Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.
China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.
The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.
A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.
It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.
As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.
For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.
Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”
These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues.
While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.
Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”
Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.
The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.
Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.
In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.
Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.
“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”
This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.
Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.
In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.
In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.
This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.
Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”
(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)
The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.
A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /
Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.
You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.
Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.
** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.
Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.
FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.
Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.
TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.
Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’
All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”
On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.
Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.
As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.
Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.
Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.
Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.
Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.
By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.
In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.
Over the previous two or three years we’ve seen an explosion of new debit and credit card products come to market from consumer and B2B fintech startups, as well as companies that we might not traditionally think of as players in the financial services industry.
On the consumer side, that means companies like Venmo or PayPal offering debit cards as a new way for users to spend funds in their accounts. In the B2B space, the availability of corporate card issuing by startups like Brex and Ramp has ushered in new expense and spend management options. And then there is the growth of branded credit and debit cards among brands and sports teams.
But if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users.
To learn more about launching a card product, TechCrunch spoke with executives from Marqeta, Expensify, Synctera and Cardless about the pros and cons of launching a card product. So without further ado, here are all the reasons you should think about doing so, and one big reason why you might not want to.
Probably the biggest reason we’ve seen so many new fintech and non-fintech companies rush to offer debit and credit cards to customers is simply that it’s easier than ever for them to do so. The launch and success of businesses like Marqeta has made card issuance by API developer friendly, which lowered the barrier to entry significantly over the last half-decade.
“The reason why this is happening is because the ‘fintech 1.0 infrastructure’ has succeeded,” Salman Syed, Marqeta’s SVP and GM of North America, said. “When you’ve got companies like [ours] out there, it’s just gotten a lot easier to be able to put a card product out.”
While noting that there have been good options for card issuance and payment processing for at least the last five or six years, Expensify Chief Operating Officer Anu Muralidharan said that a proliferation of technical resources for other pieces of fintech infrastructure has made the process of greenlighting a card offering much easier over the years.
HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.
Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.
Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.
The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.
Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.
“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.
In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.
HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said.
“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”
Image Credits: HomeLight
Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place.
In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.
Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.
“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”
He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”
Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.
Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.
“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”
HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months.
Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.
“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”
3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.
3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.
The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.
“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”
By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.
The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.
They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.
Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.
The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.
That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.
Image Credits: Astrobotic
“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.
Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.
Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.
Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.
The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.
Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.
Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.
“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”
While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.
The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.
The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.
Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.
“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions — more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”
Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.
The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.
The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.
And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.
It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.
In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.
Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.
South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.
And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)
Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.
One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.
As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.
The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:
“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”
Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.
The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.
Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.
“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”
Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.
Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”
The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.
Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.
“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.
Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.
Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.
Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.
The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.
“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”
Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.
“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”
Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.
Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.
The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.
By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.
But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida
As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.
Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.
While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.
Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works
So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)
Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.
JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.
It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).
Image Credits: App Annie
Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).
They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)
“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.
In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.
“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.
Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”
There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.
Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.
On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.
Image Credits: Mango Labs
Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.
What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.
The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”
And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.
Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.
Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.
Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.
On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.
Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.
(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)
Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.
Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”
JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.
— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021
But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.
Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.
As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.
It’s been a busy summer for Clubhouse. The hit social audio app rolled out new messaging features and an Android app over the last few months and now the company is turning its attention to enhancing its core audio experience. Clubhouse announced Sunday that its rooms will now be infused with spatial audio to give the app’s listeners a richer sense of hanging out live with a group of other people.
TechCrunch spoke with Clubhouse’s Justin Uberti about the decision to add spatial audio, which has the effect of making different speakers sound like they’re coming from different physical locations instead of just one spot.
Uberti joined Clubhouse in May as its head of streaming technology after more than a decade at Google where he created Google Duo, led the Hangouts team and most recently worked on Google’s cloud gaming platform Stadia. Uberti also created the WebRTC standard that Clubhouse was built on top of.
“One of the things you realize in these group audio settings is that you don’t get quite the same experience as being in a physical space,” Uberti said.
While Clubhouse and other voice chat apps bring people together in virtual social settings, the audio generally sounds relatively flat, like it’s emanating from a single central location. But at the in-person gatherings Clubhouse is meant to simulate, you’d be hearing audio from all around the room, from the left and right of a stage to the various locations in the audience where speakers might ask their questions.
To pull off the new audio tricks, Clubhouse is integrating an API from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale’s spatial audio company High Fidelity and blending it with the company’s own custom audio processing, tuned for the chat app.
High Fidelity’s HRTF technology, which stands for “Head Related Transfer Function,” maps speech to different virtual locations by subtly adding a time delay between stereo channels and replicating the way that high and low frequencies would sound entering the ear depending on a sound’s origin.
The result, long used in social VR, gives virtual social experiences a sense of physical presence that good records have been pulling off for ages. Think listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in stereo with good headphones but instead of sound effects and instruments playing around your head, you’re hearing the people you’re hanging out with arrayed in virtual space.
According to Uberti, Clubhouse’s implementation will be subtle, but noticeable. While the audio processing will “gently steer conversation” to put most speakers in front of the listener, Clubhouse users should have a new sense that people are speaking from different physical locations.
The new audio features will roll out Sunday to the majority of iOS users, reaching the rest of Clubhouse’s iOS and Android users within the next few weeks. The experience will be available to everyone in time, but users will also have the ability to toggle spatial audio off.
Clubhouse will use the same virtual soundstage techniques to give large rooms a sense of sounding large while making more intimate rooms sound like they’re actually happening in a smaller physical space. And because most people use headphones to participate on Clubhouse, most of the app’s users can benefit from the effects possible through two-channel stereo sound.
“You have this notion of people [being] in a space, in a room… We try to mimic the feel of how it would be in a circle with people standing around talking.”
Uberti also notes that spatial audio could give regular Clubhouse users a less obvious benefit. It’s possible that regular, non-spatialized audio in social apps contributes to the pandemic-era phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. As the human brain processes virtual audio like a phone call or group audio room, it differentiates between speakers in a different way than it would in a natural in-person setting.
“Your mind has to figure out who’s talking. Without spatial cues you have to use timbre… that requires more cognitive effort,” Uberti said. “This could actually make for a more enjoyable experience aside from more immersion.”
It’s too early to know how Clubhouse’s many subcommunities will take to the spatial audio effects, but it could enhance experiences like comedy, music and even ASMR on the app quite a bit.
“Someone tells a joke and it often feels really flat,” Uberti said. “But on Clubhouse, when you feel the laughter come from all around you, it feels a lot like a comedy club experience.”
In recent years, the private sector has been spurning proprietary software in favor of open source software and development approaches. For good reason: The open source avenue saves money and development time by using freely available components instead of writing new code, enables new applications to be deployed quickly and eliminates vendor lock-in.
The federal government has been slower to embrace open source, however. Efforts to change are complicated by the fact that many agencies employ large legacy IT infrastructure and systems to serve millions of people and are responsible for a plethora of sensitive data. Washington spends tens of billions every year on IT, but with each agency essentially acting as its own enterprise, decision-making is far more decentralized than it would be at, say, a large bank.
While the government has made a number of moves in a more open direction in recent years, the story of open source in federal IT has often seemed more about potential than reality.
But there are several indications that this is changing and that the government is reaching its own open source adoption tipping point. The costs of producing modern applications to serve increasingly digital-savvy citizens keep rising, and agencies are budget constrained to find ways to improve service while saving taxpayer dollars.
Sheer economics dictate an increased role for open source, as do a variety of other benefits. Because its source code is publicly available, open source software encourages continuous review by others outside the initial development team to promote increased software reliability and security, and code can be easily shared for reuse by other agencies.
Here are five signs I see that the U.S. government is increasingly rallying around open source.
Two initiatives have gone a long way toward helping agencies advance their open source journeys.
18F, a team within the General Services Administration that acts as consultancy to help other agencies build digital services, is an ardent open source backer. Its work has included developing a new application for accessing Federal Election Commission data, as well as software that has allowed the GSA to improve its contractor hiring process.
18F — short for GSA headquarters’ address of 1800 F St. — reflects the same grassroots ethos that helped spur open source’s emergence and momentum in the private sector. “The code we create belongs to the public as a part of the public domain,” the group says on its website.
Five years ago this August, the Obama administration introduced a new Federal Source Code Policy that called on every agency to adopt an open source approach, create a source code inventory, and publish at least 20% of written code as open source. The administration also launched Code.gov, giving agencies a place to locate open source solutions that other departments are already using.
The results have been mixed, however. Most agencies are now consistent with the federal policy’s goal, though many still have work to do in implementation, according to Code.gov’s tracker. And a report by a Code.gov staffer found that some agencies were embracing open source more than others.
Still, Code.gov says the growth of open source in the federal government has gone farther than initially estimated.
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that President Biden signed in early March 2021, contained $9 billion for the GSA’s Technology Modernization Fund, which finances new federal technology projects. In January, the White House said upgrading federal IT infrastructure and addressing recent breaches such as the SolarWinds hack was “an urgent national security issue that cannot wait.”
It’s fair to assume open source software will form the foundation of many of these efforts, because White House technology director David Recordon is a long-time open source advocate and once led Facebook’s open source projects.
Federal IT employees who spent much of their careers working on legacy systems are starting to retire, and their successors are younger people who came of age in an open source world and are comfortable with it.
About 81% of private sector hiring managers surveyed by the Linux Foundation said hiring open source talent is a priority and that they’re more likely than ever to seek out professionals with certifications. You can be sure the public sector is increasingly mirroring this trend as it recognizes a need for talent to support open source’s growing foothold.
By partnering with the right commercial open source vendor, agencies can drive down infrastructure costs and more efficiently manage their applications. For example, vendors have made great strides in addressing security requirements laid out by policies such as the Federal Security Security Modernization Act (FISMA), Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRamp), making it easy to deal with compliance.
In addition, some vendors offer powerful infrastructure automation tools and generous support packages, so federal agencies don’t have to go it alone as they accelerate their open source strategies. Linux distributions like Ubuntu provide a consistent developer experience from laptop/workstation to the cloud, and at the edge, for public clouds, containers, and physical and virtual infrastructure.
This makes application development a well-supported activity that includes 24/7 phone and web support, which provides access to world-class enterprise support teams through web portals, knowledge bases or via phone.
Whether it’s accommodating more employees working from home or meeting higher citizen demand for online services, COVID-19 has forced large swaths of the federal government to up their digital game. Open source allows legacy applications to be moved to the cloud, new applications to be developed more quickly, and IT infrastructures to adapt to rapidly changing demands.
As these signs show, the federal government continues to move rapidly from talk to action in adopting open source.
Who wins? Everyone!
Stonehenge Technology Labs wants consumer packaged goods companies to gain meaningful use from all of the data they collect. It announced $2 million in seed funding for its STOPWATCH commerce enhancement software.
The round was led by Irish Angels, with participation from Bread and Butter Ventures, Gaingels, Angeles Investors, Bonfire Ventures and Red Tail Venture Capital.
CEO Meagan Kinmonth Bowman founded the Arkansas-based company in 2019 after working at Hallmark, where she was tasked with the digital transformation of the company.
“This was not a consequence of them not being good marketers or connected to mom, but they didn’t have the technology to connect their back end with retailers like Amazon, Walmart or Hobby Lobby,” she told TechCrunch. “There are so many smart people building products to connect with consumers. The challenge is the big guys are doing things the same way and not thinking like the 13-year-olds on social media that are actually winning the space.”
Kinmonth Bowman and her team recognized that there was a missing middle layer connecting the world of dotcom with brick and mortar. If the middle layer could be applied to the enterprise resource plans and integrate public and private data feeds, a company could be just as profitable online as it could be in traditional retail, she said.
Stonehenge’s answer to that is STOPWATCH, which takes in over 100 million rows of data per workspace per day, analyzes the data points, adds real-time alerts and provides the right data to the right people at the right time.
Dan Rossignol, a B2B SaaS investor, said the CPG world is also about consumerizing our life, and the global pandemic showed that even at home, people could have a productive day and business. Rossignol likes to invest in underestimated founders and saw in Stonehenge a company that is getting CPGs out from underneath antiquated technologies.
“What Meagan and her team are doing is really interesting,” he added. “At this stage, it is all about the people, and the ability to bet on doing something larger.”
Kinmonth Bowman said she had the opportunity to base the company in Silicon Valley, but chose Bentonville, Arkansas instead to be closer to the more than 1,000 CPG companies based there that she felt were the prime customer base for STOPWATCH.
The platform was originally created as a subsidiary of a consulting company, but in 2018, one of their clients told them they just wanted the software rather than also paying for the consulting piece. The business was split, and Stonehenge went underground for eight months to make a software product specifically for the client.
Kinmonth Bowman admits the technology itself is not that sexy — it is using exact transfer loads to extract data from hundreds of systems into a “lake house,” and then siloing it by retailer and other factors and then presenting the data in different ways. For example, the CEO will want different metrics than product teams.
Over the past year, the company has doubled its revenue and also doubled the amount of contracts. It already counts multiple Fortune 100 companies and emerging brands as some of its early users and plans to use the new funding to hire a sales team and go after some strategic relationships.
Stonehenge is also working on putting together a diverse workforce that mimics the users of the software, Kinmonth Bowman said. One of the challenges has been to get unique talent to move to Arkansas, but she said it is one she is eager to take on.
Meanwhile, Brett Brohl, managing partner at Bread and Butter Ventures, said the Stonehenge team “is just crazy enough, smart and driven” to build something great.
“All of the biggest companies have been around for a long time, but not a lot of large organizations have done a good job digitizing their businesses,” he said. “Even pre-COVID, they were building fill-in-the-blank digital transformations, but COVID accelerated technology and hit a lot of companies in the face. That was made more obvious to end consumers, which puts more pressure on companies to understand the need, which is good for STOPWATCH. It went from paper to Excel spreadsheets to the next cloud modification. The time is right for the next leap and how to use data.”
“Even with its vast local talent, it seems Israel still has many hurdles to overcome in order to become a global fintech hub. [ … ] Having that said, I don’t believe any of these obstacles will prevent Israel from generating disruptive global fintech startups that will become game-changing businesses.”
I wrote that back in 2018, when I was determined to answer whether Israel had the potential to become a global fintech hub. Suffice to say, this prediction from three years ago has become a reality.
In 2019, Israeli fintech startups raised over $1.8 billion; in 2020, they were said to have raised $1.48 billion despite the pandemic. Just in the first quarter of 2021, Israeli fintech startups raised $1.1 billion, according to IVC Research Center and Meitar Law Offices.
It’s then no surprise that Israel now boasts over a dozen fintech unicorns in sectors such as payments, insurtech, lending, banking and more, some of which reached the desired status just in the beginning of 2021 — like Melio and Papaya Global, which raised $110 million and $100 million, respectively.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to invest (both as a venture capitalist and personally) in successful early-stage fintech companies in the U.S., Israel and emerging markets — Alloy, Eave, MoneyLion, Migo, Unit, AcroCharge and more.
The major shifts and growth of fintech globally over these years has been largely due to advanced AI-based technologies, heightened regulatory scrutiny, a more innovative and adaptive approach among financial institutions to build partnerships with fintechs, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, which forced consumers to transact digitally.
The pandemic pushed fintechs to become essential for business survival, acting as the main contributor of the rapid migration to digital payments.
So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond? Israeli founders first and foremost have brought to the table a distinct perspective and understanding of where the gaps exist within their respective focus industries — whether it was Hippo and Lemonade in the world of property and casualty insurance, Rapyd and Melio in the world of business-to-business payments, or Earnix and Personetics in the world of banking data and analytics.
This is even more compelling given that many of these Israeli founders did not grow within financial services, but rather recognized those gaps, built their know-how around the industry (in some cases by hiring or partnering with industry experts and advisers during their ideation phase, strengthening their knowledge and validation), then sought to build more innovative and customer-focused solutions than most financial institutions can offer.
Having this in mind, it is becoming clearer that the Israeli fintech industry has slowly transitioned into a mature ecosystem with a combination of local talent, which now has expertise from a multitude of local fintechs that have scaled to success; a more global network of banking and insurance partners that have recognized the Israeli fintech disruptors; and the smart fintech -focused venture capital to go along with it. It’s a combination that will continue to set up Israeli fintech founders for success.
In addition, a major contributor to the fintech industry comes from the technological side. It is never enough to reach unicorn status with just the tech on the back end.
What most likely differentiates Israeli fintech from other ecosystems is the strong technological barriers and infrastructure built from the ground up, which then, of course, leads to the ability to be more customized, compliant, secured, etc. If I had to bet on where I believe Israeli fintech startups could become market leaders, I’d go with the following.
Voice technologies have come a long way over the years; where once you knew you were talking to a robot, now financial institutions and applications offer a fully automated experience that sounds and feels just like a company employee.
Israel has shown growing success in the world of voice tech, with companies like Gong.io providing insights for remote sales teams; Bonobo (acquired by Salesforce) offering insights from customer support calls, texts and other interactions; and Voca.ai (acquired by Snapchat) offering an automated support agent to replace the huge costs of maintaining call centers.
BreezoMeter has been on a mission to make environmental health hazards accessible to as many people as possible. Through its air quality index (AQI) calculations, the Israel-based company can now identify the quality of air down to a few meters in dozens of countries. A partnership with Apple to include its data into the iOS Weather app along with its own popular apps delivers those metrics to hundreds of millions of users, and an API product allows companies to tap into its dataset for their own purposes.
Right on the heels of a $30 million Series C round a few weeks ago, the company is radially expanding its product from air quality into the real-time detection of wildfire perimeters with its new product, Wildfire Tracker.
The new product will take advantage of the company’s fusion of sensor data, satellite imagery, and local eyewitness reports to be able to identify the edges of wildfires in real-time. “People expect accurate wildfire information just as they expect accurate weather or humidity data,” Ran Korber, CEO and co-founder, said. “It has an immediate effect on their life.” He added further that BreezoMeter wants to “try to connect the dots between climate tech and human health.”
Fire danger zones will be indicated with polygonal boundaries marked in red, and as always, air quality data will be viewable in these zones and in surrounding areas.
BreezoMeter’s air quality maps can show the spread of wildfire pollution easily. Image Credits: BreezoMeter.
Korber emphasized that getting these perimeters accurate across dozens of countries was no easy feat. Sensors can be sparse, particularly in the forests where wildfires ignite. Meanwhile, satellite data that focuses on thermal imaging can be fooled. “We’re looking for abnormalities … many of the times you have these false positives,” Korber said. He gave an example of a large solar panel array which can look very hot with thermal sensors but obviously isn’t a fire.
The identified fire perimeters will be available for free to consumers on BreezoMeter’s air quality map website, and will shortly come to the company’s apps as well. Later this year, these perimeters will be available from the company’s APIs for commercial customers. Korber hopes the API endpoints will give companies like car manufacturers the ability to forewarn drivers that they are approaching a conflagration.
The new feature is just a continuation of BreezoMeter’s long-time expansion of its product. “When we started, it was just air quality … and only forecasting air pollution in Israel,” Korber said. “Almost every year since then, we expanded the product portfolio to new environmental hazards.” He pointed to the addition of pollen in 2018 and the increasingly global nature of the app.
Wildfire detection is an, ahem, hot area these days for VC investors. For example, Cornea is a startup focused on helping firefighters identify and mitigate blazes, while Perimeter wants to help identify boundaries of wildfires and give explicit evacuation instructions complete with maps. As Silicon Valley’s home state of California and much of the world increasingly become a tinderbox for fires, expect more investment and products to enter this area.
Cloud security startup Monad, which offers a platform for extracting and connecting data from various security tools, has launched from stealth with $17 million in Series A funding led by Index Ventures.
Monad was founded on the belief that enterprise cybersecurity is a growing data management challenge, as organizations try to understand and interpret the masses of information that’s siloed within disconnected logs and databases. Once an organization has extracted data from their security tools, Monad’s Security Data Platform enables them to centralize that data within a data warehouse of choice, and normalize and enrich the data so that security teams have the insights they need to secure their systems and data effectively.
“Security is fundamentally a big data problem,” said Christian Almenar, CEO and co-founder of Monad. “Customers are often unable to access their security data in the streamlined manner that DevOps and cloud engineering teams need to build their apps quickly while also addressing their most pressing security and compliance challenges. We founded Monad to solve this security data challenge and liberate customers’ security data from siloed tools to make it accessible via any data warehouse of choice.”
The startup’s Series A funding round, which was also backed by Sequoia Capital, brings its total amount of investment raised to $19 million and comes 12 months after its Sequoia-led seed round. The funds will enable Monad to scale its development efforts for its security data cloud platform, the startup said.
Monad was founded in May 2020 by security veterans Christian Almenar and Jacolon Walker. Almenar previously co-founded serverless security startup Intrinsic which was acquired by VMware in 2019, while Walker served as CISO and security engineer at OpenDoor, Collective Health, and Palantir.
Wildfires are burning in countries all around the world. California is dealing with some of the worst wildfires in its history (a superlative that I use essentially every year now) with the Caldor fire and others blazing in the state’s north. Meanwhile, Greece and other Mediterranean nations have been fighting fires for weeks to bring a number of massive blazes under control.
With the climate increasingly warming, millions of homes just in the United States alone are sitting in zones at high risk for wildfires. Insurance companies and governments are putting acute pressure on homeowners to invest more in defending their homes in what is typically dubbed “hardening,” or ensuring that if fires do arrive, a home has the best chance to survive and not spread the disaster further.
SF-based Firemaps has a bold vision for rapidly scaling up and solving the problem of home hardening by making a complicated and time-consuming process as simple as possible.
The company, which was founded just a few months ago (in March), sends out a crew with a drone to survey a homeowner’s house and property if it is in a high-risk fire zone. Within 20 minutes, the team will have generated a high-resolution 3D model of the property down to the centimeter. From there, hardening options are identified and bids are sent out to trade contractors to perform the work on the company’s marketplace.
Once the drone scans a house, Firemaps can create a full CAD model of the structure and the nearby property. Image Credits: Firemaps.
While early, it’s already gotten traction. In addition to hundreds of homeowners who have signed up on its website and a few dozen that have been scanned, Andrew Chen of a16z has led a $5.5 million seed round into the business (the Form D places the round sometime around April). Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Addition’s Lee Fixel also participated.
Firemaps is led by Jahan Khanna, who co-founded it along with his brother, who has a long-time background in civil engineering, and Rob Moran. Khanna was co-founder and CTO of early ridesharing startup Sidecar, where Moran joined as one of the company’s first employees. The trio spent cycles exploring how to work on climate problems, while staying focused on helping people in the here and now. “We have crossed certain thresholds [with the climate] and we need to get this problem under control,” Khanna said. “We are one part of the solution.”
Over the past few years Khanna and his brother explored opening a solar farm or a solar-powered home in California. “What was wild, whenever we talked to someone, is they said you cannot build anything in California since it will burn down,” Khanna said. “What is kind of the endgame of this?” As they explored fire hardening, they realized that millions of homeowners needed faster and cheaper options, and they needed them sooner rather than later.
While there are dozens of options to harden a home to fire, some popular options include constructing an ember-free zone within a few feet of a home, often by placing gravel made of granite on the ground, as well as ensuring that attic vents, gutters and siding are fireproof and can withstand high temperatures. These options can vary widely in cost, although some local and state governments have created reimbursement programs to allow homeowners to recoup at least some of the expenses of these improvements.
A Firemaps house in 3D model form with typical hardening options and associated prices. Image Credits: Firemaps.
The company’s business model is simple: vetted contractors pay Firemaps to be listed as an option on its platform. Khanna believes that because its drone offers a comprehensive model of a home, contractors will be able to bid for contracts without doing their own site visits. “These contractors are getting these shovel-ready projects, and their acquisition costs are basically zero,” Khanna said.
Long-term, “our operating hypothesis is that building a platform and building these models of homes is inherently valuable,” Khanna said. Right now, the company is launched in California, and the goal for the next year is to “get this model repeatable and scalable and that means doing hundreds of homes per week,” he said.
A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.
But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.
LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.
These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “Web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.
LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.
As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, AI, Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”
Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including chief product & innovation officer, corporate development officer and chief strategy officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also chief digital officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.
The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.
Image Credits: LOVE
Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today — in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.
To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.
“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.
LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.
As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to five call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.
Image Credits: LOVE
For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds, for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 languages.
“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.
The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.
For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.
The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”
“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”
LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store, where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles.
LOVE says its valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.
The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)
Just days after Elastic announced the acquisition of build.security, the company is making yet another security acquisition. As part of its second-quarter earnings announcement this afternoon, Elastic disclosed that it is acquiring Vancouver, Canada based security vendor CMD. Financial terms of the deal are not being publicly disclosed.
CMD‘s technology provides runtime security for cloud infrastructure, helping organizations gain better visibility into processes that are running. The startup was founded in 2016 and has raised $21.6 million in funding to date. The company’s last round was a $15 million Series B that was announced in 2019, led by GV.
Elastic CEO and co-founder Shay Banon told TechCrunch that his company will be welcoming the employees of CMD into his company, but did not disclose precisely how many would be coming over. CMD CEO and co-founder Santosh Krishan and his fellow co-founder Jake King will both be taking executive roles within Elastic.
Both build.security and CMD are set to become part of Elastic’s security organization. The two technologies will be integrated into the Elastic Stack platform that provides visibility into what an organization is running, as well as security insights to help limit risk. Elastic has been steadily growing its security capabilities in recent years, acquiring Endgame Security in 2019 for $234 million.
Banon explained that, as organizations increasingly move to the cloud and make use of Kubernetes, they are looking for more layers of introspection and protection for Linux. That’s where CMD’s technology comes in. CMD’s security service is built with an open source technology known as eBPF. With eBPF, it’s possible to hook into a Linux operating system for visibility and security control. Work is currently ongoing to extend eBPF for Windows workloads, as well.
CMD isn’t the only startup that has been building based on eBP. Isovalent, which announced a $29 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Google in November 2020, is also active in the space. The Linux Foundation also recently announced the creation of an eBPF Foundation, with the participation of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix and Isovalent.
Fundamentally, Banon sees a clear alignment between what CMD was building and what Elastic aims to deliver for its users.
“We have a saying at Elastic – while you observe, why not protect?” Banon said. “With CMD if you look at everything that they do, they also have this deep passion and belief that it starts with observability. “
It will take time for Elastic to integrate the CMD technology into the Elastic Stack, though it won’t be too long. Banon noted that one of the benefits of acquiring a startup is that it’s often easier to integrate than a larger, more established vendor.
“With all of these acquisitions that we make we spend time integrating them into a single product line,” Banon said.
That means Elastic needs to take the technology that other companies have built and fold it into its stack and that sometimes can take time, Banon explained. He noted that it took two years to integrate the Endgame technology after that acquisition.
“Typically that lends itself to us joining forces with smaller companies with really innovative technology that can be more easily taken and integrated into our stack,” Banon said.