United Airlines is making COVID-19 tests available to passengers, powered in part by Color

There’s still no clear path back to any sense of ‘business-as-usual’ as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, but United Airlines is embarking on a new pilot project to see if easy access to COVID-19 testing immediately prior to a flight can help ease freedom of mobility. The airline will offer COVID-19 tests (either rapid tests at the airport, or mail-in at home tests prior to travel) to passengers flying from SFO in San Francisco to Hawaiian airpots, beginning on October 15.

United worked directly with the Hawaiian government and health regulators to meet the state’s requirements when it comes to quarantine measures, so that travellers who return a negative result with this pre-trip tests won’t have to observe the mandatory quarantine period in place upon their arrival. That’s obviously a major barrier to travel to a popular tourist destination like Hawaii, since a two-week quarantine eats up all or more of the typical period of stay for anyone coming from the mainland.

The airline has partnered with two companies to provide the tests: Color for the at-home kit, which is ordered by a physician and provides results within 1-2 days of receiving the sample, and GoHealth Urgent Care, which will be provided the on-site tests at the airport using the Abbot ID NOW rapid COVID-19 test that returns results in just 15 minutes.

If passengers choose the Color option, they’re advised to request the test kit at least 10 days before they fly, and then to provide their sample for testing within 72 hours before they fly, in order to ensure first that they receive the sample kit in time, and second that the results are recent enough that it’s extremely unlikely they’ve contracted COVID-19 in the ensuing time prior to their flight. Passengers choosing this method can even return the sample via a drop box at SFO, with the results arriving after their landing, but still curtailing their mandatory quarantine period once received.

The on-site option will require scheduling a visit to the testing facility in SFO’s international terminal in advance, with tests available between 9 AM to 6 PM PT every day at the airport.

This is just a pilot program, and that’s a very good thing, because it will be crucially important to see what happens as a result of this kind of deployment, and its ability to skip the quarantine period. The two-week quarantine after travelling, which is fairly widely adopted globally at this stage in the pandemic, is intentionally meant to apply in most locations regardless of test results, no matter the source or recency.

That’s because at this stage in testing, the results aren’t anywhere near foolproof – testing has potentially less efficacy at detecting COVID-19 in asymptomatic individuals, for instance, and when viral loads aren’t yet high enough to provide reliable measurement. Those situations can result in false negatives, which isn’t an issue when the 14-day quarantine periods are mandatory and universal.

Tourism, especially domestic U.S. tourism, is vital to the economic wellbeing of states like Hawaii – and widespread testing could be a lever to open up more of this kind of economic activity both elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally. But it’ll require close and careful study, scrutinized by health professionals, as well as improvements in the accuracy and consistency of diagnostics before these measure should expand beyond the pilot stage.

#aerospace, #airline, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #gohealth, #hawaii, #health, #medicine, #physician, #prevention, #quarantine, #san-francisco, #tc, #united-airlines, #united-states

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CDC removes updated guidelines around COVID-19 aerosol transmission, but this expert explains why it should reverse the reversal

Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, I got the chance to speak to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economists who is a Senior Fellow of the Federation of American Scientists. Dr. Feigl-Ding has been a frequent and vocal critic of some of the most profound missteps of regulators, public health organizations and the current White House administration, and we discussed specifically the topic of aerosol transmission and its notable absence from existing guidance in the U.S.

At the time, neither of us knew that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would publish updated guidance on its website over this past weekend that provided descriptions of aerosol transmission, and a concession that it’s likely a primary vector for passing on the virus that leads to COVID-19 – or that the CDC would subsequently revert said guidance, removing this updated information about aerosol transmission that’s more in line with the current state of widely accepted COVID research. The CDC cited essentially an issue where someone at the organization pushed a draft version of guidelines to production – but the facts it had shared in the update lined up very closely with what Dr. Feigl-Ding had been calling for.

“The fact that we haven’t highlighted aerosol transmission as much, up until recently, is woefully, woefully frustrating,” he said during our interview last Wednesday. “Other countries who’ve been much more technologically savvy about the engineering aspects of aerosols have been ahead of the curve – like Japan, they assume that this virus is aerosol and airborne. And aerosol means that the droplets are these micro droplets that can float in the air, they don’t get pulled down by gravity […] now we know that the aerosols may actually be the main drivers. And that means that if someone coughs, sings, even breathes, it can in the air, the micro droplets can stay in the air from anywhere from, for stagnant air for up to16 hours, but normally with ventilation, between 20 minutes to four hours. And that air, if you enter it into a room after someone was there, you can still get infected, and that is what makes indoor dining and bars and restaurants so frustrating.”

Dr. Feigl-Ding points to a number of recent contact tracing studies as providing strong evidence that these indoor activities, and the opportunity they provide for aerosol transmission, are leading to a large number of infections. Such studies were featured in a report the CDC prepared on reopening advice, which was buried by the Trump administration according to an AP report from May.

“The latest report shows that indoor dining bars restaurants are the leading leading factors for transmission, once you do contact tracing,” he said, noting that this leads naturally to the big issues around schools reopening, including that many have “very poor ventilation,” while simultaneously they’re not able to open their windows or doors due to gun safety protocols in place. Even before this recent CDC guideline take-back, Dr. Feigl-Ding was clearly frustrated with the way the organization appears to be succumbing to politicization of what is clearly an issue of a large and growing body of scientific evidence and fact.

“The CDC has long been the most respected agency in the world for public health, but now it’s been politically muzzled,” he said. “Previously, for example, the guidelines around church attendance – the CDC advised against church gatherings, but then it was overruled. And it was clearly overruled, because we actually saw it changed in live time. […] In terms of schools, gatherings, it’s clear [that] keeping kids in a pod is not enough, given what we know about ventilation.”

#chemistry, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #japan, #occupational-safety-and-health, #tc, #transmission, #trump-administration, #united-states, #white-house

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Outschool, newly profitable, raises a $45M Series B for virtual small group classes

Outschool, which started in 2015 as a platform for homeschooled students to bolster their extracurricular activities, has dramatically widened its customer base since the coronavirus pandemic began.The platform saw its total addressable market increase dramatically as students went home or campus to abide by COVID regulations instituted by the CDC.

Suddenly, live, small-group online learning classes became a necessity for students. Outschool’s services, which range from engineering lessons through Lego challenges to Spanish teaching by Taylor Swift songs, are now high in demand.

“When the CDC warned that school closures may be required, they talked about ‘internet-based tele-schooling,’” co-founder Amir Nathoo said. “We realized they meant classes over video chat, which is exactly what we offer.”

From August 2019 to August 2020, the online educational class service saw a more than 2,000% increase in bookings. But the surge isn’t just a crop of free users piling atop the platform. Outschool’s sales this year are around $54 million, compared to $6.5 million the year prior. It turned its first profit as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and is making more than $100 million in annual run rate.

While the profitability and growth could be a signal of the COVID-19 era, today Outschool got a vote of confidence that it isn’t just a pandemic-era boom. Today, Jennifer Carolan of Reach Capital announced at TechCrunch Disrupt that Outschool has raised a $45 million Series B round, bringing its total known capital to $55 million.

The round was led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with participation from Reach Capital, Union Square Ventures, SV Angel, FundersClub, Y Combinator and others.

The cash gives Outschool the chance to grow its 60-person staff, which started at 25 people this year.

Founder Amir Nathoo was programming computer games from the age of five. So when it came to starting his own company, creating a platform that helped other kids do the same felt right.

In 2015, Nathoo grabbed Mikhail Seregine, who helped build Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys, and Nick Grandy, a product manager at Clever, another edtech company and YC alum. The trio drummed up a way to help students access experiences they don’t get in school.

To gauge interest, the company tried in-person classes in the SF Bay area, online content and tested across hundreds of families. Finally, they started working with homeschoolers as an early adopter audience, all to see if people would pay for non-traditional educational experiences.

“Homeschooling was interesting to us because we believed that if some new approach is going to change our education system radically for the better, it was likely that it would start outside the existing system,” Nathoo said.

He added that he observed that the homeschooling community had more flexibility around self-directed extracurricular activities. Plus, those families had a bigger stake in finding live, small-group instruction, to embed in days. The idea landed them a spot in Y Combinator in 2016, and, upon graduation, a $1.4 million seed round led by Collab+Sesame.

“We’d all been on group video calls with work, but we hadn’t seen this format of learning in K12 before,” he said. Outschool began rolling out live, interactive classes in small groups. It took off quickly. Sales grew from $500,000 in 2017 to over $6 million in 2019.

The strategy gave Outschool an opportunity to raise a Series A from Reach Capital, an edtech-focused venture capital fund, in May 2019. They began thinking outwards, past homeschooling families: what if a family with a kid in school wants extra activities, snuck in afterschool, on weekends or on holidays?

Today feels remarkably different for the startup, and edtech more broadly. Nathoo says that 87% of parents who purchase classes on Outschool have kids in school. The growth of Outschool’s total addressable market comes with a new set of challenges and goals.

When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Now, its marketplace hosts 10,000 teachers, all of whom have to get screened.

“That has been a big challenge,” he said. “We aren’t an open marketplace, so we had to rapidly scale our supply and quality team within our organization.” While that back-end work is time-consuming and challenging, the NPS score from students has remained high, Nathoo noted.

Outschool has a number of competitors in the live learning space. Juni Learning, for example, sells live small-group classes on coding and science. The company raised $7.5 million, led by Forerunner Ventures, and has around $10 million in ARR. Note earlier that Outschool is at $100 million in ARR.

“We provide a much broader range of learning options than Juni, which is focused just on coding classes,” Nathoo said. Outschool currently lists more than 50,000 classes on its website.

Varsity Tutors is another Outschool competitor, which is more similar to Outschool. Varsity Tutors sells online tutoring and large-group classes in core subjects such as Math and English. Nathoo says that Outschool’s differentiation remains in its focus of small-group teaching and a variety of topics.

As for what’s ahead for Outschool, Nathoo flirts with the idea of contradiction: what if the platform goes in schools?

“When I think about our strategy going forward, I think of new types of classes, international embedding and embedding ourselves back into school,” he said.

Outschool might use its growing consumer business as an engine to get into school districts, which are notoriously difficult to land deals with due to small budgets. But, to Nathoo, it’s important to get into schools to increase access to learning.

“Our vision is to build a global education community that supplements local school,” he said.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #disrupt-2020, #education, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #outschool, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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Jennifer Doudna sees CRISPR gene-editing tech as a Swiss Army knife for COVID-19 and beyond

Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, thinks the biotech tool could be an essential one for combating COVID-19 and future pandemics. Due to its capacity to be “reprogrammed” like software, CRISPR could eventually be integral to countless tests and treatments.

In an interview at Disrupt 2020, Doudna was all optimism for the technique, which has already proven to be extremely useful in less immediately applicable situations.

“One thing that’s so intriguing about the whole CRISPR technology, it’s a toolbox and there’s many ways to repurpose it for manipulating genomes, but also for detection, even getting virus materials and the kinds of reagents that you need for an effective vaccine,” she explained.

This is all because of CRISPR’s main asset: its ability to home in on incredibly specific sequences or structures and manipulate them. Certainly one way to use that is to snip out a potentially harmful bit of DNA, but that bit could also be amplified for easy detection.

“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and re-purposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” Doudna said.

The advantages CRISPR offers are threefold, Doudna explained: first, it’s a “direct” method of detection. Current tests rely on enzymes and proteins that are indirect evidence of infection, which limits their reliability and timing — you can’t, for instance, detect the virus before it starts producing that secondary evidence. CRISPR detects RNA from the viral genome itself.

“We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus,” she said.

Second, the sequence that the CRISPR complex searches for can easily be changed. “That means that scientists can reprogram the CRISPR system trivially, to target different sections of the Coronavirus to make sure that we’re not missing viruses that have mutated,” Doudna said. “We’re already working on a strategy to co-detect influenza and coronavirus; As you know it’s really important to be able to do that, but also to pivot very quickly to detect new viruses that are emerging.”

Very long GIF of a CRISPR Cas-9 protein seeking, finding, and snipping out a piece of DNA. Image credits: UC Berkeley

“I don’t think any of us thinks that viral pandemics are going away,” she continued. “The current pandemic is a call to arms, we have to make sure that scientifically we’re ready for the next attack by a new virus.”

And third, a CRISPR-based test wouldn’t be manufactured the same materials as other tests, making it easier to manufacture alongside them. Managing supply chains effectively will be crucial for getting vaccines, tests, and treatments to people as quickly as possible.

The barrier to CRISPR however is not theoretical but practical: It’s still more or less lab-bound because therapies using the technology are still very much under review. It is in clinical trials in some forms and COVID-19-related applications could be fast tracked but its novelty means it will be slower to reach those who need it. Not to mention the cost.

“This underscores what I think is one of the key challenges that we face in this in this age of advancing biotechnologies,” said Doudna. “That is, how do we make a technology like like CRISPR affordable and accessible to a lot of people? I’d like to see a day when CRISPR is the standard of care for treating a rare genetic disease, and it’s going to take some real R&D to get there.”

Perhaps one of the avenues for advancement will be the newly discovered sibling technique, CRISPR Cas-Φ (that’s a “phi”), which works similarly but is much more compact, owing to its origin as, apparently, a countermeasure by viruses that invade CRISPR-bearing bacteria. “Who knew they carried around their own form of CRISPR?” mused Doudna. “But they do, and it’s a very interesting protein, because it’s very small compared to the original formats for CRISPR that allow that allows a much, much smaller protein to be able to do [this] kind of editing.”

Doudna had much more to say about the possibilities for the technique of which she was one of the chief creators. You can see watch the rest of the interview below.

#biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #crispr, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #jennifer-doudna, #tc

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Why hasn’t digital learning lived up to its promise?

The fall semester is off to a rocky start. When schools were forced to close in the spring, students (and parents) struggled. As the new school year begins, affluent families are building pandemic pods and inequities abound, while surveys suggest that college students want tuition discounts for online classes.

To avoid a catastrophic loss in revenue, colleges are bringing students back to campus. At UNC-Chapel Hill, those plans were quickly reversed when 130 students tested positive for the virus just a week into the new semester. As cases skyrocket, UNC will not be the only educational institution or school district to move online again.

What is it about digital learning that has schools so keen on reopening despite the health and reputational risks? Why hasn’t digital learning lived up to its promise?

If I were asked 20 years ago, as the founding CEO of Rosetta Stone, what digital learning would look like today, I would have imagined a very different future. Online learning was exploding. Teachers and faculty were experimenting with now commonplace consumer technologies like speech recognition and virtual reality to create immersive learning experiences.

Sadly, most of these innovations never took hold in our schools and colleges, and remote learners today are left with edtech that feels like it is still trapped in the 90s.

Ironically, the business of edtech and digital learning has been booming. Billions of dollars have been invested in tools and platforms that promise to improve the learning outcomes and lives of students. But for all the investments, headlines and flashy IPOs, edtech has little to show in terms of transformative outcomes.

The United States continues to lag behind many other advanced industrialized nations in math, science and reading literacy. Schools at all levels grapple with pervasive equity gaps. And research shows that heavily investing in education technology has, so far, yielded virtually no appreciable improvement in student achievement in these core subjects.

The challenge stems from the fact that rather than making learning better, the education technology field has, for the most part, focused on reaching more students. In our rush to scale, we have largely ignored tremendous pedagogical innovation that has occurred over the last twenty years.

No matter how high-tech a digital learning solution might be, it means nothing if it doesn’t also reflect recent and emerging changes in pedagogy. In 2010, a study at the University of North Texas compared how students retain information literacy skills in a face-to-face class, an online class and a blended class. The researchers found that there was no difference in outcomes between the three kinds of classes. This is because all three used the same materials and pedagogical approach.

But in a digital environment, far more is possible. We can now create video-game quality simulations to evaluate complex skills like creativity or problem-solving. Shy students can take the form of learning avatars in online laboratories — or explore career paths first-hand, through virtual reality. We know more than ever about attention span and engagement, or the connection between socio-emotional development and academic outcomes.

Researchers have, likewise, gained a deeper understanding of the ways students’ minds work. We know more than ever about how students reason, process information and solve problems. We know what kinds of scaffolding is required to develop and master these skills. Learning is best when it is built around doing, and when the context is practical, allowing students to try their hand at solving problems even as they’re still learning. It’s best when it is individualized, with progress based on a student’s personal aptitude and proficiency as they move toward mastering the material. And it’s best when it is enriched with peer-based discussion, practice and collaboration.

Astonishingly, few mass-market digital learning tools are built or adopted with these pedagogical advancements in mind. While Zoom is a fine tool for live conversations in small groups, it has few tools to facilitate the kind of engagement necessary for real learning. Coursera has raised millions for simply replicating the old-fashioned experience of a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom. Quizlet is but a virtual collection of flashcards; it can assess the learning of certain facts, but it is hardly useful for the acquisition of skills. These types of common digital learning tools are increasingly great at making educators’ jobs easier. They are great at expanding access, allowing teachers and schools to reach more students than ever before. But scale, ease and access are not sufficient to help students learn and build skills.

The frustrations of educators and learners alike reflect the fact that education technology functions as a digital proxy for our oldest methods of teaching. Simply listening to a lecture is not effective in the real world, and yet that largely remains the default mode of education online. The impact of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these long-standing shortcomings. To create the digital learning experience students deserve — to finally fulfill the untapped promise and potential of educational technology — we must create tools that reflect not only advancements in technology, but in what we now understand about how the mind works and how students learn.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #edtech, #education, #opinion, #remote-learning, #startups, #tc, #zoom

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Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra asks 6 VCs how to raise funding when the sky is falling

When I wrote about how to run your startup in a downturn, the world was on the brink of recession. The economy contracted sharply — and the effects of the 2020 recession will persist.

If you are a founder, you can help. You can build companies that connect people, create employment and spark lasting change.

“Building is how we reboot the American dream,” declared Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz. In his rallying cry “It’s Time to Build” he writes: “We need to break the rapidly escalating price curves for housing, education and healthcare, to make sure that every American can realize the dream, and the only way to do that is to build.”

Yet building requires capital. How do you raise funding when the economy is on its knees? I spoke with six top venture capitalists to find out:

  • Bill Trenchard, general partner, First Round Capital
  • Dan Rose, chairman, Coatue Ventures
  • Brianne Kimmel, founder, Work Life
  • Sarah Guo, general partner, Greylock
  • Merci Grace, partner, Lightspeed
  • Charles Hudson, managing partner, Precursor Ventures

How has investment behavior changed during the pandemic?

  • Deal velocity has gone up.
  • The bar for investments is rising.
  • VCs are nurturing existing investments and “proto-founders.”

The recession did not cause activity to stall. In fact, deal velocity has gone up.

“It’s almost like a superheated environment right now,” says Bill Trenchard, general partner at First Round. “The speed with which partnerships can quickly meet with a company that’s of interest is so much higher in the Zoom world. It’s changing our thinking around velocity in the market, which was already very high.”

“We’ve been as active as we were before,” agrees Dan Rose, chairman at Coatue Ventures. “Maybe even slightly more active because I think more good companies are raising as kind of an insurance policy. When it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to meet with founders in person anymore, we snapped to Zoom.”

Velocity may be rising, but investors now require more data to reach conviction.

“The pricing is still the same but we see risk going up,” says Bill Trenchard. “You need to be very rigorous on your investment theses and how you’re looking at companies. We’ve been looking for more grapple hooks and more data for things that we do invest in, so that we have more conviction when we do.”

“There’s been almost an immediate shift in terms of expectations from VCs,” says Brianne Kimmel, founder of early stage venture firm Work Life. “Companies have been forced to come in with more richness and customer development, a clear path to revenue, a lot more of a strategic approach around the core mechanics of the business and more specifically the business model.”

Sarah Guo, general partner at Greylock, also has high expectations for founders.

#column, #coronavirus, #corporate-finance, #covid-19, #entrepreneur, #entrepreneurship, #founder, #rahul-vohra, #startups, #superhuman, #tc, #venture-capital

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Europe will go it alone on digital tax reform in 2021 if it must, says EU president, as bloc directs €150BN in COVID-19 relief toward cloud, AI and broadband

Europe will propose its own digital tax early next year if there’s no agreement at a global level on how to update taxation rules for the Internet age, EU president Ursula von der Leyen said today, reiterating the bloc’s determination not to let tax reform slide in a ‘state of the union’ speech to the European Parliament.

“We will spare no effort to reach agreement in the framework of OECD and G20. But let there be no doubt: should an agreement fall short of a fair tax system that provides long-term sustainable revenues, Europe will come forward with a proposal early next year,” she told MEPs.

In the wide-ranging speech — which also called for the 2020s to be Europe’s “digital decade” — von der Leyen committed the bloc to spending a fifth (€150BN) of the €750BN coronavirus support fund announced earlier this year on digital investments.

“There has never been a better time to invest in European tech companies with new digital hubs growing everywhere from Sofia to Lisbon to Katowice,” she said. “We have the people, the ideas and the strength as a Union to succeed. And this is why we will invest 20% of NextGenerationEU on digital.”

“We are reaching the limits of the things we can do in an analogue way. And this great acceleration is just beginning. We must make this Europe’s Digital Decade,” von der Leyen added.

“We need a common plan for digital Europe with clearly defined goals for 2030, such as for connectivity, skills and digital public services. And we need to follow clear principles: the right to privacy and connectivity, freedom of speech, free flow of data and cybersecurity.

“But Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us. This is why we must move fast.”

Beneath the rousing ‘digital sovereignty’ rhetoric, the speech didn’t offer much new on the tech policy front — but the EU president confirmed that updates to Europe’s competition rules and regulation on the use of AI are coming next year.

The Commission is currently consulting on whether a new competition tool is needed to respond to digital network effects that can lead to tipping markets, as well as more widely around a forthcoming Digital Services Act (which didn’t get any direct mentions in the speech).

“On personalized data — business to consumer — Europe has been too slow and is now dependent on others,” she said. “This cannot happen with industrial data. And here the good news is that Europe is in the lead — we have the technology, and crucially we have the industry.”

“We presented our new industry strategy in March to ensure industry could lead the twin green and digital transition. The last six months have only accelerated that transformation — at a time when the global competitive landscape is fundamentally changing. This is why we will update our industry strategy in the first half of next year and adapt our competition framework which should also keep pace,” she said.

Tech investment priorities

Priorities for digital investment she highlighted are the plan to build a European cloud — which will be based on the GaiaX federated data infrastructure that’s developing common requirements for pan-EU data sharing. (This is part of a major Commission push around industrial data reuse, announced earlier this year.)

The second area of investment focus named was artificial intelligence — with the EU president citing the tech’s potential to deliver innovations such as “precision farming in agriculture, more accurate medical diagnosis and safe autonomous driving”. However she also emphasized the importance of having rules in place to wrap around the tech, reiterating EU lawmakers’ conviction that a framework is needed to ensure what they dub ‘human-centric’ AI.

Earlier this year the EU put out a white paper — setting out proposals for regulating ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence. Though the final shape of the proposal will have to wait for 2021.

von der Leyen also suggested lawmakers are looking for ways to give consumers more control over how their data is used in the big data-powered AI era.

“We want a set of rules that puts people at the centre. Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong. The Commission will propose a law to this effect next year,” she said today.

“This includes control over our personal data which [we] still have far too rarely today. Every time an App or website asks us to create a new digital identity or to easily log on via a big platform, we have no idea what happens to our data in reality.”

To this end, she said the Commission wants to develop “a secure European e-identity” that EU citizens could use anywhere in the bloc — “to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle”. It would be “a technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used”, she added, riffing on her digital sovereignty theme.

The Commission is reviewing existing regulations around eID, including running a consultation that’s due to end next month — where it says it’s looking at barriers to uptake of eID and trusted services, and considering how to evolve the framework towards an “EU digital identity”.

It now sounds like lawmakers have concrete plans to overhaul eID — with the aim of promoting a proprietary digital authentication mechanism that can help drive the wider strategy around digitization and data reuse.

The third focus for ‘COVID-19 relief’ digital spending is infrastructure, with a push planned around broadband access.

“The investment boost through NextGenerationEU is a unique chance to drive [broadband] expansion to every village. This is why we want to focus our investments on secure connectivity, on the expansion of 5G, 6G and fiber,” said von der Leyen, adding: “NextGenerationEU is also a unique opportunity to develop a more coherent European approach to connectivity and digital infrastructure deployment.”

Her speech also highlighted a planned €8BN investment in developing next-gen supercomputers. And reiterated calls for European industry to develop its own next-generation chips — “that will allow us to use the increasing data volumes energy-efficient and securely”.

“None of this is an end in itself — it is about Europe’s digital sovereignty, on a small and large scale,” she added.

Green Deal

von der Leyen also spend a fair amount of time on the environment and the risks attached to climate change.

The European Green Deal is set to account for a larger chunk of COVID-19 relief spending than digital projects — although there could, presumably, be some overlap, with von der Leyen talking about “a world where we use digital technologies to build a healthier, greener society”.

She said 37% (€277BN) of the NextGenerationEU fund to be spent directly on Green Deal objectives.

This spending looks set to give a major boost to electric cars via investment in charging infrastructure. Other areas of focus she mentioned are hydrogen replacing coal for industrial production; and adapting the construction industry to make it more sustainable and less polluting, including by the use of AI and smart technologies.

“NextGenerationEU should invest in lighthouse European projects with the biggest impact: hydrogen, renovation and 1 million electric charging points,” she said. “I want NextGenerationEU to create new European Hydrogen Valleys to modernise our industries, power our vehicles and bring new life to rural areas.”

“Our buildings generate 40% of our emissions. They need to become less wasteful, less expensive and more sustainable,” she added. “And we know that the construction sector can even be turned from a carbon source into a carbon sink, if organic building materials like wood and smart technologies like AI are applied.”

The systemic change needed to support a wholesale shift to a circular economy was dubbed”a new cultural project for Europe”.

“Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic – to match style with sustainability,” she said, announcing a plan to set up “a new European Bauhaus” — aka “a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen”.

#artificial-intelligence, #broadband, #cloud, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #digital-investment, #eu, #eu-tech-policy, #europe, #green-deal, #policy, #ursula-von-der-leyen

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Dropbox CEO Drew Houston says the pandemic forced the company to reevaluate what work means

Dropbox CEO and co-founder Drew Houston, appearing at TechCrunch Disrupt today, said that COVID has accelerated a shift to distributed work that we have been talking about for some time, and these new ways of working will not simply go away when the pandemic is over.

“When you think more broadly about the effects of the shift to distributed work, it will be felt well beyond when we go back to the office. So we’ve gone through a one-way door. This is maybe one of the biggest changes to knowledge work since that term was invented in 1959,” Houston told TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino.

That change has prompted Dropbox to completely rethink the product set over the last six months, as the company has watched the way people work change in such a dramatic way. He said even though Dropbox is a cloud service, no SaaS tool in his view was purpose-built for this new way of working and we have to reevaluate what work means in this new context.

“Back in March we started thinking about this, and how [the rapid shift to distributed work] just kind of happened. It wasn’t really designed. What if you did design it? How would you design this experience to be really great? And so starting in March we reoriented our whole product road map around distributed work,” he said.

He also broadly hinted that the fruits of that redesign are coming down the pike. “We’ll have a lot more to share about our upcoming launches in the future,” he said.

Houston said that his company has adjusted well to working from home, but when they had to shut down the office, he was in the same boat as every other CEO when it came to running his company during a pandemic. Nobody had a blueprint on what to do.

“When it first happened, I mean there’s no playbook for running a company during a global pandemic so you have to start with making sure you’re taking care of your customers, taking care of your employees, I mean there’s so many people whose lives have been turned upside down in so many ways,” he said.

But as he checked in on the customers, he saw them asking for new workflows and ways of working, and he recognized there could be an opportunity to design tools to meet these needs.

“I mean this transition was about as abrupt and dramatic and unplanned as you can possibly imagine, and being able to kind of shape it and be intentional is a huge opportunity,” Houston said.

Houston debuted Dropbox in 2008 at the precursor to TechCrunch Disrupt, then called the TechCrunch 50. He mentioned that the Wi-Fi went out during his demo, proving the hazards of live demos, but offered words of encouragement to this week’s TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield participants.

Although his is a public company on a $1.8 billion run rate, he went through all the stages of a startup, getting funding and eventually going public, and even today as a mature public company, Dropbox is still evolving and changing as it adapts to changing requirements in the marketplace.

#cloud, #collaboration, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #drew-houston, #dropbox, #enterprise, #saas, #storage, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Bonkers federal podcast downplays COVID-19, blasts health restrictions

Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Mark Wilson)

In a stunning podcast released by the Department of Health and Human Services, two top officials at the department repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, railed against mitigation efforts, called closures of in-person schooling “nonsense,” and said US journalists do not “[give] a damn about public health information.”

The podcast, released on the HHS website September 11, is part of a series hosted by Michael Caputo, who currently holds the title of HHS assistant secretary of public affairs. Though Caputo has no background in health care, the White House installed him in the department in April—a move reportedly made to assert more White House control over HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a longtime Trump loyalist and former campaign official. He got his start as a protégé of Roger Stone and later worked as a Moscow-based advisor to Boris Yeltsin and did public relations work for Vladimir Putin.

Learning curve

Caputo has most recently made headlines for working to interfere with and alter scientific reports on COVID-19 prepared by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The meddling was intended to make reports more in line with messaging from Trump, who has admitted to downplaying the pandemic. Caputo also raised eyebrows with a Facebook live video, reported by The New York Times Monday, in which, without evidence, he accused government scientists of engaging in “sedition” and claimed that the CDC is harboring a “resistance unit.” He also spoke of long “shadows” in his DC apartment and said left-wing “hit-squads” were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#alex-azar, #caputo, #cdc, #coronavirus, #hhs, #mccance-katz, #pandemic, #public-health, #samhsa, #sars-cov-2, #science

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If you care about remote employees, start tracking their performance

Remote work has been thrust upon us, but are business leaders ready for it?

More than half of U.S. companies now plan on making working from home a permanent option. However, most of us still don’t know what an optimal business machine with remote operations looks like simply because reaching that point requires years of trying, testing and adapting.

One major thing we haven’t all realized yet is that, without the visibility of face-to-face contact, data is essential in tracking employee progress and well-being, as well as the company’s overall health.

And not just any data — granular (ideally automatic) data is needed to give us accurate insights and stop us from making burdensome mistakes, especially in tech companies where even more of the work effort is purely digital. Take productivity. If we were to focus on people’s work hours alone, we’d likely get the wrong picture. Half of software developers have been working more during quarantine. But what does this tell us about the toll this workload is taking on their mental health? Or the quality of their work, and how much extra time is going toward bringing their tasks up to scratch? Nothing at all.

Putting data at the core of project management is not about Big Brother; far from it. Data isn’t inherently good or bad; it just gives you the tools to implement intelligent strategies and reduce errors. If anything, it will minimize the number of times you have to interfere with employees to ask for updates and micromanage.

Embracing data to create your new remote-ready project management strategy will enhance you and your team’s work lives in the following ways.

Reduce wrong decisions

Managers don’t have accurate visibility into remote employees’ productivity. Radio “silence” from team members can be misinterpreted to mean they’re not working enough, especially independent workers like software engineers. You might think you wouldn’t notice if they spent half their work hours on a coffee break, and your mind can run away with you. (The opposite — for those who talk too much — is also true).

However, a digital lifestyle produces digital indicators. Data-driven project management tools such as Wrike can tell you about employee output, but also about iterations and quality indicators on the same task. Such as how many times a pull request went back to a developer, why (due to error or for minor improvements?), or how many other employees stepped in to help before the final product was achieved.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #developer, #entrepreneurship, #management, #remote-work, #startups, #tc

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Facebook announces $4.3 million grant for small businesses in India, introduces support for gift cards

More than a third of small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook in India expect cash flow to be a challenge for them as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic in the next few months, according to a report by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank.

Facebook, which reaches nearly every internet users in India and which collaborated with OECD and World Bank on the report, wants to help. The social giant today announced a grant of $4.3 million for more than 3,000 small businesses across Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore (Indian cities where the company has its offices).

In an interview with TechCrunch, Ajit Mohan, head of Facebook India, said the grant includes both cash and ad credits, with cash constituting the larger share. These businesses don’t have to advertise on Facebook to be eligible for the grant, he said. Businesses can apply for the grant starting today.

The India grant is part of the company’s $100 million global grant for small businesses that it announced in March.

Gift Cards on Facebook and Instagram

Additionally, Facebook and Instagram have also launched capabilities for businesses in India to sell gift cards. “During the pandemic, it’s been inspiring to see how people and businesses have come together on the Facebook family of apps to support their local communities,” said Mohan.

These gift cards, which will be issued by startups Quiksilver and PayU, are designed to help businesses get the immediate cash flow to stay afloat. Users can redeem these gift cards at these businesses later on.

The announcement today comes as Facebook begins to engage deeply with small businesses in the country. The company invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms earlier this year and said it would work with the Indian giant to explore ways to serve the nation’s 60 million businesses.

“The recovery of small businesses from the pandemic will be critical to the recovery of Indian economy, and we want to do everything we can to help. Today we’re building on our commitment by announcing the small business grant for India,” said Mohan.

Scores of businesses in India already use Facebook to reach potential customers. WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding to kids, is one of the businesses that has used Facebook extensively in recent quarters. The startup was acquired by Indian decacorn Byju’s for $300 million last month.

More on Facebook’s business in India tomorrow. Mohan will be joining us at Disrupt conference.

#apps, #asia, #coronavirus, #facebook, #india, #social

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Europe starts testing app interoperability service to power cross-border COVID-19 exposure alerts

The European Commission has begun testing backend infrastructure that’s needed to make national coronavirus contacts tracing apps interoperate across the bloc’s internal borders.

It’s kicked off test runs between the backend servers of the official apps from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Latvia, and the newly established gateway server — which is being developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP, and will be operated from the Commission’s data centre in Luxembourg, it said today.

The service is due to become operational in October, meaning EU Member States with compatible apps will be able extend digital contacts tracing for app users travelling within the group of listed countries.

Interoperability guidelines were agreed for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps back in May.

The Commission says the gateway service will only exchange a minimum of data — namely the arbitrary identifiers generated by the tracing apps.

“The information exchanged is pseudonymised, encrypted, kept to the minimum, and only stored as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individual persons,” it adds.

Only decentralized national coronavirus contacts tracing apps are compatible with the gateway service at this stage. And while the Commission says it is continuing to support work being undertaken within some Member States to find ways to extend interoperability to tracing apps with different architectures, it’s not clear how viable that will be without risks to privacy.

The main advantage of the interoperability plan for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps is to avoid the need for EU citizens to install multiple tracing apps — provided they’re traveling to another country in the region that has a national app with compatible architecture.

However, in addition to varying choices of app architecture, some EU Member States don’t even have a national app yet. So it’s clear there will continue to be gaps in cross-border coverage for the foreseeable future which increases the challenge of breaking (non-domestic-)travel-related coronavirus transmission trains.

#contacts-tracing-apps, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #decentralized, #european-commission, #tc

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Unicorn layoffs prompt more startups to consider acqui-hiring

Alex Zajaczkowski was just months into her role at Toast, a restaurant point-of-sale software company, when she was let go during COVID-19 layoffs. Toast, last valued at $5 billion, cut 50% of its staff through layoffs and furloughs.

Zajaczkowski said she started applying for jobs within a week.

“I think I got on the boat a little bit quicker than others because I wanted that security a little bit faster,” she said. She and former Toast colleagues formed a Slack to communicate about layoffs, their job searches and what lay ahead. Toast created an opt-in spreadsheet for recruiters that listed laid-off employees.

The sheet brought Zajaczkowski to Stavvy, an online mortgage startup also based in Boston, for an interview. Today, a majority of Stavvy’s team are ex-Toasters, including Zajaczkowski.

“I think one of the benefits of recruiting from an organization that is sort of an iconic Boston company, is that you know what the hiring practices are,” Ligris said. “There’s been a level of vetting that has occurred.”

Stavvy’s onboarding of former Toast employees suggests that the layoffs which rocked startups in March could be an opportunity for smaller startups to scoop up star talent that already has chemistry. While acqui-hiring is not a new concept, it has new weight in an environment reeling from mass layoffs and a shift to remote-first work.

Stavvy co-founders Kosta Ligris and Josh Feinblum, though, say hiring a pod of employees can backfire without proper diligence.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #future-of-work, #hiring, #remote-work, #startups, #tc, #toast

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As COVID-19 era drags on, VCs look beyond Zoom calls for due diligence and sourcing

While the coronavirus has accelerated the dealmaking pace for many early-stage startups, activity has not come without adaptation.

Remote investment struggles for investors were clear from the get go: it’s challenging to invest millions in someone you have never met, and there’s not a lot to learn from “off-the-cuff” conversations that are calendared days in advance. Some investors said the pandemic was forcing them to stick with people they know in categories where they have experience, limiting the network that one can push money into.

Over six months into a global pandemic, though, new techniques are emerging to address some of these woes. The very art of a deal, from due diligence to sourcing, is changing from a cultural and technological standpoint.

One of the new places that recreates informal bonding and camaraderie is Matchbox.VC, formerly Fortnite.VC.

The service connects founders and investors over video games to network and source deals in a low-stress environment. Matchbox.VC was inspired from a tweet by Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov and has garnered interest from investors like Arjun Sethi from Tribe Capital, Ryan Shea, the ex-founder of Blockstack, Jake Chapman from AlphafundVC and Peter Rojas from Betaworks. Its last game night was backed by Yac, Tribe Capital and Shrug Capital.

The pitch is simple: founders and investors sign up on the website, answer basic questions about their focus, company and stage before picking three game choices from eight options that include Fortnite, COD: Warzone and Valorant.

#clubhouse, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #lunchclub, #social, #startups, #tc, #video

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England’s long delayed COVID-19 contacts tracing app to launch on September 24

The UK’s long delayed coronavirus contact tracing app finally has a release date: The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced today that the app will launch in England and Wales on September 24.

The other regions of the country, Scotland and Northern Ireland, already have their own COVID-19 contacts tracing apps — the latter launching an app this summer. While the Protect Scotland app was released yesterday, where it went on to clock up more than 600,000 downloads in a matter of hours.

England and Wales have had a far lengthy-than-expected wait for an app after a false start back in May, when government ministers had suggested in daily coronavirus briefings that an app would be landing shortly.

Instead the launch was delayed, and DHSC took over development of the NHS COVID-19 app from the National Health Service’s digital division, NHSX, after it ran into problems related to the choice of a centralized app architecture — which triggered privacy concerns and saw the test app plagued by technical issues around iPhones device detection.

The government pivoted the app to a decentralized architecture which means it’s able to make use of exposure notification APIs offered by Apple and Google for official COVID-19 contacts tracing apps, avoiding the technical issues associated with iOS background Bluetooth detection.

Another element that’s been added to the NHS COVID-19 app is a check-in feature for venues via scannable QR codes. The government is encouraging businesses and locations where people may congregate, such as pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and so on, to print out and display a QR code that app users can scan to check into the venue.

This check-in data will be held locally on the device, taking the same privacy-preserving approach as for contacts data generated when devices come into proximity and swap ephemeral IDs.

Venue check-in data will be retained on device for 21 days, per the DHSC. If an outbreak is identified at a location its venue ID will be broadcast to all devices running the app — and those that contain recent check-ins will generate an on-device match.

The DHSC says such a match may generate an alert and advice to the app user on what to do (e.g. whether to quarantine) — “based on the level of risk”.

The government says trials of the reformulated app on the Isle of Wight and with NHS Volunteer Responders have shown it to be “highly effective” when used in conjunction with traditional contact tracing to identify contacts of those who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

It had previously suggested there were issues related to limitations in Apple’s and Google’s APIs which made it difficult to effectively estimate the distance between devices which it said was needed to generate exposure notifications.

Talking up the impending launch of the app, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock suggested that the scannable venue codes will provide “an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system”. Although businesses will need a fall-back system to collect data from patrons who do not have the app.

“We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology. The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time,” Hancock added.

UK businesses are being invited to download a QR code to display at their premise via gov.uk/create-coronavirus-qr-poster.

Reports last month in UK national press that suggested the app would abandon automatic contact tracing altogether appear to have been wide of the mark.

#apps, #coronavirus, #coronavirus-contacts-tracing-apps, #covid-19, #europe, #nhs-covid-19, #privacy, #qr-codes

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Trump audio shows he knew about COVID’s severity even as he misled public

On February 7 this year, President Donald Trump admitted in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was far more deadly than the flu even as Trump continued misleading the public about the pandemic’s severity. In another interview on March 19, Trump told Woodward that he was intentionally downplaying the virus’s severity. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said.

Woodward’s new book, Rage, is scheduled for release next week, but excerpts of the book along with recordings of Trump’s interviews with Woodward became public today. This CNN article contains several audio clips from the interviews.

The audio excerpts came from 18 interviews between December 5, 2019, and July 21, 2020, that “were recorded by Woodward with Trump’s permission,” CNN wrote. In the February 7 interview, Trump noted that the flu kills 25,000 or 30,000 people a year in the United States. “This is more deadly,” Trump then told Woodward, referring to the coronavirus. (So far, about 190,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.)

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#bob-woodward, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #science, #trump

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Shift’s George Arison shares 6 tips for taking your company public via a SPAC

When startup entrepreneurs think about going public, they typically think about gearing up for an initial public offering (IPO). Going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), commonly referred to as a reverse merger process, is another route that’s becoming more popular and is also worth considering.

When Manish Patel, one of Shift’s board members, first suggested that I learn about SPACs back in 2019, I had no clue what he was talking about.

Now, just over a year later, we’ve almost completed Shift’s SPAC process. I hope that what we’ve learned from our experience is useful for other CEOs and founders considering a SPAC.

Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020 and is expected to complete the process of going public later this year. Here are a few of the things you and your team might want to get in order if you’ve decided that a SPAC might be a fit for you and your business:

Be prepared to become a SPAC expert

SPACs have been around for a number of years, but they have become en vogue in recent months, especially given how well the public markets have held up in the COVID-19 era. Even still, don’t expect others to understand the SPAC process right off the bat.

If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering. When we first started the process, I had to spend a lot of time educating our investors and team about how SPACs work and their validity. So I’ve had to come to the table with examples of when SPACs have worked and why, with a lot of data to back up my claims. Keep in mind that going through a SPAC will likely be a new process for all of them too. Even if you’ve been through a successful IPO process, you’ll still need to educate yourself — the SPAC process and the IPO process are completely different.

#column, #coronavirus, #corporate-finance, #covid-19, #initial-public-offering, #manish-patel, #private-equity, #spac, #special-purpose-acquisition-company, #startups, #venture-capital

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Slack’s earnings detail how COVID-19 is both a help and a hindrance to cloud growth

Slack’s shares are set to fall sharply this morning, down around 16% in pre-market trading. As the company beat analyst expectations last quarter and guided within range, the selloff might feel a little surprising.

Perhaps it shouldn’t.

I spoke with a VC last week about what the new benchmark results are for private SaaS companies, and to my surprise, he said software startups don’t have to grow at 100% to be fundable in today’s market. Given what I’d heard from other venture capitalists about how so much of their portfolios had found a COVID-19 growth bump, the perspectives felt incongruous.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Startups wanted to grow at a pace of more than 100% pre-pandemic, and some have accelerated since. So how could a startup growing less than three figures yearly be attractive? Throw in Zoom’s impressive earnings results and some warning signs from earlier this earnings cycle that cloud growth hasn’t wound up being quite as fast as expected felt diminished.

Slack’s earnings help sort out what’s going on.

Reading the company’s SEC filing related to earnings this morning, it’s hard to miss Slack’s notes about COVID-19. The enterprise communications company describes early benefits from the pandemic, along with lingering pain associated with its economic impacts. In short, the software-related COVID-bump could wind up leaving a hangover in the short- to medium-term.

This helps us understand why a software startup could be VC-attractive in 2020 without a 100% growth rate. Perhaps more SaaS and cloud startups than have been generally told are struggling, which means slower revenue expansion is palatable provided that other indicators are flashing green.

To understand what could be happening to your favorite startup, let’s tease apart Slack’s COVID-19-related business notes, starting with the good news, before turning to what I’ve penciled in as the bad news — and the even badder tidings.

#cloud, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #earnings, #fundings-exits, #saas, #slack, #startups, #tc, #the-exchange

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This Labor Day, spare a thought for the workers who made your doorstep delivery possible

A few weeks ago, I bought a used paperback mystery for $3 via a small online bookseller. Intrigued that the book came with free shipping, I dug in a bit and was shocked to see that my little impulse purchase traveled through seven different distribution hubs across five states before it got to me. It was loaded and unloaded onto trucks in Indiana, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and finally California and handled by an unknown number of logistics workers along the way, many of them in the middle of the night.

The logistics of getting the book to me, and the human toll it takes, are mind boggling, but we have become somewhat inured to them.

COVID-19 lockdowns have put a spotlight on the importance and complexity of supply chain dynamics. In a world shaped by the pandemic, our reliance on e-commerce for everything from PPE to toilet paper to hard-boiled paperback mysteries has exploded. A recent report from Adobe found that total online spending is up 77% year-over-year, accelerating growth by “four to six years.” That growth has a very real human cost, and one that we don’t think about or act on enough as a society.

While people recognize the contributions of frontline workers they can see like doctors and nurses, postal carriers and grocery store workers, there’s an entire hidden infrastructure of logistics workers that keeps the online economy humming. These workers are also on the frontlines, but they are behind the scenes. Most earn minimum wage and work long, grueling, high-stress shifts without strong protections in the event they get sick or injured. The fact is that many corporations haven’t made protections for those workers a priority. That was true before COVID-19, but the pandemic gave the issue a renewed urgency, prompting workers from Amazon, Walmart, Target and FedEx, among others, to organize walkouts. And with unprecedented levels of unemployment, more and more people are going to find jobs in the logistics sector.

This Labor Day, it’s time to think about how corporations can better support and protect this vital but often forgotten segment of the workforce.

Better safety in the warehouse

Imagine there’s a package handler at a major manufacturer named Jack who spends his shifts heaving heavy boxes onto a conveyor belt. It’s an arduous movement that Jack will repeat a few thousand times before he punches out. As a 10-year veteran on the job, Jack has performed this singular task on this same warehouse floor more times than he can count. On this particular night, he’s tired after staying up late playing with his kids, and he slips a disk in his back. Unfortunately, Jack’s plight is all too often a reality for millions of workers today.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5% of warehouse workers in the U.S. experience an injury on the job each year—higher than the national average. After service workers, like firefighters and police, transportation/shipping and manufacturing/production rank second and third as the occupations with the largest number of workplace injuries resulting in days away from work. Jobs that involve heavy lifting, arduous repetition and operating complex machinery come with serious risk.

Injuries can be devastating for workers, both physically and financially. Taking time off work can not only result in lost wages, but also drive people into debt due to health-related expenses, creating health-poverty traps that are difficult to climb out of. Worker injuries are also costly for employers. A study from Liberty Mutual, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Academy of Social Insurance, found that serious, nonfatal injuries cost $84.04 million a week in the transportation and warehousing industry. It is in corporations’ best interest to prioritize workplace safety.

One challenge is that traditional approaches to workplace safety are slow, inaccurate and costly. Without practical interventions, organizations spend an estimated $2,000+ per worker annually on injury prevention. Within manufacturing and logistics industries, it costs an additional $2,000+ annually for workers’ compensation per full-time employee. Currently, there is no standard solution to preventing workplace injuries while lowering costs, leaving workers like Jack without adequate protections. Fortunately, digital platforms and tools that leverage technological innovation, including sensors and wearables, are advancing new ways to prevent workplace accidents and injuries.

Take for example StrongArm, one of Flourish’s portfolio companies. StrongArm has built a technology platform that integrates a new generation of industrial wearables, big data analytics and smart algorithms. It is designed to modernize industry dynamics for workers, employers and workers’ compensation insurers. The company’s GDPR-compliant wearable hardware devices and data platform called FUSE deliver real-time injury prevention feedback and collect data to support precise interventions for overall injury reduction and has reduced injury rates by more than 40% year-over-year for its clients.

StrongArm has also helped keep workers safe during the pandemic by launching a new suite of capabilities on its FUSE platform, including CDC communication, proximity alerts (i.e., notifications to workers within six feet of one another), and exposure analysis (understanding who has interacted with whom, at what time, and for what duration, exposing any potential contact transfer with accuracy). These enhanced capabilities can get workers back to work faster, earning vitally needed income while reducing COVID-19 risk by 95%.

Fetch Robotics is another company using technological innovation and digital platforms to promote worker safety. Fetch makes an Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) that can transport materials within warehouses, factories and distribution centers while also gathering environmental data. This can relieve the burden of heavy lifting from human workers and ensure that conditions, like heat, remain safe in work environments. In June 2020, the company announced that it was launching a disinfecting AMR that can decontaminate spaces larger than 100,000 square feet in 1.5 hours, helping workers stay safe and get back to work quicker amid the spread of the virus.

Employers should do more

In its report titled, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Tech Innovation,” Lux Research found that the outbreak of COVID-19 will likely push corporations with major manufacturing and logistics operations to assess the potential of robotics. More companies will explore how they can automate processes, particularly those that are repeatable and predictable. Findings like these inevitably lead to questions about how increased automation will impact workers — the eternal “will robots take all the jobs?” question. However, we are still a long way away from a world where human workers are obsolete (just ask Elon Musk).

Robots are still not good at picking up small or oddly shaped objects, for instance. For the foreseeable future, corporations will depend on logistics workers and have a responsibility to protect the safety of those workers. It’s not enough to plaster the required OSHA sign on the factory or warehouse floor. Corporations need to do more. Fortunately in this case, the right thing to do is the good thing to do. By embracing technological innovation, promoting worker safety is a win-win.

#automation, #column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #ecommerce, #labor, #logistics, #occupational-safety-and-health, #opinion, #robotics, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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3 views on the future of geographic-focused funds

For many investors, the coronavirus has effectively taken geography out of the equation when it comes to vetting new opportunities.

While this dynamic opens up startups to more investment opportunities, venture capital firms that focus on a specific region are in a thornier spot. The competitive advantage they once had when raising — the notion that they’re focused on an area no one else is — is potentially threatened.

Natasha Mascarenhas, Danny Crichton and Alex Wilhelm of the TechCrunch Equity crew discussed the future of geographic-focused funds given the uptick of remote investing:

  • Natasha: Early-stage regional funds can win if they remain focused
  • Alex: Geo-focused venture funds will be weakened, but won’t die
  • Danny: Geo-focused venture funds are dead (and should never have existed)

Natasha: Early-stage regional funds can win if they remain focused

Since 2014, Steve Case and his team have made an annual bus trip across the country to meet startups in emerging startup hubs. Five days, five cities, and at least $500,000 of investment dollars given to startups. Case would even offer to fly out promising and hard-to-reach startups to have them join the trip.

The Rise of the Rest fund, with over $300 million in assets under management, has invested in over 130 startups across 70 cities, including Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #remote-work, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #video

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Local governments that embrace digital services during challenging times can make real change happen

It has been a hard year. We wake up every morning to new developments in the tragedies of the moment spanning a pandemic, the greatest unexpected loss of life since 9/11, national civil unrest, natural disasters and a looming economic collapse.

In the face of these developments, a completely understandable message from government agencies to the public might be: We can’t serve you right now. Please take a number and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

But as we know now, this is an unacceptable path to successfully, and proactively, addressing the increasing needs of citizens facing public health risk and economic uncertainty. In fact, in the past few months, Americans have exhibited an unquenchable thirst for fast, effective government services and information. Resident demands of local government and community organizations are rising. Their voices are louder than ever before. People are bringing a new civic experience to the forefront of local governments that’s delivered on their terms — and aligned with growing demand for always-on, 24/7 information and services.

A hallmark of 2020 (so far) has been global developments impacting people at a very local level. For instance, a pandemic sparked a massive shift in American civic engagement around issues like public health and racial equality. The past few months have reinforced what the real power of local government is: To efficiently offer services and information that directly impact people’s lives. For cities and municipalities, the question now becomes: How can local leaders embrace this new era of civic engagement in the world of COVID-19 to deliver digital solutions that help everyone meet the moment?

Build a digital public square for the people

In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has literally closed city halls and forced government agencies at all levels to rethink modernizing public sector work to digitally and equitably deliver citizen services. Mayors, city council members and local agency officials, in particular, need to embrace this complex moment in time as an opportunity to cultivate a more vibrant, straightforward, inclusive and participatory municipal experience. One way to do that is to invest in digital tools, technologies and talent that can help local governments develop online civic engagement and citizen service outlets. Platforms that not only offer needed government services, but also prioritize input from residents and encourage community dialogue guided by clarity, trust and accountability.

Service has always been at the core of local government. However, a main challenge facing public sector leaders today is how to transfer critical services online. More specifically, developing online services that allow people who no longer have the luxury of waiting in lines for in-person interactions to remotely register to vote, obtain or renew a permit, report downed power lines and more.

A recommended path toward solution(s): At the end of the day, citizens are consumers. They want around-the-clock access to government services and options for ways to interact with service providers that meet their needs while taking their personal comfort into account. For local government agencies in the midst of digital transformation, building convenience into in-house digital government offerings and solution procurements is crucial. Digital government service solutions must be designed — by agencies or contracted vendors — to be platform and device agnostic (or, at least, interchangeable) on the back end; taking an omnichannel approach that addresses the needs of citizens and agencies through web, mobile, social media and offline options on the front end.

Bring the value of local government home

An increased online presence of community members and remote workers during the pandemic offers municipalities a fresh and cost-effective opportunity to advance local government digital service. Until recently, seemingly table stakes actions like producing photos for identification cards, scanning important documents, digitizing forms and streamlining workflows and case management were only plausible if large government teams had the budget to purchase required technologies separately, then stitch them together. Budget and capacity-constrained communities were largely left in the dark.

The good news is that today’s cloud-based solutions are complete, affordable and scalable to communities of all sizes. The market features solutions that are purpose-built for local governments to integrate with legacy IT systems while transitioning traditionally in-person services to digital interactions. And it’s possible to tap these solutions to fuel America’s new, more active brand of civic engagement and service citizens rapidly.

Further, the advent of accessible and affordable (or free) digital engagement platforms now complements an expanding recognition among American society that truly impactful things can come from government sources. The shift in thinking has produced civic engagement defined not by a sprint to profits, as is the case in the private sector, but by the ability for a representative community to actually influence policy and shape citizen services delivery.

A recommended path toward solution(s): In addition to always-on capabilities, digital government platforms need to be able to deliver goods and services to citizens directly and without friction. Whether accessing a government assistance application or applying for a park permit, citizens want their requests fulfilled without complications or inefficiencies plaguing the process — and going all-virtual or mostly remote during COVID-19 has made this more important than ever. In response, agencies should invest in the creation of digital forums for two-way communication to capture feedback that accurately reflects the demands and needs of the local community at the individual household level.

Boost digital forum accountability and representation moving forward

Today’s elevated energy around civic engagement is a direct result of the pandemic, expanding consumer activism and recent protests against systemic injustice. This confluence of factors offers local governments a fleeting opportunity to move beyond simply observing vocal citizen activity across the country. There’s now an opening to build upon, and actively grow, levels of civic engagement and community trust over time.

It’s now possible for local governments to reach more citizens by expanding their networks of interested subscribers and combat misinformation while keeping every resident informed. Agencies can advance on both fronts by providing civic leaders a two-way forum that encourages them to share progress being made in policy and procedures. After all, interacting with governments should be as simple and transparent for everyone as checking a bank account balance or reordering coffee pods from Amazon.

A recommended path toward solution(s): Municipalities should jump at this chance to really listen to diverse community voices pushing for change — especially as some powerful people in government and society seek to quiet or ignore them. They should consider developing long overdue digital solutions that amplify diverse community voices, deliver critical services and help to inform people broadly. Citizens, for their part, should be able to easily provide feedback, share ideas and voice their pressing needs to public sector officials or representatives who can help residents feel secure, listened to and taken care of. Expanded civic engagement impact entails reaching more people through their preferred channels, whether that’s email, text or snail mail, and establishing a dialogue that converts to action.

I’m confident that local governments throughout the country can rise to today’s unprecedented challenges by providing digital civic engagement outlets built to elevate individual perspectives on policy issues and surface life experiences that, in turn, inform inclusive civic action and real change.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #government, #opinion, #policy, #social, #tc

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9 top real estate and proptech investors: Cities and offices still have a future

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. workers will eventually return to their offices.

But when they do, their big-city workplace will not only have a smaller footprint and operational strategy, it might be in a different town altogether, according to a recent TechCrunch survey of top real estate and proptech investors.

TechCrunch surveyed nine investors who are writing checks today for startups in the sector. Optimism still runs high for startup hubs as well as supercities like New York and San Francisco. However, the move towards e-commerce and remote work — a trend that started before COVID-19 upended the way people live, work and play — has accelerated. 

The responses below get into these and other looming matters, such as the role that government support is playing to support the market … for now. Next week, we will publish the second installment of responses focused on the opportunities and risks for startups that these investors are betting on (or not).

For additional context on where top investors believe the market is headed, be sure to check out our real estate and proptech investor survey from late March and the previous ones from late last year (when everyone thought 2020 would be something different).

Clelia Warburg Peters, venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures

Early evidence suggests that there is a reversal of the New Urbanism movement that defined the past several decades in the U.S., with the pandemic combining with existing trends in this direction. How will this migration affect your investment decisions, especially given foundational changes to residential, office and retail? How does this compare with what you may be seeing in other countries?

There is no doubt that in the United States the pandemic is serving as an accelerant in the ‘diffusion’ of the model where economic activity is concentrated in a few primary urban centers. This diffusion was already underway – so-called ‘secondary’ or ‘tertiary’ cities have been growing in population and economic relevance for more than a decade. But I do think this is a period which will likely cement the permanent significance of many of those cities, where people feel like they can live more comfortably and affordably while enjoying many of the benefits of urban living (jobs, culture, restaurants, and walkability). I actually think this in line with the new urbanism movement – which emphasized the need to make cities more walkable, green, and friendly for living and not just working.

I also don’t see the pandemic altering people’s feeling or perception about the appeal of the ‘1950’s suburban ideal’ in which someone (usually a father in a grey suit) commutes daily into a nearby urban center of activity – in fact, I think what the current interest in the suburbs confirms is that people don’t want to commute and that they feel more interested in suburban environments as they imagine them transitioning into ‘mini-urban’ environments where commuting is limited, ideally, there is walkability, and where they have access to restaurants, culture and shopping through a mix of local and digital experiences.

I think technology is going to be a significant part of the transitions in how we live and work in the next few years, and I am bullish about Proptech during this period. There was always the anticipation that, across the industry, tech adoption would be accelerated during a downturn because tech can often drive efficiency and bring down costs. I think the pandemic will serve as an accelerant to this as well, and will also allow more disruptive models in both the residential and office sectors to gain greater market share. (In an environment where business as usual doesn’t exist, I think tenants and consumers are going to be more willing to experiment). On the office side, so far we are seeing an investment bump primarily focused around technologies that support the back to work experience on the office side, but I think we will start to see much more dynamic models evolve.

The U.S. is unique in that we have so many layers of urban models – some of this disruption will not be as great in other countries where the country itself really has only 1 or 2 primary cities or conversely, where the contrast between the economic development of cities and the countryside is really stark. (I don’t think you will see as much discussion of the idea that everyone is going to leave London in the UK – there just isn’t another area which has the same multi-faceted infrastructure. Nor is this ‘flee the cities’ discussion relevant in China or other areas where it would be logistically difficult to work in the same way outside of many urban environments). This may mean that office and retail are less impacted in these places, and this combined with the fact that these countries are emerging from the pandemic more smoothly, may make international expansion a priority for a lot of Proptech start-ups.

More specifically, startup hubs have been synonymous with superstar cities like San Francisco and New York — do you see the centers of innovation spreading out more widely, to smaller cities, college towns, versus the last decade?

I do believe that startup hubs will continue to spread out more widely, but I do also think that venture is a business that is heavily reliant on networks and relationships, so I think these ‘hives’ will not disperse as quickly as roles in many other industries.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #future-of-work, #proptech, #real-estate, #startups, #tc

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3 ways COVID-19 has affected the property investment market

Two in five people would never invest their money — but those who would are most likely to invest in properties. This is the conclusion of a recent survey by Hargreaves Lansdown, and it shows that unless you invested in the stocks of a few companies like Amazon, PayPal, Apple or Nvidia, real estate has proven to be one of the most reliable investment options.

The last months have seen a global outpouring of cash deposits estimated at around $2 trillion and savvy investors are eager to score the best opportunities. However, is the real estate market well equipped to capture a substantial part of this sum, considering the current context of the pandemic?

The truth is, that COVID-19 has stirred up the long-settled dust on real estate investing. This could paint a bright future with promising – yet different – projects for developers, startups and investors.

1. Tech is giving property investment a new façade

When it comes to digitization, real estate certainly hasn’t been one of the frontrunners. However, this could all change now. COVID-19 has brought novel challenges, and technology has stepped up to offer the solutions.

Yet, in a sense, innovation is competing with time. The longer the pandemic drags on, the higher the chance that digitization initiatives will stick around for the long run. After all, it’s one thing to make short-term fixes by substituting a home viewing with a detailed video, and quite another rolling out an entirely new process that uses drone-supported imagery, satellite viewings and virtual tools to promote an entire portfolio. Either way, it’s clear that the pandemic has pushed real estate toward a cultural change centered around a greater reliance on technology.

This is great news for proptech, a sector that seeks to disrupt and improve the way we buy, rent, sell, design, construct, manage and invest in residential and commercial property. Since 2013, annual investment in U.S. proptech companies has grown at a rate five times that of investment in all U.S. businesses. So, being one of the fastest developing business sectors, proptech will maintain a strong momentum throughout COVID-19, especially when prioritizing products and services that save people time and money.

Along the way, it’s turning to the major technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, including the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), blockchain, virtual and augmented reality, and much more. So, how specifically are property investment processes being affected by this trend?

House viewing and communication

According to João Richard Costa, the director of sales and marketing in a resort in the popular Portuguese region of Algarve, there was an initial bump in sales at the beginning of Q2, but the situation normalized fast — partially thanks to virtual viewings. “We’ve done some sales for people who haven’t even visited. They were happy to move forward on the basis of virtual tours and videos,” he said.

For some realtors, the pandemic was therefore not all that bad. House-bound investors had more time to interact, be it through emails and calls or by consuming content and attending webinars. In such a context, virtual viewings became well-received, inspiring realtors and different platforms to further improve their capabilities and champion seamless user experience.

#articles, #column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #property-management, #proptech, #real-estate, #startups, #tc

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iOS 13.7 launched today with a new system for battling the pandemic

Today brought a surprise update for iOS 13: iOS 13.7 adds Exposure Notifications Express, the next phase of Apple and Google’s collaboration to aid local, regional, and national governments in tracking COVID-19 exposure and isolating those infected. iOS 13.7 adds a few additional minor features, and it is joined by iPadOS 13.7, which mostly includes bug fixes. Google will launch its own version of Exposure Notifications Express on Android later this month.

Back in April, Apple and Google announced a joint plan to develop a system that would use the Bluetooth hardware in iPhones and Android phones to assist in contact tracing amidst the pandemic. “Exposure Notifications Express” is the moniker for the second phase of this rollout—the first phase began with software updates in May that included an API to help public health authorities develop their own apps for this purpose. Now, with this update, those authorities can gain the benefits of high-tech exposure tracking without developing their own apps.

In Apple’s implementation for iOS, users who are in participating states are prompted to opt in to receive notifications if the contact-tracing data indicates they may have been exposed. The user is then advised on next steps to take, which are defined by the user’s local public health authority. Public health authorities define when and under what circumstances notifications are sent as well as what guidance is provided to those who may have been exposed.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#android, #apple, #bluetooth, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #exposure-notifications-express, #exposure-tracking, #google, #ios, #ios-13-7, #ipados, #ipados-13-7, #smartphones, #tech

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Apple launches COVID-19 ‘Exposure Notification Express’ with iOS 13.7 – Android to follow later this month

Apple and Google are continuing to make good on their planned roll-out of exposure notification technology for helping with COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. The two partners are introducing new tools that make it much easier for public health authorities to implement digital exposure notification, without the need for developing and maintaining their own individual apps. Apple makes this possible via the iOS 13.7 system update, out today, while Google is implementing it with an automatically-generated application on Android 6.0 and up coming later this month, a workaround required because of the very different method through which it manages system services and OS updates.

This change in the way the technology works means that users won’t have to actually download and install a dedicated app created by the public health authority (PHA) in their jurisdiction to participate. Instead, you’ll receive a notification that provides information supplied by your local health authority about the exposure notification system and what it does, from which you can choose to opt-in. On iOS, that’ll mean installing a provisioning profile, while on Android, it’ll result in that auto-generated app, which is installed via the Google Play store. Apple and Google clarified that Exposure Notification Express co-exists with existing dedicated PHA apps, rather than replacing it.

“PHAs using Exposure Notifications Express do not need to develop or maintain their own apps,” the companies explained in a press release. “Instead, they can simply provide Apple and Google with information about how to reach the PHA, guidance for residents, and recommendations on potential actions. Through an easy-to-use interface, PHAs provide their name, logo, criteria for triggering an exposure notification and the materials to be presented to users in case of exposure. Apple and Google will use this information to offer a fully operational Exposure Notifications System on behalf of and under the control of the PHA, to both iOS and Android users.”

Local health authorities will still have to elect to participate, and customize the text and messaging delivered to users in their regions when the receive this notification and onboarding info, but they’ll no longer have to develop and distribute their own applications in order to set up a digital exposure notification system based on the combined Apple/Google tech to supplement their contact tracing efforts. The health authority will also be responsible for determining how they calculate exposure risk, which is what they were able to do with dedicates apps, too. That’s huge, since while Apple and Google note that 20 countries globally have already introduced apps based on their API, and 25 U.S. states are “exploring” use of the system, with six states having launched apps so far, making this a system level feature with a lower technical barrier to entry on the developer/health agency side should help expedite roll-out.

To start, Apple and Google say they expect DC, Maryland, Nevada and Virginia will be the first to implement Exposure Notification Express sometime soon, with others likely to follow. The companies also said they’re working with the U.S. Association of Public Health Laboratories on a national key server that will effectively allow users to have exposure tracking work across state lines when they’re traveling out of their home health agency district.

There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about contact tracing requiring a threshold of 60% or higher adoption to be effective; that’s based on a misinterpretation of an Oxford study published earlier this year. The researchers behind the study subsequently clarified that in fact, any level of contact tracing, as aided by apps that support digital contact tracing, has a positive effect on reducing the spread of COVID-19, as well as resulting deaths.

The system includes the same privacy protections that Apple and Google have provided throughout, which means your location information is not collected or connected to any exposure notifications. Instead, the tech uses a randomly-generated key to track when and where a device has come into Bluetooth range with other devices also using the software. It maintains a log of these random identifiers, and checks against reported confirmed diagnoses (also fully anonymized) to see if there has been any exposure risk – as determined by the definition of exposure in terms of duration and distance as established by each region’s governing public health authority.

#android, #apple, #computing, #contact-tracing, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #exposure-notification, #google, #health, #ios-13, #mass-surveillance, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #oxford, #privacy, #smartphones, #software, #tc, #united-states

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Zoom’s Q2 report details some of the most extraordinary growth I’ve ever seen

Many companies have posted the occasional big quarter. These outsized periods may come when a business sells part of itself, or, through some arcane non-cash financial hijinks, it posts impressive numbers that appear prodigious when compared to their regular operating results. (Like when Uber recorded huge profits in its March 31, 2018 quarter.)


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


And then there’s Zoom, the cloud video comms company that went public in April, 2019. It just turned in a quarter so extraordinary that you might presume it was inflated, or otherwise somehow faux. But what makes Zoom’s Q2 earnings data so damn interesting and impressive is that it appears that the company has managed to just grow more than anyone expected or perhaps thought possible, in less time, while making more money than anticipated.

Re-reading the Zoom results this morning, I can confidently say that I haven’t ever read a more impressive earnings document. Zoom had a strong Q1, but it had a bonkers Q2.

Let’s dig into the numbers to understand what the world’s most impressive COVID-bump looks like.

A monster Q2

At the end of its Q1, Zoom told investors that it expected to generate revenue “between $495.0 million and $500.0 million” in Q2 2020 and “between $1.775 billion and $1.800 billion” for its full fiscal year, which is offset by one month from the calendar year.

Before its Q2 report, investors had expected a bit more, with average estimates for Q2 2020 revenue coming in at $500.5 million. Regarding its fiscal year, analysts expected the company to generate $1.81 billion in revenue.

#cloud, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #earnings, #saas, #tc, #video, #web-conferencing, #zoom

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Owl Ventures’ new pair of funds gives edtech a $585 million boost

Edtech just keeps on booming.

Today, Owl Ventures, a San Francisco-based education technology fund whose portfolio includes Byju’s, Labster, Masterclass and Quizlet, announced that it has closed a pair of investment vehicles totaling $585 million.

Owl Ventures IV is a $415 million investment vehicle which will be used to invest in edtech startups Series A and beyond. The firm also formed its first ever opportunity fund at $170 million to work as a growth-stage bank for existing portfolio companies.

The new funds allow Owl Ventures to cut larger checks. Traditionally, the firm cut checks that were between $5 million to $35 million. Now, it can write investments up to $50 million in companies. The opportunity fund will exist to back existing investments throughout their lifetime.

“Edtech as a sector is really exploding and emerging,” said Ian Chiu, the managing partner at Owl Ventures. “It’s not that COVID is the reason for that. It’s more that COVID has accelerated that.”

Acceleration in mind, Owl Ventures has benefitted from focusing on edtech since 2014. This year, it saw exponential growth in a number of its portfolio companies. One of its investments, Byju’s, became the most valuable edtech startup in the world. Another one of Owl’s investments, White Hat Jr., got acquired by Byju’s about 18 months after launching. The intra-portfolio activity shows growth, and opportunity for exits.

Owl Ventures will continue to make international investments in education technology businesses across a number of categories, from recruiting to re-skilling.

Chiu also showed interest in the emerging cohort of startups that focus on education as a direct-to-consumer play.

 

As the pace of innovation within edtech speeds up to an unimaginable clip, I asked Chiu if certain sub-sectors within edtech are no longer in need of new entrants. For example, are Q&A services off limits?

“There are many things to be solved still,” he said. “Whether or not it takes the form of something that feels ‘futuristic or advanced’ like a Labster versus something that is maybe a little more nuts and bolts in the background on the administration side, I think there are still so many things available in market.”

But on the other side of grassroots efforts comes long-awaited exits. Chiu is optimistic about the exit environment over the next five years.

“As these companies start to eclipse or get over $100 million in terms of revenue, many of them are going to be in prime position to go public,” he said. “There’s a handful of companies in our portfolio who fall into that bucket.”

In addition to the new funds, Owl announced that it has hired a number of new team members from all around the world: former Sequoia India investor Kriti Bansal, former TCV analyst John Azubuike, and former investor at George Soros’ Family Office Jenny Wang. The firm’s summer intern, Emily Bennettt, will join the team once she graduates from Harvard Business School.

The company declined to disclose the diversity metrics of its portfolio companies to date, saying that it will release the numbers in the fall.

Now with over $1.2 billion in assets under management, Owl Ventures says that it is the largest venture capital fund in the world focused solely on edtech.

#byjus, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #edtech, #ian-chiu, #masterclass, #owl-ventures, #startups, #tc

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12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris -based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #b2c, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #enterprise, #europe, #food, #france, #machine-learning, #paris, #payments, #saas, #security, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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What pandemic? Inside Boston’s scorching VC summer

Filled with innovation labs, co-working spaces and students, Boston has a ton of entrepreneurial characteristics baked into its DNA.

However, when the coronavirus swept through the country, the area’s startup scene was stress-tested as badly as other entrepreneurial hubs. Could Boston’s startups still thrive without the city’s robust in-person ecosystems? 

Last month, we answered this question broadly: Boston-area startups raised $3.7 billion in Q2, according to CB insights, a figure we hailed as “record venture capital investment in the period.” 

But while high-level, quarterly data is useful directionally, it can gloss over illustrative dips and peaks. In 2020, things changed fast.

So, for this month’s Boston-focused column, we looked at the city’s venture capital data on a month-by-month basis to answer the question, “How did the pandemic impact deal-making in the city?” 

New PitchBook data show that Boston-area startups saw a venture capital dip after March through April, two early pandemic months here in the United States. However, May and the following months more than made up for the decline. In fact, Boston-area startups raised more private capital during summer 2020 than they did in summer 2019, suggesting that the pandemic and its ensuing technological and economic changes have not hurt the area startups in aggregate, but instead provided a net boon.

Inside Boston’s turbulent venture capital summer

Let’s start with a look at the data in chart form. We asked PitchBook for a look at Boston’s venture results on a monthly basis since 2019.

Image Credits: Data and graph via PitchBook.

Looking at private capital data for Boston-based companies, we see that December was a very strong month compared to the rest of Q4 2019, but that it was also easily bested by January. February and March were more quiet, leading us into the pandemic era. But surprisingly, April wasn’t a complete mess with more than $1 billion in funds invested. May posted a sharp improvement in dollar terms, and June was best of all months in the year so far.

#boston, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #finance, #pitchbook-data, #tc, #venture-capital

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IFA’s executive director discusses why the tech show must go on

In June, the CTA announced that CES 2021 would go forward in-person. The event was set to have slipped under the wire — having narrowly avoided a COVID-19-related shutdown two years in a row. A month later, however, its organizers reversed course, announcing the January show was going virtual. Disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising.

The past five months have seen one in-person show cancellation after another, from MWC to E3, from WWDC to Computex to our own Disrupt, which is going online-only for the first time. One major consumer electronics trade show, on the other hand, has long planned to buck that trend. On September 3, IFA will kick off in-person in Berlin. Though this year’s event will look dramatically different.

“Usually, we have more than 40 halls serving IFA . This year, at the moment, we have two halls for the press conference with the stages, one exhibition hall, one press center hall and one hall for IFA Next and Shift Mobility,” the organization’s executive director Jens Heithecker explains on the phone from Germany. “We will have around 170-180 exhibitors, compared to 2,300 last year.”

Heithecker doesn’t mask the melancholy in his voice when discussing this year’s version of the show. “To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” he says. “This year for me, the air’s the same, but whenever I see the halls, the area of our exhibition site, it’s empty, more or less.”

I’ve attended IFA several times over the years, and have always been struck by the organizational chaos. Every tech trade show has some element of this, of course, but IFA opens itself up the public, filling the maze like halls of the Messe Berlin convention center with a peculiar mix of industry professionals and local families with small children. It’s alternately amusing and maddening, depending on how much time you give yourself to get from point A to point B.

This year’s show has been designated IFA 2020 Special Edition. It’s essentially a nice way of noting that the show will be significantly smaller than in years past. Heithecker notes that some 1,100 members of the press have registered for the show, all from a limited invite list. I was on the invite list as well, but, like many, simply opted not to go. Frankly, the idea of flying to German to stand inside an event hall with exhibitors and fellow journalists sounds far less appealing than following along from home.

I’m sure my own sense of safety is colored by my home country’s less-than-ideal handling of the pandemic. But with 24.5 million global cases and 833,000 deaths to date from the virus, there’s still cause for concern, as numbers continue to rise around the globe. Germany has, of course, largely done well in its own handling of the novel coronavirus, but there’s cause for concern even there. With numbers rising, the country has put reopening plans on pause while other European countries like Norway have added German travelers to a quarantine list.

“By end of March, we started to create our statistics on our own, to understand the situation a better way than in the public media only,” says Heithecker. “The rising number in Germany — at least in the northern part of Germany — is created mainly by the double number of tested people. This means the ratio of positively tested people is the same like before. So we will find more people by the situation, the general situation is not going worse in the northern part. We have more tested because the German government is fearing, at the moment, all the people coming back from their holidays in the south, especially, in the south of Europe. That’s the main reason at the moment that we are following so close all the figures every day.”

The nature of the limited guest list means that social distancing will be significantly easier for attendees to practice than they have been in past years, when members of the press have been elbowing small children out of the way in order to get a good show of the latest ASUS gaming laptop. Of course, simply having more space doesn’t necessarily mean that guests will keep to the mask and social distance requirements (1.5 meters) that IFA posts.

“We have so many additional people watching out for our attendees, that they will wear masks, that they will keep the distances,” Heithecker explains. He adds that attendees will be removed from the premises for refusing to adhere to such social safety rules, but that such a move, understandably, is a last resort.

The organization notably pulled the plug on the Global Markets portion of the show, citing “persistent travel restrictions prevent Asian companies from joining the live event.” The event, launched in 2016 for OEMs/ODMs, retailers and distributors, drew a significant portion of exhibitions and attendees from Asian countries. In late June, Samsung announced that it would be pulling out of the show, opting instead for its own Unpacked event just ahead of IFA.

Heithecker believes that Samsung’s decision was based on word from the hardware giant’s U.K. offices. “Two months, three months ago, they couldn’t imagine that any journalist would attend IFA,” he tells TechCrunch. “And even if you told them, ‘Hey, we have all the registrations already, they will come,’ they didn’t believe.”

He adds that he thinks the company is essentially riding the show’s presence to add views, but that Samsung will ultimately regret not directly taking part in the show. “Samsung is doing the press conference in front of this year’s IFA, using the attention we create for the industry, for new products, using the power, the activity of IFA as well, even if they’re not inside our show,” Heithecker says. “We create this and we will bring the proof that whoever is attending or using our new platform, even for online presentations, will see a bigger impact and much more viewers and much more investment than if you do it on your own.”

#berlin, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #events, #hardware, #health, #ifa, #ifa-2020, #samsung

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To reach scale, Juni Learning is building a full-stack edtech experience

 Juni Learning connects kids with math and science tutors, but co-founder Vivian Shen would prefer not to be lumped in with other edtech startups, despite the sector’s pandemic-born boom.

“We’re not just in the middle to take a few percentage points off of each side and pretend like we’re delivering value,” said Shen. “That’s not scalable.”

Semantics aside, Shen’s words underscore a truth about live tutoring businesses: Anyone can start one. All it takes is smart friends, eager students and a platform to bring them together.

The low barrier of entry has given rise to a slew of new startups. Some view edtech as a marketplace play, others go the gig economy route, and some are trying to make tutoring as simple as calling an Uber — on-demand and only when you need it.

Juni Learning, co-founded by Shen and Ruby Lee, is entering a fragmented and fatigued market full of better-funded and well-known startups. The startup views itself as a consumer play instead of an edtech startup and raised a $10.5 million Series A back in February to prove it can take a slice of the market.

With only 4,000 active subscribers, Juni Learning is bringing in $10 million in annual run revenue (ARR), compared to $2 million of ARR in March, according to my calculations.

So how is it faring?

A word of warning

In 2005, Andrew Geant was thinking about two-sided gig economy marketplaces. He applied the model to tutoring, thinking he could grow a business from connecting students and tutors online to meet offline. So, Geant and Mike Weishuhn, both recent Princeton graduates, founded Wyzant.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #edtech, #education, #forerunner-ventures, #juni-learning, #outschool, #remote-learning, #ruby-lee, #startups, #tc, #vivian-shen, #wyzant

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COVID-19 is driving demand for low-code apps

Now that the great Y Combinator rush is behind us, we’re returning to a topic many of you really seem to care about: no-code and low-code apps and their development.

We’ve explored the theme a few times recently, once from a venture-capital perspective, and another time building from a chat with the CEO of Claris, an Apple subsidiary and an early proponent of low-code work.

Today we’re adding notes from a call with Appian CEO Matt Calkins that took place yesterday shortly after the company released its most recent earnings report.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Appian is built on low-code development. And, having gone public back in 2017, it is the first low-code IPO we can think of. With its Q2 results reported on August 6, we wanted to dig a bit more into what Calkins is seeing in today’s market so we can better understand what is driving demand for low, and no-code development specifically, and demand for business apps more generally in 2020.

As you can imagine, COVID-19 and the accelerating digital transformation are going to come up in our notes. But, first, let’s take a look at Appian’s quarter quickly before digging into how its low-code-focused CEO sees the world.

Results, expectations

Appian had a pretty good Q2. The company reported $66.8 million in revenue for the three-month period, ahead of market expectations that it would report around $61 million, though collected analyst estimates varied. The low-code platform also beat on per-share profit, reporting a $0.12 per-share loss after adjustments. Analysts had expected a far worse $0.25 per-share deficit.

The period was better than expected, certainly, but it was not a quarter that showed sharp year-over-year growth. There’s a reason for that: Appian is currently shedding professional services revenue (lower-margin, human-powered stuff) for subscription incomes (higher-margin, software-powered stuff). So, as it exchanges one type of revenue for another with total subscription revenue rising a little over 12% in Q2 2020 compared to the year-ago quarter, and professional services revenue falling around 10%, the company’s growth will be slow but the resulting revenue mix improvement is material.

And most importantly, inside of its larger subscription result for the quarter ($41.4 million) were its cloud subscription revenues, worth $29.6 million for the quarter and up 30% compared to the year-ago period. Summing, the company’s least lucrative revenues are falling as its most lucrative accelerate at the fastest clip of any of its cohorts. That’s what you’d want to see if you are an Appian bull.

Shares in the technology company are up around 45% this year. And with that, we can get started.

#appian, #artificial-intelligence, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #developer, #enterprise, #low-code, #no-code, #tc, #the-exchange

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