transaction value exceeding $500 billion.

The company was launched in Hangzhou, China, before moving to it current headquarters to Singapore, and about 70% of its users are in mainland China, followed by markets including South Korea, the United States and Southeast Asia.

imToken will use its latest funding to build features for “imToken 3.0.” This will include keyless accounts, account recovery and and a suite of decentralized finance services. It also plans to expand its research arm for blockchain technology, called imToken Labs and open offices in more countries. It currently has a team of 78 people, based in mainland China, the United States and Singapore, and expects to increase its headcount to 100 this year.

In a press statement, Qiming Venture Partners founding managing partner Duane Kuang said, “In the next ten to twenty years, blockchain will revolutionize the financial industry on a global scale. We believe that imToken is riding this trend, and has strongly positioned itself in the market.”

PayPal’s new feature allows U.S. consumers to check out using cryptocurrency

By Sarah Perez

PayPal this morning announced the launch of Checkout with Crypto, a new feature that will allow consumers to check out at millions of online businesses using cryptocurrency. The feature expands on PayPal’s current investments in the cryptocurrency market, which include its partnership with Paxos to power its service that allows customers to buy, sell and hold a range of cryptocurrencies, and more recently, its acquisition of cryptocurrency security startup Curv.

According to PayPal, customers with cryptocurrency holdings in the U.S. will be able to check out using their cryptocurrency at PayPal’s 29 million global online businesses in the coming months. The feature will also work without any additional integrations or fees required by the businesses themselves.

Essentially, Checkout with Crypto allows the customers to sell their cryptocurrency through PayPal at the time of checkout, then settle the actual transaction in U.S. dollars. For the businesses, that means nothing really changes on their end — they’re still being paid in USD, not cryptocurrency. But PayPal’s feature makes it possible for this transaction to take place within the same checkout flow, making it easier on shoppers to quickly make their purchases using cryptocurrency.

At launch, the service will support Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash — but only one type of cryptocurrency can be used for each purchase.

If the customer has enough cryptocurrency to pay for their online purchase, then the Checkout with Crypto feature will appear, alongside other traditional payment methods, like the customer’s bank account, PayPal balance, or credit or debit card. Like other payment methods, Checkout with Crypto will also include PayPal’s safety and security benefits, including fraud protection, return shipping and purchase protection on eligible items, PayPal notes.

After the transaction completes, the customer will receive both a record of the cryptocurrency sale, as well as their purchase receipt.

The company had announced its plans to launch support for checkout with cryptocurrency last year, when it first entered the cryptocurrency market. It said that after providing support for buying and selling cryptocurrencies, it would launch a checkout feature in 2021.

Today, PayPal makes makes money by charging transaction fees when customers buy or sell their cryptocurrencies, which is why it’s not placing any fees on their merchants themselves.

PayPal’s launch will help to dramatically expand the number of places where cryptocurrency can be used for real-world purchases, which could help accelerate mainstream adoption of digital currencies. The move comes shortly after last week’s announcement from Tesla, which said U.S. customers could now buy a car using bitcoin, and Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten’s news earlier this month where it said users could check out with online merchants in Japan using cryptocurrencies.

“As the use of digital payments and digital currencies accelerates, the introduction of Checkout with Crypto continues our focus on driving mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies, while continuing to offer PayPal customers choice and flexibility in the ways they can pay using the PayPal wallet,” said PayPal President and CEO Dan Schulman, in a statement about the launch. “Enabling cryptocurrencies to make purchases at businesses around the world is the next chapter in driving the ubiquity and mass acceptance of digital currencies,” he added.

 

 

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