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Novakid’s investors bet $35M that it can teach kids English

By Natasha Mascarenhas

If you’re trying to develop fluency in a non-native tongue, language immersion is a crucial part of the learning process. Surrounding yourself with native speakers helps with pronunciation, context building, and most of all, confidence.

But what if you’re an eight-year-old kid in Spain learning English and can’t swing a solo trip to the United States for the summer?

Novakid, founded by Maxim Azarov, wants to be your next best option. The San Francisco-based edtech startup offers virtual-only, English language immersion for kids between the ages of four through 12, by combining a mix of different services from live tutors to gamification.

After closing its $4.25 million Series A round last December, Novakid announced today that it is back with a $35 million Series B financing, led by Owl Ventures and Goodwater Capital. Existing investors also participated in the round, including PortfoLion, LearnStart, TMT Investments, Xploration Capital, LETA Capital and BonAngels.

The startup is raising capital in response to an active start to its year. The company’s active client base grew 350% year over year, currently at over 50,000 paying students. The money will be used to get more students into its universe of tools, as well as help Novakid expand into international markets with high populations of speakers who want to learn English.

The company’s suite of services are built around two principles: First, that it can immerse early-age learners into the world of English at scale, and second, that it can actually be fun to use.

When a user signs up, they are first connected to one of Novakid’s 2,000 live tutors for their first class. Tutors must be native English speakers with a B.A. degree or higher, as well as an international teaching certificate such as DELTA, CELTA, TESOL or TEFL.

“One of the things that is really important, even psychologically, is to start listening to the language, start interacting with a live person, and remove being afraid of not understanding something,” Azarov said. The company wants to recreate the conditions of how a kid likely learned their first language.

In the class, the tutors only speak English, and users are encouraged to do the same to slowly build and mistake their way into confidence. While the live, video-based classes are a key part of Novakid’s product, Azarov said it was important that his company “was not just giving you access to a teacher” as its main value proposition.

“Most of the competitors are taking teachers and making them available remotely so you don’t have to travel and you have a bigger selection,” he said. But if you look at the industry in the bigger picture, guys like Oxford, Cambridge, Pearson who provide content for the language learning industry, their product basically sucks. It’s really bad.” So, Novakid puts most of its energy into rebuilding a curriculum that works with better design, and includes games.

Gamified content lives both in and out of classes. Within the classroom, a teacher may take a student on a VR-enhanced tour through famous landmarks and museums to practice vocabulary. Self-paced content could look like a multiplayer “battle” between two students answering questions within a certain time period to get a better score. Novakid has an entire team dedicated to game design and development.

Students are clicking in. Novakid users spend two-thirds of their time on the website with tutors, and one-third with self-paced content that the company built in-house. The company wants to switch those concentrations because more students are spending time with the asynchronous content around grammar and vocabulary, and teachers are reserved for more complex information like speaking and conversation.

Part of the difficulty of scaling up a language learning business is that users need to stay motivated. Gamification helps with engagement, but Novakid’s clientele of children could also be fast to churn compared to adult learners, simply due to priorities. Azarov said that he sees how some would view selling exclusively to children as a disadvantage, but he views their focus as differentiation.

“You get better brand equity when you’re more focused,” he said. “The way kids learn language is vastly different from the way adults learn language, and I don’t think the general players who do ‘everything from everybody’ will be able to do [the former] as well as we are.” Duolingo recently launched Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app with hundreds of short-form exercises. While the now-public company has strong branding, Novakid’s strategy differs by adding in more services around live learning and speaking.

So far, the company has proven that its strategy is sticking. Its revenue in 2020 was $9 million, and in 2021 it is expected to hit between $36 million to $45 million in revenue. It declined to disclose the specifics around diversity of the team, but plans to kick off a quite intensive recruiting spree going forward. Azarov plans to add 200 people to his 300-person company in the next six months.

Demand Curve: Questions you need to answer in your paid search ads

By Ram Iyer
Stewart Hillhouse Contributor
Stewart Hillhouse writes actionable growth marketing insights as senior content lead at Demand Curve. By night, he interviews marketers and creatives on his podcast, Top Of Mind. Before getting into marketing, Stewart was a semi-professional lumberjack. He also writes at stewarthillhouse.com.

Around 15% of website traffic comes through paid search ads. But to turn passive searchers into active shoppers, your ads should answer their question and entice them to click.

We’ve tested thousands of paid search ads at Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve. This post breaks down 14 questions your paid search ads should answer to ensure you’re only paying for the highest-intent shoppers.

Question 1: “What’s in it for me?”

An important distinction between paid search and organic search is that paid ads are an interruption. Users of search engines are simply looking for an answer to their question. The people who see your ads don’t owe you anything. Just because you’re paying to have your ad show up first doesn’t mean they’re going to pay attention to it.

To generate genuine interest in your paid ads, reframe your offer as a favor.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Describe the features of your product as the solution to your customers’ problem.
  • Emphasize the outcome your customer seeks.

For example, reframing free delivery as an extra convenience makes the offer that much more attractive.

Use ad extensions by listing additional benefits in the description of the page. For example, including “customized plans” in the pricing extension page signals to your customer that they’ll have control over the cost. This will help to attract the curiosity of even the most cost-conscious buyers.

To capture genuine interest in your paid ads, re-frame your offer as a favor.

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Question 2: “Why should I buy now?”

Approximately 80% of e-commerce shopping carts are abandoned, mostly because shoppers don’t feel any urgency to complete the transaction. Online shoppers aren’t in any rush, as the internet is open 24/7 and inventory feels unlimited.

Use ad copy that bridges the gap between their problem and your solution. The easiest way to create that curiosity bridge is by asking a question.

To answer the question, “Why should I buy now?”, you’re going to have to create an incentive to get them to take action now.

Can your startup support a research-based workflow?

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

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

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

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

Compile the right research team

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

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

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

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

Choose the problems you want to solve

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

Salesforce steps into RPA buying Servicetrace and teaming it with Mulesoft

By Ron Miller

Over the last couple of years, Robotic Process Automation or RPA has been red hot with tons of investor activity and M&A from companies like SAP, IBM and ServiceNow. UIPath had a major IPO in April and has a market cap over $30 billion. I wondered when Salesforce would get involved and today the company dipped its toe into the RPA pool, announcing its intent to buy German RPA company Servicetrace.

Salesforce intends to make Servicetrace part of Mulesoft, the company it bought in 2018 for $6.5 billion. The companies aren’t divulging the purchase price, suggesting it’s a much smaller deal. When Servicetrace is in the fold, it should fit in well with Mulesoft’s API integration, helping to add an automation layer to Mulesoft’s tool kit.

“With the addition of Servicetrace, MuleSoft will be able to deliver a leading unified integration, API management, and RPA platform, which will further enrich the Salesforce Customer 360 — empowering organizations to deliver connected experiences from anywhere. The new RPA capabilities will enhance Salesforce’s Einstein Automate solution, enabling end-to-end workflow automation across any system for Service, Sales, Industries, and more,” Mulesoft CEO Brent Hayward wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

While Einstein, Salesforce’s artificial intelligence layer, gives companies with more modern tooling the ability to automate certain tasks, RPA is suited to more legacy operations, and this acquisition could be another step in helping Salesforce bridge the gap between older on-prem tools and more modern cloud software.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials says that it brings another dimension to Salesforce’s digital transformation tools. “It didn’t take Salesforce long to move to the next acquisition after closing their biggest purchase with Slack. But automation of processes and workflows fueled by realtime data coming from a growing variety sources is becoming a key to finding success with digital transformation. And this adds a critical piece to that puzzle for Salesforce/MulseSoft,” he said.

While it feels like Salesforce is joining the market late, in an investor survey we published in May Laela Sturdy, general partner at CapitalG told us that we are just skimming the surface so far when it comes to RPA’s potential.

“We’re a long way from needing to think about the space maturing. In fact, RPA adoption is still in its early infancy when you consider its immense potential. Most companies are only now just beginning to explore the numerous use cases that exist across industries. The more enterprises dip their toes into RPA, the more use cases they envision,” Sturdy responded in the survey.

Servicetrace was founded in 2004, long before the notion of RPA even existed. Neither Crunchbase nor Pitchbook shows any money raised, but the website suggests a mature company with a rich product set. Customers include Fujitsu, Siemens, Merck and Deutsche Telekom.

All-electric 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT provide a pop of tech in understated packaging

By Abigail Bassett

Luxury, technology and a whole lot of flash often go hand in hand. In the age of space-faring billionaires, we all expect the latest wiz-bang gadget to look like something from the future, right?

Not in Audi’s view. The 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT are a pair of all-electric grand touring halo cars that don’t look like something from 2060. They look just like sleek gasoline-powered GTs, but beneath the skin, there’s a whole lot more power, technological pop and panache than the design implies at first glance.

The 2022 Audi e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT get a low-slung roofline, wide track and long wheelbase like those grand tourers of the past, with the addition of a few design flourishes to bring it in line with Audi’s subtle, yet luxurious aesthetic. While the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT were both produced alongside the Audi R8 (its roofline is lower than the R8) and borrow a few things from that iconic design, these electric grand tourers are a pair of beasts all their own.

Nuts and bolts

Based on the same 800-volt architecture as the Porsche Taycan, the e-tron GT makes 469 combined horsepower (up to 522 hp with overboost) from a pair of dual, permanent-magnet motors powering the front and rear wheels. The RS e-tron GT makes 590 (637 hp with overboost) horsepower from those same motors and Audi says it can do 0-60 in 3.1 seconds.

Both vehicles are capable, confident and quick and don’t tarry on mountain roads or long highway stretches. Acceleration is almost seamless, as it is in most electric vehicles.

Thanks to Audi’s electric quattro all-wheel drive with torque vectoring system, both vehicles are sure-footed and well sorted, even when the wheels start to squeal. This system allows a variable amount of power to be sent to wheels that slip when cornering hard, making a sudden lane change, or driving in slippery conditions.

The vehicles I drove were outfitted with summer tires, and I got to test a bit of this out on a closed slalom course with a sudden lane change at the end at the Agua Dulce Airpark about 50 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. I ran the RS e-tron GT through the cones three consecutive times to get a feel for the system and each time the car felt secure, planted and under control.

Steering, speed and range

Audi RS e-tron GT Tango Red_03

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Both the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT also get optional rear-wheel steering. Under 30 mph, the rear wheels can turn up to 2.8 degrees in the opposite direction to the front wheels to help make the turning radius of the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT smaller. Above 30 mph the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front. This system is similar (with fewer degrees of rotation) to that in the Porsche Taycan.

While I did not get to try out overboost in either vehicle on the smooth tarmac at the airpark, I did run a series of back-to-back 0 to 100 mph accelerations using launch control in the RS e-tron GT. Amongst the cohort of journalists there, I came in second, doing 0-60 in 3.24 seconds and 0-100 in 7.29 seconds. In 102-degree heat, on cold tires, those numbers are plenty impressive. By the end of the runway, I saw speeds approaching 120 mph, 32 mph short of the electronically limited 155 mph, (152 mph in the e-tron GT) before hitting the brakes. After three back-to-back runs, the fully charged RS e-tron GT had only lost 20 miles of range.

The EPA-estimated range for the RS e-tron GT is 232 miles while the e-tron GT is estimated to get 239 miles of range.

Charging up

2022 Audi e-tron GT Ascari Blue_54

2022 Audi e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Those estimated EPA ranges are a result of the low-slung 93 kWh battery pack (the same in both vehicles) that Audi says can charge up to 80% in 23 minutes on 270-volt chargers (DC fast charging).

The e-tron GT starts at $99,900 and the RS e-tron GT pops to a higher $139,900 (both excluding the $1,045 destination charge). That price tag does come with one-time limited benefit.

Audi paired up with Electrify America to offer free, unlimited public charging for three years (without time restrictions). They also offer at-home charging stations set up through Qmerit. Both the e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT come with standard dual charging ports and a 9.6 kW charging system with 240-volt capability so that owners can charge anywhere. Electrify America was launched by the Volkswagen Group, which owns Audi, following the Dieselgate scandal.

Finding any charger is available through the infotainment system, known as the MMI, and the 10.1-inch touchscreen in the center console. Head to navigation and then hit the icon marked with a plug and a list of chargers near you will populate.

While I didn’t get the opportunity to try to find chargers on the one-day drive, Audi says that finding EA chargers and their status and availability is easy through both Audi’s MyAudi app (available via smartphone and desktop), and through the MMI.  Audi says that drivers can sort by their preferred charging level (Level 1 through DC fast chargers) and navigate to the charger all without leaving Audi’s in-vehicle interface.

Drivers can also perform the search on their phone through EA’s app or through the MyAudi app and send directions to the car either via wireless CarPlay, which is currently available or wireless Android Auto, which is coming on production models, though it wasn’t available in the e-tron GT or the RS e-tron GT that I drove. Drivers can also connect their smartphone through a USB-C port located in the center armrest.

I didn’t get to try the MyAudi app since I am not an owner (it requires tying the vehicle’s VIN to the app to ensure that privacy is maintained), but Audi says that drivers can plan a route on their MyAudi app, and the system will automatically include charge stops along the way to ensure that they arrive with plenty of battery in reserve.

For those luxury buyers who want a bit more support to make a seamless transition to an all-electric luxury car, Audi is launching what they call Audi Care for EVs with the e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT. At participating dealers, owners can pay an additional $999 plus tax to get vehicle servicing for four years that includes high-wear items like wipers and brake pads, available valet pick-up and drop-off for service appointments, mobile service (tire changes, basic maintenance) and, if an owner needs it, up to 10 free tows to an Audi center per year. Audi is also offering seven free days of rentals from Audi by Silvercar with the purchase of an e-tron GT or a RS e-tron.

That virtual cockpit, though

Audi-e-tron GT Ascari Blue

2022 Audi e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

The e-tron GT and the RS e-tron GT blend features from both the e-tron (the SUV) and the Audi R8, and both GTs get dual screens that offer tons of features for drivers and passengers. The 12.3-inch virtual cockpit in front of the driver is highly customizable, like it is on most modern Audis today, offering everything from map views to battery status access with few simple inputs on the steering wheel.

The system makes navigating a breeze and drivers or passengers can use voice control to set destinations by simply pressing the button on the steering wheel and giving the car an address, point of interest or city.

The voice system is surprisingly robust and while it was a bit laggy when I used it, it recognizes natural language inputs and verbally prompts the speaker to use specific terms when choosing between two options — say canceling a route and putting in a new destination versus making a stopover. Never once did I have to try multiple times to get the system to recognize what I wanted to do.

The 10.1-inch infotainment system in the center console offers everything from drive mode selection to specific Audi apps, navigation options, optional massage, heat and cooled seats, and much more.

The Audi MMI center screen is touch capacitive and users can drag and drop icons around, allowing owners and their passengers to customize the home screen in any way. The seat heater, cooler and the massage can all be run at the same time, should someone so desire (and have the right equipment), all from the MMI.

Maybe just a little flash?

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT Tango Red_23

2022 Audi RS e-tron GT. Image Credits: Audi

Both GTs are pushing $100,000, and for that, some buyers may want just a little bit more razzle dazzle.

For the launch year, Audi is offering one pricey, but special option on the RS e-tron GT: the Year One package. For $20,350, owners get the “carbon performance” package with features like carbon-fiber trim, illuminated door sills, black badges and rear-wheel steering, along with special 21-inch wheels, red ceramic brake calipers, red seatbelts and red stitching inside.

For those who want the prestige, power and advanced technology of a luxury brand, in an electric halo grand tourer that doesn’t (necessarily) come with all the flash, the 2022 Audi e-tron GT and Audi RS e-tron GT fit the bill. Both are on sale now.

The next generation of global payments: Afterpay + Square

By Ram Iyer
Dana Stalder Contributor
Dana Stalder is a partner at Matrix Partners. The former commercial chief (Product, Sales and Marketing) at PayPal, he now leads fintech investing at Matrix Partners, where he also invests in consumer marketplaces and enterprise software.

Sunday was a big day in fintech: Afterpay has agreed to merge with Square. This agreement sets two of the most admired financial technology companies in recent history on a path to becoming one.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks. Square has built a very significant merchant payment network, and, via Cash App, a thriving high-growth consumer payment service. However, these two lines of business have historically not been integrated. Together, Square and Afterpay will be able to weave all of these services together into a single integrated experience.

Afterpay and Cash App each have double-digit millions of consumers, and Square’s seller ecosystem and Afterpay’s merchant network both record double-digit billions of payment volume per year. From the offline register and the online checkout flow to sending money in just a few taps, Square and Afterpay will tell a complete story of next-generation economic empowerment.

As Afterpay’s only institutional venture investor, I wanted to share some perspective on how we got here and what this merger means for the future of consumer finance and the payments industry.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks.

Critical innovations in fintech

Every five to 10 years, the global payments industry undergoes a critical innovation cycle that determines the winners and losers for the next several decades. The last major transition was the shift to NFC-based mobile payments, which I wrote about in 2015. The major mobile OS vendors (Apple and Google) cemented their position in the global payments stack by deftly bridging the needs of the networks (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) and consumers by way of the mobile devices in their pockets.

Afterpay sparked the latest critical innovation cycle. Conceived in a living room in Sydney by a millennial, Nick Molnar, for millennials, Afterpay had a key insight: Millennials don’t like credit.

Millennials came of age during the global mortgage crisis of 2008. As young adults, they watched their friends and family lose their homes by overextending on mortgage debt, bolstering their already lower trust for banks. They also have record levels of student debt. Therefore, it’s no surprise that millennials (and Gen Z right behind them) strongly prefer debit cards over credit cards.

But it’s one thing to recognize the paradigm shift and quite another to do something about it. Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen did something, ultimately building one of the fastest-growing payments startups in history on their core product: Buy now, pay later … and never any interest.

Afterpay’s product is simple. If you have $100 in your cart and choose to pay with Afterpay, it will charge your bank card (typically a debit card) $25 every two weeks in four installments. No interest, no revolving debt and no fees with on-time payments. For the millennial consumer, this meant they could get the primary benefit of a credit card (the ability to pay later) with their debit card, without the need to worry about all the bad things that come with credit cards — high interest rates and revolving debt.

All upside, no downside. Who could resist? For the early merchants, virtually all of whom relied on millennials as their key growth segment, they got a fair trade: Pay a small fee above payment processing to Afterpay, get significantly higher average order values and conversions to purchase. It was a win-win proposition and, with lots of execution, a new payment network was born.

The rise of Afterpay

Image Credits: Matrix Partners

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery

Afterpay went somewhat unnoticed outside Australia in 2016 and 2017, but once it came to the U.S. in 2018 and built a business there that broke $100 million net revenues in only its second year, it got attention.

Klarna, which had struggled with product-market fit in the U.S., pivoted their business to emulate Afterpay. And Affirm, which had always been about traditional credit — generating a significant portion of their revenue from consumer interest — also noticed and introduced their own BNPL offering. Then came PayPal with “Pay in 4,” and just a few weeks ago, there has been news that Apple is expected to enter the space.

Afterpay created a global phenomenon that has now become a category embraced by mainstream players across the industry — a category that is on track to take a meaningful share of global retail payments over the next 10 years.

Afterpay stands apart. It has always been the BNPL leader by virtually every measure, and it has done it by staying true to their customers’ needs. The company is great at understanding the millennial and Gen Z consumer. It’s evident in the voice, tone and lifestyle brand you experience as an Afterpay user, and in the merchant network it continues to build strategically. It’s also evident in the simple fact that it doesn’t try to cross-sell users revolving debt products.

Most importantly, it’s evident in the usage metrics relative to competition. This is a product that people love, use and have come to rely on, all with better, fairer terms than were ever available to them than with traditional consumer credit.

Consumer loyalty and frequency drives powerful network effect, securing the lifetime value of a consumer

Image Credits: Afterpay H1 FY21 results presentation

Square + Afterpay: The perfect fit

I’ve been building payment companies for over 15 years now, initially in the early days of PayPal and more recently as a venture investor at Matrix Partners. I’ve never seen a combination that has such potential to deliver extraordinary value to consumers and merchants. Even more so than eBay + PayPal.

Beyond the clear product and network complementarity, what’s most exciting to me and my partners is the alignment of values and culture. Square and Afterpay share a vision of a future with more opportunity and fewer economic hurdles for all. As they build toward that future together, I’m confident that this combination is a winner. Square and Afterpay together will become the world’s next generation payment provider.

Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.

“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.

Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.

Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.

Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.

The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.

Tech leaders can be the secret weapon for supercharging ESG goals

By Ram Iyer
Jeff Sternberg Contributor
Jeff Sternberg is a technical director in the Office of the CTO (OCTO) at Google Cloud, a team of technologists and industry experts that help Google Cloud's customers solve challenging problems and disrupt their industries.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors should be key considerations for CTOs and technology leaders scaling next generation companies from day one. Investors are increasingly prioritizing startups that focus on ESG, with the growth of sustainable investing skyrocketing.

What’s driving this shift in mentality across every industry? It’s simple: Consumers are no longer willing to support companies that don’t prioritize sustainability. According to a survey conducted by IBM, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated consumers’ focus on sustainability and their willingness to pay out of their own pockets for a sustainable future. In tandem, federal action on climate change is increasing, with the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and a recent executive order on climate commitments.

Over the past few years, we have seen an uptick in organizations setting long-term sustainability goals. However, CEOs and chief sustainability officers typically forecast these goals, and they are often long term and aspirational — leaving the near and midterm implementation of ESG programs to operations and technology teams.

Until recently, choosing cloud regions meant considering factors like cost and latency to end users. But carbon is another factor worth considering.

CTOs are a crucial part of the planning process, and in fact, can be the secret weapon to help their organization supercharge their ESG targets. Below are a few immediate steps that CTOs and technology leaders can take to achieve sustainability and make an ethical impact.

Reducing environmental impact

As more businesses digitize and more consumers use devices and cloud services, the energy needed by data centers continues to rise. In fact, data centers account for an estimated 1% of worldwide electricity usage. However, a forecast from IDC shows that the continued adoption of cloud computing could prevent the emission of more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from 2021 through 2024.

Make compute workloads more efficient: First, it’s important to understand the links between computing, power consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Making your app and compute workloads more efficient will reduce costs and energy requirements, thus reducing the carbon footprint of those workloads. In the cloud, tools like compute instance auto scaling and sizing recommendations make sure you’re not running too many or overprovisioned cloud VMs based on demand. You can also move to serverless computing, which does much of this scaling work automatically.

Deploy compute workloads in regions with lower carbon intensity: Until recently, choosing cloud regions meant considering factors like cost and latency to end users. But carbon is another factor worth considering. While the compute capabilities of regions are similar, their carbon intensities typically vary. Some regions have access to more carbon-free energy production than others, and consequently the carbon intensity for each region is different.

So, choosing a cloud region with lower carbon intensity is often the simplest and most impactful step you can take. Alistair Scott, co-founder and CTO of cloud infrastructure startup Infracost, underscores this sentiment: “Engineers want to do the right thing and reduce waste, and I think cloud providers can help with that. The key is to provide information in workflow, so the people who are responsible for infraprovisioning can weigh the CO2 impact versus other factors such as cost and data residency before they deploy.”

Another step is to estimate your specific workload’s carbon footprint using open-source software like Cloud Carbon Footprint, a project sponsored by ThoughtWorks. Etsy has open-sourced a similar tool called Cloud Jewels that estimates energy consumption based on cloud usage information. This is helping them track progress toward their target of reducing their energy intensity by 25% by 2025.

Make social impact

Beyond reducing environmental impact, CTOs and technology leaders can have significant, direct and meaningful social impact.

Include societal benefits in the design of your products: As a CTO or technology founder, you can help ensure that societal benefits are prioritized in your product roadmaps. For example, if you’re a fintech CTO, you can add product features to expand access to credit in underserved populations. Startups like LoanWell are on a mission to increase access to capital for those typically left out of the financial system and make the loan origination process more efficient and equitable.

When thinking about product design, a product needs to be as useful and effective as it is sustainable. By thinking about sustainability and societal impact as a core element of product innovation, there is an opportunity to differentiate yourself in socially beneficial ways. For example, Lush has been a pioneer of package-free solutions, and launched Lush Lens — a virtual package app leveraging cameras on mobile phones and AI to overlay product information. The company hit 2 million scans in its efforts to tackle the beauty industry’s excessive use of (plastic) packaging.

Responsible AI practices should be ingrained in the culture to avoid social harms: Machine learning and artificial intelligence have become central to the advanced, personalized digital experiences everyone is accustomed to — from product and content recommendations to spam filtering, trend forecasting and other “smart” behaviors.

It is therefore critical to incorporate responsible AI practices, so benefits from AI and ML can be realized by your entire user base and that inadvertent harm can be avoided. Start by establishing clear principles for working with AI responsibly, and translate those principles into processes and procedures. Think about AI responsibility reviews the same way you think about code reviews, automated testing and UX design. As a technical leader or founder, you get to establish what the process is.

Impact governance

Promoting governance does not stop with the board and CEO; CTOs play an important role, too.

Create a diverse and inclusive technology team: Compared to individual decision-makers, diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. Additionally, Gartner research found that in a diverse workforce, performance improves by 12% and intent to stay by 20%.

It is important to reinforce and demonstrate why diversity, equity and inclusion is important within a technology team. One way you can do this is by using data to inform your DEI efforts. You can establish a voluntary internal program to collect demographics, including gender, race and ethnicity, and this data will provide a baseline for identifying diversity gaps and measuring improvements. Consider going further by baking these improvements into your employee performance process, such as objectives and key results (OKRs). Make everyone accountable from the start, not just HR.

These are just a few of the ways CTOs and technology leaders can contribute to ESG progress in their companies. The first step, however, is to recognize the many ways you as a technology leader can make an impact from day one.

The tale of two edtech IPOs

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. Last week, Natasha and Alex jumped on Twitter Spaces to discuss the tale of two edtech IPOs: Duolingo, the consumer language learning company, and Powerschool, the enterprise K-12 software platform. It was a rare moment in the sun for the recently-revitalized sector, which saw two companies list on the NASDAQ on the same dang day.

Special shout out to our producer Chris Gates for handling this impromptu live chat, tech difficulties and all, and bringing it to your ears on this lovely Monday. Don’t forget that Equity is largely on break this week!

Here’s what we got into, featuring some edtech entrepreneurs nice enough to drop on by:

  • China’s edtech crackdown and how it is impacting startups both internationally and domestically. The regulations, one of which will force for-profit tutoring companies to turn into non-profits, are also getting the cold shoulder from U.S. edtech VCs, it seems.
  •  As Lightspeed Ventures investor Mercedes Bent so aptly put it, the news is somewhat ironic: “[T]he US edtech IPO market is on fire (after being dormant for so long) and the China edtech market is crumbling (after being on fire for so long).”
  • Evidence of that can be found in the Duolingo IPO pricing arc. The company first posted a strong estimate of its worth, raised its range, priced above that raised interval, and still managed to trade higher. The company is still up more than $30 from its IPO price.
  • Powerschool was a bit different. It priced at $18 per share, the low-end of its $18 to $20 range. The company is up from its IPO price, albeit a much more modest two, or three percent in today’s early trading.

In the second half of the show, we brought on the following host of edtech founders to share their hot takes about the current state of edtech:

Before we go, Equity is on a “break” this week, as we do some soul searching and refresh before our next run of shows. Obviously we still had to shaare this episode, and um, are recording another episode this week too, but you, my dear friend, will hear from us again next Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

The Station: The script for Elon Musk’s Loop drivers, Redwood snags $700M and a chat with Kodiak Robotics’ co-founder

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

In case you missed it, our scoop machine Mark Harris was at it again. This time, he found some interesting and entertaining documents related to Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas received via a Freedom of Information Act. Among the treasure is a “ride script” that instructs drivers for the Loop system to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.

The takeaway: the script shows just how serious The Boring Company, which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially Musk.

Importantly, the documents confirm that Autopilot, the advanced driver assistance system in the Tesla vehicles used in the Loop system, must be disabled.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

This is a step outside the norm of what I usually think of when I think of micromobility (you’ll see what I did there in a second), but this week I wrote about a new in-shoe navigation system that helps the visually impaired walk around town.

Ashirase, as both the system and the name of the company is called, involves attaching a three-dimensional vibration device, including a motion sensor, inside a pair of shoes. This bit of hardware is connected to a smartphone app that someone with low vision can use to enter their destination. Vibrations in the front part of the shoe give the cue to walk straight, and vibrations on the left and right cue the user to make a left or right turn. The aim is to free up the hands while walking to use a cane and allow the walker to put more of their full attention on audio signals in the environment, thus making their commutes a bit more intuitive and their lives more independent.

It’s a really interesting bit of tech because it uses a similar stack to what we’re seeing in autonomous driving and advanced driver assistance systems. Which makes sense because that’s the founder’s background. Wataru Chino worked in Honda’s EV motor control and automated driving systems departments since 2009. His startup is a product of Honda’s incubator, Ignition, that features original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business.

Accessibility: We love to see it

Cabify recently announced a new feature that makes its rideshare service more accessible to the elderly, people with partial visual impairment and people with cognitive disabilities. The feature provides voice notifications to alert the user when a driver is on their way or has just arrived, when the ride starts, when a stop has been reached, when a message has come into the app’s chat, etc.

The notification makes use of a text-to-speech functionality that Android and iOS phones have.

“Apple and Google operating systems allow us to pronounce sentences with the system’s voice but we have developed the text and established the situations where we inform and draw the user’s attention,” a Cabify spokesperson told me.

Lime’s push for world domination

And we’re back with the latest on Lime’s plans to take over the world, one electric scooter at a time. The micromobility goliath has announced an integration with the Moovit transit planning app. From Monday onwards, Moovit users in 117 cities across 20 countries will see Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds show up as an option for travel, either as the whole journey or as part of a multi-modal journey. This news follows a trend we’re seeing as cities start to see micromobility companies as less of a public nuisance and more of a public solution, particularly for first- and last-mile travel. Integrating with Moovit, an app that’s solely focused on public transportation, is a move that helps in the long run creating a broader transportation ecosystem.

New whips

Espin released its limited edition fixie style e-bike called the Aero. It’s just the thing for Seattle hipsters, particularly ones with a stick-and-poke bike tattoo. The bike frame is just as sleek as you’d expect from a single gear bike, all clean lines and comes in either a forest green or a smoke gray. The Aero can reach top speeds of 20 mph and can hit 30 miles on a single charge. Best of all, it doesn’t break the bank at $1,399.

Splach, which normally makes e-scooters and e-bikes, has come out with something it’s calling the Transformer. I truly don’t know how to categorize it but it looks like a lot of fun to ride. The company is calling the light-duty e-vehicle a “mini-moto Robust scooter specialized for rugged terrains.” It looks like a dirt bike has been sized way down and given a long neck so you can stand on it and still steer it. It also looks like it would indeed do well on rugged terrains, based on videos of people shredding down dirt paths. Splach used Indiegogo to fund the thing, and said it reached its goal within an hour.

Deal of the week

money the station

Get ready to hear a lot more about supply chain constraints around batteries with virtually every automaker shouting out pledges to shift their entire portfolio away from internal combustion engines and towards electric powertrains.

Cell producers need access to the raw materials like nickel that are needed to make batteries. Mining those materials is the most common means, but that isn’t sustainable (and I’m not just talking about the environmental toll). JB Straubel, who is best known as the former Tesla co-founder and longtime CTO, is tackling the supply chain issue through his startup Redwood Materials. The battery recycling company is aiming to create a circular supply chain. This closed-loop system, Straubel says, will be essential if the world’s battery cell producers hope to have the supply needed for consumer electronics and the coming wave of electric vehicles.

High-profile investors like Amazon, funds managed by T. Rowe and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures fund recognize the opportunity and have injected $700M in fresh capital into Redwood Materials. This is comically large compared to the startup’s last raise of $40 million. And sources tell me that this pushes Redwood Material’s valuation to $3.7 billion.

I interviewed Straubel about the raise and what struck me was how aggressively he wants to scale; he is treating this issue as if there is no time to lose — and he’s not wrong.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Clarios, the maker of low-voltage vehicle batteries, postponed its IPO, citing market volatility, Bloomberg reported. the Milwaukee area-based company backed by Brookfield Asset Management had filed to raise $1.7 billion by offering 88.1 million shares at a price range of $17 to $21.

Fisker, the electric vehicle startup turned publicly traded company via a SPAC, has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego. Fisker said it is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.

Flock, which went from providing drone insurance to commercial vehicle insurance, raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s fintech partner) joins Flock’s board of directors, as does Ross Mason (founder of Dig Ventures and MuleSoft).

HappyFresh, the on-demand grocery app based in Indonesia, raised $65 million in a Series D round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V., with participation from STIC, LB and Mirae Asset Indonesia and Singapore. It also included returning investors Mirae-Asset Naver Asia Growth Fund and Z Venture Capital. The company’s previous round of funding was a $20 million Series C announced in April 2019.

Lordstown Motors got a lifeline from a hedge fund managed by investment firm Yorkville Advisors about five weeks after the automaker issued a warning that it might not have enough funds to bring its electric pickup truck to market. The hedge fund agreed to buy $400 million worth of shares over a three-year period, according to a regulatory filing.

Merqueo, the on-demand delivery service that operates in Latin America, raised $50 million in a Series C round of funding co-led by IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest. MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders also participated. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Niron Magnetics, a company developing permanent magnets free of rare earths, raised $21.3 million in new financing from the Volvo Cars Tech Fund and Volta Energy Technologies, which joined existing investors Anzu Partners and the University of Minnesota. Niron will use the funding to build its pilot production facility in Minnesota.

Onto, the EV car subscription company raised $175 million in a combined equity and debt Series B round. The equity piece was led by Swedish VC Alfvén & Didrikson. British investment company Pollen Street Capital provided the senior-secured asset-backed debt facility. The company, which has raised a total of $245 million, says it plans to double its fleet size every three to six months and that any new vehicles will be used as collateral. Onto did not disclose how much of the round came from equity versus debt.

Zūm, a student transportation startup, was awarded a five-year $150 million contract to modernize San Francisco Unified School District transport service throughout the district. Zūm, which already operates its rideshare-meets-bus service in Oakland, much of Southern California, Seattle, Chicago and Dallas, will be responsible for handling day-to-day operations, transporting 3,500 students across 150 school campuses starting this fall semester.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

I hear things. But I’m not selfish. Let me share!

You might have missed my article late Friday about Argo AI landing a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.

Tl;dr: The California Public Utilities Commission issued Argo the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. This puts Argo in a small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations.

Regulatory hurdles remain and don’t expect Argo to be offering and charging for “driverless” rides anytime soon. But progress is being made and I would expect the company to secure the next permit — in a long line of them — later this year.

Argo has never officially indicated what city it is targeting for a robotaxi service in California. The company has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet in California is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles. It also has autonomous test vehicles in Miami, Austin, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Detroit. (In July, Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.)

I’m hearing from some sources familiar with Argo’s strategy for California that we should look south of the Bay Area. Way south.

The city that jumps to mind is San Diego. Some AV companies are already playing around the Irvine area and Los Angeles seems too unwieldy. Plus, Ford already has a footprint in San Diego. The automaker partnered way back in 2017 with AT&T, Nokia and Qualcomm Technologies to test Cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) at the San Diego Regional Proving Ground with the support of the San Diego Association of Governments, Caltrans, the city of Chula Vista, and intelligent transportation solutions provider McCain. The upshot of these trials? To improve traffic efficiency, vehicle safety and “support a path towards autonomous vehicles.”

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi everyone. Let’s dive into two key pieces of proposed legislation this week: the infrastructure bill and the tailpipe emissions standards.

After months of negotiations, U.S. senators have finally settled on a $550 billion infrastructure package that includes investments in roads, bridges, broadband and more. The bill would provide $7.5 billion to electrify buses and ferries, including school buses, and $7.5 billion to build out a national network of public EV charging stations. Subsequent statements on the bill from the White House say directly that the EV investments are intended to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage: “U.S. market share of plug-in electric vehicle (EV) sales is only one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. The President believes that must change.”

The budget is just a fraction of the $2.25 trillion bill President Joe Biden originally introduced in March. That version of the bill earmarked billions more for transportation electrification, especially in rebates and incentives to get consumers buying more EVs. The bill is still with the Senate for final approval. Then it will head to the House before finally ending up on Biden’s desk.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have proposed rules that would beef up tailpipe emissions standards, which had been rolled back under President Donald Trump. The rules would be identical to the agreement the state of California reached with Ford, VW, Honda, BMW and Volvo in 2019, the AP reported. If approved, the rules would apply starting with model year 2023 vehicles.

The aim is to cut carbon emissions from transportation and encourage more people to buy hybrid and electric. But many environmental groups like the Sierra Club — plus some EV automakers — don’t think they go far enough.

“This draft proposal would drive us in the right direction after several years in reverse–but slowly getting back on track is not enough,” Chris Nevers, senior director of environmental policy at Rivian, told TechCrunch. EPA and NHTSA must maximize the stringency of the program beyond the voluntary deal and account for current and future developments in vehicle electrification.

One more thing that caught my eye this week…The Washington Post reported that Biden and a group of automakers are negotiating for the latter group to make a “formal pledge” to have at least 40% of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. The article doesn’t specify which OEMs are part of the talks. However, it’s hard to imagine automakers signing onto anything — even a “voluntary pledge” — without some hefty federal spending to go along with it. We’ll have to see if the provisions in the infrastructure bill are enough.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable reads and other tidbits

As per ushe, there was a ton of transportation news this week. Let’s dig in.

ADAS

Yep, ADAS gets its own section now in an effort to make it abundantly clear that advanced driver assistance systems are not self-driving cars. Never. Never ever.

New York Times’ Greg Bensinger weighs in on beta testing and Tesla in this opinion column.

Autonomous vehicles

Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson put out a blog and a bunch of tweets to layout a blueprint for an autonomous ride-hailing business that will launch in late 2024 with partners Toyota and Uber. Aurora has spent the past year or so pushing its messaging on self-driving trucks, which the company says is its best and most viable first commercial product. Aurora never entirely ditched the robotaxi idea, but it was pretty quiet on the topic. Until now.

The blog comes about a week after competitor Argo AI and Ford announced a partnership with Lyft. While the timing might not be related, it does show that competition is heating up in both areas — robotaxis and self-driving trucks — with every AV company keen to show progress and deep partnerships.

TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations. Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network.

Electric vehicles

Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.

Lucid Group (formerly Lucid Motors) will be expanding its factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, by 2.7 million square feet, CEO Pete Rawlinson said just hours after the company officially went public with a $4.5 billion injection of capital. The company also said it has 11,000 paid reservations for its flagship luxury electric sedan, the Lucid Air.

Polestar said it plans to launch in nine more markets this year, doubling its global presence as it seeks to sell more of its electric sedans. The company, which is the electric performance vehicle brand under Volvo Car Group, also wants to double the number of retail stores to 100 locations and add more service centers by the end of the year. The Swedish automaker has more than 650 so-called “service points” in Polestar markets and wants to exceed 780 by the end of 2021.

REE Automotive has picked Austin for its U.S. headquarters. The company said the headquarters will help it address the growing U.S. market demand for mission-specific EVs from delivery and logistics companies, Mobility-as-a-Service and new technology players.

Tesla reported its second-quarter earnings and it was packed with news, including that the company generated $1.14 billion in net income, marking the first time the company’s quarterly profit (on a GAAP basis) has passed the three-comma threshold. And they hit that profitability metric without completely relying on the sale of zero-emissions credits to other automakers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk weighed in on the company’s battery strategy and disclosed that the company is pushing the launch of its electric Semi truck program to 2022 due to supply chain challenges and the limited availability of battery cells. And everything is pointing to the Cybertruck also being delayed until next year.

And finally, Tesla’s latest quarterly earnings report showed growth in its energy storage and solar business. The company reported $801 million in revenue from its energy generation and storage business — which includes three main products: solar, its Powerwall storage device for homes and businesses, and its utility storage unit Megapack. More importantly, the cost of revenue for its solar and energy storage business was $781 million, meaning that for the first time the total cost of producing and distributing these energy storage products was lower than the revenue it generated. That’s good news.

eVTOLs and other flying things

Joby Aviation completed the longest test flight of an eVTOL to date: Its unnamed full-sized prototype aircraft concluded a trip of over 150 miles on a single charge. The test was completed at Joby’s Electric Flight Base in Big Sur, California, earlier this month. It’s the latest in a succession of secretive tests the company’s been conducting, all part of its goal to achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and start commercial operations.

Lilium, the electric air taxi startup, has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.

People stuff

AEye, a lidar company, has been adding to its executive team in the past few months. The most recent is the hiring of automotive veteran and former Valeo executive Bernd Reichert as senior vice president of ADAS. the company has also hired Velodyne’s former COO Rick Tewell, Bob Brown from Cepton and Hod Finkelstein as chief research and design officer from Sense Photonics.

Cruise is also on a bit of an executive and engineering hiring spree. The company sent me a list of recent folks who have joined including former Southwest Airlines employee Anthony Gregory as VP of market development, Phil Maher, the former Virgin Atlantic COO, as VP of central operations and Bhavini Soneji as VP of product engineering. Soneji was most recently VP of engineering at Headspace, and was at Microsoft and Snapchat before that.

Cruise also hired Vinoj Kumar, who oversaw Google’s cloud infrastructure and software systems, as VP of Infrastructure and Yuning Chai, former lead perception researcher at Waymo, as head of AI Research. In all, Cruise now employs more than 1,900 people.

Don Burnette, the co-founder and CEO of self-driving trucks company Kodiak Robotics, sat down with TechCrunch as part of our ongoing Q&A series with the founders of transportation startups. The interview covers a lot of ground, including Burnette’s views on the company’s strategy, current funding conditions in the industry and what he learned at Otto. the self-driving trucks startup he co-founded and that was acquired by Uber.

Trevor Milton, the fast-talking showman founder of Nikola and the electric truck startup’s former CEO and executive chairman, was charged with three counts of fraud. He is free on $100 million bail.

Milton “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to deceive retail investors” for his own personal benefit, according to the federal indictment unsealed by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Milton was charged with two counts of securities fraud and wire fraud by a federal grand jury.

 

E-scooter company Fenix acquires Palm for $5M, gains entry to Turkish market

By Rebecca Bellan

Abu Dhabi-based micromobility company Fenix has acquired Palm, a shared e-scooter company in Turkey, for $5 million – the exact amount the company raised last November and this past February during its seed round.

Despite having not even raised a Series A round yet, Fenix scrounged together the cash and equity needed to fund this buy and stretch into Turkey, calling on additional capital from existing investors Maniv Mobility and Emkan Capital. Fenix would not disclose the terms of the acquisition or how much it recently raised.

This acquisition marks Fenix’s expansion into its fifth Middle Eastern country and 13th city since its launch last November, making it the largest shared micromobility operator in the region, ahead of regional competitors KIWIride, Careem and Arnab Mobility.

“Palm has a meaningful presence in Istanbul, and the city will be a major focus for our company in the near term,” Jaideep Dhanoa, co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch. “Beyond Istanbul, we see tremendous opportunity across Turkey. The country is home to 83 million people and there are 24 cities with a million or more people. Mersin, for example, is another coastal city Palm operates in today where we will continue to invest.”

Berhan Goskin and Alican İstanbullu, Palm’s founders, will continue to lead the company and Fenix’s expansion plans across Turkey. Existing Palm shareholders will also migrate over and support Fenix’s efforts to lead the market in Turkey, according to a statement from the company.

The Palm acquisition not only hands off Palm’s fleet of around 1,500 Ninebot e-scooters to Fenix, bringing the startup’s total vehicle size up to 10,000, but it also gives Fenix a built-in permit with Istanbul, a city of 15.5 million people.

“Recently the Turkey Ministry of Transport legalized shared e-scooters nationally in a very progressive and pro-competition manner,” said Dhanoa. “This regulatory clarity increased the attractiveness of the market for investment and was a significant motivator for the transaction. There are several local market requirements to qualify for a five-year license which is partially why we went in inorganically. With Palm we now have a five-year license for e-scooter sharing in Turkey and expect to receive permits in some of the highest potential  districts in the country.”

Istanbul’s first round of applications for capped e-scooter permits were due earlier this month, so the acquisition means Fenix didn’t need to apply for a new license. It will, however, have to comply with all local Turkey market requirements.

Fenix says it will begin deploying several thousands of its vehicles, laden with built-in hand sanitizers, in August, adding to Palm’s existing fleet, which will be rebranded to reflect new ownership. Fenix did not disclose who its manufacturing partner is for its vehicles, but told TechCrunch that it’s “not one of the usual suspects” and that the partnership is exclusive and involves a co-development of custom vehicles for their markets.

As part of its entry into Istanbul, Fenix also has plans to establish an R&D center on the ground for software and hardware in order to “develop breakthrough technologies for the Turkish market and to export to the Greater Middle East region,” according to a statement.

“Turkey has some of the top tech talent in the broader region, and now that we’ll also be operating there, we’re excited about leveraging that talent pool to help us craft solutions for the Turkey market, as well as apply them to the rest of our network,” IQ Sayed, co-founder and CTO, told TechCrunch. “This holds for all our offerings and all parts of our tech stack, but I’m especially looking forward to augmenting our payments tech, machine learning and IoT capabilities there.  We will also be looking into local manufacturing opportunities.”

Indian edtech Unacademy valued at $3.44 billion in $440 million fundraise

By Manish Singh

Unacademy has raised $440 million in a new financing round as the Indian online learning startup looks to expand into multiple additional categories.

Temasek led the Bangalore-based startup’s new financing round while Mirae Asset and existing investors including SoftBank Vision Fund 2, General Atlantic, Tiger Global as well as Zomato co-founder and chief executive Deepinder Goyal and Oyo founder Ritesh Agarwal participated in it, the startup said without disclosing the name of the new round (which should be Series G).

The new round values the six-year-old startup at $3.44 billion, up from $2 billion in November last year. The investment brings Unacademy’s to-date raise to about $860 million.

The online learning platform, which began its journey on YouTube and still uses Google’s video platform to on-board educators, helps students prepare for competitive exams to get into college, as well as those who are pursuing graduate-level courses.

On its app, students watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. The startup has over 50,000 educators on its platform, many of whom are very popular on YouTube. These educators help Unacademy sell more subscriptions and in return get a commission, according to industry executives familiar with the business arrangement.

Unacademy has amassed over 6 million monthly active users (over 600,000 of whom pay for the service) in over 10,000 cities in India.

Gaurav Munjal, Unacademy co-founder and chief executive, said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to broaden its bets on new categories such as upskilling, jobs and hiring.

Relevel is “giving people a path to get their dream job irrespective of their educational background, while Graphy is “empowering creators to build their online businesses to sell digital goods including NFTs,” he said in a tweet.

In a recent conversation with TechCrunch, Munjal said he wants Unacademy to become the “Tencent of India.”

The startup competes with scores of firms including Byju’s, which is India’s most valuable startup (at $16.5 billion valuation), GGV-backed Vedantu, Tiger Global-backed Classplus, and Lightspeed Venture-backed Teachmint.

All these startups have reported growth in the past year as India — like most other countries — enforced lockdowns and closed schools to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

At stake is India’s online education market, which is estimated to grow to be worth about $20 billion by 2030 (up from about $1 billion last year), according to Bernstein.

As of last year, there were about 6 million students in India who were paying for an online learning app, a figure Bernstein analysts expect to reach about 70 million by the end of the decade.

Spendings on education in India is among the highest globally (Source: A report from analysts at Goldman Sachs to clients last year.)

Unacademy said last week it was creating a $40 million fund for educators on its platform. “On Day One (which is today) we already have more than 300 Educators eligible for the Grant which they will get immediately. Over the next few years we will give Grants of over $40M to our Educators,” said Munjal in a tweet.

The new investment comes at a time when Indian startups are raising record capital and a handful of mature firms are beginning to explore the public markets. Business-to-business commerce and financing startup Ofbusiness said over the weekend it had raised $160 million in a new financing round (led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2) at a valuation of $1.5 billion, becoming the 18th Indian startup to attain the unicorn status, up from 11 last year.

5 lessons from Duolingo’s bellwether edtech IPO of the year

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Duolingo landed onto the public markets this week, rallying excitement and attention for the edtech sector and its founder cohort. The language learning business’ stock price soared when it began to trade, even after the unicorn raised its IPO price range, and priced above the raised interval.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

For those that want the entire story of Duolingo, from origin to messy monetization to historical IPO, check out our EC-1. It has dozens of interviews from executives, investors, linguists and competitors.

For today, though, we have fresh additions. We sat down with Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn earlier in the week to discuss not only his company’s IPO, but also what impact the listing may have on startups. Duolingo’s IPO can be looked at as a case study into consumer startups, mission-driven companies that monetize a small base of users, or education companies that recently hit scale. Paraphrasing from von Ahn, Duolingo doesn’t see itself as just an edtech company with fresh branding. Instead, it believes its growth comes from being an engineering-first startup.

Selling motivation, it seems, versus selling the fluency in a language is a proposition that international consumers are willing to pay for, and an idea that investors think can continue to scale to software-like margins.

1. The IPO event will bring “more sophistication” to Duolingo’s core service

Duolingo has gone through three distinct phases: Growth, in which it prioritized getting as many users as it could to its app; monetization, in which it introduced a subscription tier for survival; and now, education, in which it is focusing on tacking on more sophisticated, smarter technology to its service.

Bring your own environment: The future of work

By Ram Iyer
Michael Biltz Contributor
Michael Biltz is managing director of Accenture Technology Vision, where he leads the enterprise's annual visioning process to focus on how technology will impact the way we work and live.

The world has just witnessed one of the fastest work transformations in history. COVID-19 saw businesses send people home en masse, leaning on technology to maintain business as usual. Working from home, once the exception rather than the rule, became responsible for two-thirds of economic activity as an estimated 1.1 billion people around the world were forced to perform their daily jobs remotely, up from 350 million in 2019.

As we explain in the 2021 Accenture Technology Vision report, this transformation is just the beginning. Looking ahead, where and how people work will be much more flexible concepts with the potential to bring benefits to employees and employers alike. In fact, 87% of executives Accenture surveyed believe that the remote workforce opens up the market for difficult-to-find talent.

These benefits will only be fully realized if enterprises adopt a strategic approach to the future of work. Think back to a few years ago, when the bring your own device (BYOD) trend was in vogue. Faced with demand from workers to use their own devices in the enterprise setting, businesses had to think through new policies and controls to support this model.

Employers must now do the same thing, but on a much bigger scale. BYOD has become “BYOE”: Employees are bringing their entire environments to work. These environments include a broader range of worker-owned tech (smart speakers, home networks, gaming consoles, security cameras and more) and their work setting. One person may have a home office set up in a shed in their garden, another may be working from the kitchen table, surrounded by their family.

Businesses need to accept that their employees’ environments are a permanent part of their enterprise and adjust them accordingly.

The workplace reimagined

Looking ahead, the BYOE-style of work won’t be limited to employees’ homes. People will be free to work from anywhere, and they will want to work in the environment that’s best for them — whether that’s the office, home or a hybrid mix of the two. This is something leaders must accommodate rather than fight.

Indeed, leaders can rethink the purpose of working at the warehouses, depots, factories, offices, labs and other locations that make up their businesses. They should consider carefully when it makes sense for people to be at certain sites and with certain people. They will thereby be able to optimize their operations.

A few years from now, the organizations that succeed will be the ones that resisted the urge to race everyone back to the office and instead rethought how their workforce operates. They will have put in place a robust strategy for change that includes the adoption of technology enablers like the cloud, AI, IoT and XR. But more importantly, this will outline how their reimagined workforce model can support and enable their people and how this can be reflected in the corporate culture.

Enabling the new

The first step toward this future requires gaining visibility into the employee experience. With BYOE, the employee experience has never been more important, but it has also never been harder to monitor. Workplace analytics will therefore be critical to understanding how employees’ environments are impacting their work and finding insights that can improve their experience and productivity.

Security is another primary enabler. Businesses need to accept that their employees’ environments are a permanent part of their enterprise and adjust them accordingly. IT security teams will have to do more than ensure that a worker’s laptop is secured with the latest firewall patches, and consider the worker’s network security and the security of all devices linked to that network, such as baby monitors and smart TVs.

Once the technology, analytics and security foundations are in place, businesses will be better positioned to unlock the full value of BYOE: operating model transformation. When companies go virtual-first, they have new opportunities to integrate emerging technologies into the workforce. With a virtual-first BYOE strategy, for example, businesses can have a warehouse full of robots doing the physical work, coupled with offsite employees safely monitoring and overseeing strategy.

Cultural change is key

Success in BYOE will also come down to culture. The enterprise must accept that the employee environment is now part of the “workplace” and accommodate people’s needs. This will be a large, slow-to-emerge cultural shift, but there will be quick wins, too.

Take the disconnect between in-person and remote workers as an example. So much is currently tied to geography, but the future will be all about balance. Workers in different roles will benefit from the work environment best suited to their needs. However, without careful implementation, the approach could lead to a divided workforce, where in-office and remote workers struggle to collaborate. Quora is already looking to overcome this challenge by requiring all employees who are attending meetings, regardless of whether they’re home or in the office, to appear on their own video screen.

Reimagining the organization for BYOE is a moving target and best practices are still emerging. But one thing is already clear: You can’t afford to wait. To attract the best talent and keep employees engaged, start planning now.

TuSimple’s self-driving truck network takes shape with Ryder partnership

By Kirsten Korosec

TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations.

Under the deal announced this week, Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s freight network. TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network, is a collection of shipping routes and terminals designed for autonomous trucking operations that will extend across the United States by 2024. UPS, which took a minority stake in TuSimple before it went public, carrier U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway’s grocery and food service supply chain company McLane Inc. were the inaugural partners in the network.

TuSimple’s AFN involves four pieces that includes its self-driving trucks, digital mapped routes, freight terminals and a system that will let customers monitor autonomous trucking operations and track their shipments in real-time.

Ryder’s facilities will primarily serve as strategic terminals where TuSimple trucks can receive maintenance and have sensors used in the self-driving system calibrated, if needed. In some cases, the terminals might be used as a transfer hub for smaller operator that might want to pick up cargo. But this is not meant to be a hub-to-hub system where its customers would come and pick up freight, according to TuSimple President and CEO Cheng Lu.

“These trucks needs to be serviceable and maintainable and they need to have higher uptime, which is what every carrier cares about regardless of whether it is autonomous or not,” Lu said.

Small shippers and carriers might use these terminals to pick up and drop off freight. However, Lu stressed that in most cases, especially large-scale operators UPS, TuSimple will take the freight directly to the customer’s distribution centers. The Ryder facilities work as nodes, or stops, on its network to allow TuSimple to reach more customers over a larger geographic area, Lu added.

The partnership will start gradually. TuSimple has 50 autonomous trucks in its fleet that — along with a human safety operator behind the wheel — transport freight for customers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The partnership will initially use Ryder’s facilities in these areas and eventually expand to the company’s 500 maintenance facilities in the United States.

TuSimple said it expects to expand operations to the East Coast, carrying freight between Phoenix and Orlando later this year. TuSimple has about 25 new trucks on order, which will be added to the fleet once they become available.

Pittsburgh Google contractors ratify deal with HCL

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

— United Steelworkers (@steelworkers) July 30, 2021

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

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

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

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

For tech firms, the risk of not preparing for leadership changes is huge

By Ram Iyer
Jason Dressel Contributor
Jason Dressel is president of History Factory, which helps companies use their history and heritage to enhance and transform strategy, positioning, marketing and communication.

Every week over the past three and a half years, an average of three CEOs have exited tech companies in the U.S. That tally is higher — in good times and bad — than in any of the other 26 for-profit sectors tracked by executive search firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. You’d think tech companies should be the paradigm of how to prep for leadership transitions, since they operate in such a constant state of flux.

They’re far from it.

A change of command is one of the most delicate moments in the life cycle of any organization. If mishandled, the transition from one CEO to the next can result in a loss of market valuation, momentum and focus, as well as key personnel, customers and partners. It may even become that turning point when an organization begins to slide toward irrelevance.

With so much at stake, 84% of tech execs agree that succession planning is more important than ever because of today’s fast-changing business environment, according to our new survey of corporate America’s leaders. Seven out of 10 survey respondents agreed that tech companies face more scrutiny than other multinationals during a transition.

84% of tech execs agree that succession planning is more important than ever because of today’s fast-changing business environment.

Yet we found that tech execs appear just as unprepared for C-suite transitions as their peers in other sectors. Three out of five respondents said their companies don’t have a documented plan to handle a leadership change, even though, by that same ratio, they acknowledge that a documented plan is the biggest determinant in seamless transitions.

The findings may not be troubling if these respondents were millennial startup founders, years from leaving their companies. The executives we polled, however, hail from 160 companies that have been in business for a minimum of 15 years — 35 are tech companies, the largest industry cohort in the survey.

The smallest companies have at least 1,500 employees and $500 million in annual revenue, while the largest have head counts of over 500,000 and revenue upward of $100 billion. They have been around long enough to understand — and put into place — risk management and crisis planning, including what happens should their leaders fall victim to the proverbial milk truck.

Tech execs should be more rigorous about succession planning for one important reason: institutional memory. Tech firms generally are younger than other companies of a similar size, which partly explains why the median age of S&P 500 companies plunged to 33 years in 2018 from 85 years in 2000, according to McKinsey & Co.

These enterprises clearly have accomplished a lot in their short lives, but in their haste, most have not captured their history, unlike their longer-lived peers in other sectors. Less than half of these tech firms, in fact, have formally recorded their leader’s story for posterity. That puts them at a disadvantage when, inevitably, they will be required to onboard newcomers to their C-suites.

It’s best to record this history well before the intense swirl of a leadership transition begins. Crucially, it will help the incoming and future generations of leadership understand critical aspects of its track record, the lessons learned, culture and identity. It also explains why the organization has evolved as it has, what binds people together and what may trigger resistance based on previous experience. It’s as much about moving forward as looking back.

Most execs in our poll get it, with 85% saying a company’s history can be a playbook for new executives to learn and prepare for upcoming challenges and opportunities. “History is the mother of innovation for any type of company,” one respondent said. “History,” writes another, “includes the roadmap to failures as well as successes.”

But this documented history cannot be a hagiography of the departing CEO. Too often, outgoing execs spend their last years in office constructing their own trophy cases. Even as they conceded their own flat-footedness on transition planning, the majority of execs said they have already taken steps to create and reinforce their personal legacies — two-thirds said they have already completed their own formal legacy planning, many with the blessing of their boards.

It’s ironic, then, that three out of five also said that the legacy of a CEO or founder often overshadows the skill set and experience a successor brings. Two-thirds of tech execs believed that the longer a leader has been in office, the more it complicates a transition.

Tech leaders can do this right and have done so. Asked which five big-name CEO transitions was most successful, respondents’ No. 1 was Apple’s handoff from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook (38%), followed by Microsoft’s page-turn from Steve Ballmer to Satya Nadella (28%). The others, at General Electric, General Motors and Goldman Sachs, each netted no more than 13% of votes.

Apple’s apparent predominance in this survey might contradict the advice to play down the aggrandizement of an exiting CEO and highlight the compilation and transfer of an organization’s history to the next chief executive. Jobs, after all, painstakingly managed his legacy until the end. But even as he continued to take center-stage, he also made sure to pass along Apple’s institutional knowledge and ethos to Cook over the 13 years they shared space on Apple’s executive floor.

Sooner or later, everyone in the C-suite today — including startup founders — will depart. For the sake of everyone they’ll leave behind, they should begin prepping for that day now.

Yat thinks emoji ‘identities’ can be a thing, and it has $20M in sales to back it up

By Amanda Silberling

I learned about Yat in April, when a friend sent our group chat a link to a story about how the key emoji sold as an “internet identity” for $425,000. “I hate the universe,” she texted.

Sure, the universe would be better if people with a spare $425,000 spent it on mutual aid or something, but minutes later, we were trying to figure out what this whole Yat thing was all about. And few more minutes later, I spent $5 (in USD, not crypto) to buy ☕👉💩❗, an emoji string that I think tells a moving story about my caffeine dependency and sensitive stomach. I didn’t think I would be writing about this when I made that choice.

Kesha’s Yat URL on Twitter

On the surface, Yat is a platform that lets you buy a URL with emojis in it — even Kesha (y.at/🌈🚀👽), Lil Wayne (y.at/👽🎵), and Disclosure (y.at/😎🎵😎) are using them in their Twitter bios. Like any URL on the internet, Yats can redirect to another website, or they can function like a more eye-catching Linktree. While users could purchase their own domain name that supports emojis and use it instead of a Yat, many people don’t have the technical expertise or time to do so. Instead, they can make one-time purchase from Yat, which owns the Y.at domain, and the company will provide your with your own y.at subdomain for you.

This convenience, however, comes at a premium. Yat uses an algorithm to determine your Yat’s “rhythm score,” its metric for determining how to price your emoji combo based on its rarity. Yats with one or two emojis are so expensive that you have to contact the company directly to buy them, but you can easily find a four- or five-emoji identity that’ll only put you out $4.

Beyond that, CEO Naveen Jain — a Y Combinator alumnus, founder of digital marketing company Sparkart, and angel investor — thinks that Yat is ultimately an internet privacy product. Jain wants people to be able to use their Yats in any way they’re able to use an online identity now, whether that’s to make payments, send messages, host a website, or login to a platform.

“Objectively, it’s a strange norm. You go on the internet, you register accounts with ad-supported platforms, and your username isn’t universal. You have many accounts, many usernames,” Jain said. “And you don’t control them. If an account wants to shut you down, they shut you down. How many stories are there of people trying to email some social network, and they don’t respond because they don’t have to?”

Yat doesn’t plan to fuel itself with ad money, since users pay for the product when they purchase their Yat, whether they get it for $4 or $400,000.

In the long run, Yat’s CEO says the company plans to use blockchain technology as a way to become self-sovereign. Yats would become assets issued on decentralized, distributed databases. Today, there are several projects working to create a decentralized alternative to the current domain name system (DNS), which is managed by internet regulatory authority ICANN.  DNS is how you find things on the internet, but uses a centralized, hierarchical system. A blockchain domain name system would have no central authority, and some believe this could be the foundation of a next-gen web, or “Web 3.0.”

Today, words like “blockchain” and “cryptocurrency” don’t appear on the Yat website. Jain doesn’t think that’s compelling to average consumers — he believes in progressive decentralization, which explains why Yats are currently purchased with dollars, not ethereum.

“Something we think is really funny about the cryptocurrency world is that anyone who’s a part of it spends a lot of time talking about databases,” Jain said. “People don’t care about databases. When’s the last time you went to a website and it said ‘powered by MySQL’?”

Y.at, however, was registered at a traditional internet registrar, not on the blockchain.

“We agree that this is early stage, there’s no debate about that,” said Jain. “This is laying the foundation — there are certain elements of the vision that are certainly more of a social contract than actual implementation at this point in time. But this is the vision that we’ve set forth, and we’re working continuously towards that goal.”

Still, until Yat becomes more decentralized, it can’t yet give users the complete control it aspires to. At present, the Terms & Conditions give Yat the authority to terminate or suspend users at its discretion, but the company claims it hasn’t yet booted anyone from the system.

As Yat becomes more decentralized, our terms and conditions won’t be important,” Jain said. “This is the nature of pursuing a progressive decentralization strategy.”

In its “generation zero” phase (an open beta), Yat has sold almost $20 million worth of emoji identities. Now, as the waitlist to get a Yat ends, Yat is posting some rare emoji identities on OpenSea, the NFT marketplace that recently reached a valuation of $1.5 billion.

A still image of a Yat visualizer creation

“For the first time ever, we’re going to be auctioning some Yats on OpenSea, and we’re going to be launching minting of Yats on Ethereum,” Jain said. Before minting Yats as NFTs, users can create a digital art landscape for their Yats through a Visualizer. These features, as well as new emojis in the Yat emoji set, will launch this evening at a virtual event called Yat Horizon.

Yat Creators will now have more rights,” Jain said about the new ability to mint Yats as NFTs. “We are going to continue to pursue progressive decentralization until we achieve our ultimate goal: making Yat the best self-directed, self-sovereign identity system for all.”

Consumers have a demonstrated interest in retaining greater privacy on the internet — data shows that in iOS 14.5, 96% of users opted out of ad tracking. But the decentralization movement hasn’t yet been able to market its privacy advantages to the mainstream. Yat helps solve this problem because even if you don’t understand what blockchain means, you understand that having a personal string of emojis is pretty fun. But, before you spend $425,000 on a single-emoji username, keep in mind that Yat’s vision will only completely materialize with the advent of Web 3.0, and we don’t yet know when or if that will happen.

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

By Carly Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch takes hold of $12M to provide benefits that aren’t tied to employers

By Christine Hall

Catch is working to make sure that every gig worker has the health and retirement benefits they need.

The company, which is in the midst of moving its headquarters to New York, sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors or anyone uncovered.

It is now armed with a fresh round of $12 million in Series A funding, led by Crosslink, with participation from earlier investors Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners, Kindred Ventures and Urban Innovation Fund, to support more distribution partnerships and its relocation from Boston.

Co-founders Kristen Anderson and Andrew Ambrosino started Catch in 2019 and raised $6.1 million previously, giving it a total of $18.1 million in funding.

It took the Catch team of 15 nearly two years to get approvals to sell its platform in 38 states on the federal marketplace. Anderson boasts that only eight companies have been able to do this, and three of them — Catch included — are approved to sell benefits to consumers. The other side of the business is payroll, and the company has gathered thousands of sources based on biller.

“More companies are not offering healthcare, while more people are joining the creator and gig economies, which means more people are not following an employer-led model,” Anderson told TechCrunch.

The age of an average Catch customer is 32 years old, and in addition to current offerings, were asking the company to help them set up income sources, like setting aside money for taxes, retirement, as well as medical leave without having to actively save.

When the global pandemic hit, many of Catch’s customers saw their income collapse, 40% overall across industries, as workers like hairstylists and cooks had income go down to zero in some cases.

It was then that Anderson and Ambrosino began looking at partnership distribution and developed a network of platforms, business facilitation tools, gig marketplaces and payroll companies that were interested in offering Catch. The company intends to use some of the funding to increase its headcount to service those partnerships and go after more, Anderson said.

Catch is one startup providing insurance products, and many of the competitors either do a single offering and do it well, like Starship does with health savings accounts, Anderson said. Catch is taking a different approach by offering a platform experience, but going deep on the process, she added. She likens it to Gusto, which provides cloud-based payroll, benefits and human resource management for businesses, in that Catch is an end-to-end experience, but with a focus on an individual person.

Over the past year, the company’s user base tripled, driven by people taking on second jobs and through a partnership with DoorDash. Platform users are also holding onto 5 times their usual balances, a result of setting more goals and needing to save more, Anderson said. Retirement investments and health insurance have grown similarly.

Going forward, Anderson is already thinking about a Series B, but that won’t come for another couple of years, she said. The company is looking into its own HSA product as well as disability insurance and other products to further differentiate itself from other startups, for example, Spot, Super.mx and Even that all raised venture capital this month to provide benefits.

Catch would also like to serve a broader audience than just those on the federal marketplace. The co-founders are working on how to do this — Anderson mentioned there are some “nefarious companies out there” offering medical benefits at rates that can seem too good to be true, but when the customer reads the fine print, finds out that certain medical conditions are not covered.

“We are looking at how to put the right thing in there because it does get confusing,” Anderson added. “Young people have cheaper options, which means they need to make sure they know what they are getting.”

 

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