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JioMart, the e-commerce venture from India’s richest man, launches in 200 cities and towns

By Manish Singh

The rationale behind the deluge of dollars flooding into billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms is beginning to become more clear as his e-commerce venture JioMart starts rolling out to more people across India.

An e-commerce venture between the nation’s top telecom operator Jio Platforms and top retail chain Jio Retail, JioMart just launched its new website and started accepting orders in dozens of metro, tier 1 and tier 2 cities including Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Bokaro, Bathinda, Ahmedabad, Gurgaon, and Dehradun. A Reliance executive said the service is live across 200 cities and towns.

Before the expansion on Saturday, the service was available in three suburbs of Mumbai. The service now includes perishables such as fruits and vegetables, and dairy items in addition to staples and other grocery products as it makes its pitch to Indian households across the country.

Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms, which has raised more than $10 billion in the last month by selling a roughly 17% stake, has amassed over 388 million subscribers, more than any other telecom operator in the country.

The money comes as Ambani’s various companies begin entering a market already teeming with fierce competitors like Amazon, Walmart’s Flipkart, BigBasket, MilkBasket, and Grofers.

Earlier this week the American e-commerce giant entered India’s food delivery market to challenge the duopoly of Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy and Ant Financial-backed Zomato. Amazon is making a massive hiring push in India, and is looking to hire close to 50,000 seasonal workers to keep up with the growing demand on its platform.

Meanwhile, Ambani’s Reliance Retail, founded in 2006, remains the largest retailer in India by revenue. It serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns.

JioMart may have Amazon and Flipkart in its sights, but in its current form, however, the company is going to be more of a headache for Grofers and BigBasket, the top grocery delivery startups in India.

Reliance Industries, the most valued firm in India and parent entity of Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, plans to expand JioMart to more than a thousand districts in a year and also widen its catalog to include electronics and office supplies among a variety of other categories, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. A Reliance Jio spokesperson declined to comment.

The expansion to more cities comes a month after JioMart launched its WhatsApp business account, enabling people to easily track their order and invoice on Facebook -owned service.

Facebook announced it would invest $5.7 billion in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms last month and pledged to work with the Indian firm to help small businesses across the country. JioMart’s WhatsApp account currently does not support the expanded regions.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, first unveiled his plan to launch an e-commerce platform last year. In a speech then, Ambani invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s work and said India needed to fight another fresh battle.

A handful of firms have attempted — and failed — to launch their e-commerce websites over the years in India, where more than 95% of sales still occur through brick and mortar stores. But Ambani is uniquely positioned to fight the duopoly of Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart — thanks in part to the more than $10 billion in investment dollars the company recently raised from KKR, FacebookSilver LakeVista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic. In addition to scaling JioMart, the fresh capital should also help Ambani repay some of Reliance Industries’ $21 billion debt.

“We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” Ambani said at an event attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi .

KKR to invest $1.5 billion in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

By Manish Singh

Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms has agreed to sell 2.32% stake to U.S. equity firm KKR in what is the fifth major deal the top Indian telecom operator has secured in just as many weeks.

On Friday, KKR announced it will invest $1.5 billion in the top Indian telecom operator, a subsidiary of India’s most valued firm (Reliance Industries), joining fellow American investors Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic that have made similar bets on Jio Platforms.

The investment from KKR, which has written checks to about 20 tech companies including ByteDance and GoJek in the past four decades, values Reliance Jio Platforms at $65 billion.

The announcement today further shows the appeal of Jio Platforms, which has raised $10.35 billion in the past month by selling about 17% of its stake, to foreign investors that are looking for a slice of the world’s second-largest internet market.

Ambani, the chairman and managing director of oil-to-telecoms giant Reliance Industries that has poured over $30 billion to build Jio Platforms, said the company was looking forward to leverage “KKR’s global platform, industry knowledge and operational expertise to further grow Jio.”

In recent years, India has emerged as one of the biggest global battlegrounds for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms that are looking to win the nation’s 1.3 billion people, most of whom remain without a smartphone and internet connection.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Xiaomi, and TikTok-parent firm ByteDance among several others already count India as one of their most important overseas markets. In the past decade, nearly half a billion Indians came online for the first time, thanks in large part to Reliance Jio, which has amassed over 388 million subscribers.

Reliance Jio

An advertisement featuring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan for Reliance Jio (Image: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Launched in the second half of 2016, Reliance Jio upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans and free voice calls, forcing incumbents such as Airtel and Vodafone to significantly revise their prices to sustain customers and many to consolidate and exit the market.

Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, operates the telecom venture, called Jio Infocomm, that has become the top telecom operator in India.

Reliance Jio Platforms also owns a bevy of digital apps and services including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), on-demand live television service and payments service, as well as smartphones, and broadband business.

“Few companies have the potential to transform a country’s digital ecosystem in the way that Jio Platforms is doing in India, and potentially worldwide. Jio Platforms is a true homegrown next generation technology leader in India that is unmatched in its ability to deliver technology solutions and services to a country that is experiencing a digital revolution,” Henry Kravis, co-founder and co-chief executive of KKR, said in a statement.

“We are investing behind Jio Platforms’ impressive momentum, world-class innovation and strong leadership team, and we view this landmark investment as a strong indicator of KKR’s commitment to supporting leading technology companies in India and Asia Pacific,” he added. This is the single-largest investment (in equity terms) made from KKR’s Asia private equity business to date.

The new capital should also help Ambani, India’s richest man, further solidify his last year’s commitment to investors when he pledged to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021 — in part because of the investments it has made to build Jio Platforms. Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

In the company’s earnings call last month, Ambani said several firms had expressed interest in buying stakes in Jio Platforms in the wake of the deal with Facebook. Recent investments also pave the way for an initial public offering of Jio, which could happen within five years.

Daily Crunch: Apple Stores begin to reopen

By Anthony Ha

Apple outlines new safety measures as it reopens stores, Huawei responds to new U.S. chip curbs and Jack Ma departs SoftBank’s board of directors.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for May 18, 2020.

1. Apple begins reopening some stores with temperature checks and other safeguards in place

In mid-March, Apple closed all of its stores outside of China “until further notice.” In a statement issued today under the title, “To our Customers,” Retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien offered insight into the company’s plans to reopen locations.

Nearly 100 stores have already resumed services, according to O’Brien. Face covers will be required for both employees and customers alike. In addition, temperature checks are now conducted at the store’s entrance, coupled with posted health questions. Apple has also instituted deeper cleaning on all surfaces, including display products.

2. Huawei admits uncertainty following new US chip curbs

Following the U.S. government’s announcement that it would further thwart Huawei’s chip-making capability, the Chinese telecoms equipment giant condemned the new ruling for being “arbitrary and pernicious.” Adding to its woes, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. has stopped taking new orders from the company. (Huawei declined to comment, while TSMC said the report was “purely market rumor.”)

3. Jack Ma to resign from SoftBank Group’s board of directors

The company did not give a reason for the resignation, but over the past year, Ma has been pulling back from business roles to focus on philanthropy. Last September, he resigned as Alibaba’s chairman, and is also expected to step down from its board at its annual general shareholder’s meeting this year.

4. Oculus surpasses $100 million in Quest content sales

Facebook-owned Oculus released a new sales figure as the company reaches the one-year anniversary of the release of the Quest headset. We didn’t get unit sales, but the company did share that it has sold $100 million worth of Quest content in the device’s first year — a number that indicates that although the platform is still nascent, a handful of developers are definitely making it work for them.

5. 3 views on the future of work, coffee shops and neighborhoods in a post-pandemic world

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. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. India’s Swiggy to cut 1,100 jobs, scale down cloud kitchen operations

In an internal email, which the Bangalore-headquartered food delivery startup published on its blog, Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety said the company’s core food business had been “severely impacted.”

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The latest full episode of Equity looks at a funding round for pizza delivery company Slice and the possibility of Uber acquiring Grubhub, while the Monday news roundup takes a deeper look at the financials of the food delivery business. Meanwhile, Original Content is back on a weekly schedule, and we review the new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

General Atlantic to invest $870M in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

By Manish Singh

Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Platforms has agreed to sell 1.34% stake to General Atlantic, the latest in a series of deals the top Indian telecom operator has secured in recent weeks.

On Sunday, New York-headquartered private equity firm General Atlantic said it would invest $869.8 million in the Indian telecom operator, a subsidiary of India’s most valued firm (Reliance Industries), joining Facebook, Silver Lake, and Vista Equity Partners that have also made sizeable bets on the three-and-a-half-year old Indian firm.

General Atlantic’s investment values Jio Platforms at $65 billion — the same valuation implied by the Silver Lake and Vista deals and a 12.5% premium over Facebook’s deal, the Indian firm said.

Sunday’s announcement further illustrates the growing appeal of Jio Platforms, which has raised $8.85 billion in the past one month by selling about 14.7% stake in the firm, to foreign investors that are looking for a slice in the fast-growing world’s second largest internet market.

General Atlantic, a high profile investor in consumer tech space that has invested in dozens of firms such as Airbnb, Alibaba, Ant Financial, Box, ByteDance, Facebook, Slack, Snapchat, and Uber, has also been a key investor in India. It has cut checks to several Indian startups including NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that helps those looking to rent or buy an apartment connect directly with property owners, edtech giants Unacademy and Byju’s, payments processor BillDesk, and National Stock Exchange of India.

Reliance Industries chairman Ambani, who poured more than $30 billion to build Jio Platforms, said the telecom network would “leverage General Atlantic’s proven global expertise and strategic insights across 40 years of technology investing.”

“General Atlantic shares our vision of a digital society for India and strongly believes in the transformative power of digitization in enriching the lives of 1.3 billion Indians,” he added.

Reliance Jio

Prepaid SIM cards of Reliance Jio at a retail store. (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Launched in the second half of 2016, Reliance Jio upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans and free voice calls. Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, operates the telecom venture, called Jio Infocomm, that has amassed 388 million subscribers since its launch to become the nation’s top telecom operator.

Reliance Jio Platforms also owns a suite of services including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), smartphones, broadband business, on-demand live television service and payments service.

“In just three and a half years, Jio has had a transformational impact in democratizing data and digital services, propelling India to be positioned as a leading global digital economy,” said Sandeep Naik, MD and Head of India & Southeast Asia at General Atlantic, in a statement.

The new capital would help Ambani, India’s richest man, further cement his last year’s commitment to investors when he said he aimed to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021. Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit amid the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

In the company’s earnings call last month, Ambani said several firms had expressed interest in buying stakes in Jio Platforms in the wake of the deal with Facebook . Bloomberg reported last week that Saudi Wealth Fund was also in talks with Ambani for a stake in Jio Platforms.

Facebook said that other than offering capital to Jio Platforms for a 9.99% stake in the firm, it would work with the Indian giant on a number of areas starting with e-commerce. Days later, JioMart, an e-commerce venture run by India’s most valued firm, began testing an “ordering system” on WhatsApp, the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million active users in the world’s second largest internet market.

RWDC Industries is a new startup hoping to become a bioplastics giant in Athens, Ga.

By Jonathan Shieber

Daniel Carraway spent his entire career working in paper and bioplastics.

The serial entrepreneur began his career at International Paper working in their research division before founding two previous companies that became cornerstones of the bioplastics industry. His latest venture, RWDC Industries, has raised $133 million in recent financing to build a new sustainable manufacturing juggernaut in the small city of Athens, Ga.

With offices in Athens and Singapore, RWDC is the fruit of a partnership between Carraway and Roland Wee, an engineer with decades of experience in the chemicals and construction business across Asia.

The two men met through mutual connections as Carraway sought new opportunities to pursue his longtime vision of commercializing bioplastics. The serial entrepreneur had just stepped away from his work with  Meredian Holdings Group and its subsidiary, Danimer Scientific — companies that sprung from work Carraway started at his kitchen table with his wife back in 2004, he said.

In 2019, bioplastics represented a $95 million opportunity, according to a report in Market Data Forecast, but the small size of the current market belies how big the opportunity can be, according to Carraway.

RWDC, Danimer and Kaneka are all pursuing an opportunity to replace plastic packaging, which was a $234.14 billion market, according to Grand View Research. It’s that potential market for plastics that has drawn countless companies over the years — including Carraway’s own — to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

Several of those companies failed. Perhaps the most successful of the early high-flyers was Metabolix, which had a public offering before the financial crisis hit in 2008. That company sold its bioplastics division to CJ CheilJedang for roughly $10 million and pivoted to crop science.

Carraway insists that the market has changed over the last few decades and the time is finally right for biology to supplant chemistry in industrial manufacturing.

“If you look back at the history of new materials development… especially polymers… there has never been a new polymer that had been invented that didn’t take 20 to 30 years for it to make wide-scale adoption,” said Carraway. “When a polymer is first developed it takes a while to get the manufacturing right to get it at wide scale. [And] it takes time for polymer converters to understand how to use a new material… it’s not that technologically is not viable, it’s about figuring out how to use the new material.”

Scale is important too, said Carraway. “You have to reach a certain critical availability in metric tons available in the global market to create a situation where people can use the new material,” he said.

RWDC can already make about 5,000 tons of PHA and expects to grow its capacity to make half a million tons of material, but that barely scratches the surface of available capacity for traditional plastics. “For the next decade we’re going to be in a mad scramble to grow production capacity because we’re going to be behind the demand curve,” said Carraway.

Industry observers have seen this story before. Because the new material Carraway is talking about isn’t actually all that new. For at least the past 20 years companies have been working on ways to cheaply manufacture polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). The material is produced by the fermentation of oil or sugars and serves as a replacement for the chemicals that are made from cracking ethane (a product of oil processing) to make plastic.

However, as concerns continue to mount over the environmental degradation caused by plastic pollutants and the contributions the plastics industry makes to emissions causing global climate change, the push for replacing plastics with more sustainable products has gained momentum.

Regulations in Europe will ban many single-use plastic products next year, forcing companies to build out their supply of bioplastic alternatives or abandon the use of plastics altogether.

Market moves like these have the potential to spur the bioplastics industry and shift production into high gear. Carraway said demand hasn’t been effected by the collapse of oil prices, which has driven down the costs of chemicals and plastics.

“Even though our materials are initially more expensive… the amount that they cost over the commodities in normal circumstances isn’t that much,” Carraway said. “Every customer we’re working with has asked us to speed up and give them more. No one has said we want to slow down or scale back or change our plans.”

And propelling the industry forward could provide a lift to local economies that have been financially ravaged by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

At least, that’s what Carraway is hoping will happen in Athens, Ga.

The company is using some of the money it raised from international and U.S.-based investors — including the Singapore-based venture capital firm Vickers Venture Partners; Ikea’s investment company; a Swiss pension fund; a Northeastern energy provider; and an industrial chemical company owned by Koch Industries — to revive an old factory in the city as its new production plant.

RWDC said the new facility will bring in 200 jobs to northeastern Georgia.

“We are excited to see RWDC expand its operations in Athens and add a substantial number of new well-paying jobs,” said Athens-Clarke County mayor, Kelly Girtz. “Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, and we have a long record of supporting innovation and industry. Like communities across America and the world, we want to see a reduction in plastic pollution, and we have high hopes that RWDC, with the help of the Athens community at their new facility, will be able to solve that problem.”

Pedaling-in-place with the Cubii Pro

By Brian Heater

So it has come to this. I haven’t set foot outside my apartment for a week and a half. YouTube yoga has been a kind of lifesaver, and I happened to have a largely untouched 30-pound kettlebell lying around. My Apple Watch has been mostly untouched, however. The stark realities of woefully underperforming exercise minutes and step counts are just too much on top of everything else.

Honestly, I scoffed a bit when a friend initially recommended an under-desk elliptical. But those were better days, when I was still able to take the bicycle out for a socially distant spin. Due to doctor’s orders, however, I now find myself unable to travel beyond the mailbox in my building lobby — and even that feels like tempting fate some days.

Now here I am, peddling away, writing a review of the Cubii Pro. It’s not a new product, exactly. But it’s certainly having its moment. In normal times, the device seems a silly bit of office “fitness” paraphernalia, designed to counteract the dangers of prolonged sitting we’ve frequently been warned against.

But if sitting was the new smoking in 2019, it’s simply the new reality in this era of self-quarantine. We’ll take our exercise wherever we can sneak it in — even if that means little more than walking between the desk and the kitchen most days. The Cubii line of products are by no means a replacement for more full-bodied exercise, but they’re a valiant attempt to help falling victim to complete atrophy.

As the name implies, the Pro is a step up from the standard Cubii that was launched via a Kickstarter campaign back in 2016. At $349, it’s an investment, with the biggest upgrades coming in the form of Bluetooth connectivity. There’s an app for iOS and Android that connects to third-party tracking software like Apple Health. That’s a pretty solid add-on, frankly, for those who’ve put a lot of stock in closing their Apple Watch rings.

The device ships mostly assembled. You’ll need to take it the last mile by attaching the pedals. And hey, free screwdriver. That’s simple enough. Honestly, the biggest headache about set up is charging the thing. The Pro is significantly larger and heavier than I’d initially anticipated, and it charges via microUSB. That means unless you’ve got a long cable, you’re going to have to find a spot to stick it near an outlet for an extended period. I don’t have floor outlets in my small apartment, so I had to get creative.

Charging takes a while, too. It’s best done overnight, if you can manage. The good news on that front, however, is it will stay charged for a while. I don’t anticipate having to charge it more often than every few weeks.

The size is also a constraint from the standpoint of use. The device’s length meant I had to pull my desk out from the wall a bit to use it. I also find myself having to sit back a bit, so as to avoid banging my knees on the bottom of the desk. Honestly, it’s probably best used while seated on a couch, watching TV (a laptop is too much to ask without a desk). If your office chair rolls as mine does, you’ll once again find yourself getting creative. The aforementioned kettlebell is getting even more use these days, as it currently sits between chair legs, hampering me from rolling backward with every peddle.

Those quibbles aside, I’ve mostly been enjoying my time with the product. The movement is smooth, the Bluetooth connection works well (though you may have to open the app to get it started) and there are eight resistance settings to keep things fresh. In other circumstances, I couldn’t imagine spending that much on this sort of product, but these are unique times. For those who still have trouble leaving the home even after things go mostly back to normal, it’s a nice, portable alternative to far pricier home exercise devices, with a solid little app to boot.

Sony invests $400M in Chinese entertainment platform Bilibili

By Manish Singh

Sony said on Thursday that it is investing $400 million to secure a 4.98% stake in Chinese entertainment giant Bilibili.

10-year old Bilibili features animation, comics, games and offers users the ability to stream their videos. The service, which has amassed over 115 million users, has attracted several big investors over the years, including Chinese giant Alibaba.

The announcement pushed Bilibili’s share up by 7.6% in the pre-market trading. Sony has made the investment through its wholly-owned subsidiary Sony Corporation of America.

In a statement, Sony said the company believes China is a key strategic region in the entertainment business. The two companies have also agreed to pursue collaboration opportunities in the entertainment field in China, including animation and mobile game apps, they said.

More to follow…

Ford, 3M, GE and the UAW to build respirators, ventilators and faceshields for coronavirus fight

By Darrell Etherington

Ford announced the details of its current manufacturing efforts around building much-needed medical supplies for front-line healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients on Tuesday. Its efforts include building Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) with partner 3M, including a new design that employs existing parts from both partners to deliver effectiveness and highly-scalable production capacity.

Ford says that it’s also going to be building face shields, leaning on its 3D printing capabilities, with an anticipated production rate of over 100,000 units per week. These are key pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by frontline healthcare staff to protect them against virus-containing droplets that are spread by patients through coughing and sneezing in clinical settings. The company has designed a new face shield, which will be tested with the first 1,000 units this week at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospitals in Michigan to evaluate their efficacy. Provided they perform as planned, Ford anticipates scaling to building 75,000 by end of week, with 100,000 able to be made in one of the company’s Plymouth, MI production facilities each week thereafter.

The automaker is also going to be working with GE on expanding production capacity for GE Healthcare’s ventilator, with a simplified design that should allow for higher volume production. That’s part of a response to a U.S. government request for more units to support healthcare needs, the company said. On top of its U.S.-focused ventilator project with GE, Ford is also working on a separate effort to spin up ventilator production targeting the UK based on a request for aid from that country’s government, and it’s also shipping back 165,000 N95 respirator masks that were sent by the company from the U.S. to China earlier this year, since the need for that equipment is now greater back in the U.S., the company said, and China’s situation continues to improve.

Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that U.S. automakers, including Ford, GM and Tesla had received the “go ahead” to make “ventilators and other metal products, fast.”

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said at the time in a statement to TechCrunch . “It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

Based on this update, it seems like Ford did indeed move quickly to take stock of where it could contribute, and in what capacity. The company will be looking at using both its own and partner facilities to produce this much-needed medical equipment, it said on Tuesday during a press conference call about the announcement, and it’ll also be leveraging existing parts and equipment to speed production capabilities and capacity.

The PAPRs that Ford is building, for instance, will use off-the-shelf components from the automaker’s F-150 truck’s cooled seating, as well as 3M’s existing HEPA filters. These respirators could potentially offer significant advantages in use compared to N95s, since they are battery-powered and can filter airborne virus particles for up to eight hours on a single, swappable standard power tool battery pack worn at the waist. Asked about production timelines and capacity, 3M Global Technical Director Mike Kesti said that they’re still working that out, with a focus on how Ford can supplement existing PAPR production before moving into producing their new version.

“[Ford is] helping us expand the capacity of our existing units,” Kesti said. “So impact will be over the next days and weeks to just increase capacity of our existing [PAPR]. But we’re also working closely together with them the leverage components both from Ford, that they have available, and 3M, particularly our filters that meet the NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] regulatory requirements, and trying to integrate that into a modified design that will meet the NIOSH regulation performance requirements, and scale it up as as quickly as possible.”

Ford is also assisting 3M with ramping production of its existing N95 respiratory masks, Kesti said.

Ford and GE don’t yet have a timeline, or estimates of production capacity for the new types of ventilators they’re working on either, but the team is “working feverishly to get to the release point,” according to GE Healthcare VP and Chief Quality Officer Tom Westrick.

“We don’t have specific timelines and numbers related to the to the design and the release of the new ventilators,” he said. “Although, obviously this is of utmost importance to both us and Ford.”

With the real estate industry facing headwinds, SoftBank-backed Compass lays off 15% of staff

By Jonathan Shieber

Compass, the real estate brokerage startup backed by roughly $1.6 billion in venture funding, has laid off 15% of its staff as a result of the shifting economic fortunes created by the global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal email seen by TechCrunch.

Citing economic fallout that has seen stock markets plummet 30 percent in just 22 days Compass chief executive Robert Reffkin wrote that the company has seen an over 60 percent decline in real estate showings and is modeling a 6-month decline in revenue of 50 percent.

“We aren’t just facing an economic recession, we are facing an economic standstill,” Reffkin wrote. As the country’s unemployment rate soars to a projected 10 percent, Reffkin wrote that the company had no choice but to cut its workforce.

The 15 percent reduction in staffing is being accompanied by an 80% reduction in its concierge business and a shift to entirely virtual delivery. As part of the reductions in corporate spending, Reffkin cut his own salary to nothing and reduced the entire executive team’s salary by 25 percent.

For the employees that are laid off, the company said it would provide an “enhanced severance and COBRA health insurance” along with letting employees hang on to their company laptops and providing tools, training, and networking help so that they can try to get a new job.

The news from Compass is just one indicator of a potential reckoning coming for the booming property tech investment category.

Earlier today, TechCrunch reported that Zillow was suspending its homebuying activities as a result of the new economic reality.

Zillow said it decided to halt its offers to sellers after several states, including California, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, New York and Nevada, implemented emergency orders requiring people to stay home and all non-essential business activities, including some real estate-related activities, to stop.

Opendoor and Redfin made similar decisions to pause homebuying. Meanwhile other real estate companies are also laying off staff. The co-working startup Convene laid off staff as well, citing current market conditions.

Reffkin is hopeful that the economy will turn around and predicted that the economy could turn around in the next 100 days. And he ends his email looking forward to a return to normalcy for Compass and the broader market.

“I feel hopeful that China’s apparent success at reducing the spread of the Coronavirus and restarting their enormous economy may provide a blueprint for our future, as well,” Reffkin wrote. “And I feel hopeful because of the ways I see people throughout our company and throughout our society stepping up during this challenging time.”

To date, Compass has raised $1.6 billion in financing from investors including the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity, Wellington Management, Softbank Vision Fund, and the Qatar Investment Authority, according to Crunchbase.

 

Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

By Darrell Etherington

The tech industry is mobilizing its considerable resources to attempt to support efforts against the growing global coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their company’s ongoing contributions, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread of infection.

Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is joining “millions of masks” for this use. Apple also detailed some of its other updates via earlier releases, including a $15 million donation, along with two-to-one corporate matching for all employee donations that go towards COVID-19 response.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided an update on Saturday on the company’s official blog that included details about the change in Amazon’s prioritization for its warehousing and logistics operations, which now focus on essential items including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies. Bezos also reiterated Amazon’s commitment to hiring 100,000 new roles, along with raising hourly wages for fulfilment workers.

Bezos notes that while the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” that it intends to distribute to its full-time and contract workers who are not able to work from home, “very few of those orders have been filled” to to the global supply shortage. He further notes that these resources are likely to go to frontline healthcare workers first, and that the company will focus on getting them to their staff in order of priority once they become available.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella provided a lengthy update about his company’s various efforts in a LinkedIn post on Saturday, publishing an email he sent to all Microsoft employees for external consumption. Nadella describes some of its telehealth platform software work, as well as a number of collaborative data projects, including the John Hopkins University global COVID-19 confirmed case tracker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a chatbot assessment tool for COVID-19 that uses Microsoft’s health chatbot tech as its underlying framework.

Microsoft is also seeing Teams and Minecraft being used globally for remote learning iniativies designed to supplement in-perosn school closures, and it’s working on machine learning and big data projects to support global research efforts. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz announced that it would be providing an open research data set in partnership with colleagues at academic institutions around the world, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. The data set, called the COVID-19 Open Research Data Set, includes more than 29,000 scholarly articles about the virus, and will grow as more are published.

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