Edtech investors are panning for gold

The spotlight on edtech grows brighter and harsher: On one end, remote-learning startups are attracting millions in venture capital. On the other, many educators and parents are unimpressed with the technology that enables virtual learning and gaps remain in and out of the classroom.

It’s clear that edtech’s nebulous pain points — screen time, childcare and classroom management — require innovation. But as founders flurry to a sector recently rejuvenated with capital, the influx of interest has not fostered any breakout solutions. As a result, edtech investors must hone their skills at sorting the innovators from the opportunists amid the rush.

Lucky for us, investors shared notes during TechCrunch Disrupt and offline regarding how they are separating the gold from the dust, giving us a peek into their due diligence process (and inboxes).

Putting profitability over growth

The pandemic has broadly forced founders to get more conservative and prioritize profitability over the usual “growth at all costs” startup mentality. Growth still matters, but within edtech, the boom comes with a big focus on profitability, efficacy, outcomes and societal impact.

“The goal of all of education is personalized learning, when every student receives exactly the instruction in the way that they need it at the time that they need it. And that’s really, really difficult to do if you’re trying to have one person teach 180 students,” said Mercedes Bent of Lightspeed Venture Partners. “And so I’ve been excited to see more solutions that are focused on creating smaller class sizes that are also focused on allowing students to connect with people outside of their homes as well.”

During Disrupt, Reach Capital’s Jennifer Carolan brought up a recent Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which illustrates the impact screen time can have on society. When vetting companies, Carolan said she wanted to see founders who have considered how their products may impact young users.

#cowboy-vc, #disrupt-2020, #edtech, #education, #ian-chiu, #jennifer-carolan, #jomayra-hererra, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #mercedes-bent, #owl-ventures, #reach-capital, #startups, #tc

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Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hit every factory in China at once.

The initial impact to China’s electronics industry arrived around the time the nation was celebrating its new year. Two weeks after announcing 59 known cases of a new form of coronavirus, the national government put Wuhan — a city of 11 million — under strict lockdown.

As with most of the rest of the word, the manufacturing sector was caught somewhat flat-footed. according to Anker founder and CEO Steven Yang .

“Nobody had a great reaction,” said Yang, whose electronics company is based in Shenzhen. “I think this all caught us by surprise. In our China office, everybody was prepared to go on vacation for the Chinese New Year. I think the first reaction was that vacation was prolonged the first week and then another several days.

People were just off work. There wasn’t a determined date for when they could come back to work. That period was the most concerning because we didn’t have an outlook. They had to find certainties. People had to work from home and contact supplies and so forth. That first three to four weeks was the most chaotic.”

Numbers from early 2020 certainly reflect the accompanying slowdown in the manufacturing sector. In February, the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) — a metric used to gauge the health of manufacturing and service sectors — hit a record low.

These bottlenecks resulted in product shortages — a fact that was rendered relatively moot in some sectors as demand for nonessentials dropped, many small businesses shuttered and COVID-19-related layoffs began. The U.S. lost 20.5 million jobs in April alone, hitting a record high 14.7% unemployment. (When you suddenly find yourself indefinitely unemployed, a smartphone upgrade seems much less pressing.) Such events only served to compound existing mobile trends and has delayed the adoption of 5G and other technologies.

It seems likely, too, that COVID-19 will accelerate other trends within manufacturing — notably, the shift toward diversifying manufacturing sites. China continues to be the dominant global force in electronics manufacturing, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking beyond the world’s largest workforce.

#anker, #asia, #automation, #disrupt-2020, #eric-migicovsky, #hardware, #health, #kate-whitcomb, #rob-playter, #robotics, #sonny-vu, #steven-yang, #y-combinator

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Senate’s encryption backdoor bill is ‘dangerous for Americans,’ says Rep. Lofgren

A Senate bill that would compel tech companies to build backdoors to allow law enforcement access to encrypted devices and data would be “very dangerous” for Americans, said a leading House Democrat.

Law enforcement frequently spars with tech companies over their use of strong encryption, which protects user data from hackers and theft, but the government says makes it harder to catch criminals accused of serious crime. Tech companies like Apple and Google have in recent years doubled down on their security efforts by securing data with encryption that even they cannot unlock.

Senate Republicans in June introduced their latest “lawful access” bill, renewing previous efforts to force tech companies to allow law enforcement access to a user’s data when presented with a court order.

“It’s dangerous for Americans, because it will be hacked, it will be utilized, and there’s no way to make it secure,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose congressional seat covers much of Silicon Valley, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “If we eliminate encryption, we’re just opening ourselves up to massive hacking and disruption,” she said.

Lofgren’s comments echo those of critics and security experts, who have long criticized efforts to undermine encryption, arguing that there is no way to build a backdoor for law enforcement that could not also be exploited by hackers.

Several previous efforts by lawmakers to weaken and undermine encryption have failed. Currently, law enforcement has to use existing tools and techniques to find weaknesses in phones and computers. The FBI claimed for years that it had thousands of devices that it couldn’t get into, but admitted in 2018 that it repeatedly overstated the number of encrypted devices it had and the number of investigations that were negatively impacted as a result.

Lofgren has served in Congress since 1995 during the first so-called “Crypto Wars,” during which the security community fought the federal government to limit access to strong encryption. In 2016, Lofgren was part of an encryption working group on the House Judiciary Committee. The group’s final report, bipartisan but not binding, found that any measures to undermine encryption “works against the national interest.”

Still, it’s a talking point that the government continues to push, even as recently as this year when U.S. Attorney General William Barr said that Americans should accept the security risks that encryption backdoors pose.

“You cannot eliminate encryption safely,” Lofgren told TechCrunch. “And if you do, you will create chaos in the country and for Americans, not to mention others around the world,” she said. “It’s just an unsafe thing to do, and we can’t permit it.”

#apple, #attorney-general, #computer-security, #congress, #crypto-wars, #cryptography, #disrupt-2020, #encryption, #government, #law-enforcement, #security, #senate, #united-states, #william-barr, #zoe-lofgren

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How FaZe Clan is continuing to lead the esports world

The esports world is evolving quickly and so are the professional organizations that drive it. FaZe Clan is among the world’s most popular. At TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 we talked to FaZe Clan CEO Lee Trink, investor Troy Carter, and Nick Kolcheff, better known as NICKMERCS, about the shifting industry landscape.

Carter first explained the motivation behind his interest in investing in FaZe Clan. “My diligence in this process was different from the diligence that I usually do in companies because I went and asked my son, who was 14 at the time, what do you think about me investing in FaZe, and he lit up. He lit up,” Carter told moderator and TechCrunch Managing Editor Jordan Crook.

As a veteran streamer, Kolcheff also shed some light on his work ethic and how he keeps producing. “I’ve been a streamer for 10 years now, so it’s it’s getting to the point now where it’s like… I’ll go to bed some days after a long stream Kolcheff said. “So it’s just my mind is so wired, I’m so in it 24/7 that I think that it just becomes your routine and your life and that’s what it is for me.”

Kolcheff touched on the responsibilities of streamers to act responsibly and the challenges that can emerge for younger streamers to deal with seeing their influence expand so rapidly. “A lot of these kids blow up fast on the internet and go from having like four or five viewers to hundreds or thousands and then they have to be more careful — like you can’t say all these crazy things.”

NICKMERCS boasts a substantial following across the platform with 4.3 million Twitch followers and more than 2.8 million YouTube subscribers. He talked about how he balances maintaining his following while also competing professionally.

“I think one of the best things about being on FaZe for me is that I’m already so busy on a day to day with everything I’ve got going on with the stream and YouTube and all of that stuff,” Kolcheff told TechCrunch. “You know, a lot of other orgs have been out there always trying to draw you away from some of those things and put a lot more on your plate, and that’s okay, but like for me, I already have enough on my plate as is. So I need people who are going to support the things that I’m doing.”

Trink addressed the recent settlement with eSports Turner “Tfue” Tenny after a 15-month legal dispute over his contract and sponsorship deals and discussed how the group was hoping to keep its athletes happy with their contracts.

“We’re continuing to reexamine contracts as we go because this industry is moving at such a pace that it requires that so we do an audit on on what what our contracts have in them and what are the rights, what are the obligations, and we do that review a couple of times a year and have the opportunity as contracts are expiring, we’re doing new ones and there’s another opportunity to say do we have it right?” Trink said.

Trink says the industry is progressing so quickly and that it isn’t always easy to “get things perfect.”

“My philosophy around FaZe Clan and the industry is different than it was a year ago, it’s different than it was even six months ago,” Trink says. “You know, we’re really living in like dog years here. I’ve been CEO for just about two years, it feels like a decade to me.”

Watch the interview in full below:

#disrupt-2020, #esports, #faze-clan, #lee-trink, #nickmercs, #tc, #troy-carter

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Conan O’Brien on how to embrace an ever-changing media landscape

“Like most of the best things in my life,” Conan O’Brien explains, with a wry smile, “the success of the podcast was a complete surprise.” The answer is a typically self-effacing one from the comedian. Since launching “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” nearly two years ago, the show has quickly risen up the podcasting charts to become one of the country’s most popular.

For those who have followed his 30-odd-year career in entertainment, it’s easy to see why. Quick-witted and almost superhumanly affable, the transition to podcasting seems almost a given in retrospect. After all, hosting a series of late-night network talk shows for decades isn’t exactly starting from scratch when it comes to launching a new entertainment venture. Nor, for that matter, is having tens of millions of Twitter followers and your own online media company, Team Coco.

Not that things have always been easy. A long-promised Tonight Show slot wasn’t all he’d hoped for, leading to a very public exit from the most-coveted show in late night after just under eight months. It was the shortest tenure in the series’ history, culminating in a televised “exit interview” with Steve Carrell that found The Office star shredding his NBC badge. But O’Brien’s late-night hiatus was short-lived. Later that year, he returned with TBS’ Conan, which will celebrate its 10th year on the air in November (and is renewed at least through 2022).

The 2018 launch of “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” found the comedian embracing the new-found freedom of podcasting.

“There are a couple of things about doing podcasts that are superior or more fun than doing a talk show,” a quarantine-haired O’Brien said in an interview at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. “When I’m doing the traditional talk show, I’m limited. For years and years and years, when it was on network television, I had to take six- and seven-minute turns, which mean I’m having a conversation with you or I’m having a conversation with someone I’ve always dreamed of talking to, whether it’s Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey or Robin Williams. Then after six or seven minutes, there has to be a laugh and we’ll take a break and we’ll be right back.

“That’s not a natural conversational flow,” he continues. “What you can do with a podcast is really incredible. I can talk to someone for an hour and 15 minutes. We try and trim them back, but for the most part, people let their guard down. The other thing I prefer: no hair and makeup. It sounds like I’m kidding. But after almost 30 years of people caking my very white face with makeup so that I look like I’m still alive.”

Team Coco has produced 10 shows in all, including shows from longtime sidekick Andy Richter and actor Rob Lowe, writers Mike Sweeney and Jessie Gaskel’s intimately titled Inside Conan and a six-part mini-series interview with SNL alum, Dana Carvey.

“I don’t want to set a number goal,” O’Brien says. “I’m amazed — in two years, we’ve rolled out 10 different podcasts, some of them unscripted, but some scripted ones, as well. I’m not sitting around saying, ‘hey, we’ve got to get to 35 podcasts by this point.’ Because I’d like them to be good.”

The talk show has soldiered on, as well, undergoing its own transformations in the process.

In 2019, the program was retooled for a half-hour format. O’Brien dropped the desk and the suit, adopting a looser format perhaps inspired in part by the new freedoms afforded by his podcasting ventures. When COVID-19 made the in-person show an impossibility, he started working from home like so many others, switching to remote Zoom interviews. Throughout it all, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” continued posting weekly interviews.

Asked whether he planned to continue his late-night show after the contract runs out in a couple of years, O’Brien seemed unsure.

“I think it’s a mistake to think of it as, will you stop doing the show, and only do the podcast? Or will you retire and then quietly work on your letters in a shack? I love to create things. I have a lot of energy. I love to try and make people laugh. And so I see All of this converging, I think the message that I would have for everybody watching TechCrunch Disrupt right now is that people need to open up their minds a little bit. If I’m making podcasts, it doesn’t prohibit me from also maybe do maybe doing something, it doesn’t have to necessarily be for Turner, it could be for anybody.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Multiple decades of success, it seems, have put O’Brien in the relatively unique position of being able to be somewhat platform-agnostic. Not being tied to a single medium is a strong place to be when it comes to bracing oneself for the unexpected technological changes that will continue to disrupt and upend the entertainment industry.

“Five years from now our entertainment may come in pill form,” he says. “You could binge The Sopranos. You could just take a whole bottle of Sopranos and then just drink a lot of water and then, you know, just don’t need any red meat.

“This is gonna sound far-fetched, but I think this is the most excited I’ve been in my career, because there were so many ways to be creative. There are so many ways to make people laugh, and I enjoy these new opportunities. I think when you’re someone who has been around as long as I have, you have a choice. You can be afraid of change, or you can be delighted by it.”

#conan-obrien, #disrupt-2020, #entertainment, #team-coco

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Check out this never-before-seen clip from HBO’s The Perfect Weapon

At Disrupt 2020, we got a chance to see some never-before-seen footage from HBO’s upcoming documentary The Perfect Weapon.

The documentary, which was executive produced by John Maggio, is based on the book by the same(ish) name written by David Sanger, Washington correspondent for the New York Times.

We got to sit down for an interview with Sanger where we discussed the cybersecurity threats the United States faces, the definition of an appropriate response, and in general, whether or not we should be worried.

You can check out the full interview below, as well as a never-before-seen clip from the upcoming documentary.

The conversation was an excellent lead-in to Zack Whittaker’s interview with the NSA’s Cybersecurity Chief Anne Neuberger, which you can check out here.

#david-sanger, #disrupt-2020, #hbo, #tc

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And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020 is… Canix

We started this competition with 20 impressive startups. After five days of fierce pitching in a wholly new virtual Startup Battlefield arena, we have a winner.

The startups taking part in the Startup Battlefield have all been hand-picked to participate in our highly competitive startup competition. It was an unprecedented year as we moved all of the nail-biting excitement of our physical contest to a virtual stage. They all presented in front of multiple groups of VCs and tech leaders serving as judges for a chance to win $100,000 and the coveted Disrupt Cup.

After hours of deliberations, TechCrunch editors pored over the judges’ notes and narrowed the list down to five finalists: Canix, Firehawk AerospaceHacWare, Jefa and Matidor.

These startups made their way to the finale to demo in front of our final panel of judges, which included: Caryn Marooney (Coatue Management), Ilya Fushman (Kleiner Perkins), Michael Seibel (Y Combinator), Sonali De Rycker (Sequoia), Troy Carter (Q&A) and Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch).

We’re now ready to announce that the winner of TechCrunch Battlefield 2020 is….

#battlefield, #canix, #disrupt-2020, #matidor, #startups, #tc

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How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research

The headlines aren’t always kind to the National Security Agency, a spy agency that operates almost entirely in the shadows. But a year ago, the NSA launched its new Cybersecurity Directorate, which in the past year has emerged as one of the more visible divisions of the spy agency.

At its core, the directorate focuses on defending and securing critical national security systems that the government uses for its sensitive and classified communications. But the directorate has become best known for sharing some of the more emerging, large-scale cyber threats from foreign hackers. In the past year the directorate has warned against attacks targeting secure boot features in most modern computers, and doxxed a malware operation linked to Russian intelligence. By going public, NSA aims to make it harder for foreign hackers to reuse their tools and techniques, while helping to defend critical systems at home.

But six months after the directorate started its work, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and large swathes of the world — and the U.S. — went into lockdown, prompting hackers to shift gears and change tactics.

“The threat landscape has changed,” Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “We’ve moved to telework, we move to new infrastructure, and we’ve watched cyber adversaries move to take advantage of that as well,” she said.

Publicly, the NSA advised on which videoconferencing and collaboration software was secure, and warned about the risks associated with virtual private networks, of which usage boomed after lockdowns began.

But behind the scenes, the NSA is working with federal partners to help protect the efforts to produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, a feat that the U.S. government called Operation Warp Speed. News of NSA’s involvement in the operation was first reported by Cyberscoop. As the world races to develop a working COVID-19 vaccine, which experts say is the only long-term way to end the pandemic, NSA and its U.K. and Canadian partners went public with another Russian intelligence operation aimed at targeting COVID-19 research.

“We’re part of a partnership across the U.S. government, we each have different roles,” said Neuberger. “The role we play as part of ‘Team America for Cyber’ is working to understand foreign actors, who are they, who are seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine information — or more importantly, disrupt vaccine information or shake confidence in a given vaccine.”

Neuberger said that protecting the pharma companies developing a vaccine is just one part of the massive supply chain operation that goes into getting a vaccine out to millions of Americans. Ensuring the cybersecurity of the government agencies tasked with approving a vaccine is also a top priority.

Here are more takeaways from the talk, and you can watch the interview in full below:

Why TikTok is a national security threat

TikTok is just days away from an app store ban, after the Trump administration earlier this year accused the Chinese-owned company of posing a threat to national security. But the government has been less than forthcoming about what specific risks the video sharing app poses, only alleging that the app could be compelled to spy for China. Beijing has long been accused of cyberattacks against the U.S., including the massive breach of classified government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Neuberger said that the “scope and scale” of TikTok’s app’s data collection makes it easier for Chinese spies to answer “all kinds of different intelligence questions” on U.S. nationals. Neuberger conceded that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google also collect large amounts of user data. But that there are “greater concerns on how [China] in particular could use all that information collected against populations other than its own,” she said.

NSA is privately disclosing security bugs to companies

The NSA is trying to be more open about the vulnerabilities it finds and discloses, Neuberger said. She told TechCrunch that the agency has shared a “number” of vulnerabilities with private companies this year, but “those companies did not want to give attribution.”

One exception was earlier this year when Microsoft confirmed NSA had found and privately reported a major cryptographic flaw in Windows 10, which could have allowed hackers to run malware masquerading as a legitimate file. The bug was so dangerous that NSA reported the vulnerability to Microsoft, which patched the bug.

Only two years earlier, the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

As a spy agency, NSA exploits flaws and vulnerabilities in software to gather intelligence on the enemy. It has to run through a process called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows the government to retain bugs that it can use for spying.

#anne-neuberger, #computer-security, #cyberattack, #cyberwarfare, #disrupt-2020, #government, #mass-surveillance, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #national-security-agency, #privacy, #security, #u-s-government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What makes Checkout.com different from Stripe

While Checkout.com has kept a low profile for many years, the company raised $380 million within a year and reached an impressive valuation of $5.5 billion. It wants to build a one-stop shop for all things related to payments, such as accepting transactions, processing them and detecting fraud.

You might think that it sounds a bit like Stripe. In an interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, I asked founder and CEO Guillaume Pousaz what makes Checkout.com different from Stripe, Adyen and other companies in the payment space. It comes down to a very different philosophy when it comes to product and market approach.

“We only do enterprise. We really only work with the big merchants. There are a few exceptions here and there but it’s mostly enterprise-only and it’s purely online,” Pousaz said.

“I once met [Stripe CEO] Patrick Collison and I joked with him. I said you might have a million merchants, I have 1,200 merchants but I know every single one by name and they all process tens of millions every year. So I think it’s just a different business,” he added later in the interview.

Checkout.com now has a ton of money sitting in its bank account, but it has been a long and slow journey to reach that level. The company has been around for many years and reached profitability in 2012. It has been spending very meticulously over the years.

When talking about the early days of the company, Pousaz said the team grew really slowly. “We can hire one employee this month. Now we can hire two employees this month,” he said.

Today, the company still tries to remain as lean as possible. “It’s really a matter of discipline. All these companies, they raise a lot of money, they spend a lot of money and I don’t challenge that model. For us, embedding that discipline and frugality in the company in how we run it is something that was important to us,” Pousaz said.

“There’s no problem with spending. Just make sure that when you’re spending, you’re wise about it. You just don’t spray and pray. You see this unfortunately too much with tech companies.”

That’s why Checkout.com mostly invests in its own product. Nearly two-thirds of the company is working in product, IT and engineering. Only 13% of the company is working in sales, which is much less than some of its competitors.

But why did Checkout.com raise hundreds of millions of dollars then? “At some point, you need validation. And the validation was really important for us. When you have Insight, DST, Coatue, GIC, Blossom it changes your dimension,” Pousaz said.

When talking about regulators, Checkout.com has licenses in Brazil, the U.K. and France (for contingency), Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. It’s a never-ending process as the company is still working on licenses in other key markets, such as Japan.

“These regulators are super thorough. You don’t pass because you’re a nice guy, you pass because you have the right processes,” Pousaz said.

I challenged that notion and mentioned the Wirecard collapse. He obviously thinks that Wirecard and Checkout.com are in a different position right now.

“All my money is sitting with JP Morgan, it’s pretty simple. There’s no bank account in the Philippines and funny stuff,” Pousaz said. “The Wirecard story is so big that the real question is — go and ask the question to the auditors. Because the auditors that I have, which for the record is PwC, ask me to show them the bank statements and everything. And there are super thorough, it’s a super long process.”

“How did the Wirecard story happen? I don’t know,” he added.

#checkout-com, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #disrupt-sf, #disrupt-sf-2020, #europe, #guillaume-pousaz, #startups, #tc

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Steven Yang and Sonny Vu discuss COVID-19’s impact on tech manufacturing

Like most of the rest of the world, COVID-19 hit the manufacturing sector by surprise. That China — which continues to comprise the vast majority of electronics manufacturing — was the first global epicenter of the virus certainly didn’t help the industry sufficiently brace for the impact of a pandemic on a scale the world has not seen for more than a century.

“Nobody had a great reaction,” Anker founder and CEO Steven Yang concedes during our Disrupt interview. “I think this all caught us by surprise. In our China office, everybody was prepared to go on vacation for the Chinese New Year. I think the first reaction was that vacation was prolonged the first week and then another several days. People were just off work. There wasn’t a determined date for when they could come back to work. That period was the most concerning because we didn’t have an outlook. They had to find certainties. People had to work from home and contact supplies and so forth. That first three to four weeks was the most chaotic.”

The impact of the earliest days of the pandemic continues to have knock-on effects that have sent shockwave throughout the global hardware industry. In early 2020, it was easy enough for many throughout the globe to write off the novel coronavirus as the latest in a string of outbreaks that didn’t move too far beyond select pockets. Ultimately, however, it would bring much of the world to a screeching halt.

Manufacturing, in particular, suffered first from a workplace depletion. Soon,  the hamstringing of its supply was outpaced in lowered demand. Economic recessions and skyrocketing unemployment have — and in many sectors continue to —torpedo consumer demand for a number of electronics. While it’s true that some categories  — like PCs — ultimately benefited for the shift in lifestyles, an overall decreasing in disposal income has had a profound impact on the industry.

On the manufacturing side, COVID-19 has served to propel existing trends. “I feel like it’s accelerated this depolarization to some extent,” Arevo CEO Sonny Vu explains. “We’re seeing across the board soft goods, hardware.” Vu, who spends much of his time in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, notes that the advent of COVID-19 has increased the appeal of manufacturing sites outside of China. Areas like South East Asia and India, which are continuing to increase in popularity as manufacturing hot beds, are becoming increasingly appealing for those looking to diversify sites to help prepare for similar issues in the future.

Robotics and automation is an other key category seeing increased potential acceleration, as manufacturers look toward streamline processes that can’t call in sick or increase transmission of human viruses.

“It’s our firm belief that automation will not only be efficient, but effective. We have invested heavily in robotic automation,” says Yang. “It’s to a certain point — because if you were to take a certain wire and push it through a hole, the cost of a robot that does that is still, I don’t know, 20 years of a single worker’s salary. It’s very challenging to take an entire assembly line and replace it with robots.”

#anker, #arevo, #disrupt-2020, #hardware, #sonny-vu, #steven-yang

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Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19. Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted.

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, over 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set-up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets–Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.

#asia, #disrupt-2020, #grab, #on-demand-delivery, #ride-hailing, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Fabletics’ Adam Goldenberg and Kevin Hart on what’s next for the activewear empire

Like plenty of other modern direct-to-consumer companies, influencer marketing has been an essential part of Fabletics’ journey. Actress Kate Hudson co-founded the company and co-CEO Adam Goldenberg believes that its network of spokespeople has been key to the company’s growth.

We were joined on our virtual TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 stage by Goldenberg and comedian Kevin Hart who has been working as a brand partner for Fabletics.

“You can have the best product, which we believe we have, but if you can’t get it out there then you’re not going to be the leader that you want to be,” Goldenberg told us. “By having a very broad and diverse ambassador and influencer network, it allows us to become a very inclusive brand.”

Hart joined the company as an official brand partner earlier this year just as the pandemic took hold stateside and the company launched a menswear line. For Hart, the partnership is one of many relationships with brands and startups, but fits into his own lifestyle and thus made a lot of sense for him to work with, he says. 

“[A company I invest in] has to coincide with myself and my lifestyle. If I’m going to talk about it, I have to be true to it,” Hart told TechCrunch. “There’s a plethora of things that I’m involved with that people would be shocked to know I was a part of, but it’s because I have the eyesight for it and a love for it.”

The Fabletics menswear line that Hart has advertised, and served as a brand spokesman for, has seen major growth amid a broader spike in athleisure wear sales. Goldenberg is bullish on just how much growth Fabletics will see from its men’s line so early in its lifecycle.

“It’s a big goal, but I think we could do $75-100 million in sales next year with Fabletics Men, which is our first full year with this line, which would be very, very fast growth,” Goldenberg says.

As the company firms up its offering in activewear, they’re also keeping an eye on what trends will help them grow. Fabletics has already been building out technology trying to connect online and offline user habits in its stores. On the heels of Lululemon’s major acquisition of Mirror, which it announced in late June, moderator Jordan Crook inquired whether Fabletics had its own interests in expanding its footprint beyond activewear.

“We really believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle, so we’re not ready to share it yet, but we’re going to be doing something very large incorporating fitness into Fabletics,” Goldenberg said.

Check out the interview with Hart and Goldenberg below.

#actress, #ambassador, #brand, #clothing, #co-ceo, #comedian, #disrupt-2020, #e-commerce, #fabletics, #influencer-marketing, #jordan-crook, #kate-hudson, #kevin-hart, #lululemon, #marketing, #subscription-services, #tc, #techcrunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canix aims to ease cannabis cultivators’ regulatory bookkeeping

Growing cannabis on an industrial scale involves managing margins while continually adhering to compliance laws. For many growers, large and small, this consists of constant data entry from seed to sale.

Canix’s solution employs a robust enterprise resource planning platform with a steep tilt toward reducing the time it takes to input data. This platform integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software and Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform, through the use of RFID scanners and Bluetooth-enabled scales.

Canix launched in June 2019, and in a little over a year (and during a pandemic), acquired over 300 customers spanning more than 1,000 growing facilities and tracking the movement of 2.5 million plants.

Canix’s founders are upfront with the software’s goal: reduce labor cost. During a talk with TechCrunch, the founders stressed how growers could increase margins through improved labor costs.

Growers generally rely on enterprise resource planning platforms to track and forecast their crops, and Canix handles invoicing, costing and reporting while keeping the company compliant. Along with monitoring current inventory, Canix includes forecasting features. Starting with just plant clones, these prediction features will help growers predict yield 90 days away.

Before understanding Canix, it’s essential to know the landscape of growing legal cannabis in the United States. Growers have to adhere to strict oversight, including submitting paperwork each time a plant moves throughout facilities — and its lifecycle. This involves a lot of data entry, and most states require growers to submit this information in Metrc.

Metrc itself is a startup. The company launched in 2013 and now tracks cannabis operations in 13 states. In October 2018, Metrc raised $50 million. The platform is designed to track cannabis from seed to sale with a deep focus on compliance. It’s not an enterprise resource planning platform though some growers use it as such for the sake of simplicity. Though detailed and built for a modern agriculture operation, for some growers, inputting data into Metrc is often a labor-intensive job requiring cultivators to employ staffers to remain compliant.

Canix is designed for commercial operations that have a cannabis license. Several startups, including MJ Platform and BioTrack, are building similar platforms for this market, but Canix says the company’s focus on improving data entry makes it stand apart.

Stacey Hronowski and Artem Pasyechnyk founded the company after identifying a shortcoming in Metrc.

“I first started Canix when I was consulting for a Bay Area cannabis company,” said Stacey Hronowski, co-founder and CEO. “I was writing software that would connect their CRM and distribution systems, and reduce the double data entry they did every time they created an invoice. The company asked me to look into connecting the system I built to Metrc. I began looking at Metrc, and I was very surprised to find that growers were writing down barcodes on paper. That was when the initial idea for Canix came about.”

Hronowski met Canix’s co-founder Artem Pasyechnyk through a mutual friend at Facebook and they started building a platform. After the beta received positive feedback, the pair expanded to a full-scale operation.

Canix caught the eye of several critical investors in its short life. The company was part of Y Combinator’s summer 2019 program and, in May 2020, raised $1.5 million seed from Floret Ventures, Yleana Venture Partners, Altair VC, Mava Ventures, Nano LLC, and Andrew Freedman (former Colorado Cannabis Czar).

#battlefield, #cannabis, #disrupt-2020, #startups, #tc, #weed

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ClearFlame Engine Technologies takes aim at cleaning up diesel engines

Diesel engines are the workhorses of freight transportation and agriculture — and by extension keep the economy fed and well supplied. They also have a dirty side.

The founders of ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a four-year-old startup based in Geneva, Illinois, say they have found a way to clean them up.

The company, which participated in TechCrunch Disrupt’s 2020 Startup Battlefield competition, has developed a novel way to get diesel style engines to operate on renewable fuels like ethanol. The technology essentially combines the performance benefits of the diesel engine design with the low costs and the low emissions associated with these alternative fuels, co-founder and CEO BJ Johnson said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.

By replacing 100% of the petroleum fuel with a decarbonized fuel like ethanol, ClearFlame says its technology reduces net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40%, and reduces particulate matter and smog (NOx) to near zero levels.

ClearFlame isn’t redesigning the diesel engine. Instead, Johnson and co-founder and CTO Julie Blumreiter have developed a way to modify the internal components of the engine to alter its thermodynamics to be able to quickly ignite and combust decarbonized fuels. The company’s technology means 80% to 90% of the diesel engine parts remain unchanged, according to Johnson.

The upshot is a technology that provides a fast and low cost way to reduce emissions, Johnson told TechCrunch. It’s the kind of solution that companies might need as local, state and national governments tighten emissions regulations.

The technology can be retrofitted into existing older diesel engines or applied to new engines that have yet to be installed in trucks or used in other industrial applications. ClearFlame is aiming to work directly with the engine manufacturer, which will still give the company access to the secondary market because every OEM has its own aftermarket parts group, Johnson said.

“We want to leverage their supply chain, their ability to scale and reach these markets, and the trusted name that comes with them,” Johnson said, explaining the company’s reasoning for targeting OEMs.

The technology was first developed in a Stanford University lab, where Blumreiter and Johnson earned their Ph.D. degrees. At Stanford, they were focused mostly on ethanol and methanol, which are simple liquid alcohols. However, Johnson noted that further research has shown that the same concept works equally well on natural gas and ammonia.

“The big difference here is that you have to tweak the injection system if you want to move away from a regular ambient liquid fuel,” Johnson said. “There’s just a ton of business value in being able to run an engine efficiently and cleanly on a fuel that just sits in a glass at ambient conditions, which is what those alcohols do.”

ClearFlame has already made headway with its technology, including landing partnerships and raising capital. The company completed a proof-of-concept demonstration of their technology on a Caterpillar engine at Argonne National Laboratory. ClearFlame is also conducting a demonstration on a Cummins engine platform supported by funding from the Department of Energy.

In April, ClearFlame announced it raised $3 million in a round led by CleanEnergy Ventures. The company has also landed several million dollars in grant money, including Small Business Innovation Research awards from the National Science Foundation, DOE and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

#automotive, #battlefield, #clearflame-engine-technologies, #disrupt-2020, #startups, #transportation

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Crover’s robot swims in grain silos to monitor environmental conditions

Crover’s robotic platform isn’t the sexiest or most exciting — particularly for a startup that began life with space travel in its sights. But the real future of robotics and automation lies in the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks employers have difficult finding human workers to fill. Monitoring grain silos, at very least, qualifies for the first part.

Today at Disrupt, the Edinburgh, Scotland-based company debuted its robotic solution. It’s a small, American football-shaped robot designed to essentially swim inside of a grain silo to offer farmers a better insight into the environmental conditions. Temperature and humidity can have a profound impact on grain storage, and the wrong environmental conditions can lead farmers to destroy significant portions of crop storage.

The Crover robot is design to offer a much more complete and targeted analysis of grain storage than traditional static methods. The robot lives inside the silo and dives into its contents when it’s time to offer analysis.  All of that information is fed into a dashboard, offering farmers a more complete picture of what’s happening inside.

Image Credits: Clover

Future versions of the robot will be designed to potentially help address some of these issues, but for now, at least, it’s up to the silo owner to take care of the environmental issues when the robot has identified them.

The robot will be offered through a Hardware as a Service subscription model, running farmers around £3,000 (just under $4,000) per robot, per year. The price includes the hardware and software solution. It sounds pricey, especially for a system that requires one robot per silo of grain, but Crover says that grain loss can often cost groups around £24,000 ($32,000) a year.

Crover is still quite a small team, with six full-time and one part-time employee, but the company is poised to start growing after two years. Thus far, its funds have primarily come from grants and bootstrapping. Even so, it currently has two robots being piloted at sites in the U.K. (Scotland and England) and a fair amount of interest from other locations in Europe, including Spain and Italy.

The company is currently shooting for a product launch in May of next year.

#battlefield, #crover, #disrupt-2020, #robotics, #startups, #tc

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UrbanKisaan is betting on vertical farming to bring pesticide-free vegetables to consumers and fight India’s water crisis

Severe droughts have drained rivers and reservoirs across parts of India, and more than half a billion people in the world’s second-most populous nation are estimated to run out of drinking water by 2030.

Signs of this are apparent in farms, which consume the vast majority of total water supplies. Farmers have been struggling in India to grow crops, as they are still heavily reliant on rainwater. Those with means have shifted to grow crops such as pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn — essentially anything but rice — that use a fraction of the water. But most don’t have this luxury.

If that wasn’t enough, Indian cities are facing another challenge: The level of harmful chemicals used in vegetables has gone up significantly over the years.

A Hyderabad-headquartered startup, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week, thinks it has found a way to address both of these challenges.

Across many of its centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore that look like spaceships from the inside, UrbanKisaan is growing crops, stacked one on top of another.

Vertical farming, a concept that has gained momentum in some Western markets, is still very new in India.

The model brings with it a range of benefits. Vihari Kanukollu, the co-founder and chief executive of UrbanKisaan, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup does not use any soil or harmful chemicals to grow crops and uses 95% less water compared to traditional farms.

“We have built a hydroponic system that allows water to keep flowing and get recycled again and again,” he said. Despite using less water, UrbanKisaan says it produces 30% more crops. “We grow to at least 30-40 feet of height. And it has an infinite loop there,” he said.

Kanukollu, 26, said that unlike other vertical farming models, which only grow lettuce and basil, UrbanKisaan has devised technology to grow over 50 varieties of vegetables.

The bigger challenge for UrbanKisaan was just convincing businesses like restaurant chains to buy from it. “Despite us offering much healthier vegetables, businesses still prefer to go with traditionally grown crops and save a few bucks,” he said.

So to counter it, UrbanKisaan sells directly to consumers. Visitors can check in to centres of UrbanKisaan in Hyderabad and Bangalore and buy a range of vegetables.

The startup, backed by Y Combinator and recently by popular South Indian actress Samantha Akkineni, also sells kits for about $200 that anyone can buy and grow vegetables in their own home.

Kanukollu, who has a background in commerce, started to explore the idea about UrbanKisaan in 2018 after being frustrated with not being able to buy fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for his mother, he said.

Luckily for him, he found Sairam Palicherla, a scientist who has spent more than two decades studying farming. The duo spent the first year in research and engaging with farmers.

Today, UrbanKisaan has more than 30 farms. All of these farms turned profitable in their first month, said Kanukollu.

“We are currently growing at 110% average month on month in sales and our average bill value has gone up by 10 times in the last 6 months,” he said.

The startup is also working on reaching a point within the next three months to achieve $150,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

The startup has spent the last few quarters further improving its technology stack. Kanukollu said they have cut down on power consumption from the LED lights by 50% and reduced the cost of manufacturing by 60% per tube.

Kanukollu said the startup works with five farmers currently and is working out ways to find a viable model to bring it to every farmer.

It is also developing a centralized intelligence atop convolutional neural networks to achieve real-time detection to find more harvestable produce, and detect deficiencies in the farm.

UrbanKisaan, which has raised about $1.5 million to date, plans to expand to more metro cities in the country in the coming quarters.

#agriculture, #asia, #battlefield, #biotech, #disrupt-2020, #india, #startup-battlefield-at-disrupt-2020, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Perigee infrastructure security solution from former NSA employee moves into public beta

Perigee founder Mollie Breen used to work for NSA where she built a security solution to help protect the agency’s critical infrastructure. She spent the last two years at Harvard Business School talking to Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) and fine-tuning that idea she started at NSA into a commercial product.

Today, the solution that she built moves into public beta and will compete at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield with other startups for $100,000 and the Disrupt Cup.

Perigree helps protect things like heating and cooling systems or elevators that may lack patches or true security, yet are connected to the network in a very real way. It learns what normal behavior looks like from an operations system when it interacts with the network, such as what systems it interacts with and which individual employees tend to access it. It can then determine when something seems awry and stop an anomalous activity before it reaches the network. Without a solution like the one Breen has built, these systems would be vulnerable to attack.

Perigee is a cloud-based platform that creates a custom firewall for every device on your network,” Breen told TechCrunch. “It learns each device’s unique behavior, the quirks of its operational environment and how it interacts with other devices to prevent malicious and abnormal usage while providing analytics to boost performance.”

Perigee HVAC fan dashboard view

Image Credits: Perigee

One of the key aspects of her solution is that it doesn’t require an agent, a small piece of software on the device, to make it work. Breen says this is especially important since that approach doesn’t scale across thousands of devices and can also introduce bugs from the agent itself. What’s more, it can use up precious resources on these devices if they can even support a software agent.

“Our sweet spot is that we can protect those thousands of devices by learning those nuances and we can do that really quickly, scaling up to thousands of devices with our generalized model because we take this agentless-based approach,” she said.

By creating these custom firewalls, her company is able to place security in front of the device preventing a hacker from using it as a vehicle to get on the network.

“One thing that makes us fundamentally different from other companies out there is that we sit in front of all of these devices as a shield,” she said. That essentially stops an attack before it reaches the device.

While Breen acknowledges that her approach can add a small bit of latency, it’s a tradeoff that CISOs have told her they are willing to make to protect these kinds of operational systems from possible attacks. Her system is also providing real-time status updates on how these devices are operating, giving them centralized device visibility. If there are issues found, the software recommends corrective action.

It’s still very early for her company, which Breen founded last year. She has raised an undisclosed amount of pre-seed capital. While Perigee is pre-revenue with just one employee, she is looking to add paying customers and begin growing the company as she moves into a wider public beta.

#battlefield, #cloud, #disrupt-2020, #enterprise, #iot, #perigee, #security, #tc

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Sophie Hill on the changing face of retail and surviving 2020

Threads is not your average startup and, really, it’s not a startup anymore. It’s over 10 years old, employs more than 150 people, and successfully bridged the Series A gap in Europe closing a round of $20M back in 2018. And so far, it’s surviving 2020. 

COVID-19 has put retail – and the rest of us – on a rollercoaster. For some it’s minted millions with captive audiences realizing that they really, really hate that couch and it’s finally time to replace it. For others, like Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, and J. Crew, it’s meant bankruptcy. Bankruptcy filings for 2020 are clocking in at 424, according to S&P Global, and look on track to upset the total filings in 2010. 

Threads finds itself heartily in the black on this one.

“We’ve definitely had a challenging year. When we look at Threads business model we’re set up to respond very quickly and we have had a strong year. We’re very much in the luxury sector, we specialize in the luxury clientele and we have not seen a decline in our existing customers,” Threads Founder and CEO Sophie Hill explains.

Despite predicting slower growth, Threads is actually attracting new customers many of whom have been hesitant to make the jump into digital, proving that the luxury market, and customer, is as robust as ever, “We have seen customers purchasing goods at our higher value price points which is actually down to the fact that the stores are closed.” 

While this might be the final nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar retail, it’s bigger than that.

“People have been forced to go online, who might not have gone there as a first choice. Many people have found it easier than expected and a real lifeline in lockdown. I think that will hugely change trends,” Hill says. With an evermore competitive retail market, what can help brands stand out? 

For Threads, it’s all about the customer. That means meeting them where they are, be it WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram (though we’ve yet to see the brand appear on TikTok) and delivering a seamless customer experience that centers on two key values: convenience and personalization. Above all, agility breeds resilience. 

Learn what channels are showing high engagement, the discovery process for new platforms poised to take the market, and strategies retailers both big and small can use to stay ahead of the curve in the interview below. 

#disrupt-2020, #sophie-hill, #tc, #threads

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Here’s what’s happening at Disrupt 2020 today

Rise, shine and build your business startup fans. It’s day four of Disrupt 2020, and this is your daily snapshot of just some of the heavy-hitters, events, breakout sessions and all-around opportunity that’s yours for the taking.

Looking for the complete lineup? You’ll find it in the Disrupt agenda. Note: unless otherwise stated, all times are PST. Kicking yourself for not jumping on the opportunity bandwagon? Simply buy a Disrupt pass here, and kick your regrets to the curb.

Buckle up, folks — you’re in for a great day.

Athleisure wear is one of the hottest trends in retail, and it’s certainly a popular work-at-home wardrobe during a pandemic. Head to the Disrupt Stage and join comedian/tech investor Kevin Hart and Fabletics’ Adam Goldenberg for Retail is in the Details. They’ll talk about the company’s future and the type of tech Hart may invest in next (9:05 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.).

Everybody loves robots, but not many people know more about them than Boston Dynamics’ Robert Playter. You’ll find him on the Disrupt Stage talking about the company’s transition from robotics research to commercial production. Don’t miss Putting Robots to Work (10:00 a.m. – 10:20 a.m.)

We trust you haven’t missed a minute of the always-thrilling Startup Battlefield pitch competition. Still, a reminder never hurts. Session four takes place on the Disrupt Stage. Don’t miss watching today’s cohort lay it all on the line for a shot at $100,000 (10:40 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.).

Okay folks this session, Under the Radar, is a big, big deal. Legendary VC and Silicon Valley force of nature, Benchmark’s Peter Fenton joins us on the Disrupt Stage for a rare interview. Topic? The future of startups and venture capital (11:45 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.).

Head to the Extra Crunch Stage for product development tips from current and former product heads at places like Facebook, Zoom, Slack, Hulu and Oculus. Zoom’s Oded Gal, Advisor’s Eugene Wei, Slack’s Tamar Yehoshua and Inspirit’s Julie Zhuo will discuss How to Iterate Your Product (11:50 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.).

Data security is everyone’s concern — from budding startup founders all the way up to the NSA. Don’t miss Spycraft and Cybersecurity and the opportunity to hear Anne Neuberger, head of the NSA’s new Cybersecurity Directorate. She’ll take to the Disrupt Stage and discuss cyber threats, disrupting foreign adversaries and helping you improve your own cybersecurity (1:00 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.).

Whew, that rundown should whet your appetite for the day ahead. Connect, inspire, collaborate and take advantage of all the tips, advice, tools and opportunity Disrupt 2020 offers.

Still standing on the sidelines? You have two full days left to Disrupt and reject regret. Buy a Disrupt pass right now.

#disrupt-2020, #startups

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SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets (the video is embedded below). Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

#apps, #asia, #disrupt-2020, #japan, #media, #news-discovery, #smartnews, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy on Indian startup ecosystem, geo-political tension with China and coronavirus

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed down deal-making across the world, dozens of startups in India have raised considerable amounts in recent months. Unacademy, which raised $110 million in February, closed a new round of $150 million this month.

These large check sizes, and the frequency at which they are being bandied out, were almost unheard of in India just 10 years ago. The list of problems these local startups were solving then was also quite smaller back in the day.

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

He co-founded venture capital firm Blume Ventures, where he also serves as a partner, 10 years ago. Blume Ventures is the largest Indian venture capital firm. In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Reddy talked about the state of the startup ecosystem in India, some of the challenges it is confronting today and what lies ahead for the market.

“Fifteen years is what you should consider the active VC build-out in India. For the first five to seven years, we were kind of faking it till we make it. We sold the idea that we can replicate what the U.S. and China have done,” he said.

The breakout moment in India happened when low-cost Android smartphones flooded the market. A handful of startups with consumer-facing services such as Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato emerged to serve the first tens of millions of smartphone users in the country.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market,” he said. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, entered the telecommunications market in the second half of 2016 with the world’s cheapest mobile tariff.

Moreover, for several months, Ambani simply did not charge Jio subscribers anything for access to 4G data. So India at large, once conscious about each megabyte it spent on the internet, suddenly started consuming gigabytes of content everyday. “It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Reddy.

Karthik Reddy is the co-founder of Blume Ventures, the largest Indian venture capital firm

As hundreds of millions of users in India arrived on the internet, scores of startups in the country started to solve more complex problems: Bangalore-based startup Meesho today is helping millions of women sell products digitally; Classplus, a Blume Ventures-backed startup, has built a Shopify-like platform for teachers and coaching centres to serve students directly.

As India grew into the world’s second largest internet consumer, it has also attracted American and Chinese technology groups, all of which are looking for their next billion users. Several major investment firms, including Silver Lake, Alibaba Group, Tencent, GGV Capital, Tiger Global, General Atlantic, KKR, Vista, and Owl Ventures have also arrived and become aggressive in their investments in recent years.

But the geo-political tension between India and China have slightly complicated matters. In April this year, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to China to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country. Chinese investors have ploughed billions of dollars into the Indian startup ecosystem in recent years.

It’s a sensitive topic, given the involvement of the government, that most VCs in India are not comfortable addressing it even off the record. But Reddy weighed in.

“If not an arm or limb, it cuts off a finger or two for your choices. You are a little handicapped,” he said. “But there’s a caveat to that. It’s limited to certain segments of the market. I don’t think China and Hong Kong investors, even though they were very familiar with Chinese VC success story, were really interested in India’s deep tech and cross-border tech,” he said.

Today those areas account for more than a third of the robust ecosystem in India, Reddy argued. “If you look at the entire ecosystem collectively, there’s a single-digit influence of Chinese capital. […] If you ask me personally, 40% of my portfolio is not even remotely affected by it,” he said.

But several large consumer-facing Indian startups, such as Paytm, Zomato and Udaan, do have Chinese investors on their cap tables. Reddy said they would be impacted as uncertainty looms over when — and if — India would offer any relaxation to its current stand.

He said he is hopeful that the government would provide some distinction to VC-managed fund money that is not necessarily Chinese just because it’s run by someone who originated there.

Reddy also spoke about why he thinks early-stage startups, despite the proliferation of VC firms in India focusing on young firms, continue to receive less attention. We also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting his portfolio startups and the industry at large and what advice he has for startup founders to navigate the turbulence times. You can watch this and much more in the interview below.

#alibaba-group, #asia, #blume-ventures, #china, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #india, #karthik-reddy, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #zomato

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SmartNews’ U.S. app unveils new features for the elections, COVID-19 and local weather

News discovery app SmartNews' new election features for U.S. users

News discovery app SmartNews’ new election features for U.S. users

At TechCrunch Disrupt today, SmartNews announced the release of major new features for the American version of its news discovery app, designed to make it easier for users to get updates about the elections, COVID-19 and the weather.

Several features focus on the presidential race, and other candidates up for vote this year. SmartNews, which has spent the past two years building its coverage of local news, also added sections devoted to local elections and ballot measures, and information on how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

During his Disrupt session, SmartNews co-founder, chief operating officer and chief engineer Kaisei Hamamato said the goal of the app’s new election features is to make it the “one-stop solution” for voters seeking information.

Another new feature is centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes an expanded case counter that now breaks them down by county; the latest information on local closings, re-opening and other pandemic-related policies; and a vaccine and drug development tracker with a timeline of news articles from different sources.

SmartNews' new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

SmartNews’ new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

The final new feature is a “hyper-localized” weather report. Launched as Americans in many states are coping with wildfires or extreme weather events like hurricanes, the SmartNews’ Weather Radar uses its patented radar map design to show neighborhood-specific forecasts, including the predicted onset and intensity of rainfall.

SmartNews' Weather Radar feature

SmartNews’ Weather Radar feature

Founded in 2012 in Japan, SmartNews launched its American version in 2014, and shows articles from 3,000 publishing partners around the world. While its news discovery is mostly driven by machine learning-based algorithms, the company’s team also includes veteran journalists who help develop new features. In the United States, SmartNews has focused on addressing increasing media polarization with features intended to help break readers out of the kind of information bubbles they encounter on social media apps.

SmartNews' News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

The News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

Last year, SmartNews launched its News From All Sides feature in the U.S., which shows articles on a single topic from publications across the political spectrum that users can toggle through using a slider. Created for readers who want to see other perspectives, but might be overwhelmed by online searches, News From All Sides has been adapted for the 2020 presidential election, displaying articles about Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

#apps, #disrupt-2020, #media, #news-discovery, #smartnews, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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The art of pivoting with Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins and Jessica Matthews

Building and growing a startup is hard, but pivoting said startup into something new and then achieving that same growth is even harder. But it’s not impossible.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, founder and CEO of PromisePay, and Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, both have experiences doing this. At TechCrunch Disrupt, they shed some light on their respective, yet somewhat similar, paths.

PromisePay, formerly known as Promise, got its start as a bail reform startup that aimed to reduce the number of people held behind bars simply because they can’t pay bail. Now, it’s focused on helping people make payments for parking and traffic tickets, court fees and child support.

“We actually had this huge existential crisis,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “We at Promise are focused on ending mass incarceration and on decreasing the number of people in jails. So we started to be very successful and we sold very well. And what we realized fundamentally is when we created efficiency, it made the systems more efficient at incarcerating people. It didn’t make them more efficient at what our wrong assumption had been, which is if the system is more efficient, it would decrease the number of people in the system. And so we made a decision that growth was not consistent with who we were as a company. So I went back to our investors, which is hard when you’re making money and said, this is not the path because I don’t think this is a long-term path.”

She told investors there are already people who sell their tech to law enforcement, but what Promise wants to do is liberate people. It became clear to her that she was selling to the wrong people when she was talking to a client who said the difference between them and her was that she cares about people in the criminal justice system and they don’t. Ellis-Lamkins told investors she was going to stop selling to prisons and jails, and offered to give investors their money back.

Instead, she started looking at why people are ending up incarcerated.

“And luckily, that spurred growth, but I’m just not going to be a company that grows on the backs of poor people and Black and brown people, because there is a better way,” she said. “But it was frightening in the moment to abandon a market in which we’re making money.”

Thankfully, she said, not one of her investors had a problem with her decision.

Matthews said she had a relatively similar experience with her company, Uncharted Power, which got its start as Uncharted Play. Her company’s first product was an energy-harnessing soccer ball that could power a lamp after just a few hours of playing with it. She later integrated that tech intro strollers to power cell phones.

But after raising her Series A round for Uncharted Play, Matthews realized that her company needed to go all-in on infrastructure. She thought about the ultimate goal of her company, which is to get people the infrastructure they need in their lives. She just didn’t see a way of doing that with soccer balls.

“So we got good at making these things and pushing them and scaling them out, but when you have this balance of not just profit and impact but impact because you know that you’re a member of the group you’re trying to serve. For me, it was sitting down and saying is this actually solving the problem even if it’s successful.”

Matthews said she realized it wasn’t. So that meant walking away from the products that were bringing in millions and had 64% gross profit margins, Matthews said.

But it all paid off. Last year, Uncharted Power raised additional funding from an investor that validated her thesis for the future of power infrastructure.

“That moment was huge for us,” she said.

Matthews and Ellis-Lamkins also had some other gems worth sharing about imposter syndrome and measuring success. Here are some more highlights from the conversation.

On imposter syndrome and representation 

Ellis-Lamkins:

It feels like tech has failed so significantly in investing in people they don’t know and missed out in growing companies because of that. So I think our obligation is to help make sure that we are not the only ones.

Matthews:

It’s not imposter syndrome, it’s representation syndrome because I feel the exact same way. When we raised our Series A, the immediate thing I thought was, ‘Oh, man. I can not lose these people’s money.’ This is huge and if we don’t work, it’s not even about us, it’s about every other person who looks like me.

On measuring success

Ellis-Lamkins:

I think part of what we should measure is how does technology improve our society in general, a measurement of success. I do think that if we measure success, it should not just be, I could make a billion dollars or have a company that valued at a billion dollars if the consequences are greater than the actual benefit and so I think that’s really important.

Matthews:

Let’s get rid of the term “social enterprise.” It’s bullshit. Enterprise is an enterprise. A problem’s a problem. Let’s create a value system based on the problems. There are some problems that are more important than others. And knowing that means we need to back and support the founders who get that more than others, and then beyond that.

#criminal-justice, #disrupt-2020, #jessica-matthews, #phaedra-ellis-lamkins, #promisepay, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-include, #uncharted-power

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PlayVS is halfway to recruiting every state into its global esports community

Millions of high school kids play online multiplayer games, but they seldom have crosstown rivals in Fortnite or Valorant. PlayVS wants to make that happen with its platform for school-sponsored esports, and it’s growing like crazy, doubling its staff in the last year and putting thousands of schools on its platform.

PlayVS connects online games with official school administration and branding, elevating esports from hobby to school-sponsored activity.

“I think we’re building the biggest company in gaming,” founder and CEO Delane Parnell said in an interview at Disrupt  2020 this week. With around 20,000 high schools signed up currently and nearly a hundred million dollars in the bank to grow with, it’s not a totally unrealistic statement.

The company collects $64 per player per semi-yearly season, which starts to add up real quick when you have Counter-Strike teams of a dozen people with alternates, or competing League teams at the same school — multiplied by 20,000, of course. A bit of napkin math suggests income from existing customers is easily in the tens of millions.

Parnell offered the following metaphor to explain what the company aspired to.

“Imagine if there was one basketball court, and every kid who ever wanted to play basketball, whether it’s on behalf of their school, or pick up, or some sort of tournament, that’s the court that they had to play on,” he said. “That’s what we’re building.”

Sure, it sounds a little bit like a monopoly on hoops, but the problem right now is that there really isn’t a shared court at all. Esports is wildly disorganized at that level, if it’s organized at all (and let’s be honest, even at the pro level it’s a bit of a jumble). PlayVS wants to provide the connective tissue so that there’s one place that both players and administrators go to when it comes to inter-school competitive gaming.

Parnell explained that the last year has been about learning the ropes and establishing a presence in the also quite confusing world of state school systems.

“We certainly built the base of the business on the partnership with the NFHS — essentially the NCAA of high schools, they govern and write the rules for our high school sports,” he said. But then individual relationships need to be established with districts, financial programs, state leaders, and of course the game publishers themselves, which are understandably eager to connect with the younger generation of gamers.

So far schools in 23 states have signed up, and Parnell said they’re on track to get every state in the union on board by 2022.

“Those are partnerships that take a little time to form. It also takes additional time to build the technology that actually enables online esports, which most people think exists today, but it actually doesn’t,” he said. “So we’ve started to invest very deeply into hiring a team to build our product. We have a ton of capital in the bank and we intend to use that very wisely.”

The product build-out is more than buying servers — it’s attempting to create parity with the tools available in the context of sports like football and basketball.

“There’s products and services that we can bake in, things like recruiting, scouting, proven technology, highlights… these are things that would normally exist from independent companies within traditional sports,” he said. “One company does one thing, a thousand companies do ancillary things that make the sports experience better for every stakeholder, a parent, a coach, a player, etc. We’re going to be able to do all of those things within the PlayVS ecosystem, because we’re the league operator and the sole holder of that data. We will effectively have complete control of what that experience looks like and all of the revenue models associated with that.”

For comparison he suggested fantasy sports, now a huge industry but not one dominated by a single entity. “If there was one group, like CBS for example, that could have aggregated all that behavior, that’d be a $40-50 billion a year company. But they couldn’t get in with, you know, the NFL, the NBA, to give them exclusive rights to be the only fantasy provider on the market,” Parnell explained. “Game publishers are willing to do that with us, they’re willing to integrate with our product because they know we can execute. So I think that’s a big opportunity. And one could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”

PlayVS won’t be expanding into pro leagues, he confirmed, saying that the high school and college level work is as much as they can handle right now. But they’re overwhelmed in the best way.

“It’s almost as if the NBA existed for four years, and then they went back and said hey, we need to build high school basketball, college basketball, etc,” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of catching up to do.”

#delane-parnell, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #gaming, #playvs, #tc

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Kerry Washington explains why she became a startup investor

“Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere” star Kerry Washington won her first Emmy Award yesterday, but when she joined us at TechCrunch Disrupt today, she was much more focused on her work as an investor.

Washington traced much of her interest in technology to the premiere of “Scandal” in 2012. It had, she said, been “almost 40 years since a Black woman was the lead on a network drama,” which meant that the pressure was high — and that “Scandal” was considered a “bubble show,” with the network “taking a big risk by putting a Black woman in the lead.”

So Washington said she drew on her experience as a volunteer with Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and particularly her work with social media organizing, to try to rally support.

“From the very beginning of that show, we leveraged the power of technology to support the show in ways that traditional media wasn’t supporting us — or was waiting to see what the public response would be,” she said. “Really, I think the Twitter-verse allowed us to have a second season, and then we kind of took off from there.”

As for how that led to investing her own money into startups, Washington suggested that she wanted to be more involved.

“When it comes to my engagement with any sort of any creative relationship that I’m in, I’m not really good at having a seat at the table without a voice,” she said. For example, she noted, “I gravitated very quickly in my career …  toward being a producer.”

Similarly, she said that using tech tools was exciting, “but figuring out how to have more stake, more input, more creative voice, more ability to impact the technology itself was really exciting for me.”

Washington’s first investment was in female co-working space The Wing. which she explained as being part of her commitment to “ideas of inclusivity and community, celebrating identity in a really inclusive way, supporting women’s voices, supporting marginalized voices.”

The Wing has seen its share of success, but also controversy, with a New York Times article reporting that a number of employees (particularly women of color) felt that they had been mistreated. In the wake of these criticisms, CEO Aubrey Gelman departed this summer.

When asked about her response to the controversy, Washington said, “As somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.” She said that over the past few months, her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” while also expressing a “deep desire” for that transparency and accountability.

Other investments include Community, which allows celebrities to manage text message conversations with fans. (Washington promised that if you text her, she will really be the one who responds — though she also asked for patience, since she’s texting with “thousands and thousands of people.”) There’s also direct-to-consumer teeth-straightening startup Byte, which Washington said she uses herself.

As for her dream startup, Washington said she has a not-yet-announced investment in a direct-to-consumer fashion startup, “and it feels really dreamy at the moment.”

Again, these have all been personal investments so far. Would Washington consider raising a fund or joining a venture capital firm?

“I have considered it, but at this point, I really like having the more intimate and really hands-on relationship with the investments that I’ve made,” she said. “I feel like I’m really able to be in the trenches and bring more value as an individual investor.”

#byte, #disrupt-2020, #kerry-washington, #tc, #the-wing

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Kiri is a screen-free smart toy meant to help kids learn languages and more

After six months of sheltering in place (and now weeks of hiding from wildfire smoke) alongside a toddler who never seems to run out of energy, I’m the last person who would try to make anyone feel bad for giving their kid some screen time.

But if a company wants to build a toy that aims to educate and entertain without the need for a screen, they’ve at least got my attention.

That’s the concept behind Kiri, a company competing in the (first all virtual!) TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week. They’ve put a spin on the classic wooden block, packing it with smarts to help kids learn things like shapes, animals, and numbers in multiple languages without involving yet another screen.

Kiri is built to work alongside an expandable set of RFID-enabled tiles, with each tile representing a different animal, food, etc. Touch the block to a tile, and a built-in speaker announces what has been tapped.

A “mode” card, meanwhile, lets you switch things up with a quiz game (where kids are prompted to find and tap a tile that Kiri knows you own), or quickly shift between English, Mandarin, and Spanish.

The Kiri block itself is deliberately simple; about 2×2″ of smoothly sanded wood, the only visible externals are a few small holes where the speaker vents, a port for charging, and a translucent, color-shifting Kiri logo. Tap the blue tile? The logo turns blue. Got the answer right in quiz mode? Green.

Want to know which words your kid really seems to be getting? A companion app lets parents check in on a kid’s progress (and, of course, order new cards.)

Kiri took its first steps into the world at the end of 2019 with a successfully funded campaign on Kickstarter. They initially intended to ship the first units by April of this year, but the pandemic has thrown a wrench or five in the gears. Kiri’s Nick Porfilio tells me they’re now on track to ship by the holidays.

Kiri’s $99 starter kit comes with the block, a tote bag, and a set of tiles to get you started. The company intends to add more tiles and lesson categories to the mix over time, with an $8 monthly subscription meant to keep things fresh as long as your kid stays interested.

Porfilio also tells me that they’re looking to expand beyond tiles in time, mentioning concepts like Kiri-enabled books and musical instruments. For now, though, they’re focusing on getting their blocks into the hands of those who pre-ordered.

#battlefield, #disrupt-2020, #kiri, #startups, #tc

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Luther.AI is a new AI tool that acts like Google for personal conversations

When it comes to pop culture, a company executive or history questions, most of us use Google as a memory crutch to recall information we can’t always keep in our heads, but Google can’t help you remember the name of your client’s spouse or the great idea you came up with at a meeting the other day.

Enter Luther.AI, which purports to be Google for your memory by capturing and transcribing audio recordings, while using AI to deliver the right information from your virtual memory bank in the moment of another online conversation or via search.

The company is releasing an initial browser-based version of their product this week at TechCrunch Disrupt where it’s competing for the $100,000 prize at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield.

Luther.AI’s founders say the company is built on the premise that human memory is fallible, and that weakness limits our individual intelligence. The idea behind Luther.AI is to provide a tool to retain, recall and even augment our own brains.

It’s a tall order, but the company’s founders believe it’s possible through the growing power of artificial intelligence and other technologies.

“It’s made possible through a convergence of neuroscience, NLP and blockchain to deliver seamless in-the-moment recall. GPT-3 is built on the memories of the public internet, while Luther is built on the memories of your private self,” company founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti told TechCrunch.

It starts by recording your interactions throughout the day. For starters, that will be online meetings in a browser, as we find ourselves in a time where that is the way we interact most often. Over time though, they envision a high-quality 5G recording device you wear throughout your day at work and capture your interactions.

If that is worrisome to you from a privacy perspective, Luther is building in a few safeguards starting with high-end encryption. Further, you can only save other parties’ parts of a conversation with their explicit permission. “Technologically, we make users the owner of what they are speaking. So for example, if you and I are having a conversation in the physical world unless you provide explicit permission, your memories are not shared from this particular conversation with me,” Kanuganti explained.

Finally, each person owns their own data in Luther and nobody else can access or use these conversations either from Luther or any other individual. They will eventually enforce this ownership using blockchain technology, although Kanuganti says that will be added in a future version of the product.

Luther.ai search results recalling what person said at meeting the other day about customer feedback.

Image Credits: Luther.ai

Kanuganti says the true power of the product won’t be realized with a few individuals using the product inside a company, but in the network effect of having dozens or hundreds of people using it, even though it will have utility even for an individual to help with memory recall, he said.

While they are releasing the browser-based product this week, they will eventually have a stand-alone app, and can also envision other applications taking advantage of the technology in the future via an API where developers can build Luther functionality into other apps.

The company was founded at the beginning of this year by Kanuganti and three co-founders including CTO Sharon Zhang, design director Kristie Kaiser and scientist Marc Ettlinger. It has raised $500,000 and currently has 14 employees including the founders.

#artificial-intelligence, #battlefield, #cloud, #disrupt-2020, #enterprise, #luther-ai, #memory-recall, #startups, #tc

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Rally wants to make big group video calls more fun, more real and maybe less exhausting

Another day, another video meeting. Or video happy hour. Or video birthday party. Another grid of 30 faces, all sort of trying to have one conversation.

While it’s beyond wonderful to have access to these big group video chat platforms during this pandemic dumpster fire, they’re all a bit… exhausting. Part of that is just the inherent weirdness of talking with a screen, but a big part of it is that video gatherings just don’t flow the way their real world counterparts do. When you get people together for a real-life party, you’re usually not cramming 30 people into one big group, the collective focus silently shifting to whichever face managed to get a word out. You break off into smaller groups. Everyone holds their own little conversations, moving to whichever chat catches their ear on the way to the food/bar/bathroom/whatever.

Rally, a company competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week, is building a video chat platform with this in mind.

Rally builds group video calls around “tables” – think breakout rooms, except that you can juuuust barely hear the chatter from group to group. Not so much that it’s distracting, but enough that if another table starts talking about the latest episode of a show you love, it might grab your attention. You can hop to another table with a click, then jump right back into your last conversation just as quickly.

Tables live within “rooms,” each of which supports up to 35 users at a time. Larger events can have multiple rooms, allowing for things like live music events where each room plays a different genre.

Image Credits: Rally

The whole approach is meant to give the platform an almost physical feel, without requiring much more complexity than the Zooms and Meets of the world that everyone has already grown used to. There’s no 3D aspect to it, nor virtual animated avatars to learn to control.

Need to keep others from eavesdropping? Maybe you’re at a virtual pub trivia night, for example, and don’t want other teams overhearing your answers. A privacy toggle lets you lock down your tables conversation temporarily, and quickly take the walls back down when the time comes. You can also adjust the volume of the other tables if the background buzz gets too distracting.

Beyond being able to configure things and boot troublemakers from the event, hosts get a few bonus features that guests don’t. They can “take the stage” (alone or with a guest of their choosing) to make announcements to everyone at full volume, or they can opt to randomly shuffle the tables to discourage people from hanging with the same fellow event goers the whole time.

Rally co-founder Ali Jiwani tells me that their initial focus was a bit specific: They were building a platform for hosting live comedy events, so much of which depends on the energy of the crowd. When users started asking to use the platform for other things, they retuned it for broader use cases. People are still welcome to (and do!) host live comedy on the platform — it’s just not the primary focus anymore.

Rally is built to work within the browser without any downloads, with the catch that “browser” here currently means Chrome. It might work in other browsers, but Rally strongly suggests sticking with Chrome for now.

#battlefield, #disrupt-2020, #rally, #startups, #tc

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TouchWood puts versatile, unobtrusive interfaces inside your desk, table and walls

Everything we do seems to have an associated app these days, and all day they vie for your attention, pinging and lighting up in their needy ways. TouchWood wants to tone down this exhausting non-stop competition with a quiet, simplified interface built right into the natural material of your desk or wall.

Co-founders Matthew Dworman and Gaurav Asthana were fed up with the idea that making your home or workplace smarter usually meant adding even more stuff: a smart speaker that sits on your desk, a smart watch constantly telling you your step count, a smart fridge that slips advertisements into your morning routine. Not only that but these devices and apps are constantly drawing you away from what you want to do, whether that’s work or trying not to work.

They wanted (they told me) something like the enchanted sword Sting from Lord of the Rings: It’s just a sword 99 percent of the time, but it’s also an orc radar if and when you need it, and even then it just glows. Why doesn’t the digital world similarly only appear when you need it, and in the least obtrusive fashion possible?

Dworman previously worked in high-end furniture design, and with Asthana developed the idea of interacting with tech via “a slab of wood instead of an app,” as the latter put it.

Image Credits: TouchWood

“What we’ve created is a modular tech platform that uses high-intensity LEDs with capacitive touch sensing. This allows us to embed it in essentially opaque material,” Dworman explained. “The wall, countertop, desk, in the home, the office, retail, transportation, we see so many ways to provide information and completely invisible controls.”

The surface would appear completely normal when the display is off, and indeed it is. Mui Labs, which demonstrated at CES its own natural material display, requires a specially perforated wood surface that you probably wouldn’t want to spill coffee on. A TouchWood display is just that: wood — or many other common surface materials.

A TouchWood surface in action. (The lines are an artifact of the camera’s framerate.)

It’s not meant to be a second display, but a friendly overflow for the information avalanche presented to us via our desktops, laptops, and phones… and speakers, watches, coffee makers, robot dogs, and so on.

“We’re not trying to put a computer in a surface — we want to provide you with a better touchpoint for your existing devices, to enhance their capabilities by taking away some of the information pressure that’s put on them,” said Asthana.

Image Credits: TouchWood

Perhaps you, like me, constantly flick your eyes towards the tabs in your browsers, or the apps arrayed on the bottom of your screen, to see if there’s any change — a new email, a message on Slack, a calendar item. A TouchWood desk would let those notifications take alternative routes, like a glowing circle off where you put your coffee or mouse. Tap it there and get a summary, or go to the content, or swipe it away — but you never have to switch tabs, or go to a different app, or unlock your phone. And when it’s done, the desk is just a piece of wood again.

Dworman sees the transition as natural. “Touchscreens the way we know them have really only been around for 10 or 11 years. But because they’re so ubiquitous we kind of take them for granted,” he said. “When you watch sci-fi films, this tech is still being used 500 years in the future! But it shouldn’t be. In car terms, the iPhone as it is now is like the Model T.”

TouchWood aims to be a platform eventually, but needs to launch a product of its own first. It plans to have a nice sit/stand desk with two large display areas available next year for somewhere in the $2,000 region. Expensive, yes — but you may be surprised what people will happily spend on new furniture, especially something like a major component of a newly important home office.

After proving out the concept with a flagship product, they can start working their way into other niches and working with partners. Embedding an invisible display in a countertop, wall, or of course a restaurant table leads to all kinds of use cases. Here’s hoping TouchWood’s tech leads to a future with slightly fewer screens in it — at least ones we can see.

#battlefield, #disrupt-2020, #gadgets, #hardware, #startups, #tc, #touchwood

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Jefa is a challenger bank for women without a bank account

Meet Jefa, a startup that is building a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. The company is building a product that focuses on solving the problems that women face when opening a bank account and managing it. It is participating in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt.

“There are 1.4 billion people in the world without a bank account. Out of those 1.4 billion, nearly 1.3 billion are women,” founder and CEO Emma Smith told me.

In many ways, bank accounts have been designed by men and for men. Even if you look at fintech startups, most of them have male founders. There is already a handful of challenger banks in Latin America, such as Nubank, Banco Inter, Banco Original and Ualá. But most challenger banks focus on mature markets, such as Europe and the U.S. Smith thinks that targeting women in emerging countries represents a huge market opportunity.

Jefa has carefully examined the reasons why women in Latin America often don’t have bank accounts or are unsatisfied with their bank accounts.

For instance, banks often ask you to hold a minimum balance even though women statistically earn less than men. Banks tell you to come to a branch to open an account even though many families only have one car and taking the bus can be a hassle. Banks have overly confusing products and don’t invest in marketing channels for women.

“It’s for all those reasons that we thought we need a fully digital solution that is branchless,” Smith said. “We have no minimum balance requirement; all you need is a government-issued ID and you can sign up in three or four minutes.”

Image Credits: Jefa

When Jefa launches in a few months, opening an account will be free. You get an account and a card a few days later. The service has a built-in savings feature that lets you round up purchases and set goals.

There will be a reward program called “It pays to be a woman.” Based on your purchases, you’ll earn points on hygiene products, going to the gynecologist, etc.

At first, you’ll be able to convert those points to cash back. Later, you could imagine redeeming your points at places that matter to women.

Jefa users will be able to send and receive free peer-to-peer payments within the app. And when it comes to withdrawing and topping up your account, Jefa is building a network of merchants to securely manage cash.

The company is also working on a credit building platform that should work a bit like Chime’s equivalent feature.

Jefa will be launching first in Central America, starting with Costa Rica and Guatemala. There are already 50,000 people on the waiting list. The company knows that it’ll be important to build a community around its product. So you can expect a community forum so that you can discuss finance with other Jefa users.

Banks tend to have a bad reputation because they are soulless entities that don’t necessarily understand your needs. It can be frustrating when they keep telling you that you don’t meet the criteria. Creating a digital-first bank represents an opportunity for vertical banks. And Jefa is a good example of that.

Image Credits: Jefa

#battlefield, #challenger-bank, #disrupt-2020, #finance, #fintech, #neobank, #startups

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Balderton’s Chandratillake doffs his cap to Clubhouse, says enterprise audio is next

Suranga Chandratillake has (almost) seen it all. After being the early CTO for Autonomy, he went on to found the blinkx video search engine in 2004, long before many thought we’d even need one. He scaled the company to San Francisco and the US market, eventually IPO’ing blinkx for over $1 billion. On his return to Europe, he joined Balderton Capital, of Europe’s top-tier VCs, and has invested in many of Europe’s hottest startups. As part of TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, we caught up with him.

Last year Balderton raised a $400 million fund. But has the way that fund is being invested changed because of COVID-19?

“In many ways, nothing has changed,” he said. ”We have been a series a focused pan-European VC for 20 years… If anything, I think COVID-19 has demonstrated how tech can help us get through various challenges, and I mean all of the work from home stuff…It’s been really weird, not being able to spend time in person with [entrepreneurs] those people… But the overall strategy of investing in tech in Europe, it’s exactly the same as it was before.”

Although it’s not that simple. For instance, Balderton invested in car rental startup Virtuo to the tune of 20 million euros. And travel is not exactly a great sector right now.

Chandratillake admitted, “some industries we have had challenges this year.” However, he said they “had a difficult April and May, but they’ve actually had a booming August” as holidays came back.

“I would say that by and large, most [startups] have navigated fairly well.” He noted that European governments have put in place funds to support tech companies, and of course, other sectors of tech have boomed.

During the pandemic lockdown, many consumers jumped into virtual networking via apps like Zoom and Houseparty, but Balderton did a small investment into a stealth-mode startup called Riff, which, not unlike Clubhouse, is using audio in a new way. He hinted that this will be an enterprise-play on Audio.

“Funnily enough, the closest to it right now is probably Discord which obviously is already a large network, but really a very much a vertical app aimed at gamers… But I think there’s a there’s an opportunity to do something similar in enterprise in the same way that Slack, you know, arguably got a lot of its initial cues from consumer messaging [such as] from WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I think we’ll see a similar thing where the enterprise gets something that’s based a bit on what we’ve seen in consumer products.”

He said Riff solves the “classic cliche of the watercooler moment when you bump into someone in the office and have a chat, and it’s really hard to do that in this new reality.”

He also said there are interesting sub-markets following on in the coattails of Zoom “that also need to be worked out.” Balderton invested in a company called DemoDesk (a cloud-based screen sharing platform), which looks at, for example, “webinars and sales meetings and specific kinds of conversations like that, where the requirements are a bit different.”

Chandratillake is of the opinion that the world will have to live with COVID-19 for many years, but that new solutions will emerge to mitigate the downsides: “Anything that helps you stay more connected to your colleagues and your co-workers is going to be interesting from a VC point of view, right?”

In terms of the diversity issues thrown up by the Black Lives Matter movement, Balderton has backed initiatives such as Diversity VC in Europe.

“If you’ve got a more diverse venture capital industry, they will start to back more diverse founders doing more diverse things, and that will naturally propagate. That’s really important to me and that’s a big part of what we focused on….

“In the last three years, we’ve hired more women than we have men into the investment team. We recently hired our first female general partner directly into the firm… three more people of color in the partnership and so on. So it’s beginning to change to where it should be, but I think it’s one of these things where you have to battle on many fronts.”

#balderton-capital, #disrupt-2020, #europe, #facebook, #suranga-chandratillake, #tc, #virtuo, #zoom

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