A mildly insane idea for disabling the coronavirus

Colorful blobs cluster together like a bunch of grapes.

Enlarge / Diagram of the structure of the virus’ spike protein. (credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin)

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first recognized for the threat that it is, researchers scrambled to find anything that might block the virus’ spread. While vaccines have grabbed much of the attention lately, there was also the hope that we could develop a therapy that would block the worst effects of the virus. Most of these have been extremely practical: identify enzymes that are essential for the virus to replicate, and test drugs that block similar enzymes from other viruses. These drugs are designed to be relatively easy to store and administer and, in some cases, have already been tested for safety in humans, making them reasonable choices for getting something ready for use quickly.

But the tools we’ve developed in biotechnology allow us to do some far less practical things, and a paper released today describes how they can be put to use to inactivate SARS-CoV-2. This is in no way a route to a practical therapy, but it does provide a fantastic window into what we can accomplish by manipulating biology.

Throw it in the trash

The whole effort described in the new paper is focused on a simple idea: if you figure out how to wreck one of the virus’ key proteins, it won’t be able to infect anything. And, conveniently, our cells have a system for destroying proteins, since that’s often a useful thing to do. In some cases, the proteins that are destroyed are damaged; in others, the proteins are made and destroyed at elevated paces to allow the cell to respond to changing conditions rapidly. In a few cases, changes in the environment or the activation of signaling pathways can trigger widespread protein destruction, allowing the cell to quickly alter its behavior.

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#biology, #biotechnology, #coronavirus, #genetic-engineering, #science, #spike-protein, #ubiquitin

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

#astrazeneca, #biotech, #ceo, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #moderna, #oxford, #pfizer, #pharmaceutical, #tc, #united-states, #vaccine, #vaccines

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YouTube suspends and demonetizes One America News Network over COVID-19 video

YouTube today confirmed that it has suspended right-wing cable channel One America News Network (OAN or OANN for short). The penalty comes after a violation of YouTube’s stated COVID-19 misinformation guidelines. As a result, the network will be barred from posting new videos for a week, while its existing videos will also be demonetized for that period.

A spokesperson for the Google-owned video service offered the following statement to TechCrunch:

Since early in this pandemic, we’ve worked to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation associated with COVID-19 on YouTube. After careful review, we removed a video from OANN and issued a strike on the channel for violating our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content claiming there’s a guaranteed cure. Additionally, due to repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policy and other channel monetization policies, we’ve suspended the channel from the YouTube Partner Program and as a result, its monetization on YouTube.

The service has a three-strikes policy in place, with the first two strikes carrying their own policies. In addition to the above actions, the offending video has been pulled from the channel. This is OAN’s first strike. Per the site:

If we find your content doesn’t follow our policies for a second time, you’ll get a strike.

This means you won’t be able to do the following for one week:

  • Upload videos, live streams, or stories
  • Create custom thumbnails or Community posts
  • Created, edit, or add collaborators to playlists
  • Add or remove playlists from the watch page using the “Save” button

Full privileges will be restored automatically after the 1-week period, but your strike will remain on your channel for 90 days.

A second strike in a 90-day period would result in a two-week suspension. A third strike in a 90-day period would result in the channel’s termination.

OAN has become a personal favorite for Trump and his administration recently, particularly in the wake of fallout between the president and Fox News, after that long-favorite cable network called the recent election for opponent Joe Biden.

One America News also came under fire for videos like “Trump Won,” which falsely reported on the election’s results. YouTube opted not to pull that video over disinformation concerns, instead adding a warning and removing ads from the video, noting, “[w]e will continue to be vigilant in the post-election period.”

#apps, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #one-america-news-network, #policy, #trump, #youtube

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Uber refused permission to dismiss 11 staff at its EMEA HQ

Uber has been refused permission to dismiss 11 people at its EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam by the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), the ride hailing company has confirmed.

The affected individuals did not take up an earlier severance offer as part of wider Uber layoffs earlier this year.

Uber announced major global layoffs of around 15% of its workforce in May — which included around 200 staff based in Amsterdam — blaming the cuts on changes to demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week, Dutch newspaper NRC reported that Uber had been refused permission to fire the staff as the UWV had found there were no grounds for dismissal.

Per its report, affected Uber employees had faced pressure to accept Uber’s severance offer — saying they were disconnected from its internal systems the day after being informed of termination via Zoom video call and were then sent daily reminders to accept dismissal with Uber telling them ‘their position was ceasing to exist’.

Dutch law requires employers to obtain approval from the UWV for planned redundancies. But the majority of the affected staff in this instance accepted its severance offer before the agency had made a decision. Local press reports suggest many of those affected were expats — who may have been unaware of their labor rights under Dutch law.

We reached out to Uber with questions — and a company spokesperson sent us this statement:

Earlier this year we made the difficult decision to reduce our global headcount due to the dramatic impact of the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature of any eventual recovery. The headcount reductions in our EMEA Headquarters in Amsterdam are part of those efforts.

Uber also told us it does not agree with the UWV’s decision to refuse permission for it to dismiss the 11 employees who had not accepted severance, adding that it will review the decision before determining how to proceed.

It said the severance packages offered to the ~200 affected employees included at least 2.5 months of salary, health benefits to the end of the year, outplacement/recruitment support and additional support for Uber-sponsored visa holders.

#amsterdam, #coronavirus, #europe, #layoffs, #ride-hailing, #transportation, #uber

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Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today

Two of the companies behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their preventative treatment with an application to be delivered today. Pfizer and BioNTech, who revealed earlier this week that their vaccine was 95% effective based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, are submitting for the emergency authorization in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.K., and says that could pave the way for use of the vaccine to begin in “high-risk populations” by the end of next month.

The FDA’s EUA program allows therapeutics companies to seek early approval when mitigating circumstances are met, as is the case with the current global pandemic. EUA’s still require that supporting information and safety data are provided, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process typically used for new drugs and treatments that come before they’re able to actually be administered broadly.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate, which is an mRNA-based vaccine that essentially provides a recipient’s body with instructions on how to produce specific proteins to block the ability of SARS-CoV-19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to attach to cells. The vaccine has recently been undergoing a Phase 3 clinical trial, that included 43,661 participants so far. The companies are submitting supporting information they hope will convince the FDA to grant the EUA, including data from 170 confirmed cases from among the participants, and safety information actively solicited from 8,000 participants, and supplementary data form another 38,000 who that was passively collected.

While production is ramping globally for this and other vaccines in late stage development, and EUA will potentially open up access to high-risk individuals including frontline healthcare workers, it’s worth pointing out that any wide vaccination programs likely aren’t set to begin until next year, and likely later in 2021.

#australia, #biontech, #biotech, #canada, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #health, #japan, #medical-research, #medicine, #pfizer, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #vaccination, #vaccines

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Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #firework-ventures, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #re-skilling, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transfr, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in final clinical trial results analysis

Drugmaker Pfizer has provided updated analysis around its COVID-19 vaccine Phase 3 clinical trial data, saying that in the final result of its analysis of the 44,000-participant trial, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate proved 95% percent effective. This is a better efficacy rate than Pfizer reported previously, when it announced a 90% effectiveness metric based on preliminary analysis of the Phase 3 trial data.

This result also follows a preliminary data report from Moderna about their own Phase 3 trial of their vaccine candidate, which they reported showed 94.5% effectiveness. Pfizer and partner BioNTech’s vaccine is an mRNA-based preventative treatment, similar to the Moderna one, and now it looks like they should be roughly similar in efficacy – at least in the early offing, based on a limited sample of total cases and prior to peer review by the scientific community, which is yet to come.

The Pfizer data in its final analysis shows that among a total of 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far among the 44,000 people who took part in the study, 162 cases came from the placebo group while only eight were from the group of those who received the actual vaccine candidate. The company also reported that 9 out of 10 of the severe cases among those who were infected occurred in the placebo group, suggesting that even in the rare occasion that the vaccine didn’t prevent contraction of COVID-19, it helped reduce its severity.

This should help Pfizer make its case that it be granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be able to provide the vaccine early pending full and final approval as an emergency measure. Earlier this week, the company reported that it has already collected two months’ worth of follow-up data about participants in its trial, which is a required component for said approval, and it’s pursuing it with hopes of seeking that EUA “within days.” The company intends to ramp production of its vaccine beginning later this year, and achieving a run rate of up to 1.3 billion doses by next year.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #moderna, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccine, #vaccines

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Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

In the wake of COVID-19 this spring, construction sites across the nation emptied out alongside neighboring restaurants, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments. Debates ensued over whether the construction industry’s seven million employees should be considered “essential,” while regulations continued to shift on the operation of job sites. Meanwhile, project demand steadily shrank.

Amidst the chaos, construction firms faced an existential question: How will they survive? This question is as relevant today as it was in April. As one of the least-digitized sectors of our economy, construction is ripe for technology disruption.

Construction is a massive, $1.3 trillion industry in the United States — a complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, architects, general contractors, subcontractors and more. While each construction project has a combination of these key roles, the construction process itself is highly variable depending on the asset type. Roughly 41% of domestic construction value is in residential property, 25% in commercial property and 34% in industrial projects. Because each asset type, and even subassets within these classes, tends to involve a different set of stakeholders and processes, most construction firms specialize in one or a few asset groups.

Regardless of asset type, there are four key challenges across construction projects:

High fragmentation: Beyond the developer, architect, engineer and general contractor, projects could involve hundreds of subcontractors with specialized expertise. As the scope of the project increases, coordination among parties becomes increasingly difficult and decision-making slows.

Poor communication: With so many different parties both in the field and in the office, it is often difficult to relay information from one party to the next. Miscommunication and poor project data accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction job sites, costing the industry over $31 billion annually according to FMI research.

Lack of data transparency: Manual data collection and data entry are still common on construction sites. On top of being laborious and error-prone, the lack of real-time data is extremely limited, therefore decision-making is often based on outdated information.

Skilled labor shortage: The construction workforce is aging faster than the younger population that joins it, resulting in a shortage of labor particularly for skilled trades that may require years of training and certifications. The shortage drives up labor costs across the industry, particularly in the residential sector, which traditionally sees higher attrition due to its more variable project demand.

A construction tech boom

Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper. The lack of tech sophistication on construction sites materially contributes to job delays, missed budgets and increased job site safety risk. Technology startups are emerging to help solve these problems.

Here are the main categories in which we’re seeing construction tech startups emerge.

1. Project conception

  • How it works today: During a project’s conception, asset owners and/or developers develop site proposals and may work with lenders to manage the project financing.
  • Key challenges: Processes for managing construction loans are cumbersome and time intensive today given the complexity of the loan draw process.
  • How technology can address challenges: Design software such as Spacemaker AI can help developers create site proposals, while construction loan financing software such as Built Technologies and Rabbet are helping lenders and developers manage the draw process in a more efficient manner.

2. Design and engineering

  • How it works today: Developers work with design, architect and engineering teams to turn ideas into blueprints.
  • Key challenges: Because the design and engineering teams are often siloed from the contractors, it’s hard for designers and engineers to know the real-time impact of their decisions on the ultimate cost or timing of the project. Lack of coordination with construction teams can lead to time-consuming changes.
  • How technology can address challenges: Of all the elements of the construction process, the design and engineering process itself is the most technologically sophisticated today, with relatively high adoption of software like Autodesk to help with design documentation, specification development, quality assurance and more. Autodesk is moving downstream to offer a suite of solutions that includes construction management, providing more connectivity between the teams.

    #artificial-intelligence, #banking, #column, #construction, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #document-management, #financial-services, #labor, #machine-learning, #project-management, #real-estate, #startups, #venture-capital

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Trump adviser tells Michigan to “rise up” against COVID restrictions

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about to speak at an event in Southfield, Michigan, on October 16, 2020.

Enlarge / Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about to speak at an event in Southfield, Michigan, on October 16, 2020. (credit: Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images)

One of the Trump administration’s top coronavirus advisers called for Michigan residents to “rise up” against their state government to resist temporary coronavirus mitigation measures—barely one month after several men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap and assassinate the state’s governor.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Sunday issued a new emergency order putting a “pause” on several nonessential businesses and activities for the next three weeks. The order closes casinos and movie theaters, halts in-person dining in bars and restaurants, and requires colleges and high schools to return to all-virtual education, among other limitations. Childcare and schools up through eighth grade can remain open, as can gyms and pools, retail locations, and personal care services such as hair salons. Gatherings of up to 25 people are also permitted outdoors.

“Right now, there are thousands of cases a day, and hundreds of deaths a week in Michigan, and the number is growing,” Whitmer said when announcing the order. “If we don’t act now, thousands more will die, and our hospitals will continue to be overwhelmed. We can get through this together by listening to health experts once again and taking action right now to slow the spread of this deadly virus.”

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #gretchen-whitmer, #policy, #scott-atlas, #trump-administration

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Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

The coronavirus has erased a large chunk of college’s value proposition: the on-campus experience.

Campuses are closed, sports have been paused and, understandably, students don’t want to pay the same tuition for a fraction of the services. As a result, enrollment is down across the country and university business models are under unrelenting pressure.

The entire athletics program at East Carolina University has been furloughed with pay cuts. Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated a number of programs to save $4 million a year. And Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University lost 1,000 students to online school within weeks of reopening its campus, sacrificing $3.5 million in room and board fees.

And that’s just in the last few weeks.

As universities struggle, edtech is being positioned as a solution for their largest problem: remote teaching. Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC), created a campus product to help schools quickly offer digital coursework. Podium Education raised millions last month to offer universities for-credit tech programs. Eruditus brought on more than $100 million in the last few months to create programming for elite universities. In some ways, the growth is the story of edtech’s ongoing surge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Remote schooling has forced institutions to piece together third-party solutions to keep operations afloat.

However, while some startups are helping universities offer virtual programming overnight, professors on the ground are warning their institutions to think long-term about what kind of technologies are net positive to adopt.

It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.

‘We’re talking about the next evolution of textbooks’

As the last eight months have taught us, Zoom-based school is a lackluster alternative to the in-person experience. College campuses, thus, are tasked with finding a more creative way to offer engaging virtual content to students who are stuck in their dorm rooms.

Coursera launched Coursera for Campus to help colleges bring on online courses (credit optional) with built-in exams; more than 3,700 schools across the world are using the software.

“Professors would really want super-high-quality branded content that has assessments built into it if they’re going to deliver that learning for credit,” CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said. “That’s not the kind of learning you can get on YouTube.”

For now, though, Maggioncalda says he doesn’t think the death of a physical college campus experience is the future. He’s betting that the product can help colleges save money on faculty costs and reinvest that same money into the campus.

“There will be schools that will continue to offer residential experience, and I think what they’re gonna find is, if your real value proposition is that residential experience, then lead into that heavily,” he said. “But make sure that you’ve got really good content and credentials that are available so that your students don’t have to sacrifice.”

Georgia Tech professor David Joyner says that MOOCs like Coursera “are good for outreach and access, but are not good for accreditation.” Instead, he thinks edtech needs to be built first and foremost for universities to be most effective.

Podium Education, for example, builds courses in partnership with universities to offer for-credit courses. The newly launched startup raised $12 million in October and works with more than 20 colleges. Eruditus, an edtech startup that raised over $100 million in September, creates courses in collaboration with more than 30 elite universities, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, IIT and more.

Coursera, Podium and Eruditus are all signaling a future where universities could be getting a plug-and-play model of asynchronously taught curriculum.

#coronavirus, #coursera, #covid-19, #education, #education-technology, #fundings-exits, #georgia-tech, #remote-learning, #tc

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Moderna reports its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5% effective in first data from Phase 3 trial

Following fast on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement of its COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, Moderna is also sharing positive results from its Phase 3 trial on Monday. The biotech company says that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate has shown efficacy of 94.5% in its first interim data analysis, which covers 95 confirmed COVID cases among its study participants, of which 90 were given the placebo, and only 5 received Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccine. Further, of 11 severe cases of COVID-19, none were found among those who received the actual vaccine candidate.

This is another very promising sign for the potential of having effective vaccines available to the public in some kind of significant volume at some point next year. As mentioned, it’s worth pointing out that this is just a first interim report, but it is data that comes from the safety board overseeing the trial appointed by the National Institutes of Health, which is an independent body not affiliated with Moderna, so it’s a reliable result that provides hope for continued and final analysis.

Moderna says that it will be submitting for an Emergency Use Authorization of its vaccine candidate based on the results within the coming weeks, looking to get approval from the FDA to use it in emergency circumstances ahead of a full and final approval. That EUA, should it be granted, will be based on data from 151 confirmed cases among the Phase 3 participant group (which included 30,000 participants in total), and data from follow-ups extending on average over two months after case confirmation.

All final data will also be submitted to the scientific community for independent peer review, which is a standard part of the ultimate vaccine trial and approval process.

Both these and Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, which it developed in partnership with BioNTech, are mRNA-based vaccines. These are relatively new in terms of human use, and differ from traditional vaccines in that they use messenger RNA to instruct a recipient’s cells to generate effective antibodies, without actually exposing them to any virus, whereas more traditional vaccines in general use typically use either small, safe doses of active or inactive virus in order to trigger a patient’s immune system to generate their own antibodies.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #messenger, #moderna, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines

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Microsoft says hackers backed by Russia and North Korea targeted COVID-19 vaccine makers

Microsoft has revealed that hackers backed by Russia and North Korea have targeted pharmaceutical companies involved in the COVID-19 vaccine development efforts.

The technology giant said Friday that the attacks targeted seven companies in the U.S., Canada, France, India, and South Korea. But while it blocked the “majority” of the attacks, Microsoft acknowledged that some were successful.

Microsoft said it had notified the affected companies, but declined to name them.

“We think these attacks are unconscionable and should be condemned by all civilized society,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s customer security and trust chief, in a blog post.

The technology giant blamed the attacks on three distinct hacker groups. The Russian group, which Microsoft calls Strontium but is better known as APT28 or Fancy Bear, used password spraying attacks to target their victims, which often involves recycled or reused passwords. Fancy Bear may be best known for its disinformation and hacking operations in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, but the group has also been blamed for a string of other high-profile attacks against media outlets and businesses.

The other two groups are backed by the North Korean regime, one of which Microsoft calls Zinc but is better known as the Lazarus Group, which used targeted spearphishing emails disguised as recruiters in an effort to steal passwords from their victims. Lazarus was blamed for the Sony hack in 2016 and the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017, as well as other malware-driven attacks.

But little is known about the other North Korea-backed hacker group, which Microsoft calls Cerium. Microsoft said the group also used targeted spearphishing emails masquerading as representatives from the World Health Organization, charged with coordinating the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Microsoft spokesperson acknowledged it was the first time the company had referenced Cerium, but the company did not offer more.

This is the latest effort by hackers trying to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for their own goals. Earlier this year, the FBI and Homeland Security warned that hackers would try to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

Today’s news coincides with the Paris Peace Forum, where Microsoft president Brad Smith will urge governments to do more to combat cyberattacks against the healthcare sector, particularly during the pandemic.

“Microsoft is calling on the world’s leaders to affirm that international law protects health care facilities and to take action to enforce the law,” Burt said. “We believe the law should be enforced not just when attacks originate from government agencies but also when they originate from criminal groups that governments enable to operate — or even facilitate — within their borders.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #government, #hacking, #health, #microsoft, #nation-state, #national-security, #security

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Coronavirus outbreak at White House grows as US tops 10 million cases

A man in a suit speaks at a podium.

Enlarge / US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on August 27, 2020, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Nicholas Kamm)

The United States surpassed 10 million coronavirus cases Monday as yet another cluster within the White House grew to at least eight.

Ben Carson, a 69-year-old neurosurgeon and the current secretary of housing and urban development, tested positive for the virus early Monday. This afternoon, news broke that David Bossie, one of President Donald Trump’s advisors, is also infected with the pandemic virus and tested positive Sunday.

The two new positive cases connected to Trump and the White House follow reports late Friday of six cases in the White House, including Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, Trump campaign advisor Nick Trainer, and four unnamed aides. Meadows reportedly told staff he had tested positive last Wednesday.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #superspreader, #trump, #white-house

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Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine proves 90% effective in first results from Phase 3 clinical trial

The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech has shown to be effective blocking vaccine in 90 percent of participants in its Phase 3 clinical trial, the companies announced on Monday. That’s based on data analyzed by an external, independent committee assigned to check the results of the trial, and reflects only early results from the trial, and not the final verified result, but it’s still extremely promising news for progress towards a viable and more broadly available vaccine.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate is an mRNA-based vaccine, which is a newer technology that many companies pursued for COVID-19 in part because it offers some advantages in pace of development and potential efficacy. These results from the test were based on an equable case total of 94 confirmed COVID-19 cases among study participants – passing the minimum threshold agreed to by the companies and the FDA of 62 confirmed cases for a proper, scientifically rigorous assessment.

The Phase 3 trial conducted by the companies included 43,358 participants, and Pfizer reports “no serious safety concerns have been observed” thus far in addition to the positive prevention rate. Based on this early data, individuals who receive the vaccine are protected at 28 days after first dose, and the vaccine uses a two-dose process.

There is still additional safety testing and continued studies to conduct, with the companies estimating that two full months of safety data (which is what the FDA requires for Emergency Use Authorization) will be available in the third week of this month. Participants will also be monitored for two full years after they receive their second and final dose in order to test for long-term effects. Pfizer still thinks that it can produce up to 50 million doses of its vaccine by the end of this year, and as many as 1.3 billion doses through 2021.

Full data from this trial still need to undergo peer-review by other researchers and scientific publications, but this is definitely the most promising and clearly positive news yet from the vaccine development front, and could mean that large-scale distribution of a vaccine begins even before the end of 2020 if all goes well.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines

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New coronavirus outbreak in Trump White House as Biden celebrates victory

President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 6, 2020.

Enlarge / President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 6, 2020. (credit: Getty | Angela Weiss)

As President-elect Joe Biden celebrates reports of his victory in a historic election, his incoming administration is facing the daunting task of getting the raging coronavirus pandemic under control—and so far, his team is wasting no time in laying ground work.

“We’re not waiting to get the work done,” Biden said in a speech on Friday night. As Biden spoke, the national tally for the day’s new coronavirus cases smashed yet another record, the third in the row.

Daily new cases were over 125,500 on Friday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The last peak in the pandemic in July saw daily case reports no higher than around 76,500. It’s unclear how high the current rise in cases will go. Public health experts expect the surge to worsen as cold weather drives more people indoors, where transmission risks increase, and people will be tempted to hold gatherings for upcoming holidays.

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#coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #pandemic, #president-joseph-biden, #science, #vice-president-kamala-harris

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Europe urges ecommerce platforms to share data in fight against coronavirus scams

European lawmakers are pressing major ecommerce and media platforms to share more data with each other as a tool to fight rogue traders who are targeting consumers with coronavirus scams.

After the pandemic spread to the West Internet platforms were flooded with local ads for PPE of unknown and/or dubious quality and other dubious coronavirus offers — even after some of the firms banned such advertising.

The concern here is not only consumers being ripped off but the real risk of harm if people buy a product that does not offer the protection claimed against exposure to the virus or even get sold a bogus coronavirus ‘cure’ when none in fact exists.

In a statement today, Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice, said: “We know from our earlier experience that fraudsters see this pandemic as an opportunity to trick European consumers. We also know that working with the major online platforms is vital to protect consumers from their illegal practices. Today I encouraged the platforms to join forces and engage in a peer-to-peer exchange to further strengthen their response. We need to be even more agile during the second wave currently hitting Europe.”

The Commission said Reynders met with 11 online platforms today — including Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten and (TechCrunch’s parent entity) Verizon Media/Yahoo — to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic and push the tech companies to do more to head off a new wave of COVID-19 scams.

In March this year EU Member States’ consumer protection authorities adopted a common position on the issue. The Commission and a pan-EU network of consumer protection enforcers has been in regulator contact with the 11 platforms since then to push for a coordinated response to the threat posed by coronavirus scams.

The Commission claims the action has resulted in the platforms reporting the removal of “hundreds of millions” of illegal offers and ads. It also says they have confirmed what it describes as “a steady decline” in new coronavirus-related listings, without offering more detailed data.

In Europe, tighter regulations over what ecommerce platforms sell are coming down the pipe.

Next month regional lawmakers are set to unveil a package of legislation that will propose updates to existing ecommerce rules and aim to increase their legal responsibilities, including around illegal content and dangerous products.

In a speech last week, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc’s digital policy, said the Digital Services Act (DSA) will require platforms to take more responsibility for dealing with illegal content and dangerous products, including by standardizing processes for reporting illegal content and dealing with reports and complaints related to content.

A second legislative package that’s also due next month — the Digital Markets Act — will introduce additional rules for a sub-set of platforms considered to hold a dominant market position. This could include requirements that they make data available to rivals, with the aim of fostering competition in digital markets.

MEPs have also pushed for a ‘know your business customer’ principle to be included in the DSA.

Simultaneously, the Commission has been pressing for social media platforms to open up about what it described in June as a coronavirus “infodemic” — in a bid to crack down on COVID-19-related disinformation.

Today the Commission gave an update on actions taken in the month of September by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and TikTok to combat coronavirus disinformation — publishing its third set of monitoring reports. Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, said more needs to be done there too.

“Viral spreading of disinformation related to the pandemic puts our citizens’ health and safety at risk. We need even stronger collaboration with online platforms in the coming weeks to fight disinformation effectively,” he said in a statement. 

The platforms are signatories of the EU’s (non-legally binding) Code of Practice on disinformation.

Legally binding transparency rules for platforms on tackling content such as illegal hate speech look set to be part of the DSA package. Though it remains to be seen how the fuzzier issue of ‘harmful content’ (such as disinformation attached to a public health crisis) will be tackled.

A European Democracy Action Plan to address the disinformation issue is also slated before the end of the year.

In a pointed remark accompanying the Commission’s latest monitoring reports today, Vera Jourová, VP for values and transparency, said: “Platforms must step up their efforts to become more transparent and accountable. We need a better framework to help them do the right thing.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #disinformation, #ecommerce, #europe, #platform-regulation, #policy

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Coronavirus cases skyrocket: Over 116,000 new cases, 53,000 hospitalized

Workers in full gowns, masks, face shields, and gloves work at a table to process tests for COVID-19

Enlarge / Coronavirus testing in Wisconsin, November 2. (credit: Getty | Star Tribune)

The United States on Wednesday reached an alarming milestone in its failed pandemic response: a day’s tally of new coronavirus cases reached over 100,000 for the first time. But the record was short-lived. Today, Thursday, new cases surpassed 116,000.

The country’s third spike in cases is now towering over those before it, which saw peaks of daily new cases no higher than around 76,500. It’s unclear how high the new peak will ultimately get, but it’s likely that Friday will see yet another frightening record.

Overall, the country has seen a 20 percent jump in cases since last week, according to The COVID Tracking Project. While nearly every state in the country is seeing cases increase to some extent, the areas propelling the rise are the Midwest and the Mountain West. In fact, the Midwest’s current number of cases per capita are well above that of any other region during the pandemic, the Project notes in a blog post Thursday.

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#cases, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #hospitalization, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Mink variant of coronavirus spreads to humans in Denmark; full cull planned

An adorable furry creature looks out of a cage.

Enlarge / A mink is photographed in a farm in Hjoerring, in North Jutland, Denmark, on October 8, 2020. (credit: Getty | MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN)

A genetic variant of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, found in mink has spread from the animals to at least 12 people in Denmark, the prime minister said at a press conference Wednesday. The government is now planning to cull all the mink on Danish farms, which are estimated to have between 15 and 17 million of the animals.

“It is very, very serious,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said, according to the Associated Press.

It’s so far unclear how the genetic variation found in infected mink could actually affect humans. Researchers who track genetic variations in SARS-CoV-2 have not yet seen data on the mink strain and cautioned people not to be overly concerned.

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#coronavirus, #denmark, #infectious-disease, #mink, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccines

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Booming edtech M&A activity brings consolidation to a fragmented sector

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force teachers, students and parents to adopt new technologies, edtech’s total addressable market has massively grown in the last several months. The shift has urged venture capitalists to pour money into the sector accordingly, ushering a number of startups into the unicorn club.

But maturation doesn’t just mean bigger checks and high-flying unicorns — it also brings exits.

Edtech M&A activity is buzzier than usual: In the last week, Course Hero, a startup that sells Netflix-like subscriptions to students looking for learning and teaching content, bought Symbolab, an artificial intelligence-powered calculator. Saga Education, a tutoring nonprofit backed by Comcast, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, acquired math software platform Woot Math. We also saw PowerSchool, which sells a suite of software services to manage schools, scoop up Hoonuit, a data management and analytics tool for educators. Finally, K-12 curriculum company Discovery Education bought K-5 science and stem curriculum upstart Mystery Science.

It’s a lot of news in a short period of time. Luckily, these consolidations offer some directional guidance regarding where some edtech businesses think the future of their industry is headed.

Smart content as a competitive advantage

Content, to an extent, is commoditized. If you can find a free tutorial on Youtube or Khan Academy, buy a subscription to an edtech platform that offers the same solution? The commodification of education is good for end-users and is often why startups have a freemium model as a customer acquisition strategy. To convert free users into paying subscribers, edtech startups need to offer differentiated and targeted content.

The Course Hero and Mystery Science deals show us that edtech businesses are hungry for personalized, targeted content. Course Hero’s acquisition of Symbolab was essentially a deal for more than a decade’s worth of data that captured which math questions students found hardest.

Symbolab is a math calculator that is set to answer over 1 billion questions this year. With each answer, Symbolab adds information to its algorithm regarding students’ most common pain points and confusion. Course Hero, in contrast, is a broader service that focuses on Q&A from a variety of subjects. CEO Andrew Grauer says Symbolab’s algorithm isn’t something that Course Hero, which has been operating since 2006, can drum up overnight. That’s precisely why he “decided to buy, instead of build.”

“It made a lot of sense to move fast enough so it wouldn’t take up multiple years to get this technology,” Grauer said. The deal was made as big companies get in the Q&A game too, he noted. Google acquired homework helper app Socratic in 2019 and Microsoft built Microsoft Solver in the same year.

Discovery Education, a curriculum provider for K-12 classrooms, acquired San Francisco-based K-5 STEM curriculum provider, Mystery Science. Discovery Education has launched a series of other products focused on science education, including Discovery Education Experience, the Science Techbook series and STEM Connect.  However, Mystery Science is largely focused on offering a creative digital solution to science education. The programming, a mix of videos, prompts and projects, cover a range of questions such as, “Where do rivers flow?” and “Could a volcano pop up where you live?” for young students.

Mystery Science CEO and founder Keith Schact explained how his product focuses on kids and educators, while Discovery Education focuses on educators and districts, making the deal feel like a “natural marriage.” Even as edtech goes directly to consumers, Schact remains bullish on the role that institutions play in true adoption of technology.

“You can go straight to teachers and get a certain market share,” he said. “But the institutions still do have a big role.” The founder likened the dynamic to the state of media: With the rise of blogs, you can publish directly and reach an engaged audience, but writers who want a bigger positioning tend to join larger platforms to grow their overall reach. Edtech is the same, in that some startups need an official sign-off from schools before they can reach venture-scale returns.

According to a source familiar with the transaction, Mystery Science was sold for $175 million after only raising $4 million in venture financing.

Using data management and analytics to improve student outcomes

#andrew-grauer, #coronavirus, #coursehero, #covid-19, #edtech, #education, #fundings-exits, #ma, #powerschool, #startups, #symbolab, #tc

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Cough-scrutinizing AI shows major promise as an early warning system for COVID-19

Asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 is a huge contributor to the pandemic, but of course if there are no symptoms, how can anyone tell they should isolate or get a test? MIT research has found that hidden in the sound of coughs is a pattern that subtly, but reliably, marks a person as likely to be in the early stages of infection. It could make for a much-needed early warning system for the virus.

The sound of one’s cough can be very revealing, as doctors have known for many years. AI models have been built to detect conditions like pneumonia, asthma, and even neuromuscular diseases, all of which alter how a person coughs in different ways.

Before the pandemic, researcher Brian Subirana had shown that coughs may even help predict Alzheimer’s — mirroring results from IBM research published just a week ago. More recently, Subirana thought if the AI was capable of telling so much from so little, perhaps COVID-19 might be something it could suss out as well. In fact, he isn’t the first to think so.

He and his team set up a site where people could contribute coughs, and ended up assembling “the largest research cough dataset that we know of.” Thousands of samples were used to train up the AI model, which they document in an open access IEEE journal.

The model seems to have detected subtle patterns in vocal strength, sentiment, lung and respiratory performance, and muscular degradation, to the point where it was able to identify 100 percent of coughs by asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers and 98.5 percent of symptomatic ones, with a specificity of 83 and 94 percent respectively, meaning it doesn’t have large numbers of false positives or negatives.

“We think this shows that the way you produce sound, changes when you have COVID, even if you’re asymptomatic,” said Subirana of the surprising finding. However he cautioned that although the system was good at detecting non-healthy coughs, it should not be used as a diagnosis tool for people with symptoms but unsure of the underlying cause.

I asked Subirana for a bit more clarity on this point.

“The tool is detecting features that allow it to discriminate the subjects that have COVID from the ones that don’t,” he wrote in an email. “Previous research has shown you can pick up other conditions too. One could design a system that would discriminate between many conditions but our focus was on picking out COVID from the rest.”

For the statistics-minded out there, the incredibly high success rate may raise some red flags. Machine learning models are great at a lot of things, but 100 percent isn’t a number you see a lot, and when you do you start thinking of other ways it might have been produced by accident. No doubt the findings will need to be proven on other datasets and verified by other researchers, but it’s also possible that there’s simply a reliable tell in COVID-induced coughs that a computer listening system can hear quite easily.

The team is collaborating with several hospitals to build a more diverse dataset, but is also working with a private company to put together an app to distribute the tool for wider use, if it can get FDA approval.

#artificial-intelligence, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #machine-learning, #mit, #science, #tc

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Teachers are leaving schools. Will they come to startups next?

It wasn’t the lingering exhaustion that made Christine Huang, a New York public school teacher, leave the profession. Or the low pay. Or the fact that she rarely had time to spend with her kids after the school day due to workload demands.

Instead, Huang left teaching after seven years because of how New York City handled the coronavirus pandemic in schools.

“Honestly, I have no confidence in the city,” she says. Tensions between educators and NYC officials grew over the past few weeks, as school openings were delayed twice and staffing shortages continue. In late September, the union representing NYC’s principals called on the state to take control of the situation, slamming Mayor de Blasio for his inability to offer clear guidance.

Now, schools are open and the number of positive coronavirus cases are surprisingly low. Still, Huang says there’s a lack of grace given to teachers in this time.

Huang wanted the flexibility to work from home to take care of her kids who could no longer get daycare. But her school said that, while kids have the choice on whether or not to come into class, teachers do not. She gave her notice days later.

There are more than 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Over the years, thousands have left the system due to low pay and rigid hours. But the coronavirus is a different kind of stress test. As schools seesaw between open and closed, some teachers are left without direction, feeling undervalued and underutilized. The confusion could usher numbers of other teachers out of the field, and massively change the teacher economy as we know it.

Teacher departures are a loss for public schools, but an opportunity for startups racing to win a share of the changing teacher economy. Companies don’t have the same pressures as entire school districts, and thus are able to give teachers a way to teach on more flexible hours. As for salaries, edtech benefits from going directly to consumers, making money less of a budget challenge and more of a sell to parents’ wallets.

There’s Outschool, which allows teachers to lead small-group classes on subjects such as algebra, beginner reading or even mindfulness for kids; Varsity Tutor, which connects educators to K-12 students in need of extra help; and companies such as Swing and Prisma that focus on pod-based learning taught by teachers.

The startups all have different versions of the same pitch: they can offer teachers more money, and flexibility, than the status quo.

Underpaid and overworked teachers

There’s a large geographic discrepancy in pay among teachers. Salaries are decided on a state-by-state and district-by-district level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a teacher who works in Mississippi makes an average of $45,574 annually, while a teacher in New York makes an average of $82,282 annually.

Although cost of living factors impacts teacher salaries like any other profession, data shows that teachers are underpaid as a profession. According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, teachers earn 19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals. A 2018 study by the Department of Education shows that full-time public school teachers are earning less on average, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they earned in 1990.

The variance of salaries among teachers means that there’s room, and a need, for rebalancing. Startups, looking to get a slice of the teacher economy, suddenly can form an entire pitch around these discrepancies. What if a company can help a Mississippi teacher make a wage similar to a New York teacher?

light bulb flickering on and off

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Reach Capital is a venture capital firm whose partners invest in education technology companies. Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of the firm, who also worked in the Chicago Public School system for years, sees coronavirus as an accelerator, not a trigger, for the departure of teachers.

“We have a system and education system where teachers are underpaid, overworked, and you don’t have the flexibility that has become so important for workers now,” she said. “All these things have caused teachers to seek opportunity outside of the traditional schooling system.”

Carolan, who penned an op-ed about teachers leaving the public school system, says that new pathways for teachers are emerging out of the homeschooling tech sector. One of her investments, Outschool, has helped teachers earn tens of millions this year alone, as the total addressable market for what it means to be “homeschooled” changed overnight.

Gig economy powered by startups

Education technology services have created a teacher gig economy over the past few years. Learning platforms, with unprecedented demand, must attract teachers to their service with one of two deal sweeteners: higher wages or more flexible hours.

Outschool is a platform that sells small-group classes led by teachers on a large expanse of topics, from Taylor Swift Spanish class to engineering lessons through Lego challenges. In the past year, teachers on Outschool have made more than $40 million in aggregate, up from $4 million in total earnings the year prior.

CEO Amir Nathoo estimates that teachers are able to make between $40 to $60 per hour, up from an average of $30 per hour in earnings in traditional public schools. Outschool itself has surged over 2,000% in new bookings, and recently turned its first profit.

Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

The company has added 10,000 vetted teachers to its platform, up from 1,000 in March.

Outschool competitor Varsity Tutors is taking a different approach entirely, focusing less on hyperscaling its teacher base and more on slow, gradual growth. In August, Varsity Tutors launched a homeschooling offering meant to replace traditional school. It onboarded 120 full-time educators, who came from public schools and charter schools, with competitive salaries. It has no specific plans to hire more full-time teachers.

Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, said that teachers came seeking more flexibility in hours. On the platform, teachers instruct for five to six hours per day, in blocks that they choose, and can build schedules around caregiver obligations or other jobs.

Varsity Tutors’ strategy is one version of pod-based learning, which gained traction a few months ago as an alternative to traditional schooling. Swing Education, a startup that used to help schools hire substitute teachers, pivoted to help connect those same teachers to full-time pod gigs. Prisma is another alternative school that trains former educators, from public and private schools, to become learning coaches.

Pod-based learning, which can in some cases cost thousands a week, was popular among wealthy families and even led to bidding wars for best teacher talent. It also was met with criticism, suggesting the product wasn’t built with most students in mind.

The reality of next job

A tech-savvy future where students can learn through the touch of a button, and where teachers can rack in higher earnings, is edtech’s goal. But that path is not accessible for all.

Some tutoring startups could create a digital divide among students who can pay for software and those who can’t. If teachers leave public schools, low-income students are left behind and high-income students are able to pay their way into supplemental learning.

Still, some don’t think it’s the job of public school teachers, the vast majority of which are female, to work for a broken system. In fact, some say that the whole concept of villainizing public school teachers for leaving the system comes with ingrained sexism that women have to settle for less. In this framework, startups are both a bridge to a better future for teachers and a symptom of failures from the public educational systems.

Huang, now on the job hunt, says that the opportunities that edtech companies are creating aren’t built for traditional teachers, even though they’re billed as such. So far, she has applied to curriculum design jobs at educational content website BrainPop, digital learning platform Newsela, math program company Zearn and Q&A content host Mystery.org.

“What I’m finding is that a lot of edtech companies don’t seem to value our skills as teachers,” she said. “They’re not looking for teachers, they’re looking for coders.”

Edtech has been forced to meet increasing demand for services in a relatively short time. But the scalability could inherently clash with what teachers came to the profession to do. Suddenly, their work becomes optimized for venture-scale returns, not general education. Huang feels the tension in her job interviews, where she feels like recruiters don’t pay attention to creativity, knowledge and human skills needed for managing students. She has created 30 different versions of her resume.

The lack of suitable jobs made Huang decide to go on childcare leave instead of quitting the education system entirely, in case she needs to return to the traditional field. She hopes that is not the case, but isn’t optimistic just yet.

“I haven’t gotten a whole lot of interviews, because people see my resume; they see that I’m a teacher, and they automatically write me off,” she said.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin (opens in a new window)

#amir-nathoo, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #gig-economy, #learning-pods, #outschool, #startups, #tc, #teacher-economy, #teachers

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Sidekick Health scores $20M for its gamified digital care platform

Nordic digital therapeutics company, Sidekick Health, has closed a $20 million Series A led by pan-European VC Wellington Partners and healthcare focused VC Asabys Partners. Existing investors, Novator and Frumtak Ventures, also participated in the oversubscribed round.

The 2014-founded startup has built a gamified digital care platform that targets chronic and lifestyle disease management via digital nudges from a helmet-wearing cartoon helper — pushing patients toward relevant information to support more beneficial lifestyle choices (e.g. taking regular exercise, or cutting down on smoking), as well as offering help with patient treatment management, such as via digital reminders for taking medication and remote patient monitoring for clinicians.

Sidekick Health’s platform addresses multiple therapeutic areas — offering what’s described as ‘evidence-based’, custom gamified digital therapeutics packages for conditions including diabetes, ulcerative colitis and smoking cessation.

This year it’s also branched out to offer support for patients with COVID-19 — an acute (rather than chronic) condition, albeit one that’s created huge and pressing challenges for healthcare providers.

The pandemic is of course more generally driving demand for digital care and remote patient monitoring as healthcare providers look for tools to help manage patients off-site — providing another tailwind for Sidekick Health’s business.

And while its gamification approach might seem more immediately suited to younger, app-savvy users, since launching the platform it says it’s worked with patients who are teenagers all the way up to people well over 80 — and now believes there are few limits on who can tap in to its digital care, assuming it can nail designing for easy access. Its software is designed to be accessible via (and integrate with) a range of connected devices.

“Our market, digital heath in general and our part of it, which you can either call digital care or digital therapeutics, has been fast growing over the past few years,” says CEO and co-founder Dr Tryggvi Thorgeirsson. “Obviously with the pandemic the whole trend has just been accelerated. That means accelerated adoption by more or less all the stakeholders in the market. And maybe especially by payers and providers.

“If you look at providers — like hospitals, clinicians — they have of course by necessity had to increase their use of digital health tools due to the pandemic. So the market was very fast growing already but with the pandemic it has really accelerated. So our customer base has been growing quite sharply now in the past six to 12 months.”

Sidekick Health doesn’t break out customer numbers but says it’s working with “several” of the top global pharma companies at this stage. While the platform reaches around 30,000 patients across different therapeutic areas via its b2b customers — with Europe it’s biggest market so far.

The new funding is going towards “further growth”, per Thorgeirsson — “both in terms of expanding the product but also accelerating our growth in both Europe and into the US market”. “We’re investing funds into the growth instead of aiming for profitability at this point,” he adds. 

New conditions he says it’s set to expand into “over the next few months” include heart failure; oncology (supporting patients with different types of cancer); and a number of metabolic conditions.

Within two years he says he wants it to be able to address over 20 different types of chronic illness (plus “a few acute ones like COVID-19”). 

Thorgeirsson also notes that people who are dealing with chronic conditions often suffer from multiple conditions — so being flexible enough to manage patients with comorbidity has been a strong focus for the clinician-founded startup.

“Most of our work is in chronic, lifestyle-related conditions… but when COVID-19 hit we saw that all of this functionality we had built for chronic diseases in our view was quite fitting for COVID-19 as well,” he says, explaining that the platform has been used to support coronavirus patients with educational videos on symptoms and “how to cope with the anxieties of being in home isolation”, as well as offering a reporting conduit to clinical staff to remotely monitor COVID-19 patients.”

“We felt all of these [features] were relevant also for this acute condition, so here in our home country, Iceland, we offered help and were picked up by the national authorities to support with a nationwide program to remotely monitor and support patients with COVID-19. So it definitely can apply in certain acute conditions as well,” he adds.

In addition to expanding the range of conditions the platform can address, the Series A funding will go on more clinical research aimed at validating its approach.

Recent research it’s published includes a random control trial comparing full standard care for type 2 diabetes vs the same full standard care plus its platform on top. (On that study, Thorgeirsson says the addition of the digital tool in the care pathway led to “a very significant drop in average blood glucose” which “translates to about 16% less risk of death and about 30% less risk of serious complications like amputation and blindness”.)

“One of the things we’re going to be using this funding for is to vastly increase our medical and science operations — so launching multiple studies into multiple therapeutic areas,” he tells TechCrunch. “Every condition has different aspects that we do focus on. With cardio and metabolic conditions it’s things like improving weight control, blood glucose, cardiovascular risk factors. Whereas in others it might be more focusing on quality of life or fatigue or anxiety or depression.

“This summer we did feasibility testing with patients with heart failure. And we saw really exciting first indications that we significantly improved one of the main symptoms [shortness of breath]. We saw very significant improvement in those symptoms… We even had a case where the remote patient monitoring of the heart allowed the clinicians to pick up a silent ‘heart attack’ — and led to an immediate hospitalization of a patient.

“So in general what I’m excited about is to see the breadth of the applicability. We started out in the cardiovascular space but over the past two years have been really fast expanding into a bunch of new conditions.”

Sidekick Health co-founders, Dr Sam Oddsson and Dr Tryggvi Thorgeirsson (Photo credit: Sidekick Health)

The startup operates a b2b2c model in partnership with pharmaceuticals companies and healthcare providers who then offer the software to patients — recently inking deals with US pharma giant pfizer and German giant Bayer, with more touted in the pipeline.

A line on its website refers to the added “value” its platform can deliver for its business customers. Asked what that means in practice Thorgeirsson argues that digital therapeutics offers “multiple value levers” to pharma partners.

One key point to note here is that digital care/therapeutics tools continue to face regulatory barriers to being directly reimbursed by healthcare payers in many markets. So such businesses typically need to find alternative routes to market.

Working with big pharma is one option. Although some digital health startups are, conversely, aiming to more directly disrupt the pharmaceutical industry — i.e. by offering an alternative to taking drugs (such as in areas like sleep disorders). However Sidekick Health sees its platform as a treatment complement that can augment traditional drug therapies for a wide range of conditions. (While, on the flip side, it says it believes its chosen b2bc route is the best way to get its digital therapeutics in front of as many patients as possible.) 

“Improving patient outcomes has a direct financial benefit for our pharma customers,” says Thorgeirsson, discussing the value proposition Sidekick Health offers its b2b partners. “If you have a drug that might have cost anywhere between $1-$3 billion [to bring to market] and if we can then help improve the efficacy of treatment for patients that are receiving that therapy by adding our digital companion to that drug that has a direct financial benefit in terms of competitive standing for our pharma partners.

“Also when our pharma partners discuss reimbursement for their drug with payers improved patient outcomes of course are key — so it’s the improved patient outcomes, it’s the improved medication adherence (we know that’s a huge problem; about 300,000 people die every year due to lack of medication adherence which is something that we help with); and then of course very interesting insights from real world data that we are able to gather as well.”

The potential for data generated by digital therapeutics to be used to extend the life of existing drug patents also “comes into the discussion” here, per Thorgeirsson — when we ask whether part of its ‘value add’ is the potential to extend the profitable shelf-life of existing drugs by injecting new life into pharmaceutical patents via bolting on a novel digital companion.

“That is one of the things that is extremely exciting in our space — working much more closely with pharmaceutical companies creating combinations of molecule plus digital,” he confirms. “In some cases, yes, this can potentially expand exclusivity or patents. So that’s absolutely a really interesting part of what we see happening in the market.

“This combination where the molecule can impact certain areas of the disease and we impact others — and the combination is more powerful than either alone.”

Drug development and/or finding new applications for existing medications is another area where Sidekick Health reckons that data derived from its platform will be able to aid pharma outcomes.

“The way we see it is that any new drug that’s being developed, in the not too distant future, most likely will have a digital companion when they go to market,” says CMO Gulli Arnason. “[It’s about] getting in early and launching something with a pharmaceutical company that’s augmented by a digital companion — as well as a more defensive play, around margins and patents. So these two areas are extremely important for pharmaceutical companies.”

As for the healthcare payer market, that’s “still maturing” in its response to digital therapeutics, as Thorgeirsson puts it. (Again, though, the coronavirus pandemic is kicking open doors as societies hurry to adopt digital tools to scale to meet the spike in demand for remote care.)

“What we feel is important also is that current value levers which are not dependent on direct reimbursements from payers because we know that the payer market is still maturing — really interesting things happening there but still kind of developing,” he adds.

On the competitive landscape, Thorgeirsson argues that Sidekick’s platform-play is relatively rare — and sets the business apart from digital therapeutics startups with a more niche focus. (One platform competitor he does name-check is France’s Voluntis; a business that’s been working on ’embedding connectivity into therapeutics’ for considerably longer, though with less of a focus on gamification.)

“There are companies that focus more narrowly on certain elements — like only on medication adherence or only on one or two specific conditions but we have this different approach where we believe it’s absolutely key to have a platform approach. And that’s really both when you look at the patient side — patients might have two or more conditions, they might have obesity, type 2 diabetes and smoke, and you don’t want one solution per condition; you want a platform that can tackle all of them,” he suggests, adding: “In general we don’t see strong competition when you combine the gamification, the outcomes that we’re showing and the platform approach.”

The platform approach aligns Sidekick Health with the needs of its target business partners.

“Our business partners have the same [priorities],” argues Thorgeirsson. “They have a portfolio of therapeutic areas that they address and they really don’t want one vendor per therapeutic area but a platform that can tackle across the spectrum. And when it come to the platform breadth we don’t really see a large number of competitors with that size of a platform.”

Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Dr Regina Hodits, managing partner at VC firm Wellington, said: “At Wellington, we are all about improving healthcare for all stakeholders, patients, practitioners, and payors alike. Sidekick’s team has done a remarkable job of creating a product platform with the potential to achieve this aim on a global scale. We are very excited to support the company with their plans for significant growth.”

“We are impressed by the way this team has been able to put together a technology platform delivering evidence-based therapeutic programs, that are effective, adaptive but also valuable for their commercial partners,” added Josep LI. Sanfeliu, managing partner and co-founder of Asabys, in another supporting statement.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #digital-health, #digital-therapeutics, #europe, #fundings-exits, #health, #sidekick-health, #tc, #wellington-partners

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Santas scrooged by Trump admin after bizarre vaccine deal goes south

Even Santas are not safe during the pandemic.

Enlarge / Even Santas are not safe during the pandemic. (credit: Getty | Kristy O’Connor)

The Department of Health and Human Services has abandoned a deal to vaccinate Santa Claus performers as part of a $250-million taxpayer-funded public relations blitz, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the nixed Santa plan, performers would have received special early access to a future vaccine against the pandemic coronavirus. In exchange, the Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, and accompanying elves would have promoted the vaccine to the public and participated in regional holiday events organized by the Trump administration.

Beginning to look a lot like chaos

The deal was reportedly gifted from the troubled mind of Michael Caputo, the HHS spokesperson installed by the White House in April. Caputo had no background in health when he took the position. Instead, he was reportedly placed in the department as a way for the Trump administration to assert more control over HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a Trump loyalist, protégé of Roger Stone, and former Moscow-based political adviser who worked on public relations for Vladimir Putin.

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#alex-azar, #caputo, #cdc, #christmas, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #hhs, #public-health, #santa-claus, #science, #vaccines

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TravelPerk launches an API for COVID-19 restrictions

About a month after outting an open API platform for its customers to augment their apps, business trip SaaS startup TravelPerk has launched a standalone API product aimed at helping the wider travel industry provide up-to-date information on travel restrictions and risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The TravelSafe API is a monthly subscription product that lets travel providers integrate pandemic-related information on point to point restrictions between destinations during the booking process — with the service pulling data from official sources and local governmental websites that TravelPerk says is cross referenced by its own customer care agents.

It’s also calculating the risk level for travel to a particular country which it says is based on real-time analysis of the reproductive rate of the epidemic (R0).

The API launch follows TravelPerk’s acquisition of risk management startup Albatross in July, as the pandemic has pushed it to build out its travel risk management offerings.

Travel startups have of course been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with the virus decimating demand for international trips and wiping out huge swathes of the business travel market. And, while domestic staycationing does appear to have offset some of the vacation-related demand crunch, it’s still a tough outlook for business tips — as scores of information workers Zoom into meetings from home.

TravelPerk’s response to the COVID-19 demand shock has been to focus on product development — and today’s launch of a subscription API looks like an attempt to find a business opportunity amid the travel crisis, while also offering a service it hopes will support the wider industry to reboot stalled demand.

The API has also been developed out of necessity, with TravelPerk initially putting the service together for its own customers, as it sought to provide them with the reassurance they needed to make a booking.

Now it’s opening access to the wider ecosystem of airlines, travel agents and booking platforms as a standalone product available via monthly subscription (without the need to lock into a contract).

“Access to TravelSafe is not dependent upon being a pre-existing TravelPerk customer. The TravelSafe API is a standalone product available to any company,” confirms CEO and co-founder Avi Meir. “We built this technology for our own platform initially, because we knew that in such an uncertain time our customers and travelers really needed accurate, up-to-date information. However, we quickly realised that this same need exists across the sector and that what we’d built for ourselves could be really valuable across the travel industry.”

“Our goal is to become the most open travel management platform, and this is the first step towards us building an ecosystem of travel services that lets other travel companies, and the industry as a whole, benefit from our technology investments,” he adds.

Meir says TravelPerk is expecting the strongest demand to come from mid-sized travel management companies — given the “developer-friendly” nature of the product (he touts ease and speed of integration as big draws) — and also because the content is “unique to TravelSafe and updated in real-time”. (That said, when we ask about the risk scoring element he confirms the information the TravelSafe API offers is “an aggregation of the best data and information available, rather than our subjective assessment”.)

“This is vital given the pace of change in the travel industry at the moment,” he adds.

Keeping travel guidance up-to-date with a highly volatile pandemic that’s complicated by a lack of access to data (and/or good quality data) about how the virus is spreading in different regions is clearly a major challenge.

Nonetheless Meir reckons technology can help an inherently uncertain situation via tools that collate and surface the best of the information that’s out there. (He also disputes there’s any tension in a travel company offering risk assessment advice on travel, arguing its incentives are aligned with ensuring safe travel.)

“We cannot improve the quality or the accuracy of the data that exists on Covid-19 globally, but we can make it much easier for travelers to access and understand the information that is available,” says Meir. “Currently, travelers are really struggling to find clear, digestible, and accurate information on the rules that apply to them. People often have to read multiple articles and go to many different sources just to understand what the local guidelines are, the risk-level, whether they must quarantine upon return and so on.

“To solve this problem, we invested in developing advanced information processing tools, automated daily updates of risk levels using R-rates computation, and internal tools to facilitate the checking and updating of this data by our policy analysts. This allows the TravelSafe API to offer safe, concise, and accurate information even amongst so much change and uncertainty.”

Asked about TravelPerk’s own API-based platform — following the launch last month — he describes the market response as “phenomenal”. “Since we launched three weeks ago, we saw 50 new partners reach out to begin building integrations, one full integration with Payhawk went live, and a number of other partners coming close to finishing their integration and getting ready to go live with the platform,” he says, adding: “We’re really pleased with both the level of interest so far and how easy our partners have found it to use the API.”

#api, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #saas, #travel-industry, #travelperk

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France rebrands contact-tracing app in an effort to boost downloads

Don’t call it StopCovid anymore. France’s contact-tracing app has been updated and is now called TousAntiCovid, which means ‘everyone against Covid’. The French government is trying to pivot so that it’s no longer a contact-tracing app — or at least not just a contact-tracing app.

Right now, TousAntiCovid appears to be a rebranding more than a pivot. There’s a new name and some changes in the user interface. But the core feature of the app remains unchanged.

StopCovid hasn’t been a success. First, it’s still unclear whether contact-tracing apps are a useful tool to alert people who have been interacting with someone who has been diagnosed COVID-19-positive. Second, even when you take that into consideration, the app never really took off.

Back in June, the French government gave us an update on StopCovid three weeks after its launch. 1.9 million people had downloaded the app, but StopCovid only sent 14 notifications.

Four months later, StopCovid/TousAntiCovid has been downloaded and activated by close to 2.8 million people. But only 13,651 people declared themselves as COVID-19-positive in the app, which led to 823 notifications. Even if you’re tested positive, in most cases, no one is going to be notified.

Hence today’s update. If you’ve been using the app, you’ll receive TousAntiCovid with a software update — the French government is using the same App Store and Play Store listing. When you first launch the app, you go through an onboarding process focused on contact-tracing — activate notifications, activate Bluetooth, etc.

France is using its own contact-tracing protocol called ROBERT. A group of researchers and private companies have worked on a centralized architecture. The server assigns you a permanent ID (a pseudonym) and sends to your phone a list of ephemeral IDs derived from that permanent ID.

Like most contact-tracing apps, TousAntiCovid relies on Bluetooth Low Energy to build a comprehensive list of other app users you’ve interacted with for more than a few minutes. If you’re using the app, it collects the ephemeral IDs of other app users around you.

If you’re using the app and you’re diagnosed COVID-19-positive, your testing facility will hand you a QR code or a string of letters and numbers. You can choose to open the app and enter that code to share the list of ephemeral IDs of people you’ve interacted with over the past two weeks.

The server back end then flags all those ephemeral IDs as belonging to people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. On the server again, each user is associated with a risk score. If it goes above a certain threshold, the user receives a notification. The app then recommends you get tested and follow official instructions.

But there are some new things in the app. You can now access some recent numbers about the pandemic in France — new cases over the past 24 hours, number of people in intensive care unit, etc. There’s a new feed of news items. Right now, it sums up what you can do and cannot do in France

And there are some new links for useful resources — the service that tells you where you can get tested and a link to the exemption certificate during the curfew. When you tap on those links, it simply launches your web browser to official websites.

Let’s see how the app evolves as the government now wants to actively iterate on TousAntiCovid to make it more attractive. If TousAntiCovid can become a central information hub for your phone, it could attract more downloads.

#contact-tracing, #coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #europe, #france-newsletter, #policy, #stopcovid, #tc

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10 Zurich-area investors on Switzerland’s 2020 startup outlook

European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.

In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).

According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.

As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.

But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.

This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.

Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.

But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.

Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.

The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.

Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

 

Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.

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?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.

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?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.

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?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.

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?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.

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?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.

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.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.

 

Katrin Siebenbuerger Hacki, founder, Medows

#blockchain, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #fintech, #investor-surveys, #startups, #switzerland, #tc, #vc-surveys, #venture-capital, #zurich

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Now may be the best time to become a full-stack developer

In the world of software development, one term you’re sure to hear a lot of is full-stack development. Job recruiters are constantly posting open positions for full-stack developers and the industry is abuzz with this in-demand title.

But what does full-stack actually mean?

Simply put, it’s the development on the client-side (front end) and the server-side (back end) of software. Full-stack developers are jacks of all trades as they work with the design aspect of software the client interacts with as well as the coding and structuring of the server end.

In a time when technological requirements are rapidly evolving and companies may not be able to afford a full team of developers, software developers that know both the front end and back end are essential.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the ability to do full-stack development can make engineers extremely marketable as companies across all industries migrate their businesses to a virtual world. Those who can quickly develop and deliver software projects thanks to full-stack methods have the best shot to be at the top of a company’s or client’s wish list.

Becoming a full-stack developer

So how can you become a full-stack engineer and what are the expectations? In most working environments, you won’t be expected to have absolute expertise on every single platform or language. However, it will be presumed that you know enough to understand and can solve problems on both ends of software development.

Most commonly, full-stack developers are familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and back-end languages like Ruby, PHP, or Python. This matches up with the expectations of new hires as well, as you’ll notice a lot of openings for full-stack developer jobs require specialization in more than one back-end program.

Full-stack is becoming the default way to develop, so much so that some in the software engineering community argue whether or not the term is redundant. As the lines between the front end and back end blur with evolving tech, developers are now being expected to work more frequently on all aspects of the software. However, developers will likely have one specialty where they excel while being good in other areas and a novice at some things….and that’s OK.

Getting into full-stack though means you should concentrate on finding your niche within the particular front-end and back-end programs you want to work with. One practical and common approach is to learn JavaScript since it covers both front and back end capabilities. You’ll also want to get comfortable with databases, version control, and security. In addition, it’s smart to prioritize design since you’ll be working on the client-facing side of things.

Since full-stack developers can communicate with each side of a development team, they’re invaluable to saving time and avoiding confusion on a project.

One common argument against full stack is that, in theory, developers who can do everything may not do one thing at an expert level. But there’s no hard or fast rule saying you can’t be a master at coding and also learn front-end techniques or vice versa.

Choosing between full-stack and DevOps

One hold up you may have before diving into full-stack is you’re also mulling over the option to become a DevOps engineer. There are certainly similarities among both professions, including good salaries and the ultimate goal of producing software as quickly as possible without errors.  As with full-stack developers, DevOps engineers are also becoming more in demand because of the flexibility they offer a company.

#agile-software-development, #column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #designer, #developer, #devops, #labor, #security, #software-development, #software-engineering, #startups, #talent, #tc, #venture-capital

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AMC offers private theater rentals starting at $99, as cinemas continue to struggle

Like countless other sectors of the entertainment industry, movie theaters have been devastated by a global pandemic with seemingly no end in sight. Initial closings stretched on for months, as distributors have delayed their biggest films, or simply cut out the middle man by skipping straight to video-on-demand services.

Even as theaters have begun to reopen in some states, actually getting moviegoers back in seats is far easier said than done as fears over catching the highly contagious virus persist. From pop-up drive-ins to popcorn delivery services, some clever individuals have looked toward ways to stay afloat during a prolonged lockdown. A number of locations have also begun offering private theater rentals — a transitional approach that offers movie fans an opportunity to return to the movie-going experience without being surrounded by strangers.

As CNN notes, mega-chain AMC has begun to offer the option through its site, with prices for renting out a theater starting at a surprisingly reasonable $99 (though not in New York, Alaska and Hawaii). Split among ten friends, and you’re already paying less than a normal movie ticket.

Attendees can invite as many as 20 people to a screening, which consists of classic titles like Jurassic Park and Halloween-centric fare like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Prices go up from there. New titles like Tenet and The New Mutants, cost up to $349 for a single screening. The former, helmed by blockbuster director Christopher Nolan, was set to be a kind of litmus test for moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters.

After months of delays, however, Warner Bros. took the relatively rare step of releasing the film internationally first, as the U.S. has continued to struggle with the spread of COVID-19. The United States on-going struggles have also recently allowed China to overtake the country as the world’s largest box office. Over the summer, AMC noted that it had “substantial doubt” it would be able to withstand the pandemic.

#amc, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #entertainment, #movie-theaters

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The preexisting conditions of the coronavirus pandemic

The preexisting conditions of the coronavirus pandemic

Enlarge (credit: Nancybelle Gonzaga Villarroya)

A massive new accounting of the health of humans on Earth, collating and inferring stats on hundreds of diseases and injuries across 204 nations, has mostly good news. People are healthier, and they stay that way for longer. The bad news: That’s not true if those people are poor, are people of color, live in the United States, and there’s a pandemic.

Then they’re screwed.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science

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Startup founders set up hacker homes to recreate Silicon Valley synergy

In Y Combinator’s early days, founders would move to Palo Alto, split a two-bedroom with five others to save money and trade notes around the clock with their new, like-minded roommates.

Now, as remote work continues and the pandemic persists, scores of entrepreneurs are working from home around the world. Y Combinator isn’t requiring its recent cohorts to relocate and collaboration is a screen-to-screen affair.

Now that they can work from literally anywhere, many entrepreneurs are forming homes with other founders. Hacker homes, the newest iteration of remote work adaption, feels like a nostalgic attempt to recreate some of the synergies COVID-19 wiped out. Generally speaking, it’s a nod to the digital nomad lifestyle, but in some cases, hacker homes feel closer to Hype House, a TikTok mansion laden with sponsored indulgence and wealth.

For Greg Isenberg, a growth advisor to TikTok and former head of strategy at WeWork, entrepreneur homes are a signal of what the foreseeable future of building could look like.

“The type of vibe you used to get from Y Combinator just doesn’t exist anymore,” Isenberg said, as these houses could recreate some of the scrappiness and like-mindedness that defined the incubator’s early days.

While some see founder communes as vehicles for creating a more level playing field, critics say the model perpetuates Silicon Valley cultural constructs that favor white men.

In other words, sometimes there’s a cost to after-work happy hours making a comeback.

Product Hunt, and then TikTok

Michael Houck, a former product manager at Airbnb and Uber, rented a home in Tulum, Mexico in May 2020. He put $21,000 of non-refundable money on his credit card and invited friends and people he met on the internet before hopping on a plane. Anyone who came had to be okay with a few rules: you must pay rent, launch projects and you have to be okay with building your company in public.

In all, 18 entrepreneurs, including Houck, formed The Launch House. Residents include former startup fellowship participants from On Deck, product managers and solo entrepreneurs. On the plane ride over, house founder Brett Goldstein launched its first tool.

Habitants of the Launch House use the pool for recreation and brainstorm sessions, called “pool-storms.” Image Credits: The Launch House

“How do you actually launch a consumer product? You need wide reach, influence, community and media properties all together,” Goldstein said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the next Y Combinator, but the next YC would look something like that.”

In just a few weeks, The Launch House has produced nine products, including a discovery platform for the best OnlyFans accounts, an anonymous Twitter bot that sends positive comments and tools that enhance newsletter and email reading experiences.

Launch House members described a strong focus on inclusion when populating future homes and just opened up the application process for Launch House 2. One way the house is trying to give access to other people is by open-sourcing information and projects that residents build together.

The website has a Launch Library where builders can submit their email addresses to access resources on how to build anything from a podcast to a clothing brand to a community.

“There’s this sort of veil of mystique that surrounds a lot of entrepreneurs and founders,” Goldstein said. “The curtain has been lifted, and now you can get a social media perspective, and inside look at what it takes to start and launch a company.”

Now, more than 1,500 people are on the Launch House waitlist. Multiple investors have approached the group to sponsor internal and external events and some companies have even asked for the right to do product placements.

The concept has surely brought in an audience, and copycats: an unaffiliated group called The Rocketship House posted a trailer on Twitter in October:

When reached via e-mail, organizers of Rocketship House declined to answer specific questions about the launch, or as they put it, “blast off.” The group confirmed that it is funded by a few unnamed large investors based in Beverly Hills, and includes a mix of marketers and influencers that invest in social media. It is currently accepting applications, drawing itself as similar to a TikTok mansion.

“Similar to Sway House [a residence for TikTok personalities], we will be making fun and dramatic dope bro content, centered around launching startups. We all live exciting lives, and there’s plenty of drama, so we’re excited to showcase that,” the e-mail from Rocketship House read.

Not all entrepreneur homes are following suit in terms of strategy, for more reasons than one.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #diversity, #entrepreneurship, #remote-work, #startups, #tc, #verified-experts, #wework, #y-combinator

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Emerging companies thrive on data. Shouldn’t they use it to improve hiring decisions?

While emerging companies are often started by technically minded founders and funded by VCs for their data-driven approaches to product and growth, the irony is that these companies are often using less data and rigor when it comes to hiring talent than more traditional, less data-focused companies. The truth is, the way in which tech companies hire has been relatively untouched by disruption, with most still relying on resumes and conversational interviews for its highest-stake decisions.

The consequences of this is not only detrimental to building teams, but to the overall diversity of the startup space.

Data-driven hiring isn’t just about having the right funnel metrics in place to determine efficiency of process, it extends to the information we choose to collect (or not collect) and measure to determine if someone is a fit for a role. There’s a science to building teams, and therefore selecting talent to join teams. So, why is hiring in early-stage companies still not regarded as a data-driven activity?

Some argue that by nature, talent selection involves people and so can’t truly be scientific. People are unique, complex, emotional and unpredictable. Additionally, few people think they’re a bad judge of character and talent, most overconfidently hold the belief that they’ve got a superior instinct and “nose” for talent. Hiring talent is one of the few operational activities in business where formal training or decades of experience isn’t expected in order to be better than average.

Move away from gut-based evaluations

The impact of this outdated way of thinking is felt across the board — first and foremost when it comes to team dynamics. To first know if someone is qualified, you need to know what you’re assessing for. Companies that operate with a shallow understanding of what drives success in a role lack the vital information needed to build a strong system of selection. The output is a weak hiring process that is heavy on unstructured interviewing, light on predictive signals and relies on gut-based evaluations.

Chemistry, confidence and charisma are more likely to determine whether a candidate lands a role versus competence to do the job. As a result, almost half of new hires are estimated to fail and be ineffective, and weak teams are built. The lack of reliable data also means most companies suffer from a broken feedback loop between hiring and team performance, which stunts learning and improvement. How do you know if your selection process is efficiently assessing for the skills, traits and behaviors that drive top performance if you’re not connecting the dots?

The dangers of subjective approaches

More dangerously, a hiring process that’s not designed to collect and evaluate based on evidence almost always results in a lack of team diversity, which as we know stunts innovation and therefore limits company success.

Subjective approaches to talent selection and development create a revolving door of unconscious biases and exclusion, with a resounding impact on what now makes up the homogenous tech ecosystem. This is not helped by natural overreliance on networks as means to fill hiring pipelines in early-stage company building.

Lastly, for talent operators and people practitioners, it does no favors for the credibility of their profession. Recruiting and selecting talent will continue to be branded an unsophisticated, lesser back-office function, or as a “dark art” that is about as data-informed as looking into a crystal ball.

Taking an evidence-based approach

In bringing more objectivity to the hiring process, founders and their teams are served best when starting with a clear, evidence-based definition of what success markers look like in a role, and then putting structure around each stage of selection to assess for a specific skill or behavioral trait: What and when will you assess? What criteria will you evaluate the data based on? In other words, the objective is to get as close as possible to unearthing signals that are reliable enough to accurately predict that someone will perform in a role.

Up until recently, science-based talent assessment tools, which help hiring managers make more objective evaluations, have been largely used by bigger, more established firms that suffer from high-volumes of job applications — the luxury “Google” problem. However, three recent shifts suggest we’re about to see a trend in their adoption by earlier-stage startups as they scale their teams:

  1. Pressure to build diverse and inclusive teams. 2020 has pushed diversity and inclusion to the top of the agenda for most companies. Assessment tools used as part of team-building can help groups better identify where specific cognitive, personality and skill gaps exist, and therefore focus hiring for those missing ingredients. Candidate assessment also helps reduce unconscious bias that might creep into interviews by showing more objective information about someone’s strengths and weaknesses.

  2. The sharp rise in job applicants. The COVID-19 pandemic has had two significant effects on recruiting. First, companies have been forced to embrace hiring talent in remote roles, which has increased the size of the global talent pool for most jobs inside a tech firm. Second, the increase in available talent has meant that the average number of job applications has risen dramatically. This shift from a candidate-driven market to an employer-driven one means that selecting signal from noise is increasingly becoming a challenge even for early companies with a less-established talent brand.

  3. Better designed, more affordable products on the market. For a long time, talent assessment software has been largely inaccessible to noncorporate clients. Academic user interfaces and off-putting candidate experiences has meant that many scientifically robust tools simply haven’t been able to capture the attention of tech and product-obsessed buyers. Additionally, many tools that require add-on consultancy or specialist training to administer and interpret are simply out of range of early-stage budgets. With new entrants to the assessment market that have automation, product design and compliance at their core, scale-ups will be able to justify spending in this area and perceptions will change as they become essential SaaS products in their team’s operating toolkits.

As these outside factors continue to push hiring toward a more evidence-based approach, businesses must prioritize making these changes to their hiring practices. While unstructured interviews might feel most natural, they’re perilous for accurate talent selection and while the conversation might be nice, they create noise that does nothing for making smart, accurate decisions based on what really matters.

Instinctive feelings and “going with your gut” in hiring should be treated with caution and decisions should always be based on role-relevant evidence you pinpoint. Emerging companies looking to set a strong team foundation shouldn’t risk the redundancies and biases created by subjective hiring decisions.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #diversity, #hiring, #opinion, #racism, #recruiting, #startup-hiring, #startups, #tech-hiring, #venture-capital, #wearables

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Pew: Most prolific Twitter users tend to be Democrats, but majority of users still rarely tweet

A new study from Pew Research Center, released today, digs into the different ways that U.S. Democrats and Republicans use Twitter. Based on data collected between Nov. 11, 2019 and Sept. 14, 2020, the study finds that members of both parties tweet fairly infrequently, but a majority of Twitter’s most prolific users tend to swing left.

The report updates Pew’s 2019 study with similar findings. At that time, Pew found that 10% of U.S. adults on Twitter were responsible for 80% of all tweets from U.S. adults.

Today, those figures have changed. During the study period, the most active 10% of users produced 92% of all tweets by U.S. adults.

And of these highly active users, 69% identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.

In addition, the 10% most active Democrats typically produce roughly twice the number of tweets per month (157) compared with the most active Republicans (79).

Image Credits: Pew Research Center

These highly-active users don’t represent how most Twitter users tweet, however.

Regardless of party affiliation, the majority of Twitter users post very infrequently, Pew found.

The median U.S. adult Twitter user posted just once per month during the time of the study. The median Democrat posts just once per month, while the median Republican posts even less often than that.

The typical adult also has very few followers, with the median
Democrat having 32 followers while the median Republican has 21. Democrats, however, tend to follow more accounts than Republicans do, at 126 vs. 71, respectively.

Image Credits: Pew Research Center

The new study additionally examined other differences in how members of the two parties use the platforms, beyond frequency of tweeting.

For starters, it found 60% of the Democrats on Twitter would describe themselves as very or somewhat liberal, compared with 43% of Democrats who don’t use Twitter. Self-identified conservatives on Twitter vs. conservatives not on the platform had closer shares, at 60% and 62%, respectively.

Pew also found that the two Twitter accounts followed by the largest share of U.S. adults were those belonging to former President Barack Obama (@BarackObama) and President Donald Trump
(@RealDonaldTrump).

Not surprisingly, more Democrats followed Obama — 42% of Democrats did, vs. just 12% of Republicans. Trump, meanwhile, was followed by 35% of Republicans and just 13% of Democrats.

Other top political accounts saw similar trends. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) is followed by 16% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans. Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) and Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), meanwhile, are both followed by 12% of Republicans but just 1% of Democrats.

Image Credits:

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