Part of the challenge in seeking out an effective treatment for COVID-19 is simply one of scale – protein folding is key to understanding how the virus that causes COVID-19 attaches to health cells in order to infect them. Modeling said folding gets a big boost from distributed computing efforts like the Folding@home global program, which employs even consumer computers as processing nodes to tackle big problems. Microsoft is testing pre-packed, shipping container-sized data centres that can be spun up on demand and run deep under the ocean’s surface fo sustainable, high-efficiency and cool operation to contribute to such efforts in a big way, and it’s now using one in Scotland to model viral proteins that lead to COVID-19.
This research project isn’t new for Microsoft – it’s been operating the data center at a depth of 117 feet for two years now. But the shift of its focus to COVID-19 represents a new development, and is obviously a response to the imminent need for more advances around our understanding of the SARS-CoV-19 virus and potential therapies that we could use to treat or prevent it from infecting people.
Within the tubular submerged datacenter are 864 servers, providing significant computing power. The idea of packing them into a submersible tube is intended to provide efficiencies in terms of operating temperatures. Cooling and thermal management is essential for any high-capacity processing equipment, since all that computing power generates a tremendous amount of heat. It’s why you see such elaborate cooling equipment in high-performance gaming PC builds, and it’s doubly crucial when you’re operating at the level of the data center. Deep underwater, the thermal environment provides natural cooling that allows processors to run consistently at higher speeds, without the need to pump more energy in to run fans or more elaborate liquid cooling systems.
Should this project, which Microsoft has dubbed “Natick,” work as designed, future distributed computing projects could benefit immensely from the on-demand deployment of a number of these distributed sea-floor data centers.
Corporate harassment training is often defined by mandatory annual workshops, stock photo-ridden curriculam and, often, outdated scenarios. Harvard graduates Roxanne Petraeus and Anne Solmssen think there’s a business in doing better than that.
The duo co-founded Ethena, a software-as-a-service startup that sells anti-harassment training software that is more comprehensive and flexible than the status quo.
Ethena sends “nudges,” or personalized short-form bits of training content, to employees throughout the year. One nudge could be about office dating, and a few weeks later, another nudge could be about mentorship.
Each month a user would get either an e-mail or Slack notification saying it is time to train. Then the user would go to a browser-based app and take a lesson, which depends on your managerial status, state of residence and other factors. The sessions would then be five to 10 minutes.
The distributed approach takes away the ability for an employee to front-load hours of training on their first week. Instead, Ethena’s consistent check-ins are aiming at a difficult metric to track: comprehension within compliance training.
“The reason we do that is because in the adult learning base it is pretty emphatic that repetition is crucial,” Petraeus said.
This format also gives the company a chance to adapt its content to the world users are living in. Ethena’s content has to follow a certain curriculum based on state law, but, it can add its own flavor. For example, when COVID-19 became a serious threat, Ethena was able to send users training in regards to online harassment and cyberbullying. Old curricula might not account for what Zoom harassment might look like.
Petraeus said of the examples users see in the software, “it makes no sense to have Jim and Jan go to a bar if that’s not the environment we are in.”
Athena also works as a replacement for in-person anti-harassment workshops during COVID-19 and resulting shelter-in-place orders. As offices continue to remain shut down, companies need to find new ways to talk about issues that are not going away.
Efficacy of anti-harassment training is hard to track with numbers. If a company tried to measure Ethena’s efficacy with data around the number of harassment reports filed before and after the software was used, it presumes that victims are choosing to report in the first place. Victims, for a variety of reasons, often don’t report due to fear of retaliation or inaction.
For the co-founders, a lack of hard data about whether their software works meant that they had to find another way to pitch to customers.
“It would be really irresponsible to just kind of bank on ‘everyone will believe in this mission with us,’ ” said Petraeus. “We read the newspaper; that will not happen.”
Instead, the co-founders think that sweeping training regulations and legal obligations might be what force companies to onboard more intensive software.
“We keep companies in a legally, very safe position because their employees are always sort of ahead of what they need to stay compliant with state regulations,” Solmssen said. “We’re able to become a part of the fabric of everyday thinking and behavior for employees.”
Long term, Ethena is working with a peer-reviewed journal to see if effective anti-harassment training can be related to higher retention rates in companies.
The company envisions early adopters to be small companies that are scaling. It charges companies per seat, which comes out to $4 per employee per month, and $48 per employee per year.
Petraeus and Solmssen piloted the program in November 2019 and launched in January. Today, the startup told TechCrunch they have raised $2 million in seed funding led by GSV, with participation from Homebrew, Village Global and more. It has 50 customers.
Real estate is one of those classic industries we always talk about in Silicon Valley: multi-trillion dollars in scale in terms of assets and transaction volume, but still relying on good ole’ pen and paper to get anything actually done. A huge number of companies have launched to digitize all aspects of real estate, from calculating valuations to monitoring operational costs and underwriting mortgages.
One of those companies is New York City-based Spruce, which was founded back in 2016 to digitize the prodigious paperwork that must be completed during a real estate transaction, including handling title, ensuring all closing docs are completed, and monitoring compliance in every geographical jurisdiction they operate in. The company raised a cumulative $19.1 million in Series A funding across two tranches (my colleague Jon Shieber covered the first tranche back in 2017), and now it is poised for even more growth.
The company is announcing today that it has added $29 million in growth capital led by Alex Niehenke at Scale Venture Partners, with Zigg Capital and Bessemer participating. Niehenke has previously funded companies like Root Insurance, which is focused on offering more competitive car insurance based on realistic data from drivers.
That seems to be roughly the same thesis here with Spruce — better data and digitalization can massively improve the quality and efficiency of legacy industries.
“Instead of using local offices with manual communication and manual processes, we provide [our clients] with API’s that allow them to scale effectively and to provide great digital experiences to their customers,” said Patrick Burns, the cofounder and CEO of the company. Burns had previously done product at wealth management startup Betterment, where he also met his cofounder Andrew Weisgall.
It can be bewildering how all the startups in real estate tech fit together, but this one is simple. Spruce wants to be the workflow tool for real estate transactions, which means that they don’t underwrite mortgages or handle valuations themselves directly. Rather, the platforms wants to be the central nervous system between buyers, sellers, lenders, and all the coterie of other services required to get a transaction closed. The company handles all kinds of transactions from new home purchases by families to investor-to-investor sales.
What’s interesting is that they have two streams of revenue according to Burns. First, they take a closing fee, which is customary in real estate transactions. Spruce argues that its efficiency cuts the price of closing a transaction, ultimately saving its clients money. Second, the company earns a premium as the agent of record for the title insurance policy agreed to in the transaction, which provides a continual stream of revenue from its clients. Similar to closing fees, title insurance broker fees are customary in the industry.
It’s a pretty clear value proposition, and that’s helped it grow transaction volume dramatically. According to the company, it has processed $1.25 billion of transactions on its platform, and its revenue has grown 400% annually. With roughly five million existing homes sold in the U.S. each month, that’s still an exiguous chunk of the market.
The global pandemic underway right now has taken a massive bite out of real estate transactions, particularly for homes, since buyers mostly can’t attend showings due to social distancing policies. The upshot is that those same social distancing policies have also scrambled the traditional real estate closing, which required passels of attorneys and others to work together to get all documents signed. Spruce — and other digitalization startups in the space — are poised to transition more of that legacy paperwork onto their platforms as industry players look for online approaches.
Burns says the capital will be used to expand Spruce’s product and client partnerships. The company currently has three operations “hubs” in New York, Texas, and California.
Meal delivery service Home Chef has confirmed a data breach, two weeks after a data breach seller listed a database of 8 million customer records on a dark web marketplace.
The Chicago-based company said customer names, email addresses and phone numbers were taken in the breach, along with scrambled passwords. The hackers also took the last four digits of its customers’ credit card numbers and mailing addresses, the company said.
But the company said not all customers are affected, and that it would reach out to those whose information was taken.
News of the breach was first reported by Bleeping Computer.
It comes almost two weeks after a data breach seller, named Shiny Hunters, published marketplace listings of 11 companies — including Home Chef. The listings are purportedly selling customer databases for several other large companies, including 30 million records allegedly taken from dating site Zoosk.
Although most of the companies have yet to acknowledge a breach, the Chronicle of Higher Education at Chapman University said it was aware of the dark web postings. Printing service Chatbooks also confirmed it was hacked.
Last year, a hacker known as Gnosticplayers stole close to one billion records records from dozens of websites, including 151 million user records from MyFitnessPal and 57 million user records from Houzz.
With more than 1,200 employees distributed across over 65 countries and a valuation of nearly $3 billion, GitLab is one of the world’s most successful fully remote startups.
Describing it as a textbook example of a remote company would be redundant, because the company actually wrote a textbook about it.
I recently had a chance to talk to GitLab’s head of Remote, Darren Murph, who filled me in on how they get stuff done, his advice for all the companies that had to suddenly shift to remote work and why GitLab gets rid of all its Slack messages after 90 days. (Fun fact: Darren wrote for TechCrunch’s corporate cousin Engadget in a past life, where he earned a Guinness World Record for writing an absolutely ridiculous number of posts.)
Darren and I chatted for quite a while, so I’ve split the transcript into two parts for easier reading. Part two coming tomorrow!
TechCrunch: So your official title is “Head of Remote.” What does that entail?
Darren Murph: It’s three things.
It’s telling our remote story to the world, it’s making sure that people who join the company acclimate to working in an all-remote setting and it’s building out the educational piece. The “all-remote” section of our handbook has dozens of guides on how we do everything remotely, from async, to meetings, to hiring and compensation, and I’m the author of all of that.
We do that to better the world; we put it all out there, it’s open source. We want other companies to read it, implement it and use it. We never saw COVID coming, but I kind of knew that down the road [this handbook] would be necessary. Thankfully, I started working on it in advance. Now that the world needs it… it’s been crazy. We packaged up our best thinking in that remote playbook, and it’s just been off the charts with companies downloading it. It’s been wild.
Why did GitLab go remote in the first place?
It was remote by default. The first three people to join the company were in three different countries… so the only way to do it was through the internet.
The one brief moment in time where there was a co-located wrinkle to the company… they’d moved to California for Y Combinator. I think there was like nine or 10 people at the time. Of course, coming out of Y Combinator, at the time, you just get an office — it’s just what you did.
I think that lasted about three days. Then people just stopped showing up.
But work kept getting done! Because even in the office they were just communicating on… whatever it was at the time. It probably wasn’t Slack, I don’t think Slack existed.
My colleagues and I published a couple of different views on the future of “work from home” and remote work last Friday — a story that, if analytics is any sign, really struck a nerve with many of you.
That shouldn’t be surprising particularly in the tech industry, where knowledge work fundamentally means we spend the vast majority of our time in an “office.” Everything from minor annoyances (they cut down the size of the Klondike bars in the mini-kitchen!) to massive complaints (I am trying to think through a complex ML algorithm as my open-office colleagues are having a Nerf war!) is magnified given the time we spend in these environments.
Understandably, the mandatory Work From Home situation that many of us find ourselves in is not ideal. Schools are closed, kids are home, internet is wonky since everyone else is home, the dog sitter isn’t coming and there are no cafés to find sojourn. It’s not surprising then that there is something of a popular revulsion and revolt to the whole WFH notion, even as large tech companies like Twitter say they will permanently offer Work From Home as an option.
That’s selling short what is really taking place though. “Work From Home” is terrible branding, precisely because it fails to communicate the fundamental freedom that comes with these new policies. It’s not about further imprisoning us in our homes — it’s about empowering us to think and work exactly where we are personally most productive.
Yes, I know that most of us are sequestered in our humble abodes due to COVID-19, but long-term, the whole point of the flexibility that “Work From Home” provides is precisely that you can work from anywhere. It may be your home — but it may as well be a café, the hospital where a sick family member is located, a beach, a friend’s house, a hotel. The point of flexibility here is to untether our schedules and the stress associated with them and allow our work to happen where we want it to.
Many of us will choose to work from home, and many of us will habitually return to the same working environment each day even if it isn’t our home. That’s fine. Flexibility doesn’t mean constantly changing everything up — it means we can change things when we want and need to.
One big question that has loomed over “Work From Home” policies is this: What if I like my office and the social life of meeting with colleagues? Again, we see the narrowness of the language. “Work From Anywhere” literally means anywhere, including the very office we would normally commute to.
Flexibility means adapting our schedules and our locations for the kinds of knowledge work we are trying to do. Some days are all meetings as we try to coordinate a number of projects. Some days we need to shut out the world and just dive down into writing our novels, or developing a new algorithm, or putting together that big presentation for the all-hands meeting next week. Some days we need a mix of both. Some days we need the comfort of home, while other days we need the comfort of colleagues.
In short, “Work From Anywhere” perfectly encapsulates that freedom and dynamism our schedules deserve.
For companies, the challenge is how to empower a true Work From Anywhere culture, which is way more than the binary of “in office” or “at home.” Many companies already have expense policies that allow employees to buy key equipment for their homes (a monitor, bringing a computer home, etc.) as well as subsidizing home internet access.
But in Work From Anywhere, should companies subsidize coffee purchases or Wi-Fi passes for employees at a nearby café? What about a day pass at a coworking facility? Should the company underwrite employee travel to different cities or places to freshen themselves up with new experiences? How should companies offer mechanisms for distant employees to connect in real life?
Sadly, much of the discussion among executives today is about cost (surprise!). Offices are expensive. Office space per employee has declined over the past five decades under cost pressure, which is one reason for the forced usage of open offices compared to offices with doors that close. There is more collaboration — and a nice savings to the bottom line. Work From Home itself got more popular as broadband internet expanded and companies were looking for new ways to minimize their expenses.
Work From Anywhere may not save a company any money whatsoever. What was once large office complexes may be a handful of smaller venues, with travel and food budgets that will more than make up for any real estate cost savings. This new workplace flexibility is not about saving money, nor long-term social distancing. In the end, it’s an investment in employee well-being, productivity, and ultimately, profitability.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has disordered traditional notions of work, travel, socializing and the way we collaborate with colleagues.
It seems obvious that the future of work must evolve, given what we’re experiencing, but what will that future look like? Which changes are here to stay and which ones will revert the moment offices reopen?
TechCrunch has been a WFH employer for essentially its entire existence. Our staff is distributed across major startup hubs like SF and NYC, but we also have writers in smaller cities around the world, so we compiled reflections and thoughts from three of them about how remote work has changed our lifestyles and what we predict to see in the next few years, post-COVID 19.
Devin Coldewey talks about what’s going to change with coffee shops and co-working spaces, Alex Wilhelm discusses the future of the home office setup and Danny Crichton talks about the revitalization of urban and semi-urban neighborhoods.
I’ve worked from home for over a decade and part of what makes it so lovely is the ability to do my work from a nearby cafe, or even a restaurant or bar. I’m lucky in that my part of the city is famously packed with excellent coffee shops, but in the time I’ve lived here I’ve seen them grow increasingly packed with — well, people like me. Some days they seem more like co-working spaces than cafes — and this is something business owners and neighborhoods are going to need to acknowledge one way or the other.
Most urban and suburban American communities were formed around the convention of commuting, which means fewer work-related resources where people live. Instead, we have all the restaurants, bodegas, thrift stores and all the other things that cater to people who aren’t working.
While some U.S. investors might have taken comfort from China’s rebound, we still find ourselves in the early innings of this period of uncertainty.
Some epidemiologists have estimated that COVID-19 cases will peak in April, but PitchBook reports that dealmaking was down -26% in March, compared to February’s weekly average. The decline is likely to continue in coming weeks — many of the deals that closed last month were initiated before the pandemic, and there is a lag between when deals are made and when they are announced.
However, there’s still hope. A recent report concluded that because valuations are lower and there’s less competition for deals, “the best-performing vintages tend to be those that invest at the nadir of a downturn and into the early stage of recovery.” There are countless examples from the 2008 recession, including many highly valued VC-backed businesses such as WhatsApp, Venmo, Groupon, Uber, Slack and Square. Other early-stage VCs seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion.
Also, early-stage investing seems more resilient. During the last recession, angel and seed activity increased 34% as interest in the stage boomed during a period of prolonged growth.
Furthermore, there is still capital to be deployed in categories that interested investors before the pandemic, which may set the new order in a post-COVID-19 world. According to data provider Preqin Ltd., VC dry powder rose for a seventh consecutive year to roughly $276 billion in 2019, and another $21 billion were raised last quarter. And looking at the deals on the early-stage side that were made year to date, especially in March, the vertical categories that garnered the most funding were enterprise SaaS, fintech, life sciences, healthcare IT, edtech and cybersecurity.
Image Credits: PitchBook
That said, if VCs have the capital to deploy and are able to overcome the obstacle of “having never met in person,” here are six investment trends that could emerge when the pandemic is over.
Apple is readying a new iPhone for fall to replace the iPhone 11 Pro this fall, Bloomberg reports, as well as follow-ups to the iPhone 11, a new smaller HomePod, and a locator tag accessory. The top-end iPhone 11 Pro successors at least will have a new industrial design that more closely resembles the iPad Pro, with flat screens and sides instead of the current rounded edge design, and they’ll also include the 3D LIDAR sensing system that Apple introduced with the most recent iPad Pro refresh in March.
The new highs-end iPhone design will look more like the iPhone 5, Bloomberg says, with “flat stainless steel edges,” and the screen on the lager version will be slightly bigger than the 6.5-inch display found on the current iPhone 11 Pro Max. It could also feature a smaller version of the current ‘notch’ camera cutout in at the top end of the display, the report claims.
Meanwhile, the LIDAR tracking system added to the rear camera array will be combined with processor speed and performance improvements, which should add up to significant improvements in augmented reality (AR) performance. The processor improvements are also designed to help boost on-device AI performance, the report notes.
These phones are still planned for a fall launch and release, though some of them could be available “multiple weeks later than normal,” Bloomberg claims, owing to disruptions caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Other updates to the company’s product line on the horizon include a new smaller HomePod that’s around 50 percent smaller than the current version, with a planned launch sometime later this year. It’ll offer a price advantage versus the current model, and the report claims it’ll also come alongside Siri improvements and expansion of music streaming service support beyond Apple’s own. There’s also Apple Tags, which Apple itself has accidentally tipped as coming – a Tile-like Bluetooth location tracking accessory. Bloomberg says that could come out this year.
Finally, the report says there are updates to the MacBook Pro, Apple TV, lower-end iPads and iMac on the way, which is not surprising given Apple’s usual hardware update cadence. There’s no timeline for release on any of those, and it remains to be seen how the COVID-19 situation impacts these plans.