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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

The cocktail party problem: Why voice tech isn’t truly useful yet

By Ram Iyer
Ken Sutton Contributor
Ken Sutton is CEO and co-founder of Yobe, a software company that uses edge-based AI to unlock the potential of voice technologies for modern brands.

On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.

Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.

As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.

Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.

Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.

Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.

Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.

The steep climb to commercializing voice

By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.

In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.

Australia’s TechnologyOne acquires UK-based higher-ed platform Scientia for $16.6M

By Mike Butcher

TechnologyOne, an Australian SaaS enterprise, has agreed to acquire UK-based higher education software provider Scientia for £12 million /$16.6 million in cash.
 
TechnologyOne claims to have 75% of Higher Education institutions in Australia using its software, while Scientia claims 50% market share in the UK.

The acquisition includes an initial payment of £6m and further payments.
 
Adrian Di Marco, TechnologyOne founder and Executive Chairman said: “This is our company’s first international acquisition and it demonstrates our deep commitment to serving the higher education sector and the UK market. The unique IP and market-leading functionality of Scientia’s product supports our vision of delivering enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use.”

Commenting, Michelle Gillespie, Registrar and Director of Student Administration and Library Services at Swinburne University of Technology said: “The one thing that students care most about is their timetable. Being able to fully integrate a schedule into the full student experience is very important, and an exciting step for those universities – like Swinburne – that use TechnologyOne’s student management system.”

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

By Ingrid Lunden

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

iPhone inside 30 mins? Germany’s Arive brings consumer brands to your door, raises €6M

By Mike Butcher

In Europe and the US we are very much getting used to groceries being delivered within 15 minutes, with a huge battleground of startups in the space. Startups across Europe and the US have raised no less than $3.1 billion in the last quarter alone for grocery deliveries within 10 or 20-minute delivery promises. But all are scrambling over a market where the average order size is pretty low. What if it was in the hundreds, and didn’t require refrigeration?

This is probably going to be the newest “15/30minute” consumer battleground, as high-end consumer goods come to last-mile deliveries.

The latest to Arive in this space is… arive – a German-based startup that delivers high-end consumer brands within 30 minutes. It’s now raised €6 million in seed funding from 468 Capital, La Famiglia VC and Balderton Capital.

But stacking its shelves with well-known brands and spinning up last-mile delivery logistics, Arive is offering fitness products, cosmetics, personal care, homeware, tech and fashion. Consumers order via an app, with the delivery coming via a bike-only fleet in 30-minutes or less.

The behavior it’s tapping into is already there. It seems the pandemic has made us all work and play from home, leaving foot traffic in inner cities still below pre-Covid levels.

Arive says it works directly with brands to offer a selection of their products for on-demand delivery, offering them a new distribution channel to a new type of customer that wants speed and convenience.

arive is currently available in Munich and has recently launched in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. The 30-minute delivery guarantee means it doesn’t need as many micro fulfillment centers as grocery players, helping it to keep infrastructure costs low.

Maximilian Reeker, co-founder of arive, said: “While the space for hyper-fast grocery delivery is increasingly crowded, we found the brands we love are still stuck in a three-day delivery scheme. For today’s time-poor consumers, this is too long.”

Bardo Droege, investor at 468 Capital, commented: “Our cities are dynamic, fast-moving places, and people living there want the tools and services that reflect their lifestyles so it’s no wonder the 15-minute groceries category has taken off so quickly. We’re confident the arive team will take this on.”

UK now expects compliance with children’s privacy design code

By Natasha Lomas

In the UK, a 12-month grace period for compliance with a design code aimed at protecting children online expires today — meaning app makers offering digital services in the market which are “likely” to be accessed by children (defined in this context as users under 18 years old) are expected to comply with a set of standards intended to safeguard kids from being tracked and profiled.

The age appropriate design code came into force on September 2 last year however the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, allowed the maximum grace period for hitting compliance to give organizations time to adapt their services.

But from today it expects the standards of the code to be met.

Services where the code applies can include connected toys and games and edtech but also online retail and for-profit online services such as social media and video sharing platforms which have a strong pull for minors.

Among the code’s stipulations are that a level of ‘high privacy’ should be applied to settings by default if the user is (or is suspected to be) a child — including specific provisions that geolocation and profiling should be off by default (unless there’s a compelling justification for such privacy hostile defaults).

The code also instructs app makers to provide parental controls while also providing the child with age-appropriate information about such tools — warning against parental tracking tools that could be used to silently/invisibly monitor a child without them being made aware of the active tracking.

Another standard takes aim at dark pattern design — with a warning to app makers against using “nudge techniques” to push children to provide “unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

The full code contains 15 standards but is not itself baked into legislation — rather it’s a set of design recommendations the ICO wants app makers to follow.

The regulatory stick to make them do so is that the watchdog is explicitly linking compliance with its children’s privacy standards to passing muster with wider data protection requirements that are baked into UK law.

The risk for apps that ignore the standards is thus that they draw the attention of the watchdog — either through a complaint or proactive investigation — with the potential of a wider ICO audit delving into their whole approach to privacy and data protection.

“We will monitor conformance to this code through a series of proactive audits, will consider complaints, and take appropriate action to enforce the underlying data protection standards, subject to applicable law and in line with our Regulatory Action Policy,” the ICO writes in guidance on its website. “To ensure proportionate and effective regulation we will target our most significant powers, focusing on organisations and individuals suspected of repeated or wilful misconduct or serious failure to comply with the law.”

It goes on to warn it would view a lack of compliance with the kids’ privacy code as a potential black mark against (enforceable) UK data protection laws, adding: “If you do not follow this code, you may find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] or PECR [Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulation].”

Tn a blog post last week, Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of regulatory futures and innovation, also warned app makers: “We will be proactive in requiring social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and the gaming industry to tell us how their services are designed in line with the code. We will identify areas where we may need to provide support or, should the circumstances require, we have powers to investigate or audit organisations.”

“We have identified that currently, some of the biggest risks come from social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and video gaming platforms,” he went on. “In these sectors, children’s personal data is being used and shared, to bombard them with content and personalised service features. This may include inappropriate adverts; unsolicited messages and friend requests; and privacy-eroding nudges urging children to stay online. We’re concerned with a number of harms that could be created as a consequence of this data use, which are physical, emotional and psychological and financial.”

“Children’s rights must be respected and we expect organisations to prove that children’s best interests are a primary concern. The code gives clarity on how organisations can use children’s data in line with the law, and we want to see organisations committed to protecting children through the development of designs and services in accordance with the code,” Bonner added.

The ICO’s enforcement powers — at least on paper — are fairly extensive, with GDPR, for example, giving it the ability to fine infringers up to £17.5M or 4% of their annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.

The watchdog can also issue orders banning data processing or otherwise requiring changes to services it deems non-compliant. So apps that chose to flout the children’s design code risk setting themselves up for regulatory bumps or worse.

In recent months there have been signs some major platforms have been paying mind to the ICO’s compliance deadline — with Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all announcing changes to how they handle minors’ data and account settings ahead of the September 2 date.

In July, Instagram said it would default teens to private accounts — doing so for under 18s in certain countries which the platform confirmed to us includes the UK — among a number of other child-safety focused tweaks. Then in August, Google announced similar changes for accounts on its video charing platform, YouTube.

A few days later TikTok also said it would add more privacy protections for teens. Though it had also made earlier changes limiting privacy defaults for under 18s.

Apple also recently got itself into hot water with the digital rights community following the announcement of child safety-focused features — including a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection tool which scans photo uploads to iCloud; and an opt in parental safety feature that lets iCloud Family account users turn on alerts related to the viewing of explicit images by minors using its Messages app.

The unifying theme underpinning all these mainstream platform product tweaks is clearly ‘child protection’.

And while there’s been growing attention in the US to online child safety and the nefarious ways in which some apps exploit kids’ data — as well as a number of open probes in Europe (such as this Commission investigation of TikTok, acting on complaints) — the UK may be having an outsized impact here given its concerted push to pioneer age-focused design standards.

The code also combines with incoming UK legislate which is set to apply a ‘duty of care’ on platforms to take a rboad-brush safety-first stance toward users, also with a big focus on kids (and there it’s also being broadly targeted to cover all children; rather than just applying to kids under 13s as with the US’ COPPA, for example).

In the blog post ahead of the compliance deadline expiring, the ICO’s Bonner sought to take credit for what he described as “significant changes” made in recent months by platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and TikTok, writing: “As the first-of-its kind, it’s also having an influence globally. Members of the US Senate and Congress have called on major US tech and gaming companies to voluntarily adopt the standards in the ICO’s code for children in America.”

“The Data Protection Commission in Ireland is preparing to introduce the Children’s Fundamentals to protect children online, which links closely to the code and follows similar core principles,” he also noted.

And there are other examples in the EU: France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, looks to have been inspired by the ICO’s approach — issuing its own set of right child-protection focused recommendations this June (which also, for example, encourage app makers to add parental controls with the clear caveat that such tools must “respect the child’s privacy and best interests”).

The UK’s focus on online child safety is not just making waves overseas but sparking growth in a domestic compliance services industry.

Last month, for example, the ICO announced the first clutch of GDPR certification scheme criteria — including two schemes which focus on the age appropriate design code. Expect plenty more.

Bonner’s blog post also notes that the watchdog will formally set out its position on age assurance this autumn — so it will be providing further steerage to organizations which are in scope of the code on how to tackle that tricky piece, although it’s still not clear how hard a requirement the ICO will support, with Bonner suggesting it could be actually “verifying ages or age estimation”. Watch that space. Whatever the recommendations are, age assurance services are set to spring up with compliance-focused sales pitches.

Children’s safety online has been a huge focus for UK policymakers in recent years, although the wider (and long in train) Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill remains at the draft law stage.

An earlier attempt by UK lawmakers to bring in mandatory age checks to prevent kids from accessing adult content websites — dating back to 2017’s Digital Economy Act — was dropped in 2019 after widespread criticism that it would be both unworkable and a massive privacy risk for adult users of porn.

But the government did not drop its determination to find a way to regulate online services in the name of child safety. And online age verification checks look set to be — if not a blanket, hardened requirement for all digital services — increasingly brought in by the backdoor, through a sort of ‘recommended feature’ creep (as the ORG has warned). 

The current recommendation in the age appropriate design code is that app makers “take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users”, suggesting they: “Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.” 

At the same time, the government’s broader push on online safety risks conflicting with some of the laudable aims of the ICO’s non-legally binding children’s privacy design code.

For instance, while the code includes the (welcome) suggestion that digital services gather as little information about children as possible, in an announcement earlier this summer UK lawmakers put out guidance for social media platforms and messaging services — ahead of the planned Online Safety legislation — that recommends they prevent children from being able to use end-to-end encryption.

That’s right; the government’s advice to data-mining platforms — which it suggests will help prepare them for requirements in the incoming legislation — is not to use ‘gold standard’ security and privacy (e2e encryption) for kids.

So the official UK government messaging to app makers appears to be that, in short order, the law will require commercial services to access more of kids’ information, not less — in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Which is quite a contradiction vs the data minimization push on the design code.

The risk is that a tightening spotlight on kids privacy ends up being fuzzed and complicated by ill-thought through policies that push platforms to monitor kids to demonstrate ‘protection’ from a smorgasbord of online harms — be it adult content or pro-suicide postings, or cyber bullying and CSAM.

The law looks set to encourage platforms to ‘show their workings’ to prove compliance — which risks resulting in ever closer tracking of children’s activity, retention of data — and maybe risk profiling and age verification checks (that could even end up being applied to all users; think sledgehammer to crack a nut). In short, a privacy dystopia.

Such mixed messages and disjointed policymaking seem set to pile increasingly confusing — and even conflicting — requirements on digital services operating in the UK, making tech businesses legally responsible for divining clarity amid the policy mess — with the simultaneous risk of huge fines if they get the balance wrong.

Complying with the ICO’s design standards may therefore actually be the easy bit.

 

Twitter rolls out paid subscription ‘Super Follows’ to let you cash in on your tweets

By Taylor Hatmaker

After opening applications in June, Twitter is rolling out Super Follows, its premium subscription option, starting today.

The feature, first revealed in February, will allow users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. For creators, Super Follows are another useful tool in the emerging patchwork of monetization options across social platforms.

Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month, prices fairly comparable to a paid newsletter. They can then choose to mark some tweets for subscribers only, while continuing to reach their unpaid follower base in regular tweets.

Twitter Super Follows

Paid subscribers will be marked with a special Super Follower badge, differentiating them from unpaid followers in the sea of tweets. The badge shows up in replies, elevating a follower’s ability to interact directly with accounts they opt to support. For accounts that have Super Follows turned on, the option will show up with a distinct button on the profile page.

Super Follows aren’t turned on for everyone. For now, the process remains application only, with a waitlist. The option lives in the Monetization options in the app’s sidebar, though users will need to be U.S.-based with 10K followers and at least 25 tweets within the last month to be eligible.

U.S. and Canada-based iOS Twitter users will be able to Super Follow some accounts starting today, with more users globally seeing the rollout in the coming weeks. On the creator side, Super Follows are only enabled in iOS for now, though support for Android and desktop are “coming soon.”

Twitter says that Super Follow income will be subject to the standard, though controversial, 30 percent in-app purchase fees collected by Apple or Google. Twitter will only take a 3 percent cut of earnings for up to the first $50,000 generated through Super Follows — a boon for smaller accounts getting off the ground or anyone who uses the paid Twitter feature as a way to supplement other creator income elsewhere. After an account hits the $50,000 earnings mark, Twitter will begin taking a 20 percent cut.

Super Follows aren’t Twitter’s first monetization experiment to make it out in the wild. In May, Twitter introduced Tip Jar, a way for accounts to receive one-time payments through integration with the Cash App and other payment platforms. The test is limited to a subset of eligible accounts including “creators, journalists, experts, and nonprofits” for the time being.

Last week Twitter rolled out Ticketed Spaces for users who applied for the paid audio room feature back in June. Twitter’s cut from Ticketed Spaces mirrors the same fee structure it uses for Super Follows and users will be able to charge anywhere from one dollar to $999 for advanced ticketing.

The product is the latest in a flurry of activity from the social platform after a lengthy period of product stagnation. But Twitter has been busy in the last twelve months, from releasing and killing its ill-fated Fleets to finally showing signs of life on the kind of anti-abuse features many people have been calling for for years.

Giving users the ability to charge for premium content is a pretty major departure for Twitter, which mostly stayed the course until activist shareholders threatened to oust CEO Jack Dorsey. It’s also a major move for the company into the white-hot creator space, as more platforms add tools to empower their users to make a living through content creation — ideally keeping them loyal and generating revenue in the process.

Sphere raises $2M to help employees lobby for green 401(k) plans

By Mike Butcher

In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.

California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.

It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.

Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.

Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.

Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”

Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike review: Utility that shreds

By Rebecca Bellan

A recent move to Auckland, New Zealand — a city with lackluster public transit and hills that can turn a quick bike ride to the store into a sweaty workout — piqued my interest in e-bikes. 

Strong demand and skyrocketing prices, however, made it difficult to access these coveted e-bikes here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. That changed after learning about Ubco, the New Zealand-based electric utility bike startup that recently raised $10 million from investors. 

The company provided me with the Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike for nearly a month, which gave me plenty of time to put it to the test. 

I may not be Ubco’s target audience, although I did my best to use the bike as its design suggests, and packed it up with bags of books and other heavy things that might simulate the weight of delivered garlic bread, mail and other packages. The Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike is made for city utility riding, with the option of going off-road, which I would later try with gusto.

The company’s flagship is the Ubco 2X2 Work Bike, an electric dirt bike that was originally designed to help farmers. The fresh capital the company raised in June will be used to expand into existing verticals like food delivery, postal service and last-mile logistics, scale a commercial subscription business and target sales growth in the United States. 

Domino’s drivers in Auckland, and I hear in the U.K., can be seen delivering hot pizzas on Ubco bikes, and the company has a range of other national clients, like the New Zealand Post, the Defense Force, the Department of Conservation, and Pāmu, or Landcorp Farming Limited, as well as other local restaurants and stores.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The handoff

CEO and co-founder Timothy Allan drove out from the company headquarters in Tauranga to hand off the bike personally. It was a sunny day in my neighborhood, and I listened impatiently as he described the various bits and bobs, how to work the machine and how to charge it.

Allan helped me download the Ubco app to pair my phone with the bike, which, among other functionalities, allowed me to select beginner mode, which would cap the vehicle speed at around 20 miles per hour. I made a mental note so that I could write about it here, but was determined to reach the top speed of 30 miles per hour right away. 

I did, and it was … pretty sick. I’m not supposed to gush, but man! It’s a sweet ride. Here’s why:

Appearance

The Adventure Bike comes standard in white and sits on 17X2.75-inch multi-use tires with aluminum rims, both of which are DOT compliant. My version also had Maori decals on the frame, in a nod to the indigenous people of New Zealand.  

The bike’s height is about 41 inches and the seat comes to 32 inches. From wheel to wheel, it’s about 72 inches. The payload, including the rider, is about 330 pounds, so both my partner (6’2” man) and I (5’7” female) rode this bike with ease, needing only to adjust the wide rearview mirrors sticking out of the handlebars. And no, we didn’t ride it together. This bike is designed as a one-seater. 

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

That said, there’s a little cargo rack above the back wheel, which holds the license plate (apparently these are classified as mopeds, which require registration in many places) and any other cargo one might carry. I didn’t try, but I reckon it could hold at least five pizza boxes tied down with a bungee cord. The bike rack also allows for saddlebags to be strapped on. Ubco sells what it calls the Pannier Back Pack, a weather-resistant roll-top cargo bag, for $189 that slots in very nicely and is actually a quality bag with 5.28-gallon capacity. 

Accessories aside, the alloy frame is lightweight and step-through, which I love in a bike — it lets me start to shift myself off before I fully park and I feel super agile and swift. Speaking of parking, the rules are different everywhere, I assume, but here, you park it on the street or in parking spaces, not on the sidewalk. It’s got a kickstand to hold it in place, and you can lock the front wheel so no one can just wheel it away. They could, however, probably chuck it into the back of their pickup truck if they so chose, since it’s only 145 pounds. 

The appearance of the bike stood out, and not just to me. During my multi-week test drive, numerous tradesmen and bike folks went out of their way to compliment its design, the exact demographic that Ubco is aiming for. 

Rideability

The lightness of the bike means that it’s easy to take off and find your balance. The battery is also in the middle of the frame, just near where your feet sit, which anchors the bike and gives you a stable center of gravity.

The lightweight nature of the bike is a blessing and a curse. Cutting a turn is easy, but on a windy day and an open road, there were moments I worried that I’d be knocked off it — but maybe that had more to do with riding next to a 10-wheeler on the street. Because it’s so light, it did feel a bit strange to me to be in the street lane with the other bigger, meaner cars rather than in the bike lanes.

The bike accelerates quickly via the fully electronic throttle control, even up steep hills, due to the high torque geared drivetrain. The drivetrain has two 1kw Flux2 motors with sealed bearings, active heat management and active venting for residual moisture — a necessity in this moistest of cities.

The acceleration sound, which mimics those of a gas-powered dirt bike but with a softer electronic tone, was a surprising plus. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my sense of sound to tell how fast I was going until I rode the Ubco. 

The braking system was a bit touchy. It felt very sensitive to me, probably because hydraulic and regenerative brakes are operating together on the vehicle. There’s also a passive regenerative braking system, which I gather is what put the brakes on for me when I was just trying to coast down one of those mammoth hills.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Both the front suspension, 130 mm, and rear suspension, 120 mm, have a coil spring with a hydraulic dampener and have preload and rebound adjustment. In other words, the shocks are awesome. Even when I actively drove myself off sidewalks and over speed bumps, I could barely feel a thing. 

To test its off-road capabilities, I took the bike to Cornwall Park, where I ran it at full speed on the grass, swerving between trees, flying over roots and rocks, doing doughnuts in the field. It was good fun and I felt completely in control of the vehicle. I can imagine why farmers have turned to the Work Bike.

When it was time to test out its use as a delivery bike, I packed the two saddlebags with books and groceries and took it for a spin. Still a great ride, although I was a little wobbly turning corners until I got the hang of it.

Value

Since the Ubco Adventure Bike doesn’t neatly fit into a specific bike category, it’s not a simple price comparison. An electric moped, like a Lexmoto Yadea or a Vespa Elettrica, could set you back anywhere from $2,400 or $7,000, respectively. Electric dirt bikes could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 for something like a KTM or Alta Motors. 

With that in mind, the Ubco Adventure Bike costs $6,999 with a 2.1 kW power supply and $7,499 for a 3.1 kW power supply. Depending on what you want it for, I’d say it’s somewhere around mid-range for a bike like this. Since you’d probably use it for work-related activities, it could get a tax write-off. Plus, you want quality in a bike that’s down to do some heavy lifting, and Ubco has plenty of that. It’s not only a handy utility bike, but it’s also got some excellent tech under the proverbial hood, which we’ll get to later. 

Ubco estimates a 10- to 15-year life expectancy, depending on use. Over-the-air software updates, replacing parts and full refurbishments can help keep the bike going for longer. The company encourages riders to send back the dead bikes because it’s committed to full product stewardship.

That said, if you wanted to buy a bike now, it’d be a preorder (unless your local Ubco dealer had some in stock). Ordering now could get you an Ubco by September if you live in the States. The company says it’s still feeling the effects of COVID, with high demand and a stretched supply chain causing delays. The preorder requires a $1,000 deposit. 

Ubco also has a subscription model, which is mainly available for enterprise customers at the moment and priced on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s piloting subscriptions for individuals in Auckland and Tauranga before rolling the program out globally. Subscriptions will start at around NZD $300 per month for a 36-month term.

Range

The Adventure Bike comes with either the 2.1 kWh battery pack, which has around 40 to 54 miles of range, or the 3.1 kWh, with 60 to 80 miles.

The battery is run off a management system, called “Scotty,” to monitor real-time performance and safety. The battery, which is sealed with alloy and vented during use, is made with 18650 lithium-ion cells, which means it’s a powerful battery that can handle up to 500 charging cycles. Ubco says its batteries are designed to be disassembled at the end of life.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The 10amp alloy fast charger can fuel the battery fully within four to six hours. You can charge it while it’s still in the vehicle by just connecting it to a power outlet, or you can unlock the battery and yank it out (it’s a little heavy) and charge it inside. Note: Charging is loud. Not sure if this is standard, but probably is. 

I charged it every two to three days, but that will depend on use and where you are. It’s winter in Auckland, so a bit cold, which affects battery life, and the hills are brutal, which also use up a lot of battery life.

I’d ride it downtown and around my neighborhood every day, but I’d wager a delivery driver would need to charge it nightly. As I mentioned earlier, the battery can be removed for charging, so if you take it to work, you can always take it up to the office or wherever to charge while you’re doing other things. 

Tech features

Vehicle management system

The vehicle runs off what Ubco calls its Cerebro vehicle management system, which integrates all electronic and electrical functions of the vehicles and provides control and updates via Bluetooth. Ubco builds with end of life in mind, so the CAN bus is isolated so future CAN devices can be easily integrated. 

Now, one of my first questions, given the heftiness of this bike and the likelihood of gig economy workers who would ride it for work living in urban dwellings, was this: How can I ensure no one will steal this thing when it’s on the street, because there’s no way I’m lugging it up to my fifth-floor walkup?

Like I said, you can lock the wheel in place, which would make it far more difficult for someone to wheel it off. If someone did decide to capture the whole cumbersome vehicle, Ubco would be able to track it for you. Each Ubco bike has telemetry, aka a SIM card, hardwired inside, and that can help provide data that can be used for location, servicing, theft, safety, route planning, etc. 

This VMS architecture is made for handling fleets via Ubco’s enterprise subscription vehicles, but it obviously has other uses, like providing peace of mind (personally, I’d still lock it up with chains, but I’m a New Yorker and trust no one). Obviously, if you think this telemetry is creepy, you can opt out, but it does come standard with subscriptions, allowing subscribers to track their bike’s location on the app.

Display

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Mounted on the handlebar is an LCD display that shows speed, power levels and more. Also on the handlebars are switch controls for high or low beams, indicators and a horn. I found the indicators to be a bit sticky and sometimes I would slip and hit the horn. What I wish the handlebars also had was a mount for your phone so you could follow directions. I had my headphones in and was listening to Google Maps tell me how to get around, but that felt less safe and efficient. 

Turning it on

You can turn the power on with a keyless fob by either clicking the button on the fob or the button on the handlebars. I will note that the keyless fob button is weirdly sensitive. At multiple points, I had it in my pocket with my phone or other pocket inhabitants and it must have knocked into the button, turning the vehicle off while I was riding it. Thankfully, that never happened anywhere busy, but that’s something to be wary about. 

App

As I mentioned earlier, you could pair your phone, as well as other users’ phones, to the bike using the app. The app allows you to choose learner mode or restricted mode, which controls ride settings; turn the bike and lights on and off; change the metrics; and check the status of things like battery life, speed and motor temperature. It’s basically all the info on the dash, but on an app. I didn’t really feel the need to use it.

Lights

The LED headlights are on at all times when the vehicle is turned on, but there’s also a high and low beam, as well as peripheral parking lights, all of which are designed for disassembly at the end of life. There are also LED rear, brake and number plate lights, as well as DOT-approved indicator lights.

Other stuff

Among the features that don’t fit neatly into the other categories, there’s the field kit, which is fastened to the lift-up seat and contains a user manual and tools to set up and maintain the 2X2, which is really handy. Usually, when people buy an Ubco bike, it comes in a box and there are “a few simple steps to follow to get it ready to ride.” There’s also an UBCO University course that shows how to set it up. If you buy from one of Ubco’s dealers, they’ll unpack it and set it up when you come to collect it. 

Maintenance

Maintenance comes with the cost of a monthly subscription. Ubco has a network of technicians placed wherever the company sells its bikes if they’re in need of fixing. If there’s no authorized mechanic nearby, Ubco’s head office will work with customers to help them fix the bike. Ubco did not respond to information about how many authorized mechanics are in its network.

Again, being from New York, I’ve seen probably thousands of delivery riders on bikes and mopeds, oven mitts covered in a plastic bag taped onto the handlebars so drivers can keep their hands warm during the colder months. This bike can handle a hefty load for delivering goods, it’s quick and agile for weaving in and out of traffic, and it’s easy to ride and use.

The subscription offering, especially for enterprise, makes this a great city utility bike that can probably handle a range of weather conditions. I already know it can handle rain and mud, so all signs point to success in the sloshy, icy hell of a Northern city winter. And for the adventurer — the person who just wants to ride something sweet on- and off-road, out of the city and into the wilderness — this is also a great consumer ride that will last you quite a while.

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

Skit raises $23M Series B round led by WestBridge Capital to accelerate its growth

By Kate Park

“Traditional voice-based call center service is difficult and costly. This is where artificial intelligence and voice technology have presented an opportunity for enterprises to overcome the challenges of scale and engagement at their customer contact centers,” co-founder and CEO Skit Sourabh Gupta told TechCrunch.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented increase in call volumes at bank call centers as customers tried to manage their portfolios amid the chaos of work from home policy and financial instability, Gupta said. And that presented an opportunity for companies like Skit.

“Customers have a natural tendency to prefer voice call support over other self-service channels and this has led to the increase in pressure on the traditional interactive voice responses (IVR) systems and support agents to respond to all incoming queries,” he said.

Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence SaaS voice automation company Skit, formerly known as Vernacular.ai, developed its AI-based voice automation platform VIVA, short for Vernacular Intelligent Voice Assistant, which enables corporations to automate 90% of their call center operations powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology.  Its product VIVA covers more than 16 languages and 160 dialects.

Skit announced today it has closed $23 million Series B round to accelerate its growth in domestic and global markets including the US and South East Asia and enhance its voice automation platform.

The company was founded in 2016 by two co-founders, Indian Institute of Technology alumni, Roorkee alumnus, Sourabh Gupta and Akshay Deshraj.

The latest funding was led by WestBridge Capital along with existing investors Kalaari Capital and Exfinity Ventures, IAN Fund, LetsVenture and Sense AI. Angel investors including Prophetic Ventures’ Aaryaman Vir Shah also participated the round. The Series B round brings Skit’s total funding to $30 million.

Skit will use the fresh funding for sales, marketing, further R&D to strengthen its personalized solutions and voice products, as well as its global expansion.

“We want to double down and scale operations in both Indian and global markets. We are also planning on increasing our employee headcount. Through our new headquarters in New York, we want to build a strong customer base in North America by our product available to US enterprises,” Gupta told TechCrunch.

The company said it has quadrupled its amount of revenue and numbers of customers in 2020-2021 since its previous fundraising, $5.1 million Series A, in May 2020. Its average order book has also been growing in CAGR 200-300% every year, Gupta added. It currently has 150 employees.

Skit recently expanded into the US and South East Asia market.

“We noticed that there (South East Asia) is a high potential market for the adoption of conversational AI. Most importantly, these markets are home to a multitude of languages and dialects,” Gupta said in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch.

Given that language and hyper-personalization are Skit’s strongest suit, the company is witnessing increase adoption in South East Asia market, where is easier for the company to expand with similar demographics and business challenges as in India, Gupta explained.

It also opened headquarters in NYC, “It is a mature market, ahead in technology adoption with a level-playing for strong competition,” he said.

Venture advisor at WestBridge Capital Sashi Reddi said in a statement: “Skit’s success in helping India’s largest companies, positions them well to enter the US market where there is a massive need for voice AI solutions.”

The global contact center market size is expected to increase steadily and reach $496 billion by 2027. Skit will potentially address the $300 billion voice customer service market with its voice AI platform VIVA, Gupta said.

Its B2B and B2C clients are in diverse industries including banking, insurance, finance, securities, non-banking finance companies, travels, logistics, food & beverage, e-commerce. It has more than 25 B2B clients including Axis Bank, Hathway, Porter and Barbeque Nation, according to Gupta.

Call centers are traditionally places where there are high costs and high attrition rates, and for the end-users the traditional interactive voice responses (IVRs) and the wait times are irritating. There were longer than usual wait-times, call drops and going through extensive IVR menus and frequent agent transfers which increase customer frustration.

With over 10 million hour of training data, Skit’s VIVA replicates human-like conversation and understands speaker’s intent and can translate other unique speech characteristics that enable more efficient query resolutions, Gupta said.

Skit has been listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia start-ups 2021.

Oviva grabs $80M for app-delivered healthy eating programs

By Natasha Lomas

UK startup Oviva, which sells a digital support offering, including for Type 2 diabetes treatment, dispensing personalized diet and lifestyle advice via apps to allow more people to be able to access support, has closed $80 million in Series C funding — bringing its total raised to date to $115M.

The raise, which Oviva says will be used to scale up after a “fantastic year” of growth for the health tech business, is co-led by Sofina and Temasek, alongside existing investors AlbionVC, Earlybird, Eight Roads Ventures, F-Prime Capital, MTIP, plus several angels.

Underpinning that growth is the fact wealthy Western nations continue to see rising rates of obesity and other health conditions like Type 2 diabetes (which can be linked to poor diet and lack of exercise). While more attention is generally being paid to the notion of preventative — rather than reactive — healthcare, to manage the rising costs of service delivery.

Lifestyle management to help control weight and linked health conditions (like diabetes) is where Oviva comes in: It’s built a blended support offering that combines personalized care (provided by healthcare professionals) with digital tools for patients that help them do things like track what they’re eating, access support and chart their progress towards individual health goals.

It can point to 23 peer-reviewed publications to back up its approach — saying key results show an average of 6.8% weight loss at 6 months for those living with obesity; while, in its specialist programs, it says 53% of patients achieve remission of their type 2 diabetes at 12 months.

Oviva typically sells its digitally delivered support programs direct to health insurance companies (or publicly funded health services) — who then provide (or refer) the service to their customers/patients. Its programs are currently available in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France — but expanding access is one of the goals for the Series C.

“We will expand to European markets where the health system reimburses the diet and lifestyle change we offer, especially those with specific pathways for digital reimbursement,” Oviva tells TechCrunch. “Encouragingly, more healthcare systems have been opening up specific routes for such digital reimbursement, e.g., Germany for DiGAs or Belgium just in the last months.”

So far, the startup has treated 200,000 people but the addressable market is clearly huge — not least as European populations age — with Oviva suggesting more than 300 million people live with “health challenges” that are either triggered by poor diet or can be optimised through personalised dietary changes. Moreover, it suggests, only “a small fraction” is currently being offered digital care.

To date, Oviva has built up 5,000+ partnerships with health systems, insurers and doctors as it looks to push for further scale by making its technology more accessible to a wider range of people. In the past year it says it’s “more than doubled” both people treated and revenue earned.

Its goal is for the Series C funding is to reach “millions” of people across Europe who need support because they’re suffering from poor health linked to diet and lifestyle.

As part of the scale up plan it will also be growing its team to 800 by the end of 2022, it adds.

On digital vs face-to-face care — setting aside the potential cost savings associated with digital delivery — it says studies show the “most striking outcome benefits” are around uptake and completion rates, noting: “We have consistently shown uptake rates above 70% and high completion rates of around 80%, even in groups considered harder to reach such as working age populations or minority ethnic groups. This compares to uptake and completion rates of less than 50% for most face-to-face services.”

Asked about competition, Oviva names Liva Healthcare and Second Nature as its closest competitors in the region.

“WW (formally Weight Watchers) also competes with a digital solution in some markets where they can access reimbursement,” it adds. “There are many others that try to access this group with new methods, but are not reimbursed or are wellness solutions. Noom competes as a solution for self-paying consumers in Europe, as many other apps. But, in our view, that is a separate market from the reimbursed medical one.”

As well as using the Series C funding to bolster its presence in existing markets and target and scale into new ones, Oviva says it may look to further grow the business via M&A opportunities.

“In expanding to new countries, we are open to both building new organisations from the ground up or acquiring existing businesses with a strong medical network where we see that our technology can be leveraged for better patient care and value creation,” it told us on that.

 

Olsam raises $165M to buy up and scale consumer and B2B Amazon Marketplace sellers

By Ingrid Lunden

On the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise earlier today, to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same is announcing some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, has closed $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Apeiron Investment Group — an investment firm started by German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer (known first for biopharmaceuticals, then investing and crypto, including playing a role in SoftBank investing in Wirecard) — led the Series A equity round, with Elevat3 Capital (another Angermayer firm that has a strategic partnership with Founders Fund and Peter Thiel) also participating. North Wall Capital was behind the debt portion of the deal. We have asked and Olsam is only disclosing the full amount raised, not the amount that was raised in equity versus debt. Valuation is also not being disclosed.

Being an Amazon roll-up startup from London that happens to be announcing a fundraise today is not the only thing that Olsam has in common with Heroes. Like Heroes, Olsam is also founded by brothers.

Sam Horbye previously spent years working at Amazon, including building and managing the company’s Business Marketplace (the B2B version of the consumer Marketplace); while co-founder Ollie Horbye had years of experience in strategic consulting and financial services.

Between them, they had also built and sold previous marketplace businesses, and they believe that this collective experience gives Olsam — a portmanteau of their names, “Ollie” and “Sam” — a leg up when it comes to building relationships with merchants; identifying quality products (versus the vast seas of search results that often feel like they are selling the same inexpensive junk as each other); and understanding merchants’ challenges and opportunities, and building relationships with Amazon and understanding how the merchant ecosystem fits into the e-commerce giant’s wider strategy.

Olsam is also taking a slightly different approach when it comes to target companies, by focusing not just on the usual consumer play, but also on merchants selling to businesses. B2B selling is currently one of the fastest-growing segments in Amazon’s Marketplace, and it is also one of the more overlooked by consumers.”It’s flying under the radar,” Ollie said.

“The B2B opportunity is very exciting,” Sam added. “A growing number of merchants are selling office supplies or more random products to the B2B customer.”

Estimates vary when it comes to how many merchants there are selling on Amazon’s Marketplace globally, ranging anywhere from 6 million to nearly 10 million. Altogether those merchants generated $300 million in sales (gross merchandise value), and its growing by 50% each year at the moment.

And consolidating sellers — in order to achieve better economies of scale around supply chains, marketing tools and analytics, and more — is also big business. Olsam estimates that some $7 billion has been spent cumulatively on acquiring these businesses, and there are more out there: Olsam estimates that there are some 3,000 businesses in the UK alone making more than $1 million each in sales on Amazon’s platform.

(And to be clear, there are a number of other roll-up startups beyond Heroes also eyeing up that opportunity. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in aggregate,  others have made moves this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia.)

“The senior team behind Olsam is what makes this business truly unique,” said Angermayer in a statement. “Having all been successful in building and selling their own brands within the market and having worked for Amazon in their marketplace team – their understanding of this space is exceptional.”

CryptoPunks creator inks representation deal with major Hollywood talent agency

By Taylor Hatmaker

One of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies is getting into the NFT game.

Larva Labs, the creator of CryptoPunks, just signed with United Talent Agency (UTA) in a representation deal that will bring one of the earliest and most iconic NFT projects into the entertainment and branding worlds.

“I would say that it is one of the first opportunities for an IP that fully originated in crypto-world to enter a broader entertainment space, and they earned it,” head of UTA Digital Assets Lesley Silverman told The Hollywood Reporter. “They really have hit the zeitgeist in a tremendous way.”

The deal could see CryptoPunks popping up across film, TV, video games and other licensing areas. Larva Labs’ other art projects, Meebits and Autoglyphs, will also be represented by UTA moving forward. The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

As speculative investment in NFTs explodes, CryptoPunks remain one of the most recognizable — and valuable — pioneers in the space. Larva Labs launched 10,000 of the individual algorithmically generated pixelated figures on the Ethereum blockchain back in 2017.

To the untrained eye, and arguably to the trained eye too, CryptoPunks are just little pixelated portraits of different characters, some wearing pirate hats, others in aviator glasses smoking pipes. But to the crypto world, punks are a social signifier, communicating early investment into NFTs, personal style and, importantly, wealth.

The value of CryptoPunks skyrocketed from zero (they were initially given away for free) and now even the least expensive collectible punks run for hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the most valuable selling for millions. In May, a bundle of nine CryptoPunks sold for just under $17 million in an auction run by Christie’s. And last week, even Visa got in the game, spending $150,000 on CryptoPunk #7610, a digital illustration sporting a mohawk and green face makeup.

Over the last 60 years, Visa has built a collection of historic commerce artifacts – from early paper credit cards to the zip-zap machine. Today, as we enter a new era of NFT-commerce, Visa welcomes CryptoPunk #7610 to our collection. https://t.co/XoPFfwxUiu

— VisaNews (@VisaNews) August 23, 2021

It’s noteworthy that a traditional talent agency best known for representing A-list celebrities is getting into the NFT game, but it’s not the group’s first time getting its feet wet in the wild world of crypto. Earlier this month, UTA signed a company called Rally that runs a platform that helps creators issue branded social tokens that fans can spend on merch and exclusive content.

UK-based Heroes raises $200M to buy up more Amazon merchants for its roll-up play

By Ingrid Lunden

Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like babies, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.

Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going toward making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.

Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.

Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s marketplace, but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.

Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies. 

What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the U.K., and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.

“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”

Image Credits: Heroes

Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.

Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia. 

The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.

“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with COVID-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a ‘perfect storm’ to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”

In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses. 

TikTok’s new Creator Marketplace API lets influencer marketing companies tap into first-party data

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is making it easier for brands and agencies to work with the influencers using its service. The company is rolling out a new “TikTok Creator Marketplace API,” which allows marketing companies to integrate more directly with TikTok’s Creator Marketplace, the video app’s in-house influencer marketing platform.

On the Creator Marketplace website, launched in late 2019, marketers have been able to discover top TikTok personalities for their brand campaigns, then create and manage those campaigns and track their performance.

The new API, meanwhile, allows partnered marketing companies to access TikTok’s first-party data about audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) for the first time.

They can then bring this data back into their own platforms, to augment the insights they’re already providing to their own customer base.

TikTok is not officially announcing the API until later in September, but it is allowing its alpha partners to discuss their early work.

One such partner is Captiv8, which tested the API with an NRF top 50 retailer on one of their first TikTok campaigns. The retailer wanted to discover a diverse and inclusive group of TikTok creators to partner with on a new collaboration and wanted help with launching its own TikTok channel. Captiv8 says the branded content received nearly 10 million views, and the campaign resulted in a “significant increase” in several key metrics, which performed above the Nielsen average. This included familiarity (+4% above average), affinity (+6%), purchase intent (+7%) and recommendation intent (+9%).

Image Credits: TikTok Creator Marketplace website

Capitv8 is now working with TikTok’s API to pull in audience demographics, to centralize influencer offers and activations, and to provide tools to boost branded content and monitor campaign performance. On that last front, the API allows the company to pull in real-time metrics from the TikTok Creator Marketplace API — which means Capitv8 is now one of only a handful of third-party companies with access to TikTok first-party data.

Another early alpha partner is Influential, which shared it’s also leveraging the API to access first-party insights on audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and more, to help its customer base of Fortune 1000 brands to identify the right creators for both native and paid advertising campaigns.

One partner it worked with was DoorDash, which launched multiple campaigns on TikTok with Influential’s help. It’s also planning to work with McDonald’s USA on several new campaigns that will run this year, including those focused on the chain’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the return of Spicy McNuggets.

Other early alpha partners include Whalar and INCA. The latter’s integration stems from the larger TikTok global partnership with WPP, announced in February. That deal provided WPP agencies with early access to new advertising products marketing API integrations, and new AR offerings, among other things.

Creator marketplaces are now common to social media platforms with large influencer communities as this has become a standard way to advertise to online consumers, particularly the younger generation. Facebook today offers its Brands Collabs Manager, for both Facebook and Instagram; YouTube has BrandConnect; while Snapchat recently announced a marketplace to connect brands with Lens creators. These type of in-house platforms make it easier for marketers to work with the wider influencer community by offering trusted data on metrics that matter to brands’ own ROI, rather than relying on self-reported data from influencers or on data they have to manually collect themselves. And as campaigns run, marketers can compare how well their partnered creators are able to drive results to inform their future collaborations.

TikTok isn’t making a formal announcement about its new API at this time, telling TechCrunch the technology is still in pilot testing phases for the time being.

“Creators are the lifeblood of our platform, and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to make it easy for them to connect and collaborate with brands. We’re thrilled to be integrating with an elite group of trusted partners to help brands discover and work with diverse creators who can share their message in an authentic way,” said Melissa Yang, TikTok’s head of Ecosystem Partnerships, in a statement provided to select marketing company partners.

Update, 8/31/21, 3:22 PM ET: INCA is currently using the API in the U.S. and U.K. An earlier version said it was U.K. only, based on information provided by TikTok. We’ve since corrected. 

Move fast and break Facebook: A bull case for antitrust enforcement

By Annie Siebert
Daniel Liss Contributor
Daniel Liss is the founder and CEO of Dispo, the digital disposable camera social network.
More posts by this contributor

This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its industry.

Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand.

I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.


Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.

In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.

At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.

Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.

Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.

If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:

  1. The United States government will break up Facebook. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Facebook is already losing. Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
  3. Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies.

I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.

Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.

The government will break up Facebook

It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.

In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”

This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.

All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.

In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.

This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.

Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.

Facebook is losing

Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.

For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”

Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.

In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.

Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.

TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.

Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.

Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.

With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.

Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.

I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.

Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.

Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”

This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.

Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies

Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.

Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.

AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.

The U.K.’s recent opposition to Facebook’s $400 million GIPHY acquisition proves Facebook will struggle mightily to acquire even small bolt-ons.

Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.

Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.

CryptoPunks blasts past $1 billion in lifetime sales as NFT speculation surges

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review! Last week we dove into Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA. This week, I’m writing about the unlikely and triumphant resurgence of the NFT market.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If I could, I would probably write about NFTs in this newsletter every week. I generally stop myself from actually doing so because I try my best to make this newsletter a snapshot of what’s important to the entire consumer tech sector, not just my niche interests. That said, I’m giving myself free rein this week.

The NFT market is just so hilariously bizarre and the culture surrounding the NFT world is so web-native, I can’t read about it enough. But in the past several days, the market for digital art on the blockchain has completely defied reason.

Back in April, I wrote about a platform called CryptoPunks that — at that point — had banked more than $200 million in lifetime sales since 2017. The little pop art pixel portraits have taken on a life of their own since then. It was pretty much unthinkable back then but in the past 24 hours alone, the platform did $141 million in sales, a new record. By the time you read this, the NFT platform will have likely passed a mind-boggling $1.1 billion in transaction volume according to crypto tracker CryptoSlam. With 10,000 of these digital characters, to buy a single one will cost you at least $450,000 worth of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (When I sent out this newsletter yesterday that number was $300k)

When I published this back in April, the cheapest CryptoPunks were $30k, today the cheapest one available for sale is just shy of $300k https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) August 27, 2021

It’s not just CryptoPunks either; the entire NFT world has exploded in the past week, with several billions of dollars flowing into projects with drawings of monkeys, penguins, dinosaurs and generative art this month alone. After the NFT rally earlier this year — culminating in Beeple’s $69 million Christie’s sale — began to taper off, many wrote off the NFT explosion as a bizarre accident. What triggered this recent frenzy?

Part of it has been a resurgence of cryptocurrency prices toward all-time-highs and a desire among the crypto rich to diversify their stratospheric assets without converting their wealth to fiat currencies. Dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into an NFT project with fewer stakeholders than the currencies that underlie them can make a lot of sense to those whose wealth is already over-indexed in crypto. But a lot of this money is likely FOMO dollars from investors who are dumping real cash into NFTs, bolstered by moves like Visa’s purchase this week of their own CryptoPunk.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that this growth is unsustainable, but how much further along this market growth gets before the pace of investment slows or collapses is completely unknown. There are no signs of slowing down for now, something that can be awfully exciting — and dangerous — for investors looking for something wild to drop their money into… and wild this market truly is.

Here’s some advice from Figma CEO Dylan Field who sold his alien CryptoPunk earlier this year for 4,200 Eth (worth $13.6 million today).

Just getting into NFT’s? Welcome!! It’s a fascinating world and this is just the very start :)

My unsolicited advice: exercise caution + restraint. There are a lot of speculators in the space right now. Buy things you love / plan to hold forever and don’t expect prices to go up!

— Dylan Field (@zoink) August 28, 2021


Image Credits: Kanye West

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans suspends its porn ban
In a stunning about-face, OnlyFans declared this week that they won’t be banning “sexually explicit content” from their platform after all, saying in a statement that they had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.”

Kanye gets into the hardware business
Ahead of the drop of his next album, which will definitely be released at some point, rapper Kanye West has shown off a mobile music hardware device called the Stem Player. The $200 pocket-sized device allows users to mix and alter music that has been loaded onto the device. It was developed in partnership with hardware maker Kano.

Apple settles developer lawsuit
Apple has taken some PR hits in recent years following big and small developers alike complaining about the take-it-or-leave-it terms of the company’s App Store. This week, Apple shared a proposed settlement (which still is pending a judge’s approval) that starts with a $100 million payout and gets more interesting with adjustments to App Store bylines, including the ability of developers to advertise paying for subscriptions directly rather than through the app only.

Twitter starts rolling out ticketed Spaces
Twitter has made a convincing sell for its Clubhouse competitor Spaces, but they’ve also managed to build on the model in recent months, turning its copycat feature into a product that succeeds on its own merits. Its latest effort to allow creators to sell tickets to events is just starting to roll out, the company shared this week.

CA judge strikes down controversial gig economy proposition
Companies like Uber and DoorDash dumped tens of millions of dollars into Prop 22, a law which clawed back a California law that pushed gig economy startups to classify workers as full employees. This week a judge declared the proposition unconstitutional, and though the decision has been stayed on appeal, any adjustment would have major ramifications for those companies’ business in California.


Image of a dollar sign representing the future value of cybersecurity.

Image Credits: guirong hao (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Future tech exits have a lot to live up to
“Inflation may or may not prove transitory when it comes to consumer prices, but startup valuations are definitely rising — and noticeably so — in recent quarters. That’s the obvious takeaway from a recent PitchBook report digging into valuation data from a host of startup funding events in the United States…”

OpenSea UX teardown
“…is the experience of creating and selling an NFT on OpenSea actually any good? That’s what UX analyst Peter Ramsey has been trying to answer by creating and selling NFTs on OpenSea for the last few weeks. And the short answer is: It could be much better...

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?
“‘Solutions,’ ‘cutting-edge,’ ‘scalable’ and ‘innovative’ are just a sample of the overused jargon lurking around every corner of the techverse, with SaaS marketers the world over seemingly singing from the same hymn book. Sadly for them, new research has proven that such jargon-heavy copy — along with unclear features and benefits — is deterring customers and cutting down conversions…”


Thanks for reading! And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Lucas Matney

As 5G demand grows, Sitenna helps telcos find more cell tower locations, faster

By Danny Crichton

The buildout of 5G networks continues apace, with wide-scale deployments across much of the developed world. Yet, one of the largest challenges with closing the gaps in coverage maps are constraints on 5G transmissions. Because of the spectrum that 5G technology uses compared to 4G, telecom operators need to install many times more towers to deliver the advertised bandwidth with the same quality signal that users expect.

Installing cell towers is a daunting proposition though. An operator has to find exactly the right location in terms of line of sight to users, then make sure the location has power and internet access, and then negotiate a contract with the property owner to keep the tower there for a decade or more. Now repeat tens of thousands of times (and maybe even more).

Sitenna, which will debut next week as part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day, wants to radically speed up the process of selecting tower sites and securing contracts, creating a marketplace for landlords, tower operators and telcos alike.

Tower siting and access to poles have in some cases emerged as national infrastructure priorities. In the United States, the challenges around installing new towers — and new towers quickly — became a top priority of the FCC during the Trump administration, which launched a 5G FAST Plan to try to ease regulations around tower installation.

Sitenna’s founders Daniel Campion and Brian Sexton saw an opportunity with such programs to help with the movement. Over the past year, they have built out what is essentially a marketplace that on one hand, helps property owners figure out if they have an asset that’s worth investigating for telecom usage, and on the other, helps tower operators select and digitally sign deals for installation.

Sitenna co-founder and CEO Daniel Campion. Image Credits: Sitenna

The company launched in the United Kingdom in June, and “it kind of resonated,” Campion said, noting that 65,000 real estate assets and roughly 15% of the towers in the UK are now on the platform. The company has kicked off two pilots with Vodafone and its tower provider Cornerstone. He said the company intends to enter the U.S. market in the first quarter of next year.

While the company is starting with a marketplace, like many startups today, it is also augmenting that marketplace with B2B SaaS tools. In its case, that means tools for telcos to manage the process of onboarding a new tower location and then managing the asset. “Once they find the site, they ping pong emails back and forth,” Campion said. “So we have built some tools to help them on their workflows.”

Sitenna’s platform allows landlords and tower operators to inspect and transact tower locations. Image Credits: Sitenna

While there is definitely a large wave of tower installations underway now with the transition to 5G wireless, that wave doesn’t mean that tower installation will suddenly dry up in a few years. Campion notes that there is a “continual refresh of 15-20% on the carrier side” due to everything from changing usage patterns and building redevelopment to just standard hardware replacement.

And of course, there is always 6G, which while completely amorphous today, is a real thing that I get invites to conferences for. There’s always going to be a next generation of wireless, and Sitenna wants to become the center for managing that infrastructure.

Facebook will reportedly launch its own advisory group for election policy decisions

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook is looking to create a standalone advisory committee for election-related policy decisions, according to a new report from The New York Times. The company has reportedly approached a number of policy experts and academics it is interested in recruiting for the group, which could give the company cover for some of its most consequential choices.

The group, which the Times characterizes as a commission, would potentially be empowered to weigh in on issues like election misinformation and political advertising — two of Facebook’s biggest policy headaches. Facebook reportedly plans for the commission to be in place for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections and could announce its formation as soon as this fall.

Facebook’s election commission could be modeled after the Oversight Board, the company’s first experiment in quasi-independent external decision making. The Oversight Board began reviewing cases in October of last year, but didn’t gear up in time to impact the flood of election misinformation that swept the platform during the U.S. presidential election. Initially, the board could only make policy rulings based on material that was already removed from Facebook.

The company touts the independence of the Oversight Board, and while it does operate independently, Facebook created the group and appointed its four original co-chairs. The Oversight Board is able to set policy precedents and make binding per-case moderation rulings, but ultimately its authority comes from Facebook itself, which at any point could decide to ignore the board’s decisions.

A similar external policy-setting body focused on elections would be very politically useful for Facebook. The company is a frequent target for both Republicans and Democrats, with the former claiming Facebook censors conservatives disproportionately and the latter calling attention to Facebook’s long history of incubating conspiracies and political misinformation.

Neither side was happy when Facebook decided to suspend political advertising after the election — a gesture that failed to address the exponential spread of organic misinformation. Facebook asked the Oversight Board to review its decision to suspend former President Trump, though the board ultimately kicked its most controversial case back to the company itself.

❌