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Today — April 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

By Jake Bright

Visa has prioritized growth in Africa, and partnering with startups is central to its strategy.

This became obvious in 2019 after the global financial services giant entered a series of collaborations on the continent, but Visa confirmed it in their 2020 Investor Day presentation.

On the company’s annual call, participants mentioned Africa 28 times and featured regional startups prominently in the accompanying deck. Visa’s regional president for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), Andrew Torre, detailed the region’s payments potential and his company’s plans to tap it. “We’re partnering with non-conventional players to realize this potential — fintechs, neobanks and digital wallets — to reach the one billion consumer opportunity,” he said.

Africa strategy and team

TechCrunch has covered a number of Visa’s Africa collaborations and spoke to two execs driving the company’s engagement with startups from Nigeria to South Africa.

Visa’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa, Otto Williams, has been out front, traveling the continent and engaging fintech founders.

Located in Cape Town, Visa’s group general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Aida Diarra, oversees the company’s operations in 48 countries. Visa has a long track record working with the region’s large banking entities, but that’s shifted to smaller ventures.

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

Lending startups are angling for new business from the COVID-19 bailout

By Jonathan Shieber

As the largest federal stimulus package in the history of the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, injects a planned $2.2 trillion into the U.S. economy, fintech startups are angling to get a seat at the table when it comes to distributing the cash.

“In the last crisis, banks stepped away from the kinds of lending that our members do,” says Scott Stewart, the head of the Innovative Lending Platform Association. “The bank process [for lending] is quite lengthy. Our members are underwriting loans using algorithms at speed and scale.”

Under the CARES Act, roughly $450 billion in loans are set to be distributed through the Small Business Administration and other entities. While Congress is still working out the details, fintech companies are thinking that they should — and will — have a role to play getting stimulus money into the hands of entrepreneurs.

“The Treasury Department and the SBA have the authority and have been instructed in the legislation to allow us into the room,” says Stewart. “We will have to go through some sort of process to become qualified non-bank lenders.”

The argument for handing some of the responsibility for distributing the stimulus dollars to startups to disburse comes from the ability of these companies to approve loans faster than typical banks.

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

By Natasha Lomas

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

By Josh Constine

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Prototype thrusters designed for use on the Moon undergo key hot-fire testing

By Darrell Etherington

NASA’s renewed efforts to return to the Moon may be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but work still proceeds on a number of projects related to the effort, including a series of hot-fire test of thrusters designed by NASA and partner Frontier Aerospace. These tests, more than 60 in total performed over the course of just 10 days, were performed under conditions designed to simulate what it would be like to use them in space, and provided key information that could lead to the verification of this thruster design for future use by NASA and its commercial partners.

The prototype thrusters are designed for use with small rockets, in space, delivering enough power for flight path adjustments or altitude changes. They’re designed to be as small and efficient as possible, while also meeting the requirements of landing spacecraft on the Moon; their first likely use will be in Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which is currently scheduled to fly on a Vulcan Centaur rocket in July 2021.

Peregrine is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, through which the agency has built a list of what amounts to approved vendors for building and flying lunar landers that can carry payloads to the Moon on its behalf. These thrusters are being developed under a separate program, NASA’s Thruster for the Advancement of Low-temperature Operation in Space (TALOS) project, but their work will contribute both to CLPS and to future spacecraft used in NASA’s Artemis series of lunar missions.

The design of the thrusters incorporates use of a propellant made up of nitrogen and monomethylhydrazine, which offers benefits like being able to burn at much lower temperatures without risk of freezing — their operating range is between -40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas most traditional thrusters work at between 45 and 70 Fahrenheit. Their operating range has the side-benefit of not requiring conditioning hardware, which means they can work with less-bulky and power-hungry designs — both incredibly important when you’re building spacecraft.

Africa turns to mobile payments as a tool to curb COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Africa is using digital finance as a means to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Governments and startups on the continent are implementing measures to shift a greater volume of payment transactions toward mobile money and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s an option facilitated by the boom in fintech that’s occurred in Africa over the last decade. By several estimates, the continent is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

But because of that, fintech — and startups focused on financial inclusion — now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

As COVID-19 cases began to grow in the continent’s major economies last week, the continent’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

The country’s largest teleco, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency in response to COVID-19.

Image Credits: Flickr

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

The move came after Safaricom met with the country’s Central Bank and per a directive from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta “to explore ways of deepening mobile-money usage to reduce risk of spreading the virus through physical handling of cash,” according to a release provided to TechCrunch from Safaricom.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of mobile-money adoption in the world, largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which stands as Africa’s 6th largest economy. Across Kenya’s population of 53 million, M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

M-PESA Sector Stats 4Q 2019 per Kenya’s Communications Authority

With all major providers in Kenya there are 32 million subscribers, which means roughly 60% of the country’s population has access to mobile-money.

Ghana is also using digital finance as a monetary policy lever to reduce the spread of COVID-19

On March 20, the West African country’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa is prompting more countries and tech companies to include mobile finance as part of a broader response. The continent’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

Source; World Health Organization

By the World Health Organization’s stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The country with 40% of the region’s cases is South Africa, which declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Unlike Ghana and Kenya, the government in Africa’s second largest economy hasn’t issued directives toward mobile payments, but the situation with COVID-19 is pushing fintech startups to act, according to Yoco CEO Katlego Maphai.

The Series B stage venture develops and sells digital payment hardware and services for small businesses on a network of 80,000 clients that processes roughly $500 million annually.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

With the growth in coronavirus cases in South Africa, Yoco has issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. The startup has also accelerated its development of a remote payment product, that would enable transfers on its client network via a weblink.

“This is an opportunity to start driving contactless adoption,” Maphai told TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

In Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million — the growth of COVID-19 cases has shifted the country toward electronic payments and prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

Parts of Lagos — which is connected to Nigeria’s largest commercial hub of Lagos State — have begun to require digital payments in response to COVID-19, according to Paga’s CEO Tayo Oviosu .

“We’re seeing some stores that are saying they are not accepting cash anymore,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

Cash only Nigeria Paga

Image Credits: Paga

Paga already offers free P2P transfers on its multi-channel network of 24,840 agents and 14 million customers. The startup, that recently expanded to Mexico and partnered with Visa, will also allow free transfers up to roughly 5000 Naira (≈ $15) from customer accounts to bank accounts, to encourage more digital payments use in Nigeria.

Paga’s CEO believes the current COVID-19 crisis will encourage more digital finance adoption in Nigeria, which has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments.

“I think it will help move the needle, but it won’t be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Time and research will determine if efforts of African governments and tech companies to encourage digital payments over physical currency yield results in halting the spread of COVID-19 on the continent.

It is a unique case-study of mobile finance in Africa being employed to impact human behavior during a public health emergency.

Apple Card gets updated privacy policy on new data sharing and more transaction detail

By Matthew Panzarino

Apple is updating its privacy policy for Apple Card to enable sharing more anonymized data with Goldman Sachs, its financial partner. Apple’s reasoning here is that this will make it able to do a better job of assigning credit to new customers.

The data is aggregate and anonymized, and there is an opt-out for new customers.

Three things are happening here:

  • Apple is changing the privacy policy for Apple Card with iOS to share a richer, but still anonymized credit assignment model with Goldman Sachs in order to expand the kind of user that might be able to secure credit.
  • There is also a beefed up fallback method to share more personal data on an opt-in basis with Goldman Sachs if you do not at first get approved. Things like purchase history of Apple products, when you created your Apple ID and how much you spend with Apple. This has always existed and you may have seen it if the default modeling rejected your Apple Card application — it has a few more data points now but it is still very clearly opt-in with a large share button.
  • Apple is also finally adding detail to its internal transactions. You no longer have to wonder what that random charge labeled Apple Services is for, you’ll get detail on the Hillary Duff box set or Gambino album you purchased right in the list inside Wallet.

As a side effect of the Apple Card policy evolving here it’s also being split off from the Apple Pay privacy policy. Much of the language is either identical or nearly so, but this allows Apple to make changes like the ones above to Apple Card without having to interleave that with the Apple Pay policy — as not all Apple Pay customers are Apple Card customers.

The new policy appears in iOS 13.4 updates but the opt-in sharing of data points will not immediately roll out for new Apple Card users and will begin appearing later.

Here is the additional language that is appearing in the Apple Card privacy notice related to data sharing, with some sections highlighted by us:

“You may be eligible for certain Apple Card programs provided by Goldman Sachs based on the information provided as part of your application. Apple may know whether you receive the invitation to participate and whether you accept or decline the invitation, and may share that information with Goldman Sachs to effectuate the program. Apple will not know additional details about your participation in the program.

Apple may use information about your account with Apple, such as the fact that you have Apple Card, for internal research and analytics purposes, such as financial forecasting. Apple may also use information about your relationship with Apple, such as what Apple products you have purchased, how long you have had your Apple ID, and how often you transact with Apple, to improve Apple Card by helping to identify Apple metrics that may assist Goldman Sachs in improving credit decisioning. No personally identifiable information about your relationship with Apple will be shared with Goldman Sachs to identify the relevant Apple metrics. You can opt out of this use or your Apple relationship information by emailing our privacy team at dpo@apple.com with the subject line “Apple Relationship Data and Apple Card.” Applicants and cardholders may be able to choose to share the identified metrics with Goldman Sachs for re-evaluation of their offer of credit or to increase their credit line. Apple may share information about your relationship with Apple with our service providers, who are obligated to handle the information consistent with this notice and Apple instructions, are required to use reasonable security measures to protect any personal information received, and must delete the personal information as soon as they have completed the services.”

Some thoughts on all of this.

The fact that Apple is sharing a new anonymized, non-personally identifiable information (PII), customer model with Goldman likely engenders two valid responses.

First, there is more data being shared here than there was before, which is always something that should be examined closely, and all of us should be as cognizant as possible about how much information gets traded around about us. That said, your average co-branded card offer (say an airline card or retailer card) is controlled nearly entirely by the financial services side of that equation (basically the credit card companies decide what data they get and how).

Apple’s deal with Goldman Sachs is unique in a lot of ways, not the least of which is that Apple has controlled the flow of data from customers to Goldman very tightly from the beginning. Evidenced by affordances it continues to offer like skipping your March payment to Apple Card without incurring interest. This new arrangement outlined in the privacy policy does not share any PII unless there is an opt-in, and even allows an opt-out of the anonymized model share.

I cannot stress enough how rare that is in financial products, especially credit cards. Most cards take all of the above information and much more in their approval process, and they don’t do any work beyond what is required by regulatory law to inform you of that. Apple is doing more than most.

THAT SAID. I do wish that the opt-out of the anonymized data model was presented in the flow of normal signup, rather than existing as an email address in the privacy policy. I know why this is, because the model is likely far more effective and a lot more people will likely get approved for an Apple Card using it.

But in keeping with the stated Apple goals of protecting user privacy and making the policy as transparent as possible I would prefer that they find a long-term solution that communicates all of those factors to the user clearly and then offers them the ability to risk non-approval but limiting data share.

The idea behind the new model sharing and the secondary opt-in disclosure of 9 key bits of actually personal information about your purchase history and other things is that Apple will be able to offer credit to people who may be automatically rejected under the old way of doing things. And, out beyond that, it will be able to build tools that help customers to manage debt and credit more accurately and transparently. Especially those new to credit.

Any time an agreement changes to enable more data to flow my eyebrows arch. But there is a pretty straight line to be drawn here between the way that Apple transparently and aggressively helps users to not pay interest on Apple Card and the potential for more useful financial product enhancements to Apple Card down the line.

If you’ve ever looked at a credit card statement you know that it can often be difficult to ascertain exactly how much you need to pay at any given time to avoid interest. In the Apple Card interface it’s insanely clear exactly how and when to pay so that you don’t get charged. Most of the industry follows practices that prey on behavioral norms — people will pay the minimum payment by default because that’s what seems logical, rather than paying what is most healthy for them to pay.

My hope here is that the additional modeling makes room for more of these kinds of product decisions for Apple Card down the line. But, my eyes are up and yours should be too. Check the policy, opt-out if it makes sense to you and always be aware of the data you’re sharing, who with and what they plan to use it for.

LetsBeatCOVID.net launches to track the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK/US

By Mike Butcher

A startup behind one of the world’s most successful tech platforms for doctors has launched a new initiative to try and track the spread of the Coronavirus, initially in the UK but soon in the US.

Developed by MedShr – the app used by a million doctors to aid them in the diagnostic process – LetsBeatCOVID.net is designed to allow members of the public to complete a short survey about their health and exposure to COVID-19 in order that health services can save more lives.

Members of the public are asked to complete a short anonymous survey about themselves and are able to add information for others in their household or family. They can then update their responses if their situation changes using a randomly generated code to log back in. MedShr says users will, therefore, be able to hide their identity if they are concerned about their privacy. They will, however, be asked to verify their location via the phone’s browser in order to generate more accurate data about the spread of symptoms.
 
Anyone who completes the survey and chooses to enter their email will also get personalized guidance to help them understand their personal situation.

The not-for-profit initiative is led by Dr Asif Qasim, a Consultant Cardiologist based in London, England. Dr Qasim founded MedShr, an online network that enables doctors to connect and share data and knowledge with each other, in 2013.

Dr. Qasim said: “A million doctors around the world are working very hard to protect patients with COVID-19 in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We are hearing from them that they don’t have the information they need to plan services and avert a crisis such as the one Italy is now facing. We believe this app could help.” Dr. Qasim says the data will be shared with health authorities fighting the pandemic.

LetsBeatCOVID.net could make it easier for members of the public to provide the information urgently needed by hospitals and governments by allowing hospitals to understand how many people are: more likely to require medical help or hospitalization; have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 but do not have any symptoms; have mild symptoms of COVID-19; or believe or know they have already had COVID-19 and recovered.

The spread and devastating impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is unprecedented. Hospitals in China and Italy have struggled to care for the large numbers of people who become infected with the virus, especially those who needed Intensive Care and breathing support with a ventilator. Doctors and scientists believe that the UK, US and many other countries could be just a few weeks away from the devastating death toll that Italy is now experiencing. 

MedShr is a HIPAA and GDPR compliant professional network for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals currently used by over one million members in 190 countries.

Using 25% lower bandwidth, Disney+ launches in UK, Ireland and 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

By Ingrid Lunden

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching across 7 markets in Europe — but doing so using reduced bandwidth given the strain on broadband networks as more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic. From today, it will be live in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland; Disney also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7. It’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

Caught in the crossfire of Covid-19

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught in the crossfire of world events.

The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming media. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home, and many people are turning to their televisions and other screens for diversion and information.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain or distract people who are now sheltering in place. And that has put a huge strain on broadband networks. So, to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) that it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.”

There are now dozens of places to get an online video fix, but Disney has a lot of valuable cards in its hand, specifically in the form of a gigantic catalog of famous, premium content, and the facilities to produce significantly more at scale, dwarfing the efforts (valiant or great as they are) from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple .

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years.

In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Defense contractor CPI knocked offline by ransomware attack

By Zack Whittaker

A major electronics manufacturer for defense and communications markets was knocked offline after a ransomware attack, TechCrunch has learned.

A source with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the defense contractor paid a ransom of about $500,000 shortly after the incident in mid-January, but that the company was not yet fully operational.

California-based Communications & Power Industries (CPI) makes components for military devices and equipment, like radar, missile seekers and electronic warfare technology. The company counts the U.S. Department of Defense and its advanced research unit DARPA as customers.

The company confirmed the ransomware attack.

“We are working with a third-party forensic investigation firm to investigate the incident. The investigation is ongoing,” said CPI spokesperson Amanda Mogin. “We have worked with counsel to notify law enforcement and governmental authorities, as well as customers, in a timely manner.”

According to the source, a “domain admin” — a user with the highest level of privileges on the network — clicked on a malicious link while they were logged in, which triggered the file-encrypting malware. Because the thousands of computers on the network were on the same, unsegmented domain, the ransomware quickly spread to every CPI office, including its on-site backups, the source said.

The source described the company in “panic mode,” as only about one-quarter of its computers are back up and running as of the end of February.

Short staffing is hampering the effort, the source said. Some computers containing sensitive military data have been recovered using the decryption key, which the company obtained by paying the ransom. One system is said to have files related to Aegis, a naval weapons system developed by Lockheed Martin. When reached, a Lockheed spokesperson did not immediately comment.

Many of the remaining computers are having their operating systems installed from scratch, the source said. A portion of the defense contractor’s systems — about 150 computers — are still running Windows XP, which stopped receiving security patches in 2014.

But it’s not known what kind of ransomware was used in the attack. CPI’s spokesperson did not answer any of our questions, and declined to comment further beyond the brief statement.

CPI becomes the latest victim in a spate of attacks targeting large companies in the past month. This week alone saw legal services giant Epiq Global knocked offline by a ransomware attack, and Visser, a parts manufacturer for Tesla and SpaceX, was hit by a new kind of data-stealing ransomware, dubbed DoppelPaymer, which not only encrypts files but first exfiltrates company data to the hackers’ servers.

The hackers behind the DoppelPaymer attack began publishing Visser’s internal files last week after the company did not pay the ransom.

Brett Callow, a threat analyst at security firm Emsisoft, said the tactics of traditional file-encrypting ransomware have changed.

“These incidents should be considered to be breaches — and disclosed and reported as such — from the get-go,” said Callow. “Criminals are getting too much time to misuse data while companies/people have no reason to be suspicious.”

5G is now live in 24 markets, GSMA predicts it’ll be 20% of global connections by 2025 — and eyes a big tech break-up

By Natasha Lomas

The next-gen flavor of mobile connectivity, 5G, is now live in 24 markets globally, per global mobile industry association the GSMA — which has just published its annual state of the global mobile economy report.

The cutting edge network tech is capable of supporting speeds up to 100x faster than LTE/4G and delivering latency of just a few milliseconds, as well as being able to connect many more devices per cell site — which means that, as it rolls out, it’s expected to underpin a new wave of ‘smarter’ digital services which bake in real-time AI assistance and help drive the digitization of legacy industries.

In last year’s report the carrier association didn’t break out a firm figure for markets where 5G is live — but dubbed the tech “a reality” after commercial launches in the US and South Korea towards the end of 2018. It also said it was expecting 16 more “major countries” to have launched 5G networks by the end of 2019.

It’s now touting “significant traction” for 5G — saying 79 operators across a further 39 markets had announced plans to launch commercial 5G services as of January 20, 2020. 

As it stands actual 5G connections remain a fraction of the connectivity pie vs current (4G) and previous gen cellular favors. Per the report, 4G became the dominant mobile tech globally in 2019 — with over 4BN connections, accounting for 52% of total connections (excluding licensed cellular IoT).

The GSMA expects 4G connections to continue to grow for the next few years, peaking at just under 60% of global connections by 2023.

For 5G its forecast is that it will account for a fifth (20%) of global connections by 2025, with the carrier association expecting “particularly strong” take-up across developed Asia, North America and Europe.

(For wider context, almost half of the global population (3.8BN people) are now users of the mobile internet as a whole (2G-5G), per the report — which is forecast to grow to 61% (5BN people) by 2025.)

It’s worth emphasizing that the presence of 5G in a market does not mean universal coverage.

On the contrary, 5G rollouts have tended to be targeted on urban centers. Which means 5G availability in the 24 markets that have launched commercial networks so far is likely highly limited vs population. There are also still relatively few 5G smartphones vs non-5G handsets (though since this time last year more are being unboxed; Sony, for example, just announced its first 5G handsets).

Perhaps, most importantly, consumer demand for the next-gen flavor of connectivity has yet to be robustly stood up. The GSMA’s report poses the (existential, for telcos) question of: “Will they pay for it?”

The number of live 5G markets is increasing by the day and consumers’ awareness of the technology is also growing as hype makes way for reality. However, there is wide variation across the globe in terms of intentions to upgrade to 5G and the willingness to pay more for it,” it concedes.

“In general, consumers in South Korea and China – having witnessed some of the earliest launches – appear to be the most excited by the prospect of upgrading to 5G, while those in the US, Europe and Japan seem more content with 4G for the time being,” the GSMA adds, before striking an upbeat note: “5G is still in its infancy though; as more tangible use cases are deployed, more consumers will appreciate the benefits of 5G.”

Aka, 5G needs a killer app. But one has yet to emerge. (Edit note: A global pandemic that triggers a mass transition to remote working and virtualized socializing could have potential though. After all, concerns about the corona virus did force the GSMA to cancel its own annual shindig, MWC, just last month.)

Despite the report’s prediction that consumers will, down the line, be sold on 5G’s “benefits” another graphic in the report maps out the current reality — that “awareness of 5G does not necessarily translate into an intention to upgrade”.

It shows adults in markets including the UK, Australia, Spain and Italy having high awareness of the tech but low intent to pay for 5G, with less than 35% saying they want to upgrade. The US market also has a similarly high level of awareness of 5G — and only a slightly higher intention to upgrade (~40%+). 

The GSMA writes that more needs to be done by carriers to “raise awareness” of other “benefits” than just higher data speeds, touting claimed advantages such as “improved mobile service coverage”, “innovative new services” and “connectivity for previously unconnected devices” as having 5G marketing potential.

However, on the latter point at least, the report also chronicles variable and often low appetite — certainly outside China — for a range of ‘smart’ devices…

Still, the GSMA predicts billions more IoT devices will be coming on stream over the next five years — saying that between 2019 and 2025 the number of global IoT connections will more than double to almost 25 billion, while it expects global IoT revenue to more than triple to $1.1 trillion.

Another segment of the report deals with the perennial issue of stagnant operator revenue growth vs Internet companies, with the GSMA noting telcos continue to lag tech giants and major device makers.

For many operators, revenue growth as a percentage is in the low single digits, if that,” it writes. “As core telecoms revenue stagnates, a common strategy now for major operator groups is to seek revenue growth from adjacent services. Pay TV, media, IoT, enterprise solutions and the broader array of digital services still only account for a minor share of operator revenues (10–20% for most), although there are a few notable exceptions, largely enabled by M&A activity.”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that top of the GSMA’s 2025 prediction/wish-list is a bold one that one of the GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) will be broken up.

Other near-term hopes on the GSMA’s list are that “AR eye glasses reach the mass market with a form factor from at least one global OEM”; health wearables become “part of the solution to overburdened public health systems”; and “private enterprise networks explode and become a battleground between telcos and cloud companies” (we don’t think they mean explode literally). 

There’s also another 2025 prediction for 5G — that the technology becomes “the first generation in the history of mobile to have a bigger impact on enterprise than consumers”.

Which is certainly one way to silver-line a low-demand ‘cloud’ and hedge (hopefully) for business buy-in to make up for lacklustre consumer desire to pay more to do the same stuff slightly faster* (*depending on network conditions). 

Governments and regulators must play their part to help propel 5G into commercial use by implementing policies that encourage advanced technologies (e.g. AI and IoT) to be applied across all economic sectors,” the GSMA writes elsewhere in the report — a call to action that aligns exactly with digital policy priorities set out by the new European Commission, suggesting telco lobbying in Brussels has borne fruit

Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for internal market — who’s now driving a pan-EU strategy to encourage the pooling and reuse of industrial data that leans heavily on the deployment of what’s he’s called “critical” 5G networks — is also a former chairman and CEO of France Telecom.

You can download the full GSMA report here.

Netlify nabs $53M Series C as microservices approach to web development grows

By Ron Miller

Netlify, the startup that wants to kill the web server and change the way developers build websites, announced a $53 million Series C today.

EQT Ventures Fund led the round with contributions from existing investors Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins and newcomer Preston-Werner Ventures. Under the terms of the deal Laura Yao, deal partner and investment advisor at EQT Ventures will be joining the Netlify board. The startup has now raised $97 million, according to the company.

Like many startups recently, Netlify’s co-founder Chris Bach says they weren’t looking for new funding, but felt with the company growing rapidly, it would be prudent to take the money to help continue that growth.

While Bach and CEO Matt Biilmann didn’t want to discuss valuation, they said it was “very generous” and in line with how they see their business. Neither did they want to disclose specific revenue figures, but did say that the company has tripled revenue three years running.

One thing fueling that growth is the sheer number of developers joining the platform. When we spoke to the company for its Series B in 2018, it had 300,000 sign-ups. Today that number has ballooned to 800,000.

As we wrote about the company in a 2018 article, it wants to change the way people develop web sites:

“Netlify has abstracted away the concept of a web server, which it says is slow to deploy and hard to secure and scale. By shifting from a monolithic website to a static front end with back-end microservices, it believes it can solve security and scaling issues and deliver the site much faster.”

While developer popularity is a good starting point, getting larger customers on board is the ultimate goal that will drive more revenue, and the company wants to use its new injection of capital to build the enterprise side of the business. Current enterprise customers include Google, Facebook, Citrix and Unilever.

Netlify has grown from 38 to 97 employees since the beginning of last year and hopes to reach 180 by year’s end.

Alipay owner Ant Financial takes minority stake in Klarna

By Natasha Lomas

Some big moves in the payments platform space: Ant Financial Group, the owner of China’s Alipay payment platform has announced it’s taking a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna — which has a strong European presence and a flagship product that lets shoppers buy now and pay later in interest-free instalments (typically 14 or 30 days after the purchase).

The pair have not disclosed terms of the deal but Reuters reported the stake amounts to less than 1% and was made up of existing and new shares. It also cites its source telling it the stake was done at a “slight uptick” to Klarna’s $460 million funding round last August — which valued the company at $5.5BN.

A spokeswomen for Klarna told us it’s not disclosing the value of the investment but she confirmed Reuters reporting, saying the stake is less than 1%.

Ant Financial is part of Chinese ecommerce and retail services multinational giant, Alibaba Group, which took a 33% stake in the fintech affiliate back in 2018 that gave it direct ownership of its suite of products and services — including an investment fund, micro-loans, insurance services, a digital bank and the Alipay mobile payments platform. 

Klarna and Alipay had already been collaborating via Alibaba’s global ecommerce marketplace, AliExpress — which offers Klarna’s ‘Pay later’ option in multiple markets.

Now the pair touted their deepening partnership as set to bring more “innovative and convenient” financial services to consumers worldwide.

They are also clearly hoping to further grease the wheels of East to West ecommerce by expanding opportunities for China’s growing middle class to tap into Klarna’s network of European and global merchants via their preferred local online payment method.

Commenting in a statement, Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiątkowski said: “For too long consumers have had to endure non-intuitive, boring and overly complex services when shopping both online and offline. At the heart of this cooperation between Klarna and Alipay is a shared ambition of innovating truly superior shopping experiences and creating destinations of inspiration for consumers across the world.”

“Alipay, and the wider Alibaba Group, have truly set the global pace on retail innovation and the app economy. We are delighted in this confidence shown in Klarna in defining the future of payments and shopping and are very much looking forward to working together further in the future,” he added.

Klarna said its technology is being used by more than 200,000 retailers and e-commerce platforms globally at this point, including AliExpress, H&M, ASOS, Expedia Group, IKEA, Farfetch, Adidas, Spotify, Samsung and Nike .

Last year it said it added over 75,000 new merchants — describing itself as a “strategic growth partner” for these retailers and claiming it’s driving “millions of referrals and traffic each month” from owned channels to partner merchants from consumers who it says are actively seeking where they can shop with Klarna. (It claims a base of 85 million shoppers.)

Ant Financial, meanwhile, has been working on expanding Alipay’s global footprint by cutting local deals in markets outside China where it cannot build up its transaction volume organically. Notably, back in 2015, it  took a stake in India’s One97 — which operates a major local mobile payment platform, Paytm.

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report

Africa Roundup: TLcom closes $71M fund, Jumo raises $55M, AWS partners with Safaricom

By Jake Bright

VC firm TLcom Capital closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million in February, and announced plans to invest in 12 startup over the next 18 months.

The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech-enabled, revenue-driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.

He told TechCrunch the fund was somewhat agnostic on startup sectors, but was leaning toward infrastructure, logistics ventures vs. consumer finance companies.

On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya,  South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.

TLcom’s current Africa portfolio includes Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, Kenya’s Twiga Foods,  a B2B food supply-chain company and tech-talent accelerator Andela.

Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .

For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

One $50 million round wasn’t enough for South Africa’s Jumo, so the fintech firm raised another — $55 million — in February, backed by

Goldman Sachs led the Cape Town based company’s $52 million round back in 2018.

“This fresh investment comes from new and existing…investors including Goldman Sachs,  Odey Asset Management and LeapFrog Investments,” Jumo said in a statement —  though Goldman told TechCrunch its participation in this week’s round isn’t confirmed.

After the latest haul, Jumo has raised $146 million in capital, according to Crunchbase.

Founded in 2015, the venture offers a full tech stack for partners to build savings, lending, and insurance products for customers in emerging markets.

Jumo is active in six markets and plans to expand to two new countries in Africa (Nigeria and Ivory Coast) and two in Asia (Bangladesh and India).

The company’s products have disbursed over $1 billion loans and served over 15 million people and small businesses, according to Jumo data.

Jumo joins a growing list of African digital-finance startups raising big money from outside investors and expanding abroad. A $200 million investment by Visa in 2019 catapulted Nigerian payments firm Interswitch  to unicorn status, the same year the company launched its Verge card product on Discover’s global network.

Amazon Web Services  has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.

In a statement to TechCrunch,  the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom  will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.

Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa  mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.

Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.

Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).

safaricomM-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.

A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.

The Safaricom-AWS partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.

The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Legal services giant Epiq Global offline after ransomware attack

By Zack Whittaker

Legal services giant Epiq Global has been hit by a ransomware attack.

The law firm, which provides legal counsel and administration that counts banks, credit giants, and governments as customers, confirmed the attack hit on February 29.

“As part of our comprehensive response plan, we immediately took our systems offline globally to contain the threat and began working with a third-party forensic firm to conduct an independent investigation,” the statement read. “Our technical team is working closely with world class third-party experts to address this matter, and bring our systems back online in a secure manner, as quickly as possible.”

The company’s website, however, says it was “offline to perform maintenance.”

A source with knowledge of the incident but who was not authorized to speak to the media said the ransomware hit the organization’s entire fleet of computers across its 80 global offices. According to an internal communication sent to staff that was obtained by TechCrunch, the law firm said staff should “not go” to their local offices without managerial approval. Staff in offices were advised to avoid connecting any device to the network. The communication also said that staff should “turn off the Wi-Fi on your laptop before entering the parking lot of the building” in an effort to prevent the spread of the ransomware.

Many of the computers were running old versions of Windows, the source said. “Nothing is a up to date,” the source said.

The source came forward because, in their words, “we were told not to tell clients anything until we are back in.”

It’s not immediately clear which kind of ransomware was used in the attack, but Epiq Global said in its statement that there was “no evidence” that data was stolen. Although ransomware typically infects computers, spreads, and encrypts files across a network in exchange for a ransom, some newer and more advanced ransomware families also exfiltrated corporate data before encrypting the files and threatened to publish the files unless a ransom is paid.

Just this week, Visser, a parts manufacturer for Tesla and SpaceX, was hit by a more advanced, data exfiltrating ransomware. A portion of the files stolen from the company were published by the ransomware group.

Epiq spokesperson Catherine Ostheimer declined to disclose the details of the ransomware, nor did she provide a percentage of the data or computers impacted by the attack. Ostheimer also declined to confirm the contents of the email obtained by TechCrunch.

None of our specific questions were addressed, including if the law firm had contacted its clients impacted by the attack.

“Our offices globally are open for business and we’re working with third party experts to address this matter, and to bring our systems back on line in a secure way as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.

Could lessons from the challenger bank revolution kick-start innovation on the climate crisis?

By Mike Butcher

Now that the world is swimming in data we may be able to address the climate and environmental risks to the planet. But while there is plenty of capital to invest in things like ClimateTech, a lot of the data that’s needed to tackle this big issue is badly applied, leading to a big misallocation of resources. So to deal with the climate we have to get the data right. A big part of the solution is open standards and interoperability.

The story of how the Open Banking Standard developed might show a way forward. Its development out of the UK led to regulated sector-wide interoperability (covering a broad range of areas including IP, legal, liability and licensing, and technology to enable data sharing). It’s meant over 300 fintech companies now use the Standard, which has helped to catalyze similar initiatives.

Open Banking has lead to the explosion in tech startups that we see today. Revolut, Monzo, Starling bank – none of them would have existed without Open Banking.

What if someone created something like the Open Banking Standard, but this time to stimulate climate-friendly innovation around financial products. Afterall, it’s more likely we’ll save the planet is we incentivize firms with financial models to make it work.

Well, it just so happens that one of the key players that developed the Open Banking Standard plans to do the same for data about the climate to allow the insurance industry to engage in the solutions to the climate crisis.

Gavin Starks co-chaired the development of the Open Banking Standard, laying the foundations for regulation and catalyzing international innovation.

But Starks has form in this arena. Prior to co-creating Open Banking, he was the Open Data Institute’s founding CEO, working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The ODI may not be well known in Silicon Valley, but it’s launched franchises across 20 countries and trained 10,000 people.

Starks’ previous venture was a pioneer in the climate space: AMEE (Avoidance of Mass Extinctions Engine) organized the world’s environmental data and standards into an open web-service, raising $10M and selling in 2015 PredictX.

Starks also chaired the development of the first Gold Standard Carbon Offset.

But what Starks has set himself is a task different to Open Banking.

His new project is Icebreaker One, a new non-profit which last month raised £1m+ investment, largely funded by the UK’s government-backed body UK Research and Innovation. It’s also supported by a consortium of financial and regulatory institutions.

So what’s the big idea this time?

The idea is to develop an open standard for data sharing that will stimulate climate-friendly financial product innovation and deliver new products.

Just like the Open Banking Standard, Icebreaker One will steer the development of the SERI standard. This is the Standard for Environment, Risk and Insurance (SERI) which has been created to design, test and develop financial products with Icebreaker One members ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year.

SERI could provide a framework for an addressable, open marketplace, built around the needs of both the market and the new reality of climate change. If it works, this would enable insurers to share data robustly, legally and securely, driving the use and adoption of artificial intelligence tools within the insurance sector.

It would mean insurers being able to invest in demonstrably low-carbon financial products and services, based on real, hard data.

The current SERI launch partners are Aon, Arup, Agvesto, Bird & Bird, Brit Insurance, Dais LLP, Lloyd’s Register Group and the University of Cambridge.

The thinking behind the initiative is that as large catastrophic climate events occur with higher frequency, the UK’s insurance market is under pressure to evolve.

By creating the data platform, insurers can invest in low-carbon financial products, rather than ignore them because they can’t be priced right.

Starks says: “The time for theory is over—we need rapid and meaningful action. The threat of climate change to the global economy is tangible, and the increase in catastrophic climate events is capable of bankrupting markets and even nation-states. We are already witnessing insurance in some areas becoming untenable – which is a genuine threat to communities and wider society.”

He adds: “We are working with some of the most influential organizations in the world to plan policies and regulation to protect citizens, our environment and our economy; to unlock the power of unused and underutilized data to enable governments and business to respond effectively, responsibly and sustainably to the threats posed by the climate emergency.”

Arup, the multinational professional services firm best known for large engineering projects, is one of those in the SERI consortium.

Volker Buscher, Chief Data Officer at Arup, says: “Responding to climate change and futureproofing the market is vital – and working with Gavin and senior industry figures is a big opportunity to make real-world data work harder, to evolve investment strategies, shine a light on inefficiencies and better understand risk. It’s of benefit to everyone that we create the working blueprint for the freer sharing and licensing of data-at-scale that can be a shot in the arm to climate-affected financial products and services.”

Icebreaker One plans to overcome the locked, legacy culture of the insurance industry.

The task ahead is a big one. Currently, the valuable data needed to unlock this potential is in lately closed-off “data lakes”. The goal is to influence $3.6 trillion of investment.

If the insurance industry can innovate around climate change and the new kinds of risk it creates, then the financial world industry can create the kind of boom Open Banking did.

And that would mean not just brand new insurance products but also new startups in what’s been described as “InsureTech”.

But the greater prize, is of course the planet itself.

Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

By Ingrid Lunden

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which at this stage of funding puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called VaultOS, a platform that contains a range of banking services — they include current/checking accounts; savings accounts; loans; credit cards and mortgages — that Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

It’s not the only company providing a platform for banking services that are in turn

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scaleup with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”

SpaceX wins the $117 million launch contract to explore Psyche’s heavy metal asteroid

By Jonathan Shieber

SpaceX has won the launch contract for NASA’s 2022 mission to explore the mineral-rich asteroid known as Psyche, the space agency announced today, including launch services and other mission-related costs valued at $117 million — remarkably low for a mission of this scale.

The Psyche mission will use a Falcon Heavy rocket, which will launch from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the Psyche asteroid is made of the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet and represents a fragment of one of the earliest building blocks of our solar system.

NASA is hoping that the exploration of Psyche will yield clues about the history of the evolution of terrestrial planets through the examination of Psyche’s own proto-planetary material.

The space agency’s Psyche mission includes two secondary payloads: The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, which will study the atmosphere on Mars, and the Janus mission, which will study binary asteroids.

NASA said its Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service and that the mission is led by Arizona State University .

“With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us,” said principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, in a statement when NASA announced that it was approving the mission.

Pasadena, Calif.’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be the overall manager for the mission, including system engineering, integration, testing and mission operations. The spacecraft’s propulsion chassis is a high-power solar electric rig provided by Maxar Space Solutions.

This announcement clears the way for Phases D, E, and F of the Psyche mission — the final official phases before launch.

As we wrote last year:

Phase D will begin in early 2021, and includes the final manufacturing and testing of the spacecraft along with the planned launch in early 2022.

Phase E will happen as soon as Psyche’s exploratory craft hits the vacuum of space, NASA said. It’ll cover the deep space operations of the mission and the collection of data for science. NASA expects Psyche will arrive at its eponymous asteroid on January 31, 2026 after buzzing Mars in 2023 (two years before Elon Musk  predicted the first human astronauts would arrive).

Instruments on the Psyche craft will include a magnetometer designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. A multi-spectral imager will be on board to provide high-resolution images to determine the composition of the asteroid (how much is metal versus how much is a silicate). The craft will also include a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to detect, measure and map the asteroid’s elemental composition, and a new laser technology that’s designed for deep space communications.

Google, Toyota invest in WhereIsMyTransport to map transport in emerging cities

By Mike Butcher

In emerging markets, up to 80% of the population may have to rely on informally-run public transport to get around. Literally, privately-run buses and cars. But journey-planning apps that work well for commuters in developed markets like New York or London do not work well in emerging markets, which is why you can’t just flip open an app like Citymapper in Lagos, Nigeria. Furthermore, mobility is a fundamental driver of social, political, and economic growth and if you cannot get around then you can’t grow as a country. So it’s pretty important for these emerging economies.

WhereIsMyTransport specialises in mapping these formal and informal public transport networks in emerging markets. They have mapped 34 cities in Africa and are mapping cities in India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Its integrated mobility API includes proprietary algorithms, features, and capabilities designed for complex transit networks in these emerging markets.

It’s now raised a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Liil Ventures, that also includes returning investors Global Innovation Fund and Goodwell Investments, plus new strategic investment from Google, Nedbank, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC).

The platform now has more than 750,000 km of routes in 39 cities and the new strategic investment will drive further international expansion.

Devin de Vries, said: “We make the invisible visible, by collecting all kinds of data related to public transport and turning the data into information that can be shared with the people who need it most. In emerging markets, the mobility ecosystem is complex; informal public transport doesn’t behave like formal public transport. Data and technology solutions that work well in London or San Francisco wouldn’t make anything like the same impact, if any at all, in the cities where we work. Our solutions are designed specifically to overcome these contextual challenges.”

Mr. Masato Yamanami, Automotive Division’s CEO of Toyota Tsusho Corporation. “Our division’s global network, that covers 146 countries, is primarily focused on new emerging countries where people rely on informal public transport. Through strategic collaboration with WhereIsMyTransport, we will establish better and more efficient mobility services that help to resolve social challenges and contribute to the overall economic development of nations, primarily emerging nations.”

Alix Peterson Zwane, Chief Executive Officer, Global Innovation Fund said: “Informal and often unreliable mass transit is a significant problem that disproportionately affects poor people. We are excited to continue to work with WhereIsMyTransport to make mass transportation in emerging cities more accessible and more efficient.”

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