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4 things to remember when adapting AI/ML learning models during a pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Pedro Alves Contributor
Pedro Alves is the founder and CEO of Ople.AI, a software startup that provides an automated machine learning platform to empower business users with predictive analytics.

The machine learning and AI-powered tools being deployed in response to COVID-19 arguably improve certain human activities and provide essential insights needed to make certain personal or professional decisions; however, they also highlight a few pervasive challenges faced by both machines and the humans that create them.

Nevertheless, the progress seen in AI/machine learning leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. This global economic and public health crisis brings with it a unique opportunity for updates and innovation in modeling, so long as certain underlying principles are followed.

Here are four industry truths (note: this is not an exhaustive list) my colleagues and I have found that matter in any design climate, but especially during a global pandemic climate.

Some success can be attributed to chance, rather than reasoning

When a big group of people is collectively working on a problem, success may become more likely. Looking at historic examples like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there were several analysts credited with predicting the crisis. This may seem miraculous to some until you consider that more than 200,000 people were working in Wall Street, each of them making their own predictions. It then becomes less of a miracle and more of a statistically probable outcome. With this many individuals simultaneously working on modeling and predictions, it was highly likely someone would get it right by chance.

Similarly, with COVID-19 there are a lot of people involved, from statistical modelers and data scientists to vaccine specialists, and there is also an overwhelming eagerness to find solutions and concrete data-based answers. Following appropriate statistical rigor, coupled with machine learning and AI, can improve these models and decrease the chances of false predictions that arrive from too many predictions being made.

Automation can help in maintaining productivity if used wisely

During a crisis, time-management is essential. Automation technology can be used not only as part of the crisis solution, but also as a tool for monitoring productivity and contributions of team members working on the solution. For modeling, automation can also greatly improve the speed of results. Every second a piece of software can perform automation for a model, it allows a data scientist (or even a medical scientist) to conduct other more important tasks. User-friendly platforms in the market now give more people, like business analysts, access to predictions from custom machine learning models.

Want to hire and retain high-quality developers? Give them stimulating work

By Walter Thompson
Phil Alves Contributor
Devsquad founder and CEO Phil Alves is an expert entrepreneur with more than 15 years of experience in the tech industry leading product development teams for multiple clients.

Software developers are some of the most in-demand workers on the planet. Not only that, they’re complex creatures with unique demands in terms of how they define job fulfillment. With demand for developers on the rise (the number of jobs in the field is expected to grow by 22% over the next decade), companies are under pressure to do everything they can to attract and retain talent.

First and foremost — above salary — employers must ensure that product teams are made up of developers who feel creatively stimulated and intellectually challenged. Without work that they feel passionate about, high-quality programmers won’t just become bored and potentially seek opportunities elsewhere, the standard of work will inevitably drop. In one survey, 68% of developers said learning new things is the most important element of a job.

The worst thing for a developer to discover about a new job is that they’re the most experienced person in the room and there’s little room for their own growth.

Yet with only 32% of developers feeling “very satisfied” with their jobs, there’s scope for you to position yourself as a company that prioritizes the development of its developers, and attract and retain top talent. So, how exactly can you ensure that your team stays stimulated and creatively engaged?

Allow time for personal projects

78% of developers see coding as a hobby — and the best developers are the ones who have a true passion for software development, in and out of the workplace. This means they often have their own personal passions within the space, be it working with specific languages or platforms, or building certain kinds of applications.

Back in their 2004 IPO letter, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote:

We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. [This] empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.

At DevSquad, we’ve adopted a similar approach. We have an “open Friday” policy where developers are able to learn and enhance their skills through personal projects. As long as the skills being gained contribute to work we are doing in other areas, the developers can devote that time to whatever they please, whether that’s contributing to open-source projects or building a personal product. In fact, 65% of professional developers on Stack Overflow contribute to open-source projects once a year or more, so it’s likely that this is a keen interest within your development team too.

Not only does this provide a creative outlet for developers, the company also gains from the continuously expanding skillset that comes as a result.

Provide opportunities to learn and teach

One of the most demotivating things for software developers is work that’s either too difficult or too easy. Too easy, and developers get bored; too hard, and morale can dip as a project seems insurmountable. Within our team, we remain hyperaware of the difficulty levels of the project or task at hand and the level of experience of the developers involved.

Writer Anand Giridharadas on tech’s billionaires: “Are they even on the same team as us?”

By Connie Loizos

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s roughly 640 billionaires have seen their fortunes soar by $845 billion in combined assets or 29% collectively, widening the already yawning gap between the very richest and the rest of the U.S.

Many of those billions were made by tech founders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, whose companies have soared in value and, in tandem, their net worth. In fact, so much has been made so fast and by so few relatively, that it’s easy to wonder if greater equality is now forever out of reach.

To talk about that question, we reached out earlier this week to Ananad Giridharadas, a former New York Times correspondent whose 2018 book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” became a best-seller.

Giridharadas’s message at the time was largely that the generosity of the global elite is somewhat laughable — that many of the same players who say they want to help society are creating its most intractable problems. Think, for example, of Bezos, whose company paid zero in federal tax in 2017 and 2018 and who is now on the cusp of opening a tuition-free preschool for underserved children called the Bezos Academy.

Given the aggressive escalation over the last six months of the same trends Giridharadas has tracked for years, we wondered how he views the current situation. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: You have a weekly newsletter where you make the point that Jeff Bezos could give every one of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a ‘pandemic’ bonus of $105,000, and he would still have as much money as he did in March.

AG: There’s this way in which these crises are not merely things that the rich and powerful survive. They’re things that they leverage and exploit, and it starts to raise the question of: are they even on the same team as us? Because when you have discussions about stimulus relief, around what kind of policy responses you could have to something like the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic, there’s initially some discussion and clamor for universal basic income, or substantial monthly checks for people, or even the French approach of nationalizing people salaries… and those things usually die. And they die thanks to corporate lobbyists and advocates of the rich and powerful, and are replaced by forms of relief that are upwardly redistributive that essentially exploit a crisis to transfer wealth and power to the top.

TC: Earlier in the 20th century, there was this perception that industry would contribute to solving a crisis with government. In this economy, we didn’t see a lot of the major tech companies, or a lot of the companies that were benefiting from this crisis, really sacrificing something to help the U.S. Do you see things that way?

AG: I think that’s right. I’m always wary of idealizing certain periods in the past, and I think there were a lot of problems in that time. But I think there’s no question that it was not as difficult back then, as it is today, to summon some kind of sense of common purpose and even the need to sacrifice values like profit-seeking for other values.

I mean, after 9/11, President George W. Bush told us all to go shopping as the way to advance the common good. Donald Trump is now 18 levels of hell further down that path, not even telling us that we need to do anything for each other and [instead describing earlier this week] a pandemic that has killed 200,000 people as being something that doesn’t really affect most people.

So there’s just been a coarsening. And that kind of selfish trajectory of our culture, after 40 years of being told that what we do alone is better than what we do together, that what we do to create wealth is more important than what we do to advance shared goals — that quite dismal, dull message has had its consequences. And when you get a pandemic like this, and you suddenly need to be able to summon people to all socially distance at a minimum or, more ambitiously, pull for the common good or pay higher taxes or things that might even cost them a little bit, it’s very hard to do because the groundwork isn’t there.

TC: You’ve talked quite a bit over the years about “fake change.”

AG: Silicon Valley is the new Rome of our time, meaning a place in the world that ends up deciding how a lot of the rest of the world lives. No matter where you lived on the planet Earth, when the Roman Empire started to rise, it had plans for you one way or another, through your legal system, or your language, or culture, or something else. The Roman Empire was coming for you.

Silicon Valley is that for our time. It’s the new Rome [in] that you can’t live on planet Earth and be unaffected, directly or indirectly, by the decisions made in this relatively small patch of [the world]. So the question then becomes, what does that new Rome want? And my impression of having reported on that world is that it’s an incredibly homogeneous world of people at the top of this new Rome. It’s white-male-dominated in a way that even other white-male-dominated sectors of the American economy are not . . . and it’s a lot of a certain kind of man who often is actually more obtuse about understanding human society and sociological dynamics and human beings than the average person.

Maybe they didn’t spend a lot of time negotiating human dynamics at sleepovers, which is fine. But when you end up with a new Rome and it’s hyper dominated by people of one race and one gender, many of whom are disproportionately socially unintelligent, running the platforms through which most human sociality now occurs — democratic discourse, family community, so on and so forth — we all start to live in a world created by people who are just quite limited. They are smart at the thing they’re smart at, and they’ve become in charge of a lot of how the world works. And they are simply not up to the task. And we see evidence of that every day.

TC: Are you speaking about empathy?

AG: Empathy is absolutely one of [the factors]. The ability to understand the more amorphous, non technological, non quantifiable things . . . it’s so interesting, because it’s people who are clearly very smart in a certain area but just honestly do not understand democratic theory. There’s just so much work that’s been done — deep, complicated thinking going back to Plato and Aristotle, but also modern sociological work, including why a safety net and welfare is complicated. And there’s a certain kind of personality type that I have found very dominant in Silicon Valley, where it’s these men who just don’t really have a lens for that.

They’re often geniuses. It’s a certain kind of particular personality type where you care a lot about one thing and you go deep on that one thing, and it’s probably the same personality type that Beethoven had. It’s a great thing, actually. It’s just not great for governing us, and what these people are doing is privately governing us, and they have no humility about the limitations of their worldview.

TC: We’re talking largely about social media here. Is it reasonable to expect some kind of government action. Do you think that’s naive? 

AG: It’s absolutely essential that the tech industry be brought into the same kind of sensible regulatory regime. I mean, you have kids, I have kids. If you’ve ever read the side of their car seats or any of the other products in their lives, you understand how much regulation there is for our benefit. . . I often say that the government at its best is like a lawyer for all of us. The government is like ‘Why don’t we check out these car seats for you and create some rules around them, and then you can just buy a car seat and not have to wonder whether it’s the kind that protects your child or crumbles?’ That’s what the government does for all kinds of things.

TC: You’ve talked about billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes yet don’t hesitate to make a donation because they have control over where their money is spent and they get their name on a building, and it’s true. Many companies whose founders also consider themselves philanthropists, like Salesforce and Netflix, paid no federal tax in 2018, which amounts to billions of dollars lost. If you had to prioritize between taking antitrust action or closing the tax loopholes, which would you choose?

AG: They’re both important. But I think I would prioritize taxation.

One way to think about it is this pre distribution and redistribution. The monopoly issue in a way is pre distribution, which is how much money you get to make in the first place. If you get to be a monopoly because we don’t enforce antitrust laws, you’re going to end up making, pre tax, a lot more money than you would otherwise have made if you had to compete in an actual free market.

Once you’ve made that money, the tax question comes up. So both are important, but I think you can’t overestimate the extent to which the tax thing is just totally foundational. If you look at the report that the 400 richest families in America pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom half of families, it’s appalling.

We live in a complicated world. A lot of different things have been going on, including just in the last few months. But if you have to really summarize the drift and the shift of the last 40 years, it’s been a war on taxation. And it’s been a massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top of American life through taxation. Since the ’80s, the top 1% has gained $21 trillion of wealth, and the bottom half of Americans have lost $900 billion of wealth on average —  and much of that was prosecuted through the tax code.

Awkward! Above, Giridharadas shaking hands with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at a Wired event in 2018.

Daily Crunch: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

By Anthony Ha

Amazon announces a new game service and plenty of hardware upgrades, tech companies team up against app stores and United Airlines tests a program for rapid COVID-19 testing. This is your Daily Crunch for September 24, 2020.

The big story: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon’s competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is called Luna, and it’s available starting today at an early access price of $5.99 per month. Subscribers will be able to play games across PC, Mac and iOS, with more than 50 games in the library.

The company made the announcement at a virtual press event, where it also revealed a redesigned Echo line (with spherical speakers and swiveling screens), the latest Ring security camera and a new, lower-cost Fire TV Stick Lite.

You can also check out our full roundup of Amazon’s announcements.

The tech giants

App makers band together to fight for App Store changes with new ‘Coalition for App Fairness’ — Thirteen app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, launched a coalition formalizing their efforts to force app store providers to change their policies or face regulation.

LinkedIn launches Stories, plus Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams video integrations as part of wider redesignLinkedIn has built its business around recruitment, so this redesign pushes engagement in other ways as it waits for the job economy to pick up.

Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election — This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet? — The latest episode of Equity discusses a giant funding round for Robinhood.

Twitter-backed Indian social network ShareChat raises $40 million — Following TikTok’s ban in India, scores of startups have launched short-video apps, but ShareChat has clearly established dominance.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek pledges $1Bn of his wealth to back deeptech startups from Europe — Ek pointed to machine learning, biotechnology, materials sciences and energy as the sectors he’d like to invest in.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures — At Disrupt, we heard about alternative approaches to ensuring that VCs and early founders aren’t the only ones who benefit from startup success.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them — Many of these lessons, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, can be applied to other digital products.

As tech stocks dip, is insurtech startup Root targeting an IPO? — Alex Wilhelm writes that Root’s debut could clarify Lemonade’s IPO and valuation.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

United Airlines is making COVID-19 tests available to passengers, powered in part by Color — United is embarking on a new pilot project to see if easy access to COVID-19 testing immediately prior to a flight can help ease freedom of mobility.

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 — TechCrunch reporters and editors will interview some of the top leaders in transportation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Ring’s newest security camera is a $249 autonomous indoor drone shipping in 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Ring built its entire business on reinventing the doorbell — and now it’s taking a similar approach to the humble home security camera, with the Ring Always Home Cam, set to be available sometime next year. You might not guess from its name, but this security camera is actually mobile: It’s a drone that flies autonomously throughout your home, to provide you with the view you want of whatever room you want, without having to have video cameras installed in multiple locations throughout your house.

The Always Home Cam is a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which you lay out as a user. The drone can’t actually be manually flown, and it begins recording only once its in flight (the camera lens is actually physically blocked while it’s docked) — both features the company says will help ensure it operates strictly with privacy in mind. Always Home Cam is also designed intentionally to produce an audible hum while in use, to alert anyone present that it’s actually moving around and recording.

As you’d expect, the Always Home Cam doesn’t have the exposed rotors you’d see on a drone designed for use in outdoor open spaces. It has a plastic border and grills that enclose those for safety. It’s also small, at 5″x 7″x7″, which is useful for safety of both people and household objects.

I spoke to Ring founder and CEO Jamie Siminoff about why they decided to create such an ambitious, unorthodox home security camera — especially given their track record of relatively down-to-Earth, tech-enabled versions of tried-and-tested home hardware like doorbells and floodlights. He said that it actually came out of user feedback — something he still personally pays close attention to, even now that Ring is part of the larger corporate apparatus of Amazon . Siminoff said that a lot of the feedback he was seeing was from customers who wished they’d either been home or been able to see when some specific thing happened at a specific place in their house, or that they wanted a camera for a particular room, but only for certain times — and then a different camera in a different room for others.

“It’s not practical to have a camera at every angle in every room of the home,” he said. “Even if you had unlimited resources, I think it’s still not practical. What I love about the Always Home Cam is that it really does solve this problem of being one cam for all — it allows you to now see every angle of the home, in every part of the home.”

Drones are also not Ring’s main business, and yet the Always Home Cam will be available at the relatively low price of $249 when it becomes available, despite the technical challenges of creating a small aircraft able to operate indoors safely and fully autonomously. I asked Siminoff how Ring was able to achieve that price point in a category that’s outside its core expertise, with a design developed fully in-house.

“As the technology has kind of aged, a lot of these parts come down in price,” he said. “There’s also a lot of price compression happening because auto manufacturers are using a lot of these parts now at higher volumes, because to have an autonomous drone, you need some similar things to autonomous cars. Obviously, it’s not the same exact parts, but all of those costs have been coming down, and we were able to go with a fresh perspective to it. But I also challenged the team when we came up with this, that this has to be affordable.”

The Ring Always Home Cam will also work with Ring’s existing suite of products, including Ring Alarm, to automatically fly a pre-set path when an alarm is triggered. You’re able then to stream the video live to your mobile device via the Ring app. In many ways, it does seem like a natural extension of the Ring ecosystem of products and services, but at the same time, it also seems like something out of science fiction. I asked Siminoff if he thinks consumers are ready to take this kind of technology seriously as something that’s part of their daily lives.

“I think it is sort of something that is, in some ways, way out there,” he acknowledged. “What I love about it, though, is that it’s what happens when you just take the constraints away of this linear thinking. I love that we are doing stuff from really looking at the need backward, and then what technology exists, and ask what can we build? It’s really exciting for me to be able to do something and put our stamp on something that is an industry first.”

Ring gets into automotive security with three new car products, including one debuting first for Teslas

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon -owned Ring is expanding from home and neighborhood security to the automative world, with three new products it debuted today at Amazon’s expansive devices and services extravaganza. These include Ring Car Alarm, Ring Car Cam, and Ring Car Connect – two new devices and one API/hardware combo aimed at automotive manufacturers, respectively. Each of these will be available beginning sometime next year.

“Truly since we started Ring, and even back in Doorbot days, people were asking for automotive security,” explained Ring CEO and founder Jamie Siminoff in an interview. “It was something that we always kind of had top of mind, but obviously we had to get a lot of other things done first – it does take time to build a product, and to do them right. So while it did take us some time to get into it, our mission is making neighborhoods safer, and a lot of the stuff that happens to cars happens in the neighborhood.”

Siminoff said that he’s especially pleased to be able to launch not just one, but a full suite of car security products that he feels covers the needs of just about any customer out there. Ring Car Alarm is an OBD-II wireless device that can detect any bumps while the car’s unoccupied, or even break-ins and when the car’s begin towed. Ring Car Cam is a security camera, which can work either via wifi, or LTE available via an add-on plan, and check for incidents while parked, or offer emergency crash detection and traffic stop recording when on the road. Finally, Ring Car Connect is an API and aftermarket device for carmakers that allows them to integrate a vehicle’s built-in cameras, and lock/unlock state.

I asked Siminoff why start right out the gate with three separate products, especially in a new market that Ring’s entering for the first time.

“As we started looking into it more, we realized that really, it wasn’t a one-size-fits all kind of product line, even to start,” he said. “We realized that it really was about trying to build more of a suite of products around the car. At Ring. we try to – and I won’t say we hit this 100% of time – but we’ve certainly tried to only launch something when it’s truly inventive, differentiated for the market, fits our mission and can really make a customer’s life better.”

[gallery ids="2051119,2051116"]

The products definitely span a range of price points – Ring Car Alarm will retail for $59.99, while Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm is obviously aimed at the broadest swath of customers, and provides a fundamental feature set that can work in concert with the Ring app to hopefully provide deterrents to potential criminal activity around a user’s vehicle. The device sends alerts to the Ring app, and they can then trigger aa series if they want. Car Alarm can also be linked up to other Ring devices, or Amazon Alexa hardware, and Alexa will provide audible alerts of any bumps, break-ins or other events. Ring Car Alarm will require connectivity via Amazon Sidewalk, the low-bandwidth, and free wireless network protocol that Ring’s parent company is set to take live sometime later this year.

Ring Car Cam goes the extra mile of actually letting a user check in on their vehicle via video – provided they’re either within range of a wifi network, or connected via the optional built-in LTE with a companion plan. It also provides additional security features when the car in which it’s installed is actually in use. Ring’s Emergency Crash Assist feature will alert first responders to the car’s location whenever it detects what it determines to be a serious crash. Also, you can use the voice command “Alexa, I’m being pulled over” to trigger an automatic recording in case of a traffic stop, which is automatically uploaded to the cloud (again, provided you’ve got active connectivity.). On the privacy side, there’s a physical shutter on the camera itself for when you don’t want it in use, which also stops the mic from recording.

Finally, Ring Car Connect consists of an API that car manufacturers use to provide Ring customers access to mobile alerts for any detected events around their vehicle, or to watch footage recorded from their onboard cameras. This also allows access to information that wouldn’t be available with a strictly aftermarket setup – like whether the car is locked or unlocked, for instance. Ring’s first automaker partner for this is Tesla, which is enabling Ring Car Connect across the 3, X, S and Y models. Users will install an aftermarket device coming in 2021 for $199.99, but then they’ll be able to watch Tesla Sentry Mode footage, as well as video recorded while driving, directly in the Ring app.

Image Credits: Ring

Ring’s security ecosystem has grown from the humble doorbell, to whole-home (now, much more now) and exterior, to a full-fledged alarm service, and now to the car. It’s definitely not resting on its laurels. And it’s also releasing a $29.99 mailbox sensor, which will quite literally tell you when “You’ve got mail,” which is Iike a delightful little cherry on top.

MIT engineers develop a totally flat fisheye lens that could make wide-angle cameras easier to produce

By Darrell Etherington

Engineers at MIT, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, have devised a way to build a camera lens that avoids the typical spherical curve of ultra-wide-angle glass, while still providing true optical fisheye distortion. The fisheye lens is relatively specialist, producing images that can cover as wide an area as 180 degrees or more, but they can be very costly to produce, and are typically heavy, large lenses that aren’t ideal for use on small cameras like those found on smartphones.

This is the first time that a flat lens has been able to product clear, 180-degree images that cover a true panoramic spread. The engineers were able to make it work by patterning a thin wafer of glass on one side with microscopic, three-dimensional structures that are positioned very precisely in order to scatter any inbound light in precisely the same way that a curved piece of glass would.

The version created by the researchers in this case is actually designed to work specifically with the infrared portion of the light spectrum, but they could also adapt the design to work with visible light, they say. Whether IR or visible light, there are a range of potential uses of this technology, since capturing a 180-degree panorama is useful not only in some types of photography, but also for practical applications like medical imaging and in computer vision applications where range is important to interpreting imaging data.

This design is just one example of what’s called a “Metalens” — lenses that make use of microscopic features to change their optical characteristics in ways that would traditionally have been accomplished through macro design changes — like building a lens with an outward curve, for instance, or stacking multiple pieces of glass with different curvatures to achieve a desired field of view.

What’s unusual here is that the ability to accomplish a clear, detailed and accurate 180-degree panoramic image with a perfectly flat metalens design came as a surprise even to the engineers who worked on the project. It’s definitely an advancement of the science that goes beyond what many assumed was the state of the art.

Does early-stage health tech need more ‘patient’ capital?

By Steve O'Hear

Crista Galli Ventures, a new early-stage health tech fund in Europe, officially launched last week. The firm offers “patient capital” — with only a single LP (the Danish family office IPQ Capital) — and promises to provide portfolio companies with deep healthcare expertise and the extra runway needed to get over regulatory and efficacy hurdles and to the next stage.

The firm has an initial $65 million to deploy and is led by consultant radiologist Dr. Fiona Pathiraja. With offices in London and Copenhagen, it operates as an “evergreen” fund, meaning it doesn’t follow traditional five-year VC fundraising cycles.

In fact, Crista Galli Ventures’ pitch is that traditional venture isn’t well-suited to early-stage health tech where it can take significantly longer to find product-market fit with healthcare practitioners and systems and then become licensed by local regulators.

To dig deeper into this and CGV’s investment remit more generally, I interviewed Pathiraja about what she looks for in health tech founders and startups. We also discussed Crista Galli LABS, which operates alongside the main fund and backs founders from underrepresented backgrounds at the pre-seed stage.

TechCrunch: You describe Crista Galli Ventures (CGV) as an early-stage health tech fund that offers patient capital and backs companies in Europe. In particular, you cite deep tech, digital health and personalised healthcare. Can you elaborate a bit more on the fund’s remit and what you look for in founders and startups at such an early stage?

Dr. Fiona Pathiraja: We like founders with bold ideas and international ambitions. We look for mission-driven founders who believe their companies can make a real and positive impact on the lives of people and patients the world over.

We will look for founders who deeply understand the problem they are trying to tackle from all angles — especially the patient’s perspective, but also that of the clinician and relevant regulators — and we want to see that they are building their solutions to solve this. This means they will make an effort to understand the complex and nuanced healthcare landscape and all the stakeholders in it.

In terms of founder characteristics, in my opinion, the best founders will be mission driven, able to tell a compelling story, and motivate others to join them. Grit and resilience are important and several of our portfolio companies were founded around 6-8 years ago and they are doggedly continuing to build.

Alternative protein companies have raised a whopping $1.5 billion through July of this year

By Jonathan Shieber

Companies like Perfect Day, Impossible Foods, and a host of other startups that are developing replacements for animal farmed goods used in food, clothes, cosmetics, and chemicals have raised a whopping $1.5 billion through the first half of the year.

That’s according to a new report from The Good Food Institute which is tracking the growth of investments into sustainable foods. The report identified fermentation technologies as a rising third pillar of foundational technologies on which new and established food brands are making products that swap out animal products for other protein sources.

Fermentation technologies, which use microbes like microalgae and mycoprotein, can produce biomass, improve plant proteins and create new functional ingredients, and companies developing and deploying these technologies have raised $435 million in funding through the end of July 2020. It’s an indication of how competitive the market is for food technologies, representing an increase of nearly 60 percent over the $274 million invested in all of 2019, according to GFI.

“Fermentation is powering a new wave of alternative protein products with huge potential for improving flavor, sustainability, and production efficiency. Investors and innovators are recognizing this market potential, leading to a surge of activity in fermentation as an enabling platform for the alternative protein industry as a whole,” said GFI Associate Director of Science and Technology Liz Specht, in a statement. “And this is just the beginning: The opportunity landscape for technology development is completely untapped in this area. Many alternative protein products of the future will harness the plethora of protein production methods now available, with the option of leveraging combinations of proteins derived from plants, animal cell culture, and microbial fermentation.”

Portait of the head of an adult black and white cow, gentle look, pink nose, in front of a blue sky. Image Credit: Getty Images

As the $1.5. billion figure indicates, big-time investors are taking notice. Funds like the Bill Gates -backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, CPP Investment Board, Louis Dreyfus Co., Bunge Ventures, Kellogg, ADM Capital, Danone, Kraft Heinz, Mars, and Tyson Foods’ investment arm have all backed companies in the industry.

In all, fermentation-focused startup companies raised 3.5 times more capital than cultivated meat companies worldwide and almost 60 percent as much as U.S. plant-based meat, egg, and dairy companies, according to the GFI. 

As the industry has grown up, since Quorn became the first company to use fermentation-derived proteins back in 1985, big industrial companies have started to take notice.

While there are at least 44 startups focused on alternative proteins worldwide, according to the GFI report, large publicly traded companies like Novozymes, DuPont, and DSM are also developing product lines for the alternative protein business.

“Given the breadth of applications, we believe that fermentation could solve many current challenges faced by alternative proteins. On the one hand, biomass fermentation can create nutritious, clean protein in a highly efficient and low-cost way. On the other hand, the potential for precision fermentation to produce value-added, highly functional, and nutritious ingredients is very exciting and could revolutionize the plant-based category,” said Rosie Wardle, an investor with the CPT Capital, which specializes in backing startups developing novel protein production technologies. “From an investment perspective, we are very excited about the white space opportunities in this category, and we are actively looking to increase our investments in the space. This new report from GFI is the first comprehensive overview of fermentation for alternative protein applications and should be required reading for everyone who wants to create a more efficient and less harmful global food system.”

Ansa Biotechnologies wants to usher in a new era of DNA manufacturing

By Jonathan Shieber

Daniel Arlow has spent the last eighteen years studying genomics and synthetic biology. The arc of his career has taken the first-time founder of the new startup Ansa Biotechnologies from MIT to the famous Keasling Lab at the University of California at Berkeley and now to the world of startups.

Now, Arlow is ready to tell the world what he’s been working on at Ansa, which is nothing less than the delivery of the next generation of synthetic DNA manufacturing.

His company is bringing to market a new process for making DNA that Arlow said is faster and more accurate than existing technologies.

“DNA read, write, and edit are the core pillars of synthetic biology,” said Seth Bannon, a founding partner at the frontier investment firm Fifty Years, and an investor in Ansa’s recent $7.9 million investment round. “Currently the ability to write DNA is the main bottleneck in the synthetic biology industry. By enabling faster, longer, and higher quality DNA synthesis with their fully enzymatic process, Ansa will help accelerate the entire synthetic biology industry.”

Arlow likens the state of the industry now to the early days of programming. “If it took three weeks to compile your code or recompile your code to make a simple change you could never make any progress in developing software for the computer,” Arlow said. And that’s the state for programmable biology these days.

“It took a really long time to test your idea after it was designed. It forces you to plan things out much more carefully and to be less spontaneous and less agile,” he said. 

Using Ansa, companies can have DNA made based on their specific requirements at a speed and scale that Arlow said other companies in the market can’t match.

Currently, DNA molecules are made using a thirty year-old chemical method that has limitations on the length of molecules that can be made. By contrast, Ansa’s biologically inspired DNA synthesis method means that the company can make long molecules directly, without the risk of errors that can result from patching pieces of genetic material together.

The company has developed an enzyme that basically adds bases to a DNA molecule. The company basically has a cut and paste function that serves to unblock DNA and then allows another base to be attached.

It’s also important to note that Arlow’s company is doing synthesis as a service rather than selling bioprinters that can enable any researcher to make their own DNA.

“One of the reasons we’re developing our business as a DNA synthesis service… as opposed to making a printer… is because that gives us a much greater ability to vet orders for biosecurity risk before we manufacture them,” Arlow said.

Other companies like DNA Script (from France) and Nuclera (a Cambridge, UK-based company) are going to market with bioprinters that they’re selling directly to research labs, according to Arlow.

All of these businesses are the next iteration of companies like Twist Bioscience, that are manufacturing DNA to power the synthetic biology revolution (something that TechCrunch Disrupt attendees have been hearing a lot about).

Ansa hasn’t shipped any DNA yet, but the company will soon be taking orders to begin competing in a market that Arlow estimates is over $1 billion today and is growing quite rapidly.

“Writing is really the bottleneck,” Arlow said. “The business we’re in is selling to R&D.. the faster we can crank out the DNA the better it is. Part of the reason why we’re still pretty bad at engineering biology is because it takes so long to build a new design. My hope is by building more we’ll get better at designing because we’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

 

Interswitch to revive its Africa venture fund, CEO confirms

By Jake Bright

Pan-African fintech company Interswitch plans to fire up its corporate venture arm again—according to CEO Mitchell Elegbe—who spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt on Wednesday.

The Nigerian founder didn’t offer much new on the Lagos-based firm’s expected IPO, but he did reveal Interswitch will revive investments in African startups.

Founded by Elegbe in 2002, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly cash-based economy. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million people. Interswitch has expanded to offer personal and business payment products in 23 Africa countries.

The fintech firm achieved unicorn status in 2019 after a $200 million equity investment by Visa gave it a $1 billion valuation.

Reviving venture investing

Interswitch, which is well beyond startup phase, launched a $10 million venture arm in 2015 that has been dormant since 2016, after it acquired Vanso—a Nigerian fintech security company.

But Interswitch will soon be back in the business of making startup bets and acquisitions, according to Elegbe. “We’ve just certified a team and the plan is to begin to make those kinds of investments again.”

He offered a glimpse into the new fund’s focus. “This time around we want to make financial investments and also leverage the network that Interswitch has and put that at the disposal of these companies,” Elegbe told TechCrunch.

“We’ll be very selective in the companies we invest in. They should be companies that Interswitch clearly as an entity can add value to. They should be companies that help accelerate growth by the virtue of what we do and the customers that we have,” he said.

Recent venture events in African tech have likely pressed Interswitch to get back in the investing arena. As an ecosystem, VC on the continent has increased (roughly) by a factor of four over last five years, to around $2 billion in 2019. But most of that has come from single-entity investment funds, while corporate venture funding (and tech M&A activity) has remained light. That’s shifted over the last several months and the entire uptick has occurred in African fintech around entities that could be viewed as Interswitch competitors.

In July, Dubai’s Network International acquired Kenya -based payment mobile payment processing company DPO for $288 million. Shortly after the acquisition, DPO’s CEO Eran Feinstein said the company would pursue more African acquisitions on its own. In June, another mobile-money payment processor, MFS Africa, acquired digital finance company Beyonic. And in August, South Africa’s Standard Bank—Africa’s largest by assets and lending—acquired a stake in fintech security firm TradeSafe.

Since the rise of Safaricom’s dominant M-Pesa mobile money product in Kenya, fintech in Africa has become infinitely larger and more competitive. The sector has hundreds of startups and now receives nearly 50% of all VC investment on the continent.

The opportunity investors and founders are chasing is bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data, and mobile-based finance platforms have presented the best use-cases to shift that across the region.

Interswitch has established itself as a leader in the Africa’s digital finance race. But it’s hard to envision how it can maintain or extend that role without an active venture arm that invests in and acquires innovative, young fintech startups.

No news on IPO

Elegbe had less to offer on Interswitch’s long-anticipated IPO. Asked if the company still planned to list publicly, he offered up a non-answer answer. “At this point in time we’re focused on growing the business and creating value for our customers and that is the our primary focus.”

When pressed “yes or no” on whether an IPO was still a possibility Elegbe confirmed it was. “We have private equity investors and at some point in the life of the business they want exits.” he said. “When it is time for them to exit there are various options on the table and an IPO is an option.”

There’s been talk of an Interswitch IPO for years. In 2016, Elegbe told TechCrunch a dual-listing on the Lagos and London Stock Exchanges was possible. Then word came through other Interswitch channels that it was delayed due to recession and currency volatility in Nigeria in 2017. In November 2019, a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background, “an IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020.” Then came the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying global economic slump, which may have delayed Interswitch’s IPO plans yet again.

If and when the company goes public, it would be a major event for Nigerian and African fintech. No VC backed fintech firm on the continent has listed globally. Exits for Interswitch’s investors would likely attract to Nigeria and broader Africa more VC from major funds—many of whom remain on the fence about startup opportunities on the continent.

Focus on Africa

On global product expansion, Interswitch plans to maintain an African focus for now, Elegbe explained. “There are enough opportunities for Interswitch on the continent. We’d like to be in as many African countries as possible…and position Interswitch as the (financial) gateway to the continent,” he said.

Elegbe explained the company would continue to work through alliances with major financial services firms to open up global financial access for its African client base. In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

CEO Mitchell Elegbe concluded his Disrupt session with some perspective on balancing the stigmas and possibilities of doing business in Nigeria. Over recent years the country has shifted to become an unofficial hub for big tech expansion, VC investment, and startup formation in Africa. But Nigeria continues to have a difficult operating environment with regard to infrastructure and is often associated with political corruption and instability in its Northeast region due to the Boko Haram insurgency.

“Nigeria has a very large population and a very large market. We have lots of challenges that need to be solved, but it makes sense to me that lots of money is finding its way to Nigeria because the opportunity is there,” he said.

Elegbe’s advice to tech investors considering the country, “Don’t take a short-termist view. There are good people on the ground doing fantastic work—honest people who want to make impact. You need to  seek those people out.”

Google launches new AI-powered meeting room hardware

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced the Google Meet Series One, a new video conferencing hardware suite for meeting rooms. Built in collaboration with Lenovo, the Series One uses high-end cameras and microphones and then marries them with Google’s AI smarts thanks to using Google’s own Coral M.2 accelerator modules with the company’s Edge TPUs.

Previous Google Meet hardware efforts from companies like ASUS, Acer and Logitech were generally built around a Chromebox. This new effort uses a custom-built compute system at its core and combines that with an almost Google Nest-like tablet-sized screen, a soundbar with eight built-in microphones, additional microphone pods and one of two cameras.

Image Credits: Google

The cameras are maybe the most interesting option here, with the Smart Camera XL features a 20.3-megapixel sensor and 4.3x optical zoom. Thanks to these specs, it can be used as a digital PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera. With that, the system can always automatically zoom in to frame everybody in the room and when the next person joins, it can zoom and pan as necessary to make sure everybody is still visible.

The regular Smart Camera can still do most of this, but it doesn’t feature the optical zoom, making it a better solution for smaller rooms. Google partnered with Huddly to develop this camera system (and the two companies also collaborated on previous Meet hardware projects).

But Google also put a lot of effort into the audio system. With its eight beam-forming microphones built into the soundbar and advanced noise cancellation techniques running on Google’s AI chips, the system should be able to filter out most distractions. Companies can add additional soundbars that only feature the speakers and microphones without the AI chips to cover even larger rooms. These additional units only feature the speakers and microphones, without the additional AI hardware since all of the processing needs to be done centrally.

Image Credits: Google

One nice touch here is that the team also made it easy to install these systems thanks to using Power-over-Ethernet. That should make installing one of these systems in a conference room pretty easy.

Since this is Google, it’s probably no surprise that you can also use the Google Assistant on this system, providing you with hands-free control over the room (something that’s maybe more important today than ever before).

The smallest room kit, with the basic Smart Camera but without the tablet-style meeting controller and microphone pod, will retail for $2,699. For $2,999 you get a complete set with one standard camera, soundbar, microphone pod and controller and if you have a very large room, you can opt for the $3,999 version with the additional soundbar, two microphone pods and the Smart Camera XL.

Researchers ready world-first vision restoration device for human clinical trials

By Darrell Etherington

Over a decade’s worth of work by scientists working at Melbourne, Australia’s Monash University has produced a first-of-its-kind device that can restore vision to the blind, using a combination of smartphone-style electronics and brain-implanted micro electrodes. The system has already been shown to work in preclinical studies and non-human trials on sheep, and researchers are now preparing for a first human clinical trial to take place in Melbourne.

This new technology would be able to bypass the damaged optic nerves that are often responsible for what’s definite as technical clinical blindness. It works by translating information gathered by a camera and interpreted by a vision processor unity and custom software, wirelessly to a set of tiles implanted directly within the brain. These tiles convert the image data to electrical impulses which are then transmitted to neurons in the brain via microelectrodes that are thinner than human hair.

There are still a number of steps required before this becomes something that can actually be produced and used commercially – not least of which is the extensive human clinical trial process. The team behind the technology is also looking to secure additional funding to support the eventual ramp of manufacturing and distribution of its devices as a commercial venture. But its early studies, which saw 10 of these arrays implanted on sheep, saw that one the course of a cumulative total of more than 2,700 hours of stimulation, there weren’t any adverse health affects observed.

Animals studies are a very different thing from human studies, but the research team believes their technology has promise well beyond vision. They anticipate the same approach could provide benefits and treatment options for patients with other conditions that have a neurological root cause, including paralysis.

If that sounds familiar, it might be because Elon Musk recently revealed ambitions to use his company Neuralink’s similar brain implant technology to achieve these kinds of results as well. Musk’s project is hardly the first to imagine how devices paired with modern software and technology could overcome biological limitations, and this effort form Monash has a much longer history of working towards turning this kind of science into something that could impact the lives of everyday people.

Austin-based EmPath’s employee training and re-skilling service snags seed funding from B Capital

By Jonathan Shieber

By the time Felix Ortiz III left the Army in 2006, the Brooklyn, NY native had spent time taking classes at the City University of New York and St. John’s. Those experiences led him to found ViridisLearning, which aimed to give universities a better way to track student development to help graduates land jobs.

Now he’s taken the learnings of that attempt to reshape education into the corporate world and raised over $1 million in financing from investors including B Capital, the investment firm launched jointly by the Boston Consulting Group and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and Subversive Capital.

The goal of Ortiz’s newest startup, EmPath, is to provide corporate employees with a clear picture of their current skills based on the work they’re already doing at a company and give them a roadmap to up-skilling and educational opportunities that could land them a better, higher paying job.

The company has an initial customer in AT&T, which has rolled out its services across its entire organization, according to Ortiz.

From starting out in a shared apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Ortiz’s family history took a turn as his father became assistant speaker of the house in New York’s legislature and his mother operated a mental health clinic in the city.

When Ortiz enlisted in the Army at 17, he continued to pursue his education, and served as a Judge Advocate General for the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. From there, Ortiz launched his first education venture, a failed startup that attempted to teach skills for renewable energy jobs online. The Green University may no longer exist, but it was the young entrepreneur’s first foray into education.

A road that would continue with ViridisLearning and lead to the launch of EmPath.

Along the way, Ortiz enlisted the help of an experienced developer in the online education space — Adam Blum.

The creator of OpenEd, the largest educational open resource catalog online, which used machine learning to infer skills from the online activity of children, and the founder of Auger.ai, a toolkit to bring machine learning and predictive modeling to skill development, Blum immediately saw the opportunity EmPath presented.

“Inferring skills for employees using their corporate digital footprint and inferring those skills for potential jobs… where you identified skill gaps using inferred skills for courses to suggest remedial resources to plug education gaps,” just makes sense, Blum said. “It was a much more powerful vision.”

Blum still holds an equity stake in Auger.ai, but considers the work he’s doing with EmPath as the company’s chief technology officer to be his full time job now. “Building this out with felix was more exciting in terms of the impact it would have,” Blum said. 

EmPath already is fully deployed with AT&T and will be adding three Fortune 1,000 companies as customers by the end of the month, according to Ortiz.

The young startup also has a powerful and well-connected supporter in Carlos Gutierrez, the former chief executive officer of Kellogg, and the Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush White House.

“Lacking a college degree throughout my career, I had to develop my own skills to enable my climb up the corporate ladder. The technology didn’t exist to help guide me, but in today’s world, professionals should not have to upskill blindly,” said former Commerce Secretary and EmPath co-founder Carlos Gutierrez, in a statement. “We created a technology platform that can help transform an organization’s culture by empowering employees and strengthening talent development. This technology was a game changer even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and now that corporate budgets are tighter, it is even more important for companies to accelerate skills development and talent growth.” 

48 hours left to save on TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Alexandra Ames

Don’t you just love the feeling you get when crossing a task off your to-do list? It’s exponentially bigger and better when you can save $100 at the same time. Here’s the thing — you have just 48 hours to buy an early-bird pass to TC Sessions: Mobility 2020, save $100 and experience the all-too-elusive bliss of Getting. It. Done.

Want to feel all the feels? Buy your pass before the deadline expires on September 11 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Now that you’re all set in the pass department, let’s turn to the events of October 6-7. We have an outstanding agenda focused on the technology, trends and regulatory issues surrounding the current and future state of mobility.

Here are just a few of the many of the brilliant speakers and timely topics you can enjoy (see the entire Mobility 2020 agenda here):

  • The Future of Racing: Formula E driver Lucas Di Grassi is part of a new racing series, in which riders on high-speed electric scooters compete against each other on temporary circuits in cities. Think Formula E, but with electric scooters. The former CEO of Roborace and sustainability ambassador of the EsC, Electric Scooter Championship, will join us to talk about electrification, micromobility and a new kind of motorsport.
  • Investing in Mobility: Reilly Brennan, Amy Gu and Olaf Sakkers will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.
  • Uber’s City Footprint: Uber’s operations touch upon many aspects of the transportation ecosystem. Whether it’s autonomous vehicles, food delivery, trucking or traditional ride-hailing, these products and services all require Uber to interact with cities and ensure the company is on the good side of cities. That’s where Shin-pei Tsay comes in. Hear from Tsay about how she thinks through Uber’s place in cities and how she navigates various regulatory frameworks.

You can also explore more than 40 early-stage mobility startups exhibiting their tech and talent in the digital expo. Want to really strut your stuff? Apply here by September 15 to participate in our first Pitch Night — we’re looking for 10 outstanding early-stage founders to throw down in front of judges on October 5. Five finalists will move on to present live from the Mobility Main stage on October 6 — alongside folks like Boris Sofman of Waymo, Nancy Sun of Ike and Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan. You’ll gain world-wide exposure to thousands of TC viewers, including investors and press.

The early-bird deal disappears in 48 hours. Buy your TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 pass before September 11 at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Cross off the task, feel the joy, save $100 and do what it takes to drive your business forward.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Pitching access management on the fly, Los Angeles-based Britive raises $5.4 million

By Jonathan Shieber

It seems Los Angeles is becoming an enterprise software hotspot.

LA saw its first big enterprise exit in recent memory with the recent acquisition of Signal Sciences for $775 million, and less than a month later a hometown startup, Britive has raised $5.4 million from LA’s own venture fund, Upfront Ventures and a clutch of security experts.

For chief executive Artyom Poghosyan and chief technology officer Alex Gudanis, Britive is simply the latest initiative in a decades-long effort to reshape security technology.

Both Poghosyan and Gudanis have long histories in identity and access management, back in 2009 Poghosyan founded Advancive Technology Solutions, which was acquired by Optiv in 2015 to bulk up its identity access management service.

Now, he and Gudanis are trying to solve the issues of identity access management that the new, ubiquitous cloud computing model presents for security officers and developers.

“When Optiv acquired us, we were already seeing interesting and strong signals in the technolog space about the disruption that was being driven by cloud technologies,” said Poghosyan.

Those cloud technologies presented new challenges for the kind of privileged access management technologies that Poghosyan had developed.

The solution that Britive pitches is a dynamic model for granting permissions for access, Poghosyan said. Instead of granting permanent access to, there re policy-based pre authorizations that a company can set up defined for specific tasks and roles.

Based on a developer’s role and work, they can request and receive access automatically based on the specific parameters defined by a company or security officer.

The company already has over a dozen customers using its technology after launching merely two years ago. It’s a customer base that includes one of the world’s largest carmakers and a global clothing brand — companies Poghosyan declined to identify, citing contractual obligations.

The company charges based on the number of users who are requesting permission for access, Poghosyan said.

As more companies move to remote work in the COVID-19 era and distributed teams become the norm, streamlining the provisioning and access management process for companies is going to become even more important.

Undoubtedly, that’s why Britive was able to land investors like Upfront Ventures and why their partner, Kara Nortman is joining the company’s board of directors. It’s also the reason the company was able to attract some of LA’s leading enterprise executives to back the company, including Andrew Peterson, CEO of Signal Sciences and Dave Cole, CEO of Open Raven.

 

Competing with both Perfect Day and Beyond Meat, Chile’s NotCo raises $85 million to expand to the US

By Jonathan Shieber

NotCo, the Chilean food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, has confirmed the close of a new $85 million round of funding to take the company’s products into the US market.

The announcement confirms earlier reporting from TechCrunch that the company had raised new capital, but according to people with knowledge of the investment, the valuation for the company is roughly $300 million, and not the $250 million TechCrunch previously reported.

The funding came from new investors including the consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton Partners, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s Future Positive investment firm, and the giant venture capital firm, General Catalyst. Previous investors including Kaszek Ventures, The Craftory, Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment firm for Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos), Endeavor Catalyst, IndieBio, Humbolt Capital and Maya Capital, all of which have followed on in this round.

NotCo makes a hamburger substitute that’s currently being marketed at Burger King and Papa John’s restaurants in Chile as part of its NotBurger and NotMeat brands and has a line of dairy products including NotIceCream, NotMayo and NotMilk.

Both markets are not small. With milk alone being a multi-billion dollar category that NotCo chief executive Matias Muchnick believes his company can dominate in both Latin America and the US. That trajectory will put it on a collision course with well-funded competitors like Perfect Day, which raised $300 million in financing earlier this year and launched a new consumer brand subsidiary, the Urgent Company, for products made with its milk substitutes.

For longtime investors in the company, like Kaszek Ventures managing partner, Nicolas Szekasy, the new financing for NotCo validates his firm’s early faith that a company from Santiago, Chile could compete in some of the world’s largest consumer markets.

“We continue to actively support the company since its early days with a strong conviction of the potential that NotCo has to be the leading global player in the food-tech space. In this uncertain time, consumers have amplified their appetite for the plant-based world,” said Szekasy in a statement. “In parallel, COVID has allowed us to see that meat production is not only environmentally harmful and inefficient, but also that its supply chain is fragile. So we are happy to witness an inflection point where plant-based products are becoming an increasing proportion of a new normal, once they can actually taste amazing like we see NotCo crafting.”

Joining the company to help with its international expansion plans are a clutch of seasoned executives from large multi-national food brands. Flavia Buchmann, a former executive at Coca-Cola overseeing the company’s Sprite brand has been tapped as the company’s new chief marketing officer. Former Danone executives Luis Silva and Catriel Giuliano are taking the reins as heads of global business development and research and development, respectively. And Jose Menendez a former banker at Jeffries and executive at Tapad, is now NotCo’s global chief operating officer.

A flood of venture capital dollars have come into the food space since NotCo first burst on the scene and many of these deals are operating at the intersection of novel biomanufacturing technologies and food science. But NotCo’s take on foodtech is more akin to Beyond Meat’s than Impossible Foods or Perfect Day.

The company isn’t making biologically engineered foods, it’s taking its taxonomy of existing foods and determining which combinations of plant ingredients will most closely mimic all aspects of the animal products they’re replacing.

So a closer analogy would be companies like Just or the newly funded Climax Foods. Muchnick said that the difference is in where these companies are spending their time. Instead of focusing on a protein that can act as a one for one replacement for casein or the carbohydrate lactose, NotCo is trying to replicate the whole product — the entire sensorial panel of a particular food.

“Flavors, taste, smell, color, and the interaction between all of them and the molecular components in food,” said Muchnick. “It’s not just the concept of how limited we are to replicating products and how limited to using AI to address other challenges in the food industry.”

For Muchnick, the biggest opportunity for NotCo is dairy. While the company has plans to introduce a number of new products including a chicken replacement to compliment its line of NotBurger and NotMeat products, it’s really the dairy business where the company wants to land and expand.

It’s looking to cut a deal with a large quick service restaurant along with deals for an online channel and a direct to consumer play.

As it grows, consumers can expect to see the company’s brands recede into the background as Muchnick looks to focus on supplying products to other vendors.

“We partnered upstream and downstream,” Muchnick said. The company works with suppliers including Ingredion, ADM, and Cargill and downstream has product partners who will incorporate its milk substitute into other products.

What we want is to be the catalyst of change with many other companies. Why don’t we become the enabler. We’re becoming the Intel inside of other products.”

At that scale, the company would be a prime candidate for public investors, and if Muchnick has his way the company will get there. “We are aiming to have a $300 million company by 2024 with 70 percent of that business in the US,” he said. 

How to respond to a data breach

By Zack Whittaker

I cover a lot of data breaches. From inadvertent exposures to data-exfiltrating hacks, I’ve seen it all. But not every data breach is the same. How a company responds to a data breach — whether it was their fault — can make or break its reputation.

I’ve seen some of the worst responses: legal threats, denials and pretending there isn’t a problem at all. In fact, some companies claim they take security “seriously” when they clearly don’t, while other companies see it merely as an exercise in crisis communications.

But once in a while, a company’s response almost makes up for the daily deluge of hypocrisy, obfuscation and downright lies.

Last week, Assist Wireless, a U.S. cell carrier that provides free government-subsidized cell phones and plans to low-income households, had a security lapse that exposed tens of thousands of customer IDs — driver’s licenses, passports and Social Security cards — used to verify a person’s income and eligibility.

A misconfigured plugin for resizing images on the carrier’s website was blamed for the inadvertent data leak of customer IDs to the open web. Security researcher John Wethington found the exposed data through a simple Google search. He reported the bug to TechCrunch so we could alert the company.

Make no mistake, the bug was bad and the exposure of customer data was far from ideal. But the company’s response to the incident was one of the best I’ve seen in years.

Take notes, because this is how to handle a data breach.

Their response was quick. Assist immediately responded to acknowledge the receipt of my initial email. That’s already a positive sign, knowing that the company was looking into the issue.

NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial moon lander partners

By Darrell Etherington

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intuitive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device, X-ray imagers, a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields and an advanced moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe to discuss African fintech at TechCrunch Disrupt

By Jake Bright

The CEO of Pan-African fintech unicorn, Mitchell Elegbe, is set to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 on September 16. He founded the company in Lagos in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s — then — largely disconnected banking system.

Over the next decade plus, Interswitch accelerated the adoption of digital payments across Africa and now stands as one of the continent’s rare fintech unicorns. The company is poised to list on a global exchange, which would also create Africa’s next big tech IPO.

At Disrupt 2020, TechCrunch will seek Elegbe’s perspective on the continent’s fintech scene, Interswitch’s venture plans, and the economic impact of Covid-19 on African startups. This year’s event is 100% virtual, making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to sign in and learn more about Elegbe’s company and digital innovation in Africa.

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.

Bringing the continent’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Interswitch became a pioneer of building the infrastructure to digitize finance on the continent. The company pre-dates the rise of mobile money in Kenya through Safaricom’s M-Pesa product, which is one of Africa’s most recognized fintech use-cases. 

Interswitch’s path from startup to unicorn traces back to the vision of CEO Mitchell Elegbe, who was a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate before founding the firm in 2002. The company has since produced a run of product innovation and expansion, starting in Nigeria. Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The fintech firm (now well beyond startup phase) has also shaped a Pan-African and global reach — selling its products in 23 African countries with a physical presence in Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Interswitch Quickteller

Image Credits: Interswitch

Interswitch also launched a venture arm in 2015 called its global ePayment Growth Fund. Another milestone came in November 2019 when Interswitch achieved a $1 billion unicorn valuation after Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the company. Other Interswitch backers include IFC and Helios Investment Partners.

The company’s Nigerian origins and operations have become more significant as Nigeria is now Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The West African country has become the continent’s unofficial tech hub and fintech capital. Nigerian startups now raise the majority of Africa’s annual VC haul, according to a study by Partech.

Heading into 2020, the momentum was there and the pieces were falling in place for Interswitch to mark that next big achievement — an IPO. Where that listing stands for the firm, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, is one of many topics TechCrunch is excited to discuss with CEO Mitchell Elegbe at Disrupt 2020.

The event runs from September 14 through September 18 and (as mentioned) is 100% virtual this year, making it possible for anyone from London to Lagos to sign in. Get your front row seat to see Mitchell Elegbe live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.

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