In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called “FM-2030.”
“Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago … The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal,” he offered in explanation.
It didn’t hurt that by 2030 he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.
Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for “Future Man” — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he’d lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country’s basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA, later becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse his “new concepts of the human,” discussing the steps necessary to transition to the age of post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which Homo sapiens became “post-biological organisms,” transcending the limits of their body through technology.
Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle toward a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as “Santa Claus machines” — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping and genetic editing.
Though that suggests the process of post-humanization is well under way, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to identity, labor, health and love. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.
The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize and play during this time, but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood, from the Zoom background used to express a personal interest or make a joke, to the avatars roaming rich, interactive metaverses. Nintendo has seen millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialize, trade virtual assets and host both weddings and conferences, while Travis Scott’s surreal performance inside of Fortnite attracted 12.3 million concurrent views, and 27.7 million unique attendees. We are showcasing even the darker aspects of our nature via these platforms, with some on Animal Crossing bullying and torturing villagers they deem “ugly.”
Tools like Pragli illustrate how this development manifests in the workplace beyond Zoom backgrounds ripped from “Tiger King” or “Love Is Blind.” Rather than hopping onto a video call with co-workers, Pragli offers the ability to connect with anime-style avatars of your officemates. Changing one’s appearance on the platform is determined by the options the company rolls out, with a recent update showcasing the ability for men to sport a bun, braid or ponytail. Set “happy” or “sad” expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.
All of this is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes, something a little less than human. There are indications that this redacted version of ourselves is becoming something of a style. G95’s “biohoodie” features a built-in face-cover, while creative studio Production Club showed off a hazmat suit designed for socializing. Even once the worst is over, we may see a new cautiousness and implied distance expressed in fashion.
“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it,” said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in our labor. COVID-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and toward machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services running and spare us from disease. Neolix, a Chinese manufacturer of driverless vans, has seen a spike in demand since the outbreak and has been trusted to ferry food and medical supplies, and to disinfect streets. Suppliers like AMP, UVD, Nuro and Starship have experienced a similar surge, while the order books of industrial behemoths like Harmonic Drive and Fanuc suggest more universal demand. The latter saw orders increase 7% between Q4 and March.
This insinuation is not limited to manual labor. With customer support and moderation offices closing down, many companies are aggressively employing AI solutions. Facebook and Google have expanded automated moderation, while PayPal used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries in recent weeks, a record for the firm.
Those lucky enough to retain their jobs may face a very different work environment in which they are forced to collaborate with robots and be treated as an increasingly mechanized system themselves. Walmart greeters will stand side-by-side with automated floor-scrubbers, and McDonald’s cooks may soon be joined by a kitchen full of bionic sous-chefs. Amazon warehouse workers — old-hands at human-robot collaboration thanks to the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems — must adapt to being managed more like their pallet-ferrying co-workers, with temperatures monitored by thermal cameras. That is just a small part of the broader surveillance blitz being undertaken around the world and across industries. China is installing more cameras to monitor the comings-and-goings of citizens, while companies dip into budgets to purchase “tattleware,” software designed to surveil employees. Among the beneficiaries are companies like InterGuard, which provide minute-by-minute breakdowns of how workers spend time online. Sneek takes photos of workers as often as once a minute. The company’s CEO joked that the “sneeksnap” command came in particularly handy when a colleague did something embarrassing like picking their nose.
Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. Consumers are turning to immunity-boosting supplements such as Vitamin C and zinc, which have soared in sales, in addition to courting riskier treatments like “rectal ozone insufflations,” peddled by influencers. Spurred on by world-leaders like Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, demand for hydroxychloroquine has grown rapidly, with prescriptions increasing ~500%.
Whatever your opinion of the president or the treatment in question, this represents a rapid, iterative model of medicine more akin to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” than a considered FDA approval process. Biohacking communities, a group with high-tolerance for health-related risks, are teaming up online to research COVID-19 vaccines on their own time. “Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces,” one contributor noted.
Beyond immediate experimentation, we are looking to extend the limits of our bodies in order to accommodate changing plans for the future. Reports suggest that men have turned to at-home sperm collection companies like Legacy during quarantine, motivated by fears of diminished fertility and perhaps the acknowledgment that with life on hold, children may have to wait. That certainly seems to be the case for 1,894 women surveyed by Modern Fertility and SoFi: 31% noted that the pandemic had affected their fertility plans, while 41% stated they are delaying childbearing because of the coronavirus.
“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,” novelist Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
The current state of affairs does not offer many ways to amend that state of misery, prompting some to turn to AI companions. Created in 2015, Replika provides a sympathetic texting partner, designed to serve as a digital therapist. But for many of the company’s 500K monthly active users, Replika is too charming to resist: up to 40% consider the bot a romantic partner. The coronavirus may serve as the ideal catalyst for relationships between humans and artificial personalities to deepen. There are signs we may already prefer their company: research on Microsoft’s XiaoIce indicated that conversations with the chatbot last longer than human-to-human interactions.
For those committed to finding love among creatures of blood and bone, the pandemic has forced a recalibration of what it means to date. Interactions take place almost entirely online, through chat or video calls, changing the necessary criteria for a match. Location matters much less now than availability and responsiveness. When the desire for touch, or “skin hunger” as it is gruesomely called, becomes too much to bear, interested parties must navigate a meeting. In the process, we treat partners as potential threats, owners of a corpus that may endanger us, despite best intentions. In doing so, we view the individual as distinct from their body, a separate being in possession of a liability with which we must negotiate. Depending on the length of the pandemic, we may see this fear harden into an unconscious aversion, reviving the disgust for the corporeal felt by more puritanical eras. These mores may take time to correct.
The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, as love sheds its carnality, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), reengineer physical limits as “biology eats the world” and find affection in new beings. We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.
For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where “people will belong to no specific families or factions … we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal.” Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus appear bleak, some of FM’s vision feels true: We are united as a world, fighting against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM’s dream will be made manifest.
For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he may still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM’s body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Ariz. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.
HenQ, an Amsterdam-based VC that invests in European B2B software startups typically at seed and Series A, recently disclosed the first close of its fourth fund at €70 million. The final close is expected to top out at between €75-€85 million later this year, and the firm has already begun backing companies out of the new fund.
However, what sets henQ apart from many VC firms isn’t just its pure focus on B2B software but that its team is fully remote. Primarily investing in the Nordics and Benelux, henQ doesn’t have any official offices, with the team working from different temporary locations. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, henQ closed deals remotely.
Successes from its previous funds include Mendix (acquired by Siemens) and SEOshop (acquired by Lightspeed).
I spoke to partners Jan Andriessen, Mick Mackaay and Jelmer de Jong to learn more about henQ, what it’s like to be a fully remote VC and how the firm envisions the post-pandemic era.
TechCrunch: Can you be more specific regarding the size of check you write and the types of companies, geographies, technologies and business models you are focusing on?
Jan Andriessen: Our main focus is seed rounds, in which we often are the lead investor. We also invest in Series A rounds, often as a co-investor. Initial check sizes vary from €500,000 to €3.5 million.
A typical seed investment has a product and perhaps a few pilot customers. The key here is not revenue (which is OK to be zero), but there is proof of the actual need for the product.
Most of our recent deals were in the Nordics and Benelux, the areas where we spent the majority of our time. But we have also invested in the Baltics, Czech Republic and the UK. For henQ 4, we expect this to be the same: the bulk of our investments will be in the Nordics and Benelux, with an occasional deal in broader Europe.
In terms of technology and business trends, one of the things we firmly believe in is the consumerization of enterprise software: successful startups are centered around their customers and focus on the job to be done. More generally, we have always been focused on startups with staying power: companies that have a right to exist over time, not just now, as they deliver a product that touches the core processes of their customers and operate at the heart of their customer’s business.
For example, looking at our portfolio, Zivver delivers secure communication solutions for hospitals and governments. Stravito works deep in the research departments of FMCGs, delivering a knowledge management platform. Mews runs the full operations of hotels with their property management system, and Orderchamp enables retailers to digitize their buying process.
We see the business model of a company as a means, not an end. Most of the startups we invest in charge a SaaS plus implementation fee, and have a more enterprise-sales driven business model. We are not afraid to invest in startups that have a more complex and longer sales cycle, and are not per se looking for SaaS ‘by-the-book.'
As tech companies like Twitter and Facebook gear up for longer-term remote work solutions, the future of work is becoming one of the more exciting opportunities in venture capital, Charles River Ventures general partner Saar Gur told TechCrunch.
And as loneliness mounts with shelter-in-place orders implemented in various forms across the world, investors are looking for products and services that foster true connection among a distributed workforce, as well as a distributed society.
But the future of work doesn’t just entail spinning up home offices. It also involves gig workers, freelancers, hiring tools, tools for workplace organizing and automation. The last couple of years have particularly brought tech organizing to the forefront. Whether it was the Google walkout in 2018 or gig workers’ ongoing actions against companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart for better pay and protections, there are many opportunities to help workers better organize and achieve their goals.
Below, we’ve gathered insights from:
What are you most excited about in the future of work?
Future of work is one of the most exciting opportunities in venture.
Pre-COVID, few tech companies were fully remote. While it seems obvious in retrospect, the building blocks for fully remote technology companies now exist (e.g. high-speed internet, SaaS and the cloud, reliable video streaming, real-time documents, etc.). And while SIP may be temporary, we feel the TAM of fully remote companies will grow significantly and produce a number of exciting investment opportunities.
I don’t think we have fully grokked what it means to run a company digitally. Today, most processes like interviewing, meetings and performance/activity tracking still live in the world of atoms versus bits. As an example, imagine every meeting is recorded, transcribed and searchable — how would that transform how we work?
There is an opportunity to re-imagine how we work. And we are excited about products that solve meaningful problems in the areas of productivity, brainstorming, communication tools, workflows and more. We also see a lot of potential in infrastructure required to facilitate remote and global teams.
We are also excited by companies that are enabling new types of work. Companies like Etsy (founded 2005), Shopify (2004), TaskTabbit (2008), Uber (2009), DoorDash (2013) and Patreon (2013) have helped create a new workforce of entrepreneurs. But many of these companies are over a decade old and we fully expect a new wave of companies that give more power to the individual.
Intuitively, stores that sell online should be making a killing during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, everyone is stuck at home — and understandably more willing to shop online instead of at a traditional retailer to avoid putting themselves and others at medical risk. But the truth is, most smaller online stores have seen better days.
The primary challenge is that smaller shops often don’t have the logistics networks that companies like Amazon do. Consequently, they’re seeing substantially delayed delivery timelines, especially if they ship internationally. Customers obviously aren’t thrilled about that reality. And in many cases, they’re requesting refunds at a staggering rate.
I saw this play out firsthand in April. At that point, my stores were down 20% or in some cases even 30% in revenue. Needless to say, my team was freaking out. But there’s one thing we did that helped us increase our revenue over 200% since the pandemic, decrease refund requests and even strengthen our existing customer relationships.
We implemented a 24-hour live chat in all of our stores. Here’s why it worked for us and why every digital brand should be doing it too.
When I started my first online store in 2006, challenges that bogged my team down often meant that my team’s first priority became resolving those challenges so that we could serve our customers faster. But admittedly, when these challenges came up, it became more difficult to balance communicating with our customers and resolving the issues that prevented us from fulfilling their orders quickly.
Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.
Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.
One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.
Shortly after its use exploded in the post-office world of COVID-19, Zoom was banned by a variety of private and public actors, including SpaceX and the government of Taiwan. Critics allege its data strategy, particularly its privacy and security measures, were insufficiently robust, especially putting vulnerable populations, like children, at risk. NYC’s Department of Education, for instance, mandated teachers switch to alternative platforms like Microsoft Teams.
This isn’t a problem specific to Zoom. Other technology giants, from Alphabet, Apple to Facebook, have struggled with these strategic data issues, despite wielding armies of lawyers and data engineers, and have overcome them.
To remedy this, data leaders cannot stop at identifying how to improve their revenue-generating functions with data, what the former Chief Data Officer of AIG (one of our co-authors) calls “offensive” data strategy. Data leaders also protect, fight for, and empower their key partners, like users and employees, or promote “defensive” data strategy. Data offense and defense are core to trustworthy data-driven products.
While these data issues apply to most organizations, highly-regulated innovators in industries with large social impact (the “third wave”) must pay special attention. As Steve Case and the World Economic Forum articulate, the next phase of innovation will center on industries that merge the digital and the physical worlds, affecting the most intimate aspects of our lives. As a result, companies that balance insight and trust well, Boston Consulting group predicts, will be the new winners.
Drawing from our work across the public, corporate, and startup worlds, we identify a few “insight killers” — then identify the trustworthy alternative. While trustworthy data strategy should involve end users and other groups outside the company as discussed here, the lessons below focus on the complexities of partnering within organizations, which deserve attention in their own right.
From the beginning of a data project, a trustworthy data leader asks, “Who are our partners and what prevents them from achieving their goals?” In other words: listen. This question can help identify the unmet needs of the 46% of surveyed technology and business teams who found their data groups have little value to offer them.
Putting this to action is the data leader of one highly-regulated AI health startup — Cognoa — who listened to tensions between its defensive and offensive data functions. Cognoa’s Chief AI Officer identified how healthcare data laws, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, resulted in friction between his key partners: compliance officers and machine learning engineers. Compliance officers needed to protect end users’ privacy while data and machine learning engineers wanted faster access to data.
To meet these multifaceted goals, Cognoa first scoped down its solution by prioritizing its highest-risk databases. It then connected all of those databases using a single access-and-control layer.
This redesign satisfied its compliance officers because Cognoa’s engineers could then only access health data based on strict policy rules informed by healthcare data regulations. Furthermore, since these rules could be configured and transparently explained without code, it bridged communication gaps between its data and compliance roles. Its engineers were also elated because they no longer had to wait as long to receive privacy-protected copies.
Because its data leader started by listening to the struggles of its two key partners, Cognoa met both its defensive and offensive goals.
London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.
The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.
Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.
By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.
Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.
Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.
It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.
“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”
“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.
Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc.
Enterprise barcode scanner company Scandit has closed an $80 million Series C round, led by Silicon Valley VC firm G2VP. Atomico, GV, Kreos, NGP Capital, Salesforce Ventures and Swisscom Ventures also participated in the round — which brings its total raised to date to $123M.
The Zurich-based firm offers a platform that combines computer vision and machine learning tech with barcode scanning, text recognition (OCR), object recognition and augmented reality which is designed for any camera-equipped smart device — from smartphones to drones, wearables (e.g. AR glasses for warehouse workers) and even robots.
Use-cases include mobile apps or websites for mobile shopping; self checkout; inventory management; proof of delivery; asset tracking and maintenance — including in healthcare where its tech can be used to power the scanning of patient IDs, samples, medication and supplies.
It bills its software as “unmatched” in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as the ability to scan in bad light; at any angle; and with damaged labels. Target industries include retail, healthcare, industrial/manufacturing, travel, transport & logistics and more.
The latest funding injection follows a $30M Series B round back in 2018. Since then Scandit says it’s tripled recurring revenues, more than doubling the number of blue-chip enterprise customers, and doubling the size of its global team.
Global customers for its tech include the likes of 7-Eleven, Alaska Airlines, Carrefour, DPD, FedEx, Instacart, Johns Hopkins Hospital, La Poste, Levi Strauss & Co, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toyota — with the company touting “tens of billions of scans” per year on 100+ million active devices at this stage of its business.
It says the new funding will go on further pressing on the gas to grow in new markets, including APAC and Latin America, as well as building out its footprint and ops in North America and Europe. Also on the slate: Funding more R&D to devise new ways for enterprises to transform their core business processes using computer vision and AR.
The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated demand for mobile computer vision on personal smart devices, according to Scandit, which says customers are looking for ways to enable more contactless interactions.
Another demand spike it’s seeing is coming from the pandemic-related boom in ‘Click & Collect’ retail and “millions” of extra home deliveries — something its tech is well positioned to cater to because its scanning apps support BYOD (bring your own device), rather than requiring proprietary hardware.
“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for rapid digital transformation in these uncertain times, and the need to blend the physical and digital plays a crucial role,” said CEO Samuel Mueller in a statement. “Our new funding makes it possible for us to help even more enterprises to quickly adapt to the new demand for ‘contactless business’, and be better positioned to succeed, whatever the new normal is.”
Also commenting on the funding in a supporting statement, Ben Kortlang, general partner at G2VP, added: “Scandit’s platform puts an enterprise-grade scanning solution in the pocket of every employee and customer without requiring legacy hardware. This bridge between the physical and digital worlds will be increasingly critical as the world accelerates its shift to online purchasing and delivery, distributed supply chains and cashierless retail.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the nature of businesses and the way we work, it’s making even more clear how important communication is when it comes to effective collaboration.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot, particularly with regard to building great relationships between founders and investors, because we’ve recently closed a number of new deals and are continuing to meet new founders. As this new reality has caused me to re-evaluate my “typical” post-investment playbook, it begs the question: What does building a productive relationship post-close look like now and in more ordinary times?
I always tell founders that as a board member, my goal is to earn the right to be their first phone call in good times and especially bad, and that I also want to be able to proactively pitch both in times of crisis and when it’s business as usual. I know that there’s a fine line between an investor being helpful and being a tax, though, but this onboarding can help reduce the risk that it’s the latter. This is a two-way street, of course, but the better established this process is, the faster valuable contributions can happen.
Here’s where I’d start.
Forming a new board and onboarding investors is similar to launching a team, and there’s plenty of research that shows that the way you approach this launch period is important for long-term success.
First, you’ll want to align with investors on update and sync cadence — and start implementing it. It’s a good idea to plan on regular email updates on a monthly basis leading up to the first board meeting, with the goal of getting new board member(s) up to speed so they can provide value and be helpful.
I appreciate seeing high-level metric updates as well as a few bullets on what is going well and what is not, and what is top of mind for the CEO. This might include new executives joining the ranks, new marketing activities or product planning and updates on key KPIs. For big milestones like a major launch or impactful competitive moves, or in extraordinary circumstances, like the coronavirus pandemic, it’s good hygiene to do more ad hoc updates.
Like all business leaders, chief information security officers (CISOs) have shifted their roles quickly and dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have had to fight fires they never expected.
Most importantly, they’ve had to ensure corporate networks remain secure even with 100% of employees suddenly working from home. Controllers are moving millions between corporate accounts from their living rooms, HR managers are sharing employees’ personal information from their kitchen tables and tens of millions of workers are accessing company data using personal laptops and phones.
This unprecedented situation reveals once and for all that security is not only about preventing breaches, but also about ensuring fundamental business continuity.
While it might take time, everyone agrees the pandemic will end. But how will the cybersecurity sector look in a post-COVID-19 world? What type of software will CISOs want to buy in the near future, and two years down the road?
To find out, I asked six of the world’s leading CISOs to share their experiences during the pandemic and their plans for the future, providing insights on how cybersecurity companies should develop and market their solutions to emerge stronger:
The good news is, many CISOs believe that cybersecurity will weather the economic storm better than other enterprise software sectors. That’s because security has become even more top of mind during the pandemic; with the vast majority of corporate employees now working remotely, a secure network has never been more paramount, said Rinki Sethi, CISO at Rubrik. “Many security teams are now focused on ensuring they have controls in place for a completely remote workforce, so endpoint and network security, as well as identity and access management, are more important than ever,” said Sethi. “Additionally, business continuity and disaster recovery planning are critical right now — the ability to respond to a security incident and have a robust plan to recover from it is top priority for most security teams, and will continue to be for a long time.”
That’s not to say all security companies will necessarily thrive during this current economic crisis. Adrian Ludwig, CISO at Atlassian, notes that an overall decline in IT budgets will impact security spending. But the silver lining is that some companies will be acquired. “I expect we will see consolidation in the cybersecurity markets, and that most new investments by IT departments will be in basic infrastructure to facilitate work-from-home,” said Ludwig. “Less well-capitalized cybersecurity companies may want to begin thinking about potential exit opportunities sooner rather than later.”
When former Bill Clinton speechwriter and political wunderkind Andrei Cherny launched Aspiration four years ago, the upstart fintech startup was one of Los Angeles’ early entrants into a financial services market dominated by players from Europe and the financial capital of the U.S. in New York City.
Fast forward four years and the big New York fintechs are still around, but Cherny’s Aspiration remains undimmed and has today disclosed a $153 million funding round to get even bigger.
Unlike other financial services startups that compete around a suite of product offerings designed to offer no-fee checking and deposits or upfront cash payments and short-term no-interest loans, Aspiration differentiates itself with a focus on sustainability and conscious consumerism.
The company first pitched the market with an investment management service like those from Betterment and Wealthfront, but one where customers could choose their own fees. It also guaranteed investments in sustainable companies and a portfolio that would not include fossil fuel companies or other businesses deemed to be less-than-friendly to Mother Nature.
The conscious consumerism is a through-line that knits together the other products in the Aspiration portfolio including its Impact Measurement Score product that gives customers a window into how their shopping habits measure up with their desires to be more earth-friendly.
The company’s just-announced $135 million cash infusion brings the total capital raised to $200 million and was led by local investor Alpha Edison. Additional new and existing investors including UBS O’Connor Capital Solutions, DNS Capital, Radicle Impact, Sutter Rock, Jeff Skoll, Joseph Sanberg, Social Impact Finance, the Pohlad Companies, and AGO Partners, also participated in the financing.
So far, 1.5 million Americans have signed up to use Aspiration’s financial management and banking services and the company has seen $4 billion in transactions pass through its accounts.
There’s a whole suite of new services designed to help customers go green too. The company launched a matching feature where the company plants a tree for every debit card purchase that its customers make, when they round up to the nearest dollar. And it’s offering a premium subscription tier that includes debit cards made from recycled ocean plastic. The card offers higher cash back and interest rates and a feature that offsets the carbon emissions of every mile a customer drives.
Finally, Aspiration has inked partnerships with other socially conscious companies like Toms and Warby Parker giving its customers extra cash back rewards when they shop at those businesses.
“Aspiration has built deep, trusting customer relationships that are beginning to unlock latent demand for financial services among the tens of millions of conscious consumers,” said Nate Redmond of Alpha Edison, in a statement. “We are excited to lead a great group of investors to fuel Aspiration’s durable growth and lasting impact.”
Couchbase. the Santa Clara-based company behind the eponymous NoSQL cloud database service, today announced that it has raised a $105 million all-equity Series G round “to expand product development and global go-to-market capabilities.”
The oversubscribed round was led by GPI Capital, with participation from existing investors Accel, Sorenson Capital, North Bridge Venture Partners, Glynn Capital, Adams Street Partners and Mayfield. With this, the company has now raised a total of $251 million, according to Crunchbase.
Back in 2016, Couchbase raised a $30 million down round, which at the time was meant to be the company’s last round before an IPO. That IPO hasn’t materialized, but the company continues to grow, with 30 percent of the Fortune 100 now using its database. Couchbase also today announced that, over the course of the last fiscal year, it saw 70 percent total contract value growth, more than 50 percent new business growth and over 35 percent growth in average subscription deal size. In total, Couchbase said today, it is now seeing almost $100 million in committed annual recurring revenue.
“To be competitive today, enterprises must transform digitally, and use technology to get closer to their customers and improve the productivity of their workforces,” said Couchbase President and CEO Matt Cain in today’s announcement. “To do so, they require a cloud-native database built specifically to support modern web, mobile and IoT applications. Application developers and enterprise architects rely on Couchbase to enable agile application development on a platform that performs at scale, from the public cloud to the edge, and provides operational simplicity and reliability. More and more, the largest companies in the world truly run their businesses on Couchbase, architecting their most business-critical applications on our platform.”
The company is playing in a large but competitive market, with the likes of MongoDB, DataStax and all the major cloud vendors vying for similar customers in the NoSQL space. One feature that has always made Couchbase stand out is Couchbase Mobile, which extends the service to the cloud. Like some of its competitors, the company has also recently placed its bets on the Kubernetes container orchestration tools with, for example the launch of its Autonomous Operator for Kubernetes 2.0. More importantly, though, the company also introduced its fully-managed Couchbase Cloud Database-as-a-Service in February, which allows businesses to run the database within their own virtual private cloud on public clouds like AWS and Microsoft Azure.
“We are excited to partner with Couchbase and view Couchbase Server’s highly performant, distributed architecture as purpose-built to support mission-critical use cases at scale,” said Alex Migon, a partner at GPI Capital and a new member of the company’s board of directors. “Couchbase has developed a truly enterprise-grade product, with leading support for cutting-edge application development and deployment needs. We are thrilled to contribute to the next stage of the company’s growth.”
The company tells me that it plans to use the new funding to continue its “accelerated trajectory with investment in each of their three core pillars: sustained differentiation, profitable growth, and world class teams.” Of course, Couchbase will also continue to build new features for its NoSQL server, mobile platform and Couchbase Cloud — and in addition, the company will continue to expand geographically to serve its global customer operations.
BetterCloud gives IT visibility into its SaaS tools providing the means to discover, manage and secure those tools. In the middle of a crisis that has forced most companies to move workers home, being able to manage SaaS usage in this way is growing increasingly significant.
Today the company announced a $75 million Series F. Warburg Pincus led the way with participation from existing investors Bain Capital Ventures, Accel, Greycroft Partners, Flybridge Capital Partners, New Amsterdam Growth Capital and e.ventures. Today’s round brings the total raised to $182 million, according to the company.
While CEO David Politis acknowledges the gravity of the current situation, he also recognizes that giving companies a way to manage their SaaS usage is more pertinent than ever. “What has happened in the last two months has been terrible for the world, but in some crazy way it has just made what we do a lot more relevant,” Politis told TechCrunch.
He says the pandemic has really accelerated the market opportunity because of the reliance on cloud services and the services his company provides.
Those services began as an operational layer on top of G Suite. Later it added support for Office 365 and in 2016 it moved to more general SaaS management. It now offers direct integrations into multiple SaaS apps including Box, Dropbox, Salesforce, Zendesk and more. The set of tools in Bettercloud gives IT control over security, configuration, spend optimization and auditability across SaaS applications.
In normal times after a large Series F round, we might be talking about this being the last round before an IPO, but Politis isn’t ready to commit to that just yet, especially in this economy. He does say, however, that he’s in it for the long haul and sees an opportunity to build a long-term, sustainable company.
“The last couple of months I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and when you take a $75 million round at the stage you’re not doing that because you want to sell the business. You’re doing that because you want to build something and build something really special,” he said.
As organizations look for safe and efficient ways of running their services in the new global paradigm of increased social distancing, a startup that has built a platform to help people verify their work details in a secure way is announcing a round of growth funding.
Truework, which provides a way for banks, apartment-rental agencies, and others to check the employment details of an applicant in a quick and secure manner online, has raised $30 million, money that CEO and co-founder Ryan Sandler said in an interview that it would use both grow its existing business, as well to explore adding more details — both via its own service and via third-party partnerships — to the identity information that it shares.
The Series B is being led by Activant Capital — a VC that focuses on B2B2C startups — with participation also from Sequoia Capital and Khosla Ventures, as well as a number of high profile execs and entrepreneurs — Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn); Tom Gonser (Docusign); William Hockey (Plaid); and Daniel Yanisse (Checkr) among them.
The LinkedIn connection is an interesting one. Both Sandler and co-founder Victor Kabdebon were engineers at LinkedIn working on profile and improving the kind of data that LinkedIn sources on its users (the third co-founder, Ethan Winchell, previously worked elsewhere), and while Sandler tells me that the idea for Truework came to them after both left the company, he sees LinkedIn “as a potential partner here,” so watch this space.
The problem that Truework is aiming to solve is the very clunky, and often insecure, nature of how organizations typically verify an individual’s employment information. Details about salary and where you work, and the job you do, are typically essential for larger financial transactions, whether it’s securing a mortgage or another financing loan, or renting an apartment, or for others who might need to verify that information for other purposes, such as staffing agencies.
Typically that kind of information gathering is time-consuming both to reach out to get and to confirm (Sandler cites statistics that say on average an HR person spends over 1,000 hours annually answering questions like these). And some of the systems that have been put in place to do that work — specifically consumer reporting agencies — have been proven not be as watertight in their security as you would hope.
“Your data is flowing around lots of third party platforms,” Sandler said. “You’re releasing a lot of information about yourself and you don’t know where the data is going and if it’s even accurate.”
Truework’s solution is based around a platform, and now an API, that a company buys into. In turn, it gives its employees the ability to consent to using it. If the employee agrees, Truework sources a worker’s place of employment and salary details, and then when a third party wants to verify that information for the person in question, it uses Truework to do so, rather than contacting the company directly.
Sandler says that currently the idea is that if you leave your job, your next employer would need to also be a Truework customer in order to update the information it has on you: the startup makes money by charging both larger enterprises to make the platform accessible to employees as well as those organizations that are querying for the information/verifications (small business employers using the platform can use it for free). Over time, the plan will be to configure a way to update your profiles regardless of where you work.
So far, the concept has seen a lot of traction: there are 20,000 small businesses using the platform, as well as 100 enterprises, with the number of verifiers (its term for those requesting information) now at 40,000. Customers include The College Board, The Real Real, Oscar Health, The Motley Fool, and Tuft & Needle.
While all of this was built at a time before COVID-19, the global health pandemic has highlighted the importance of having more efficient and secure systems for doing work, especially at a time when many people are not in the office.
“Our biggest competitor is the fax machine and the phone call,” Sandler said, “but as companies move to more remote working, no one is manning the phones or fax machines. But these operations still need to happen.” Indeed, he points out that at the end of 2019, Truework had 25,000 verifiers. Nearly doubling its end-user customers speaks to the huge boost in business it has seen in the last five months.
That is part of the reason the company has attracted the investment it has.
“Truework’s platform sits at the center of consumers’ most important transactions and life events – from purchasing a home, to securing a new job,” said Steve Sarracino, founder and partner at Activant Capital, in a statement. “Up until now, the identity verification process has been painful, expensive, and opaque for all parties involved, something we’ve seen first-hand in the mortgage space. Starting with income and employment, Truework is setting the standard for consent-based verifications and unlocking the next wave of the digital economy. We’re thrilled to be partnering with this exceptional team as they continue to scale the platform.” Sarracino is joining the board with this round.
While a big focus in the world of tech right now may be on building more and better ways of connecting goods and services to people in as contact-free a way as possible, the bigger play around identity management has been around for years, and will continue to be a huge part of how the internet develops in the future.
The fax and phone may be the primary tools these days for verifying employment information, but on a more general level, there are companies like Facebook, Google and Apple already playing a big role in how we “log in” and use all kinds of services online. They, along with others focused squarely on the identity and verification space (and Truework works with some of them) will all continue to try to make the case for why they might be the most trusted provider of that layer of information, at a time when we may want to share less and less with long lists of parties.
That is the bigger opportunity that investors are betting on here.
“The increasing momentum Truework has seen since its founding in 2017 demonstrates the critical need for transformation in this space,” said Alfred Lin, partner at Sequoia, in a statement. “Privacy, especially around identity data, is becoming increasingly top of mind for consumers and how they make transactions online.”
Truework has now raised close to $45 million, and it’s not disclosing its valuation.
At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced Azure Synapse Link, a new enterprise service that allows businesses to analyze their data faster and more efficiently, using an approach that’s generally called ‘hybrid transaction/analytical processing’ (HTAP). That’s a mouthful, it essentially enables enterprises to use the same database system for analytical and transactional workloads on a single system. Traditionally, enterprises had to make some tradeoffs between either building a single system for both that was often highly over-provisioned or to maintain separate systems for transactional and analytics workloads.
Last year, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft announced Azure Synapse Analytics, an analytics service that combines analytics and data warehousing to create what the company calls “the next evolution of Azure SQL Data Warehouse.” Synapse Analytics brings together data from Microsoft’s services and those from its partners and makes it easier to analyze.
“One of the key things, as we work with our customers on their digital transformation journey, there is an aspect of being data-driven, of being insights-driven as a culture, and a key part of that really is that once you decide there is some amount of information or insights that you need, how quickly are you able to get to that? For us, time to insight and a secondary element, which is the cost it takes, the effort it takes to build these pipelines and maintain them with an end-to-end analytics solution, was a key metric we have been observing for multiple years from our largest enterprise customers,” said Rohan Kumar, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure Data.
Synapse Link takes the work Microsoft did on Synaps Analytics a step further by removing the barriers between Azure’s operational databases and Synapse Analytics, so enterprises can immediately get value from the data in those databases without going through a data warehouse first.
“What we are announcing with Synapse Link is the next major step in the same vision that we had around reducing the time to insight,” explained Kumar. “And in this particular case, a long-standing barrier that exists today between operational databases and analytics systems is these complex ETL (extract, transform, load) pipelines that need to be set up just so you can do basic operational reporting or where, in a very transactionally consistent way, you need to move data from your operational system to the analytics system, because you don’t want impact the performance of the operational system in any way because that’s typically dealing with, depending on the system, millions of transactions per second.”
ETL pipelines, Kumar argued, are typically expensive and hard to build and maintain, yet enterprises are now building new apps — and maybe even line of business mobile apps — where any action that consumers take and that is registered in the operational database is immediately available for predictive analytics, for example.
From the user perspective, enabling this only takes a single click to link the two, while it removes the need for managing additional data pipelines or database resources. That, Kumar said, was always the main goal for Synapse Link. “With a single click, you should be able to enable real-time analytics on you operational data in ways that don’t have any impact on your operational systems, so you’re not using the compute part of your operational system to do the query, you actually have to transform the data into a columnar format, which is more adaptable for analytics, and that’s really what we achieved with Synapse Link.”
Because traditional HTAP systems on-premises typically share their compute resources with the operational database, those systems never quite took off, Kumar argued. In the cloud, with Synapse Link, though, that impact doesn’t exist because you’re dealing with two separate systems. Now, once a transaction gets committed to the operational database, the Synapse Link system transforms the data into a columnar format that is more optimized for the analytics system — and it does so in real time.
For now, Synapse Link is only available in conjunction with Microsoft’s Cosmos DB database. As Kumar told me, that’s because that’s where the company saw the highest demand for this kind of service, but you can expect the company to add support for available in Azure SQL, Azure Database for PostgreSQL and Azure Database for MySQL in the future.
At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Azure Arc, its service for managing cloud resources anywhere, including competing clouds like AWS and GCP and platforms like Red Hat’s Open Shift, is now in public preview.
Microsoft first announced this Kubernetes-based solution at its Ignite event in Orland last September. One feature that makes it stand out is that it takes some of what Microsoft has learned from its Azure Stack project for bringing Azure Services to its customers’ data centers (and unsurprisingly, Azure Arc also supports deployments on Azure Stack). Thanks to this, Azure Arc doesn’t just allow you to manage containerized workloads anywhere but also includes the ability to bring services like Azure SQL Database and Azure Database for PostgreSQL to these platforms. It’s also worth noting that while this is a Microsoft service, it supports both Windows and Linux servers.
As part of today’s public preview launch, Microsoft also announced that Arc now supports SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and the SUSE CaaS Platform. “Azure Arc for servers gives customers a central management control plane with security and governance capabilities for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server systems hosted outside of the Azure cloud, such as edge deployments,” says SUSE President of Engineering and Innovation Thomas Di Giacomo.
It’s no secret that most large cloud vendors now have some kind of multi-cloud management service that’s similar to Azure Arc. Google is betting heavily on Anthos, for example, while AWS offers its fully-managed Outpost service. They all have slightly different characteristics and philosophies, but the fact that every major cloud player is now offering some version of this is a clear sign that enterprises don’t want to be locked into using a single cloud — even as these services make them place a bet on a specific vendor for their management services, though.
In a related set of announcements, Microsoft also launched a large set of new features for Azure Stack. This includes the private preview of Azure Stack Hub fleet management for monitoring deployments across Azure and Azure Stack Hub, as well as GPU partitioning using AMD GPU’s, which is also now in private preview. This last part matters not just for using those GPUs for visualization but also for enabling graphics-intensive workloads on virtualized desktop environments through Azure Stack Hub for enterprises that use AMD GPUs in their servers. With GPU partitioning, admins can give multiple users access to their share of the overall GPUs power.
What’s been overlooked in the wake of such workflow-specific tools has been the base class of products that enterprises are using to build the core of their machine learning (ML) workflows, and the shift in focus toward automating the deployment and governance aspects of the ML workflow.
That’s where MLOps comes in, and its popularity has been fueled by the rise of core ML workflow platforms such as Boston-based DataRobot. The company has raised more than $430 million and reached a $1 billion valuation this past fall serving this very need for enterprise customers. DataRobot’s vision has been simple: enabling a range of users within enterprises, from business and IT users to data scientists, to gather data and build, test and deploy ML models quickly.
Founded in 2012, the company has quietly amassed a customer base that boasts more than a third of the Fortune 50, with triple-digit yearly growth since 2015. DataRobot’s top four industries include finance, retail, healthcare and insurance; its customers have deployed over 1.7 billion models through DataRobot’s platform. The company is not alone, with competitors like H20.ai, which raised a $72.5 million Series D led by Goldman Sachs last August, offering a similar platform.
Why the excitement? As artificial intelligence pushed into the enterprise, the first step was to go from data to a working ML model, which started with data scientists doing this manually, but today is increasingly automated and has become known as “auto ML.” An auto-ML platform like DataRobot’s can let an enterprise user quickly auto-select features based on their data and auto-generate a number of models to see which ones work best.
As auto ML became more popular, improving the deployment phase of the ML workflow has become critical for reliability and performance — and so enters MLOps. It’s quite similar to the way that DevOps has improved the deployment of source code for applications. Companies such as DataRobot and H20.ai, along with other startups and the major cloud providers, are intensifying their efforts on providing MLOps solutions for customers.
We sat down with DataRobot’s team to understand how their platform has been helping enterprises build auto-ML workflows, what MLOps is all about and what’s been driving customers to adopt MLOps practices now.
The UK’s data protection watchdog confirmed today the government still hasn’t given it sight of a key legal document attached to the coronavirus contacts tracing app which is being developed by the NHSX, the digital transformation branch of the country’s National Health Service .
Under UK and EU law, a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) can be a legal requirement in instances where there are high rights risks related to the processing of people’s information.
Last month the European Data Protection Board strongly recommended publication of DPIAs in the context of coronavirus contacts tracing apps. “The EDPB considers that a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) must be carried out before implementing such tool as the processing is considered likely high risk (health data anticipated large-scale adoption, systematic monitoring, use of new technological solution). The EDPB strongly recommends the publication of DPIAs,” the pan-EU data protection steerage body wrote in the guidance.
Giving evidence to the human rights committee today, UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed that her department, the ICO, is involved in advising the government on the data protection elements of the app’s design. She said the agency has been provided with some technical documents for review thus far — but, under committee questioning, she reserved any firmer assessment of the rights impacts’ of the government’s choice of app design and architecture given the ICO still hasn’t seen the DPIA.
“I think that is on the verge of happening,” she said when asked if she had any idea when the document would be published or provided to the ICO for review.
“Having that key document — and the requirement for the NHXS to do that, and provide that to me and to the public — is a really important protection,” Denham added. “Especially when everything’s happening at pace and we want the public to take up such an app, to help with proximity and notification.
“The privacy notice and the DPIA will both need to be shared with us and I do know that NHSX plans to also publish that so that they can show the public — be transparent and accountable for what they’re doing.”
The NHSX has given a green light for the ICO to audit the app in future, she also told the committee.
Coronavirus contacts tracing applications are a new technology which, in the UK case, entail repurposing the Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones to measure device proximity as a proxy for calculating infection risk. The digital tracing process opens a veritable pandora’s box of rights risks, with health data, social graph and potentially location information all in the mix — alongside overarching questions about how effective such a tech will prove in battling the coronavirus.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the NHSX will trial the tracing app in the Isle of Wight this week.
“As we see the trial in the Isle of Wight we’ll all be very interested to see the results of that trial and see if it’s working the way that the developers have intended,” added Denham.
At a separate parliamentary committee hearing last week NHSX CEO, Matthew Gould, told MPs that the app could be “technically” ready to deploy nationally within two to three weeks, following the limited geographical trial.
He also said the app will iterate — with future versions potentially asking users to share location data. So while the NHSX has maintained that only pseudonymized data will be collected and held centrally — where it could be used for public health “research” purposes — there remains a possibility that data could be linked to individual identities, such as if different pieces of data are combined by state agencies and/or if the centralized store of data is hacked and/or improperly accessed.
Privacy experts have also warned of the risk of ‘mission creep’ down the tracing line.
Today the Guardian reported that the government is in talks with digital identity startups about building technology to power so called ‘immunity passports’, as another plank of its digital response to the coronavirus. Per the report, such a system could combine facial recognition technology with individual coronavirus test results so a worker could verify their COVID-19 status prior to entrance to a workplace, for example. (A spokeswomen for Onfido confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s in discussions with the government but added: “As you’d expect these are confidential until publicly shared.”)
Returning to the coronavirus tracing app, the key point is that the government has opted for a system design that centralizes proximity events on an NHSX-controlled server — when or if a user elects to self-report themselves suffering from COVID-19 symptoms (or does so after getting a confirmed diagnosis).
This choice to centralize proximity event processing elevates not just privacy and security questions but also wider human rights risks, as the committee highlighted in a series of questions to Denham and Gould today — pointing out, for example, that Denham and the ICO have previously suggested that decentralized architectures would be preferable for such high rights risk technology.
On that Denham said: “Because I’m the information commissioner, if I were to start with a blank sheet of paper [it] would start with a decentralized system — and you can understand, from a privacy and security perspective, why that would be so. But that does not, in any way, mean that a centralized system can’t have the same kind of privacy and security protections. And it’s up to the government — it’s up to NHSX — to determine what kind of design specifications the system needs.
“It’s up to government to identify what those functions and needs are and if those lead to a centralized system then the question that the DPIA has to answer is why centralized? And my next question would be how are the privacy and security concerns addressed? That’s what a DPIA is. It’s about the mitigation of concerns.”
Apple and Google are also collaborating on a cross-platform API that will support the technical functioning of decentralized national tracing apps, as well as baking a decentralized and opt-in system-wide contacts tracing into their own platforms.
The tech giants’ backing for decentralized tracing apps raises interoperability questions and technical concerns for governments that choose to go the other way and pool data.
In additional details for the forthcoming Exposure Notification API, released today, the tech giants stipulate that apps must gain user consent to get access to the API; should only gather the minimum info necessary for the purposes of exposure notification, and only use it for a COVID-19 response; and can’t access or even seek permission to access a device’s Location Services — meaning no uploading location data (something the NHSX app may ask users to do in future, per Gould’s testimony to a different parliamentary committee last week. He also confirmed today that users will be asked to input the firs three letters of their postcode).
A number of European governments have now said they will use decentralized systems for digital contacts tracing — including Germany, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.
The European Commission has also urged the use of privacy preserving technologies — such as decentralization — in a COVID-19 contacts tracing context.
Currently, France and the UK remain the highest profile backers of centralized systems in Europe.
But, interestingly, Gould gave the first sign today of a UK government ‘wobble’ — saying it’s not “locked” to a centralization app architecture and could change its mind if evidence emerged that a different choice would make more sense.
Though he also made a point of laying out a number of reasons that he said explained the design choice, and — in response to a question from the committee — denied the decision had been influenced by the involvement of a cyber security arm of the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, GCHQ .
“We are working phenomenally closely with both [Apple and Google],” he said. “We are trying very hard in the context of a situation where we’re all dealing with a new technology and a new situation to try and work out what the right approach is — so we’re not in competition, we’re all trying to get this right. We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”
Gould claimed the (current) choice of a centralized architecture was taken because the NHSX is balancing privacy needs against the need for public health authorities to “get insight” — such as about which symptoms subsequently lead to people subsequently testing positive; or what contacts are more risky (“what the changes are between a contact, for example, three days before symptoms develop and one day before symptoms develop”).
“It was our view that a centralized approach gave us… even on the basis of the system I explained where you’re not giving personal data over — to collect some very important data that gives serious insight into the virus that will help us,” he said. “So we thought that in that context, having a system that both provided that potential for insight but which also, we believe provided serious protections on the privacy front… was an appropriate balance. And as the information commissioner has said that’s really a question for us to work out where that balance is but be able to demonstrate that we have mitigations in place and we’ve really thought about the privacy side as well, which I genuinely believe we have.”
“We won’t lock ourselves in. It may be that if we want to take a different approach we have to do some heavy duty engineering work to take the different approach but what I wanted to do was provide some reassurance that just because we’ve started down one route doesn’t mean we’re locked into it,” Gould added, in response to concern from committee chair, Harriet Harman, that there might only be a small window of time for any change of architecture to be executed.
In recent days the UK has faced criticism from academic experts related to the choice of app architecture, and the government risks looking increasingly isolated in choosing such a bespoke system — which includes allowing users to self report having COVID-19 symptoms; something the French system will not allow, per a blog post by the digital minister.
Concerns have also been raised about how well the UK app will function technically, as it will be unable to plug directly into the Apple-Google API.
While international interoperability is emerging as a priority issue for the UK — in light of the Republic of Ireland’s choice to go for a decentralized system.
Committee MP Joanna Cherry pressed Gould on that latter point today. “It is going to be a particular problem on the island of Ireland, isn’t it?” she said.
“It raises a further question of interoperability that we’ll have to work through,” admitted Gould.
Cherry also pressed Denham on whether there should be specific legislation and a dedicated oversight body and commissioner, to focus on digital coronavirus contacts tracing — to put in place clear legal bounds and safeguards and ensure wider human rights impacts are considered alongside privacy and security issues.
Denham said: “That’s one for parliamentarians and one for government to look at. My focus right now is making sure that I do a fulsome job when it comes to data protection and security of the data.”
Returning to the DPIA point, the government may not have a legal requirement to provide the document in advance of launching the app to the ICO, according to one UK-based data protection expert we spoke to. Although he agreed there’s a risk of ministers looking hypocritical if, on the one hand, they’re claiming to be very ‘open and transparent’ in the development of the app — a claim Gould repeated in his evidence to the committee today — yet, at the same time, aren’t fully involving the ICO (given it hasn’t had access to the DPIA), and also given what he called the government’s wider “dismal” record on transparency.
Asked whether he’d expect a DPIA to have been shared with the ICO in this context and at this point, Tim Turner, a UK based data protection trainer and consultant, told us: “It’s a tricky one. NHSX have no obligation to share the DPIA with the ICO unless it’s under prior consultation where they have identified a high risk and cannot properly manage or prevent it. If NHSX are confident that they’ve assessed and managed the risks effectively, even though that’s a subjective judgement, ICO has no right to demand it. There’s also no obligation to publish DPIAs in any circumstances. So it comes down to issues of right and wrong rather than legality.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t expect NHSX to publish it because they don’t have to,” he added. “If they think they’ve done it properly, they’ve done what’s required. That’s not to say they haven’t done it properly, I have no idea. I think it’s an example of where the concept of data ethics bumps into reality — it would be a breach of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] not to do a DPIA, but as long as that’s happened and we don’t have an obvious personal data breach, ICO has nothing to complain about. Denham might expect organisations to behave in a certain way or give her information that she wants to see, but if an organisation’s leadership wants to stick rigidly to what the law says, her expectations don’t have any powers to back them up.”
On the government’s claim to openness and transparency, Turner added: “This isn’t a transparent government. Their record on FOI [Freedom of Information] is dismal (and ICO’s record on enforcing to do something about that is also dismal). It’s definitely hypocritical of them to claim to be transparent on this or indeed other important issues. I’m just saying that NHSX can fall back on not having an obligation to do it. They should be more honest about the fact that ICO isn’t involved and not use them as a shield.”
“I didn’t know what the term ‘freight forwarder’ meant until a year into starting the business.” Considering his shipping logistics startup Flexport was last valued at $3.2 billion, that quote from my first interview with CEO and founder Ryan Petersen back in 2016 seems even more surprising now.
But it also hints at why he’s one of the most talented and exciting executives in tech: He learns. Humbly. Relentlessly. About whatever the role requires as it evolves.
Right now, it means learning that 1.15 million medical masks can fit in a pasenger plane if you strap boxes to the seats like they’re people. Flexport has delivered around 62 million pieces of personal protective equipment, with delivery of over 10 million of those funded by the company’s impact arm Flexport.org. Petersen and Flexport meanwhile helped create the Frontline Responders Fund that’s raised over $7 million for COVID relief.
Flexport.org packed 3 million pieces of PPE into a repurposed passenger plane to get them to frontline responders
“He’s one of the most impressive founders I’ve known” said fellow FRF leader and Science co-founder Peter Pham . “Ryan just wants to solve problems without ego.”
In this profile, TechCrunch charts Petersen’s growth across our six interviews with him over the past four years as he raised $1.3 billion and reached hundreds of millions in revenue.
Petersen soon found out that ‘freight forwarding’ means coordinating all the shipping and hand-offs to get pallets and containers of goods on one side of the world, through trucks and boats and planes, to a retailer on the other. By then Flexport was going through Y Combinator in 2014, preparing to take on the trillion-dollar freight industry.
“I thought the problem was too big, and that I wouldn’t be able to solve it” he recalls. “How am I going to fix global trade? Only much later did I realize that, well, let’s try it! It can’t just sit there broken forever.” Somehow, freight forwarding was still being organized with faxed logs and paper manifests, or Excel files and email if a client was lucky.
Freight forwarding had plagued plenty of founders but none had tackled it because it seemed so insurmountable that it engendered ‘schlep blindness’, as YC’s co-creator Paul Graham termed it.
“Schlep blindness is something so hard that your brain won’t think about it. I think it’s a necessary feature of our brains. Otherwise we’d sit here contemplating our mortality all day and never be able to do anything” Petersen explains. “Anyone who ever sold anything on the internet pre-Stripe went through this terrible process. 100% of internet entrepreneurs saw that problem and then went about their way.” With its 100 year-old shipping incumbents and endless regulatory acronyms, who’d want to wade in?
“Ryan is what I call an armor-piercing shell: a founder who keeps going through obstacles that would make other people give up” says Graham, who donated $1 million to Flexport.org’s COVID-19 relief efforts. “But he’s not just determined. He sees things other people don’t see. The freight business is both huge and very backward, and yet who of all the thousands of people starting startups noticed?”
Petersen. What really irked him was that the big freight forwarders didn’t want those clients to learn what influenced prices and timelines to keep them in the dark about how sub-optimal their routes were. “They just made money off the fact that I didn’t understand how it all works. And I assumed at the time that that was just something about entrepreneurs who are new to this space but it turns out even the biggest companies struggle with this stuff. They’re afraid forwarders are trying to take advantage of them.”
But Petersen wasn’t so naive. He’d actually been in the freight business his whole life.
“Maybe without her realizing it, she was training us to be entrepreneurs” Petersen reflects. He and he brother David grew up with a biochemist mom who ran her own food safety business while their dad did the company’s programming. “All of our childhood conversations were around using software to make government regulations more accessible.” When would Flexport would eventually be jumping through the hoops of the 43 different US trade regulators, it felt natural for its CEO.
Ryan Petersen back in 2015 before Flexport had its own planes
Petersen exudes a kinetic energy that subtly coveys that he’s always itching for the next knot to unwind. “At the time I was terribly bored by everything”. So his Mom put him to work. “She paid my allowance as a kid by having me deliver sodas to stock their office. My dad would drive me to Safeway to buy sodas for four bucks a case and sell them for nine.” With a laugh, he considers, “It was potentially a way for her to make my allowance tax-free.”
Soon Petersen was moving bigger items longer distances, buying scooters in China and selling them online in the States. By 2005, Petersen was living in China to get closer to the supply chains. The next year, he co-founded ImportGenius with his brother and Michael Klanko. They’d realized there was a ton of valuable information locked up in paper shipping manifests, so they began scanning and selling the data to importers and exporters so they could keep tabs on competitors.
Petersen’s first moment in the spotlight came in 2008 when he accidentally butted heads with Steve Jobs. ImportGenius had identified that Apple was shipping a large number of “electronic computers”, a new classification for the company. “We scooped the launch of the iPhone 3G with our public manifest data. Steve Jobs called US Customs, who called me” he told me back in 2016.
Though ImportGenius eventually plateaued, Petersen had accumulated the knowledge to lift the veil and pierce his schlep blindness. “I realized the largest problem was staring me in the face. Global trade is too hard, and there’s not software to manage it” he remembers. “I thought there was no software for SMBs. What I discovered was that there’s NO software.”
At first he wanted to build what would become Flexport inside of ImportGenius, but it was tough to get existing investors to stomach the risk. It’d be scary, but also exciting to start something separate. “My brother is my best friend and my best advisor” Petersen tells me. They’d always pushed each other with a jovial sense of competition — Ryan’s Twitter handle is @TypesFast. David’s is @TypesFaster.
So David made the first move, founding BuildZoom, which has gone on to raise $23 million to coordinate the logistics (are you sensing a pattern?) of hiring contruction contractors. In 2013, Ryan lept. “I think part of me wanted to go out on my own and prove myself . . . to prove that I was capable of running the show. It was a really, really challenging to do it. Then the day I did it, it was the most liberating, awesome feeling ever.”
It took a few years to get all its regulatory approvals and develop the basis of the Flexport product. But with early capital from Founders Fund, Petersen built the freight software he’d spent so long pining for. Still, “Senior execs at big companies were making fun of us. One of them compared us to Doc Emett Brown [from Back To The Future] and his ‘flex capacitor’ but we he missed is that Doc invented a time machine and it worked.”
By 2016, Flexport was serving 700 clients across 64 countries. I described it as the unsexiest trillion-dollar startup, attacking an enormous industry that was so boring that it repelled earlier innovation. Oversaturation in consumer startup verticals was pushing investors to look to where tech was evolving previously untouched markets. Flexport raised a high-profile $110 million round led by DST at a $910 million post-money valuation in 2017, and Silicon Valley was starting to take notice.
The Flexboard Platform dashboard offers maps, notifications, task lists, and chat for Flexport clients and their factory suppliers.
Luckily, the freight big-wigs were still laughing despite Flexport moving 7000 shipping containers per month for 1800 customers. “I don’t worry about startup competitors. I worry the big guys will stop thinking of us as such a joke” Petersen said that year. Soon incumbents like 25-year-old Chinese private delivery giant S.F. Express were allying with Flexport, leading another $100 million round in 2018. Meanwhile, Flexport was trying to sound more like its older competition. Petersen told me “We’re trying to retire the word ‘startup’. [Our clients] want a company that will help them grow, not the fly-by-night startup.”
At that point, Petersen didn’t care if freight was appealing or not. “I never thought it was sexy or unsexy. I just thought it was a backstage pass to the world economy” he’d later say. Yet SoftBank’s Saudi-backed Vision Fund felt the attraction. Flexport was vertically integrating, adding freight financing so retailers could pay factories for good they’d sell months later. It was also chartering its own plane and operating its own warehouses where it could experiment with next-generation logistics, scanning the physical dimensions of everything that came through its doors to optimize future shipments.
By then, Flexport had plenty of exit options. But Petersen was enjoying the ride. “I’m just having fun. You have a purpose. You get invited to interesting things. Once you sell your business, you’re just another rich guy. I never want to sell the business.” Luckily, the potential to grab more of the freight forwarding profits convinced SoftBank to invest a jaw-dropping $1 billion into Flexport in early 2019 at a $3.2 billion post-money valuation.
“It was controversial with our board. They thought it was a lot of dilution to take on but I convinced them that, this was going to go up and down and we wanted we to have cash to ride out the cycles. My view is that the world’s uncertain. You should be prepared for all outcomes” Ryan explains. As long as it could weather the storm, “we’re going to win on some time horizon.”
That strategy soon paid off. When trade with China effectively halted as COVID-19 exploded in the country and Flexport had far fewer containers to coordinate, it didn’t have to execute mass layoffs like fellow late-stage startups. It proactively cut 3% of its staff or around 50 people on February 4th, centered in recruiting that it plans to slow. “It’s painful to disappoint people” Petersen reveals.
Flexport chartered its own plane for several years to ship freight
Transitioning to a recession-era CEO and learning to reduce headcount with empathy became Petersen’s new objective. “I wanted people to know that I take personal responsibility for it. I wanted people to know that there’s transparency here” he tells me, his voice straining under the gravity of the situation. “If people feel fear and then they look at the leadership and they think the leadership is not feeling fear, then the fear amplifies. Whereas if people feel fear and they see, ‘oh the leaders are feeling fear also? Then okay, they’re going to behave appropriately.'”
Taking decisive action before COVID-19 spread widely stateside kept Flexport’s momentum strong and its runway long. Petersen is proving he can guide the company through bust as well as boom.
“My big learning in the last 18 months or so is that you can’t do everything. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything” Petersen outlines. “I see good ideas and I say ‘DO THAT!'” he tells me with a wry smile. “Soon, you’re spread pretty thin. You need some top down discipline to say ‘no’ to things. We really lacked that in the early years.”
The quest for discipline led him to develop and lean on two major frameworks for prioritizing customer needs and preserving company culture. They’re crucial now that Flexport has grown to 1800 employees across 14 offices and 6 warehouses, and 10,000 clients including Sonos, Kleen Kanteen, and Timbuk2.
Ryan Petersen whiteboards his management frameworks
The first framework is from Petersen’s mentor and American business mogul Charlie Munger. It lays out the six stake-holders or ‘customers’ a business must satisfy to succeed. Here’s how Petersen describes them:
“If you don’t have at least a B grade in everything and ideally an A, you’re probably not long-term sustainable” Petersen explains. It’s a smart lens for anyone assessing companies, whether that’s ones to work at, invest in, work with, or one you’re leading and trying to improve.
Take Airbnb for example. Clients generally love its alternative to hotels, they’ve been able to continuously recruit employees effectively, and investors have offered it billions and kicked in to help it survive COVID-19. But its vendor hosts and their neighbors have struggled with disruptive guests, and communities and their local regulators have clashed with the startup over its impact on housing supply. The six customers concept identifies where Airbnb needs to work harder.
The second framework Petersen developed himself for how to ensure a company’s core values persist as it scales. It lays out the six culture questions:
Petersen likens these tenets to addressing a medical condition. It’s easier if leaders build them into their culture early than trying to fix them later. “If you were to get these things right in any company, you’ll outperform” he believes.
To execute on these, Petersen built a team close to him that just “makes sure our OKRs (objectives and key results) are clear, that we’re running inclusive meetings with good documentation, that we’re holding people accountable.” The method is heavily influenced by Amazon’s corporate style. As Petersen told me last year, “The English language lacks a positive word for bureaucracy.”
Taking process seriously has made the CEO a hit with his employees. “Working for Ryan accelerated my career at least a decade. He has the uncanny ability to push people to their peak performance” said Flexport’s long-time former VP of product Sean Linehan, who went on to found Placement. “Ryan is building the playbook for operationally-intense tech businesses. Building a global logistics behemoth from scratch is an insanely complex job. But Ryan thrives in complexity. Where most entrepreneurs fall apart, he hits his stride.”
With the economics headwinds we’re facing, Petersen will need that drive if he wants to bring Flexport public. As you might expect, he’s learning about it. “I like reading annual reports. It’s like a hobby of mine, particularly with my competitors” Petersen says. “I want to go public. But I don’t want to go public until we’re profitable because I don’t want to be at Wall Street’s whims. If you’re losing money and you’re public and Wall Street doesn’t like your stock, you can get into this death cycle.”
Being the CEO of a company that outperforms has opened doors to new mentors too, like executive coach Matt Messari, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Petersen asked Nadella “How can you make learning and development measurable?”. Redmond’s head honcho answered “You don’t have to measure everything.” Petersen took the note. Sometimes, you just do what you think is right.
Leading with his heart has steered Flexport to join the coronavirus relief effort in huge ways. “We were not put on this earth to lay in bed staying warm under the blankets. It’s time to step up and do something for the world” Petersen tweeted.
Flexport’s response started in Januarury with multiple blog posts per week laying out how COVID-19 was impacting global trade, how aid organizers could navigate supply chain issues, and how governments and private companies could help. Then it launched the Frontline Responders Fund and began routing all Flexport.org contributions to the cause, massively discounting freight forwarding costs to help get PPE wherever it’s needed.
Flexport.org launched the Frontline Responders Fund
“100% of your donation to this cause will go directly toward shipping masks to people on the front lines as fast as possible. I give you my word that we won’t waste a penny of your money” Petersen tweeted. Despite his business encountering its own troubles with global trade and demand disrupted, he shifted to spending his full time running Flexport.org and promoting the FRF. With the help of celebs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Norton, it’s raised over $7 million. The FRF has delivered over 6.9 million masks, 240,000 gowns, 1,000 ventilators, 155,000 gloves, and 250,000 meals for vulnerable populations.
Petersen hasn’t been shy about rallying more leaders to the cause, writing this expansive guide to the major bottlenecks blocking relief. “Philanthropists should also step up, lending money to organizations that have received purchase orders for PPE, but that can’t afford to buy the equipment unless they are paid upfront. Because they’ll get their money back when the pandemic subsides, this is one of the highest impact forms of philanthropy out there right now.”
That willingness to get involved has inspired his employees to roll up their sleeves too. “During a crisis, leaders really show the values they embody” says Susy Schöneberg, head of Flexport.org. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, Ryan immediately offered us more resources to support our commercial and nonprofit clients. Over the last weeks, my days started and ended by talking to him – no matter what time is was.”
From his vantage point, Petersen also has special visibility into who is trying to exploit the crisis. “Effective immediately Flexport will not ship personal protective equipment unless the customer can demonstrate which hospital system or other frontline emergency responder they are being provided to” Petersen wrote. “There are global shortages of these products, and it is immoral to allow war-profiteering from entrepreneurs looking to make an easy dollar.”
In the absence of proper federal crisis management, Petersen has become a defacto general in the war against coronavirus. “Given the scale of the problem and the complexity of the market failures outlined above, there’s no way for the US government to solve this on its own. But it can and must provide leadership, breaking down obstacles and coordinating the response of the private sector.” Until then, Petersen’s learning as fast as he can to become the wartime CEO needed right now.
Paraphrasing Kobe Bryant, Petersen concludes, “When you know what your goal is, the entire world is your library.”
For more of this author Josh Constine’s thoughts on tech, subscribe to his newsletter Moving Product
In a small suburb of Melbourne, two entrepreneurs are developing a technology that could mean big changes for the packaging industry.
Stuart Gordon and Mark Appleford are the co-founders of Varden, a company that has developed a process to take the waste material from sugarcane and convert it into a paper-like packaging product with the functional attributes of plastic.
Their technology managed to grab the attention — and $2.2 million in funding — from Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund managing the money of Li Ka-Shing one of the world’s wealthiest men.
It’s an opportune time to launch a novel packaging technology since the European Union has already instituted a ban on single use plastic items, which will go into effect in 2021. Taking their lead, companies like Nestle and Walmart have pledged to use only sustainable packaging for products beginning in 2025.
The environmental toll that packaging takes on the earth’s habitats is already a concern for most concerns and the urgency to find a solution is only mounting with consumers and businesses actually producing more waste in the rush to change consumer behavior and socially distance as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I like technologies that focus on carbon reductions,” said Chris Liu, Horizons Ventures’ representative in Australia.
A longtime tech and product executive who had stints at Intel and Fjord, a digital design studio, Liu relocated to Australia recently and has actually taken himself off the grid.
Living in Western Australia, the climate emergency was brought directly to the top of Liu’s mind when the wildfires, which raged through the country, came within two kilometers of his new home.
For Mark Appleford, it wasn’t so much the fires as it was the garbage that kept washing up on the shores of his beloved beaches.
Over beers at a barbecue he began talking to his eventual co-founder, Stuart Gordon, about the environmental problem they’d solve if they had the ability to change things. They settled on plastics.
Working in Appleford’s laundry room they started developing the technology that would become Varden. That early laundry room-work in 2015 led to a small seed round and the company’s long slog to get an initial product in the hands of test customers.
Finagling some time with the New Zealand manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, the two co-founders put together an early prototype of their coffee pods made from sugarcane bagasse, a waste byproduct of the sugar feedstock.
“We worked backwards through customers to supply chain, which led us to material selection, which was something that would allow us to create a product that people understood,” said Gordon.
The production process has evolved to fit inside a 40 foot container that holds the firm’s machine which takes agricultural waste and converts that waste into packaging.
Instead of using rollers like a paper mill, Varden’s technology uses a thermoform to mold the plant waste into a product that has the same properties as plastic.
It removes a complicated step that’s been essential to the current crop of bioplastics which use bacteria to convert plant waste into plastic substitutes that are then sold to the industry.
“It looks like paper… you can tear it in half and it sounds like paper when you rip it, and you can throw it in the bin,” said Appleford.
Gordon said that the company’s containers are outperforming commodity based plastics. And the first target for replacement, the founders said, is coffee capsules.
“We went for coffee because it’s the hardest,” said Appleford.
It’s also a huge market, according to the company. Varden estimates that there are over 20 billion coffee pods consumed every year.
With the new money, Varden will begin manufacturing at scale to meet initial demand from pilot customers and is hoping to expand its product line to include medical blister packs in addition to the coffee pods.
“A pilot plant on the products we’re looking at is a pilot plant that can generate 20 million units a year,” said Gordon.
Both men are hoping that their product — and others like it — can usher in a generation of new sustainable packaging materials that are better for the environment at every stage of their life cycle.
“The next generation of packaging will be better… there are plant-based flexibles for your salads for your potato chips… [But] the next generation of molded packaging is us… bioplastic will ultimately go.”