FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Join us June 3 for a contact-tracing and exposure-notification app development and deployment forum

By Darrell Etherington

Exposure notification and contact tracing are two related but distinct measures many public health authorities are either considering or already implementing.

Contact tracing is a practice almost as old as epidemiology itself, but today’s technology means the way that we go about tracking the spread of a contagious illness within and between communities is changing very quickly. This presents an opportunity for learning more about the opportunities and challenges presented in extending contact tracing and exposure notification via digital means.

To that end, we’re happy to be working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host on TC to their live-streamed discussion around contact tracing and exposure notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks. The day’s events will include a roundtable discussion followed by a series of product demos, and will take place starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 3.

Below, we’ve included an agenda of the confirmed speakers and demonstrations for the day so far. Note that this is work in progress, and that more speakers and demos will be added to the day’s slate as we get closer to Wednesday. To RSVP for this free event, check out this link.

11am-1pm EDT: Roundtable Discussion – Hear from researchers, healthcare professionals, and technologists, including:

  • Andrew McLaughlin is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Andrew is the Chairman of Access Now, the former Deputy U.S. CTO for the White House, and the former Director of Global Public Policy at Google.
  • Daniel Burka is heading up the COVID-19 response efforts for New York State through Resolve to Save Lives, the not-for-profit organization led by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
  • Harper Reed is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Harper is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and was the CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
  • Jonathan Jackson is the Founder and CEO at Dimagi, a social enterprise that develops innovative technology solutions for frontline workforces and underserved populations. They have an extensive background in global health and are a leader in mobile health data collection.
  • Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science, and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Jonathan’s work focuses on topics including control of digital property, privacy frameworks, and the roles of intermediaries in Internet architecture.
  • Randall Thomas is assisting Resolve to Save Lives and other stakeholders with the New York State response to COVID-19. Randall is the CTO of Geometer, a technology incubator.
  • Mona Sloane is an NYU-based sociologist working on inequality in the context of AI design and policy. At NYU, she helps form NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, and is Co-Principal Investigator on the COVID-19 Tech Project. Mona also leads the project Terra Incognita: Mapping NYC’s New Digital Public Spaces in the COVID-19 Outbreak.

1pm-2pm EDT: Contact Tracing/Exposure Notification Product Demos – Leading organizations developing applications to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, primarily through contact tracing and exposure notification, will each demo their product. Teams include:

We’ll have a live stream available on June 3 so you can follow along, as mentioned, but you can also RSVP here to register your interest. It should be a day full of interesting, expert discussion of why there’s a need to extend contact tracing and exposure notification through connected and digital means, as well as the privacy, public health and policy implications such extension necessarily carries with it.

Tia Health gets over $24 million to build a network of holistic health clinics and virtual services for women

By Jonathan Shieber

Tia Health, the developer of a network of digital wellness apps, clinics and telehealth services designed to treat women’s health holistically, has raised $24.275 million in a new round of funding.

The company said the financing would support the expansion of its telehealth and clinical services to new markets, although co-founder and chief executive Carolyn Witte would not disclose, where, exactly those locations would be.

Co-founded initially as a text-based tool for women to communicate and receive advice on sexual health and wellness, Witte and her co-founder Felicity Yost always had bigger ambitions for their business.

Last year, Tia launched its first physical clinic in New York and now boasts a team of 15 physicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, therapists and other treatment providers. The support staff is what helps keeps cost down, according to Witte.

“We reduce the cost of care by 40% [and] we do that through collaborative care staffing. [That] leverages mid-level providers like nurse practitioners to deliver higher-touch care at lower cost,” she said. 

Tia closed its most recent round before shelter-in-place went into effect in New York on March 17, and since then worked hard to port its practices over to telehealth and virtual medicine, Witte said.

Two days later, Tia went live with telehealth services and the company’s membership of 3,000 women responded. Witte said roughly half of the company’s patients have used the company’s telehealth platform. Since Tia began as an app first before moving into physical care services, the progression was natural, said Witte. The COVID-19 epidemic just accelerated the timeline. “In the last 90 days close to 50% of Tia’s 3,000 members have engaged in chat or video,” Witte said. 

The move to telehealth also allowed Tia to take in more money for its services. With changes to regulation around what kinds of care delivery are covered, telehealth is one new way to make a lot of money that’s covered by insurance and not an elective decision for patients.

“That has allowed us to give our patients the ability to use their insurance for that virtual care and bill for those services,” Witte said of the regulatory changes. 

The staff at Tia consists not just of doctors and nurse practitioners (there are two of each), but also licensed clinical therapists that provide mental health services for Tia’s patient population too.

“Before COVID we surveyed our 3,000 patients in NY about what they want and mental health was the most requested service,” said Witte. “We saw a 400% increase in mental health-related messages on my platform. We rolled out this behavioral health and clinical program paired with our primary care.”

As Tia continues to expand the services it offers to its patients, the next piece of the puzzle to provide a complete offering for women’s health is pregnancy planning and fertility, according to Witte.

The company sees itself as part of a movement to repackage a healthcare industry that has concentrated on treating specific illnesses rather than patient populations that have unique profiles and care needs.

Rather than focusing on a condition or medical specialization like cardiology, gastroenterology, gynecology or endocrinology, the new healthcare system treats cohorts or groups of people — those over 65, adult men and women, as groups with their own specific needs that cross these specializations and require different types of care.

We are really focused on collecting longitudinal data to better understand and treat women’s health,” said Witte. “A stepping stone in that regard is expanding our service line to support the pregnancy journey.” 

Tia’s latest round was led by new investor Threshold Ventures, with participation from Acme Ventures (also a new backer) and previous investors, including Define Homebrew, Compound and John Doerr, the longtime managing partner at KPCB.

When the company launched, its stated mission was to use women’s data to improve women’s health.

“We believe reproductive-aged women deserve a similar focus, and a new model of care designed end-to-end, just for us,” the company said in a statement

As Tia continues to stress, women have been “under-researched and underserved by a healthcare system that continues to treat us as ‘small men with different parts’ — all-too-often neglecting the complex interplay of hormones, gene regulation, metabolism and other sex-specific differences that make female health fundamentally distinct from male health. It’s time for that to change.”

But Tia won’t be changing anything on the research front anytime soon. The company is not pursuing any clinical trials or publishing any research around how the ways in which women’s menstrual cycles may affect outcomes or influence other systems, according to Witte. Rather the company is using that information in its treatment of individual patients, she said.

The company did just hire a head of research — an expert in reproductive genomics, which Witte said was to start to understand how the company can build out proof points around how Tia’s care model can improve outcomes. 

Tia will reopen its brick-and-mortar clinic in New York on June 1 and will be expanding to new locations over the course of the year. That expansion may involve partnerships with corporations or existing healthcare providers, the company said.

“By partnering with leading health systems, employers, and provider networks to scale our Connected Care Platform, and open new physical and digital Tia doors, we can make ‘the Tia Way’ the new standard of care for women and providers everywhere,” Tia said in a statement.

As it does so, the company said it will continue to emphasize its holistic approach to women’s health.

As the company’s founders write:

Being a healthy woman is all-too-often reduced to not having an STD or an abnormal Pap, but we know that the leading cause of death for women in America is cardiovascular disease. We also know that women are diagnosed with anxiety and depression at twice the rate of men, and that endocrine and autoimmune disorders are on the rise. In pregnancy, c-section and preterm birth rates continue to go up instead of down, as does maternal mortality, with the U.S. reporting more maternal deaths than any developed country in the world.

We believe that the solution is a preventive “whole women’s health” model…

Omidyar-backed Spero Ventures invests in Mexico City’s Mati, a startup pitching ID-verification

By Jonathan Shieber

Spero Ventures, the venture capital firm backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has gone to Mexico City for its latest investment, backing the identity verification technology developer Mati.

Launched in San Francisco, the two co-founders Filip Victor and Amaury Soviche, decided to relocate to Mexico because of its proximity to big, untapped markets in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.

“After developing the technology in San Francisco, we chose to start commercially in Latin America. It has been the perfect petri dish for us: the markets here, especially in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, are very exciting. These countries have the highest payments fraud rates in the world, which makes their identity issues the most interesting,” said Victor in a statement.

The rise of a new generation of fintech startup across Latin America creates a unique opportunity for Mati in a number of markets — and so does a new generation of financial services regulations, the company said. “We view the fintech regulations sweeping across LatAm as an opportunity to help a lot of promising fintechs and marketplaces get to the next level”, Victor said.

Already working across three countries, with operations in Mexico City, St. Petersburg, and San Francisco, Mati is an example of the global scope that even very early stage companies can now achieve.

Identity verification is at the core of much of the modern gig economy and much of the social networking defining life during a pandemic.

The company said it will use the capital investment — it would not disclose the amount of money it raised — to continue product development and expand its geographic footprint.

The scope of the identity verification problem is what brought Spero to the table to discuss an investment, according to a statement from Shripriya Mahesh, the founding partner at Spero.

“For us, identity is foundational to scaling the vast array of gig economy, fintech, social, and commerce platforms that represent our collective future of work,” Mahesh said. “The ability to have safe and trusted interactions at an unprecedented scale, especially with people in places where national identity infrastructure is limited, will create opportunities and global connections we can’t yet even forecast.”

Scale AI releases free lidar data set to power self-driving car development

By Kirsten Korosec

High-quality data is the fuel that powers AI algorithms. Without a continual flow of labeled data, bottlenecks can occur and the algorithm will slowly get worse and add risk to the system.

It’s why labeled data is so critical for companies like Zoox, Cruise and Waymo, which use it to train machine learning models to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles. That need is what led to the creation of Scale AI, a startup that uses software and people to process and label image, lidar and map data for companies building machine learning algorithms. Companies working on autonomous vehicle technology make up a large swath of Scale’s customer base, although its platform is also used by Airbnb, Pinterest and OpenAI, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, or even halted, that flow of data as AV companies suspended testing on public roads — the means of collecting billions of images. Scale is hoping to turn the tap back on, and for free.

The company, in collaboration with lidar manufacturer Hesai, launched this week an open-source data set called PandaSet that can be used for training machine learning models for autonomous driving. The data set, which is free and licensed for academic and commercial use, includes data collected using Hesai’s forward-facing PandarGT lidar with image-like resolution, as well as its mechanical spinning lidar known as Pandar64. The data was collected while driving urban areas in San Francisco and Silicon Valley before officials issued stay-at-home orders in the area, according to the company.

“AI and machine learning are incredible technologies with an incredible potential for impact, but also a huge pain in the ass,” Scale CEO and co-founder Alexandr Wang told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “Machine learning is definitely a garbage in, garbage out kind of framework — you really need high-quality data to be able to power these algorithms. It’s why we built Scale and it’s also why we’re using this data set today to help drive forward the industry with an open-source perspective.”

The goal with this lidar data set was to give free access to a dense and content-rich data set, which Wang said was achieved by using two kinds of lidars in complex urban environments filled with cars, bikes, traffic lights and pedestrians.

“The Zoox and the Cruises of the world will often talk about how battle-tested their systems are in these dense urban environments,” Wang said. “We wanted to really expose that to the whole community.”

Lidar - Scale AI PandaSet flyover GIF

Image Credits: Scale AI

The data set includes more than 48,000 camera images and 16,000 lidar sweeps — more than 100 scenes of 8s each, according to the company. It also includes 28 annotation classes for each scene and 37 semantic segmentation labels for most scenes. Traditional cuboid labeling, those little boxes placed around a bike or car, for instance, can’t adequately identify all of the lidar data. So, Scale uses a point cloud segmentation tool to precisely annotate complex objects like rain.

Open sourcing AV data isn’t entirely new. Last year, Aptiv and Scale released nuScenes, a large-scale data set from an autonomous vehicle sensor suite. Argo AI, Cruise and Waymo were among a number of AV companies that have also released data to researchers. Argo AI released curated data along with high-definition maps, while Cruise shared a data visualization tool it created called Webviz that takes raw data collected from all the sensors on a robot and turns that binary code into visuals.

Scale’s efforts are a bit different; for instance, Wang said the license to use this data set doesn’t have any restrictions.

“There’s a big need right now and a continual need for high-quality labeled data,” Wang said. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles overcome when building self-driving systems. We want to democratize access to this data, especially at a time when a lot of the self-driving companies can’t collect it.”

That doesn’t mean Scale is going to suddenly give away all of its data. It is, after all a for-profit enterprise. But it’s already considering collecting and open sourcing fresher data later this year.

Fitbit launches a COVID-19 early detection study, and you can join from the Fitbit app

By Darrell Etherington

Fitbit’s activity-tracking wearable devices are already being used by a number of academic institutions to determine if they might be able to contribute to the early detection of COVID-19 and the flu, and now Fitbit itself is launching its own dedicated Fitbit COVID-19 Study, which users can sign up for from within their Fitbit mobile app.

The study will help the company figure out if it can successfully develop an algorithm to accurately detect a COVID-19 infection before the onset of systems. In order to gather the data needed to see if they can do this, Fitbit is asking users in either the U.S. or Canada who have either had or currently have a confirmed case of COVID-19, or flu-like symptoms that might be an indicator of an undiagnosed case, to answer some questions in order to contribute to its research.

The answer to these questions from participants will be paired with data gathered via their Fitbit to help identify any patterns that could potentially provide an early warning about someone falling ill. Pre-symptomatic detection could have a number of benefits, mostly obviously in ensuring that an individual is then able to self-isolate more quickly and prevent them from infecting others.

Early detection could also have advantages in terms of treatment, allowing health practitioners to intervene earlier and potentially prevent the worst of the symptoms of the infection. Depending on what treatments ultimately emerge, early detection could have a big impact on their efficacy.

Fitbit is asking those who would take part in the study to answer questions about whether or not they have or have expressed COVID-19 or flu, its symptoms, as well as other demographic and medical history info. Participation in the study is voluntary, in case you’re not comfortable sharing that info, and once in, participants can decided to withdraw whenever they want.

COVID-19 early detection could be a big help in any safe, actually practical return-to-work strategy for reopening the economy. It could also serve as a means of expanding diagnosis in combination with testing, depending on how accurate it’s found to be across these studies, and with what devices. A confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis doesn’t actually have to mean a test result; it could be a physician’s assessment based on a number of factors, including biometric data nd symptom expression. Depending on what a comprehensive mitigation strategy ends up looking like, that could play a much bigger role in assessing the scale and spread of COVID-19 in future, especially as we learn more about it.

Mapbox and SoftBank form joint venture to provide mapping tech to Japanese developers

By Catherine Shu

SoftBank Corp. and Mapbox, the mapping data company that competes with Google and Here, announced that they have established a joint venture called Mapbox Japan.

The JV will provide Mapbox’s mapping platform, including APIs and data services, to developers in Japan. Between June 1 and September 30, Mapbox Japan will also provide up to three months of free support for organizations building COVID-19 related mapping services, including infection cases and statistical data, for developers in the country, which has relied on tracking virus clusters to limit the spread of infections.

Mapbox collects data from sources including government and commercial databases, and uses them in customizable AI-based APIs, SDKs and other products. Its clients have included Facebook, Snap, the New York Times, the Federal Communications Commission and automotive companies like Land Rover and Rimac.

Founded in 2010 by Eric Gunderson, Mapbox says its tech now reaches more than 600 million monthly users. SoftBank Vision Fund led Mapbox’s $164 million Series C in 2017. At the time, Gunderson told TechCrunch that part of the funding would be used to expand in Asia through SoftBank’s presence in regions including Southeast Asia and China.

Mapbox has operated in Japan since July 2019, though that was through partnerships with Yahoo! Japan and Zenrin, one of the country’s biggest mapping software companies. Zenrin also has a partnership with Google Maps, but early last year Google began reducing the amount of mapping data it uses from Zenrin, possibly to focus on building its own trove of mapping data in Japan.

Working closely with Zenrin opens potential new opportunities for Mapbox in Japan. Last year, Gunderson told Nikkei Asian Review that “we are going to be the number one mapping provider in all of Japan and we’ll be able to do this because we have the best data in all of Japan through our partnership with Zenrin.” The company plans to develop products for the Japanese market that include mapping services for industrial automation.

In SoftBank’s announcement, Eric Gan, SoftBank Corp. head of business development, said, “I am very excited to bring Mapbox’s technology to Japan to help enterprises enhance their existing mapping services while also creating new customizable location-based services and management tools. We are seeing a significant rise in demand for Mapbox’s products from retail, ride-share, hotel, office-sharing, payment, mobility and manufacturing industries.”

Hims & Hers launch Spanish language telemedicine services

By Jonathan Shieber

Hims & Hers, the startup focused on providing access to elective treatments for things like hair loss, skin care and erectile disfunction and online telemedicine services, is expanding its services to include a Spanish language option, the company said.

After Mexico, the U.S. has the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world, with an estimated 41 million U.S. residents speaking Spanish at home. The population also prefers to receive healthcare information and frequent facilities that offer resources in Spanish.

Now, with a shortage looming in primary care physicians for rural areas and inner cities and a sky-high rate of Hispanics living without any form of healthcare coverage (roughly 15.1%, according to data provided by the company), Hims & Hers is pitching its telemedicine offering as an option.

“Language, cost, and location should not be barriers to receiving quality care, which is why we are launching a Spanish offering on our telemedicine platform,” the company said in a statement.

The company’s $39 primary care consultations at its Hims and its Hers websites will be in Spanish. That will include everything from communications like the patient intake form and instructions to prepare for an online consultation along with a connection to Spanish-speaking healthcare provider.

“The reason we created Hims & Hers was to break down barriers and provide more people with access to quality and convenient care,” the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Andrew Dudum, said in a statement. “As a telemedicine company, we recognize the need and understand the importance of serving the Spanish-speaking population. We hope those seeking access to care in Spanish find our platform to be a welcoming, inclusive, quality experience.”

Emerging from stealth, Octant is bringing the tools of synthetic biology to large scale drug discovery

By Jonathan Shieber

Octant, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz just now unveiling itself publicly to the world, is using the tools of synthetic biology to buck the latest trends in drug discovery.

As the pharmaceuticals industry turns its attention to precision medicine — the search for ever more tailored treatments for specific diseases using genetic engineering — Octant is using the same technologies to engage in drug discovery and diagnostics on a mass scale.

The company’s technology genetically engineers DNA to act as an identifier for the most common drug receptors inside the human genome. Basically, it’s creating QR codes that can flag and identify how different protein receptors in cells respond to chemicals. These are the biological sensors which help control everything from immune responses to the senses of sight and smell, the firing of neurons; even the release of hormones and communications between cells in the body are regulated.

“Our discovery platform was designed to map and measure the interconnected relationships between chemicals, multiple drug receptor pathways and diseases, enabling us to engineer multi-targeted drugs in a more rational way, across a wide spectrum of targets,” said Sri Kosuri, Octant’s co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Octant’s work is based on a technology first developed at the University of California Los Angeles by Kosuri and a team of researchers, which slashed the cost of making genetic sequences to $2 per gene from $50 to $100 per gene.

“Our method gives any lab that wants the power to build its own DNA sequences,” Kosuri said in a 2018 statement. “This is the first time that, without a million dollars, an average lab can make 10,000 genes from scratch.”

Joining Kosuri in launching Octant is Ramsey Homsany, a longtime friend of Kosuri’s, and a former executive at Google and Dropbox . Homsany happened to have a background in molecular biology from school, and when Kosuri would talk about the implications of the technology he developed, the two men knew they needed to for a company.

“We use these new tools to know which bar code is going with which construct or genetic variant or pathway that we’re working with [and] all of that fits into a single well,” said Kosuri. “What you can do on top of that is small molecule screening… we can do that with thousands of different wells at a time. So we can build these maps between chemicals and targets and pathways that are essential to drug development.”

Before coming to UCLA, Kosuri had a long history with companies developing products based on synthetic biology on both the coasts. Through some initial work that he’d done in the early days of the biofuel boom in 2007, Kosuri was connected with Flagship Ventures, and the imminent Harvard-based synthetic biologist George Church . He also served as a scientific advisor to Gen9, a company acquired by the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology powerhouse, Ginkgo Bioworks.

“Some of the most valuable drugs in history work on complex sets of drug targets, which is why Octant’s focus on polypharmacology is so compelling,” said Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks, and a member of the Octant board, in a statement. “Octant is engineering a lot of luck and cost out of the drug discovery equation with its novel platform and unique big data biology insights, which will drive the company’s internal development programs as well as potential partnerships.”

The new technology arrives at a unique moment in the industry where pharmaceutical companies are moving to target treatments for diseases that are tied to specific mutations, rather than look at treatments for more common disease problems, said Homsany.

“People are dropping common disease problems,” he said. “The biggest players are dropping these cases and it seems like that just didn’t make sense to us. So we thought about how would a company take these new technologies and apply them in a way that could solve some of this.”

One reason for the industry’s turn away from the big diseases that affect large swaths of the population is that new therapies are emerging to treat these conditions which don’t rely on drugs. While they wouldn’t get into specifics, Octant co-founders are pursuing treatments for what Kosuri said were conditions “in the metabolic space” and in the “neuropsychiatric space”.

Helping them pursue those targets, since Octant is very much a drug development company, is $20 million in financing from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz .

“Drug discovery remains a process of trial and error. Using its deep expertise in synthetic biology, the Octant team has engineered human cells that provide real-time, precise and complete readouts of the complex interactions and effects that drug molecules have within living cells,” said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and member of the Octant board of directors. “By querying biology at this unprecedented scale, Octant has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets and corresponding, novel treatments for our most intractable diseases.”

Microsoft acquires robotic process automation platform Softomotive

By Frederic Lardinois

During his Build keynote, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella today confirmed that the company has acquired Softomotive, a software robotic automation platform. Bloomberg first reported that this acquisition was in the works earlier this month, but the two companies didn’t comment on the report at the time.

Today, Nadella noted that Softomotive would become part of Microsoft’s Power Automate platform. “We’re bringing RPA – or robotic process automation to legacy apps and services with our acquisition of Softomotive,” Nadella said.

Softomotive currently has about 9,000 customers around the world. Softomotive’s WinAutomation platform will be freely available to Power Automate users with what Microsoft calls an RPA attended license in Power Automate.

In Power Automate, Microsoft will use Softomotive’s tools to enable a number of new capabilities, including Softomotives low-code desktop automation solution WinAutomation. Until now, Power Automate did not feature any desktop automation tools.

It’ll also build Softomotive’s connectors for applications from SAP, as well as legacy terminal screens and Java, into its desktop automation experience and enable parallel execution and multitasking for UI automation.

Softomotives other flagship application, ProcessRobot for server-based enterprise RPA development, will also find a new home in Power Automate. My guess, though, is that Microsoft mostly bought the company for its desktop automation skills.

“One of our most distinguishing characteristics, and an indelible part of our DNA, is an unswerving commitment to usability,” writes Softomotive CEO and co-founder Marios Stavropoulos. “We have always believed in the notion of citizen developers and, since less than two percent of the world population can write code, we believe the greatest potential for both process improvement and overall innovation comes from business end users. This is why we have invested so diligently in abstracting complexity away from end users and created one of the industry’s most intuitive user interfaces – so that non-technical business end users can not just do more, but also make deeper contributions by becoming professional problem solvers and innovators. We are extremely excited to pursue this vision as part of Microsoft.”

The two companies did not disclose the financial details of the transaction.

Microsoft launches Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service for building autonomous systems

By Frederic Lardinois

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Project Bonsai, its new machine teaching service, is now in public preview.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember that Microsoft acquired Bonsai, a company that focuses on machine teaching, back in 2018. Bonsai combined simulation tools with different machine learning techniques to build a general-purpose deep reinforcement learning platform, with a focus on industrial control systems.

It’s maybe no surprise then that Project Bonsai, too, has a similar focus on helping businesses teach and manage their autonomous machines. “With Project Bonsai, subject-matter experts can add state-of-the-art intelligence to their most dynamic physical systems and processes without needing a background in AI,” the company notes in its press materials.

“The public preview of Project Bonsai builds on top of the Bonsai acquisition and the autonomous systems private preview announcements made at Build and Ignite of last year,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me.

Interestingly, Microsoft notes that project Bonsai is only the first block of a larger vision to help its customers build these autonomous systems. The company also stresses the advantages of machine teaching over other machine learning approach, especially the fact that it’s less of a black box approach than other methods, which makes it easier for developers and engineers to debug systems that don’t work as expected.

In addition to Bonsai, Microsoft also today announced Project Moab, an open-source balancing robot that is meant to help engineers and developers learn the basics of how to build a real-world control system. The idea here is to teach the robot to keep a ball balanced on top of a platform that is held by three arms.

Potential users will be able to either 3D print the robot themselves or buy one when it goes on sale later this year. There is also a simulation, developed by MathWorks, that developers can try out immediately.

“You can very quickly take it into areas where doing it in traditional ways would not be easy, such as balancing an egg instead,” said Mark Hammond, Microsoft General Manager
for Autonomous Systems. “The point of the Project Moab system is to provide that
playground where engineers tackling various problems can learn how to use the tooling and simulation models. Once they understand the concepts, they can apply it to their novel use case.”

Xilinx launches a new reconfigurable space-grade chip optimized for local machine learning on orbit

By Darrell Etherington

Space-specific silicon company Xilinx has developed a new processor for in-space and satellite applications that records a number of firsts: It’s the first 20nm process that’s rated for use in space, offering power and efficiency benefits, and it’s the first to offer specific support for high performance machine learning through neural network-based inference acceleration.

The processor is a field programmable gate array (FPGA), meaning that customers can tweak the hardware to suit their specific needs since the chip is essentially user-configurable hardware. On the machine learning side, Xilinx says that the new processor will offer up to 5.7 tera operations per second of “peak INT8 performance optimized for deep learning,” which is an improvement of as much as 25x vs the previous generation.

Xilinx’s new chip has a lot of potential for the satellite market for a couple of reasons: First, it’s a huge leap in terms of processor size, since the company’s existing traditional tolerant silicon was offered in a 65nm spec only. That means big improvements in terms of its size, weight and power efficiency, all of which translates to very important savings when you’re talking about in-space applications, since satellites are designed to be as lightweight and compact as possible to help defray launch costs and in-space propellant needs, both of which represent major expenses in their operation.

Finally, its reconfigurable nature means that on-orbit assets can be reprogrammed on-demand to handle different tasks – which now include local machine learning algorithm processing. That means you could theoretically switch one of these in an Earth observation satellite from handling something like tracking cloud density and weather patterns, to making inferences about deforestation or strip mining, for instance. That’s a whole lot of added flexibility for satellite constellation operators looking to move where market demand is needed most.

Xilinx’s chips are special in a number of ways vs. the kind we use here on Earth, including with the aforementioned radiation tolerance. They also come packed in thick ceramic packaging which add extra durability both during the launch phase, where stresses include extreme vibration, and on orbit where the lack of an atmosphere means exposure to an extremely harsh environment in terms f both radiation and temperature.

As Jack Ma and SoftBank part ways, the open and globalized era of tech comes ever closer to an end

By Danny Crichton

It would be one of the greatest startup investments of all time. Masayoshi Son, riding high in the klieg lights of the 1990s dot-com bubble, invested $20 million dollars into a fledgling Hong Kong-based startup called Alibaba. That $20 million investment into the Chinese e-commerce business would go on to be worth about $120 billion for SoftBank, which still retains more than a quarter ownership stake today.

That early check and the rise, fall, and rise of Son and Alibaba’s Jack Ma helped to cement an intricately connected partnership that has endured decades of ferocious change in the tech industry. Ma joined SoftBank’s board in 2007, and the two have been tech titans together ever since.

So it is notable and worth a minute of reflection that SoftBank announced overnight that Jack Ma would be leaving SoftBank’s board after almost 14 years.

In some ways, perhaps the news shouldn’t be all that surprising. Jack Ma has been receding from many of his duties, most notably leaving the chairmanship of Alibaba last year.

Yet, one can’t help connect the various dots of news that hovers between the two companies and not realize that the partnership that has endured so much is now increasingly fraying, and due to forces far beyond the ken of the two dynamos.

On one hand, there is a pecuniary point: SoftBank has been rapidly selling Alibaba shares the past few years after decades of going long as it attempts to shore up its balance sheet amidst intense financial challenges. According to Bloomberg in March, SoftBank intended to sell $14 billion of its Alibaba shares, and that was after $11 billion in realized returns on Alibaba stock in 2019 from a deal consummated in 2016. It’s just a bit awkward for Ma to be sitting on a board that is actively selling his own legacy.

Yet, there is more here. Jack Ma has become a figure in the fight against COVID-19, and has burnished China’s image (and his own) of responding globally to the crisis. In the process, though, there has been blowback, as concerns about the quality of face masks and other goods have been raised by health authorities.

And of course, there is the deepening trade war, not just between the United States and China, but also between Japan and China. Japan’s government is increasingly looking for a way to find a “China exit” and become more self-sufficient in its own supply chains and less financially dependent on Chinese capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been seeking out avenues of decoupling the U.S. from China. Overnight, the largest chip fab in the world, TSMC, announced that it would no longer accept orders from China’s Huawei following new export controls put in place by the U.S. last week and its announcement of a new, $12 billion chip fab plant in Arizona.

SoftBank itself has gotten caught up in these challenges. As an international conglomerate, and with the Vision Fund itself officially incorporated in Jersey, it has confronted the tightening screws of U.S. regulation of foreign ownership of critical technology companies through mechanisms like CFIUS. Its acquisition of ARM Holdings a few years ago may not have been completed if it had tried today, given the environment in the United Kingdom or the U.S.

So it’s not just about an investor and his entrepreneur breaking some ties after two decades in business together. It’s about the fraying of the very globalization that powered the first wave of tech companies — that a Japanese conglomerate with major interests in the U.S. and Europe could invest in a Hong Kong / China startup and reap huge rewards. That tech world and the divide of the internet and the world’s markets continues unabated.

AR is the answer to plummeting retail sales during lockdown

By Walter Thompson
Alex Chuang Contributor
Alex Chuang is the managing partner of Shape Immersive, a leading VR/AR agency that drives innovation for the world's top brands and enterprises.

As countries around the world face prolonged lockdown to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, retailers are among the hardest hit. Many have closed all their brick-and-mortar stores, resulting in furloughing of many employees.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that retail sales during March 2020 were down 8.7%, the biggest monthly drop ever recorded since the Great Recession. Of the hardest-hit categories, clothing store sales were down 50.5% from February, furniture store sales were down 26.8% and luxury goods are expected to fall 31%.

Before COVID-19, physical retail was already decimated by e-commerce behemoths like Amazon, but now the sector’s fate seems sealed by the ever-increasing threat of the pandemic. A so-called retail apocalypse may seem inevitable, but in these challenging times, it is more important than ever to look at how technology can turn the tide.

How AR will transform retail in the next decade

Imagine a future where consumers can virtually try on clothes that would fit them perfectly and they can purchase items confidently in the comfort of their own homes. Consumers will no longer need to choose different sizes because computer vision and scanning technologies would have already determined their perfect fit. These virtual clothes will also look so real that consumers will not be able to distinguish them from reality. Spoiler alert: This future is already here.

Virtual try-on is one of the most compelling use cases of augmented reality technology (AR), which arms consumers with the information they need to confidently make purchase decisions that will not likely result in returns for retailers. Retailers also can gain new insights into consumers’ buying patterns by tracking gazes, view history and time spent looking at a particular product. Retailers can even make the AR shopping experience more personalized by providing real-time feedback.

With more than two billion AR-enabled devices today and 100 million consumers expected to shop with AR this year, the technology is prime for adoption. Here are some examples of how the world’s leading retail brands are using AR to increase conversion, increase sales and decrease returns.

Volvo to use Luminar’s lidar in production vehicles to unlock automated driving on highways

By Kirsten Korosec

Volvo Cars will start producing vehicles in 2020 that are equipped with lidar and a perception stack — technology developed by Silicon Valley startup Luminar that the automaker will use to deploy an automated driving system for highways.

For now, the lidar will be part of a hardware package that consumers can add as an option to their Volvo vehicle, starting with the second-generation XC90. Volvo will combine Luminar’s lidar with cameras, radar, software and back-up systems for functions such as steering, braking and battery power to enable its highway pilot feature.

Volvo, which is known for making its advanced safety features standard, sees a bigger opportunity in its partnership with Luminar. The Swedish automaker said Luminar will help it improve advanced driver assistance systems and may lead to all of its second-generation Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2) vehicles to come with lidar as a standard feature.

The announcement is a milestone for Luminar and its whiz founder Austin Russell, who burst onto the autonomous vehicle startup scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy. It also makes Volvo the first automaker to equip production vehicles with lidar — the light detection and ranging radar that measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car.

Luminar’s Iris lidar sensors — which TechCrunch has described as about the size of really thick sandwich and one-third smaller than its previous iterations — will be integrated in the roof. The sensor’s tucked away placement is a departure from the bucket style spinning lidars that have become synonymous with autonomous vehicle development.

Image Credits: Volvo

Shipping a vehicle with the proper hardware and perception stack doesn’t mean customers will be able to let their Volvo take over driving on highways from the get go. The software, which is being developed by Zenuity, is still underway, Volvo CTO Henrik Green said.

The software will be activated wirelessly once it is verified to be safe in individual geographic locations. Volvo will continue to expand the capability of the software such as pushing up the maximum speed a vehicle can travel while driving autonomously. This hardware first-continual software update strategy is similar to Tesla, which has sold an automated driving package to consumers for years that has improved over time, but still does not allow for so-called “full self-driving.”

“Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so,” Green said. “At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel. Over time, updates over the air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”

A turning point for lidar

Lidar sensors are considered by many automakers and tech companies an essential piece of technology to safely roll out autonomous vehicles. In the past 18 months, as the timeline to deploy commercial robotaxi fleets has expanded, automakers have turned back to developing nearer term tech for production vehicles.

“It’s a very isolated problem to solve and becomes a lot more solvable in a safe way than trying to solve autonomous driving through the inner city of Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Green said. “By narrowing the use case to those particular highways, we can bring safe autonomy into vehicles for personal use in the timeframe we’re talking about.”

Advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, that was pushed aside in pursuit of fully autonomous vehicles has become a darling once again. It’s prompted a pivot within the industry, particularly with lidar companies. Dozens of lidar startups once grappling to become the supplier of choice for fully driverless vehicles are now hawking their wares for use in regular old passenger cars, trucks and SUVs. Some lidar startups such as Luminar have developed the perception software as well in an effort to diversify their business and offer a more appealing package to automakers.

The companies will deepen their collaboration to ensure Luminar’s lidar technology is validated for series production. Volvo Cars said it has signed an agreement to possibly increase its minority stake in Luminar.

Hustle CEO Sam Parr & SmartNews co-founder Rich Jaroslavsky on the future of media

By Walter Thompson
Tim Hsia & Neil Devani Contributor
Tim Hsia is the CEO of Media Mobilize and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Neil Devani is an angel investor and venture capitalist focused on companies solving hard problems.

Welcome to this edition of The Operators, a recurring Extra Crunch column, podcast and YouTube show that brings you insights and information from inside the top tech companies. Our guests are execs with operational experience at both fast-rising startups, like Brex, Calm, DocSend, and Zeus Living, and more established companies, like AirBnB, Facebook, Google, and Uber. Here they share strategies and tactics for building your first a company and charting your career in tech.

Our two guests for this episode have very different backgrounds, one an experienced exec serving at a large digital media unicorn and the other a younger co-founder CEO of an upstart media business. But both are at rapidly growing companies who are at the forefront of what it means to be a media company today. Both experts from the online media industry have built successful careers and businesses in this age of social media and ready-to-go, instant news.

Rich Jarislowsky began his media career as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal before becoming the national political editor as a White House correspondent. He was instrumental in bringing The Wall Street Journal online years ago. For the past 25 years, Rich has been involved in digital news at wsj.com and Bloomberg, and is currently at Smart News, where he is Chief Journalist and the VP of Content.

Sam Parr is the co-founder and CEO of The Hustle, a beloved and rapidly growing newsletter, conference convener, and broadening digital media business.

Our discussion touched on some of the most important questions in digital media:

  • What opportunities are there for new media entrants;
  • How it is impossible to start a successful media company today without having a strong grasp of how technology can be leveraged;
  • How the hardest problems in media today center around distribution and monetization;
  • Why content creation is actually one of the easier problems to address;
  • How increasingly the medium is the message: the iPhone changed media consumption and increasingly it looks like how we consume audio is changing the delivery of media, consumption, and monetization; and
  • An analysis on the current state of media and their predictions on where media is headed.

The Station: Audi punts on Level 3, Lyft layoffs and Nio’s $1 billion deal

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hi readers. Welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

While COVID-related stay-at-home orders have been extended in places like the San Francisco Bay area, officials in other counties and states in the U.S. have decided to open up for business. The rest of us are watching and waiting to see how these two experiments play out.

These opposing approaches have managed to create even more tension in the United States. If politics didn’t divide us before, how and when to open amid a health pandemic is proving to be an effective wedge.

The “how” is as important, or even more so, than the “when.” What will life and business look like? Wuhan, China, a transportation and manufacturing metropolis of 11 million people and where COVID-19 started, offers a view into one approach. (The photo below shows a worker disinfecting a bus in Wuhan on April 30.)

China-wuhan-bus-covid

A staff member sprays disinfectant on a bus at a long-distance bus station in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 30, 2020, ahead of the Labor Day holiday which started May 1.

When those stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, returning to work won’t be quick or easy. Wuhan was placed on lockdown January 23. Wuhan officials eased outgoing travel restrictions April 8. While the strictest component of that lockdown has been lifted, many businesses remain closed. Didi didn’t reopen its ride-hailing services in the city until April 30.

In short, it’s going to be complex. Ford’s back-to-work playbook is a case in point. The plan includes a number of daily measures such as online health self-certifications completed before work every day, face masks and no-touch temperature scans upon arrival. But that’s just a sliver of what it will take. Check out their complete playbook.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty folks, shall we dig in? Vamos. 

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility. Over at Lyft, the company laid off 982 employees and furloughed 288 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyft also permanently ceased scooter operations in Oakland, San Jose and Austin.

“We’re focusing our resources where we can have the biggest impact and best serve cities and riders,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to invest in our bike and scooter business, but have made the tough decision to shift resources away from three scooter markets and toward opportunities where we are set up for longer-term success.”

At Lime, the startup let go 13% of its staff while the very next day relaunching its electric scooters in Baltimore and Ogden, Utah.

“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing,” Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote in a note to employees.

Just one day after those layoffs, the company relaunched scooters in Baltimore to help support essential medical workers as well as in Ogden.

Uber is weighing its own layoffs. The Information reported that the company could cut up to 20% of its staff. That translates to more than 5,000 jobs. Those cuts could be announced in stages over the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Thuan Pham, who was hired as Uber’s chief technology officer by former CEO Travis Kalanick back in 2013, is leaving the company in three weeks, the ride-share giant revealed in an SEC filing.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.

The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.

Why deal of the week? The deal alleviates some concerns about Nio’s liquidity. It also marks the latest Chinese EV startup to turn to the state as private capital has shrunk.

There is no free lunch, however. The deal itself is complex and involves some asset shuffling. Nio is transferring its core businesses in China into a new company called Nio China. The investors will get a 24.1% stake in Nio China. The shareholding structure of the parent company is unchanged.

Other deals announced this week are below. Keep in mind that just because a deal is announced that doesn’t mean it closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising rounds often close weeks and even months before they’re announced.

Otonomo, an automotive data services startup based in Israel, raised $46 million in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The company has a software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

KlearNow, a startup that has built a software platform to automate the customs clearance process, raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by GreatPoint Ventures, with additional participation from Autotech Ventures, Argean Capital and Monta Vista Capital. Ashok Krishnamurthi, managing partner at GreatPoint Ventures, will join KlearNow’s board. Daniel Hoffer from Autotech Ventures is joining as a board observer.

Skycell, a Switzerland-based startup that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport pharmaceuticals has raised $62 million.

A merger between U.K.’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com has been approved by regulators. The merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

Cheetah, a San Francisco-based startup that provided a wholesale delivery service and has pivoted to selling to consumers during COVID-19, raised $36 million in Series B funding.

Innovation of the week

Computer vision company Eyesight Technologies has tweaked its driver monitoring system so it can detect driver distraction and drowsiness even while wearing a medical face mask.

This “innovation of the week” gets back to my opening remarks about “how” we get back to work. Face masks will likely be a part of our world for some time.

Driver monitoring systems, which are increasingly being used by commercial fleets, are trained to detect and monitor facial features of the driver. The system will take in data points like head pose, mouth, eyes and eyelids and use the gathered visual data to detect signs of drowsiness and distraction. If the sensor can’t read one or more of these features the system could fail to detect a drowsy truck driver or inattentive transit worker.

Driver Monitoring with mask

Eyesight Technologies

Eyesight Technologies says that its computer vision and AI algorithms have been trained to detect distraction and drowsiness even if a driver is wearing a mask and glasses.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Eyesight Technologies CEO David Tolub said. “Without a concrete end date to the current situation, wearing medical masks may be a reality for the foreseeable future. Eyesight Technologies is forging ahead and adapting to provide a reliable solution to help guarantee safety even under less than ideal circumstances.”

Audi punts on Level 3

Audi has scrapped plans to roll out a Level 3 automated driving system in its A8 flagship sedan. Automotive News Europe broke the story.

The feature, which is branded Traffic Jam Pilot, theoretically allows the vehicle to operate on its own without the human driver keeping their eyes on the road. But it’s never been commercially deployed.

Traffic Jam Pilot was supposed to be in the latest-generation A8 that debuted in 2017. It’s now 2020. What happened? Regulations, or lack of them, have been the primary scapegoat. But it’s not quite the whole story.

TechCrunch reached out to Audi to dig into why? In short, the company told us, that it’s complicated. The lack of a legal framework has raised concerns about liability. To further complicate the problem, the A8 is now progressing through its generational life cycle. And Audi was faced with continuing to pour money into the feature to adapt it without promise of framework progressing.

Here’s a few tidbits from the folks at Audi.

On the legal framework:

As of now, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving. Consistently it is not possible to homologate such function anywhere in the world in a series production car. It is still very challenging to plan the exact introduction scenarios for level 3 systems, as we continuously moving in an intensive interplay between the findings from ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and approval authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving.

On development costs:

As these clarifications and safeguards continue to take time, we also monitor economic aspects in addition. This includes development costs, which are summing up continuously. Secondly, the remaining life of the determined target model A8 combined with the forecasted installation rate and the expected market greediness in the individual countries are playing an important role.

This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned level 3 series function in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle.

Audi’s belief in automated driving:

We still believe in the technology of automated driving and today we know better than almost anyone when it comes to the decisive technological key factors. During the development phase we continuously learned more and more technical “unknown unknowns” and developed approaches how to handle the fact, that there will appear more.

Together with the above mentioned dependencies concerning legislation and type approval, we believe that actually it is not the right moment to deliver the function to the customer. This is our attitude of responsibility.

How Audi is moving forward:

An important part of the truth, which the industry is now facing: development of automated driving is extremely complex and cost-intensive. Our aim more than ever before is to generate the greatest possible synergies.

Within the VW group we therefore have the best preconditions. We have consolidated our efforts to further develop level 3 automated driving in the Car.Software organization. This is a new organization within the Volkswagen Group .

Former Audi managers will be head of two out of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Müller will manage the automated driving area, and Dr. Klaus Büttner will manage the Intelligent Body&Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the Volkswagen Group.

Why COVID-19 could delay Interswitch, Africa’s next big IPO

By Jake Bright

The economic effects of COVID-19 could delay Africa’s next big IPO — that of Nigerian fintech unicorn Interswitch.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time the Lagos-based payments company’s plans for going public were postponed; the tech world has been anticipating Interswitch’s stock market debut since 2016.

For the continent’s innovation ecosystem, there’s a lot riding on the digital finance company’s IPO. After e-commerce venture Jumia, it would become only the second listing of a VC-backed African tech company on a major exchange. And Interswitch’s stock market debut — when it occurs — could bring more investor attention and less controversy to the region’s startup scene.

What is Interswitch?

TechCrunch reached out to Interswitch on the window for listing, but the company declined to comment. The tech firm’s path from startup to IPO aspirant traces back to the vision of founder Mitchell Elegbe, a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate whose entire career has pretty much been Interswitch.

Africa’s tech scene is still fairly young, but it does have a timeline with several definitive points. An early one would be the success of mobile money in East Africa, with the launch of Safaricom’s M-Pesa in 2007. Another is the notable wave of VC-backed startups and founders that launched around 2010.

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe (Photo Credits: Interswitch)

With Interswtich, Elegbe pre-dated both by a number of years, founding his fintech company back in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s largely disconnected banking system. The firm became a pioneer of the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s economy.

Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and thereby operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

By Jake Bright

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch               

Ben Horowitz, a16z general partner, is leaving Lyft’s board

By Kirsten Korosec

Ben Horowitz, the co-founder and general partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz won’t seek re-election to Lyft’s board, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.

Horowitz has served as a board of director at the ride-hailing company since June 2016. His venture firm, which he co-founded with Marc Andreessen, was an early investor in Lyft . He will stay on the board until Lyft’s annual shareholder meeting scheduled for June 19. Horowitz’s plan to leave the board was first spotted by Protocol reporter Biz Carson.

Horowitz could not be reached for comment. TechCrunch will update this article if he responds.

“We thank Ben for his longtime partnership with Lyft, including his four years of service on our board,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a email to TechCrunch. “During his tenure, Ben has helped Lyft achieve some of its most significant milestones, including our initial public offering in 2019. We wish Ben all the best as he continues his work as a pioneering investor and leader in the venture capital community.”

Horowitz serves on boards of 13 other portfolio companies, including Okta, Foursquare, Genius, Medium and Databricks.

Horowitz was selected to serve on Lyft’s board because of his extensive operating and management experience, his knowledge of technology companies and his extensive experience as a venture capital investor, the company said in filing announcing the agenda for its 2020 annual shareholders meeting.

The annual meeting will be held virtually at 1:30 p.m. PT June 19, 2020. Shareholders and others can attend the Annual Meeting by visiting www.virtualshareholdermeeting.com/LYFT2020. Shareholders will be able to  submit questions and vote online.

During the meeting, Lyft plans to elect two directors to serve until 2023 and to ratify the appointment of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP as its independent registered public accounting firm.

Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green and Ann Miura-Ko, co-founder and artner at Floodgate Fund are up for re-election as board members.

The company’s agenda includes two measures to approve, on an advisory basis, the compensation of its named executive officers and the frequency of future stockholder advisory votes on the compensation of its named executive officers.

Stay-at-home order for 7 million Bay Area residents extended to end of May

By Kirsten Korosec

A stay-at-home order for seven San Francisco Bay Area counties will be extended through the end of May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that affects 7 million residents and thousands of businesses.

The Public Health Officers of the Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara as well as the City of Berkeley said in a joint statement issued Monday that it will issue revised shelter-in-place orders later this week. The new order will ease some specific restrictions for what the health officers from the seven counties described as a “small number of number of lower-risk activities.”

The stay-at-home orders were set to expire May 3. Details regarding this next phase will be shared later in the week, along with the updated order.

The seven counties are home to thousands of startups and technology companies that includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Twitter, Tesla and Uber.

“Thanks to the collective effort and sacrifice of the 7 million residents across our jurisdictions, we have made substantial progress in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, ensuring our local hospitals are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, and saving lives,” the health officers said in a joint statement. “At this stage of the pandemic, however, it is critical that our collective efforts continue so that we do not lose the progress we have achieved together.”

The public health officials said Monday that hospitalizations have leveled, but more work is needed to safely re-open communities and warned that “prematurely lifting restrictions could lead to a large surge in cases.”

The health officers plan to also release a set of broad indicators used to track progress in preparedness and response to COVID-19, in alignment with the framework being used by the rest of the state.

❌