Mailchimp launches new AI tools as it continues its transformation to marketing platform

Mailchimp may have started out as an easy to use newsletter tool, but that was almost 20 years ago. Today’s company still does email, but at its core, it is now a marketing automation platform for small businesses that also offers a website builder, basic online stores, digital ad support and analytics to make sense of it all. Like before, though, the company’s main goal is to make all these features easy to use for small business users.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

Today, Mailchimp, which has never taken outside funding, is taking the next step in its own transformation with the launch of a set of AI-based tools that give small businesses easy access to the same kind of capabilities that their larger competitors now use. That includes personalized product recommendations for shoppers and forecasting tools for behavioral targeting to see which users are most likely to buy something, for example. But there’s now also a new AI-backed tool to help business owners design their own visual asset (based in part on its acquisition of Sawa), as well as a tool to help them write better email subject lines.

There’s also a new tool that helps businesses choose the next best action. It looks at all of the data the service aggregates and gives users actionable recommendations for how to improve their email campaign performance.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“The journey to get here started about four years ago,” Mailchimp’s founding CEO Ben Chestnut told me. “We were riding high. Email was doing amazing for us. And things look so good. And I had a choice, I felt I could sell the business and make a lot of money. I had some offers. Or I could just coast, honestly. I could just be a hero in email and keep it simple and just keep raking in the money. Or I could take on another really tough challenge, which would be act two of  Mailchimp. And I honestly didn’t know what that would be. To be honest with you, that was four years ago, it could have been anything really.”

But after talking to the team, including John Foreman, the head of data analytics at the time and now Mailchimp’s CPO, Chestnut put the company on this new path to go after the marketing automation space. In part, he told me, he did so because he noted that the email space was getting increasingly crowded. “You know how that ends. I mean, you can’t stay there forever with this many competitors. So I knew that we had to up our game,” he said.

And that meant going well beyond email and building numerous new products.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“It was a huge transformation for us,” Chestnut acknowledged. “We had to get good at building for other customer segments at the time, like e-commerce customers and others. And that was new for us, too. It’s all kinds of new disciplines for us. To inflict that kind of change on your employees is very, very rough. I just can’t help but look back with gratitude that my employees were willing to go on this journey with me. And they actually had faith in me and this release — this fall release — is really the culmination of everything we’ve been working on for four years to me.”

One thing that helped was that Mailchimp already had e-commerce customers — and as Chestnut noted, they were pushing the system to its limit. Only a few years ago, the culture at Mailchimp looked at them as somewhat annoying, though, Chestnut admitted, because they were quite demanding. They didn’t even make the company a lot of money either. At the time, non-profits were Mailchimp’s best customers, but they weren’t pushing the technology to its limits.

Despite this transformation, Mailchimp hasn’t made a lot of acquisitions to accelerate this process. Chestnut argues that a lot of what it is doing — say adding direct mail — is something that was more or less and extension of what it was already good at. But it did make some small AI and ML acquisitions to bring the right expertise in-house, as well as two e-commerce acquisitions, including Lemonstand. Most recently, Mailchimp acquired Courier, a British magazine, newsletter and podcast, marking its first move into the print business.

With this new set of products and services, Mailchimp is now aiming to give small businesses access to the same capabilities the larger e-commerce players have long had, but without the complexity.

To build tools based on machine learning, one needs data — and that’s something Mailchimp already had.

“We’ve been doing marketing for decades,” Mailchimp CPO Foreman said. “And we have millions of small businesses on the platform. And so not only do we build all these tools ourselves, which allows us to integrate them from a visual design perspective — they’re not necessarily acquisitions — but we have this common data set from years and years of doing marketing across millions of businesses, billions of customers we’re talking to, and so we thought, how can we use intelligence — artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. — to also sand down how all of these tools connect.”

Chestnut says he isn’t likely to put the company on a similar transformation anytime soon. “I really believe you can only take on one major transformation per decade,” he said. “And so you better pick the right one and you better invest it. We’re all in on this all-in-one marketing platform that’s e-commerce enabled. That is unique enough. And now what I’m trying to get my company to do is go deep.”

#advertising-tech, #analytics, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #ben-chestnut, #business, #cloud-applications, #computing, #email, #mailchimp, #marketing-automation, #startups, #tc, #website-builder

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Microsoft challenges Twilio with the launch of Azure Communication Services

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Communication Services, a new set of features in its cloud that enable developers to add voice and video calling, chat, text messages to their apps, as well as old-school telephony.

The company describes the new set of services as the ” first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider” and that seems right, given that Google and AWS offer some of these features, including the AWS notification service, for example, but not as part of a cohesive communication service. Indeed, it seems Azure Communication Service is more of a competitor to the core features of Twilio or up-and-coming MessageBird.

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft has built up a lot of experience in this area, in large parts things to the success of its Teams service. Unsurprisingly, that’s something Microsoft is also playing up in its announcement.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure. Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support 5B+ meeting minutes daily,” writes Scott Van Vliet, Corporate Vice President for Intelligent Communication at the company.

Microsoft also stresses that it offers a set of additional smart services that developers can tap into to build out their communication services, including its translation tools, for example. The company also notes that its services are encrypted to meet HIPPA and GDPR standards.

Like similar services, developer access the various capabilities through a set of new APIs and SDKs.

As for the core services, the capabilities here are pretty much what you’d expect. There’s voice and video calling (and the ability to shift between them). There’s support for chat and starting in October, users will also be able to send text messages. Microsoft says developers will be able to send these to users anywhere, with Microsoft positioning it as a global service.

Provisioning phone numbers, too, is part of the services and developers will be able to provision those for in-bound and out-bound calls, port existing numbers, request new ones and — most importantly for contact-center users — integrated them with existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks.

“Our goal is to meet businesses where they are and provide solutions to help them be resilient and move their business forward in today’s market,” writes Van Vliet. “We see rich communication experiences – enabled by voice, video, chat, and SMS – continuing to be an integral part in how businesses connect with their customers across devices and platforms.”

#amazon-web-services, #aws, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #google, #microsoft, #microsoft-azure, #tc, #telephony, #twilio

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Microsoft brings data services to its Arc multi-cloud management service

Microsoft today launched a major update to its Arc multi-cloud service that allows Azure customers to run and manage workloads across clouds — including those of Microsoft’s competitors — and their on on-premises data centers. First announced at Microsoft Ignite in 2019, Arc was always meant to not just help users manage their servers but to also allow them to run data services like Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL close to where their data sits.

Today, the company is making good on this promise with the preview launch of Azure Arc enabled data services with support for, as expected, Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL.

In addition, Microsoft is making the core feature of Arc, Arc enabled servers, generally available. These are the tools at the core of the service that allow enterprises can use the standard Azure Portal to manage and monitor their Windows and Linux servers across their multi-cloud and edge environments.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“We’ve always known that enterprises are looking to unlock the agility of the cloud — they love the app model, they love the business model — while balancing a need to maintain certain applications and workloads on premises,” Rohan Kumar, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure Data said. “A lot of customers actually have a multi-cloud strategy. In some cases, they need to keep the data specifically for regulatory compliance. And in many cases, they want to maximize their existing investments. They’ve spent a lot of CapEx.”

As Kumar stressed, Microsoft wants to meet customers where they are, without forcing them to adopt a container architecture, for example, or replace their specialized engineered appliances to use Arc.

“Hybrid is really [about] providing that flexible choice to our customers, meeting them where they are, and not prescribing a solution,” he said.

He admitted that this approach makes engineering the solution more difficult, but the team decided that the baseline should be a container endpoint and nothing more. And for the most part, Microsoft packaged up the tools its own engineers were already using to run Azure services on the company’s own infrastructure to manage these services in a multi-cloud environment.

“In hindsight, it was a little challenging at the beginning, because, you can imagine, when we initially built them, we didn’t imagine that we’ll be packaging them like this. But it’s a very modern design point,” Kumar said. But the result is that supporting customers is now relatively easy because it’s so similar to what the team does in Azure, too.

Kumar noted that one of the selling points for the Azure Data Services is also that the version of Azure SQL is essentially evergreen, allowing them to stop worrying about SQL Server licensing and end-of-life support questions.

#arc, #azure-arc, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #database, #enterprise, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #microsoft-azure, #serverless-computing, #sql, #tc

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Microsoft Teams gets breakout rooms, custom layouts and virtual commutes

Unsurprisingly, Teams has become a major focus for Microsoft during the COVID-19 pandemic and so it’s no surprise that the company is using its annual Ignite IT conference to announce a number of new features for the services.

Today’s announcements follow the launch of features like Together Mode and dynamic view earlier this summer.

Together Mode, which puts cutouts of meeting participants in different settings, is getting a bit of an update today with the launch of new scenes: auditoriums, coffee shops and conference rooms. Like before, the presenter chooses the scene, but what’s new now is that Microsoft is also now using machine learning to ensure that participants are automatically centered in their virtual chairs, making the whole scene look just a little bit more natural (and despite what Microsoft’s research shows, I can never help but think that this all looks a bit goofy, maybe because it reminds me of the opening credits of the Muppet Show).

Image Credits: Microsoft

Also new in Teams is custom layouts, which allow presenters to customize how their presentations — and their own video feeds — appear. With this, a presenter can superimpose her own video image over the presentation, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Breakout rooms, a feature that is getting a lot of use in Zoom these days, is now also coming to Teams. Microsoft calls it the most requested feature in Teams and like in similar products, it also meeting organizers to split participants into smaller groups — and the meeting organizer can then go from room to room. Unsurprisingly, this feature is especially popular with teachers, though companies, too, often use it to facilitate brainstorming sessions, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

After exhausting all your brainstorming power in those breakout rooms and finishing up your meeting, Teams can now also send you an automatic recap of a meeting that includes a recording, transcript, shared files and more. These recaps will automatically appear on your Outlook calendar. In the future, Microsoft will also enable the ability to automatically store these recordings on SharePoint.

For companies that regularly host large meetings, Microsoft will launch support for up to 1,000 participants in the near future. Attendees in these meetings will get the full Teams experience, Microsoft promises. Later, Microsoft will also enable view-only meetings for up to 20,000 participants. Both of these features will become available as part of a new ‘Advanced Communications’ plan, which is probably no surprise, given how much bandwidth and compute power it will likely take to manage a 1,000-person meetings.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft also made two hardware announcements related to Team today. The first is the launch of what it calls ‘Microsoft Teams panels,’ which are essentially small tablets that businesses can put outside of their meeting rooms for wayfinding. One cool feature here — especially as business start planning their post-pandemic office strategy — is that these devices will be able to use information from the cameras in the room to count how many people are attending a meeting in person and then show remaining room capacity, for example.

The company also today announced that the giant Surface Hub 2S 85-inch model will be available in January 2021.

And there is more. Microsoft is also launching new Teams features for front-line workers to help schedule shifts, alert workers when they are using Teams off-shift and praise badges that enable organizations to recognize workers (though those workers would probably prefer hard cash over a digital badge).

Also new is an integration between Teams and RealWear head-mounted devices for remote collaboration and a new Walkie Talkie app for Android.

And since digital badges aren’t usually enough to improve employee wellbeing, Microsoft is also adding a new set of wellbeing features to Teams. These provide users with personalized recommendations to help change habits and improve wellbeing and productivity.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That includes a new ‘virtual commute’ feature that includes an integration with Headspace and an emotional check-in experience.

I’ve always been a fan of short and manageable commutes for getting some distance between work and home, but that’s not exactly a thing right now. Maybe Headspace works as an example, but there’s only so much Andy Puddicombe I can take. Still, I think I’ll keep my emotional check-ins to myself, though Microsoft obviously notes that it will keep all of that information private.

And while businesses now care about your emotional wellbeing (because it’s closely related to your productivity), managers mostly care about the wor you get done. For them, Workplace Analytics is coming to Teams, giving “managers line of sight into teamwork norms like after-hours collaboration, focus time, meeting effectiveness, and cross-company connections. These will then be compared to averages among similar teams to provide managers with actionable insights.”

If that doesn’t make your manager happy, what will? Maybe a digital praise badge?

#computing, #enterprise, #industries, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #tc

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Microsoft launches Premonition, its hardware and software platform for detecting biological threats

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced that Premonition, a robotics and sensor platform for monitoring and sampling disease carriers like mosquitos and a cloud-based software stack for analyzing samples, will soon be in private preview.

The idea here, as Microsoft describes it, is to set up a system that can essentially function as a weather monitoring system, but for disease outbreaks. The company first demonstrated the project in 2015, but it has come quite a long way since.

Premonition sounds like a pretty wild project, but Microsoft says it’s based on five years of R&D in this area. The company says it is partnering with the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Program and academic partners like Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to test the tools it’s developing here. In addition, it is also working with pharmaceutical giant Bayer to “develop a deeper understanding of vector-borne diseases and the role of autonomous sensor networks for biothreat detection.”

Currently, it seems, focus is on diseases transmitted by mosquitos and Microsoft actually set up a ‘Premonition Proving Ground’ on its Redmon campus to help researchers test their robots, train their machine learning models and analyze the data they collect. In this Arthropod Containment Level 2 facility, the company can raise and analyze mosquitos. But the idea is to go well beyond this and monitor the entire biome.

So far, Microsoft says, the Premonition system has scanned more than 80 trillion base-pairs of genomic material for biological threats.

“About five years ago, we saw that robotics, AI and cloud computing were reaching a tipping point where we could monitor the biome in entirely new ways, at entirely new scales,” Ethan Jackson, the senior director of Premonition, said in a video the company released today. “It was really the 2014 Ebola outbreak that led to this realization. How did one of the rarest viruses on the planet jump from animal to people to cause this outbreak? What signals are we missing that might have allowed us to predict it?”

Image Credits: Mirosoft

Two years later, in 2016, when Zika emerged, the team had already built a small fleet of smart robotic traps that could autonomously identify and capture mosquito. The system identifies the mosquito and can then make a split-second decision whether to capture it or let it fly. In a single night, Jackson said, the trap has already been able to identify up to 10,000 mosquitos.

In the U.S., the first place where Microsoft deployed these systems was Harris County, Texas.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“Everything we do now in terms of mosquito treatment is reactive – we see a lot of mosquitoes, we go spray a lot of mosquitoes,” said Douglas E. Norris, an entomologist and Johns Hopkins University professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, who was part of this project. “Imagine if you had a forecasting system that shows, in a few days you’re going to have a lot of mosquitoes based on all this data and these models – then you could go out and treat them earlier before they’re biting, spray, hit them early so you don’t get those big mosquito blooms which then might result in disease transmission.”

This is, by all means, a very ambitious project. Why is Microsoft announcing it now, at its Ignite conference? Unsurprisingly, the whole system relies on the Microsoft Azure cloud to provide the storage and compute power to run — and it’s a nice way for Microsoft to show off its AI systems, too.

#artificial-intelligence, #bayer, #cloud-computing, #computing, #internet-of-things, #johns-hopkins-university, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #mosquito, #national-science-foundation, #science, #tc, #texas, #united-states, #vanderbilt-university, #zika

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Microsoft brings new robotic process automation features to its Power Platform

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Softomotive, a player in the low-code robotic process automation space with a focus on Windows. Today, at its Ignite conference, the company is launching Power Automate Desktop, a new application based on Softomotive’s technology that lets anyone automate desktop workflows without needing to program.

“The big idea of Power Platform is that we want to go make it so development is accessible to everybody,” Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate VP for its low-code platform, told me. “And development includes understanding and reporting on your data with Power BI, building web and mobile applications with Power Apps, automating your tasks — whether it’s through robotic process automation or workflow automation — with Power Automate, or building chatbots and chat-based experiences with Power Virtual Agent.”

Power Automate already allowed users to connect web-based applications, similar to Zapier and IFTTT, but the company also launched a browser extension earlier late last year to help users connect native system components to Power Automate. Now, with the integration of the Softomotive technology and the launch of this new low-code Windows application, it’s taking this integration into the native Windows user interface one step further.

“Everything still runs in the cloud and still connects to the cloud, but you now have a rich desktop application to author and record your UI automations,” Lamanna explained. He likened it to an ‘ultimate connector,’ noting that the “ultimate API is just the UI.”

He also stressed that the new app feels like any other modern Office app like Outlook (which is getting a new Mac version today, by the way) or Word. And like the modern versions of those apps, Power Automate Desktop derives a lot of its power from being connected to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Power Automate isn’t just a platform for automating simple two- or three-step processes (like sending you a text message when your boss emails you), but also for multistep, business-critical workflows. T-Mobile, for example, is using the platform to automate some of the integration processes between its systems and Sprint.

Lamanna noted that for some large enterprises, adopting these kinds of low-code services necessitates a bit of a culture shift. IT still needs to have some insights into how these tools are used, after all, to ensure that data is kept safe, for example.

Another new feature the company announced today is an integration between the Power Platform and GitHub, which is now in public preview. The idea here is to give developers the ability to create their own software lifecycle workflows. “One of the core ideas of Power Platform is that it’s low code,” Lamanna said. “So it’s built first for business users, business analysts, not the classical developers. But pro devs are welcome. The saying I have is: we’re throwing a party for business users, but pro devs are also invited to the party.” But to get them onto the platform, the team wants to meet them where they are and let them use the tools they already use — and that’s GitHub (and Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code).

#articles, #author, #automation, #business, #business-process-automation, #business-process-management, #business-software, #economy, #ifttt, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #player, #softomotive, #tc, #windows, #zapier

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Microsoft updates its Endpoint Manager with improved macOS support and more

At its Ignite conference today, Microsoft announced a number of new features for the Microsoft Endpoint Manager, the company’s unified platform for managing and securing devices in an enterprise environment. The service, which combines the features of the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager with the cloud-based tools of Intune, launched just under a year ago. Today’s updates build on the foundation the team created at the time and add improved macOS and iPad support, as well as new tools for connecting mobile devices to on-premises apps and additional productivity tools based on the date the company gathers from the service. The company is also making it easier for corporate IT departments to provision devices for employees remotely.

If anything, the pandemic has only accelerated both the growth of this business for Microsoft and the need for companies to manage their remote devices.

“It really is about bringing this cloud and all the intelligence that we had in Intune together with Config Manager and making it act as one,” Brad Anderson, Microsoft corporate VP for the Commercial Management Experiences team, told me. “And it’s been so fascinated to see how the pandemic accelerated people wanting and needing to use that. When the pandemic first hit – and as I go back to March 8th or 10th, in the US, the calls that I was having almost every day with CIOs centered around, ‘my VPN is overwhelmed. How am I going to patch on keep all my systems updated?’”

Today’s announcements build on the work Microsoft has done on this service over the course of the last year. After launching support for scripting on macOS earlier this year, for example, the company today announced a new “first-class management experience on macOS” that brings deploy scripts, but also improved enrollment experiences and app lifecycle management feature to the platform.

Endpoint Manager now also supports Apple’s Shared iPad for Business functionality and will help businesses deploy iPads to their users and allow them to log in with Azure Active Directory accounts. This gives users two separate portions on the device: one for work and one for everything else.

Another new feature is Microsoft Tunnel. This gives businesses a VPN that can cover the entire device or single apps to ensure that their employees’ devices are secure and compliant with their internal policy to access their networks.

“The key thing [with Microsoft Tunnel] is that this is all integrated into our conditional access,” Anderson explained. “And so when that VPN comes up, before access is granted to the data or to the apps, the conditional access engine that we’ve built inside of Microsoft 365 has that point of view on the trust of the identity and the trust of the device. That really is the key differentiator on that. I’ll tell you, between you and I, that one feature is probably the single feature that customers who are running another MDM and then the Microsoft Endpoint Manager — that’s the one they’re waiting for.”

Endpoint Manager now also supports the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) environment. That’s been a massive growth area for the company — one that has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Anderson told me, the company saw 10x growth for WVD through the pandemic. “Now, Windows Virtual Desktop is that first-class citizen inside Microsoft Endpoint Manager. So you can manage your virtual endpoints just like you manage your physical endpoints. All your policies are applicable, all your apps are clickable. And it just makes it easier to be able to use that as one of the tools you have to empower your users,” he said.

Another area of Endpoint Manager, which may only seem tangentially related at first, is Microsoft’s Productivity Score. There are two aspects to this service, though: employee experience and technology experience. Productivity Score is meant to help businesses better understand how their employees are working — and identify areas where companies can improve. On the technology side, that also means understanding which apps crash, for example, or why laptops slow down.

“Here’s one of the key scenarios,” said Anderson. “We’ll get a call every once in a while that says, like, ‘hey, my users are all having a great experience with Office 365 but I’ve got a handful of users for whom it’s slow.’ More often than not, that’s a networking issue. And so every time a user, for example, opens a file or saves a file, opens an attachment, we get telemetry back that helps us understand the operations of that. We probably know when an ISP in the south of France sneezes, because Office 365 is so ubiquitous now.”

The other new feature here is what Microsoft calls Endpoint Analytics. With this, Microsoft can now provide businesses with details information about when apps on their employees’ devices crash – no matter whether that’s an internal app, a third-party service — or a Microsoft app.

In addition to these technology scores, Productivity Score is also getting new categories like meetings, so managers can see how many meetings their employees have, as well as a new teamwork category.

#chrome-os, #computing, #enterprise, #ipad, #microsoft, #microsoft-365, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #mobile-devices, #network-management, #software, #system-administration, #tc

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Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux in October

Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux, starting with the Dev channel. The first of these previews will go live in October.

When Microsoft announced that it would switch its Edge browser to the Chromium engine, it vowed to bring it to every popular platform. At the time, Linux wasn’t part of that list, but by late last year, it became clear that Microsoft was indeed working on a Linux version. Later, at this year’s Build, a Microsoft presenter even used it during a presentation.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Starting in October, Linux users will be able to either download the browser from the Edge Insider website or through their native package managers. Linux users will get the same Edge experience as users on Windows and macOS, as well as access to its built-in privacy and security features. For the most part, I would expect the Linux experience to be on par with that on the other platforms.

Microsoft also today announced that its developers have made over 3,700 commits to the Chromium project so far. Some of this work has been on support for touchscreens, but the team also contributed to areas like accessibility features and developer tools, on top of core browser fundamentals.

Currently, Microsoft Edge is available on Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as
macOS, iOS and Android.

#chromium, #computing, #edge, #freeware, #google-chrome, #linux, #microsoft, #microsoft-edge, #microsoft-ignite-2020, #software, #tc, #web-browsers

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Join Accel’s Andrew Braccia and Sonali De Rycker for a live Q&A today at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT

Disrupt was just days ago, but the TechCrunch crew is continuing our regular series of public chats with leading founders and venture capitalists under the Extra Crunch Live banner.

Today, we’re excited to host Andrew Braccia and Sonali De Rycker from Accel. The pair of investors will join us for a live Q&A at 2 p.m. Eastern time today (11 a.m. Pacific, 8 p.m. CET). Links and details are down below.

As discussed last week when we announced the session, there’s a lot to get to. Braccia led Slack’s Series A, which means we’ll need to discuss remote work, the direct listing debate and modern SaaS stuff. And with De Rycker we’ll dig into what she’s seeing in Europe and how the two startup markets compare in today’s evolving markets.

(If you are just catching up to Extra Crunch Live, we’ve been hosting live discussions since the early COVID-19 days here in the United States with folks like Mark CubanPlaid founder Zach Perret and Sequoia’s Roelof Botha taking part.)

I’ve also been thinking about India (Accel raised a fifth India fund in 2019), which will be worth talking about a little bit even if neither of our guests primarily focuses on the country. And if we have time, it would even be good to get their feelings and reactions to the TikTok mess.

But, before we get into the more exotic areas of conversation we’ll power through the nuts-and-bolts stuff that founders want to know: How active Accel is today, what size checks it is currently writing, its sector focuses and the like. Given that we have a full hour if we want it, we’ll be able to cover a lot of ground.

Be sure to bring your own questions, and I’ll do my best to get to them as we chat.

It should prove to be a good, and, I hope, useful conversation that I am looking forward to hosting. Login details follow for Extra Crunch folks, and you can snag a cheap trial here if you need access.

(If you want to pre-submit a question, you can tweet it at me, but after the actual livestream kicks off I will no longer be checking Twitter. Get them in now, in other words.)

Details

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Amazon taps Echelon for the Prime Bike, a $500 Peloton knock-off

Amazon teamed up with Echelon to build and sell the Prime Bike. The $500 exercise bike is a virtual clone of the $1900 Peloton bike minus the screen — even the color scheme and design are the same. The bike is available now from Amazon (and Walmart with slightly different branding).

Echelon builds several fitness products, including a smart mirror that’s eerily similar to Mirror. The Prime Bike is Echelon’s third smart bike with the other two feature video screens, and are available for $999 and $1,199.

The Prime Bike has nearly every feature found on a Peloton bike from multiple adjustments to front-mounted wheels for easy movement. Instead of toe clips, the Prime Bike uses straps to lock riders’ feet to the pedals. However, the Prime Bike weighs 80 lbs instead of the Peloton’s 135 lbs, which suggests it’s not as well built and lacks the solid feel of a Peloton.

A screen is the notable missing feature, but that’s quickly resolved with a tablet. And since Peloton offers its classes through an app, Prime Bike buyers can even use Peloton’s service or Echelon’s service that’s very similar to Peloton’s offering.

“We were built on the idea of attainable fitness for everyone. The Prime Bike was developed in collaboration with Amazon, aiming to create an amazing, connected bike for less than $500, and it’s proven to be a phenomenal match,” said Lou Lentine, President, and CEO of Echelon Fitness. “Amazon looking to us to partner on their first-ever connected fitness product is recognition of our commitment to deliver quality at a reasonable price-point as reflected in our explosive growth over the last year.”

There are countless spinning bikes available for less than the Peloton cost, and many are available on Amazon. Few are as blatant of a knock-off as the Prime Bike, though. Amazon has a long, well-documented history of producing and selling products that draw heavy influence from popular products.

With this partnership with Echelon, Amazon is taking a big step towards Peloton, and Peloton’s stock responded in kind, dropping nearly 5% to $90 a share.

It’s worth noting the same exercise bike is available at Walmart for $500, where it sells under Echelon’s branding of the Connect Sport Bike.

#amazon, #echelon, #peloton, #tc

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How has Corsair Gaming posted such impressive pre-IPO numbers?

After the last few weeks of IPOs, you’d be forgiven if you missed Corsair Gaming’s own public offering.

The company is not our usual fare. Here at TechCrunch, we care a lot of about startups, usually technology startups, which often collect capital from private sources on their way to either the bin, an IPO, or a buyout.

Corsair is some of those things. It is a private company that builds technology products and it has raised some money while private. But from there it’s a slim list. The company was founded in 1994, making it more a mature business than a startup. And it sold a majority of itself to a private equity group in 2017, valued at $525 million at the time.


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Fair enough. But flipping through the company’s S-1 filings this morning over coffee, I was impressed all the same and want to walk you through a few of the company’s numbers.

If you care about the impending public debuts of Asana (more here) and Palantir (more here) that we expect next week, Corsair will not provide much directional guidance. But its IPO will be a fascinating debut all the same.

Corsair has managed to stay in the gaming hardware world since I was in short pants, and, even better, has managed to turn the streaming boom into material profit. Its S-1 is an interesting document to read. So let’s get into it, because Corsair Gaming is expected to price later today and trade tomorrow morning.

A gaming giant

As with any private-equity-backed IPO, the company’s SEC filings are a mess of predecessor and successor companies, along with long sections that, once you boil them down, ensure that the private equity firm will retain control.

But once you parse the firm’s numbers, here’s the gist from the first six months of 2020:

#corsair-gaming, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #saas, #startups, #tc, #the-exchange

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Blue Origin targets this Thursday for New Shepard reusable rocket launch with NASA landing system test

Blue Origin just announced the timing of its next rocket launch – and it’s surprisingly soon, in just two days on Thursday, September 24. The launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle will be its 13th overall for that category of launch craft, and the 7th in a row for this particular rocket. The payload will include an even dozen commercial cargo items, including a Deorbit, Descent and Landing Sensor Demonstration done in partnership with NASA – basically a highly-precise automated landing system that will help NASA land on the Moon and eventually Mars.

That payload is unique not just because of the technology involved in the landing system, but also because it’ll actually be mounted to the exterior of the New Shephard’s booster stage, rather than in the capsule that rides atop it. This is the first time that Blue Origin has carried a payload that way, and the company expects it could pave the way for similar future missions, enabling sensing at high altitudes, and experiments made possible through use of equipment exposed to the external environment.

Other payloads on this flight will include postcards from the Blue Origin-founded nonprofit Club for the Future, which are collected by students at schools across the world. There are also additional experiments from Johsn Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, Space Lab Technologies, mu Space Corp, other NASA experiments,and more.

Blue Origin plans a second test flight for the landing technologies on board, and overall these are emanated to help de-risk use of the sensors for later operational viability.

The company has set the launch for 10 AM CDT (11 AM EDT), and it’ll take off from its launch facility in West Texas. The launch will bore broadcast live, and a stream will start 30 minutes prior to liftoff time, and include a special message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about the agency’s collaboration with Blue Origin. The last New Shepard launch took place last December, so it’s been nearly a year since the company has flown one of its spacecraft.

#aerospace, #artemis-program, #blue-origin, #jim-bridenstine, #nasa, #new-shepard, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #science, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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Latch, a smart lock company, looks to become a platform with the launch of LatchOS

Tech that powers physical spaces is in the midst of a growth spurt. One company in the mix, Latch, is today announcing the next phase of the company with the launch of LatchOS.

Latch was founded back in 2014 with the mission of creating a vertically integrated hardware/software solution for door access in apartment buildings. Unlike some smart home locks that replace the lock on the door, Latch looked at the different locks that exist in apartment buildings and created solutions that work with each.

This allows building managers and apartment renters/owners to manage their doors and who has access, including the maintenance staff, deliveries, etc.

With the launch of LatchOS, the company is getting even deeper into the buildings, giving users the ability to manage more than just the door but integrate the app with other devices in a building. These integrations include Sonos speakers, Honeywell and ecobee thermostats, and Jaso and Leviton light switches all from their Latch app.

This is just the start. LatchOS was built to become the backbone of the platform, allowing more integrations to be implemented or built out based on the needs of the buildings and users.

Though the company has flown somewhat under the radar, it’s raised more than $150 million and says it did more than $100 million in sales in 2019, with one of every ten buildings in the United States being built with Latch products.

Latch makes money by selling hardware to building owners and then charging a monthly software fee, allowing the service to be free to renters and apartment owners. With the launch of LatchOS, the company can now build out integrations to earn revenue off of end users, as well, should they choose to upgrade to new features or purchase services through the platform.

The company, helmed by former Apple employees Luke Schoenfelder and Thomas Meyerhoffer, as well as full stack hardware engineer Brian Jones, has more than 230 employees and declined to share any information around the diversity of its staff.

“People have always seen us as a lock company and they wonder why a lock company is doing this other stuff,” said Schoenfelder. The reality is that we’ve never wanted to be a lock company. We just needed to build the locks to make the rest of the system work. That’s why we built our own hardware. We’ve always been focused on building the system that makes the building better for everybody.”

#hardware, #latch, #startups, #tc

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Google launches a work-tracking tool and Airtable rival, Tables

Google’s in-house incubator Area 120 is today introducing a new work-tracking tool, Tables, which aims to make tracking projects more efficient by investing in automation. Instead of simply tracking notes and tasks associated with a project in various documents that have to manually updated by team members, Tables’ bots help do things like scheduling recurring email reminders when tasks are overdue, messaging a chat room when new form submissions are received, moving tasks to other people’s work queues, or updating tasks when statuses are changed.

The solution is designed to be useful across a number of use cases, including project management, I.T. operations, customer tracking and CRM, recruiting, product development, and more.

“I’ve been in the technology industry for a long time, including 10 years at Google,” explains Tables’ GM, Tim Gleason, in an announcement about the new service. “And during my years in the workforce, I’ve always had a difficult time tracking projects. Our teams stored notes and related tasks in different documents. Those documents always got out of date. We’d have to manually sync data between them. And I’d spend a lot of time coordinating between team members to prioritize and update statuses. I spent more time keeping track of work than actually working,” he says.

Image Credits: Google

Tables, instead, aims to take on some of those extra manual processes — like collecting data from different sources, collating it together, pasting into another document, then handing it off, for example. The tool, however, is made to work with existing Google technology. That makes it a better choice for those who are already invested in using Google’s ecosystem, like Google’s online documents, contacts and more.

To get started with Tables, you can import data from Google Sheets (or a .CSV), share data with your Google Groups, and assign tasks to people found in your Google Contacts. You can also get started with one of the included templates, if you prefer.

The bots handle automated actions, while the data itself can be presented in different ways, like grid views, record lists, kanban boards and maps. Forms allow you to collect data on the fly, without having to give people access to your tables directly.

Ahead of its public debut, Tables has been in testing with thousands of active users who are tracking work and collaborating with team members, Google says.

Image Credits: Google

Tables is also one of a handful Area 120 projects to launch with a paid business model. Today, other Area 120 projects like ticket seller Fundo, conversational ads platform AdLingo, and Google’s recently launched Orion WiFi also have paid models. In Tables’ case, an individual can use Tables for free, with support for up to 100 tables and 1,000 rows. The paid plan, meanwhile, costs $10 per user per month, and support up to 1,000 tables and 10,000 rows. This plan also includes support for larger attachments, more actions, and advanced history, sharing, forms, automation, and views.

The project is clearly meant to tap into the growing interest in no-code, spreadsheet-powered database platforms. A leader in this space, Airtable, recently closed on $185 million in Series D funding, valuing its business at $2.585 billion, post-money. Google’s advantage is that it’s not a standalone solution that has to work to integrate with other data sources and communications tools. It has the ability to tie into other tools the team is already using to manage their work, like Google Sheets, for example. However, the Tables’ website does indicate the product can work with Slack.

Tables is available now to the public, with both free and paid plans.

#tc

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Willow, the startup making the wearable breast pump, raises $55 million

Willow, the startup company making a new, wearable, breast pump for women, is capping off a frenetic 2020 with $55 million in fresh funding as it looks to expand its product line to more offerings for new mothers.

The company is coming off a year which saw sales increase, and Laura Chambers, the former eBay and Airbnb manager, take over as chief executive and now, with the new capital, it expects to be bringing new products to market beyond the breast pump in 2021.

A March 2020 report from Frost & Sullivan put the total size of the femtech market, including technologies for mothers, at just over $1 billion with growth rates of 12.9%. So the category is small, but growing quickly as more tools come in to provide services in what is a woefully underinvested sector. Indeed, the $155 million that Willow has raised to date puts the company among the upper echelon of women’s health investments.

Contrast that figure with Ro, the storied health brand that launched its subscription medication service for erectile dysfunction with an $88 million investment round.

For women who breast feed, the problems associated with pumping can be legion.

“A lot of women talk about how it’s almost like the pump runs their life,” Naomi Kelman, the founder and former CEO of Willow, told TechCrunch. “Everyone is told, if you don’t breastfeed or pump on a regular basis, your [breastmilk] supply goes down and then breastfeeding is finished for you.”

That’s why startup companies like Willow and Naya Health, as well as established companies like Medela and Lansinoh are developing technologies to not only make pumping breast milk more efficient, but also provide more comfort and dignity to users.

“Through our longstanding relationship with Willow, we’ve been able to see the true impact they have had in helping mom’s balance motherhood in a modern world,” said Josh Makower, Willow’s co-founder and chairman of the company’s board, as well as a General Partner at Willow investor, NEA, in a statement. “Willow is thriving and growing to meet the needs of all moms during these unique times, and we are proud to be a partner in advancing innovation in the femtech field.”

With Chambers at the helm, and the $55 million in new financing in hand from investors led by NEA, Meritech Capital Partners, and including Lightstone Ventures along with new investor Perceptive Advisors, Willow will be doing far more than just making breast pumps and will be looking to expand its footprint to international markets.

“The first problem we wanted solve was pumping and the wonderful wearable mobile pump. That was always product number one. There’s more innovation we can do around pumping. Moms would love us to support them with more hardware and more software,” Chambers said. We’re also working with moms to figure out where else they need support. Mothers are remarkably unsupported in their motherhood journey. We are working with moms to figure out what’s important for them and we’re building that.”

#airbnb, #breast-pump, #ebay, #femtech, #health, #laura-chambers, #meritech-capital-partners, #naya-health, #nea, #perceptive-advisors, #tc, #willow

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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

“Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #easysend, #enterprise, #forms, #insurance, #insurtech, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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TikTok, WeChat and the growing digital divide between the U.S. and China

Over the past decade, the dynamic between Chinese and United States tech companies has undergone dramatic shifts. Once seen as a promising market for American companies, that narrative flipped as China’s tech innovation and investment power became increasingly evident, and the expanding reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s cybersecurity regulations fueled concerns about data privacy. For years, however, there still seemed to be room for a flow of ideas between the two countries. But that promise has eroded, against the backdrop of the tariff wars and, most recently, the Trump administration’s executive orders against TikTok and WeChat.

The U.S. Commerce Department was set to enforce the shutdown of TikTok and WeChat in the United States last weekend, but both apps got reprieves. In WeChat’s case, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary stay against the ban, while TikTok owner ByteDance is in the process of finalizing a complicated deal with Oracle.

The TikTok and WeChat imbroglios underline how much America’s perception of Chinese tech has evolved. Not only is TikTok the first consumer app by a Chinese company to gain a major foothold in the United States, but it’s also had a significant impact on popular culture there. This would have been almost unimaginable just ten, or even five, years ago.

China as a target for expansion

For a long time, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, was seen as a lucrative market by many foreign tech companies, even as government censorship began to expand. In 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the apparatus that controls what overseas sites and apps Chinese internet users have access to. At first the Great Firewall mainly targeted access to Chinese-language sites with anti-Chinese Communist Party content. Then it began blocking more services.

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

Even as the Communist Party’s online censorship became more stringent, many American internet companies were still keen to expand into China. Perhaps the most prominent example from that era is Google, which added Chinese support to Google.com in 2000.

Though access to the search engine was spotty (according to a 2010 timeline from the Financial Times, this may have been because of “extensive filtering” by China’s licensed internet service providers) and it was briefly blocked in 2002, Google continued launching new services targeted to users in China, including a simplified Chinese language version of Google News.

Then in 2005, the company announced plans to set up a research and development center in China. The next year, it officially launched Google.cn. In order to do so, Google agreed to exclude search results on sensitive political topics, causing controversy.

Despite its concessions to the Chinese government, Google’s relationship with China began deteriorating, foreshadowing what other foreign tech companies, particularly those offering online services, would deal with when they tried to enter China. After being blocked on and off, access to YouTube was completely cut off in 2009 after footage was uploaded that appeared to show the brutal beatings of Tibetan protestors in Lhasa. That year, China also blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.

In January 2010, Google announced it was no longer willing to censor searches in China and would withdraw from the country if necessary. It also began redirecting all search queries on Google.cn to Google.com.hk.

But the company continued its R&D operations there and maintained a sales team. (In 2018, an investigation by The Intercept found that Google had started to work on a censored search engine for China again, code-named “Project Dragonfly”). Other big U.S. tech companies also continued courting China, even though their services were blocked there.

For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made several trips to China in the mid-2010s, including a 2015 visit to Tsinghua University, a leading research university. Zuckerberg had joined the university’s board the previous year, and delivered several public talks in Mandarin. Speculation mostly focused on Facebook’s efforts to get a version of its service into China, but China-based companies were, and continue to be, one of Facebook’s most important sources of advertising revenue.

Chinese government policies designed to help domestic companies become more competitive also began to have an impact and by 2015, many American tech firms needed to find a local partner to enter China. The narrative that China needed American tech innovation began to turn on its head.

A shifting dynamic

Since Google Play was also blocked in China, that led the way for the rise of third-party Android app stores, including Chinese internet giant Tencent’s My App.

But Tencent’s most influential product is WeChat, the messenger that launched in 2011. Two years later, Tencent added mobile payments by integrating it with TenPay. In less than five years, WeChat became a vital part of daily life for hundreds of millions of users in China. WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, its main competitor, have revolutionized payments in China, where about one-third of consumer payments are now cashless, according to research by think tank CGAP.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

BEIJING, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In 2017, Wechat launched “mini-programs,” that allows developers to create “apps within an app” that run on WeChat. The program took off quickly, and within less than two years, Tencent said it had reached one million mini-programs and 200 million daily users. Even Google quietly launched its own mini-program in 2018.

Despite its ubiquity in China, WeChat’s international presence is relatively small, especially when compared to other messengers like WhatsApp. WeChat claims more than one billion monthly active users in total, but only an estimated 100 million to 200 million are international users. Many are members of the Chinese diaspora who use it to keep in touch with family and associates in mainland China since many other popular messengers, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Line, are blocked there.

In the meantime, another company was gaining ascendancy, and would eventually succeed where Tencent hadn’t.

Founded in 2012 by Microsoft veteran Zhang Yiming, ByteDance had its own early run-ins with the Chinese government. The first app it launched, a social media platform called Neihan Duanzi that reached 200 million users by 2017, was shut down the next year after the National Radio and Television Administration accused it of hosting inappropriate content. Despite that early setback, ByteDance continued to grow, releasing apps like Toutiao, one of China’s top news aggregators.

But the product it is best known for launched in 2016. Called Douyin in China, ByteDance always planned to expand the short video-sharing app overseas. In an interview with Chinese tech news site 36Kr, Zhang said, “China is home to only one-fifth of the world’s internet users. If we don’t expand globally, we are bound to lose to our peers eyeing the rest of the world” — both echoing and contravening the viewpoint of U.S. internet companies that had seen China as a crucial market.

TikTok, the international version of Douyin, was launched in 2017. That year, ByteDance also bought Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app popular with teens, in a deal worth between $800 million to $1 billion. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok, consolidating their audiences.

By early 2019, TikTok had become popular among teens and people in their early 20s, though many older people still struggled to understand its appeal. But as TikTok was turning into a mainstay of Gen Z culture, it also began to face scrutiny by the U.S. government. In February 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy laws.

Then a few months later, the U.S. government reportedly began a national security review of TikTok, marking the first in a chain of events that led to Trump’s August executive order against the company, and ByteDance’s new, but confusing, agreement with “trusted technology partner” Oracle.

The impact of China’s 2017 cybersecurity law

The United States is not the only country where TikTok has been deemed a national security threat. In June, it was among 59 apps developed by Chinese companies banned in India for threatening the country’s “national security and defence.” It’s also under investigation by French data security watchdog CNIL over how it handles user data.

While some cybersecurity experts believe that TikTok’s data collection practices are similar to other social media apps that depend on targeted ads for revenue, the heart of the issue is a Chinese law, implemented in June 2017, that requires companies to comply with government requests for data stored in China. ByteDance has insisted repeatedly it would resist attempts by the Chinese government to access U.S. users’ data, which it says is stored in the United States and Singapore.

“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok wrote in a October 2019 statement. “Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”

In the same post, TikTok also addressed concerns that it censors content, including videos about the Hong Kong protests and China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim groups. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the company said.

WeChat and TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S.

But as a Chinese company, ByteDance is ultimately still beholden to Chinese laws. Earlier this week, ByteDance said it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok, after selling a total of 20% to Oracle and Walmart. Then Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck said that Oracle and Walmart would make their investment upon the creation of a new entity called TikTok Global. He added that ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.

This creates more questions, but doesn’t answer the most pressing one: how close will the U.S. version of TikTok remain to ByteDance, and will it still be subject to the Chinese cybersecurity regulations that cause so much concern?

Around the same time that ByteDance’s proposed deal with Oracle and Walmart was announced, a U.S. district court judge temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat, as part of a case brought against the U.S. government by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in America. In her opinion, Judge Laurel Beeler wrote, “while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national-security concerns—it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

On its site, the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said it believes Trump’s August 6 executive order against WeChat “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.” Furthermore, the group argued that a WeChat ban would “severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S.” who use WeChat to talk to family, friends and business associates in China.

While WeChat is heavily censored, users have often found ingenious ways to bypass bans on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. For example, people used emojis, PDFs and fictional languages like Klingon to share an interview with Ai Fen, the director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department and one of the first whistleblowers to sound the alarm about COVID-19 even as the government attempted to stifle information about the disease.

The growing divide

The U.S. government’s actions against TikTok and WeChat are taking place against an increasingly fraught political landscape. Huawei and ZTE were first identified as potential threats to U.S. national security in a 2012 bipartisan House committee report, but legal actions against Huawei, one of the world’s biggest telecom equipment suppliers, escalated under the Trump administration. These include criminal charges brought against Huawei by the Department of Justice, and the arrest and indictment of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The U.S. government’s actions in the name of national security doesn’t just affect the Chinese government or China’s biggest companies. It also impacts individuals, as in the case of increasingly stringent visa restrictions for Chinese students.

At the same time, the Great Firewall has become more restrictive under President Xi Jinping’s regime and China’s cybersecurity laws are becoming increasingly invasive, granting the government even more access to citizens’ data. Increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has been used to monitor Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, and a crackdown on VPN services that began escalating in 2017 is making it harder for people in China to circumvent the Great Firewall.

When compared to these social issues, the future of a video-sharing app might seem relatively minor. But it underscores one of the most unsettling developments in the relationship between U.S. and China over the past ten years.

In a prescient 2016 Washington Post article titled “America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story,” Emily Rauhala wrote “China’s tech scene is flourishing in a parallel universe.” TikTok’s deep cultural impact gave a glimpse of what is possible when two parallel universes connect. Along with geopolitical tensions, the furore over TikTok and WeChat uncovers something else: that the exchange of ideas and information between people in two of the world’s most powerful countries is becoming increasingly restricted due to circumstances beyond their control.

#apps, #bytedance, #china, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #united-states, #wechat

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Made In Space is sending the first ceramic manufacturing facility in space to the ISS next week

In-space manufacturing company Made In Space is pushing the envelope on what can, well, be made in space with its next mission – which is set to launch aboard a Northrop Grumman International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission set for next Tuesday. Aboard that launch will be Made In Space’s Turbine Ceramic Manufacturing Module (aka CMM), a commercial ceramic turbine blisk manufacturing device that uses 3D-printing technology to produce detailed parts the require a high degree of production accuracy.

A turbine blisk is a combo rotor disk/blade array that is used primarily in engines used in the aerospace industry. Making them involves using additive manufacturing to craft them as a single component, and the purpose of this mission is to provide a proof-of-concept about the viability of doing that in a microgravity environment. Gravity can actually introduce defects into ceramic blisks manufactured on Earth, because of the way that material can settle, leading to sedimentation, for instance. Producing them in microgravity could mean lower error rates overall, and a higher possible degree of precision for making finely detailed designs.

Made In Space, which was acquired earlier this year by new commercial space supply parent co. Redwire, has been at the forefront of creating and deploying 3D printing technologies in space, particularly through its partnership with the International Space Station. The goal of the company is to demonstrate the commercial benefits of in-space manufacturing, and to commercialize the technology in order to create tangible benefits for a number of industries right here on Earth.

#3d-printing, #additive-manufacturing, #aerospace, #articles, #international-space-station, #northrop-grumman, #science, #science-and-technology, #space, #tc, #video-games

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Morgan Beller, co-creator of the Libra digital currency, just joined the venture firm NFX

Morgan Beller, who is a co-creator of the proposed Libra digital currency, along with Facebook vice presidents David Marcus and Kevin Weil, has left the company to become a general partner with the venture firm NFX .

In a call yesterday, she said she first became acquainted with the San Francisco-based outfit five years ago when on a “tech trek” to Israel, she met its local partner, Gigi Levy-Weiss, and formed a friendship with him.

At the time, she was a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz, working on its deal team after graduating from Cornell as a statistics major.

A role working on corporate development and strategy at Medium would follow, then it was on to Facebook in 2017, where Beller began in corporate development and — intrigued by cryptocurrency tech — where she quickly began evangelizing to her bosses the importance of better understanding it.

As she half-jokingly explains it, “Crypto is a mental virus for which there is no cure. I was at a16z when they got infected with the crypto virus.” She eventually caught it herself, and by the time she joined Facebook, she says she “realized no one was thinking about that space full time, so I took it upon myself to [help the company] figure out its point of view.”

Indeed, a CNBC story about Beller last year reports that at one point, she was the sole person on a Facebook blockchain initiative —  meeting with those in the know, attending relevant events, and otherwise researching the technology. Bill Barhydt, the CEO of the digital wallet startup Abra, told the outlet of Beller:  “I give her a lot of credit for taking what seems like a very methodical, long-term approach to figuring this out.”

All that said, Beller notes that as a full-time investor with NFX, she will not be focused exclusively or even mainly on crypto. Her focus instead will be finding and helping to cultivate seed-stage startups that aim to grow so-called network effects businesses.

It’s the broad theme of NFX, a now 25-person outfit cofounded five years ago by serial entrepreneurs who have all seen their companies acquired, including Levy-Weiss (who cofounded the online travel site Lastminute.com, and the social casino game publisher Playtika); Pete Flint (cofounder of the home buyers’ site Trulia); and James Currier (of the social network Tickle).

Certainly, she will keep busy at the firm, she suggests. As part of getting to know the partners and their thinking better, she introduced them to one company that they have since funded.

The pace has generally picked up, Flint tells us, saying that during the second quarter of this year and the third, NFX has twice broken its own investing records both because of “incredible founders who are reacting to this opportunity” and growing awareness about NFX, which last year closed its second fund with $275 million.

Last month, for example, NFX led a seed round for Warmly, a nine-month-old, San Francisco-based startup whose product tracks individuals in a customer’s CRM system, then sends out a notification when one of his or her contacts changes jobs. It also led a round recently for Jupiter, a year-old, San Francisco-based grocery delivery startup.

Naturally, Beller’s new partners are full of praise for her. Flint says the firm began looking for a fourth partner two years ago and that it has “spoken with dozens of exceptional people” since then, but it “always came back to Morgan.”

As for why the 27-year-old is ready to leap back into VC, Beller says that her work across Facebook and Medium and a16z “made me realize my favorite parts of projects is that zero-to-one phase and that with investing, it’s zero-to-one all day” with a team she wanted to be part of.

Further, she adds, while at Facebook, she was helping scout out deals for the venture firm Spark Capital, so she’s already well-acquainted with the types of founders to which she gravitates. “They’re are all weird in the right ways, and they’re all maniacally obsessed with winning.”

As for how she launches her career as a general partner in a pandemic, she notes that she loves walking and that she’ll happy cover 20 miles a day if given the opportunity.

“If anyone wants to safely walk with me,” she suggests that she’d love it.  Says Beller, “I’m not worried about San Francisco longer term. I don’t think there’s a replacement for in-person meetings.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #cryptocurrencies, #facbook, #fundings-exits, #libra, #medium, #nfx, #novi, #recent-funding, #spark-capital, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

0

Mark Cuban, Marc Benioff, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi are investing in toilet paper

A slew of big name entrepreneurs and celebrities are really circling the drain with their latest investment.

Led by Greycroft Partners, a who’s who of celebrity investors including: Mark Cuban, Marc Benioff, Iron Man and Pepper Potts (er… Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow), Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, and  Code.org founder Hadi Partovi are investing $3 million into the new toilet paper brand Cloud Paper. (Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Ciara, serial-entrepreneur Grant Ries, Muse Capital, Ashley and Marc Merrill and The Chainsmokers’ Mantis Ventures are also backing the company)

Why? Because they’re hoping to save the environment.

Founded by Ryan Fritsch and Austin Watkins, two former employees of Khosrowshahi’s at Uber who went on to take roles at the logistics startup Convoy, Cloud Paper is one of several companies trying to get consumers to make the switch to bamboo-based toilet paper. But it may be the only one to get such high profile investors to flush it with wads of cash.

A year-and-a-half in the making, Cloud Paper began when the two colleagues started talking about launching their own business, but one that could have an immediate impact on the climate crisis they saw as the most pressing societal issue.

They settled on toilet paper because of its massive contribution to deforestation, a key contributing factor to climate change. According to statistics provided by the company 15% of deforestation is due to toilet paper production alone and roughly 40,000 trees are cut down for US consumers to wipe up (with toilet paper and paper towels. The company estimates that an average household could save over 250 trees by switching to bamboo based toilet paper (ideally theirs).

“We wanted Cloud Paper to be a force for good in the world,” said Watkins. “We wanted to find something similar to taxis and trucking in terms of the size of the market and something that could have a really big impact onthe community and the environment from day one.”

To ensure that impact the company is offsetting twice the amount of carbon emissions that are generated from its business operations and has done so since day one, the founders said.

Currently, the company sells directly to businesses, which were its initial market, and has recently launched a direct to consumer service where its sells its bamboo toilet paper at a cost of $28 for 24 rolls. A price point roughly in line with the industry’s going rate for rolls.

“We have been investing in several companies over the last five to ten years that have been in this vein,” said Greycroft venture partner Alison Lange Engel. What compelled the firm to back Fritsch and Watkins was the background in logistics and consumer products and the business-to-business focus that the two entrepreneurs initially went to market with, Engel said.

And the selection of bamboo as the source product was no accident. “Bamboo sequester more carbon and releases more oxygen,” said Fritsch. “It’s a magical plant to keep growing and harvesting… especially when the alternative is an old growth forest.”

 

#tc

0

Pure Watercraft ramps up its electric outboard motors with a $23M series A

Electric power only started making sense for land vehicles about ten years ago, but now the technology is ready to make the jump into the water. Pure Watercraft hopes that its electric outboard motor can replace a normal gas one for most boating needs under 50 HP — and it just raised $23.4M to hit the throttle.

Pure’s outboard works much like a traditional one, but runs on a suitcase-sized battery pack and is, of course, almost silent except for the sound of the turbulence. It’s pretty much a drop-in replacement for an outboard you’d use on a 10-20 foot boat meant for fishing or puttering around the lake, though the price tag looks a little different.

Founder and CEO Andy Rebele started the company in 2011, and it turns out they had shown up a bit early to the party. “The Model S had not yet been released; the plan of making boats electric was not really fundable,” he told me.

Rebele kept the company going with his own money and a bit of low-key funding in 2016, though he admits now that it was something of a leap of faith.

“You have to bet that this small market will become a big market,” he said. “We developed our entire battery pack architecture, and it took — it’s obvious at this point — millions of dollars to get where we are. But our investors are buying into a leader in the electrification of an entirely new sector of transportation that hasn’t gotten the same attention as cars and trucks.”

A boat with an electric outboard motor cruising on a lake.

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

They haven’t been wasting time. Pure claims an energy density — how much power is packed into every kilogram — of 166 watt-hours per kilogram, meeting industry leader Tesla and beating plenty of other automotive battery makers. Users can easily add on a second pack or swap in a fresh one. The cells themselves are sourced from Panasonic, like Tesla’s and many others are, but assembling them into an efficient, robust, and in this case waterproof pack is something a company can still do better than its competition.

Having plenty of power is crucial for boats, since they use up so much of it to fight against the constant resistance of the water. The amount of power it takes to go a kilometer in a car is a fraction of what it takes to do so in a boat. Even boats designed for electric from the ground up, like those from Zin, face fundamental limits on their capabilities simply because of physics.

Rebele is aiming for the allure of simplicity. “The most popular outboard motor in the world is 40 horsepower,” he pointed out, and a replacement for that type of motor is exactly what Pure makes. “The mistake car companies made was saying, here’s the electric car market; it’s small, we tried it,” he said. Then Tesla came along with a great car that just happened to be electric.

It’s the same with boating, he suggested — sure, there are lots of different kinds of boats, and motors, and hull materials, and so on. But if Pure offers a motor that’s just as good or better than what powers a huge number of small boats, and just happens to be electric, it starts to sell itself.

Pure Watercraft's battery box.

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

“We can’t count on people picking our product to save the world,” Rebele said. “The tipping point comes when you have a critical mass of people for whom a good selfish choice is to go electric.”

The benefits, after all, are easy to enumerate: It’s silent, which is great for fishing or social boating; It fills up for a buck or two at any outlet; It’s extremely low maintenance, having vastly fewer parts than a tiny gas engine; And of course it doesn’t spew fumes and particulates into the water and air like most of the depressingly dirty motors currently in use.

The only real advantage left to gas is initial cost and range. If you’re willing to spend some money for a better product, then cost isn’t as much of an issue. And if like most boaters you’re only going to ever go a few miles per trip, the range isn’t an issue. If you’re fishing or just cruising around a lake, it’ll last you all day. The people for whom electric isn’t an option will quickly realize that, while the others will find it increasingly hard to resist the idea.

Pure Watercraft's electric outboard motor lifted out of the water

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

There’s still a good amount of sticker shock. A good new outboard in the 20-50 HP range runs a few thousand dollars to start, and marine gas costs add up quick; the Pure motor comes in a combo deal with the charger system and one battery pack for $16,500 (additional packs cost about $8,000). They’re working with some boat manufacturers to do complete boat deals for 30 grand or less, but it’s still firmly in the high end for the “outboard on a 2-6 person boat” crowd.

The $23.4 million A round, led by L37 and a number of individuals (including some Amazon execs and , is aimed squarely at spinning up production. After implementing the changes to the “beta” product they’ve been testing with, the first thousand Pure motors will be built in Seattle, where the company is based. The company has essentially finished R&D, so there’s little question of putting off customers for a few years while the product is engineered — and Rebele said they had no intent to build another for now.

“We make this product, at this power level, and that’s all,” he said. The company’s focus makes for good engineering and, hopefully, good margins. Pure should be shipping its motors in time for the 2021 boating season.

#electric-boats, #electric-vehicles, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #hardware, #pure-watercraft, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation

0

Satellite radar startup ICEYE raises 87 million to continue to grow its operational constellation

Finnish startup ICEYE, which has been building out and operating a constellation of Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) small satellites, has raised an $87 million Series C round of financing. This round of funding was led by existing investor True Ventures, and includes participation by OTB Ventures, and it brings the total funding for ICEYE to $152 million since its founding in 2014.

ICEYE has already launched a total of five SAR satellites, and will be launching an addition four later this year, with a plan to add eight more throughout 2021. Its SAR satellites were the first ever small satellites with SAR imaging capabilities, and it designed and built the spacecraft in-house. SAR imaging is innovative because it uses relatively small actual physical antennas, combined with fast motion across a targeted imaging area, to create a much larger synthetic aperture than the physical aperture of the radar antenna itself – which in turn means it’s capable of producing very high-resolution, two- and three-dimensional images of areas and objects.

ICEYE has been able to rack up a number of achievements, including record-setting 0.25 meter resolution for a small SAR satellite, and record turnaround time in terms of capture data delivery, reaching only five minutes from when data begins its downlink connection to ground stations, to actually having processed images available for customers to use on their own systems.

The purpose of this funding is to continue and speed up the growth of the ICEYE satellite constellation, as well as providing round-the-clock customer service operations across the world. ICEYE also hopes to set up U.S.-based manufacturing operations for future spacecraft.

SAR, along with other types of Earth imaging, have actually grown in demand during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis – especially when provided by companies focused on delivering them via lower cost, small satellite operations. That’s in part due to their ability to provide services that supplement inspection and monitoring work that would’ve been done previously in person, or handled via expensive operations including aircraft observation or tasked geosynchronous satellites.

#aerospace, #capella-space, #iceye, #imaging, #recent-funding, #satellite-constellation, #satellites, #science, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #startups, #tc, #true-ventures

0

Green Monday Holdings, the business arm of Hong Kong’s vegetarian advocacy group, raises $70 million from TPG, Swire Pacific

Green Monday Holdings, a manufacturer of plant-based pork substitute products and frozen meals and an operator of a chain of vegetarian-focused retail outlets and cafes, said it has raised $70 million in financing from investors including TPG’s The Rise Fund and the massive conglomerate Swire Pacific.

It’s one of the largest investments in a plant-based meat replacement company headquartered in Asia and comes as investments into companies developing alternatives to animal proteins continue to surge.

It’s also a huge infusion of cash for the business arm of what may be Hong Kong’s largest vegetarian advocacy group.

Born out of a social movement that started on Earth Day in Hong Kong on 2012 (and was inspired by the Meatless Monday campaign in the US), the Green Monday organization advocates for consumers to dedicate at least one day a week to going meatless. 

Its founder, David Yeung is a longtime buddhist and (mostly) vegetarian who founded the organization with Francis Ngai, the head of Social Ventures Hong Kong, after a lunchtime conversation over how to promote sustainable living in one of the world’s most populous cities.

Other investors in the round include, CPT Capital, Jefferies Group and Sino Group’s Ng Family Trust along with previous corporate and celebrity investors like Lee Kum Kee Health Products Happiness Capital, the singer Wang Leehom, James Cameron, and environmental activist Mary McCartney.

Green Monday Holdings, part of the Green Monday Group, operates two different lines of business under the OmniFoods and Green Common brands. OmniFoods makes pork alternatives and prepared frozen meals, while Green Common is a retailer and restaurant for plant-based products.

The company said it will use the money to expand into 10 new markets across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America, add 20,000 new retail outlets for its products and launch new flagship stores for its Green Common retail locations in China and Singapore.

With the new financing, the company has added a key strategic partner in Swire Pacific.

“Our airline Cathay Pacific has been serving OmniPork onboard and we look forward to working together further to develop new menus to suit the taste of our passengers – many of whom have a deep interest in health, wellness and environmental sustainability,” said David Cogman, Development Director, Swire Pacific, in a statement. “We are also in discussion about working together on the retail front: we have a network of malls, hotels and food and beverage businesses in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland, as well as associated supply chain operations across the country. We are very excited about our partnership with David and Green Monday to develop new collaborations across our group companies, to make our shared vision a reality.”

#airlines, #cathay-pacific, #companies, #hong-kong, #james-cameron, #north-america, #partner, #rise-fund, #singapore, #social-ventures, #tc, #tpg

0

TikTok says it removed 104M videos in H1 2020, proposes harmful content coalition with other social apps

As the future of ByteDance’s TikTok ownership continues to get hammered out between tech leviathans, investors and government officials in meeting rooms, the video app today published its latest transparency report. In all, over 104.5 million videos were taken down; it had nearly 1,800 legal requests; and received 10,600 copyright takedown notices for the first half of this year. Alongside that, possibly to offset the high numbers of illicit videos, TikTok also announced a new initiative — potentially in partnership with other social apps — against harmful content.

The figures in the transparency report underscore a second story line about the popular app: the government may want to shut down TikTok over national security concerns (unless ByteDance finds a new non-Chinese controlling structure that satisfies lawmakers). But in reality, just like other social media apps, TikTok has another not-insignificant fire to fight: it is grappling with a lot of illegal and harmful content published and shared on its platform, and as it continues to grow in popularity (it now has more than 700 million users globally), that problem will also continue to grow.

TikTok said that the 104,543,719 total videos that TikTok removed globally for violating either community guidelines or its terms of service made up less than 1% of all videos uploaded on TikTok, which gives you some idea of the sheer scale of the service.

TikTok said that 96.4% of the total number were removed before they were reported, with 90.3% removed before they received any views. It doesn’t specify if these were found via automated systems or by human moderators, or a mix of both, but it sounds like it made a switch to algorithm-based moderation at least in some markets:

“As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we relied more heavily on technology to detect and automatically remove violating content in markets such as India, Brazil, and Pakistan,” it noted.

The company notes that the biggest category of removed videos was around adult nudity and sexual activities, at 30.9%, with minor safety at 22.3% and illegal activities at 19.6%. Other categories included suicide and self harm, violent content, hate speech and dangerous individuals. (And videos could count in more than one category, it noted.)

The biggest origination market for removed videos is the one in which TikTok has been banned (perhaps unsurprisingly): India took the lion’s share of videos at 37,682,924. The US, on the other hand, accounted for 9,822,996 (9.4%) of videos removed, making it the second-largest market.

Currently, it seems that misinformation and disinformation are not the main ways that TikTok is getting abused, but they are still significant numbers: some 41,820 videos (less than 0.5% of those removed in the US) violated TikTok’s misinformation and disinformation policies, the company said.

Some 321,786 videos (around 3.3% of US content removals) violated its hate speech policies.

Legal requests, it said, are on the rise, with 1,768 requests for user information from 42 countries/markets in the first six months of the year, with 290 (16.4%) coming from US law enforcement agencies, including 126 subpoenas, 90 search warrants and 6 court orders. In all, it had 135 requests from government agencies to restrict or remove content from 15 countries/markets.

TikTok said that the harmful content coalition is based on a proposal that Vanessa Pappas, the acting head of TikTok in the US, sent out to nine executives at other social media platforms. It doesn’t specify which, nor what the response was. We are asking and will update as we learn more.

Social media coalition proposal

Meanwhile, the letter, published in full by TikTok and reprinted below, underscores a response to current thinking around how proactive and successful social media platforms have been in trying to curtail some of the abuse of their platforms. It’s not the first effort of this kind — there have been several other attempts like this one where multiple companies, erstwhile competitors for consumer engagement, come together with a united front to tackle things like misinformation.

This one specifically is identifying non-political content and coming up with a “collaborative approach to early identification and notification amongst industry participants of extremely violent, graphic content, including suicide.” The MOU proposed by Pappas suggested that social media platforms communicate to keep each other notified of the content — a smart move, considering how much gets shared across multiple platforms, from other platforms.

The company’s efforts on the harmful content coalition is one more example of how social media companies are trying to take their own initiative and show that they are trying to be responsible, a key way of lobbying governments to stay out of regulating them. With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others continue to be in hot water over the content that is shared over their platforms — despite their attempts to curb abuse and manipulation — it’s unlikely that this will be the final word on any of this.

Full memo below:

Recently, social and content platforms have once again been challenged by the posting and cross-posting of explicit suicide content that has affected all of us – as well as our teams, users, and broader communities.

Like each of you, we worked diligently to mitigate its proliferation by removing the original content and its many variants, and curtailing it from being viewed or shared by others. However, we believe each of our individual efforts to safeguard our own users and the collective community would be boosted significantly through a formal, collaborative approach to early identification and notification amongst industry participants of extremely violent, graphic content, including suicide.

To this end, we would like to propose the cooperative development of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will allow us to quickly notify one another of such content.

Separately, we are conducting a thorough analysis of the events as they relate to the recent sharing of suicide content, but it’s clear that early identification allows platforms to more rapidly respond to suppress highly objectionable, violent material.

We are mindful of the need for any such negotiated arrangement to be clearly defined with respect to the types of content it could capture, and nimble enough to allow us each to move quickly to notify one another of what would be captured by the MOU. We also appreciate there may be regulatory constraints across regions that warrant further engagement and consideration.

To this end, we would like to convene a meeting of our respective Trust and Safety teams to further discuss such a mechanism, which we believe will help us all improve safety for our users.

We look forward to your positive response and working together to help protect our users and the wider community.

Sincerely,

Vanessa Pappas
Head of TikTok

More to come.

#tc

0

Europe’s Point Nine outs new ~€100M fund to back early-stage SaaS and digital marketplaces

Point Nine, the pan-European early-stage VC focused on SaaS and digital marketplaces, has raised its fifth fund, totalling just short of €100 million (in fact, “P9 V” is a €99,999,999 fund — get it?).

Despite its Berlin, Germany roots, the VC has always operated fairly remotely and invests globally. In total, it has invested in more than 140 companies in 28 countries over the last 10 years.

Historically, Point Nine has been an early backer of well-known and up and coming companies such as Algolia, Brainly, Chainalysis, Contentful, Delivery Hero, DocPlanner, Loom, Mambu, Revolut, and Typeform.

To that end, armed with new capital to deploy, it is largely business as usual for Point Nine. The VC invests between €0.5 to €2.5 million per company initially and says it is committed to participating in the Series As of all portfolio companies. As noted, its investment remit is B2B SaaS and B2B marketplace startups, primarily across Europe and North America.

An equal partnership: ‘a feature, not a bug’

Along with the new fund, Point Nine is announcing the addition of two new partners, Louis Coppey and Ricardo Sequerra Amram. Notably, the firm is moving to an “equal partnership” model (à la Benchmark, meaning that Coppey and Amram will share equal carry (profits) with the firm’s founding partners Pawel Chudzinski and Christoph Janz.

Coppey joined Point Nine as an associate four years ago and led the firm’s investments in PlayPlay, cargo.one, and Qwilr. Sequerra Amram joined Point Nine from Cherry Ventures, where he is said to have sourced and worked with Rekki and Infarm, amongst other companies. Prior to Cherry, he worked in various operational and investment roles at Faber Ventures, Seedrs, and Seedcamp.

“Almost ten years after starting Point Nine, we are thrilled to announce that two up-and-coming stars in the tech industry have joined us as equal Partners,” says Point Nine’s Christoph Janz, in a statement. “Both Louis and Ricardo have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to spot new companies, develop strong bonds with entrepreneurs, contribute to the tech community, and help early-stage startups beat the odds. At ages 29 and 30, they are significantly earlier in their careers than the two of us. That’s a feature of our equal partnership, not a bug,” says Christoph Janz”.

#point-nine, #point-nine-capital, #tc

0

Impossible Foods nabs some Canadian fast food franchises as it expands in North America

After rolling out in some of Canada’s most high-falutin burger bistros, Impossible Foods is hitting Canada’s fast casual market with new menu items at national chains like White Spot and Triple O’s, Cactus Club Cafe, and Burger Priest.

While none of those names mean anything to yours truly, they may mean something to our friendly readers to the North. However, I have heard of Qdoba, Wahlburgers and Red Robin. And Canadian customers can also pick up Impossible Foods -based menu items at those chains too.

Since its debut at Momofuku Nishi in New York in 2016, the Impossible Burger is now served in 30,000 restaurants across the U.S. and is available in 11,000 grocery stores across America.

The Silicon Valley manufacturer of meat substitutes expects that Canada, the company’s first market outside of Asia, may become its largest market — second only to the U.S.

#asia, #canada, #food-and-drink, #impossible-foods, #meat-substitutes, #menu, #momofuku, #new-york, #restaurants, #tc, #united-states

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

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

0

Twitter and Zoom’s algorithmic bias issues

Both Zoom and Twitter found themselves under fire this weekend for their respective issues with algorithmic bias. On Zoom, it’s an issue with the video conferencing service’s virtual backgrounds and on Twitter, it’s an issue with the site’s photo cropping tool.

It started when PhD student Colin Madland tweeted about a Black faculty member’s issues with Zoom. According to Madland, whenever said faculty member would use a virtual background, Zoom would remove his head.

“We have reached out directly to the user to investigate this issue,” a Zoom spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re committed to providing a platform that is inclusive for all.”

 

When discussing that issue on Twitter, however, the problems with algorithmic bias compounded when Twitter’s mobile app defaulted to only showing the image of Madlund, the white guy, in preview.

“Our team did test for bias before shipping the model and did not find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “But it’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, and will open source our analysis so others can review and replicate.”

Twitter pointed to a tweet from its chief design officer, Dantley Davis, who ran some of his own experiments. Davis posited Madland’s facial hair affected the result, so he removed his facial hair and the Black faculty member appeared in the cropped preview. In a later tweet, Davis said he’s “as irritated about this as everyone else. However, I’m in a position to fix it and I will.”

Twitter also pointed to an independent analysis from Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at Carnegie Mellon. In his experiment, he sought to see if “the cropping bias is real.”

In response to the experiment, Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal said addressing the question of whether or not cropping bias is real is “a very important question.” In short, sometimes Twitter does crop out Black people and sometimes it doesn’t. But the fact that Twitter does it at all, even once, is enough for it to be problematic.

It also speaks to the bigger issue of the prevalence of bad algorithms. These same types of algorithms are what leads to biased arrests and imprisonment of Black people. They’re also the same kind of algorithms that Google used to label photos of Black people as gorillas and that Microsoft’s Tay bot used to become a white supremacist.

 

#algorithmic-bias, #diversity, #tc, #twitter, #zoom

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Hailing a self-driving taxi when blind. Learn how Waymo answers that challenge at Sight Tech Global

Imagine yourself unable to see well enough to drive, and how that would change your life. I witness that scenario every day at home with my wife, who is legally blind, and a very busy person. She reveres Uber and Lyft because they provided her with the still remarkable option to get up and go whenever she wants, wherever she wants.  So imagine her excitement a year ago when she was treated to a brief ride in a self-driving Waymo taxi. The safety driver asked my wife to buckle up and hit the “start” button. Yes, exactly! Where is that start button?

We all had a chuckle because the point of the excursion was to talk about Waymo’s commitment to accessibility in the development of self-driving taxis, which are already in service in Phoenix. Waymo is working closely with the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) in Phoenix to get feedback on the experience, and also consulting with The Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. We are delighted to announce that Waymo’s work on accessibility will be featured at Sight Tech Global, which is a virtual event (December 2-3) focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and registration is open.

Joining the Waymo accessibility session are three key figures helping to guide Waymo’s work. Clement Wright is the Waymo product manager responsible for Waymo’s user experience and accessibility efforts. His focus is on ensuring all Waymo riders, including those with disabilities, can enjoy safe, comfortable, and convenient rides in Waymo’s fully driverless service. Marc Ashton is CEO, Foundation for Blind Children, which is a Phoenix-based and nationally recognized leader in the education of blind children. Ashton’s son is blind, which led to his interest in the field and in 2007 to the role of CEO. Bryan Bashin is the CEO of Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, which offers education, training, advocacy, and community for blind individuals in California and around the world. Blind since college, Bashin has dedicated much of his career to advocating for equality, access, training and mentorship for individuals who are blind or low vision. 

Waymo’s quest for a highly accessible, self-driving ride is no easy challenge. “Today, ride-hailing and taxi drivers fulfill certain duties outside of strictly driving the car,” says Wright. “They may roll down the window at pickup to speak to a rider and help them find the car. One of our largest challenges as we work to build the Waymo Driver is ensuring that we understand all of the rider’s additional needs without a human driver in the car.”

The Waymo team has worked with adult members of the FBC to get feedback on the mobile app used to summon a Waymo taxi, for example, by using the way finding mechanism of honking the taxi’s horn through the app. Time and again,” says Wright, “we’ve seen that a feature built to help a specific group of people,  the visually impaired for example, is actually very helpful for the rest of our rider base as well. This has led us to a broader focus on inclusive design––looking at specific rider’s needs to understand key challenges, and then building solutions that help everyone.” 

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to help people with disabilities, including the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind, get where they need to go safely and efficiently.  We will dive into how Waymo accounts for accessibility throughout it’s product development cycle and explore the critical role that feedback, from both blind and low vision users, as well as partner organizations who represent those groups, plays in that process. Join us at Sight Tech Global on December 2-3 to join the session.  Get your free pass now.

Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo. The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.

 

#accessibility, #artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #lighthouse-for-the-blind, #robotics, #sight-tech-global, #tc, #waymo

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How to make the most of iOS 14 widgets and iPhone home screen customization

You’ve probably seen the screenshots going around that show iOS home screens that differ considerably from the stock options that Apple provides. Yes, if you’re an Android user you’re probably laughing at iPhone owners for finally (nearly) catching up to the customization features they’ve had for years, but if you’re an iOS fan, you probably just want to know how to join in. It’s act