In the time of COVID-19, much of what transpires from the science world to the general public relates to the virus, and understandably so. But other domains, even within medical research, are still active — and as usual, there are tons of interesting (and heartening) stories out there that shouldn’t be lost in the furious activity of coronavirus coverage. This last week brought good news for several medical conditions as well as some innovations that could improve weather reporting and maybe save a few lives in Cambodia.
Arrhythmia is a relatively common condition in which the heart beats at an abnormal rate, causing a variety of effects, including, potentially, death. Detecting it is done using an electrocardiogram, and while the technique is sound and widely used, it has its limitations: first, it relies heavily on an expert interpreting the signal, and second, even an expert’s diagnosis doesn’t give a good idea of what the issue looks like in that particular heart. Knowing exactly where the flaw is makes treatment much easier.
Ultrasound is used for internal imaging in lots of ways, but two recent studies establish it as perhaps the next major step in arrhythmia treatment. Researchers at Columbia University used a form of ultrasound monitoring called Electromechanical Wave Imaging to create 3D animations of the patient’s heart as it beat, which helped specialists predict 96% of arrhythmia locations compared with 71% when using the ECG. The two could be used together to provide a more accurate picture of the heart’s condition before undergoing treatment.
Another approach from Stanford applies deep learning techniques to ultrasound imagery and shows that an AI agent can recognize the parts of the heart and record the efficiency with which it is moving blood with accuracy comparable to experts. As with other medical imagery AIs, this isn’t about replacing a doctor but augmenting them; an automated system can help triage and prioritize effectively, suggest things the doctor might have missed or provide an impartial concurrence with their opinion. The code and data set of EchoNet are available for download and inspection.
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There are a few online productivity stocks booming, and a few popular remote-first product companies still announcing funding rounds amid a huge new wave of unicorn layoffs. But what about the previously white-hot software-as-a-service category overall?
Pullbacks in spending are expected in general, obviously, which means higher churn and slower growth for major SaaS companies. An informal peer survey put together by Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta indicates that many leading execs in the space expect churn to head to double digits in the near future, Alex Wilhelm learned while researching the topic this week for Extra Crunch.
But, the effects of so much of the world going remote could end up still being a bigger lift for many companies large and small. George Kurtz, CEO of publicly traded cybersecurity company Crowdstrike, expects global growth as mainstream businesses everywhere get serious about remote for the first time.
Meanwhile, fresh index data from Profitwell seems to already show a bit of a rebound in subscriptions following weeks of drops, which Alex digs into separately. It’s probably too soon to be hopeful, but anecdotally Extra Crunch’s own growth has gotten back to its previously strong footing in the last few weeks (thanks for the support, everyone).
He also caught up with Mary D’Onofrio, an investor with Bessemer Venture Partners about how to value a startup during a downturn. She also pointed out that many of the losses you’re seeing are relative. “We’re just reverting back to historical cloud software multiples. Historically if you look at the emerging cloud index basket, it’s traded at seven times forward [revenue]. Right now we’re trading at eight times forward [revenue].” At least for many companies in the space, things are still not so bad.
We’ve been writing a daily-ish series of articles about the state of startup investing in the face of COVID-19. First up, Danny Crichton breaks down “the denominator effect” on TechCrunch, where a limited partner is required through their own funding agreements to allocate a mix of equities beyond startups and rebalance based on the circumstances. When the other portions lose too much (such as, say, public stocks), LPs then have to pull back on the amount of money they can have in venture capital firms… thereby leaving those firms short of money for startups. Where is this going? “If the markets happen to rapidly recover, they might quickly reopen their investments in VC and other alternative assets,” Danny writes. “But if the markets stay sour for longer, then expect further downward gravitational pull on the VC asset class as portfolio managers reset their portfolios to where they need them. It’s the tyranny of fifth grade mathematics and a complex financial system.”
How can venture firms navigate this daunting terrain? Connie Loizos checks in for TechCrunch with Aydin Senkut of Felicis Ventures (“now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a firm launched), Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures (find some family offices who are going to be less orthodox in general and potentially less affected) and Eva Ho of Fika Ventures (don’t get discouraged, but use the additional challenge to really reflect about this career choice).
Check out additional coverage over on Extra Crunch, including a quick survey of other investors about their approaches, an interview with a venture debt lender, and a look at the trends in funding going back to last year.
Why is TikTok able to dominate the charts in the face of giant competitors? As millions sit at home using the app, Josh Constine dives into why it is likely to continue beating incumbent consumer products from companies like Alphabet and Facebook (or consumer startups). It’s what he calls the “content network effect,” as he detailed on TechCrunch:
Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way. What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks and Recreation led to people lip syncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.
Healthtech in the time of COVID-19
While most people reading this newsletter have probably been experiencing the worldwide remote-first switch, an equally momentous set of changes are sweeping health care as medical systems try to get a grip on the pandemic. We had just published a big survey of leading digital health investors in December, but now is the time for an update. We checked in with:
Here’s CRV’s Spohn, summing the situation up nicely: “COVID-19 is driving opportunities, notably the rapid adoption of telehealth/virtual care by clinicians and patients, clinical trials in the cloud, as well as renewed focus on rapid point-of-care diagnostics. With virtual care, we’re seeing a decade of acceleration happening in a matter of weeks. Up until this point, there has been high-activation energy to conduct a first “eVisit” because the alternative (in-person care) was so well-established and largely available.”
How are you holding up? Are you keeping up? And most importantly, are you hydrating yourself? There’s so much news lately that we’re all falling a bit behind, but, hey, that’s what Equity is for. So, Natasha, Danny, and Alex got together to go over a number of the biggest stories in the worlds of private companies.
A warning before we get into the list, however. We’re going to be covering layoffs for a while. Don’t read more into that beyond a note to this unfortunate situation. We try to talk about the most important news, not what brings delight or joy to our hearts (because if that was the case, we would be all over mega-rounds). That in mind, here’s this week’s rundown….
It’s no secret that adaptability has become a critical trait for knowledge workers. To stay on top of a rapidly evolving world, we must assess new situations, make intelligent decisions and implement them effectively.
A 2014 research report by Barclays indicated that 60% of employers say adaptability has become more important during the last decade, and BBC called adaptability the “X factor” for career success in an era of technological change.
But even the most intrepid executive, entrepreneur or freelancer would be forgiven for struggling to adapt to a global pandemic. The impact of coronavirus has been unrelenting: hospitals at capacity, students sent home, conference cancellations, sold out inventory, markets in free fall and cities under lockdown.
Not just start-ups. Every big company, every nonprofit, every government organization, and most people too
— Bob Sutton (@work_matters) March 16, 2020
This moment requires us to learn new skills, develop new habits and let go of old ways of working. In the book “Range,” there’s a chapter about “dropping familiar tools” that details how experienced professionals will overlearn specific behavior and then fail to adapt to a new circumstance. This mentality affected everyone from firefighters to aviation crews to NASA engineers, often with deadly results, and underscores how hard it can be to adapt to change.
To help us cultivate adaptability in this unprecedented moment, I sought answers in unexpected places. Here’s what I learned.
Adaptability is required first and foremost when circumstances change. It’s easy to get attached to certain outcomes, especially when they’ve been planned long in advance or have significant emotional weight.
Due to coronavirus, a couple I know is postponing their wedding originally set for April. Having tied the knot only a year ago myself, I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be for them. But it was the right decision; demanding that the show go on would have been dangerous for their families, friends and the public at large.
I recently spoke with my friend Belinda Ju, an executive coach with a longstanding meditation practice. Non-attachment is a core concept of Buddhism, the spiritual path she’s followed for many years, and I wanted her thoughts on how that idea might help us adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
“Attachment doesn’t work because certainty doesn’t work. You can’t predict the future,” she explained. Being attached to something means “seeing the world through a false lens. Nothing is fixed.” For Ju and her clients, non-attachment doesn’t mean giving up on goals — it means focusing on what you can control.
“You might have a fixed goal of needing to raise X million dollars to keep your team afloat,” she said. “But in the age of coronavirus, investors might be slower to respond. So what are the levers in your control? What are the options you have and the pros and cons to each one?”
Her points hit home for me. As a NYC-based startup founder, I was preparing to make several trips to the West Coast to raise the next round for my company, Midgame, a digital party host for gamers.
I like pitching in person, but that’s obviously not going to happen, so I need to embrace video calls as my new reality. By doing that, I can get to stocking up on coffee, cleaning up my work space and setting up a microphone so when I do pitch over video, I’m bringing my A game.
Another way to think about adaptability is that it’s the ability to improvise. In theater, improv performers can’t rely on prewritten lines, and have to react in real time to suggestions from the audience or the words and actions of their scene partners.
“ ‘Playing the scene you’re in’ is a principle from improv which means to be present to the situation you’re in.”
That’s what Mary Lemmer told me. As an entrepreneur and VC who spent a stint at The Second City improv theater in Chicago, Lemmer knows a thing or two about having to adapt. Today, she brings her insights to corporations through training and workshops.
She explained that as an improv performer, you may start a scene with a certain idea in mind of how it will go, but that can quickly change. “If you’re not present,” she said, “then you’re not actively listening and because there’s no script, you’ll miss details. That’s when scenes fall apart.”
When I was a PM at Etsy and we had a major launch, we’d get engineering, dev ops, product, marketing and customer support together in a room to talk through the final event sequencing. These weren’t always the most exciting meetings and it was easy to get distracted by email or chat. One time engineering announced a significant last-minute issue that almost slipped through the cracks. Luckily, someone piped up with a clarifying question and we were all able to work together to minimize the issue.
Lemmer argues that in improv, like in business, you can’t make assumptions about people or situations. “We see this a lot in board meetings. People start to assume ‘Sally’ will always be the proactive one or ‘Jim’ will always be the naysayer and tune out.”
This is kind of attitude is problematic in a stable environment, but downright dangerous in an unstable situation where new data and events can quickly open up a new set of challenges and opportunities.
Early on, some experts thought the coronavirus crisis would stabilize globally by April. In early February, S&P Global stated that in the “worst-case scenario,” the virus would be contained by late May. A month later, that prediction already looked wildly optimistic.
Experts are saying now that cases may peak in May or June, which means everyone should be hunkering down for eight or more weeks of social distancing and isolation. A COVID-19 vaccine just started human trials, but testing in large enough sample sizes to identify side effects and then ramping up large-scale production still might not be fully available for more than a year.
In other words, dealing with this virus is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A marathon no one signed up for.
Someone who knows a lot about this topic is Jason Fitzgerald. A 2:39 marathoner, Fitzgerald now helps people run faster and healthier as an author and coach.
When we spoke over the phone, he pointed out that running, unlike say basketball or gymnastics, is a sport where “you have to voluntarily want to experience more and more discomfort.”
Fitzgerald calls this ability to endure “mental toughness,” and it’s a skill we all can build. For runners, it requires doing workouts that scare them, putting in mileage that’s higher than they have in the past and racing regularly. It’s also about accepting and even embracing the pain of running hard.
The same is true for adaptation. We can train ourselves to respond better to change (we’re all getting lots of practice right now!), but developing new habits and working in new ways is always uncomfortable. As decorated cyclist Greg LeMond once said, “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”
We also have to recognize that we won’t get it right every time. “The more that we get comfortable with poor performances, the more we can learn from them,” Fitzgerald said, noting that he’s had his share of bad races, including failing to finish an ultramarathon in 2015. “Sometimes you dwell on a bad race for a couple days, but then you have to just forget about it and move on with your training.”
Many of us are reeling from more cancellations, suspensions and complete one-eighties in the last month than in the last five years. But we can’t let ourselves stay bogged down by our feelings of frustration or disappointment. We accept our new reality, learn what we can from it, and keep going.
It’s clear that the people who can let go of their past plans and embrace the new environment ahead will thrive. Already we’re seeing companies pivot from live events to online webinars, and remote-first workplaces becoming the new normal. Shares of Zoom have risen even as the stock market has taken a beating and I’m sure other winners will emerge in the coming weeks and months.
But adaptability doesn’t just matter for individuals or even companies, it matters for governments. For China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, thanks to aggressive testing and quarantining efforts, life is returning, somewhat, to normal. New cases are on the decline and there’s hope of life returning to normalcy in the near future. Countries that bungled their response to the disease progression, including Italy, Spain, the U.K. and the United States, are now facing increasingly dire consequences.
Whether you want to survive a global pandemic, reach the next phase in your career or be selected on a mission to Mars, it’s hard to overstate the importance of adaptability in getting there.
Sick of sharing those generic Zoom video call invites that all look the same? Wish your Zoom link preview’s headline and image actually described your meeting? Want to protect your Zoom calls from trolls by making attendees RSVP to get your link? ZmURL.com has you covered.
Launching today, ZmURL is a free tool that lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, and image that will show up when you share the link on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. zmurl also lets you require that attendees RSVP by entering their email address so can decide who to approve and provide with the actual entry link. That could stop Zoombombers from harassing your call with offensive screenshared imagery, profanity, or worse.
“We built zmurl.com to make it easier for people to stay physically distant but socially close” co-founder Victor Pontis tells me. “We’re hoping to give event organizers the tools to preserve in-person communities while we are all under quarantine.”
Zoom wasn’t built for open public discussions. But with people trapped inside by coronavirus, its daily user count has spiked from 10 million to 200 million. That’s led to new use cases from cocktail parties to roundtable discussions to AA meetings to school classes.
That’s unfortunately spawned new problems like “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors tracking down public Zoom calls and bombarding them with abuse. Since then, the FBI has issued a warning about Zoombombing, the New York Times has written multiple articles about the issue, and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has apologized.
Yet Zoom has been slow to adapt it features as it struggles not to buckle under its sudden scale. While it’s turned on waiting rooms and host-only screensharing by default for usage in schools, most people are still vulnerable due to Zoom’s permissive settings and reused URLs that were designed for only trusted enterprise meetings. Only today did Zoom concede to shifting the balance further from convenience to safety, turning on waiting rooms by default and requiring passwords for entry by Meeting ID.
Meanwhile, social networks have become a sea of indistinguishable Zoom links that all show the same blue and white logo in the preview with no information on what the call is about. That makes it a lot tougher to promote calls, which many musicians, fitness instructors, and event producers are relying on to drive donations or payments while their work is disrupted by quarantines.
ZmURL’s founders during their only in-person meeting ever
Luckily, Pontis and his co-founder Danqing Liu are here to help with zmurl. The two software engineers fittingly met over Zoom a year ago and have only met once in person. Pontis, now in San Francisco, had started bike and scooter rental software companies Spring and Scooter Map. Liu, from Beijing but now holed up in New York, had spent five years at Google, Uber, and PlanGrid before selling his machine learning tool TinyMind.
The idea for ZmURL stemmed from Danqin missing multiple Zoom events he’d wanted to attend. Then a friend of Pontis was laid off from their yoga instructor job, and they and their colleagues were scrambling to market and earn money from hosting their own classes over Zoom. The duo quickly built a beta with zero money raised and tested it with some yoga gurus who found it simplified promoting events and gathering RSVPs. “We’re all going through a tough time right now. We see zmurl as our opportunity to help” Pontis tells me.
To use the tool, you generate a generic meeting link from Zoom like zoom.us/ji/1231231232 and then punch it into ZmURL. You can upload an image or choose from stock photos and color gradients. Then you name you event, give it a description, and set the time and date. You’ll get a shorter URL like https://zmurl.com/smy5m or you can give it a custom one like zmurl.com/quidditch.
When you share that URL, it’ll show your image, headline, and description in the link preview on chat apps, social networks and more. Attendees who click will be shown a nicely rendered event page with the link to enter the Zoom call and the option to add it to their calendar. You can try it out here, zmurl.com/aloha, as the startup is hosting a happy hour today at 6pm Pacific.
Optionally, you can set your ZmURL calls to require an RSVP. In that case, people who click your link have to submit their email address. The host can then sift through the RSVPs and choose who to email back the link to join the call. If you see an RSVP from someone you don’t recognize, just ignore it to keep Zoombombers from slipping inside.
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any other tools for customizing Zoom call links. Zoom paid enterprise customers can only set up a image and logo-equipped landing page for their whole company’s Zoom account, not for specific calls. For now, ZmURL is completely free. But the co-founders are building out an option for hosting paid events that collect entry fees on the RSVP site while ZmURL takes a 5% cut.
Next, ZmURL wants to add the ability to link your Zoom account to its site so you can spawn call links without leaving. It’s also building out always-on call rooms, recurring events, organizer home pages for promoting all their calls, an option to add events to a public directory, email marketing tools, and integrations with other video call platforms like Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime.
Pontis says the biggest challenge will be learning to translate more of the magic and business potential off offline events into the world of video calling. There’s also the risk that Zoom will try to intercede and force ZmURL to desist. But it shouldn’t, at least until Zoom builds all these features itself. Or it should just acquire ZmURL.
We’re dealing with an unprecedented behavior shift due to shelter-in-place orders that threaten to cripple the world economy and drive many of us crazy. Whether for fostering human connection or keeping event businesses afloat, Zoom has become a critical utility. It should accept all the help it can get.
As of this writing, nearly a million people globally have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 50,322 have died. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, consumers and profiteers are hoarding supplies and some service workers have launched strikes while many others have been let go. In the world of micromobility, we’ve seen Bird lay off hundreds of employees and Lime is reportedly gearing up for layoffs of its own.
Ride Report creates software that enables cities to better work with micromobility operators and has a bird’s-eye view on the industry. In a conversation with TechCrunch, CEO William Henderson outlined some of the trends that have emerged and what we can expect for micromobility operators amid the pandemic — and once it’s over.
“All of this came at a really hard time for micromobility,” he tells TechCrunch. “It couldn’t really have occurred at a worse time in some ways.”
That’s because there was already a lot of pressure on startups in the space to reach profitability on an accelerated timeline, Henderson says. While winter is notoriously known as a rough time, the environment in this pandemic is “micromobility winter on steroids.”
Over the last month, companies have paused operations in cities and started laying off people. Operators Bird and Lime, for example, paused operations across the board last month.
The world’s population is aging, but the needs of elderly people are still being underserved. A United Nations report found that older people make up more than one-fifth of the population in 17 countries, and by 2100, a majority of the world’s population, or 61%, will be aged 60 and above.
One of the most urgent needs for families is caregiving, with demand outstripping the pool of qualified providers. This means many people in their thirties and forties are now part of the “sandwich generation,” juggling jobs and child care while looking after elderly relatives. This creates both an opportunity and challenge for tech startups and investors in almost every market around the world.
In Southeast Asia, Homage is addressing the issue with a platform that takes a curated approach to pairing caregivers and families, using a combination of in-person screening and its matching engine to make the process more efficient. Currently operating in Singapore and Malaysia, the startup announced earlier this year that it will use its Series B funding to expand into five new countries in the region.
Backed by investors, including HealthXCapital, Golden Gate Ventures and EV Ventures, Homage was co-founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Gillian Tee, who grew up in Singapore and was inspired by her family’s own experiences looking for caregivers. Tee says she wanted to build a platform that would make the process of matching caregivers and clients easier, and be scalable into different markets.
“It’s not the easiest space to be in, and I would say that you do need to want to be intentionally working in this space, rather than just falling into it. It goes hand in hand,” she told TechCrunch. “We found that there is a huge market opportunity, but why we’re doing it goes way beyond that.”
The German pension and insurance industry was a laggard in the world of online a few years ago, but in recent times it has quickly caught up. There’s further evidence of this trend with the news that Xpension (trading as xbAV), an online platform for pensions and life insurance, has raised €25 million in its Series C financing round. This will take its total funding to date to more than €50 million.
The financing round was led by HPE Growth, a growth capital fund. Existing investors Cinco Capital, led by Lars Hinrichs (founder of XING and chairman of Xpension), and Armada Investment, led by Daniel S. Aegerter (founder of Tradex) also participated.
The new funding will be used to scale up Xpension’s corporate pension and life insurance SaaS platform in Germany; expand the offering into private pensions and life insurance and corporate health insurance; and prepare a rollout into other European countries. The company has also launched a video platform for agents to speak to clients, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To date, Xpension has attracted more than 40 life insurers, 11,000 insurance agents and 3,000 SMEs onto its platform.
Martin Bockelmann, CEO & Founder commented: “After several years of intensive R&D and broad-based user acquisition, this partnership with HPE Growth allows us to unleash the full potential of our platform in Germany and abroad.”
Tim van Delden, Partner at HPE Growth, said: “The move online of the €2.5 trillion global pension and life insurance industry is a huge topic. A SaaS platform like Xpension – which connects life insurers, agents and their corporate and private customers to buy and manage policies – will be a game-changer.”
Speaking to TechCrunch, Hinrichs, the active Chariman and largest private shareholder, said: “We target not just occupational pensions but the entire segment, which is worth 700 billion Euros in premiums a year. German pensions are the leading pensions segment in Europe. And we are taking advantage of the recent changes in pension policy.”
It would appear that Xpension is in a strong position to potentially open up to end-consumers who don’t have pensions at some point, as have similar US platforms, or even to leverage its position to build its own insurance company at some point.
Bustle Digital Group, owner of a portfolio of digital media properties including Bustle itself, says it laid off two dozen staffers today. That includes eliminating the entire staff of The Outline, a culture site that it acquired a year ago.
In a statement, a BDG spokesperson said the company will continue to host The Outline’s archives, and that founder Josh Topolsky will be “exploring alternative path’s forward” for its future.
“The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has forced us to make some tough business decisions,” a BDG spokesperson said. “Most staff will be taking temporary tiered salary reductions and unfortunately, we have eliminated two dozen positions across the company.”
Topolsky (former editor in chief of Engadget and founder of The Verge) founded The Outline in 2016. The site shifted its publication model over time, laying off its writers while maintaining an editorial team that continued to publish freelance content. It was then acquired by Bustle, and Topolsky went on to launch the tech news site Input under the BDG umbrella.
i’ve been at @outline since before it began. editing it was the best job, and with the best team. hire them, give them money, have them write and edit for you: @jeremypgordon @brandyljensen @drewmillard @nkulw @shujaxhaider @rachelmillman
— Leah Finnegan (@leahfinnegan) April 3, 2020
“[I] am tremendously proud of all the weird, funny, interesting, and brilliant stuff we put into the universe, and all the talented writers we were able to publish,” The Outline’s executive editor Leah Finnegan tweeted this morning. “[T]hank you for reading, and [I] hope you will remember what we did fondly.”
BDG, meanwhile, was founded by CEO Bryan Goldberg (pictured above) in 2013. In the past few years, it hasn’t just acquired The Outline, but also Elite Daily, Mic, Nylon and Gawker. In many cases, the deals came after layoffs or other turmoil.
We’re entering what’s likely to be a brutal few months (or longer) for the media industry, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic pullback in advertising. The layoffs have already started, while BuzzFeed is trying to avoid them by cutting employee pay.
OctoML, a startup founded by the team behind the Apache TVM machine learning compiler stack project, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A round led by Amplify, with participation from Madrone Ventures, which led its $3.9 million seed round. The core idea behind OctoML and TVM is to use machine learning to optimize machine learning models so they can more efficiently run on different types of hardware.
“There’s been quite a bit of progress in creating machine learning models,” OctoML CEO and University of Washington professor Luis Ceze told me.” But a lot of the pain has moved to once you have a model, how do you actually make good use of it in the edge and in the clouds?”
That’s where the TVM project comes in, which was launched by Ceze and his collaborators at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It’s now an Apache incubating project and because it’s seen quite a bit of usage and support from major companies like AWS, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, Xilinx and others, the team decided to form a commercial venture around it, which became OctoML. Today, even Amazon Alexa’s wake word detection is powered by TVM.
Ceze described TVM as a modern operating system for machine learning models. “A machine learning model is not code, it doesn’t have instructions, it has numbers that describe its statistical modeling,” he said. “There’s quite a few challenges in making it run efficiently on a given hardware platform because there’s literally billions and billions of ways in which you can map a model to specific hardware targets. Picking the right one that performs well is a significant task that typically requires human intuition.”
And that’s where OctoML and its “Octomizer” SaaS product, which it also announced, today come in. Users can upload their model to the service and it will automatically optimize, benchmark and package it for the hardware you specify and in the format you want. For more advanced users, there’s also the option to add the service’s API to their CI/CD pipelines. These optimized models run significantly faster because they can now fully leverage the hardware they run on, but what many businesses will maybe care about even more is that these more efficient models also cost them less to run in the cloud, or that they are able to use cheaper hardware with less performance to get the same results. For some use cases, TVM already results in 80x performance gains.
Currently, the OctoML team consists of about 20 engineers. With this new funding, the company plans to expand its team. Those hires will mostly be engineers, but Ceze also stressed that he wants to hire an evangelist, which makes sense, given the company’s open-source heritage. He also noted that while the Octomizer is a good start, the real goal here is to build a more fully featured MLOps platform. “OctoML’s mission is to build the world’s best platform that automates MLOps,” he said.
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
This morning brought fresh economic bad news for the US economy, with over 700,000 jobs lost in the latest report, despite the window of time measured not including some of March’s worst days, and the data itself not counting as many individuals as it might have; the unemployment rate still rose nearly a full point to 4.4%. The barometer generally expected to rise far higher in a month’s time.
Rising unemployment, markets in bear territory, shocking weekly unemployment claims, and some major states just starting lockdowns paint the picture of protracted downturn that has swamped our national and state-led economic response. Some help is coming, but individual payments are probably too small and too late. And a key program aimed at helping small businesses is rife with operational mistakes that will at least delay rollout.
It’s an economic catastrophe, and one that won’t lead to anything like a V-shaped recovery, the vaunted shape that everyone holding equities through the crisis was hoping for. We’re entering a prolonged slump. Precisely how bad isn’t yet known, yes, but it’s going to be bad, with unemployment staying elevated into 2021.
The impacts of the national economic slowdown are going to change the face of venture capital as we’ve come to know it during the last ten years. How so? Let’s talk about it.
After picking through some COVID-19-focused PitchBook data this morning, it’s clear that the era of founder friendly venture terms is heading for a reset. Even more, recent economic and market data, TechCrunch research and select trends already in motion help paint a picture of a changed startup reality.
So this morning let’s talk about what is coming up for the world of upstart companies and risk embracing capital.
Neil Sequeira was a managing director with General Catalyst for more than 13 years before co-founding early-stage firm Defy several years ago with another veteran of the industry, Trae Vassallo, who’d spent the dozen years prior with Kleiner Perkins.
We caught up with Sequeira yesterday afternoon and discussed whether he’s seeing valuations come down and whether he can imagine funding founders who may have an exciting pitch but is unable to meet in-person due to the pandemic.
Our chat has been edited for length.
TechCrunch: How are you, all things considered?
Neil Sequeira: We’ve been pretty busy at home. Obviously, my kids are home, homeschooling and my amazing wife is with them.
At work, we’ve been really busy. We have multiple term sheets out that we’ve done since the stay-at-home order [in the Bay Area] and I actually live within walking distance of my office, where I’m alone but it ends up being like a home office because it’s so close. And it’s great because my kids have been going bonkers.
How are your companies faring?
Forward Partners, the early-stage venture fund and startup studio, has long offered something a little different to the U.K’s tech startup ecosystem, and today the VC is continuing that trend with the launch of “Forward Advances,” a revenue-based finance solution for startups that need to bolster marketing.
Aimed at “fast-growing” e-commerce, marketplace and B2C SaaS businesses, Forward Advances will provide growth capital to startups in return for a 6% flat fee, with repayments taken as a small percentage of monthly revenue.
“Unlike traditional venture capital or standard bank loans, a Forward Advance unlocks a novel way for founders to finance their marketing spend without giving up equity, or having to commit to personal warranties,” explains Forward.
Crucially, this sees repayments structured as a percentage of revenues, meaning that companies won’t be required to make large repayments during tough economic times i.e. slower months mean smaller payments.
In addition to the loan, Forward Partners says founders will have access its startup studio team, comprising product and growth specialists that can offer hands-on expertise and help accelerate their growth. The idea is that alongside capital, Forward Advances will provide insight into how the marketing cash is best deployed to make the most difference.
Forward Partners’ Luke Smith is leading Forward Advances, and says that customer research carried out by the VC revealed that raising capital to invest in marketing is often difficult. “Founders find it lengthy, costly, dilutive, stressful or a combination of all four,” he says. One way to remedy this is by combining “flexible funding” with in-house growth specialists, which is exactly what Forward Partners is doing.
Which brings us to the current Coronavirus pandemic and resulting slowdown and certainty, leading me to ask if there could be a worse time to launch a revenue-based finance product?
‘This is definitely a hard time for a lot of e-commerce and marketplace companies, particularly those in sectors that have been hit hard by COVID-19 disruption such as travel or events and we’ve sadly had to turn down some companies in those spaces,” says Smith.
“However, we’ve seen that a number of sectors such as household goods, gaming or edtech are showing strong growth. We will focus on sectors that are positively impacted or unaffected by the disruption for the next few months and then broaden our sector focus as the market improves. With VC funding expected to pull back, we expect that a lot of companies with strong fundamentals will need cash to fund growth”.
More broadly, Smith underlines that Forward Advances is focusing on companies with “strong fundamentals”. This sees the VC look at cash flow as part of the decision making process and will only make advances to companies that it believes will be able to repay the loan. “That said, the loans are unsecured so we can’t be sure we will get our money back and if companies revenues fall to zero we don’t get repaid,” he explains.
Asked why more VCs don’t offer this kind of product, Smith says that despite making lots of risky investments, the VC industry is generally “very conservative” when it comes to its own business model. “Forward Partners has always been a little different, first by building our studio team that offers a level of support to our portfolio not seen at other VC funds, and now by launching Forward Advances,” he adds. “We see ourselves as a service provider to entrepreneurs and plan to keep broadening the range of services that we offer”.
Lunar, the Nordic challenger bank that started out life as a personal finance manager app (PFM) but since acquired a full banking license last year, has extended it Series B round with an additional €20 million in funding. It brings the Series B total to €46 million, having disclosed €26 million in August last year.
The Series B extension is led by Seed Capital, with participation from Greyhound, Socii, and Augustinus. In addition, I’m told that David Helgason, founder of Unity Technologies, has joined the round.
The mobile-only bank is also announcing that Ole Mahrt, Monzo’s former head of product from 2015-2019, is joining the company’s board of directors. The other non-executive board seats are held by Henning Kruse Pedersen, former CEO of Nykredit, Tuva Palm, former CTO at Nordnet Bank and Director at Klarna, Gary Bramall, CMO of Zoopla, and Lars Andersen, general partner at Seed Capital.
Having acquired a banking license, Lunar launched its new bank in March, which it says it built from scratch. Accounts are offered for free, alongside a subscription-based service Lunar Premium. In the coming months, the challenger bank says it plans to launch other new financial products including credit facilities, loans and “sustainability driven services,” in a bit to become a fully-fledged alternative to incumbent banks in the Nordics.
Lunar also offers “Lunar Business,” catering for small business banking, including accounting software integrations, loans, and more.
“We are pleased to extend our latest funding round and bolster Lunar’s pan-Nordic play,” says Ken Villum Klausen, founder and CEO of Lunar. “We have a vertical strategy focusing only on the Nordics, allowing us to go deep into the defensive banking infrastructure”.
Meanwhile, Lunar claims more than 150,000 users in the Nordics. The bank has offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and currently has just over 120 employees.
Flagship Pioneering, the Boston-based biotech company incubator and holding company, said it has raised $1.1 billion for its Flagship Labs unit.
Flagship, which raised $1 billion back in 2019 for growth-stage investment vehicles, develops and operates startups that leverage biotechnology innovation to provide goods and services that improve human health and promote sustainable industries.
“We’re honored to have the strong support of our existing Limited Partners, as well as the interest from a select group of new Limited Partners, to support Flagship’s unique form of company origination during this time of unprecedented economic uncertainty,” said Noubar Afeyan, the founder and chief executive of Flagship Pioneering, in a statement.
In addition to its previous focus on health and sustainability, Flagship will use the new funds to focus on new medicines, artificial intelligence and “health security”, which the company says is “designed to create a range of products and therapies to improve societal health defenses by treating pre-disease states before they escalate,” according to Afeyan.
Flagship companies are already on the forefront of the healthcare industry’s efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Portfolio company Moderna is one of the companies leading efforts to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19.
In the 20 years since its launch, Flagship has 15 wholly owned companies and another 26 growth stage companies among its portfolio of investments.
New companies include: Senda Biosciences, Generate Biomedicines, Tessera Therapeutics, Cellarity, Cygnal Therapeutics, Ring Therapeutics, and Integral Health. Growth Companies developed or backed by Flagship include Ohana Biosciences, Kintai Therapeutics, and Repertoire Immune Medicines.
Two of the companies in the Flagship Labs portfolio have already had initial public offerings in the past two years, the company said. Kaleido Biosciences and Axcella Health raised public capital in 2019 and Moderna Therapeutics conducted a $575 million secondary offering earlier this year.
Computer vision techniques used for commercial purposes are turning out to be valuable tools for monitoring people’s behavior during the present pandemic. Zensors, a startup that uses machine learning to track things like restaurant occupancy, lines, and so on, is making its platform available for free to airports and other places desperate to take systematic measures against infection.
The company, founded two years ago but covered by TechCrunch in 2016, was among the early adopters of computer vision as a means to extract value from things like security camera feeds. It may seem obvious now that cameras covering a restaurant can and should count open tables and track that data over time, but a few years ago it wasn’t so easy to come up with or accomplish that.
Since then Zensors has built a suite of tools tailored to specific businesses and spaces, like airports, offices, and retail environments. They can count open and occupied seats, spot trash, estimate lines, and all that kind of thing. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of data that managers of these spaces are now very interested in watching closely given the present social distancing measures.
Zensors co-founder Anuraag Jain told Carnegie Mellon University — which the company was spun out of — that it had received a number of inquiries from the likes of airpots regarding applying the technology to public health considerations.
Software that counts how many people are in line can be easily adapted to, for example, estimate how close people are standing and send an alert if too many people are congregating or passing through a small space.
“Rather than profiting off them, we thought we would give our help for free,” said Jain. And so, for the next two months at least, Zensors is providing its platform for free to “selected entities who are on the forefront of responding to this crisis, including our airport clients.”
The system has already been augmented to answer COVID-19-specific questions like whether there are too many people in a given area, when a surface was last cleaned and whether cleaning should be expedited, and how many of a given group are wearing face masks.
Airports surely track some of this information already, but perhaps in a much less structured way. Using a system like this could be helpful for maintaining cleanliness and reducing risk, and no doubt Zensors hopes that having had a taste via what amounts to a free trial, some of these users will become paying clients. Interested parties should get in touch with Zensors via its usual contact page.
Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically for curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.
The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing — in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person — at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.
The hardware includes passive GPS location tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide-band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.
These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.
Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.
“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this — we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.
“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.
Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone — something Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.
And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.
“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”
With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.
What do you do if you’re an event discovery startup and suddenly it’s illegal to attend events? You lean into the cultural shift and pivot. Today, $11 million-funded calendar app IRL is morphing from In Real Life to In Remote Life. It will now focus on helping people find, RSVP for, plan, share, and chat about virtual events from livestreamed concerts to esports tournaments to Zoom cocktail parties.
Coronavirus could make IRL relevant to a wider audience because before an event “only mattered if it was around you. But now with In Remote Life, content has no geographical limitations” says IRL co-founder and CEO Abe Shafi. “The need is exponentially greater because everyone’s routines have been shattered.” IRL ranked #138 in US App Store today, making it the top calendar app, even above Google’s (#168).
IRL has some fresh product development talent to lead it through the transition. The startup has hired stock trading app Robinhood’s VP of Product Josh Elman . The former Greylock investor is well known for his product chops from jobs at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Elman joined Robinhood in early 2018 but left late last year, notably before its rash of recent outages that enraged users.
“I just realized more than anything that the company needed people who had 110% to give, and it wasn’t clear that was going to be me” Elman said of Robinhood, now valued at $7.6 billion and struggling to scale. “My first passions and all the things I’ve talked about over the years have been social and media.”
For now, IRL is a part time gig where he’ll be heading up a Secret Projects division. While most apps “try to suck more of our time”, he sees IRL as a chance to give this precious resource back to people. Though he insists “Robinhood’s great I’m a very happy shareholder.
“We were on a tear, hitting a stride with usaging and growth related to real life events” says Shafi. “Then this happened”, motioning on our Zoom call to the COVID-19 reality we’re now stuck in. “We realized we had to pull all of our content because it wasn’t happening.”
Today IRL’s iOS app launches a redesign of its Discover homescreen content to center on virtual events people can attend from home. There’s now tabs for gaming, podcasts, TV, and EDU, as well as music, food, lifestyle, and a catch-all ‘fun’ section. Each event can be added to your calendar that syncs with Google Cal, or Liked to add it to your profile that friends and fans can follow. You can also instantly launch a group chat about the event in IRL, or share it to Instagram Stories or another messaging app.
If you can’t find something public to do, you can make plans with friends using the composer with suggestions like “Let’s video chat”, “Zoom workout”, “gaming sesh”, or “Netflix party”. That instantly sets up a calendar event you can invite people to. And if you’re not sure when you want to host, IRL’s “soon” option lets you keep the schedule vague so you and friends can figure out when everyone’s available. 50% of IRL plans start out as “Soon” Shafi reveals, identifying a gap in rigid time/date calendars.
Beyond individual events, IRL also wants to make it easier to develop habits by letting you subscribe to workout, meditation, and other schedules. With sports seasons suspended, IRL lets people sync with calendars of hip-hop album releases and more instead. Or you can subscribe to an influencer’s life and digitally accompany them to events. The goal is that IRL will be able to merge offline events back into its content recommendations as social distancing subsides.
The biggest challenge for IRL will be tuning its event recommendation algorithm. It’s lost a lot of the traditional relevance signals about events like how close they are to your home, how much they cost, or if they’re even in your city. Transitioning to In Remote Life means a global range of happenings is now available to everyone, and since they’re often free to host, many lonely low-quality events have sprung up. That makes it much tougher for IRL to determine what to show.
For now, it’s basing recommendations on what you engage with most on its homescreen, but I found that can make the initial experience very hit-or-miss. The top events in each category were rarely exciting. But IRL is planning to beef up its onboarding process to ask about your interests, and integrate with Spotify so it knows which musicians’ online concerts you’d want to attend.
Still, Shafi thinks IRL is already better than asocial alternatives. “Our main age range is 13 to 25, college and post-college metropolitan areas and across college campuses. Our average user has never used a calendar before, or they’re just used a default calendar like Gcal or iCal.
Hopefully, IRL will take a more serious swing at helping friends realize they’re free at the same time and can hang out. While Down To Lunch failed in this space, now Facebook Messenger and Instagram are exploring it with their auto-status feature, and location apps like Snap Map and Zenly could adapt to share not just where you are, but if you have the intention to hang out.
“How can we use just a little bit of nudging, transparency or suggestion to get people to just do one more thing per month?” Shafi asks. IRL is trying to figure out how to let you passively share that “I have 2 hours free” in a way that “never makes you feel rejected if they don’t respond.”
Facebook did launch a standalone Events calendar app back in 2016, but later paired down the calendaring features, folded it in with restaurant recommendations and renamed it Local. “As big as Facebook is, it can only do so many things insanely well” Elman says of his old employer. “They could do more [on Events], but it’s never been the juggernaut like photos.”
Shafi is happy to have the opportunity in such a foundational space. He describes the concept of the calendar as one he’s sure will outlive him, so it’s worth the effort to make it social no matter how long it takes — though I’m sure his investors like Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, and Floodgate hope it’ll find a way to monetize eventually.
Revenue could come in the form of selling access to events through the app, or letting promoters and local businesses pay for enhanced discovery. For now, though, IRL is building a deeper connection with event and content publishers with the upcoming launch of its free Add To Calendar button they can build into their sites and emails. Elman says several services charge for these buttons that integrate with Apple and Google’s calendars, but IRL hopes giving them away will help fill its app with things to do, whatever that might be.
“Our tagline is ‘live your best life’. It’s not judgmental. If your best life is playing video games on your couch with your homies, we don’t judge you for that.”
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.
The global coronavirus pandemic has already caused a tremendous strain on healthcare resources around the world, and it’s leading to a shift in how healthcare is offered. Startup Forward, which debuted in 2016 and has since expanded its tech-focused primary care medical practice to locations in major cities across the U.S., is launching a new initiative called ‘Forward At Home’ that reflects those changes and adapts its care model accordingly.
Forward’s primary differentiator is its focus on what it terms a patient’s ‘baseline,’ which is established by an in-person visit they make when they join that employs a body scanner at a doctor’s office to take a number of readings and produce an interactive chart displayed on-screen in the doctor’s exam room. Forward founder and CEO Adrian Aoun, who previously led special projects at Google before building the health tech company, said that as the company has ramped its efforts to support patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through in-clinic and drive-through testing, it also wanted to address the ongoing need for care for non-COVID patients.
“If people aren’t leaving their homes, and frankly, you don’t really want them to leave their homes unless you need them to, you have to figure out how to do all that remotely,” Aoun said in an interview, referring to Forward’s comprehensive biometric data gathering process. “So we’ve we’ve implemented a bunch of different things as rapidly as possible. The first is, how do we collect some biometrics – so we put together a kit that has a bunch of sensors in it that we actually mail to you. This includes an EKG, a connected thermometer, connected blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter.”
This approach provides a whole new level of remote care, over and above what’s typically defined as “telemedicine,” which generally amounts to little more than video calls with doctors, Aoun points out. Forward’s approach includes automated vitals monitoring for alerting a doctor if a patient needs intervention, and a patient has access to all their own data in the app as well. The Forward At Home product also take their exam room smart display and brings it to their mobile devices, presenting it for shared consultation between doctor and patient during viral visits, which are available 24/7 to Forward members.
At launch, the service also includes home visits to collect urine and blood samples, as an added measure designed specifically to help patients adhere to CDC and health agency guidelines around self-isolation while also getting a detailed and thorough level of care. Aoun says that this part of the offering doesn’t make sense at scale, and will likely revert to in-clinic visits once the COVID-19 crisis passes.
The rest of the model, though spurred into deployment because of the coronavirus conditions, and the need to limit the number of people going in to medical facilities and hospital all across the country unless they absolutely need to, is here to stay, however. Aoun says that Forward’s goal has always been to address the need for tech-friendly, advanced and comprehensive primary care for everyone, but that it took an approach similar to Tesla’s by addressing the top end of the market first in order to be able to fund development of more broadly available services later on.
Meanwhile, the need to shift as much care as possible to in-home is pressing, and evidence from countries around the world is increasingly pointing to how important that is to stopping the spread.
“The big thing to flatten the curve, the whole point of it, is that the hospitals are going to be overrun,” Aoun said. “So you want to take as many cases as you can, where they don’t actually have to be in the ICU, and treat them outside of the ICU – that’s your first principle. Then your second principle is, and China kind of discovered this early […] they started moving to getting people out of the hospitals, as much as possible for a second reason, which is not that the hospitals are overloaded, but that the hospitals are one of the fastest ways to spread COVID-19.”
That’s a perspective also supported by lessons shared from Italian medical professionals in their effort to deal with the COVID-19 situation there, which has essentially decimated large parts of their medical facility infrastructure.
Forward is also still continuing the other work it’s doing to address COVID-19 needs, including providing its risk assessment screening tool to all, as well as offering testing via clinics and drive-throughs to members, as well as mental health support. It’s also looking to expand its drive-through testing to new sites across the U.S. The Forward At Home initiative, meanwhile, will help ensure that clients who have other pressing health needs aren’t left behind while the effort to combat COVID-19 continues.
Celularity, the venture-backed developer of novel cell therapies for cancer treatments, has received an initial clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to begin early-stage clinical trials on a potential treatment for COVID-19.
The company, which has raised at least $290 million to date (according to Crunchbase), uses “Natural Killer” (NK) cell therapies to boost the immune system’s disease-fighting response.
For Celularity, those NK cells are derived from stem cells cultivated from placental tissue, which hospitals typically treat as medical waste.
Backed by the venture investment firm Section 32, and strategic investors including Celgene, now a division of Bristol Myers; United Therapeutics, a biomedical technology developer; Human Longevity, the troubled venture-backed startup founded by J. Craig Venter; and Sorrento Therapeutics, a publicly traded biomedical company, Celularity was pursuing a number of applications of the novel cell therapy, but its initial focus was on cancer treatments.
The real breakthrough for the company, and one of the reasons it has attracted so much capital, is that its cell therapies don’t need to be cultivated from a patient donor — a lengthy and expensive process. Celularity is able to produce NK cells and store them, so that they can be ready for transfusion when they’re needed.
With the the FDA’s clearance, Celularity is going to begin a small, 86-person trial to test the efficacy of its CYNK-001 immunotherapy to treat COVID-19 infected adults, the company said.
There are at least two studies underway in China that are also testing whether Natural Killer cells can be used to treat COVID-19.
NK cells are a type of white blood cell that are part of the body’s immune system. Unlike t-cells, which target particular pathogens, NK cells typically work to support the immune system by identifying and destroying cells in the body that appear to be stressed, either from an infection or a mutation.
The therapy seems to be successful in treating certain types of cancer, and the company’s researchers speculate that it can provide similar results in stopping the ability of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 to spread throughout the body.
However, there are some potential roadblocks and risks to pursuing the NK therapy. Chiefly, COVID-19 is deadly in part because it can push the immune system into overdrive. The “cytokine storm” that results from the infection means that the body starts attacking healthy cells in the lungs, which leads to organ failure and death. If that’s the case, then boosting the immune response to COVID-19 might be dangerous for patients.
There’s also the possibility that NK cells might not be able to detect which cells are infected with the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, rendering the therapy ineffective.
“Studies have established that there is robust activation of NK cells during viral infection regardless of the virus class,” said Celularity’s chief scientific officer, Xiaokui Zhang, in a statement. “These functions suggest that CYNK-001 could provide a benefit to COVID-19 patients in terms of limiting SARS-CoV-2 replication and disease progression by eliminating the infected cells.”