Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.
The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.
Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.
The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.
While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.
Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.
Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake, given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.
Over the past several years I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.
The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mary Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mary Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.
This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup, which will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster, including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.
In October, the company announced a brand partnership with Gucci, opening the startup to another big market opportunity.
Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.
“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real-world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”
Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic-era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.
Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round, which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”
The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.
One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.
ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.
The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.
The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.
In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.
Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.
While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.
Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.
However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.
Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.
“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”
A U.K. company behind digital addressing system What3Words has sent a legal threat to a security researcher for offering to share an open-source software project with other researchers, which What3Words claims violate its copyright.
Aaron Toponce, a systems administrator at XMission, received a letter on Thursday from a law firm representing What3Words, requesting that he delete tweets related to the open source alternative, WhatFreeWords. The letter also demands that he disclose to the law firm the identity of the person or people with whom he had shared a copy of the software, agree that he would not make any further copies of the software, and to delete any copies of the software he had in his possession.
The letter gave him until May 7 to agree, after which What3Words would “waive any entitlement it may have to pursue related claims against you,” a thinly-veiled threat of legal action.
“This is not a battle worth fighting,” he said in a tweet. Toponce told TechCrunch that he has complied with the demands, fearing legal repercussions if he didn’t. He has also asked the law firm twice for links to the tweets they want deleting but has not heard back. “Depending on the tweet, I may or may not comply. Depends on its content,” he said.
The legal threat sent to Aaron Toponce. (Image: supplied)
U.K.-based What3Words divides the entire world into three-meter squares and labels each with a unique three-word phrase. The idea is that sharing three words is easier to share on the phone in an emergency than having to find and read out their precise geographic coordinates.
But security researcher Andrew Tierney recently discovered that What3Words would sometimes have two similarly-named squares less than a mile apart, potentially causing confusion about a person’s true whereabouts. In a later write-up, Tierney said What3Words was not adequate for use in safety-critical cases.
It’s not the only downside. Critics have long argued that What3Words’ proprietary geocoding technology, which it bills as “life-saving,” makes it harder to examine it for problems or security vulnerabilities.
But the project’s website was nevertheless subjected to a copyright takedown request filed by What3Words’ counsel. Even tweets that pointed to cached or backup copies of the code were removed by Twitter at the lawyers’ requests.
Toponce — a security researcher on the side — contributed to Tierney’s research, who was tweeting out his findings as he went. Toponce said that he offered to share a copy of the WhatFreeWord code with other researchers to help Tierney with his ongoing research into What3Words. Toponce told TechCrunch that receiving the legal threat may have been a combination of offering to share the code and also finding problems with What3Words.
In its letter to Toponce, What3Words argues that WhatFreeWords contains its intellectual property and that the company “cannot permit the dissemination” of the software.
Regardless, several websites still retain copies of the code and are easily searchable through Google, and TechCrunch has seen several tweets linking to the WhatFreeWords code since Toponce went public with the legal threat. Tierney, who did not use WhatFreeWords as part of his research, said in a tweet that What3Words’ reaction was “totally unreasonable given the ease with which you can find versions online.”
We asked What3Words if the company could point to a case where a judicial court has asserted that WhatFreeWords has violated its copyright. What3Words spokesperson Miriam Frank did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If there has ever been a golden age for fintech, it surely must be now. As of Q1 2021, the number of fintech startups in the U.S. crossed 10,000 for the first time ever — well more than double that if you include EMEA and APAC. There are now three fintech companies worth more than $100 billion (Paypal, Square and Shopify) with another three in the $50 billion-$100 billion club (Stripe, Adyen and Coinbase).
Yet, as fintech companies have begun to go public, there has been a fair amount of uncertainty as to how these companies will be valued on the public markets. This is a result of fintechs being relatively new to the IPO scene compared to their consumer internet or enterprise software counterparts. In addition, fintechs employ a wide variety of business models: Some are transactional, others are recurring or have hybrid business models.
In addition, fintechs now have a multitude of options in terms of how they choose to go public. They can take the traditional IPO route, pursue a direct listing or merge with a SPAC. Given the multitude of variables at play, valuing these companies and then predicting public market performance is anything but straightforward.
It is important to note that fintech is a complex category with many different types of players, and not all fintech is created equal.
For much of the past two decades, fintech as a category has been very quiet on the public markets. But that began to change considerably by the mid-2010s. Fintech had clearly arrived by 2015, with both Square and Shopify going public that year. Last year was a record one with eight fintech IPOs, and there has been no slowdown in 2021 — the first four months have already produced seven IPOs. By our estimates, there are more than 15 additional fintech companies that could IPO this year. The current record will almost certainly be shattered well before the end of the year.
Image Credits: Oak HC/FT
TechCrunch is known for its pitch-offs. We’ve had them in cities all over the world, and heard from hundreds of startups who have shared the story of their company on our stages.
We’re excited to be bringing the pitch-off to Extra Crunch Live.
Anyone in the audience on an episode of Extra Crunch Live can virtually “raise their hand” to be selected to pitch in front of the audience and get feedback from our all-star guests.
On ECL, pitch-off startups will have two minutes to tell us about their company. This is the equivalent of an elevator pitch — imagine running into a VC or potential customer at a tech conference like Disrupt or bumping into them at a park. As such, no visual aids are allowed, including decks, videos, demoes, etc.
Essentially, what can you convey with your words, in a short time frame, to get people to both understand your startup and be excited about it?
This is a critical skill, and we’re creating the space for founders to practice and improve.
I’m amped to have Firstmark’s Rick Heitzmann and Orchard founder Court Cunningham as guests on Extra Crunch Live on May 5. This founder/investor duo know exactly what it takes to deliver a great pitch. Do you have what it takes? You can register here for free!
To be selected for the pitch-off, you must be present in the audience during the live show. Instructions on how to raise your hand will come at the top of the show, so don’t be late!
Eight months after former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer quit in the midst of a full-court press from the Trump administration against the Chinese-owned social media giant, TikTok finally has a new permanent leader.
ByteDance’s recently-hired CFO Shouzi Chew will be assuming the role as TikTok CEO while still holding the CFO role at its parent organization, the company announced Friday morning. It’s a bold move likely signaling that the company believes that the worst of its tussles with the US Executive branch are over as President Biden has seemed uninterested in picking up former President Trump’s pet project.
Vanessa Pappas, who was serving as interim CEO, will take the role of COO going forward.
“The leadership team of Shou and Vanessa sets the stage for sustained growth,” ByteDance CEO Yiming Zhang said in a press release. “Shou brings deep knowledge of the company and industry, having led a team that was among our earliest investors, and having worked in the technology sector for a decade. He will add depth to the team, focusing on areas including corporate governance and long-term business initiatives.”
Prior to joining ByteDance earlier this year, Chew was an executive at Xiaomi with stints at DST and Goldman Sachs earlier in his career.
Conventional wisdom over the last year has suggested that the pandemic has driven companies to the cloud much faster than they ever would have gone without that forcing event with some suggesting it has compressed years of transformation into months. This quarter’s cloud infrastructure revenue numbers appear to be proving that thesis correct.
With The Big Three — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reporting this week, the market generated almost $40 billion in revenue, according to Synergy Research data. That’s up $2 billion from last quarter and up 37% over the same period last year. Canalys’s numbers were slightly higher at $42 billion.
As you might expect if you follow this market, AWS led the way with $13.5 billion for the quarter up 32% year over year. That’s a run rate of $54 billion. While that is an eye-popping number, what’s really remarkable is the yearly revenue growth, especially for a company the size and maturity of Amazon. The law of large numbers would suggest this isn’t sustainable, but the pie keeps growing and Amazon continues to take a substantial chunk.
Overall AWS held steady with 32% market share. While the revenue numbers keep going up, Amazon’s market share has remained firm for years at around this number. It’s the other companies down market that are gaining share over time, most notably Microsoft which is now at around 20% share good for about $7.8 billion this quarter.
Google continues to show signs of promise under Thomas Kurian, hitting $3.5 billion good for 9% as it makes a steady march towards double digits. Even IBM had a positive quarter, led by Red Hat and cloud revenue good for 5% or about $2 billion overall.
Image Credits: Synergy Research
John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy says that even though AWS and Microsoft have firm control of the market, that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made by the companies playing behind them.
“These two don’t have to spend too much time looking in their rearview mirrors and worrying about the competition. However, that is not to say that there aren’t some excellent opportunities for other players. Taking Amazon and Microsoft out of the picture, the remaining market is generating over $18 billion in quarterly revenues and growing at over 30% per year. Cloud providers that focus on specific regions, services or user groups can target several years of strong growth,” Dinsdale said in a statement.
Canalys, another firm that watches the same market as Synergy had similar findings with slight variations, certainly close enough to confirm one another’s findings. They have AWS with 32%, Microsoft 19%, and Google with 7%.
Image Credits: Canalys
Canalys analyst Blake Murray says that there is still plenty of room for growth, and we will likely continue to see big numbers in this market for several years. “Though 2020 saw large-scale cloud infrastructure spending, most enterprise workloads have not yet transitioned to the cloud. Migration and cloud spend will continue as customer confidence rises during 2021. Large projects that were postponed last year will resurface, while new use cases will expand the addressable market,” he said.
The numbers we see are hardly a surprise anymore, and as companies push more workloads into the cloud, the numbers will continue to impress. The only question now is if Microsoft can continue to close the market share gap with Amazon.
Tapping the geothermal energy stored beneath the Earth’s surface as a way to generate renewable power is one of the new visions for the future that’s captured the attention of environmentalists and oil and gas engineers alike.
That’s because it’s not only a way to generate power that doesn’t rely on greenhouse gas emitting hydrocarbons, but because it uses the same skillsets and expertise that the oil and gas industry has been honing and refining for years.
At least that’s what drew the former completion engineer (it’s not what it sounds like) Tim Latimer to the industry and to launch Fervo Energy, the Houston-based geothermal tech developer that’s picked up funding from none other than Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (that fund… is so busy) and former eBay executive, Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group.
With the new $28 million cash in hand Fervo’s planning on ramping up its projects which Latimer said would “bring on hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”
Latimer got his first exposure to the environmental impact of power generation as a kid growing up in a small town outside of Waco, Texas near the Sandy Creek coal power plant, one of the last coal-powered plants to be built in the U.S.
Like many Texas kids, Latimer came from an oil family and got his first jobs in the oil and gas industry before realizing that the world was going to be switching to renewables and the oil industry — along with the friends and family he knew — could be left high and dry.
It’s one reason why he started working on Fervo, the entrepreneur said.
“What’s most important, from my perspective, since I started my career in the oil and gas industry is providing folks that are part of the energy transition on the fossil fuel side to work in the clean energy future,” Latimer said. “I’ve been able to go in and hire contractors and support folks that have been out of work or challenged because of the oil price crash… And I put them to work on our rigs.”
Fervo Energy chief executive, Tim Latimer, pictured in a hardhat at one of the company’s development sites. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
When the Biden administration talks about finding jobs for employees in the hydrocarbon industry as part of the energy transition, this is exactly what they’re talking about.
And geothermal power is no longer as constrained by geography, so there’s a lot of abundant resources to tap and the potential for high paying jobs in areas that are already dependent on geological services work, Latimer said (late last year, Vox published a good overview of the history and opportunity presented by the technology).
“A large percentage of the world’s population actually lives next to good geothermal resources,” Latimer said. “25 countries today that have geothermal installed and producing and another 25 where geothermal is going to grow.”
Geothermal power production actually has a long history in the Western U.S. and in parts of Africa where naturally occurring geysers and steam jets pouring from the earth have been obvious indicators of good geothermal resources, Latimer said.
“Fervo’s technology unlocks a new class of geothermal resource that is ready for large-scale deployment. Fervo’s geothermal systems use novel techniques, including horizontal drilling, distributed fiber optic sensing, and advanced computational modelling, to deliver more repeatable and cost effective geothermal electricity,” Latimer wrote in an email. “Fervo’s technology combines with the latest advancements in Organic Rankine Cycle generation systems to deliver flexible, 24/7 carbon-free electricity.”
Initially developed with a grant from the TomKat Center at Stanford University and a fellowship funded by Activate.org at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Cyclotron Road division, Fervo has gone on to score funding from the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office and ARPA-E to continue work with partners like Schlumberger, Rice University and the Berkeley Lab.
The combination of new and old technology is opening vast geographies to the company to potentially develop new projects.
Other companies are also looking to tap geothermal power to drive a renewable power generation development business. Those are startups like Eavor, which has the backing of energy majors like bp Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, Temasek, BDC Capital, Eversource and Vickers Venture Partners; and other players including GreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems.
Demand for geothermal projects is skyrocketing, opening up big markets for startups that can nail the cost issue for geothermal development. As Latimer noted, from 2016 to 2019 there was only one major geothermal contract, but in 2020 there were ten new major power purchase agreements signed by the industry.
For all of these projects, cost remains a factor. Contracts that are being signed for geothermal that are in the $65 to $75 per megawatt range, according to Latimer. By comparison, solar plants are now coming in somewhere between $35 and $55 per megawatt, as The Verge reported last year.
But Latimer said the stability and predictability of geothermal power made the cost differential palatable for utilities and businesses that need the assurance of uninterruptible power supplies. As a current Houston resident, the issue is something that Latimer has an intimate experience with from this year’s winter freeze, which left him without power for five days.
Indeed, geothermal’s ability to provide always-on clean power makes it an incredibly attractive option. In a recent Department of Energy study, geothermal could meet as much as 16% of the U.S. electricity demand, and other estimates put geothermal’s contribution at nearly 20% of a fully decarbonized grid.
“We’ve long been believers in geothermal energy but have waited until we’ve seen the right technology and team to drive innovation in the sector,” said Ion Yadigaroglu of Capricorn Investment Group, in a statement. “Fervo’s technology capabilities and the partnerships they’ve created with leading research organizations make them the clear leader in the new wave of geothermal.”
Fervo Energy drilling site. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.
That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.
Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.
That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.
“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”.
Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.
It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch.
“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.”
Nearly a year after its last layoff, online coding bootcamp Lambda School just announced more cuts amid a broader restructuring. In a blog post, CEO and founder Austen Allred said that the startup, which raised a $74 million Series C in August, is laying off 65 employees.
The roles that were cut span senior product, engineering, design, community management and instructional staff. There is a Google form for companies to post job opportunities for new Lambda School alumni.
“We have been working for years on making incentive-aligned education work,” Allred wrote in a tweet. “It’s harder than we initially thought; we’ve had to invent a lot from scratch simultaneously and we have to get a lot of things exactly right.”
Lambda School creates online bootcamps in the career and technical space — and it’s also a pioneer of the ISA, an income share agreement, touting it as a vital way to finance employment-ready education. ISAs essentially allow students to avoid paying upfront fees to attend a bootcamp, and then ultimately pay back class fees through a percentage of their future income. A number of startups have taken the “Lambda School for X” format, such as Henry and Microverse. Other companies also offer ISAs, such as Pursuit, V School, Launch School and the Grace Hopper Program, one analysis shows.
The pandemic, and volatile economic circumstances, have made ISAs a harder route. Allred said that some startups pivoted from the model, but it appears that Lambda School will not. It’s still a hard thing to finance as a startup, since the company is essentially in a waiting game of debt until students pay. The company might be looking at a variety of ways to fund the ISA business, one of which got them in hot water years ago.
“We have a lot of interest in purchasing the income share agreements at the point of graduation, from investment funds and that kind of thing,” Allred said back in April 2020.
We don’t know how exactly the restructuring will look from a strategy perspective, beyond the fact that Lambda School is pausing new enrollment in part-time programs. Earlier this month, Lambda School announced a new partnership with Amazon: a back-end engineering program that will last nine months. Because the program is full-time, it is likely not impacted by the restructuring.
Today’s call by Lambda School illustrates how hard it is to build an edtech company that is truly doing something new. The company has a lot of stakeholders with different incentives to consider: students saving money, businesses making money and venture capitalists who have given millions and millions to the company expecting some type of exit one day.
“Despite these changes, our mission remains the same. As we move forward, we will continue to focus on unlocking opportunity, regardless of circumstance, for everyone willing to put in the work,” the blog post reads. Allred didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.
Biden Labor Secretary Marty Walsh charged into the white hot issue of the gig economy Thursday, asserting that many people working without benefits in the gig economy should be classified as employees instead.
In an interview with Reuters, Walsh said that the Department of Labor is “looking at” the gig economy, hinting that worker reclassification could be a priority in the Biden administration.
“… In a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees,” Walsh said. “In some cases they are treated respectfully and in some cases they are not and I think it has to be consistent across the board.”
Walsh also said that the labor department would be talking to companies that benefit from gig workers to ensure that non-employees at those companies have the same benefits that an “average employee” in the U.S. would have.
“These companies are making profits and revenue and I’m not [going to] begrudge anyone for that because that’s what we are about in America… but we also want to make sure that success trickles down to the worker,” Walsh said.
Walsh’s comments aren’t backed by federal action, yet anyway, but they still made major waves among tech companies that leverage non-employee labor. Uber and Lyft stock dipped on the news Thursday, along with Doordash.
In the interview, Walsh also touched on pandemic-related concerns about gig workers who lack unemployment insurance and health care through their employers. The federal government has picked up the slack during the pandemic with two major bills granting gig workers some benefits, but otherwise they’re largely without a safety net.
Reforming labor laws has been a tenet of Biden’s platform for some time and the president has been very vocal about bolstering worker protections and supporting organized labor. One section of then President-elect Biden’s transition site was devoted to expanding worker protections, calling the misclassification of employees as contract workers an “epidemic.”
Biden echoed his previous support for labor unions during a joint address to Congress Wednesday night, touting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — legislation that would protect workers looking to form or join unions. That bill would also expand federal whistleblower protections.
“The middle class built this country,” Biden said. “And unions build the middle class.”
In a joint address to Congress last night, President Biden updated the nation on vaccination efforts and outlined his administration’s ambitious goals.
Biden’s first 100 days have been characterized by sweeping legislative packages that could lift millions of Americans out of poverty and slow the clock on the climate crisis, but during his first joint address to Congress, the president highlighted another smaller plan that’s no less ambitious: to “end cancer as we know it.”
“I can think of no more worthy investment,” Biden said Wednesday night. “I know of nothing that is more bipartisan…. It’s within our power to do it.”
The comments weren’t out of the blue. Earlier this month, the White House released a budget request for $6.5 billion to launch a new government agency for breakthrough health research. The proposed health agency would be called ARPA-H and would live within the NIH. The initial focus would be on cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s but the agency would also pursue other “transformational innovation” that could remake health research.
The $6.5 billion investment is a piece of the full $51 billion NIH budget. But some critics believe that ARPA-H should sit under the Department of Health and Human Services rather than being nested under NIH.
ARPA-H would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops moonshot-like tech for defense applications. DARPA’s goals often sound more like science fiction than science, but the agency contributed to or created a number of now ubiquitous technologies, including a predecessor to GPS and most famously ARPANET, the computer network that grew into the modern internet.
Unlike more conservative, incremental research teams, DARPA aggressively pursues major scientific advances in a way that shares more in common with Silicon Valley than it does with other governmental agencies. Biden believes that using the DARPA model on cutting edge health research would keep the U.S. from lagging behind in biotech.
“China and other countries are closing in fast,” Biden said during the address. “We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips, and clean energy.”
Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.
Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.
In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.
But news of the breach only became public after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.
Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.
In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”
“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.
Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.
It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.
Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests (from TechCrunch) for comment. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”
TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.
Even as signs of hope for life after the pandemic have begun to emerge here in the U.S., increases in video game spending continue. There’s no doubt that much of last year’s big numbers were driven by stay-at-home requirements in much of the country and the world. All said, U.S. spending on the industry increased 27% for 2020.
There remains a broader question, however, around whether this momentum can maintain, as people start to, you know, leave the house more. For now, at least, things are continuing to look rosy for the industry. NPD noted this morning that U.S. spending on the category jumped 30% y-o-y for Q1 2021 to $14.92 billion.
When we break the number down a bit, however, it becomes clear that the driver goes beyond mere pandemic entertainment. Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%.
The motivator behind that last figure should be immediately obvious to anyone who follows the industry with any among of interest. Where Nintendo’s Switch dominated the conversation for most of 2020, Sony and Microsoft both launched their next gen consoles late-last year.
“While we are still seeing elevated rates of both engagement and spending resulting from changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic, we are also seeing cyclical gains from the November launches of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles,” analyst Mat Piscatella said in a release The growth driven by these new platforms, combined with gains experienced in mobile, PC and VR content spending, as well as the continued strength of Nintendo Switch, have pushed the market to new highs.”
Erase All Kittens (EAK) is an EdTech startup that created a ‘Mario-style’ web-based game designed for kids aged 8-12. However, the game has a twist: it places an emphasis on inspiring girls to code (since let’s face it, most coding tools are created by men). After reaching 160,000 players in over 100 countries, it’s now raised a $1M Seed funding led by Twinkl Educational Publishing, with participation from first investor Christian Reyntjens of the A Black Square family office, alongside angel investors, including one of the founders of Shazam.
While the existing EAK game is free, a new game launched in July will be paid for, further boosting the product’s business model.
EAK says its research shows that some 55% of its players are girls, and 95% want to learn more about coding after playing its game. EAK is currently being used in over 3,000 schools, mostly in the UK and US, and its traction increased by 500% during the lockdowns associated with the pandemic.
It’s Erase All Kittens’ contention that coding education tools for children have been largely built by men and so naturally appeal more to boys. With most teaching repetitive coding, in a very rigid, instructional way, it tends to appeal more to boys than girls, says EAK.
“Players edit the code that governs the game environment, building and fixing levels as they play in order to save kittens in a fantasy internet universe,” said cofounder Dee Saigal, co-founder, CEO and creative director. Saigal is joined by co-founder Leonie Van Der Linde; CTO Rex Van Der Spuy; Senior Games Developer Jeremy Keen; and 2D Games Artist Mikhail Malkin.
Said Saigal: “We’re designing a coding game that girls genuinely love – one that places a huge emphasis on creativity. Girls can see instant results as they code, there are different ways to progress through the game, and learning is seamlessly blended with storytelling.”
Saigal said: “When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer. I loved coming up with ideas for games but coding had always seemed like an impossible task. We weren’t taught coding at school, and I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me making games, so I didn’t think it was something I could do.”
“Whilst researching our target audience, we found that one of the biggest obstacles for girls still begins with gender stereotypes from an early age. By the time girls reach school, this snowballs into a lack of confidence in STEM skills and lower expectations from teachers, which in turn can lead to lower performance—a gap that only widens as girls get older.”
EAK’s competitors include Code Kingdoms, Swift Playgrounds and CodeCombat. But Saigal says these games tend to appeal far more to boys than to girls.
The new game (see below) will be sold to schools and parents, globally. EAK will also be carrying out a one-for-one scheme, where for every school account purchased, one will be donated to underserved schools via partnerships with tech companies, educational organizations, and NGOs.
Jonathan Seaton, Co-founder and CEO at Twinkl and Director of TwinklHive, said: “We’re really excited to partner with Erase All Kittens, as a digital company Twinkl recognizes the importance of preparing children to succeed in the digital age and we believe through this partnership we can really make a difference.”
“The team is particularly excited about helping further Erase All Kitten’s mission to empower girls and give them the same opportunities to learn to code and build their own digital creations. Ensuring that all children have equal access to opportunities to learn is at the heart of Twinkl’s vision and a key motivation in the development of this partnership for both organizations.”
Erase All Kittens
Erase All Kittens says it is addressing the global skills gap, where the gender gap is increasingly widening. According to PWC, just 24% of the tech workforce is female and women make up just 12% of all engineers, while only 3% of female students in the UK list tech as their first career choice.
Research by Childwise found that 90% of girls give up on coding after first trying it, and if they lose interest in STEM subject by the age of 11, they never recover from that. This is a huge and growing problem for the tech industry and for investors.
Today’s app-based or “gig” economy is frequently dressed up in talk about “modern innovation” and the “21st century of work.” This facade is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Precarious, contingent work is nothing new — we’ve always had jobs that are low-paying, insecure and dismissed as “unskilled.” Due to systemic racism and a historically exploitative economy, workers of color have always been, and continue to be, heavily concentrated in the most exploitative industries.
The only difference is that today, companies like Uber, DoorDash and Instacart claim they don’t have to play by the rules because they use digital apps to manage their workforce. Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.
Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.
Workers’ rights in the so-called gig economy are often positioned as a modern problem. But when we think about the problems faced by gig and app-based workers, who are predominantly people of color, we must learn from the past in order to move forward to a just economy.
The federal government has long failed to address widespread worker exploitation. Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, jobs like agricultural and domestic work, which were largely performed by workers of color, were carved out of labor rights and protections. The “independent contractors” of today, who are largely workers of color, fall into this same category of workers who have been excluded from labor laws. Combined, Black and Latinx workers make up less than 29% of the nation’s total workforce, but they comprise almost 42% of workers for app-based companies.
Gig companies argue that the drivers, delivery people, independent contractors and other workers who build their businesses, take direction from them and whose pay they set are millions of tiny businesses that do not need baseline benefits and protections. They do this in order to shield themselves from taking responsibility for their frontline workforce. Corporations then avoid paying basic costs like a minimum wage, healthcare, paid sick leave, compensation coverage and a litany of other essential benefits for their employees. For many workers, these conditions only serve to proliferate inequality nationwide and ultimately uphold a deeply flawed economy built upon worker exploitation and suffering.
App-based companies are the face of a larger, sinister trend. Over the last four decades, federal policies have greatly eroded the bargaining power of workers and concentrated more power in the hands of corporations and those who already have substantial wealth and power. This has perpetuated and worsened the racial wage and wealth gaps and contributed to the ever-increasing degradation of working conditions for too many.
It’s clear that, in order to build an economy that works for all people, “gig” and app-based companies cannot be allowed to exploit their workers under the guise of “innovation.” These companies claim their workers want to remain independent contractors, but what workers want is good pay, job security, flexibility and full rights under federal laws. This is a reasonable and just demand — and necessary to close generational gender and racial wealth gaps.
App-based companies are pouring significant resources into promoting government policies that prop up their worker exploitation model. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash Instacart and other app-based companies are loudly peddling misinformation in state legislatures, city councils and federal offices. Elected leaders at all levels need to recognize these policies for what they are — corporate efforts to rewrite the laws to benefit them — and reject the corporate interests behind the policies that carve out workers from universal protections.
Congress must also reject exclusions that lock people of color out of basic employment protections and pass legislation to extend protections to all workers, including app-based workers. The PRO Act is a great first step, which extends bargaining protections to workers who have been wrongly classified as “independent contractors” by their employers.
Across the country, app-based workers have organized to protect their health and safety and demand that their rights as workers be recognized and protected. Elected leaders cannot keep falling for corporate propaganda claiming a “21st-century” model. Work in the 21st century is still work; work that is organized on an app is still work.
We call on Congress to recognize the labor rights and protections of all workers and act boldly to ensure that app-based companies cannot block workers from equal rights in the name of “flexibility” and “innovation.”
If businesses are going to meet their increasingly aggressive targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their operations, they’re going to have to have an accurate picture of just what those emissions look like. To get that picture, companies are increasingly turning to businesses like Sweep, which announced its commercial launch today.
The Parisian company boasts a founding team with an impeccable pedigree in enterprise software. Co-founders Rachel Delacour and Nicolas Raspal were the co-founders of BIME Analytics, which was acquired by Zendesk. And together with Zendesk colleagues Raphael Güller and Yannick Chaze, and the founder of the Net Zero Initiative, Renaud Bettin, they’ve created a software toolkit that gives companies a visually elegant view into not just a company’s own carbon emissions, but those of their suppliers as well.
It’s the background of the team that first attracted investors like Pia d’Iribarne, co-founder and managing partner, New Wave, which made their first climate-focused investment into the software developer.
“We decided to invest before we even closed the fund,” d’Iribarne said of the investment in Sweep. “We officially invested in December or January.”
New Wave wasn’t the only investor wowed by the company’s prospects. The new European climate-focused investment firm 2050, and La Famiglia, a fund with strong ties to big European industrial companies, also participated alongside several undisclosed angel investors from the Bay Area. In all Sweep raked in $5 million for its product before it had even launched a beta.
Sweep offers users the ability to visualize each location of a company’s business by brand, location, product or division and see how those different granular operations contribute to a company’s overall carbon footprint. Users can also link those nodes to external suppliers and distributors to share carbon data.
The effects of climate change are increasing, and companies across industries are motivated to do their part. But today’s carbon reduction efforts are being stalled by complex tools and resources that can’t match the urgency of the threat. By putting automation, connectivity and collaboration at the heart of the platform, Sweep is the first to offer companies an efficient mechanism to tackle their indirect Scope 3 emissions, and turn net zero from a buzzword into a reality.
Like the other companies that have come on the market with carbon monitoring and management solutions, Sweep also offers the ability to finance offset projects directly from its platform. And, like those other companies, Sweep’s offsets are primarily in the forestry space.
“Around the world, companies are under pressure from customers, investors and regulators to take action to reduce their emissions,” said Pia d’Iribarne in a statement. “As a result, we’re seeing unprecedented growth in the climate technology market and we expect it to continue to explode. What used to be an issue confined to a company’s sustainability team is now a front-and-center business objective that has the commitment of the CEO. We invested in Sweep because of their world-class expertise in sustainability and their success in developing state-of-the-art, end-to-end SaaS platforms. It’s the right team and the right product at the right time.”
Calibri, we hardly knew ye. Microsoft’s default font for all its Office products (and built-in apps like WordPad) is on its way out and the company now needs your help picking a new one. Let’s judge the options!
You probably don’t think much about Calibri, if you think about fonts at all, but that’s a good thing in this context. A default font should be something you don’t notice and don’t feel the need to change unless you want something specific. Of course the switch from Times New Roman back in 2007 was controversial — going from a serif default to a sans serif default ruffled a lot of feathers. Ultimately it proved to be a good decision, and anyway TNR is still usually the default for serif-specified text.
To be clear, this is about defaults for user-created stuff, like Word files. The font used by Microsoft in Windows and other official brand things is Segoe UI, and there are a few other defaults mixed in there as well. But from now on making a new document in an Office product would default to using one of these, and the others will be there as options.
Replacing Calibri with another friendly-looking universal sans serif font will be a considerably less dramatic change than 2007’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions on it. Oh no. We’re going to get into it. Unfortunately Microsoft’s only options for seeing the text, apart from writing it out in your own 365 apps, are the tweet (doesn’t have all the letters) or some colorful but not informative graphic presentations. So we (and by we I mean Darrell) made our own little specimen to judge by:
Calibri, here for reference, is an inoffensive, rather narrow font. It gets its friendly appearance from the tips of the letters, which are buffed off like they were afraid kids might run into them. At low resolutions like we had in 2007 this didn’t really come across, but now it’s more obvious and actually a little weird, making it look a bit like magnetic fridge letters.
Bierstadt is my pick and what I think Microsoft will pick. First because it has a differentiated lowercase l, which I think is important. Second, it doesn’t try anything cute with its terminals. The t ends without curling up, and there’s no distracting tail on the a, among other things — sadly the most common letter, lowercase e, is ugly, like a chipped theta. Someone fix it. It’s practical, clear and doesn’t give you a reason to pick a different font. First place. Congratulations, designer Steve Matteson.
Tenorite is my backup pick, because it’s nice but less practical for a default font. Geometric sans serifs (look at the big fat “dog,” all circles) look great at medium size but small they tend to make for weird, wide spacing. Look at how Bierstadt makes the narrow and wide letters comparable in width, while in Tenorite they’re super uneven, yet both are near the same total length. Also, no, we didn’t mess with the kerning or add extra spaces to the end in “This is Tenorite.” That’s how it came out. Someone fix it! Second Place.
Skeena, apart from sounding like a kind of monster you fight in an RPG, feels like a throwback. Specifically to Monaco, the font we all remember from early versions of MacOS (like System 7). The variable thickness and attenuated tails make for an interesting look in large type, but small it just looks awkward. Best e of the bunch, but something’s wrong with the g, maybe. Someone might need to fix it. Third place.
Seaford is an interesting one, but it’s trying too hard with these angular loops and terminals. The lowercase k and a are horrifying, like broken pretzels. The j looks like someone kicked an i. The d looks like it had too much to eat and is resting its belly on the ground. And don’t get me started on the bent bars of the italic w. Someone fix it. I like the extra strong bold and the g actually works, but this would really bug me to use every day. Fourth Place.
Grandview didn’t render properly for us. It looked like Dingbats in regular, but was fine in bold and italic. Someone fix it. Fortunately I feel confident it won’t be the next default. It’s not bad at all, but it’s inhuman, robotic. Looks like a terminal font no one uses. See how any opportunity there is for a straight line is taken? Nice for a logo — feels strong structurally — but a paragraph of it would look like a barcode. Use it for H2 stuff. Last place.
So what should you “vote” for by tweeting hard at Microsoft? Probably it doesn’t matter. I’m guessing they’ve already picked one. Bierstadt is the smart pick, because it’s good in general while the others are all situational. If they would only fix that damn e.
Reshaping ownership proofs in the fine art markets has been one of the blockchain’s clearest real-world use cases. But in recent months as top auction houses have embraced NFTs and popular artists experiment with the crypto medium, that future has seemed more tangible than ever before.
The ex-Christie’s and Sotheby’s team at Lobus is aiming to commoditize blockchain tech with an asset management platform that they hope can bring creator-friendly mechanisms from NFT marketplaces like SuperRare to the physical art world as well, allowing art owners to maintain partial ownership of the works they sell so that they can benefit from secondary transactions down the line. While physical art sellers have grown accustomed to selling 100% of their work while seeing that value accrue over time as it trades hands, Lobus’s goal is for artist’s to maintain fractional ownership throughout those sales, ensuring that they earn a commission on sales down the road. It’s a radical idea and a logistical nightmare made feasible by the blockchain’s approach to ownership.
“We’re really on a mission of making artists into owners,” Lobus co-CEO Sarah Wendell Sherrill tells TechCrunch. “We are really leveraging the best of what NFTs are putting out there about ownership and asking the questions of how to help create different ownership structures and interrupt this asset class.”
The startup is encapsulating these new mechanics in a wide-reaching art asset management platform that they hope can entice users of the aging legacy software suites being used today. Teaming robust ownership proofs with a CRM, analytics platform and tools like dynamic pricing, Lobus wants to give the art market its own Carta-like software platform that is approachable to the wider market.
Lobus tells TechCrunch they have raised $6 million from Upside Capital, 8VC, Franklin Templeton, Dream Machine, Weekend Fund and BoostVC, among others. Angels participating in the round include Rob Hayes, Troy Carter, Suzy Ryoo, Rebecca and Cal Henderson, Henry Ward and Lex Sokolin.
A big goal for the team has been removing the complexities of understanding what the blockchain is and instead focusing on what their tech can deliver to their network of art owners. While the NFT boom of the past few months has already produced billions in sales, efforts like Lobus are attempting to cross-pollinate the mechanics of crypto art with the global art market in an effort to put stakeholders across the board on the same footing. In addition to having partnerships with around 300 active artists, Lobus has also sold their platform to collectors, artist estates and asset managers.
At the moment, Lobus has around 45,000 art objects in its database, encompassing about $5.4 billion in asset value across physical and digital objects.