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Rocket Lab’s Mars mission gets green light from NASA

By Devin Coldewey

Rocket Lab is one step closer to going to Mars with NASA’s approval of the company’s Photon spacecraft for an upcoming science mission. If all continues according to plan the two craft will launch in 2024 and arrive on the red planet 11 months later to study its magnetosphere.

The mission is known as the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or ESCAPADE (hats off to whoever worked that one out), and was proposed for a small satellite science program back in 2019, eventually being chosen as a finalist. UC Berkeley researchers are the main force behind the science part.

These satellites have to be less than 180 kilograms (about 400 pounds) and must perform standalone science missions, part of a new program aiming at more lightweight, shorter lead missions that can be performed with strong commercial industry collaboration. A few concepts have been baking since the original announcement of the program, and ESCAPADE just passed Key Decision Point C, meaning it’s ready to go from concept to reality.

This particular mission is actually a pair of satellites, a perk that no doubt contributed to its successful selection. Rocket Lab’s whole intention with the Photon program is to provide a more or less turnkey design for various space operations, from orbital work to interplanetary science missions like this one.

Interestingly, Rocket Lab won’t actually be launching the mission aboard one of its Electron rockets — the satellites will be aboard a “NASA-provided commercial launch vehicle,” which leaves it up to them. Perhaps by that time the company will be in the running for the contract, but for now Rocket Lab is only building the spacecraft, including most of the nonscientific onboard components: navigation, orientation, propulsion, etc.

“ESCAPADE is an innovative mission that demonstrates that advanced interplanetary science is now within reach for a fraction of traditional costs, and we’re proud to make it possible with Photon. We are delighted to receive the green light from NASA to proceed to flight,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in the company’s announcement of the milestone.

Rocket Lab is already under contract to lift a CubeSat to cislunar orbit for Artemis purposes, and has locked in a deal with Varda Space Industries to build that company’s spacecraft, for launch in 2023 and 2024.

What happens when Wall Street falls out of love with your sector?

By Alex Wilhelm

It’s been an awful week for public neoinsurance companies. A subsector of the larger insurtech world, neoinsurance providers tackled a number of insurance categories using a blend of modern app design and machine learning in hopes of creating more user-friendly and profitable insurance products.

The idea proved attractive to venture capitalists, who invested in a host of companies working on the problem space. And it went so well that in the last year or so we saw a number of U.S. neoinsurance companies go public.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

That’s the extent of the good news. Since the IPOs and SPAC combinations that took MetroMile, Hippo, Lemonade and Root public, the group has seen their values either decline sharply below their initial trading prices or far under their recent highs.

We’ve covered some of these declines in recent weeks and wondered if we should be worried about neoinsurance valuations and how they may impact startups. This morning, we’re examining what happened to neoinsurance companies this week, why, and which startups could be impacted.

Grounding our work is an interview that The Exchange held with Root CEO Alex Timm in the wake of his company’s earnings report. It’s a pretty illustrative example of where the sector finds itself today: Flush, busy and somewhat unloved.

Recent declines

Measuring from last Friday’s closing price to yesterday’s, here’s a digest of where the market is for public neoinsurance companies:

  • Hippo: -20%
  • MetroMile: -30%
  • Root: -23%
  • Lemonade: -6%

Declines from recent highs are more extreme for several of the now-public neoinsurance companies, something that we discussed last Friday. The point we made then has only become more acute. We could add names to this list, like Oscar Health, but health insurance feels sufficiently distinct from the above companies that I don’t want to muddy the waters.

What’s new in all of this is that the value of some of these companies is getting close to their cash balance. Or more simply, they are trending toward basement-level enterprise values. Here’s the data:

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

By Taylor Hatmaker

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30% of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30% to 15% last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15% for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

“This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up,” Epic Games VP of Public Policy Corie Wright said of the new bill.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

“At Apple, our focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million-dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.