At its virtual Cloud Next ’20 event, Google today announced a number of updates to its cloud portfolio, but the public alpha launch of BigQuery Omni is probably the highlight of this year’s event. Powered by Google Cloud’s Anthos hybrid-cloud platform, BigQuery Omni allows developers to use the BigQuery engine to analyze data that sits in multiple clouds, including those of Google Cloud competitors like AWS and Microsoft Azure — though for now, the service only supports AWS, with Azure support coming later.
Using a unified interface, developers can analyze this data locally without having to move data sets between platforms.
“Our customers store petabytes of information in BigQuery, with the knowledge that it is safe and that it’s protected,” said Debanjan Saha, the GM and VP of Engineering for Data Analytics at Google Cloud, in a press conference ahead of today’s announcement. “A lot of our customers do many different types of analytics in BigQuery. For example, they use the built-in machine learning capabilities to run real-time analytics and predictive analytics. […] A lot of our customers who are very excited about using BigQuery in GCP are also asking, ‘how can they extend the use of BigQuery to other clouds?’ ”
Google has long said that it believes that multi-cloud is the future — something that most of its competitors would probably agree with, though they all would obviously like you to use their tools, even if the data sits in other clouds or is generated off-platform. It’s the tools and services that help businesses to make use of all of this data, after all, where the different vendors can differentiate themselves from each other. Maybe it’s no surprise then, given Google Cloud’s expertise in data analytics, that BigQuery is now joining the multi-cloud fray.
“With BigQuery Omni customers get what they wanted,” Saha said. “They wanted to analyze their data no matter where the data sits and they get it today with BigQuery Omni.”
He noted that Google Cloud believes that this will help enterprises break down their data silos and gain new insights into their data, all while allowing developers and analysts to use a standard SQL interface.
Today’s announcement is also a good example of how Google’s bet on Anthos is paying off by making it easier for the company to not just allow its customers to manage their multi-cloud deployments but also to extend the reach of its own products across clouds. This also explains why BigQuery Omni isn’t available for Azure yet, given that Anthos for Azure is still in preview, while AWS support became generally available in April.
Google Cloud today announced the private beta launch of Assured Workloads for Government, the company’s version of what some of its competitors would call their “government cloud.”
With Assured Workloads for Government, Google Cloud ensures that government agencies and their contractors can ensure that all data stays in its U.S. regions. Government agencies can also limit access to Google Cloud support personnel based on their citizenship, background check and geography. Later this year, Google will also enable a new support option that ensures that these users will get access from a U.S. Person, in a U.S. location with a target response time of 15 minutes for P1 cases.
Google Cloud notes that its system is also designed to allow government customers and contractors to meet the standards of the Department of Defense, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) — all while giving them users access to its full portfolio of services.
The company specifically notes that while other clouds build separate government cloud, the result of this is often that “government agencies having to run on less feature-rich, fortressed versions of commercial clouds to meet their needs.” It’s worth noting that Microsoft recently built out two new regions specifically for allowing government agencies to handle classified data on Azure, in addition to its regular Azure Government data centers. Similarly, with its GovCloud, AWS has long offered similar capabilities in two government-specific U.S. regions.
A heavyweight partnership between industry and academic sciences is throwing their considerable weight into an important task: Creating a new low-cost, rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19. Chemical industry leader 3M has partnered with MIT to create a diagnostic tool for COVID-19 that’s easy-to-use, and that can be manufactured cheaply and in large volume for mass distribution and use.
The test is currently the research phase, with a team led by MIT’s Professor Hadley Sikes of the school’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Sikes’ laboratory has a specific focus on creating and developing tech to enhance the performance of protein tests that are meant to provide rapid, accurate results.
3M is contributing its biomaterials and bioprocessing expertise, along with its experience in creating products designed to be manufactured at scale. The end goal is to create a test that detects viral antigens, a type of test first cleared for use in COVID-19 detection at the beginning of May by the FDA. These tests provide results much faster than the molecular PCR-based test – but do have a higher change of fall negatives. Still, their ability to be administered at point-of-care, and return results within just minutes, could help considerably in ramping up testing efforts, especially in cases where individuals aren’t necessarily presenting symptoms but are in situations where they could pose a risk to others if carrying the virus while asymptomatic.
The new 3M and MIT projects is part of the RADx Tech program created by the National Institute of Health (NIH) specifically to fund the development of tests that can expand U.S. testing deployment. An initial $500,000 of funding was provided to MIT and 3M from the program, and it can potentially receive further funding after achieving other development milestones.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and state investment firm Temasek announced today that Project Ubin, its blockchain-based multi-currency payments network, has proven its commercial potential after tests with more than 40 companies.
The initiative was launched in 2016. A prototype developed by Temasek and J.P. Morgan began undergoing testing last year to see how well it would integrate with commercial blockchain applications.
A report released today, commissioned by MAS and Temasek, said Project Ubin’s prototype was validated through workshops with more than 40 financial and non-financial firms. Its potential uses include faster, less costly cross-border transactions; foreign currency exchange; and smart contracts for escrow and trade.
The report also said that Project Ubin’s prototype can potentially pave the way to enable more collaborations with central banks and other financial institution to build better cross-border payments networks.
In a statement, Chia Song Hwee, Temasek’s deputy chief executive officer, said “This validates Temasek’s efforts in exploring and building blockchain solutions focusing on digital identity, digital currencies and financial asset tokenization. We look forward to supporting commercialization efforts emanating from Project Ubin and other application areas, with a view to drive greater adoption of blockchain technology.”
Luckin Coffee has replaced co-founder and (now ex-) chairman Charles Zhengyao Lu, despite his efforts to maintain control over the troubled Beijing-based coffee chain. The company disclosed in an SEC filing on Monday that Jinyi Guo, another co-founder, board member and former acting chief executive of Luckin, has been appointed as its new chairman and chief executive officer.
In today’s SEC filing, Luckin also said a total of four directors have left the board (Lu, David Hui Li, Erhai Liu and Sean Shao) and two new independent directors have been appointed. The new additions are Jie Yang, vice dean of the business school at the China University of Political Science and Law, and Ying Zeng, who was a partner at law firm Orrick Herrington and Sutcliffe and previously served as El Paso Corporation’s vice president and country manager for China.
The company’s disclosure comes after weeks of strife during which Lu sought to hold onto control of Luckin. Earlier this month, an attempt by Luckin Coffee’s directors to remove Lu as chairman failed to get enough votes during a board meeting.
The proposal to oust Lu was made on June 26 after an internal investigation found that Luckin Coffee’s net revenue in 2019 was inflated by about RMB 2.12 billion (US $300 million) and that fabrication of transactions began in April 2019, with Lu, former chief operating officer Jenny Zhiya Qian and several other employees participating in the false reports.
Luckin Coffee disclosed last month that Nasdaq had decided to delist the company, a spectacular fall from grace after it raised $651 million in its United States public offering in May before allegations of fraud caused its stock to plummet.
As expected, BigCommerce has filed to go public. The Austin, Texas, based e-commerce company raised over $200 million while private. The company’s IPO filing lists a $100 million placeholder figure for its IPO raise, giving us directional indication that this IPO will be in the lower, and not upper, nine-figure range.
BigCommerce, similar to public market darling Shopify, provides e-commerce services to merchants. Given how enamored public investors are with its Canadian rival, the timing of BigCommerce’s debut is utterly unsurprising and is prima facie intelligent.
Of course, we’ll know more when it prices. Today, however, the timing appears fortuitous.
BigCommerce is a SaaS business, meaning that it sells a digital service for a recurring payment. For more on how it derives revenue from customers, head here. For our purposes what matters is that public investors will classify it along with a very popular — today’s trading notwithstanding — market segment.
Starting with broad strokes, here’s how the company performed in 2019 compared to 2018, and Q1 2020 in contrast to Q1 2019:
BigCommerce didn’t grow too quickly in 2019, but its Q1 2020 expansion pace is much better. BigCommerce will file an S-1/A with more information in Q2 2020, we expect; it can’t go public without sharing more about its recent financial performance.
If the company’s revenue growth acceleration continues in the most recent period — bearing in mind that e-commerce as a segment has proven attractive to many businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic — BigCommerce’s IPO timing would appear even more intelligent than it did at first blush. Investors love growth acceleration.
Moving from revenue growth to revenue quality, BigCommerce’s Q1 2020 gross margins came in at 77.5%, a solid SaaS result. In Q1 2019 its gross margin was 76.8%, a slightly worse figure. Still, improving gross margins are popular as they indicate that future cash flows will grow at a faster clip than revenues, all else held equal.
In 2018 BigCommerce lost $38.9 million on a GAAP basis. Its net loss expanded modestly to $42.6 million in 2020, a larger dollar figure in gross terms, but a slimmer percent of its yearly top line. You can read those results however you’d like. In Q1 2020, however, things got better, as the company’s GAAP net loss fell to $4 million from its year-ago Q1 result of $10.5 million.
The BigCommerce big commerce business is growing more slowly than I had anticipated, but its overall operational health is better than I expected.
A few other notes, before we tear deeper into its S-1 filing tomorrow morning. BigCommerce’s adjusted EBITDA, a metric that gives a distorted, partial view of a company’s profitability, improved along similar lines to its net income, falling from -$9.2 million in Q1 2019 to -$5.7 million in Q1 2020.
The company’s cash flow is, akin to its adjusted EBITDA, worse than its net loss figures would have you guess. BigCommerce’s operating activities consumed $10 million in Q1 2020, an improvement from its Q1 2019 operating cash burn of $11.1 million.
The company is further in debt than many SaaS companies, but not so far as to be a problem. BigCommerce’s long-term debt, net of its current portion, was just over $69 million at the end of Q1 2020. It’s not a nice figure, per se, but it is one small enough that a good IPO haul could sharply reduce while still providing good amounts of working capital for the business.
Investors listed in its IPO document include Revolution, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, and SoftBank.
After a series of closed alpha tests, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios and Asobo Studios today announced that the next-gen Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 will launch on August 18. Pre-orders are now live and FS 2020 will come in three editions, standard ($59.99), deluxe ($89.99) and premium deluxe ($119.99), with the more expensive versions featuring more planes and handcrafted international airports.
The last part may come as a bit of a surprise, given that Microsoft and Asobo are using assets from Bing Maps and some AI magic on Azure to essentially recreate the Earth — and all of its airports — in Flight Simulator 2020. Still, the team must have spent some extra time on making some of these larger airports especially realistic and today, if you were to buy even one of these larger airports as an add-on for Flight Simulator X or X-Plane, you’d easily be spending $30 or more.
The default edition features 20 planes and 30 hand-modeled airports, while the deluxe edition bumps that up to 25 and 35 and the high-end version comes with 30 planes and 40 airports.
Among those airports not modeled in all their glorious detail in the default edition (they are still available there, by the way — just without some of the extra detail) are the likes of Amsterdam Schiphol, Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Frankfurt, Heathrow and San Francisco.
The same holds true for planes, with the 787 only available in the deluxe package, for example. Still, based on what Asobo has shown in its regular updates so far, even the 20 planes in the standard edition have been modeled in far more detail than in previous versions and maybe even beyond what some add-ons provide today.
Since a lot of what Microsoft and Adobo are doing here involves using cloud technology to, for example, stream some of the more detailed scenery to your computer on demand, chances are we’ll see regular content updates for these various editions as well, though the details here aren’t yet clear.
“Your fleet of planes and detailed airports from whatever edition you choose are all available on launch day as well as access to the ongoing content updates that will continually evolve and expand the flight simulation platform,” is what Microsoft has to say about this for the time being.
Chances are we will get more details in the coming weeks, as Flight Simulator 2020 is about to enter its closed beta phase.
Microsoft is shedding its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the U.S. software behemoth said (in Chinese) Monday, confirming an earlier report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.
The announcement came several months after Microsoft announced it would close down its voice assistant Cortana in China among other countries late last year.
Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to accelerate Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and buildout of the chatbot’s “commercial ecosystem.”
The spinoff will see the new entity license technologies from Microsoft for subsequent research and development in Xiaoice and continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its stakes in the new company.
In 2014, a small team of Microsoft’s Bing researchers unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately created a sensation in China and was regarded by many as their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just a few weeks after Microsoft rolled out Cortana in the country. Modeled on the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be a user’s friend.
Like all foreign companies, Microsoft has to grapple with China’s censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed by Tencent’s instant messenger QQ over suspicions of politically sensitive speech.
The project has involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI land, ranging from Lu Qi, who went on to join Baidu as its chief operating officer and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took up a post at Baidu to head the search giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive at Microsoft’s storied Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of fledgling news app News Break.
Shum will serve as chairman at Xiaoice’s new standalone entity. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as chief executive officer. Chen Zhan, a developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, will be general manager of the Japanese office.
The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with a mission to further develop its client base across the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.
Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice has a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices globally at the last count. The chatbot has found applications in such areas as finance, retail, auto, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed it can “mine context, tonality and emotions from text to create unique patterns within seconds.”
After aggressive cost-cutting measures, including mass layoffs and selling several of its businesses, WeWork’s chairman expects the company to have positive cash flow in 2021. Marcelo Claure, who became WeWork’s chairman after co-founder Adam Neumann resigned as chief executive officer last fall, told the Financial Times that the co-working space startup is on target to meet its goal, set in February, of reaching operating profitability by the end of next year.
Claure is also chief operating officer of SoftBank Group, which invested $18.5 billion in the co-working space, according to leaked comments made by Claure during an October all-hands meeting.
SoftBank said in April that it would lose $24 billion on investments, with one of the main reasons being WeWork’s implosion last year. The company’s financial and management issues brought its valuation down from as much as $47 billion at the beginning of 2019 to $2.9 billion in March, according to a May report by CNBC.
In addition to the layoffs, WeWork sold off businesses including Flatiron School, Teem and its share of The Wing. Claure told the Financial times that WeWork also cut its workforce from a high of 14,000 last year to 5,600.
Neumann resigned as CEO in September, reportedly at the behest of SoftBank, over concerns about the company’s financial health and his behavior. Then the company postponed its IPO filing. The next month, SoftBank took ownership of WeWork as part of a financing package.
Claure is credited with orchestrating a turnaround at Sprint, cutting losses and increasing its stock price in 2015, three years after it was acquired by SoftBank. He has served as SoftBank Group’s COO since 2018.
Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many people to work from home, Claure said that companies have been leasing spaces from WeWork to serve as satellite offices close to where employees live. But he also said that revenues were flat during the second-quarter because many tenants terminated their leases or stopped paying rent.
Replicated, the Los Angeles-based company pitching monitoring and management services for Kubernetes-based applications, has managed to bring on the former head of product of the $2.75 billion-valued programming giant GitLab as its new chief product officer.
Mark Pundsack is joining the company as it moves to scale its business. At GitLab, Pundsack saw the company grow from 70 employees to 1,300 as it scaled its business through its on-premise offerings.
Replicated is hoping to bring the same kind of on-premise services to a broad array of enterprise clients, according to company chief executive Grant Miller.
First introduced to Replicated while working with CircleCI, it was the company’s newfound traction since the launch of its Kubernetes deployment management toolkit that caused him to take a second look.
“The momentum that Replicated has created with their latest offering is tremendous; really changing the trajectory of the company,” said Pundsack in a statement. “When I was able to get close to the product, team, and customers, I knew this was something that I wanted to be a part of. This company is in such a unique position to create value throughout the entire enterprise software ecosystem; this sort of reach is incredibly rare. The potential reminds me a lot of the early days of GitLab.”
It’s a huge coup for Replicated, according to Miller.
“Mark created the core product strategy at GitLab; transforming GitLab from a source control company to a complete DevOps platform, with incredible support for Kubernetes,” said Miller. “There really isn’t a better background for a product leader at Replicated; Mark has witnessed GitLab’s evolution from a traditional on-prem installation towards a Kubernetes-based installation and management experience. This is the same transition that many of our customers are going through and Mark has already done it with one of the best. I have so much confidence that his involvement with our product will lead to more success for our customers.”
Pundsack is the second new executive hire from Replicated in six months, as the company looks to bring more muscle to its C-suite and expand its operations.
Hey, ya’ll. I’m experimenting with a bi-weekly roundup that looks at the state of labor in tech.
We’ll use this space to explore topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion, the future of work, issues relating to pay equality, notable personnel changes and much more.
This week, we’re looking at Facebook’s civil rights audit, a new gig worker earnings study, the latest on California ballot measure Proposition 22 and layoffs amid COVID-19.
The artist Celos paints a mural in downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)
It’s been less than two months since the police killing of George Floyd. While the tech industry has continued on with its funding rounds, mergers and acquisitions, there is still work to be done on the racial justice front. Here’s a look at some developments over the last couple of weeks.
As seen in Facebook’s final civil rights audit report conducted by former ACLU attorney Laura Murphy, the social networking giant still must do more to increase diversity in its senior leadership roles and C-suite. These roles for Black, indigenous and people of color must also not be “limited to diversity officer positions as is often the case in corporate America,” the report states.
According to the audit, there must also be company-wide recognition that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are not to fall solely on those in underrepresented groups, but rather on all members of the senior leadership team and managers. The audit also highlighted employee concerns around “a lack of recognition for the time URM employees spend mentoring and recruiting other minorities to work at Facebook.”
If you’re an angel who invested in a startup that was meant to go public in 2014, you might be getting a little bit impatient. High-risk, high-reward investing has lost its shine in this environment: the stock market is a mess these days, and you want your cash back.
Enter recapitalization events, where startups restructure their entire cap table to squeeze out old investors, bring on new ones and shift the way equity and debt is managed. For investors, it’s a killer way to enter a company on friendlier terms than normal (read: desperation), and a nice way to get liquidity on a startup you’re betting on.
For founders, it’s rarely good news, as departing investors is not a metric they’re going to add to the pitch deck. As one investor said on background, the spur of coronavirus-related recapitalization events shows “hella dilution for desperate times.”
That’s what makes Workhuman’s transparency with its recent recapitalization event all the more enticing.
Last year, the human-resources platform brought in $580 million in revenue from customers like LinkedIn, Cisco, J&J and other clients. In April, business grew 40%. Co-founder and CEO Eric Mosley says business has grown five times in size since the company pulled back from its 2014 plans to IPO. Workhuman hasn’t raised a single venture round since 2004 (and doesn’t plan to any time soon).
Being conservative has paid off; although Workhuman has operated for nearly two decades, Mosley says he thinks the company is still at the “tip of the iceberg.” The company recently had a recapitalization event to sell the stakes of its earliest investors, who cut a $200,000 check more than 20 years ago.
As expected, fintech company nCino has raised its IPO price range. The North Carolina-based banking software firm now expects to sell its shares for between $28 and $29 per share, far more than its initial price range of $22 to $24 per share.
At its $28 to $29 per-share price interval, nCino is worth $2.50 billion to $2.59 billion, sharply more than its preceding $1.96 billion to $2.14 billion range.
The valuation makes more sense for the company, given its growth rate, revenue scale and how the market is currently valuing similar companies. As TechCrunch wrote earlier this week, concerning the SaaS company’s scale and value (emphasis ours):
Annualizing the company’s Q1 (the April 30, 2020 period) revenue results, nCino’s $178.9 million run rate would give it a revenue multiple of 11x to 12x at its expected IPO prices, a somewhat modest result by current standards.
Indeed, as nCino grew about 50% from Q1 2019 to Q1 2020, it feels light. The firm’s GAAP losses are slim compared to revenue as well for a SaaS business, though the company’s operating cash burn did grow from $4.6 million in its fiscal year ending January 31, 2019 to $9 million in its next fiscal year. Its numbers are mostly good, with some less-than-perfect results. Still, given its growth rate, an 11x-12x revenue multiple feels modest; that figure rises, of course, if we use a trailing revenue figure instead of our annualized number.
It would not be a shock, then, if nCino targets a higher price interval for its shares before it formally prices.
With its new IPO price range, nCino’s implied revenue multiple is now 14x to 14.5x, figures that seem far closer to present-day norms.
Now the question for nCino, which is expected to price and trade next week, is whether it can price above its raised range. Given some recent historical precedent, a $1 per-share price beat above its raised interval would not be a shock.
nCino is one of two companies we’re currently tracking on its way to the public markets. The other is GoHealth, which is expected to go public around the same time. Expect next week to be chock-full of IPO news. Heading into earnings season no less!
Docker and AWS today announced a new collaboration that introduces a deep integration between Docker’s Compose and Desktop developer tools and AWS’s Elastic Container Service (ECS) and ECS on AWS Fargate. Previously, the two companies note, the workflow to take Compose files and run them on ECS was often challenging for developers. Now, the two companies simplified this process to make switching between running containers locally and on ECS far easier .
“With a large number of containers being built using Docker, we’re very excited to work with Docker to simplify the developer’s experience of building and deploying containerized applications to AWS,” said Deepak Singh, the VP for Compute Services at AWS. “Now customers can easily deploy their containerized applications from their local Docker environment straight to Amazon ECS. This accelerated path to modern application development and deployment allows customers to focus more effort on the unique value of their applications, and less time on figuring out how to deploy to the cloud.”
In a bit of a surprise move, Docker last year sold off its enterprise business to Mirantis to solely focus on cloud-native developer experiences.
“In November, we separated the enterprise business, which was very much focused on operations, CXOs and a direct sales model, and we sold that business to Mirantis,” Docker CEO Scott Johnston told TechCrunch’s Ron Miller earlier this year. “At that point, we decided to focus the remaining business back on developers, which was really Docker’s purpose back in 2013 and 2014.”
Today’s move is an example of this new focus, given that the workflow issues this partnership addresses had been around for quite a while already.
It’s worth noting that Docker also recently engaged in a strategic partnership with Microsoft to integrate the Docker developer experience with Azure’s Container Instances.
Everywhere you go, you are being followed. Not by some creep in a raincoat, but by the advertisers wanting to sell you things.
The more advertisers know about you — where you go, which shops you visit, and what purchases you make — the more they can profile you, understand your tastes, your hobbies and interests, and use that information to target you with ads. You can thank the phone in your pocket — the apps on it, to be more accurate — that invisibly spits out gobs of data about you as you go about your day.
Your location, chief among the data, is by far the most revealing.
Apps, just like websites, are filled with trackers that send your real-time location to data brokers. In return, these data brokers sell on that data to advertisers, while the app maker gets a cut of the money. If you let your weather app know your location to serve you the forecast, you’re also giving your location to data brokers.
By collecting your location data, these data brokers have access to intensely personal aspects of your life and can easily build a map of everywhere you go. This data isn’t just for advertising. Immigration authorities have bought access to users’ location data to help catch the undocumented. In one case, a marketing firm used location data harvested from phones to predict the race, age, and gender of Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s an enormous industry, said to be worth at least $200 billion.
It’s only been in recent years that it was possible to learn what these data brokers know about us. But the law is slowly catching up. Anyone in Europe can request access to obtain or delete their data under the GDPR rules. California’s new consumer privacy law grants California residents access to their data.
But because so many data brokers collect and resell that data, the data marketplace is a fragmented mess, making it impossible to know which companies have your data. That can make requesting it a nightmare.
Jordan Wright, a senior security architect at Duo Security, requested his data from some of the biggest data brokers in the industry, citing California’s new consumer privacy law. Not all went to plan. As an out-of-state resident, only one of the 14 data brokers approved his request and sent him his data.
What came back was a year’s worth of location data.
Wright works in cybersecurity and knows better than most how much data spills out of his phone. But he takes precautions, and is careful about the apps he puts on his phone. Yet the data he got back knew where he lives, where he works, and where he took his family on holiday before the pandemic hit.
“It’s frustrating not fully knowing what data has been collected or shared and by whom,” he wrote in a blog post. “The reality is that dozens of companies are monitoring the location of hundreds of millions of unsuspecting people every single day.”
Avoiding this invasive tracking is nearly impossible. Just like with web ad tracking, you have little choice but to accept the app’s terms. Allow the tracking, or don’t use the app.
But the winds are changing and there is an increasing appetite to rein in the data brokers and advertising giants by kneecapping their data collection efforts. As privacy became a more prominent selling point for phone consumers, the two largest smartphone makers, Apple and Google, in recent years began to curb the growing power of data brokers.
Both iPhones and Android devices now let you opt-out of ad tracking, a move that doesn’t reduce the ads that appear but prevents advertisers from tracking you across the web or between apps.
Apple threw down the gauntlet last month when it said its next software update, iOS 14, would let users opt-out of app tracking altogether, serving a severe blow to data brokers and advertisers by reducing the amount of data that these ad giants collect on millions without their explicit and direct consent. That prompted an angry letter from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group that represents online advertisers, expressed its “strong concerns” and effectively asked it to back down from the plans.
Google also plans to roll out new app controls for location data in its next Android release.
It’s not the only effort taking on data brokers but it’s been the most effective — so far. Lawmakers are scrambling to find bipartisan support for a proposed federal data protection agency before the end of the year, when Congress resets and enters a legislative session.
Shy of an unlikely fix by Washington, it’s up to the tech giants to send a message.
While you may mostly think about Twilio in the context of its voice and text messaging platform, the company has recently made a number of moves to bolster its IoT platform, which is already one of its fastest-growing business units. To accelerate this push, the company today announced that it quietly acquired IoT platform Electric Imp a few months ago.
Before the acquisition, Electric Imp, which was one of the earlier IoT startups, had raised about $44 million from firms like Ramparts Capital, which led its 2016 Series C round, with participation from Redpoint, Foxconn, Lowercase Capital and PTI Ventures. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.
Electric Imp makes it easier for businesses to securely connect their IoT devices with their data centers and third-party services. The company was co-founded by Hugo Fiennes, who was the engineering manager for the hardware team at Apple that launched the first iPhone. After managing four phone launches at Apple, he briefly went to Google to work on IoT projects there, but quickly realized that Google had already built the idea he wanted to work on in the company with Android for Things. He also turned down a job at Nest — though he did the design and architecture of their first thermostat, too. His, interest, and that of his co-founders (which include Gmail designer Kevin Fox, who left the company in 2013, and software architect Peter Hartley), was elsewhere, though.
“My worry for IoT was, I didn’t want to be spending many years building something which was just going to be a thermostat,” he said. “Not that a thermostat is not an important thing — it does save lots of energy — but it was more like, ‘oh my God, this technology — IoT, connecting a business service to the real world — allows you to optimize the real world.”
So the idea behind Electric Imp was to build a flexible, architecture-agnostic platform that would take care of all the plumbing to build an IoT system and then manage its life cycle throughout the years. Most businesses struggle with things like updates and, related to that, security, Fiennes argues. That’s what Electric Imp aims to essentially abstract away for its customers.
“We always wanted it to be really accessible,” Fiennes said. “We don’t know all the applications. It’s not like ‘this is gonna be for us to tracking, let’s just chase asset tracking.’ If we know it’s for general purpose, has to be available to anyone, they just buy a dev kit and sign up, whatever, just try it. And a lot of our marketing, for better or for worse, was really just, ‘hey, it’s a great product, right?’ ”
As Fiennes noted, in that respect Electric Imp wasn’t that different from Twilio — and the company actually used Twilio when it demoed its product to potential Series A investors.
Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson also noted that the IoT space hasn’t been innovating at the pace of software. “It’s been fun watching Twilio customers invent new connected experiences like shared scooters, and wearables that enable kids to communicate with their parents,” he said. “It reminds me of the explosion of customer engagement use cases Twilio customers invented using our Programmable Voice and SMS APIs. But overall, the IoT industry doesn’t seem to attract innovation at the same rate as software. One possible reason is that experimentation — real experimentation — that is, testing real business models in the wild — remains difficult. By democratizing access to cellular IoT connectivity, we’ve been able to help move things along, but many of the hardest infrastructure problems remain unsolved. With the Electric Imp acquisition, we gain the team and technology needed to make a bigger dent in the problems facing future IoT developers.”
It’s worth noting that Electric Imp isn’t meant to be a platform for high-bandwidth use cases, like streaming video, but more for connecting sensors that produce a more manageable amount of data to the cloud. One of Electric Imp’s customers is Pitney Bowes, which makes postage meters, but you can also think smart grids, river-level monitoring etc. And while Electric Imp’s technology can also be found in smart devices for consumers, Fiennes believes that the real value of the platform isn’t necessary in high-volume products.
“I think it’s kind of like, a lot of those [consumer use cases are] are just like, ‘you can connect it, yes. But why?’ But there’s really a lot of things like, river-level monitoring and a whole load of things which are very hard to deal with without IoT. And they’re not necessarily hugely high volume, which is why a repeatable platform that can be sold to many customers without change is really important because you get to target the niches where there’s a lot of value.”
With this acquisition, Twilio is not just buying a product but also a lot of expertise in building an IoT infrastructure. While the company doesn’t disclose the size of its IoT team, Twilio’s Evan Cummack, the GM of Twilio IT, and Chetan Chaudhary, the VP of Sales for IoT, who together founded the IoT business unit, tell me that a lot of early Twilio employees now work on the IoT side, including Twilio’s very first architect and the company’s first sales rep.
Cummack and Chaudhary told me that after a few years of working at Twilio, the realized there was a lot of untapped potential in IoT for the company.
In the early days of Twilio, both worked on building out Twilio’s strategy for selling to enterprise companies — and to some degree, they are now aiming to use a similar playbook to build out Twilio’s IoT business, though the idea is actually quite a bit older and pre-dates Twilio’s 2016 IPO.
“What I realized was that it was the combination of a really strong go to market with the technical prowess that allowed us to get to the early big wins [for Twilio],” Chaudhary said. “And we had this idea around doing the same thing for cellular connectivity for IoT devices because we were already buying wholesale voice and messaging. And I got to work with some of our carrier relations folks and helping them close some of the connectivity deals. And I was like: ‘Why can’t we sell SIM cards?’ ”
Twilio launched its IoT business in partnership with T-Mobile in 2016. The first product was its programmable wireless service. It then acquired Berlin’s Core Network Dynamics in 2018 to solve another set of problems that IoT developers were facing around connecting their IoT devices.
“What we saw once we started playing in connectivity was that there’s still just a tremendous amount of plumbing that’s not solved for,” Cummack noted. “So you have a tremendous amount of customers having to build their own security stacks, over-the-air update capabilities, secure boot, manufacturing tools, testing, manufacturer, even just things like getting connected to wireless networks, cellular networks and Wi-Fi networks was way too high. And all of this stuff is what I would consider to be platform stuff. It’s all kind of plumbing.”
In its early days Twilio though of the IoT group as a bit of a startup within the company. But that seems to be changing. “Twilio IoT evolved from an internal experiment into a fully fledged business unit with a thriving connectivity business,” Lawson told me. “It has the potential to evolve again into a market-leading platform for the emerging IoT developer community.”
Twilio has already integrated a lot of Electric Imp’s services into its go-to-market strategy, Chaudhary noted. “They’ve already brought […] a lot of credibility in a couple of deals because of their DNA and because of the things that they were able to solve, especially around the embedded design and hardware design, we were able to see some really good synergies early on and now we’ll start to see some net new customers, I think, come from it.”
Fiennes will continue at Twilio as a Senior Product Architect, working on IoT and Electric Imp is actually releasing its newest product today: the imp006 breakout board for prototyping IoT products, which — no surprise there — comes with Twilio’s Super SIM for global connectivity already pre-installed.
LA-based bio science startup Kernel has raised $53 million from investors including General Catalyst, Khosla Ventures, Eldridge, Manta Ray Ventures, Tiny Blue Dot and more. The funding is the first outside money that Kernel has taken in, though it’s a Series C round, because founder and CEO Bryan Johnson has provided $54 million in investment for Kernel to date. Johnson also participated in this latest round alongside external investors.
The funding will go towards further scaling “on-demand” access to its non-invasive technology for recording brain activity, which consists of two main approaches. Kernel has distinguished these as two separate products: Flow, which detects magnetic fields created by the collective activity of neutrons in the brain; and Flux, which measures blood through through the brain. These are both key signals that researchers and medical practitioners monitor when working with the brain, but typically they require use of invasive, expensive hardware – or even brain surgery.
Kernel’s goal is to make this much more broadly available, offering access via a ‘Neuroscience as a Service’ (NaaS) model that can provide paying clients access to its brain imaging devices even remotely. Earlier this year, Kernel announced that this platform was available generally to commercial customers.
The technology sounds like sci-fi – but it’s really an attempt to take what has been a relatively closed and prohibitively costly, expert and potentially dangerous to its subjects tech, and make it available as an on-demand capability – in much the same way that many human genome companies have emerged to take advantage of the advances in the speed and availability of human genome sequencing to do the same, for the business and research community.
Johnson’s ambitious long-term goal with the company is to ultimately develop a much deeper understanding in the field of neuroscience.
“If we can quantify thoughts and emotions, conscious and subconscious, a new era of understanding, wellness, and human improvement will emerge,” Johnson writes in a press release.
It’s true that the brain’s inner workings are still largely a mystery to most researchers, especially in terms of how they translate to our cognition, feelings and actions. Kernel’s platform could mean significantly more people studying the
Earlier this year, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance joined the raft of American tech giants that publish the number of government demands for user data and takedown requests by releasing its own numbers. The move was met with heavy skepticism, amid concerns about the app maker’s links to China, and accusations that it poses a threat to U.S. national security, a claim it has repeatedly denied.
In its second and most recent transparency report, published today, TikTok said it received 500 total legal demands, including emergency requests, from governments in the first half of the year, up 67% on the previous half. Most of the demands came from the United States.
TikTok also received 45 government demands to remove contents. India, which submitted the most takedown requests, earlier this month banned TikTok from the country, citing security concerns.
But noticeably absent from the report is China, where TikTok is not available but where its parent, ByteDance, is headquartered. That’s not an uncommon occurrence: Facebook or Twitter, neither of which are available in China, have not received or complied with a demand from the Chinese government. Instead, ByteDance has a separate video app, Douyin, for users in mainland China.
TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaide told TechCrunch: “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
“We do not and have not removed any content at the request of the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked,” the spokesperson said.
But the company’s efforts to fall in line with the rest of the U.S. tech scene’s transparency efforts is not likely to quell long-held fears held by the company’s critics, including lawmakers, which last year called on U.S. intelligence to investigate the firm.
TikTok continues to contend that it’s not a threat and that it’s firmly rooted in the United States.
Earlier this week, the company said it was withdrawing from Hong Kong in response to the new Beijing-imposed national security law.
I have to admit, I was an e-bike virgin. Sure, I’d tried out Uber’s Jump bikes and similar e-bikes, but these are more like normal bikes “with a little extra help.” So when I was offered the chance to try out the new VanMoof S3, an e-bike that has literally been built from the ground up, I was excited at how different the experience might be.
Perhaps more significantly, I had a particular task in mind for it. In the current COVID-19 pandemic much has been made of cities being transformed into proverbial deserts, as traffic and pedestrians disappeared. Now, with many cities coming out of lockdown, governments have advised their citizens to go back to work, desperate to get their economies moving. And they are pushing cycling as a viable alternative to public transport, where the virus is more likely to be found. So what better time would there be to try out an e-bike as a viable alternative to commuting to and from the suburbs of a large city?
Indeed, the U.K. government has unleashed a £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking.
In the U.S., New York City recently committed to adding protected bike lanes across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Berlin is extending some of its already extensive bike lanes. And Milan will introduce a five-mile cycle lane to cut car use after the lockdown. New York City has reported a 50% increase in cycling compared to this time last year, and cycling in Philadelphia has increased by more than 150% during the COVID-19 outbreak.
But much of the official advice is to avoid public transport where possible, due to the near-impossibility of social distancing.
So with cycling a viable option in many cities, but distance still the old adversary, many consumers are looking to e-bikes as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Not only can you socially distance, but you can also take the bikes on much longer commutes than is possible with traditional bikes and, dare I say it, traditional legs.
With London still on lockdown recently, I decided to try out the new VanMoof S3 on the deserted streets, cycling from the deep London suburbs right into the empty center of the city.
For starters, it’s worth saying that the VanMoof S3 is a handsome bike. As a significant upgrade to its previous version, it is similar in its good looks, but what’s “under the bonnet” is what counts.
The S3 is a full-size bike with 28-inch wheels. It has a 24-inch wheeled sister called the X3, which is more compact and it therefore technically “nippier” in the city; however, I found the S3 perfectly suited to London. In fact, its “chopper-like” handling felt very reassuring over London’s bumpy and often unkempt roads.
The S3 and X3 both cost $2,000. Both also come with four-speed automatic shifting and hydraulic brakes. They are cheaper than the previous S2 and X2 models, which only had two-speed automatic shifting and cable brakes. Although the frame construction is unchanged, VanMoof says it has achieved savings by making production more efficient. The bikes weigh about 41 pounds, which is very acceptable for an electric bike. You can get front and rear racks as accessories for pannier bags, cargo boxes or a child seat.
The range per charge varies somewhere between 37 and 93 miles, depending which power level you select on the smartphone app. Level 0 turns off the electric pedal assist, leaving the bike quite heavy to pedal, and level 4 boosts the bike continuously. For my jaunt around London I used Level 4 all the time and managed to get a full, and quick, 45 miles out of the bike without even breaking a sweat, showing that even the heaviest users would be well served by the S3. If you are concerned about your battery charge level, this is displayed on top of the cross-bar, which also shows you current speed. It takes four hours to charge the bike to 100%, but just under an hour and a half to get to 50%.
The VanMoof is driven by a front hub motor and in “European mode” gives a continuous power of 250 watts. But to get more speed you can select the U.S. setting, tick a disclaimer and get 350W of continuous power, with peak power-hitting 500W via the Boost button on the right handlebar. That means you can take off at the lights very easily and quickly get ahead of the traffic, while the normal pedal assist will suffice for most needs. The Boost is particularly useful when going up hills, which the S3 seemed to devour on my ride through London.
Thieves will find this bike frustrating. The rear brake locks when you tap the button near the rear hub. All parts apart from the handlebars and seat post require a special tool to undo. The headlight and taillight are integrated into the frame. The tires are large and puncture-resistant and covered by large metal fenders with integrated mud flaps.
If a thief tries to wheel away the bike when it’s locked it will immobilize the rear wheel and belt out a loud alarm. If the thief persists, a more shrill alarm will sound, the headlights and taillight will flash, a notification will appear on your phone and the bike will refuse to work at all. Only VanMoof can then re-enable the bike using the bike’s built-in cellular data connection and Bluetooth. The bike will sense the phone in your pocket as you approach, allowing you to unlock the rear wheel — and the app always shows the bike’s current location.
VanMoof’s three-year, $340 “Peace of Mind” plan means that it guarantees to find or replace your bike if it gets stolen (assuming it was locked). In the meantime, you will get a bike on loan, although this plan is only available in cities where VanMoof has a presence.
One possible drawback of having the battery welded inside the bike is the necessity of needing to be near a power outlet every time it needs charging. This drawback will be limited to those who are unable to take the bike up to an apartment, or fear for the bike’s safety if it has to charge outside a house. Yes, the hard-wired battery might well be a security “feature,” but this may well be a deal breaker for many, forcing them to look to other bikes which have removable batteries. That said, you are likely to pay more for the bike in the first place.
As for my test around London, to put the bike through its paces I cycled from the deep suburbs right into the heart of the West End. I’d like to say people asked me about the bike, but no one was around to impress! At the time of the test, London was in full lockdown and eerily quiet.
Hitting the Boost button felt like the “Punch it, Chewy” moment form Star Wars, as I pulled away from traffic. I unwittingly rode the bike at Level 4 all the way there and back, which meant that after about four hours and about 45 miles I ran out of charge on the last mile home. However, this was not a problem as I could cycle the last leg, despite it being a bit of a strain without any electrical assistance. Level 2 or 3 would probably have been a more ideal combination of power and range.
When you drive a Tesla you drive differently, zipping in and out of lanes. Similarly with this bike I realized I could overtake “normal” bikes effortlessly. Overall I’d say this is an excellent electric bike.
VanMoof, which was was founded in 2009 by Taco and Ties Carlier, two Dutch brothers, has now attracted a €12.5 million ($13.5 million) investment from London VC Balderton Capital and SINBON Electronics, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer which is VanMoof’s bike assembly partner. So expect to see this company ramp up its presence across Europe and the U.S.
Admittedly they are not the only VC-backed e-bike on the market. Brussels-based Cowboy is an e-bike startup which only appeared in 2017 but which has since raised $19.5 million from Tiger Global and London’s Index Ventures.
It looks like the e-bike wars have begun, they have.
[All pictures by Mike Butcher]
Nuggs, the alternative-meat company founded by serial entrepreneur Ben Pasternak (who previously co-founded the social media app Monkey), has raised $4.1 million and gotten itself a new name and a new CTO as it looks to move beyond chicken nuggets.
Now called Simulate, Pasternak’s startup is readying the launch of new products including spicy nuggets, a “chicken burger product” and, eventually, a hot dog, that required a branding change to befit its newly broadened ambitions in the ultra-competitive industry out to reform consumers’ carnivorous impulses.
Since Pasternak first began pitching his direct to consumer chicken nugget replacements a bit over a year ago, the company has sold 1 million pounds of nuggets. Over the next week, Simulate’s frozen nuggets will make their debut in around 30 Gelson’s supermarkets in California. The company has plans to release its chicken patty within the next few months and a hot dog replacement, DOGGS, in the fourth quarter.
In addition to his new brand, and new investors including Lerer Hippeau, style="font-weight: 400;"> AgFunder, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian; former Whole Foods chief executive Walter Robb, and model Jasmine Tookes; Pasternak also has a new chief technology officer.
Bringing Thierry Saint-Denis, the former senior director of research and innovation at Danone, on as CTO is a coup for the company. As a business Nuggs seemed to be more of a marketing play backed by a savvy founder and a frozen food giant that wanted to make a play for the burgeoning market for meat substitutes and replacements. Now, with Saint-Denis, the company brings on a developer of food products that have reached nearly $1 billion in sales who holds over 14 patents related to functional ingredients, probiotics, and enzymes.
With the new executive in place, new and previous investors like McCain Foods, Rainfall Ventures, Maven Ventures, NOMO Ventures, MTV founder Bob Pittman, and Casper founder Neil Parikh are now backing a company with a bit more technical heft behind it.
Not that Nuggs wasn’t improving its product line over the past year. Pasternak touts the company’s iterative approach to product development, embodied in its different “release notes” as the company toyed with different formulations.
That software driven approach may also yield other sales options, like a subscription service, Pasternak said. “We have seen this core community of people obsessively purchasing the new versions. We are looking at launching some kind of beta testing subscription thing shortly.”