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Founders: Land a video interview with TC

By Neesha A. Tambe

Looking for a way to get your early-stage startup the massive attention it deserves? Look no further. TechCrunch is highlighting over 30 companies at Disrupt SF. Selected companies will get a video interview with TC editorial that will be shared with the masses. One of the best ways to get in front of thousands of influencers is by exhibiting in Startup Alley during Disrupt 2020. An even better way is to exhibit for free. Take the first step and apply to be a TC Top Pick.

Applying is easy, but earning the TC Top Pick designation — well, not so much. Discerning TechCrunch editors scour every application searching for creative, potential-laden startups that spark the imagination. Each startup that joins the ranks of the TC Top Picks wins an interview on TechCrunch and a free Digital Startup Alley Package. That’s where the massive exposure comes into play. Everyone — investors, tech media, founders, devs, engineers, R&D folks and more — wants to meet and greet those who made the grade.

Ready to take your shot? Here’s what you need to know. You’re eligible to apply if your pre-Series A startup falls into one of the following categories:

Social Impact + Education, Space, Artificial Intelligence + Machine Learning, Biotech + Healthtech, Enterprise + SaaS, Fintech, Mobility, Retail + E-commerce, Robotics, Hardware + IOT, and Security + Privacy.

TechCrunch editors will choose up to three startups in each category. Note the phrase “up to three.” They won’t fill the bucket without ample cause. What do you get with a Digital Startup Package? Plenty. For starters, it lets three people from your company exhibit from anywhere — remember, virtual Disrupt 2020 is a global event with a global audience. That’s huge.

You’ll demo like crazy — scheduling 1:1 video meetings with the previously mentioned masses — investors, media, potential customers, collaborators and the list goes on. Here’s more good news. You’ll have CrunchMatch, our AI-powered networking platform, to help make your networking easier and more efficient. The platform opens weeks ahead of Disrupt, giving you even more time to find and connect with people who can move your business forward.

Thanks to this next perk, the exposure you get as a TC Top Pick will stretch far beyond Disrupt. TechCrunch editors will create a video interview for each Top Pick startup and promote the videos across its social media platforms. It’s a long-term marketing tool you can use to pitch potential investors and clients.

Does your early-stage startup deserve massive attention? Take advantage of this massive opportunity to keep your startup on track and moving forward. Apply to be a TC Top Pick today.

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

Twitter, Reddit challenge US rules forcing visa applicants to disclose their social media handles

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter and Reddit have filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit challenging a U.S. government rule change compelling visa applicants to disclose their social media handles.

The lawsuit, brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice and law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, seeks to undo both the State Department’s requirement that visa applicants must disclose their social media handles prior to obtaining a U.S. visa, as well as related rules over the retention and dissemination of those records.

Last year, the State Department began asking visa applicants for their current and former social media usernames, a move that affects millions of non-citizens applying to travel to the United States each year. The rule change was part of the Trump administration’s effort to expand its “enhanced” screening protocols. At the time, it was reported that the information would be used if the State Department determines that “such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.”

In a filing supporting the lawsuit, both Twitter and Reddit said the social media policies “unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech” and that the rules violate the First Amendment rights “to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

Twitter and Reddit, which collectively have more than 560 million users, said their users — many of which don’t use their real names on their platforms — are forced to “surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States,” which “violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

“Twitter and Reddit vigorously guard the right to speak anonymously for people on their platforms, and anonymous individuals correspondingly communicate on these platforms with the expectation that their identities will not be revealed without a specific showing of compelling need,” the brief said.

“That expectation allows the free exchange of ideas to flourish on these platforms.”

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s policy chief for the Americas, said the social media rule “infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues.” Reddit’s general counsel Ben Lee called the rule an “intrusive overreach” by the government.

It’s not known how many, if any, visa applicants have been denied a visa because of their social media content. But since the social media rule went into effect, cases emerged of approved visa holders denied entry to the U.S. for other people’s social media postings. Ismail Ajjawi, a then 17-year-old freshman at Harvard University, was turned away at Boston Logan International Airport after U.S. border officials searched his phone after taking issue with social media postings of Ajjawi’s friends — and not his own.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch at the time that Ajjawi’s case was not isolated. A week later, TechCrunch learned of another man who was denied entry to the U.S. because of a WhatsApp message sent by a distant acquaintance.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately comment on news of the amicus brief.

Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

By Jake Bright

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

The startup has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Carry1st Africa

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

Security lapse at India’s Jio exposed coronavirus symptom checker results

By Zack Whittaker

Since the start of the outbreak, governments and companies have scrambled to develop apps and websites that can help users identify COVID-19 symptoms.

India’s largest cell network Jio, a subsidiary of Reliance, launched its coronavirus self-test symptom checker in late March, just before the Indian government imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. The symptom checker allows anyone to check their symptoms from their phone or Jio’s website to see if they may have become infected with COVID-19.

But a security lapse exposed one of the symptom checker’s core databases to the internet without a password, TechCrunch has found.

Jio’s coronavirus symptom checker. One of its databases exposed users’ responses. (Image: TechCrunch)

Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database on May 1, just after it was first exposed, and informed TechCrunch to notify the company. Jio quickly pulled the system offline after TechCrunch made contact. It’s not known if anyone else accessed the database.

“We have taken immediate action,” said Jio spokesperson Tushar Pania. “The logging server was for monitoring performance of our website, intended for the limited purpose of people doing a self-check to see if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.”

The database contains millions of logs and records starting April 17 through to the time that the database was pulled offline. Although the server contained a running log of website errors and other system messages, it also ingested vast numbers of user-generated self-test data. Each self-test was logged in the database and included a record of who took the test — such as “self” or a relative, their age, and their gender.

The data also included the person’s user agent, a small snippet of information about the user’s browser version and the operating system, often used to load the website properly but can also be used to track a user’s online activity.

The database also contains individual records of those who signed up to create a profile, allowing users to update their symptoms over time. These records contained the answers to each question asked by the symptom checker, including what symptoms they are experiencing, who they have been in contact with, and what health conditions they may have.

Some of the records also contained the user’s precise location, but only if the user allowed the symptom checker access to their browser or phone’s location data.

We’ve posted a redacted portion of one of the records below.

A redacted portion of the exposed database. (Image: TechCrunch)

From one sample of data we obtained, we found thousands of users’ precise geolocation from across India. TechCrunch was able to identify people’s homes using the latitude and longitude records found in the database.

Most of the location data is clustered around major cities, like Mumbai and Pune. TechCrunch also found users in the United Kingdom and North America.

The exposure could not come at a more critical time for the Indian telecoms giant. Last week Facebook invested $5.7 billion for a near-10% stake in Jio’s Platforms, valuing the Reliance subsidiary at about $66 billion.

Jio did not answer our follow-up questions, and the company did not say if it will inform those who used the symptom tracker of the security lapse.

JustEat Takeaway $7.6B merger approved, pair pick up $756M in new funding

By Ingrid Lunden

On the heels of Amazon getting approval from the competition authority to proceed with an investment leading a $575 million round for food delivery startup Deliveroo in the UK, two of Deliveroo’s biggest rivals got their own £6.2 billion merger approved, and they have subsequently picked up an extra $756 million to come out fighting.

Today, the competition watchdog in the UK officially gave a nod to the merger, originally valued at $10 billion but more currently valued at £6.2 billion, between UK’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com. And along with that, the merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

JustEat and Takeaway had already been respectively trading on the London and Netherlands stock exchanges — on LSE as ‘JET’ and on AMS as ‘TKWY’ — and they said they would use the capital and convertible bond issue to pay down debts, business development and other corporate purposes and potential acquisitions in what remains a very fragmented and crowded market for food delivery in Europe and elsewhere, despite the rapid scaling we’re seeing among some of the biggest players.

Specifically the pair said in their announcement that they would use the money to “partially pay down revolving credit facilities currently utilised by both Just Eat and Takeaway.com, for general corporate purposes as well as to provide the Company with financial flexibility to act on strategic opportunities which may arise.”

The two also noted that the placement is conditional on the two getting successfully admitted to trade as a merged company. They’ve made the application for this and it is expected to become effective on April 27.

The Competition and Markets Authority, meanwhile, noted that its decision was influenced by the fact that Takeaway.com had not been active in the UK market and “we are satisfied that there are no competition concerns.”

“Millions of people in the UK use online food platforms for takeaways and, where a merger could raise competition concerns, we have a duty to rigorously investigate whether customers could lose out. In this case, we carefully considered whether Takeaway.com could have re-entered the UK market in future, giving people more choice,” it said. “It was important we investigated this properly, but after gathering additional evidence which indicates this deal will not reduce competition, it is also the right decision to now clear the merger.”

The moves cap of a turbulent nine months for the two companies, which announced their intention to merge last year to bulk up against pricey competition from Uber Eats, Deliveroo (which itself was getting a huge cash injection and support from the mighty Amazon) and more. After the two announced their intentions to come together, Prosus (the tech holdings of Naspers) also made a protracted, hostile bid for JustEat.

Online food delivery services have been a popular business in the world of tech: three-sided marketplaces bring together restaurants, consumers who would rather stay home but still want to eat restaurant food, and an army of delivery people who largely work as contractors to shuttle between the other two — but their growth has come at high costs.

Heavy competition between a number of firms, and the overall unit economics of on-demand services, have meant that all of them need large sums of cash to grow and often survive while they slowly inch towards profitability. (And those that cannot raise that cash often fall by the wayside or are swallowed up in larger consolidation plays for economy of scale.)

The big question is how the current climate is going to affect that general model. Stay-at-home orders have been a huge boost for businesses that cater to people making transactions virtually, or staying at home; and food delivery services check both of those boxes.

At least in the short term, that has spelled major opportunity for all of them, and the most optimistic believe that even if that outsized surge abates when some of our COVID-19 restrictions get relaxed, it will leave in its place a permanent shift among consumer and business behaviour.

For its part, the CMA noted that “millions” of people in the UK are using take-out services and that it is trying to be more flexible and efficient during COVID-19 to enable more services to people.

“During the COVID-19 outbreak, the CMA is working with businesses where it can to be flexible – for example, by recognising that there may be delays in providing the information it needs to conduct investigations,” it said. “However, it is also trying to complete investigations efficiently at this time, wherever possible, to provide businesses with certainty. In this case, the CMA was able to publish its final decision 26 days ahead of the statutory deadline.”

 

Extra Crunch Live: Join Precursor’s Charles Hudson for a Q&A this Thursday

By Alex Wilhelm

The new Extra Crunch Live series is taking flight this week. Today we’re talking to Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee and Ted Wang. This Thursday we’re keeping the parade of well-known investors coming, when Charles Hudson will join Natasha Mascarenhas and I for a deep-dive into all things pre-seed and seed.

Extra Crunch Live Episode 2: Charles Hudson will air at 3 PM PT/6 PM ET this Thursday. Important Note: Extra Crunch members will be able to ask their own questions live on the call.

Hudson has been a guest on Equity a few times and even popped up onstage at Disrupt. Why? Because he’s made a number of notable investments and he has a penchant for explaining the seed venture market in useful, easy-to-grok terms.

Precursor Ventures, Hudson’s firm, has raised a number of funds, and filed paperwork to put together a $40 million third fund earlier this year. If closed, the new vehicle would be Precursor’s largest to date. The firm previously raised two main funds, and one $10 million “opportunity” fund.

Hudson, along with senior associate Sydney Thomas and analyst Ayanna Kerrison, tends to invest in software, internet-focused and e-commerce companies, according to Crunchbase data. However, other data indicates that the firm’s investment pace may have slowed in 2019 as the world unwittingly marched toward the new, COVID-19 era.

The new world we live in is precisely why we wanted to get Charles back for a chat. The last time we spoke with him Airbnb was still going public in 2020 on the back of a direct listing. We also chatted about which Y Combinator companies were the biggest. Now Airbnb’s been forced to borrow expensive capital, cut its valuation and is generally expected to delay its public debut. And Y Combinator is pulling back on its investing cadence.

A new world, a changed world.

Before we let you go, while prepping for our talk with Hudson, we discovered that Precursor put money into both payment firm Finix’s seed round and Series A, according to Crunchbase data. The startup later raised a Series B that would wind up being more complicated than it first seemed.

If you aren’t a member of Extra Crunch just yet, join up and don’t miss any of the next few months’ worth of live chats that are going to be pretty damn cool.

You can find all the Zoom information below, as well as an AddEvent link to put the details directly onto your calendar.

See you soon!

Airbnb reportedly lays off contractors and cancels summer internships

By Megan Rose Dickey

Airbnb has ended its contracts with contingent workers early and postponed summer internships, Protocol reports. Contractors at Airbnb serve as property inspectors, home consultants and more.

Contractors will reportedly receive no less than two weeks’ pay after receiving notice from their temp agencies.

Airbnb will also reportedly delay hiring undergraduate students until next year. TechCrunch has since heard from an incoming intern that he was notified yesterday and that he’s now scrambling to find a new internship.

Airbnb is not the only tech company to cancel internships amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Yelp canceled its summer internship and TC’s Natasha Mascarenhas has since learned StubHub, Glassdoor, Funding Circle and Checkr have also canceled their respective internships.

These personnel changes come just one day after Airbnb secured a $1 billion loan. Earlier this month, Airbnb raised an additional $1 billion in debt and equity.

TechCrunch has reached out to Airbnb and will update this story if we hear back.

Additional reporting by Natasha Mascarenhas. 

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