Docs startup Almanac raises $34 million from Tiger as remote work shift hardens

As companies continue to delay their returns to the office and find temporary remote work policies becoming permanent, the startups building tooling for remote work-first cultures are finding a seemingly endless supply of customers.

“Companies are finding the shift to remote work is not a one-time aberration due to Covid,” Almanac CEO Adam Nathan tells TechCrunch. “Over the past several months we’ve seen pretty explosive revenue growth.”

Almanac, which builds a doc editor that takes feature cues like version control from developer platforms like Github, has been seizing on the shift to remote work, onboarding new customers through its open source office document library Core while pushing features that allow for easier onboarding like an online company handbook builder.

In the past couple years, timelines between funding rounds have been shrinking for fast-growing startups. Almanac announced its $9 million seed round earlier this year led by Floodgate, now they’re taking the wraps off of a $34 million Series A led by the pandemic’s most prolific startup investment powerhouse — Tiger Global. Floodgate again participated in the raise, alongside General Catalyst and a host of angels.

The company wants its collaborative doc editor to be the way more companies fully embrace online productivity software, leaving local-first document editors in the dust. While Alphabet’s G Suite is a rising presence in the office productivity suite world, Microsoft Office is still the market’s dominant force.

“We see ourselves as a generational challenger to Microsoft Office,” Nathan says. “It’s not only an old product, but it’s totally outmoded for what we do to today.”

While investors have backed plenty of startups based on pandemic era trends that have already seemed to fizzle out, the growing shift away from office culture or even hybrid culture towards full remote work has only grown more apparent as employees place a premium on jobs with flexible remote policies.

Major tech companies like Facebook have found themselves gradually adjusting policies towards full-remote work for staff that can do their jobs remotely. Meanwhile, Apple’s more aggressive return-to-office plan has prompted a rare outpouring of public and private criticism from employees at the company. Nathan only expects this divide to accelerate as more companies come tor grips with the shifting reality.

“I personally don’t believe that hybrid is a thing,” he says. “You have to pick a side, you’re either office culture or ‘cloud culture.’”

#almanac, #alphabet, #articles, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #economy, #general-catalyst, #github, #human-resource-management, #major, #microsoft, #onboarding, #productivity, #recruitment, #software, #startup-company, #startups, #telecommuting, #tiger-global

Alphabet’s Project Taara is beaming high-speed internet across the Congo River

Alphabet ended Project Loon earlier this year, but the things it learned from the internet-broadcasting balloon initiative haven’t gone to waste. The high speed wireless optical link technology originally developed for Loon is currently being used for another moonshot called Project Taara. In a new blog post, Taara’s Director of Engineering, Baris Erkmen, has revealed that the initiative’s wireless optical communications (WOC) links are now beaming high-speed connectivity across the Congo River.

The idea for Taara started when the Loon team successfully used WOC to beam data between Loon balloons that were more than 100 kilometers apart. The team wanted to explore how the technology can be used on the ground. As part of the team’s exploration on WOC’s potential applications, they worked on bridging the connectivity gap between Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The two locations are separated by the Congo River and are only 4.8 kilometers apart. However, internet connectivity costs much, much more in Kinshasa, because providers will have to lay down enough fiber connection to cover 400 kilometers of ground around the river. What Project Taara did was install links that can beam high-speed connectivity from Brazzaville to Kinshasa across the river instead. Within 20 days and with 99.9 percent availability, the links served served nearly 700 TB of data.

How Project Taara's optical beaming connectivity works

How Project Taara’s optical beaming connectivity works.

Taara’s WOC links work by seeking each other out and linking their beams of light together to create a high-speed internet connection. It’s not ideal for use in foggy locations, but Project Taara has developed network planning tools that can estimate WOC availability based on various factors like weather. In the future, the team will be able to use those tools to plan for the locations where Taara’s technology will work best.

Baris Erkmen, Director of Engineering for Taara, wrote in the post:

“Better tracking accuracy, automated environmental responses and better planning tools are helping Taara’s links deliver reliable high-speed bandwidth to places that fiber can’t reach, and helping us connect communities that are cut off from traditional ways of delivering connectivity. We’re really excited about these advances, and are looking forward to building on them as we continue developing and refining Taara’s capabilities.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

#alphabet, #broadband, #column, #tc, #tceng

Rezilion raises $30M help security operations teams with tools to automate their busywork

Security operations teams face a daunting task these days, fending off malicious hackers and their increasingly sophisticated approaches to cracking into networks. That also represents a gap in the market: building tools to help those security teams do their jobs. Today, an Israeli startup called Rezilion that is doing just that — building automation tools for DevSecOps, the area of IT that addresses the needs of security teams and the technical work that they need to do in their jobs — is announcing $30 million in funding.

Guggenheim Investments is leading the round with JVP and Kindred Capital also contributing. Rezilion said that unnamed executives from Google, Microsoft, CrowdStrike, IBM, Cisco, PayPal, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, eBay, Symantec, RedHat, RSA and Tenable are also in the round. Previously, the company had raised $8 million.

Rezilion’s funding is coming on the back of strong initial growth for the startup in its first two years of operations.

Its customer base is made up of some of the world’s biggest companies, including two of the “Fortune 10” (the top 10 of the Fortune 500). CEO Liran Tancman, who co-founded Rezilion with CTO Shlomi Boutnaru, said that one of those two is one of the world’s biggest software companies, and the other is a major connected device vendor, but he declined to say which. (For the record, the top 10 includes Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Walmart and CVS.)

Tancman and Boutnaru had previously co-founded another security startup, CyActive, which was acquired by PayPal in 2015; the pair worked there together until leaving to start Rezilion.

There are a lot of tools out in the market now to help automate different aspects of developer and security operations. Rezilion focuses on a specific part of DevSecOps: large businesses have over the years put in place a lot of processes that they need to follow to try to triage and make the most thorough efforts possible to detect security threats. Today, that might involve inspecting every single suspicious piece of activity to determine what the implications might be.

The problem is that with the volume of information coming in, taking the time to inspect and understand each piece of suspicious activity can put enormous strain on an organization: it’s time-consuming, and as it turns out, not the best use of that time because of the signal to noise ratio involved. Typically, each vulnerability can take 6-9 hours to properly investigate, Tancman said. “But usually about 70-80% of them are not exploitable,” meaning they may be bad for some, but not for this particular organization and the code it’s using today. That represents a very inefficient use of the security team’s time and energy.

“Eight of out ten patches tend to be a waste of time,” Tancman said of the approach that is typically made today. He believes that as its AI continues to grow and its knowledge and solution becomes more sophisticated, “it might soon be 9 out of 10.”

Rezilion has built a taxonomy and an AI-based system that essentially does that inspection work as a human would do: it spots any new, or suspicious, code, figures out what it is trying to do, and runs it against a company’s existing code and systems to see how and if it might actually be a threat to it or create further problems down the line. If it’s all good, it essentially whitelists the code. If not, it flags it to the team.

The stickiness of the product has come out of how Tancman and Boutnaru understand large enterprises, especially those heavy with technology stacks, operate these days in what has become a very challenging environment for cybersecurity teams.

“They are using us to accelerate their delivery processes while staying safe,” Tancman said. “They have strict compliance departments and have to adhere to certain standards,” in terms of the protocols they take around security work, he added. “They want to leverage DevOps to release that.”

He said Rezilion has generally won over customers in large part for simply understanding that culture and process and helping them work better within that: “Companies become users of our product because we showed them that, at a fraction of the effort, they can be more secure.” This has special resonance in the world of tech, although financial services, and other verticals that essentially leverage technology as a significant foundation for how they operate, are also among the startup’s user base.

Down the line, Rezilion plans to add remediation and mitigation into the mix to further extend what it can do with its automation tools, which is part of where the funding will be going, too, Boutnaru said. But he doesn’t believe it will ever replace the human in the equation altogether.

“It will just focus them on the places where you need more human thinking,” he said. “We’re just removing the need for tedious work.”

In that grand tradition of enterprise automation, then, it will be interesting to watch which other automation-centric platforms might make a move into security alongside the other automation they are building. For now, Rezilion is forging out an interesting enough area for itself to get investors interested.

“Rezilion’s product suite is a game changer for security teams,” said Rusty Parks, senior MD of Guggenheim Investments, in a statement. “It creates a win-win, allowing companies to speed innovative products and features to market while enhancing their security posture. We believe Rezilion has created a truly compelling value proposition for security teams, one that greatly increases return on time while thoroughly protecting one’s core infrastructure.”

#agile-software-development, #alphabet, #amazon, #apple, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #ceo, #cisco, #computer-security, #crowdstrike, #cto, #cyactive, #devops, #ebay, #energy, #entrepreneurship, #europe, #financial-services, #funding, #google, #ibm, #jp-morgan-chase, #kindred-capital, #maryland, #microsoft, #paypal, #security, #software, #software-development, #startup-company, #symantec, #technology

Google confirms it’s pulling the plug on Streams, its UK clinician support app

Google is infamous for spinning up products and killing them off, often in very short order. It’s an annoying enough habit when it’s stuff like messaging apps and games. But the tech giant’s ambitions stretch into many domains that touch human lives these days. Including, most directly, healthcare. And — it turns out — so does Google’s tendency to kill off products that its PR has previously touted as ‘life saving’.

To wit: Following a recent reconfiguration of Google’s health efforts — reported earlier by Business Insider — the tech giant confirmed to TechCrunch that it is decommissioning its clinician support app, Streams.

The app, which Google Health PR bills as a “mobile medical device”, was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the UK’s National Health Service in the years since, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.

At the time of writing, one NHS Trust — London’s Royal Free — is still using the app in its hospitals.

But, presumably, not for too much longer since Google is in the process of taking Streams out back to be shot and tossed into its deadpool — alongside the likes of its ill-fated social network, Google+, and Internet ballon company Loon, to name just two of a frankly endless list of now defunct Alphabet/Google products.

Other NHS Trusts we contacted which had previously rolled out Streams told us they have already stopped using the app.

University College London NHS Trust confirmed to TechCrunch that it severed ties with Google Health earlier this year.

“Our agreement with Google Health (initially DeepMind) came to an end in March 2021 as originally planned. Google Health deleted all the data it held at the end of the [Streams] project,” a UCL NHS Trust spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust also told us it stopped using Streams this summer (in July) — and said patient data is in the process of being deleted.

“Following the decommissioning of Streams at the Trust earlier this summer, data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service to the Trust will be deleted and the agreement has been terminated,” a spokesperson said.

“As per the data sharing agreement, any patient data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service will be deleted. The deletion process is started once the agreement has been terminated,” they added, saying the contractual timeframe for Google deleting patient data is six months.

Another Trust, Taunton & Somerset, also confirmed its involvement with Streams had already ended. 

The Streams contracts DeepMind inked with the NHS Trusts were for five years — so these contracts were likely approaching the end of their terms, anyway.

Contract extensions would have had to be agreed by both parties. And Google’s decision to decommission Streams may be factoring in a lack of enthusiasm from involved Trusts to continue using the software — although if that’s the case it may, in turn, be a reflection of Trusts’ perceptions of Google’s weak commitment to the project.

Neither side is saying much publicly.

But as far as we’re aware the Royal Free is the only NHS Trust still using the clinician support app as Google prepares to cut off Stream’s life support.

No more Streams?

The Streams story has plenty of wrinkles, to put it politely.

For one thing, despite being developed by Google’s AI division — and despite DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman saying the goal for the project was to find ways to integrate AI into Streams so the app could generate predictive healthcare alerts — the Streams app doesn’t involve any artificial intelligence.

An algorithm in Streams alerts doctors to the risk of a patient developing acute kidney injury but relies on an existing AKI (acute kidney injury) algorithm developed by the NHS. So Streams essentially digitized and mobilized existing practice.

As a result, it always looked odd that an AI division of an adtech giant would be so interested in building, provisioning and supporting clinician support software over the long term. But then — as it panned out — neither DeepMind nor Google were in it for the long haul at the patient’s bedside.

DeepMind and the NHS Trust it worked with to develop Streams (the aforementioned Royal Free) started out with wider ambitions for their partnership — as detailed in an early 2016 memo we reported on, which set out a five year plan to bring AI to healthcare. Plus, as we noted above, Suleyman keep up the push for years — writing later in 2019 that: “Streams doesn’t use artificial intelligence at the moment, but the team now intends to find ways to safely integrate predictive AI models into Streams in order to provide clinicians with intelligent insights into patient deterioration.”

A key misstep for the project emerged in 2017 — through press reporting of a data scandal, as details of the full scope of the Royal Free-DeepMind data-sharing partnership were published by New Scientist (which used a freedom of information request to obtain contracts the pair had not made public).

The UK’s data protection watchdog went on to find that the Royal Free had not had a valid legal basis when it passed information on millions of patients’ to DeepMind during the development phase of Streams.

Which perhaps explains DeepMind’s eventually cooling ardour for a project it had initially thought — with the help of a willing NHS partner — would provide it with free and easy access to a rich supply of patient data for it to train up healthcare AIs which it would then be, seemingly, perfectly positioned to sell back into the self same service in future years. Price tbc.

No one involved in that thought had properly studied the detail of UK healthcare data regulation, clearly.

Or — most importantly — bothered to considered fundamental patient expectations about their private information.

So it was not actually surprising when, in 2018, DeepMind announced that it was stepping away from Streams — handing the app (and all its data) to Google Health — Google’s internal health-focused division — which went on to complete its takeover of DeepMind Health in 2019. (Although it was still shocking, as we opined at the time.)

It was Google Health that Suleyman suggested would be carrying forward the work to bake AI into Streams, writing at the time of the takeover that: “The combined experience, infrastructure and expertise of DeepMind Health teams alongside Google’s will help us continue to develop mobile tools that can support more clinicians, address critical patient safety issues and could, we hope, save thousands of lives globally.”

A particular irony attached to the Google Health takeover bit of the Streams saga is the fact that DeepMind had, when under fire over its intentions toward patient data, claimed people’s medical information would never be touched by its adtech parent.

Until of course it went on it hand the whole project off to Google — and then lauded the transfer as great news for clinicians and patients!

Google’s takeover of Streams meant NHS Trusts that wanted to continue using the app had to ink new contracts directly with Google Health. And all those who had rolled out the app did so. It’s not like they had much choice if they did want to continue.

Again, jump forward a couple of years and it’s Google Health now suddenly facing a major reorg — with Streams in the frame for the chop as part of Google’s perpetually reconfiguring project priorities.

It is quite the ignominious ending to an already infamous project.

DeepMind’s involvement with the NHS had previously been seized upon by the UK government — with former health secretary, Matt Hancock, trumpeting an AI research partnership between the company and Moorfield’s Eye Hospital as an exemplar of the kind of data-driven innovation he suggested would transform healthcare service provision in the UK.

Luckily for Hancock he didn’t pick Streams as his example of great “healthtech” innovation. (Moorfields confirmed to us that its research-focused partnership with Google Health is continuing.)

The hard lesson here appears to be don’t bet the nation’s health on an adtech giant that plays fast and loose with people’s data and doesn’t think twice about pulling the plug on digital medical devices as internal politics dictate another chair-shuffling reorg.

Patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — a key force in warning over the scope of the Royal Free’s DeepMind data-sharing deal — urged Google to ditch the spin and come clean about the Streams cock-up, once and for all.

“Streams is the Windows Vista of Google — a legacy it hopes to forget,” MedConfidential’s Sam Smith told us. “The NHS relies on trustworthy suppliers, but companies that move on after breaking things create legacy problems for the NHS, as we saw with wannacry. Google should admit the decision, delete the data, and learn that experimenting on patients is regulated for a reason.”

Questions over Royal Free’s ongoing app use

Despite the Information Commissioner’s Office’s 2017 finding that the Royal Free’s original data-sharing deal with DeepMind was improper, it’s notable that the London Trust stuck with Streams — continuing to pass data to DeepMind.

The original patient data-set that was shared with DeepMind without a valid legal basis was never ordered to be deleted. Nor — presumably has it since been deleted. Hence the weight of the call for Google to delete the data now.

Ironically the improperly acquired data should (in theory) finally get deleted — once contractual timeframes for any final back-up purges elapse — but only because it’s Google itself planning to switch off Streams.

And yet the Royal Free confirmed to us that it is still using Streams, even as Google spins the dial on its commercial priorities for the umpteenth time and decides it’s not interested in this particular bit of clinician support, after all.

We put a number of questions to the Trust — including about the deletion of patient data — none of which it responded to.

Instead, two days later, it sent us this one-line statement which raises plenty more questions — saying only that: “The Streams app has not been decommissioned for the Royal Free London and our clinicians continue to use it for the benefit of patients in our hospitals.”

It is not clear how long the Trust will be able to use an app Google is decommissioning. Nor how wise that might be for patient safety — such as if the app won’t get necessary security updates, for example.

We’ve also asked Google how long it will continue to support the Royal Free’s usage — and when it plans to finally switch off the service. As well as which internal group will be responsible for any SLA requests coming from the Royal Free as the Trust continues to use software Google Health is decommissioning — and will update this report with any response. (Earlier a Google spokeswoman told us the Royal Free would continue to use Streams for the ‘near future’ — but she did not offer a specific end date.)

In press reports this month on the Google Health reorg — covering an internal memo first obtained by Business Insider —  teams working on various Google health projects were reported to be being split up to other areas, including some set to report into Google’s search and AI teams.

So which Google group will take over responsibility for the handling of the SLA with the Royal Free, as a result of the Google Health reshuffle, is an interesting question.

In earlier comments, Google’s spokeswoman told us the new structure for its reconfigured health efforts — which are still being badged ‘Google Health’ — will encompass all its work in health and wellness, including Fitbit, as well as AI health research, Google Cloud and more.

On Streams specifically, she said the app hasn’t made the cut because when Google assimilated DeepMind Health it decided to focus its efforts on another digital offering for clinicians — called Care Studio — which it’s currently piloting with two US health systems (namely: Ascension & Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center). 

And anyone who’s ever tried to use a Google messaging app will surely have strong feelings of déjà vu on reading that…

DeepMind’s co-founder, meanwhile, appears to have remained blissfully ignorant of Google’s intentions to ditch Streams in favor of Care Studio — tweeting back in 2019 as Google completed the takeover of DeepMind Health that he had been “proud to be part of this journey”, and also touting “huge progress delivered already, and so much more to come for this incredible team”.

In the end, Streams isn’t being ‘supercharged’ (or levelled up to use current faddish political parlance) with AI — as his 2019 blog post had envisaged — Google is simply taking it out of service. Like it did with Reader or Allo or Tango or Google Play Music, or…. well, the list goes on.

Suleyman’s own story contains some wrinkles, too.

He is no longer at DeepMind but has himself been ‘folded into’ Google — joining as a VP of artificial intelligence policy, after initially being placed on an extended leave of absence from DeepMind.

In January, allegations that he had bullied staff were reported by the WSJ. And then, earlier this month, Business Insider expanded on that — reporting follow up allegations that there had been confidential settlements between DeepMind and former employees who had worked under Suleyman and complained about his conduct (although DeepMind denied any knowledge of such settlements).

In a statement to Business Insider, Suleyman apologized for his past behavior — and said that in 2019 he had “accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive”, adding that he had taken time out to start working with a coach and that that process had helped him “reflect, grow and learn personally and professionally”.

We asked Google if Suleyman would like to comment on the demise of Streams — and on his employer’s decision to kill the app — given his high hopes for the project and all the years of work he put into that particular health push. But the company did not engage with the request.

We also offered Suleyman the chance to comment directly. We’ll update this story if he responds.

#alphabet, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #deepmind, #fitbit, #google, #google-health, #health, #health-systems, #healthcare, #information-commissioners-office, #london, #matt-hancock, #medconfidential, #moorfields-eye-hospital, #mustafa-suleyman, #national-health-service, #privacy, #uk-government

Wing approaches 100,000 drone deliveries two years after Logan, Australia launch

In a blog post this morning, Alphabet drone delivery company Wing announced that it is set to hit 100,000 customer deliveries over the weekend. The news comes on the second anniversary of the service’s pilot launch in Logan, Australia, a city of roughly 300,000 people in the Brisbane metropolitan area.

It also, notably, arrives a few weeks after Wired reported that Amazon’s own drone delivery efforts are “collapsing inwards.” Wing comms head Jonathan Bass told TechCrunch that the service is set to enter additional markets in the coming months.

“I think we’ll expand quite a bit,” Bass told TechCrunch. “I think we’ll launch new services in Australia, Finland and the United States in the next six months. The capabilities of the technology are probably ahead of the regulatory permissions right now.”

Of the existing deliveries, more than half were completed in Logan over the course of the last eight months. The first week of August, for instance, found customers place orders for 4,500 deliveries, which works out to one every 30 seconds during Wing’s delivery window.

The numbers include:

  • 10,000 cups of coffee
  • 1,700 children’s snack packs
  • 1,200 hot chooks (roasted chicken, in Australian)
  • 2,700 sushi rolls
  • 1,000 loaves of bread

Image Credits: Wing

The drones have a range of six miles — limited by their battery life. That means the trips are fairly short, so there’s not a lot of issue with foodstuffs staying hot or cold, in spite of the package (which resembles a Happy Meal) being transported outside the drone. The primarily limitation, the company says, is weight, with capacity to carry up to three pounds. Apparently the system has had no issues carrying extremely fragile objects like eggs.

The drones cruise at around 100 to 150 feet in the air and lower down to about 23 feet when they reach their destination. From there, a tether lowers the package to the ground and unhooks it. No one is required to receive the package.

Image Credits: Wing

“If you combine the test flights with deliveries, it’s close to half-a-million flights over the past four or five years,” says Bass. “We’ve gradually moved into dense environments and listen to communities.” That last bit includes community feedback to reduce the drone’s noise levels.

#alphabet, #drone, #drone-delivery, #google, #hardware, #logistics, #wing

Spotify to spend $1B buying its own stock

Music streaming service Spotify today said it will spend up to $1 billion between now and April 21, 2026 to repurchase its own shares. The dollar amount represents just under 2.5% of Spotify’s market cap, with the company valued at $41.06 billion this morning as its shares rose 5.1% following the repurchase news.

The company previously executed a similar buyback program in 2018.

A public company using some of its cash to repurchase its shares is nothing new. Many public companies, including Apple, Alphabet, and Microsoft, have active share repurchase programs, and it is common to see mature or nearly-mature companies devoting a fraction of their balance sheet or a regular percentage of their free cash flow to buying back their own equity.

The goal of such efforts is to return cash to shareholders. Buybacks, along with dividends, are among the key ways that companies can use their wealth to reward shareholders. Also, by buying their own stock, companies can boost the value of their individual shares. By limiting the shares in circulation, the company’s share count declines and the value of each share consequently rises, in theory, as it represents a larger fraction of ownership in the corporation.

Spotify shares have traded as high as $387.44 apiece in the past 12 months, but are now worth just $215.84, inclusive of today’s gains. From that perspective, seeing Spotify decide to deploy some cash to repurchase its own equity makes sense — the company is buying low.

But if you ask a recently public company what it intends to do with its excess cash, buybacks are not usually the answer. For example, TechCrunch asked Root Insurance CEO Alex Timm if his company intended to use cash reserves to purchase its own equity after its recent Q2 2021 earnings report. Root’s share price has declined in recent months, perhaps making it an attractive time to reward shareholders through buybacks. Timm demurred on the idea, saying instead that his company is building for the long-term. That translates to: That cash is earmarked for growth, not shareholder return.

But isn’t Spotify still a growth company? It certainly isn’t valued on the weight of its profits. In the first half of 2021, for example, Spotify posted net profit of a mere €3 million on revenues of €4.5 billion.

If Spotify is still a growth-focused company, shouldn’t it preserve its capital to invest in exclusive podcasts and the like — efforts that may grant it pricing power in the future and allow for stronger revenue growth and gross margins over time?

To answer that, we’ll have to check the company’s balance sheet. From its Q2 2021 earnings, here are the key numbers:

  • Spotify closed out the second quarter with “€3.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents, restricted cash, and short term investments.”
  • And in the second quarter, Spotify generated free cash flow of €34 million. That figure was up €7 million from a year earlier despite “higher working capital needs arising from select licensor payments (delayed from Q1), podcast-related payments, and higher ad-receivables”.

More simply, despite paying up for efforts that are generally understood to be key to Spotify’s long-term ability to improve its gross margins — and therefore its net profitability — the company is still throwing off cash. And with a huge bank account earning little, thanks to globally low prices for cash and equivalent holdings, Spotify is using a chunk of its funds to buy back stock.

By spending $1 billion over the next few years, Spotify won’t materially harm its cash position. Indeed, it will remain incredibly cash-rich. However, the move may help defend its valuation and keep itchy investors happy. Moreover, as the company is buying its stock at a firm discount to where the market valued it recently, it could get something akin to a deal, given Spotify’s long-term faith in the value of its own business.

Perhaps the better question as this juncture is not whether Spotify is a weird company for deciding to break off a piece of its wealth for shareholders, but instead why we aren’t seeing other breakeven-ish tech companies with neutral cash flows and fat accounts doing the same.

#alphabet, #apple, #buyback, #dividend, #earnings, #enterprise-software, #equity, #microsoft, #music-streaming-services, #share-buybacks, #shareholders, #spotify, #stock, #stock-market, #tc

Growth is not enough

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Grace and Chris to sort through a week that brought together both this quarter’s earnings cycle, and the Q3 IPO rush. So, it was just a little busy!

Before we get to topics, however, a note that we are having a lot of fun recording these live on Twitter Spaces. We’ve found a hacky way to capture local audio and also share the chats live. So, hit us up on Twitter so you can hang out with us. It’s fun – and we may even bring you up on stage to play guest host.

Ok, now, to the Great List of Subjects:

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

#alphabet, #ascap, #class, #contentful, #earnings, #electric-vehicles, #equity, #equity-podcast, #fundings-exits, #lordstown-motors, #microsoft, #oova, #peppy, #redwood-materials, #robinhood, #robinhood-ipo, #shopify, #softbank, #squire, #startups, #tesla, #tiger-global

Want to work at a Google campus? You’ll need to be vaccinated

Even for tech companies who create the tools for remote work, returning to the office is proving a major challenge. After early work from home recommendations last March, companies like Google eventually closed up shop, requiring employees to take their work home with them. The intervening year and change have been a fraught balancing act for the company (along with most of the world), which began outlining return to work plans for some employees as early as May 2020.

As Delta and other Covid-19 variants threaten anticipated returns to normalcy, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai offered a clearer look at the company’s new normal. In a letter to employees reprinted on the Google Keyword blog, Pichai notes that all employees working out of one of Google’s campuses will need to be vaccinated.

“We’re rolling this policy out in the U.S. in the coming weeks and will expand to other regions in the coming months,” Pichai writes. “The implementation will vary according to local conditions and regulations, and will not apply until vaccines are widely available in your area.”

Further complicating matters is the second bullet point. While the rise of the Delta variant is expanding the company’s work-from-home policy through October 18, it’s not entirely clear what happens after that date (assuming the virus doesn’t force another goal post shift) to unvaccinated employees, who may not be able work out of a Google office or remotely.

The post does, however, note some exception for those unvaccinated for “medical or other protected reasons.” Google hasn’t clarified how it will enforce such exceptions.

“For those of you with special circumstances, we will soon be sharing expanded temporary work options that will allow you to apply to work from home through the end of 2021,” Pichai writes,.“We’re also extending Expanded Carer’s Leave through the end of the year for parents and caregivers.”

Other tech giants like Apple have also pushed back return-to-office plans and implemented masks in retail stores, as mandates have gone into effect amid increasing Covid-19 rates. Others, including Facebook, are sticking with original Fall reopening plans.

“Expert guidelines state that vaccines are highly effective at preventing variants of Covid-19, including the Delta variant,” a spokesperson for the social media giant recently told The Wall Street Journal. “Our timelines to reopen our offices haven’t changed.”

#alphabet, #apps, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #google, #health, #remote-work, #sundar-pichai

Alphabet crushes Q2 earnings estimates as Google Cloud cuts losses, grows 54%

Today after the bell amidst a deluge of major technology company earnings reports, Alphabet reported its own second-quarter performance. The search-and-services company posted revenues of $61.9 billion in the June 30, 2021 quarter, net income of $18.5 billion, and earnings per share of $27.26. Those figures work out to top-line growth of 62%, and net income expansion of 166%. Naturally Google is currently being compared to pandemic-impacted Q2 2020 results, but its gains are noteworthy regardless.

The Android-maker’s results trounced expectations, with the street only expecting Google’s parent company to post $56 billion in total top line and $19.14 in earnings per share. Notably Alphabet shares are up around a single percentage point after hours, mirroring a similarly muted market reaction to better than officially anticipated earnings results from Microsoft.

Alphabet is a company with a number of moving parts, so let’s unpack the numbers a little bit.

YouTube’s reported revenue of $7 billion is up 84% year over year. This feels like a strong result, frankly, given YouTube’s age. That said, your humble servant wonders how much heavier the ad load can get on YouTube before a rival service steals some of its oxygen. In a separate note, YouTube disclosed that its YouTube Shorts product has “surpassed 15 billion global daily views,” up 131% from the 6.5 billion global daily views that it detailed in March. (Everyone wants to eat TikTok, it seems.)

Google Cloud reported revenue of $4.6 billion, up 54% year over year. That growth rate is slightly above what Microsoft posted for its Azure cloud unit. However, as the Microsoft effort is considered to be larger than Google’s own in revenue terms, investors might have anticipated a larger growth ∆ than what Mountain View just detailed. Google Cloud cut its operating loss from $1.4 billion in the year-ago Q2 to a far more modest $591 million deficit in its most recent quarter. That’s honestly rather good.

On the Other Bets side of things, revenues rose! But so did losses. The skunkworks group at Alphabet posted $192 million in revenue, up from $148 million in the year-ago period. But the collection of trials and errors lost $1.4 billion in the quarter, up from $1.1 billion in the corresponding year-ago period.

Naturally with operating income of $19.4 billion inclusive of its Other Bets cost center, Alphabet can well afford to continue spending on what projects that may in time generate material future revenues.

Still, everything at Alphabet that is not Google’s core offerings (search, YouTube, etc.) lost money in the quarter:

Image Credits: Alphabet

The real story, however, is in the epic gains that Alphabet posted in operating income from Q2 2020 to Q2 2021. Just look at that acceleration in operating income! It’s a somewhat befuddling result in terms of its quality.

What else to take note of? Google’s share repurchase program has been modified some, but not in a manner that should impact regular investors. So we can leave Alphabet’s quarter content that the company did well enough to defend its market cap of just over $1.75 trillion, even if it did not manage to add too much to the figure in after-hours trading thus far.

It’s a great time to be a huge tech company.

#alphabet, #android, #earnings, #google, #microsoft, #tc, #youtube

Alphabet’s Intrinsic aims to make industrial robots more capable

Alphabet’s public-facing history with robotics has, thus far, been a spotty one. Most notably, Google X’s big acquisition push culminated in its selling Boston Dynamics to Softbank (who eventually flipped it to Hyundai). Alphabet/Google’s subsequent approach has been less flashy and focused on more immediate robotic tasks.

Unveiled today through the X blog, Intrinsic certainly fits the bill. In fact, it’s kind of an ideal take for Google. Effectively, the latest branch of the X Development tree is concerned with software for industrial robotics – those  big, heavy machines that are perhaps not as nimble as many manufacturers would like.

Image Credits: Intrinsic

The post is penned by Wendy Tan-White, a VP of Moonshots at Alphabet, who now has the title of Intrinsic CEO. Of the company’s origins, the cofounder of SAAS website builder Moonfruit writes,

Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications. Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.

There’s a vibrant community of startups out there looking to augment big, heavy robotics, including the likes of Veo, Symbio and Covariant. Often times, these companies focus on one specific element, like Veo’s safety protocols from human-robotic interactions. Fittingly, Intrisic appears to be shooting the moon here, so to speak, with plans to take a number of different issues at once.

Image Credits: Intrinsic

“We’re developing software tools designed to make industrial robots (which are used to make everything from solar panels to cars) easier to use, less costly and more flexible, so that more people can use them to make new products, businesses and services,” Tan-White writes.

Certainly Google has the capital and ability to attract talent to make some headway there, even if there are a number of competitors who have a head start. ThoughIntrinsic isn’t exactly brand new, either. The company has apparently been working in customary Google X stealth mode for a five-and-a-half years per the post — it clearly wanted something to show for its efforts before announcing itself to the world.

The news also marks Intrinsic’s debut as an “independent” Alphabet company, leaving the moonshot area behind as it seems partners in automotive, healthcare and electronics to help prove out its technologies.

#alphabet, #google, #google-x, #moonshot, #robotics

DeepMind puts the entire human proteome online, as folded by AlphaFold

DeepMind and several research partners have released a database containing the 3D structures of nearly every protein in the human body, as computationally determined by the breakthrough protein folding system demonstrated last year, AlphaFold. The freely available database represents an enormous advance and convenience for scientists across hundreds of disciplines and domains, and may very well form the foundation of a new phase in biology and medicine.

The AlphaFold Protein Structure Database is a collaboration between DeepMind, the European Bioinformatics Institute, and others, and consists of hundreds of thousands of protein sequences with their structures predicted by AlphaFold — and the plan is to add millions more to create a “protein almanac of the world.”

“We believe that this work represents the most significant contribution AI has made to advancing the state of scientific knowledge to date, and is a great example of the kind of benefits AI can bring to society,” said DeepMind founder and CEO Demis Hassabis.

From genome to proteome

If you’re not familiar with proteomics in general — and it’s quite natural if that’s the case — the best way to think about this is perhaps in terms of another major effort: that of sequencing the human genome. As you may recall from the late ’90s and early ’00s, this was a huge endeavor undertaken by a large group of scientists and organizations across the globe and over many years. The genome, finished at last, has been instrumental to the diagnosis and understanding of countless conditions, and in the development of drugs and treatments for them.

It was, however, just the beginning of the work in that field — like finishing all the edge pieces of a giant puzzle. And one of the next big projects everyone turned their eyes toward in those years was understanding the human proteome — which is to say all the proteins used by the human body and encoded into the genome.

The problem with the proteome is that it’s much, much more complex. Proteins, like DNA, are sequences of known molecules; in DNA these are the handful of familiar bases (adenine, guanine, etc), but in proteins they are the 20 amino acids (each of which is coded by multiple bases in genes). This in itself creates a great deal more complexity, but it’s only the start. The sequences aren’t simply “code” but actually twist and fold into tiny molecular origami machines that accomplish all kinds of tasks within our body. It’s like going from binary code to a complex language that manifests objects in the real world.

Practically speaking this means that the proteome is made up of not just 20,000 sequences of hundreds of acids each, but that each one of those sequences has a physical structure and function. And one of the hardest parts of understanding them is figuring out what shape is made from a given sequence. This is generally done experimentally using something like x-ray crystallography, a long, complex process that may take months or longer to figure out a single protein — if you happen to have the best labs and techniques at your disposal. The structure can also be predicted computationally, though the process has never been good enough to actually rely on — until AlphaFold came along.

Taking a discipline by surprise

Without going into the whole history of computational proteomics (as much as I’d like to), we essentially went from distributed brute-force tactics 15 years ago — remember Folding@home? — to more honed processes in the last decade. Then AI-based approaches came on the scene, making a splash in 2019 when DeepMind’s AlphaFold leapfrogged every other system in the world — then made another jump in 2020, achieving accuracy levels high enough and reliable enough that it prompted some experts to declare the problem of turning an arbitrary sequence into a 3D structure solved.

I’m only compressing this long history into one paragraph because it was extensively covered at the time, but it’s hard to overstate how sudden and complete this advance was. This was a problem that stumped the best minds in the world for decades, and it went from “we maybe have an approach that kind of works, but extremely slowly and at great cost” to “accurate, reliable, and can be done with off the shelf computers” in the space of a year.

Examples of protein structures predicted by AlphaFold

Image Credits: DeepMind

The specifics of DeepMind’s advances and how it achieved them I will leave to specialists in the fields of computational biology and proteomics, who will no doubt be picking apart and iterating on this work over the coming months and years. It’s the practical results that concern us today, as the company employed its time since the publication of AlphaFold 2 (the version shown in 2020) not just tweaking the model, but running it… on every single protein sequence they could get their hands on.

The result is that 98.5 percent of the human proteome is now “folded,” as they say, meaning there is a predicted structure that the AI model is confident enough (and importantly, we are confident enough in its confidence) represents the real thing. Oh, and they also folded the proteome for 20 other organisms, like yeast and E. coli, amounting to about 350,000 protein structures total. It’s by far — by orders of magnitude — the largest and best collection of this absolutely crucial information.

All that will be made available as a freely browsable database that any researcher can simply plug a sequence or protein name into and immediately be provided the 3D structure. The details of the process and database can be found in a paper published today in the journal Nature.

“The database as you’ll see it tomorrow, it’s a search bar, it’s almost like Google search for protein structures,” said Hassabis in an interview with TechCrunch.”You can view it in the 3D visualizer, zoom around it, interrogate the genetic sequence… and the nice thing about doing it with EMBL-EBI is it’s linked to all their other databases. So you can immediately go and see related genes, And it’s linked to all these other databases, you can see related genes, related in other organisms, other proteins that have related functions, and so on.”

Image Credits: DeepMind

“As a scientist myself, who works on an almost unfathomable protein,” said EMBL-EBI’s Edith Heard (she didn’t specify what protein), “it’s really exciting to know that you can find out what the business end of a protein is now, in such a short time — it would have taken years. So being able to access the structure and say ‘aha, this is the business end,’ you can then focus on trying to work out what that business end does. And I think this is accelerating science by steps of years, a bit like being able to sequence genomes did decades ago.”

So new is the very idea of being able to do this that Hassabis said he fully expects the entire field to change — and change the database along with it.

“Structural biologists are not yet used to the idea that they can just look up anything in a matter of seconds, rather than take years to experimentally determine these things,” he said. “And I think that should lead to whole new types of approaches to questions that can be asked and experiments that can be done. Once we start getting wind of that, we may start building other tools that cater to this sort of serendipity: What if I want to look at 10,000 proteins related in a particular way? There isn’t really a normal way of doing that, because that isn’t really a normal question anyone would ask currently. So I imagine we’ll have to start producing new tools, and there’ll be demand for that once we start seeing how people interact with this.”

That includes derivative and incrementally improved versions of the software itself, which has been released in open source along with a great deal of development history. Already we have seen an independently developed system, RoseTTAFold, from researchers at the University of Washington’s Baker Lab, which extrapolated from AlphaFold’s performance last year to create something similar yet more efficient — though DeepMind seems to have taken the lead again with its latest version. But the point was made that the secret sauce is out there for all to use.

Practical magic

Although the prospect of structural bioinformaticians attaining their fondest dreams is heartwarming, it is important to note that there are in fact immediate and real benefits to the work DeepMind and EMBL-EBI have done. It is perhaps easiest to see in their partnership with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Institute.

The DNDI focuses, as you might guess, on diseases that are rare enough that they don’t warrant the kind of attention and investment from major pharmaceutical companies and medical research outfits that would potentially result in discovering a treatment.

“This is a very practical problem in clinical genetics, where you have a suspected series of mutations, of changes in an affected child, and you want to try and work out which one is likely to be the reason why our child has got a particular genetic disease. And having widespread structural information, I am almost certain will improve the way we can do that,” said DNDI’s Ewan Birney in a press call ahead of the release.

Ordinarily examining the proteins suspected of being at the root of a given problem would be expensive and time-consuming, and for diseases that affect relatively few people, money and time are in short supply when they can be applied to more common problems like cancers or dementia-related diseases. But being able to simply call up the structures of ten healthy proteins and ten mutated versions of the same, insights may appear in seconds that might otherwise have taken years of painstaking experimental work. (The drug discovery and testing process still takes years, but maybe now it can start tomorrow for Chagas disease instead of in 2025.)

Illustration of RNA polymerase II ( a protein) in action in yeast.

Lest you think too much is resting on a computer’s prediction of experimentally unverified results, in another, totally different case, some of the painstaking work had already been done. John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, with whom DeepMind partnered for another potential use case, explained how this affected his team’s work on plastic decomposition.

“When we first sent our seven sequences to the DeepMind team, for two of those we already had experimental structures. So we were able to test those when they came back, and it was one of those moments, to be honest, when the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” said McGeehan. “Because the structures that they produced were identical to our crystal structures. In fact, they contained even more information than the crystal structures were able to provide in certain cases. We were able to use that information directly to develop faster enzymes for breaking down plastics. And those experiments are already underway, immediately. So the acceleration to our project here is, I would say, multiple years.”

The plan is to, over the next year or two, make predictions for every single known and sequenced protein — somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred million. And for the most part (the few structures not susceptible to this approach seem to make themselves known quickly) biologists should be able to have great confidence in the results.

Inspecting molecular structure in 3D has been possible for decades, but finding that structure in the first place is difficult.

The process AlphaFold uses to predict structures is, in some cases, better than experimental options. And although there is an amount of uncertainty in how any AI model achieves its results, Hassabis was clear that this is not just a black box.

“For this particular case, I think explainability was not just a nice-to-have, which often is the case in machine learning, but it was a must-have, given the seriousness of what we wanted it to be used for,” he said. “So I think we’ve done the most we’ve ever done on a particular system to make the case with explainability. So there’s both explainability on a granular level on the algorithm, and then explainability in terms of the outputs, as well the predictions and the structures, and how much you should or shouldn’t trust them, and which of the regions are the reliable areas of prediction.”

Nevertheless his description of the system as “miraculous” attracted my special sense for potential headline words. Hassabis said that there’s nothing miraculous about the process itself, but rather that he’s a bit amazed that all their work has produced something so powerful.

“This was by far the hardest project we’ve ever done,” he said. “And, you know, even when we know every detail of how the code works, and the system works, and we can see all the outputs, it’s still just still a bit miraculous when you see what it’s doing… that it’s taking this, this 1D amino acid chain and creating these beautiful 3D structures, a lot of them aesthetically incredibly beautiful, as well as scientifically and functionally valuable. So it was more a statement of a sort of wonder.”

Fold after fold

The impact of AlphaFold and the proteome database won’t be felt for some time at large, but it will almost certainly — as early partners have testified — lead to some serious short-term and long-term breakthroughs. But that doesn’t mean that the mystery of the proteome is solved completely. Not by a long shot.

As noted above, the complexity of the genome is nothing compared to that of the proteome at a fundamental level, but even with this major advance we have only scratched the surface of the latter. AlphaFold solves a very specific, though very important problem: given a sequence of amino acids, predict the 3D shape that sequence takes in reality. But proteins don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of a complex, dynamic system in which they are changing their conformation, being broken up and reformed, responding to conditions, the presence of elements or other proteins, and indeed then reshaping themselves around those.

In fact a great deal of the human proteins AlphaFold gave only a middling level of confidence to its predictions for may be fundamentally “disordered” proteins that are too variable to pin down the way a more static one can be (in which case the prediction would be validated as a highly accurate predictor for that type of protein). So the team has its work cut out for it.

“It’s time to start looking at new problems,” said Hassabis. “Of course, there are many, many new challenges. But the ones you mentioned, protein interaction, protein complexes, ligand binding, we’re working actually on all these things, and we have early, early stage projects on all those topics. But I do think it’s worth taking, you know, a moment to just talk about delivering this big step… it’s something that the computational biology community’s been working on for 20, 30 years, and I do think we have now broken the back of that problem.”

#alphabet, #alphafold, #artificial-intelligence, #bioinformatics, #biotech, #deepmind, #google, #protein-folding, #proteome, #science, #tc

An email sent by One Medical exposed hundreds of customers’ email addresses

Primary care company One Medical has apologized after it sent out an email that exposed hundreds of customers’ email addresses.

The email sent out by One Medical on Wednesday asked to “verify your email,” but one email seen by TechCrunch had more than 980 email addresses copied on the email. The cause: One Medical did not use the blind carbon copy (bcc:) field to mass email its customers, which would have hidden their email addresses from each other.

Several customers took to Twitter to complain, but also express sympathy for what was quickly chalked up to an obvious mistake. Some users reported varying numbers of email addresses on the email that they received.

We asked One Medical how many customers had their email addresses exposed and if the company plans to report the incident to state governments, as may be required under state data breach notification laws, but we did not immediately hear back.

In a brief statement posted to Twitter, One Medical acknowledged the mistake, said: “We are aware emails were sent to some of our members that exposed recipient email addresses. We apologize if this has caused you concern, but please rest assured that we have investigated the root cause of this incident and confirmed that this was not caused by a security breach of our systems. We will take all appropriate actions to prevent this from happening again.”

On the scale of security lapses, this one is fairly low down on the impact scale — compared to a breach of passwords, or financial and health data. But the exposure of email addresses can still be used to identify customers of the company.

The San Francisco-based One Medical, backed by Google’s parent company Alphabet, went public last year just prior to the start of the pandemic.

Read more:

#alphabet, #api, #computing, #data-breach, #email, #health, #microsoft, #one-medical, #outlook-com, #privacy, #san-francisco, #security, #webmail

Alphabet’s Wing launches OpenSky drone airspace authorization app in US

I love testing drones. It’s a lot of fun, and a nice way to mix up my standard review cycle. But I’ve altogether given up on testing them around here. Granted, living in Queens, NY presents a unique combination of obstacles, including population density, two major international airports and a prison – but restrictions have made it next to impossible to fly around here.

Knowing precisely where the nearest open airspace is can get tricky, particularly in large cities like New York. Today, Alphabet’s drone-delivery subsidiary Wing announced that it’s launching its OpenSky app in the U.S. on Google Play and the iOS App Store.

Image Credits: Wing

The app was launched in Australia back in 2019 for both hobbyist and commercial drone pilots, with help from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). The U.S. version was created with input from the FAA for operation in Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) airspaces.

Using the app, drone operators can request approval to operate in spaces like those around areas, expediting a process that would traditionally take days or weeks to go through.

“Why is a drone delivery company investing in an operator app?” Wing asks rhetorically in a blog post. “Because with nearly two million registered drones in the U.S. already, regulatory compliance of all drones will allow them to share the sky safely. Moreover, compliance will ultimately expand the uses and benefits of drones — among them emergency response, commercial inspections and contactless delivery — to more people.”

The app is available for users in the U.S. starting today.

 

#alphabet, #apps, #drone, #faa, #google, #wing

Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving arm, raises $2.5B in second external investment round

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project that is now a business unit under Alphabet, said Wednesday it raised $2.5 billion in its second outside funding round. The company said in a blog post it will use the funds to continue growing Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, and growing its team.

The round saw participation from existing investors Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, AutoNation, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Magna International, Mubadala Investment Company, Perry Creek Capital, Silver Lake, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., Temasek, and additional investor Tiger Global.

The news comes only a few months after former CEO John Krafcik announced in April that he was stepping down from leading the company after five years in the position. The CEO position is now being held jointly by Tekedra Mawakana, former COO, and Dmitri Dolgov, who joined the original self-driving project at Google and was CTO.

Krafcik led the company through its first external $2.25 billion investment round in March 2020. That round was later expanded by $700 million a few months later. But Krafcik could be a polarizing figure in the company, as TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec noted.

In addition to its Waymo One commercial ride-hailing service, which operates in the Metro Phoenix, Arizona area, the company has continued to build out its Waymo Via trucking and cargo transportation service. Earlier this month Waymo announced it was entering a “test run” with J.B. Hunt for transportation services between Houston and Fort Worth.

#alphabet, #andreessen-horowitz, #automotive, #autonomous-driving, #autonomous-transportation, #autonomous-trucking, #funding, #google, #tc, #transportation, #waymo

Experts from Toyota, Ford and Hyundai will discuss automotive robotics at TC Sessions: Mobility

The events of the past year have only served to accelerate interest in all things robotics and automation. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen across a broad range of categories, and automotive is certainly no different.

Of course, carmakers are no strangers to the world of robotics. Automation has long played a key role in manufacturing, and more recently, robotics have played another central role in the form of self-driving vehicles. For this panel, however, we’re going to look past those much-discussed categories. Of late, carmakers have been investing heavily to further fuel innovation in the category.

It’s a fascinating space – and one that covers a broad range of cross-sections, from TRI’s (Toyota) Woven City project to Ford’s recent creation of a research facility at U of M to Hyundai’s concept cars and acquisition of Boston Dynamics. At TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9, we will be joined by a trio of experts from those companies for what’s sure to be a lively discussion on the topic.

Max Bajracharya is Vice President of Robotics at Toyota Research Institute. Previously serving as its Director of Robotics, he leads TRI’s work in robotics. He previously served at Alphabet’s X, as part of the Google Robotics team.

Mario Santillo is a Technical Expert at Ford. Previously serving as a Research Engineer for the company, he’s charged with helping lead the company’s efforts at a recently announced $75 million research facility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The work includes both Ford’s own robotics work, as well as partnerships with startups like Agility.

Ernestine Fu is a director at Hyundai Motor Group. She heads development at the newly announced New Horizons Studio, a group tasked with creating Ultimate Mobility Vehicles (UMVs). She also serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, where she received a BS, MS, MBA and PhD.

Get ready to talk robots at TC Sessions: Mobility. Grab your passes right now for $125 and hear from today’s biggest mobility leaders before our prices go up at the door.

 

#alphabet, #boston-dynamics, #companies, #director, #engines, #ernestine-fu, #google, #hyundai-motor-group, #manufacturing, #max-bajracharya, #michigan, #new-horizons, #robot, #stanford-university, #tc, #toyota, #toyota-research-institute, #university-of-michigan

Skiff, an end-to-end encrypted alternative to Google Docs, raises $3.7M seed

Imagine if Google Docs was end-to-end encrypted so that not even Google could access your documents. That’s Skiff, in a nutshell.

Skiff is a document editor with a similar look and feel to Google Docs, allowing you to write, edit and collaborate in real-time with colleagues with privacy baked in. Because the document editor is built on a foundation of end-to-end encryption, Skiff doesn’t have access to anyone’s documents — only users, and those who are invited to collaborate, do.

It’s an idea that has already attracted the attention of investors. Skiff’s co-founders Andrew Milich (CEO) and Jason Ginsberg (CTO) announced today that the startup has raised $3.7 million in seed funding from venture firm Sequoia Capital, just over a year since Skiff was founded in March 2020. Alphabet chairman John Hennessy, former Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz also participated in the round.

Milich and Ginsberg told TechCrunch that the company will use the seed funding to grow the team and build out the platform.

Skiff isn’t that much different from WhatsApp or Signal, which are also end-to-end encrypted, underneath its document editor. “Instead of using it to send messages to a bunch of people, we’re using it to send little pieces of documents and then piecing those together into a collaborative workspace,” said Milich.

But the co-founders acknowledged that putting your sensitive documents in the cloud requires users to put a lot of trust into the startup, particularly one that hasn’t been around for long. That’s why Skiff published a whitepaper with technical details of how its technology works, and has begun to open source parts of its code, allowing anyone to see how the platform works. Milich said Skiff has also gone through at least one comprehensive security audit, and the company counts advisors from the Signal Foundation to Trail of Bits.

It seems to be working. In the months since Skiff soft-launched through an invite-only program, thousands of users — including journalists, research scientists and human rights lawyers — use Skiff every day, with another 8,000 users on a waitlist.

“The group of users that we’re most excited about are just regular people that care about privacy,” said Ginsberg. “There are just so many privacy communities and people that are advocates for these types of products that really care about how they’re built and have sort of lost trust in big companies.”

“They’re using us because they’re really excited about the vision and the future of end-to-end encryption,” he said.

#advisors, #alphabet, #ceo, #cryptography, #cto, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #eventbrite, #google, #google-allo, #google-docs, #jerry-yang, #john-hennessy, #kevin-hartz, #operating-systems, #security, #sequoia-capital, #signal-foundation, #skiff, #software, #startups, #technology, #yahoo

Google’s data terms are now in Germany’s competition crosshairs

Germany’s national competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt, has continued its investigative charge against big tech — announcing that it’s opened two proceedings into Google.

The move follows earlier proceedings targeting Amazon and Facebook — both of which are also looking to determine whether their businesses are of “paramount significance for competition across markets”, as German competition law puts it. (The regulator is also probing Facebook’s tying of Oculus to Facebook accounts.)

In Google’s case, one of the Bundeskartellamt’s new proceedings will confirm whether amended competition rules, which came into force in January, apply in its case — which would enable the FCO to target it with proactive interventions in the interests of fostering digital competition.

The second, parallel procedure will see the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) undertake an in-depth analysis of Google’s data processing terms in a move that looks intended to avoid wasting time — i.e. that its working assumption is that Google/Alphabet’s business meets the legal bar in the GWB Digitalisation Act.

By running the two Google procedures in parallel the German competition regulator will be in a position to act faster — assuming the first proceeding confirms it can indeed intervene.

The second probe running alongside would then identify potential problems to shape any intervention — with the FCO saying for example that it will look at whether Google/Alphabet “makes the use of services conditional on the users agreeing to the processing of their data without giving them sufficient choice as to whether, how and for what purpose such data are processed”.

It also says it will “examine the extent to which the terms provide Google with an opportunity to process data on an extensive cross-service basis” and will seek to clarify “how the company’s data processing policy applies to the processing of user data obtained from third-party websites and apps” (such as through Google’s advertising services).

Another key element of the proceeding will aim to establish what choice users actually have with regard to Google’s processing of their data, with the FCO noting that protecting consumer choice is a primary aim of competition law.

Given those point of focus it’s possible to imagine a future order from the FCO to Google could require it to simplify how it asks users for consent, to ensure genuine choice — and also shrink its ability to link first party user data with information obtained on people elsewhere online.

Commenting in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt said: “An ecosystem which extends across various markets may be an indication that a company holds such a market position [i.e. whether it is of paramount significance across markets]. It is often very difficult for other companies to challenge this position of power. Due to the large number of digital services offered by Google, such as the Google search engine, YouTube, Google Maps, the Android operating system or the Chrome browser, the company could be considered to be of paramount significance for competition across markets.”

“Google’s business model relies to a very large extent on processing data relating to its users. Due to its established access to data relevant for competition, Google enjoys a strategic advantage. We will therefore take a close look at the company’s data processing terms. A key question in this context is whether consumers wishing to use Google’s services have sufficient choice as to how Google will use their data,” he added.

Reached for comment on the FCO proceedings, Google said it will fully cooperate with the FCO’s process but rejected the charge that people are forced to use its services — further claiming in a statement attributed to spokesperson, Ralf Bremer, that it offers “simple controls” so people can “limit” its use of their information:

“People choose Google because it’s helpful, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives. German consumers have enormous choice online and we give people simple controls to manage their information and limit the use of personal data. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.”

The Bundeskartellamt‘s in-depth prove of Google’s data processing terms picks up on long running criticism that the tech giant relies on forced and/or manipulative consent from users to obtain their data. Whereas the pan-EU legal standard if consent is used as a legal basis to process people’s information is that it should be clear, informed and freely given.

Back in 2019 Google was fined $57M by France’s data protection watchdog under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) over a failure to provide “sufficiently clear” information to Android users when it sought their consent to use their data for targeted ads.

However, subsequent to the CNIL’s action, the tech giant limited its exposure to the privacy regulation by changing the legal jurisdiction of where it processes European users’ data to Ireland.

The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) then became Google’s lead data supervisor under the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism. And the DPC has not decided a single GDPR complaint against Google — though it has a number of open investigations. It continues to face high level criticism over its enforcement record on key cross-border cases against big tech.

The awakening of European competition regulators to the issue of how abuse of user privacy is an anti-competitive tactic that can lock in the dominance of digital giants by unfairly enabling them to grab and link people’s data is thus a very important development in the regulation of big tech — and one where the Bundeskartellamt has already been a pioneer.

In an earlier FCO ‘super profiling’ case against Facebook — which predates the amendments to national digital competition law — it ordered the social media behemoth not to combine user data from across its different products.

Facebook has sought to block the order in the German courts. And, back in March, the case was referred to Europe’s top court — meaning the FCO’s order to it remains on hold pending the CJEU’s ruling (which could take years to be handed down).

The FCO confirmed today that the Facebook case is still pending before the court, reiterating the decision of the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court to refer certain issues relating to the application of the GDPR to the European Court of Justice — which means that a decision on the merits of the case “can only be rendered after these issues have been clarified”.

The Bundeskartellamt’s investigation of Facebook’s data practices started all the way back in in March 2016. So it’s a safe bet that the regulator’s experience of digging into the detail of how tech giants process people’s data — and how hard it is to make cases stick against them — has helped inform the amendments to Germany’s competition law that introduce ex ante powers to tackle digital giants deemed to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets”.

Although there is still another waiting period baked in to this approach — as the regulator must first assess whether tech giants meet that legal bar.

The EU has proposed a similar ex ante approach for what it dubs as digital “gatekeepers”, under the Digital Markets Act, which it introduced at the end of last year.

Although with the bloc’s co-legislative process ongoing that regulation is likely some years away from adoption and pan-EU application — meaning Germany’s national law and the energetic FCO could be a significant actor in the meanwhile.

The EU’s competition commission are also digging into Google’s adtech practices — though they’re having to do so under existing powers, for now, which have been shown to be a painstakingly slow and not very effective route to tackle digital market power.

Elsewhere in Europe, the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, is also shaping its own an ex ante regime to curb the market power of digital giants. So regardless of political cross-currents in the region — and the problem of patchy privacy enforcement — there is growing consensus that European competition authorities must be empowered to step in proactively to tackle digital market abuses.

 

#advertising-tech, #alphabet, #andreas-mundt, #android, #bundeskartellamt, #competition-law, #digital-regulation, #europe, #european-court-of-justice, #european-union, #facebook, #france, #general-data-protection-regulation, #germany, #google, #ireland, #oculus, #policy, #privacy, #search-engine, #united-kingdom

Sidewalk Labs launches Pebble, a sensor that uses real-time data to manage city parking

Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban innovation organization, has announced the launch of Pebble, a vehicle sensor that’s designed to help manage parking in cities by providing real time parking and curb availability data.

Here’s how it works: small spherical sensors are stuck to the ground on parking spaces to note the absence or presence of a vehicle. Then solar-powered gateway hardware, which can be strapped easily to street poles, uses IoT to connect the sensor to the cloud through the cellular network. The data is then viewed and analyzed by real estate developers, parking operators or municipal agencies via a dashboard. 

Pebble doesn’t use cameras or collect identifying information about a person or vehicle, and is touting a “privacy preserving” approach. Sidewalk Labs has been relatively quiet since it shut down its $1.3 billion tech-enabled real estate project in Toronto amid privacy concerns a year ago. Rather than try to tackle large urban infrastructure projects, the company appears to be focusing its efforts on smaller scale solutions that can be used by private and public entities to improve cities. 

In October last year, Sidewalk Labs unveiled Delve, a design tool that uses machine learning to help developers, architects and planners to create optimal design plans for urban projects. Just a few weeks ago, Sidewalk Labs spinout Replica – an AI-powered data platform that uses machine learning to generate “synthetic” populations whose behaviors can be tracked in order to simulate plausible scenarios in the real world – secured $41 million in Series B funding

New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority relied on Replica during the pandemic to adapt its public transit schedule. Now, as the country begins to open up in earnest, those with a stake in parking and mobility, especially cities looking to unroll sustainable transport recovery plans, might consider using tools like Pebble’s to manage parking supplies effectively. 

Between 9% and 56% of traffic, and all the pollution that comes with it, is caused by people who are cruising for parking. Pebble says its real-time parking availability can be integrated into navigation apps, like Google Maps, through an API to help users spend less time circling the block.  

“Real-time parking information can also alert would-be drivers when spaces are limited before they even leave home, leading them to use alternative travel modes, such as park-and-ride transit or ferries,” wrote Sidewalk Labs’ senior creative technologist, Nick Jonas, in a blog post announcing the launch. “For example, a smart parking program at a BART park-and-ride station reduced driving by a monthly average of nearly 10 miles per person — and even shortened commutes.”

While cities could certainly benefit from a tool that could monitor curb and municipal parking, the effort involved could be enormous. Imagine a city like New York widely placing individual sensors to mark street parking spaces! It would be quite the job, not to mention difficult to define static parking spaces. Pebble says it is already working with pilot customers to manage tens of thousands of parking spaces, but it did not reply to a request for more information about whether or not any of those pilot customers are cities. 

In the blog post announcing the Pebble launch, Sidewalk Labs covers a range of potential use cases. City agencies that apply Pebble hardware to curbs can also gain insights on how to help businesses generate revenue by assigning relevant curb space for things like outdoor dining and applying flexible programs like dynamic pricing, which adjusts on-street parking rates based on supply and demand.

Pebble also says real estate developers can use its insights to create shared parking zones or build less parking if they can prove to cities that sufficient parking already exists to meet demand. 

While it seems more efficient parking would make for people relying further on cars, Sidewalk Labs says the opposite is true. Sidewalk Labs’ Senior Creative Technologist Nick Jonas says that Pebble can help “reduce driving and new parking in several ways,” including by helping real estate developers collect the data needed to provide compelling counterarguments for city ordinances requiring certain amounts of parking spots be built for new residential and office spaces.

“Pebble can help […] prove that parking demand can be met through existing spaces or shared parking zones, reducing the need to build new spaces,” Jonas said. And in terms of traffic generated by drivers searching for spots, Pebble can help by “facilitating direct navigation to a parking space,” which can make a dent in the “30 percent of traffic congestion that occurs from drivers for a parking space.”

On top of those infrastructure benefits, Jonas notes that Pebble can help with economic and convenience incentives that encourage commuters to opt for other methods of transit instead of driving.

“By facilitating dynamic pricing programs, Pebble can help cities “right-price” parking and encourage alternative travel modes,” he noted, adding that based on early data from pilots in the Bay Area, Pebble data including “direct navigation and real-time space availability data can also encourage people to use park-and-ride transit rather than driving all the way into an office.”

Much of the operating thesis upon which Sidewalks Labs is based is that cities would be able to run much more efficiently, effectively and safely if they can just address the existing data gaps and blindspots about how people actually live in, and navigate them. Pebble looks like it could be a key ingredient in help fill in the blanks for parking and garage usage.

#alphabet, #connected-city, #parking, #pebble, #sidewalk-labs, #smart-city, #transportation

Europe charges Apple with antitrust breach, citing Spotify App Store complaint

The European Commission has announced that it’s issued formal antitrust charges against Apple, saying today that its preliminary view is Apple’s app store rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers.

The Commission begun investigating competition concerns related to iOS App Store (and also Apple Pay) last summer.

“The Commission takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store,” it wrote today. “The Commission is also concerned that Apple applies certain restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

The statement of objections focuses on two rules that Apple imposes in its agreements with music streaming app developers: Namely the mandatory requirement to use its proprietary in-app purchase system (IAP) to distribute paid digital content (with the Commission noting that it charges a 30% commission fee on all such subscriptions bought via IAP); and ‘anti-steering provisions’ which limit the ability of developers to inform users of alternative purchasing options.

“The Commission’s investigation showed that most streaming providers passed this fee [Apple’s 30% cut] on to end users by raising prices,” it wrote, adding: “While Apple allows users to use music subscriptions purchased elsewhere, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper. The Commission is concerned that users of Apple devices pay significantly higher prices for their music subscription services or they are prevented from buying certain subscriptions directly in their apps.”

Commenting in a statement, EVP and competition chief Margrethe Vestager, added: “App stores play a central role in today’s digital economy. We can now do our shopping, access news, music or movies via apps instead of visiting websites. Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

Apple sent us this statement in response:

“Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud for the role we played in that. Spotify does not pay Apple any commission on over 99% of their subscribers, and only pays a 15% commission on those remaining subscribers that they acquired through the App Store. At the core of this case is Spotify’s demand they should be able to advertise alternative deals on their iOS app, a practice that no store in the world allows. Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.”

Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, has also responded to the news of the Commission’s charges against Apple with a jubilant tweet — writing: “Today is a big day. Fairness is the key to competition… we are one step closer to creating a level playing field, which is so important for the entire ecosystem of European developers.”

Vestager is due to hold a press conference shortly — so stay tuned for updates.

This story is developing… 

A number of complaints against Apple’s practices have been lodged with the EU’s competition division in recent years — including by music streaming service Spotify; video games maker Epic Games; and messaging platform Telegram, to name a few of the complainants who have gone public (and been among the most vocal).

The main objection is over the (up to 30%) cut Apple takes on sales made through third parties’ apps — which critics rail against as an ‘Apple tax’ — as well as how it can mandate that developers do not inform users how to circumvent its in-app payment infrastructure, i.e. by signing up for subscriptions via their own website instead of through the App Store. Other complaints include that Apple does not allow third party app stores on iOS.

Apple, meanwhile, has argued that its App Store does not constitute a monopoly. iOS’ global market share of mobile devices is a little over 10% vs Google’s rival Android OS — which is running on the lion’s share of the world’s mobile hardware. But monopoly status depends on how a market is defined by regulators (and if you’re looking at the market for iOS apps then Apple has no competitors).

The iPhone maker also likes to point out that the vast majority of third party apps pay it no commission (as they don’t monetize via in-app payments). While it argues that restrictions on native apps are necessary to protect iOS users from threats to their security and privacy.

Last summer the European Commission said its App Store probe was focused on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, as well as restrictions applied on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.

It also said it was investigating Apple Pay: Looking at the T&Cs and other conditions Apple imposes for integrating its payment solution into others’ apps and websites on iPhones and iPads, and also on limitations it imposes on others’ access to the NFC (contactless payment) functionality on iPhones for payments in stores.

The EU’s antitrust regulator also said then that it was probing allegations of “refusals of access” to Apple Pay.

In March this year the UK also joined the Apple App Store antitrust investigation fray — announcing a formal investigation into whether it has a dominant position and if it imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers using its app store.

US lawmakers have, meanwhile, also been dialling up attention on app stores, plural — and on competition in digital markets more generally — calling in both Apple and Google for questioning over how they operate their respective mobile app marketplaces in recent years.

Last month, for example, the two tech giants’ representatives were pressed on whether their app stores share data with their product development teams — with lawmakers digging into complaints against Apple especially that Cupertino frequently copies others’ apps, ‘sherlocking’ their businesses by releasing native copycats (as the practice has been nicknamed).

Back in July 2020 the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook himself — and went on, in a hefty report on competition in digital markets, to accuse Apple of leveraging its control of iOS and the App Store to “create and enforce barriers to competition and discriminate against and exclude rivals while preferencing its own offerings”.

“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the report went on. “Apple has maintained its dominance due to the presence of network effects, high barriers to entry, and high switching costs in the mobile operating system market.”

The report did not single Apple out — also blasting Google-owner Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook for abusing their market power. And the Justice Department went on to file suit against Google later the same month. So, over in the U.S., the stage is being set for further actions against big tech. Although what, if any, federal charges Apple could face remains to be seen.

At the same time, a number of state-level tech regulation efforts are brewing around big tech and antitrust — including a push in Arizona to relieve developers from Apple and Google’s hefty cut of app store profits.

While an antitrust bill introduced by Republican Josh Hawley earlier this month takes aim at acquisitions, proposing an outright block on big tech’s ability to carry out mergers and acquisitions. Although that bill looks unlikely to succeed, a flurry of antitrust reform bills are set to introduced as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grapple with how to cut big tech down to a competition-friendly size.

In Europe lawmakers are already putting down draft laws with the same overarching goal.

In the EU, the Commission recently proposed an ex ante regime to prevent big tech from abusing its market power. The Digital Markets Act is set to impose conditions on intermediating platforms who are considered ‘gatekeepers’ to others’ market access.

While over in the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, the government is also drafting new laws in response to tech giants’ market power. It has said it intends to create a ‘pro-competition’ regime that will apply to platforms with so-called  ‘strategic market status’ — but instead of a set list of requirements it wants to target specific measures per platform.

#alphabet, #android, #antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-pay, #competition, #digital-markets, #epic-games, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #google, #ios, #ios-app-store, #ipad, #iphone, #lawsuit, #margrethe-vestager, #mobile-devices, #operating-system, #policy, #spotify, #tc, #tim-cook

Big tech earnings in fewer than 500 words

This afternoon Alphabet and Microsoft and Pinterest reported their quarterly earnings results for the first three months of 2021. Microsoft and Pinterest have rapidly lost value after reporting their results, while Alphabet appreciated after its own earnings download.

Sparing you a deluge of numbers, here’s what TechCrunch is pondering from each report in as few words as possible:

  • Alphabet’s earnings were strong across a number of fronts; investors cheered. YouTube revenue grew nearly 50% to $6.0 billion, search ads performed well, and even the infamously unprofitable “Other Bets” ground managed to post nearly $200 million in revenue. But the most notable result from the technology conglomerate was its cloud results. Google Cloud grew from $2.777 billion in revenue and an operating loss of $1.73 billion in the year-ago quarter to revenues of $4.047 billion and an operating loss of just $974 million. The Mountain View-based agglomeration of tech services is building not only a material revenue stream out of a non ad-based product, but one that could generate material operating income in time. If trends hold.
  • Microsoft’s earnings report was pretty good despite Wall Street disinterest. Microsoft grew 17% from its year-ago quarter while pushing its operating income up 31% to $17.0 billion; faster growing income compared to revenue is indicative of operating leverage. The company’s net income actually grew even more rapidly than its operating income, which is sharper than expected. Azure, the company’s Google Cloud and AWS competitor, grew 50% in the quarter which met expectations per CNBC. Microsoft remains incredibly rich, and its most future-looking products put up some pretty big numbers. Not bad!
  • Pinterest posted a monster quarter. Wall Street was not impressed. Pinterest’s Q1 2021 revenue of $485.230 million was up 78% compared to the year-ago quarter, the company cut its net loss from $141.196 million to $21.674 at the same time, and its non-GAAP net income rose from -$59.916 million to $78.527 during the first three months of the year. The result of this wildly impressive quarter? Its shares are off more than 8%. One reason Pinterest may have dropped is that the company missed on monthly active users (478 million reported, 480.5 million expected), and warned that it would see “sequential operating expense growth […] accelerate in Q2.” But with the company anticipating 105% revenue growth in the current quarter and mid-teens MAU growth in the same period, it’s hard to be that mad at the company. Unless we’re missing something major here, Pinterest is being punished by investors who simply expected even more?

And there you have it, a very quick catch up. I am not supposed to cover earnings much anymore, but while you can take the pig from the shit, it’s hard to get the pig to not blog about earnings!

 

#alphabet, #azure, #earnings, #google, #microsoft, #pinterest

Alphabet’s CapitalG leads $40 million round in fintech Mantl

Community banks and credit unions aim to be the heart of the, well, communities, they serve. But without the big budgets of larger institutions, keeping up technology-wise can be a challenge. And not only are they competing with legacy players, there is also a slew of digital banks that have emerged in recent years, as well.

Enter Mantl, a startup that has developed technology to make it easier for people to open accounts digitally at community banks and credit unions so that those institutions can increase deposits and ultimately, profits. Founded in 2016, New York-based Mantl has been described by some as “the Shopify of account opening.” 

Community banks and credit unions make up a big percentage of all banking institutions, which means Mantl’s market opportunity is pretty darn large. The fintech’s revenue increased by 213% in 2020 as financial institutions clamored to meet increased demand for digital offerings from consumers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And today, the company is announcing it has raised $40 million in a Series B round of funding led by Alphabet’s independent growth fund, CapitalG, to help it grow even more. The financing brings Mantl’s total funding raised since inception to $60.7 million and included participation from D1 Capital Partners, BoxGroup and existing backers Point72 Ventures, Clocktower Technology Ventures and OldSlip Group. The company raised $19 million last July after growing deposit volume by 705% in April of that year.

The startup declined to reveal hard revenue figures.

Mantl originally set out to build its own challenger bank, but in doing so realized there are 10,000 banks and credit unions in the U.S., and that 96% of them outsourced their technology to third-party legacy vendors such as Fiserv and Jack Henry, many of which have technology that is in some cases “decades old,” according to Nathaniel Harley, co-founder and CEO at Mantl.

Such outdated technology has kept many financial institutions such as community banks and credit unions from competing online, and also limits the digital banking options available to consumers, the company said.

So the company pivoted, based on the premise that most community banks and credit unions are critical to maintaining competition and equity in the United States’ financial system. 

“At a high level, Mantl is an enterprise software company that is really focused on helping traditional financial institutions modernize and grow,” Harley told TechCrunch. “Our mission at the end of the day is to really expand the access to financial services by taking on the legacy infrastructure, which has really hindered access to digital banking.”

The company claims that its white-labeled account opening software allows banks and customers “to open an account from anywhere at any time, on any device in less than three minutes.” 

Through its flagship account opening software, Mantl claims to have helped community institutions — many of which are competing online for the first time — establish efficient and profitable digital operations. Among the community banks it works with are Cross River Bank, Quontic and Midwest BankCentre

“Banks are naturally very risk averse, and we need to build in order to fully take on that full infrastructure that they’re working in,” Harley said. “Account opening is low risk, but it’s also extremely high value considering that less than 50% of banks actually have online account opening today.”

Mantl integrates directly into the legacy infrastructure, also known as a core banking system, in order to enhance that system and help institutions launch digital products quickly. 

The company says its software also automates application decisioning for over 90% of cases while also reducing fraud by more than 60%. This results in deposit growth that’s “typically 4x faster than other solutions on the market and up to 10x more cost-effective than building a new branch,” the company said. 

Combined, the institutions it works with have onboarded hundreds of thousands of new customers and raised billions of dollars in core deposits, the company claims. 

“We’re challenging the legacy infrastructure that is holding community institutions back,” Harley said,” and we see account opening as just the beginning.”

The startup plans to use its new capital to do some hiring and expand its product offerings, including software that it says would be able to improve and digitize the onboarding experience for not just financial institutions but businesses of all sizes, from sole proprietors to complex commercial enterprises.

CapitalG partner Jesse Wedler shares Mantl’s belief that banks form the backbone of this nation’s economy, both on a local and national level. 

While digitization has long been a priority for banks, it has become an urgent imperative as branches close and digital disruptors grow,” he said.

As CapitalG reviewed the landscape of companies helping banks with digital transformation, Mantl stood out, Wedler said, due to its “user experience, resulting deposit growth and time-to-value for banks of all sizes.”

But what has his firm most excited, he added, is the team’s vision for “transforming adjacent core banking applications.”

Since its founding in 2013, CapitalG has invested in a number of fintechs, including MX, Stripe, Robinhood, Credit Karma, Albert, Aye Finance and LendingClub. 

#alphabet, #aye-finance, #bank, #banking, #capitalg, #cross-river-bank, #d1-capital-partners, #digital-banking, #enterprise-software, #finance, #financial-services, #fintech, #mantl, #new-york, #point72-ventures, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

Apple invests $50M into music distributor UnitedMasters alongside A16z and Alphabet

Independent music distribution platform and tool factory UnitedMasters has raised a $50M series B round led by Apple. A16z and Alphabet are participating again in this raise. United Masters is also entering a strategic partnership with Apple alongside this investment. 

If you’re unfamiliar with UnitedMasters, it’s a distribution company launched in 2017 by Steve Stoute, a former Interscope and Sony Music executive. The focus of UnitedMasters is to provide artists with a direct pipeline to data around the way that fans are interacting with their content and community, allowing them to connect more directly to offer tickets, merchandise and other commercial efforts. UnitedMasters also generally allows artists to retain control of their own masters.

Neither of these conditions are at all typical in the music industry. In a typical artist deal, recording companies retain all audience and targeting data as well as masters. This limits an artist’s ability to be agile, taking advantage of new technologies to foster a community. 

While Apple does invest in various companies, it typically does so out of its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to promote US manufacturing or strategically in partners that make critical components of its hardware like silicon foundries or glass manufacturing. Apple does a lot more purchasing than investing, typically, buying a company every few weeks or so to supplement one product effort or another. UnitedMasters, then, would be a relatively unique partnership, especially in the music space. 

I spoke to UnitedMasters CEO Steve Stoute about the deal and what it means for the businesses 1M current artists and new ones. Stoute credits Apple executive Eddy Cue having a philosophy aligned with the UnitedMasters vision with getting this deal done. 

“We want all artists to have the same opportunity,” says Stoute. “Currently, independent artists have less opportunity for success and we’re trying to remove that stigma.”

This infusion, Stoute says, will be used to hire talent that are mission oriented to take UnitedMasters global. They’re seeking local technical talent and artists talent to build out the platform worldwide. 

“Every artist needs access to a CTO,” Stoute says. “Some of the value of what a manager is today for an artist needs to be transferred to that role.”

UnitedMasters wants to provide that technical edge at scale, allowing artists to build out their fanbase at a community level.

Currently, UnitedMasters has deals with the NBA, ESPN, TikTok, Twitch and others that allow artists to tap big brand deals that would normally be brokered by a label and manager. It also has a direct distribution app that allows publishing to all of the major streaming services. Most importantly, they can check stream, fan and earnings data at a glance. 

“Steve Stoute and UnitedMasters provide creators with more opportunities to advance their careers and bring their music to the world,” said Apple’s Eddy Cue in a release statement. “The contributions of independent artists play a significant role in driving the continued growth and success of the music industry, and UnitedMasters, like Apple, is committed to empowering creators.”

“UnitedMasters has completely transformed the way artists create, retain ownership in their work, and connect with their fans,” said Ben Horowitz, Co-Founder and General Partner of Andreessen Horowitz in a release. “We are excited to work with Steve and team to build a better, bigger, and far more profitable world for musical artists.” 

We are currently at an inflection point in the way that artists and fans connect with one another. Though there have been seemingly endless ways for artists to get their messages out or speak to fans using social media and other platforms, the actual business of distributing work to a community and making money from that work has been out of their hands completely since the beginning of the recording industry. Recent developments like NFTs, DAOs and social tokens, as well as an explosion of DTC frameworks have begun to re-write that deal. But the major players have yet to make the truly aggressive strides they need to in order to embrace this ‘artist centric’ new world. 

The mechanics of distribution have been based on a framework defined by DRM and the DMCA for decades. This framework was always marketed as a way to protect value for the artist but was in fact architected to protect value for the distributor. We need a rethinking of the entire distribution layer.

As I mentioned when reporting the UnitedMasters + TikTok deal, it’s going to be instrumental in a more equitable future for artists:

It’s beyond time for the creators of The Culture to benefit from that culture. That’s why I find this UnitedMasters deal so interesting. Offering a direct pipeline to audiences without the attendant vulture-ism of the recording industry apparatus is really well-aligned with a platform like TikTok, which encourages and enables “viral sounds” with collaborative performances. Traditional deal structures are not well-suited to capturing viral hype, which can rise and fall within weeks without additional fuel.

In music, Apple is at the center of this maelstrom along with a few other major players like Spotify. One of the big misses in recent years for Apple Music, in my opinion, was Apple’s failure to turn Apple Music Connect into an industry-standard portal that allowed artists to connect broadly with fans, distribute directly, sell tickets and merchandise but — most importantly — to foster and own their community. 

A UnitedMasters tie up isn’t a straight line to that goal, but it’s definitely got the ingredients. I’m looking forward to seeing what this produces. 

Image Credits: Steve Stoute

#advanced-manufacturing-fund, #alphabet, #andreessen-horowitz, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-music, #apple-store, #artist, #ben-horowitz, #ceo, #co-founder, #companies, #cto, #eddy-cue, #espn, #executive, #general-partner, #manufacturing, #music-industry, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #operating-systems, #social-media, #software, #sony-music, #spotify, #steve-stoute, #streaming-services, #tc, #twitch, #united-states, #unitedmasters

Bias, subtweets, and kids: Key takeaways from Big Tech’s latest outing on the Hill

There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from... a kitchen.

Enlarge / There was no fancy Hill hearing room for this all-virtual event, so Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dialed in from… a kitchen. (credit: Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

A trio of major tech CEOs—Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey—once again went before Congress this week to explain their roles in the social media ecosystem. The hearing nominally focused on disinformation and extremism, particularly in the wake of the January 6 events at the US Capitol. But as always, the members asking the questions frequently ventured far afield.

The hearing focused less on specific posts than previous Congressional grillings, but it was mainly an exercise in people talking to plant their stakes. Considered in totality, fairly little of substance was accomplished during the hearing’s lengthy six-hour runtime.

Nonetheless, a few important policy nuggets did manage to come up.

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#alphabet, #congress, #facebook, #google, #hearings, #jack-dorsey, #mark-zuckerberg, #policy, #sundar-pichai, #twitter, #youtube

Orca Security raises $210M Series C at a unicorn valuation

Orca Security, an Israeli cybersecurity startup that offers an agent-less security platform for protecting cloud-based assets, today announced that it has raised a $210 million Series C round at a $1.2 billion valuation. The round was led by Alphabet’s independent growth fund CapitalG and Redpoint Ventures. Existing investors GGV Capital, ICONIQ Growth and angel syndicate Silicon Valley CISO Investment also participated. YL Ventures, which led Orca’s seed round and participated in previous rounds, is not participating in this round — and it’s worth noting that the firm recently sold its stake in Axonius after that company reached unicorn status.

If all of this sounds familiar, that may be because Orca only raised its $55 million Series B round in December, after it announced its $20.5 million Series A round in May. That’s a lot of funding rounds in a short amount of time, but something we’ve been seeing more often in the last year or so.

Orca Security co-founders Gil Geron (left) and Avi Shua (right). Image Credits: Orca Security

As Orca co-founder and CEO Avi Shua told me, the company is seeing impressive growth and it — and its investors — want to capitalize on this. The company ended last year beating its own forecast from a few months before, which he noted was already aggressive, by more than 50%. Its current slate of customers includes Robinhood, Databricks, Unity, Live Oak Bank, Lemonade and BeyondTrust.

“We are growing at an unprecedented speed,” Shua said. “We were 20-something people last year. We are now closer to a hundred and we are going to double that by the end of the year. And yes, we’re using this funding to accelerate on every front, from dramatically increasing the product organization to add more capabilities to our platform, for post-breach capabilities, for identity access management and many other areas. And, of course, to increase our go-to-market activities.”

Shua argues that most current cloud security tools don’t really work in this new environment. Many, because they are driven by metadata, can only detect a small fraction of the risks, and agent-based solutions may take months to deploy and still not cover a business’ entire cloud estate. The promise of Orca Security is that it can not only cover a company’s entire range of cloud assets but that it is also able to help security teams prioritize the risks they need to focus on. It does so by using what the company calls its “SideScanning” technology, which allows it to map out a company’s entire cloud environment and file systems.

“Almost all tools are essentially just looking at discrete risk trees and not the forest. The risk is not just about how pickable the lock is, it’s also where the lock resides and what’s inside the box. But most tools just look at the issues themselves and prioritize the most pickable lock, ignoring the business impact and exposure — and we change that.”

It’s no secret that there isn’t a lot of love lost between Orca and some of its competitors. Last year, Palo Alto Networks sent Orca Security a sternly worded letter (PDF) to stop it from comparing the two services. Shua was not amused at the time and decided to fight it. “I completely believe there is space in the markets for many vendors, and they’ve created a lot of great products. But I think the thing that simply cannot be overlooked, is a large company that simply tries to silence competition. This is something that I believe is counterproductive to the industry. It tries to harm competition, it’s illegal, it’s unconstitutional. You can’t use lawyers to take your competitors out of the media.”

Currently, though, it doesn’t look like Orca needs to worry too much about the competition. As GGV Capital managing partner Glenn Solomon told me, as the company continues to grow and bring in new customers — and learn from the data it pulls in from them — it is also able to improve its technology.

“Because of the novel technology that Avi and [Orca Security co-founder and CPO] Gil [Geron] have developed — and that Orca is now based on — they see so much. They’re just discovering more and more ways and have more and more plans to continue to expand the value that Orca is going to provide to customers. They sit in a very good spot to be able to continue to leverage information that they have and help DevOps teams and security teams really execute on good hygiene in every imaginable way going forward. I’m super excited about that future.”

As for this funding round, Shua noted that he found CapitalG to be a “huge believer” in this space and an investor that is looking to invest into the company for the long run (and not just trying to make a quick buck). The fact that CapitalG is associated with Alphabet was obviously also a draw.

“Being associated with Alphabet, which is one of the three major cloud providers, allowed us to strengthen the relationship, which is definitely a benefit for Orca,” he said. “During the evaluation, they essentially put Orca in front of the security leadership at Google. Definitely, they’ve done their own very deep due diligence as part of that.”

#alphabet, #analytics, #axonius, #capitalg, #cloud, #cybersecurity-startup, #enterprise, #ggv-capital, #identity-access-management, #orca-security, #recent-funding, #redpoint-ventures, #security, #startups, #tc, #yl-ventures

Google tells harassment victims to take “medical leave,” report finds

Sunset, over the Google empire.

Enlarge / Sunset, over the Google empire. (credit: 400tmax | Getty Images)

A new report alleges that Google employees who report experiencing gender or racial harassment or discrimination routinely get told to take “medical leave” and seek mental health treatment—only to be shoved aside when they try to come back.

Nearly a dozen current and former Google employees told NBC News that company HR told instructed to seek mental health treatment or take medical leave “after colleagues made comments about their skin color or Black hairstyles, or asked if they were sexually interested in their teammates.” Another dozen current and former Google employees told NBC the practice is common within the company.

“I can think of 10 people that I know of in the last year that have gone on mental health leave because of the way they were treated,” one former Google employee told NBC News. He himself had taken medical leave “after he said he had numerous unproductive conversations with human resources about how his colleagues discussed race.”

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#alphabet, #biz-it, #discrimination, #gaslighting, #gender-discrimination, #google, #policy, #race-discrimination, #racism, #sex-discrimination, #sexism