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NASA seeks miniature scientific payload concepts for robotic Moon rover scouts

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is seeking ideas from the public around what kind of scientific equipment they could use to outfit tiny lunar rovers to help with Artemis and other Moon missions. The call, issued via crowdsourcing platform HeroX and called ‘Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload’ in a very contemporary nod to a movie that came out 31 years ago, seeks payloads with maximum dimensions of no more than 4″ x 2″, or “similar in size to a new bar of soap.”
Why the need for instruments so small? NASA wants to be able to perform the kind of science that has, in the past, required large launch vehicles, large orbiters and large launch vehicles, but with much greater frequency and at much lower costs than has been possible before. In order to pave the way for long-term lunar human presence and eventual habitation, NASA says it needs “practical and affordable ways to use lunar resources,” in order to defray the costs of resupply missions – already an expensive undertaking when just traveling to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, and astronomically more so when going as far afield as the Moon .
The goal is for these to be pretty much immediately available for service, with the hope that they can be shipped out to the Moon over the course of the next one to four years. JPL is looking to tap the expertise and experience of the global community to see what’s possible with existing materials and technologies, and while this idea challenge is primarily about concept phase designs (with $160,000 in prize money payouts available), the longer-term goal is to use it as a jumping off point for a pipeline of actual tech that will be incorporated into future rovers and sent on lunar missions.
Taking part in the challenge is fairly easy, and you actually retain all rights to anything you submit in terms of IP, with the proviso that if you make it to the finals, you have to sign a new agreement in which you also grant the U.S. government essentially a perpetual, royalty-free license to use your creation in whatever way they deem appropriate.
If you think you’ve got an idea about how to miniaturize environmental sensors and data gathering equipment for use on what amounts to a space Roomba, there’s probably no better opportunity to contribute to NASA’s deep space exploration efforts – short of landing a JPL gig, which might happen if your idea is good enough.

Report: Apple’s iOS 14 contains code that would let you sample apps before download

Apple has under development a feature that would allow iOS users to interact with a third-party app, even if the app wasn’t yet installed on your device, according to a report from 9to5Mac. The report is based on information discovered in the iOS 14 code, which is not necessarily an indication of launch plans on Apple’s part — but rather an insight into some of Apple’s work in progress.
The feature is referenced internally as the “Clips” API — not to be confused with Apple’s video editing app of the same name. Based on 9to5Mac’s analysis, the new API works in conjunction with the QR Code reader, allowing a user to scan a code linked to an app, then interact with that app from a card that appears on their screen.
Described like this, the feature sounds like a marketing tool for app publishers as it would offer a way for users to try out new apps before they download them to get a better feel for the experience than a banner ad would allow. In addition to offering some interactivity with an app before it’s downloaded, the card could also be used to redirect users to the App Store if they choose to download the full version. The card could also be used to open the app directly to the content, in the case of apps the user already had installed.
Google’s Android, the report noted, offers a similar feature called “Slices,” launched in 2018. While Google had already introduced a way to interact with small pieces of an app in an experience called Instant Apps, the newer Slices feature was meant to drive usage of apps — like booking a ride or hotel room, for example, without having to first locate the app and launch it. On iOS, perhaps, these app “clips” could be pulled up by Siri or in Spotlight search — but that functionality wasn’t demonstrated by the code the report referenced today.
It’s unclear what Apple intentions are with the Clips API or how experimental its efforts are at this time.
However, the report found the feature was being tested with OpenTable, Yelp, DoorDash, Sony (the PS4 Second Screen app), and YouTube. This could indicate a plan to demo examples of the app’s functionality in a future reveal to developers.

On the heels of its NTWRK investment, FaZe Clan looks at global expansion despite pandemic

FaZe Clan, the eSports mega-franchise worth over $240 million, is still planning on moving forward with its international expansion this year on the heels of a multi-million dollar funding round backed by investors including Jimmy Iovine and the startup shopping network, NTWRK.
Backed by Drake, Live Nation and Iovine, NTWRK is not just an investor in FaZe Clan, the startup will also be the home for the esports entertainment hub’s future merchandising efforts.
Part of the capital could go towards planned international expansion efforts, which would see FaZe Clan set up a global network of FaZe houses for its entertainers. Already a cornerstone of the culture that’s sprung up around online gaming and streaming entertainment, FaZe is doubling down on its production and distribution, according to chief executive Lee Trink.
While ad dollars and spending are plummeting across the entertainment world, demand for placement on FaZe Clan’s streams continues to grow, said Trink.
“We’re not experiencing that [decline] right now (not as far as our sponsorship and brand deals),” Trink said. “There’s been a massive constriction for that capital around advertising, but there’s been greater restriction around avenues to deploy that capital.”
Lee Trink, chief executive of FaZe Clan (Photo courtesy of FaZe Clan)
FaZe remains unfazed by those constraints because there’s no entertainment that’s more epidemic-proof than watching a bunch of folks play video games alone (or in a socially distant group) in a house. It’s the perfect entertainment for pandemic times.
TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon inked a deal with the FaZe Clan team to promote a tournament and the company’s Fight 2 Fund raised money for organizations working to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re one of the last shows in show-business that are still going on,” says Trink. 
Trink’s statement is a simple fact. Interest in streaming is skyrocketing and even traditional celebrities are embracing the FaZe Clan’s work-from-home aesthetic (pioneered by the original YouTube streamers who paved the way for vlogging as entertainment).
The company’s roster of talent is showcased on the newly launched subscription service, Quibi, and has partnered with NTWRK to create promotions in the past.

And the company is still looking for new capital to fund its activities. On the heels of the Series A close, which Trink said happened in December and included a slew of celebrities on top of Iovine and NTWRK, the company will be going back out to market this year to raise another $10 million to $15 million.  
Some of that cash would likely be used to fund the expansion that Trink says is a part of FaZe Clan’s future growth plans — despite the pandemic.
“We’re looking to do a lot of interesting moves regarding houses,” said Trink. “There are some exciting conversations going on around international expansion during this time. The chances of there being FaZe houses around the world is likely.”

Android gets a built-in Braille keyboard

Android has received a wealth of accessibility features over the last couple years, but one that has been left to third party developers is a way for blind users to type using braille. That changes today with Android’s new built-in braille keyboard, which should soon be available as an option on all phones running version 5 and up of the OS.
Braille is a complex topic in the accessibility community, as in many ways it has been supplanted by voice recognition, screen readers, and other tools. But many people are already familiar with it and use it regularly — and after all, one can’t always chat out loud.
Third-party braille keyboards are available, but some cost money or are no longer in development. And since the keyboard essentially has access to everything you type, there are security considerations as well. So it’s best for the keyboard you use to be an official one from a reputable company. Google will have to do!

Google details AI work behind Project Euphonia’s more inclusive speech recognition

The new keyboard, the company writes in a blog post, was created as a collaboration with various users and developers of braille software, and should be familiar to anyone who’s used something like it in the past.
The user holds the phone in landscape mode, with the screen facing away from them, and taps the regions corresponding to each of the six dots that form letters in the braille alphabet. It works with Android’s TalkBack function, which reads off words the user types or selects, so like any other writing method errors can be quickly detected and corrected. There are also some built-in gestures for quickly deleting letters and words or sending the text to the recipient or selected field.
Instructions for activating the braille keyboard are here;. Right now it’s only available in English, but more languages will likely be added in the near future.

Double emerges from stealth with $6M to pair CEOs with remote assistants

CEOs often rely on executive assistants to handle the less glamorous logistics of their day so they can focus on managing a company, but hiring a full-time assistant isn’t always easy to justify, especially at a budding startup.
Double is aiming to cater to busy C-suite execs who probably don’t need a full-time assistant but could still use some help managing their email, arranging travel, scheduling meetings and balancing their endless work with a personal life. They’re pitching a service to startup CEOs and investors that matches them up with contracted remote assistants to help free up their schedules.
“At the end of the day, these people are spending hours a day doing the things they aren’t best at,” CEO Alice Default told TechCrunch in an interview.
Double’s contracted assistants are all based in the US and have years of previous experiences as EAs, Double says. When an exec signs up for the service, they are guided through an onboarding call where they can share some of their needs before being paired up with a dedicated assistant. Double says its assistants are generally working with about 4-5 clients at a time and in some cases are assisting multiple execs at the same company.
The New York startup has been building their product under wraps and has raised some $6 million in funding from VCs including Index Ventures and Paris-based Daphni. The team previously helped build the popular Sunrise calendar app, which Microsoft bought in 2015 only to later discontinue.
One of Double’s big initiatives is honing the effectiveness of combining human efforts and software automation. The team hasn’t pushed too heavily on the latter, but Default says that they see plenty of room to augment how assistants handle tasks by letting automation get the ball rolling.
“We are thinking about automation quite a bit, for us this relationship with [human labor] can be much better,” Default says.

Double has spent the last couple years developing software to facilitate the connection between assistants and executives. The team now offers desktop and mobile apps as well as a Chrome extension that can allow execs to push updates to their assistants with ease.
“What we realized pretty early on is that one of the things that’s hard about delegating is giving the proper context,” Default says.
The service charges hourly rates with a minimum rate of $250 per month for 5 hours of assistant work. Default says early CEOs that have been onboarded to the service in beta pay on average about $800 month for a bit less than an hour of assistance per day.
Launching a premium service for executives in the midst of a pandemic crisis where a good deal of startups are thinking about layoffs is far from perfect launch timing for Double, but Default believes the service can provide a lot of value to busy executives scrambling to adapt their businesses. Default says the service has already seen some early users pause their subscriptions but notes that the month-to-month structure is flexible by design and makes it easy for users to pick things back up when their firms (hopefully) emerge from crisis mode.

Quibi is the anti-TikTok (that’s a bad thing)

It takes either audacious self-confidence or reckless hubris to build a completely asocial video app in 2020. You can decide which best describes Quibi, Hollywood’s $1.75 billion-funded attempt at a mobile-only Netflix of 6 to 10 minutes micro-TV show episodes. Quibi manages to miss every trend and tactic that could help make it app popular. The company seems to believe it can succeed on only its content (mediocre) and marketing dollars (fewer than it needs).
I appreciate that Quibi is doing something audaciously different than most startups. Rather than iterating towards product-market fit, it spent a fortune developing its slick app and buying fancy content in secret so it could launch with a bang.
Yet Quibi’s bold business strategy is muted by a misguided allegiance to the golden age of television before the Internet permeated every entertainment medium. It’s unshareable, prescriptive, sluggish, cumbersome, and unfriendly. Quibi’s unwillingness to borrow anything from social networks makes the app feel cold and isolated, like watching reality shows in the vacuum of space.

In that sense, Quibi is the inverse of TikTok, which feels fiercely alive. TikTok is designed to immediately immerse you in crowd-vetted content that grabs your attention and inspires you to spread your take on it to friends. That’s why TikTok has almost 2 billion downloads to date while Quibi picked up just 300,000 on the day of its big splash into market.
Here’s a breakdown of the major missteps by Quibi, why TikTok does it better, and how this new streaming app can get with the times.
What Hollywood Thinks We Want
Quibi feels like some off-brand cable channel, with a mix of convoluted reality shows, scripted dramas, and news briefs. Imagine MTV at noon in the mid-2000s. Nothing seemed must-see. There’s no Game Of Thrones or Mandalorian here. While the production value is better than what you’ll find on YouTube, the show concepts feel slapdash with novelty that quickly fades. Chrissy Teigen as a small claims court judge and a cooking show where blindfolded chefs have to guess what food was just exploded in their faces…
The catalog feels like the product of TV writers being told they have 10 seconds to come up with an idea. “What would those idiots watch?” The shows remind me of old VR games that are barely more than demos, or an app built in a garage without ever asking prospective users what they need. Co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may have produced The Lion King and Shrek, but the app’s content feels like it was greenlit by, well, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s leader Meg Whitman who indeed is Quibi CEO.
Quibi CEO Meg Whitman
Despite being built for a touch-screen interface, there’s little Bandersnatch-style interactive content so far, nor are the creators doing anything special with the 6 to 10 minute format. The shows feel more like condensed TV programs with episodes ending when there would be a commercial break. There’s no onboarding process that could ask what popular TV shows or genres you’re into. As the catalog expands, that makes it less likely you’ll find something appealing within a few taps.
TikTok comes from the opposite direction. Instead of what Hollywood thinks we want, its content come straight from its consumers. People record what they think would make them and their friends laugh, surprised, or enticed. The result is that with low to zero production budget, random kids and influencers alike make things with millions of Likes. And as elder millenials, Gen X, and beyond get hooked, they’re creating videos for their peers as well. The algorithm monitors what you’re hovering over and rapidly adapts its recommendations to your style.
TikTok is fundamentally interactive. Each clip’s audio can borrowed to produce remixes that personalize a meme for a different demographic or subculture. And since its stars are internet natives, they’re in constant communication with their fan base to tune content to what they want. There’s something for everyone. No niche is too small.
TikTok Screenshots
The Fix: Quibi should take a hint from Brat TV, the Disney Channel for the YouTube generation that gives tween social media stars their own premium shows about being a grade school kid to create content with a built-in fan base. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman is a Brat co-founder).
Take the Chrissy’s Court model, and shift it to stars who are 20 years younger. Give TikTok phenoms like Charli D’Amelio or Chase Hudson Quibi shows and let them help conceptualize the content, and they’ll bring their legions of fans. Double-down on choose-your-own-adventures and fan voting gameshows that leverage the phone’s interactivity. Fund creators that will differentiate Quibi by making it look like anything other than daytime TV. And ask users directly what they want to see right when they download the app.
No Screenshots
This is frankly insane. Screenshots of Quibi appear as a blank black screen. That means no memes. If people can’t turn Quibi scenes into jokes they’ll share elsewhere, its shows won’t ever become fixtures of the cultural zeitgeist like Netflix’s Tiger King has. Yes, other mobile streaming apps like Netflix and Disney+ also block screenshots, but they have web versions where you can snap and share what you want. Quibi never should have structured its deals to license content from producers in a way that prevented any way to riff on or even let friends preview its content.

TikTok on the other hand defaults to letting you download any video and share it wherever you please — with the app’s watermark attached. That’s fueled TikTok’s stellar growth as clips get posted to Twitter and Instagram, and drive viewers back to the app. It’s spawned TikTok compilations on YouTube, and a whole culture of remixing that expands and prolongs the popularity of trending jokes and dances.
The Fix: Quibi should allow screenshots. There’s little risk of spoilers or piracy. If its deals prohibit that, then it should offer pre-approved screenshots and video clips/trailers of each episode that you can download and share. Think of it like an in-app press kit. Even if we’re not allowed to set up the perfect screenshot for making a meme, at least then we could coherently discuss the shows on other social networks.

‘Content network effect’ makes TikTok tough to copy

Sluggish Pacing
On mobile, you’re always just a swipe away from something more interesting. It’s like if you watched TV with your finger permanently hovering over the change channel button. Ever noticed how movie trailers now often start with a fast-forward collage of their most eye-catching scenes? Quibi seems intent on communicating prestige with its slow-building dramas like The Most Dangerous Game and Survive, which both had me bored and fast-forwarding. And that’s watching Quibi at home on the couch. While on the go where it was designed to be consumed, slow pacing could push users with a minute or two to spare to open Instagram or TikTok instead.
None of this is helped by Quibi not auto-playing a trailer or the first episode the moment you scroll past a show on the homescreen. Instead, you see a static title card for two seconds before it starts playing you an excerpt of the program. That makes it more cumbersome to discover new shows.

Where TikTok wins is in immediacy. Creators know users will swipe right past their video if it’s not immediately entertaining or obviously revving up to a big reveal. They grab you in the first second with smiles, costumes, bold captions, or crazy situations. That also makes it easy for viewers to dismiss what’s irrelevant to them and teach the TikTok algorithm what they really want. Plus, you know that you can score a dopamine hit of joy even if you only have 30 seconds. TikTok makes Quick Bites feel like an understaffed sit-down restaurant.
The Fix: Quibi needs to teach creators to hook viewers instantly by previewing why they should want to watch. Since tapping a show’s card on the Quibi homepage instantly plays it, those teasers need to be built into the first episode. Otherwise, Quibi needs to a button to view a trailer from its buried dedicated show pages to the preview card most people interact with on the homescreen. Otherwise, users may never discover what Quibi shows resonate with them and teach it what to show and make more of.
Anti-Social Video Club
Quibi neglects all its second-screen potential. No screenshotting makes it tough to discuss shows elsewhere, yet there’s no built-in comments or messaging to discuss or spread them in app. Pasting an episode link into Twitter doesn’t even display the show’s name in the preview box. Nor do shows have their own social accounts to follow to remind you to keep watching.
There’s no way for friends to follow what you’re watching or see your recommendations. No leaderboards of top shows. Certainly no time-stamped, livestream style crowd annotations. No synced-up co-watching with friends, despite a lack of TV apps preventing you from watching with anyone else in person unless you crowd around one phone.

It all feels like Quibi figured advertising would be enough. It could run contests where winners get a Cameo-esque message or chat with their favorite stars. Quibi could let you share scenes with your face swapped onto actors’ heads, Deepfake-style like Snapchat’s (confusingly named) Cameos feature. It could host in-app roundtables with the casts where users could submit questions. It’s like if web 2.0 never happened.
TikTok meanwhile harnesses every conceivable social feature. Follow, Like, comment, message, go Live, duet, remix, or download and share any video. It beckons viewers to participate in trending challenges. And even when users aren’t itching to return to TikTok, notifications from these social features will drag them back in, or watermarked clips will follow them to other networks. Every part of the app is designed to make its content the center of popular culture.

The Fix: Quibi needs to understand that just because we’re watching on mobile, doesn’t make video a solo experience. At first, it should add social content discovery options so you can see what friends opt in to share that they’re watching or view a leaderboard of the top programs. Shows, especially ones dripping out new episodes, are more fun when you have someone to chat about them with.
Eventually, Quibi should layer on in-app second screen features. Create a way to share comments at the end of each episode that people read during the credits so they feel like they’re in a viewing community.
Can Quibi Be More?
What’s most disappointing about Quibi is that it has the potential to be something fresh, merging classically produced premium content with the modern ways we use our phones. Yet beyond shows being shot in two widths so you can switch between watching in landscape or portrait mode at any time, it really is just a random cable channel shrunk down.
Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence in Hyderabad on February 14, 2020. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)
One of the few redeeming opportunities for Quibi is using the daily episode release schedule to serialize content that benefits from suspense, as InternetRyan notes. Binging via traditional streaming services can burn through thrillers before they can properly build up suspense and fan theories or let late-comers catch up while a show is still in the zeitgeist. Cliffhangers with just a day instead of a week to wait could be Quibi’s killer feature.
Suspense is also one thing TikTok fails at. Within a single video, they’re actually often all about suspense, waiting through build up for a gag or non-sequitur to play out. But creators try to rope in followers by making a multi-minute video and splitting it into parts so people subscribe to them to see the next part. Yet since TikTok doesn’t always show timestamps and surfaces old videos on its homescreen, it can often be a chore to find the part two, and there’s no good way for creators to link them together. TikTok could stand to learn about multi-episode content from Quibi.

But today, Quibi feels like a minitiaturized and degraded version of what we already get for free on the web or pay for with Netflix. Quibi charging $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 without seems like a steep ask without delivering any truly must-see shows, novel interactive experience, or memory-making social moments.
Quibi’s success may simply be a test of how bad people are at cancelling 90-day free trials (hint: they’re bad at it!). The bull case is that absent-minded subscribers amongst the 300,000 first-day downloads and some diehard fans of the celebs it’s given shows will bring Quibi enough traction to raise more cash and survive long enough to socialize its product and teach creators to exploit the format’s opportunities. But the bear case is already emerging in Quibi’s rapidly declining App Store rank, that fell from #4 overall when it launched Monday to #21 yesterday. Lackluster content and no virality means it might never become the talk of the town, leading top content producers to slink away or half-ass their contributions, leaving us to dine on short video elsewhere.

Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

Let’s give tech philanthropists the benefit of the doubt on COVID-19

Scott Bade
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Scott Bade is a former speechwriter for Mike Bloomberg and co-author of “More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First.”

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Tuesday afternoon saw two big announcements from the tech world in the fight against COVID-19.
First, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, announced he would give $1 billion to COVID-19-related causes. A few hours later, a group of tech billionaires, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe’s Collison brothers, Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, and venture capitalist Chris Sacca, announced a rapid-response grant program for researchers working on COVID-19. These two announcements come on the heels of an initiative led by Bill Gates to build factories for the most promising COVID-19 vaccines and a host of smaller efforts by tech industry leaders, including importing and donating personal protective equipment (PPE), building ventilators, and supporting local businesses.
Even as tech philanthropists ramp up their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic though, critics of philanthropy lament the need for philanthropy to fulfill a role that should be played by government. Meanwhile, other commentators criticize it as a power grab. As Theodore Schleifer wrote in Recode this week:

And yet the critique of billionaire philanthropy revolves around the idea that these donations are an expression of private power. Indeed, philanthropists like Moskovitz are some of the most important people in determining the shape of America’s response to an unprecedented crisis. They are imbued with unaccountable, untransparent, and undemocratic influence. Power grabs can happen. And their donations can legitimize the philanthropists as heroes, which can discourage scrutiny of their business practices.

But this is the wrong premise. Even if the government had fully funded a pandemic response, and even if tech leaders’ COVID efforts were a power grab (of which there is no evidence), there would still be a role for the tech sector – and tech philanthropists – to play.
The question we should be asking is whether or not their efforts are properly leveraging tech’s unique capabilities and resources. If Tesla (or GM) can make ventilators, software companies can help public health officials, programmers can help state labor departments update their outdated unemployment systems, and philanthropists can rush money to researchers more quickly than the government can, then they should. It’s no different than hotels supplying empty rooms for first responders or the homeless to stay in during this tragedy.
Invoking the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce masks and ventilators was uncontroversial precisely because everyone knew that capacity rested exclusively with private industry; why wouldn’t we expect the tech sector to similarly contribute in this moment of national emergency? And in the absence of a fully-funded national medical research establishment, the more resources going toward rapidly developing a vaccine, the better.

Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to address the coronavirus pandemic

Which brings me to the oft-cited, variably-defined concept of “impact” that I’ve tried to focus on throughout my interviews at TechCrunch. How do you know when charitable giving is making a difference? How do you discern the difference between a PR stunt and a well-designed program? How do you know that the right problem is even being solved?

Silicon Valley Community Foundation challenges donors to address local problems

I’ve found that even the most earnest, data-driven philanthropists don’t always ask the right questions. Just because there is a measurable outcome doesn’t mean that it should define success. And just because a company or foundation is doing some good doesn’t mean it is maximizing the social impact it can have.
After all, sometimes maximizing social impact simply means a company is performing its core competency. If tech companies – and the billionaire philanthropists they create – happen to have a skillset that is useful in a public emergency, then the responsible thing to do is to do it and do it well.
We’ve spent so long asking tech to turn its attention to real world problems. Let’s not complain when they do so now. 
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize tech firms when they fall short, of course. People have rightly criticized firms like Amazon (and Whole Foods), Instacart, Seamless, and DoorDash for their deficiencies in protecting their frontline staff. Tech companies still must be held accountable even when they are fulfilling essential functions.
It’s clear though that beyond keeping the supply chain going, technology will play a central role in implementing any strategy to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. Moving PPE around the world requires the logistical expertise companies like Flexport and Apple have mastered. Mass testing will require the rapid rollout of new devices from biotech firms like Gilead Sciences. A tracing regime will require massive data collection and analysis like that done by Verily or Palantir. And of course we’ll have to manufacture and distribute vaccines and other treatments at scale. Like Amazon or not, I suspect it might have a role to play.
Which brings me to Bill Gates, whose announcement that he will start building factories for promising vaccines now has made him the most central tech figure in responding to COVID-19. Bill Gates isn’t just a tech philanthropist. He is — after years of study — one of the world’s leading experts on pandemic preparedness. When we look to him for guidance, we’re not asking for a tech billionaire to assert his power. We’re embracing the leadership of someone who has a proven track record bringing his engineering and project management skills to bear on some of the most intractable public health problems of the last few decades.
Of course in an ideal world, the void Gates is filling would already be filled by the government. It’s inexcusable that it isn’t. But good democracy also means asking for all of society to contribute. And good public policy means looking for the best solutions wherever they are found.
Sometimes that means an anonymous bureaucrat in the suburbs of DC. And sometimes it means a billionaire public health nerd tech mogul.

With $23 million for its plant-based, liquid meals Kate Farms pushes into consumer and healthcare

Kate Farms, the supplier of a plant-based liquid meal formula used by hospitals and healthcare providers around the country as a nutritional supplement for patients who cannot process solid foods, has raised $22 million in a round of funding.
The new money will allow the company to ramp up its production as it looks to meet significant new demand from both consumers and healthcare providers, according to chairman and chief executive, Brett Matthews.
Founded by Richard and Michelle Laver, who initially developed the formula for their daughter, Kate, a child whose cerebral palsy meant that she couldn’t eat solid foods or process the tube feeding formulas available on the market, Kate Farms has grown into a business that serves hospitals around the country.
Matthews, whose sun suffered from upper respiratory and autoimmune issues, was first introduced to the company as a customer. “My son was very sick… and food was really critical to his healing. I knew a lot about the products and food as medicine and really jumped in and invested.”
From that initial investment, Matthews’ responsibilities with the company expanded, first as chairman of the Kate Farms board and then, eventually, stepping on to become chief executive of the company.
Throughout its history Kate Farms has raised capital from individual, rather than institutional investors, and the new financing is no different. Capital came from a slew of heavyweight investors including: David Roux, the co-founder of Silver Lake; John Hammergren, former chairman and chief executive of McKesson; Gregg Engles, former chairman and chief executive of the plant-based dairy replacement company, WhiteWave Foods; and William and Kristin Loomis, the former chief executive of Lazard and  the founder and executive director of HHV6 Foundation.
That clutch of high-powered founders and executives joins backers including Pete Nicholas, the founder and former chief executive of Boston Scientific, Robert Zollars, the former President of Baxter International, chairman of Diamond Foods, and EVP of Cardinal Health;  and Celeste Clark, the former executive team management member at Kellogg’s Global Nutrition.
The money, which closed late last year, is being used to ramp production as the company races to meet increasing demand caused by the COVID-19 epidemic and the government’s response. Kate Farms is donating $1 million worth of meals to Meals on Wheels programs across Southern California. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company said that would equate to roughly 225,000 meals for people who need it.
The company’s plant-based, non-GMO meal replacements have been clinically proven to improve nutrition among children and adults who need tube-fed meals. One study was published in the journal of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition based on clinical trials conducted with Atlanta Gastroenterology Associates, according to Matthews.
“We can improve weight gain in the pediatric market,” Matthews said. “And we can improve tolerance.”
The market for medical conditions that require tube-feeding numbers around 700,000 in the US, with another 150 million people who could use the company’s products for less severe nutritional issues, Matthews said. It’s a roughly $3 billion market in the US, and $10 billion globally.
But Kate Farms has its eyes on a much bigger prize. As the company noted in a statement, the  consumer market for plant-based dairy replacements was $21 billion in 2017 and is expected to top $37.5 billion by 2024. And over the next decade, meat alternatives are expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030, according to UBS Investments
“Our focus right now is on the medical side of it, but you could see where this could evolve,” said Matthews. 

TikTok pledges $250M in COVID-19 relief efforts, plus another $125M in ad credits

Short-form video app TikTok announced today it’s committing over $250 million to support front line workers, educators, and local communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an additional $125 million in advertising credits to public health organizations and businesses looking to rebuild. Some of these funds are being directed towards major health organizations, like CDC and WHO, while others are aimed at helping individuals or smaller businesses.
The $250 million includes three separate efforts: the TikTok Health Heroes Relief Fund, TikTok Community Relief Fund, and TikTok Creative Learning Fund.
The first is the most significant effort as it provisions $150 million in funds for things like medical staffing, supplies, and hardship relief for health care workers. Included in these distributions is $15 million to the CDC Foundation to support surge staffing for local response efforts through state and local governments, and $10 million for the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. 
In addition, TikTok, which owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, said its employee matching program will deliver aid to organizations like the Red Cross and Direct Relief.
TikTok also said it’s working with global and local partners to deliver masks and other personal protective equipment to hospitals in India, Indonesia, Italy, South Korea, and the U.S., among others. Earlier this month, TikTok announced it had donated 400,000 hazmat medical protective suits and 200,000 masks to protect doctors and front line medical staff in India, for example.
The TikTok Community Relief Fund, meanwhile, is focused in particular on vulnerable communities impacted by COVID-19.
This effort involves allotting $40 million in cash for local organizations that serve representatives of TikTok’s user community — including musicians, artists, nurses, educators, and families. The fund has already been used to donate $3 million to After-School All-Stars, which is providing food for families who had previously relied on school lunches, and $2 million for MusiCares which supports artists, songwriters, and music professionals whose livelihoods have been disrupted.
As a part of the Community Relief Fund, TikTok will also be matching $10 million in donations from its community.
The third effort, TikTok’s Creative Learning Fund, will provide $50 million in grants to educators, professional experts, and nonprofits working on distance learning efforts. TikTok sees itself as a potential home for creative remote learning efforts but didn’t announce any specific plans on this front.
Outside of the funds themselves, TikTok is extending ad credits to health organizations and SMBs.
The company is providing $25M in prominent “in-feed” advertising space for NGOs, trusted health sources, and local authorities, allowing them to share their important messages with millions of people, it said. Other major tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, have done the same on their own platforms.
TikTok noted it has worked to spread educational information in other ways, as well, having hosted livestreams from representatives of WHO, IFRC, and other popular voices in public health and science, including Bill Nye the Science Guy. There’s also a dedicated section in TikTok with other resources: the COVID-19 Resources Page on TikTok’s Safety Center. And it’s partnered with creators on campaigns like #HappyAtHome, which airs live programming at 8:00 PM ET/ 5:00 PM PT on Fridays and has other themed experiences planned during weekdays.
TikTok will also offer $100 million in advertising credits to small and medium-sized businesses trying to get back on their feet in the months ahead. This effort hasn’t yet started, as it will depend on the decisions made by public health authorities about the re-opening of businesses, the company explained.
“We understand that these are challenging times for everyone,” wrote TikTok President, Alex Zhu, in an announcement. “Alongside businesses, governments, NGOs, and ordinary people across the globe stepping up in this critical moment, we are committed to offering the very best that we can to help out humanity. Together, we will persevere through this time of crisis and emerge a better community and part of a world that we fervently hope will be more united in common purpose than it was before,” Zhu added.

Microsoft says video calls in Teams grew 1,000% in March

With the COVID-19 pandemic making work from home the default for those companies that are able to do so, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a massive rise in the usage of video chat tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Teams . We’d already heard some updates from Zoom and Google, but today Microsoft joined the parade with a new report on how its Teams users have adapted to the rise of remote work.
Back on March 16, the company reported 900 million meeting minutes in Teams . Now, less than a month later, it says that it saw a new daily record of 2.7 billion meetings in one on March 31. During those meetings, more users than ever also turn on their video cameras. Overall, the number of users who go on camera has doubled since before this crisis began and the overall number of video calls in Teams grew by over 1,000 percent in March.
That’s a lot of time spent in meetings that could’ve probably been used in more productive ways, but it sure is a lot of Teams meetings.
The Microsoft team also looked at where people use video most, with Norway and the Netherlands leading the pack. There, 60 percent of calls include video. In the U.S., that number is 38 percent. Microsoft says this may be due to the availability of fast broadband.
Microsoft also found that its users are also spending more time of the day with Teams. In March, the average time between when somebody first used teams and the last use of the service increased by over an hour. The company argues that this doesn’t mean that people are working longer hours, “rather that they are breaking up the day in a way that works for their personal productivity or makes space for obligations outside of work.”

No matter the service a company uses for remote work, it’ll be interesting to see how many of these new habits will stick once this crisis is over. In China, where some employees are now returning to work, the number of daily active Teams users continues to grow according to Microsoft but there will surely also be regions where usage will decline quickly once things get back to something resembling normal.

DARPA snags Intel to lead its machine learning security tech

Chip maker Intel has been chosen to lead a new initiative led by the U.S. military’s research wing DARPA, aimed at improving cyber-defenses against deception attacks on machine learning models.
Machine learning is a kind of artificial intelligence that allows systems to improve over time with new data and experiences. One of its most common use cases today is object recognition, such as taking a photo and describing what’s in it. That can help those with impaired vision to know what’s in a photo if they can’t see it, for example,  but it can also be used by other computers, such as autonomous vehicles, to identify what’s what’s on the road.
But deception attacks, although rare, can meddle with machine learning algorithms. Subtle changes to real-world objects can, in the case of a self-driving vehicle, can have disastrous consequences.
Just a few weeks ago, McAfee researchers tricked a Tesla into accelerating 50 miles per hour above its intended speed by adding a two-inch piece of tape on a speed limit sign. The research was one of the first examples of manipulating a device’s machine learning algorithms.
That’s where DARPA hopes to come into play. The research arm said earlier this year that it’s working on a program known as GARD, or the Guaranteeing AI Robustness against Deception. The existing mitigations against machine learning attacks are typically rule-based and pre-defined, but DARPA hopes it can develop GARD into a system that will have broader defenses to address a number of different kinds of attacks.
Intel said today it’ll serve as the prime contractor for the four-year program alongside Georgia Tech.
Jason Martin, principal engineer at Intel Labs who leads Intel’s GARD team, said the chip maker and Georgia Tech will work together to “enhance object detection and to improve the ability for AI and machine learning to respond to adversarial attacks.”
During the first phase of the program, Intel said its focus is on enhancing its object detection technologies using spatial, temporal, and semantic coherence for both still images and video.
DARPA said GARD could be used in a number of settings — such as in biology.
“The kind of broad scenario-based defense we’re looking to generate can be seen, for example, in the immune system, which identifies attacks, wins and remembers the attack to create a more effective response during future engagements,” said Dr. Hava Siegelmann, a program manager in DARPA’s Information Innovation Office.
“We must ensure machine learning is safe and incapable of being deceived,” said Siegelmann.

The right way to do AI in security

Esports One launches its fantasy esports platform

Esports One is a startup betting that there’s a big opportunity in bringing a fantasy sports approach to the world of esports — particularly at a time when traditional pro sports are on pause.
Co-founder and COO Sharon Winter told me that the company’s platform, which is leaving beta testing today, is the first “all-in-one fantasy platform” for esports. In other words, it’s not just a site where you can create a fantasy team to compete with others, but also a place where you can research players, read articles about the latest news and watch live games.
And while Esports One is starting out by supporting the LCS (North American) and LEC (European) regions for League of Legends, the goal is to support a wide range of esports titles.
Co-founder and CEO Matt Gunnin said that when he started Esports One in 2017, the goal was to create “the first and only esports fantasy destination.” And while today’s launch is in many ways the realization of that vision, Esports One has been launching other data and analytics products in the meantime, becoming a data partner for both Acer’s Planet 9 esports platform and League of Legends publisher Riot Games.
Backed by Eniac Ventures and Xseed Capital,, the company was also part of the first class of startups to participate in the MIT Play Labs accelerator, and it says it uses computer vision technology developed at MIT and Caltech.
Why does an esports startup need that level of tech? Gunnin compared it to watching pro football on TV, where you can see a virtual yellow line indicating how far a team needs to advance to achieve first down.
“Imagine trying to watch a football game if there isn’t that yellow first-down line,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to build from the early days is the technology to be that first-down line for esports.”
Image Credits: Esports One
More specifically, Gunnin and Winter explained that their computer vision capabilities allow Esports One to track the activity in a game without having to rely on a game publisher’s company’s API — though Gunnin added that when an API is available, they’re happy to use it as “a central source of truth” to start training the company’s algorithms.
Gunnin added that the plan is to keep the basic Esports One platform free, then add premium subscription features over the summer.
“There could be various ways for users to get more insights, more analytics, more research tools, more ways to engage with one another,” he said. “We’re not going into gambling … Users don’t have to buy an advantage when they’re playing against anyone else, [we don’t want users to have an advantage] because they’re paying for monthly subscription access to stats. But we could take some of those stats and make it available in chart form, make it exportable.”
The company said that while in beta, the platform has already pulled in 30,000 active participants — and that’s without advertising spend.
And Gannin and Winter suggested that there’s an even bigger opportunity to expand the esports audience right now, as traditional fans have nothing to watch and even pro basketball players are turning to video games to compete.
“As people have been staying at home… we’re seeing DMs to our social media accounts from people diving into esports, signing up for Discord accounts,” Winter said. “We’ve ramped up the support to educate the community and expand the esports audience. It’s quickly surpassing mainstream, traditional sports.”

Formula 1 replaces its postponed races with a virtual grand prix series

Monzo to shutter Las Vegas customer support office, 165 employees being let go

Following voluntary employee furloughs and salary cuts in the U.K., Monzo is continuing to take tough decisions in order to shore up its financial position amidst the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn.
The latest move — which TechCrunch understands was being considered prior to the pandemic, though undoubtedly the decision was escalated and made because of it — will see the U.K. challenger bank shutter its customer support office in Las Vegas.
The U.S. outpost employs 165 customer support staff, who will now lose their jobs, and provided overnight customer support to U.K. customers, a much loved feature of the bank. However, that has proven expensive for Monzo, which now claims over 4 million customers, and disproportionate to the number of support requests made during overnight hours (12% of queries, apparently).
It should also be noted that this doesn’t appear to impact Monzo’s U.S. launch. Vegas support staff were servicing U.K. customers only, with U.S. customer support provided by a small team in London closer to the development and iteration of the Monzo USA beta.
Meanwhile, I also understand that Monzo Last Vegas employees are being given two months notice, with full pay and healthcare. And, as it should do, the bank is offering support with CVs and reaching out to other employers, and doing things like running interview prep sessions (however futile that may be with sky rocketing U.S. unemployment). In addition, it is supporting applications for extended healthcare cover after the end of notice period.
Lastly, as I caveated when exclusively reporting on Monzo’s planned furloughs, these measures, although extremely distressful for the employees affected (which should never be forgotten), are largely precautionary as the bank’s board looks to plan responsibly for however long the coronavirus-related economic uncertainty continues. (Related to this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Monzo closing in on some additional funding from existing investors in the interim.)
In addition, unlike many fintechs, Monzo is a fully licensed bank, and therefore has a regulatory obligation to hold significant cash reserves. Under the license, customer deposits up to £85,000 are also protected as part of the U.K. government’s deposit protection scheme.

Monzo CEO won’t take salary for 12 months after limited number of staff offered voluntary furlough

COVID-19 symptom self-reporting app from startup Zoe and academic partners expands to the U.S.

If you want to contribute to efforts to better understand and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re based in the U.S., you can do a lot with very little effort by downloading a free iOS and Google Play application called simply ‘COVID Symptom Tracker.’ The app was originally developed in partnership with food science startup Zoe, and released first in the U.K., and was quickly downloaded by nearly one million people in its first day of availability.
The app aims to supplement information provided by testing programs and other public measures of the spread of the coronavirus using self-reported information provided by individuals. It includes a self-reporting quiz that takes roughly one minute per day to complete, and also provides an estimated picture of the potential spread of the virus in your immediate area.
There are a number of different, similar efforts to use self-reported information as a signal in determining the full spread of the virus, in the absence of plentiful, accurate and consistent testing across geographies. One other high-profile project, founded by Pinterest CEO and co-founder Ben Silbermann, launched earlier this month, and offers a similar self-reporting mechanism, for similar purposes – with a mandate of offering up information shared with research partners and health organizations.
The COVID-19 Symptom Tracker has the advantage of already having been used at scale in the U.K., and the information its gathering will be used in a study that’s already in progress, led by King’s College epidemiologist Tim Spector, along with Harvard Medical School professor and infectious disease specialist Andrew Chan. The research team is providing regular updates about their work and the project via a public blog, too.
The goals of the research resulting from the app include forming a better understanding of COVID-19s symptoms, and how they might cluster, as well as helping identify high-risk and high-spread areas, and figuring out who might be most at risk in future. Data shared by individuals is protected under GDPR, and it’s used strictly for non-profit purposes, with any commercial purposes off the table. The group behind the app also advises that while they may share information more broadly with other medical researchers, it strips the data of any potential identifying information before doing so.
These efforts can definitely contribute to a better understanding of COVID-19 and its transmission, and because they’re relatively low-lift in terms of how much time you need to spend with them, it’s probably worth considering using more than one. Sensitivities around sharing info are always going to vary, of course, but if you’re okay with the trade-offs outlined, this does seem like an easy way to do something from the comfort and safety of your own home.

Fast-changing regulations give virtual care startups a chance to seize the moment

Alex Gold
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Alex Gold is co-founder of Myia, an intelligent health platform employing novel biometric data to predict and prevent costly medical events. Previously, Alex was Venture Partner at BCG Digital Ventures and a co-founder of Traction, a marketplace of digital marketing experts.

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For more than two decades, virtual care has slowly made inroads into the annals of American medicine.
A somewhat nebulous and overwhelming term, “virtual care” refers to the integration of products like telehealth, remote patient monitoring, prescription delivery and even behavioral coaching into the fabric of medical practice. And while some early entrants, like Doctor on Demand in the primary care telehealth space and Mercy Virtual for remote-monitoring programs, have achieved some traction, the space has suffered from a lack of consumer scale, challenges with government regulation and significant technological and usability barriers.
This is not for lack of promise or even early results. The University of Pennsylvania was able to reduce its 30-day readmissions rate for heart failure patients by 73% using aggressive virtual care methodologies like telehealth and remote monitoring.
And yet, over the past month, the rapid spread of COVID-19 changed everything.
The global pandemic has jolted American medicine into making groundbreaking changes. Changes that may forever alter the path of virtual care and provide key insights and lessons for entrepreneurs looking to seize this moment.
Chief amongst these are leapfrog advances in sensor technology allowing a “consumer-grade” user experience at scale. Historically, medical-grade sensor technology has resulted in a lackluster and poor user experience that requires significant patient compliance. Now, many sensors can be deployed “in the background” and require few patient lifestyle changes. Numerous players are now advancing on this development and providing other entrepreneurs with a guidebook forward.

Walmart Grocery app sees record downloads amid COVID-19, surpasses Amazon by 20%

Record demand for online grocery shopping amid the COVID-19 pandemic has sent the apps for grocery pickup and delivery services up the charts. Walmart Grocery, as a result, has now hit an all-time high in downloads — grabbing the No. 1 ranking position across all Shopping apps in the U.S. on April 5, 2020, and surpassing Amazon by 20%, according to a new analysis from app intelligence firm App Annie.
The Walmart Grocery application retained that No. 1 position for at least two days, the firm said, citing data from both the Google Play store and the Apple App Store, combined. While App Annie’s data was calculated on April 7, 2020, Walmart Grocery today is still No. 1 on Google Play as of today, April 9. It’s also now No. 2 on the App Store.

The surge of interest in Walmart Grocery may complicate Walmart’s plans to wind down the standalone app to instead merge Walmart Grocery into the retailer’s flagship mobile application and website. Earlier in March — before government lockdowns and home quarantines were widespread — Walmart announced a new strategy that would make its online grocery shopping service a part of the overall Walmart.com website and Walmart mobile app (the blue one).
The goal was to eventually wind down the separate Walmart Grocery experience entirely after customers had made the shift.
There are multiple benefits to this plan, including the ability to direct marketing dollars into only promoting one Walmart app, instead of two. It could also help drive sales across departments, as grocery shoppers may choose to buy other in-store items and Walmart shoppers may discover the grocery option while browsing the site for something else. In addition, Walmart Grocery’s millions of customers would be shifted to the main app, boosting its ranking on the app stores.
However, the COVID-19 health crisis has changed things quite a bit. As of April 5, 2020, the Walmart Grocery app saw a 460% growth in average daily downloads, in comparison with its January 2020 performance. That indicates a surge of brand-new customers to Walmart Grocery who may have never before placed an online grocery order.
Walmart Grocery isn’t the only Shopping app surging due to increased demand amid COVID-19.
An earlier report from Apptopia in March saw Walmart Grocery, Instacart and Shipt climbing the charts.
Overall, demand for retail delivery is now booming with Shopping app global downloads hitting 106 million during the week of March 29 and April 4, 2020, App Annie says — that’s up 15% from the weekly average in January 2020. Downloads in the U.S. alone were 14.4 million — up 20% from the same period. While Walmart Grocery’s jump was much larger (460%), Amazon also saw 20% growth in average daily downloads from January.
Even Walmart’s internal, employee-facing app is growing, App Annie found. The [email protected] app for associates using the Walmart scheduling system grew 220% on Android phones during the week of March 22 compared to 4 weeks prior. That reflects the increased demand for in-store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walmart had said in March it planned to hire 150,000 new employees in both its stores and fulfillment centers to help it meet the increased demand for e-commerce orders and deliveries. Since the March announcement, Walmart said it has hired around 5,000 new employees per day and may even surpass the original 150,000 figure. While Walmart’s intention was to hire these workers on a more temporary basis, it may find that things don’t revert to “normal” any time soon. Newcomers to online grocery may discover it’s an easier and now less riskier way to shop, and will continue to do so even when lockdowns are lifted.

Starling Bank isn’t furloughing permanent staff after all

Starling Bank, the U.K. challenger founded by veteran banker Anne Boden, isn’t furloughing any of its U.K. staff after all.
In what appears to be a u-turn, it has been decided that the 41 staff who were going to be put on furlough, under the U.K. government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, are now able to continue working, meaning that Starling will not be applying for government furlough support.
It was originally communicated that the reason for furloughing staff was that they hadn’t completed their full training, and to do so would require being on premise (ie at Starling’s offices), which wasn’t possible once the coronavirus-related lockdown began. However, pragmatically, the challenger bank has put in place a process to enable this to happen (presumably) remotely.
Starling provided TechCrunch with the following statement:
On our staffers, there were 41 staff who had not completed their training. We have now developed a way of training these staff to our usual high standard and so we do not need to use government’s Job Retention Scheme after all. We are continuing to hire, especially in software engineering, where will continue to deliver new features such as Cheque Imaging and Connected Cards both launched this week.
Meanwhile, TechCrunch understands that, separate from directly employed (and permanent) staff, post-lockdown, Starling has ended its contract with around 40 temporary workers who worked in customer support and were employed via agencies.
Initially, those temporary staff were given an additional two weeks pay by Starling, but were not offered furlough by the agency they worked for. However, at least one of those agencies — Tempo — has since decided to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, meaning that the ex-Starling temps should now receive further financial support.

Don’t apply for a PPP loan unless your affiliation issues are resolved

Wiliam Carleton
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William Carleton leads the Tech, Video Games & Emerging Media practice at McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren PLLC in Seattle.

Many presume that the SBA’s “affiliation” rules will prevent venture-backed startups from applying for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) of the CARES Act. I think that’s unfortunate, because the potential benefits of a PPP loan are compelling. For sure, you’re prudent to assume that, if you’ve closed on one or more preferred stock financings, your startup will indeed have an affiliation issue, based on protective covenants found in your charter and investor agreements; but you may be pleasantly surprised to hear of ways to amend your startup’s governing documents that, at least arguably, do not do essential violence to minority investor protections.
Because the terms of the PPP are so compelling – a loan that becomes a tax-free grant if spent on payroll, rent and utilities (in essence, for earlier stage startups, your burn) – it simply has to be looked at as a financing source. If the initial problems with the SBA’s rollout of the PPP can be fixed, this program may be the best way out there to mitigate the uncertainties that arise from the global pandemic. The brutal reality is that your next priced equity round is significantly further down the road than you had planned.
At the same time, no one wants to re-trade on essential terms with their startup’s preferred stock investors. The affiliation “fixes” should, if they are to be feasible, focus on preferred stock class voting thresholds or the makeup of voting groups in your charter and/or to selectively eliminate preferred director veto power in your Investors’ Rights Agreement.
Let’s step back for a second and address another common misperception: it’s important to understand that an affiliation analysis is distinct from application disclosure requirements driven by the PPP’s 20% owner threshold. The 20% threshold pertains to the scope of information an applicant needs to provide, what representations need to be made, and the like. An affiliation analysis, by contrast, speaks instead as to whether the applicant even qualifies as a “small business.” For the most part, this means, will the SBA deem the applicant to have fewer than 500 employees. If your business is “affiliated” with other startups in your VC firm’s (or firms’) portfolios, your company may be deemed big, not small, and so not eligible for the PPP.

Yelp lays off 1,000 employees and furloughs 1,100 more

Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman announced in an internal email that the company is going through difficult times. Yelp has to cut expenses, which means a large round of layoffs and some additional measures. 1,000 employees have been laid off.
According to an SEC filing, Yelp had 5,950 employees as of December 31, 2019. Today’s layoffs represent a 17% staff reduction.
The company has shared Stoppelman’s internal email on its website. In addition to layoffs, another 1,100 employees are now on furlough. Those employees are considered on unpaid leave until further notice (with some exceptions) — they will receive two weeks of additional pay and retain their benefits.
Before considering layoffs, Yelp tried to cut costs in different ways. The company has reduced server costs, which makes sense given that traffic has shrunk both on mobile and on the website.
Many projects have been “deprioritized” and executives accepted 20-30% pay cuts. Stoppelman himself won’t take a salary nor vest any stock awards for the remainder of the year.
“The physical distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, while critical to flatten the curve, have dealt a devastating blow to the local businesses that are core to our mission,” Stoppelman wrote. “Interest in restaurants, our most popular category, has dropped 64% since March 10, and the nightlife category is down 81%. Gyms are down 73%, and salons and other beauty businesses are down 83%.”
Given that Yelp is a service focused on recommending the best local businesses around you, the lockdown has a direct impact on usage. Fewer eyeballs mean shrinking ad revenue as well. A restaurant chain isn’t going to spend money on Yelp ads if it is closed.
The company expects $8 to $10 million in charges due to severance and benefits costs. Yelp shares are trading at $21.74, up 0.46% compared to yesterday’s closing price.

As VCs pull back, Clearbanc launches a way for startups to get runway

Startups are preparing for fundraising to become even harder to secure, due to a venture market slow down caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has led to less market activity, which means fewer liquidity deals for investors, which translates into less fresh capital (or dry powder) to put into startups.
As a result investors have told already-funded startups that they need to extend their runway until deal flow bubbles back up. Investors say this could take a couple of quarters, and looking at 2008 data, it could take a couple of years.
Canadian company Clearbanc has launched Clearbanc Runway, a new loan product to help startups secure money.
On Clearbanc’s website, founders can input the amount of their current runway, as well as cash balance, overhead, revenue, margin, growth rate and other criteria. Clearbanc will analyze the data and offer a loan in the form of non-dilutive capital. Founders can repay the loan through a revenue share agreement. In order to be eligible, companies must have a minimum of $10,000 monthly revenue and at least six months of consistent revenue history.
The revenue share agreement charges a 6%flat fee, with repayments already a part of the funding plan. And if the startup that has taken a loan is doing better month to month, the funding total that they can access will reflect that.

Clearbanc Runway is very similar to the company’s  flagship product, the 20-minute term sheet.
Clearbanc created the 20-minute term sheet to help companies get non-dilutive capital for advertising spend on Google and Facebook advertisements. The premise there was that startups should spend valuable venture capital money on other expenses since equity is involved. Clearbanc Runway fulfills a broader goal.
“Originally, we were just focused primarily on ad spend. Now we can fund any expense that used to maintain your company, said Andrew D’Souza, the co-founder of Clearbanc.
The subtle difference between the two products is that the new launch has a hint of conservatism in it. Clearbanc is in a unique position during this pandemic because it largely funds e-commerce businesses. Those internet businesses are experiencing an increase in traffic as brick-and-mortar stores close amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, noted D’Souza, “there’s a lot of volatility and a lot of uncertainty.”
“We’re certainly going to be more conservative than we would have been six months ago. It probably looks like us writing smaller checks, more frequently.”
Clearbanc isn’t competing for deal flow with venture capital firms. Instead, the company is going up against fintech companies that loan money to small businesses. And that’s neither a rare or new focus.

Here’s why so many fintech startups are loaning to small businesses

Last month, Plastiq raised $75 million to help small businesses pay for items with credit as an alternative to traditional lending resources. Payment processing giant Stripe also has Stripe Capital, its lending product that gives money to internet businesses for a flat fee.
In January, Lighter Capital raised $100 million to lend money to other startups, similar to Clearbanc’s revenue sharing agreement format. It all comes to show that there are a lot of players willing to give out loans, and it’s up to small businesses to decide which terms are the friendliest.
Not all small business loans will be accessible for venture-backed startups. For example, the $2 trillion stimulus package provided by the U.S. government shows that $349 million was set aside to loan out to small businesses. However, new guidance shows that most startups are still excluded from getting monetary help. Still, some are applying for the loan because it will be distributed on a first come, first serve basis.
Clearbanc says it can differentiate from competitors because of its speed.
“It’s great that people apply for [SBA loans], but it can take a long time,” D’Souza said. “There’s a huge backlog and it depends on your bank and what their systems are set up to do.”
Almost exactly a year ago, Clearbanc’s co-founder Michele Romanow was talking in terms of IPOs and unicorns. Clearbanc Runway has noticeably less grandeur, as D’Souza was talking in terms of helping companies avoid shuttering or undergoing mass layoffs.
The firm has loaned over $1 billion across 2,200 companies.
Clearbanc has traditionally pitched itself as a way for e-commerce founders to grow their startups without giving up as much ownership as a traditional equity deal would include. Now, the company is pitching itself as a way for all founders to stay afloat, as venture capital becomes less of an option across the world.

CDC’s new guidance around COVID-19 contact sends potentially exposed critical employees back to work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued updated, interim guidance for “critical infrastructure” employees during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that could have big implications for labor groups, gig economy workers, and tech company employees. The new guidance relaxes restrictions on employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, focusing on implementing precautionary measures in the workplace rather than sending them home for self-isolation, as was the practice previously.
The CDC’s updated guidelines, which were adapted in order “to ensure continuity of essential functions” according to the agency, state that someone working in an essential capacity who has been potentially exposed (either through contact with a household member with COVID-19, or having come within 6 feet of someone who has a confirmed or suspected case) should remain at work, provided they don’t show any symptoms.
That’s not to say the CDC is advising they carry on as usual: they say that anyone who has had this kind of exposure, should have their temperature taken and their symptoms assessed prior to any shift, and that they should be engage in self-monitoring. They should also wear a mask whenever in their place of employment for at least 14 days following the exposure – including cloth masks where proper face masks aren’t available because of shortages. They should also observe physical distancing from other employees, and all shared use areas and equipment should be regularly cleaned and disinfected.
The CDC further advises that anyone who comes sick during the day should be sent home immediately, and the employer should comply a list of anyone they might’ve been exposed to within two days prior to the symptoms showing up.
These changed rules were mentioned during the White House coronavirus task force briefing on Wednesday, and seem to be considered a necessary step by the agency and the administration to ensure that critical services continue to operate uninterrupted as COVID-19 continues to spread. The guidelines apply not only to full-time employees in essential roles, but also to “contracted vendors,” which likely includes Amazon warehouse employees and delivery drivers for services like Instacart and Uber Eats.
The updated guidelines come as a number of labor actions have arisen with contract workers instituting work stoppages, facility closures or job walk-outs to protest COVID-19 working conditions and pay.

Pepper, a platform for restaurants and suppliers, pivots to deliver food to consumers

Though the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on restaurants has been crystal clear, many forget the impact this disease has had on food chain suppliers. With restaurants closed, these suppliers — who still have access to tons upon tons of food — no longer have customers.
Meanwhile, end consumers are dealing with their own stresses around securing food, deciding between venturing out to the grocery store and ordering food through increasingly unreliable grocery delivery services.
That’s where Pepper comes in.
Pepper launched late last year with an enterprise product focused on connecting restaurants with their suppliers. Most restaurants have 6+ different suppliers, and manually placed orders with each of them individually each night either by email, voicemail or text message. Oftentimes, there was no confirmation that the order was received, with employees receiving orders and hoping that everything arrived on time as it was requested.
To digitize the industry, Pepper developed an app that let restaurants input the contact information of suppliers and place orders quickly, and then let those suppliers press a single button to confirm the order was received and in progress.
In the six months since launch, things have changed dramatically for the startup, which has led cofounder and CEO Bowie Cheung to rethink the business.
Alongside facilitating orders between restaurants and suppliers, Pepper has now opened up a consumer-facing portal called Pepper Pantry, allowing everyday users to place an order directly with a food supplier.

Folks pay a flat $5 payments processing fee on the platform, and can choose from fresh meats, produce, dairy and other categories to have food delivered directly to their home.
Of course, this involved considerable adaptation on the part of Pepper and their suppliers, who are used to shipping pallets of food rather than bags or boxes. However, it has created some jobs on the supplier side as folks repackage food to amounts that are suitable for families or individuals, rather than businesses.
Cheung says the portions are still ‘bulk’ but more on par with a Sam’s Club or Costco purchase than the types of orders restaurants were placing.
Suppliers are able to choose their minimum order amount, which can range between $0 and $150. Thus far, eight suppliers have signed on to the Pepper Pantry platform, serving the greater NYC area (NYC, NJ, CT) and the greater Boston area.
Pepper declined to disclose its total funding amount, but did share that it has received investment from Greylock’s Mike Duboe and Box Group.

App development shop V/One is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds to budding LA mobile businesses

The Los Angeles-based app development shop, V/One, is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds through the rest of April as the company officially launches its platform for would-be, LA-based mobile app moguls.
Since its soft launch, December 20th of last year, the app development company has built over 100 new applications.
The company’s December launch featured an “app accelerator” and offered a guidebook for people who wanted to develop mobile applications to work with the development shop on early applications.
Under the terms of the development agreement, wannabe app creators get their application for free as long as they sign up for the monthly hosting service. “They can walk away at any time and cancel the hosting if they don’t want the app anymore. Builds of the apps will be delivered around 60 days upon signing up,” said V One founder, Jeremy Redman.
For founder Jeremy Redman, V/One was a business that solved a problem he had faced himself as an entrepreneur just starting out, but lacking the technical experience to build his own applications.
“I had an app idea but no real idea how to executive it. I’m non-technical, meaning I can’t code. I tried finding a technical co-founder but got abandoned when things got tough. Dev shops were too expensive and on the verge of predatory, and cookie cutter builders don’t address the designs I had in mind,” Redman said. “But, I wasn’t going to let someone tell me I couldn’t be a tech entrepreneur.”
Image Credits: Chris Ede / Getty Images
The app development toolkit that V One uses was built entirely in-house to automate the build process on the back end, says Redman.
For small businesses, the plan is to charge $297 per month for app development and customization along with any future builds, hosting, and product support and maintenance. The company’s more robust place is a $997 per month package. Both offer the option to cancel anytime with the ability to own the code for the app.
“So far the only limitations are one’s creativity. Essentially speaking, if you can design it it can be made a functional app in our builder,” Redman wrote in an email. “If I had to put a constraint on it I would say we are not good at AR/VR and machine learning and some obscure features 99% of people don’t need [or] want.”
Redman thinks that roughly 98% of an app can be built using the company’s toolkit and then the final bit of coding and development (specifically for augmented or virtual reality — or other components) can be added in a final customization.
“If customers can describe their idea in one, clear sentence then it can be made in our builder and it can be made quickly,” Redman wrote. “What we don’t do is take pages and pages of details and make an app out of it. They can fill in the details later.”
V One uses a cross-platform framework, serverless technology and modern development practices to generate apps using an easy to use app builder, the company said. Users can think of it like Wix or WordPress for mobile app development.
“Never before has someone been able to build an app from just typing their idea out, let alone for this low a cost,” says Redman.

Stocks gain despite 6.6M new US unemployment claims

Domestic stocks rose today in the United States, with all major indices opening higher.
TechCrunch has slowed its daily coverage of the US stock market as volatility has receded. We try to avoid covering the stock market too much, but there are days when doing so would be derelict. The value of public companies impacts the value of private companies like startups, so we have to pay at least some attention on days when shares rise or fall sharply.
Today’s opening normally wouldn’t qualify as sufficiently violent to warrant coverage. But what the open today misses in total movement it makes up in oddness: This morning the US government reported that 6.6 million individuals filed for unemployment in the last week, adding to the roughly 10 million that did so in the preceding two weeks. Canada’s March unemployment, out this morning as well, was similarly awful.

Ahead of earnings, SaaS stocks show resilience

And the layoffs have continued, with Yelp this morning announcing around 1,000 layoffs and 1,100 furloughs. Startups are cutting staff at a pace not seen in a decade, the economy is broadly expected to enter a recession and venture capitalists are slowing their investment cadence as revenue losses rise and valuations are expected to dip.
And yet, stocks are higher. Sure, the Fed announced a wave of new action this morning, but reactive band-aids to bleeding wounds don’t net out to zero in the short-term.
All this is to say that if you don’t get what you are seeing in the ticker tape this morning, you’re not alone. What the fuck is going on? I don’t know.
But, I suppose, here’s where things are at start of the day:
Dow Jones Industrial Average: +305.81, +1.31%
S&P 500: +30.63, +1.11%
Nasdaq Composite: +67.94, +0.84%
Bessemer cloud index: +13.73, +1.20%
More at the close.

12 major league edtech VCs discuss top trends, opportunities

Ready or not, edtech has been shoved into the spotlight as millions of students shifted to remote learning due to pandemic-related school shutdowns.
But backing these companies are investors who have long believed that edtech was always set up for great returns and a big impact. We reached out to several to find out about which trends they’ve been willing to put their money behind. (And frankly, what we’ve been missing.)
We got into how tech can help — or hurt — underserved students struggling to find Wi-Fi or a laptop and how braintech still is ripe for innovation. Investors also shared the parts of edtech that Zoom video conferencing doesn’t address and why gamifying learning is so important.
Here’s who we talked to:
Jenny Lee, GGV
Tetyana Astashkina, LearnLaunch
Jean Hammond, LearnLaunch
Marlon Nichols, MaC Venture Capital
Mercedes Bent, Lightspeed Venture Partners
Jennifer Carolan, Reach Capital
Shauntel Garvey, Reach Capital
Jan Lynn-Matern, Emerge Education
Lesa Mitchell, Techstars 
Tory Patterson, Owl Capital
Ian Chiu, Owl Capital
Tony Wang, 500 Startups
Next week, we’ll publish the other findings we received from these investors, focusing on edtech in a post-COVID-19 world.
Responses below have been edited for length and clarity.
Jenny Lee, GGV
What trends are you most excited about in edtech from an investing perspective?
GGV Capital is focused on how technology is allowing startups to innovate and create new business models to (1) lower the reliance on physical locations and (2) to allow for teachers to teach online with multi-format (1:1, 1:n) virtual classrooms [and] (3) deliver highly interactive and personalized content via use of virtual characters, machine learning, natural language and voice recognition/processing. Edtech can be broken down into the process of (a) learning (reading, speaking, comprehension), (b) practicing, and (c) testing, and targets different age groups from 0-3 years old, 3-6 years, K-12 years and into exam prep and adult training. Over the last four to five years, we have invested in over 10 companies in the areas of language learning, test prep, holistic learnings (like logical thinking, programming etc) and K-12 homework assistant.
How much time are you spending on edtech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated or just right?
It’s a key investment sector for me, so I spend about 20-30% of my time with edtech startups. Over the last few years, it has been a steady sector, not over-heated, but the COVID-19 situation has thrown a bright spotlight on it as a sector benefiting from more stay-at-home children and parents anxious to keep them busy, learning and engaged. I expect the sector to heat up quite a bit as we have seen our portfolio companies attract a lot of new users, new revenue and new interested investors over the last several months as much of the world manages lock-down mode. We expect this trend to continue for our US-based and Asia-based edtech startups as well.

Japanese payment service provider Paidy raises $43 million from ITOCHU

Paidy, a Japanese fintech startup that allows customers to make online purchases without credit cards, announced today that it has raised a $48 million Series C extension from ITOCHU.
The company says it has now raised a total of $281 million in equity and debt. Its latest investment from ITOCHU, one of the largest Japanese trading companies, was equity funding. ITOCHU previously participated in Paidy’s Series B and C rounds, and this brings the total it has invested into the startup to $91 million (the company said it did an extension round instead of moving onto a Series D so it could issue the same type of preferred shares).
Paidy’s last funding announcement was in October 2019, with investors including PayPal Ventures. The company has now raised a total of $281 million in equity and debt.
The latest funding will be used to strengthen Paidy’s balance sheet during the COVID-19 pandemic and also support the development of more “buy now pay later” services it will launch later this year.
Paidy’s payment service allows users to make purchases online, and then pay for them each month in a consolidated bill. The company uses proprietary technology to score creditworthiness, underwrite transactions and guarantee payment to merchants. Since many Japanese consumers prefer not to use credit cards for online payments, Paidy’s service can help vendors increase their conversion rates, average order values and repeat purchases.
During the pandemic, the company says usage of its service has increased since more people are buying essential items online, despite declines in spending on travel, hotels and large-ticket items (a state of emergency was declared in Japan last week in Tokyo and six other prefectures).
Shuichi Kato, the executive officer and executive president of ITOCHU’s ICT and Financial Business company, said in a statement that, “We strongly beieve that they will keep playing a critical role in our retail finance strategy as their one-of-a-kind credit examination has been creating a new type of trust, appealing to a wide range of customers. Paidy has also proved that they are capable of implementing prompt solutions in the inevitable battles against fraud, evolving their services to the next level.”

Sony invests $400M in Chinese entertainment platform Bilibili

Sony said on Thursday that it is investing $400 million to secure a 4.98% stake in Chinese entertainment giant Bilibili.
10-year old Bilibili features animation, comics, games and offers users the ability to stream their videos. The service, which has amassed over 115 million users, has attracted several big investors over the years, including Chinese giant Alibaba.
The announcement pushed Bilibili’s share up by 7.6% in the pre-market trading. Sony has made the investment through its wholly-owned subsidiary Sony Corporation of America.
In a statement, Sony said the company believes China is a key strategic region in the entertainment business. The two companies have also agreed to pursue collaboration opportunities in the entertainment field in China, including animation and mobile game apps, they said.
More to follow…

France’s competition watchdog orders Google to pay for news reuse

France’s competition authority has ordered Google to negotiate with publishers to pay for reuse of snippets of their content — such as can be displayed in its News aggregation service or surfaced via Google Search.
The country was the first of the European Union Member States to transpose the neighbouring right for news into national law, following the passing of a pan-EU copyright reform last year.
Among various controversial measures the reform included a provision to extend copyright to cover content such as the ledes of news stories which aggregators such as Google News scrape and display. The copyright reform as a whole was voted through the EU parliament in March 2019, while France’s national law for extended press publishers rights came into force in October 2019.
A handful of individual EU Member States, including Germany and Spain, had previously passed similar laws covering the use of news snippets — without successfully managing to extract payments from Google, as lawmakers had hoped.
In Spain, for example, which made payments to publishers mandatory, Google instead chose to pull the plug on its Google News service entirely. But publishers who lobbied for a pan-EU reform hoped a wider push could turn the screw on the tech giant.
Nonetheless, Google has continued to talk tough over paying for this type of content.
In a September 2019 blog post the tech giant dug in, writing — without apparent irony — that: “We sell ads, not search results, and every ad on Google is clearly marked. That’s also why we don’t pay publishers when people click on their links in a search result.”
It has also since changed how Google News displays content in France, as Euractiv reported last year — switching to showing headlines and URLs only, editing out the text snippets it shows in most other markets.
Screengrab showing how Google News displays content in France
However France’s competition authority has slapped down the tactic — taking the view that Google’s unilateral withdrawal of snippets to deny payment is likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position, which it writes “seriously and immediately damaged the press sector”.
It cites Google’s unilateral withdrawal of “longer display article extracts, photographs, infographics and videos within its various services (Google Search, Google News and Discover), unless the publishers give it free authorization” as unfair behavior.
“In practice, the vast majority of press publishers have granted Google licenses for the use and display of their protected content, and this without possible negotiation and without receiving any remuneration from Google. In addition, as part of Google’s new display policy, the licenses which have been granted to it by publishers and press agencies offer it the possibility of taking up more content than before,” it writes in French (which we’ve translated via Google Translate).
“In these conditions, in addition to their referral to the merits, the seizors requested the order of provisional measures aimed at enjoining Google to enter in good faith into negotiations for the remuneration of the resumption of their content.”
Hence issuing an emergency order — which gives Google three months to negotiate “in good faith” with press agencies and publishers to pay for reusing bits of their content.
Abusive practices the agency says it suspects Google of at this stage of its investigation are:
The imposition of unfair trading conditions;
circumvention of the law;
and discrimination (i.e. because of its unilateral policy of zero renumeration for all publishers)
The order requires Google to display news snippets during the negotiation period, in accordance with publishers wishes.
While terms agreed via the negotiation process will apply retrospectively — from the date the law came into force (i.e. last October).
Google is also required to send in monthly reports on how it’s implementing the decision.
“This injunction requires that the negotiations actually result in a proposal for remuneration from Google,” it adds.
We reached out to Google for comment on the Autorité de la Concurrence’s action. In a statement attributed to Richard Gingras, its VP News, the company told us:
Since the European Copyright law came into force in France last year, we have been engaging with publishers to increase our support and investment in news. We will comply with the FCA’s order while we review it and continue those negotiations.
A Google spokeswoman also pointed back to its blog post from last year — to highlight what she described as “the ways we already work with news publishers for context”.
In the blog post the company discusses directing traffic to news sites; providing ad tech used by many publishers; and a funding vehicle via which it says it’s investing $300M “to help news publishers around the world develop new products and business models that fit the different publishing marketplace the Internet has enabled”.
Interim measures are an antitrust tool that Europe’s competition authorities have pulled from the back of the cupboard and started dusting off lately.
Last October EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager used an interim order against chipmaker Broadcom to stop applying exclusivity clauses in agreements with six of its major customers — while an investigation into its practices continues.
The commission EVP, who also heads up the bloc’s digital strategy, has suggested she will seek to make greater use of interim orders as an enforcement tool to keep up with the fast pace of developments in the digital economy, responding to concern that regulators are not able to respond effectively to curtail market abuse in the modern Internet era.
In the case of France’s competition authority’s probe of Google’s treatment of publishers content the authority writes that the interim protective measures it’s ordered will remain in force until it adopts its decision “on the merits”.

Google subsidiary agrees to pursue internet “diversification” in Asia to block China access to U.S. market

The global internet continues to disintegrate into regional internets.
Yesterday, the FCC authorized a Google subsidiary, GU Holdings, to open a submarine fiber optic link between the U.S. and Taiwan, while continuing to block the company’s expansion of the cable to Hong Kong.
The cable, operated by Pacific Light Data Communication, has faced years of delays over its ties to the Chinese mainland. The Trump administration, through the Team Telecom review process, has placed an exacting magnifying glass on the deal structure and its operating processes, arguing that a direct link between Hong Kong and the U.S. would pose grave risks to the security of America’s internet infrastructure.

How US national security agencies hold the internet hostage

Team Telecom has been a quiet bureaucratic group within the federal government reviewing internet infrastructure and telecom business licenses as our reporter Mark Harris has described, and the working group only received formal approval for its operations earlier this week in an executive order signed by President Trump.

The US is formalizing Team Telecom rules to restrict foreign ownership of internet and telecom assets

The original goal of the cable was to connect the U.S. to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, offering Google and other tech companies like Facebook the ability to move large quantities of information from their data centers domestically to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. That sort of bandwidth is even more acutely needed today in the context of the global pandemic of novel coronavirus and the rapid increase in work-from-home activities that are driving record internet usage.
Yet, when Dr Peng Telecom & Media Group bought a stake in the cable’s operating company in late 2017, concerns intensified among DC national security professionals that the cable could come under the sway of Beijing’s influence.
Those delays have proven costly for GU Holdings, which has argued in filings with the FCC that the project was increasingly non-viable given the extensive review process.
With today’s announcement, Google’s subsidiary has agreed to an extensive set of national security constraints on the project, including a moratorium on expansion to Hong Kong, extensive disclosure of the network’s operating processes to the U.S. federal government, and using security-cleared personnel in operating the cable.
In the government’s filing, the Team Telecom agencies, which include Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense, said that they “believe that in the current national security environment, there is a significant risk that the grant of a direct cable connection between the United States and Hong Kong would seriously jeopardize the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States.”
As part of the national security agreement, “Google will pursue diversification of interconnection points in Asia, including but not limited to Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. This diversification will include pursuing the establishment of network facilities that allow delivery of traffic on Google’s network as close as practicable to the traffic’s ultimate destination.” In other words, internet traffic will not be relayed through China or Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China.

GDPR, China and data sovereignty are ultimately wins for Amazon and Google

The agreement will ultimately allow Google and other large tech companies to advance their interests in this important region, but it does underscore the increasing disintegration of the vision of one, global internet. Data sovereignty rules in Europe, India, China, and Russia are forcing tech companies to offer specialized cloud services tailored to each region’s privacy and censorship interests rather than offering one open and free infrastructure for global internet users.

Google has little choice to be evil or not in today’s fractured internet

According to GU Holdings’ filing, the U.S.-Taiwan segment of the cable is operationally ready, and will presumably start handling traffic in relatively short order.

Bugcrowd raises $30M in Series D to expand its bug bounty platform

Bug bounty and vulnerability disclosure platform Bugcrowd has raised $30 million in its Series D funding round.
The San Francisco-headquartered company said the round brings the total amount raised to $80 million since the company was founded in 2011. This latest round was led by Rally Ventures, which previously invested in the startup.
Bugcrowd acts as an intermediary between security researchers that find bugs and security flaws and the companies with products and services that need to be fixed. By mediating from the middle, the process ensures that bugs are appropriately triaged, mitigated, and rewarded, and that both sides follow the rules to protect both sides from potential abuse.
Reputable and mainstream bug bounty platforms are few and far between, but are in high demand. Bugcrowd for one has scored some major customer wins, including Mastercard, Fitbit, and other Fortune 500 companies.
As for the round itself, Bugcrowd CEO Ashish Gupta said the $30 million will help the company ramp up its expansion of its platform, particularly in Europe and Asia.
“The fight against cybercriminals is never-ending and attack surfaces are constantly expanding,” Gupta told TechCrunch. “We’re expanding our offerings, applying the intelligence from our crowd to a variety of different security use cases to help customers find and fix vulnerabilities faster, and continue to scale the platform.”
Gupta said Bugcrowd serves 65 industries in 29 countries. “We want to continue that growth trajectory,” he said.
Even though large swathes of the world have ground to a halt thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the security world hasn’t shown any signs of slowing. In fact, vulnerability reports during March are up 20%, Gupta said. And Bugcrowd as a business is largely unfazed by the stay-at-home orders, given that its staff are remote-first. “We did temporarily close our five physical world-wide offices but have seen no disruption of services,” he said.
The funding comes at an important time for the company. In the past year, Bugcrowd expanded its relatively new penetration testing offering, a service where companies ask trusted researchers to stress-test their systems to find and shore up holes before an attacker can. That side of the business — less than two years old — grew by 400% year-over-year since its debut, said Gupta.
“Our customers see a ten-times higher number of critical vulnerabilities from our pen test solution compared to other assessments because we bring the right researcher with the right skills to deliver insightful submissions,” said Gupta.

MIT develops privacy-preserving COVID-19 contact tracing inspired by Apple’s ‘Find My’ feature

One of the efforts that’s been proposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 is a contact trace and track program, that would allow health officials to keep better tabs on individuals who have been infected, and alert them to potential spread. Contract tracing has already seemingly proven effective in some parts of the world that have managed to curb the coronavirus spread, but privacy advocates have big reservations about any such system’s implementation in the U.S.
There are a number of proposals of how to implement a contact tracing system that preserves privacy, including a decentralization proposal for a group of European experts. In the U.S., MIT researchers have devised a new method to would provide automated contact tracing that taps into the Bluetooth signals sent out by everyone’s mobile devices, tying contacts to random numbers that aren’t linked to an individual’s identity in any way.
The system works by having each mobile device constantly be sending out random strings of numbers that the the researchers liken to “chirps” (though not actually audible). These are sent via Bluetooth, which is key for a couple of reasons, including that most people have Bluetooth enabled on their device all the time, and that it’s a short-range radio communication protocol that ensures any reception of a “chirp” came from someone you were in relatively close contact to.
If any person tests positive for COVID-19, they can then upload a full list of the chirps that their phone has broadcast over the past 14 days (which at the outside, should represent the full time they’ve been contagious). Those go into a database of chirps associated with confirmed positive cases, which others can scan against to see if their phone has received one of those chirps during that time. A positive match with one of those indicates that an individual could be at risk, since they were at least within 40 feet or so of a person who has the virus, and it’s a good indicator that they should seek a test if available, or at least self-quarantine for the recommended two-week period.
MIT’s system sidesteps entirely many of the thorniest privacy-related issues around contact tracing, which have been discussed in detail by the ACLU and other privacy protection organizations: It doesn’t use any geolocation information at all, nor does it connect any diagnosis or other information to a particular individual. It’s still not entirely left to individual discretion, which would be a risk from the perspective of ensuring compliance, because MIT envisions a health official providing a QR code along with delivering any positive diagnosis that would trigger the upload of a person’s chirp history to the database.
The system would work through an app they install on their phone, and its design was inspired by Apple’s “Find My” system for locating lost Mac and IOS hardware, as well as keeping track of the location of devices owned by loved ones. Find My also uses chirps to broadcast locations to passing Apple hardware.
“Find My inspired this system,” ays Marc Zissman, the associate head of MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Cyber Security and Information Science Division and co-principal investigator of the project in a blog post describing the research. “If my phone is lost, it can start broadcasting a Bluetooth signal that’s just a random number; it’s like being in the middle of the ocean and waving a light. If someone walks by with Bluetooth enabled, their phone doesn’t know anything about me; it will just tell Apple, ‘Hey, I saw this light.’”
The system could be adapted to automate check-ins against the positive chirp database, and provide alerts to individuals who should get tested or self-isolate. Researchers worked closely with public health officials to ensure that this will suit their needs and goals as well as preserving privacy.
MIT’s team says that a critical next step to making this actually work broadly is to get Apple, Google and Microsoft on board with the plan. This requires close collaboration with mobile device platform operators to work effectively, they note. Extrapolating a step further, were iOS and Android to offer these as built-in features, that would go a long way towards encouraging widespread adoption.

Ahead of earnings, SaaS stocks show resilience

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
This morning we’re taking a brief look at SaaS stocks ahead of earnings, making note of their recent movements (and recovery), and what those somewhat violent movements could mean for SaaS startups as we head into the new economic world.
Investors generally expect churn (revenue loss) to rise at SaaS firms. For modern software startups that need to raise new capital, more churn means slower growth. If public software companies trip over their earnings reports, clipping their valuations, it could set up a double-bind for a number of startups. Let’s explore.
A recovery, a return
Tracking the value of public SaaS companies is a fun way to understand a piece of the venture capital market. If public SaaS shares rise, their gains help founders raise new money at attractive prices, defending and extending private valuations. When SaaS stocks fall, they do the opposite.

Index raises $1.2B growth fund and $800M to invest in emerging startups

It’s not quite business as usual in the world of business, but in tech, there is still a significant amount of money being raised and invested, both to help sustain the most promising startups, and to help find those emerging despite (or because of) the wider economic and social crises arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Today, one of the biggest names in VC, Index Ventures, announced that it has closed another $2 billion in funds –$1.2 billion that it plans to use for growth rounds (larger, later stage investments) and $800 million that it will put into emerging startups (smaller, earlier rounds, likely for younger companies).
At a time when it’s getting very tough for startups — which are often built not for immediate profit but growth, with big capital infusions to sustain themselves — Index will have its work cut out for it. To date, 70% of its initial investments are at Series A or earlier. Whether that will be a proportion it keeps remains to be seen.
The total amount is larger than Index’s last fund, dating from July 2018, which totalled $1.65 billion ($1 billion growth, $650,000 emerging), but it’s not clear if this was what the firm had intended to raise, or less or more. For some context, another huge VC firm, Insight Partners, last week announced a monster $9.5 billion round, which exceeded the company’s original target of just over $7 billion.
Like Insight, the focus for Index will be both to fund existing portfolio companies as well as seek out those diamonds in the rough that are being built now, a spokesperson confirmed to us.
Despite all the social distancing and tightening of purse strings due to unemployment and other indicators of economic struggle, there have been pockets of opportunity emerging around areas like delivery services, medical and healthcare technology, and of course anything that helps us live our lives in a more efficient and hopefully diversionary way online (which can come in the form of entertainment, but also better services for doing practical and necessary things, like shopping or have a work videoconference without websites falling over or getting hacked).
“Innovation is often born out of adversity,” said Jan Hammer, Partner at Index Ventures, in a statement. “The path to building a great company is not a straight line, with many obstacles and forks along the way. We take the long view and remain committed to investing in ambitious entrepreneurs at this unprecedented time.”
Yes, it is easy for a VC — who I’m guessing is probably not concerned about his income or health in the same way that a front-line healthcare worker or grocery check-out person might be — to wax lyrical about opportunity right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something that should be ignored. In fact, I’d argue that finding ways out of this is just as important as us all getting through it in one piece.
Index has remained one of the very active investors in the last several weeks, as a key backer in some of the biggest deals announced for Notion, Fast, Collibra and Safety Culture, “with more to follow,” the spokesperson said.
Other big startups (scale-ups perhaps being a more apt word) include Deliveroo, Glossier, Confluent, Figma, Revolut and Roblox. IPOs from its portfolio over the last couple of years have included Slack, Adyen and Datadog.
“We believe that entrepreneurs hold the keys to the world’s recovery, and we couldn’t support them without the backing of our investors, our limited partners,” said partner Mike Volpi in a statement. “Many of them have been with us for two decades, and we’re especially thankful for their continued commitment in times like these. The success of our entrepreneurs in turn helps to fund the research organizations, universities, medical institutes and the pension funds our limited partners represent, and we couldn’t be more proud to have them as part of the Index Family.”

Indian online grocery startup BigBasket raises $60M

Indian grocery startup BigBasket has raised $60 million as it scales its business in the country to meet growing demand from customers stuck at home.
Alibaba and other existing investors including Mirae Asset and CDC Group participated in the bridge-round, Vipul Parekh, co-founder of BigBasket, told TechCrunch in an interview. Parekh said the startup intends to close a larger financing round in the next six to nine months.
The eight-year-old startup, which attained the unicorn status last year, has raised about $720 million in venture and debt financing to date, according to CBInsights. Indian news outlet Entrackr first signaled about the bridge-round.
Parekh said the startup is aggressively trying to hire more delivery personnel to service the ever growing demand from customers. New Delhi ordered a nation-wide lockdown last month, which has disrupted several businesses.
The volume of orders on BigBasket has surged by up to five times in recent weeks, said Parekh. But the startup is struggling to find enough people to deliver items to customers as many workers have moved to their hometowns or are cautious about working in the current environment, he said.
In the last one week, BigBasket has partnered with Uber and two-wheeler mobility firm Rapido to deliver groceries in parts of India. The startup, like several others, faced severe challenges last month after the 21-day lockdown was enforced as it worked with local state authorities to continue its delivery operations. At one time, it had over 400,000 inventories that it needed to ship but was sitting in its warehouses.
BigBasket operates in more than two dozen cities in India and offers tens of thousands of grocery products to customers. As far as securing inventories is concerned, Parekh said the startup is currently not seeing any issues.
BigBasket’s rival, SoftBank -backed Grofers has also seen a surge in volume of orders. The startup said this week that it delivered in 1 million homes in three weeks.
But despite the growth, Grofers co-founder and chief executive Albinder Dhindsa said online grocery still accounts for only 0.2% of the overall retail market. “I think at the end of this crisis we will probably reach 0.5%, but that is still an insignificant share,” he said.

Engerica CEO plots her Italian EV company’s reboot from lockdown

There could be more demand for electric vehicles post COVID-19 crisis, believes Energica founder Livia Cevolini.
The CEO of the high-performance Italian motorcycle manufacturer offered that point of optimism, as her Modena based EV company remains closed by government decree.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced Energica to hit the brakes on production of its battery powered machines that can reach top speeds of 168 mph.
From lockdown in her Northern Italy home, Cevolini shared perspective on the future of motorcycling, acquisition offers and plans to recharge her company when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
At a time when her country has been hit particular hard by the coronavirus, she offered some upbeat thinking.
Energica CEO Livia Cevolini on lockdown in Modena, Italy
“I don’t want to look only at the negative…Maybe there are things that are positive that come out of this bad crisis,” Cevolini told TechCrunch on a video call.
One of those is greater demand for EVs after the pandemic. Cevolini highlighted greater awareness of the smog internal combustion mobility creates and scientific evidence that air pollution exacerbates viruses as factors that could swing more folks to electric.
Reporting has made much of urban areas attaining visibly cleaner air — featuring before shots of global cities with smog and after shots of clear skies since COVID-19 forced traffic off the roads.
“Maybe at the end of this situation we will have a greater awareness on climate change. Then people will approach electric with more consciousness,” Cevolini said.
Before the health crisis shutdown most of Italy, Energica had already seen larger demand for its high-performance e-motos, with a price range of $17,000 to $23,000. The company — that has has a California office and U.S. general manager (Stefano Benatti) — filled more orders in the first two months of 2020 than all its sales for 2019, according to Cevolini.
As an EV venture, Energica is located in the famed Italian motor valley and positions itself similar to its neighbors — Lamborghini, Ducati, Ferrari — in offering a merger of sleek design and elite performance.

MotoE Worldcup racing, Image Credits: Energica
The venture is also one of the few e-motorcycle companies drawing engineering tips from competition. In 2018, Energica was named the sole manufacturer to the MotoE Worldup — an electric version of MotoGP motorcycle racing. MotoE riders use the company’s EGO model as their base bike.

Technology from the track is transferring to production models, according to Cevolini. “The goal is to use racing to test in extreme but safe conditions and then we move stuff to the road bikes,” she said.
Energica credits the application of race tech to production e-motos for some of the increased order flow it saw early this year. The company reduced the weight of its 2020 production line by 5% and increased range by 60% based on adaptions it brought over from MotoE.
Track competition is a secondary arena for Energica. The primary venue is an increasingly crowded e-motorcycle marketplace, which will most certainly face declining demand given the economic impact of COVID-19.

Harley Davidson introduced its all electric $29K LiveWire in 2019, becoming the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S.

Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — including Mission Motors — and put it in the market with existing EV ventures, such California startup Zero, with 200 dealers worldwide.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
When it comes to core e-motorcycle specs — such as performance, charge-times and range — Energica has held advantages with its 145 horsepower machines that can charge in 20 minutes for max ranges of 140 to 250 miles.
But the competition is closing in on some of the Italian EV maker’s numbers. In 2019, Zero launched its high-performance SR/F, with 110 horsepower and a top-speed of 120 mph. And the entire motorcycle industry — gas and electric — could face competitive pressures from new EV entrant Damon Motors. The Vancouver based startup debuted its 200 mph, $24K Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.
On top of strong competition in the e-moto space, there’s a growing uncertainty on the buying appetite for motorcycles that could persist into 2020 — and beyond — given the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world.
In the U.S., new motorcycles sales didn’t weather the last recession very well, dropping 50% in 2008 and remaining stagnant since. In addition to Energica, other manufacturers, such as Harley Davidson have been forced to stop production due the coronavirus.
Energica CEO Livia Cevolini believes her company has a leg up on its e-moto competitors and an ability to rebound, once it restarts operations.
She flags the manufacturer’s racing connection as something that will continue to give Energica an edge in product development. Speaking to competition with Zero Motorcycles in particular, “We are in a different category,” she said. “They have less power, less range and less fast charge capability.”
Energica has also created another revenue stream through a joint-venture to provide battery, computing and drive-train technology to Dell’Orto, a supplier to the global scooter market.
As more of the major gas motorcycle companies enter the EV market, Cevolini is open to a merger or acquisition, but only on her terms.
“If someone comes to me with a real proposal…that you want to grow our business and our company and not destroy it, we can talk,” she said. “Otherwise, we prefer to go our own way.”
Image Credits: Energica
Energica is prepared to restart production, and has done contingencies for adaptations — such as safe and socially distanced operations — when it gets the go head from the Italian government to reopen.
“We’re ready to fulfill the orders we received before the shutdown and take more,” she said.
When Energica is able to switch on the plant electricity again, Cevolini suspects her niche market of motorcycle enthusiasts will be eager to roll.
“Our customers are telling us they are just waiting to ride again. And as soon as they can ride again, they will ride again,” she said.

German security firm Avira has been acquired by Investcorp at a $180M valuation

Mergers and acquisitions largely grinded to a halt at the end of March, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world, but today comes news of a deal out of Europe that underscores where pockets of activity are still happening. Avira, a cybersecurity company based out of Germany that provides antivirus, identity management and other tools both to consumers and as a white-label offering from a number of big tech brands, has been snapped up by Investcorp Technology Partners, the PE division of Investcorp Bank. Investcorp’s plan is to help Avira make acquisitions in a wider security consolidation play.
The financial terms of the acquisition are not being disclosed in the companies’ joint announcement, but the CEO of Avira, Travis Witteveen, and ITP’s MD, Gilbert Kamieniecky, both said it gives Avira a total valuation of $180 million. The deal will involve ITP taking a majority ownership in the company, with Avira founder Tjark Auerbach retaining a “significant” stake of the company in the deal, Kamieniecky added.
Avira is not a tech startup, or not in the typical sense. It was founded in 1986, and has been bootstrapped, in that it seems never to have taken any outside investment as it has grown. Witteveen said that it has “tens of millions” of users today of its own-branded products — its anti-virus software has been resold by the likes of Facebook (as part of its now-dormant antivirus marketplace) — and many more via the white-label deals it makes with big names. Strategic partners today include NTT, Deutsche Telekom, IBM, Canonical, and more.
He said that the company has had many strategic approaches for acquisition from the ranks of tech companies, and also from more typical investors, but these were not routes that it has wanted to follow, since it wanted to grow as its own business, and needed more of a financial injection to do that than what it could get from more standard VC deals.
“We wanted a partnership where someone could step in and support our organic growth, and the inorganic [acquisition] opportunity,” he said.
The plan will be to make more acquisitions to expand Avira’s footprint, both in terms of products and especially to grow its geographic footprint: today the company is active in Asia, Europe and to a lesser extent in the US, while Investcorp has a business that also extends deep into the Middle East.
Cybersecurity, meanwhile, may never go out of style as an investment and growth opportunity in tech. Not only have cyber threats become more sophisticated and ubiquitous and targeted at individual consumers and businesses over the last several years, but our increasing reliance on technology and internet-connected systems will increase the demand and need to keep these safe from malicious attacks.
That has become no more apparent than in recent weeks, when much of the world’s population has been confined to shelter in place. People have in turn spent unprecedented amounts of time online using their phones, computers and other devices to read news, communicate with their families and friends, entertain themselves, and do critical work that they may have in part done in the past offline.
“In the current market you can imagine a lot are concerned about the uncertainties of the technology landscape, but this is one that continues to thrive,” said Kamieniecky. “In security we have seen companies develop quite rapidly and quickly, and here we have an opportunity to do that.”
Avira has been somewhat of a consolidator up to now, buying companies like SocialShield (which provided online security specifically for younger and social media users), while ITP, with Investcorp having some $34 billion under management, has made many acquisitions (and divestments) over the years, with some of the tech deals including Ubisense, Zeta Interactive and Dialogic.

ClimateView raises $2.5 million for its toolkit to visualize climate mitigation plans

ClimateView, a Swedish software development company working on monitoring and visualization tools for greenhouse gas emissions, said it has raised $2.5 million in its latest round of financing.
While the world is gripped by the material and economic toll of the COVID-19 epidemic, the problems society faces from longterm global climate change have not gone away.
It’s against this backdrop that investors including the Norrsken Foundation, an impact investment firm established by Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalberth; and Nordic Makers, an angel syndicate composed of founders from Zendesk, Sitecore, and Unity Technologies, decided to invest in ClimateView. Nordic Makers, Max Ventures, and GGV Capital also participated in the funding, the company said.
Using ClimateView’s software, cities around the world have a window into their climate data — including emissions and other sustainability and resilience information — so that they can plan accordingly for how best to proceed with decarbonization efforts and climate change mitigation plans.
So far, around 1,348 municipalities, townships, and villages in 26 countries have declared a climate emergency, but there’s no real effort to understand from a systems perspective what steps need to be taken to mitigate the worst impacts of the changing global climate, the company said.
“It’s an exciting time for ClimateView as we work to reinvent the way in which society works with the climate challenge,” said founder and chief executive Tomer Shalit, in a statement. “Our solution-focused approach to climate action is already gaining traction in a number of cities across the globe and we hope that, with this investment, we can continue to lay the groundwork for decision making so that, together, the world’s cities and nations can forge a common path towards global carbon neutrality.”
Historically, environmental policy and planning has been limited by a lengthy decision-making, planning-intensive process that hasn’t been able to access the latest data visualization tools and projections to make decisions based on current developments, the company said.
ClimateView’s software provides a central hub of all development, emissions, and projected urban planning data to accelerate the planning process.
The company’s premier project has been its work with the Swedish Climate Policy Council, which used the ClimateView software and suite of services to release a publicly available digital roadmap using the company’s Panorama software.
“Norrsken invests in startups that make the world better, so ClimateView is an ideal fit for us,”said Tove Larssen, a general partner with Norrsken. “We are really intrigued by their ambition to provide a global platform that makes it possible to fight climate change faster and more efficiently, and are delighted to be on board to help them achieve this goal.”

Commercial real estate could be in big trouble — even after this is all over

Commercial real estate owners, brokers, and landlords have collectively made many hundreds of billions of dollars a year in recent years as the economy zipped along.
Now, they’re getting clobbered by the pandemic-fueled economic crisis. Worse, their industry may be forever changed by it.
It isn’t news that extracting rent — from nearly anyone right now — is problematic. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, just 69 percent of U.S. households had paid their rent by April 5 compared with the 81 percent who’d paid by March 5 and the 82 percent who paid by the same time last year. That statistic will almost certainly look a lot worse by May 5, given that the numbers of laid-off and furloughed employees grows by the day.
On the commercial side, the problem is beginning to look as dire. In addition to the countless small retail and restaurant businesses that may be forced to permanently vacate their commercial spaces because they can no long afford to keep them running, a growing number of corporate chains is also beginning to prove unwilling or able to pay their rent.
WeWork, for example, has stopped paying rent at some U.S. locations while it tries to renegotiate leases, according to the WSJ, even as the co-working company continues to charge its own tenants.
Staples, Subway and Mattress Firm have also stopped paying rent as a way to pressure building owners into rent reductions, lease amendments and other measures designed to offset the losses they are incurring owing to the impact of coronavirus.
The question begged is what happens next. While some may see opportunities in distressed assets, it’s very possible that more broadly, the commercial real estate market will never look the same.
For one thing, while small retailers and restaurants melt away, some of their online rivals are gaining ground. Amazon, despite no shortage of bad publicity, gains market share by the day. In fact, it this week again became a trillion-dollar company.
The online streetwear marketplace StockX is also booming, as we reported a few weeks ago. As said its CEO, Scott Cutler, at the time: “We thought we’ve always been a marketplace of scarcity, but now you can’t actually go into a real retail location, so you’re coming to StockX.”
The landscape may change particularly quickly in markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and New York, where not only is there a density of independent shops and restaurants, but startup employees and other white collar workers are suddenly working from home — and perfecting the art of working as part of a distributed team.
Consider Nelson Chu, the founder and CEO of Cadence, a seed-stage, 17-person securitization platform startup in New York. After recently securing $4 million in funding, Cadence signed a lease last month with a landlord that has agreed to start charging the outfit only when it is able to move into its new uptown digs.

It’s a good deal for Cadence, which doesn’t have to worry about paying for square footage it can’t use.  Still, Chu notes that being forced to work remotely in the meantime has opened his eyes to the possibility of incorporating more remote work into the startup’s processes, especially thanks to tools like Slack, Google Sheets, and Zoom.

“You always question whether remote work will impact business continuity,” says Chu. “But now that we’re forced to do it, we haven’t skipped a beat. There could be something to be said for having less office space and allowing the people who commute from out of state to not have to be in the office every day. If anything, this now gives us optionality to consider taking on less space” down the road.

It’s easy to imagine that other founders and management teams are coming to the same conclusion. The possibility certainly isn’t lost on real estate companies.
“Remote work is something we’re thinking a lot about right now,” says Colin Yasukochi, director of research and analysis at the commercial real estate services giant CBRE. “People are right now being forced to do it,” but “I think some will inevitably stick” to working remotely, he says. “The question of how many, and for how long, is unknown.”
Certainly, it’s not the trend CBRE or others in the real estate world were expecting this year. An “outlook” report on 2020 published by CBRE last November sounded understandably rosy. “Barring any unforeseen risks,” it said at the time, “resilient economic activity, strong property fundamentals, low interest rates and the relative attractiveness of real estate as an asset class ” were among the primary factors that supported its prediction that this year would be a “very good year” for commercial real estate.
In the ensuing months, of course, that unforeseen risk has prompted shutdowns that have led to layoffs across nearly every sector of the economy. It has also — by the very nature of it being a viral contagion — made it highly likely that even when people are allowed to re-occupy commercial spaces, they’ll be less enthusiastic about dense workspaces. This is doubly true if they know they can get their work done outside the office.
It could well lead to reduced demand for office space later on. It could also mean the same amount of space — or perhaps even more —  with reconfigured office layouts. No one yet knows, including commercial estate brokers.
Mark George, a San Jose, Calif.-base broker with the commercial real estate company Cresa, is currently working from home, where he shares an office with his wife, who is also working remotely for the first time. It’s nice to be home with their children, says George, but being housebound makes it harder to get a pulse on industry changes, particular in his industry.
Brokers are “somewhat isolated,” he says. ” Touring activity has dried up because we can’t show space. City Hall is closed in every municipality, so you can’t pull permits. The industry is really shut down.”
George said that “deals that were at the finish line probably got signed” before the coronavirus really took hold in the U.S. But the “deals that were close and not quite there? Every deal I’ve seen has been put on ice. Everyone is in a holding pattern.”
A Cresa colleague of George in San Francisco, Brandon Leitner, echoes the sentiment, saying that “things are not moving fast.” Still, Leitner expects the firm, which handles clients as big as Twitter to Series A and even seed-stage companies, will see a deluge of activity once the city’s current stay-in-place mandate is lifted and brokers can start showing companies properties again.
Specifically, Leitner expects the market to come down by “at least 10% and probably 20% to 30%” from where commercial spaces in San Francisco has priced in several years, which is $88 per square foot, according to CBRE. He expects 2 million square feet will come onto the market in the city, space that companies “want to get off their books.”
That’s a lot, particularly given that there is already about 3.2 million square feet of commercial space available already, according to CBRE’s Yasukochi, who says a “good amount” came onto the market in the last six months alone.
Landlords, for their part, are “hesitant right now to put a new number on the market,” says Leitner, so they are likely to “make as many concessions as they can” to hang on to and attract new tenants.
Eventually, however, they may have no choice. There’s only so much they can do, and they typically have debt to deal with, meaning they’ll be relying on their relationships with lenders.
According to George, Lenders will be inclined to help in order to preserve their own investments. The Federal Reserve may also give the banks the ability to defer mortgage payments, which will make it easier for property owners to put off charging rent.
Whether that will be enough to get the commercial real estate all the way back after Covid-19 remains to be seen.
“This [pandemic] is something we’ve never experienced before,” notes Yasukochi. He says CBRE’s economists estimate the next two quarters will be “very tough.” Still, he says, the market “might see a substantial” uptick in the four quarter. “It really depends on whether demand bounces back, and whether expansion plans will be put on hold, or permanently [shelved].”
For now, he’s choosing to remain optimistic. It “feels like things go wrong really fast in the Bay Area,” says Yasukochi. “But typically, they come back really fast, too.”
A lot of industry players are surely hoping so.

Gillmor Gang: Digital Ben

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Sunday, March 29, 2020. The Gang returns with a Zoom recording, checking in from London, Seattle, Palo Alto, Boston, and the Bay Area.
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang
Liner Notes
Live chat stream
The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

Disney+ Hotstar has about 8 million subscribers

We finally know just about how many subscribers Hotstar has amassed over the years in India. “Approximately 8 million.”
Disney said on Wednesday that its eponymous streaming service has hit 50 million subscribers, nearly 8 million of whom are in India, where it launched its service atop of Hotstar this month.
Five-year-old Hotstar is the most popular on-demand streaming service in India with more than 300 million users. The service and its operator, Indian network Star India, were picked up by Disney as part of its $71 billion deal with Fox last year.
For years, people in the industry have been curious about Hotstar’s premium subscriber base to no luck. Best estimates suggested it had about 1.5 million to 2 million subscribers. Executives at rival firms have expected that figure to be lower.
In fact, a months-long analysis conducted by one streaming firm in India concluded recently that there were 2 million paying subscribers for music and video services. So 8 million is a huge milestone.
More to follow…

Outrunning COVID-19 twice

Editor’s note: Our writer Rita’s journey from China to the US and back again was planned months before the coronavirus pandemic descended on the world. That descent ended up turning a simple trip home into a kind of epic journey. The changes in her location — which we reference, but do not dwell on, to help anchor the story — gave her a unique perspective on the changing landscape — and outlook — of the world as COVID-19 infections spread. We’re publishing a diary of that period here in part to relay some of that first-person perspective to you, our readers. It goes without saying, but the tech angles run throughout, as they are running throughout all of our lives right now (whether or not we “work” in tech). Apps connect us more than ever at a time when we can’t physically be together, and they are now a critical lever in getting things done. Governments scramble to use tech to track what’s happening — although surprisingly even what we think of as the most totalitarian efforts fall short in a crisis. And at the end of the day, the internet is where all our information is coming from. (IL)
Departing
On the night of March 13, before my flight from Philadelphia back to China, my Airbnb host stopped by my room to say goodbye. I was squeezing a stack of masks and a few bottles of hand sanitizer into my suitcase. They were the remaining stock of coronavirus protective items that I panic-bought in early February as soon as I landed in the U.S. As China’s production picked up speed, I gave away most of my supplies — which I had planned to bring back to my family in China — to friends and relatives in the U.S.
I had also asked my host, a slender, high-spirited botanist in her early fifties, whether she needed any supplies when I arrived at her house in early March. She gave a relaxed smile and said she wasn’t worried. There had barely been any cases in Philly, so there was no need. Plus, she had never worn a mask.
“People think you’re sick if you wear one,” she refused politely. “Why do people in Asia wear them?”
I explained that there’s a big debate on whether masks were necessary for the public. The consensus was that they were effective at preventing the transmission of COVID-19. Health officials in the West had for long recommended them only for patients or someone in contact with those who were sick, though the U.S. has recently moved to suggest mask-wearing for everyone in public.
In Asia, however, mask-wearing was a cultural norm even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Given the disease’s incubation period could be as long as 27 days, which meant many people could be unwitting carriers, wearing masks became an act of solidarity to protect others. Chinese cities had early on mandated mask-wearing in public. For me, they worked both as a placebo and a reminder not to touch my face.
Within a week’s time, the disease had advanced rapidly across the U.S., adding dozens of new cases in Philadelphia. All large events were suspended, and my host suffered from a handful of canceled stays.
I decided to ask her again whether she wanted any protective products. “Yes, that’d be great. I don’t have any sanitizers with me. No masks, either.” Her eyes lit up this time. “But how do you wear one?”
I handed her the items and realized that I was about to flee coronavirus for the second time. When I planned my visit to the U.S. a few months back, I had not the faintest idea it would spiral into two great escapes: first leaving China where the disease just began to spread, and later leaving the U.S. where a similar crisis was taking form.
Weeks 1-2: Fears in parallel worlds
I was getting restless when I left for the U.S. some 50 days ago. Objectively speaking, my chances of contracting COVID-19 were slim. I was previously in lightly-hit cities like Taipei (which was an early mover in putting effective control in place). And 99% of the passengers on my flight departing Hong Kong had masks on. But the sum of uncertain events triggered by the epidemic — from abrupt changes in border controls to canceled flights without notice — elevated my anxiety.
Things felt uncannily normal in Texas when I arrived. It was three weeks before the U.S. reported its first community transmission in late February. None of the screening I anticipated was present at immigration: no temperature checks or even questioning if I had been in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the first coronavirus case appeared. I felt relieved and immediately chucked the mask I had worn on the plane. “It’s safe here,” I thought to myself, seeking solace in the sight of the bare-faced crowd, even though I knew my decision was largely prompted by the prejudice against masks in this part of the world.
My relaxation was short-lived. In fact, I would live the next eight weeks swinging between reason and paranoia.
The relatives and friends with whom I had planned to stay could no longer host me. Their employers, both of Asian descent, had introduced a new 14-day self-quarantine rule on staff who came into contact with visitors from China even though Texas had no such regulation.
Cleaning supplies at a Costco in Plano, Texas, were out of stock in early March when the entire state had just one COVID-19 case. The area has a sizable Asian population. / Photo: TechCrunch
Technically, I could roam free, but fears amongst the local Chinese community were too visible. The digital tools that kept the diaspora emotionally close to home also distanced them from their physical reality abroad. Consuming a flood of fearmongering posts on WeChat, many Chinese expatriates began hoarding household products long before the U.S. saw an outbreak. Chinatowns became ghost towns. My mother was shocked to learn only Asians were wearing masks and messaged me daily saying I should wear one and avoid crowds.
I followed only the latter advice — avoiding crowds — and voluntarily opted for 14-day social distancing, not because I was scared of getting infected but because I was paranoid about passing it onto others asymptomatically. My compulsive information seeking in hopes of better understanding the epidemic only reinforced my angst. No silence I had dealt with felt as unbearable as the isolation amid the immense uncertainties that coronavirus brought to all of humanity.
Weeks 2-5: Coming to terms
When I finally allowed myself to resume socializing two weeks later, I would disclose to people that I had recently been in China out of courtesy. The reactions I received were a mixed bag.
Most of my American friends expressed sympathy for China’s situation and were pleased I was in a safer place. A local dentist refused to see me until 21 days later — then the longest time for a patient to display COVID-19 symptoms — because he lived with someone who was frail. Some Chinese friends living in the U.S. jokingly congratulated me on my escape from the plague, which wasn’t my intention but I admitted I was lucky. A fifty-something Chinese acquaintance avoided shaking my hand and gingerly asked how long I had been in the U.S.
I tried not to be bothered by people’s hint of mistrust. After all, their response was driven by the human instinct to survive. Trust had also eroded with the spread of the epidemic in China, where neighbors avoided conversations and a person’s sneeze in the elevator would make others cringe. Though understandable, these small shifts in behavior could take a toll on social interaction and people’s mental health in the long run.
By then, I knew I probably had a clean bill of health. It helped that Texas was run on wheels and I could easily practice social distancing walking on empty, tree-lined streets. As my mind restored to peace, and I moved to Philadelphia for the second part of my U.S. trip, I began to devour the expanding trove of Chinese-language writings on the disease; they were perhaps one silver lining behind the dark virus cloud.
Trapped indoors, Chinese people were forced to contemplate difficult questions — though sometimes leading to unintended consequences like a rise in divorce cases. The unusual level of civic engagement and discussion sparked by the crisis provided some consolation. Stories of ordinary people fighting illness were vividly told by institutional and citizen journalists. The death of whistleblower Li Wenliang set off an unprecedented amount of anger on the internet. Another enthralling moment came when internet users rushed to preserve a censored interview using coded text.
The unusual, collective outcry against Chinese authorities soon gave way to a fragmented digital world. As China’s heavy-handed lockdown began to bear meaningful results, online users rushed to trumpet the country’s contingency plan. Others submerged in the more mindless activities of mobile gaming and video streaming to pass time. Meanwhile, schools and businesses moved to resume digitally with IT support touted by private tech firms.
Food delivery staff of China’s Meituan worked through the COVID-19 crisis to sustain society’s lifeblood. / Photo: Meituan
The offline world in China was also inching back to normalcy. Physical shops were allowed to reopen and restrictions on movement were being eased nationwide. People increasingly ventured out of their homes, taking masks off to sneak sips of fresh air when guards were out of sight.
For others, the daily routine hadn’t changed much, though life had become more precarious. While it was easy for high-earning professionals to attend virtual meetings and celebrate the remote working boom, those working in services, manufacturing and logistics had not been able to stay home but worked round the clock to sustain society’s lifeblood. They were also unlikely to have paid leave and many lacked employer-provided health insurance. As it turned out, this is just one manifestation of disparity exposed by the health crisis.
Week 6: The price of seeking safety
I knew China was on the horizon as soon as I arrived at my flight’s departure gate. The crowd was uniformly wearing some kind of a face protector. I hadn’t put one on yet. I had been adjusted to a maskless environment for weeks by then and it didn’t seem necessary to wear one during the layover in Chicago, where I cautiously kept a distance from others. There were barely any masked travelers at the airport other than the passengers en route to Hong Kong and Mainland China.
I put on one nonetheless in the spirit of solidarity. But others’ ammunition of protective equipment immediately put me to shame. Many donned surgical gloves, some in lab goggles and even plastic rain ponchos, disinfecting any surface their bodies touched. Drinking water with my mask dangling off one ear now felt transgressive, not to mention I broke a taboo by having in-flight meals.
More than impressed by people’s precautions, I was intrigued by the discrepancy in their access to masks. Paying exorbitant prices could secure the robust but scant N95 respirators. Most had the less expensive surgical masks, but even those became hard to find without connections to a supplier. A few wore the dubious varieties like the sponge mask, the washable cartoon cloth mask (I wore a Hello Kitty one to my elementary school during the 2002 SARS epidemic) and even DIY ones like a fashionable shawl.
Flights also became a microcosm of the disparity in protection: first-class cabin passengers were seated at a supposedly safe distance from one another, while the elbow-to-elbow economy travelers fretted the risk of flying amid an outbreak would outweigh the benefit of returning to what they perceived as a safer country.
Even getting a seat on the plane was a privilege. While airlines were suffering overall due to travel bans, demand could surge temporarily around major policy shifts. Following the W.H.O’s declaration that COVID-19 was a global pandemic, schools around the world moved classes online and shut dorms, prompting international students to go home. Flight tickets skyrocketed. Those who wanted to go home but couldn’t afford the price were stranded.
Week 7: Battling uncertainties
Health checks at a border checkpoint in China to prevent COVID-19 being brought back to the country. / Photo: TechCrunch
While our plane was traveling across the globe, my home city of Shenzhen announced expanded compulsory quarantine for arrivals from four to eight countries — adding the U.S. to the list — in an effort to contain imported cases as the epicenter of COVID-19 shifted overseas.
At 8 PM, the Shenzhen customs checkpoint resembled a hospital waiting room with a barely moving queue a few hundred meters long. Screenings were underway to detect coronavirus cases. The updated policy had not been officially announced, and many travelers were still expecting their family on the other side of the border. Impatience and confusion filled a hall that was lit by nauseating fluorescent lights. Will everyone be tested for the virus at the border or later at a quarantine base? Will foreigners receive the test for free? Will people have to pay for the quarantine?
Even the immigration staffers had few details. China’s containment measures were in flux just like the spread of the virus. The flood of inbound returnees was quickly squeezing the country’s medical resources and filling budget hotels repurposed as quarantine facilities.
At 1 AM, I was finally called upon for a temperature check. I filled out a dozen forms asking similar questions about my travel history and health condition, each going to a different government agency. I wondered why, with China’s alleged technological prowess, this grunt work hadn’t been digitized or streamlined. Are resources for public monitoring going into other areas the government prioritizes?
I felt exhausted, but not more than the customs officer examining me, who had been toiling away for more than 12 hours. Despite having full-body protection, he was unaware his mask had slid beneath his nose.
“When do you get to go home?” I asked. “Who knows? There are so many of you coming back. China can’t afford another outbreak. We have no choice but to work,” he said nonchalantly.
Once my paperwork was sorted, I proceeded to cross the border. China immediately welcomed me with a text message, reminding me to register with the public security bureau as location data from my telecoms carrier showed I had recently been in “epidemic-stricken” America. The virus outbreak was giving Beijing more reason to monitor individuals. The question was why, given the government already commanded abundant citizen data, it seemed to have struggled in their early efforts to track people traveling from Wuhan.

As @thisboyuan reminds me, that the gov’t is scrambling to track people’s movement during the epidemic shows what Beijing has put in place for a national surveillance system still has considerable limitations
— Rita Liao (@ritacyliao) February 12, 2020

I was placed in a group of 20 travelers, most of whom were overseas Chinese students, to wait for the shuttle that would take us to the quarantine hotel. We bonded quickly by grumbling about the surreal eight-hour border crossing, but no one was actually angry. Instead, there was an outpouring of genuine gratitude for frontline health and immigration workers.
Famished, one of us volunteered to put everyone in a WeChat group so we could order food delivery together. The WeChat group, aptly named “3.14 Quarantine”, turned out to be useful for trading information and supporting each other through the erratic quarantine period. A street-sweeping truck was humming at a distance. The clock struck 4 AM as our bus pulled up in front of the hotel.
Travelers arrived at a hotel in Shenzhen that had been repurposed as a quarantine base. / Photo: TechCrunch
Week 8: Embracing chaos
Adjusting to the Chinese time zone became virtually impossible as my day confined to the hotel room was punctuated by a string of sporadic events: temperature checks, meal deliveries, nucleic acid tests, phone calls from various government agencies, and transfers to new quarantine locations. One night, we were given half an hour to pack up and got on a bus that took us to the edge of Shenzhen. There we underwent a virus-detecting test, only to be transported back eight hours later, at 3 a.m., to another hotel in the same area where we had previously stayed.
My quarantine peers were growing impatient with the unpredictable circumstances and began calling any relevant phone number they could find. As we shared in our WeChat group snippets of information we had collected from hotel staff, local officials, relatives and friends, something became clear: The quarantine system was the result of mass mobilization and complex coordination between public and private organizations, ranging from health workers and the Communist Party’s base-level administrative organ (called neighborhood committees) through to government-subsidized hotels and residential complexes.
When policymakers imposed frequent changes, the players implementing them on the ground often ended up scrambling, leading to miscommunication and such counterproductive measures as shuffling us around in crowded buses. They were briefed only on their part of the job rather than the entire process, which remained opaque, so getting close to policymaking power was critical. Calling a relative who worked in the disease control department was probably more useful than asking a hotel staffer. Personal ties seemed to matter even more in China when one sought control in times of uncertainty.
Some of us with insider information learned how to game the system. Before being dispatched to quarantine bases, we had to self-report our household address, for each district government was in charge of quarantining its own returning residents. The more deep-pocketed district normally provided higher-standard lodging and food, a piece of information precious to desperate individuals fighting for marginally better treatment.
I fall into the camp of people embracing chaos, as trying to stay informed and in control over continually updated guidance from above could quickly make me cross the line into anxiety.
There is already an abundance of self-care tips floating around, but having outrun the coronavirus twice, I could at least attest to their efficacy: Pare down your information sources to one or two trustworthy outlets; stay physically active; call people; keep a sense of humor; take deep breaths and perhaps spare some time for a mindfulness talk. It’s better to reserve grit for any long-term changes caused by COVID-19, which are looking increasingly likely.
On the afternoon of March 29, staff from my neighborhood committee came knocking on my door. Clad in blue hazmat suits, they gave me a final temperature check and granted me a piece of paper declaring my completion of the quarantine. I immediately put on a mask and went downstairs.
Things seemed intact at first glance, but a closer look revealed subtle but long-lasting changes since I had left two months prior.
Everyone was wearing a mask — even drivers alone in their cars. Premises had temperature checks and sanitizers at the entrances. Many small restaurants looked deserted; the ones back in business had more food deliverymen waiting about than people dining in. War-like propaganda posters dotted the street, reminding people that the battle against the plague wasn’t over. The world would never be quite the same.

Bessemer’s Tess Hatch on the evolving aerospace market and COVID-19 adjustments

The aerospace market is evolving quickly and merging with other segments of tech, making it an exciting space for both startups and investors — but the complications of the global pandemic are being felt by both.
Bessemer Venture Partners investor Tess Hatch has been helping guide companies in their portfolio through these strange times, and has been rolling with the punches herself.
Hatch recently spoke to us about the investment advice she’s been offering, which companies are being hit hardest and where opportunity still lies in the frontier tech world. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Pandemic preparation
TechCrunch: To start off with, I’m interested in how the virus is affecting things in the investment world. Have you made any official accommodations, like a change of strategy, or putting off key investments, things like that?
Tess Hatch: Of course, we’re advising startups on things to do, like their employee safety, and implementing working from home, and tools and tips and tricks that can help that. Especially when it comes to hardware companies — it’s kind of hard to work from home when you’re manufacturing.
We’re advising them to really watch their burn, because their top line is not going to hit where they expected it to hit, like a double or triple revenue, it’ll maybe stay the same. If it increases even a little bit, they’re winning. We’re having these individual company-to-company conversations, just advising them on getting through, hopefully just these next couple of quarters, but it could be next year plus.

“We’re advising them to really watch their burn, because their top line is not going to hit where they expected it to. If it increases even a little bit, they’re winning.”

There is the question of deals that we were looking at, at prices when this wasn’t an issue. And we’re looking at those prices now being kind of out of market. But we’re still taking new pitch meetings, new deals, we’re still busy, just doing it in the comfort of our pajamas rather than at the office.
So would you say that it has affected the frequency or the cadence of your investments, on a larger scale?
There’s really been like three partnership meetings since craziness happened. And the number of deals that we’ve talked about in the presentations we’ve had, those have remained the same, but ask that question in three more weeks, and I’m sure it I’ll have a better answer.
One of the funny things we’re talking about is that investors, one of their favorite things is to be able to predict how the future, at least the next year or two, is going to go. But this is one of the greatest times of uncertainty we’ve all lived through. So how are you approaching that when there’s so much that’s uncertain, but there’s so much that you need to know in order to effectively manage your portfolio, give advice and make sound investments?
Right now, it is shaking everything that we’ve believed in so strongly. However, we still are looking out, let’s say two to five-plus years. The real question is if this is going to be, with quarantining and lowering the curve, a little bit more under control by let’s say the summertime, or if this is going to be more than a couple of quarters, say a couple of years.

“It is shaking everything that we’ve believed in so strongly. There are partners at the firm who have been here 20-plus years and this is new for them.”

So the only thing we really can do if we can’t look out that much further, we can advise our companies perhaps to raise a bit of extra capital now while the water is shut off, but there’s still a little bit trickling from the showerhead… To be able to last, hopefully, just a couple of quarters but perhaps even a couple of years. I have not seen anything like this in my small career, but there are partners at the firm who have been here 20-plus years and this is new for them as well. It’s like you said, the uncertainty of just not knowing how long or how drastically this is affecting everything.

Disney+ has more than 50M subscribers

The Walt Disney Company just announced that its streaming service Disney+ has more than 50 million subscribers.
The service launched less than five months ago, and apparently had 28.6 million subscribers as of February 3.
These “paid subscriber” numbers include subscribers who are bringing in revenue for Disney but are not paying for the service themselves. (TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon is offering a year of free Disney+ to some customers.) It also includes 8 million subscribers in India, where Disney+ launched last week as part of Hotstar, a popular streaming service that Disney owns thanks to the acquisition of Fox.
While Disney has been relatively slow to release scripted streaming originals after the initial splash of “The Mandalorian,” it has been bringing its films like “Frozen 2,” “Onward” and the upcoming “Artemis Fowl” to the service at an accelerated pace, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting theatrical closures.
The service has also been expanding internationally, launching in eight Western European counties — the U.K., Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland — in the past two weeks.
“We’re truly humbled that Disney+ is resonating with millions around the globe, and believe this bodes well for our continued expansion throughout Western Europe and into Japan and all of Latin America later this year,” said Kevin Mayer, the chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international business, in a statement.
In its latest earnings report, Netflix (which is far more global than Disney+ right now) said it has 167 million paid memberships worldwide.

‘Artemis Fowl’ is skipping theaters for Disney+

Deliveroo, Graphcore and other big UK startups say they’re being cut out of COVID-19 lending relief

The UK government, like a number of other countries around the world such as the US, has stepped up its pace in providing relief in the form of loans for businesses being impacted by the coronavirus health crisis and the related shutdown that we’ve seen across the economy and life as we knew it. But startups in the UK are increasingly getting worried that they are being left behind.
An open letter to the Chancellor published today and signed by the UK’s biggest “scale-ups” — later-stage, highly valued, but still venture-backed (and often loss-making) startups such as Deliveroo, Benevolent AI, Citymapper, Graphcore and Bulb — urged the UK government to make room to provide lending options to companies like theirs.
They are specifically calling for a special taskforce to be created to consider how to build lending schemes for companies like theirs, as well as to alter the rules on the three big schemes that have already been announced to accommodate them, and give them the same access as other businesses.
The letter, which we’re publishing in full below, is not the first cry for help. Earlier this week, another initiative called SOS (Save Our Startups), also published an open letter also asking for access to the same lending schemes that other businesses are getting. SOS includes dozens of smaller startups and a number of the VCs that back them.
The crux of the matter has been that startups backed with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from VCs to scale their growth have not been built or planned with profitability as a short-term or even medium-term goal. Many of them have so far eschewed public listings (and subsequent credit ratings, for starters) for longer in part because of the large amount of money available to them these days through the private markets — venture capital, family offices, private equity, and so on — to grow.
All of that is predicated, however, on the continued health of the wider economy and consumer demand that helped nurture their businesses in the first place. The current public health crisis has thrown that model into disarray, and has meant that the growth these companies had expected will simply not be coming in the form that they expected, if it comes at all. VCs might pick up some of the slack — the biggest of these are still raising, and have in their hands already, huge funds and will step up to support their most promising portfolio companies. But we don’t know how long the effects of the coronavirus will linger, and most likely these startups, like other businesses, will need more.
Countries like France and Germany have accounted for this business disparity. They have created special provisions for lending to startups in response to the COVID-19 economic and social upheaval, and respectively there have been programs backed with $4.3 billion and $2.2 billion in government money put into place. But the three main UK initiatives that have been announced — Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme, the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme — have basic requirements that effectively rule out scaled-up startups from applying.
These include provisions around having established credit ratings for public companies (as in the case of the bigger loan schemes), or financing that is too small (as in the case of the smaller loan schemes), or the scaled-up companies have annual revenues that are too high (both the CBILS and CLBILS schemes have respective turnover thresholds of £45 million and £500 million).
In the meantime, the UK government has made small moves to encourage startups to continue building in a more focused way — for example, last week it announced £50 million in grants to businesses that are building better “resiliency” products to help companies better weather crises like this in the future. But for companies that regularly see revenues (and corresponding expenses and losses) in the tens and hundreds of millions, grants in the tens of thousands of dollars are like putting drops of water into the ocean.
But with startups accounting for some 30,000 businesses and some 300,000 workers in the UK, and significant sums towards the country’s GDP and operations, it seems like a big problem to ignore for too long.
[letter follows below]
Dear Chancellor,
We greatly appreciate the significant steps that you have taken to help British businesses through the COVID-19 crisis. But as founders and CEOs of leading UK companies we are concerned that unless urgent changes are made to the current schemes then the high-growth UK tech sector will be put at risk.
As innovative companies we build technology and systems that transform sectors. For customers, we drive costs down, standards up and for society we create whole new categories of products and services. We are vital to productivity, clean growth and UK exports.
But unfortunately, the COVID-19 lending schemes you have put in place benefit established firms and do not help companies of the future such as ours.
The businesses we run serve millions of customers across the UK, and overseas. We are stepping up to help the country at this difficult time by helping tens of thousands of small businesses to continue operating, helping vulnerable customers get essential services and using innovative technology to give the NHS better tools to tackle the pandemic.
The high-growth tech sector has introduced innovative new products that have improved the lives of millions of customers in the UK and many more around the world. We have created huge numbers of high skilled jobs and we export across the globe.
Our sector will be crucial to helping the UK economy bounce back quickly after the pandemic. The UK tech community is a world class engine for innovation and growth, however, it has not yet received Government support, unlike our competitors in France and Germany.
Our companies have all invested in technology and growth rather than short term profitability, which means that we are currently unable to access the schemes which have been designed with longer-established businesses in mind. The current schemes that you have put in place – the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) – are not accessible to our businesses.
We are therefore writing to ask you to urgently set up a taskforce meeting of leading tech businesses to work with you and your officials to find a way for high-growth tech companies to be able to access the lending schemes you have already established or new schemes if necessary.
As you said in your Budget speech earlier this year, to help Britain’s businesses lead the next generation of high productivity industries, we need to invest in the technologies of the future. The high-growth tech sector has a vital role to play in the future success of the UK economy, and we urge you to work with us to ensure that it is helped through the crisis and that the UK is still the best place in the world to build a tech company.
Confirmed Signatories
Ali Parsa, Babylon
Joanna Shields, BenevolentAI
Peter Smith, Blockchain
Hayden Wood, Bulb
Azmat Yusuf, Citymapper
Poppy Gustafsson, Darktrace
Will Shu, Deliveroo
Marc Warner, Faculty
Stan Boland, Five AI
Hiroki Takeuchi, GoCardless
Nigel Toon, Graphcore
Herman Narula, Improbable

Original Content podcast: We have mixed feelings about Quibi

Quibi, the short-form, mobile-focused video service that Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg first hinted at in 2017, officially launched on Monday.
After years of star-studded content announcements, not to mention $1.75 billion in funding, it might have been impossible for Quibi to live up to expectations. And indeed, it divided the hosts of the Original Content podcast.
None of us was totally won over, but Anthony and Jordan saw something to admire in Quibi’s ambition, and thought there was promise the initial lineup of shows — particularly the reality programs like “Chrissy’s Court” and “Punk’d,” which actually seem to benefit from the constraints of the short episode format.
There are some interesting scripted titles too, but even the shows we liked — particularly the Liam Hemsworth thriller “Most Dangerous Game” — felt like they’d better on a bigger screen, with a more traditional running time.
Darrell, meanwhile, enjoyed some of the content, but he was more convinced that the whole enterprise is a massive folly. In his view, the only way to make Quibi work is to take a looser approach to length and to bring the app to other devices.
You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)
And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:27 “Star Trek: Picard” listener response
6:04 Quibi first impressions

Stocks rally again as new COVID-19 cases show signs of slowing

All major indices rose Wednesday, led by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which increased 3.44% to close above 23,000 for the first time since March 13.
Investors seemed heartened by comments made by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who said Wednesday that the U.S. death count from COVID-19 is lower than initially modeled thanks. He warned that the death count will continue to climb even as new cases slow.
The action Wednesday followed rallies earlier this week. Still, it should be noted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average still closed below yesterday’s high of 23,537.44, suggesting that this could be a bear market run.
Here’s the breakdown at closing:
Dow Jones rose 3.44%, or 779.71 points, to close at 23,433.57
S&P 500 increased 3.41%, or 90.57, to close at 2,749.98
NASDAQ popped 2.58%, or 203.64 points, to close at 8,090.90
Equities were also buoyed by oil prices and news that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose policies fueled concerns about higher taxes, was dropping out of the race.
The transportation saw a bump today. Uber rose 4.66% to close at $26.94. That’s still more than 34.7% below this year’s high of $41.27 reached in February. Meanwhile, Lyft also saw shares rise 7.78% to close at $29.64. Again, it’s the same story as Uber. Lyft’s share price is still off — about 45% — from the year-to-date highs.
Among today’s leaders were airlines, which have been one of the harder hit industries in this COVID-19 era. United led the pack with a 12.38% bump to close at $27.51, followed by American Airlines and Delta, which rose 109.% and 4.4% respectively. Tesla had a volatile day that ended nearly where it began, with a 0.62% increase to close at $548.84.
Automakers also saw shares rise. GM shares rose 8.59% to close at $23.13, while Ford increased 6.59% to $5.03 and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles closed up 3.15% to $7.86 a share.

NASA selects Masten Space Systems to deliver cargo to the Moon in 2022

NASA has chosen a new lunar surface delivery partner from its list of Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) vendors to actually transport stuff on its behalf – Mojave’s Masten Space Systems, which is being tapped by the agency to take eight payloads, including non science and tech instruments, to the Moon’s South Pole in 2022.
Masten is the fourth company awarded a lunar delivery contract under CLPS, after NASA announced that three other companies would be tasked with taking payloads back in May, 2019. Those included Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, as well as Orbit Beyond. Orbit Beyond later dropped out of its contract, though Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are still aiming to deliver their payloads using landers they’ve created sometime next year.
The new Masten contract, like the others in the CLOPS program, is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return human tot he surface of the Moon, and set up permanent scientific exploration there, with the ultimate aim of using it as a stepping stone to taking humans to Mars and potentially beyond. NASA has focused on public-private partnerships like those formed through the CLPS program to assist it in making its Moon and Mars missions possible, and bringing commercial interests along for the ride.
Masten’s contract is a $75.9 million award, that specifies end-to-end delevirey of the payloads, as well as their integration with the company’s XL-1 lander. They’re also required to land on the Moon and operate for at least 12 days post-landing. The specific instruments that XL-1 will carry include tools for measuring and mapping the lunar surface temperature, as well as radiation, and the presence of hydrogen and other gases that could indicate the presence of water.
The XL-1 lander developed by Masten is an evolution of lander designs that took part in, and won the NASA Centennial Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X-Prize Challenge in 2009. Masten has also developed and flown a number of vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rockets on behalf of NASA, including the Xaero test vehicle.

iFood merges with Delivery Hero’s Domicilios.com to challenge Rappi in Colombia

Latin America’s leading legacy food delivery company iFood and Delivery Hero-owned Domicilios.com are merging in a bid to take on the food startup Rappi on its home turf.
The price of the transaction was undisclosed, but will result in iFood holding a 51% equity stake in the partnership, while Delivery Hero will hold the remaining 49%.
Domicilios, the Colombian online food ordering startup, raised $47.7 million before it exited to Berlin-headquartered Delivery Hero for an undisclosed price in 2014. And while iFood’s has operations in Colombia and Mexico in addition to Brazil, it hasn’t achieved the same kind of market penetration outside of its home country — where it serves +147,000 restaurants registered in over 1,000 cities.
iFood says the combined companies will have the largest geographic presence in Colombia with more than 12,000 restaurants in more than 30 cities across the country. With the merger, iFood inches closer to overtaking the top-spot in the Colombian market, behind the Bogota-based billion-dollar-valued hometown hero, Rappi. 
Rappi has raised a total of $1.4B in funding over 8 rounds, including a $1 billion injection from SoftBank in 2019 that marked the largest single investment into a Latin American startup. Despite that capital, Rappi was hit with a wave of layoffs in January 2020, cutting 6% of staff amounting to roughly 300 employees. 
We’re not certain whether the layoffs had any effect on the company’s valuation, which has been estimated at $3.5 billion. 
Since its launch, Rappi has expanded its delivery portfolio to pharmaceuticals, banking services, and furniture in addition to groceries and restaurant delivery. Investors in the Latin American market speculate that Rappi is burning money as it battles UberEats and Didi (also both heavily backed by SoftBank) 
iFood hopes the acquisition will boost business growth for restaurant and delivery partners in the region, while generating more competitive delivery products and services for Colombians. 
iFood prides itself on business intelligence and management solutions, and is backed by Movile Group and Just Eat, a leading global hybrid marketplace for online food delivery.
The coronavirus pandemic is expected to hit Brazilian retailers and restaurants hard, as zero-tech restaurants are forced to enable digital delivery to stay in business. In response, iFood announced a $9.8 million fund to help sustain restaurants within its network. 

TechCrunch Live: Join USV Managing Director Albert Wenger for a live chat Thursday at 9am PDT

Startups big and small, across all industries, are affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. From Etsy to MongoDB, from Twilio to Foursquare, these companies are looking for ways to capitalize and ultimately thrive in what has become a survivalist landscape.
These companies also happen to be portfolio companies of one, Albert Wenger .
We’re excited to have Union Square Ventures’ Managing Director Albert Wenger join us for a live discussion on the impacts of COVID-19 on the firm, the advice he’s offering to his portfolio companies, and adaptation strategies for the broader startup ecosystem.
Wenger has been vocal about how startups should approach PPP loans, and has an interesting perspective on this week’s news of Foursquare merging with Factual. We’re amped to hear more from him on both topics and plenty more.
Before he began his investment career, Wenger was an entrepreneur himself, cofounding five (FIVE!) companies, including a management consulting firm, a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc, and DailyLit (a service for reading books by email or RSS). Wenger also served as President of Del.icio.us prior to and through its sale to Yahoo.
We have a handful of questions we’d like to ask, but Wenger has graciously offered to answer questions from the audience, as well. So come prepared!
The chat will begin tomorrow (Thursday, April 9) at 12pm EDT/9am PDT and go for about an hour.
We look forward to seeing you there! Sign up here to add the call details to your calendar.

LinkedIn plans no COVID-related layoffs until the end of the fiscal year

LinkedIn has no plans to make COVID-related layoffs until at least June 2020, the professional network has confirmed to TechCrunch. This announcements comes after Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s pledge last month to have no significant layoffs for the next 90 days.
Other business leaders such as Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan and Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman have also agreed to pause any potential layoffs until the end of 2020.
Layoffs are trickling down to all industries, starting in the hospitality and travel industry and moving to recruitment startups and scooter companies. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, which serves as a social media platform for professionals and recruiters alike, is thus poised to be a critical connector for those laid off.
So as job security remains on everyone’s mind, LinkedIn’s promise to not have any layoffs will quell some of that fear within the organization, at least in the near future. LinkedIn has approximately 16,000 full-time employees across 30 cities in the world.
Regardless of how healthy LinkedIn may appear from this news, it’s not immune from making specific cost-saving measures as the economy struggles. The company, reports The Information, has “paused most of its hiring as it figures out business planning.” It had more the 1 million job applicants last year, according to the piece.

No-code automation platform Tonkean raises $24M from Lightspeed

As more companies find their workflows upended by remote work in the pandemic crisis, there are plenty of SaaS startups aiming to sell them a new path to streamlining processes. Tonkean is an SF startup selling a no-code automation platform to do just that, and it’s in the fortunate position of just having closed a hefty Series A.
The company closed a $24 million round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tonkean’s team tells TechCrunch. Lightspeed’s Raviraj Jain is joining Tonkean’s board. The company has raised just over $31 million to date.
Their software is a robotic automation and management platform catered towards ops that integrates with a bunch of data sources and allows customers to set up their own customizations. These customizations can help with routing tasks to the right person, automating follow-ups or moving data between systems. The software is meant to enable nearly endless customizations but a big focus seems to be on stripping repeatable tasks from the workflows of ops teams or taking care of early steps in those processes.
“The future of enterprise software is adaptive and personalized,” CEO Sagi Eliyahu told TechCrunch in an interview.

The company frames its tech as “human-in-the-loop robotic process automation,” essentially using its no-code platform to allow the people completing tasks manually to create the automation processes for letting bots take over. The visual drag-and-drop workflow of creating these processes seems to be a big selling point. New customers can also shop around for functionality via templates added by other customers.
RPA has been a hot area in recent years with players like Automation Anywhere and UIPath achieving sky high private valuations. As the big players in the space focus on courting bigger and bigger clients, Tonkean’s tighter focus on streamlining workflows for operations teams could give them an inroad, even as they look to scale during uncertain times.

LinkedIn promises no COVID-related layoffs until the end of the fiscal year

LinkedIn has pledged to making no COVID-related layoffs until at least June 2020, the professional network has confirmed to TechCrunch. While the promise is only until the end of the fiscal year, it follows the lead of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s claim last month to have no significant layoffs for the next 90 days.
Other business leaders such as Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan and Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman have also agreed to pause any potential layoffs until the end of 2020.
Layoffs are trickling down to all industries, starting in the hospitality and travel industry and moving to recruitment startups and scooter companies. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, which serves as a social media platform for professionals and recruiters alike, is thus poised to be a critical connector for those laid off.
So as job security remains on everyone’s mind, LinkedIn’s promise to not have any layoffs will quell some of that fear within the organization, at least in the near future. LinkedIn has approximately 16,000 full-time employees across 30 cities in the world.
Regardless of how healthy LinkedIn may appear from this news, it’s not immune from making specific cost-saving measures as the economy struggles. The company, reports The Information, has “paused most of its hiring as it figures out business planning.” It had more the 1 million job applicants last year, according to the piece.

Mom-focused content startup Motherly raises $5.4M as it expands into commerce

Motherly CEO Jill Koziol admits that it was a tough pitch when she and her co-founder Liz Tenety first tried to get investors on-board in 2015.
“We wanted to create a brand first and foremost,” Koziol told me. “We did not want to go and build a media company or a [direct-to-consumer] company or Facebook for moms — because spoiler alert, it’s called Facebook.”
Instead, she described Motherly as a company that sits at the “intersection” of all three approaches. It started out by publishing motherhood-themed content on its website and on social media (and more recently in podcast form), which in turn encouraged the audience of 30 million unique users to start “engaging with us and with each other.”
Now that there’s a big audience and a real community, the company is getting ready to launch the Motherly Store. And it’s announcing that it has raised $5.4 million in Series A funding.
Koziol described her approach as building a trusted brand “that’s woman-centered — not baby-centered — and expert-driven,” then using that brand to sell products. She said Motherly has reversed the strategy of direct-to-consumer startups that sell products, then add content and community to support those commerce goals.
“Everyone says we did all the hard stuff first,” Koziol said. “We’re showing the world that motherhood is not niche, that you can build a brand through content and then create the natural extensions out of that.”
Image Credits: Motherly
The Series A funding was led by 8VC, with participation from Founders Fund, Muse Capital, AET and AmplifyHer Ventures.
“We’re long on millennial moms, and Motherly has demonstrated a unique ability to be at the center of this hyper-engaged market already,” Amplifyher’s Meghan Cross told me via email. “Its content has organically sparked a vibrant conversation, and commerce is the logical extension.”
Koziol, meanwhile, said that Motherly was able to build this audience with “virtually” no audience spend. That sounds particularly difficult given all the other parenting- and motherhood-themed content already online, but Koziol said that she and Tenety (a former Washington Post editor) are both millennial mothers themselves, and they realized that “in media brands across the board, motherhood was treated as cartoonish … everything was very baby-centered.”
She argued Motherly has succeeded so far because it’s aimed at a more educated and more diverse group of women, who are more likely to continue working after they have children.
And as Motherly moves into commerce, she said that will include both company-branded products (Sounds True is publishing the startup’s second book, “The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama: Redefining the Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Journey”), as well as a Motherly Store, which will offer a curated selection of products for moms, largely from smaller, direct-to-consumer brands.
Koziol suggested that these brands will benefit from access to Motherly’s audience (particularly as advertising costs have grown to unsustainable heights for many D2C brands), while moms will benefit from having a “credible” source who can help to “narrow down those choices.”

Social network for motherhood Peanut raises $5M, expands to include women trying to conceive

Of course, the landscape for media, commerce and parenting have all changed dramatically in the past few weeks thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Koziol noted that as a “100 percent work from home company,” Motherly was better-prepared for this shift.
More broadly, she suggested that moms are going to need more help and support than ever — which Motherly is trying to provide, for example by offering its online birth class for free.
“This woman in our audience has been layering roles on for years,” Koziol said. “And we what we are now seeing, in addition to carrying the mental load of parenthood disproportionately and being a full-time bread winner, you’re layering full-time child-care and homeschooling. These are three different jobs.”

How one European VC firm is reacting to the economic crisis

Public markets around the world have been tanking for the past few weeks, and many companies simply can’t operate during a lockdown. Sheltering in place has had some terrible economic consequences, with a record number of Americans getting laid off, including many startup employees.
But what is happening in Europe? You might also be wondering whether European tech startups have to lay off a significant chunk of their workforce and whether financial capital has become scarce.

That’s why I interviewed Jean de La Rochebrochard, a partner for Kima Ventures, backed by French telco and media entrepreneur Xavier Niel. They focus on seed and Series A investments and invest in dozens of startups each year. He oversees hundreds of startup investments at any given time, which means he has his finger on the pulse of the tech ecosystem in France and across Europe.
The interview was translated from French and edited for clarity and brevity.
TechCrunch: At Kima Ventures, have you seen any change when it comes to investment pace?
Jean de La Rochebrochard: There has been a big change at the deal-flow level. But we already committed to some deals before the lockdown. We’re currently closing all the deals that we were looking at. Over the past 15 days, we’ve closed 15 deals, I think.
So it might slow down in the next 15 or 30 days…
Yes, it’s going to slow down, that’s for sure. But we’ll only know for sure in a month when we’re done with our backlog.

Microsoft starts testing a new news reading experience in Windows 10

Microsoft announced its latest Windows 10 preview build today and while that is a pretty routine affair these days, the company also used today’s announcement to also launch the beta version of a new news consumption experience that anybody on a Windows 10 device can try out today. The Microsoft News Bar aggregates news from the 4,500 publishers in the Microsoft News network and then displays those as a semi-persistent bar on any side of your screen.
Windows 10 has long featured the Microsoft News app, which is more of a fully-features news reading experience (though I admit I always forget it even exists). The idea behind the News Bar is to give you a news ticker that is either always visible or that you can hide away at will. In order to make sure you don’t forget it, you can choose to have it pop back up in either two or eight hours — or never, if you’re seriously tired of the news right now. Nobody would blame you.

Right now, this is a pretty barebones affair, without the ability to really personalize the news you see beyond the country you are in. What you can do is select some stocks you want to monitor and over time, Microsoft will add weather and sports options (hopefully with the ability to turn off sports news, because who cares, right?). It’d be nice to at least get some sense of what’s breaking news in the news bar, but as of now, there are no timestamps attached to the updates.
If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember Windows Active Desktop, PointCast and Wired’s (in)famous Push cover story. Somehow this Microsoft News Bar feels a bit reminiscent of that and it seems a bit old-school to have a moving ticker on your desktop in 2020. But if that’s your style, you can now give this new experience a try by downloading the application from the Microsoft Store.

Airbnb rolls out new features aimed at its next big bet: longer term stays

Airbnb is tweaking its landing page and introducing new features all aimed at longer-term stays, as the online rental marketplace looks to capitalize on a growing segment of its business.
The changes are being rolled out just days after Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said the company had raised $1 billion and laid out plans to direct its attention and new funds toward three core products: hosts, long-term stays and Airbnb experiences. Airbnb raised the $1 billion in debt and equity from private equity firms Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners.
Chesky acknowledged Monday that while the desire to connect and travel has been reinforced during this time, the “way it manifests will evolve as the world changes.”
Airbnb is betting how and where people work will evolve; in the company’s view, it’s heading towards longer term stays. Recent data shared by Airbnb supports that view. In last two weeks of March, the company saw the number of guests booking longer-term stays within their same cities nearly double. Meanwhile, 80% of Airbnb hosts now accept longer-term stays and about half of the company’s active listings now provide discounts for stays of one month or longer.
On Thursday, Airbnb will change its main landing page to highlight longer-term stays. The company introduced a new notification hosts to educate them on the benefits of longer-term stays as well as a guide to update their listings to accept these types of bookings. Airbnb has decided to make that a permanent feature in the portal that hosts use to manage their listings.
Image Credits: Airbnb
When the new landing page launches Thursday, Airbnb will have more than 1 million listings that offer monthly stays, according to the company. These homes are equipped with the kinds of amenities required for a longer stay such as kitchens, laundry facilities, and wifi.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted travel and sparked a need among healthcare and other essential workers to find places to stay in their own cities, has contributed to that growth.
However, it appears this trend was already afoot in 2019. According to Airbnb, one in every seven nights booked in 2019 was for a longer-term stay.
The push into longer term stays will likely butt up against property management companies that handle traditional one-year leases. There’s already some evidence that Airbnb’s longer term stays are looking more like traditional rentals.
The company said it’s seeing more people such as students, doctors and nurses in residency, or others in long term work assignment turning to Airbnb to find housing for six- to nine-month stays. Already in 2020, Airbnb said it has seen bookings for more than 600 days; the longest booking made so far this year was more than 700 days.

Rocket Lab catches an Electron stage in mid-air, demonstrating a key part of its rocket recovery plan

Rocket Lab is in the process of developing a way to recover the rockets it launches, despite their originally being designed as fully expendable launch vehicles. The company had a surprise announcement on Wednesday: It’s actually already managed to successfully catch an Electron in mid-air, during a test meant to prove out the feasibility of that part of the operation.
The whole process involves Rocket Lab employing an onboard guidance system to orient an Electron first stage to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after it has deployed its kick stage and payload, at such an angle that it won’t burn up. After that, the spent stage will deploy a parachute and float back towards Earth, where this mid-air recovery maneuver will come into play, with a helicopter snagging the gently falling rocket component out of the sky and flying it back to Rocket Lab suspended underneath the aircraft.
During this test, which took place earlier in March before the current guidelines around practicing social isolation were in place, Rocket Lab simulated the actual launch component, instead taking an Electron test article that resembles the first stage in size, design and weight, and then dropping that from a first helicopter over the ocean off the coast of New Zealand. A second helicopter then swooped in to capture the test article, after it had deployed its own parachute, when it reached an altitude of around 5,000 feet.
Rocket Lab has already been testing the re-entry portion of its recovery system, first with a launch last December, and then again this January. In both missions, the Electron used during the launch was equipped with guidance and navigation systems for data collection, and in the later mission, the rocket also had a system for reorienting itself to hit the atmosphere at the proper angle to slow its rate of descent.
Those tests proved that part of the process should work as intended, and the next step now that this part has been validated is to attempt to actually recover a first stage, which Rocket Lab intends to do sometime later this year. That will involve having the Electron first stage on a forthcoming mission reorient itself to slow its descent, and actually deploy a parachute, but it won’t include the catch attempt. Instead, Rocket Lab will look to recover the booster from the ocean after it splashes down, and return it to its own facilities for refurbishment and potential re-use.

Netflix launches weekly Instagram Live series about coping during the COVID-19 pandemic

Netflix is launching a new series on Instagram that will focus on taking care of yourself and your mental health during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The series, which will begin airing on Instagram Live tomorrow at 7 PM PT, features the stars of some of Netflix’s top Young Adult shows and movies, including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “The Kissing Booth,” “Stranger Things,” “Cheer,” and “13 Reasons Why.”
The series will run every Thursday from now through May 14 on the @Netflix Instagram account, and will discuss the sort of challenges that young people are facing during the health crisis.
For example, it will touch on topics like “what helps if you’re having trouble sleeping?,” “how do you stay connected during social distancing?,”  “how do we manage anxiety?,” and “what self-care actually means.”
Participating in the effort are stars including Noah Centineo (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), Joey King (The Kissing Booth), Ross Butler (13 Reasons Why), Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), Lana Condor (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), Jerry Harris (Cheer), and Alisha Boe (13 Reasons Why).

The stars will be talking with trusted mental health experts from partner organizations including National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America, The Trevor Project, Crisis Text Line and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The debut episode on Thursday, April 9 at 4:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT will be with Noah Centineo from “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” who will talk with Dr. Ken Duckworth, Chief Medical Officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the topic of self-care.
While Netflix is no stranger to marketing on Instagram, this new live series is less about promoting Netflix’s shows and more about leveraging the existing stars’ power to do some good.
Young people have had their lives upended by the pandemic at a time when their social connections with friends can outweigh those of others, including family members. It has also disrupted major milestones that signify the end of childhood and the stepping into adulthood, like prom and graduation. In other words, the types of struggles young people face when coping with COVID-19 are different from those of adults, who are more concerned about things like job security, getting the bills paid, and their family’s health.
Netflix has released a trailer for the series today that explains the concept and introduces the stars. The company says it will share more details about upcoming episodes on Instagram throughout the month.

 

View this post on Instagram

 
if you’re feeling really stressed and anxious, talking through the realities of this strange and confusing time can be super helpful. starting tomorrow at 4pm PT we’re launching Wanna Talk About It? a weekly LIVE series on our Instagram about how to take care of yourself during a global pandemic. featuring interviews with Netflix talent and mental health experts who will dig into topics like sleep disorders, self care, and anxiety ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ @afspnational, @crisistextline, @mentalhealthamerica, @namicommunicate, @trevorproject
A post shared by Netflix US (@netflix) on Apr 8, 2020 at 7:30am PDT

Zoom sued by shareholder for ‘overstating’ security claims

Zoom has been served with another class action lawsuit — this time by one of its shareholders, who says he lost money after the company “overstated” its security measures, which led its share price to tank.
The video conferencing giant has seen its daily usage rocket from 10 million users to 200 million since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced vast swathes of the world to stay and work from home. As its popularity rose, the company also faced a growing number of security and privacy problems, including claims that Zoom was not end-to-end encrypted as advertised.
Zoom’s later admission saw the company’s share price fall by almost 20 percent.
Shareholder Michael Drieu, who filed the suit in a California federal court on Tuesday, said he and others have “suffered significant losses and damages” as a result. According to the complaint, Drieu bought 50 shares priced at $149.50 but lost out when he sold the shares a week later at $120.50 per share.
Zoom did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s the latest class action served against Zoom in recent weeks. Zoom was slapped with another suit last month after Zoom’s iOS app was found to have shared data with Facebook — even when users did not have a Facebook account.
Zoom has doubled down on its efforts to improve its image in the past week, including a promise to improve its encryption efforts and by changing its default settings to prevent trolls and intruders from accessing Zoom calls without permission, coined “Zoombombing.”
Just today, former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos said he joined Zoom as an advisor. Zoom also said it has enlisted security experts and leaders to advise on the company’s security strategy.

Zoom admits some calls were routed through China by mistake

Talking venture, B2B and thesis-driven investment with Work-Bench’s Jon Lehr

Earlier this week, the Equity crew caught up with Work-Bench investor Jon Lehr to get his take on the current market, and how his firm goes about making investment decisions.
The conversation was a treat, so we cut a piece of it off for everyone to listen to. The full audio and a loose transcript are also available after the jump.
What did Danny and Alex learn while talking to Lehr? A few things, including what Seed II-level investments need these days to be attractive (Hint: It’s not a raw ARR threshold), and what’s going on in SaaS today (deals slowing, but not for select founders; relationships are key to doing deals today), and why being a VC is actually work.
But what stood out the most was how Lehr thinks about finding investment opportunities. While some VCs like to cultivate images of being gut-investors, cutting checks based on first meetings and the like, Lehr told TechCrunch about how he researches the market to find pain-points, and then the startups that might solve those issues.
You can listen to that bit of the chat in the clip below:

Extra Crunch subscribers, the rest of the goodies are below. (A big thanks to Danny for cleaning up the written transcript.)
The audio

Mozilla names long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker as CEO

Mozilla Corporation announced today that it has chosen long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker to be CEO, replacing Chris Beard who announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year last August.
Baker represents a logical choice to lead the company. At a time of great turmoil in the world at large, she brings the stability of someone who has been with Mozilla Corporation since 2003. Writing in a company blog post, she certainly recognized the challenges ahead, navigating through the current economic uncertainty and the competitive challenges the company faces with its flagship Firefox browser..
“It’s a time of challenge on many levels, there’s no question about that. Mozilla’s flagship product remains excellent, but the competition is stiff. The increasing vertical integration of internet experience remains a deep challenge. It’s also a time of need, and of opportunity. Increasingly, numbers of people recognize that the internet needs attention,” Baker wrote.
Baker has been acting as interim CEO since December when Beard officially left the company. In a blog post from the board announcing Baker’s official new title, they certainly recognized that it would take someone with her unique combination of skills and experience to guide the company through this next phase.
“Mitchell’s deep understanding of Mozilla’s existing businesses gives her the ability to provide direction and support to drive this important work forward,” they wrote. Adding, “And her leadership style grounded in openness and honesty is helping the organization navigate through the uncertainty that COVID-19 has created for Mozillians at work and at home.”
Mozilla Corporation was founded in 1998 and is best known for its flagship, open source Firefox browser. The company faces stiff competition in the browser market from Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard will step down at the end of the year

Google makes Stadia Pro free for two months

Google’s game-streaming service Stadia will be free to access for the next two months, the company announced today. Assuming you’ve got a compatible device and controller — and good internet in one of the 14 supported countries — you can sign up right now and get the “Pro” edition with a handful of built-in games for no cost.
Until today, Stadia was only available via a $129 “Premiere Edition.” In a blog post, the company explained that the intense pressures of the pandemic led them to open up the service.
“We’re facing some of the most challenging times in recent memory. Video games can be a valuable way to socialize with friends and family when you’re stuck at home, so we’re giving gamers in 14 countries free access to Stadia for two months,” writes Stadia VP and GM Phil Harrison.
Not mentioned is the fact that a free version of Stadia has been promised for some months and has failed to appear. It seems that this two month Pro membership is being offered in lieu of a permanent free option for now, and I’ve asked Google for more information on this.
Existing subscribers, who have been vocally critical of the barebones offering they paid a premium to access, will not be charged for the next two months. Also, in order to cope with what will no doubt be a flood of demand, Stadia will be defaulting everyone’s streams to 1080p, though you’ll be able to change that in your preferences. That’s interesting considering YouTube just downgraded its quality worldwide to lower overall bandwidth usage.

YouTube defaults to SD quality worldwide to tame bandwidth surge

For now, though, it won’t do to look a gift horse in the mouth. Stadia is a solid way to play games on a PC, or TV that would normally not be able to do so — an underpowered laptop, for instance. Streaming to your phone or tablet is also an option.
On supported iOS and Android devices, you’ll need to download the app; on computers, you’ll need Chrome; and for a TV you need a Chromecast Ultra — the regular one won’t cut it.
You have to provide your own controller; a list of compatible ones is available here, and while Google’s own Stadia controller is the only one that works with Chromecast, the controllers for the other major consoles generally work for Chrome and Android phones.
As for games, well, that’s a bit confusing. You’ll be getting access to the Stadia Pro tier of membership, which gets a free game every month to keep, like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus. Right now, though, that only amounts to 9 games, though some are pretty great — Destiny 2, SteamWorld Dig 2, Metro Exodus, GRID, and a few more.
If you want to play something like Borderlands 3 or Rise of the Tomb Raider, you’ll have to buy the games on the Stadia marketplace. But the games are then only available to stream through Stadia, and if you ever left the service you would lose access to them.
The fact is Stadia hasn’t yet proven itself to be worth the money for everyone, but a free trial will help potential subscribers decide if the service is for them. You can sign up for your free trial via the main Stadia site here.

Next year in Jerusalem — but for now, Zoom

There will be plenty of jokes. “Why is tonight different from all other nights,” the first of The Four Questions, will almost certainly serve as a laugh line in all but the most serious Seders this year. As for the plague — haven’t we had enough plague talk already?
For Jews across the world, Passover will serve as another attempted return to normalcy. There are few things in the calendar as reliably consistent as Passover, with its customs, prayers and extremely set menu.
Here in the States, Passover is the most commonly celebrated holiday among Jews. According to Pew, roughly 23% of the Jewish American population attend services monthly, while 70% say they attended a Seder a year prior. That the figure includes 42% of non-religious Jews is a testament to how transcendent the consistency and practice can be.
This year, however, things will be different. Because everything is different. It has been clear for some time now that this year’s holiday would be profoundly transformed by COVID-19, first through bans on social gatherings that made religious services an impossibility and ultimately due to international stay at home orders that are keeping many family members apart.
For Passover 2020 (or, 5780, depending on where you start counting), teleconferencing services — Zoom in particular — will have to do in a pinch.
“Judaism does not have a central governing body that can tell individuals or congregations how to respond in this crisis, and in Judaism’s very long relationship with technological development rabbis have almost always been playing catch-up to norms established by the Jewish public; even after the Industrial Revolution, rabbis were rarely the first to respond,” David Zvi Kalman, Fellow in Residence at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America told TechCrunch. “That being said, the religious questions that this pandemic raises are often about how a Jewish community is supposed to function, and so rabbis have an unusually large role to play in shaping the communal response.”
Late last month, a group of 14 orthodox rabbis signed a ruling declaring that families would be allowed to use teleconferencing technology to conduct Seders.
The document cited similar exceptions as those invoked during Shabbat, which otherwise has a blanket ban against the use of technology. “Just as it is permissible for a non-critical patient to receive treatment on Shabbat in order to cure him of illness, such is the case here,” the rabbis explained.
“We have made the decision, in these emergency situations, to knowingly put aside some of the restrictions regarding the use of electronics on Shabbat in order to stay spiritually connected even though we are physically separated,” New York-based Rabbi Rachel Ain told TechCrunch.
She has been among those leading congregations in services for much of the city’s stay at home order. “We have made the decision, in these emergency situations, to knowingly put aside some of the restrictions regarding the use of electronics on Shabbat in order to stay spiritually connected even though we are physically separated,” she add, explaining that the synagogue has explored a wide variety of different avenues.
When Passover begins tonight at sundown, Jews all over the world will be engaged in TeleSeders — most for the first time, including all of the trials, tribulations and novelty that brings. For many Christians, the event will also, perhaps, set an interesting precedent for the upcoming Easter holiday, as Trump’s earlier promises to end the shutdown ahead of then have become increasingly unrealistic.
Like so many aspects of our life, there’s a pervasive question of whether this will ultimately serve as a kind of new normal, going forward. The phrase “Next year in Jerusalem,” sung by many at the Seder’s end, will take on a special sort of diasporic resonance, as many are forced to remain at distance from friends and family.
“While I suspect that virtualized learning will be taken much more seriously after this crisis is over, I think a vast majority of Jews would prefer to attend prayer services in person (at least among those Jews who attend services at all),” Zvi Kalman tells TechCrunch. “A lot of rabbis are definitely worried about setting precedents for virtual community that will end up diminishing in-person gatherings. At the same time, this crisis is causing a lot of rabbis to take social isolation — which isn’t a problem specific to this pandemic — a lot more seriously.”

Bernie Sanders ends his historic campaign for the presidency

On Wednesday, two-time Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders announced that he would end his bid for the party’s nomination, marking an end to a deeply influential progressive political campaign.

Today I am suspending my campaign. But while the campaign ends, the struggle for justice continues on. https://t.co/MYc7kt2b16
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 8, 2020

Sanders built momentum quickly in the 2020 race, with strong early showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, but his momentum was upended when Biden surged back in South Carolina in late February. With the remaining centrist candidates dropping out in quick succession just before Super Tuesday, a blitz of support recharged the lagging Biden campaign as Sanders struggled to build a winning coalition. After Super Tuesday, it became clear that the Sanders campaign was not driving record turnout among young voters, a critical metric for the campaign’s success.
More than any candidate, Sanders reshaped the Democratic race—and often the entire political conversation—pushing the party left with a tireless message of fair wages, universal health care, and financial reform. It’s not a stretch to argue that the policies core to the Sanders campaign could have provided some protection for the U.S. against the existential threat it’s facing now, with record unemployment, dangerous working conditions for hourly and gig workers, and uninsured Americans left out in the cold.
With Elizabeth Warren out of the race, Sanders appeared to pose the last major Democratic threat of sweeping reform to the tech industry, though some comments from Biden in January suggest otherwise. Over the last few years, the tech industry has faced intense scrutiny for its monopolistic tendencies, questionable labor practices, and the failure of social media platforms to prevent Russia from interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. While Republicans and Democrats largely agree that tech needs to be held responsible for its failings, their motivations and proposed reforms don’t always overlap.

Elizabeth Warren, big tech’s sworn foe, drops out of 2020 race

Biden hasn’t suggested that regulating tech would be a central priority for his presidency, but he has stated that breaking up big tech is “something we should take a really hard look at” without making any firm commitment to do so. In January, Biden also said that he believed tech platforms should no longer be shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a deeply controversial policy stance that could upend some of tech’s biggest businesses while causing a cascade of side-effects that could prove extremely consequential for a broad swath of the internet and its users. With Sanders out, Biden will likely be building out his policies with more clarity, and we’ll be following those developments closely.
Sanders’ exit from the 2020 race marks the end of an era, even if his ideals live on in future candidacies. From 2016 to 2020, no Democratic political figure exerted as much influence from the outside, completely transforming the national political conversation. And even out of the race, the leftmost wing of the party Sanders championed continues to wield influence as the 2020 race marches on—influence Biden would be smart to court to expand his support beyond the moderate coalition that paved his way to the nomination.

Lacking eyeballs, Facebook’s ad review system fails to spot coronavirus harm

Facebook’s ad review system is failing to prevent coronavirus misinformation from being targeted at its users, according to an investigation by Consumer Reports.
The not-for-profit consumer advocacy organization set out to test Facebook’s system by setting up a page for a made-up organization, called the Self Preservation Society, and creating ads that contained false or deliberately misleading information about the coronavirus — including messaging that claimed (incorrectly) that people under 30 are “safe”, or that coronavirus is a “HOAX”.
Another of the bogus ads urged people to “stay healthy with SMALL daily doses” of bleach, per the report.
The upshot of the experiment? Facebook’s system waived all the ads through, apparently failing to spot any problems or potential harms. “Facebook approved them all,” writes Consumer Reports . “The advertisements remained scheduled for publication for more than a week without being flagged by Facebook.”
Of course the organization pulled the ads before they were published, saying it made certain no Facebook users were exposed to the false or misleading claims. But the test appears to expose how few barriers there are within Facebook’s current ad review system for picking up and preventing harmful ads targeting the coronavirus pandemic.
The only ad in the experiment Facebook rejected was flagged because of its image, per Consumer Reports — which says it had used a stock shot of a respirator-style face mask. After swapping the image for a “similar alternative” it says Facebook approved that too.
Last month, as part of its own business response to the threat posed by COVID-19, Facebook announced it was sending home all global content reviewers “until further notice” — saying it would be relying on more automated review as a consequence of this decision.
“As we rely more on our automated systems, we may make mistakes,” it wrote then.
Consumer Reports’ investigation highlights how serious those mistakes can be, as a result of Facebook’s decision to lean so heavily on AI moderation — given the company is waiving through clearly harmful messages that urge users to ignore public health advice to stay home and socially distance themselves, or even drink a harmful substance to stay “safe”.
In response to the Consumer Reports investigation Facebook defended itself — saying it has removed “millions” of listings for policy violations related to the coronavirus. Though it also conceded its enforcement around COVID-19 misinformation is far from perfect.
“While we’ve removed millions of ads and commerce listings for violating our policies related to COVID-19, we’re always working to improve our enforcement systems to prevent harmful misinformation related to this emergency from spreading on our services,” a Facebook spokesperson, Devon Kearns, told Consumer Reports.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to specify how many humans it has working on ad review during the coronavirus crisis when we asked. Though the company told Consumer Reports it has a “few thousand” reviewers now able to work from home.
Back in 2018 Facebook reported having some 15,000 people employed doing content review.
It’s never been clear what proportion of those are focused on (user) content review vs ad review. But a “few thousand” vs 15k suggests there has likely been a very considerable drop in the number of eyeballs checking ads. (Pre-COVID, Facebook also liked to refer to having a safety and security team of over 35,000 people globally — with the 15k reviewers sitting within that.)
Facebook’s content review team has clearly shrunk considerably as a result of coronavirus-related disruption to its business. Though the company is refusing to come clean on exactly how many (few) people it has doing content review right now.
It’s also clear that the risk of harm from tools like Facebook’s ad platform — that can be used to easily and cheaply amplify damaging online disinformation — could hardly be higher than during a pandemic, when there is a pressing need for governments and health authorities to be able to communicate facts, official guidance and best practice to their populations to keep them safe.
Facebook’s platform becoming a conduit for false and/or maliciously misleading messaging risks undermining public health at a critical time.
Last month the company was also revealed to have blocked links to legitimate news and other websites that were sharing coronavirus-related content — following its switch to AI-led moderation.
While, in recent weeks, the company has faced criticism for failing to live up to a pledge to take down ads for coronavirus masks.
At the same time, Facebook’s platform remains a hotbed of user generated coronavirus-related misinformation — with individuals widely reported sharing posts that claim bogus home remedies such as gargling with salt water to kill the virus (it doesn’t) or playing down the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic by claiming it’s ‘just the flu’ (it’s not).

Twine aims to end social isolation with its video chat app for deep conversations

A new startup called twine wants to help people feel less isolated and alone. Though the project has been in the works for around six months, it’s launching at a time when people are struggling with being cut off from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting government lockdowns and self-quarantines. Described simply as a “Zoom for meeting new people,” twine is a group video chat experience where people are encouraged to have meaningful discussions that spark new friendships.
In twine, users are matched with four other partners who they’ll then have 1-to-1 conversations with for 8 minutes apiece. The full gathering lasts for a total of 40 minutes, including the virtual guide portion where the ground rules are set.

Participants choose from a library of over 250 “deep” questions, then get matched with partners who want to explore the same topics. They then RSVP for twine’s digital gatherings in their time zone and check in when it’s time to start.
The overall experience is meant to help people find connections by skipping the small talk and going straight to what matters. But the focus is on friendships, not dating. Afterward, users are encouraged to set reminders to get back in touch and meet again in future gatherings.
There’s a hint of Chatroulette to this idea, given that users could be matched to people who are only there to disrupt the experience, in theory at least. But the company aims to reduce the potential for this sort of shock trolling by permanently banning members who are flagged for making others uncomfortable in any sort of way. We also noticed the app asks for your email, phone and zip code during its onboarding process, so it’s not entirely an anonymous experience.

In addition, twine requires users rate each conversation when it ends and members have to pre-approved before joining a chat. The company says it’s looking to move towards “real ID only” in the future to further reduce the potential for trolling.
That said, there’s still a bit of a risk in chatting openly with strangers about highly personal topics. Twine’s guidelines say that conversations are not to be discussed with others, but this is not a doctor-patient relationship with legal protections for confidentiality. It’s just a group chat app with people who may or may not be there to follow the rules.
That said, the internet is currently experiencing a rebirth of sorts, due to COVID-19. People are coming online to look for connections. Social media is actually becoming social. This is an ideal environment to test something as optimistic as twine, which at its core believes people are largely good and will use the technology appropriately.
The idea for twine comes from serial entrepreneurs Lawrence Coburn and Diane Rau. Coburn previously spent the last nine years as founder and CEO of mobile events technology provider DoubleDutch, which was acquired by Cvent in 2019. Rau, meanwhile, was co-founder at CEO of Veterati, a digital mentoring platform for Veterans that had also leveraged 1-to-1 conversations as part of its community-building experience.
The founders already knew each other from the Georgetown entrepreneurship ecosystem. And Coburn was an advisor to Veterati, and Rau had worked at DoubeDutch, as well.

Coburn describes his vision for twine as something in between a new social network and a substitute for those who are spiritual, but not religious, in terms helping people who want to “be better humans.” Rau says she wanted to work on twine to help end loneliness by giving people a place to explore humanity on a one-on-one basis.
The app was originally intended to connect people who would meet up in real-life gatherings, but the coronavirus outbreak shifted those plans and accelerated launch plans.
“Launching a new company during the best of times is really, really hard. During a global pandemic? Yikes!,” wrote Coburn, in a blog post about the launch. “But as the new reality settles in, it has become clear to me that the world needs twine or something like it more than ever. The macro forces that inspired Diana and I to start twine – loneliness, polarization, isolation – will only be exacerbated by social distancing. A societal loneliness that was already classified as an epidemic pre coronavirus, is about to get way, way worse,” he added.
The startup is backed by $1.4 million in seed funding, closed on March 12, led by DoubleDutch investor, Hinge Capital. Other investors from DoubleDutch have also returned to fund twine, including FJ Labs, Brand Foundry, and Bragiel Brothers. Angels in the round include April Underwood (Slack), Jay Hoffmann (Rocketmiles), Scott Heiferman (Meetup), and Vishal Kapur (Screenhero).
In the future, twine aims to be subscription-based and launch real-life gatherings, as originally planned, when it’s safe to do so.
The app is currently in private beta on iOS and web. Currently, it has a waitlist of around 1,000 users mainly from New York City and San Francisco, but twine will be available worldwide.

France is officially working on ‘Stop Covid’ contact-tracing app

France’s health minister Olivier Véran and digital minister Cédric O have officially announced that the French government is working on a smartphone app to slow the spread of coronavirus. The government is putting a stamp of approval on the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project but remains cautious about what to expect from an app.
Using mobile apps to track the coronavirus is a sensitive issue in Europe. Dozens of nonprofit organizations have written a common statement urging governments to respect human rights.
They fear that governments could use this opportunity to enforce far-reaching surveillance measures that don’t comply with the regulatory framework and that remain in place after the coronavirus crisis. The European Commission reminded governments that they should implement “appropriate safeguards” as EU citizens are not going to trust contact-tracing apps if they don’t treat personal information appropriately.
That’s probably why the government is preventively trying to reassure people before releasing the Stop Covid app. According to a statement, the Ministry for the Digital Sector says that it is working with the Health Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation to coordinate tech-based initiatives.
Led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), the PEPP-PT project that was unveiled last week is a coalition of dozens of research institutions across multiple countries. France’s INRIA is a member of the PEPP-PT and the French government is willing to collaborate with the INRIA as part of the PEPP-PT effort.
They’re working on an open standard to develop contact-tracing apps. Those apps would rely on Bluetooth Low Energy to identify other phones running the same app. If, at some point, you are near an infected person, you would be notified.
And the French government says that there will be an app specifically designed to track people living in France. That app will leverage the PEPP-PT protocol.
People in favor of contact-tracing apps say that it would help break infection chains if you combine those apps with proactive tests and self-isolations.
In an interview with Le Monde, Cédric O and Olivier Véran detailed the effort. France isn’t going to force you to install the app and Stop Covid is only going to use Bluetooth. A prototype is in the works, but it’s going to take three to six weeks to develop.
Even then, the French government might not even release the app. “We’re not sure that we can overcome all the technical difficulties because Bluetooth hasn’t been designed to measure the distance between individuals. We will decide later if it would be useful to roll out such an application or not,” Cédric O told Le Monde.
When it comes to privacy, Cédric O says the app will be open-source and France’s privacy watchdog the CNIL will have a say. We’ve reached out to the CNIL for comment but the agency said it was too early to comment.
More importantly, details are still thin on the implementation of the PEPP-PT protocol in France. Privacy experts are debating the design of the system. Some argue that it should be as decentralized as possible. Smartphones should keep a log of your social interactions (via ephemeral Bluetooth identifiers). Your phone would regularly fetch a list of infected ephemeral Bluetooth identifiers and do the heavy lifting.
The PEPP-PT project currently supports centralized and decentralized approaches, which means that governments have to decide on an implementation. In a centralized system, a server would assign each user an anonymized identifier and collect data about your social interactions. Each user would be able to fetch the status of its identifier to check whether they’ve been potentially infected or not. It creates a single point of failure and presents risks if someone is able to match anonymized identifiers with real names.

EU privacy experts push a decentralized approach to COVID-19 contacts tracing

The Ministry for the Digital Sector also detailed how France is leveraging tech in general to understand the coronavirus outbreak, improve COVID-19 treatments and plan the end of the lockdown in France.
In addition to the app that is currently in the works, the French government has rolled out an official website to inform people, is encouraging telemedicine services to treat patients (such as Covidom from public hospitals in Paris), is mining aggregated data from telecom companies to understand how people move around the country and is leveraging machine learning on big data to forecast the coronavirus outbreak.

Daily Crunch: Jack Dorsey announces $1B relief fund

The CEO of Twitter and Square makes a major commitment to COVID-19 relief, Tesla shuts down its U.S. factories until May and PlayStation unveils its latest controller. Here’s your Daily Crunch for April 8, 2020.
1. Jack Dorsey creates $1B COVID-19 relief fund using Square equity
Jack Dorsey announced in a series of tweets that he is shifting $1 billion in his Square equity to create a fund dedicated to COVID-19 relief. The Twitter and Square CEO is calling the fund Start Small and posting a tally of disbursements and recipients in a public spreadsheet.
The first Start Small contribution listed is $100,000 to America’s Food Fund — an effort led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Laurene Powell Jobs dedicated to providing meals to vulnerable populations disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns expected to last until May 4
Tesla will suspend production at its U.S. factories until at least May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night.
3. PlayStation 5’s new DualSense controller is a sleek and futuristic gaming accessory
Sony has revealed the design of the PlayStation 5‘s controller. It’s a follow-on to its popular DualShock line that takes on a new name for a new generation: DualSense. The DualSense controller is kitted out in black and white, and in some ways looks like a futuristic, plastic armor-plated robot companion more than a gamepad.
4. Netflix now lets you lock your personal profile with a PIN to keep kids (and roommates) out
Want to let your kids poke around Netflix without them wandering their way beyond the kids section? Got a roommate who keeps inexplicably forgetting to use their profile and is totally screwing up your “Continue Watching” list? This is good news for you.
5. Dear Sophie: Is unemployment considered a public benefit?
Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column from Silicon Valley immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn. This time, she looks at whether getting unemployment benefits would hurt a green card petition — yours or your spouse’s — under the new public charge rule. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
6. Target’s Shipt shoppers walked off work
Yesterday, Shipt’s shoppers walked off work in protest of the way it has treated shoppers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa-based shopper Angie Kufner told TechCrunch, “Unless you get tested for COVID-19 or you’re half dead, Shipt’s not going to care.”
7. Borderlands 3 bridges the gap between citizen science and blockbuster games
Borderlands 3 publisher 2K and developer Gearbox Software is elevating the series’ latest game to lofty new ideals with a new in-game experience called Borderlands Science, a crowdsourced citizen science project that will leverage the hit game’s massive player base to conduct actual scientific research.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Fintech’s uneven new reality has helped some startups, harmed others

Fintech startups were hot news before the COVID-19 era, but the pandemic hasn’t bumped the sector out of the headlines.
Companies that were pitching optimistic news a few weeks ago are now cutting staff. Others are facing a surge of users trying to find their financial footing in the face of uncertainty. Some fintech shops are sharing data by the heap, while others refuse to disburse even a morsel. 
And what about all those credit card startups?
As a startup category, fintech is in a complex spot as the global markets shed value. Small businesses hampered by shelter-in-place orders are scrambling for alternate capital sources and individuals are eager to secure their financial health.
It’s a time of utmost use — or uselessness — for fintech solutions.
To make sense of all the changes, we dug our teeth into several news stories. We also collected and peppered in fresh data from a host of startups in the space and mixed in commentary from investor Kyle Lui of DCM, a venture firm that invested in the recent (and successful) fintech IPO of Bill.com.
So here’s a brief, contentedly complete look at the world of fintech. We’ll start with who we know is struggling, move on to companies that are either quiet or unclear in their recent performance and we’ll close with some companies that are performing well in the odd world we find ourselves in.
Who is struggling?
The snap from rapid growth and layoffs was rapid for many players in the space. A number of firms that we’ve covered recently have rapidly seen their fortunes change.

Thrive gives loans to students based on summer internships and job offers

Thrive, founded by Twitter alumni Deepak Rao and Siddarth Batra, wants to fund student expenses by looking at job offer letters as a way to evaluate loans. Today, it launched its loan platform and is accessible to students on over 400 campuses across 31 states.
The San Francisco company helps underfunded students, a group that isn’t typically accounted for by traditional financial institutions that issue loans based on credit score. According to co-founder Rao, Thrive is for people like “first generation Americans, people who come from low-income families, or first generation students.”
Before launching broadly, Thrive secured $10.25 million in funding and $5 million in venture debt. Today, the company also announced that it has picked up a $200 million credit line from Credit Suisse.
Investors include Max Levchin, founder of PayPal and Affirm, Adam Bain, former COO of Twitter, and David Sacks, a general partner at Craft Ventures.
“We started the company with the mission to invest in human potential,” Rao said. “We basically built a product that empowers underfunded students and gives them access to funds for whatever things they need in order to transition into their professional lives.”
The cash can be used flexibly for items like new laptops or flights home.
Students can sign up on the platform and upload an offer letter for an upcoming summer internship or full time college postgraduate offer. Thrive validates the document then offers a loan to the students.
For an internship, Thrive unlocks 25% of the student’s total internship salary for a loan. For a full-time job, Thrive will offer 25% of an individual’s first three months’ salary.

Thrive charges students between $7 to $15 per every $1,000 they receive per month, and they’re allowed to take as much as they need from the dollar amount that Thrive offers them. If you take $1,000 and your internship starts in three months, and if you want to pay it back in one go, you have to pay between $21 to $45 above the $1,000 when you pay it back.
Once students prove they’re soon going to be employed, they can access the funds within one business day and then start paying back Thrive once they start their new job.
Thrive’s payback structure is similar to the income-sharing format that a company like Lambda School uses. Lambda School says it gives students the option to pay zero dollars for tuition, and then pay 17% of their salary they earn from a job that pays a minimum of $50,000 annually for two years.
So while it’s not new to bet on salary, Thrive is looking at turning the concept of incoming sharing on its head and applying it to loan financing.

Lambda School aims to cash in by upskilling untapped talent

When they founded  the company in 2017, Rao and Batra were both classmates at Stanford and then co-workers at Twitter. Rao comes from a low income family, so he personally felt the blow of costs that come with being a grad student in the United States, from flying home to paying for your laptop. Or just even dinner.
Thrive declined to share specific financials or comment on profitability. Rao did say that the company is growing “5 times year over year” and has enough funds to avoid raising venture capital until the end of 2021.
“Our biggest expense is the ability to fund loans, and we are not funding loans through equity money,” Rao said. “At the end of the day, it’s like a software business, our biggest cost is the cost of goods, which is capital, and someone else is funding the capital.”
Not needing more venture capital might be especially helpful as we enter a time of economic uncertainty due to COVID-19. Unlike other fintech companies, which have had to harshen their underwriting standards to prepare for risk due to the uncertain economy, Rao tells TechCrunch that Thrive will not change how willing they are to write loans.
Some tech internships have been canceled due to COVID-19, he noted, and if students have had an offer rescinded, Thrive “updates the payment plan accordingly.”
“As long as your internship is still active, your offer is still issued,” he said. That doesn’t matter whether the intern will be remote or in-person.
Thrive is expanding its business as undergraduate and graduate students are entering a job market with historically high unemployment. We’ll see how a tough job market impacts a company that depends on offer letters for loans, and whether their bet on alternative financing pays off.

Box adds automated malware detection to Box Shield security product

With more folks working at home than ever, and many on machines outside the purview of IT and security teams, it’s becoming increasingly imperative to find creative ways to protect them from harm. Today, Box announced it was adding automated malware detection tools to Box Shield, the security product it announced last year.
Aaron Levie, CEO at Box, says that it’s important to find new ways of thinking about security, especially with millions of people suddenly working at home using cloud solutions.
“As people have begun working from home in greater numbers, you’re seeing an increase in malware and phishing attacks. [Bad actors] are starting to spread these security vulnerabilities in a much more aggressive manner, and so we’re launching Box Shield with malware protection built-in with advanced tools and policies around that malware detection,” he said.
The company is taking a three-pronged approach with this solution. For starters, it will let users view a file without actually having to download it first, while indicating if there is a risk associated with it. Next, it will actually prevent users from downloading a file with malware attached, and finally it will alert the security team when a file with malware has been uploaded to Box.
The idea is to keep the file from infecting whatever device that employees are working on, alerting end users when there is a problem, while letting them see the content of the file gives them all the information they need to know if the file is actually legitimate in the first place.
It’s so much easier right now to be spreading this kind of malicious package with people working from home, and sharing files at a far greater rate than ever before. This new feature is designed to give everyone in the loop from the end user to the IT security team some confidence that they can know when files are infected or not and keep them from proliferating inside of Box.

Box introduces Box Shield with increased security controls and threat protection

Founder worries increase as investors pump the brakes

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
So far, 2020 has proven to be a year of surprises and disappointments. Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Toast go from raising huge new rounds this year at heightened valuations to layoffs in mere months. TripActions is another example. Indeed, BounceX went from a rebrand and an announcement that it had reached $100 million ARR earlier this year to layoffs as well.
TechCrunch has been talking to VCs, founders and all sorts of folks to figure out what they are seeing in the market as we race to learn more about venture and startups in the COVID-19 era. To further that goal, this morning we’re going to run a survey of surveys, looking at sentiment and performance data collected by valuation shop Preferred Return, NFX, a venture firm, and 500 Startups, a startup accelerator and investing group.
As a bit of a spoiler, there aren’t too many smiles ahead. But march forward we must.
Rewinding the clock

Instacart adds new features aimed at opening more delivery windows

Instacart today is rolling out new ordering options aimed at unlocking more delivery windows amid a surge of demand for its online grocery service due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company is introducing “fast & flexible” and “order ahead” options, which will shift lower priority orders further out on the schedule. This, in turn, allows Instacart shoppers to instead focus on those with more immediate needs while still guaranteeing a time slot for others in less of a rush.
The first new feature, “fast & flexible,” allows Instacart to control the delivery window assignment.
Instead of picking a time slot on a given day, you’re given a range of dates when your order could arrive. This works well for those who are now working from home and sheltering-in-place as recommended by their local governments. Instacart will then match the order with the first available delivery time, it says.
That’s not likely going to be a time at the beginning of the delivery window in the markets where there’s heavy demand, however. In those cases, it’s more likely this feature will allow Instacart to push deliveries back for several days without angering customers because they’ve already opted-in to the extended window.
In tests of the feature when we spotted it earlier this week, there wasn’t a financial advantage for picking the new option either — it was the same price as the other time slots. That may not always be the case, though.

It’s savvy marketing on Instacart’s part to label this as a “fast” option, when it’s really about customers identifying themselves as someone who’s willing to wait.
The second new option is an extended Order ahead feature that lets customers plan their order up to two weeks in advance, instead of just one, as before.
This will be useful for those who hunt for recipes and plan their meals, then place one large order timed with their payday. It’s also handy as a way to grab a guaranteed time slot in advance, then build your cart in the weeks that follow as you think of things you need to buy.
This feature is already live in some high-demand markets and will roll out across North America in the next few weeks.
The changes arrive at a time when online grocery demand is at record levels. According to Instacart, customer demand is up 300% year-over-year, and its shopper community has grown from 200,000 to 350,000 active shoppers. It’s also hiring in customer service to meeting the growing demand, it says.
The influx of new customers has also led to a number of difficulties with shopping online for groceries. Instacart and others have seen delays and customers have reported issues in finding a time slot. In some cases, customers have even resorted to trying to hack the system by “tip baiting” in order to get a shopper to grab their order first. Tip baiting involves adding a large tip in advance — something the Instacart gig workers see before choosing to claim a batch — then adjusting it after the order is delivered to a smaller amount.
This is a cruel trick, to be sure, but so is the fact that Instacart’s default tip is so low that shoppers feel they have to pick orders based on who’s promising to tip the best. That puts people who are struggling to afford online grocery at a disadvantage — and some of these people may be unable to go to stores because they’re high-risk category for coronavirus complications. With a built-in, standardized and acceptable tip, the playing field would even out.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Instacart has introduced more than 15 new product and support features, including contactless deliveries (including for alcohol), and other features like in-app incident reporting for shoppers, ratings forgiveness for shoppers, automatic cancellation of out-of-stock orders, mobile checkout for shoppers, in-app customer issue review for shoppers, and more.
The new features are live now with some markets still to come.
 
 

Builder.ai launches pre-packaged apps for small businesses hit by COVID-19

Last year Builder.ai raised one of Europe’s largest Series A investments at $29.5 million, led by Lakestar and Jungle Ventures, with participation from SoftBank’s DeepCore. The company’s platform, which allows for the fast-build of software and apps, has been used to create products for BBC, DiditFor, Manscore and ZikTruck.
It’s now launching ‘The Studio Store’, a new range of pre-packaged apps — beginning with e-commerce and delivery — aimed specifically at small businesses hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first apps will serve e-commerce and delivery – such as flower shops, grocery stores and clothiers – and will be fast-tracked in less than eight weeks. The first three months of live service will also be bundled in for free.
Sachin Dev Duggal, co-founder and CEO said: “Businesses need to adapt to survive… However, while businesses recognize this, a lack of skills, coding or technical knowledge has traditionally been a barrier… We make it as easy and as affordable as possible for businesses to amplify their digital presence.”
The e-commerce app allows retailers to showcase their goods with a scrollable carousel and offer a wide range of secure payment methods. The app includes features that will handle most e-commerce experiences. The delivery app has features including payment integration, in-app notifications and FedEx integration.
The Studio Store apps are currently offered in English and will cost $500 per month, although Builder.ai says it will not take any cut of sales or transaction fees (other than those charged directly by a payment gateway). all that’s required will be a one-month deposit at the beginning of the engagement. Unlike other SaaS providers, the customer gets a copy of the code after 24 months of use.
The move followed the launch last year of Builder Now, an instant prototyping tool that helps anyone design an app in as little as 10 minutes. I’ve seen it done live, and to build an MVP, or even a more sophisticated app, it’s far faster than I would have imagined.
After research, the company found 20% of all app features make up 80% of all apps. So by categorizing those and putting them into what is effectively a pick-and-mix store, they could massively decrease the time to build an app.
Builder.ai competes at a certain level with Gigster, albeit it buys in excess capacity from over 100 dev shops in 10 timezones, as opposed to being a consulting shop.

Apply today to be a TC Top Pick at Disrupt SF 2020

Opportunity’s a hot currency, and every early-stage startup founder’s on the lookout for it. Anything and everything that can help bring the dream to fruition, right? You’ll find three days packed with opportunity at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2020 on September 14-16. Care to know how you can super-size your Disrupt opportunity?
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first an important note. We know COVID-19 has created challenges, but Disrupt SF is still on schedule (keep tabs on our updates here). Like startup founders everywhere, we quickly learn where, when and how to pivot. Case in point, check out our new Disrupt Digital Pass option.
Apply to be a TC Top Pick. If you’re selected, you’ll receive a VIP experience that includes, among other awesome perks, a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. Yup, one full day exhibiting your startup to thousands of attendees including eager investors, tech journalists, potential customers, partners and a host of experts across the startup spectrum. You never know where the connections you make as a TC Top Pick will take you.
Here’s how our Top Picks program works. Applying won’t cost you a thing, and it’s a simple process. Earning the coveted TC Top Pick designation is much more difficult. TechCrunch editors have a keen eye for spotting success potential, and they’ll review every application. They’re searching for the very best startups that fall into the following categories:
Artificial Intelligence + Machine Learning, Biotech + Healthtech, Enterprise + SaaS, Fintech, Mobility, Retail + E-commerce, Robotics, Hardware + IOT, Security + Privacy, Social Impact + Education, and Space.
Ultimately, they’ll choose up to three startups to represent each category. That means if they determine only two startups meet their exacting standards, they won’t pick a third just to fill out a category.
The Top Picks cohort exhibits in a dedicated space within Startup Alley. It’s prime real estate to showcase your tech and talent in a big way. But don’t just take our word for it. Listen to what this founder had to say about this aspect of his Top Pick experience.
“Top Picks is a valuable platform. The dedicated exhibit area draws lots of people who want to see which startups were selected and what they offer. We got great exposure and spoke to lots of end users, potential customers, investors and even large organizations interested in our technology.” — Joel Neidig, founder of SIMBA Chain.
Top Pick designees also receive three complimentary Founder passes to Disrupt SF 2020. That gives you and yours more opportunity to network, attend presentations and experience our epic pitch competition, Startup Battlefield.
Perhaps one of the best opportunities associated with the Top Picks program offers lasting benefits long after the conference ends. A TechCrunch editor interviews every TC Top Pick — live on the Showcase Stage in Startup Alley. We record the interview, edit the video and promote it across our social media platforms. It drives traffic to your website, and it’s yours to use as a long-term marketing tool.
If you’re not in a competitive mood and simply want to attend Disrupt SF 2020, be sure to buy your early bird ticket now and, depending on the pass you buy, save up to $1,800.
TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2020 takes place on September 14-16. Wring every ounce of opportunity out of your Disrupt experience and apply to be a TC Top Pick today. We can’t wait to see what you’ve got!
TechCrunch is mindful of the COVID-19 issue and its impact on live events. You can follow our updates here.
Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt San Francisco 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Move fast, make things – UK fintech’s response to the coronavirus crisis continues

The U.K.’s fintech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far might best be described as “move fast, [and] make things,” as multiple and sometimes impromptu teams roll out financial technology solutions to help combat the crisis.
Last month, I reported on “Covid Credit,” a project that saw dozens of volunteers from the wider U.K. fintech community build a working prototype to enable freelancers and sole traders to self-certify lost income, in a bid to help the government administer potential compensation.
Since then, a U.K. government grant scheme for self-employed has been announced, prompting employees at Countingup to build a handy “Coronavirus Calculator” that lets you see how much support you could be entitled to to help with financial planning.
Similarly, for U.K. companies — including startups — that need to furlough employees in a bid for survival, Pento’s team have created a “Coronavirus Furlough HMRC Claim Calculator” to help you work out how much will be covered by the U.K. government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for each employee.
Meanwhile, SeedLegals, though not technically a fintech, has made legal documentation available to ensure you furlough employs legally.
And just launched this morning, Starling Bank has rolled out the “Connected card,” a second debit card connected to your existing Starling current account that you can give out to friends, family and carers to shop on your behalf if you are self-isolating. Astutely, the card is protected with a balance limit of £200 and can be tracked and administered within the Starling mobile app.
Save My Local
Lastly, comes a gigantic effort from another group of fintech volunteers designed to help save local businesses. Dubbed Save My Local, the free website aims to help local businesses generate much-needed cash flow by selling vouchers to loyal customers that can be used for future purchases.
A tweet from entrepreneur Jason Bates (11:FS, Starling, Monzo) inspired Mike Kelly (CEO of Curl.app) to take action and make the idea a reality. Within a week, a team of 20+ volunteers had formed and a first version of the product was “designed, built, and shipped; with businesses signed up and processing orders,” say the group.
The idea is that the vouchers will be redeemable when the coronavirus U.K. lockdown is over, and in the interim will enable small business owners to generate enough cash to stay afloat. Of course, for those purchasing vouchers, there is some risk that a business could still go bust, so it’s best to see this as a somewhat altruistic endeavour, even if in many instances it is a desperately needed one.
The Save My Local group say they are currently recruiting small businesses to test the free voucher platform and if successful can scale to meet demand. They have already had requests for collaboration from groups in Australia, Israel and other countries to see if the solution can be shared more broadly.

Call for common EU approach to apps and data to fight COVID-19 and protect citizens’ rights

The European Commission has responded to the regional scramble for apps and data to help tackle the coronavirus crisis by calling for a common EU approach to boost the effectiveness of digital interventions and ensure key rights and freedoms are respected.
The European Union’s executive body wants to ensure Member States’ individual efforts to use data and tech tools to combat COVID-19 are aligned and can interoperate across borders — and therefore be more effective, given the virus does not respect national borders.
Current efforts by governments across the EU to combat the virus are being hampered by the fragmentation of approaches, it warns.
At the same time its recommendation puts a strong focus on the need to ensure that fundamental EU rights do not get overridden in the rush to mitigate the spread of the virus — with the Commission urging public health authorities and research institutions to observe a key EU legal principle of data minimization when processing personal data for a coronavirus purpose.
Specifically it writes that these bodies should apply what it calls “appropriate safeguards” — listing pseudonymization, aggregation, encryption and decentralization as examples of best practice. 
The Commission’s thinking is that getting EU citizens to trust digital efforts — such as the myriad of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps now in development — will be key to their success by helping to drive uptake and usage, which means core rights like privacy take on additional significance at a moment of public health crisis.
Commenting in a statement, commissioner for the EU’s internal market, Thierry Breton said: “Digital technologies, mobile applications and mobility data have enormous potential to help understand how the virus spreads and to respond effectively. With this Recommendation, we put in motion a European coordinated approach for the use of such apps and data, without compromising on our EU privacy and data protection rules, and avoiding the fragmentation of the internal market. Europe is stronger when it acts united.”
“Europe’s data protection rules are the strongest in the world and they are fit also for this crisis, providing for exceptions and flexibility. We work closely with data protection authorities and will come forward with guidance on the privacy implications soon,” added Didier Reynders, the commissioner for justice, in another supporting statement. “We all must work together now to get through this unprecedented crisis. The Commission is supporting the Member States in their efforts to fight the virus and we will continue to do so when it comes to an exit strategy and to recovery. In all this, we will continue to ensure full respect of Europeans’ fundamental rights.”
Since Europe has fast-followed China to become a secondary epicenter for the SARS-CoV-2 virus there has been a rush by governments, institutions and the private sector to grab data and technologies to try to map the spread of the virus and inform policy responses. The Commission itself has leant on telcos to provide anonymized and aggregated user location data for COVID-19 tracking purposes.
Some individual Member States have gone further — calling in tech companies to ask directly for resources and/or data, with little public clarity on what exactly is being provided. Some governments have even rushed out apps that apply individual-level location tracking to enforce quarantine measures.
Multiple EU countries also have contacts tracing apps in the works — taking inspiration from Singapore’s TraceTogether app which users Bluetooth proximity as a proxy for infection risk.
With so much digital activity going on — and huge economic and social pressure for a ‘coronavirus fix’ — there are clear risks to privacy and civil liberties. Governments, research institutions and the private sector are all mobilizing to capture health-related data and track people’s location like never before, all set against the pressing backdrop of a public health emergency.
The Commission warned today that some of the measures being taken by certain (unnamed) countries — such as location-tracking of individuals; the use of technology to rate an individual’s level of health risk; and the centralization of sensitive data — risk putting pressure on fundamental EU rights and freedoms.
Its recommendation emphasizes that any restrictions on rights must be justified, proportionate and temporary.
Any such restrictions should remain “strictly limited” to what is necessary to combat the crisis and should not continue to exist “without an adequate justification” after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, it adds.
It’s not alone in expressing such concerns.
In recent days bottom-up efforts have emerged out of EU research institutions with the aim of standardizing a ‘privacy-preserving’ approach to coronavirus contacts tracing.
One coalition of EU technologists and scientists led by institutions in Germany, Switzerland and France, is pushing a common approach that they’re hoping will get baked into such apps to limit risks. They’ve called the effort: PEPP-PT (Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing).
However a different group of privacy experts is simultaneously pushing for a decentralized method for doing the same thing (DP-3T) — arguing it’s a better fit with the EU’s data protection model as it doesn’t require pseudonymized IDs to be centralized on a server. Instead storage of contacts and individual infection risk processing would be decentralized — performed locally, on the user’s device — thereby shrinking the risk of such a system being repurposed to carry out state-level surveillance of citizens.
Although the backers of this protocol accept it does not erase all risk; with the potential for tech savvy hackers to intercept the pseudonymized IDs of infected people at the point they’re being broadcast to devices for local processing, for instance. (While health authorities may be more accustomed to the concept of centralizing data to secure it, rather than radically distributing it.)
Earlier this week, one of the technologists involved in the PEPP-PT project told us it intends to support both approaches — centralized and decentralized — in order to try to maximize international uptake, allowing developers to make their own choice of preferred infrastructure.
Though questions remain over achieving interoperability between different models.
Per its recommendation, the Commission looks to be favoring a decentralized model — as the closest fit with the EU’s rights framework.

The European Commission Recommendation on Bluetooth COVID-19 proximity tracing apps specifically notes that they should apply decentralisation as a key data minimisation safeguard, in line with #DP3T. https://t.co/ksL1Obc8My pic.twitter.com/Vb3jTLbeo9
— Michael Veale (@mikarv) April 8, 2020

In a section of its recommendation paper on privacy and data protection for “COVID-19 mobile warning and prevention applications” it also states a preference for preference for “safeguards ensuring respect for fundamental rights and prevention of stigmatization”; and for “the least intrusive yet effective measures”.

The EU will support privacy-respecting #COVIDー19 application for contact tracing “least intrusive yet effective measures” pic.twitter.com/nNdQEGNatd
— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) April 8, 2020

The Commission’s recommendation also stresses the importance of keeping the public informed.
“Transparency and clear and regular communication, and allowing for the input of persons and communities most affected, will be paramount to ensuring public trust when combating the COVID-19 crisis,” it warns. 
The Commission is proposing a joint toolbox for EU Member States to encourage the development of a rights-respecting, coordinated and common approach to smartphone apps for tracing COVID-19 infections — which will consist of [emphasis its]:
specifications to ensure the effectiveness of mobile information, warning and tracing applications from a medical and technical point of view;
measures to avoid proliferation of incompatible applications, support requirements for interoperability and promotion of common solutions;
governance mechanisms to be applied by public health authorities and in cooperation with the European Centre for Disease Control;
the identification of good practices and mechanisms for exchange of information on the functioning of the applications; and
sharing data with relevant epidemiological public bodies, including aggregated data to ECDC.
It also says it will be providing guidance for Member States that will specifically cover off data protection and privacy implications — another clear signal of concerns.
“The Commission is in close contact with the European Data Protection Board [EDPB] for an overview of the processing of personal data at national level in the context of the coronavirus crisis,” it adds.
Yesterday, following a plenary meeting of the EU data watchdogs body, the EDPB announced that it’s assigned expert subgroups to work on developing guidance on key aspects of data processing in the fight against COVID-19 — including for geolocation and other tracing tools in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, with its technology expert subgroup leading the work.
While a compliance, e-government and health expert subgroup is also now working on guidance for the processing of health data for research purposes in the coronavirus context.
These are the two areas the EDPB said it’s prioritizing at this time, putting planned guidance for teleworking tools and practices during the current crisis on ice for now.
“I strongly believe data protection and public health go hand in hand,” said EDPB chair, Andrea Jelinek, in a statement: “The EDPB will move swiftly to issue guidance on these topics within the shortest possible notice to help make sure that technology is used in a responsible way to support and hopefully win the battle against the corona pandemic.”
The Commission also wants a common approach for modelling and predicting the spread of COVID-19 too — and says the toolbox will focus on developing this via the use of “anonymous and aggregated mobile location data” (such as it has been asking EU operators to provide).
“The aim is to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts, and hence the risks of contamination,” it writes. “This will be an important and proportionate input for tools modelling the spread of the virus, and provide insights for the development of strategies for opening up societies again.”
“The Commission already started the discussion with mobile phone operators on 23 March 2020 with the aim to cover all Member States. The data will be fully anonymised and transmitted to the Joint Research Centre for processing and modelling. It will not be shared with third parties and only be stored as long as the crisis is ongoing,” it adds.
The Commission’s push to coordinate coronavirus tech efforts across the EU has been welcomed by privacy and security experts.
Michael Veale, a backer of the decentralized protocol for COVID-19 contacts tracing, told us: “It’s great to see the Commission recommend decentralisation as a core principle for information systems tackling COVID-19. As our DP-3T protocol shows, creating a centralised database is a wholly unnecessary and removable part of bluetooth contact tracing.”
“We hope to be able to place code online for scrutiny and feedback next week — fully open source, of course,” Veale added. “We have already had great public feedback on the protocol which we are revising in light of that to make it even more private and secure. Centralised systems being developed in Europe, such as in Germany, have not published their protocols, let along code — perhaps they are afraid of what people will find?”
While Lukasz Olejnik, an EU-based cybersecurity advisor and privacy researcher, also welcomed the Commission’s intervention, telling us: “A coordinated approach can certainly be easier to build trust. We should favor privacy-respecting approaches, and make it clear that we are in a crisis situation. Any such crisis system should be dismantled, and it looks like the recommendations recognize it. This is good.”

India’s Oyo furloughs thousands of employees as revenue drops by over 50%

Oyo has placed thousands of employees on furloughs for up to three months in the U.S. and several other markets as the Indian budget lodging firm confronts the coronavirus outbreak that has cut its revenue and demand by over 50%.
The startup’s teams in the U.S. are most impacted by the furloughs, according to a person familiar with the matter. In a statement, Oyo confirmed the furloughs and added that India, its home market, was not impacted. The company also said it is not cutting any jobs.
In a video message to Oyo employees, founder and chief executive Ritesh Agarwal said the coronavirus outbreak has severely impacted its business globally. The company’s occupancy rate and revenues have dropped by “over” 50-60% since earlier this year, he said.
The latest cut down in the company’s headcount comes after the SoftBank -backed startup let go five thousand employees and contractors in India, China, and other markets in recent months.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted nearly every business worldwide, is the latest setback for SoftBank, many of which portfolio startups including WeWork, Kabbage, OneWeb, have either furloughed employees or declared bankruptcy.
WeWork, which had a meltdown last year as it rushed to file for IPO, this week sued SoftBank for allegedly breaching contract and fiduciary duty after Masayoshi Son’s firm said it would not consummate its $3 billion tender offer.
27-year-old Agarwal, who increased his stake at Oyo to about 33% last year after buying back stake from investors Lightspeed Partners and others, said the company’s balance sheet has “come under severe stress” and forced it to look at “every controllable cost and reduce them.”
“As part of which, every forward looking CAPEX, MNAs or even something as little as every non-essential travel and new expenditures were paused a little over a month back,” he said. Agarwal is not taking any salary for rest of the year and others in the leadership team have agreed to have their salaries cut by a minimum of 25%.
India’s second most valued startup at $10 billion, Oyo has come under scrutiny in recent months after many of its hotel chain partners said the company had not held to its end of the deal.
Last month, Oyo said it was ending the practice of awarding perks such as guaranteed revenues to hotel partners around the world and was rolling out new contracts for its hotel partners.
“It is important for me and our leadership team that we make the right decisions required for the long-term success as well as what is right for the long-term cash runway for the company,” he said today.

Programmable fintech payments startup Sila raises $7.7M seed to wipe out ACH

Fintech is white hot these days, with major acquisitions and funding rounds galore. It’s also a relatively new space, with startups only really breaching the thicket of regulations that defines the modern banking and finance world in the past few years.
So it is fascinating to watch how Shamir Karkal, one of the original fintech entrepreneurs, is coming back for a second round in this still-nascent industry.
Karkal co-founded Portland-based Simple back in 2009, a company that was among the first of a wave of startups now generally known as “neobanks.” Karkal and his co-founder Josh Reich grew the online banking startup for a while before eventually selling the company to BBVA for $117 million in 2014. He then spent several years integrating Simple’s systems into BBVA’s as well as building out the company’s API products like BBVA Open Platform.

Banking Startup Simple Acquired For $117M, Will Continue To Operate Separately

Karkal became “frustrated” though at handling the incredible bureaucracy that comes with working within a large, 150-year-old-plus banking institution, saying that “you could integrate into the sandbox in a couple of weeks, [and] it would only take you a couple of years to get through risk compliance, legal, and everything else internal.” So he finally headed back out on his own in late 2017 to explore where fintech was headed next.
He eventually connected with three co-founders, Angela Angelovska, Isaac Hines and Alex Lipton and began thinking about how to rebuild finance from the ground up, starting with the venerable but creaky payments system known as ACH. ACH continues to power much of U.S.-based financial payments, but it is slow — taking days to process — and is still built on ideas first fleshed out decades ago.
Together, their thinking eventually turned into Sila, which is a payments and banking API infrastructure company designed to eventually supplant ACH as the payments choice for companies who need to move money. Sila follows the ERC-20 token protocol and is built on top of the Ethereum blockchain.
The startup announced today a $7.7 million seed funding round led by Hope Cochran of Madrona Venture Group and Rick Holt of Oregon Venture Fund, who will both be joining Sila’s board as part of the investment.
Sila’s key product is an API for identity verification, which empowers developers to identify their users, and then use that info in the company’s banking API, which allows users to debit their accounts and move funds from one account to another. On top of that foundational infrastructure, Sila’s Ethereum basis allows for automatic creation of smart contracts, which should allow for more rapid deployment of financial applications.
Karkal sees greater movement to online banking services, particularly given the outbreak of novel coronavirus underway across the world right now. “I think this whole crisis, if anything, will accelerate that change, because people weren’t really going into bank branches that much last year, and they’re definitely not doing it now and I don’t think they’ll just start doing it again next year.” Without the physical branch infrastructure in place, financial services have to solve for problems like individual and business identity verification.
Cochran of Madrona sees a huge opportunity for better payments solutions, given her former experience as a CFO of King Digital, the producer behind popular mobile game Candy Crush, and Clearwire, a telecom operator. Payments “seems like it should be easy but it is not,” she said. “I think people who haven’t lived in payments think that they just happen [but] the amount of time it takes to move money always frustrated me” as CFO.
In terms of customers, Sila is in production with several, and the team is focused on reliability and scalability. That was ultimately why the team decided to start with Ethereum as a base, rather than rolling their own solution. “Speed is always a relative thing — you get transactions on Ethereum in like one or two minutes, which is not two seconds but it’s still way better than two days for an ACH” transaction, Karkal said. Ultimately, he sees a future where customers can pick and choose whatever ledger technology they might wish to use.
One key aspect of Sila’s pricing model that might be attractive to certain customers is that the company has fixed, flat-rate pricing for all transactions. It’s pricing — like many fintech startups these days — is a combination of SaaS subscriptions and fixed transaction fees, providing companies with better options around transaction volume than incumbent payment solutions.
The company intends to use the venture funds to focus on filling out more of its API offerings, as well as expanding its customer base. You “can’t underestimate how many businesses trip into needing payments,” Cochran said.
In addition to Madrona and Oregon, Mucker Capital and 99 Tartans joined the round along with Transferwise co-founder and CEO Taavet Hinrikus and Jerry Neumann.

Headspace appoints former Intuit exec CeCe Morken as president and COO

As it looks to continue along its path of developing clinically validated digital therapeutics for consumer and clinical mental health and wellness, Headspace has bulked up its executive team with the addition of longtime Intuit executive, CeCe Morken.
Morken will become the company’s first president and chief operating officer, joining the Los Angeles based, billion-dollar-valued, mental wellness after spending thirteen years at Intuit .
She previously served as Executive Vice President and General Manager of that company’s strategic partner group.
Morken has spent the past thirty five years at technology companies and will be reporting directly to the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Rich Pierson.
Her operational experience will come in handy as Headspace continues to develop both commercial and clinical products to bring to market, Pierson said.
“We are thrilled to welcome to CeCe, a team-oriented and purpose-driven leader, to the Headspace team,” said Pierson in a statement. “We feel so lucky that the company is in a position to attract someone with the deep experience that CeCE has in scaling world-class organizations.”
While on the surface there may not appear to be much similarity between a massive, decades-old accounting software development behemoth and a ten-year-old startup which has made its name focused on mental wellness, Pierson said that as Headspace expands it would require the skills that Morken developed over decades in operational roles at her previous company.
Headspace is already a giant in the mental wellness category. It counts over 62 million users around the world and its Headspace for work service is being rolled out as a service for employees at companies like Adobe, General Electric, Hyatt, and Starbucks. The company has research underway in over ten clinical trials to move from mental wellness into the digital health category, under its Headspace Health subsidiary, which launched in 2018.

Visa backs open banking and compliance platform Railsbank

Railsbank, the open banking and compliance platform, has picked up further investment, following the company’s $10 million Series A in September 2019.
This time backing comes from Visa — a strategic investment, if you will — along with Global Brain, a venture capital firm based in Tokyo, Japan. The exact amount isn’t being disclosed, though sources peg it as “several million” U.S. dollars.
In addition to investment, Railsbank is announcing that it has signed a 5 year partnership with Visa to deliver Banking as a Service (BaaS) innovation in Southeast Asia, and recently became a Visa “principal issuing” member.
“Being a principal Visa member and by joining Visa’s Fintech Fast Track Programme, Railsbank can now access Visa’s growing partner network, technologies and experts, enabling Railsbank’s customers to rapidly and effectively launch Visa based products throughout Asia and beyond,” explains the company.
Railsbank co-founder and CEO Nigel Verdon, who previously founded Currencycloud, says the partnership with Visa signals the fintech’s intent to be “the most innovative banking platform business” in Asia-Pacific. “Our API focussed platform is the simplest way for any business or brands to quickly conceptualise, build and launch digital finance products that easily incorporate Visa’s product suite and capabilities,” he adds.
To that end, Railsbank positions itself as a “utility” on which other companies — spanning fintech upstarts, challenger brands, to incumbent banks that want to re-factor their tech — can build and sell various financial services or add fintech features to their products.
When the company closed it Series A, Verdon likened it to what Amazon has done for data centres with AWS. “Railsbank is a utility for the compete financial services backend: platform, connectivity, operations, scheme memberships (e.g. Visa), regulation, and compliance,” he told me at the time.
Cue statement from Naoki Kamimaeda, Partner and Europe Office Representative of Global Brain Corporation: “We see huge potential in Railsbank’s vision and open banking platform. Corporates, especially in Asia, are more willing to have banking services and Railsbank can provide them with a turnkey solution for this. We are very excited to join Railsbank’s bold vision and look forward to actively supporting its expansion and penetration in Japan and Asia.”
Railsbank is headquartered in London, but also has offices in Singapore, Lithuania, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, I understand that it could announce U.S. expansion plans in the coming weeks.

Uber for Business expands its corporate Eats delivery feature to 20 more countries

Uber for Business, a platform designed for corporate customers, is expanding its food delivery Eats product to more than 20 countries this year, in response to a surge in demand as more employees work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The expansion kicks off Wednesday, starting with Brazil, Canada, France and the UK.
The ride-hailing company launched Business for Uber in 2014 to give companies a tool that would streamline payments for rides taken by their employees and clients. In 2018, the platform added a corporate version of its on-demand Uber Eats app, which lets companies set meal programs so employees can order food at certain times and locations and create automatic spending allowances.
Uber had plans to expand the business version of Eats. Uber said it accelerated those plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted governments around the world to issue stay at home orders that has millions of employees working remotely.
In March, active Uber for Business customers using Eats grew 28% from the previous month, according to the company.
Uber for Business has also added new features to Eats. Employees can now use their individual
corporate cards and manage orders through a business profile on the Uber Eats app or website.

Rakuten Mobile’s low-cost data plan fully launches in Japan

Rakuten Mobile announced the full commercial launch of its low-cost data plan in Japan today. Priced at 2,980 yen (about $27) per month, the plan gives users unlimited calls and data where Rakuten has its own networks. The company also raised the amount of domestic roaming data in response to increased usage of remote working and online education tools.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures, including Tokyo, after a new wave of COVID-19 cases in March. The order gives prefectural leaders the power to request closure of stores and businesses considered non-essential. Public schools in Tokyo and surrounding areas closed earlier this year and are not expected to re-open until early May.
In addition to serving increased need for online services during the pandemic, Rakuten Mobile’s pricing may also help it compete against Japan’s largest carriers–NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank. Rakuten Mobile uses what the company says is the world’s first virtualized mobile network, which requires less hardware infrastructure, lowering deployments costs and in turn allowing the company to offer more affordable rates.
Last year, the company said it will have a total of 4,000 edge servers in Japan by the mobile service’s launch. Rakuten Mobile expects its network to cover all of Japan by next March.
Called Rakuten UN-LIMIT 2.0, the company’s current plan gives users 5GB of roaming data in areas where Rakuten Mobile has partners, and unlimited roaming data at a maximum speed of 1Mbps after the limit is reached. The original Rakuten UN-LIMIT plan offered 2GB of domestic roaming, and maximum 128kbps speed.

Phos, the UK fintech that offers a software-only POS for smartphones, raises €1.3M

Phos, the U.K. fintech that offers a software-only PoS so that merchants can accept payments directly on their phones without the need for additional hardware, has raised €1.3 million in funding. The round was led by New Vision 3, an early-stage VC based in Bulgaria (where a part of the Phos team is based), with participation from a number of unnamed angel investors.
It brings the total raised by Phos to date to €2.5 million, and will be used to grow the development team. This will see new features introduced, such as ‘PIN on Phone’, a Software Development Kit (SDK), and a new integrated loyalty system.
Founded in 2018, Phos has developed software that turns any NFC-equipped Android device into a payments terminal, negating the need for additional hardware and reducing total cost of ownership. The startup says its solution is quick to deploy, and is “uniquely” phone and bank agnostic i.e. any bank can act as the acquirer.
“Millions of traders and merchants do not accept card payments because they find the current hardware inconvenient or expensive,” Phos co-founder Ivo Gueorguiev tells TechCrunch. “Most of the merchants who accept card payments find the cost of ownership of the hardware high, [while the] current POS hardware offers no additional value, with the exception of very expensive smart terminals like Clover”.
To remedy this, Gueorguiev says Phos’ technology accepts contactless card payments directly on Android phones and other Android devices without the need for additional hardware, as well as helping merchants make better use of data.
“We offer merchants an alternative to old and expensive technology, namely [by using] devices they already own – their phones,” he explains. “We also offer merchants the ability to use their transaction data for other business applications. This includes e-commerce tools, marketing automation, loyalty, payroll, and more.
In terms of go-to-market, Phos is focused on a B2B model, seeing the fintech work with partners to distribute the product, such as banks, acquirers, PSPs/ISOs, large direct merchants, and platform players.
“The final user of the product will be mostly merchants at the long tail of the business, who are notoriously difficult to reach in a cost effective way,” adds Gueorguiev.
He cites use cases as small merchants and market traders, where traditional POS solutions are not appropriate due to costs and maintenance issues; direct sales and multilevel marketing; couriers and delivery services (“in certain markets ‘pay on delivery’ is still a predominant payment method with over 90% in cash,” says Gueorguiev); tradespeople; taxi drivers; insurance field sales; and even large retailers that can empower sales people to close sales in the aisles and reduce queues.
Adds Konstantin Petrov, Partner at NV3: “We are very happy to lead the investment round in phos and truly believe in the high potential of the company. The all important prerequisites for success are there: a strong and visionary team with years of experience in the field, a huge under-served market of small merchants who do not accept payments other than cash and an innovative technology providing first-mover advantage. In addition, fintech is considered a strategic vertical in the investment strategy of NV3 Fund, so phos is clearly a perfect add to our portfolio.”

MyBuddy.ai, a virtual tutor for kids learning English, raises $1 million seed round

MyBuddy.ai, a startup that develops virtual tools to help kids learn English, announced today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding from LETA Capital. The capital will be used to expand into new markets and develop new features including mini-classes about health.
The San Francisco-based company’s app features a AI-based virtual tutor called Buddy who coaches kids through a series of exercises. According to MyBuddy.ai, there are 500 million children around the world who want to learn English, but don’t have someone to practice the language with. It claims that its app has been downloaded more than one million times since launching two years ago.
In a press statement, MyBuddy.ai co-founder and CEO Ivan Crewkov said, “The demand for online education is rising sharply due to the pandemic. This has exacerbated the chronic shortage of qualified English language teachers needed for half a billion kids struggling to learn English as a second language. Our AI-powered tutor Buddy can handle the mundane part of their work. He provides unlimited practice of spoken English, can scale to millions of students and is always available.”
Last month, MyBuddy.ai merged with Edwin, an edtech startup that also focuses on learning English for non-native speakers and whose investors include General Catalyst, Y Combinator and Google Assistant Investments Program. Edwin’s products included a chatbot based on adaptive learning and natural language understanding AI, and an on-demand tutoring service. The combined company kept the name MyBuddy.ai and is focused on integrating technology from both startups into the Buddy app.

Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns extended to May 4

Tesla is suspending production at its U.S. factories until May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night and viewed by TechCrunch.
Pay cuts for salaried employees — which ranges from 30% for vice presidents, 20% for director-level executives and 10% for the remaining workforce — is expected to be in place until the end of the second quarter, according to the email. The salary cuts and furloughs will begin April 13. Employees who cannot work from home and have not been assigned critical onsite positions will be furloughed until May 4, according to the email.
“While we are continuing to keep only minimum critical operations running, we expect to resume normal production at our U.S. facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes,” the email from Tesla’s human resources department head Valerie Workman. “Until that time, it is important we take action to ensure we remain on track to achieve our long-term plans.”
Tesla operates a number of factories and facilities throughout the U.S., namely its main assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., its Nevada gigafactory that produces battery packs and electric motors for the Model 3 and its factory in Buffalo, New York, which makes solar products.
“This is a shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times,” the email read.
Furloughed employees will remain employees of Tesla without pay. They will their healthcare benefit. The email directs furloughed employees to apply for unemployment benefits.
Tesla said in the email to employees that it will also put any merit-based actions such as equity grants on hold.
Tesla suspended production at its Fremont factory beginning March 23, a week after a shelter in place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” has continued at the factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. About 2,500 workers are still working at the plant.
Tesla said in March that it had enough liquidity to weather the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cash position at the end of the fourth quarter was $6.3 billion before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise.
“We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty,” Tesla said.
The company had available credit lines worth about  $3 billion, including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of its Shanghai factory at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019.

Australian startup SafetyCulture nabs $800 million valuation on $35.5 million round

SafetyCulture, the Australian enterprise software company that manages security and compliance checks at companies around the world, has raised $35.5 million at an $800 million valuation in its latest round of funding.
Nearly half of the new money was meant to provide liquidity to employee shareholders who had been with the company over three years, according to a person familiar with the transaction.
The round was led by the Australian growth capital investor TDM Growth Partners, with participation from other local Australian investors like Blackbird Ventures, Skip Capital (the firm created by Atlassian co-founder and co-chief executive, Scott Farquhar and helmed by his wife, Kim Jackson) and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife.
In all the company has raised over $100 million for its compliance software.
“This is an exciting milestone for us to achieve as a company, especially during uncertain times like these,” SafetyCulture founder and CEO Luke Anear said in a statement. “We’re particularly happy about giving employees the opportunity to sell some of their equity as a reward for all their hard work and continued loyalty.”
Over 26,000 companies in 85 countries use the iAuditor app to make safety checks every year. The company just crossed the cash-flow positive threshold and has operations in Kansas City, Sydney, Townsville, Manchester and Manila.
The new funding will be used to continue the company’s product development as it looks to move from being a security and safety checklist to a more robust collaboration and communication platform, the company said.
“Today’s announcement continues what has been 12 months of hyper growth for SafetyCulture’s Americas headquarters in Kansas City,” said Bob Butler, General Manager of SafetyCulture Americas. ” The North American market currently makes up around 40% of our customers and this significant injection of capital enables us to accelerate product development for items customers need, along with the talent and marketing needed to scale our business to serve more customers and have a greater impact on safety and quality for workers all around the US.”
In light of the COVID-19 epidemic, the company said it would offer its premium safety audit product and other features free for six months to healthcare, emergency, education, and volunteer organizing companies and on-profits.
SafetyCulture’s current customers include: Emirates, Coca-Cola, GE, IKEA, Unilever, BHP Billiton and Accor. SafetyCulture.

Silicon Valley Bank only started processing stimulus loan applications today

In a sign of just how broken the process is for startups looking to receive stimulus dollars, Silicon Valley Bank, the bank that claims “more innovative startups bank with us than any other bank,” only just began processing claims today.
“Since the CARES Act and the PPP were announced, we have been hard at work advocating for our clients to have access to this funding. We have been working around the clock to develop a process that works for our clients. Thousands of companies have indicated interest in the last several days,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “We are currently accepting and processing PPP applications and continue to receive a high volume of interest. We will continue to listen to our clients and do everything we can to support their success.”
The stimulus loans that startups hope to access were created to save jobs at companies affected by the government’s closure of non-essential businesses. The initiative is part of a broad range of measures meant to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 epidemic.
For startup companies, the loan package has proven to be a source of nearly as much consternation as the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m a startup founder who banks with Silicon Valley Bank,” wrote one tipster. “They are totally dropping the ball on the Paycheck Protection Program. Other banks began accepting applications on Friday, it’s now Tuesday and no word from SVB. Really bad for startups.”
For its part, Silicon Valley Bank said it was working around the clock to make sure its customers were able to access the federal money.
Many companies and their investors are confused about whether they are even eligible for stimulus money — and if they are eligible whether they should apply. Investors have refused to go on the record about the advice they’re giving to their portfolio companies.
Perhaps the clearest view of the conundrum startups face has come from the Los Angeles-based investor Mark Suster, who “open-sourced” his own firm’s advice on how to approach the Paycheck Protection Loans — the $. 349 billion small business lending program at the heart of the CARES Act.

Still confused by the PPP Loan program? We’ve had to assist dozens of companies so I thought I’d just open-source what we’ve been advising after consulting with the NVCA, our lawyers at Cooley & numerous other VC firms.https://t.co/MBMOVqmD0i
— Mark Suster (@msuster) April 7, 2020

Small banks aren’t the only ones having problems getting those much-needed stimulus dollars in the hands of the companies that desperately need them. Several businesses have been stymied in their attempts to receive loans through applications to larger banks.
Customers at Bank of America href=”https://twitter.com/Drkcbugg/status/1246126907244118017?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1246126907244118017&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vox.com%2F2020%2F4%2F7%2F21209584%2Fpaycheck-protection-program-banks-access”> have reported being unable to apply for the government-backed loans from the program without having an existing line of credit with the bank.
And those aren’t the only problems. The Small Business Administration, tasked with overseeing the loan process, is not equipped to dole out the nearly $2 trillion in government funds that are expected to flow through the agency.
“If you can’t get the loan today or tomorrow, don’t worry,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday on Fox Business. “There will be money. And if we run out of money, we’ll come back for more.”
Meanwhile startup entrepreneurs are left holding the bag. And their concerns are warranted. Even by the standards of other financial services firms, the Silicon Valley Bank response was slow. The loans became available on Friday and SVB only started issuing loans on Tuesday of the following week.
When asked when SVB first made the loan applications available, the company said it started this morning.
“Due to the high volume, each company’s randomized notification of the ability to apply did not appear all at the same time,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email.
It’s a sign of a broader failure in the market. As one entrepreneur wrote in an email earlier today:
“Lots of startups (mine included) bank with SVB. The PPP loans are given out on a first come first serve basis – so their screwup might result in thousands of startups not getting these critical loans and we will have to lay people off.
SVB promised to have the program up and running by 4PM PST yesterday. At 5PM PST they put a weak ass message on their website (link below) saying they regret missing their own deadline.
There has been no subsequent communication from them and their phone lines are all disconnected. Relationship managers are not responding to emails or calls either.
LOTS of startup founders I know are furious, and rightfully so. We are going to lose 2.5x months payroll because our bank fucked up. It is ridiculous and we would expect better from a bank that prides itself on serving startups. Main street banks like Bank of America and Chase had their PPP applications up and running on Friday (April 4th) but only for existing clients, so all of us startups who were dumb enough to rely on SVB are FUCKED. Switching to a new bank is not an option because a) all the branches are closed and b) the KYC process takes a couple of weeks so it’s too late.”

Livongo stock jumps over 10 percent on revised earnings guidance, pointing to digital health boom

Livongo Health’s stock jumped over ten percent on a day that saw most exchanges tumble after a day of crazy volatility.
The digital diagnostics and therapeutics company is benefiting from booming demand for digital health services as remote medicine takes center stage for beleaguered health care providers looking to keep treating patients while also responding to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Livongo, a provider of behavioral management treatments and diagnostic tools for chronic conditions including diabetes, hypertension, weight management, and mental health, sits squarely in the center of current medical needs.
The company announced a revised preliminary guidance for its first quarter 2020 revenue to be in the range of $65.5 million to $66.5 million versus prior guidance of $60 million to $62 million according to the company.
The better-than-expected results sent the stock surging in trading on Tuesday, jumping $3.07 per share to close at $33.16, a better than ten percent gain even as the major indices fell in late trading.

“We began 2020 well positioned to pursue our mission of empowering people with chronic conditions to live better and healthier lives, and now more than ever, our efforts are necessary to support our Members and Clients through the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Zane Burke, Livongo’s chief executive, in a statement.
“Our record Client launches of over 620 in the first quarter and Member enrollment are ahead of expectations and we continue to see strong demand in our pipeline. Livongo is in the unique position of providing assistance to some of the most vulnerable populations, people with chronic conditions, and according to last week’s CDC report, 78 percent of people who were admitted to the intensive care unit due to COVID-19 had at least one pre-existing health condition.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in late December, digital health startups have seen demand soar. Everything from telemedicine consultations to digital diagnostics and remote monitoring and triaging of health conditions has seen record growth.
Livongo is an early, public, beneficiary of a trend that’s playing out in private startups as well. That’s reflected in recent rounds for telemedical startups like K Health, which raised $48 million in a Series C round. Or in the financing for the Seattle-based startup 98point6, which raised $43 million in a Series D funding round.
“Virtual care plays an important part in enabling social distancing to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Brad Younggren, MD, chief medical officer of 98point6, in a statement. 

Hong Kong fintech startup Neat raises $11 million Series A to give small companies more banking services

Neat, a Hong Kong-based fintech startup, announced today that it has raised a $11 million Series A to help small businesses do cross-border banking. The round was led by Pacific Century Group, with participation from Visa and MassMutual Ventures Southeast Asia, and returning investors Dymon Asia Ventures, Linear Capital and Sagamore Investments.
Neat also announced a strategic partnership with Visa, which means that in the next few months Neat will start issuing Visa credit cards to SMEs and startups.
This brings Neat’s total funding to $16.5 million, including its seed round announced at the end of 2018.
Like San Francisco-based Brex, which achieved a $2.6 billion valuation last year, Neat focuses on giving startups and small businesses a more efficient, online alternative to traditional banking.
Its services allow them to open business accounts for multiple currencies online, send and receive payments from different countries and apply for corporate credit cards. Neat’s new funding will be used for expansion, with a focus on Southeast Asian customers that do trade with European companies. Last year it opened a Shenzhen office to serve Chinese export businesses, as well as an office in London for Western European companies that trade in China.
Neat co-founder and CEO David Rosa told TechCrunch that businesses are still looking to digitize more of their operations despite the worldwide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Neat is serving entrepreneurs around the world that trade with Asia. Before they may have fitted visits to the bank into their business trips to Hong Kong, this is no longer an option,” he said.

Neat is a challenger bank for early-stage startups and SMEs

Corporate credit cards can be difficult for startups and SMEs to get because they typically need about three years of audited financials to qualify even for low spending limits, Rosa said. Employees often cannot get a corporate card because their managers do not have the tools to control their spending limits, making reimbursement more difficult. Neat’s partnership with Visa aims to solve many of the problems they encounter (it also offers a Neat Mastercard). In the future, Neat will launch tools for automated payroll, accounting and logistics.
In a statement, MassMutual Ventures managing director Ryan Collins said, “We’re proud to support Neat in the company’s vision to support entrepreneurs. There is a clear demand for better financial products for SMEs, especially when it comes to cross-border payments and trade, and we’re confident that Neat’s passionate and innovative team will deliver.”

Tyto Care raises $50 million as it looks to buy and build new services during COVID-19 demand surge

Tyto Care, the provider of a home health diagnostic device and telemedicine consultation app, said it has raised $50 million in a new round of funding.
The round was led by Insight Partners, Olive Tree Ventures, and Qualcomm Ventures, according to a statement and brings the startup’s total capital raised to over $105 million.
The funding comes just as Tyto has seen a dramatic surge in demand brought by the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tyto Care’s toolkit is being used as a telehealth diagnostic solution that was already seeing three times sales growth in 2019 alone.
Last year, the company inked a deal with Best Buy and works with most of the major telemedicine providers including American Well, Teladoc, and others.
Previous investors Orbimed, Echo Health, Qure, Teuza and others also participated in the new financing, the company said in a statement.
With the financing, Tyto Care is well positioned to both buy and build new tools based on its existing diagnostics platform as well as expand its home health testing kit into new areas.
Companies like Scanwell Health, are providing at-home diagnostic tests for things like urinary tract infections, and Tyto Care chief executive Dedi Gilad definitely sees options for new products around different kinds of at-home tests, the Tyto Care founder said in an interview.
All of this new capital comes with surging demand where Tyto Care’s telehealth technology is being used by every hospital in Israel to provide remote examinations of quarantined and isolated patients infected with COVID-19. Other hospital networks are also turning to the company’s diagnostics tools for similar applications, the company said.
The remote medical exams can protect health providers from exposure to SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and enables uninfected patients to get an examination of their basic health remotely, without needing to go to a medical facility.
“Over the past two years, Tyto Care has increased momentum faster than ever before and is playing a leading role in changing how people receive healthcare. Telehealth is heeding the call of the COVID-19 pandemic and we are proud that our unique solution is aiding health systems and consumers around the world in the fight against the virus,” said Gilad, in a statement. “This new funding comes at a pivotal moment in the evolution of telehealth and will enable us to continue to transform the global healthcare industry with the best virtual care solutions.”
 

Restaurant management platform Toast cuts 50% of staff

Last valued at $5 billion, restaurant management platform Toast has joined the sweep of startups laying off employees due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toast reduced the size of its staff by 50% through layoffs and furloughs, according to a blog post from Toast’s CEO, Chris Comparato. It also reduced executive pays across the board, frozen hiring, halted bonuses, and pulled back offers.
The company’s flagship product helps restaurants process payments and handle orders through a mix of hardware and software. Think handheld ordering pads, self-service kiosks, and display systems for kitchens. It also connects businesses to food delivery services like Grubhub.
Toast sits on the bridge between two industries in the spotlight, for better or worse, right now: restaurants and fintech. But restaurants have been hit hard as eateries were forced to close down due to state mandates, or to simply promote social distancing. As a result, fintech companies that help restaurants work better and depend on foot traffic are seeing less transaction volume.
Comparato, in the blog post, cited how restaurant revenue broadly took a huge hit in March, which naturally trickled down to Toast’s operations.
“With limited visibility into how quickly the industry may recover, and facing slower than anticipated growth, we now find ourselves in the unenviable position of reducing our headcount,” he wrote. He noted that before the pandemic hit, Toast revenue grew 109 percent in 2019. In an interview with Crunchbase News in February, chief financial officer Tim Barash said that the company’s goal in the next few years is to go public.
The Toast employees laid off were offered a “severance package, benefits coverage, mental health support, and an extended window during which they can purchase vested stock options,” the blog post detailed. Toast is also developing a program to help those laid off or furloughed look for new roles, a move that mimics other efforts we’ve seen across the startup world.
Investors in Toast include TCV, Tiger Global Management, Bessemer Venture Partners and T. Rowe Price Associates.

Latin America Roundup: Grupo ZAP, Grow Mobility, Wavy get acquired; Credijusto adds $100M; Cornershop, iFood brace for delivery boom

Sophia Wood
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Sophia Wood is a Venture Partner at Magma Partners. Sophia is also the co-founder of LatAm List, an English-language Latin American tech news source.

More posts by this contributor
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As the world locks down borders and capital flows to brace for the impact of coronavirus, Brazilian startups continue to attract international attention. Three large acquisition deals dominated the Latin American tech headlines this month, all coming from the region’s largest country. As investments have waned, these deals offer hope for some increased liquidity in Latin America’s startup ecosystem. 
At the beginning of the month, Brazilian real estate leader Grupo ZAP was acquired by OLX Brasil for $640 million, solidifying the classifieds platform’s position in the local property market. The deal will enable OLX to offer its customers more than 12 million listings from 40,000 agencies and individuals. 
Grupo Zap merged with the property rental platform VivaReal in December 2017, becoming the de facto largest real estate portal in the country. While the brands have operated separately, they jointly receive more than 40 million visits per month to help Brazilians find properties for rental and purchase. The acquisition is still under review from Brazil’s antitrust agency, CADE, and will be finalized later this year.
Meanwhile, Peixe Urbano reported its intention to acquired Grow Mobility, the alternative mobility company created from the merger between Mexico’s Grin and Brazil’s Yellow. Peixe will own the majority share in the e-scooter and bike-share startup, which has recently struggled to turn a profit. After leaving 14 cities in February, Grin Mobility is only active in Brazil’s three largest cities today, as well as in a few countries around Latin America, despite a promising partnership with Rappi in 2019. Grow Mobility raised $150 million in January 2019 when Grin and Yellow merged and seemed to be one of the fastest-growing startups at the time; however, this deal is rumored to be a total write-off for the startup’s investors. 
Finally, a Swedish cloud communications platform called Sinch AB announced it would acquire Movile’s strategic communications company, Wavy, for $68.3 million (BRL$554 million) and more than 1.5 million shares in the publicly traded company. Movile is one of Brazil’s largest tech businesses, a telecommunications company striving to become the region’s Tencent. Wavy is Brazil’s second-largest messaging provider and also operates in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, relaying more than 13 billion messages per year. Sinch will use the acquisition to grow into the Latin American market, where Wavy currently employs over 260 people across nine offices in the region. At the time of purchase, Wavy was growing at 200% year-on-year, hinting at strong growth for the new business over the coming years.
Movile also announced the arrival of a new CEO, Patrick Hruby, in the last week of March. His predecessor, Fabricio Bloisi, co-founder and CEO since 1998, will take a seat as board president and will continue to act as CEO of iFood. Hruby previously spent five months as an Executive in Residence at Movile, where he worked closely on operations with all Movile companies: iFood, MovilePay, PlayKids, Sympla, Wavy and Zoop. Movile is one of Brazil’s least-known unicorns, quietly building a mobile empire for the region with a goal of impacting over one billion people.
Credijusto raises $100M to support SMEs in need
The Mexican credit provider, Credijusto, announced in mid-March that it had received $100 million in debt from Credit Suisse to help the startup extend more loans to SMEs affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus. Small businesses in Mexico already struggle to access financing from banks, and the current economic projections will likely cause financial institutions to hold off on risky investments for the foreseeable future. 
Meanwhile, this credit crunch has caused a surge of interest in Credijusto’s products: online small-business loans. The startup uses an algorithm to rapidly calculate risk and interest rates, providing much-needed liquidity for SMEs struggling in the face of financial turmoil. Credijusto also recently raised a $100 million debt vehicle from Goldman Sachs, alongside a $42 million Series B equity round from Goldman and Point72 Ventures in September 2019. 
Cornershop, iFood: Keeping up with coronavirus delivery demands
While in the U.S., Instacart and Amazon are scrambling to keep up with the boom in delivery orders, Latin American delivery giants Cornershop and iFood face similar challenges. Mexican-Chilean delivery app Cornershop, which was acquired by Uber last year for $450 million, revealed they had just nine months of operating capital left as they face unprecedented order volume. 
Despite the large acquisition deal, Cornershop’s case remains under review by the Mexican antitrust organization, COFECE, which blocked their previous $225 million acquisition offer from Walmart. Cornershop’s co-founder and CEO Oskar Hjertonsson took to Twitter to share the challenges his company is facing as demand for grocery delivery surges due to coronavirus concerns. He notes that grocery delivery has become an essential service in many areas with severe quarantines, yet with the acquisition still in question, Cornershop does not have the resources to serve the current demand. 
Two Mexican regulators are currently fighting over the jurisdiction to review this case, which has been going on for more than six months without a resolution. Cornershop has been at the mercy of Mexican officials since June 2018, when they first announced their Walmart acquisition. On Twitter, Hjertonsson urges Mexican officials to move forward on the decision as soon as possible to capitalize on an opportunity to help millions of Latin Americans who are currently in lockdown, as well as bringing in the resources needed to protect their delivery staff.
At the same time, Brazil’s largest food delivery company, iFood, announced the launch of a new fund to help small restaurants survive the economic tumult brought on by the coronavirus. The food industry has been one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic, as many restaurants live on small margins. To combat this trend, iFood launched a $9.8 million fund that will support small restaurants within the iFood network. 
The company also announced that it would speed up receipt processing during April and May, helping small businesses receive their payments within seven days without extra cost. This measure will inject an additional $117 million into the Brazilian restaurant market. Finally, iFood seeks to support its restaurant partners by returning all fees they receive for delivery during the coronavirus epidemic. Realizing that restaurants must rely on delivery orders to survive this period, iFood has extended these measures to over 120,000 restaurant partners in 1,000 cities across Brazil. 
News and Notes: Vai.Car, ClassPass, Superlogica and NotCo
Despite public health and economic concerns about COVID-19, the Latin American startup ecosystem remained active this month, with startups raising large rounds from local and international firms alike. Brazil’s car rental startup Vai.car raised $85 million from the Brazilian investment platform XP Investimentos, which IPO’d at the end of 2019. The startup targets a young market by enabling medium-term car rentals that are delivered to the user’s door and unlocked with face recognition technology. Vai.car also partners with Uber and 99 to help drivers access vehicles from their fleet of more than 25,000 cars.
U.S. gym-sharing platform Classpass expanded aggressively into Latin America this month through the acquisition of Chile’s Muvpass and Argentina’s Clickypass. These platforms work similarly to Classpass, allowing users to access a network of gyms and fitness classes across the country. Classpass launched in Brazil in December 2019 and became the first unicorn of the decade, with a $285 million Series E in early 2020. 
The Brazilian payments management platform Superlogica raised a $63.5 million round from U.S. private equity firm Warburg Pincus in mid-March. Superlogica helps companies manage recurring payments using a subscription model powered by artificial intelligence. The startup currently serves customers in more than 45,000 rental properties around the country.
Chilean plant-based food tech startup, The Not Company, announced a partnership with Burger King to create a vegan Whopper across the United States. The RebelWhopper is made of plant-based meat and features NotCo’s signature NotMayo, a mayonnaise made without animal products, which rapidly became a household name in Chile. The Not Company raised $30 million from Bezos Ventures and other investors in 2019 and has continued to expand rapidly into Argentina and Brazil over the past year. 
The past six weeks have been characterized by global uncertainty about the future of the economy and international relations as COVID-19 has made its way into every country in the world. However, deal flow in Latin America was still strong in March, bringing large deals and several acquisitions, especially in Brazil, even as the country refuses to lock down to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Notably, despite travel restrictions, many of the deals this month were led by foreign VCs, hinting at a potential for quicker feedback loops in the region as investors disburse capital without traveling first. 
It is hard to see today what the new normal will be globally, and specifically in venture and tech in Latin America. Almost every country has closed its borders, some more forcefully than others, and many are waiting out the pandemic in some level of quarantine. Just Mexico and Brazil, the region’s largest economies, remain adamant about keeping their cities running normally, even encouraging their citizens to visit bars, restaurants and museums as their neighbors shutter businesses. Time will tell how this decision will affect startups and investments, as well as their citizens and political stability, across the region.

This low-flying growth equity firm, with payments and logistics bets, just closed a $255 million fund

Activant Capital, a seven-year-old, Greenwich, Ct.-based growth equity firm that’s still making a name for itself, has managed to secure $255 million in fresh capital commitments, despite that the U.S. economy appears to be headed into a recession.
It’s something of a coup for founder Steve Sarracino. It also begs the question: who is Steve Sarracino, and why are people trusting him and his 10-person firm with their investing dollars?
To find out more, we reached him last week at his home, where  — like a lot of us — his young children whooped and hollered in the background. Amid the din, he explained his trajectory to date: Wharton. Summer internship at McKinsey. A gig as a vice president at the private equity firm American Capital, where he cut his teeth working on buyouts. He also recounted joining a small venture and private equity firm in San Francisco called Serent Capital that was cofounded by two former McKinsey partners.
It’s there were the story arc changes a bit. Sarracino says he got himself fired from that last job, and that he found himself in 2009 with “literally no job [prospects]” and “nothing to do.” Worried about losing any momentum he had begun to gather, he talked with mentors who told him if he wanted to stick with investing, he’d better start doing one deal at a time and hope these turned out.
They did. In fact, by 2015, Sarracino persuaded investors to commit $75 million to Activant’s debut fund. Its second fund closed with $129 million in 2017.
He called it a “super interesting way to start the firm,” and also a “long process,” but today, Activant sits between venture and growth deals, with a 15-year investing horizon and a concentrated approach to taking stakes in companies, many of which happen to center around e-commerce infrastructure and payments.
One of these is Bolt, a young San Francisco-based company that’s trying to build a more seamless checkout process for online retailers that compete with Amazon and, toward that end, integrates with shopping carts used by customers of Shopify, WooCommerce, and Magento, for example. It last year closed on $68 million in Series B funding led by Activant and Tribe Capital and has raised $90 million altogether.
A more recent check went to Deliverr, a San Francisco-based logistics and fulfillment company that promises its customers fast delivery by renting warehouse space around the country versus using centralized warehouse model the company closed on $40 million in Series C funding earlier this year led by Activant. (Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen also joined the round.)
Activant has also in recent months backed Finix, a four-year-old, San Francisco-based payments infrastructure company whose Series B round Sequoia Capital led but later backed out of, citing a conflict of interest. (As we reported last month, Sequoia simply walked away from its $21 million investment in Finix because of its ties to the powerful payments company Stripe, which might not have liked the tie-up.)
Without specifying how much Activant has invested in each of these companies, Sarracino said last week that checks from the firm typically range from $25 million to $65 million, though the team has gone “as low as $15 million.” He said Activant — which also backed the predictive analytics company Celect before it sold last year to Nike —  will also occasionally write $3 million or $4 million checks into young startups that are too early-stage for the outfit but that it wants to track closely.
Asked how big a stake it wants for its checks, Sarracino insisted that it doesn’t think in terms of targets. It instead “targets returns.” He also said he doesn’t care who else is involved in a company before Activant finds it. Though somewhat hard to believe, he tells us that when the firm is discussing deals, no one on the team is allowed to bring up who invested in a company previously because he doesn’t want a particular brand (or lack thereof) to influence Activant’s decision-making.
As for its newest fund, even while it’s roughly twice the size of its last vehicle, Sarracino said the plan is to continue to make three to four investments each year and that the portfolio will feature just eight or nine portfolio companies when all is said and done.
Before we parted ways, we had to ask about fundraising in the age of Covid-19. We wondered if perhaps the firm closed its newest fund earlier this year, before the spread of coronavirus turned the U.S. economy upside down, and was just announcing it belatedly.
He said it closed on March 31, and that commitments to Activant’s newest efforts came from North American and European “foundations, endowments, family offices that donate incredibly amounts of money . . .”
He said that to “hold this thing together through March was a testament to our business.”
He sounded relieved. He also sounded like right now, he sees Activant’s mission – – beyond making money —  as helping small- and medium-size businesses bounce back from the brink, where many are hanging on by their fingernails at the moment. Indeed, he said the firm is actively looking for more infrastructure plays toward that end.
“More than ever, we can’t allow the SMB world to get hollowed out here by Amazon. I do think making their e-commerce businesses more robust [through bets like Deliverr and Bolt]  can help get them back.”

NASA puts $7M towards long-shot research, from moon mining to solar lenses

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is all about making high-risk, high-reward bets on unique — and sometimes eyebrow-raising — ideas for space exploration and observation. This year’s grants total $7M and include one of the most realistic projects yet. It might even get made!
NIAC awards are split into three tiers: Phase I, II, and III. Roughly speaking, the first are given $125K and 9 months basically to show their concept isn’t bunk. The second are given $500K and two years to show how it might actually work. And the third get $2 million to develop the concept into a real project.
It speaks to the, shall we say, open-mindedness of the NIAC program that until this year there have only been two total recipients of Phase III awards, the rest having fallen by the wayside as impractical or theoretically unsound. This year brings the third, a project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory we first noted among 2018’s NIAC selections.

From fungal architecture to shape-shifting robo-swarms, here are NASA’s latest moonshots

Artist’s concept of how the resulting image might look.
The “solar gravitational lens” project involves observing the way light coming from distant explanets is bent around our sun. The result, as the team has spent the last two years reinforcing the theory behind, is the ability to create high-resolution images of extremely distant and dark objects. So instead of having a single pixel or two showing us a planet in a neighboring star system, we could get a million pixels — an incredibly detailed picture.
“As this mission is the only way to view a potentially habitable exoplanet in detail, we are already seeing the significant public interest and enthusiasm that could motivate the needed government and private funding,” the researchers write.
Several of the Phase II projects are similarly interesting. One proposes to mine ice-rich lunar soil in permanently dark areas using power collected from permanently bright areas only a few hundred meters up in tall “Sunflower” towers. Another is a concept vehicle for exploring vents on the Saturn’s watery moon Enceladus. One we also saw in 2018 aims to offload heavy life support systems onto a sort of buddy robot that would follow astronauts around.
The Phase Is are a little less consistent: antimatter propulsion, extreme solar sails, and others that aren’t so much unrealistic as the science is yet to come on them.
The full list of NIAC awards is here — they make for very interesting reading, even those on the fringe. They’re created by big brains and vetted by experts, after all.

Jack Dorsey creates $1B COVID-19 relief fund using Square equity

Jack Dorsey announced in a series of tweets today that he is shifting $1 billion in his Square equity to create a fund dedicated to COVID-19 relief. The Twitter and Square CEO is calling the fund Start Small and posting a tally of disbursements and recipients in a public spreadsheet.
Dorsey said in his announcement that the new initiative will shift the focus to other causes at some point.
The first Start Small contribution listed is $100,000 to America’s Food Fund — an effort led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Laurene Powell Jobs dedicated to providing meals to vulnerable populations disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other top backers of America’s Food Fund include Oprah Winfrey ($1 million) and Apple ($5 million), according to the organization’s GoFundMe page.
That’s what we know so far from a tweet posted Tuesday afternoon by the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies.

I’m moving $1B of my Square equity (~28% of my wealth) to #startsmall LLC to fund global COVID-19 relief. After we disarm this pandemic, the focus will shift to girl’s health and education, and UBI. It will operate transparently, all flows tracked here: https://t.co/hVkUczDQmz
— jack (@jack) April 7, 2020

There’s still a lot to learn about Dorsey’s new initiative, including how it will be managed, whether it will make investments (along with donations) and how to apply for funding. TechCrunch has asked Square for additional details and will update this post when we hear back.

Tech shares close down on the day despite roaring start

American equities closed down today, with the major domestic indices all losing ground after a wild trading cycle. After starting the day up sharply higher after strong Monday gains, those gains were erased as the day closed. It was a day of confusing movement; the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite, to pick an example, had a range on the day of more than 3%, despite closing off just a tenth of that figure.
Divining the correct reason for movement in the stock market is a fool’s errand most days. Today, however, it isn’t hard to point to at least part of the reason for the reversed gains: a possibly record-setting one-day domestic death toll from COVID-19. Per collected data, deaths for the day as of the time of writing came to 1,690, with several high-infection states yet to report.
Here are the day’s results:
Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA): -26.13, -0.12%
S&P 500: -4.27, -0.116%
Nasdaq Composite: -25.98, -0.33%
Shares of SaaS and cloud companies dropped more sharply, with the Bessemer cloud index falling 1.88% on the day. Oil also fell, with WTI crude dropping more than 7% as of the time of writing.
Are you a bit sandblasted by all the volatility? Let’s update you on how the major indices have performed since their recent highs:
DJIA change from 52 week highs: -23.4%
S&P 500 change from 52 week highs: -21.63%
Nasdaq Composite change from 52 week highs: -19.83%
And for good measure, the Bessemer cloud index is off 24.09% from recent highs. So everything is in bear market territory at the moment — even after Monday’s huge gains — except for the Nasdaq Composite, which remains merely in deep correction. Not great news for anyone with a 401k balance, but the numbers were worse on Friday.

How SaaS startups should plan for a turbulent Q2

Today the market tried to go up again and failed. Let’s see what tomorrow’s COVID-19 data shows us. It just may drive the markets yet again.

New email service, OnMail, will let recipients control who can send them mail

A number of startups over the years have promised to re-invent email only to have fallen short. Even Google’s radical re-imagining, the Inbox app, finally closed up shop last year. Today, another company is announcing its plans to build a better inbox. Edison Software is preparing to launch OnMail, a new email service that lets you control who enters your inbox. This is handled through a new blocking feature called Permission Control. The service is also introducing a number of other enhancements, like automatic read receipt and tracker blocking, large attachment support, fast delivery, and more.
Edison is already home to the popular third-party email app, Edison Mail.
Edison Mail is designed to work with your existing email, like your Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, or iCloud email, for example, among others. OnMail, however, is a new email service where users will be assigned their own email account at @onmail.com when the product debuts later this summer.
At launch, the web version of OnMail will work in a number of browsers. It will also work in the existing Edison Mail apps for Mac, iOS, and Android.

 
The biggest idea behind OnMail is to create a better spam and blocking system.
Though Gmail, Outlook.com, and others today do a fairly decent job at automatically filtering out obvious spam and phishing attempts, our inboxes still remain clogged with invasive messages — newsletters, promotions, shopping catalogs, and so on. We may have even signed up for these at some point. We may have even tried to unsubscribe, but can’t get the messages to stop.
In other cases, there are people with our email address who we’d rather cut off.
The last time Gmail took on this “clogged inbox” problem was in 2013 when it unveiled a redesigned inbox that separated promotions, updates, and emails from your social media sites into separate tabs. OnMail’s premise is that we should be able to just ban these emails entirely from our inbox, not just relocate them.
OnMail’s “Permission Control” feature allows users to accept or decline a specific email address from being able to place mail in your inbox. This is a stronger feature than Edison Mail’s “Block Sender” or “Unsubscribe” as a declined sender’s future emails will never hit your inbox — well, at least not in a way that’s visible to you.
In technical terms, declined senders are being routed to a folder called “Blocked.” But this folder isn’t displayed anywhere in the user interface. The blocked emails won’t get pulled up in Search, either. It really feels like the unwanted mail is gone. This is all done without any notification to the sender — whether that’s a human or an automated mailing list.
If you ever want to receive emails from the blocked senders again, the only way to do so will be by reviewing a list of those senders you’ve banned from within your Contacts section and make the change. You can’t just dig into a spam folder to resurface them.

In another update that puts the needs of the receiver above those of the sender, OnMail will remove all information sent from any invisible tracking pixels.
Today, most savvy email users know to disable images in their Gmail or other mail apps that allow it, so their email opens are not tracked. But OnMail promises to remove this tracking without the need to disable the images.
“We view pixel tracking as this horrific invasion of privacy and this is why we block all read receipts,” noted Edison Co-Founder and CEO, Mikael Berner. “The sender will never know that you opened their email,” he says.
Other promised features include an improved Search experience with easy filtering tools, support for large attachments, enhanced speed of delivery, and more.

Edison says it’s been working to develop OnMail for over two years, after realizing how broken email remains.
Today, U.S. adults still spend over 5 hours per day in our inboxes and feel like they’ve lost control. Tracking pixels and targeted ads are now common to the email experience. And searching for anything specific requires complicated syntax. (Google only recently addressed this too, by adding filters to Gmail search — but just for G Suite users for now.)
It may be hard for people who have set up shop for 10 or 20 years in the same inbox to make a switch. But there’s always a new generation of email users to target — just like Gmail once did.
And now that Gmail has won the market with over 1.5 billion active users, its innovations have slowed. Every now and then Gmail throws a bone — as with 2018’s debut of Smart Compose, for example — but it largely considered the email problem solved. A little fresh competition is just the thing it needs.
“We’ve invested years as a company working to bring back happiness to the inbox,” said Berner, in a statement. “OnMail is built from the ground up to change mail. Nobody should fear giving out their address or have to create multiple accounts to escape an overcrowded mailbox,” he said.
OnMail’s premise sounds interesting. However, its software is not yet live so none of its claims can be tested at this time. But based on Edison’s history with its Edison Mail app, it has a good handle on design and understanding what features email users need.
Currently, OnMail is open only to sign-ups for those who want to claim their spot on its platform first. Like Gmail once did, OnMail will send out invites when the service becomes available.
 

PlayStation 5’s new DualSense controller is a sleek and futuristic gaming accessory

Sony has revealed the design of the PlayStation 5‘s controller – a follow-on to its popular DualShock line that takes on a new name for a new generation: DualSense.
The DualSense controller is kitted out in black and white, and looks like a futuristic, plastic armor-plated robot companion more than a gamepad in some ways. It’s still recognizably a product of the DualShock legacy, however, and has the same familiar button layout as previous PlayStation controllers. The DualSense incorporates haptic feedback, however, for what Sony says will be a heightened sense of immersion in gaming.
Haptic feedback should be an improvement over the relatively general and non-specific rumble vibration of current generation controllers, and Sony has also added more tactile response thanks to new L2 and R2 “adaptive triggers” that provide different kinds of tensions response when performing in-game actions, like “drawing a bow to shoot an arrow,” the company says.
The resulting physical design is a bit chunkier than the DualShock 4, with more room needed inside the case for that adaptive trigger tech. Still, Sony said that it has redesigned the component angles to produce a controller that feels a lot lighter in the hand than it looks.
This controller also does away with the dedicated “Share” button, but replaces it with a “Create” button that sounds like it should offer similar features and much more, though Sony isn’t yet ready to tip its hand as to exactly what that entails and promises more details to follow.

Meanwhile, there’s a new built-in mic array for voice chat without any headset required – though it sounds like this is intended primarily as a ‘you have it in case you need it’ feature than a dedicated input, since Sony is still advocating use of a headset for longer play sessions.
From a pure looks perspective, Sony clearly decided it wanted to go a bit more bold than its standard all-black look for the first version of a new controller it ships with a console. The two-tone, Stormtrooper palette is complemented by a new light bar that lines both sides of the central touchpad.
Personally, I love this look – and the USB-C port that you can spy at the top of the controller for charging. I don’t even know if I’m all that interested in a new generation of console, but the controller alone might convince me to upgrade.

Away, the high-flying travel brand startup, just furloughed half its employees and laid off 10%

Pretty much everyone is getting socked by the Covid-19 shutdown. Among the latest to say so in a public way is Away, the trendy, five-year-old, New York-based travel brand that has raised roughly $180 million from investors over the years, including a $100 million round last year that pegged the company’s valuation at $1.4 billion — nearly three times what it was valued a year earlier.
With travel down nearly 100 percent as the coronavirus makes its way across the U.S. and world, the company has seen sales of its product fall off a cliff, say company founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio in a new Medium post. Specifically, they disclosed today, sales of their luggage, bags, and interior organizers have fallen by more than 90 percent over the past few weeks.
The company, which began as a direct-to-consumer brand, first took steps to reduce its burn rate by shuttering its now ten retail stores, while paying its retail teams “during what we hoped would be short-term closures.”
Unsurprisingly, given that human capital is typically a company’s biggest cost center, that strategy go far enough, so the company is having to furlough “about half” of its team and it’s laying off another 10%, it says.
Say Korey and Rubio in their post, “This was a devastating decision and one we considered only as a last resort. The pride we once had in the creation of so many opportunities for people is now fear, frustration, and concern for a large number of people who didn’t deserve this outcome. Many of these are people we personally hired, and many more are friends.”
The founders are also suspending their own salaries, they add, and they say senior leadership at the company has agreed to reduced salaries.
Away is doing this exactly the right way, by the way.
Rubio and Korey say those laid off will receive a minimum of eight weeks of severance and will see their healthcare coverage through the end of June.
The company says it has also waived the vesting cliff on equity and extended the exercise period of stock options so affected employees don’t have to make decisions surrounding their equity while they are figuring out how next steps for themselves.
They also note that owing to government assistance, its furloughed employees — many of whom work in customer support — should continue to receive 100% of their wages and benefits until they can resume work full time.
Away was described by some former employees as having a toxic culture owing in part to CEO Korey’s management style in The Verge late last year.  Korey apologized and stepped aside as a result, but weeks later she announced through the New York Times that, on second thought, she wasn’t going to give up her role at the company, a role she currently shares with Stuart Haselden, who joined the company from Lululemon Athletica.
Whether to two continue to share this role is another question and one that presumably depends on how long the current downturn lasts.
But Away is smart to do everything in its power for employees whom it can no longer pay and to get ahead of employee leaks about the layoffs by posting the news itself to Medium.
It’s not the first company to do so, of course. Last week, as one example, the CEO of the personalized stationery startup Minted, Mariam Naficy, also posted on Medium her letter to employees about layoffs at the company and precisely what former staffers could expect in the way of severance.
Still, it’s savvy, it’s compassionate in the whole, and it certainly stands in stark contrast to how some other startups have handled layoffs — and how they will be remembered for it when all is said and done.

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