Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.
Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.
This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.
You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.
If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.
Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.
TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.
You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.
Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.
Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.
What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.
That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.
But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.
Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.
When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.
Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.
[Postscript: Or maybe YouTube will be worse at cloning TikTok than anyone. Record labels and YouTube should understand that short videos promote rather than pirate music, as TikTok propelling Lil Nas X and many other musicians up the charts prove. But if YouTube ruthlessly applies Content ID and takes down Shorts with unauthorized audio, the feature is dead in the water.]
Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.
Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor is rolling out a few changes focused on supporting local businesses. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced many businesses to close their doors, sometimes for good, while others are struggling to stay afloat. As a result, many Nextdoor users have been posting on the app asking how they can help support their favorite businesses during this time. These new updates will allow them to do just that — by buying gift cards from local businesses, donating to fundraisers, or shopping from a business that remains open by way of pickup or delivery.
Buying gift cards from local merchants has quickly emerged as an easy way for customers to help their favorite restaurants and other businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
New sites, like HelpMainStreet.com and SaveOurFaves.org, have launched in recent days to make this process more organized. OpenTable’s gift card marketplace waived its fees. Meanwhile, other efforts had their hearts in the right place but flubbed the execution — as with Yelp’s disastrous implementation of a GoFundMe integration that didn’t allow participants to easily opt-out.
On Nextdoor, however, the app is simply being updated to allow the local businesses themselves to direct users to whatever websites or fundraisers they already have running.
For example, in the Business Profile section, the local merchant can now add a gift card website address to their profile. When Nextdoor users click the link, they’ll be directed to the page the business has set up for selling gift cards.
Even if the business doesn’t offer online purchases, it could simply add a page to its existing website that instructs users how to buy the gift card from them — perhaps, by calling the business on the phone or reaching out on social media.
In addition, if the business is running a GoFundMe campaign, they’ll now be able to include that link in the “Story” section of their Nextdoor Business Page for Nextdoor users to see.
Their Nextdoor Business Page can also now be customized with their available take-out and delivery options, which is particularly useful for dine-in restaurants that just started offering to-go meals or delivery for the first time, but haven’t partnered with a larger delivery service, like DoorDash, GrubHub or Uber Eats.
In addition, businesses that been voted as a “Nextdoor Neighborhood Favorite” by the community will also now be able to post to the main Nextdoor news feed. Here, they can share updates to their hours, services offered, or operations, which will be seen by a larger number of users.
Nextdoor has also added a Coronavirus Resource Center to help local business owners get updated news, information, and actionable business advice in one spot.
The changes come only a day after Facebook launched Community Help for COVID-19, which allows local community members — including Facebook Pages used by businesses– to both offer aid and request assistance. But posts about supporting your favorite restaurant could easily get lost amid more critical calls for medical supplies needed by area hospitals or food banks in need of volunteers.
On Nextdoor, local businesses may instead find a smaller, but more targeted audience where their real-life neighbors and customers are already engaging with one another.
This isn’t the first COVID-19 related update Nextdoor has rolled out. The company previously updated its app to include a Help Map for neighbors offering to help one another or in need of help themselves.
YouTube has been criticized for continuing to host coronavirus disinformation on its video sharing platform during a global health emergency.
Two US advocacy groups which campaign for online safety undertook an 18-day investigation of the video sharing platform in March — finding what they say were “dozens” of examples of dubious videos, including videos touting bogus vaccines the sellers claimed would protect buyers from COVID-19.
They also found videos advertising medical masks of unknown quality for sale.
There have been concerns about shortages of masks for front-line medical staff, as well as the risk of online scammers hawking low grade kit that does not offered the claimed protection against the virus.
Google said last month that it would temporarily take down ads for masks from its ad network but sellers looking to exploit the coronavirus crisis appear to be circumventing the ban by using YouTube’s video sharing platform as an alternative digital shop window to lure buyers.
Researchers working for the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) and the Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW) initiated conversations with sellers they found touting dodgy coronavirus wares on YouTube — and were offered useless ‘vaccines’ for purchase and hundreds of masks of unknown quality.
“There was ample reason to believe the offers for masks were dubious as well [as the vaccines], as highlighted by interactions with representatives from some of the sellers,” they said.
Their report includes screengrabs of some of the interactions with the sellers. In one a seller tells the researchers they don’t accept credit cards — but they do accept CashApp, PayPal, Google or Amazon gift cards or Bitcoin.
The same seller offered the researchers vaccines priced at $135 each, and suggested they purchase MMR/Varicella when asked which one is “the best”. Such a vaccine, even if it functioned for MMR/Varicella, would obviously offer no protection against COVID-19.
Another seller was found to be hawking “COVID-19 drugs” using a YouTube account name “Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer”.
“How does a guy calling himself ‘Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer’ even get a page on YouTube?” said Eric Feinberg, lead researcher for CSW, in a statement accompanying the report. “It’s all too easy to get ahold of these guys. We called some of them. Once you contact them, they are relentless. They’ll call you back at all hours and hound you until you buy something. They’ll call you in the middle of the night. They are predators looking to capitalize on our fear.”
A spokesman for the DCA told us the researchers compiled the report based on content from around 60 videos they identified hawking coronavirus-related ‘cures’ or kit between March 6-24.
“There are too many to count. Everyday, I find more,” added Feinberg.
The groups are also critical of how YouTube’s platform risks lending credibility to coronavirus disinformation because the platform now displays official CDC-branded banners under any COVID-19 related material — including the dubious videos their report highlights.
“YouTube also mixes trusted resources with sites that shouldn’t be trusted and that could confuse consumers — especially when they are scared and desperate,” said DCA executive director, Tom Galvin, in a statement. “It’s hard enough to tell who’s legitimate and who’s not on YouTube.”
The DCA and CSW have written letters to the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission laying out their findings and calling for “swift action” to hold bad actors accountable.
“YouTube, and its parent company Google, are shirking their formal policy that prohibits content that capitalizes off sensitive events,” they write in a letter to attorney general Barr.
“Digital Citizens is sharing this information in the hopes your Justice Department will act swiftly to hold bad actors, who take advantage of the coronavirus, accountable. In this crisis, strong action will deter others from engaging in criminal or illicit acts that harm consumers or add to confusion and anxiety,” they add.
Responding to the groups’ findings a YouTube spokesperson said some of the videos the researchers had identified had not received many views.
After we contacted it about the content YouTube also said it had removed three channels that had been identified by the researchers in the report for violating Community Guidelines.
In a statement YouTube added:
Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the coronavirus around the world. We’re committed to providing helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels, using WHO / CDC data, to help combat misinformation. To date, there have been over 5B impressions on our information panels for coronavirus related videos and searches. We also have clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us.
The DCA and CSW also recently undertook a similar review of Facebook’s platform — finding sellers touting masks for sale despite the tech giant’s claimed ban on such content. “Facebook promised CNN when they did a story on our report about them that the masks would be gone a week ago, but the researchers from CSW are still finding the masks now,” their spokesman told us.
Earlier this week the Tech Transparency Project also reported still being able to find masks for sale on Facebook’s platform. It found examples of masks showing up in Google’s targeted ads too.
There’s a joke* being reshared on chat apps that takes the form of a multiple-choice question — asking who’s the leading force in workplace digital transformation? The red-lined punchline is not the CEO or CTO, but: C) COVID-19.
There’s likely more than a grain of truth underpinning the quip. The novel coronavirus is pushing a lot of metaphorical buttons right now. “Pause” buttons for people and industries, as large swathes of the world’s population face quarantine conditions that can resemble house arrest. The majority of offline social and economic activities are suddenly off limits.
Such major pauses in our modern lifestyle may even turn into a full reset, over time. The world as it was, where mobility of people has been all but taken for granted — regardless of the environmental costs of so much commuting and indulged wanderlust — may never return to “business as usual.”
If global leadership rises to the occasion, then the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to rethink how we structure our societies and economies — to make a shift toward lower carbon alternatives. After all, how many physical meetings do you really need when digital connectivity is accessible and reliable? As millions more office workers log onto the day job from home, that number suddenly seems vanishingly small.
COVID-19 is clearly strengthening the case for broadband to be a utility — as so much more activity is pushed online. Even social media seems to have a genuine community purpose during a moment of national crisis, when many people can only connect remotely, even with their nearest neighbours.
Hence the reports of people stuck at home flocking back to Facebook to sound off in the digital town square. Now that the actual high street is off limits, the vintage social network is experiencing a late second wind.
Facebook understands this sort of higher societal purpose already, of course. Which is why it’s been so proactive about building features that nudge users to “mark yourself safe” during extraordinary events like natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. (Or indeed, why it encouraged politicians to get into bed with its data platform in the first place — no matter the cost to democracy.)
In less fraught times, Facebook’s “purpose” can be loosely summed to “killing time.” But with ever more sinkholes being drilled by the attention economy, that’s a function under ferocious and sustained attack.
Over the years the tech giant has responded by engineering ways to rise back to the top of the social heap — including spying on and buying up competition, or directly cloning rival products. It’s been pulling off this trick, by hook or by crook, for over a decade. Albeit, this time Facebook can’t take any credit for the traffic uptick; a pandemic is nature’s dark pattern design.
What’s most interesting about this virally disrupted moment is how much of the digital technology that’s been built out online over the past two decades could very well have been designed for living through just such a dystopia.
Seen through this lens, VR should be having a major moment. A face computer that swaps out the stuff your eyes can actually see with a choose-your-own-digital-adventure of virtual worlds to explore, all from the comfort of your living room? What problem are you fixing, VR? Well, the conceptual limits of human lockdown in the face of a pandemic quarantine right now, actually…
Virtual reality has never been a compelling proposition versus the rich and textured opportunity of real life, except within very narrow and niche bounds. Yet all of a sudden, here we all are — with our horizons drastically narrowed and real-life news that’s ceaselessly harrowing. So it might yet end up a wry punchline to another multiple choice joke: “My next vacation will be: A) Staycation, B) The spare room, C) VR escapism.”
It’s videoconferencing that’s actually having the big moment, though. Turns out even a pandemic can’t make VR go viral. Instead, long-lapsed friendships are being rekindled over Zoom group chats or Google Hangouts. And Houseparty — a video chat app — has seen surging downloads as barflies seek out alternative night life with their usual watering-holes shuttered.
Bored celebs are TikToking. Impromptu concerts are being live-streamed from living rooms via Instagram and Facebook Live. All sorts of folks are managing social distancing, and the stress of being stuck at home alone (or with family), by distant socializing: signing up to remote book clubs and discos; joining virtual dance parties and exercise sessions from bedrooms; taking a few classes together; the quiet pub night with friends has morphed seamlessly into a bring-your-own-bottle group video chat.
This is not normal — but nor is it surprising. We’re living in the most extraordinary time. And it seems a very human response to mass disruption and physical separation (not to mention the trauma of an ongoing public health emergency that’s killing thousands of people a day) to reach for even a moving pixel of human comfort. Contactless human contact is better than none at all.
Yet the fact all these tools are already out there, ready and waiting for us to log on and start streaming, should send a dehumanizing chill down society’s backbone.
It underlines quite how much consumer technology is being designed to reprogram how we connect with each other, individually and in groups, in order that uninvited third parties can cut a profit.
Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, a key concern being attached to social media was its ability to hook users and encourage passive feed consumption — replacing genuine human contact with voyeuristic screening of friends’ lives. Studies have linked the tech to loneliness and depression. Now that we’re literally unable to go out and meet friends, the loss of human contact is real and stark. So being popular online in a pandemic really isn’t any kind of success metric.
Houseparty, for example, self-describes as a “face to face social network” — yet it’s quite the literal opposite; you’re foregoing face-to-face contact if you’re getting virtually together in app-wrapped form.
The implication of Facebook’s COVID-19 traffic bump is that the company’s business model thrives on societal disruption and mainstream misery. Which, frankly, we knew already. Data-driven adtech is another way of saying it’s been engineered to spray you with ad-flavored dissatisfaction by spying on what you get up to. The coronavirus just hammers the point home.
The fact we have so many high-tech tools on tap for forging digital connections might feel like amazing serendipity in this crisis — a freemium bonanza for coping with terrible global trauma. But such bounty points to a horrible flip side: It’s the attention economy that’s infectious and insidious. Before “normal life” plunged off a cliff, all this sticky tech was labelled “everyday use;” not “break out in a global emergency.”
It’s never been clearer how these attention-hogging apps and services are designed to disrupt and monetize us; to embed themselves in our friendships and relationships in a way that’s subtly dehumanizing; re-routing emotion and connections; nudging us to swap in-person socializing for virtualized fuzz designed to be data-mined and monetized by the same middlemen who’ve inserted themselves unasked into our private and social lives.
Captured and recompiled in this way, human connection is reduced to a series of dilute and/or meaningless transactions; the platforms deploying armies of engineers to knob-twiddle and pull strings to maximize ad opportunities, no matter the personal cost.
It’s also no accident we’re seeing more of the vast and intrusive underpinnings of surveillance capitalism emerge, as the COVID-19 emergency rolls back some of the obfuscation that’s used to shield these business models from mainstream view in more normal times. The trackers are rushing to seize and colonize an opportunistic purpose.
Tech and ad giants are falling over themselves to get involved with offering data or apps for COVID-19 tracking. They’re already in the mass surveillance business, so there’s likely never felt like a better moment than the present pandemic for the big data lobby to press the lie that individuals don’t care about privacy, as governments cry out for tools and resources to help save lives.
First the people-tracking platforms dressed up attacks on human agency as “relevant ads.” Now the data industrial complex is spinning police-state levels of mass surveillance as pandemic-busting corporate social responsibility. How quick the wheel turns.
But platforms should be careful what they wish for. Populations that find themselves under house arrest with their phones playing snitch might be just as quick to round on high-tech gaolers as they’ve been to sign up for a friendly video chat in these strange and unprecedented times.
Every day there's a fresh Zoom privacy/security horror story. Why now, all at once?
It's simple: the problems aren't new but suddenly everyone is forced to use Zoom. That means more people discovering problems and also more frustration because opting out isn't an option. https://t.co/O9h8SHerok
— Arvind Narayanan (@random_walker) March 31, 2020
*Source is a private Twitter account called @MBA_ish
And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.
Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.
More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.
Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.
At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.
Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.
But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.
With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.
“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”
With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.
Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.
In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.
The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”
We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.
A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a COVID-19 information divide between people who mostly get their news from social networks and those who rely on more traditional news sources.
Pew surveyed 8,914 adults in the U.S. during the week of March 10, dividing survey respondents by the main means they use to consume political and election news. In the group of users that reports getting most of their news from social media, only 37% of respondents said that they expected the COVID-19 vaccine to be available in a year or more — an answer aligned with the current scientific consensus. In every other sample with the exception of the local TV group, at least 50% of those surveyed answered the question correctly. A third of social media news consumers also reported that they weren’t sure about the vaccine availability.
Among people who get most of their news from social media, 57% reported that they had seen at least some COVID-19 information that “seemed completely made up.” For people who consume most of their news via print media, that number was 37%.
Most alarmingly, people who primarily get their news via social media perceived the threat of COVID-19 to be exaggerated. Of the social media news consumers surveyed, 45% answered that the media “greatly exaggerated the risks” posed by the novel coronavirus. Radio news consumers were close behind, with 44% believing the media greatly exaggerated the threat of the virus, while only 26% of print consumers — those more likely to be paying for their news — believed the same.
The full results were part of Pew’s Election News Pathways project, which explores how people in the U.S. consume election news.
Four years ago, mathematician Vlad Voroninski saw an opportunity to remove some of the bottlenecks in the development of autonomous vehicle technology thanks to breakthroughs in deep learning.
Now, Helm.ai, the startup he co-founded in 2016 with Tudor Achim, is coming out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. More than a dozen angel investors also participated, including Berggruen Holdings founder Nicolas Berggruen, Quora co-founders Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo, professional NBA player Kevin Durant, Gen. David Petraeus, Matician co-founder and CEO Navneet Dalal, Quiet Capital managing partner Lee Linden and Robinhood co-founder Vladimir Tenev, among others.
Helm.ai will put the $13 million in seed funding toward advanced engineering and R&D and hiring more employees, as well as locking in and fulfilling deals with customers.
Helm.ai is focused solely on the software. It isn’t building the compute platform or sensors that are also required in a self-driving vehicle. Instead, it is agnostic to those variables. In the most basic terms, Helm.ai is creating software that tries to understand sensor data as well as a human would, in order to be able to drive, Voroninski said.
That aim doesn’t sound different from other companies. It’s Helm.ai’s approach to software that is noteworthy. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and on-road testing, along with reams of data sets that have been annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, which expedites the timeline and reduces costs. The startup uses an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation.
“There’s this very long tail end and an endless sea of corner cases to go through when developing AI software for autonomous vehicles, Voroninski explained. “What really matters is the unit of efficiency of how much does it cost to solve any given corner case, and how quickly can you do it? And so that’s the part that we really innovated on.”
Voroninski first became interested in autonomous driving at UCLA, where he learned about the technology from his undergrad adviser who had participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition in the U.S. funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And while Voroninski turned his attention to applied mathematics for the next decade — earning a PhD in math at UC Berkeley and then joining the faculty in the MIT mathematics department — he knew he’d eventually come back to autonomous vehicles.
By 2016, Voroninski said breakthroughs in deep learning created opportunities to jump in. Voroninski left MIT and Sift Security, a cybersecurity startup later acquired by Netskope, to start Helm.ai with Achim in November 2016.
“We identified some key challenges that we felt like weren’t being addressed with the traditional approaches,” Voroninski said. “We built some prototypes early on that made us believe that we can actually take this all the way.”
Helm.ai is still a small team of about 15 people. Its business aim is to license its software for two use cases — Level 2 (and a newer term called Level 2+) advanced driver assistance systems found in passenger vehicles and Level 4 autonomous vehicle fleets.
Helm.ai does have customers, some of which have gone beyond the pilot phase, Voroninski said, adding that he couldn’t name them.
For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.
A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.
Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.
Take the new Call of Duty: Warzone battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80 gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; Streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.
And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400 percent increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.
As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.
It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.
The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, since local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.
We’ve been diligently following the development of virtual worlds, also known as the “metaverse,” on TechCrunch.
Hanging out within the virtual worlds of games has become more popular in recent years with the growth of platforms like Roblox and open-world games like Fortnite, but it still isn’t a mainstream way to socialize outside of the young-adult demographic.
Three weeks ago, TechCrunch media columnist Eric Peckham published an in-depth report that positioned virtual worlds as the next era of social media. In an eight-part series, he looked at the history of virtual worlds and why games are already social networks, why social networks want more gaming, what the next few years looks like for the industry and why isn’t it mainstream already, how these virtual worlds will lead to healthier social relations, what the future of virtual economies will be and which companies are poised for success in this new market.
Given all that has changed in just the last three weeks — who would have thought that large swaths of the knowledge economy would suddenly find themselves entirely interacting virtually? — I wanted to get a sense of what the rising popularity of virtual worlds looks like in the midst of the outbreak of novel coronavirus. Eric and I had a call to discuss this and decided to share our conversation publicly.
Danny Crichton: So let’s talk about timing a bit. You wrote this eight-article series around virtual worlds and then all of a sudden post-publication there is this massive event — the novel coronavirus pandemic — causing a large portion of the human population to stay at home and interact only online. What’s happening now in the space?
Eric Peckham: I wrote my series on the multiverse because I was already seeing a surge of interest, both in terms of consumer demand for open-world MMO games and in terms of social media giants like Facebook and Snap trying to incorporate virtual worlds and social games into their platforms. Large companies are planning for virtual worlds in a way that is actionable and not just a futuristic vision. Over the last couple of years there has also been a lot of VC investment into a handful of startups focused on building next-generation virtual worlds for people to spend time in, virtual worlds with complex societies shaped by users’ contributions.
Talking to founders and investors in the gaming space, there has been a huge increase in usage over the last few weeks as more people hang out at home playing games, whether it’s on the adult side or the kid side.
Most of these next-generation virtual worlds are still in private beta but already popular platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite are getting substantially more use than normal. A large portion of people stuck at home are escaping via the virtual worlds of games.
You wrote this whole analysis before you knew the extent of the pandemic — how has the outlook changed for this industry?
This accelerates the timeline of virtual worlds being a mainstream place to hang out and socialize in daily life. I think people will be at home for multiple months, not just a couple of weeks, and it’s going to change people’s perspectives on socializing and working from home.
That’s a really powerful cultural shift. It’s getting more people beyond the core gaming community excited about spending time in virtual worlds and hanging out with their friends there.
We have seen this most heavily with the youngest generation of internet users. The majority of kids 9-12 years old are users of Minecraft and Roblox who hang out there with friends after school. We’ll see that expand to older demographics more quickly than it was going to before.
One of the complaints that I’ve seen on Twitter is that even though we have one of the largest global human lockdowns of all time, all the VR headsets are basically gone. Is VR a key component of virtual worlds?
Well, you don’t need VR headsets in order to spend meaningful time with others in a virtual space. Hundreds of millions of people already do it through their mobile phones and through PCs and consoles.
This is at the heart of the gaming industry: creating virtual worlds for people to spend time in, both pursuing the mission of whatever a game is designed for but also interacting with others. Among the most popular mobile and PC games last year were massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.
Talking about gaming, one facet of the story that I thought was particularly interesting was the fact that gaming was still not that high in terms of market penetration in the population.
More than two billion people play video games in the context of a year. There’s incredible market penetration in that sense. But, at least for the data I’ve seen for the U.S., the percent of the population who play games on a given day is still much lower than the percent of the population who use social media on a given day.
The more that games become virtual worlds for socializing and hanging out beyond just the mission of the gameplay, the more who will turn to virtual worlds as a social and entertainment outlet when they have five minutes free to do something on their phone. Social media fills these small moments in life. MMO games right now don’t because they are so oriented around the gameplay, which takes time and uninterrupted focus. Virtual worlds in the vein of those on Roblox where you just hang out and explore with friends compete for that time with Instagram more directly.
Theater chains like Regal and AMC announced this week that they are entirely shutting down to wait out the pandemic. Is that going to affect these virtual world companies?
I think they are separate parts of media. Cinema attendance has been declining quite substantially for years, and the way the industry has made up for that is trying to turn cinemas into these premium experiences and increasing ticket prices. Kids are just as likely, if not more likely, to play a game together on a Friday night as they are to go to the cinema. Cinemas are less culturally relevant to young people than they once were.
We’ve seen a massive experiment in work from home, which is a form of virtual world, or at least, a virtual workplace. When it comes to popularizing virtual worlds, is it going to come from the entertainment side or the more productivity-oriented platforms?
It will come from the entertainment side, and from younger people using it to socialize, in part because there’s less fear around cultural etiquette compared to people meeting in a business setting who are worried about a virtual world context not feeling as professional. Over time, as virtual worlds become pervasive in our social lives they will become more natural places to chat with people about business as well.
As more and more people are working online and interacting virtually, a big question is how you get beyond Zoom calls or the technology that’s currently in the market for virtual conferences to something that feels more like walking around and chatting with people in person. It’s tough to do without the ability to walk around a virtual space. You can’t have those unplanned small group or one-on-one interactions with people you don’t know if you’re just boxes within a Zoom call or some other broadcast. It will be interesting to see what develops around virtual business conferences that stems from virtual world technology. I’ve seen a few teams exploring this.
Last question here, but we are looking at a major recession in the economy, and so how does the landscape of people earning money from virtual worlds change with coronavirus?
The second-to-last article in my series is about the virtual economies around virtual worlds. Any virtual world inherently has commerce and people have already been making real-world money from games and from early virtual worlds like Second Life.
Both people staying home amid the coronavirus and the recession that we seem to be entering are pressures that will push more people to look online for ways to make money. That will only increase the activity of virtual economies around some of these worlds, whether those are formally built into the game or they’re happening in a gray or black market around the games (which is more common).
Israeli AI chipmaker Hailo today announced that it has raised a $60 million Series B funding round led by its existing investors, who were joined by new strategic investor ABB Technology Ventures, the venture arm of the Swiss-based multination ABB, NEC Corporation and Londons’ Latitude Ventures. The new funding will help Hailo to roll out its Hailo-8 Deep Learning chip and to get into new markets and industries.
“This immense vote of confidence from our new strategic and financial investors, along with existing ones, is a testimony to our breakthrough innovation and market potential,” said Orr Danon, CEO and co-founder of Hailo. “The new funding will help us expedite the deployment of new levels of edge computing capabilities in smart devices and intelligent industries around the world, including areas such as mobility, smart cities, industrial automation, smart retail and beyond.”
I last met with the Hailo team at CES in January. At the time, the company was showing off a number of impressive demos, mostly around real-time image recognition. What makes the Hailo chip stand out is its innovative architecture, which can automatically adapt resources to best run its users’ custom neural networks. With this, the chip doesn’t just run faster but is also far more energy efficient. The company promises 26 tero operations per second in performance from its chip, which it says ” outperforms all other edge processors with its small size, high performance, and low power consumption.”
With this round, Hailo’s total funding is now $88 million. In part, the investor enthusiasm for Hailo is surely driven by the success of other Israeli chip startups. Mobileye, after all, went to Intel for $15.3 billion, which also recently acquired Habana Labs. And the time, of course, is ripe for deep learning chips at the edge, now that AI/ML technology is quickly becoming table stakes.
“Hailo is poised to become a defining player in the rapidly emerging market for AI processors,” said Julian Rowe, Partner at Latitude Ventures. “Their Deep Learning edge chip can be disruptive to so many sectors today, while the new, innovative use cases Hailo’s chips can unlock are just starting to reveal themselves. We’re thrilled to join the team for what lies ahead.”
It turns out the virtual and augmented reality companies aren’t dead — as long as they focus on the enterprise. That’s what the Los Angeles-based extended reality technology developer Talespin did — and it just raised $15 million to grow its business.
Traditional venture capitalists may have made it rain on expensive Hollywood studios that were promising virtual reality would be the future of entertainment and social networking (given coronavirus fears, it may yet be), but Talespin and others like it are focused on much more mundane goals. Specifically, making talent management, training and hiring easier for employers in certain industries.
For Talespin, the areas that were the most promising were ones that aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Insurance and virtual reality are hardly synonymous, but Talespin’s training tools have helped claims assessors do their jobs and helped train a new generation of insurance investigators in what to look for when they’re trying to determine how much their companies are going to pay out.
“Talespin‘s immersive platform has transformed employee learning and proven to be an impactful addition to our training programs. We’re honored to continue to support the Talespin team through this next phase of growth and development,” said Scott Lindquist, Chief Financial Officer at Farmers Insurance, in a statement.
Farmers is an investor in Talespin, as is the corporate training and talent management software provider Cornerstone OnDemand, and the hardware manufacturer HTC. The round’s composition speaks to the emerging confidence of corporate investors and just how skeptical traditional venture firms have become of the prospects for virtual reality.
The prospects of augmented and virtual reality may be uncertain, but what’s definite is the need for new tools and technologies to transfer knowledge and train up employees as skilled, experienced workers age out of the workforce — and the development of new skills becomes critically important as technology changes the workplace.
Cornerstone, which led the Talespin Series B round, will also be partnering with the company to develop human resources training tools in virtual reality.
“We share Talespin’s vision that the workforce needs innovative solutions to stay competitive, maximize opportunity and increase employee satisfaction,” said Jason Gold, Vice President of Finance, Corporate Development and Investor Relations at Cornerstone, in a statement. “We’ve been incredibly impressed with Talespin’s technology, leadership team and vision to transform the workplace through XR. Talespin’s technology is a perfect fit in our suite of products, and we look forward to working together to deliver great solutions for our customers.”
Talespin previously raised $5 million in financing. The company initially grew its business by developing a number of one-off projects for eventual customers as it determined a product strategy. Part of the company’s success has relied in its ability to use game engine and animation instead of 360 degree video. That means assets can be reused multiple times and across different training modules.
“Creating better alignment between skills and opportunities is the key to solving the reskilling challenges organizations across the world are facing,” said Kyle Jackson, CEO and Co-Founder of Talespin, in a statement. “That’s why it’s critical companies find a way to provide accelerated, continuous learning and create better skills data. By doing so, we will open up career pathways for individuals that are better aligned to their natural abilities and learned skills, and enable companies to implement a skills-based approach to talent development, assessment, and placement. Our new funding and partnership with Cornerstone will allow us to expand our product offerings to achieve these goals, and to continue building innovative solutions that redefine what work looks like in the future.”
Excitement for The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is heating up. Here is the first wave of speakers and judges — with more coming!
The Awards — which have been running for over 10 years — will be held on 25 June 2020 in London, U.K. on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun garden-party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.
The application form to enter is here.
We’re scouting for the top late-stage seed and Series A startups in 22 categories.
You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor that you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.
CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS: 25 March 2020
For the 2020 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. This year we are particularly looking at startups that are able to address the SDGs/Globals Boals.
The Europas Awards
The Europas Awards results are based on voting by experts, experienced founders, hand-picked investors and the industry itself.
But the key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.
Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:
Submissions now open!
25 March 2020 – Submissions close
14 April – Public voting begins
25 April – Public voting ends
8 June – Shortlist Announced
25 June – Awards evening, winners announced
We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. There are more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden/lawn party, where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily, with free-flowing drinks and a wide selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last less than 45 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact Claire Dobson on firstname.lastname@example.org
Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.
The Europas Awards have been going for the last 10 years, and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes, Tech.eu, The Memo, Smart Company, CNET, many others — and of course, TechCrunch.
• No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the speakers
• Key founders and investors attending
• Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters
The Pathfounder Afternoon Workshops
In the afternoon prior to the awards we will be holding a special, premium content event, The Pathfounder, designed be a “fast download” into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London. Sessions include “How to Craft Your Story”; “Term Sheets”; “Building a Shareholding Structure”; Investor Panel; Meet the Press; and a session from former Europas winners. Followed by the awards and after-party!
The Europas “Diversity Pass”
We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why we’ve set aside a block of free tickets to ensure that pre-seed female and BAME founders are represented at The Europas. This limited tranche of free tickets ensures that we include more women and people of colour who are specifically “pre-seed” or “seed-stage” tech startup founders. If you are a women/BAME founder, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.
Anne Boden is founder and CEO of Starling Bank, a fast-growing U.K. digital bank targeting millions of users who live their lives on their phones. After a distinguished career in senior leadership at some of the world’s best-known financial heavyweights, she set out to build her own mobile bank from scratch in 2014. Today, Starling has opened more than one million current accounts for individuals and small businesses and raised hundreds of millions of pounds in backing. Anne was awarded an MBE for services to financial technology in 2018.
Nate Lanxon (Speaker)
Editor and Tech Correspondent
Nate is an editor and tech correspondent for Bloomberg, based in London. For over a decade, he has particularly focused on the consumer technology sector, and the trends shaping the global industry. Previous to this, he was senior editor at Bloomberg Media and was head of digital editorial for Bloomberg.com in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Nate has held numerous roles across the most respected titles in tech, including stints as editor of WIRED.co.uk, editor-in-chief of Ars Technica UK and senior editor at CBS-owned CNET. Nate launched his professional career as a journalist by founding a small tech and gaming website called Tech’s Message, which is now the name of his weekly technology podcast hosted at natelanxon.com.
CEO and founder
/> Tania is an internationally recognized women’s health expert and has held leadership positions for various global NGOs and the United Nations. Passionate about challenging taboo women’s issues, Tania founded Elvie in 2013, partnering with Alexander Asseily to create a global hub of connected health and lifestyle products for women.
CEO and co-founder
Thread makes it easy for guys to dress well. They combine expert stylists with powerful AI to recommend the perfect clothes for each person. Thread is used by more than 1 million men in the U.K., and has raised $35 million from top investors, including Balderton Capital, the founders of DeepMind and the billionaire former owner of Warner Music. Prior to Thread, Kieran founded one of the first video sharing websites at age 15 and sold it for $1.25 million at age 19. He was then CEO and co-founder of Playfire, the largest social network for gamers, which he grew to 1.5 million customers before being acquired in 2012. He’s a member of the Forbes, Drapers and Financial Times 30 Under 30 lists.
Chief Commercial Officer
Clare is the chief commercial officer of what3words; prior to this, her background was in the development and growth of social enterprises and in impact investment. Clare was featured in the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for technology and is involved with London companies tackling social/environmental challenges. Clare also volunteers with the Streetlink project, doing health outreach work with vulnerable women in South London.
Luca Bocchio joined Accel in 2018 and focuses on consumer internet, fintech and software businesses. Luca led Accel’s investment in Luko, Bryter and Brumbrum. Luca also helped lead Accel’s investment and ongoing work in Sennder. Prior to Accel, Luca was with H14, where he invested in global early and growth-stage opportunities, such as Deliveroo, GetYourGuide, Flixbus, SumUp and SecretEscapes. Luca previously advised technology, industrial and consumer companies on strategy with Bain & Co. in Europe and Asia. Luca is from Italy and graduated from LIUC University.
CEO and c-founder
/> Bernhard co-founded busuu in 2008 following an MBA project and has since led the company to become the world’s largest community for language learning, with more than 90 million users across the globe. Before starting busuu, Bernhard worked as a consultant at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. He graduated summa cum laude in International Business from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and holds an MBA with honours from IE Business School. Bernhard is an active mentor and business angel in the startup community and an advisor to the Austrian Government on education affairs. Bernhard recently received the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 UK Awards in the Disruptor category.
CEO and founder
Chris is the founder and CEO of Lyst, the world’s biggest fashion search platform used by 104 million shoppers each year. Including over 6 million products from brands including Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Prada and Saint Laurent, Lyst offers shoppers convenience and unparalleled choice in one place. Launched in London in 2010, Lyst’s investors include LVMH, 14W, Balderton and Accel Partners. Prior to founding Lyst, Chris was an investor at Benchmark Capital and Balderton Capital in London, focusing on the early-stage consumer internet space. He holds an MA in physics and philosophy from Cambridge University.
CEO and co-founder
/> Husayn Kassai is the Onfido CEO and co-founder. Onfido helps businesses digitally onboard users by verifying any government ID and comparing it with the person’s facial biometrics. Founded in 2012, Onfido has grown to a team of 300 across SF, NYC and London; received over $100 million in funding from Salesforce, Microsoft and others; and works with over 1,500 fintech, banking and marketplace clients globally. Husayn is a WEF Tech Pioneer; a Forbes Contributor; and Forbes’ “30 Under 30”. He has a BA in economics and management from Keble College, Oxford.
Are the schmooze sessions, after-parties and secret dinners with investors that take place during tech conferences mere distractions, or are these events an opportunity for founders to close a deal?
Which parties should you attend? How do you get in? And above all, what outcome are you working toward?
Some events are small, while others are shows of pomp, power and pizzazz. “For me, this is a time to bring value to my portfolio,” says Sid Trivedi, partner at Foundation Capital. Foundation’s RSA 2020 event is a small gathering of 50 people who fall into one of three categories: buyers from Global 2000 companies, channel partners or portfolio CEOs.
“In particular, I am focused on helping seed-stage companies because they rarely get access to such a buyer universe,” Trivedi says. At the other end of the spectrum, some events will have several hundred attendees, which raises the odds of getting lost in a crowd.
“If the event has a well-curated attendee list, it makes it worthwhile for both sides. Often, I can scan the room in 15 minutes and know if I want to stay here,” said Ariel Tseitlin, a partner at Scale Venture Partners. Some conference events are hosted by top-tier investors and partnership-heavy corporate VCs, while others are driven by consulting groups that share market trends and research content. As one founder bemoaned, “why can’t we just have a Tinder for VC-CEO match-making?”
If you don’t have an invitation, I don’t advise just showing up at the door; these are well-guarded events. Gate-crashing is a good strategy for a 19-year-old (who has the maturity of a 12-year-old), but not for the rest of us. Some founders use a simple tactic: get an existing portfolio CEO to take you in as their guest. Most VCs love it when they get such an introduction; it’s a great start and much better than sending a cold email or a LinkedIn to the lead partner.
Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.
The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.
The list of new companies include:
The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator
Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).
Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.
Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.
This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.
Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.
The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.
Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.
Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.
Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.
Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.
Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.
Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.
Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.
Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.
Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early-Bird pricing applies.
Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.
Virgin Galactic is one crucial step closer to actually flying paying customers to space: The space tourism company just relocated its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the VSS Unity, from its Mojave, California manufacturing facility to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will begin flights with a goal of at least sending company founder Richard Branson to space during the year of his 70th birthday.
VSS Unity made the trip attached to the carrier aircraft that will bring it up to its launch altitude, where it’ll detach from the plane (named ‘VMS Eve’) and climb to the edge of space, providing the customers on board with “several minutes” of weightlessness in near zero-G when the spacecraft’s rocket motor disengages at the peak of its journey.
The 90 minute experience will cost the first tourists around $250,000 per ticket, which sounds steep but will also be the most affordable way that anyone’s experienced a trip to space to date. Those ticket holders will still have to wait a while to enjoy the trip they’ve been waiting for for a few years now, however – this relocation sets up a final round of testing on the spacecraft and its carrier planet that will still take some time to complete.
This round of preparation includes a number of relatively unexciting “capture and carry” flights with the spaceship and carrier aircraft attached to one another to get familiar with the surrounding airspace, as well as tests of rocket powered flight for the VSS Unity on its own. Finally, teams will assess and finalize the spaceship’s cabin, and the overall customer experience that tourists will encounter throughout their quarter-million dollar trip.
Given that not insignificant list of remaining activities prior to an actual flight, expect the inaugural commercial journeys of VSS Unity to still be a little ways out. As mentioned, the company has said that it at the very least is prioritizing a 70th birthday trip for Branson, but depending on how things go it might just be able to get other commercial flights in before year’s end, too.
Facebook has been left red-faced after being forced to call off the launch date of its dating service in Europe because it failed to give its lead EU data regulator enough advanced warning — including failing to demonstrate it had performed a legally required assessment of privacy risks.
Late yesterday Ireland’s Independent.ie newspaper reported that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) had sent agents to Facebook’s Dublin office seeking documentation that Facebook had failed to provide — using inspection and document seizure powers set out in Section 130 of the country’s Data Protection Act.
In a statement on its website the DPC said Facebook first contacted it about the rollout of the dating feature in the EU on February 3.
“We were very concerned that this was the first that we’d heard from Facebook Ireland about this new feature, considering that it was their intention to roll it out tomorrow, 13 February,” the regulator writes. “Our concerns were further compounded by the fact that no information/documentation was provided to us on 3 February in relation to the Data Protection Impact Assessment [DPIA] or the decision-making processes that were undertaken by Facebook Ireland.”
Facebook announced its plan to get into the dating game all the way back in May 2018, trailing its Tinder-encroaching idea to bake a dating feature for non-friends into its social network at its F8 developer conference.
It went on to test launch the product in Colombia a few months later. And since then it’s been gradually adding more countries in South American and Asia. It also launched in the US last fall — soon after it was fined $5BN by the FTC for historical privacy lapses.
At the time of its US launch Facebook said dating would arrive in Europe by early 2020. It just didn’t think to keep its lead EU privacy regulator in the loop — despite the DPC having multiple (ongoing) investigations into other Facebook-owned products at this stage.
Which is either extremely careless or, well, an intentional fuck you to privacy oversight of its data-mining activities. (Among multiple probes being carried out under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, the DPC is looking into Facebook’s claimed legal basis for processing people’s data under the Facebook T&Cs, for example.)
The DPC’s statement confirms that its agents visited Facebook’s Dublin office on February 10 to carry out an inspection — in order to “expedite the procurement of the relevant documentation”.
Which is a nice way of the DPC saying Facebook spent a whole week still not sending it the required information.
“Facebook Ireland informed us last night that they have postponed the roll-out of this feature,” the DPC’s statement goes on.
Which is a nice way of saying Facebook fucked up and is being made to put a product rollout it’s been planning for at least half a year on ice.
The DPC’s head of communications, Graham Doyle, confirmed the enforcement action, telling us: “We’re currently reviewing all the documentation that we gathered as part of the inspection on Monday and we have posed further questions to Facebook and are awaiting the reply.”
“Contained in the documentation we gathered on Monday was a DPIA,” he added.
This begs the question why Facebook didn’t send the DPIA to the DPC on February 3 — unless of course this document did not actually exist on that date…
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and to ask when it carried out the DPIA.
We’ve also asked the DPC to confirm its next steps. The regulator could ask Facebook to make changes to how the product functions in Europe if it’s not satisfied it complies with EU laws.
Under GDPR there’s a requirement for data controllers to bake privacy by design and default into products which are handling people’s information. And a dating product clearly is.
While a DPIA — which is a process whereby planned processing of personal data is assessed to consider the impact on the rights and freedoms of individuals — is a requirement under the GDPR when, for example, individual profiling is taking place or there’s processing of sensitive data on a large scale.
Again, the launch of a dating product on a platform such as Facebook — which has hundreds of millions of regional users — would be a clear-cut case for such an assessment to be carried out ahead of any launch.
Doubtnut, a Gurgaon-based startup that operates an app to help students learn and master concepts from math and science using short videos, has raised $15 million in a new financing round as it looks to serve more people in small cities and towns of the country.
The financing round, Series A, was led by Chinese giant Tencent. Existing investors Omidyar Network India, AET, Japan and Ankit Nagori (founder of fitness startup Cure.Fit), and Sequoia Capital India also participated in the round, the two-year-old startup said.
The app allows students from sixth grade to high-school solve and understand math and science problems in local languages. Doubtnut app allows them to take a picture of the problem, and uses machine learning and image recognition to deliver their answers through short-videos.
A student can take a picture of the problem, and share it with Doubtnut through its app, website, or WhatsApp and get a short video that shows the answer and walks them through the procedure to tackle it.
Doubtnut said it has amassed over 13 million monthly active users across its website, app, YouTube, and WhatsApp . More than 85% of Doubtnut users today come from outside of the top 10 cities in India, said Tanushree Nagori, co-founder of Doubtnut. She said that more than half of these students have come online in the last one year.
“Doubtnut is truly democratizing education across India. Our user base reflects the entire demography of India, something which no other education app in the country has come close to achieving,” she said.
The growth of Doubtnut represents the emergence of a wave of startups in India that are tackling local challenges. In the education space alone, a number of players including Byju’s, which is now valued at $8 billion, Unacademy, Vedanutu, and GradeUp have shown impressive growth.
Gaurav Munjal, founder and chief executive of Unacademy, said on Saturday that his startup’s one-year-old premium offering had clocked $30 million in revenue.
Between 2005 and 2018, the five biggest U.S. tech firms collectively spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying federal policymakers. But they shelled out even more in 2019: Facebook boosted its lobbying budget by 25%, while Amazon hiked its political outlay by 16%. Together, America’s biggest tech firms spent almost $64 million in a bid to shape federal policies.
Clearly, America’s tech giants feel they’re getting value for their money. But as CEO of Boundless, a 40-employee startup that doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest in political lobbying, I’m proposing another way. One of the things we care most about at Boundless is immigration. And while we’ve yet to convince Donald Trump and Stephen Miller that immigrants are a big part of what makes America great — hey, we’re working on it! — we’ve found that when you have a clear message and a clear mission, even a startup can make a big difference.
So how can scrappy tech companies make a splash in the current political climate? Here are some guiding principles we’ve learned.
You can’t make a difference if you don’t make some noise. A case in point: Boundless is spearheading the business community’s pushback against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge rule.” This sweeping immigration reform would preclude millions of people from obtaining U.S. visas and green cards — and therefore make it much harder for American businesses to hire global talent — based on a set of new, insurmountable standards. We’re doing that not by cutting checks to K Street but by using our own expertise, creativity and people skills — the very things that helped make our company a success in the first place.
By leveraging our unique strengths — including our own proprietary data — we’ve been able to put together a smart, business-focused amicus brief urging courts to strike down the public charge rule. And because we combine immigration-specific expertise with a real understanding of the issues that matter most to tech companies, we’ve been able to convince more than 100 other firms — such as Microsoft, Twitter, Warby Parker, Levi Strauss & Co. and Remitly — to cosign our amicus brief. Will that be enough to persuade the courts and steer federal policy in immigrants’ favor? The jury’s still out. But whatever happens, we take satisfaction in knowing that we’re doing everything we can on behalf of the entire immigrant community, not just our customers, in defense of a cause we’re passionate about.
Taking a stand is risky, but staying silent is a gamble, too: Consumers are increasingly socially conscious, and almost nine out of 10 said in one survey that they prefer to buy from brands that take active steps to support the causes they care about. It depends a bit on the issue, though. One survey found that trash-talking the president will win you brownie points from millennials but cost you support among Baby Boomers, for instance.
So pick your battles — but remember that media-savvy consumers can smell a phony a mile off. It’s important to choose causes you truly stand behind and then put your money where your mouth is. At Boundless, we do that by hiring a diverse workforce — not just immigrants, but also women (we’re over 60%), people of color (35%) and LGBTQ+ (15%) — and putting time and energy into helping them succeed. Figure out what authenticity looks like for your company, and make sure you’re living your values as well as just talking about them.
Tech giants might have a bigger megaphone, but there are a lot of startups in our country, and quantity has a quality all its own. In fact, the Small Business Administration reported in 2018 that there are 30.2 million small businesses in the United States, 414,000 of which are classified as “startups.” So instead of trying to shout louder, try forging connections with other smart, up-and-coming companies with unique voices and perspectives of their own.
At Boundless, we routinely reach out to the other startups that have received backing from our own investor groups — national networks such as Foundry Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, Pioneer Square Labs, Two Sigma Ventures and Flybridge Capital Partners — in the knowledge that these companies will share many of our values and be willing to listen to our ideas.
For startups, the venture capitalists, accelerators and incubators that helped you launch and grow can be an incredible resource: Leverage their expertise and Rolodexes to recruit a posse of like-minded startups and entrepreneurs that can serve as a force multiplier for your political activism. Instead of taking a stand as a single company, you could potentially rally dozens of companies — from a range of sectors and unique weights in their fields — on board for your advocacy efforts.
Every company has a few key superpowers, and the same things that make you a commercial success can help to sway policymakers, too. Boundless uses data and design to make the immigration process more straightforward, and number-crunching and messaging skills come in handy when we’re doing advocacy work, too.
Our data-driven report breaking down naturalization trends and wait times by location made a big splash, for instance, and not just in top-ranked Cleveland. We presented our findings to Congress, and soon afterward some Texas lawmakers began demanding reductions in wait times for would-be citizens. We can’t prove our advocacy was the deciding factor, but it’s likely that our study helped nudge them in the right direction.
Whether you’re Bill Gates or a small-business owner, if you’re quoted in The New York Times, then your voice will reach the same people. Reporters love to feel like they’re including quotes from the “little guy,” so make yourself accessible, and learn to give snappy, memorable quotes to reporters, and you’ll soon find that they keep you on speed dial.
Our phones rang off the hook when Trump tried to push through a healthcare mandate by executive order, for instance, and our founders were quoted by top media outlets — from Reuters to Rolling Stone. It takes a while to build media relationships and establish yourself as a credible source, but it’s a great way to win national attention for your advocacy.
To make a difference, you’ll need allies in the corridors of power. Reach out to your senators and congresspeople, and get to know their staffers, too. Working in politics is often thankless, and many aides love to hear from new voices, especially ones who are willing to stake out controversial positions on big issues, sound the alarm on bad policies or help move the Overton window to enable better solutions.
We’ve often found that prior to hearing from us, lawmakers simply hadn’t considered the special challenges faced by smaller tech companies, such as lack of internal legal, human and financial resources, to comply with various regulations. And those lawmakers come away from our meetings with a better understanding of the need to craft straightforward policies that won’t drown small businesses in red tape.
Political change doesn’t just happen in the Capital Beltway, so make a point of reaching out to your municipal and state-level leaders, too. In 2018, Boundless pitched to the Civic I/O Mayors Summit at SXSW because we knew that municipal leaders played a critical role in welcoming new Americans into our communities. Local policies and legislation can have a big impact on startups, and the support of local leaders remains a critical foundation for the kinds of change we want to see made to the U.S. immigration system.
It’s easy to make excuses or expect someone else to advocate on your behalf. But if there’s something you think the government could be doing better, then you have an obligation to use your company’s energy, talent and connections to push back and create momentum for reform. Sure, it would be nice to splash money around and hire a phalanx of lobbyists to shape public policy — but it’s perfectly possible to make a big difference without spending a dime.
But first, figure out what you stand for and what strengths and superpowers you can leverage to bear the problems you and your customers face. Above all, don’t be afraid to take a stand.