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Tesla pitches a solar rental program to boost its renewable energy business

By Jonathan Shieber

Tesla is pitching customers on a new rental offering for solar power as a way to revive the flagging fortunes of its renewable energy business.

Once among the largest installers of renewables in the country through SolarCity, Tesla has seen its share of the market decline significantly since its acquisition of SolarCity three years ago. In the second quarter Tesla deployed only 29 megawatts of new solar installations, while the number one and two providers of consumer solar, SunRun and Vivint Solar installed 103 megawatts and 56 megawatts respectively.

That’s likely one reason why Elon Musk took to Twitter early Sunday morning to pitch the new solar rental program.

One click to order solar & save ~$500/year in utility bills with no long-term contract (cancel anytime)

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 18, 2019

According to Musk, the new program is “like having a money printer on your roof” for potential customers who live in states with high energy costs. “Still better to buy,” Musk exhorted, “but the rental option makes the economics obvious.”

Unlike SunRun and Vivint, which both used partnerships with homebuilders and retailers like Home Depot, BJ’s Wholesale, Costco and Sam’s Club to acquire customers, Tesla slashed ended door-to-door marketing and abandoned its partnership with Home Depot. The company began relying almost entirely on direct sales to power its solar business and eschewed the no-money-down lease model, which SolarCity had used so effectively.

Under the new system, Telsa is offering customers the option to rent solar systems for anywhere from $65 for a small installation to $195 for its largest installation. Customers only need to pay a fully refundable $100 charge.

Tesla said the contract can be canceled any time, but it would charge users $1,500 to remove the system once it has been installed.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.


Google discloses its acquisition of mobile learning app Socratic as it relaunches on iOS

By Sarah Perez

Google publicly disclosed its acquisition of homework helper app Socratic in an announcement this week, detailing the added support for the company’s A.I. technology and its relaunch on iOS. The acquisition apparently flew under the radar — Google says it bought the app last year.

According to one founder’s LinkedIn update, that was in March 2018. Google hasn’t responded to requests for comment for more details about the deal, but we’ll update if that changes.

Socratic was founded in 2013 Chris Pedregal and Shreyans Bhansali with the goal of creating a community that made learning accessible to all students.

Initially, the app offered a Quora-like Q&A platform where students could ask questions which were answered by experts. By the time Socratic raised $6 million in Series A funding back in 2015, its community had grown to around 500,000 students. The company later evolved to focus less on connecting users and more on utility.

It included a feature to take a photo of a homework question in order to get instant explanations through the mobile app launched in 2015. This is similar to many other apps in the space, like Photomath, Mathway, DoYourMath, and others.

However, Socratic isn’t just a math helper — it can also tackle subjects like science, literature, social studies, and more.

In February 2018, Socratic announced it would remove the app’s social features. That June, the company said it was closing its Q&A website to user contributions. This decision was met with some backlash of disappointed users.

Socratic explained the app and website were different products, and it was strategically choosing to focus on the former.

“We, as anyone, are bound by the constraints of reality—you just can’t do everything—which means making decisions and tradeoffs where necessary. This one is particularly painful,” wrote Community Lead Becca McArthur at the time.

That strategy, apparently, was to make Socratic a Google A.I.-powered product. According to Google’s blog post penned by Bhansali — now the Engineering Manager at Socratic — the updated iOS app uses A.I. technology to help users.


The new version of the iOS app still allows you to snap a photo to get answers, or you can speak your question.

For example, if a student takes a photo from a classroom handout or asks a question like “what’s the difference between distance and displacement?,” Socratic will return a top match, followed by explainers, a Q&A section, and even related YouTube videos and web links. It’s almost like a custom search engine just for your homework questions.

Google also says it has built and trained algorithms that can analyze the student’s question then identify the underlying concepts in order to point users to these resources. For students who need even more help, the app can break down the concepts into smaller, easy-to-understand lessons.

googleai v2

In addition, the app includes subject guides on over 1,000 higher education and high school topics, developed with help from educators. The study guides can help students prepare for tests or just better learn a particular concept.

explorer 56kHA30

“In building educational resources for teachers and students, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to them about challenges they face and how we can help,” writes Bhansali. “We’ve heard that students often get ‘stuck’ while studying. When they have questions in the classroom, a teacher can quickly clarify—but it’s frustrating for students who spend hours trying to find answers while studying on their own,” he says.

This is where Socratic will help.

That said, the acquisition could help Google in other ways, too. In addition to its primary focus as a homework helper, the acquisition could aid Google Assistant technology across platforms, as the virtual assistant could learn to answer more complex questions that Google’s Knowledge Graph didn’t already include.

The relaunched, A.I.-powered version of Socratic by Google arrived on Thursday on iOS, where it also discloses through the app update text the app is now owned by Google.

The Android version of the app will launch this fall.


Startup ads are taking over the subway

By Anthony Ha

If you’re a New Yorker, one of the easiest ways to keep up-to-date on the latest consumer products — furniture, beauty products, mobile apps, you name it — is to hop on the subway.

Even before you board, you may find yourself walking through a station filled with colorful startup ads. And once you’re actually on the train, you may find yourself surrounded by even more of those of ads.

It felt very different when I first moved to New York in 2013, back when the only companies that seemed to buy subway ads were local colleges, law firms and sketchy-sounding surgeons. Over the next few years, I noticed that the companies I wrote about in TechCrunch were starting to show up on the subway walls.

These ads are managed by Outfront Media, which has an exclusive contract with the MTA and says it’s worked with more than 150 startups and direct-to-consumer brands since 2018.

“Startups and DTC brands, now more than ever before, are looking for ways to raise awareness and gain market share among a heavy competitor set,” said Outfront’s chief product experience officer Jason Kuperman via email. “For these brands, it is all about testing and learning, and leveraging out-of-home (OOH) [advertising] and advertising on the subway allows them to do just that.”

Kuperman added that when they launch their subway campaigns, many of these startups are unknown, so they “find value in a permanent place to advertise that people pass through every day.”

From out-of-home to in transit

John Laramie, CEO of out-of-home advertising agency Project X, agreed that there’s been a big shift over the past few years.

He and I first spoke in 2011 about startups buying billboard ads alongside Silicon Valley’s main highway, Route 101. More recently, he told me, “Fast forward to the last four years, and who cares about the 101? It’s all about the New York City subway.”

Handy co-founder Oisin Hanrahan becomes chief product officer at acquirer ANGI Homeservices

By Anthony Ha

ANGI Homeservices — which operates HomeAdvisor, Angie’s List and other brands — is naming Handy CEO Oisin Hanrahan as its new chief product officer.

Handy offers on-demand access to workers who can clean, assemble furniture, mount TVs and perform other tasks around the home. It was acquired last year by ANGI (a publicly traded subsidiary of IAC).

Hanrahan co-founded Handy in 2012, and he’s continued to run the company since its acquisition. According to today’s announcement, he’ll continue to do that in his new role, while at the same time overseeing product strategy across the entire ANGI portfolio.

Speaking of that portfolio: The company says that across its various brands, it works with more than 250,000 home service professionals in 500 categories.

“During the acquisition and integration of Handy, I have been enormously impressed with Oisin’s product vision, entrepreneurial energy, and leadership skills,” said ANGI Homeservices CEO Brandon Ridenour in a statement. “The products that win are simple, functional and, above all, effective. Oisin took a powerful idea — connecting customers to quality housecleaning and handymen professionals online — and created a far better experience than was previously thought possible. I am looking forward to all of our brands benefiting from his drive, determination, insights and product leadership.”

The announcement comes just ahead of ANGI and IAC’s earnings reports later this afternoon.

Best Sonos Setup: Which Speakers, Soundbars Should You Buy?

By Jeffrey Van Camp
We’ve tested every Sonos speaker and Soundbar at WIRED, including the Ikea Symfonisk models. We like them all, but which ones are worth buying?

As tech changes homelessness, libraries roll with the punches

By Devin Coldewey

The warmth and quiet of the library have ever been a draw for those suffering from homelessness, but the past decade has piled more responsibilities on the shoulders of these institutions. The digital resources they provide are more important than ever for the homeless, but libraries have warily embraced their new role.

It is needless to recount here what most city-dwellers already know, that the homeless situation is critical in many cities, and that it is a hugely complex problem in both causes and potential solutions.

But it’s worth noting that the closure of mental institutions in the ’80s created an enduring and poorly addressed population of deeply ill homeless, compounded by veterans of conflicts in the ’90s — compounded again by rapid gentrification and the rising cost of living in most metropolitan areas.

And as the backdrop for all this, the rise of the information age — the future, as in William Gibson’s most continuously relevant epigram, but unequally distributed. As industries were reinvented, homeless people were systematically excluded from systems that barely tolerated them in the first place.

But it has not all been bad news. The introduction of smartphones and widespread wi-fi allowed — as the future made its way downward through the social strata — for communication, information, and entertainment. I used to do a double take when I saw a homeless person typing away at their phone, but the idea that phones are “luxuries” and that these people might be feigning destitution gave way quickly to the understanding that these devices are as necessary for someone in dire straits as they are for anyone else.

Even government services and associated aid organizations have evolved, putting crucial information like shelter updates, phone numbers, job-hunting resources, and important paperwork online and even in a mobile-friendly format. Programs like the U.S. Digital Service have been working on that lately but the infrastructure they are revamping is often decades old. It’s a work in progress.

Libraries have changed as well — obviously the book-centric model that predominated the 20th century has moved on to a hybrid one where digital resources are as important as physical ones. And although the homeless have always found their way into libraries for one reason or another, be it help putting together a resume or just to get out of the cold, they are coming in record numbers and to share resources that are being spread increasingly thin.

Consider something as simple as computer and internet access. Personal computers long ago graduated from something you’d sit and do work at for half an hour, yet that is the model around which most library access is organized. It’s also a source of judgment for homeless people using public computers: How can someone monopolize such a resource just to browse reddit or watch YouTube? Shouldn’t they be looking for a job and then leaving after their allotted 45 minutes?

Libraries were always sources of education, but that has become more pronounced recently as they’ve shifted from being the ones who store information to those who provide free and open access to it. With the combination of how that information is used and who needs these services, this involves a transformation not just of purpose but of architecture: Becoming a place where people come and stay rather than a place people visit.

That transformation doesn’t come equally easily to all libraries or branches. It may be that a small, underfunded library happens to be near a shelter or bus station and attracts more of the homeless than it can serve, and indeed more than intend to use the library for its “intended” purpose. Though these facilities were designed to provide short-term refuge for any and all, they’re generally not equipped or staffed to handle the volume or types of people who find their way in and stay sometimes from open to close.

But some libraries are being proactive about both the way they provide access and in contacting at-risk populations where they are instead of waiting for them to come to a crowded central branch in desperation.

“Having internet access and wi-fi access is critically important for homeless populations,” said SPL communications director Andra Addison. “Many cannot afford a computer or cannot afford the cost of data for their phones or electronic devices. This is important when looking for work or completing school assignments. Our librarians visit homeless encampments where they bring wi-fi hotspots and other resources.”

The library has nearly a thousand portable wi-fi devices, which have been checked out some 27,000 times since the program started in 2015. That may be the difference between being able to answer a job-related email in time or not, or being in touch with family during a crucial moment.

SPL and the San Francisco Public Library have initiated other social programs as well. As the homeless crisis has worsened, so too has the strain on libraries, and the latter have taken steps to address the problem rather than the symptoms.

That means social workers at library branches frequented by homeless people who are schooled not just in how to interact with what can sometimes be an intimidating population, but how to offer them lasting help. The library is a conduit to information, right? That already includes helping people with job searches and schoolwork — why shouldn’t it also be a way for the homeless and mentally ill to get directed to the help they need?

To this end libraries have had to specialize in populations — the recently released from prison, veterans, teens, those suffering from addiction, and so on.

“Libraries welcome and serve everyone, no matter their age, background or income level. Libraries are also particularly committed to helping the underserved, particularly the insecurely housed,” Addison said. If that’s the mission, then that’s the mission — if fulfilling that mission looks different today than it did ten, twenty, or fifty years ago, that just means we’ve successfully evolved the model.

Computers, smartphones, and the internet are at the core of this change not just because it is the way things get done these days, but because they have the possibility to systematically improve access for the unfortunate as well as the fortunate. But that transition too is a painful one — when the eye of the technotopians is forever pointed upwards and outwards, to look backwards and downwards at the people it has left behind.

Libraries are not the only ones that must adapt if we are to build a truly inclusive environment in tech. Startups, funding, even hardware makers should be looking at making it their responsibility not just to reach higher heights but to lift up the lowest among us.


This post was written as part of the SF Homelessness Project, a yearly event in which news organizations highlight the causes of and solutions to homelessness throughout the nation.

Vizio rolls out its Apple AirPlay and HomeKit integrations to its SmartCast TV platform

By Ingrid Lunden

Ahead of Apple launching its big video streaming initiative Apple TV+ this autumn, an integration is going live today that brings Apple closer to working with third-party TV makers and making its services available on a wider array of devices. Today Vizio said it would start to roll out support for AirPlay2 and HomeKit to its SmartCast TV sets, making it possible to stream video and other media from Apple devices to its TVs and control the sets using Apple’s Home app and through its Siri voice assistant.

The support is coming by way of an over-the-air update to SmartCast 3.0, the system that underpins Vizio’s smart TVs. Notably, using the Apple services will not necessarily mean buying new Vizio TVs: the service is backwards-compatible to TVs dating back to 2016. New sets range in prices from $259.99 to $3,499.99.

“SmartCast 3.0 is full of added value for VIZIO customers. With both AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support, users can now share movies, TV shows, music and more from their favorite apps, including the Apple TV app, directly to SmartCast TVs, and enable TV controls through the Home app and Siri,” said Bill Baxter, chief technology officer, VIZIO. “We are thrilled to offer an even more compelling value proposition to our users with a smart TV experience that supports all three major voice assistants. This broad range of compatibility enables VIZIO SmartCast to seamlessly integrate into any household with Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa — giving users more ways to sit back and enjoy the entertainment they love.” Vizio still appears to be the only smart TV maker that’s offering support on its sets for all of the major voice assistants.

Vizio’s integration for Apple’s media services was first announced in January at CES, when Vizio said it would be getting rolled out later in the year.

The news was notable at the time for a couple of reasons. First, it underscored how Vizio was stepping up its growth efforts after a tough couple of years involving lawsuits, regulatory investigations and a failed M&A attempt.

Second, it was part of a bigger theme of Apple branching out into a wider consumer electronics ecosystem for its push into the world of TV and video. The latter still stands in stark contrast to Apple’s approach around smartphones, computers and watches, where it has spent years building hardware, operating systems and walled gardens.

That’s a story that is still playing out. The timing of the Vizio news is notable given that it’s just one day after Apple’s quarterly earnings report, where the company revealed a solid quarter that beat analyst expectations but also continued to show slowing growth, largely on the back of an ongoing decline in unit sales for the iPhone (amid a similar, bigger market trend for smartphones overall). To offset that story, Apple has been working hard to build new product categories in newer hardware areas like wearables (the Apple Watch), smart home hubs (HomePod) and Services, which includes Apple’s efforts in areas like video and music.

Services came in at $11.455 billion — missing analysts expectations but still growing 13% on a year ago. The promise — or perhaps more accurately, the hope — is that adding TV and gaming into the mix later in the year will boost that even more. This is where integrations such as the one getting announced today with Vizio will fit in: they will help expand the number of people who might be using the services, and of course the number of screens where the content can be consumed.

Vizio does not specify how many sets it currently has in the market — the last number it gave me earlier in the year was “millions” — but it generally is behind Samsung, which currently leads in the smart TV category.

It notes that the service will work by way of tapping an AirPlay icon within SmartCast to be able to stream 4K and Dolby VisionTM HDR movies and TV shows from Apple TV, along with other AirPlay-compatible video apps. Mirroring (which you can also do with non-smart TVs) will also be supported. AirPlay 2 also lets users play content across multiple rooms (provided you have the sets, HomePods or other AirPlay 2 speakers installed).

5 Best Air Purifiers (2019): HEPA, PECO, and More

By Adrienne So
We tested many HEPA and standard air purifiers to find the right one for your bedroom or home.

Google is giving away 100,000 Home Minis to people living with paralysis

By Brian Heater

Google announced this morning via blog post that it has partnered with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to give away 100,000 Home Mini units to people living with paralysis. The news is designed to mark the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law on this day in 1990.

There’s a form on Google’s site for people who qualify and their caregivers. Interested parties must live in the United States to receive a unit.

The giveaway is a nice reminder of one of the under-recognized aspects of the current push toward voice-control devices. The ability to check the news and turn on connected smart home devices is a nice luxury for able-bodied users, but could be a game changer for others.

The company marked the news with the story of Garrison Redd, a Foundation ambassador who notes the benefit the $50 device has had on his life. “I’m training for the 2020 Paralympic Games as a powerlifter for Team USA, so I use my Mini to set alarms, manage my training schedule, and even make grocery lists,” he writes in the post. “Music is a huge motivator for me, and with Mini, I listen to Spotify playlists and get pumped up before a workout.”

Senate Intelligence Committee releases first volume of its investigation into Russian election hacking

By Jonathan Shieber

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today released the first volume of its bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections.

Helmed by Select Committee Chairman Richard Burr, the Republican from North Carolina, and Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who serves as Vice Chairman, the committee’s report Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure,” details the unclassified summary findings on election security. 

Through two and a half years the committee has held 15 open hearings, interviewed over 200 witnesses, and reviewed nearly 400,000 documents, according to a statement and will be publishing other volumes from its investigation over the next year. 

“In 2016, the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure. Since then, we have learned much more about the nature of Russia’s cyber activities and better understand the real and urgent threat they pose,” Committee Chairman Burr said in a statement. “The Department of Homeland Security and state and local elections officials have dramatically changed how they approach election security, working together to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities.”

Both Sen. Burr and Sen. Warner said that additional steps still needed to be taken.

“[There’s] still much more we can and must do to protect our elections. I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.”

Among the Committee’s findings were that Russian hackers exploited the seams between federal and state authorities. State election officials, the report found were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a state actor.

The warnings that were provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security weren’t detailed enough nor did they contain enough relevant information that would have encouraged the states to take threats more seriously, the report indicated.

 More work still needs to be done, according to the Committee. DHS needs to coordinate its efforts with state officials much more closely. But states need to do more as well to ensure that new voting machines have a voter-verified paper trail. 

So does Congress. The committee report underscores that Congress need to evaluate the results of the $380 million in state security grants which were issued under the Help America Vote Act and ensure that additional funding is available to address any security gaps in voting systems and technologies around the U.S.

Finally, the U.S. needs to create more appropriate deterrence mechanisms to enable the country to respond effectively to cyber attacks on elections.

The Committee’s support for greater spending on election security and refining electoral policy to ensure safe and secure access to the ballot, comes as Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has blocked two election security measures that were attempting to come before the Senate floor for a vote.

New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to get consent to pass a House bill that requires the use of paper ballots and included new funding for the Election Assistance Commission.

In a statement explaining his rejection of the Bill, McConnell told The Hill, “Clearly this request is not a serious effort to make a law. Clearly something so partisan that it only received one single solitary Republican vote in the House is not going to travel through the Senate by unanimous consent.”

McConnell also rejected a consent motion to pass legislation that would require that candidates, campaign officials, and family members to reach out to the FBI if they received offers of assistance from foreign governments.

Brainly, a crowdsourced homework helper for students, raises $30M to expand in the US

By Ingrid Lunden

When it comes to turning the wheels of the internet, crowdsourcing is a key component of the engine: the power of people can fund big ideas and good causes; it can help you decide what (or what not) to buy, read, watch or listen to when faced with too much choice; it can help unite opinion; or it can aid in misleading us.

Now, a startup founded in Poland using crowdsourcing for information gathering and e-learning is announcing a growth round of funding. Brainly, a Quora-style platform that helps students find and contribute answers to typical homework questions in subjects like math, history, science and social studies, is announcing that it has raised $30 million in funding — money that speaks to the momentum both of the company and the concept.

The funding was led by Naspers, which was also an investor in the company’s $14 million round in 2017, with participation also from Runa Capital and Manta Ray. It brings the total raised by the company to $68.5 million. Valuation is not being disclosed, including whether this was an up  or down round. For some context, the company was estimated to have a post-money valuation of $134 million in its last round, per PitchBook.

It’s likely that number is up: Brainly currently has 150 million users in 35 markets, growing 50% from 2018, when it had 100 million users. And the company is now turning its focus to a lucrative market for e-learning. The plan — according to CEO and co-founder Michał Borkowski — will be to use some of the funds to help the company break into the U.S., which today only accounts for about 10 million of its user base, but in total has some 76 million students overall.

He added that another area of focus will be monetization. The company today operates a freemium-style service, where the majority of users do not pay to access the site but in turn get served ads, while others choose to pay $3 per month for more features and no ads. Borkowski would not say how many paying users the company has today.

Brainly’s focus — to become a reliable and helpful network for students when they get stuck on a problem in their homework — was surprisingly an area that hadn’t really been tapped when Brainly was founded in 2009. Borkowski said that he and his co-founders — Lukasz Haluch and Tomasz Kraus — came up with the idea when they were already in college. “We would have loved to have had something like this in high school,” he recalled. (Brainly’s original name in Poland when it started out was “Zadane,” which means homework.)

Reliable is the key word here. There may not be many apps on the market today directly competing with Brainly; there is the wider internet and specifically Google, where you can enter anything from natural language questions to actual equations to get answers and explanations of those answers.

The problem today is that you also can get a lot of irrelevant or incorrect or incomplete information in those searches, too, and that is the opportunity for Brainly: to provide a more curated selection of responses specifically to the kinds of questions that students might come across in their homework.

That’s not to say that Brainly is perfect today. In my quick test of searching on a few topics in history and math, I saw a mixed bag of results, some accurate and some obviously plagiarised and some just wrong.

Borkowski said that the company uses a few levers to moderate questions and answers: users can report incorrect information, a team of human moderators also assess reported and other content and there are algorithms that scan recently uploaded questions and answers. (Contributing is unpaid, but regular contributors get invited into a program where they are paid to provide answers, he said.) Borkowski wouldn’t specify what the “strike rate” was for legit postings versus those that needed to be modified or removed, but presumably as Brainly continues to grow, the need to manage the quality of the platform’s content will only grow, too. 

There are a lot of opportunities for how Brainly might shape its product over time: for example, specific markets often have core curricula that students will learn, and standardised tests that they are being taught to take (AP exams in the U.S., for example; or GCSEs and A-levels in the U.K.). Systematically working on making sure that Brainly covers those comprehensively could make it a really coveted and used app for students taking those classes and preparing for those exams.

Another is doubling down on the company’s global remit. A lot of e-learning has been focused around English, and it’s notable that Brainly has been working across a number of other languages, too, from Polish and Russian to Spanish and a number of Asian languages. This gives the company an opportunity not just to expand its user base, but its usefulness in educational initiatives globally.

“We have been impressed by Brainly’s growth over the past 10 years, particularly in the U.S. and high-growth markets like India, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil,” said Larry Illg, CEO of Naspers Ventures, in a statement. “At Naspers, we back companies seeking to address big societal needs like education, helping them fulfill their vision with the ultimate aim of achieving global scale. Brainly has the potential to serve the needs of hundreds of millions of students around the world and Michał and the team are building an invaluable service for learners everywhere.”

Brooklinen, known for high-quality bed sheets, launches its first line of loungewear

By Catherine Shu

Brooklinen, the direct-to-consumer bed sheet brand backed by investors including FirstMark, is entering the apparel space with its first line of loungewear. The company says its designs, including tops, pants, shorts and a dress, are inspired by vintage athletic clothing and made from cotton and modal blended with spandex. Prices range from $28 for a t-shirt to $75 for jogger pants.

2019 021 Brooklinen SarahKehoe SHOT 12 WOMENS COLLECTION PAGE HERO 045x

The startup, whose investors also include NYU Innovation Venture Fund and Dorm Room Fund, has built its reputation around high-quality but affordable linens and is able to offer lower prices by controlling the design, manufacturing and logistics and fulfillment of its sheets, comforters, pillows and towels. It is primarily an e-commerce startup, but has also run pop-up shops. Brooklinen’s last round of funding was a $10 million Series A announced in 2017.

Assistive technologies will be a $26 billion dollar market, and investors are only now addressing it

By Jonathan Shieber

Rohan Silva is obsessed with social mobility and why certain groups are so under-represented in the technology industry.

He co-founded Second Home, a coworking space looking to bring together disparate civic-minded, cultural, creative and commercial entrepreneurs at sites in Lisbon, London and (now) Los Angeles, and he has spent years examining how gender, race and class impact access to technology as a now-reformed politician. Throughout that work though, one area that he says he overlooked was accessibility and entrepreneurship focused on people with disabilities.

“At Second Home, we pride ourselves on having a diverse community. I can count on one hand the number of founders with disabilities we have in our community, so there is definitely something going profoundly wrong,” Silva says.

Enlisting the help of the European venture capital fund Atomico, Silva has set up a micro-investment fund of £100,000 to tackle the problem.

“It’s a large amount compared to what I have and a small amount compared to most venture capital funds,” he explains. “The much bigger prize here is the ability to fund technologies that have the opportunities to improve the lives of people with disabilities.”

Silva isn’t alone. Organizations like Not Impossible Labs, a Los Angeles-based company, and startups like OrCam Technologies, eSight, B-Temia, Kinova Robotics, Open Bionics, Voiceitt and Whill are harnessing technology to bring solutions to people with disabilities across the world.

Forerunner just led a $3.5 million round for Homeroom, a software platform for after-school enrichment programs

By Connie Loizos

San Francisco-based Forerunner Ventures is best known for its long string of bets on successful and fast-growing consumer companies. Now, its newest partner, Brian O’Malley, who has a knack for finding startups that straddle both the consumer and enterprise worlds, has written his first check on behalf of the firm, and it’s largely in that same vein.

The company: Homeroom, a two-year-old, 12-person, San Francisco-based marketplace business focused around after-school enrichment programs. In the simplest terms, the company makes free software for program organizers that provides them with a clearer way to schedule classes, organize sign-ups, and accept, process, and track payment. It makes money from the growing number of class vendors that want to extend their reach into new school districts and which provide Homeroom with a cut every time a parent signs up his or her child for one of their after-school programs.

It’s easy to see Homeroom’s appeal. Program organizers are often parent-volunteers who are trying to keep tabs on after school programs through email and Excel spreadsheets. In fact, sometimes these organizers’ view into what’s what is so specific to them that they get stuck in the role — even after their own children have moved on to other schools. A startup like Homerun can also serve as kind a recommendation engine, pointing out robotics of ceramics or Spanish language class offerings that these parents or other organizers might not know about.

The opportunity that Homeroom is chasing is sizable, too. Founded by former Stanford classmates Cassandra Espinoza Stewart, who previously worked as an analyst with Greylock, and Christina Walker, a former teacher in Greenwich, Ct., where she designed after-school programs for some of its youngest students, Homeroom is basically targeting the 5.7 million elementary school children enrolled in enrichment programs after school in the U.S..

These programs cost parents from the low thousands of dollars to more than $10,000 per kid per year and, according to one estimate, are part of what had become a $23 billion market as of last year.

Stewart and Walker think it would be far larger if more children had access to a broader selection of affordable programming. (Currently, they point out, more than 40 percent of U.S. children are not enrolled in after-school programs, despite that many come from households where both parents work.) Indeed, down the road, says Stewart, the company might even offer a way for parents to make smaller payments over a longer period of time for enrichment programs  (presumably charging them some interest for the service).

One could see such financing becoming a key part of its growing business and generating revenue. In the meantime, its first funding round of $3.5 million in seed capital should also help.

In addition to Forerunner, other investors to participate in the newly financing includes Felicis Ventures, Precursor Ventures, Kapor Capital, and numerous angel investors. Among these are Deborah Quazzo, a partner at GSV; Tyler Bomeny, who is the CEO of the classroom software company Clever; and HotelTonight CEO Jared Simon.

AI services startup Hypergiant brings on Bill Nye as an advisor

By Darrell Etherington

Hypergiant, a startup launched last year to address the execution gap in bringing applied AI and machine learning technologies to bear for large companies, has signed on a high-profile new advisor to help out with the new ‘Galactic Systems’ division of its services lineup.

Hypergiant founder CEO Ben Lamm also serves as an Advisory Council Member for The Planetary Society, the nonprofit dedicated to space science and exploration advocacy that’s led by Nye who acts as the Society’s CEO. Nye did some voiceover work for the video at the bottom of this post for Hypergiant through the connection, and then decided to come on in a more formal capacity as an official advisor working with the company. He’ll act as a member of Hypergiant’s Advisory Board.

Nye was specifically interested in helping Hypergiant to work on AI tech that touch on a couple of areas he’s most passionate about.

“Hypergiant has an ambitious mission to address some big problems using artificial intelligence systems,” Nye explained via email. “I’m looking forward to working with Hypergiant to develop artificially intelligent systems in two areas I care about a great deal: climate change and space exploration. We need to think big, and I’m very optimistic about what AI can do to make the world quite a bit better.”

Through its work, Hypergiant has an impact on projects in flight from high-profile customers including Apple, GE, Starbucks and the Department of Homeland Security to name just a few. Earlier this year, Austin-based Hypergiant announced it was launching a dedicated space division through the acquisition of Satellite & Extraterrestrial Operations & Procedures (SEOPS), a Texas company that offered deployment services for small satellites.

Ben Lamm NASA 2

Hypergiant founder and CEO Ben Lamm along with members of the Hypergiant team at NASA. Credit: Hypergiant.

Nye’s role will focus on this division, advising on space, but also equally on advising clients as to climate change in order to ensure that Hypergiant can “make the most of AI systems to hep provide a high quality of life for people everywhere,” Nye wrote.

“Climate change is the biggest issue we face, and we need to get serious about new ways to fight it,” he explained in an email, noting that the potential impact his work with Hypergiant will have in this area specifically is a key reason he’s excited to undertake the new role.

A Better World from HYPERGIANT on Vimeo.

Amazon Echo Show 5 Review: Smaller Isn't Always Better

By Lauren Goode
The screen-bedecked Alexa device is back—this time with a smaller display.

Tesla says solar roof is on its third iteration, currently installing in 8 states

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is currently installing its solar roof product in eight states, according to Elon Musk speaking at the Tesla Annual Shareholders Meeting on Tuesday. The solar roof tile project has had a relatively long genesis, since being first unveiled three years ago in 2016.

In 2017, the company claimed its first ever installations of the Tesla solar roof, after opening up orders for the product in the second quarter of that year. Musk noted during the company’s Q2 2017 earnings call that both himself and Tesla CTO JB Straubel had the tiles installed and operating on their homes

The company also announced last year that it had entered into a partnership with Home Depot to sell its solar panels along with its PowerWall home battery, but that was about its traditional panels specifically, not the new tile product. The tiles are designed to look like high quality home tiles people use currently, with integrated solar panels that are not easily identified from ground level, in order to provide a more aesthetically pleasing solution.

In addition to having installations run in eight states, Musk also said that the solar roof product is currently on version three, and that this version is very exciting to him because it offers a chance of being at cost parity with an equivalent entry-level cheap traditional tile, when you include the cost of utilities you’d be saving by generating your own power instead.

Timelines for wider roll-out of the solar roof products at the costs he anticipates, his own words probably say it best: “I’m sometimes a little optimistic about timeframes – it’s time you knew” he joked at the meeting.

Liberty’s challenge to UK state surveillance powers reveals shocking failures

By Natasha Lomas

A legal challenge to the UK’s controversial mass surveillance regime has revealed shocking failures by the main state intelligence agency, which has broad powers to hack computers and phones and intercept digital communications, in handling people’s information.

The challenge, by rights group Liberty, led last month to an initial finding that MI5 had systematically breached safeguards in the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) — breaches the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, euphemistically couched as “compliance risks” in a carefully worded written statement that was quietly released to parliament.

Today Liberty has put more meat on the bones of the finding of serious legal breaches in how MI5 handles personal data, culled from newly released (but redacted) documents that it says describe the “undoubtedly unlawful” conduct of the UK’s main security service which has been retaining innocent people’s data for years.

The series of 10 documents and letters from MI5 and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), the body charged with overseeing the intelligence agencies’ use of surveillance powers, show that the spy agency has failed to meet its legal duties for as long as the IPA has been law, according to Liberty.

The controversial surveillance legislation passed into UK law in November 2016 — enshrining a system of mass surveillance of digital communications which includes a provision that logs of all Internet users’ browsing activity be retained for a full year, accessible to a wide range of government agencies (not just law enforcement and/or spy agencies).

The law also allows the intelligence agencies to maintain large databases of personal information on UK citizens, even if they are not under suspicion of any crime. And sanctions state hacking of devices, networks and services, including bulk hacking on foreign soil. It also gives U.K. authorities the power to require a company to remove encryption, or limit the rollout of end-to-end encryption on a future service.

The IPA has faced a series of legal challenges since making it onto the statute books, and the government has been forced to amend certain aspects of it on court order — including beefing up restrictions on access to web activity data. Other challenges to the controversial surveillance regime, including Liberty’s, remain ongoing.

The newly released court documents include damning comments on MI5’s handling of data by the IPCO — which writes that: “Without seeking to be emotive, I consider that MI5’s use of warranted data… is currently, in effect, in ‘special measures’ and the historical lack of compliance… is of such gravity that IPCO will need to be satisfied to a greater degree than usual that it is ‘fit for purpose'”.”

Liberty also says MI5 knew for three years of failures to maintain key safeguards — such as the timely destruction of material, and the protection of legally privileged material — before informing the IPCO.

Yet a key government sales pitch for passing the legislation was the claim of a ‘world class’ double-lock authorization and oversight regime to ensure the claimed safeguards on intelligence agencies powers to intercept and retain data.

So the latest revelations stemming from Liberty’s legal challenge represent a major embarrassment for the government.

“It is of course paramount that UK intelligence agencies demonstrate full compliance with the law,” the home secretary wrote in the statement last month, before adding his own political spin: “In that context, the interchange between the Commissioner and MI5 on this issue demonstrates that the world leading system of oversight established by the Act is working as it should.”

Liberty comes to the opposite conclusion on that point — emphasizing that warrants for bulk surveillance were issued by senior judges “on the understanding that MI5’s data handling obligations under the IPA were being met — when they were not”.

“The Commissioner has pointed out that warrants would not have been issued if breaches were known,” it goes on. “The Commissioner states that “it is impossible to sensibly reconcile the explanation of the handling of arrangements the Judicial Commissioners [senior judges] were given in briefings…with what MI5 knew over a protracted period of time was happening.”

So, basically, it’s saying that MI5 — having at best misled judges, whose sole job it is to oversee its legal access to data, about its systematic failures to lawfully handle data — has rather made a sham of the entire ‘world class’ oversight regime.

Liberty also flags what it calls “a remarkable admission to the Commissioner” — made by MI5’s deputy director general — who it says acknowledges that personal data collected by MI5 is being stored in “ungoverned spaces”. It adds that the MI5 legal team claims there is “a high likelihood [of material] being discovered when it should have been deleted, in a disclosure exercise leading to substantial legal or oversight failure”.

“Ungoverned spaces” is not a phrase that made it into Javid’s statement last month on MI5’s “compliance risks”.

But the home secretary did acknowledge: “A report of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office suggests that MI5 may not have had sufficient assurance of compliance with these safeguards within one of its technology environments.”

Javid also said he had set up “an independent review to consider and report back to me on what lessons can be learned for the future”. Though it’s unclear whether that report will be made public. 

We’ve reached out to the Home Office for comment on the latest revelations from Liberty’s litigation. 

In a statement, Liberty’s lawyer, Megan Goulding, said: “These shocking revelations expose how MI5 has been illegally mishandling our data for years, storing it when they have no legal basis to do so. This could include our most deeply sensitive information – our calls and messages, our location data, our web browsing history.

“It is unacceptable that the public is only learning now about these serious breaches after the Government has been forced into revealing them in the course of Liberty’s legal challenge. In addition to showing a flagrant disregard for our rights, MI5 has attempted to hide its mistakes by providing misinformation to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who oversees the Government’s surveillance regime.

“And, despite a light being shone on this deplorable violation of our rights, the Government is still trying to keep us in the dark over further examples of MI5 seriously breaching the law.”

In a rare advisory, NSA urges users to patch BlueKeep flaw

By Zack Whittaker

The National Security Agency has issued a rare advisory warning users to update their systems to protect against BlueKeep, a new security vulnerability with the capacity to rapidly spread between computers.

The “critical”-rated bug affecting computers running Windows XP and later, can be exploited to remotely run malware at the system level, which has full access to the computer. Because the bug is remotely exploitable, any unpatched computer connected to the internet may be at risk.

Only Windows 8 and Windows 10 are not vulnerable to the bug.

Microsoft released patches in May, yet about a million internet-facing computers and servers are still unprotected.

The intelligence agency urged computer owners to patch against the vulnerability “in the face of growing threats” amid concerns that a malicious actor could launch an attack, similar to the scale of the WannaCry ransomware attacks in 2017.

As of the time of writing, security researchers have only been able to develop proof-of-concept exploits that could remotely shut down affected computers — or so-called denial-of-service attacks. But they say it’s only a matter of time before these exploits could be used to deliver ransomware or data-stealing malware.

“NSA urges everyone to invest the time and resources to know your network and run supported operating systems with the latest patches,” said the agency’s advisory.

It’s rare to see NSA intervene in matters of consumer cybersecurity. An NSA spokesperson noted that its BlueKeep advisory is the agency’s third cybersecurity notice this year. Where NSA often exploits vulnerabilities to carry out surveillance and espionage, typically it is Homeland Security that issues advisories on serious security flaws that could be exploited by hackers.

Two years ago, the agency was left red-faced following the theft of highly classified hacking tools, which hackers later published online. The leaked EternalBlue exploit worked like a master key, opening access to almost any of the billion-plus Windows computers on the internet. Hackers believed to be associated with North Korea used the leaked EternalBlue exploit to spread ransomware on a massive scale. The malware only stopped spreading after security researchers discovered a ‘kill switch’ that neutralized the malware.

NSA has never publicly acknowledged the theft.

A cynic might see the NSA is moving proactively to avoid another public relations disaster after one of its top secret exploits was leaked and used in a global ransomware attack. An optimist, however, might say the government is trying to warn users to prevent mass damage if an exploit is used or published.

For its part, NSA said patching against BlueKeep is “critical not just for NSA’s protection of national security systems but for all networks.”

Lenovo Smart Clock With Google Assistant Review: Timely Talker

By Lauren Goode
This cute little alarm clock has Google Assistant inside.