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Yesterday — August 2nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Can your startup support a research-based workflow?

By Ram Iyer
João Graça Contributor
João Graça is CTO and co-founder of Unbabel, an AI-powered language operations platform that enables any agent to communicate in any language.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that U.S. companies will spend upward of $100 billion on AI R&D per year by 2025. Much of this spending today is done by six tech companies — Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and Apple, according to a recent study from CSET at Georgetown University. But what if you’re a startup whose product relies on AI at its core?

Can early-stage companies support a research-based workflow? At a startup or scaleup, the focus is often more on concrete product development than research. For obvious reasons, companies want to make things that matter to their customers, investors and stakeholders. Ideally, there’s a way to do both.

Before investing in staffing an AI research lab, consider this advice to determine whether you’re ready to get started.

Compile the right research team

Assuming it’s your organization’s priority to do innovative AI research, the first step is to hire one or two researchers. At Unbabel, we did this early by hiring Ph.D.s and getting started quickly with research for a product that hadn’t been developed yet. Some researchers will build from scratch and others will take your data and try to find a pre-existing model that fits your needs.

While Google’s X division may have the capital to focus on moonshots, most startups can only invest in innovation that provides them a competitive advantage or improves their product.

From there, you’ll need to hire research engineers or machine learning operations professionals. Research is only a small part of using AI in production. Research engineers will then release your research into production, monitor your model’s results and refine the model if it stops predicting well (or otherwise is not operating as planned). Often they’ll use automation to simplify monitoring and deployment procedures as opposed to doing everything manually.

None of this falls within the scope of a research scientist — they’re most used to working with the data sets and models in training. That said, researchers and engineers will need to work together in a continuous feedback loop to refine and retrain models based on actual performance in inference.

Choose the problems you want to solve

The CSET research cited above shows that 85% of AI labs in North America and Europe do some form of basic AI research, and less than 15% focus on development. The rest of the world is different: A majority of labs in other countries, such as India and Israel, focus on development.

Google is building its own chip for the Pixel 6

By Brian Heater

Google just dumped a whole bunch of news about its upcoming Pixel 6 smartphone. Maybe the company was looking to get out in front of August 11’s big Samsung event — or perhaps it’s just hoping to keep people interested in the months leading up to a big fall announcement (and beat additional leaks to the punch).

In either case, we got the first look at the upcoming Android smartphone, including a fairly massive redesign of the camera system on the rear. The company has traded its square configuration for a big, black bar that appears to indicate an even larger push into upgraded hardware after a couple of generations spent insisting that software/AI are the grounds on which it has chosen to fight.

More interesting, however, is the arrival of Tensor, a new custom SoC (system on a chip) that will debut on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. It’s an important step from the company, as it looks to differentiate itself in a crowded smartphone field — something the company has admittedly struggled with in the past.

That means moving away from Qualcomm chips on these higher-end systems, following in Apple’s path of creating custom silicon. That said, the chips will be based on the same ARM architecture that Qualcomm uses to create its otherwise ubiquitous Snapdragon chips, and Google will still rely on the San Diego company to supply components for its budget-minded A Series.

Image Credits: Google

The Tensor name is a clear homage to Google’s TensorFlow ML, which has driven a number of its projects. And unsurprisingly, the company sites AI/ML as foundational to the chip’s place in the forthcoming phones. The Pixel team has long pushed software-based solutions, such as computational photography, as a differentiator.

“The team that designed our silicon wanted to make Pixel even more capable. For example, with Tensor we thought about every piece of the chip and customized it to run Google’s computational photography models,” Google writes. “For users, this means entirely new features, plus improvements to existing ones.”

Beyond the upgraded camera system, Tensor will be central to improving things such as speech recognition and language learning. Details are understandably still thin (the full reveal is happening in the fall, mind), but today’s announcement seems geared toward laying out what the future looks like for a revamped Pixel team — and certainly these sorts of focuses play into precisely what Google ought to be doing in the smartphone space: focusing on its smarts in AI and software.

In May of last year, key members of the Pixel team left Google, pointing to what looked to be a transition for the team. Hardware head Rick Osterloh was reported to have had harsh words at the time.

“AI is the future of our innovation work, but the problem is we’ve run into computing limitations that prevented us from fully pursuing our mission,” Osterloh wrote in today’s post. “So we set about building a technology platform built for mobile that enabled us to bring our most innovative AI and machine learning (ML) to our Pixel users.”

Google gives the world its first official glimpse of the Pixel 6

By Greg Kumparak

While the company isn’t revealing everything about it just yet, this morning Google gave the world its first official peek at its next flagship phone: the Pixel 6.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • It’ll come in two forms: Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
  • The base 6 will have a matte aluminum finish with a 6.4″ display, while the Pro has a shinier polished aluminum finish with a 6.7″.
  • Pixel 6 has two cameras (wide and ultra wide), while the 6 Pro adds a telephoto zoom lens
  • If you were hoping the increasingly common “camera bump” trend was on the way out… not quite. The bump has now evolved into the “camera bar”, with Google’s Rick Osterloh noting that better sensors and lenses just won’t fit in a smaller package.
  • These will be the first phones to run Tensor, Google’s first entirely custom system-on-a-chip. Previous Pixels have run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform. Google CEO Sundar Pichai says they’ve been working on the chip for 4+ years. In a blog post announcing the devices, Osterloh suggests that the focus here is making a chip tuned for on-device AI and ML.
  • They’ll ship sometime “this fall.”

Lots of details, including pricing and much of the spec sheet (CPU, RAM, etc.) are still a mystery for now — though earlier leaks seem to be spot on, so far.

Cloud infrastructure market kept growing in Q2, reaching $42B

By Ron Miller

It’s often said in baseball that a prospect has a high ceiling, reflecting the tremendous potential of a young player with plenty of room to get better. The same could be said for the cloud infrastructure market, which just keeps growing with little sign of slowing down any time soon. The market hit $42 billion in total revenue with all major vendors reporting, up $2 billion from Q1.

Synergy Research reports that the revenue grew at a speedy 39% clip, the fourth consecutive quarter that it has increased. AWS led the way per usual, but Microsoft continued growing at a rapid pace and Google also kept the momentum going.

AWS continues to defy market logic, actually increasing growth by 5% over the previous quarter at 37%, an amazing feat for a company with the market maturity of AWS. That accounted for $14.81 billion in revenue for Amazon’s cloud division, putting it close to a $60 billion run rate, good for a market leading 33% share. While that share has remained fairly steady for a number of years, the revenue continues to grow as the market pie grows ever larger.

Microsoft grew even faster at 51%, and while Microsoft cloud infrastructure data isn’t always easy to nail down, with 20% of market share according to Synergy Research, that puts it at $8.4 billion as it continues to push upward with revenue up from $7.8 billion last quarter.

Google too continued its slow and steady progress under the leadership of Thomas Kurian, leading the growth numbers with a 54% increase in cloud revenue in Q2 on revenue of $4.2 billion, good for 10% market share, the first time Google Cloud has reached double figures in Synergy’s quarterly tracking data. That’s up from $3.5 billion last quarter.

Synergy Research cloud infrastructure market share chart.

Image Credits: Synergy Research

After the Big 3, Alibaba held steady over Q1 at 6% (but will only report this week) with IBM falling a point from Q1 to 4% as Big Blue continues to struggle in pure infrastructure as it makes the transition to more of a hybrid cloud management player.

John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy, says that the big three are spending big to help fuel this growth. “Amazon, Microsoft and Google in aggregate are typically investing over $25 billion in capex per quarter, much of which is going towards building and equipping their fleet of over 340 hyperscale data centers,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile Canalys had similar numbers, but saw the overall market slightly higher at $47 billion. Their market share broke down to Amazon with 31%, Microsoft with 22% and Google with 8% of that total number.

Canalys analyst Blake Murray says that part of the reason companies are shifting workloads to the clouds is to help achieve environmental sustainability goals as the cloud vendors are working toward using more renewable energy to run their massive data centers.

“The best practices and technology utilized by these companies will filter to the rest of the industry, while customers will increasingly use cloud services to relieve some of their environmental responsibilities and meet sustainability goals,” Murray said in a statement.

Regardless of whether companies are moving to the cloud to get out of the data center business or because they hope to piggyback on the sustainability efforts of the big 3, companies are continuing a steady march to the cloud. With some estimates of worldwide cloud usage at around 25%, the potential for continued growth remains strong, especially with many markets still untapped outside the U.S.

That bodes well for the big three and for other smaller operators who can find a way to tap into slices of market share that add up to big revenue. “There remains a wealth of opportunity for smaller, more focused cloud providers, but it can be hard to look away from the eye-popping numbers coming out of the big three,” Dinsdale said.

In fact, it’s hard to see the ceiling for these companies any time in the foreseeable future.

Zoom reaches $85M settlement in ‘Zoombombing’ lawsuit

By Carly Page

Zoom has agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the video conferencing giant of violating users’ privacy by sharing their data with third parties without permission and enabling “Zoombombing” incidents.

Zoombombing, a term coined by TechCrunch last year as its usage exploded because of the pandemic, describes unapproved attendees entering and disrupting Zoom calls by sharing offensive imagery, using backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or spouting slurs and profanities.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2020 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, also accused the firm of sharing personal user data with third parties, including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn.

In addition to agreeing to an $85 million settlement, which could see customers receive a refund of either 15% of their subscription of $25 if the lawsuit achieves class-action status, Zoom has said it will take additional steps to prevent intruders from gatecrashing meetings. This will include alerting users when meeting hosts or other participants use third-party apps in meetings and offering specialized training to employees on privacy and data handling.

“The privacy and security of our users are top priorities for Zoom, and we take seriously the trust our users place in us,” Zoom said in a statement. “We are proud of the advancements we have made to our platform, and look forward to continuing to innovate with privacy and security at the forefront.”

The settlement requires approval from US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, to be finalized.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

This Week in Apps: Instagram restricts teens’ accounts, Elon Musk criticizes App Store fees, Google Play’s new policies

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year over year.

This Week in Apps will finally be a newsletter! It will launch on August 7. Sign up now! 

Top Stories

Google Play updates its policies

Did you hear the one about Google Play banning sugar daddy dating apps? Google this week updated its terms to clarify that apps where users offer sex acts in exchange for money, or “sugar dating,” as the new terms state, are no longer allowed as of September 1, 2021.

More interesting, perhaps, to the larger group of legitimate Android developers is this week’s unveiling of the UI for the upcoming Google Play safety section and the accompanying app labels. The labels will function as the Android counterpart to the app “nutrition labels” the Apple App Store recently introduced. Google is giving developers plenty of time to get used to the idea of increased transparency and disclosure, by offering a detailed timeline of when it expects developers to have their privacy label submissions ready. By April 2022, all developers will need to declare specific info and have a privacy policy.

Developers will have to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.

Apps that don’t disclose won’t be able to list or update until the problems are fixed.

The safety section wasn’t the only Google Play policy news to be announced this week.

Google also reminded developers that it was making a technical change to how advertising IDs work. Now, when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalization, their advertising ID is removed and replaced with a string of zeros. The change, however, is a phased rollout, affecting apps running on Android 12 devices starting late 2021 and expanding to all apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022.

Google also said it will test a new feature that notifies developers and ad/analytics service providers of user opt-out preferences and is prohibiting linking persistent device identifiers to personal and sensitive user data or resettable device identifiers. Kids apps will also not be able to transmit an ad ID.

Another policy update includes a plan to close dormant accounts. Google says if the account is inactive or abandoned after a year, it will be closed. This will include accounts where the developer has never uploaded an app or accessed Google Play Console in a year.

Tools to build accessible experiences will also be locked down, as Google is adding new requirements on how AccessibilityService API and IsAccessibilityTool can be used.

Apple tries to fix the Safari mess

In response to feedback and complaints, Apple is clearly trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change. It re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller, and a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available

On iPad, Safari also reverted back to the traditional separate row of tabs, instead of the new compact experience.

The Refresh button is now permanently showing in the iOS 15 Safari address bar #iOS15DevBeta4 pic.twitter.com/v8AoRB68QI

— Apple Software Updates (@AppleSWUpdates) July 27, 2021

Elon Musk sides with Epic Games

Elon Musk sided with Fortnite maker Epic Games in the Apple App Store antitrust lawsuit, as the Tesla CEO tweeted on Friday that Apple’s App Store fees were “a de facto global tax on the Internet.” The lawsuit alleges Apple is abusing its platform power with how it commissions apps and in-app purchases on its App Store platform — fees that add up to big numbers for a game like Fortnite, which arguably doesn’t need an App Store for discovery, marketing, payments and distribution. But there’s no other way to sell to iOS users today. On Android, apps can at least be sideloaded. It’s not currently clear why Musk has decided to take a stand on the issue, as none of his companies’ apps are dramatically impacted by Apple’s fees at present.

Weekly News

Other Platform News (Apple & Google)

Apple announced plans to end support for a number of SiriKit intents and commands, including those that could impact major apps — like ride-sharing app Uber. In total, there are over 20 SiriKit intent domains that will be deprecated and no longer supported in new and existing OS releases, Apple says.

Apple tweaked the controversial iOS 15 Safari changes in the latest betas (iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, beta 4). The new Safari design had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach but critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the browser itself.

Google this week launched version 1.0 of Jetpack Compose, Android’s new, native UI toolkit aimed at helping developers build better apps faster. The tool had been in beta since March. The new production release is built to integrate with the Jetpack libraries developers already use, and offers an implementation of Material Design components and theming. New features include Compose Preview and Deploy Preview, which require Android Studio Arctic Fox, which is also out now in a stable release.

Google also announced the availability of the CarHardwareManager API via the Android for Cars App Library as part of Jetpack.

E-commerce

Twitter launched a U.S. e-commerce pilot test that will help determine the current appetite for online shopping on its platform. The test allows brands and businesses to feature a “Shop Module” with various products for sale at the top of their Professional Profile, a business-friendly version of a profile page with support for things like an address, hours, phone number and more. Users can click on the Shop Module to go to a retail website and transact. Early testers include Game Stop and Arden Cove. The feature itself is somewhat bare bones for now, as it’s really just an image that launches an in-app browser. That’s not enough to really compete with something like Instagram Shop or Shopify’s Shop and the integrated, native checkout experience those types of app offers.

Fintech

Fintech giant Robinhood raised $2.1 billion in its IPO this week. The IPO valued the trading app at $31.8 billion, making it larger that traditional rivals like Charles Schwab, even though the offering priced at the bottom of its range. The stock dropped 8% during its first day’s trading, however. Robinhood now has 21.3 million MAUs.

PayPal during its second-quarter earnings call announced its new “super app” is now code-complete and ready to roll out. The app will feature early direct deposit, check cashing, high yield savings, budgeting tools, improved bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, buy now, pay later functionality, mobile commerce, and person-to-person messaging features. The latter hadn’t yet been announced and would allow users to chat outside of the payments process.

Code found in Apple’s Wallet app indicates that iOS 15 will require users to verify their identities by taking a selfie when they add their driver’s license or other state identification card to the iPhone.

Social

Instagram announced a series of significant changes to how it handles the accounts of younger teens. The company says it will now default users to private accounts at sign-up if they’re under the age of 16  — or under 18 in certain locales, including in the EU. It will also push existing users under 16 to switch their account to private if they have not already done so. In addition, Instagram is rolling out new technology aimed at reducing unwanted contact from adults — like those who have already been blocked or reported by other teens — and it will change how advertisers can reach its teenage audience. The changes give the company a way to argue to regulators that it’s capable of self-policing as it attempts to roll out a version of Instagram to younger users under the age of 13.

Twitter rolls out an update to its live audio platform, Twitter Spaces, that will make it easier to share the audio room with others. Users will be able to compose a tweet right from the Space that links to the room and includes any accompanying hashtags. iOS users also received new guest management controls for hosts.

Snapchat resolved an outage that was stopping people from logging in on Thursday. Unlike other app blips, which fix themselves often without users’ awareness, Snap told users to manually update their app if the issues continued.

Snapchat also this week added a “My Places” feature to Snap Map, which allows users to log their favorite spots, share them with friends and find recommendations. The feature supports over 30 million businesses and allows Snap to differentiate its map from a utility like Google Maps or Apple Maps, because it’s about personal recommendations from people you know and trust: your friends.

Instagram added support for 60-second videos to its TikTok clone, Reels. Previously, only Reels of up to 30 seconds were supported. Sixty seconds is in line with other platforms like YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight. But TikTok is now inching into YouTube territory, as it recently expanded to support three-minute videos.

TikTok expanded its LIVE platform with a huge lineup of new features including the ability to go live with others, host Q&As, use moderators and improved keyword filters, and more. For viewers, TikTok is adding new discovery and viewing tools, including picture-in-picture mode and ways to jump to LIVE streams from the For You and Following feeds. Some markets, including the U.S. already had access to LIVE Events, but the feature is now expanding. Meanwhile, the co-host feature currently supports going live with one other creator, but TikTok says it’s now testing multiple hosts.

Discord launched a new feature, Threads, which will make it easier to read through longer conversations on busy servers. Now, any server with “Community” features enabled will be able to transform their messages into threaded conversations across mobile and desktop. The threads will be designated by their own subject name and can be created by selecting a new hashtag symbol that appears in the menu when hovering over messages or by pressing the + sign in the chat bar.

Pinterest shares dropped by more than 12% after the company reported its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Despite beating on estimates with revenue of $613.2 million and earnings per share of 25 cents, investors were disappointed by the miss on user growth. The company reported monthly active user growth of just 9% to reach 454 million, when analysts were expecting 482 million. Pinterest blamed COVID impacts for the slowdown. The news follows Pinterest’s launch of new tools for creators to monetize their content, with Ideas Pins — the recently launched video-first format that lets creators show off their work. Now, creators can make their pins “shoppable” and take commissions on those purchases.

Messaging

WhatsApp is testing support for higher image upload quality on iOS devices. The feature was discovered on WhatsApp’s TestFlight version for iOS but is not yet public and offers three options: auto, best quality or data saver.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify’s Clubhouse clone, Greenroom, is off to a slow start. The app has only been downloaded 140,000+ times on iOS and 100,000+ on Android, including installs from its earlier life as Locker Room, an app that Spotify acquired to move into live audio. Meanwhile, Spotify has 365 million monthly active users on its flagship streaming app.

Spotify also reported its Q2 earnings this week, where it posted a $23.6 million loss and failed to reach its forecast for total MAUs, despite growing MAUs 22% YOY to 365 million. It now has 165 million paying subscribers, which is up 20% YOY.

In a change to its app, Spotify added an attention-grabbing “What’s New” feed that offers personalized updates about new releases and new podcast episodes. The feature is available through a notification bell icon and uses a blue dot to indicate when there’s something new to see. Dots like this are a psychological hacks popularized by social apps like Facebook and Instagram to addict users, which could impact user engagement time on Spotify’s app.

Apple’s GarageBand app for iOS and iPadOS now lets you remix tracks from top artists and producers like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. There are also new Producer Packs with beats, loops and instruments created for GarageBand by top producers, including Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch and TRAKGIRL.

Google TV’s mobile app was updated with new services and personalized recommendations, following last fall’s launch of the Google TV user experience for Chromecast devices. The app now sports 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters, and added new providers Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, Boomerang, plus on-demand content from live TV services, including YouTube TV, Philo and fuboTV.

Gaming

Epic Games announced that Fortnite will host another in-game event it’s calling the “Rift Tour,” which kicks off Friday, August 6 and runs through Sunday, August 8. What it hasn’t yet said is what the Rift Tour is, beyond a “musical journey into magical new realities” that will feature a “record-breaking superstar.”

Health & Fitness

Facebook’s Oculus division is exploring an integration of Oculus Workouts with Apple’s Health app, according to the app’s code. An integration would allow users to store their workout data in Health.

Productivity

Usage of mobile video conferencing apps like Zoom grew by 150% in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Sensor Tower. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet saw a surge in usage, collectively climbing to nearly 21x higher than in H1 2019, the firm found.

Google Voice’s app was updated with a few refinements, including a way to see the reason for a missed call or dropped call, and an easy way to redial. iOS users can now show their Google Voice number as their caller ID when they get a calling through a forwarding number. Another change will allow users to delete multiple SMS messages at once.

Edtech

Language learning app Duolingo raised $521 million in its U.S. IPO, priced above the marketed range. The company priced 5.1 million shared at $102, after first marketing them at $95 to $100.

Utilities

Amazon this week rolled out an update to its Alexa iOS app that allows users to add an Alexa widget to their iOS homescreen. The widget lets you tap on a button to speak to the virtual assistant and issue commands. Watch out Siri! (Ha, just kidding.)

Google Maps also updated its iOS app this week to add support for a homescreen widget. There are two different widgets sizes to choose from — one that gives info like weather and traffic, while another is more of a shortcut to nearby places like gas stations, restaurants, work and home.

Google is working on a”Switch to Android” app for iOS users that will copy over data and apps from an iPhone to bring them to a new Android device. Apple already offers a similar app, called “Move to iOS” for Android users.

Transportation

Parking app usage has popped to pre-pandemic levels, Apptopia reported. Apps in this space help users find availability in lots and garages nearby and facilitate payments. Browsing time in apps was up 57% YOY in July, and overall parking app usage is now 6.2% above Jan. 2020 pre-pandemic levels.

Moovit integrated Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds into its transit-planning app that’s live in 117 cities across 20 countries and continents, including the United States, South America, Australia and Europe.

Government & Policy

Tencent’s WeChat suspended new user registrations in China to comply with “relevant laws and regulations.” The move comes amid a broad crackdown on tech companies by Chinese regulators, related to data collection and other harmful practices.

Recently, China ordered Tencent and 13 other developers to fix problems related to pop-ups inside their apps, as part of the tech crackdown. The regulator also said it would tighten controls on misleading and explicit content used for marketing, and issued fines for offensive content to Tencent, Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Security & Privacy

Apple released patches for iOS, iPadOS and macOS to address a zero-day vulnerability that had been exploited in the wild. Apple said the exploit could exploit the vulnerability known as CVE-2021-30807 to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges on a vulnerable and unpatched device.

Google Play Protect failed an Android security test, according to a report from Bleeping Computer. The mobile threat protection solution ranked last out of 15 Android security apps tested over a span of six months, between January to June 2021.

Funding and M&A

💰 Product insights and analytics startup Pendo raised $150 million at a $2.6 billion valuation, ahead of its expected IPO. The round was led by B Capital, the firm from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and included new investor Silver Lake Waterman, alongside existing backers. Pendo’s platform helps companies gather data on how customers use their apps, including clients like Okta, Toast and others.

🤝 Twitter “acqui-hired” the team from subscription news app, Brief, who will now join Twitter’s Experience.org group, which works on Twitter Spaces and Explore. Brief had offered a non-biased news app that allowed you to get both sides of a story and all the necessary facts. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.

💰 Delivery app Gopuff confirmed its $1 billion fundraise at a $15 billion valuation, aimed at expanding its instant delivery service. TechCrunch previously reported the news when the Series H was still being closed.

💰 Indian travel app Ixigo raised $53 million (Rs 395 crore), prepping the business for a valuation of $750 million-$800 million for its upcoming IPO. The round was led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.

💰Mobile-first digital wallet Valora native to the Celo network raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a Celo backer, to become a global gateway to crypto.

💰 Crypto wallet company Eco, backed by a16z, raised $60 million in new funding led by Activant Capital and L Catterton. Eco offers a digital wallet with rewards and no fees, and has average deposits of around $6,000.

💰 Search API startup Algolia, which lets developers integrate real-time search in apps or websites, raised $150 million in Series D funding, valuing the business at $2.25 billion, post-money. The round was led by Lone Pine Capital. Algolia now has over 10,000 customers, including Slack, Stripe, Medium, Zendesk and Lacoste.

💰 Brain Technologies raised $50+ million for Natural, a natural language search engine and super app for iOS, which wants users to stop switching between apps to order food, groceries or go shopping. Backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment.

💰 Messaging app Element, built on the decentralized Matrix protocol, raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding. Investors include open-source R&D lab Protocol Labs and Metaplanet. a fund from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, as well as past investors Automattic and Notion.

💰 Indonesia-based grocery app HappyFresh raised $65 million in Series D funding in a round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V. The app offers an Instacart-like grocery delivery service for parts of Asia, which today operates in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

💰 Indian D2C beauty brand MyGlamm, which sells products through an app and website, raised $71.3 million in Series C financing, from Amazon, Ascent Capital and Wipro.

Downloads

Nanogram

Image Credits: Nanogram

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou may have taken on Apple in legal battles and on Twitter, as he points out the numerous app scams on the App Store, but that hasn’t stopped him from building new apps.

This week, Eleftheriou introduced Nanogram, a Telegram client app that works on the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone connection. Eleftheriou said he was inspired to build Nanogram because he wanted a Telegram app for his LTE Apple Watch and didn’t like the official version that didn’t provide “basic and reliable messaging functionality.” So he built his own app from scratch using the Telegram SDK, which allows you to send, receive and view all your messages and notifications right from your wrist — even if you don’t have your phone nearby. The app also supports Eleftheriou’s FlickType Swipe Keyboard for faster replies while on the go.

Eleftheriou notes the app doesn’t collect any personal information and requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later, running watchOS 7 or later.

Lightricks’ Videoleap for Android

Image Credits: Lightricks

After seeing a 70% yearly increase for its iOS version, Lightricks brought its Videoleap app to the Google Play Store. The app has grown popular with online creators for offering professional quality editing tools on mobile, including those that let you apply artistic effects, mix videos with images, add text and layer transformations and more. The company says Videoleap users are now creating 35 million pieces of content per month, and 47% of users are exporting their creations to TikTok in pursuit of monetizing their content further. The app, like others from Lightricks (which also makes FaceTune and others), monetizes by way of in-app subscriptions.

Tweets

Apple app store fees are a de facto global tax on the Internet. Epic is right.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

There’s a total of *six* different touch targets in the iOS 15 beta 4 tab bar in Safari.

These exclude the ability to long-press the tab bar, swipe across it to change tabs, and swipe it up to open the Tabs view.

I’m…starting to think a single, small toolbar just won’t do. 😬pic.twitter.com/EiD2mekVRL

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 27, 2021

Shortcuts has a new “Return to Home Screen” action in iOS 15 developer beta 4 – this has been long requested from the community and is great to see! pic.twitter.com/8E3ZB7FIYX

— Matthew Cassinelli (@mattcassinelli) July 27, 2021

I've been fascinated to watch the reaction to Safari in iOS 15 because in 2016-2017, I worked on a similar redesign for mobile Chrome that we never launched. Finally decided to tell a bit of that story here: https://t.co/gF4hepQM5V

— Chris Lee (@cleerview) July 25, 2021

something fun & playful our team has been working on. what are *creative* ways we can utilize voice for more engaging convos on Spaces? how would you use these tools?

let’s have fun & learn together🧏🏽‍♂️@RichardPlom @reedm @audgeyaudgey @callmeparri @niw pic.twitter.com/4ZBahxwkDN

— Danny Singh (@Mr_DannySingh) July 22, 2021

Pittsburgh Google contractors ratify deal with HCL

By Brian Heater

Nearly two years ago, contractors for Google’s Pittsburgh operations voted to join the United Steelworkers union in a bid to secure more labor rights representation. It was an early example of a building union movement for tech workers across the spectrum. But as other hard-fought battles have been waged among blue and white collar workers alike, both sides have continued hashing out negotiations. This week, those have finally resulted in something more concrete.

The contract workers held out for what they believed to be similar treatment as others in the tech industry. At the time, it seemed Google was hoping to stay out of the fray with HCL Technologies, the consulting company that staffed the workers.

“We work with lots of partners, many of which have unionized workforces, and many of which don’t,” Google said following the initial union vote. “As with all our partners, whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer. We’ll continue to partner with HCL.”

According to the USW, the 65 Pittsburgh-based workers have ratified the contract with HCL. It’s a three-year-deal that covers working conditions, job security and wages, per a note from the union.

USW Tech Workers Ratify Historic First Contract at HCL https://t.co/VY8XLGThUr

— United Steelworkers (@steelworkers) July 30, 2021

“After close to two years of hard work, patience and solidarity from our members at HCL, we are proud of what we achieved in this agreement,” USW President Tom Conway said in a release tied to the news. “More than ever, our struggle with HCL shows that all workers deserve the protections and benefits of a union contract.”

Last week, with the deal nearing completion, HCL said in a statement provided to The Verge, “Throughout this process, HCL has been actively engaged in meaningful and fair discussions with the USW in good faith. We have been steadfast in our commitment to respect our employees’ right to pursue unionization should they choose to do so.”

In a release issued by USW, however, bargaining committee member Renata Nelson notes some clear tension in the process. “After ignoring our concerns, HCL tried to prevent us from forming a union, and when it failed, the company dragged out the negotiating process while sending our jobs overseas in retaliation,” Parks said in the release. “Now, with a strong union and contract in place, we’re confident that our voices will be heard.”

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

The best way to grow your tech career? Treat it like an app

By Ram Iyer
Raj Yavatkar Contributor
As CTO, Raj Yavatkar is responsible for charting Juniper Networks' technology strategy through the execution of the company’s innovations and products for intelligent self-driving networks, security, mobile edge cloud, network virtualization, packet-optical integration and hybrid cloud.

Software developers and engineers have rarely been in higher demand. Organizations’ need for technical talent is skyrocketing, but the supply is quite limited. As a result, software professionals have the luxury of being very choosy about where they work and usually command big salaries.

In 2020, the U.S. had nearly 1.5 million full-time developers, who earned a median salary of around $110,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the next 10 years, the federal agency estimates, developer jobs will grow by 22% to 316,000.

But what happens after a developer or engineer lands that sweet gig? Are they able to harness their skills and grow in interesting and challenging new directions? Do they understand what it takes to move up the ladder? Are they merely doing a job or cultivating a rewarding professional life?

To put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

These are the kinds of questions that have gnawed at me throughout my 25 years in the tech industry. I’ve long noticed that, to put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

It’s simply not a priority for some. By nature, developers delight in solving complex technical challenges and working hard toward their company’s digital objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither. Charting a career path may feel awkward or they just don’t know how to go about it.

Companies owe it to developers and engineers, and to themselves, to give these key people the tools to understand what it takes to be the best they can be. How else can developers and engineers be assured of continually great experiences while constantly expanding their contributions to their organizations?

Developers delight in solving complex challenges and working hard toward their company’s objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither.

Coaching and mentoring can help, but I think a more formal management system is necessary to get the wind behind the sails of a companywide commitment to making developers and engineers believe that, as the late Andy Grove said, “Your career is your business and you are its CEO.”

That’s why I created a career development model for developers and engineers when I was an Intel Fellow at Intel between 2003 and 2013. This framework has since been put into practice at the three subsequent companies I worked at — Google, VMWare, and, now, Juniper Networks — through training sessions and HR processes.

The model is based on a principle that every developer can relate to: Treat career advancement as you would a software project.

That’s right, by thinking of career development in stages like those used in app production, developers and engineers can gain a holistic view of where they are in their professional lives, where they want to go and the gaps they need to fill.

Step 1: Functional specification

In software development, a team can’t get started until it has a functional specification that describes the app’s requirements and how it is supposed to perform and behave.

Why should a career be any different? In my model, folks begin by assessing the “functionality” expected of someone at their next career level and how they’re demonstrating them (or not). Typically, a person gets promoted to a higher level only when they already demonstrate that they are operating at that level.

EU hits Amazon with record-breaking $887M GDPR fine over data misuse

By Carly Page

Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) has hit Amazon with a record-breaking €746 million ($887m) GDPR fine over the way it uses customer data for targeted advertising purposes.

Amazon disclosed the ruling in an SEC filing on Friday in which it slammed the decision as baseless and added that it intended to defend itself “vigorously in this matter.”

“Maintaining the security of our customers’ information and their trust are top priorities,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “There has been no data breach, and no customer data has been exposed to any third party. These facts are undisputed.

“We strongly disagree with the CNPD’s ruling, and we intend to appeal. The decision relating to how we show customers relevant advertising relies on subjective and untested interpretations of European privacy law, and the proposed fine is entirely out of proportion with even that interpretation.”

The penalty is the result of a 2018 complaint by French privacy rights group La Quadrature du Net, a group that claims to represent the interests of thousands of Europeans to ensure their data isn’t used by big tech companies to manipulate their behavior for political or commercial purposes. The complaint, which also targets Apple, Facebook Google and LinkedIn and was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 customers, alleges that Amazon manipulates customers for commercial means by choosing what advertising and information they receive.

La Quadrature du Net welcomed the fine issued by the CNPD, which “comes after three years of silence that made us fear the worst.”

“The model of economic domination based on the exploitation of our privacy and free will is profoundly illegitimate and contrary to all the values that our democratic societies claim to defend,” the group added in a blog post published on Friday.

The CNPD has also ruled that Amazon must commit to changing its business practices. However, the regulator has not publicly committed on its decision, and Amazon didn’t specify what revised business practices it is proposing.

The record penalty, which trumps the €50 million GDPR penalty levied against Google in 2019, comes amid heightened scrutiny of Amazon’s business in Europe. In November last year, the European Commission announced formal antitrust charges against the company, saying the retailer has misused its position to compete against third-party businesses using its platform. At the same time, the Commission a second investigation into its alleged preferential treatment of its own products on its site and those of its partners.

Facebook’s next product will be its long-awaited Ray-Ban smart glasses

By Matt Burns

Facebook’s booming business is dominated by digital ads, but it also has hardware ambitions beyond VR. During the company’s latest earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said its next product release would be a pair of smart glasses from Ray-Ban.

“The glasses have their iconic form factor, and they let you do some pretty neat things,” the Facebook co-founder said. “So I’m excited to get those into people’s hands and to continue to make progress on the journey toward full augmented reality glasses in the future.”

Facebook’s sunglasses have been the subject of rumors since 2019. Back then, sources told CNBC that Facebook was working with Ray-Ban owner EssilorLuxottica on AR eyewear nicknamed “Orion.” The glasses were billed as a full-fledged phone replacement on which you could take calls, see information and even broadcast livestreams. That inevitably drew comparisons to Google Glass (another Luxottica collab) instead of the phone-tethered Spectacles from Snap. Last year, Hugo Barra, then VP VR at Facebook Reality Labs, confirmed that the glasses would land in 2021. But, we haven’t heard much since.

For Facebook, the glasses hold the key to its future. Alongside virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) is integral to building the “metaverse,” Zuckerberg said. In the future, Facebook will morph into a shared, liveable platform that lets you “teleport” between different social experiences using VR and AR, Zuckerberg explained.

The term metaverse is the latest buzzword seized upon by Silicon Valley and futurists. While the concept has been around for well over a decade, it gained traction after the breakout success of multiplayer game creation platforms like Fortnite and Roblox. Earlier this week, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella mentioned an “enterprise metaverse” on his company’s earnings call.

For Facebook, the metaverse is more than just a fad. The company is spending billions in order to build its shared universe, which will be populated with Facebook users and digital ads, according to Zuckerberg. In order for it to become a reality, the company needs more people to buy its computing hardware. Therefore, the plan is to make those devices more affordable.

“Our business model isn’t going to primarily be around trying to sell devices at a large premium or anything like that because our mission is around serving as many people as possible,” Zuckerberg noted. “So we want to make everything that we do as affordable as possible, so as many people as possible can get into it and then compounds the size of the digital economy inside it. So that’s kind of at a high level how I’m thinking about this.”

Sunglasses aren’t the only hardware Facebook is reportedly working on. Multiple reports have claimed Facebook is developing a smartwatch with a built-in cellular connection and a detachable display. Initially, it was believed that the watch would be first out the gate, but it seems Zuckerberg had other plans.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

European Investment Fund puts $30M in Fabric Ventures’ new $130M digital assets fund

By Mike Butcher

Despite their rich engineering talent, Blockchain entrepreneurs in the EU often struggle to find backing due to the dearth of large funds and investment expertise in the space. But a big move takes place at an EU level today, as the European Investment Fund makes a significant investment into a blockchain and digital assets venture fund.

Fabric Ventures, a Luxembourg-based VC billed as backing the “Open Economy” has closed $130 million for its 2021 fund, $30 million of which is coming from the European Investment Fund (EIF). Other backers of the new fund include 33 founders, partners, and executives from Ethereum, (Transfer)Wise, PayPal, Square, Google, PayU, Ledger, Raisin, Ebury, PPRO, NEAR, Felix Capital, LocalGlobe, Earlybird, Accelerator Ventures, Aztec Protocol, Raisin, Aragon, Orchid, MySQL, Verifone, OpenOcean, Claret Capital, and more. 

This makes it the first EIF-backed fund mandated to invest in digital assets and blockchain technology.

EIF Chief Executive Alain Godard said:  “We are very pleased to be partnering with Fabric Ventures to bring to the European market this fund specializing in Blockchain technologies… This partnership seeks to address the need [in Europe] and unlock financing opportunities for entrepreneurs active in the field of blockchain technologies – a field of particular strategic importance for the EU and our competitiveness on the global stage.”

The subtext here is that the EIF wants some exposure to these new, decentralized platforms, potentially as a bulwark against the centralized platforms coming out of the US and China.

And yes, while the price of Bitcoin has yo-yo’d, there is now $100 billion invested in the decentralized finance sector and $1.5 billion market in the NFT market. This technology is going nowhere.

Fabric hasn’t just come from nowhere, either. Various Fabric Ventures team members have been involved in Orchestream, the Honeycomb Project at Sun Microsystems, Tideway, RPX, Automic, Yoyo Wallet, and Orchid.

Richard Muirhead is Managing Partner, and is joined by partners Max Mersch and Anil Hansjee. Hansjee becomes General Partner after leaving PayPal’s Venture Fund, which he led for EMEA. The team has experience in token design, market infrastructure, and community governance.

The same team started the Firestartr fund in 2012, backing Tray.io, Verse, Railsbank, Wagestream, Bitstamp, and others.

Muirhead said: “It is now well acknowledged that there is a need for a web that is user-owned and, consequently, more human-centric. There are astonishing people crafting this digital fabric for the benefit of all. We are excited to support those people with our latest fund.”

On a call with TechCrunch Muirhead added: “The thing to note here is that there’s a recognition at European Commission level, that this area is one of geopolitical significance for the EU bloc. On the one hand, you have the ‘wild west’ approach of North America, and, arguably, on the other is the surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party.”

He said: “The European Commission, I think, believes that there is a third way for the individual, and to use this new wave of technology for the individual. Also for businesses. So we can have networks and marketplaces of individuals sharing their data for their own benefit, and businesses in supply chains sharing data for their own mutual benefits. So that’s the driving view.”

Twitter shuttering NY, SF offices in response to new CDC guidelines

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Just two weeks after reopening its New York and San Francisco offices, social media giant Twitter said Wednesday that it will be closing those offices “immediately.”

The decision came “after careful consideration of the CDC’s updated guidelines, and in light of current conditions,” a spokesperson said.

“Twitter has made the decision to close our opened offices in New York and San Francisco as well as pause future office reopenings, effective immediately. We’re continuing to closely monitor local conditions and make necessary changes that prioritize the health and safety of our Tweeps,” the spokesperson added.

The company initially just reopened those offices on July 12. It declined to reveal headcount per office.

The CDC this week recommended that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high Covid transmission rates amid concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant.

Earlier today, TechCrunch’s Brian Heater reported that Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the company will require employees to be vaccinated before returning to work on-site. It was part of a larger letter sent to Google/Alphabet staff that also noted the company will be extending its work-from-home policy through October 18, as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to sweep through the global population.

In a message to TechCrunch, Facebook’s VP of People, Lori Goler, confirmed a similar policy for the social media behemoth.

Amazon also responded to TechCrunch’s inquiry on the matter, noting, “We strongly encourage Amazon employees and contractors to be vaccinated as soon as COVID-19 vaccines are available to them.”

Snapchat adds My Places feature to Snap Map, recommending spots to visit

By Amanda Silberling

As more people are venturing out into the world this summer (safely, we hope!), Snapchat wants to make it easier for people to find restaurants, stores, parks and other interesting spots in their neighborhood. Today, Snapchat is starting to roll out the My Places feature on its Snap Map, which connects users with over 30 million businesses. Users can log their favorite spots, send them to friends, and find recommendations.

My Places has three main tabs: visited, favorites and popular. Visited lists places you’ve checked into on Snapchat, and favorites saves, well, your favorites. But the popular tab is particularly interesting because it marks the first time that Snapchat is using an algorithm to provide personalized recommendations to help people engage with the world around them. The algorithm considers where you are, what you’ve tagged or favorited already, and where your friends and other Snapchatters have visited.

This further differentiates the social-forward Snap Map from more established resources like Google Maps and Apple Maps, which you can’t really use to find out what restaurants your friends like. Sure, Snapchat can’t give you directions to that trendy sushi bar, but it’s not meant to, just like how Google Maps isn’t meant to show you what bar all your friends went to without you last night.

Image Credits: Snapchat

Snapchat shared survey results indicating that its users are more likely on average to engage in “post-pandemic” activities (is that a good thing?) and added that 44% of Snapchatters turn to the Snap Map to find places around them that they’re interested in.

With over 250 million monthly active users on Snap Map, the company announced an update in May called Layers, which lets partner companies add data directly to their own map. So far, Snapchat has collaborated with Ticketmaster and The Infatuation, a restaurant recommendation website — these partnerships help users see where they can find live entertainment, or what great restaurants are hidden in plain sight. Snapchat plans to further integrate Layers into Snap Map and My Places later this year.

Last week, Snap announced that during Q2 this year, it grew both revenue and daily active users at the highest rates it has achieved in the last four years. Year over year, the app grew 23%.

Want to work at a Google campus? You’ll need to be vaccinated

By Brian Heater

Even for tech companies who create the tools for remote work, returning to the office is proving a major challenge. After early work-from-home recommendations last March, companies like Google eventually closed up shop, requiring employees to take their work home with them. The intervening year and change have been a fraught balancing act for the company (along with most of the world), which began outlining return-to-work plans for some employees as early as May 2020.

As Delta and other COVID-19 variants threaten anticipated returns to normalcy, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai offered a clearer look at the company’s new normal. In a letter to employees reprinted on the Google Keyword blog, Pichai noted that all employees working out of one of Google’s campuses will need to be vaccinated.

“We’re rolling this policy out in the U.S. in the coming weeks and will expand to other regions in the coming months,” Pichai wrote. “The implementation will vary according to local conditions and regulations, and will not apply until vaccines are widely available in your area.”

Further complicating matters is the second bullet point. While the rise of the Delta variant is extending the company’s work-from-home policy through October 18, it’s not entirely clear what happens after that date (assuming the virus doesn’t force another shift in the goal posts) to unvaccinated employees, who may not be able to work out of a Google office or remotely.

The post does, however, note some exceptions for those unvaccinated for “medical or other protected reasons.” Google hasn’t clarified how it will enforce such exceptions.

“For those of you with special circumstances, we will soon be sharing expanded temporary work options that will allow you to apply to work from home through the end of 2021,” Pichai wrote. “We’re also extending Expanded Carer’s Leave through the end of the year for parents and caregivers.”

Other tech giants like Apple have also pushed back return-to-office plans and implemented mask mandates in retail stores as restrictions have gone into effect amid increasing COVID-19 rates. Others, including Facebook, are sticking with original fall reopening plans.

“Expert guidelines state that vaccines are highly effective at preventing variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant,” a spokesperson for the social media giant recently told The Wall Street Journal. “Our timelines to reopen our offices haven’t changed.”

DeepMind puts the entire human proteome online, as folded by AlphaFold

By Devin Coldewey

DeepMind and several research partners have released a database containing the 3D structures of nearly every protein in the human body, as computationally determined by the breakthrough protein folding system demonstrated last year, AlphaFold. The freely available database represents an enormous advance and convenience for scientists across hundreds of disciplines and domains, and may very well form the foundation of a new phase in biology and medicine.

The AlphaFold Protein Structure Database is a collaboration between DeepMind, the European Bioinformatics Institute, and others, and consists of hundreds of thousands of protein sequences with their structures predicted by AlphaFold — and the plan is to add millions more to create a “protein almanac of the world.”

“We believe that this work represents the most significant contribution AI has made to advancing the state of scientific knowledge to date, and is a great example of the kind of benefits AI can bring to society,” said DeepMind founder and CEO Demis Hassabis.

From genome to proteome

If you’re not familiar with proteomics in general — and it’s quite natural if that’s the case — the best way to think about this is perhaps in terms of another major effort: that of sequencing the human genome. As you may recall from the late ’90s and early ’00s, this was a huge endeavor undertaken by a large group of scientists and organizations across the globe and over many years. The genome, finished at last, has been instrumental to the diagnosis and understanding of countless conditions, and in the development of drugs and treatments for them.

It was, however, just the beginning of the work in that field — like finishing all the edge pieces of a giant puzzle. And one of the next big projects everyone turned their eyes toward in those years was understanding the human proteome — which is to say all the proteins used by the human body and encoded into the genome.

The problem with the proteome is that it’s much, much more complex. Proteins, like DNA, are sequences of known molecules; in DNA these are the handful of familiar bases (adenine, guanine, etc), but in proteins they are the 20 amino acids (each of which is coded by multiple bases in genes). This in itself creates a great deal more complexity, but it’s only the start. The sequences aren’t simply “code” but actually twist and fold into tiny molecular origami machines that accomplish all kinds of tasks within our body. It’s like going from binary code to a complex language that manifests objects in the real world.

Practically speaking this means that the proteome is made up of not just 20,000 sequences of hundreds of acids each, but that each one of those sequences has a physical structure and function. And one of the hardest parts of understanding them is figuring out what shape is made from a given sequence. This is generally done experimentally using something like x-ray crystallography, a long, complex process that may take months or longer to figure out a single protein — if you happen to have the best labs and techniques at your disposal. The structure can also be predicted computationally, though the process has never been good enough to actually rely on — until AlphaFold came along.

Taking a discipline by surprise

Without going into the whole history of computational proteomics (as much as I’d like to), we essentially went from distributed brute-force tactics 15 years ago — remember Folding@home? — to more honed processes in the last decade. Then AI-based approaches came on the scene, making a splash in 2019 when DeepMind’s AlphaFold leapfrogged every other system in the world — then made another jump in 2020, achieving accuracy levels high enough and reliable enough that it prompted some experts to declare the problem of turning an arbitrary sequence into a 3D structure solved.

I’m only compressing this long history into one paragraph because it was extensively covered at the time, but it’s hard to overstate how sudden and complete this advance was. This was a problem that stumped the best minds in the world for decades, and it went from “we maybe have an approach that kind of works, but extremely slowly and at great cost” to “accurate, reliable, and can be done with off the shelf computers” in the space of a year.

Examples of protein structures predicted by AlphaFold

Image Credits: DeepMind

The specifics of DeepMind’s advances and how it achieved them I will leave to specialists in the fields of computational biology and proteomics, who will no doubt be picking apart and iterating on this work over the coming months and years. It’s the practical results that concern us today, as the company employed its time since the publication of AlphaFold 2 (the version shown in 2020) not just tweaking the model, but running it… on every single protein sequence they could get their hands on.

The result is that 98.5 percent of the human proteome is now “folded,” as they say, meaning there is a predicted structure that the AI model is confident enough (and importantly, we are confident enough in its confidence) represents the real thing. Oh, and they also folded the proteome for 20 other organisms, like yeast and E. coli, amounting to about 350,000 protein structures total. It’s by far — by orders of magnitude — the largest and best collection of this absolutely crucial information.

All that will be made available as a freely browsable database that any researcher can simply plug a sequence or protein name into and immediately be provided the 3D structure. The details of the process and database can be found in a paper published today in the journal Nature.

“The database as you’ll see it tomorrow, it’s a search bar, it’s almost like Google search for protein structures,” said Hassabis in an interview with TechCrunch.”You can view it in the 3D visualizer, zoom around it, interrogate the genetic sequence… and the nice thing about doing it with EMBL-EBI is it’s linked to all their other databases. So you can immediately go and see related genes, And it’s linked to all these other databases, you can see related genes, related in other organisms, other proteins that have related functions, and so on.”

Image Credits: DeepMind

“As a scientist myself, who works on an almost unfathomable protein,” said EMBL-EBI’s Edith Heard (she didn’t specify what protein), “it’s really exciting to know that you can find out what the business end of a protein is now, in such a short time — it would have taken years. So being able to access the structure and say ‘aha, this is the business end,’ you can then focus on trying to work out what that business end does. And I think this is accelerating science by steps of years, a bit like being able to sequence genomes did decades ago.”

So new is the very idea of being able to do this that Hassabis said he fully expects the entire field to change — and change the database along with it.

“Structural biologists are not yet used to the idea that they can just look up anything in a matter of seconds, rather than take years to experimentally determine these things,” he said. “And I think that should lead to whole new types of approaches to questions that can be asked and experiments that can be done. Once we start getting wind of that, we may start building other tools that cater to this sort of serendipity: What if I want to look at 10,000 proteins related in a particular way? There isn’t really a normal way of doing that, because that isn’t really a normal question anyone would ask currently. So I imagine we’ll have to start producing new tools, and there’ll be demand for that once we start seeing how people interact with this.”

That includes derivative and incrementally improved versions of the software itself, which has been released in open source along with a great deal of development history. Already we have seen an independently developed system, RoseTTAFold, from researchers at the University of Washington’s Baker Lab, which extrapolated from AlphaFold’s performance last year to create something similar yet more efficient — though DeepMind seems to have taken the lead again with its latest version. But the point was made that the secret sauce is out there for all to use.

Practical magic

Although the prospect of structural bioinformaticians attaining their fondest dreams is heartwarming, it is important to note that there are in fact immediate and real benefits to the work DeepMind and EMBL-EBI have done. It is perhaps easiest to see in their partnership with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Institute.

The DNDI focuses, as you might guess, on diseases that are rare enough that they don’t warrant the kind of attention and investment from major pharmaceutical companies and medical research outfits that would potentially result in discovering a treatment.

“This is a very practical problem in clinical genetics, where you have a suspected series of mutations, of changes in an affected child, and you want to try and work out which one is likely to be the reason why our child has got a particular genetic disease. And having widespread structural information, I am almost certain will improve the way we can do that,” said DNDI’s Ewan Birney in a press call ahead of the release.

Ordinarily examining the proteins suspected of being at the root of a given problem would be expensive and time-consuming, and for diseases that affect relatively few people, money and time are in short supply when they can be applied to more common problems like cancers or dementia-related diseases. But being able to simply call up the structures of ten healthy proteins and ten mutated versions of the same, insights may appear in seconds that might otherwise have taken years of painstaking experimental work. (The drug discovery and testing process still takes years, but maybe now it can start tomorrow for Chagas disease instead of in 2025.)

Illustration of RNA polymerase II ( a protein) in action in yeast.

Lest you think too much is resting on a computer’s prediction of experimentally unverified results, in another, totally different case, some of the painstaking work had already been done. John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, with whom DeepMind partnered for another potential use case, explained how this affected his team’s work on plastic decomposition.

“When we first sent our seven sequences to the DeepMind team, for two of those we already had experimental structures. So we were able to test those when they came back, and it was one of those moments, to be honest, when the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” said McGeehan. “Because the structures that they produced were identical to our crystal structures. In fact, they contained even more information than the crystal structures were able to provide in certain cases. We were able to use that information directly to develop faster enzymes for breaking down plastics. And those experiments are already underway, immediately. So the acceleration to our project here is, I would say, multiple years.”

The plan is to, over the next year or two, make predictions for every single known and sequenced protein — somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred million. And for the most part (the few structures not susceptible to this approach seem to make themselves known quickly) biologists should be able to have great confidence in the results.

Inspecting molecular structure in 3D has been possible for decades, but finding that structure in the first place is difficult.

The process AlphaFold uses to predict structures is, in some cases, better than experimental options. And although there is an amount of uncertainty in how any AI model achieves its results, Hassabis was clear that this is not just a black box.

“For this particular case, I think explainability was not just a nice-to-have, which often is the case in machine learning, but it was a must-have, given the seriousness of what we wanted it to be used for,” he said. “So I think we’ve done the most we’ve ever done on a particular system to make the case with explainability. So there’s both explainability on a granular level on the algorithm, and then explainability in terms of the outputs, as well the predictions and the structures, and how much you should or shouldn’t trust them, and which of the regions are the reliable areas of prediction.”

Nevertheless his description of the system as “miraculous” attracted my special sense for potential headline words. Hassabis said that there’s nothing miraculous about the process itself, but rather that he’s a bit amazed that all their work has produced something so powerful.

“This was by far the hardest project we’ve ever done,” he said. “And, you know, even when we know every detail of how the code works, and the system works, and we can see all the outputs, it’s still just still a bit miraculous when you see what it’s doing… that it’s taking this, this 1D amino acid chain and creating these beautiful 3D structures, a lot of them aesthetically incredibly beautiful, as well as scientifically and functionally valuable. So it was more a statement of a sort of wonder.”

Fold after fold

The impact of AlphaFold and the proteome database won’t be felt for some time at large, but it will almost certainly — as early partners have testified — lead to some serious short-term and long-term breakthroughs. But that doesn’t mean that the mystery of the proteome is solved completely. Not by a long shot.

As noted above, the complexity of the genome is nothing compared to that of the proteome at a fundamental level, but even with this major advance we have only scratched the surface of the latter. AlphaFold solves a very specific, though very important problem: given a sequence of amino acids, predict the 3D shape that sequence takes in reality. But proteins don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of a complex, dynamic system in which they are changing their conformation, being broken up and reformed, responding to conditions, the presence of elements or other proteins, and indeed then reshaping themselves around those.

In fact a great deal of the human proteins AlphaFold gave only a middling level of confidence to its predictions for may be fundamentally “disordered” proteins that are too variable to pin down the way a more static one can be (in which case the prediction would be validated as a highly accurate predictor for that type of protein). So the team has its work cut out for it.

“It’s time to start looking at new problems,” said Hassabis. “Of course, there are many, many new challenges. But the ones you mentioned, protein interaction, protein complexes, ligand binding, we’re working actually on all these things, and we have early, early stage projects on all those topics. But I do think it’s worth taking, you know, a moment to just talk about delivering this big step… it’s something that the computational biology community’s been working on for 20, 30 years, and I do think we have now broken the back of that problem.”

Spotify partners with GIPHY to connect users with artists’ music via GIFs

By Sarah Perez

Spotify announced this morning a new partnership with online GIF database GIPHY to enable discovery of new music through GIFs. No, the GIFs themselves won’t play song clips, if that’s what you’re thinking. Instead, through a series of new Spotify-linked GIFs, there will be an option to click a button to be taken to Spotify directly to hear the artist’s music. At launch, artists including Doja CatThe WeekndPost MaloneNicki MinajThe Kid LAROIConan Gray and others will have Spotify-linked GIFs available on their official GIPHY profile page. More artists will be added over time.

The idea behind the new integration is to help connect users with Spotify music from their everyday communications, like texts, group chats and other places where GIFs are used. This is similar to Spotify’s existing integrations with social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram, where users can share music through the Stories and messages they post. Essentially, it’s a user acquisition strategy that leverages online social activities — in this case, sharing GIFs — while also benefiting the artists through the exposure they receive.

You can find the new Spotify-linked GIFs on the artist’s page on GIPHY.com or through GIPHY’s mobile app. The supported GIFs will include a new “Listen on Spotify” button at the bottom which will appear alongside the GIF when it’s shared. When clicked, users are redirected from the GIF to the artist’s page on Spotify, where they can stream their music or browse to discover more songs they want to hear.

Image Credits: Spotify/GIPHY

Spotify says the feature is part of a broader partnership it has with GIPHY, which will later focus on bringing a more interactive listening experience to users.

The move to partner with GIPHY follows a recent expansion of the existing partnership between Spotify and GIPHY’s parent company, Facebook. The social networking giant bought the popular GIF platform in a deal worth a reported $400 million back in 2020, a couple years after Google snatched up GIPHY rival, Tenor. Since then, Facebook has worked to better integrate GIPHY with its apps, like Facebook and Instagram.

Earlier this year, Facebook and Spotify had also teamed up on a new “Boombox” project that allows Facebook users to listen to music hosted on Spotify while browsing the Facebook app. This is powered by a “miniplayer” that allows anyone who comes across the shared music to click to play the content while they scroll their feed.

Spotify says the new feature will be available to users globally from verified GIPHY artists’ pages.

Untitled Ventures joins the scramble for Russian & Eastern European startups with a $118M warchest

By Mike Butcher

Sorry Mr. Putin, but there’s a race on for Russian and Eastern European founders. And right now, those awful capitalists in the corrupt West are starting to out-gun the opposition! But seriously… only the other day a $100 million fund aimed at Russian speaking entrepreneurs appeared, and others are proliferating.

Now, London-based Untitled Ventures plans to join their fray with a €100 million / $118M for its second fund to invest in “ambitious deep tech startups with eastern European founders.”

Untitled says it is aiming at entrepreneurs who are looking to relocate their business or have already HQ’ed in Western Europe and the USA. That’s alongside all the other existing Western VCs who are – in my experience – always ready and willing to listen to Russian and Eastern European founders, who are often known for their technical prowess.

Untitled is going to be aiming at B2B, AI, agritech, medtech, robotics, and data management startups with proven traction emerging from the Baltics, CEE, and CIS, or those already established in Western Europe

LPs in the fund include Vladimir Vedeenev, a founder of Global Network Management>. Untitled also claims to have Google, Telegram Messenger, Facebook, Twitch, DigitalOcean, IP-Only, CenturyLinks, Vodafone and TelecomItaly as partners.

Oskar Stachowiak, Untitled Ventures Managing Partner, said: “With over 10 unicorns, €1Bn venture funding in 2020 alone, and success stories like Veeam, Semrush, and Wrike, startups emerging from the fast-growing regions are the best choice to focus on early-stage investment for us. Thanks to the strong STEM focus in the education system and about one million high-skilled developers, we have an ample opportunity to find and support the rising stars in the region.”

Konstantin Siniushin, the Untitled Ventures MP said: “We believe in economic efficiency and at the same time we fulfill a social mission of bringing technological projects with a large scientific component from the economically unstable countries of the former USSR, such as, first of all, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but not only in terms of bringing sales to the world market and not only helping them to HQ in Europe so they can get next rounds of investments.”

He added: “We have a great experience accumulated earlier in the first portfolio of the first fund, not just structuring business in such European countries as, for example, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Cyprus and Latvia, but also physically relocating startup teams so that they are perceived already as fully resident in Europe and globally.”

To be fair, it is still harder than it needs to be to create large startups from Eastern Europe, mainly because there is often very little local capital. However, that is changing, with the launch recently of CEE funds such as Vitosha Venture Partners and Launchub Ventures, and the breakout hit from Romania that was UIPath.

The Untitled Ventures team:
• Konstantin Siniushin, a serial tech entrepreneur
• Oskar Stachowiak, experienced fund manager
• Mary Glazkova, PR & Comms veteran
• Anton Antich, early stage investor and an ex VP of Veeam, a Swiss cloud data management company
acquired by Insight Venture Partners for $5bln
• Yulia Druzhnikova, experienced in taking tech companies international
• Mark Cowley, who has worked on private and listed investments within CEE/Russia for over 20 years

Untitled Ventures portfolio highlights – Fund I
Sizolution: AI-driven size prediction engine, based in Germany
Pure app – spontaneous and impersonal dating app, based in Portugal
Fixar Global –  efficient drones for commercial use-cases, based in Latvia,
E-contenta – based in Poland
SuitApp – AI based mix-and-match suggestions for fashion retail, based in Singapore
• Sarafan.tech, AI-driven recognition, based in the USA
Hello, baby – parental assistant, based in the USA
Voximplant – voice, video and messaging cloud communication platform, based in the USA (exited)

YouTube to pilot test shopping from livestreams with select creators

By Sarah Perez

YouTube will begin pilot testing a new feature that will allow viewers to shop for products directly from livestream videos. The feature will initially launch with just a handful of creators and brands, the company says, and is an expansion of the integrated shopping experience YouTube began beta testing earlier this year.

That feature was designed only for on-demand videos, and allowed viewers to tap into the “credibility and knowledge” of trusted creators in order to make informed purchases, the company explained at the time. It said it would roll out to more creators over the course of 2021.

More recently, YouTube tested livestreamed shopping with a one-day shopping event focused on small businesses.

YouTube’s video platform, for years, has been a powerful tool for product discovery, as its over 2 billion logged-in users per month turn to the service to watch product reviews, demos, unboxings, shopping hauls, and other content that could inspire future purchases. But creators who wanted to sell from their YouTube videos would often have to promote affiliate links to online stores through the video’s description or in-video elements, like cards or end screens.

In more recent years, YouTube also introduced a merch shelf that would allow viewers to shop a set of specific products the creator selected.

The integrated shopping experience, meanwhile, allows viewers to shop the products shown in the video itself by tapping on a “view products” button, which brings up a list of the items being featured.

Image Credits: YouTube

This feature allows YouTube to better compete with the growing number of video shopping experiences becoming available from both startups and competitors, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok Pinterest, Amazon, and Snapchat. Many of those include support for livestream videos, too.

Over the past year, for example, startups like Bambuser, Popshop Live, Talkshoplive, Whatnot, and others have raised multi-million dollar rounds to invest in their own live video shopping businesses. Meanwhile, Facebook recently launched Live Shopping Fridays to test live shopping within the beauty, fashion and skincare space. And Walmart partnered with TikTok on livestream shopping events on multiple occasions.

YouTube’s own interest in this space has been heating up, as well, as just this week the company announced it was acquiring Indian video shopping app Simsim — an indication of Google’s interest in further integrating video shopping experiences into its own platform. Google also integrated video shopping into its Shopping search business, which included one effort from Shoploop, a video shopping product that graduated from Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120.

 

The expansion of YouTube’s integrated video shopping experience was announced today alongside other new Google Shopping features, including the addition of new section that organizes deals and sales on Google’s Shopping tab, which will be free for merchants who want to list.

Biden taps Google critic to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration tripled down on its commitment to reining in powerful tech companies Tuesday, proposing committed Big Tech critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is a lawyer with a long track record of representing smaller companies like Yelp in antitrust cases against Google. He currently practices law at his own firm, which specializes in advocacy for state and federal antitrust enforcement.

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House press release stated. Progressives celebrated the nomination as a win, though some of Biden’s new antitrust hawks have enjoyed support from both political parties.

Jonathan Kanter's nomination to lead @TheJusticeDept’s Antitrust Division is tremendous news for workers and consumers. He’s been a leader in the fight to check consolidated corporate power and strengthen competition in our markets. https://t.co/mLQACA0c4j

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 20, 2021

The Justice Department already has a major antitrust suit against Google in the works. The lawsuit, filed by Trump’s own Justice Department, accuses the company of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” through anti-competitive practices in its search and search advertising businesses. If successfully confirmed, Kanter would be positioned to steer the DOJ’s big case against Google.

In a 2016 NYT op-ed, Kanter argued that Google is notorious for relying on an anti-competitive “playbook” to maintain its market dominance. Kanter pointed to Google’s long history of releasing free ad-supported products and eventually restricting competition through “discriminatory and exclusionary practices” in a given corner of the market.

Kanter is just the latest high-profile Big Tech critic that’s been elevated to a major regulatory role under Biden. Last month, Biden named fierce Amazon critic Lina Khan as FTC chair upon her confirmation to the agency. In March, Biden named another noted Big Tech critic, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for tech and competition policy.

All signs point to the Biden White House gearing up for a major federal fight with Big Tech. Congress is working on a set of Big Tech bills, but in lieu of — or in tandem with — legislative reform, the White House can flex its own regulatory muscle through the FTC and DOJ.

In new comments to MSNBC, the White House confirmed that it is also “reviewing” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a potent snippet of law that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content.

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