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Hyundai and Seoul set to test self-driving cars on city roads starting next month

By Darrell Etherington

Hyundai has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city of Seoul to begin testing six autonomous vehicles on roads in the Gangnam district beginning next month, BusinessKorea reports. The arrangement specifies that six vehicles will begin testing on 23 roads in December. Looking ahead to 2021, there will be as many as 15 of the cars, which are hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, testing on the roads.

Seoul will provide smart infrastructure to communicate with the vehicles, including connected traffic signals, and will also relay traffic and other info as frequently as every 0.1 seconds to the Hyundai vehicles. That kind of real-time information flow should help considerably with providing the visibility necessary to optimize safe operation of the autonomous test cars. On the Hyundai said, they’ll be sharing information too — providing data around the self-driving test that will be freely available to schools and other organizations looking to test their own self-driving technology within the city.

Together, Seoul and Hyundai hope to use the partnership to build out a world-leading downtown self-driving technology deployment, and to have that evolve into a commercial service, complete with dedicated autonomous vehicle manufacture by 2024.

MIT researchers develop a much better way to optimize the control of soft robots

By Darrell Etherington

MIT researchers have developed a new way to optimize how soft robots perform specific tasks — a huge challenge when it comes to soft robotics in particular, because robots with flexible bodies can basically move in an infinite number of ways at any given moment, so programming them to do something in the best way possible is a monumental task.

To make the whole process easier and less computationally intensive, the research team has developed a way to take what is effectively a robot that can move in infinite possible dimensions and simplify it to a representative “low-dimensional” model that can accurately be used to optimize movement, based on environmental physics and the natural ways that soft objects shaped like any individual soft robot is actually most likely to bend in a giving setting.

So far, the MIT team behind this has demonstrated it in simulation only, but in this simulated environment it has seen significant improvements in terms of both speed and accuracy of programmed movement of robots versus methods used today that are more complex. In fact, across a number of tests of simulated robots with both 2D and 3D designs, and two and four-legged physical designs, the researchers were able to show that optimizations that would normally task as many as 30,000 simulations to achieve were instead possible in just 400.

Why is any of this even important? Because it basically shrinks drastically the amount of computational overhead required to get good movement results out of soft robots, which is a key ingredient in helping make them partial to actually use in real-life applications. If programming a soft robot to do something genuinely useful like navigate and effect an underwater damage assessment and repair requires huge amounts of processing power, and significant actual time, it’s not really viable for anyone to actually deploy.

In the future, the research team hopes to bring their optimization method out of simulation and into real-world testing, as well as full-scale development of soft robots from start to finish.

VEnvirotech transforms organic waste into bioplastics

By Veanne Cao

After a year of testing out environmental technologies for a private company, co-founder Patricia Ayma developed a process for bioplastic production using bacteria. The system turns organic matter, such as food waste, into a product that can be used as a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastics. “I realized that it was a simple technology for taking to society, that will benefit everyone,” she tells us.

The biotech startup began its pilot phase near Barcelona, at a BonArea supermarket plant, where they were able to develop and test the technology on an industrial scale with a potential customer. Ayma plans to push the innovation toward two sectors: Organic waste producers that want to shrink waste management costs and companies interested in purchasing the bioplastics for various applications.

The startup recently closed an investment round of more than €2 million, which will allow them to open a 33,000-square-foot plant to start production on the VE-box: A portable waste management container that will transform organic waste into biodegradable plastics. 

 

Smart Compose is coming to Google Docs

By Frederic Lardinois

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian today announced that Smart Compose, the AI-powered feature that currently tries to complete phrases and sentences for you in Gmail, is also coming to G Suite’s Google Docs soon. For now, though, your G Suite admin has to sign up for the beta to try it  and it’s only available in English.

Google says in total, Smart Compose in Gmail already saves people from typing about 2 billion characters per week. At least in my own experience, it also works surprisingly well and has only gotten better since launch (as one would expect from a product that learns from the individual and collective behavior of its users). It remains to be seen how well this same technique works for longer texts, but even longer documents are often quite formulaic, so the algorithm should still work quite well there, too.

Google first announced Smart Compose in May 2018, as part of its I/O developer conference. It builds upon the same machine learning technology Google developed for its Smart Reply feature. The company then rolled out Smart Compose to all G Suite and private Gmail users, starting in July 2018, and later added support for mobile, too.

WHILL brings its autonomous wheelchairs to North American airports

By Jonathan Shieber

After trials in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Abu Dhabi airport earlier this year, WHILL, the developer of autonomous wheelchairs, is bringing its robotic mobility tech to North America.

At airports in Dallas and Winnipeg, travelers with mobility limitations can book a WHILL through Scootaround and test out the company’s products.

Using sensing technologies and automatic brakes, WHILL’s wheelchairs detect and avoid obstacles in busy airports, allowing customers to get to their gate faster.

Based in Yokohama, Japan, WHILL has raised roughly $80 million for its technology to bring autonomy to personal mobility.

“When traveling, checking in, getting through security and to the gate on time is critical to avoid the hassle and frustration of missing a flight,” said Satoshi Sugie, the founder and chief executive of WHILL, in a statement. “Travelers with reduced mobility usually have to wait longer times for an employee to bring them a wheelchair and be pushed to their gate, reducing their flexibility while traveling. We are now providing an opportunity for travelers with reduced mobility to have a sense of independence as they move about the airport and get from point A to point B as smoothly as possible.”

The company is one of a growing number of startups and established technology companies tackling the massive market of assistive technologies.

The entire population of people with disabilities globally stands at 1 billion, and there are 70 million potential customers for assistive technology products across Europe. If demand in human terms isn’t enough to sway would-be entrepreneurs, then perhaps a recent market report indicating that spending on assistive technologies for the elderly and people with disabilities is projected to reach over $26 billion by 2024 will do the trick.

“Accessibility is a priority for Winnipeg Richardson International Airport and travel is now easier for passengers with limited mobility thanks to our partnership with WHILL. We are excited to be one of the first airports in North America to trial WHILL’s autonomous personal mobility devices with our travelers.”

Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

By Jake Bright

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and communications and media.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource plans to upgrade the features of its platform. It also opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers — to determine the problems their trying to solve and their sources of input data — and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

Samasource converted to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on the $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with Samasource. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder thinks that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grow,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased staff in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150% in 2020, its CEO said.

Luna is a new kind of space company helping biotech find its footing in microgravity

By Darrell Etherington

Toronto-based startup Luna Design and Innovation is a prime example of the kind of space company that is increasingly starting up to take advantage of the changing economics of the larger industry. Founded by Andrea Yip, who is also Luna’s CEO, the bootstrapped venture is looking to blaze a trail for biotechnology companies who stand to gain a lot from the new opportunities in commercial space – even if they don’t know it yet.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the public and private health industry, doing a lot of product and service design and innovation,” Yip told me in an interview. “I was working in pharma[ceuticals] for several years, but at the end of 2017, I decided to leave the pharma world and I really wanted to find a way to work along the intersection of pharma, space and design, because I just believe that the future of health for humanity is in space.”

Yip founded Luna at the beginning of this year to help turn that belief into action, with a focus on highlighting the opportunities available to the biotechnology sector in making use of the research environment unique to space.

“We see space as a research platform, and we believe that it’s a research platform that can be leveraged in order to solve healthcare problems here on Earth,” Yip explained. “So for me, it was critically important to open up space to the biotech sector, and to the pharma sector, in order to use it as a research platform for R&D and novel discovery.”

The International Space Station has hosted a number of pharma and biotech experiments.

NASA’s work in space has led to a number of medical advances, inducing digital imaging tech used in breast biopsy, transmitters used for monitoring fetus development within the womb, LED’s used in brain cancer surgery and more. Work done on researching and developing pharmaceuticals in space is also something that companies including Merck, Proctor & Gamble and other industry heavyweights have been dabbling in for years, with experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceFarma have now sent entire minilaboratories to the ISS to conduct research on behalf of clients. But it’s still a business with plenty of remaining under-utilized opportunity, according to Yip – and tons of potential.

“I think it’s a highly underutilized research platform, unfortunately, right now,” she said. “When it comes to certain physical and life sciences phenomena, we know that things behave differently in space, in what we refer to as microgravity-based environments […] We know that cancer cells, for instance, behave differently in short- and longer-term microgravity when it comes to the way that they metastasize. So being able to even acknowledge that type of insight, and try and understand ‘why’ can unlock a lot of new discovery and understanding about the way cancer actually functions […] and that can actually help us better design drugs, and treatment opportunities here on Earth, just based on those insights.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Credit: Blue Origin .

Yip says that while there has been some activity already in biotech and microgravity, “we’re on the early end of this innovation,” and goes on to suggest that over the course of the next ten or so years, the companies that will be disrupting the existing class of legacy big pharma players will be ones who’ve invested early and deeply in space-based research and development.

The role of Luna is to help biotech companies figure out how best to approach building out an investment in space-based research. To that end, one of its early accomplishments is securing a role as a ‘Channel Partner’ for Jeff Bezos’ commercial space launch company Blue Origin. This arrangement means that Luna acts a a sales partner for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, working with potential clients for the Amazon founder’s rocket company on how and why they might seek to set up a sub-orbital space-based experiment.

That’s the near-term vision, and the way that Luna will seek to have the most impact here on Earth. But the possibilities of what the future holds for the biotech sector start to really open up once you consider the current trajectory of the space industry, including NASA’s next steps, and efforts by private companies like SpaceX to expand human presence to other planet.

“We’re talking about going back to the Moon by 2024,” Yip says, referring to NASA’s goal with its Artemis program. “We’re talking about going to Mars in the next few years. There’s a lot that we will need to uncover and discover for ourselves, and I think that’s a huge opportunity. Who knows what we’ll discover when we’re on other planets, and we’re actually putting people there? We have to start preparing for that and building capability for that.”

Karma Automotive unveils its faster next act, the Revero GTS

By Kirsten Korosec

Karma Automotive’s second act is a gasoline-electric luxury vehicle that aims to deliver more performance and tech inside a sleek and sporty $149,950 package.

The 2020 Revero GTS unveiled Tuesday during AutoMobility LA, the press and trade days of LA Auto Show, shares some of the same bits as its sibling Revero GT. Both vehicles use a gasoline-electric powertrain — a BMW engine powers a generator that charges the 28 kilowatt-hour nickel manganese cobalt lithium-ion battery. Like the GT, the battery supplies the GTS with 80 miles of electric driving. Both vehicles have a total 360-mile range when they’re fully charged and fueled with gas.

And both have some of the same operational features, including three driving modes and launch control that allows drivers to unlock all the power and torque inside and “launch” the vehicle down the road. The three drive modes are “stealth,” for pure-electric driving, a range extender mode called “sustain,” and sport, which combines the output from the battery pack and the generator for maximum driving performance.

The specs

The GTS does have a lot of extra though and costs about $15,000 more than the GT. The GTS has a new body, including a redesigned hood, doors, deck lid, body sides and side mirrors. It’s also faster off the line and can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in an estimated 3.9 seconds compared to the 4.5 seconds in the GT. The GTS comes with electronic torque vectoring, refined power steering. It also has a higher electronically-limited top speed of 130 miles per hour versus the GT’s 125 mph.

The GTS’ twin electric motors and all-electric powertrain produce 536 horsepower and 635 pound-feet of torque, which should deliver a responsive and exciting enough drive. Although we’ll have to wait and experience it for ourselves.

Karma Automotive GTS Interior Detail

The new vehicle has advanced driver assistance features like blind spot and cross traffic detection as well as audio technology developed in house and active noise cancelling. The infotainment system has also been improved on the GTS and includes haptic tactile switches a new touchscreen and user interface processor as well as a center console with improved storage.

Karma Automotive says it will begin production of the GTS in first quarter of 2020. First deliveries of the Revero GT expected during the fourth quarter of 2019.

The new business plan

The Karma Revero GT was the first fully conceived product to come out of a company that launched from the remnants of Fisker Automotive, the startup led by Henrik Fisker that ended in bankruptcy in 2013. China’s Wanxiang Group purchased what was left of Fisker in 2014 and Karma Automotive was born.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. The company’s first effort, known as the Revero, wasn’t received warmly. The Revero GT has been an improved effort. However, that hasn’t relieved the pressure.

The company laid off about 200 workers this month from its Irvine, Calif. headquarters following a restructuring that will focus on licensing its technology to other carmakers. The company’s assembly plant is in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Karma’s efforts to pack more tech and performance in the GTS makes sense considering the company’s new business strategy to open its engineering, design, customization and manufacturing resources to other companies. It also explains Karma’s other reveal Tuesday, an all-electric concept vehicle called the SC2 that delivers a stunning 1,100 horsepower and 10,500 lb.-ft. of torque and can achieve 0 to 60 mph in less than 1.9 seconds.

In other words, the GTS is a model of what Karma can do. And it explains some of Karma’s decisions to design and produce more of the vehicle’s components in house. Karma has developed its own inverters to maximize and maintain full software control for fast over-the-air updates as well as a proprietary 7.1-channel 570-watt Soloscape audio system, according to Todd George, the company’s VP of Engineering. The inverters convert DC current from the battery  pack to power the AC drive motors, and to also capture AC power from the regenerative braking system to recharge the battery pack.

It’s a business angle that Karma hopes will give it the immediate and long-term capital it needs to stay afloat. Karma is backed and owned by Wanxiang, the massive Chinese auto parts supplier. But it will eventually need to stand on its own.

NASA adds SpaceX, Blue Origin and more to list of companies set to make deliveries to the surface of the Moon

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

By Jake Bright

Africa-focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June. It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos-based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple of quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway-based, Chinese-owned (majority) company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“OPay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do every day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also a harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector, where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

You’ve heard of CRISPR, now meet its newer, savvier cousin CRISPR Prime

By Sarah Buhr

CRISPR, the revolutionary ability to snip out and alter genes with scissor-like precision, has exploded in popularity over the last few years and is generally seen as the standalone wizard of modern gene-editing. However, it’s not a perfect system, sometimes cutting at the wrong place, not working as intended and leaving scientists scratching their heads. Well, now there’s a new, more exacting upgrade to CRISPR called Prime, with the ability to, in theory, snip out more than 90 percent of all genetic diseases.

Just what is this new method and how does it work? We turned to IEEE fellow,  biomedical researcher and dean of graduate education at Tuft University’s school of engineering Karen Panetta for an explanation.

How does CRISPR Prime editing work?

CRISPR is a powerful genome editor. It utilizes an enzyme called Cas9 that uses an RNA molecule as a guide to navigate to its target DNA. It then edits or modifies the DNA, which can deactivate genes or insert a desired sequence to achieve a behavior. Currently, we are most familiar with the application of genetically modified crops that are resistant to disease.

However, its most promising application is to genetically modify cells to overcome genetic defects or its potential to conquer diseases like cancer.

Some applications of genome editing technology include:

  • Genetically modified mosquitos that can’t carry malaria.
  • In humans, “turning on” a gene that can create fetal type behaving cells that can overcome sickle-cell anemia.

Of course, as with every technology, CRISPR isn’t perfect. It works by cutting the double-stranded DNA at precise locations in the genome. When the cell’s natural repair process takes over, it can cause damage or, in the case where the modified DNA is inserted at the cut site, it can create unwanted off-target mutations.

Some genetic disorders are known to mutate specific DNA bases, so having the ability to edit these bases would be enormously beneficial in terms of overcoming many genetic disorders. However, CRISPR is not well suited for intentionally introducing specific DNA bases, the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs that make up the double helix.

Prime editing was intended to overcome this disadvantage, as well as other limitations of CRISPR.

Prime editing can do multi-letter base-editing, which could tackle fatal genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs, which is caused by a mutation of four DNA letters.

It’s also more precise. I view this as analogous to the precision lasers brought to surgery versus using a hand-held scalpel. It minimized damage, so the healing process was more efficient.

Prime editing can insert, modify or delete individual DNA letters; it can also insert a sequence of multiple letters into a genome with minimal damage to DNA strands.

How effective might Prime editing be?

Imagine being able to prevent cancer and/or hereditary diseases, like breast cancer, from ever occurring by editing out the genes that are makers for cancer. Cancer treatments are usually long, debilitating processes that physically and emotionally drain patients. It also devastates patients’ loved ones who must endure watching helpless on the sidelines as the patient battles to survive.

“Editing out” genetic disorders and/or hereditary diseases to prevent them from ever coming to fruition could also have an enormous impact on reducing the costs of healthcare, effectively helping redefine methods of medical treatment.

It could change lives so that long-term disability care for diseases like Alzheimer’s and special needs education costs could be significantly reduced or never needed.

How did the scientific community get to this point – where did CRISPR/prime editing “come from?”

Scientists recognized CRISPR’s ability to prevent bacteria from infecting more cells and the natural repair mechanism that it initiates after damage occurs, thus having the capacity to halt bacterial infections via genome editing. Essentially, it showed adaptive immunity capabilities.

When might we see CRISPR Prime editing “out in the wild?”

It’s already out there! It has been used for treating sickle-cell anemia and in human embryos to prevent HIV infections from being transmitted to offspring of HIV parents.

So, what’s next?

IEEE Engineers, like myself, are always seeking to take the fundamental science and expand it beyond the petri dish to benefit humanity.

In the short term, I think that Prime editing will help generate the type of fetal like cells that are needed to help patients recover and heal as well as developing new vaccines against deadly diseases. It will also allow researchers new lower cost alternatives and access to Alzheimer’s like cells without obtaining them post-mortem.

Also, AI and deep learning is modeled after human neural networks, so the process of genome editing could potentially help inform and influence new computer algorithms for self-diagnosis and repair, which will become an important aspect of future autonomous systems.

The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

By Darrell Etherington

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address — and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today — and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro — but the latest noise-canceling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travelers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the “Pro” designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only has auxiliary audio in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it has been rock solid, with easy pairing and setup, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again, you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode — but you get up to four more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less, at $49.99 each.

Where top VCs are investing in real estate and proptech (Part 2 of 2)

By Arman Tabatabai

In part two of our survey that asked top VCs about the most exciting investment areas in real estate, we dig into responses from 10 leading real estate-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stages across real estate specific firms, corporate venture arms, and prominent generalist firms to share where they see opportunity in this sector. (See part one of our survey.)

In part two of our survey, we hear from:

Connie Chan, Andreessen Horowitz

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

While most people think about real estate tech from the transaction perspective, I believe that every single part of the real estate value chain is ripe for disruption. On the construction and home maintenance side, we are facing an aging population of contractors, electricians and plumbers. As fewer people enter the trade, this is a great opportunity for a startup. Rentals are offline and fragmented, with the majority of renters still paying their rent with cash or check.

As low-interest rates hold, many homeowners could be refinancing their homes, but aren’t simply because of the lack of financial education. People want to live in beautiful spaces, but everyone needs help with the design and remodeling process. Younger generations in particular are shocked and lost when they learn how many vendors and contractors they need to interface with for a simple bathroom or kitchen remodel. At the end of the day, we end up having to go back and forth with service providers in person because there are major information gaps online, just like in medicine. It’s hard for homeowners to know who to listen to and who to trust.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right? 

A third of my time is spent thinking about startups tackling real estate — this includes everything from construction to financing to rentals and home improvement. The amount of money spent in real estate is enormous, and the data and tools we use today are still based on insights from a decade ago.

When I polled colleagues on what they would do if a toilet broke, the answers ranged from: Google, YouTube, Yelp and “calling my mom.” We spend so much money on the way and place we live, and it’s nuts that there isn’t more technology to support it. Yes, we turn to Zillow or Redfin when searching for a home to buy or rent, but what about everything that happens before and after that?

The market is not over-heated in the least. However, I do believe investors are starting to treat real estate tech companies differently than tech-enabled real estate companies. In the past few years, that nuance was less clear, but recent market events have forced investors to focus more on gross margins and software’s ability to scale.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

I’d love to see more companies foster community. Decades ago we hung out with our neighbors, but today, many of us can’t even recall their names. Technology can help connect residents in a building, or neighbors down the street — mapping out our geography-based social networks. I’d also love to find more companies that are using different kinds of signals to assess risk, whether it’s to replace the credit score for a rental screening or to help someone qualify for a mortgage. Chinese fintech companies in particular have been experimenting with using other signals besides a credit score to evaluate how responsible someone might be.

Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers

If we think that the transportation industry is big, just wait until we realize the size of the real estate market!

Brendan Wallace, Fifth Wall

How has the real estate technology ecosystem changed in the last 3 years? 

When we started Fifth Wall three years ago, VCs and even prospective LPs would frequently ask us ‘What does real estate technology mean? Isn’t that very niche? How are you going to invest $212 million into real estate technology? ” At the time those felt like legitimate questions; in retrospect, they reflected that the venture ecosystem hadn’t truly appreciated the enormity of the opportunity in real estate technology. The fact that those questions felt valid only a few years ago tells the story of how the real estate technology ecosystem has evolved, expanded, and institutionalized.

In the last three years, real estate technology has arguably created more enterprise value and spawned more unicorns than any other single industry sector in venture capital. Fifth Wall was fortunate to make early investments in many of those transformative businesses, such as Blend, Hippo, Loggi, Lime, Opendoor and VTS. In the first half of 2019, $14 billion was invested into real estate technology from the VC community. Even though Fifth Wall’s newest $503M fund is the largest in the category, it nonetheless represents a very small percentage of total venture capital invested into real estate technology.

What spawned this growth in real estate tech over the last 3 years? 

It’s not surprising that technology for the real estate industry would become one of the largest and most attractive categories of venture capital. Real estate is the single largest industry in the U.S., yet historically has been one of the lowest spenders on IT. The industry was (and to a great extent still is) known as being a late adopter of technology solutions. I would characterize the last five years as being an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ for major real estate owners, operators, and developers: CIOs were hired for the first time, large IT budgets have been allocated and are growing, and almost every major real estate owner now recognizes that adoption of new technology is existentially critical to their future strategy.

In part, this realization explains the dramatic growth in the number of corporate investors in Fifth Wall: just two years ago Fifth Wall managed $212M from nine North American real estate corporates, today we manage over $1 billion invested by more than 50 corporate strategic partners from eleven countries. To put it simply, when the world’s largest industry suddenly decides to adopt technology, you can expect a lot of value to be created. And it’s only just begun.

Are generalist VCs investing more in real estate technology? 

Generalist VCs have been pouring capital into real estate technology companies, especially in the last few years. However, not all of those investments have performed well, and there’s usually one simple reason for that: distribution is absolutely everything for real estate technology startups. Getting large real estate corporates to adopt a new technology is often deterministic. In addition, generalist VC firms typically lack the deep real estate relationships and domain expertise to drive distribution and adoption of emerging technologies.

This is why Fifth Wall raised its capital from the largest partners and customers of the very technologies in which we’re investing. Fifth Wall wanted to be the connective platform to link new, emerging real estate technologies with the corporate partners that could serve as the commercial distribution lanes for them globally. A perfect example of this would be the strategic partnership and investment Fifth Wall orchestrated between homebuilder Lennar, one of Fifth Wall’s strategic investors, and Opendoor.

Are more real estate corporates forming their own venture capital arms?

There are more CVC (corporate venture capital) arms at real estate companies than there were three years ago, but they haven’t generally performed well, strategically or financially. Real estate organizations can be especially slow-moving and bureaucratic, making it difficult to attract great venture investment talent. CVC is inherently hard to execute well — in any industry — and for an ‘Old World’ industry such as real estate, CVC arms seem especially challenged.

Fifth Wall is increasingly finding that real estate owners are electing to become a part of the Fifth Wall consortium as we can now offer more distribution to any startup that any single corporate investor can offer investing on their own. Similarly, public market investors also have become critical of publicly-traded real estate corporates starting their own venture arms and have instead favored large real estate investment trusts (REITs) investing in consortium-based funds like Fifth Wall and others. I would expect this trend to continue as more real estate corporates are looking to partner with dedicated consortium-based real estate technology funds as opposed to maintaining their own CVC arm.

What trends are you most excited in Real Estate tech from an investing perspective?

We think there is a profound and exciting opportunity right now at the intersection of real estate technology and sustainability. Real estate owners are incredibly exposed to sustainability risks: the industry consumes 40% of all energy globally, emits 30% of total carbon dioxide, and uses 40% of all raw materials.

There is significant and growing regulatory pressure at both the local and federal levels to make all buildings net-zero carbon: look to Los Angeles and NYC’s recent legislation for two salient examples. Consumers and tenants of buildings are increasingly demanding heightened environmental standards for real estate assets. And finally, institutional investors are increasingly imposing sustainability requirements around their capital deployments.

Meeting the demands of stakeholders (regulators, tenants, and investors) is going to be an extraordinarily heavy lift for the real estate industry over the next decade, and effectively leveraging technology and innovation to drive solutions at scale is going to be crucial in order to meet these goals. Taken together, I believe the technologies to create more sustainable real estate assets represent a $1 trillion opportunity over the next decade.

Niki Pezeshki, Felicis Ventures

Felicis Ventures is an early-stage venture firm in the Bay Area that is currently investing out of a $300mm fund. We’ve made multiple investments in the real estate tech space over the last few years, including Opendoor (instant online home buying/selling), Juniper Square (investment management software for real estate), Modus (tech-enabled title & escrow company), Hippo Insurance (online home insurance), Quartz Robotics (construction robotics), and many more.

I led the Series A for Modus in mid-2019 and I’m on the board alongside Pete Flint from NfX, who was the founder of Trulia. We got excited about Modus because they are bringing new technology to a market where the two largest companies, Fidelity National Financial ($13bn market cap) and First American Financial ($7bn market cap), were both started in the 1800s (not a typo!). By creating a better closing experience for real estate agents, buyers and sellers, and also for the actual title and escrow officers that are doing the day-to-day work, Modus can take significant market share from these two large incumbents.

Broadly speaking, real estate tech feels over-heated given where we are in the economic cycle. I see multiple companies whose business models work great when real estate prices are going up, but will almost certainly get squeezed in a weak pricing environment. If I feel like a real estate business model has a limited margin of safety in a downturn, it’s typically a quick pass for me. The tech needs to be addressing an area within real estate that I think will see secular growth (ie less variability based on housing/rental prices).

I’ve also been surprised to see how many copycat companies continue to get funded at high valuations. It’s tough for me to envision a world where the 4th or 5th version of Opendoor or the 4th or 5th version of Sonder can return significant returns to investors. As a result, I’m really focusing on fresh ideas where there is a clear ‘why now’ or there is a unique business model innovation that I think may lead to a category-defining company. If my investment will have 4 to 5 clones in 2-3 years, I’ll know I was onto something (hopefully it’s defensible enough that it can fend off the competition though!).

My dad owned a restaurant for 30+ years and so I’ve always been partial to startups working on problems for small businesses with physical locations. It especially hits me hard when one of my favorite shops and/or restaurants in my neighborhood in SF closes down due to rent increases (even though the business was loved by the community and was quite busy). If there are startups out there with a unique business model that are helping small businesses stay open longer, I’d love to chat.

Hans Morris, Nyca Partners

There is still so much that technology can do to improve the experiences and performance for real estate lenders, borrowers, and investors. Our first investments in 2014-15 focused on digitizing archaic processes within the legacy financial world, leading us to early investments in Blend and Built, and enabling efficient investment into single-family rental housing through the Roofstock platform. It’s now clear that everyone’s expectations have been raised, and we expect accelerating digital process adoption throughout the value chain. No one says I prefer the old paper process!

There is considerable investor attention on shared ownership structures to enable more efficient home purchasing and unlocking home equity. Ribbon provides home buyers, sellers, and agents a guaranteed close, with software to help guide the process. And it’s very clear to us that new data tools can enable more efficient underwriting/investing in commercial real estate, like Skyline.ai, or more efficient underwriting of single-family risk, like Polly-ex.

Mihir Shah, JLL Spark & JLL Technologies 

I joined JLL to lead its strategic venture fund JLL Spark in 2017. Over the course of the last two-plus years, I’ve seen commercial real estate go from treating technology as a curiosity to a business imperative. Adoption is soaring, in fact, more than 60 percent of JLL’s top investor clients use at least one of JLL Spark’s portfolio company technologies. With that context, it’s no surprise that JLL decided to double down on its approach to proptech, forming JLL Technologies, the newly aligned division to build and expand our technology products and services for our clients and ourselves. At JLL Technologies, our mission is to enhance the liquidity of the world’s buildings while improving the happiness and productivity of those who occupy them.

A best-of-breed software stack is emerging for commercial real estate investors and property managers, and it’s impacting virtually every aspect of commercial real estate – from transactions and construction management, to facilities management and tenant experiences, to space utilization and building efficiency.

One trend we’re seeing is a strong push to digitize building operational data to gain insights and learnings from institutional knowledge in the commercial real estate lifecycle. Buildings produce a ton of data, and people are beginning to ask themselves, “how do we use it?” As a result, we’re interested in companies with a data-driven approach. For example, Dealpath provides real estate investors and development teams deeper visibility into their acquisition pipeline with the data analysis to maximize value at scale . Skyline AI is another great example of a company using machine learning and AI to help real estate investors leverage data to make more informed decisions. It uses a mix of proprietary and public data sources to create incredibly accurate valuation models and even acts as an investor itself.

As tenants demand more from building owners and property managers, tenant experience is another area ripe for opportunity. The modern workforce wants the technology-enabled experience they are accustomed to at work. This is putting more pressure on employers and property managers to deliver premium digital experiences tied to building amenities. Understanding how tenants are engaging with their space can lead to improved tenant retention and higher net operating income. While JLL’s virtual workplace assistant Jill aims to improve daily workflows, HqO and Livly are great examples of companies delivering value to tenants with on-demand app experiences, with HqO seeing 60 percent of tenants engage with its app in the first 12 months with zero landlord turnover to date.

Every day billions of people show up to work, live, or shop at commercial real estate assets. The impact of this technology is almost immeasurable, and I believe adoption will only continue to accelerate as investors and occupiers start to realize the ROI and benefits of proptech.

Casey Berman, Camber Creek

What trends are you most excited in Real Estate tech from an investing perspective?

One of the most dynamic areas for proptech investing right now is the multifamily space. Multifamily owners and operators are looking for new tools to increase tenant engagement, improve the tenant experience, streamline operations, and identify new revenue streams. For example, we are seeing a dynamic group of new concierge services, package delivery companies, tenant engagement apps, and the like. Camber Creek is proud of our work with WhyHotel, an alternative lodging service that operates pop-up hotels in newly built, luxury apartment buildings. Similarly, we are excited about our portfolio company Nestio, a multifamily marketing platform which offers an automated leasing experience.

We are also seeing a trend of companies that are combining technology with business process innovations to offer new services to business and consumers. For example, Camber Creek portfolio company Curbio is a tech-enabled ‘one-stop-shop’ for pre-sale home renovation. Curbio’s technology stack provides design, scoping, pricing, communication and scheduling tools to dramatically streamline the renovation process. Curbio also finances the remodel for the customer. Curbio’s model gives homeowners who lack the cash or wherewithal the opportunity to renovate and maximize the value of their homes, often their largest asset. Curbio is expanding rapidly around the U.S. and is already among the 550 largest home renovators in the country.

How much time are you spending on Real Estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

Camber Creek is the premier proptech venture capital firm in the U.S. We were founded in 2011 and all we do is real estate technology. Our portfolio includes companies like VTS, Latch, Compstak, Rabbet, TaskEasy, Building Engines, Measurabl, Bowery Valuations, and others.

Real estate is the largest asset class in the world and the real estate industry has historically lagged other industries in adopting technology. There is a long runway for technology innovation and adoption in the real estate industry and we think the market for proptech is just beginning to hit its stride. For example, going back to the trend of tenant engagement, a recent Deloitte survey of 750 real estate executives found that 92% of respondents plan to maintain or increase their tenant experience-related technology investments.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

That’s not really how we think about it, but there are some areas in which we are excited to see new energy and growth. For example, there is a cohort of companies finding creative ways to make housing more affordable, like PadSplit and Nesterly, which help homeowners rent out spare bedrooms or split up their homes into apartment units, in the process creating new low-cost rental inventory.

We think there is a lot of opportunity to bring new technology into the retail experience, from in-store augmented reality to systems that automatically check a consumer out (rather than waiting in a check-out line). Finally, the ‘smart home’ and ‘smart apartment’ landscape is changing rapidly and we believe the winners will be companies that can control the platform – i.e. how a homeowner or tenant accesses and controls the full range of smart home products.

John Helm, RET (Real Estate Technology) Ventures

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

Proptech investment has skyrocketed over the past two years as the $3.5 trillion commercial real estate market undergoes its much-needed digital transformation. If you look at the data, however, most of the money is being funneled into three primary buckets: construction (e.g. Katerra), residential real estate (e.g. Compass), and co-working (e.g. WeWork). Rental property owners representing more than 40 million units just in the US are largely being ignored by the investment community. This is why we’re excited about rent tech, which we define as any technology used to power multifamily or single-family rentals.

Large multifamily and single-family rental owners and operators are increasingly adopting technologies that streamline operations and improve resident experience to differentiate themselves in an ultra-competitive environment. Residents’ tech-enabled lifestyles are pushing rental owners to modernize their buildings and offer new amenities that simplify their residents’ lives. This includes everything from basic infrastructure needs like enabling Internet access throughout buildings, to smart home automation and customizable fully furnished units.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

We are focused solely on helping build cutting-edge real estate technology companies for the multifamily and single-family rental industries. Our view is that rent tech represents a substantial sub-category within proptech that hasn’t received a lot of attention, and thus we are aggressively pursuing it with the help of our limited partners that include more than 20 major multifamily organizations such as Essex, UDR, Starwood, Progress Residential, MidAmerica, Aimco, and BH Management, which collectively own and operate more than 1 million rental units in North America.

We think the market for proptech and rent tech is just about right. Valuations for prop-tech companies are generally high right now, but mainstream investors have cooled slightly because of some high-profile misses, namely WeWork. Deals will likely become more competitive when successful exits by proptech and rent tech companies take place more regularly.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

We work closely with our LPs to identify pain points and evaluate the top technologies in the market. By working directly with rent tech companies’ customer base, we can reduce the risk of our investments and deliver better returns.

Specifically, rental property owners are focused on the following areas:

  • Smart Home Automation: There’s been a lot of talk about a potential recession in 2020 which is why we’re bullish on smart apartment technology. Rental property owners can use the technology to streamline maintenance operations, improve resident experience, and create new revenue streams. Multifamily and single-family organizations cannot utilize consumer products off the shelf as they need a secure enterprise layer to control these devices from an operations perspective. The best companies, such as Smart Rent, provide a back end system that the property owner can leverage to realize operating efficiencies from access control and vacant unit utility management, as well as improve asset protection through leak detection. They also integrate with leading property management systems to the new resident is automatically provisioned and can take over the system when they move in. Once the resident is in control of the system, the best systems then only keep resident data for the resident and purge it from the system regularly.
  • Furniture-as-a-Service: Millennials are delaying home-buying and resistant to continually purchasing and moving furniture, so furniture-as-a-service companies are offering short-term solutions to help save consumers money while offering access to beautiful pieces from major brands like CB2/Crate&Barrel, Floyd, Campaign and more. Rental property owners are incorporating these services into the onboarding process so people can move into a fully furnished apartment, or just pick up a couple of nice pieces for their new home.
  • Tech-enabled Amenities: As people have become used to high-end experiences from hotels and short-term rentals, a thriving marketplace of tech-enabled services has popped up to deliver those amenities safely and securely for renters. For example, many multifamily organizations now offer apartment cleaning, dog walking, and dry cleaning services to all of their residents. It’s no longer enough to have a beautiful building in a prime location – rental property owners have to create value for their residents if they want to hold onto them.
  • Digital Management Tools: We’ve seen an increasing number of online tools pop up that help digitize previously paper-based forms and processes. We expect to see consolidation in this market comprised primarily of point solutions so this market will be exciting to watch.

Nima Wedlake, Thomvest Ventures

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

We’ve witnessed a flood of startups developing new approaches to financing homes. These can take many flavors: rent-to-own (Divvy Homes, ZeroDown), co-ownership (Unison, Point), debt-free buying (Haus), or equity release (Figure, Patch Homes, EasyKnock). These models are designed around a few core tenants:

Increase access to homeownership: Following the Great Recession, availability of credit to homebuyers has tightened: the average FICO score for conventional loans in July 2018 was 751, more than 100 points higher than average scores from 2004 to 2006. This has resulted in a home ownership rate that is particularly low among millennials — only one-third of Americans under 35 own a home. Startups in this space have the potential to lower the barriers to entry without overburdening home buyers with debt.

Better distribution of risk: Incorporating equity partners into the home finance ecosystem means better risk-sharing for the entire economy. This means that when house prices rise or fall, both would share the benefits or the burden. Financial contracts incorporate better sharing of risk will ultimately help avoid housing bubbles and make market crashes less severe.

Provide more flexibility to homeowners: Limited housing alternatives often tie individuals to a location and a job, which limits geographic mobility — adults in the U.S. are moving at an annual rate (10%) that is at its lowest since the US Census Bureau began collecting the data in 1946. New home buying models can achieve the right balance of delivering the benefits of ownership while providing buyers with a degree of flexibility not present in traditional debt contracts (mortgages).

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

We’ve historically been active financial technology investors, and over the last 18 months we’ve been spending meaningful time in the real estate tech vertical. There are many overlapping qualities between these two sectors: large market opportunities, slow-moving incumbents, growing consumer demand for technology products, and better data with which to price risk.

We’ve also been impressed by the quality of entrepreneurs building companies in the real estate category. Many are technologists who may not have spent their careers in real estate, but have personally experienced its inefficiencies as buyers or sellers of homes.

While we are excited about the market opportunity and the flood of talent moving into the sector, we also are keeping a close eye on how technology companies manage the inherently offline aspects of real estate. This asset class is operationally and capitally intensive — scaling businesses require building large teams and lots of venture capital. And in many cases, companies have struggled to prove that software can drive meaningful efficiencies in a business (see WeWork). Finally, we are spending a lot of time thinking about how “recession-proof” these tech-enabled businesses are, given that many of them were founded following the Great Recession and have yet to experience a negative housing cycle.

Travis Connors, Building Ventures

There is no greater challenge, and therefore opportunity, than successfully supporting the additional 2.5 billion people who will inhabit our world over the next 30 years (90% of them in cities). Accommodating this growth will require completely rethinking how we design, build and operate our physical world, the built environment, to provide an optimal experience for everyone. To put this in perspective we need to build the equivalent of a new New York City every single month. Meanwhile, our existing built environment consumes too much energy, produces too much pollution and is inefficiently utilized.

Our mission – and litmus test – is to invest in entrepreneurs leveraging technological innovation to deliver “A Better Built World”. We invest exclusively in opportunities across the continuum of the built environment, inclusive of what traditionally has been considered ConTech and PropTech. It’s no secret that the construction and real estate industries have historically been plagued by tremendous inefficiencies and lagging in innovation. The way we reinvent the design, construction, and operation of our buildings has major implications on our world’s most critical challenges including productivity, sustainability, resiliency, affordability and more. Clearly, we believe there are more than enough exciting and rewarding opportunities in this space to dedicate 100% of our time and capital here.

We are at the vanguard of a generational shift driven by three meta trends that will define the future of the built environment, “constructuring”, “autonomous building(s)”, and “space as a service”. All three are critical components to thinking of the Built Environment as a System for Living. Constructuring is the process by which we transform construction into something more akin to manufacturing. Portfolio companies such as Hypar, Join and Smartvid.io are indicative of this paradigm shift.

Another pillar of our thesis is autonomy of building and buildings. It’s pretty simple to understand how autonomy plays a significant role in the construction of buildings (think: Built Robotics’ autonomous excavators), but how do we think about the autonomy of the buildings themselves? Buildings like Dock 72 in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and The EDGE buildings are already making advances in building intelligence with new construction. Retrofitting existing “dumb” buildings is an even greater challenge with the opportunity for outsized impact. Autonomous Buildings leverage the vast power in IoT, ML, and AI to help buildings manage and configure themselves to deliver optimal utilization and experience. Our investments in Blokable, Dandelion Energy and 75F are examples of this trend in action.

And “Space as a Service” will enable greater flexibility, utilization and use options to deliver what occupants want and need. We see ample opportunities for technology to be a critical driver to create and enable vastly better experiences for occupiers of commercial and residential real estate. We expect the digital transformation driven by construction and real estate technologies to continue through and beyond 2020, especially as more and more stakeholders across the value chain realize the mutual benefit of early and continuous collaboration throughout a building’s complete lifecycle.

David Bates, Tamarisc Ventures

The first wave of innovation in the real estate technology sector was around business models. After the recession, a confluence of factors opened up a new field of disruptive possibilities: the push for more sustainable buildings; the spread of the Internet of Things (IoT) technology related to smart homes and offices; the rise of Millenials and the proliferation of the sharing economy and social media; the increased prevalence of smartphone use and the resulting plummet of sensor costs; and the advent of Big Data.

Many early movers in real estate tech-focused too heavily on topline growth without adequately emphasizing unit economics and market fluctuations; the outcome of this imbalance will no doubt be seen in the next recession. Early financing came relatively easily, with little scrutiny, and often at unjustified valuations. Flush with funds, many first-wave companies used expensive venture capital dollars to subsidize customer purchases and took on high fixed costs that resulted in poor or negative unit economics. While this may have worked for a few, the majority of companies have ended up — or will end up — compromised.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

This imbalance also led to a growing chasm between early-stage financing and more established venture rounds (Series A and beyond). Because so many companies were able to obtain abundant funds at early rounds, Series A financings today are exceedingly competitive and highly scrutinized. At the Series A stage, VC firms are now expecting around $2 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR), greater than 100% annual growth, and strong SaaS metrics to consider a company a real contender. The upside for those companies that meet these tough standards is that valuations are favorable, as are check sizes. But the downside, for those who don’t, is the dilution, distraction, and cap table complexity that accompanies companies’ efforts to retool their business along the arduous road to Series A.

In addition to unit economics, entrepreneurs in real estate tech must also focus on capital efficiency as they dial in product-market fit; otherwise they risk raising multiple, highly-dilutive seed rounds. Rather than merely tracking customer acquisition cost (CAC) — which taken alone can hide inefficiencies — we are constantly watching how much it costs to acquire one dollar of ARR. We encourage companies to do the same. It pains us to see hardworking founders holding only single-digit equity by the close of Series A.

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

For the most part, the first wave seems to have run its course — with the exception perhaps of Construction Tech, whose first wave still seems a ways from its crescendo. But the sector generally has matured; gone are the days when a single feature could grab immense market share and turn itself into a solution. Real estate professionals are bought in; larger firms are even hiring Chief Technology Officers. In today’s marketplace, platforms prevail, and startups designing features are little more than R&D laboratories for dominant players. Innovations must now build on the digital foundation laid by the first wave to deliver valuable analytics and business intelligence to more informed and demanding customers.

The second and more sustainable wave is on the horizon and it’s as much about technical as business model innovation. Weaning practitioners from spreadsheets, clipboards and as-builts and transitioning them into the cloud is no longer enough. And customers are no longer satisfied with sensor technology that merely tells them how many people are occupying a space; they now want to know what those people are doing, how they are feeling, and how they are interacting with each other and with their environment.

Ultimately, customers are looking for information that does one of three things: (1) helps their business to increase access to or utilization of an asset to boost topline revenue; (2) increases efficiency of resources (e.g., people, energy, space) to boost their net operating income; and (3) uplifts the user experience in a way that allows the customer to carve out a competitive advantage and support pricing premiums. Companies that satisfy all three of these criteria — like Bode, Bevi, and Getaway from our inaugural fund — have been able to really stand out and thrive. This trifecta is becoming more the norm and nowadays real intellectual property should also be part of a company’s value proposition.

Companies riding the second wave of real estate technology use the latest advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to analyze data that is collected either passively from the built environment or through the course of business, to deliver deeper, actionable insights that can be both predictive and prescriptive. An example of such a company in our current fund is Northspyre. Northspyre’s cloud-based intelligence platform is a full-fledged solution that allows its customers to efficiently and effectively track the progress of a wide variety of capital projects and anticipate issues before they occur — resulting in significant cost savings and more informed decision making.

Its advanced data architecture enables a platform for the creation of seemingly endless value-adding products and features, ultimately providing customers with ever-increasing, long-term value. Another example is Bite, whose AI-powered food & beverage digital ordering platform (which can be incorporated, for example, into automated ordering kiosks in stores) has resulted in greater customer access, a higher average order value, lower staffing costs, and improved user experience. Bite’s analytical engine can optimize market understanding for quick-service restaurants and provide guests with recommendations based on their unique food preferences and dietary restrictions.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

At Tamarisc we are looking to work with companies that are part of this second wave of real estate technology. We are particularly excited about the convergence of healthcare with the built environment through technology and business model innovations; we have a vision of the built environment as an extension of the healthcare professional. We anticipate that the best digital health models; those like Huckleberry Labs that use AI to drive efficiency factors related to expensive and geographically constrained healthcare professionals to increase patient access, lower per-patient costs, and improve the standard of care – will begin to merge into the built environment.

Technology platforms that work seamlessly through ambient computing in the built environment have the potential to bring the healthcare professional into the daily lives of individuals to optimize the healthspan of the population, reduce overreliance on medications, and drastically reduce the cost of healthcare in general. The built environment is already collecting scores of longitudinal, in situ data on its occupants; now is the time to translate that data into higher value, actionable intelligence for the betterment of society.

Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

By Ingrid Lunden

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

PalmPay launches in Nigeria on $40M round led by China’s Transsion

By Jake Bright

Africa focused payment startup PalmPay has launched in Nigeria after raising a $40 million seed-round led by Chinese mobile-phone maker Transsion.

The investment came via Transsion’s Tecno subsidiary, with participation from China’s NetEase and Taiwanese wireless comms hardware firm Mediatek a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch.

PalmPay had piloted its mobile fintech offering in Nigeria since July, before going live today at a launch in Lagos.

The startup aims to become Africa’s largest financial services platform, according to a statement. 

As part of the investment, PalmPay enters a strategic partnership with mobile brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel that includes pre-installation of the startup’s app on 20 million phones in 2020.

The UK headquartered venture — that was also founded with Chinese seed investment — offers a package of mobile based financial services, including no fee payment options, bill pay, rewards programs, and discounted airtime.

In Nigeria, PalmPay will offer 10% cashback on airtime purchases and bank transfer rates as low as 10 Naira ($.02).

In addition to Nigeria, PalmPay will use the $40 million seed funding to grow its financial services business in Ghana. The payments startup has plans to expand to additional countries in 2020, PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve told TechCrunch on a call.

PalmPay received its approval from the Nigerian Central Bank as a licensed mobile money operator in July. During its pilot phase, the payments venture registered 100,000 users and processed 1 million transactions, according to a company spokesperson.

With its payments focus, the startup enters Africa’s most promising digital sector, but also one that has become notably competitive and crowded  — particularly in the continent’s largest economy and most populous nation of Nigeria. 

By a number of estimates, Africa’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.

An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns this scenario into an opportunity for mobile-based financial products.

That’s why hundreds of startups are descending on Africa’s fintech space, looking to offer scalable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered WeeTracker, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital and deal-flow to African startups.

Nigeria has multiple new digital-payments entrants — see Chippercash — and several firmly rooted later stage fintech players, such as Paga and recently confirmed unicorn Interswitch.

PalmPay CEO Greg Reeves believes the company can compete in Nigeria and across Africa based on several strategic advantages. A big one is the startup’s support from Transsion and partnership with Tecno.

Transsion Tecno Store Africa“On channel and access, we’re going to be pre-installed on all Tecno phones. Your’e gonna find us in the Tecno stores and outlets. So we get an immediate channel and leg up in any market we operate in,” said Reeve.

Tecno’s owner and PalmPay’s lead investor, Transsion, is the largest seller of smartphones in Africa and maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia. The company raised nearly $400 million in a Shanghai IPO in September and plans to spend roughly $300 million of that on new R&D and manufacturing capabilities in Africa and globally.

In addition to Transsion’s support and network, Reeves names PalmPay’s partnership with Visa . “We signed a strategic alliance with Visa so now I can deliver Visa products on top of my wallet, link my wallet to Visa products and give access to someone who’s completely unbanked to the whole of the Visa network,” he said.

Another strategic advantage PalmPay may have as a newcomer in Africa’s fintech space is Reeve’s leadership experience. He comes to the CEO position after serving as Vodaphone’s global head of M-Pesa — one of the world’s most recognized mobile-money products. Reeve was also a GM for Millicom‘s fintech products across Africa and Latin America.

“I’ve had my fingers in mobile financial services for the last 10 years,” he said.

Reeve confirmed that PalmPay has local teams (and is hiring) in Nigeria and Ghana.

With the company’s launch and $40 million raise — which is potentially the largest seed-round for an Africa focused startup in 2019 — PalmPay’s bid to gain digital payment market share is on.

The Transsion led investment also serves as a big bold marker for China’s pivot to African tech in 2019. It follows several big moves by Chinese actors in the continent’s digital space.

These include Opera’s $50 million investment in multiple online verticals in Nigeria and a major investment by Chinese investors in trucking logistics startup Lori Systems this week.

Chaka opens up global investing to Africa’s most populous nation

By Jake Bright

Fintech startup Chaka aims to open up online investing to Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria.

The seed-stage company recently went live with its mobile-based platform that offers Nigerians stock trading in more than 40 countries.

Chaka positions itself as a passport to local and global investing. The startup has created an API and interface that allows Nigerians with a bank account (and who meet KYC requirements) to create trading accounts to purchase global blue chip and local Nigerian stocks.

Investors can get started with as little as 1,000 Naira, or $10, to create a local and global wallet to trade, according to Chaka founder and CEO Tosin Osibodu.

The platform has partnerships with two brokers to facilitate stock purchases: Citi Investment Capital and U.S.-based DriveWealth.

“Embedded in our offer is the ability to buy on the local stock market…we make it more seamless than usual, and assets…from this whole universe outside the continent,” said Osibodu.

The Nigerian Stock Exchange has been upgrading its platform to digitize and accommodate more listings. It has a five-year partnership with NASDAQ and Airtel Africa listed on the NSE in July. 

On the Chaka’s addressable market, “Our outlook is that within Nigeria…between one and two million people are strongly in the market for this product,” Osibodu said.

Tosin Osibodu

Chaka looks to offer more than stocks. “Our product road-map includes not just equities, but other investment products people are interested in — mutual funds, fixed income products, and eventually even cryptocurrencies — so that really expands our bounds,” said Osibodu.

Chaka’s fee structure is 100 Naira (or 3%) for local trades and $4.00 for global trades.

To mitigate the FX risk of the often volatile Nigerian Naira, the startup converts locally to dollars and funds client trades in USD. Chaka agrees to intra-day forward rates at 9am each day and locks them in until 2pm for transactional activity on its platform, according to Osibodu

Chaka hasn’t disclosed amounts, but confirms its has received pre-seed funding from Nigerian founder and investor Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, aka E.

The startup is in a unique position in African fintech. The sector receives the bulk of the continent’s VC (according WeeTracker), but most of it is directed toward P2P payments startups — versus personal investment platforms.

An alum of U-Penn and Dartmouth, Chaka’s founder got the idea to form the venture, in part, due to challenges attempting to access well-known trading platforms, such as E-Trade.

“I tried to open these accounts and whenever I…disclosed I was Nigerian very shortly after those accounts were closed or denied,” said Osibodu. 

For decades, Nigeria has been known as an originating country for online fraud, commonly referred to as 419 scams. This is something for which the country’s legitimate business operators pay an undue reputational cost, according to Osibodu. 

In recent years, Nigeria has also become a magnet for legitimate business in Africa. The country has the continent’s leading movie and entertainment industry and has emerged as a hotspot for startup formation and VC activity.

Chaka backer Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who confirmed his investment in the company to TechCrunch, believes progressive trends in Nigeria will open up a new investor class.

In addition to Aboyeji, Chaka has also received seed-funds from Microtraction, a Lagos-located early-stage investment shop founded by Yele Bademosi and supported by Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

Chaka allows for API integrations and has a developer team. The company has created an automated customer verification process. “It sounds trivial compared to the American market, but it’s a bit of a first in Nigeria,” said CEO Tosin Osibodu.

On Chaka’s long-game, “The grand mission of the company is to reduce capital market access barriers,” according to Osibodu.

“With a two to five million customer base — and a $40 to $200 ARPU — on the really conservative end that’s a $100 million revenue opportunity,” he said.

 

New 5G flaws can track phone locations and spoof emergency alerts

By Zack Whittaker

5G is faster and more secure than 4G. But new research shows it also has vulnerabilities that could put phone users at risk.

Security researchers at Purdue University and the University of Iowa have found close to a dozen vulnerabilities, which they say can be used to track a victim’s real-time location, spoof emergency alerts that can trigger panic or silently disconnect a 5G-connected phone from the network altogether.

5G is said to be more secure than its 4G predecessor, able to withstand exploits used to target users of older cellular network protocols like 2G and 3G like the use of cell site simulators — known as “stingrays.” But the researchers’ findings confirm that weaknesses undermine the newer security and privacy protections in 5G.

Worse, the researchers said some of the new attacks also could be exploited on existing 4G networks.

The researchers expanded on their previous findings to build a new tool, dubbed 5GReasoner, which was used to find 11 new 5G vulnerabilities. By creating a malicious radio base station, an attacker can carry out several attacks against a target’s connected phone used for both surveillance and disruption.

In one attack, the researchers said they were able to obtain both old and new temporary network identifiers of a victim’s phone, allowing them to discover the paging occasion, which can be used to track the phone’s location — or even hijack the paging channel to broadcast fake emergency alerts. This could lead to “artificial chaos,” the researcher said, similar to when a mistakenly sent emergency alert claimed Hawaii was about to be hit by a ballistic missile amid heightened nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. (A similar vulnerability was found in the 4G protocol by University of Colorado Boulder researchers in June.)

Another attack could be used to create a “prolonged” denial-of-service condition against a target’s phone from the cellular network.

In some cases, the flaws could be used to downgrade a cellular connection to a less-secure standard, which makes it possible for law enforcement — and capable hackers — to launch surveillance attacks against their targets using specialist “stingray” equipment.

All of the new attacks can be exploited by anyone with practical knowledge of 4G and 5G networks and a low-cost software-defined radio, said Syed Rafiul Hussain, one of the co-authors of the new paper.

Given the nature of the vulnerabilities, the researchers said they have no plans to release their proof-of-concept exploitation code publicly. However, the researchers did notify the GSM Association (GSMA), a trade body that represents cell networks worldwide, of their findings.

Although the researchers were recognized by GSMA’s mobile security “hall of fame,” spokesperson Claire Cranton said the vulnerabilities were “judged as nil or low-impact in practice.” The GSMA did not say if the vulnerabilities would be fixed — or give a timeline for any fixes. But the spokesperson said the researchers’ findings “may lead to clarifications” to the standard where it’s written ambiguously.

Hussain told TechCrunch that while some of the fixes can be easily fixed in the existing design, the remaining vulnerabilities call for “a reasonable amount of change in the protocol.”

It’s the second round of research from the academics released in as many weeks. Last week, the researchers found several security flaws in the baseband protocol of popular Android models — including Huawei’s Nexus 6P and Samsung’s Galaxy S8+ — making them vulnerable to snooping attacks on their owners.

No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

By Jonathan Shieber

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms which were created using flawed datasets mean that there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos, co-founder and CEO of Elektra Labs, in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop-shop for all of their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for Fitbit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel, and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was . one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment.  Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

Voi raises another $85M for its European e-scooter service

By Steve O'Hear

Voi Technology, the “micro-mobility” startup that operates an e-scooter service in a 38 cities across 10 European countries, has raised an $85 million in Series B funding.

Backing the round is a mixture of existing and new investors. They include Balderton Capital, Creandum, Project A, JME Ventures, Raine Ventures, Kreos Capital, Inbox Capital, Rider Global, and Black Ice Capital. The new funding brings the total raised by Voi to $136 million.

Eagled-eyed readers will have noticed that, based on our previous Voi coverage, the total figure is $32 million short. That’s because not all of Voi’s previous Series A commitment was cashed in after the company was offered more favourable terms for its $30 million Series A extension and therefore elected not to draw down the second tranche of its original Series A.

Launched in 2018, the company is best-known for its e-scooter rentals but now pitches itself as a micro-mobility provider, offering a number of different transport devices. These include various e-scooter and e-bike models, in a bid to become a broader transport operator helping to re-shape urban transport and wean people off using cars.

To date, Voi says it has 4 million registered users and has powered 14 million rides. More recently it has launched new, more robust hardware that has been designed to sustain the rigours of commercial e-bike sharing. The idea is that more suitable hardware will help e-scooter companies improve margins since more rides can be extracted from the life-span of each vehicle.

On that note, Voi says it will use the new funding to develop “strong profitable businesses” in the 38 cities where it is already operating, as well as increase its R&D spend to improve its technology platform and products. Earlier this year, the company announced that it is already profitable in the cities of Stockholm and Oslo.

“Clearly, we feel we are on track to achieve this in more of our cities and that is our aim,” Voi co-founder and CEO Fredrik Hjelm tells me. “At this point, a key focus for us is to ensure we continue to increase the lifetime of our e-scooters, forge key partnerships and continue to work in those cities which provide the best conditions for a profitable e-scooter business”.

Hjelm says that Voi’s version 2 scooters are projected to last over 18 months, which means the company should be in profit before it needs to raise again. However, he wouldn’t be drawn on when that might be.

With regards to R&D and improvements to the Voi platform, the company will continue to work on the lifetime of its e-scooters, in addition to improved repair management via integrating “predictive diagnostics”.

Hjelm also says Voi is developing “AI-powered” fleet management and more generally the platform’s capability to support future product portfolio expansion. In other words, we can expect new micro-mobility device categories in the future.

Banning digital political ads gives extremists a distinct advantage

By Walter Thompson
Jessica Alter Contributor
Jessica Alter is co-founder and chairman of Tech for Campaigns, an organization building the lasting tech and digital arm for Democrats and has helped over 200 campaigns on this front since 2017.

Jack Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter will no longer run political ads because “political messages reach should be earned, not bought” has been welcomed as a thoughtful and statesmanlike contrast to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s greedy acceptance of “political ads that lie.” While the 240-character policy sounds compelling, it’s both flawed in principle and, I fear, counterproductive in practice. 

First: like it or hate it, the U.S. political system is drowning in money. In 2018, a non-presidential year, it is estimated that over $9B was spent on the U.S. elections. And unless laws change, more will continue to flow. Banning digital ads will not reduce the amount of money in politics, and will simply shift it to less transparent channels. In an ideal world, it would be great if all “political messages were earned and not bought,”  but that is not how our system works. Candidates, Super PACs, C4s and others already allow the majority of their budgets to be swallowed up by other, less visible, accountable and cost-effective, channels — including television, mail, telephone, and radio.

More likely, at least some of the money will end up with even less transparent organizations that aren’t deemed “political,” but very much are. 

Second, banning digital political ads will not only hurt the very candidates people should want to help, it will also damage our democratic process. Analog mediums are significantly more expensive and inefficient than digital ones, so candidates who have a lot of money and/or have spent time cultivating their followings will continue to dominate. In other words, incumbent candidates, rich people and reality TV stars enjoy an outsized advantage when digital advertising is denied. 

A recent Stanford study found that, at the state house level, more than 10 times as many candidates advertise on Facebook than advertise on television. The research found that digital ads lowers advertising costs, which expands the set of candidates for whom advertising — and thus the potential to reach voters and seriously contest an election — is a real possibility. 

Lesser well-known, but often highly-qualified candidates at the state, local and federal level are precisely the people who have been celebrated for their new perspectives, creative ideas and commitment to shake up the system. People who put their heads down, do good work in their communities and decide to run because they want to make a difference will be the ones that are disadvantaged. 

You know who gets plenty of earned media opportunities? Donald Trump. He will be fine. In fact, he will be better than fine because we’ve just handed him and more extremist candidates like him a distinct advantage.

Democracy is about the combination of free speech and transparency. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, so here are a few ideas that would be more effective than a ban:

  • Adding a “nutrition label” to political ads offers a more accessible, understandable and consistent way to identify the identities of the funder, their location, their budget and their target audience. This should be easily accessed, in any political ad via one click, just like we know where to find nutrition information on food we buy. 
  • Enhance “consumer beware” acknowledgments so that if digital political ads remain exempt from fact-checking (as they mostly are on television), platforms have a duty to make that clear with visual signals and user education.

Ultimately, decisions about what is permissible political speech and appropriate distribution and targeting is too important to be left to technology platforms and their conceptions of the public interest.

Do we want Google, Facebook and Twitter making the rules for all political ads and being responsible for enforcing them? What we need is a true oversight body — one with teeth. If non-political advertisers make false claims about their own products or those of their competitors, they can be fined by the FTC. This is an acknowledgment, not only that consumers need accurate facts, but also that companies can not police themselves. This is far too much power for them. 

This isn’t a way to let technology companies off the hook, as there is plenty more they can do as noted above. But we need a truly independent organization overseeing political ads — the rules that govern them and holding organizations accountable to following those rules. Is this the FEC? I’m not sure.

As I write this today, I worry that no agency truly has the capacity or the expertise to create these rules and challenge bad campaign practices. We should remedy this post-haste and get to finding true solutions. The alternative seems easier and even principled to fight for, but the unintended consequences will be swift — a government full of the types of people who we say we don’t want. 

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