Amid global hellscape, Bill Gates to tank his wealth ranking, gives away $20B

Amid global hellscape, Bill Gates to tank his wealth ranking, gives away $20B

Enlarge (credit: MONEY SHARMA / Contributor | AFP)

Throughout the pandemic, the world’s richest men added about a trillion dollars to their net worth. The Washington Post reported that SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos pocketed a fifth of that. But while some billionaires spent the pandemic getting richer, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates looked at the world crumbling around him and decided to make a different business plan.

“I will move down and eventually off of the list of the world’s richest people,” Gates declared in a blog, announcing his plan to personally donate funds that will dramatically increase the annual amount that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pays out to support global initiatives in the name of progress.

To address global crises that Gates says have been profoundly exacerbated by the pandemic, “the Gates Foundation intends to increase spending from nearly $6 billion per year before COVID to $9 billion per year by 2026.” The proposed 50 percent annual budget increase has already been unanimously agreed upon “in principle” by the foundation’s formal board members.

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#bill-and-melinda-gates-foundation, #bill-gates, #covid, #gates-foundation, #policy

Despite unknowns, FDA officials make the case for annual fall COVID shots

Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research within the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill on March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research within the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill on March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Pool)

The pandemic coronavirus will likely become a seasonal respiratory virus, much like influenza, requiring annual booster shots each fall, according to three top officials at the US Food and Drug Administration.

In a commentary piece published this week in the medical journal JAMA, the officials make a case for seasonal shots and caution that preparation for this winter’s potential surge needs to begin no later than next month.

“The timeframe to determine the composition of the COVID-19 vaccine for the 2022-2023 season, to use alongside the seasonal influenza vaccine for administration in the Northern Hemisphere beginning in about October, is compressed because of the time required for manufacturing the necessary doses,” the officials write. “A decision on composition will need to be made in the US by June 2022.”

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#boosters, #covid, #fda, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #public-health, #science, #vaccines, #variants

Tonga in lockdown after COVID spread from wharf workers

This photo shows the Australian Navy's HMAS <em>Adelaide</em> docked at Vuna Wharf in the Tongan capital of Nukualofa on January 26, 2022. The <em>Adelaide</em> delivered aid following the January 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano.

Enlarge / This photo shows the Australian Navy’s HMAS Adelaide docked at Vuna Wharf in the Tongan capital of Nukualofa on January 26, 2022. The Adelaide delivered aid following the January 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano. (credit: Getty | Mary Lyn Fonua)

The archipelago nation of Tonga went into lockdown Wednesday after detecting five cases of COVID-19 and its first community transmission. This happens amid recovery efforts from a massive underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami in mid-January that covered islands in ash and cut off communication.

The nation of 106,000 residents including 171 islands—45 of which are inhabited—has almost completely thwarted the pandemic virus to this point. The five new cases bring Tonga’s total COVID-19 case count to six, including one case detected in a hotel quarantine in October.

But an outpouring of international aid following the eruption raised widespread concern that Tonga’s COVID-free streak would be broken. The Australian navy ship HMAS Adelaide that docked last week was loaded with aid supplies and 23 known COVID-19 cases.

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#covid, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #science, #tonga

Spotify publicly posts content policy as Rogan responds

Joe Rogan.

Enlarge / Joe Rogan. (credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Spotify publicly posted its platform policies for the first time on Sunday following artists’ outrage over COVID-related episodes of Joe Rogan’s podcast.

The policies, which previously weren’t known to the public, offer podcasters and musicians wide latitude over what they can stream on Spotify. They’re similar to the approaches used by other platforms. Spotify does not allow hatred and incitement of violence, deception, graphic depictions of violence, sexually explicit material, and illegal content. The streaming service also says it forbids “content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health.”

“These are rules of the road to guide all of our creators—from those we work with exclusively to those whose work is shared across multiple platforms,” CEO Daniel Ek said in a blog post.

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#content-policy, #covid, #joe-rogan, #misinformation, #platforms, #policy, #spotify

CDC muddles message on rapid tests while defending controversial guidance

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021. (credit: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday offered mixed messages on the use of at-home rapid tests as the agency continued to defend its controversial recommendation that people with COVID-19 can leave isolation early without testing.

The CDC updated its guidance on isolation and quarantine periods last week. It shortened isolation periods for infected people from 10 days down to only five if their symptoms have cleared or are resolving by then and if they wear a mask for five days afterward. Notably, the agency did not hinge the recommendation on people getting tested after five days and only ending their isolation early if they receive a negative result.

The omission drew swift criticism from experts who argue that testing is vital to shortening isolation periods safely. Harvard epidemiologist and rapid-test advocate Dr. Michael Mina called the move “reckless,” and virology expert Angela Rasmussen called the agency’s reasoning “bullshit.”

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#cdc, #covid, #science, #walensky

Judge blocks Navy vaccine rule: “No COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment”

Nurse wearing a mask and Navy uniform prepares a vaccine.

Enlarge / A Navy nurse prepares a syringe. (credit: Getty Images | petesphotography)

US Navy Seals who objected to COVID vaccination on religious grounds yesterday won a preliminary injunction that prohibits the Navy from enforcing its vaccine mandate.

“Thirty-five Navy Special Warfare service members allege that the military’s mandatory vaccination policy violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Judge Reed O’Connor wrote in the ruling out of US District Court for the Northern District of Texas. “The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater. The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial.”

O’Connor, who was nominated by President Bush in 2007, found that the Navy service members are likely to win the case on the merits. He granted the injunction prohibiting the Navy from enforcing its mandate against the plaintiffs and “from taking any adverse action against Plaintiffs on the basis of Plaintiffs’ requests for religious accommodation.”

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#covid, #navy, #policy, #vaccine

No jab, no job: Google will fire unvaccinated employees

People walk out of a Google office building in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 29, 2021.

Enlarge / People walk out of a Google office building in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 29, 2021. (credit: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto)

Google is giving employees until January 18 to prove that they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for an exemption, according to a report from CNBC. 

News of the requirement broke late Tuesday, but Google employees have been aware of the policy since December 3, when an internal memo alerted them to the deadline. If employees don’t upload proof of vaccination by then, they’ll be placed on paid administrative leave for 30 days and unpaid personal leave for six months after that. If they still haven’t shown proof of vaccination after seven months, they’ll be fired.

“We expect that almost all roles at Google in the US will fall within the scope of the executive order,” the memo said. “Anyone entering a Google building must be fully vaccinated or have an approved accommodation that allows them to work or come onsite.” 

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#covid, #covid-19-vaccines, #google, #policy, #public-health, #vaccination

Debate Teaches Kids How to Think

Everyone should have that privilege.

#covid, #education, #high-school, #internal-sub-only-nl, #minorities, #national-association-for-urban-debate-leagues, #urban-debate-leagues, #zoom-video-communications

Moderna plans omicron booster for March as Biden unveils winter COVID plan

US President Joe Biden at the White House on December 01, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / US President Joe Biden at the White House on December 01, 2021, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Anna Moneymaker)

President Joe Biden will announce plans today to increase protections against COVID-19 this winter as the delta coronavirus variant continues to ravage the country and the worrisome omicron variant looms. Biden will make the announcement this afternoon in remarks during his visit to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The president’s plan includes expanding access to free at-home rapid testing and setting policy to ensure that over-the-counter, at-home tests are covered by health insurance plans. It also tightens health protocols for travel. Starting early next week, every inbound international traveler to the US will need to test negative within one day of their departure, regardless of nationality and vaccination status. The plan also calls for extending mask requirements on airplanes, trains, and public transit into March.

To fight surges in cases from delta and omicron, the administration is assembling over 60 emergency medical response teams to deploy to states in crisis. The administration is also working to secure 13 million doses of antiviral treatments.

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#biden, #booster-doses, #covid, #covid-19, #delta, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccination, #vaccines

Passengers couldn’t fly after NHS vaccine passport went offline

Passengers couldn’t fly after NHS vaccine passport went offline

Enlarge (credit: VOO QQQ)

England’s COVID Pass system went offline for hours on Wednesday, causing British travelers to remain stranded at airports. Some passengers couldn’t board their flights, while others suffered delays as both the National Health Service (NHS) website and app experienced issues.

Delays and missed flights

An NHS system outage lasting approximately four hours left many British travelers unable to access their vaccination records and present their COVID Pass to the airlines. Prior to letting passengers board, most airlines in the UK require proof of vaccination in printed or digital form. But those without a paper copy were left in limbo as the NHS smartphone app kept throwing up errors.

Journalist Caroline Frost, who is vaccinated, is one of the many passengers who had a hard time getting by at the airport:

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#air-travel, #biz-it, #coronavirus, #covid, #nhs, #outage, #tech, #vaccine-passport

Near-death of anti-vaccine cardinal is an “irony of life,” says Pope Francis

Pope Francis speaking to journalists as he returned to the Vatican on September 15, 2021.

Enlarge / Pope Francis speaking to journalists as he returned to the Vatican on September 15, 2021. (credit: Vatican)

Pope Francis, well-known for his freewheeling conversations with journalists aboard the papal plane, yesterday called out COVID-19 vaccine resistance within church ranks as he flew home from Hungary and Slovakia. And he went straight to the top.

“Even in the College of Cardinals, there are a few ‘deniers’ [‘negazionisti’] and one of them, poor man, is hospitalized with the virus,” Francis told journalists on the flight, according to a translation of his Italian remarks.

Then he added, “Mah, ironia della vita…”

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#covid, #pope-francis, #science, #vaccines

Reddit bans r/NoNewNormal and quarantines 54 “COVID-denial subreddits”

The Reddit app icon on an iPhone screen.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | stockcam)

Reddit yesterday banned r/NoNewNormal, a hub of anti-mask and anti-vaccine posts, after a protest against the platform’s refusal to take more aggressive action against COVID misinformation. In a post titled “COVID denialism and policy clarifications,” Reddit said it also quarantined “54 additional COVID-denial subreddits.” While NoNewNormal was taken off Reddit entirely, quarantining a subreddit imposes restrictions that “prevent its content from being accidentally viewed by those who do not wish to do so.”

NoNewNormal was banned not for spreading misinformation but for breaking Reddit’s rule against “brigading,” which refers to members of one subreddit conducting “targeted interference” in other subreddits. Reddit said:

While we want to be a place where people can explore unpopular views, it is never acceptable to interfere with other communities. Claims of “brigading” are common and often hard to quantify. However, in this case, we found very clear signals indicating that r/NoNewNormal was the source of around 80 brigades in the last 30 days (largely directed at communities with more mainstream views on COVID or location-based communities that have been discussing COVID restrictions). This behavior continued even after a warning was issued from our team to the Mods. r/NoNewNormal is the only subreddit in our list of high-signal subs where we have identified this behavior and it is one of the largest sources of community interference we surfaced as part of this work (we will be investigating a few other unrelated subreddits as well).

Although not mentioned in Reddit’s announcement, a subreddit called CoronavirusConspiracy was also banned yesterday “due to being unmoderated.” That community was already quarantined last year because it “may contain misinformation or hoax content.”

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#covid, #policy, #reddit

Reddit’s teach-the-controversy stance on COVID vaccines sparks wider protest

Photo illustration with a hand holding a mobile phone and a Reddit logo in the background.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | SOPA Images )

Over 135 subreddits have gone dark this week in protest of Reddit’s refusal to ban communities that spread misinformation about the COVID pandemic and vaccines.

Subreddits that went private include two with 10 million or more subscribers, namely r/Futurology and r/TIFU. The PokemonGo community is one of 15 other subreddits with at least 1 million subscribers that went private; another 15 subreddits with at least 500,000 subscribers also went private. They’re all listed in a post on “r/VaxxHappened” which has been coordinating opposition to Reddit management’s stance on pandemic misinformation. More subreddits are being added as they join the protest.

“Futurology has gone private to protest Reddit’s inaction on COVID-19 misinformation,” a message on that subreddit says. “Reddit won’t enforce their policies against misinformation, brigading, and spamming. Misinformation subreddits such as NoNewNormal and r/conspiracy must be shut down. People are dying from misinformation.”

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#covid, #misinformation, #policy, #reddit, #vaccine

Reddit resists banning pandemic misinformation, allows vaccine “dissent”

The Reddit app icon on a smartphone screen.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Yuriko Nakao )

Reddit yesterday defended its stance on allowing pandemic misinformation after hundreds of subreddit moderators joined an open letter urging the company to “take action against the rampant Coronavirus misinformation on their website.”

The open letter on r/VaxxHappened was joined by over 450 moderators and said that subreddits existing “solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.” The hundreds of subreddits that joined the open letter include 10 with over 10 million subscribers each, over 40 subreddits with 1 million to 10 million subscribers each, and about 20 others with 500,000 to 1 million subscribers.

In response, Reddit posted an explanation of its approach, saying it will continue to allow “debate” and “dissent” on vaccines and other COVID-related matters, even when there is a scientific consensus.

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#covid, #pandemic, #policy, #reddit, #vaccine

Amazon is now selling its own Covid-19 test kits for $39.99 in the U.S.

Amazon announced this morning it would begin to sell its own brand of Covid-19 at-home tests to Amazon shoppers in the U.S. The test retails for $39.99 on the Amazon.com website and is available to any U.S. customer without a prescription. The Covid-19 PCR collection kit is shipped to the customer’s home via Amazon Prime, offering everything needed to perform a nasal swab. Customers will then return the collection tube with the swab inside via the included return box. Amazon says it will be able to provide results within 24 hours of receiving the sample at its lab.

The collection kit will be processed by Amazon’s in-house laboratory, which the company created during the pandemic as part of its in-house Covid-19 testing program for its frontline workers. To date, Amazon’s labs in the U.S. and U.K. have processed millions of tests from over 750,000 of its employees, the company says. With the new at-home kit, Amazon is expanding its U.S. lab’s capabilities to its retail shoppers.

Amazon says it’s using the more accurate PT-PCR method, which means you will have to wait for the lab to process your results. It also notes the kits have received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Image Credits: Amazon

According to the Amazon.com listing for the new Amazon COVID-19 Test Collection Kit DTC, the kit will includes the swab, a collection tube with saline, a plastic bag with an absorbent pad, and the return box with shipping label. The return shipping is handled by UPS at no additional charge to the customer, and is sent to Amazon’s CAP accredited and CLIA-certified lab in Hebron, Kentucky. 

The kit additionally includes instructions on how to get your results via Amazon’s secure website, AmazonDx.com, and access to documents needed for testing verification. These tests will meet any requirements for testing when traveling within the US (except Hawaii), and when traveling from the U.S. to many international locations, Amazon says. And the kits are FSA and HSA eligible.

“Even as Covid-19 vaccinations continue, widespread access to reliable and affordable Covid-19 testing remains a critical tool in the fight against the spread of the virus, said Cem Sibay, the Amazon VP heading the company’s Covid-19 testing work. “The Amazon collection kit offers customers the convenience they’ve come to expect from Amazon.com by providing access to COVID-19 testing whenever and wherever they need it. The test collection kit provides highly accurate and timely results, helping customers feel more confident as they safely return to travel, work, college, and daily life,” Sibay added.

#amazon, #amazon-com, #covid, #covid-labs, #covid-test, #covid-19, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #health, #medicine, #tc, #united-states

Messaging social network IRL hits unicorn status with SoftBank-led $170M Series C

Social calendar app IRL has been busy building a messaging-based social network, or what founder and CEO Abraham Shafi calls a “WeChat of the West.” Following its pandemic-fueled growth and further push into the social networking space with group chat and other features, IRL is today announcing a sizable $170 million Series C growth round, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The fundraise also mints IRL as a new unicorn with a $1.17 billion valuation.

Besides SoftBank, new investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.

The startup began its life as a tool for discovering real-world events — an industry that went to zero almost overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That could have been the end for IRL, but the startup quickly pivoted to prioritize discovery of online events instead. Under COVID lockdowns, users could turn to the app to find things like livestreamed concerts, esports events, Zoom parties and more.

Image Credits: IRL

IRL focused on pulling in popular online events from places like Live Nation, Twitch, YouTube, TikTok and others.

As a result, IRL became more accessible because its audience was no longer limited only to those who had time and money to travel to real-world events.

That focus also helped the app to attract a crowd of younger users who are of the generation that doesn’t use Facebook.

“They essentially use Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok,” explains Shafi. “But there is no groups and events product for that generation,” he points out.

Earlier this year, the company doubled down on its social networking features with the launch of a new site that added things like user profiles, support for group chats, the ability to join group events, personalized recommendations and more. As users could now network with friends across both web and mobile, IRL began to feel more like a social network, not just an event-discovery engine.

Image Credits: IRL

Today, IRL has 20 million users and 12 million who use the app monthly, which are not startling numbers in comparison to major social networks and their billions of users. But the numbers are representative of a steady approach that helped IRL grow 400% over the past 15 months, despite COVID’s impact to real-world events.

But as of recently, things are starting to change. In-person events are starting to return. California, the home state for San Francisco-based IRL, is today re-opening, for example. That opens up IRL to once again focus on connecting people not just online, but also “in real life,” as its name implies.

That could mean helping people better connect around events with not just their own friend group, as is often the case today, but helping them discover new groups in their local area or on campus. The company is even planning to use a portion of its fundraise to help fuel the new events economy by allocating a certain amount of money per city that will go toward helping people put on real-world events. The exact details are still being worked out, Shafi says, but says the idea is that IRL wants to help “bring culture back in cities that are opening up again.”

IRL also plans to expand its international footprint by finding ways to bring in non-U.S. users to its platform — possibly beginning with the events focused on watching the Olympics. (If the Games are not again delayed or canceled due to a COVID surge.)

Shafi says IRL hadn’t been planning to fundraise, but they decided to take the meetings when they were approached.

“The philosophy is not to raise when you have to, but to raise when it makes sense. And we were scaling like crazy to the point where our servers were melting. It made sense to take those discussions very seriously when they came to us,” he says.

The addition of SoftBank and Dragoneer brings some expertise in scaling large social networks to the IRL team. SoftBank’s other notable social networking investment is with TikTok owner’s Bytedance, while Dragoneer has backed Snap. IRL has already has a close relationship with TikTok as it’s worked with the video app to pull in interesting events for discovery. It more recently integrated with TikTok’s new “Login Kit,” too, allowing TikTok users to authenticate with IRL using their TikTok credentials.

Now, IRL plans to add an even deeper TikTok integration — something that caught SoftBank’s attention.

Shafi is cagey on the details, but says more will be announced in the “coming weeks.”

“But what I can say is that we’ve seen a ton of growth of TikTok users linking to IRL group chats and IRL events through their TikTok profiles as a way to communicate and go deeper in relationships,” he says. “If you think about it, right now Instagram has really great messaging…whereas TikTok is still developing that,” he hints.

Image Credits: IRL

Beyond its value to growing social networks for the younger, Facebook-less generation, IRL is thinking about how to build a profitable business without ad revenue. On this front, it sees potential in helping people connect through paid events — although these wouldn’t have to be influencer-driven as on other platforms. In fact, when IRL recently piloted paid group chats, users were willing to pay for access to things like a calc homework help group, for example.

IRL also sees demand for tools that help groups and clubs collect membership dues and other fees, as well as for events that are too small for Ticketmaster or Eventbrite.

“Whether we succeed or fail will be based on our ability to execute on our opportunity,” says Shafi, adding that most social networks today are focused on media more so than helping users make connections. “What we’re building isn’t the media part of social, it’s the real human interaction part of social, because that hasn’t been paid attention to as much.”

“We’re building a messaging social network,” he continues, comparing it to the biggest messaging social network in the world, WeChat. “The big vision that we’re going for is building the WeChat of the West — a messaging super social network. And it starts with people organizing groups and doing things together,” he says.

With the additional funding, IRL will invest in product growth, international expansion and its Creator and Culture Fund, and will grow its now 25-person remotely distributed team to 100 by year-end.

“People are increasingly seeking more in-person social connections and are looking to share meaningful experiences together. As an innovative event-based social network, IRL sits at the intersection of group and event discovery, social calendaring, and group messaging, enabling people to do more together,” added Serena Dayal, director at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement about its investment. “We are excited to partner with Abraham and the IRL team to support their ambition of helping everyone deepen their connections to friends and family.”

#abraham-shafi, #apps, #covid, #founders-fund, #funding, #goodwater-capital, #irl, #mobile-applications, #online-events, #recent-funding, #social, #social-calendar, #social-network, #social-networks, #softbank-group, #softbank-investment-advisers, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #startups, #tc, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-states, #wechat

Disease-related risk management is now a thing, and this young startup is at the forefront

Charity Dean has been in the national spotlight lately because she was among a group of doctors, scientists and tech entrepreneurs who sounded the pandemic alarm early last year and who are featured in a new book by Michael Lewis about the U.S. response, called The Premonition.

It’s no wonder the press (and, seemingly moviemakers, too) are interested in Dean. Surgery is her first love, but she also studied tropical diseases and not only applied what she knows about outbreaks on the front lines last year, but also came to appreciate an opportunity that only someone in her position could see. Indeed, after the pandemic laid bare just how few tools were available to help the U.S. government to track how the virus was moving and mutating, she helped develop a model that has since been turned into subscription software to (hopefully) prevent, detect, and contain costly disease outbreaks in the future.

It’s tech that companies with global operations might want to understand better. It has also attracted $8 million in seed funding Venrock, Alphabet’s Verily unit, and Sweat Equity Ventures. We talked late last week with Dean about her now 20-person outfit, called The Public Health Company, and why she thinks disease-focused risk management will be as crucial for companies going forward as cybersecurity software. Our chat has been edited for length; you can also listen to it here.

TC: You went to medical school but you also have a master’s degree in public health and tropical medicine. Why was the latter an area of interest for you? 

CD: Neither of my parents had college degrees. I grew up in very modest setting in rural Oregon. We were poor and by the grace of a full ride scholarship to college I got to be premed. When I was a little girl some missionaries came to our church and talked about disease outbreaks in Africa. I was seven years old, and driving home that evening with my parents, I said, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, and I’m going to study disease.’  It was outrageous because we were poor. My parents didn’t have college degrees. I didn’t know a single person with a college degree. But I was too young to know that there would be hurdles and blockers. My heart was set on that, and it never deviated from it.

TC: How do you wind up at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, instead of in private practice?

CD: It’s funny, when I was finishing up my residency, which I started doing general surgery — surgery is my first love — then I pivoted into internal medicine, I had a number of different doctors’ private practices come to me and recruit me because of the shortage of women physicians.

[At the same time] the medical director from the county public health department came and found me and he said, Hey, I hear you have a master’s in tropical medicine.’ And he said, ‘Would you consider coming to work as the deputy health officer, and communicable disease controller, and tuberculosis controller, and [oversee the] HIV clinic and homeless clinic?’ And . . . it was, for me, a fairly easy choice.

TC: Because there was so little attention being paid to these other issues?

CD: What caught my attention is when he said communicable disease controller, and tuberculosis controller. I had lived in Africa [for a time] and learned a lot about HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis, vaccine-preventable diseases, things you don’t see in the United States. [And the job] was so lockstep with who I was because it’s the safety net. [These afflicted individuals] don’t have health insurance. Many are undocumented. Many have nowhere else to go for health care, and the county clinic truly serves the communities that I cared about, and that’s where I wanted to be.

TC: Over the course of that job — and later at the California Department of Public Health — you developed a deep expertise in multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Was your understanding of how it is transmitted — and how the symptoms present differently — what made you so attuned to what was headed for the U.S. early last year?

CD: It was probably the single biggest contributor to my thinking. When we have a novel pathogen as a doctor, or as a communicable disease controller, you know, our mind thinks in terms of buckets of pathogen: some are airborne, some are spread on surfaces, some are spread through fecal material or through water. In January [of last year],  as I was watching the news reports emerge out of China, it became clear to me that this was potentially a perfect pathogen. What does that mean? It would mean it had some of the attributes of things like tuberculosis or measles or influenza — that it had the ability to spread from person to person, likely through the air, that it made people sick enough that China was standing up hospitals in two weeks, and that it moved fast enough through the population to grow exponentially.

TC: You are credited with helping to convince California Governor Gavin Newsom to issue lock-down orders when he did.

CD: Everything I’ve done is as part of a team. In March, some amazing heroes parachuted in from the private sector, including [former U.S Chief Technology Officer] Todd Park, [famed data scientist] DJ Patil, [and Venrock’s] Bob Kocher, to help the state of California develop a modeling effort that would actually show, through computer-generated models, in what direction the pandemic was headed.

TC: How did those efforts and thinking lead you to form The Public Health Company?

CD: What we are doing at The Public Health Company is incorporating the genomic variant analysis — or the fingerprint of the virus of COVID virus as it mutates and as it moves through a population —  with epidemiology investigations and [porting these with] the kind of traditional data you might have from a local public health officer into a platform to make those tools readily available and easy to use to inform decision makers. You don’t have to have a mathematician and a data scientist and an infectious disease doctor standing next to you to make a decision; we make those tools automated and readily available.

TC: Who are your customers? The U.S. government? Foreign governments?

CD: Are the tools that we’re developing useful for government? Absolutely. We’re engaged in a number of different partnerships where this is of incredible service to governments. But they’re as useful, if not even more useful, to the private sector because they haven’t had these tools. They don’t have a disease control capability at their fingertips and many of them have had to essentially stand up their own internal public health department, and figure it out on the fly, and the feedback that we’re seeing from private sector businesses has been incredible.

TC: I could see hedge funds and insurance companies gravitating quickly to this. What are some customers or types of customers that might surprise readers?

CD: One bucket that might not occur to people is in the risk management space of a large enterprise that has global operations like a warehouse or a factory in different places. The risk management of COVID-19 is going to look very different in each one of those locations based on: how the virus is mutating in that location, the demographics of their employees, the type of activities they’re doing, [and] the ventilation system in their facility. Trying to grapple with all of those different factors . . .is something that we can do for them through a combination of our tech-enabled service, the expertise we have, the modeling, and the genetic analysis.

I don’t know that risk management in terms of disease control has been a big part of private sector conversations, [but] we think of it similar to cyber security in that after a number of high-profile cyber security attacks, it became clear to every insurance agency or private sector business that risk management had to include cyber security they had to stand up. We very much believe that disease control in risk management for continuity of operations is going to be incredibly important moving forward in a way that I couldn’t have explained  before COVID. They see it now and they understand it’s an existential threat.

#covid, #disease, #health, #public-health, #recent-funding, #risk-management, #saas, #startups, #tc, #venrock, #venture-capital, #verily

Google begins surfacing vaccine centers, hospital beds, oxygen info in India

Google, which reaches more than half a billion people in India, is turning its services into tools to help the world’s second largest internet market fight the pandemic.

Google said on Monday it has rolled out a range of updates to its Search, Maps, YouTube, and Google Pay services in India to display and boost authoritative and credible information about the coronavirus to help people in the South Asian nation find vaccination centers and other resources to navigate the crisis.

Google Search, which has been offering updates on the virus for more than a year, now also displays information panels with vaccine registration details in India and highlights the official Indian government website for the vaccine at the top.

Search and Maps that have been showing 2,500 testing centers in India now similarly also show locations of over 23,000 vaccination centers across the country in English and eight Indian languages. The company said it is working with India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to source this information.

Google, which identifies India as its biggest market by users, said it is also testing a Q&A function in Google Maps in India to enable people to ask about and share local information on the availability of beds and medical oxygen in select locations in the country.

The new features rollout comes as India reports over 350,000 infections and over 3,500 fatalities everyday. The nation’s healthcare infrastructure is struggling to serve patients, having largely run out of beds and medical supplies. On May 1, India opened vaccination to those aged between 18 to 45, leaving people in scrambles as they struggled to register on the government website and secure the appointment for a vaccination dose.

In recent weeks, scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs and investors have stepped up to fill this gap. And Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp have become the real-time helpline as people exchange leads with one another.

Google said it is also using its various channels to help extend the reach of health information campaigns in India. This “includes the ‘Get the Facts’ around vaccines campaign, to encourage people to focus on authoritative information and content for vaccines. We’re also surfacing important safety messages through promotions on the Google homepage, Doodles and reminders within our apps and services,” it wrote in a blog post.

On YouTube, Google has curated a set of playlists with videos that offer authoritative information about the vaccine, the spread of the virus, and facts from experts. The company said it has also rolled out a COVID Aid campaign on Google Pay to enable users to donate to non-profit organizations such as GiveIndia, Charities Aid Foundation, Goonj, Save the Children, Seeds, UNICEF India (National NGOs) and United Way.

The company said a similar campaign to support several other foundations has raised over $4.6 million.

“As India battles this devastating wave, we’ll keep doing all we can to support the selfless individuals and committed organizations on the front lines of the response. There’s a long way to go—but standing together in solidarity, working together with determination, we can and will turn the tide,” read a blog post signed by Covid Response team at Google India.

#apps, #asia, #coronavirus, #covid, #facebook, #google, #google-pay, #google-maps, #india, #youtube

COVID emergency shuts Japan’s Super Nintendo World one month after opening

The highly anticipated Super Nintendo World section of Universal Studios Japan will be temporarily closing a little more than a month after its delayed opening, along with the rest of the park, due to the increased spread of COVID-19 in Osaka.

“Today, Universal Studios Japan has decided to temporarily close our park due to the substantial business shutdown request to operate with no spectators which was issued under the state of emergency for Osaka prefecture,” reads a note on the Universal Studios Japan website.

The closure comes just weeks after Universal Studios Japan was forced to limit visitor numbers amid rising case rates in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan was previously closed for COVID from February 29 through June 7 of last year. The latest closure will be effective April 25 and will last “until the request has been lifted.”

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#covid, #gaming-culture, #japan, #nintendo, #super-nintendo-world, #universal-studios

Curran Biotech’s new nanocoating could prevent indoor transmission of COVID-19

A new nanocoating from Curran Biotech could dramatically improve air filtration to prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors.

Their Capture Coating technology acts as a supplement to any household or commercial HVAC system by bonding to the filter fibers, giving them greater hydrophobic properties. This combined effect prevents virus-carrying droplets from traveling through the filter fibers, which, without the treatment, only prevent some viral transmission.

“’Capture Coating’ is designed to mitigate and significantly decrease viral transmission of COVID-19 through specified air filtration media by forming a breathable, flexible, non-leaching, water-repellent barrier against aqueous respiratory droplets that act as virion carriers that can potentially be recirculated through conventional air-filters,” wrote Curran Biotech founder and University of Houston physics professor Shay Curran in an email. Despite the molecular complexity of the coating, the product itself can simply be sprayed onto an HVAC system’s filter.

This new droplet-targeting coating is an improvement over current filtration methods, which typically only target dry molecules. Not only do those methods often have at least some potential of viral droplet transmission, but current solutions to improve them aren’t always energy efficient.

“In the world where energy management is very important, that means recycling the same air in the building with the risk of cross contamination,” wrote Curran. “Taking outside air is one way to dilute the air, but that means we also lose a huge amount in terms of energy, and still don’t solve the problem of taking the virus away from places where people congregate.”

Indoor air ventilation remains an important tool in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 across schools, small businesses, and other public buildings, but updating old HVAC systems to the recommended CDC standards can be costly. Curran hopes that his company’s approach can help address this issue, as the Capture Coating requires only a simple spray, rather than a completely new system of filters. “That really means for a few dollars when used on a standard issue MERV8, you can have huge indoor protection and stop its spread throughout the building,” he wrote.

Because of the nature of the nanocoating, Curran’s technology can help prevent viral droplet transmission long after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hydrophobic qualities of the coating prevent respiratory droplets from actions like sneezing or coughing from passing through the filter, while the HVAC system itself retains its normal capabilities for dry molecule filtration. With the Capture Coating, common droplet-transmitting viruses like the flu or cold will also be filtered out of circulation.

Similarly, the nanocoating would work in preventing transmission of any variant of the COVID-19 virus, as all of those variants also undergo droplet transmission. “It does not mean we get away from taking precautions such as hand washing, wearing masks etc, but it does mean we can work indoors far more safely,” wrote Curran.

So far, Curran Biotech’s Capture Coating technology is in use in 11 states, and will soon be announcing partnerships with distributors and filter companies to directly provide consumers with coated filters. Curran wrote that the company has also had successful trials of the technology in New York City, and hopes to expand use of the product even further across businesses and institutions around the country.


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#biotech, #covid, #covid-19, #health, #houston, #materials-science, #nanotechnology, #science, #startup, #tc, #transmission

Serimmune launches new immune response mapping service for COVID-19

Immune intelligence startup Serimmune hopes to better understand the relationship between antibody epitopes (the parts of antigen molecules that bind to antibodies) and the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The company’s proprietary technology, originally developed at UC Santa Barbara, provides a new and specific way of mapping the entire array of an individual’s antibodies through a small blood sample. They do this through the use of a bacterial peptide display—a sort of screening mechanism that can isolate plasmid DNA from antibody-bound bacteria in the sample. This DNA can then be sequenced to identify epitopes, which provide information about both which antigens someone may have been exposed to, as well as how his or her immune system responded to them.

“It’s a very highly multiplexed and exquisitely specific way of looking at the epitopes found by antibodies in a specimen,” said Serimmune CEO Noah Nasser, who has a degree in molecular biology from UC San Diego and has previously worked for several diagnostics companies.

This week, Serimmune announced the launch of a new application of their core technology to help understand the disease states of and immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, or the virus that causes COVID-19.

“So what we do is we take these antibody profiles we build, and we’re able to then map those back with about a 12 amino acid specificity to the SARS-CoV-2 proteome,” said Nasser. “And what we find is that antibody expression is highly correlated to disease state, so we can distinguish mild, moderate, severe and asymptomatic disease on the basis of antibodies that are present in the specimen.”

The more patient data Serimmune can collect, the better its core technology becomes at finding patterns across different antigen exposure and disease severity. Noticing those patterns sooner won’t only help physicians and researchers to better understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus operates, but can also inform new approaches to diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for any antigen.

Serimmune’s launch of its new COVID antibody epitope mapping service is a way of making this data more accessible to customers like vaccine companies, government agencies, and academic labs that have shown interest in better understanding the immune response to SARS-CoV-2.

“The key was to zero in on the information that researchers wanted to know and standardize that,” said Nasser. “We can actually now provide these results back in as few as two days from sample receipt.”

Beyond this new service, Serimmune also has plans to launch a longitudinal clinical study on immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Using a painless at-home collection kit, study participants send in small blood samples to Serimmune, which then uses its core technology to outline an individual immunity map.

“We provide their results back to them in the form of a personal immune landscape to COVID,” said Nasser. “And what we’re trying to do is to understand over time how that immune response changes, and what happens to that immune response on repeated exposure to COVID.”

The mapping technology is now so specific that it can tell whether or not a patient has antibodies from natural exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus or from a vaccine, he added.

While the primary focus for Serimmune remains these applications to the COVID-19 pandemic for now, Nasser also mentioned that the company has plans to move into personalized medicine, potentially offering their mapping service directly to interested patients.

“We believe that this has value to individual patients in understanding their immune status and what antigens they’ve been exposed to,” he said. Until then, Serimmune plans to continue growing its database with more patient samples.

#biotech, #covid, #disease, #health, #immunology, #mapping-technology, #medicine, #science, #startups

VC Lindy Fishburne on the sudden democratization of science — and deep tech investing

Deep science investor Lindy Fishburne cofounded the seed- and early-stage venture firm Breakout Ventures several years ago, after cofounding Breakout Labs within the Thiel Foundation back in 2011, and she has made a wide array of interesting bets in the process. Among her firm’s portfolio companies is Cortexyme, a company that aims to treat Alzheimer’s disease; the sustainable materials maker Modern Meadow; and Strateos, a company whose robotic cloud platform is remaking how lab work gets done.

We talked with Fishburne this week about where — based on what she is seeing — we are in the arc of this pandemic. We also talked about why more of her investments, which once seemed like long shots, suddenly seem like solid bets.

Parts of our chat, below, have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: We want to be excited about the progress being made in vaccinating Americans. Based on the conversations you’re having, what’s your sense of things?

LF: The acceleration of the vaccines is like nothing we’ve ever seen before in science, and now we really are down to the unsexy part of of the logistics of rolling them out. That’s clearly our biggest challenge. Then the next piece we’re going to have to confront is what happens when the world is vaccinated [at] very unequal levels and how people feel about travel and exposure and equity along those issues. But I do think we see the end of the biggest threat to humanity and our hospital systems around COVID . . .we’ve probably got another odd year ahead of us.

TC: Science has been the big story of the last year. Are you hearing from investors and potential syndicate partners who weren’t reaching out previously?

LF: Yes. The pandemic has brought the importance of investing in science into sharp relief. For the first time, we’re really seeing a whole set of what you would think of as traditional tech investors who read about the mRNA vaccine that Moderna coded in a weekend and who are starting to believe that we’re able to engineer biology and that it doesn’t feel like a craft process anymore.

TC: You talk about coding a vaccine. Are laboratories becoming less important in that scientists are able to do much more in simulation and, if so, what does that mean for human testing? Are we getting to a point where we don’t have to rely on human testing as much as we did in the past?

LF: That’s where we hope to get on the human testing piece. We’re not there yet. You may have read and heard about organs on a chip and growing organoids, where you can have a very small piece of liver that you’re able to test toxicity on [and] we’re doing more of that. That said, we’re not ready to make that leap from completely doing it in silico to humans with a super-high level of confidence.The human body is such a complex system that we’re not able to model that fully yet.

I do think what you’re pointing toward to some degree is democratization in science and the access for more people to be able with lower skills to be able to work in drug discovery and drug development at a distance. So for example, we have a company that we’ve worked with called Strateos that has a full robotic lab that — instead of having technicians standing there — you have robots and a little train track that moves assays throughout the room so that scientists who were stuck at home this year were able to continue experiments regardless of their geography or safety in the lab or time constraints.

TC: You have another interesting portfolio company, Opus 12, which is transforming industrial carbon dioxide emissions into chemicals. Toward what end?

LF: So obviously, decarbonizing the world is a huge focus. And you’re seeing for the first time corporations like United Airlines making commitments as to what their carbon footprint will be, or going to zero carbon emissions. Opus 12 emerged from two PhDs and an MBA out of Stanford a few years ago and their breakthrough is a catalyst material that allows you to take for example, waste CO2 — the bad stuff — and run it through this catalyst material and produce useful CO. This year, for example, they produced green polycarbonate car parts in partnership with Daimler. The material is exactly the same, which makes it easy to slot into existing products, but it’s actually made by reusing carbon.

The shift in consumer awareness around carbon made materials is an enormous opportunity.

TC: Do companies get some sort of carbon credit for doing that?

LF: Yes, and in the past what we’ve seen is a lot of companies trying to green themselves by basically buying and trading carbon credits, and the shift that we’re going through right now is everyone saying, ‘Okay, to some degree, that was a bit of financial engineering; now we actually need to see these businesses making a change in their direct use of fossil fuels and their direct impact in the amount of carbon.’ [There’s growing awareness that] buying carbon offsets isn’t going to be enough. So you’re now for the first time really seeing commitments to change processes, supply chain and ultimately products.

TC: In recent years, biotech companies have been going public two and three years after being formed. Now, we’re seeing a much wider array of younger companies being transformed into public companies through a growing number of blank-check companies. Any thoughts about whether or not there are parallels here?

LF: On the therapeutic side, you tend to have a very clear playbook around what the potential exit is and who the acquirers are. We know that big pharma is cash rich and pipeline poor and so [these pharma giants] have to pick up the the assets that are working, and you see them do that regularly. And you’ve got comps, and you know what that looks like,  so in placing a wide range of bets on early-stage therapeutics, it’s clear that if one wins, you’re covered.

The SPAC world is going to be really interesting because most of these companies are not operating of traditional traditional playbooks, and it’s not clear whether they operate as public companies longer term. Are they really set up for acquisition?

[Another] difference here is these companies are going to have this enormous amount of funding, and yet they’re not going to be able to toil in obscurity, so the traditional metrics that we all want [in] public companies and looking at revenue and profits and those metrics, we’re going to have to look at these SPACs and their growth through a different lens, and I’m just not sure how receptive the public markets will be to that in the next 24 months. I think it’s unclear whether we’ll have a reckoning there or not.

You can hear the full conversation here

#breakout-ventures, #covid, #lindy-fishburne, #opus-12, #peter-thiel, #phylagen, #science, #tc, #venture-capital

Uber extends work from home policy through mid-September

Uber today notified employees that it will extend its work from home policy through September 13.

“In considering the extension, we took into account the latest scientific data and experts’ views; the fact that different countries are at different stages of recovery; and the start of the school year,” Uber Chief People Officer Nikki Krish wrote in an email, viewed by TechCrunch, to employees. “[…] We know that some CommOps, IT, or other roles require physical presence in an office, so please continue to work within the policies your teams have developed—however, as always, we won’t force anyone to go into the office if they have medical concerns.”

Uber is also encouraging employees to get vaccinated when it’s possible to do so. In the email, Krish said Uber employees will be able to take time off in order to get vaccinated.

In August, Uber notified employees that they should expect to work from home through June 2021. As for other tech companies, Google in July extended its work from home policy through the end of June 2021, while Facebook in August extended its remote work policy until July 2021.

Post-COVID, Uber will likely have a hybrid work model, Krish said, but it’s still a work in progress.

“We’re taking a number of aspects into consideration, such as how being physically together benefits or reduces productivity, collaboration, and engagement,” she wrote. “We’ll update you on where things stand in a few weeks, and along the way as we make progress.”

#covid, #labor, #tc, #uber

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments. It’s unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin
America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables over 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. It has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

#asia, #china, #coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #didi, #ride-hailing, #tc, #transportation

A clever strategy to deliver COVID aid—with satellite data

A bird's-eye view of Lome, the capital of Togo, from Google Maps.

Enlarge / A bird’s-eye view of Lome, the capital of Togo, from Google Maps. (credit: Google Maps)

When the novel coronavirus reached Togo in March, its leaders, like those of many countries, responded with stay-at-home orders to suppress contagion and an economic assistance program to replace lost income. But the way Togo targeted and delivered that aid was in some ways more tech-centric than many larger and richer countries. No one got a paper check in the mail.

Instead, Togo’s government quickly assembled a system to support its poorest people with mobile cash payments—a technology more established in Africa than in the rich nations supposedly at the forefront of mobile technology. The most recent payments, funded by nonprofit GiveDirectly, were targeted with help from machine learning algorithms, which seek signs of poverty in satellite photos and cellphone data.

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#aid, #covid, #science, #togo

Unicorn travel startup Hopper is facing a pandemic-fueled customer service nightmare

Mobile travel app Hopper has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers canceled their trips and airlines dropped their flights. But the complications around getting airline credits and refunds have since turned into a customer service crisis for the airfare prediction and ticket booking startup, which had been valued at $750 million back in 2018 before reaching unicorn status thanks to an undisclosed round it closed amid COVID lockdowns this year. Currently, hundreds of Hopper customers are trashing the app in their app store reviews, calling Hopper a scam, threatening legal action, and warning others to stay away.

The key complaint among many of these users was not only how their flight was canceled by an airline and that they couldn’t get a refund, but that there was no way to get in touch with someone at Hopper for any help. There wasn’t even a phone number to call, the user reviews said.

These complaints on the app stores have been harsh and a PR disaster for Hopper’s brand.

To give you an idea of what’s being said, here’s a small sampling:

  • No phone number to reach and takes a week or more to get back to an email.”
  • “No way to contact customer service no [one] has responded to my inquiries at all. The help tab just sends you in a constant loop.”
  • “Warning. This company will take your money. They give zero refunds and there is no one to talk to.”
  • “Customer service continues to be an absolute joke. We…put support requests in a week ago, zero response.”
  • “Hopper is great if you want your flight cancelled and money never refunded. There is LITERALLY no customer support.”
  • “I understand there is a lot of traffic on the app due to COVID, but having to post a review in order to receive any sort of attention and being unable to reach out through the app for my issue was very frustrating.”
  • “There is no way to contact anyone. The Contact Us page is just a Q&A page.”
  • “I was never refunded and when I reached out to their ‘need help’ I received the generic email which stated someone will get back with me. I waited a week and sent another message and I still have not heard anything. Hopper took my money on a flight that was cancelled by the airline and never notified me.”
  • “Not [sic] existing customer support. If you need help your [sic] only option is ‘read a post.’ Buyer beware. It’s a total scam.”
  • “I’ve reached out multiple times regarding a flight a credit from April of 2020 and they have yet to provide me with any details or help me with using the credit.”
  • “This company is a fraud! Do not use Hopper! I will be getting a lawyer!”
  • “Can’t say enough bad things about this service…Have to wait 15 days for response. Unbelievable.”
  • “I booked a flight back in June that I still haven’t been refunded for because the airline will only refund the agent directly. Non-existent customer service.”
  • “I spent over 3K and 3 months later, still no refund.”
  • “I have been waiting seven months for a refund.”

To date, users have left over 550 one-star reviews on iOS and 302 on Android, per Sensor Tower data. Hundreds of these are visible when you sort by “Most Recent” reviews on iOS, which is damaging to what had been, before the pandemic, a trusted and respected travel brand.

@.sp2020##hopper is getting trashed — no customer support? Can’t get refund? ##covid ##travel♬ Trouble’s Coming – Royal Blood

Hopper, to its credit, openly admitted to TechCrunch it’s been massively struggling with what it referred to as “unprecedented volumes of customer support inquiries since the start of the pandemic began,” or 2.5X its normal rate.

The company says it’s currently receiving over 100,000 inbound support requests per month, as consumers and airlines alike changed and canceled their flights. Since April, it’s seen over 980,000 inbound customer service requests.

A number of the inquiries are from customers are asking for refunds due to COVID-related cancellations. Typically, airlines offer a modified flight when they make a schedule change, and many consumers will take this modification. Some customers, however, will want a refund so they can rebook a different flight or because they’ve chosen to cancel their travel plans entirely. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem, driving cancelation rates around five times higher than usual, Hopper says.

Another point of confusion is who should handle these refunds. Hopper says customers can either reach out to the airline directly for a refund for help rebooking or they can ask Hopper to handle it. It also noted a small number of airlines don’t allow refunds, only travel credit. The airlines dictate these policies, which means Hopper can’t just offer to refund everyone — it would have lost too much money to survive, if it did so.

“We would have had to put out about half a billion dollars,” explains Hopper CEO Frederic Lalonde, describing the situation to TechCrunch. We had reached out to understand the situation, given the sizable customer backlash against the previously popular app.

“The way the airline system works is if I refund you as a customer who booked from us, I’m not going to get that money back. We would have put ourselves out of business,” Lalonde saus.

In addition, Hopper doesn’t generally received the refunds itself. They go directly from the airline to the customer. And many customers had to wait on refunds this year due to COVID issues. But there are some exceptions. For a few low-cost carriers, like Frontier, Spirit and others, Hopper does have to process the refund from the airline and then return these to the customers. So in these cases, Hopper’s non-responses to customer support inquiries left customers without options. (We’re documenting how the airlines are responding to our inquires about Hopper refunds here. It’s confusing to say the least.)

But the root of Hopper’s customer service nightmare wasn’t the chaos caused by the pandemic and the airlines’ cancellations themselves. It was how Hopper approached handling the situation.

“We failed our customers,” Lalonde admits. “We had a bunch of people that trusted us.”

He said Hopper has now addressed many of the customer complaints and issues. But many more than still remain. “There’s no universe where that’s what we set out to do,” he adds.

During the course of the year as the customer service crisis escalated, Lalonde says his personal email and mobile phone was published on the web. He’s since opened up several thousands — or maybe even tens of thousands — of emails and voicemails of customers in need of assistance.

In hindsight, one misstep Hopper made is that it didn’t hire more customer service agents to deal with what the pandemic would bring. In fact, Hopper did the opposite — the company furloughed agents in an effort to cut costs and stay in business. At the time, Lalonde explains, there was just too much uncertainty to hire. Stores were out of toilet paper. The Western world had closed for travel. Vaccines had typically taken years to create. This was looking like a long-term, worst-case scenario.

“We had to build an operational plan of zero dollars of revenue for four years. That’s what I gave my board,” Lalonde says.

When lockdowns lifted and travel started to come back, so did some of Hopper’s agents. But the customer service issues, by then, had skyrocketed as airlines canceled and changed schedules at high rates, and began to issue Future Travel Credits (FTC). Instead of adding more agents to help solve customer service problems, Hopper decided to apply automation, with a goal of allowing customers to solve more themselves. During the course of 2020, Hopper automated exchanging flights in the app, redeeming FTC issued by airlines, managing schedule changes, adding self-serve cancellations, and it rolled out follow-up emails to customers after they requested a cancellation.

Lalonde had believed automation would ultimately be more critical to long-term survival than hiring more agents.

“Would it have made a big difference [to add more agents]? Honestly, I don’t really think so. I think it would maybe have gotten 10% more done,” says Lalonde. “Could you find thousands of customers that would have gotten [help] sooner? Yes. But would it really have moved the need on the millionth inbound request we got? No.”

Another area where Hopper fell short was on customer communication.

This is most apparent from the App Store complaints.

Customers may be expressing frustration over refunds, but they’re even angrier that they can’t get in touch with anyone. And Hopper didn’t necessarily do itself any favors here by sending out emails which said it was aiming to get back to customers within 24 hours — an entirely unrealistic promise. (See below)

 

Image Credits: Hopper email (provided by customer) / Hopper email (provided by customer)

Hopper also chose to shut down its phone line when it realized that 80% of customers were waiting on hold for 45 minutes, even though, arguably, some customers would have preferred that to nothing at all. Instead, it rolled out an online structured triage system that helped prioritize incoming complaints. It even had a button to push if users were stuck at the airport so they could get more urgent assistance.

The problem was customers couldn’t find Hopper’s help features.

“Was our communication strategy broken? Yes,” admits Lalonde.

He says he decided to put the team on actually dealing with the FTC and the refunds, and not talking to people. “That made us look a hell of a lot worse, optically, but we got through a lot of work…because at the end of the day, after the fifth repetitive email, people got just as angry [as when they were ignored].”

Hopper has since apologized to customers and sent out an additional $1.5M in travel credits to its customers, in addition to the refunds it has now processed, to help make up for its issues. It’s still working through the backlog of customer service issues. And it expects another good six months of chaos as the vaccines shipping now aren’t immediately going to solve the airlines’ travel problem.

Over the next two months, Hopper also says it will be increasing its support team by 75% now that future looks more certain. It also plans to roll out in-app updates including a resolution center, escalation path, status check to prevent duplicate requests, and add in-app structured requests, in addition to more communication updates involving email campaigns, better in-app messaging, and website access to check on booking status.

It’s a wonder how a company in this nightmare situation could even survive, much less raise funds, when its brand is being dragged through the mud and hundreds — or even thousands of customers — have been unsatisfied.

As it turns out, Montreal-headquared Hopper will survive, at least in the near-term, thanks to a Canadian government bailout.

In early May, Hopper raised $70 million from both institutional and private investors. The Canadian government chose to save promising tech business impacted by the pandemic with direct financial support. The largest portion of the $70 million round (more than half, but not, say, 99%) included funds from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Investissement Quebec. In addition, all of Hopper’s existing investors returned, joined by new investors Inovia and WestCap.

The Canadian government — which Lalonde describes as “more like socialists than you would think” — helped by de-risking the other investors by leading venture rounds into tech businesses that had been doing well pre-pandemic.

“They did this at a very large scale and it’s stabilized the tech sector in Canada,” he says. The new funds now value Hopper “right at unicorn level” in U.S. dollars, Lalonde adds, meaning the business is valued around $1 billion.

One reason why Hopper may have struggled with how to proceed during the pandemic was the sizable uncertainty around the U.S. market, which Lalonde says was “very scary.”

“We never knew what was going to happen. If there had been a better plan there, we probably would have been able to provision a bit more. But we had no idea. The lockdowns were at the state level,” he explains. “If you’re trying to figure out how aggressive you want to be on investing, spending, emergency injections, or how things are going to recover, the more predictability there is at the government level, the easier it is to make a decision. The U.S. wasn’t the most predictable environment,” Lalonde says.

While Hopper’s business is saved for now, the app’s brand reputation has taken a huge hit.

The question now is whether that, too, is recoverable?

“I don’t know,” says Lalonde. “I’ll tell you this, the only way that the only right way to approach that is just keep doing the right thing, one customer at a time.”

#airlines, #apps, #covid, #hopper, #travel

Google to add Covid-19 vaccine information panels to Search

Google announced today it’s introducing a new search feature that will surface a list of authorized vaccines in users’ location, as well as informational panels about each individual vaccine. The feature is first being launched in the U.K., which earlier this month gave emergency authorization to the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  The company says the feature will roll out to other countries as their local health authorities authorize vaccines.

The feature itself will appear at the top of Google.com searches for Covid-19 vaccines and will present the authoritative information in a box above the search results, linking to the health authority as the source. The panel will also have two tabs. One will be the overview of the vaccine, which appears above Top Stories and links to Local and National resources, like government websites. The other will organize news related to the vaccine under a separate section.

Image Credits: Google

Google positioned the new search panels as one way it’s helping to address vaccine misinformation and hesitance at scale.

However, another arm of the company, YouTube, allowed Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracies to spread during the pandemic. While YouTube in April banned “medically unsubstantiated” content after earlier banning conspiracies that linked Covid-19 to 5G networks, it didn’t ban misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines until October. In other words, it didn’t proactively create a policy to ban all aspects of Covid-19 misinformation, but waited to address the spread of Covid-19 antivax content until vaccine approvals appeared imminent. This meant that any clips making false claims — like saying vaccines would kill their recipients, cause infertility, or implant microchips –were not officially covered by YouTube’s policies until October.

And even after the ban, YouTube’s moderation policies were found to miss many anti-vaccination videos, studies found.

This is not a new challenge for the video platform. YouTube has struggled to address antivax content for years, even allowing videos with prohibited antivax content to be monetized, at times.

Image Credits: Google

Today, Google downplayed YouTube’s issues in its fight against misinformation, saying that its Covid-19 information panels on YouTube which offer authoritative information have been viewed over 400 billion times.

However, this figure provides provides at look into the scale at which YouTube creators are publishing videos about the pandemic, often with just their opinions.

Google said, to date, it has removed over 700,000 videos related to dangerous or misleading Covid-19 health information. If the platform was regulated, however, it would not be entirely up to Google to decide when a video with dangerous information should be removed, what constitutes misinformation, or what the penalty against the creator should be.

The company also noted that it’s now helping YouTube creators by connecting them with health experts to make engaging and accurate content for their viewers, and donated $250 million in Ad Grants to help over 100 government agencies run PSAs about Covid-19 on the video platform. In April, Google donated $6.5 million to support COVID-19 related fact-checking initiatives, as well, and is now donating $1.5 million more to fund the creation of a COVID-19 Vaccine Media Hub.

#coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #google, #health, #vaccines, #youtube

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

Spying a pivot to ghost kitchens, Softbank’s second Vision Fund pours $120 million into Ordermark

“We’re building a decentralized ghost kitchen,” is a sentence that could launch a thousand investor calls, and Alex Canter, the chief executive officer behind Ordermark, knows it.

The 29 year-old CEO has, indeed, built a decentralized ghost kitchen — and managed to convince Softbank’s latest Vision Fund to invest in a $120 million round for that the company announced today.

“We have uncovered an opportunity to help drive more orders into restaurants through this offering we have called Nextbite,” Canter said. “Nextbite is a portfolio of delivery-only restaurant brands that exist only on UberEats, DoorDash, and Postmates.”

After hearing about Nextbite, Softbank actually didn’t take much convincing.

Investors from the latest Vision Fund first reached out to Canter shortly after the company announced its last round of funding in 2019. Canter had just begun experimenting with Nextbite at the time, but now the business is driving a huge chunk of the company’s revenues and could account for a large percentage of the company’s total business in the coming year.

“We believe Ordermark’s leading technology platform and innovative virtual restaurant concepts are transforming the restaurant industry,” said Jeff Housenbold, Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Alex and the Ordermark team have a deep understanding of the challenges that independent restaurants face. We are excited to support their mission to help independent restaurants optimize online ordering and generate incremental revenue from under-utilized kitchens.”

It’s an interesting pivot for a company that began as a centralized hub for restaurants to manage all of the online delivery orders coming in through various delivery services like GrubHub, Postmates and Uber Eats .

Canter is no stranger to the restaurant business. His family owns one of Los Angeles’ most famous delicatessens, the eponymous Canters, and Ordermark apocryphally started as a way to manage the restaurant’s own back-of-the-house chaos caused by a profusion of delivery service orders.

Now, instead of becoming the proprietor of one restaurant brand, Canter is running 15 of them. Unlike Cloud Kitchens, Kitchen United or Reef, Ordermark isn’t building or operating new kitchens. Instead, the company relies on the unused kitchen capacity of restaurants that the company has vetted to act as its quasi-franchisees.

Ordermark logos for some of the company’s delivery-only restaurant concepts. Image Credit: Ordermark

While most of the restaurant concepts have been developed internally, Ordermark isn’t above the occasional celebrity sponsorship. Its Nextbite service has partnered with Wiz Khalifa on a delivery-only restaurant called HotBox by Wiz, featuring “stoner-friendly munchies”.

The first brand Canter launched was The Grilled Cheese Society, which took advantage of unused kitchens at places like a Los Angeles nightclub and mom-and-pop restaurants across the East Coast to build out a footprint that now covers 100 locations nationwide.

It’s perhaps the growth of the HotBox brand that shows what kind of growth Nextbite could promote. Since the brand’s launch in early October, it has grown to a footprint that will reach 50 cities by the end of the month, according to Canter.

In some ways, Nextbite couldn’t exist without Ordermark’s delivery aggregation technology. “The way that Ordermark’s technology is designed, not only can we aggregate online orders into the device, but we can aggregate multiple brands into the device.”

For restaurants that sign up to be fulfillment partners for the Nextbite brands, there are few additional upfront costs and a fair bit of upside, according to Canter. Restaurants are making 30% margin on every order they take for one of Ordermark’s brands, Canter said.

To become a part of Nextbite’s network of restaurants the business has to be vetted by Ordermark. The company takes cues on what kinds of restaurants are performing well in different regions and develops a menu that is suited to match those trends. For instance, Nextbite recently launched a hot chicken sandwich brand after seeing the item rise in popularity on different digital delivery services.

Restaurants are chosen that can match the menu style of the delivery-only brand that Ordermark’s Nextbite business creates.

Behind those menus is Guy Simsiman, a Denver-based chef who is in charge of developing new menus for the company.

“We’re building things that we know can scale and we do a lot of upfront vetting to find the right types of fulfillment partners,” said Canter. “When a restaurant signs up to become a fulfillment partner, we’re vetting them and training them on what they need to do to … We’re guiding them to become fulfillment partners for these concepts. There’s a whole bunch of training that happens. Then there’s secret shopping and review monitoring to monitor quality.”

While Nextbite may be the future of Ordermark’s business, its overall health looks solid. The company is about to cross $1 billion worth of orders processed through its system.

“We are laser focused right now on helping our restaurants survive COVID and the best way we can do that is by doubling down on the incremental revenues of the Nextbite business,” said Canter when asked where the company’s emphasis would be going forward.

Nextbite is something we’ve been developing for a while now. We took it to market at the end of last year prior to COVID. When COVID kicked in every restaurant in America needed to be more creative. People were looking for alternative ways to supplement the loss in foot traffic,” he said. Nextbite provided an answer.

#america, #business, #ceo, #chef, #chief-executive-officer, #companies, #covid, #delivery-services, #denver, #doordash, #east-coast, #grubhub, #jeff-housenbold, #laser, #los-angeles, #managing-partner, #menu, #online-food-ordering, #ordermark, #postmates, #restaurant, #tc, #uber, #uber-eats, #vision-fund, #websites, #wiz

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

MedTech startup uMotif raises £5m from AlbionVC, as COVID-19 accelerates remote clinical studies

couMotif has an app that allows patients to monitor themselves for treatments or drug trials which then feeds into a platform allowing a much faster approach to clinical studies. It’s now raised £5 million in a Series A investment round led by existing UK investor AlbionVC, with participation from Oslo-based DNV-GL and existing angel investors. This latest round takes it to a total funding size of £7.5m.

The platform is sold into life sciences companies which are gradually replacing centralized studies where patients have to go to a site, such as a hospital, to submit their data. The trend has obviously been catalyzed by Covid-19. The platform is now used by studies taking place in 26 countries from clinical to real-world settings, and across more than 25 therapeutic areas – from dermatology and rare disease to oncology and cardiology. The largest study involved over 13,000 participants tracking their pain levels and the weather. This was featured on the BBC and published in Nature.

Its competitors are almost entirely US-based and include organizations such as SnapIOT, Medable, and ClinicalInk as well as other large platform companies.

“We’re excited to help our customers implement patient-centered research designs by using the uMotif platform to capture high-quality data,” siad Bruce Hellman, CEO and Co-Founder of uMotif in a statement. “This new funding will rapidly accelerate our development and will ultimately help our customers to get new therapies to patients faster”.

Dr. Andrew Elder, deputy managing partner at AlbionVC says: “Now more than ever, having access to reliable patient data during clinical trials is crucial. uMotif’s platform is built with patients in mind; designed to help academics, researchers and healthcare professionals to capture the best quality data in a way that suits the participants. It’s a win-win for all stakeholders and the platform has the potential and momentum to revolutionize the speed and efficiency with which therapies can reach and help millions of patients.”

#covid, #drug-discovery, #europe, #health, #medical-research, #oslo, #pain, #tc, #united-kingdom

Walmart+ takes aim at Amazon Prime, launches September 15

If you've ever wanted full bags of groceries to semi-magically appear on your doorstep, Walmart has a proposition for you.

Enlarge / If you’ve ever wanted full bags of groceries to semi-magically appear on your doorstep, Walmart has a proposition for you. (credit: Walmart)

Although it’s arriving several months later than expected, Walmart’s answer to Amazon Prime is finally scheduled to launch in two weeks, on September 15. Like Prime, Walmart+ offers unlimited free delivery, with some products available same-day in many markets.

Walmart+ looks cheaper than Amazon Prime at first blush—the annual prices for the services are $119 and $98, respectively—but the difference may be less relevant to each company’s bottom line than it looks. Both services also offer a monthly plan, and there’s effectively no cost difference there. When paid monthly, Prime and Plus are only four cents apart, at $12.99 and $12.95 per month, respectively.

Although Amazon is the incumbent in any online shopping competition, Walmart does have some advantages. Where Amazon needed to build massive distribution centers from the ground up, Walmart only needed to leverage small-scale deliveries from the distribution centers and stores it already has. Walmart can also offer some products that Amazon generally can’t—you’ll be able to shop online for local, fresh groceries with Walmart+, as well as get membership-based discounts on gasoline at many of Walmart’s brick-and-mortar locations.

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#amazon, #covid, #gaming-culture, #online-shopping, #quarantine, #uncategorized, #walmart

Now providing healthcare access to nearly 1.5 million kids, Hazel Health raises $33.5 million

Hazel Health was founded five years ago to provide telemedicine services to children in public schools. Launched by a former Apple software engineer and serial entrepreneur, Nick Woods, and named after one of Woods’ children, Hazel Health has grown to work with school districts responsible for 1.5 million children, and has raised $33.5 million to expand its footprint even further across the United States.

The company’s services are even more sorely needed as children are forced into distance learning classrooms by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Denied the network of services that in-person schooling provides for basic healthcare and nutrition, remote services like Hazel Health become, in some cases the only window into children’s health that some communities have.

When the first lockdown orders came through, the company began working with school districts to develop remote telemedicine services distributed via applications to continue serving the children it provided basic telemedicine services for.

So far, ninety percent of eligible families have enrolled in the company’s telemedicine program and 70 percent have engaged with the company’s services. These numbers are even more significant when viewed through the lens of the nearly forty percent of the company’s users who indicate they don’t have a primary care physician.

“We built this incredibly powerful model that partnered with schools and brought access to healthcare to families,” said Hazel chief executive, Josh Golomb. “At the schools we had an iPad on a stand. You hit a button and in a few minutes you would be talking to a doctor.”

Hazel Health executive team, from left: Dr. Rob Darzynkiewicz (Chief Medical Officer), Nick Woods (Chief Tech Officer, cofounder), Raquel Antunez (VP Education Markets, cofounder), and Josh Golomb (CEO). Image Credit: Hazel Health

After the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S., the company’s Hazel at Home service continues to provide care to kids.

“As soon as covid happened there was a lot of recognition by districts that we have to have a solution around student health and wellness,” said Golomb. “Pre-COVID we went from 300,000 in our network of districts to now, when we just passed 1.5 million. [The] rate of engagement went down but our overall expansion has increased dramatically.”

With those kinds of numbers it was no wonder that Owl Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures came in to back the company. Additional financing came from Uprising, the UCSF Foundation Investment Company and Centene Corp.

And the demand just keeps increasing, according to Golomb.

“Our pipeline has exploded,” he said. “A lot of the states have made expansion for telehealth and increasing access a priority. We were going to have eight or nine states that we were going to prioritize.. That’s priority number one… another big chunk is really making sure that we can invest in expanding the product to support that volume of states and finding ways to support our families and district partners.”

#articles, #bain-capital-ventures, #ceo, #covid, #distance-learning, #executive, #healthcare, #ipad, #owl-ventures, #tc, #technology, #telehealth, #telemedicine, #united-states

Mozilla lays off 250

Mozilla today announced a major restructuring of its commercial arm, the Mozilla Corporation that will see about 250 employees lose their jobs and the shuttering of the organization’s operations in Taipei, Taiwan. This move comes after the organization already laid off about 70 employees earlier this year.  The most recent numbers from 2018 put Mozilla at about 1,000 employees worldwide.

Citing falling revenues because of the global pandemic, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman and CEO Mitchell Baker said in an internal message that the company’s pre-COVID plans were no longer feasible.

“Pre-COVID, our plan for 2020 was a year of change: building a better internet by accelerating product value in Firefox, increasing innovation, and adjusting our finances to ensure financial stability over the long term,” Baker writes. “We started with immediate cost-saving measures such as pausing our hiring, reducing our wellness stipend and cancelling our All-Hands. But COVID-19 has accelerated the need and magnified the depth for these changes. Our pre-COVID plan is no longer workable. We have talked about the need for change — including the likelihood of layoffs — since the spring. Today these changes become real.”

Layed off employees will receive severance that is at least equivalent to their full base pay through December 31 and will still receive their individual performance bonuses for the first half of the year, as well as part of their company bonus and the standard COBRA health insurance benefits.

Mozilla promises that its smaller organization will be able to act more “quickly and nimbly” and that it will work more closely with partners that share its goal of an open web ecosystem. At the same time, Baker wants Mozilla to remain a “technical powerhouse of the internet activist movement,” yet she also acknowledges that the organization as a whole must also focus on economics and work on creating sustainable business models that still stay true to its mission.

‘We are also restructuring to put a crisper focus on new product development and go to market activities,” writes Baker. “In the long run, I am confident that the new organizational structure will serve our product and market impact goals well, but we will talk in detail about this in a bit.”

On the product side, Mozilla will continue to focus on Firefox, as well as Pocket, its Hubs virtual reality project, its new VPN service, Web Assembly and other privacy and security products. But it is also launching a new Design and UX team, as well as a new applied machine learning team to help bring machine learning to its products.

#covid, #firefox, #mitchell-baker, #mozilla, #open-source, #personnel, #taipei, #taiwan, #tc, #web-browsers

WhatsApp pilots new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, has rolled out a new feature in select markets that makes it easier for users to verify whether the assertions made in messages they have received on the app are true.

The Facebook -owned service has enabled users in Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, UK, and US to click on a magnifying glass-shaped icon next to frequently forwarded messages — those that have been forwarded at least five times — to search the web for their contents and verify them.

WhatsApp said the new feature, called ‘search the web’, works by allowing users to upload the message — it could be text or an image — via their browser. This means that WhatsApp itself never sees the content of any message, it said in a blog post.

The feature, available across WhatsApp’s Android, iOS, and Web apps, is in pilot stage, the messaging platform said. It remains unclear how soon WhatsApp intends to roll out this feature, which it began testing several months ago, to users across the globe.

But regardless, the new feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues at the height of a global pandemic.

WhatsApp, which has been forced to confront with the spread of misinformation challenge on its platform in recent years, has introduced several features and imposed restrictions to better control the flow in the past year.

In April, WhatsApp put in place additional restriction on how frequently a message could be shared on its platform. WhatsApp said that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time. Weeks later, volume of “highly forwarded” messages had already dropped by 70% globally, it claimed.

Though WhatsApp has visibly rushed to take timely actions in recent quarters, misinformation has not vanished from the app. Ill-informed explanations about Indian government’s moves, and “cures” of Covid-19 were still doing rounds on the platform a few months ago in India, its biggest market, for intance. And to be fair, there’s only so much a tech firm can do to fight human stupidity.

#apps, #coronavirus, #covid, #covid19, #facebook, #social, #whatsapp

Indian startups diversify their businesses to offset COVID-19 induced losses

E-commerce giant Flipkart is planning to launch a hyperlocal service that would enable customers to buy items from local stores and have those delivered to them in an hour and a half or less. Yatra, an online travel and hotel ticketing service, is exploring a new business line altogether: Supplying office accessories.

Flipkart and Yatra are not the only firms eyeing new business categories. Dozens of firms in the country have branched out by launching new services in recent weeks, in part to offset the disruption the COVID-19 epidemic has caused to their core offerings.

Swiggy and Zomato, the nation’s largest food delivery startups, began delivering alcohol in select parts of the country last month. The move came weeks after the two firms, both of which are seeing fewer orders and had to let go hundreds of employees, started accepting orders for grocery items in a move that challenged existing online market leaders BigBasket and Grofers.

Udaan, a business-to-business marketplace, recently started to accept bulk orders from some housing societies and is exploring more opportunities in the business-to-commerce space, the startup told TechCrunch.

These shifts came shortly after New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown meant that all public places including movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, and public transport were suspended.

Instead of temporarily halting their businesses altogether, as many have done in other markets, scores of startups in India have explored ways to make the most out of the current unfortunate spell.

“This pandemic has given an opportunity to the Indian tech startup ecosystem to have a harder look at the unit-economics of their businesses and become more capital efficient in the shorter and longer-term,” Puneet Kumar, a growth investor in Indian startup ecosystem, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Of the few things most Indian state governments have agreed should remain open include grocery shops, and online delivery services for grocery and food.

People buy groceries at a supermarket during the first day of the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bangalore on March 25, 2020. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

E-commerce firms Snapdeal and DealShare began grocery delivery service in late March. The move was soon followed by social-commerce startup Meesho, fitness startup Curefit, and BharatPe, which is best known for facilitating mobile payments between merchants and users.

Meesho’s attempt is still in the pilot stage, said Vidit Aatrey, the Facebook-backed startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We started grocery during the lockdown to give some income opportunities to our sellers and so far it has shown good response. So we are continuing the pilot even after lockdown has lifted,” he said.

ClubFactory, best known for selling low-cost beauty items, has also started to deliver grocery products, and so has NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that connects apartment seekers with property owners. And MakeMyTrip, a giant that provides solutions to book flight and hotel tickets, has entered the food delivery market.

Another such giant, BookMyShow, which sells movie tickets, has in recent weeks rushed to support online events, helping comedians and other artists sell tickets online. The Mumbai-headquartered firm plans to make further inroads around this business idea in the coming days.

For some startups, the pandemic has resulted in accelerating the launch of their product cycles. CRED, a Bangalore-based startup that is attempting to help Indians improve their financial behavior by paying their credit card bill on time, launched an instant credit line and apartment rental services.

Kunal Shah, the founder and chief executive of CRED, said the startup “fast-tracked the launch” of these two products as they could prove immensely useful in the current environment.

For a handful of startups, the pandemic has meant accelerated growth. Unacademy, a Facebook-backed online learning startup, has seen its user base and subscribers count surge in recent months and told TechCrunch that it is in the process of more than doubling the number of exam preparation courses it offers on its platform in the next two months.

Since March, the number of users who access the online learning service each day has surged to 700,000. “We have also seen a 200% increase in viewers per week for the free live classes offered on the platform. Additionally there has been a 50% increase in paid subscribers and over 50% increase in average watchtime per day among our subscribers,” a spokesperson said.

As with online learning firms, firms operating on-demand video streaming services have also seen a significant rise in the number of users they serve. Zee5, which has amassed over 80 million users, told TechCrunch last week that in a month it will introduce a new category in its app that would curate short-form videos produced and submitted by users. The firm said the feature would look very similar to TikTok.

The pandemic “has also accelerated the adoption of online services in India across all demographics. Many who would not have considered buying goods and services online are starting to adopt the online platforms for basic necessities at a faster pace,” said venture capitalist Kumar.

“As far as expansion into adjacent categories is concerned, some of this was a natural progression and startups were slowly moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic has forced people to get there faster.”

Roosh, a Mumbai-based game developing firm founded by several industry veterans, launched a new app ahead of schedule that allows social influencers to promote games on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Deepak Ail, co-founder and chief executive of Roosh, told TechCrunch.

ShareChat, a Twitter-backed social network, recently acquired a startup called Elanic to explore opportunities in social-commerce. OkCredit, a bookkeeping service for merchants, has been exploring ways to allow users to purchase items from neighborhood stores.

And NowFloats, a Mumbai-based SaaS startup that helps businesses and individuals build an online presence without any web developing skills, is on-boarding doctors to help people consult with medical professionals.

Startups are not the only businesses that have scrambled to eye new categories. Established firms such as Carnival Group, which is India’s third-largest multiplex theatre chain, said it is foraying into cloud kitchen business.

Amazon, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, has also secured approval from West Bengal to deliver alcohol in the nation’s fourth most populated state. The e-commerce giant is also exploring ways to work with mom and pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns of India.

Last week, the American giant launched “Smart Stores” that allows shoppers to walk to a participating physical store, scan a QR code, and pick and purchase items through the Amazon app. The firm, which is supplying these mom and pop stores with software and QR code, said more than 10,000 shops are participating in the Smart Stores program.

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100,000 Americans dead—and counting—as COVID-19 ravages US

A medical technician in protective gear handles a wrapped corpse on a gurney.

Enlarge / Transporter Morgan Dean-McMillan prepares the body of a COVID-19 victim at a morgue in Montgomery county, Maryland, on April 17, 2020. (credit: Getty | ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS)

More than 100,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 according to several pandemic-tracking efforts—and the pandemic is far from over. As the country reached the grim milestone, many areas were still seeing increasing case counts, and researchers have suggested that a second wave of infection is looming.

The risk of continued spread remains high as all 50 states have now begun easing restrictions aimed at curbing transmission.

So far, the US leads the world in the number of confirmed cases and deaths, with a 1.7 million cases and over 100,000 deaths. The country with the next highest numbers is Brazil, which has nearly 400,000 cases and over 24,500 deaths.

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