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Yesterday — January 17th 2021Your RSS feeds

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

By Alex Wilhelm

Yesterday, we spoke with Plaid CEO and co-founder Zach Perret after news broke that Visa no longer plans to buy his company for $5.3 billion.

The deal was heralded in early 2020 as a sign of the growing importance of fintech startups. Then it failed to close, eventually running into a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. A few months later, the acquisition was dropped.

Sentiment in the market changed since the transaction was announced. As TechCrunch reported yesterday, there’s a good deal of optimism to be found amongst investors and others that Plaid will eventually be worth more than the price at which the Visa deal valued it.

What follows is a summary of our conversation with Perret, digging into a number of topics we felt most were pressing in the wake of Plaid’s unshackling.

Now what?

First and upfront: it does not appear that Plaid is racing to the public markets via a blank-check company, or SPAC, a question several readers asked on Twitter. Our impression from our chat regarding near-term liquidity via the public markets is that those with their hopes up have them up a few years too early.

TechCrunch asked Perret how it feels to be free from his erstwhile corporate boss.

He said that the last few years have been a “rollercoaster,” adding that when they made the choice to sell, it made sense at the time from mission, and delivery perspectives — Visa wanted to accomplish similar things and could give his company access to a wide network of potential customers.

Amazon’s Ring Neighbors app exposed users’ precise locations and home addresses

By Zack Whittaker

A security flaw in Ring’s Neighbors app was exposing the precise locations and home addresses of users who had posted to the app.

Ring, the video doorbell and home security startup acquired by Amazon for $1 billion, launched Neighbors in 2018 as a breakaway feature in its own standalone app. Neighbors is one of several neighborhood watch apps, like Nextdoor and Citizen, that lets users anonymously alert nearby residents to crime and public-safety issues.

While users’ posts are public, the app doesn’t display names or precise locations — though most include video taken by Ring doorbells and security cameras. The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app, including those who are reporting crimes.

But the exposed data wasn’t visible to anyone using the app. Rather, the bug was retrieving hidden data, including the user’s latitude and longitude and their home address, from Ring’s servers.

Another problem was that every post was tied to a unique number generated by the server that incremented by one each time a user created a new post. Although the number was hidden from view to the app user, the sequential post number made it easy to enumerate the location data from previous posts — even from users who aren’t geographically nearby.

Ring Neighbors app (left), and the data it was pulling in, including location data (right). (Image: TechCrunch)

The Neighbors app appeared to have about 4 million posts by the end of 2020.

Ring said it had fixed the issue.

“At Ring, we take customer privacy and security extremely seriously. We fixed this issue soon after we became aware of it. We have not identified any evidence of this information being accessed or used maliciously,” said Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri.

Ring currently faces a class-action suit by dozens of people who say they were subjected to death threats and racial slurs after their Ring smart cameras were hacked. In response to the hacks, Ring put much of the blame on users for not using “best practices” like two-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers to access a user’s account with the user’s password.

After it emerged that hackers were reportedly creating tools to break into Ring accounts and over 1,500 user account passwords were found on the dark web, Ring made two-factor authentication mandatory for every user.

The smart tech maker has also faced increasing criticism from civil rights groups and lawmakers for its cozy relationship with hundreds of U.S. police departments that have partnered with Ring for access to homeowners’ doorbell camera footage.

 

 

Dell’s 40-inch curved monitor is perfect for a home office command center

By Darrell Etherington

Dell’s kicking off 2021 with a new addition to its monitor lineup that aims to hit a variety of sweet spots. The Dell UltraSharp 40 Curved WUHD monitor offers 39.7″ of screen real estate, with a 5120 x 2160 resolution that matches the pixel density of 4K resolution on a 32-inch conventional widescreen display. It comes equipped with Thunderbolt 3 for display and data connectivity, as well as 90W of charging for compatible computers, and a 10Gbps Ethernet connection for networking. In short, Dell’s latest (which is available beginning January 28) looks to be a true ‘one display to rule them all’ contender, particularly for those searching for a way to optimize their home offices.

The basics

Dell’s UltraSharp 40 has a 60Hz, 39.7″ diagonal display in 21:9 aspect ratio with WUHD resolution (not quite true 5K, but exceptional for a curved monitor this size). It offers 100% sRGB and 98% P3 color reproduction, and comes with a stand that has height adjustability, tilt and swivel, and that features a hidden cable channel for cable management. Built-in speakers provide 9W each of sound reproduction so you don’t need to worry about adding externals.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

In terms of wired connections, it offers Thunderbolt 3, RJ45 Ethernet, and USB 10Gps ports (three on the rear, and one in front) as well as one USB-C port for easy access on the front. There’s also 3.5mm audio line out (though it’s worth noting that this doesn’t work with headphones), and two HDMI ports plus one DisplayPort for more traditional display connectivity if you’re not going the Thunderbolt route. Finally, a standard security lock slot allows you to anchor the display in any shared environment.

The display itself is bright, clear and viewable at a wide range of angles, with a more matte finish that provides excellent viewing in a wide range of lighting conditions. A joystick control button provides easy navigation and operation of the built-in on-screen menu and integrated features, including picture-in-picture.

Design and features

First and foremost, the Dell UltraSharp 40 delivered excellent visual quality. Especially for a display this size, in a curved form factor, at this resolution, it’s going to be something that satisfies everyone from telecommuters mostly handling meetings and spreadsheets, to photographers and video professionals looking for image quality that is highly color-accurate and provides crystal clear detail.

The WUHD resolution means that you can run the display in a range of different configurations, depending on how much screen real estate you want or need. For instance, I’ve been using it at the 5160 x 2160 res, and it provides ample workspace for arranging multiple windows side-by-side, and tiled vertically. I typically use three displays at once in my day job (there’s a lot of tab and browser windows involved) and the Dell UltraSharp 40 makes it so that I can comfortably work with just a single monitor instead. It’ll work with Apple’s HiDPI modes on its modern Macs for clear and crisp visuals with larger on-screen elements, too, however, if you don’t need all that room.

Dell’s integrated stand is simple and effective, providing a range of maneuverability options that allow for significant travel in height adjustment. You won’t get a portrait mode full swivel in this display – but that’s not surprising given how long it is on its longest edge, compared to the vertical. You do get tilt if you need it, and the ability to angle back and forwards depending on how you have it positioned. The end result is a display that’s very large, but easy enough to adjust for your comfortable use.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The display comes calibrated out of the box, but also includes plenty of options for adjusting things like contrast and brightness using the built-in menus. This also including a very useful multi-device display setup, including both picture-in-picture features for multiple sources, and a picture-by-picture mode that splits the display into two equal side-by-side sections for multiple inputs. Another useful feature for working with the display with multiple computers: keyboards and mice connected via the monitor will automatically detect and switch between controlling both connected PCs.

Besides the display size and resolution, the other thing that makes the UltraSharp 40 a fantastic option for a home workstation is its range of ports and added bonuses like built-in speakers. The speakers aren’t going to win any audiophile awards, but they’re better than the ones that come built into your laptop and they obviate the need for additional equipment if you’re looking to spare your desk surface space. With any modern Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, the Dell UltraSharp 40 really is a one-cable wonder that offers very little in the way of compromises.

Bottom line

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

With the Dell UltraSharp 40, the company continues its tradition of delivering extremely high-quality display products at a reasonable price. The $2,100 price tag may seem steep, but for what you’re getting it’s a very fair price point, and Dell’s displays also have very high reliability that means an investment in their monitors is likely to keep you satisfied for many years to come (two of my home office displays are some of Dell’s very first 4K monitors, which have served me reliably for over half a decade).

Because of its wide aspect ratio and curve, this display really does replace two smaller 4K screens for most uses, and so the cost framed that way actually makes even more sense. In short, Dell’s UltraSharp 40 is a home office beast, which fills a sweet spot for a wide range of remote professionals.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

Roboflow raises $2.1M for its end-to-end computer vision platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Roboflow, a startup that aims to simplify the process of building computer vision models, today announced that it has raised a $2.1 million seed round co-led by Lachy Groom and Craft Ventures. Additional investors include Segment co-founder Calvin French-Owen, Lob CEO Leore Avidar, Firebase co-founder James Tamplin and early Dropbox engineer Aston Motes, among others. The company is a graduate of this year’s Y Combinator summer class.

Co-founded by Joseph Nelson (CEO) and Brad Dwyer (CTO), Roboflow is the result of the team members’ previous work on AR and AI apps, including Magic Sudoku from 2017. After respectively exiting their last companies, the two co-founders teamed up again to launch a new AR project, this time with a focus on board games. In 2019, the team actually participated in the TC Disrupt hackathon to add chess support to that app — but in the process, the team also realized that it was spending a lot of time trying to solve the same problems that everybody else in the computer vision field was facing.

Image Credits: Roboflow

“In building both those [AR] products, we realized most of our time wasn’t spent on the board game part of it, it was spent on the image management, the annotation management, the understanding of ‘do we have enough images of white queens, for example? Do we have enough images from this angle or this angle? Are the rooms brighter or darker?’ This data mining of understanding in visual imagery is really underdeveloped. We had built a bunch of — at the time — internal tooling to make this easier for us,” Nelson explained. “And in the process of building this company, of trying to make software features for real-world objects, realize that developers didn’t need inspiration. They needed tooling.”

So shortly after participating in the hackathon, the founders started putting together the first version of Roboflow and launched the first version a year ago in January 2020. And while the service started out as a platform for managing large image data sets, it has since grown to become an end-to-end solution for handling image management, analysis, pre-processing and augmentation, up to building the image recognition models and putting them into production. As Nelson noted, while the team didn’t set out to build an end-to-end solution, its users kept pushing the team to add more features.

Image Credits: Roboflow

So far, about 20,000 developers have used the service, with use cases ranging from accelerating cancer research to smart city applications. The thesis here, Nelson said, is that computer vision is going to be useful for every single industry. But not every company has the in-house expertise to set up the infrastructure for building models and putting it into production, so Roboflow aims to provide an easy to use platform for this that individual developers and (over time) large enterprise teams can use to quickly iterate on their ideas.

Roboflow plans to use the new funding to expand its team, which currently consists of five members, both on the engineering and go-to-market side.

The Roboflow racoon.

The Roboflow racoon. Image Credits: Roboflow

“As small cameras become cheaper and cheaper, we’re starting to see an explosion of video and image data everywhere,” Segment co-founder and Roboflow investor French-Owen noted. “Historically, it’s been hard for anyone but the biggest tech companies to harness this data, and actually turn it into a valuable product. Roboflow is building the pipelines for the rest of us. They’re helping engineers take the data that tells a thousand words, and giving them the power to turn that data into recommendations and insights.”

Healthvana’s digital COVID-19 vaccination records are about communication, not passports for the immune

By Darrell Etherington

As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.

“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”

Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.

“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”

That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.

While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.

“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”

Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.

Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.

Stripe reportedly joins the tech platforms booting President Trump from their services

By Jonathan Shieber

It might be easier at this point to ask which tech platforms President Donald Trump can still use.

Payment-processing company Stripe is the latest tech company to kick Donald Trump off of its platform, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

That means the president’s campaign website and online fundraising arms will no longer have access to the payment processor’s services, cutting off the Trump campaign from receiving donations.

Sources told the Journal that the reason for the company’s decision was the violation of company policies against encouraging violence.

The move comes as the president has remained largely silent through the official channels at his disposal in the wake of last week’s riot at the Capitol building.

While Trump has been silent, technology companies have been busy repudiating the president’s support by cutting off access to a range of services.

The deplatforming of the president has effectively removed Trump from all social media outlets including Snap, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Spotify and TikTok.

The technology companies that power most financial transactions online have also blocked the president. Shopify and PayPal were the first to take action against the extremists among President Trump supporters who participated in the riot.

As we wrote earlier this week, PayPal has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill.

The company has actually been actively taking steps against far-right activists for a while. After the Charlottesville protests and subsequent rioting in 2017, the company banned a spate of far-right organizations. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.

On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand. That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.

Now, Stripe has joined the actions against the president, cutting off a lucrative source of income for his political operations.

As the Journal reported, the Trump campaign launched a fundraising blitz to raise money for the slew of lawsuits that the president brought against states around the country. The lawsuits were almost all defeated, but the effort did bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for the Republican party.

 

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

By Jonathan Shieber

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

It’s worth noting that Parler and Gab aren’t the only companies to see users numbers soar after the Trump bans. MeWe Network, OANN, Newsmax and Rumble have also seen adoption soar, according to data from the analytics company Apptopia.

The company noted that Parler was the #1 app on the iOS app store for two days surging from 18th on Thursday and 592 on Wednesday. Overall, the app was the 10th most downloaded social media app in 2020 with 8.1 million new installs.

“It is an event driven app though,” a company analyst noted. “After events like the election, BLM protests, Twitter first applying labels to Trump’s Tweets, we see bursts of downloads and usage but it will then drop off.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

 

Elon Musk dunks on Facebook and recommends Signal in wake of U.S. Capitol insurrection attempt

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk, the tech billionaire set to likely soon become the world’s richest man, and one of the most influential voices in the world of tech entrepreneurship, continued his recent trend of criticizing Facebook with a Twitter post late Wednesday night, following the attempted insurrection by pro-Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol building. Musk shared a meme suggesting the founding of Facebook ultimately led to the day’s disastrous and shameful events.

This is called the domino effect pic.twitter.com/qpbEW54RvM

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021

Musk, who has himself used his massive reach (he has around 42.5 million followers on Twitter) to spread misinformation to his many followers, specifically around COVID-19 and its severity, also followed that up on Thursday morning with a reply expressing a lack of surprise at WhatsApp’s new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which will make sharing data from WhatsApp users back to Facebook mandatory for all on the platform.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO also recommended that people instead use Signal, an encrypted messaging client which uses encryption by default and which is based on open-source standards. Side-note: If you do end up following Musk’s advice, you should also enable the app’s “disappearing messages” feature for an added layer of protection on both ends of the conversation.

Musk has a long history of opposing the use of Facebook, including the deletion of not just his own personal page, but also those of both Tesla and SpaceX, in 2018 during the original #deletefacebook campaign following the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

FAA issues rules for supersonic jet flight testing in the US

By Darrell Etherington

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.

Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.

Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.

The FAA’s rules finalization comes in under the wire as the agency prepares for a transition when current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao moves aside for incoming Biden pick Pete Buttigieg. You can read the full FAA final rule in the embed belt.

Senti Bio raises $105 million for its new programmable biology platform and cancer therapies

By Jonathan Shieber

Senti Biosciences, a company developing cancer therapies using a new programmable biology platform, said it has raised $105 million in a new round of financing led by the venture arm of life sciences giant Bayer.

The company’s technology uses new computational biological techniques to manufacture cell and gene therapies that can more precisely target specific cells in the body.

Senti Bio’s chief executive, Tim Lu, compares his company’s new tech to the difference between basic programming and object-oriented programming. “Instead of creating a program that just says ‘Hello world’, you can introduce ‘if’ statements and object-oriented programming,” said Lu.

By building genetic material that can target multiple receptors, Senti Bio’s therapies can be more precise in the way they identify genetic material in the body and deliver the kinds of therapies directly to the pathogens. “Instead of the cell expressing a single receptor… now we have two receptors,” he said.

The company is initially applying its gene circuit technology platform to develop therapies that use what are called chimeric antigen receptor natural killer (CAR-NK) cells that can target cancer cells in the body and eliminate them. Many existing cell and gene therapies use chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, which are white blood cells in the body that are critical to immune response and destroy cellular pathogens in the body.

However, T-cell-based therapies can be toxic to patients, stimulating immune responses that can be almost as dangerous as the pathogens themselves. Using CAR-NK cells produces similar results with fewer side effects.

That’s independent of the gene circuit, said Lu. “The gene circuit gets you specificity… Right now when you use a CAR-T cell or a CAR-NK cell… you find a target and hope that it doesn’t affect normal cells. We can build logic in our gene circuits in the cell that means a CAR-NK cell can identify two targets rather than one.”

That increased targeting means lower risks of healthy cells being destroyed alongside mutations or pathogens that are in the body.

For Lu and his co-founders — fellow MIT professor Jim Collins, Boston University professor Wilson Wong and longtime synthetic biology operator Phillip Lee — Senti Bio is the culmination of decades of work in the field.

“I compare it to the early days of semiconductor work,” Lu said of the journey to develop this gene circuit technology. “There were bits and pieces of technology being developed in research labs, but to realize the scale at which you need, this has to be done at the industrial level.”

So licensing work from MIT, Boston University and Stanford, Lu and his co-founders set out to take this work out of the labs to start a company.

When the company was started it was a bag of tools and the know-how on how to use them,” Lu said. But it wasn’t a fully developed platform. 

That’s what the company now has and with the new capital from Leaps by Bayer and its other investors, Senti is ready to start commercializing.

The first products will be therapies for acute myeloid leukemia, hepatocellular carcinoma, and other, undisclosed, solid tumor targets, the company said in a statement.

“Leaps by Bayer’s mission is to invest in breakthrough technologies that may transform the lives of millions of patients for the better,” said Juergen Eckhardt, MD, Head of Leaps by Bayer. “We believe that synthetic biology will become an important pillar in next-generation cell and gene therapy, and that Senti Bio’s leadership in designing and optimizing biological circuits fits precisely with our ambition to prevent and cure cancer and to regenerate lost tissue function.”

Lu and his co-founders also see their work as a platform for developing other cell therapies for other diseases and applications — and intend to partner with other pharmaceutical companies to bring those products to market.  

“Over the past two years, our team has designed, built and tested thousands of sophisticated gene circuits to drive a robust product pipeline, focused initially on allogeneic CAR-NK cell therapies for difficult-to-treat liquid and solid tumor indications,” Lu said in a statement. “I look forward to continued platform and pipeline advancements, including starting IND-enabling studies in 2021.”

The new financing round brings Senti’s total capital raised to just under $160 million and Lu said the new money will be used to ramp up manufacturing and accelerate its work partnering with other pharmaceutical companies.

The current time frame is to get its investigational new drug permits filed by late 2022 and early 2023 and have initial clinical trials begun in 2023.

Developing gene circuits is new and expanding field with a number of players including Cell Design Labs, which was acquired by Gilead in 2017 for up to $567 million. Other companies working on similar therapies include CRISPR Therapeutics, Intellius, and Editas, Lu said.

FBI, NSA say ongoing hacks at US federal agencies ‘likely Russian in origin’

By Zack Whittaker

The U.S. government says hackers “likely Russian in origin” are responsible for breaching the networks of at least 10 U.S. federal agencies and several major tech companies, including FireEye and Microsoft.

In a joint statement published Tuesday, the FBI, the NSA, and Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisory unit CISA said that the government was “still working to understand the scope” of the breach, but that the breaches is likely an “intelligence gathering effort.”

The agencies investigating the espionage campaign said the compromises are “ongoing.”

The statement didn’t name the breached agencies, but the Treasury, State, and the Department of Energy are among those reported to be affected.

“This is a serious compromise that will require a sustained and dedicated effort to remediate,” the statement said. “The [joint agency effort] will continue taking every necessary action to investigate, remediate, and share information with our partners and the American people,”

News of the widespread espionage campaign emerged in early December after cybersecurity giant FireEye, normally the first company that cyberattack victims will call, discovered its own network had been breached. Soon after it was reported that several government agencies had also been infiltrated.

All of the victims are customers of U.S. software firm SolarWinds, whose Orion network management tools are used across the U.S. government and Fortune 500 companies. FireEye said that hackers broke into SolarWinds’ network and pushed a tainted software update to its customers, allowing the hackers to easily break in to any one of thousands of companies and agencies that installed the backdoored update.

Some 18,000 customers downloaded the backdoored software update, but the government’s joint statement said that it believes only a “much smaller number have been compromised by follow-on activity on their systems.”

Several news outlets have previously reported that the hacks were carried out by a Russian intelligence group known as APT 29, or Cozy Bear, which has been linked to several espionage-driven attacks, including attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

Tuesday’s joint statement would be the first time the government acknowledged the likely culprit behind the campaign.

Russia had previously denied involvement with the hacks.

Looking to decarbonize the metal industry, Bill Gates-backed Boston Metal raises $50 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Steel production accounts for roughly 8% of the emissions that contribute to global climate change. It is one of the industries that sits at the foundation of the modern economy and is one of the most resistant to decarbonization.

As nations around the world race to reduce their environmental footprint and embrace more sustainable methods of production, finding a way to remove carbon from the metals business will be one of the most important contributions to that effort.

One startup that’s developing a new technology to address the issue is Boston Metal. Previously backed by the Bill Gates-financed Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, the new company has just raised roughly $50 million of an approximately $60 million financing round to expand its operations, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The global steel industry may find approximately 14% of its potential value at risk if the business can’t reduce its environmental impact, according to studies cited by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Boston Metal, which previously raised $20 million back in 2019, uses a process called molten oxide electrolysis (“MOE”) to make steel alloys — and eventually emissions-free steel. The first close of the funding actually came in December 2018 — two years before the most recent financing round, according to Tadeu Carneiro, the company’s chief executive.

Over the years since the company raised its last round, Boston Metal has grown from eight employees to a staff that now numbers close to 50. The Woburn, Massachusetts-based company has also been able to continuously operate its three pilot lines producing metal alloys for over a month at a time.

And while the steel program remains the ultimate goal, the company is quickly approaching commercialization with its alloy program, because it isn’t as reliant on traditional infrastructure and sunk costs according to Carneiro.

Boston Metal’s technology radically reimagines an industry whose technology hasn’t changed all that much since the dawn of the Iron Age in 1200 BCE, Carneiro said.

Ultimately the goal is to serve as a technology developer licensing its technology and selling components to steel manufacturers or engineering companies that will ultimately make the steel.

For Boston Metal, the next steps on the product road map are clear. The company will look to have a semi-industrial cell line operating in Woburn by the end of 2022, and by 2024 or 2025 hopes to have its first demonstration plant up and running. “At that point we will be able to commercialize the technology,” Carneiro said.

The company’s previous investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Prelude Ventures and the MIT-backed “hard-tech” investment firm, The Engine. All of them came back to invest in the latest infusion of cash into the company along with Devonshire Investors, the private investment firm affiliated with FMR, the parent company of financial services giant, Fidelity, which co-led the deal alongside Piva Capital and another, undisclosed investor.

As a result of its investment, Shyam Kamadolli will take a seat on the company’s board, according to the filing with the SEC.

MOE takes metals in their raw oxide form and transforms them into molten metal products. Invented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and based on research from MIT Professor Donald Sadoway, Boston Metal makes molten oxides that are tailored for a specific feedstock and product. Electrons are used to melt the soup and selectively reduce the target oxide. The purified metal pools at the bottom of a cell and is tapped by drilling into the cell using a process adapted from a blast furnace. The tap hole is plugged and the process then continues.

One of the benefits of the technology, according to the company, is its scalability. As producers need to make more alloys, they can increase production capacity.

“Molten oxide electrolysis is a platform technology that can produce a wide array of metals and alloys, but our first industrial deployments will target the ferroalloys on the path to our ultimate goal of steel,” said Carneiro, the company’s chief executive, in a statement announcing the company’s $20 million financing back in 2019. “Steel is and will remain one of the staples of modern society, but the production of steel today produces over two gigatons of CO2. The same fundamental method for producing steel has been used for millennia, but Boston Metal is breaking that paradigm by replacing coal with electrons.”

No less a tech luminary than Bill Gates himself underlined the importance of the decarbonization of the metal business.

Boston Metal is working on a way to make steel using electricity instead of coal, and to make it just as strong and cheap,” Gates wrote in his blog, GatesNotes. Although Gates did have a caveat. “Of course, electrification only helps reduce emissions if it uses clean power, which is another reason why it’s so important to get zero-carbon electricity,” he wrote.

The built environment will be one of tech’s next big platforms

By Jonathan Shieber

From the beginning, the plan for Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet and — by extension — a relative of Google) to develop a $1.3 billion tech-enabled real estate project on the Toronto waterfront was controversial.

Privacy advocates had justified concerns about the Google-adjacent company’s ability to capture a near-total amount of data from the residents of the development or any city-dweller that wandered into its high-tech panopticon.

But Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs’ leadership and even Canada’s popular prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had high hopes for the project.

Startups working in real estate technology managed to nab a record $3.7 billion from investors in the first quarter of the year.

“Successful cities around the world are wrestling with the same challenges of growth, from rising costs of living that price out the middle class, to congestion and ever-longer commutes, to the challenges of climate change. Sidewalk Labs scoured the globe for the perfect place to create a district focused on solutions to these pressing challenges, and we found it on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront — along with the perfect public-sector partner, Waterfront Toronto,” said Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York, in a statement announcing the launch in 2017. “This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world.”

From Sidewalk Labs’ perspective, the Toronto project would be an ideal laboratory that the company and the city of Toronto could use to explore the utility and efficacy of the latest and greatest new technologies meant to enhance city living and make it more environmentally sustainable.

The company’s stated goal, back in 2017 was “to create a place that encourages innovation around energy, waste and other environmental challenges to protect the planet; a place that provides a range of transportation options that are more affordable, safe and convenient than the private car; a place that embraces adaptable buildings and new construction methods to reduce the cost of housing and retail space; a place where public spaces welcome families to enjoy the outdoors day and night, and in all seasons; a place that is enhanced by digital technology and data without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.”

From a purely engineering perspective, integrating these new technologies into a single site to be a test case made some sense. From a community development perspective, it was a nightmare. Toronto residents began to see the development as little more than a showroom for a slew of privacy-invading innovations that Sidewalk could then spin up into companies — or a space where startup companies could test their tech on a potentially unwitting population.

So when the economic implications of the global COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear back in March of this year, it seemed as good a time as any for Sidewalk Labs to shutter the project.

“[As] unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Doctoroff said in a statement. “And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project.”

The Biden administration can change the world with new crypto regulations

By Walter Thompson
Asheesh Birla Contributor
Asheesh Birla is the GM of RippleNet at Ripple.

The U.S. government is failing us with regard to fintech and blockchain regulation.

Devoid of any regulatory framework in the past four years we’ve been operating in limbo when it comes to the development and advancement of crypto products. Innovators in the fintech and blockchain industries have the ability and vision to build products that solve real problems for everyone from individuals to large banks to governments, but without a clear path forward, these products are unable to grow and scale to their full potential.

Regulation shouldn’t be a guessing game. Since 2019, when the Securities and Exchange Commission declared that neither Bitcoin (BTC) nor Ethereum (ETH) are securities, the industry’s been at a standstill. Without clarity, blockchain innovation will be limited to just two coins — the industry is much larger than this. A lack of regulation stifles the immense potential that crypto and blockchain provide.

If we know the rules of the game we’re playing, we can keep doing what we do best: innovating.

A new administration presents a new opportunity for elected officials across the political spectrum to develop clear policies and regulations enabling banks, fintechs and corporations to custody and use crypto to improve efficiencies and to provide a better customer experience.

We can learn a lesson from recent history here. In 1991, we saw the passage of the High Performance Computing and Communications Act (HPCCA), a bipartisan effort led by Senator Al Gore and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

This legislation paved the way for companies like Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Google and others to boom and made the U.S. an early internet leader. By 1993 we saw the introduction of web browsers, and shortly after, the start of the dot-com era in 1994 that cemented the U.S. as a symbol of innovation.

The browser changed everything. It’s created new jobs, new economic opportunities and new categories in technology that we couldn’t have predicted 30 years ago. In looking at the top 100 Fortune 500 companies in 1991, technology was barely a blip on the radar with IBM standing as the lone tech company. By 2020, it’s a drastically different picture, with the list completely dominated by technology giants like Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Salesforce.

Technology companies in the top 100 have contributed close to three million jobs, with many leading in market value. Despite an unconventional year, we’ve continued to see successful technology IPOs like DoorDash, Snowflake, Asana and Palantir.

Products and services that we take for granted now like Google, the iPhone, Uber, Salesforce, Spotify, Postmates and more were made possible by the HPCCA. We now have another chance to create a bipartisan effort focused on crypto innovation, one with public and private sector support to ensure clear regulatory frameworks. Regulation will make it easier for innovators to create new products that keep the United States competitive with other countries and attract more investment.

There’s no disputing that the adoption of crypto and blockchain is on the rise. Major companies including PayPal, Square and Robinhood are leaning in to crypto and pushing it to the mainstream. With the validation from these brands, interest in the utility of cryptocurrencies and the ability of crypto to better serve businesses and their customers, continues to grow.

Leading crypto companies such as Ripple, Coinbase, Gemini, DCG and Chainalysis are currently based in the United States. However, unclear regulation will keep new entrepreneurs from innovating in the United States. While other countries move forward with defined regulatory frameworks, it’s possible that we will see new entrepreneurs and companies forgo setting up shop in the U.S. in favor of jurisdictions where the rules are clear.

If we know the rules of the game we’re playing, we can keep doing what we do best: innovating. We are only at the beginning — developers can build on open-source technologies, entrepreneurs can launch new companies and develop new products, and investors can invest in those companies.

We want the most innovative crypto and blockchain companies to be built and to grow here in the U.S., where they can create value and opportunities for U.S. citizens. Similar to the early days of the internet, we don’t know what the industry will look like in 5-10 years, but with flexible frameworks the opportunity is massive.

There’s a big opportunity for the Biden administration to influence new policies and new legislation and provide clear guidance that will accelerate innovation in fintech and crypto for many generations to come. The administration can:

  • Create a national digital banking licensing charter (similar to Singapore’s Digital Banking Charter), to streamline the process for fintechs to apply for crypto, lending and payments licensing. Today companies in the U.S. are left to apply state-by-state for licensing, which costs millions of dollars in legal fees and years to accomplish.
  • Define clear classifications for digital assets, derivatives (created via smart contracts) and stablecoins.
  • Create a bipartisan public and private sector group led by tech-savvy thought leaders such as Andrew Yang, to collaborate on landmark legislation that will do for fintech what the HPCCA did for internet companies.
  • Appoint an SEC chair that understands how to truly advance innovation while protecting consumers and the markets. The pro-innovation lip service we have been getting from this SEC is just that — lip service. Every crypto project this SEC has touched has ended up fleeing the U.S., in bankruptcy or left holding worthless tokens.

Regardless of how policymakers and regulators decide to approach the issues that our industry faces, we need to continue to work alongside the government to ensure that the rapidly growing number of people who use fintech and blockchain products continue to get the best-in-class solutions with appropriate consumer and market protections in place.

It’s clear that this technology is here to stay, and I hope that elected leaders will recognize the power that it has to effect massive financial industry progress. Similar to the HPCAA, smart regulation can both protect our consumers and markets while allowing proud U.S. companies to create life-changing innovations.

The US wants startups to get a piece of the $16 billion spent on space tech

By Jonathan Shieber

The U.S. government is one of the biggest spenders in the nascent space industry, and the man who handles the money for the Air Force’s $16 billion checkbook wants startups to know that his door is open for them.

In all, Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, handles about $60 billion worth of budget for the Air Force — a mandate that includes spending money on the new tech initiatives the Air Force deems important.

Historically, the Department of Defense hasn’t been the greatest at working with startups — and many tech companies have been loath to work with the DoD. However, since much of modern civilian infrastructure is based on global positioning systems and other satellite technologies that fall under the Defense Department’s purview, those views on cooperation are changing on both sides.

“Space isn’t a quiet domain of communication and navigation and exploration anymore,” Roper told the audience at TechCrunch’s latest Sessions event, TC Sessions: Space 2020. “It’s increasingly becoming a hostile place… So we’re gearing up a new kind of competition on the military side that could extend to space and that’s creating a lot of new space programs.”

Roper emphasized that the interest from the Air Force and the government more broadly extends well beyond offensive capabilities and military priorities. As space becomes an economic opportunity, Roper sees the Air Force as an engine for driving technology development forward in ways that have commercial benefits.

“It’s a great, great time for innovation in new technologies that could help the military, but we want to do more than just help the military. That’s the old thinking in the Pentagon. That’s all that would help us win the Cold War in the 20th Century, but it’s not going to help us in the 21st, where technology is globalized and accelerating,” Roper said.

“We want to find ways where our military mission and our funding can help accelerate commercial markets too, so it’s competing on a much bigger stage. But we think it’s where we need to aspire to be, so that we’re playing the right catalyst role in this nation and with our partners around the world,” Roper said.

There are several programs that startups can tap to get those federal dollars. Two of the easiest points of entry are through the AFWERX and its recently announced SpaceWERX arm focused entirely on space technology.

“These look like any tech company,” Roper told the audience at the TechCrunch event. “They’re outside our fence lines. They’re easy to walk into… Now you don’t have to know the mission, we will help you find the mission and the customer — the warfighter associated with it. It’s a great model because it keeps the company focused on what they know best, which is their tech.”

Over the last three years, Roper estimated that the AFWERX program had brought 2,300 companies into the Air Force and Space Force programs, and most of them had never worked with the military before, he said.

Within AFWERX there are three programs that particularly relate to integrating startups into the procurement process, Roper said. One is the Spark program, which pairs military with private industry; one is the AFVentures program, which is designed to finance new innovations coming from private industry; and finally there’s the Prime program, which helps commercialize and certify technologies.

Roper pointed to the recent certification the Air Force gave to Joby Aviation for its flying cars. “So there’s a new military market that will hopefully generate a new commercial market,” Roper said.

In 2021, the Prime program will expand to space technologies, according to Roper.

As the demand for new tech grows, there’s no shortage of innovations Roper would like to see from private industry. From new autonomous innovations that could help co-pilot spacecraft to technology for refueling and in-space maneuverability, and reusable equipment from boosters to other components that can bring costs down.

Roper also acknowledged that the Pentagon has a long way to go to “hack the acquisition system” when it comes to dual-use technologies.

Entrepreneurs have pointed out that one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of the commercial space industry has been the inability of the U.S. government to open up the technology for use by private industry.

Roper hopes to change that. “We want to use our military dollars, our mission, and potentially our certifications to help get you there without changing your core product,” he said. “If you succeed as a commercial success, then we succeed as well, because now we’ve got a great tech partner, that hopefully we can continue to come to to solve problems in future. The thing that we’ll want to understand early on is how our military market and all those benefits I just mentioned, how can they help you get to commercial success? And what is it that we not need to do to pull you off that trajectory?”

Contracts with AFWERX are fixed-price and progress as companies hit certain milestones on the product roadmap. These orders increase incrementally as the technology proves itself, so a contract could start with the delivery of a prototype, then experimental usage, then a commercial contract, then broad adoption. “What we’re looking to do is see if you can move the ball forward on your technology, and if you do, then we do another contract. We step you up our process,” Roper said.

Roper sees the project as nothing less than the evolution of the aerospace and defense industry.

“We have a lot of amazing companies today that helped build stealth bombers and space planes and all sorts of awesome stuff. They’re defense companies and we still need them,” Roper said. “What we’re hoping to help build in this century is a set of new companies that are just tech companies. They’re not defense, purely, and they’re not commercial purely. They’re just technology companies and they do a bit of business on both sides.”

Atlanta-based Sanguina wants to make fingernail selfies a digital biomarker for iron deficiency

By Jonathan Shieber

Sanguina, an Atlanta-based health technology developer, is launching its a mobile app in the Google Play Store that uses pictures of fingernails to determine whether or not someone is getting enough iron.

The app measures hemoglobin levels, which are a key indicator of anemia, by analyzing the color of a person’s fingernail beds in a picture.

These fingernail selfies could be used to determine anemia for the more than 2 billion people who are affected by the condition — including women, children, athletes and the elderly.

Iron deficiencies can cause fatigue, pregnancy complications, and in severe cases, even cardiac arrest, the company said. AnemoCheck is the first smartphone application to measure hemoglobin levels, the company said — and through its app people can not only determine whether or not they’re anemic but also use the app’s information to address the condition, the company said.

Sanguina’s technology uses an algorithm to determine the amount of hemoglobin in the blood based on an examination and analysis of the coloration of the nail bed.

Created by Dr. Wilbur Lam, Erika Tyburski, and Rob Mannino, the company was born out of research conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.

“This non-invasive anemia detection tool is the only type of app-based system that has the potential to replace a common blood test,” said Dr. Lam, a clinical hematologist-bioengineer at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, and a faculty member in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech.

So far, Sanguina has raised over $4.2 million in funding from The Seed Lab, XRC Labs, as well as grants from The National Science Foundation and The National Institutes of Health, according to a statement.

 

Cyber insurance startup At-Bay raises $34M Series C, adds M12 as a new investor

By Zack Whittaker

Cybersecurity insurance startup At-Bay has raised $34 million in its Series C round, the company announced Tuesday.

The round was led by Qumra Capital, a new investor. Microsoft’s venture fund M12, also a new investor, participated in the round alongside Acrew Capital, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Munich Re Ventures, and Israeli entrepreneur Shlomo Kramer, who co-founded security firms Check Point and Imperva.

It’s a huge move for the company, which only closed its Series B in February.

The cybersecurity insurance market is expected to become a $23 billion industry by 2025, driven in part by an explosion in connected devices and new regulatory regimes under Europe’s GDPR and more recently California’s state-wide privacy law. But where traditional insurance companies have struggled to acquire the acumen needed to accommodate the growing demand for cybersecurity insurance, startups like At-Bay have filled the space.

At-Bay was founded in 2016 by Rotem Iram and Roman Itskovich, and is headquartered in Mountain View. In the past year, the company has tripled its headcount and now has offices in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

The company differentiates itself from the pack by monitoring the perimeter of its customers’ networks and alerting them to security risks or vulnerabilities. By proactively looking for potential security issues, At-Bay helps its customers to prevent network intrusions and data breaches before they happen, avoiding losses for the company while reducing insurance payouts — a win-win for both the insurance provider and its customers.

“This modern approach to risk management is not only driving strong demand for our insurance, but also enabling us to improve our products and minimize loss to our insureds,” said Iram.

It’s a bet that’s paying off: the company says its frequency of claims are less than half of the industry average. Lior Litwak, a partner at M12, said he sees “immense potential” in the company for melding cyber risk and analysis with cyber insurance.

Now with its Series C in the bank, the company plans to grow its team and launch new products, while improving its automated underwriting platform that allows companies to get instant cyber insurance quotes.

Mexican challenger bank, albo raises $45 million to expand

By Jonathan Shieber

With nearly half a million customers across Mexico already and a network of 30,000 retail locations where representatives can take deposits, the challenger bank albo is already on its way to becoming a dominant player in Mexico’s emerging fintech industry.

And the company has recently raised another $45 million to consolidate its position.

“When your mission is to build the biggest bank in Mexico, you will need a ton of money,” said albo founder Angel Sahagún.

The company received its license to operate as a full depository bank in Mexico, and is slowly working toward being the premiere internet-based financial services provider for Mexico’s large and growing middle class, Sahagún said.

“We are targeting a similar target market to Chime,” the albo founder and chief executive said. “We are targeting people who are underbanked and don’t have access to all the financial products in the market.”

Sahagún said the money will be used to expand the range of services albo offers into lending and insurance products. That’s a path which has already produced one multi-billion dollar business in Nubank, Brazil’s wildly successful fintech company, which planted a flag for a new generation of Latin American startups.

While many challenger banks in the region pursued a strategy targeting upper class and upper middle class consumers, Sahagún said his service had chosen a different path.

The company is trying to bring the middle and low income Mexican consumers into the banking system by making it easy for them to move from a cash-based world to a digital one. “Where 90% of transactions are cash-based you need a value proposition that fits very well on that cash-based society,” Sahagún said.

It’s why the company set up a network of 30,000 locations including convenience stores and drug stores so that it can accept deposits at the places where its customers frequent.

That growth, and the company’s 40% share of the digital banking market in Mexico, according to data from Apptopia cited by the company, is why investors like Valar Ventures, Greyhound Capital, Mountain Nazca and Flourish Ventures were willing to invest as part of the $45 million round.

“albo has proven its ability to drive sustainable growth and is leading the market. This is the team that is going to transform banking in the region and we are proud to be supporting them in that”, said James Fitzgerald of Valar Ventures, in a statement. 

 

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