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

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Benchmark’s Peter Fenton: ’10 to 20 years of innovation just got pulled forward’

Earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt, venture capitalist Peter Fenton joined us to talk about a variety of issues. Among them, we discussed how he’s putting his stamp on Benchmark now that, 15 years after joining the storied firm, he’s its most senior member.

Fenton said that he’s mostly focused on ensuring that the firm doesn’t change. It wants to remain small, with no more than six general partners at a time. It wants to keep investing funds that are half a billion dollars or less because its small team can only work closely with so many founders. He also made a point of noting that Benchmark’s partners still divide their investment profits equally, unlike at other, more hierarchical venture firms, where senior investors reap the biggest financial benefits.

We also talked about diversity because (hint hint) Benchmark — which is currently run by Fenton, Sarah Tavel, Eric Vishria and Chetan Puttagunta — is hiring one to two more general partners.

We talked about why Benchmark, a Series A investor in both Uber and WeWork, seemingly took so long to address cultural issues within both companies.

And we talked about the opportunities that has Benchmark, and Fenton specifically, most excited right now. Read on for more, or check out our full conversation below.

On whether Benchmark, which historically had all white male partners and now counts Fenton as its only white male partner, might hire a Black partner on his watch, given the dearth of Black investors in the industry (along with the changing demographics of the U.S.):

“That’s a personal issue for me, which is going to be measured in the outcomes, just like we have companies that take on initiatives that matter and then measure them and hold themselves accountable. I won’t feel good about our failure if we don’t continue to tilt towards diversity. It’s not enough that I’m the only white male partner. The industry is so systematically skewed in the wrong direction, and we’ve gotten so good at rationalizing how it ended up here, that I don’t think we can tolerate it anymore.”

Benchmark is looking to reinvent itself through “three interfaces,” he continued. “It’s who are we talking with and spending time with in terms of [who we might invest in] — that has to change; who are the people making investment decisions, [meaning] the partnership; and then what’s the composition of the companies we’ve invested in, meaning the executives and the boards.

“Before I’m done with the venture business, I want to be able to point to empirical outcomes . . .”

As for why Benchmark waited for the public to rally against its portfolio companies Uber and WeWork before taking action to address cultural issues (in Uber’s case, in reaction to former engineer Susan Fowler’s famous blog post and, in the case if WeWork, in reaction to its S-1 filing):

“I can’t give you a crisp answer because ultimately, what happens in the public eye isn’t the whole story of what was going on between Benchmark and those CEOs.” It’s “far more complicated, far more nuanced, far more engaged.”

Said Fenton: “What you start with in any partnership is this idea that we’re all flawed and providing what feels like unconditional support to a founder to nurture them and help them to understand in ways they might be able to from their direct reports where they are going to get in trouble, where they’re going to fall short, and then buttress them.

“I can say, having watched both [Benchmark investors] Bruce [Dunlevie] and Bill [Gurley] in those roles that they give their heart and soul to enable the full potential of those entrepreneurs, and in each case, it wasn’t enough.

“I don’t know what to say other than, I don’t envision another individual in that [board] role being able to do a better job because what they gave was everything, and those companies built enormous organizations, great success, delight and joy for customers, and they had, in each of their cases, pathologies in their culture. A number of companies that I’m involved with have pathologies in their culture. Every organization can build them. What motivated both Bill and Bruce was the constituencies that go beyond the CEO, the employees, the customers, and in the case of Uber, the drivers . . .

“You could say Susan Fowler was the reason it all happened; I can assure you that the work that was being done far preceded [the publication of her blog post]. Could we have done more, more quickly? You always look back and say, ‘Yeah.’ I think you learn as an organization. We’re not perfect.”

As for the trends that Fenton is watching most closely right now, he suggested a world of opportunities have opened up in the last six months, and he thinks they’ll only gain momentum from here:

“What I’m most excited about is, we’re not going back to normal. What’s so amazing is this shock to the system is really a big opportunity for entrepreneurs to come and say, ‘What do we need to build to recreate and unlock all these things we lost when we stopped going into workplaces?’

“So I think this opportunity to build the tools for a world that’s ‘post place’ has just opened up and is as exciting as anything I’ve seen in my venture career. You walk around right now and you see these ghosts towns, with gyms, classes you might take [and so forth] and now maybe you go online and do Peloton, or that class you maybe do online. So I think a whole field of opportunities will move into this post-place delivery mechanism that are really exciting. [It] could be 10 to 20 years of innovation that just got pulled forward into today.”

#airtable, #benchmark, #cockroach-labs, #diversity, #peter-fenton, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt, #techcrunch-include, #uber, #venture-capital, #wework

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Meet the five startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt 2020

TechCrunch hosted an unusual Startup Battlefield this week — the founders, judges, audience and moderator (me) were all in different locations, doing our best to interact over WebEx.

But the 20 startups still demonstrated their products and explained their visions, then were grilled by expert judges. And those judges helped the TechCrunch team select our five finalists.

Those finalists will be presenting tomorrow at 10:40 a.m. Pacific for a whole new set of judges, and you can watch the live stream by logging into TechCrunch. (Also: It’s not too late to sign up for the full Disrupt experience.) Those judges will choose a runner-up and a winner, and the winner will take home $100,000, equity-free.

Here are the finalists:

Canix

Canix has built a robust enterprise resource planning platform designed to reduce the time it takes cannabis growers to input data. It integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software, as well as Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform. You can read more about Canix here.

Firehawk Aerospace

Hybrid rockets aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Firehawk Aerospace is building a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel engine that employs industrial-scale 3D printing to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous designs. You can read more about Firehawk Aerospace here.

HacWare

Tiffany Ricks founded HacWare in Dallas, Texas, in 2017 to help bring better email security awareness to small businesses. The technology sits on a company’s email server and uses machine learning to categorize and analyze each message for risk. You can read more about HacWare here.

Jefa

Jefa is building a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. It focuses on solving the problems that women face when opening a bank account and managing it. You can read more about Jefa here.

Matidor

Matidor is building a project platform for consultants and engineers to keep track of projects and geospatial data in a single dashboard. It offers an all-in-one data visualization suite for customers in the energy and environmental services fields. You can read more about Matidor here.

#battlefield, #canix, #firehawk-aerospace, #hacware, #jefa, #matidor, #startup-battlefield, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Boston Robotics delivers plan for logistics robots as early as next year

Boston Dynamics is just months away from announcing their approach to logistics, the first real vertical it aims to enter, after proving their ability to build robots at scale with the quadrupedal Spot. The company’s new CEO, Robert Playter, sees the company coming into its own after decades of experimentation.

Playter, interviewed on the virtual main stage of Disrupt 2020, only recently ascended from COO to that role after many years of working there, after longtime CEO and founder Marc Raibert stepped aside to focus on R&D. This is Playter’s first public speaking engagement since taking on the new responsibility, and it’s clear he has big plans for Boston Robotics.

The recent commercialization of Spot, the versatile quadrupedal robot that is a distant descendant of the famous Big Dog, showed Playter and the company that there is a huge demand for what they’re offering, even if they’re not completely sure where that demand is.

“We weren’t sure exactly what the target verticals would be,” he admitted, and seemingly neither did the customers, who have collectively bought about 260 of the $75,000 robots and are now actively building their own add-ons and industry-specific tools for the platform. And the price hasn’t been a deterrent, he said: “As an industrial tool this is actually quite affordable. But we’ve been very aggressive, spending a lot of money to try to build an affordable way to produce this, and we’re already working on ways to continue to reduce costs.”

boston dynamics spot

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The global pandemic has also helped create a sense of urgency around robots as an alternative to or augmentation of manual labor.

“People are realizing that having a physical proxy for themselves, to be able to be present remotely, might be more important than we imagined before,” Playter said. “We’ve always thought of robots as being able to go into dangerous places, but now danger has been redefined a little bit because of COVID. The pandemic is accelerating the sense of urgency and, I think, probably opening up the kinds of applications that we will explore with this technology.”

Among the COVID-specific applications, the company has fielded requests for collaboration on remote monitoring of patients, and automatic disinfection using Spot to carry aerosol spray through a facility. “I don’t know whether that’ll be a big market going forward, but we thought it was important to respond at the time,” he said. “Partly out of a sense of obligation to the community and society that we do the right thing here.”

The “Dr Spot” remote vitals measurement program at MIT.

One of the earliest applications to scale successfully was, of course, logistics, where companies like Amazon have embraced robotics as a way to increase productivity and lower labor costs. Boston Dynamics is poised to jump into the market with a very different robot — or rather robots — meant to help move boxes and other box-like items around in a very different way from the currently practical “autonomous pallet” method.

“We have big plans in logistics,” Playter said. “we’re going to have some exciting new logistics products coming out in the next two years. We have customers now doing proof of concept tests. We’ll announce something in 2021, exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have product available in 2022.”

The company already offers Pick, a more traditional, stationary item-picking system, and they’re working on the next version of Handle, a birdlike mobile robot that can grab boxes and move them around while taking up comparatively little space — no more than a person or two standing up. This mobility allows it to unload things like shipping containers, trucks and other confined or less predictable spaces.

In a video shown during the interview (which you can watch above), Handle is also shown working in concert with an off-the-shelf pallet robot, and Playter emphasized the need for this kind of cooperation, and not just between robots from a single creator.

“We’ll be offering software that lets robots work together,” he said. “Now, we don’t have to create them all. But ultimately it will take teams of robots to do some of these tasks, and we anticipate being able to work with a heterogeneous fleet.”

This kinder, gentler, more industry-friendly Boston Dynamics is almost certainly a product of nudging from SoftBank, which acquired the company in 2018, but also the simple reality that you can’t run a world-leading robotics R&D outfit for nothing. But Playter was keen to note that the Japanese tech giant understands that “we’re only in the position we’re in now because of the previous work we’ve done in the last two decades, developing these advanced capabilities, so we have to keep doing that.”

One thing you won’t likely see doing real work any time soon is Atlas, the company’s astonishingly agile humanoid robot. It’s just not practical for anything just yet, but instead acts as a kind of prestige project, forcing the company to constantly adjust its sights upward.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

“It’s such a complex robot, and it can do so much it forces us to create tools we would not otherwise. And people love it — it’s aspirational, it attracts talent,” said Playter.

And he himself is no exception. Once a gymnast, he recalled “a nostalgic moment” watching Atlas vault around. “A lot of the people in the company, including Marc, have inspiration from the athletic performance of people and animals,” Playter said. “That DNA is deeply embedded in our company.”

#artificial-intelligence, #boston-dynamics, #gadgets, #hardware, #robotics, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Ron Howard and Brian Grazer say that their accelerator can help diversify Hollywood

Impact Creative Systems (formerly Imagine Impact) is bringing a startup accelerator-style approach to finding fresh creative talent, and it announced this morning that, with funding from venture capital firm Benchmark,  it’s spinning out from Imagine Entertainment — the production company founded by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer.

Right after the news broke, the accelerator’s founders — Howard, Grazer and CEO Tyler Mitchell — joined us at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference to discuss their vision. Grazer (whose films with Howard include “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and the upcoming “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix) recalled the Hollywood of 25 years ago, which he described as an “opaque” system where original writers often struggled to break in, and he felt that Impact could “democratize access to Hollywood.”

“How can we create opportunity to have access to the epicenter of employment in the media business, which is Hollywood?” he said.

For starters, Mitchell described what he claimed is a scalable system for evaluating 2,000 script submissions every week.

“We were able to build a system that leverages both technology as well as expert systems evaluating not just the writers, but the readers — almost like financial analysts — and try to come up with metrics in a world where there aren’t stats,” he said.

Mitchell also noted that in Impact’s first cohort of 87 writers, 39% were BIPOC, 10% were LGBTQ and it was split 50-50 between men and women, with 11 different countries represented.

“If you try to find the most talented writers in the world, they’re going to look like the world,” he said.

Howard made a similar point, saying that this diversity results from an interest in “fresh new voices” with “no statistical goals or agendas in mind — it’s just happening in a really honest way.” (At the same time, interviewer Ingrid Lunden couldn’t help but observe that this was a panel of three white men discussing diversity.)

Asked whether they’re interested in finding new talent from social media, Howard pointed to Grazer as the one who’s always encouraging him to “know what’s going on up north” (a.k.a. in Silicon Valley).

“Right now we’re in a creative renaissance with podcasts and Instagrams … finding their way into the center of the narrative,” Howard said.

Grazer said he often looks at YouTube, in particular. At the same time, he cautioned that creating content for these online platforms requires a different skill set than writing movies or TV.

“It doesn’t reduce the likelihood of their success necessarily, but it’s a different art form,” he said. “Because writing a teleplay or a screenplay, even the greatest playwrights can’t do that particular thing — you have to be trained.”

Still, Imagine found at least one idea in an Instagram Story, developing a comedic show around an actor (Grazer didn’t want to say who it is, but it’s probably Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a donkey named Lulu and a miniature horse named Whiskey. Apparently the show has attracted multiple bidders, and as for where it will end up, Grazer said, “It sort of seems like Amazon. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

#brian-grazer, #entertainment, #imagine-impact, #impact-creative-systems, #media, #ron-howard, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt, #tyler-mitchell

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Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn on getting funding for crazy ideas

It’s not easy getting funding for any startup, but when Cloudflare launched at one of our early events 10 years ago, most investors sure thought its idea was a bit out there. Today, Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn joined us at our virtual Disrupt event to talk with our enterprise reporter Ron Miller about those early days and how the team managed to get investors on board with its plan.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, what were we thinking? But really, I hope — as other entrepreneurs listen — that you do think, ‘hey, how can I be more bold?’ Because actually, that’s where a lot of greatness comes from,” Zatlyn said.

It’s maybe no surprise then that she found that when the team went to the Bay Area in the summer of 2009, trying to sell a product that democratized a service that was previously only available to the internet giants of that time, not everybody was ready.

“A lot of eyes glazed over,” she said. They kind of brushed us aside because we really had a big vision — we certainly did not lack in vision. So that was a lot of the conversations, but there were some conversations where people really leaned in and they’re like: ‘Oh, wow, tell me more.’ And maybe they knew a lot about cybersecurity or maybe they were really worried about the democratization of the internet and going behind guarded walls. And those people really got excited. And that’s how we found kind of our initial investors or initial teammates.”

Over time, the team found investors and an initial set of employees, but it wasn’t easy. “It was bold then and not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some people looked at us like we’re crazy, but I’d like to say that when people look at you like you’re crazy, you’re probably onto something big.”

While a lot of people looked at Cloudflare as a CDN in its early days, it was always meant to be a security product that needed the CDN to work (the company sometimes describes itself as an “accidental CDN” because of that). Ten years ago, the focus was mostly on web spammers, and because that was something everybody could relate to, it made its ability to combat that very explicit in its pitch deck.

“We literally had a slide in our pitch deck that had quotes from real-life IT administrators from some medium-sized businesses, small businesses and developers, explaining in their own words — and their very hard-hitting words — how much they despise like these cyber threats that were online. […] Even if you knew nothing about cybersecurity or global performance, you could all understand wow, there’s something here, right?” And of course, it helped that there was no real protection against these threats available at the time.

Still, getting early customers didn’t come easy, either, Zatlyn noted, because some just didn’t understand what the company was doing. But the team took that as feedback and improved how it explained itself.

“Early on as an entrepreneur, you got to try a lot of things. And you don’t need to know every single corner of your business, but you need to really have a high rate of learning. Actually, that’s an entrepreneur’s best friend. How fast can you learn, how fast can you take the feedback and iterate on it?”

You can watch the rest of the conversation, including Zatlyn’s thoughts about going public, below:

#cloudflare, #michelle-zatlyn, #security, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finance and the digital divide: a conversation with Tunde Kehinde of Lidya

Small and medium businesses have been some of the hardest hit in the Covid-19 pandemic. And all that has been as true in emerging markets as it has been for SMBs in the developed world.

Tunde Kehinde has had a front-row seat witnessing and responding to that crisis. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Lidya, a startup out of Nigeria that has built a platform for SMBs to apply for and get loans and other financial services, aimed at markets on the African continent and increasingly also in emerging economies in Europe. We sat down with him as part of our new virtual Disrupt series, where we have been connecting with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world beyond the US.

Kehinde has been called the “Jeff Bezos of Africa”, a funny title you might think sounds like tenuous or cheesy marketing until you know more about his history in business, the impact it’s had so far (he’s not that old) in the region, and until you hear him speak.

Kehinde — born in Nigeria and exposed to a lot of the US way of doing things through university years at Howard and then Harvard — was previously the co-founder of one of the biggest tech startups to have come out of the continent — Jumia — an Amazon-style marketplace that is slowly branching out into a wider web of services like payments, food delivery and more.

Initially incubated by Rocket Internet, Jumia raised hundreds of millions of dollars from VCs, scaled to multiple countries on the continent, and is now traded publicly on Nasdaq with a current market cap of $660 million — modest by Amazon standards maybe, but a real milestone for African tech.

That alone would probably merit some to wonder if he’s the “next Bezos”, but it’s been his follow-up act at Lidya that paints a broader picture. In short, there is a lot more potential for payment and online commerce services in emerging markets, and focusing on helping small businesses cross the digital chasm is not just a good business opportunity, but a developmental one, too. Capital, specifically the lack thereof, has always been a huge hindrance to growth, and these days it’s an even more critical axiom to address.

You can see the full Disrupt conversation below, where Kehinde covers a lot of ground, not just about his company but about how tech is evolving in the region.

The breakout success of a handful of startups — which include the likes of new digital payments unicorn Interswitch as well as Jumia — venturing into multiple jurisdictions, he noted, is seeing more VCs also increase their interest and investment activity. He thinks the next very important step is to have more exits, which will confer a different kind of credibility and liquidity to the market.

And there should be, he added: There are few places like the African continent that is a blank slate, where you can come in quickly and build a really dominant player, if you have the right capital and team, he said.

“It’s night and day between seven years ago and now,” he added, but also admitted that while financial services and the related world of e-commerce are obvious places to start — it was also the classic category to tackle first in the US and Europe many years earlier — he still sees more interest from VCs in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

His advice for VCs?

“If I were a VC I would look at what have been the biggest successes from folks like me,” he said. “Seeing Jumia and others going public, as more of these things happen the more you can develop a great policy and that will make it easier. I launched, I got to scale, I got return on investment, the right infrastructure can be built.”

Tune in here to hear him also talk about China and how to handle investment from outside Africa; what other big deals in loans for SMBs, such as Kabbage getting acquired by Amex, mean for startups like Lidya, the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on business; identifying opportunities beyond your immediate region; and more.

#africa, #african-tech, #disrupt, #ecommerce, #emerging-markets, #finance, #fintech, #jumia, #lidya, #loans, #nigeria, #smbs, #smes, #startups, #tc, #tcuk, #techcrunch-disrupt, #tunde-kehinde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SmartNews' new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

SmartNews’ new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

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

SmartNews' Weather Radar feature

SmartNews’ Weather Radar feature

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

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

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

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

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

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Alexa’s new celebrity wake words ‘Hey Samuel,’ turns the assistant into Samuel L. Jackson

Alexa just read me Monday’s baseball scores. It was great for two reasons. First, the A’s shut out the Mariners 9-0 in the second game of a doubleheader. And second, she did so in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. With Amazon based in Seattle, I assume they’re happy I’ve chosen to focus on the latter fact for the rest of this post.

Alexa heads Toni Reid and Rohit Prasad joined us onstage today at Disrupt to discuss the smart assistant’s history, biggest obstacles and future. They also used the occasion to announce that the highest-grossing actor of all time now has his own wake word. After installing the Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice skill, Alexa users can make the “Pulp Fiction” star their default assistant voice, triggering him with the wake words “Hey Samuel.”

I’ve been using the skill on an Echo Show this week, and it’s a fun addition to Alexa that swears sometimes. In fact, there’s a warning when you install it that it’s not particularly family-friendly (like the real Samuel L. Jackson, he uses MFer a fair bit more than your standard voice assistant). Most of the commands are just standard Alexa stuff in Jackson’s voice, but there are some gems on there, like asking questions about reptiles on aircraft. He’s a bit less up on some of the deeper cuts from his filmography.

The addition of Jackson for Alexa follows Google’s own introduction of celebrity voice cameos from John Legend and Issa Rae. It’s clear that both companies believe a little star power goes a long way toward keeping users engaged with a virtual assistant. Honestly though, Jackson is one of the best gets you can imagine, both in terms of name recognition and novelty. It’s hard to think of too many names that might top it (Obama? Oprah? Pee-Wee Herman?).

One of the stories Amazon is interested in telling here is how surprisingly difficult it was to create a secondary wake word. The Samuel L. Jackson skill was available before, but essentially required the user to say ““Hey Alexa, ask Samuel…” Essentially a smart assistant game of telephone. The novelty wears off pretty fast, to be honest.

“The Alexa wake word has billions of interactions every week,” Alexa Senior Machine Learning Manager Shiv Vitaladevuni says in a post tied to the news. “However, there was a paucity of training data for the ‘Hey, Samuel’ wake word. To develop the multi wake word model for ‘Hey Samuel’ and Alexa, we had to develop new training and data modeling techniques, while drawing on learnings from the past.”

#amazon, #amazon-alexa, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #rohit-prasad, #techcrunch-disrupt, #toni-reid

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Facebook addresses political controversy in India, monetization opportunities, startup investments

At the beginning of the previous decade, Facebook had a tiny presence in India. It had just started to slowly expand its team in the country and was inking deals with telecom operators to make access to its service free to users and even offer incentives such as free voice credit.

India’s internet population, now the second largest with more than 500 million connected users, itself was very small. In early 2011, the country had fewer than 100 million internet users.

But Facebook ended up playing a crucial role in the last decade. So much so that by the end of it, the social juggernaut was reaching nearly every internet user in the country. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 400 million internet users in India, more than any other app in the country, according to mobile insight firm App Annie.

This reach of Facebook in India didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians in the country today heavily rely on Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to get their message out. But it has also complicated things.

Rumors have spread on WhatsApp that cost lives, and politicians from both the large political parties in India in recent weeks have accused the company of showing favoritism to the other side.

To address these issues, and the role Facebook wishes to play in India, Ajit Mohan, the head of the company’s business in the country, joined us at Disrupt 2020. Following are some of the highlights.

On controversy

A recent report in WSJ claimed that Ankhi Das, one of Facebook’s top executives in India, decided against taking down a post from a politician from the ruling party. She did so, the report claimed, because she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in India.

In Mohan’s first interview since the controversy broke, he refuted the claims that any executive in the country holds power to influence how Facebook enforces its content policy.

“We believe that it’s important for us to be open and neutral and non-partisan,” he said. “We have deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral party that allows speech of all kinds, that allows expression of all kinds, including political expression, and a lot of the guidelines that we have developed are to make sure that we really enable our diversity of expression and opinion so long as we’re able to make sure that the safety and security of people are protected.”

Mohan said the internal processes and systems inside Facebook are designed to ensure that any opinion and preference of an employee or a group of employees is “quite separate from the company and the company’s objective enforcement of its own policies.”

He said individuals can offer input on decisions, but nobody — including Ankhi Das — can unilaterally influence the decision Facebook takes on content enforcement.

“We do allow free expression inside the company as well. We don’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view, but we see that separate from the enforcement of our content policy. […] The content policy itself, in the context of India, is a team that stands separate from the public policy team that is led by Ankhi,” he added.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

On India and monetization

Even as Facebook has amassed hundreds of millions of users in India, the world’s second largest market contributes little to its bottom line. So why does Facebook care so much about the country?

“India is in the middle of a very exciting economic and social transformation where digital has a massive role to play. In just the last four years, more than 500 million users have come online. The pace of this transformation probably has no parallel in either human history or even in the digital transformation happening in countries around the world,” he said.

“For a company like ours, if you look at the family of apps across WhatsApp and Instagram, we believe we have a useful role to play in fueling this transformation,” he said.

Even as Facebook does not generate a lot of revenue from India, Mohan said the company has established itself as one of the most trusted platforms for marketers. “They look to us as a material partner in their marketing agenda,” he said.

He said the company is hopeful that advertising as a GDP will go up in India. “Therefore ad-revenue will become substantial over time,” he said.

For Facebook, India is also crucial because it allows the company to build some unique products that solve issues for India but could be replicated in other markets. The company is currently testing an integration of WhatsApp, which currently does not have a business model despite having over 2 billion users, with new Indian e-commerce JioMart, to allow users to easily track their orders.

“We think there is opportunity to build India-first models, experiment at scale, and in a world where we succeed, we see huge opportunity in taking some of these models global,” he said.

Facebook as a VC

Facebook does not usually invest in startups. But in India, the company has invested in social-commerce firm Meesho, online learning platform Unacademy — it even participated in its follow-up round — and it wrote a $5.7 billion check to Jio Platforms earlier this year. So why is Facebook taking this investment route in India?

“We wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early-stage startups to figure out how we could be helpful to startup founders and the ecosystem as a whole. The starting point was backing teams that were building models that in some ways were unique to India and could go global. Since we made an investment in Meesho, they have made a strong thrust in Indonesia. These are the kind of companies where we feel we can add value as well as we can learn from these startups,” he said.

The partnership with Jio Platforms follows a different rationale. “The transformation we talked about in India in the last few years, Jio triggered it,” he said. Other than that, Facebook is exploring ways to work with Jio, such as with its partnership with Jio’s venture JioMart. “It can really fuel the small and medium business that is good for the Indian economy,” he said.

Mohan said the company continues to explore more opportunities in Indian startups, especially with those where the teams think Facebook can add value, but he said there is no mandate of any kind that Facebook has to invest in, say dozens of startups in three to four years. “It’s not a volume play,” he said.

But would these firms, including Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, will receive any special access on Facebook’s services. What if Amazon, BigBasket, Grofers, or Flipkart want to integrate with WhatsApp, too? Mohan said Facebook platform is open for every firm and everyone will receive the same level of access and opportunities.

In the interview, Mohan, who ran the Disney-run Hotstar on-demand streaming service in India, also talked about the growing usage of video in India, the state of WhatsApp Pay’s rollout in the country, what Facebook thinks of India’s ban on Chinese apps, and much more. You can watch the full interview below.

#ajit-mohan, #apps, #asia, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #facebook, #facebook-india, #hotstar, #meesho, #social, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #whatsapp, #whatsapp-pay

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Homage’s Gillian Tee on how technology can serve the world’s aging population

It’s always a pleasure to chat with Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee because of her nuanced take on how technology can help elderly and other vulnerable people.  According to the United Nations, people 65-years-old and over is the fastest-growing age group worldwide. At the same time, there is also an acute shortage of caregivers in many countries, complicated by high rates of burnout in the profession.

“It’s absolutely one of the most important social topics and global issues,” Tee said during her Disrupt session (the video is embedded at the bottom of this article).

Launched in Singapore four years ago, Homage’s platform uses a matchmaking engine to help families find the best caregivers, while its telehealth platform provides services like online medical consultations and screenings. It has since expanded in Malaysia and yesterday announced a new strategic investment from Infocom, one of the largest healthcare technology companies in Japan. The partnership will enable Homage to accelerate its Asia-Pacific expansion.

Before launching Homage, Tee was co-founder of New York-based Rocketrip. A ticket-booking platform created to reduce work travel-related costs for companies, Rocketrip attracted investors like Google Ventures, Y Combinator and Bessemer Ventures, and raised more than $30 million. But in 2016, Tee decided to return to Singapore, her home country, after living abroad for about 15 years. In her Disrupt session, Tee said this was to be closer to her mother, and because she felt that her startup experience could also be applied to Southeast Asia.

Tee knew that she wanted to launch another company, but she didn’t decide to tackle the caregiving space immediately. That idea materialized when several of her close relatives were diagnosed with chronic conditions that needed specialized care.

“We didn’t know how to cope or how even to start thinking about what was required, and that was when I realized, wow, I needed to get myself schooled in many ways,” Tee said.

Many families around the world are dealing with the same challenges as their populations age and social dynamics shift. Family members who traditionally would have been carers for relatives are unable to do so because they have moved away or need to work.

Families often rely on word-of-mouth or agencies to find caregivers, a complicated, time-intensive and often emotionally difficult process. Homage uses matching algorithms to make it easier. One of the most unique things about the platform is how much detail it goes into. Providers are not only screened based on their certifications and the kind of care they provide (for example, long-term care, respite care, physical therapy or rehabilitation), but specific skills. For example, many patients need mobility assistance, so Homage assesses what kind of transfers they are able to safely perform.

Then its matching technology decides which caregivers are best suited for a patient, and final assignments are made by Homage’s staff. By making the process more efficient, Homage also lowers its costs, making its services accessible to more people while increasing pay rates for providers.

This taps into another one of Homage’s goals: expanding the caregiving pool in its markets and retaining talent. Other ways it addresses the issue is by placing caregivers on its platform into the jobs they are best suited for, organizing continuing education programs and making sure they are not over-scheduled. Some caregivers on the platform have long-term contracts, while others work with Homage clients only a few days a week.

A holistic approach to “age-tech”

In June, Homage launched its telehealth service. Called Homage Health, the platform has been in development for a while, but its launch was accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote consultations fit into the “high-touch,” or in-person, care side of the company’s business because many patients need regular screenings or consultations with doctors and specialists. For patients who have limited mobility or are immunocompromised, this makes it easier for them to make routine consults.

Hardware, including wearable sensors, also show promise to identify any potential health issues, like heart conditions, before they require acute care, but one challenge is making them easy for patients to integrate into their daily routines or remember to wear, Tee said.

Overall, Homage’s mission is to create a holistic platform that covers many caregiving needs. Its new partnership with strategic investor Infocom will help bring that forward because the company, which Tee said Homage has been talking to for several years, works with about 13,000 facilities in Japan, including senior residences and hospitals. Infocom develops software for a wide range of verticals, including drug, hospital and medical record management, and medical imaging.

Infocom also runs its own caregiving platform, and its partnership with Homage will enable the two companies to collaborate and reach more patients. Japan has one of the largest populations of elderly people in the world. Tee said at minimum, half a million caregivers need to be mobilized within the next five to ten years in Japan in order to meet demand.

“We need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need, and so we really align in terms of that mission with Infocom,” said Tee. “They also have a platform that engages caregivers to apply for jobs in Japan and they see the Homage model as being particularly applicable because it’s curated as well.”

#asia, #caregiving, #disrupt-2020, #gillian-tee, #homage, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn to discuss building a company with a bold idea at TechCrunch Disrupt

When you start a company, it can be tempting to keep it simple. You want something that investors and customers can easily understand. While it might be easier to go that route, that is not something that CloudFlare did when it launched a decade ago at TechCrunch Disrupt. Instead, the company decided to go big or go home, and went with the wild idea of building a faster and safer internet. Not too much pressure.

It launched in 2010 with a free product and a paid tier and grew that original notion of delivering speed and security into a suite of products and services. Today, a decade later, CloudFlare is a public company with a market cap of nearly $12 billion.

We are going to talk to company co-founder and chief operating office Michelle Zatlyn in a One on One interview at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 about what it took to build off that vision as an early stage company. They were going after established giants like Akamai at the time. They needed to build a network of data centers around the world, starting with 5 on 3 continents at launch.

None of this could have been easy from an operations perspective. They were offering the bold assertion that they could make the world’s websites faster and safer and do it in a way that didn’t require any additional hardware and software. As an early adherent to the notion of cloud computing, they were giving customers the ability to do things that up until that point were only in reach of the largest internet properties, selling a value proposition that is common today, but was pretty unusual at the time.

We’re going to ask Zatlyn, how they built this early product, how they grew the product set and expanded their data center coverage to over 200 around the world, and what it took do all that and eventually become a public company.

You can see this session on the Disrupt stage along with all the programming on the Extra Crunch stage, network with CrunchMatch and discover hundreds of early-stage companies in Digital Startup Alley with your Digital Pro Pass purchase for just $345. There are discounts available for students, government and non-profit employees as well as a great offer for early-stage founders who want to exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. Get your pass today before prices increase!

#cloud, #cloudflare, #enterprise, #internet, #michelle-zatlyn, #security, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Learn how COVID-19 has disrupted the startup world

What early-stage startup founder wouldn’t love to have a crystal ball? Especially now with a pandemic wreaking economic uncertainty across industries in every corner of the world.

We don’t have mystical powers, but we do have the next best thing, and it’s available exclusively to early-stage founders exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley at Disrupt 2020. Sign up today for our interactive webinar, COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World, scheduled for August 19th at 1pm PT/ 4pm ET.

What does the future of work look like? In what ways will startups need to adapt, and how can they course-correct both during and after COVID-19? These are some of the challenging topics our expert panel will address, and they’ll take questions from the viewing audience, too.

Which brilliant minds will offer their perspective, tips and advice? None other than Nicola Corzine, executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurship Center and Cameron Stanfill, a VC analyst at PitchBook. Jon Shieber, a TechCrunch Editor who covers venture capital and private equity investments will moderate the conversation. It’s an interactive webinar, folks, so don’t be shy — bring your questions, comments and ideas to the table.

If you haven’t purchased a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package, go grab yours now. You’ll be able to attend this webinar and the next one, too (more on that in a minute). But here’s the most important part — you’ll showcase your tech, talent and products to thousands of Disrupt attendees from around the world. Boost your brand recognition, and connect with potential customers, partners, investors, media and other influencers across the startup ecosystem. You never know who you’ll meet exhibiting in the Alley or where a chance connection might lead.

“Exhibiting in Startup Alley gave our company and technology invaluable exposure to potential customers and partners that we would not have met otherwise. A company that does 15 billion in annual sales thinks our tech is a fit for their ecosystem, and we’re excited to continue building that relationship.” — Joel Neidig, founder of SIMBA Chain.

Now that you’re all set with your Digital Startup Alley exhibitor pass, circle August 26 on your calendar for the final webinar we scheduled for exhibitors’ edification.

August 26 — Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices

Moderated by TC’s Natasha Mascarenhas, panelists Sarah Kunst (Cleo Capital) and Brett Berson (First Round Capital) discuss two essential topics for startup success. Securing funding may feel like the hardest part of growing a startup, but hiring the right people ain’t no walk in the park either. You need to get a handle on both areas, and these folks can help you do just that.

Exhibitors, sign up for the August 19 webinar, COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World. And to the rest of the early-stage startup founders out there — don’t miss your chance to be an exhibitor at Disrupt 2020 — buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #events, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Sign up to attend The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press

If you’re exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley during Disrupt 2020 — or you plan to — do not miss this opportunity to sharpen your media skills. The first of our three-part interactive webinar series takes place on August 12th with The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press.

Pro tip: Our August webinar series is open only to folks exhibiting at Disrupt 2020. Don’t miss out — buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package now and gain entry to all three exclusive webinars. Then get ready to introduce your startup to thousands of global Disrupt 2020 attendees. Talk about opportunity knocking.

Media coverage can make or break a startup, especially in the early stages. Sharing your startup story — the journey, the capabilities, the benefits — in a concise, compelling way draws media interest. And positive media coverage attracts the potential customers and investors that can drive your business forward.

Still, no one’s born knowing this essential skill — it takes time and practice to develop. And no one gives better advice on how to talk to tech media than, well, tech media. Join TechCrunch writers and editors Greg KumparakAnthony Ha and Ingrid Lunden as they divulge tips and best practices when it comes to talking with the press.

You’ll come away with actionable steps to present yourself and your startup in the best possible light. That’ll come in handy while you exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. Hundreds of tech journalists from around the world will be there searching for great stories to tell. Give them something worth writing about.

And don’t forget — this is just the first of three webinars devoted to helping Digital Startup Alley exhibitors wring every ounce of opportunity out of their time at Disrupt. Be sure to add these two webinars to your calendar:

  • August 19 COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World with panelists Nicola Corzine, executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurship Center, and Cameron Stanfill, a VC analyst at PitchBook.
  • August 26 — Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices with panelists Sarah Kunst of Cleo Capital and Brett Berson of First Round Capital.

Exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley lets you showcase your incredible startup to a global audience. Buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package, join the first of three exclusive webinars on August 12th, get comfortable talking to the press and learn how to make the best impression possible.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#events, #startup-alley, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Reminder: Annual Extra Crunch members can save 20% on Disrupt passes

Calling all Extra Crunch annual and two-year members! Did you know that as a part of your membership plan, you can get a 20% discount on a Disrupt 2020 pass?

Disrupt is our largest and most ambitious event of the year. While it’s typically held in San Francisco, this year the event will be held online from September 14-18.

During the five-day event, you’ll experience non-stop online programming with two big focuses: founders and investors shaping the future of disruptive technology, and startup experts providing insights to entrepreneurs. It’s where hundreds of startups across a variety of categories tell their stories to the 10,000 attendees from all around the world. It’s the ultimate Silicon Valley experience, where the leaders of the startup world gather to ask questions, make connections and be inspired.

Check out the agenda for this year’s event here, and learn more about the different pass options here.

How to claim the discount as an Extra Crunch member:

  • You must be an active annual or two-year member of Extra Crunch.
  • Email our customer support team at extracrunch@techcrunch.com and request the Extra Crunch discount on a Disrupt pass. Please contact them from the same email address you used to sign up for Extra Crunch so it’s easier for them to find your customer file. 
  • Our customer service team usually responds in 24 hours, and they will provide a discount code you can use during checkout for Disrupt passes.

If you are currently a monthly Extra Crunch member and want to upgrade to annual to claim the 20% off discount on Disrupt, please contact Extra Crunch Customer Support at extracrunch@techcrunch.com.

We hope to see you at Disrupt!

#events, #extra-crunch, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Disrupt 2020 early-bird savings extended until next week

Even the hard-charging world of early-stage startups has its share of procrastinators, lollygaggers, slow-pokes, wafflers and last-minute decision makers. If that’s your demographic, today is your lucky day.

You now have an extra week (courtesy of Saint Expeditus, the patron saint of procrastinators), to score early-bird savings to Disrupt 2020, which takes place September 14-18. Buy your pass before the new and final deadline — August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT) — and save up to $300. Who says prayers (or secular entreaties) go unanswered?

Your pass opens the door to five days of Disrupt — the biggest, longest TechCrunch conference ever. Drawing thousands of attendees and hundreds of innovative early-stage startups from around the world, you won’t find a better time, place or opportunity to accelerate the speed of your business.

Here are four world-class reasons to attend Disrupt 2020.

World-class speakers. Hear and engage with leading voices in tech, business and investment across the Disrupt stages. Folks like Sequoia Capital’s Roelof Botha, Ureeka’s Melissa Bradley and Slack’s Tamar Yehoshua — to name just a few. Here’s what you can see onstage so far.

World-class startups. Explore hundreds of innovative startups exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley — including the TC Top Picks. This elite cadre made it through our stringent screening process to earn the coveted designation, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more varied and interesting set of startups.

World-class networking. CrunchMatch, our AI-powered networking platform, simplifies connecting with founders, potential customers, R&D teams, engineers or investors. Schedule 1:1 video meetings and hold recruitment or extended pitch sessions. CrunchMatch launches weeks before Disrupt to give you more time to scout, vet and schedule.

World-class pitching. Don’t miss Startup Battlefield, the always-epic pitch competition that’s launched more than 900 startups, including big-time names like TripIt, Mint, Dropbox and many others. This year’s crop of startups promises to throw down hard for bragging rights and the $100,000 cash prize.

Need another reason to go? Take a page out of SIMBA Chain founder Joel Neidig’s playbook:

Our primary goal was to make people aware of the SIMBA Chain platform capabilities. Attending Disrupt is great way to get your name out there and build your customer base.

It’s time for all you last-minute lollygaggers to get moving and take advantage of this second, final chance to save up to $300. Buy your pass before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#events, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

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TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 is going virtual

The headline says it all. TechCrunch’s big yearly event, Disrupt, is going fully virtual in 2020. As you can imagine, this is largely due to the impact that the coronavirus has had on the world. But it also gives us a chance to make our event even more accessible to more people than ever before, and we’re incredibly excited about that. And Disrupt will stretch over five days — September 14-18 — in order to make it easier for everyone to take in all the amazing programming. 

This is a daunting and intense task for all of us, but we’re also insanely excited by the challenge. We know how to make great in-person events. Now, the rules are re-written and we get the chance to set that same high standard in the virtual events space.

This is a challenging time for the industry that we cover relentlessly. There are massive risks, and massive opportunities for companies, investors and entrepreneurs. That’s what this Disrupt will be all about, helping you to understand our new realities in order to build hardy, innovative companies that not only weather this storm, but flourish.

Some of the companies that were founded during the last financial crisis or in its aftermath include Uber, Slack, Pinterest, Airbnb, Square, Instagram and Stripe. We’ll look at lessons from those companies and founders, and talk to investors about what they’re looking for from the startups of the future.

Our job now is to build a stellar virtual experience for speakers, sponsors, attendees and, most importantly, the startups that depend on Disrupt. Just like at our physical events, you will be able to meet investors, bring your innovative products to market and connect with media. You will be able to check out hundreds of startups, listen to and interact with some of the most important people in the startup world and attend virtual networking events. You will be able to build new partnerships, talk about your programs and build awareness of what you’re making. 

One of the things we’re most excited about is that anyone from anywhere around the globe can join us in a virtual event. And, because of this, we expect this to be one of the largest and most diverse events in Disrupt history. 

Entrepreneurs from around the world have always gathered at Disrupt, but now the barriers to attend will be lower than ever. Great companies from San Francisco to Seoul can participate in the Startup Battlefield competition this year, making it more possible than ever for us to gather the most incredibly interesting companies together with no geographic or logistical restrictions.

When 2020 began, we didn’t expect to be taking on such a big project this year. But the truth is, we’re ready. As news of the true spread of the coronavirus broke, the TechCrunch team began taking action. We launched Extra Crunch Live, delivering virtual events with guests like Aileen Lee, Kirsten Green, Mark Cuban, Charles Hudson and Roelof Botha. We’re taking our learnings there and applying them to the programming of our two virtual stages at Disrupt. 

We launched the Disrupt Digital Pro Pass that offers live stream and video on demand access to all of the programming, great targeted networking opportunities, access to Startup Alley and access to our sponsors. We’ve launched virtual sponsorship options that will give our partners the opportunity to build their brand, deliver their content, network with interesting people and develop the critical relationships that will help their businesses thrive. 

Disrupt’s dates are coming up fast (September 14-18th, 2020) so register as soon as you can. 

Stepping off this ledge is one of the scariest and yet most thrilling things we’ve ever done at TechCrunch and we’re really glad that we have an audience that knows exactly how that feels. 

Thank you, and we’ll see you at the first-ever TechCrunch Disrupt online.

 

Joey Hinson

Director of Operations

 

Matthew Panzarino

Editor in Chief

#disrupt, #disrupt-global, #events, #tc, #tc-disrupt-sf-2020, #techcrunch, #techcrunch-disrupt, #virtual-events

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