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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

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.

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”.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

CyberMDX raises $20M to help improve medical device security

Healthcare security startup CyberMDX has raised $20 million in its latest round of fundraising, the company confirmed Tuesday.
The New York-based security company works primarily to secure medical devices and improve hospital network security through its cyber intelligence platform, which manages a hospital’s network-connected assets and devices, and monitors threats in real-time.
CyberMDX has become one of the more established cybersecurity startups in the medical space, despite being founded only four years ago. Its research arm has already identified a number of vulnerabilities in widely used medical devices, including an infusion pump and a networking protocol used in anesthesia and respiratory machines, prompting Homeland Security to send out an alert.
The $20 million raise was led by Europe’s largest insurance and risk management provider Sham, a division of Relyens Group, with participation from existing investors Pitango Venture Capital and Qure Ventures.
CyberMDX said it’ll use the $20 million to roll out its platform across new geographies and markets.
The funding could not have come at a more crucial time. With thousands of hospitals and medical facilities across the world feeling the strain from the coronavirus pandemic, CyberMDX wants its platform to help ease their burdens.
“Nowadays, in light of COVID-19 and unprecedented events, we see it as part of our mission to support the healthcare community in its challenging time,” said CyberMDX co-founder and chief executive Amir Magner.

GE admits security flaws in its hospital devices could cause patient harm

Cookie consent still a compliance trash-fire in latest watchdog peek

The latest confirmation of the online tracking industry’s continued flouting of EU privacy laws which — at least on paper — are supposed to protect citizens from consent-less digital surveillance comes by via Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC).
The watchdog did a sweep survey of around 40 popular websites last year — covering sectors including media and publishing; retail; restaurants and food ordering services; insurance; sport and leisure; and the public sector — and in a new report, published yesterday, it found almost all failing on a number of cookie and tracking compliance issues, with breaches ranging from minor to serious.
Twenty were graded ‘amber’ by the regulator, which signals a good response and approach to compliance but with at least one serious concern identified; twelve were graded ‘red’, based on very poor quality responses and a plethora of bad practices around cookie banners, setting multiple cookies without consent, badly designed cookies policies or privacy policies, and a lack of clarity about whether they understood the purposes of the ePrivacy legislation; while a further three got a borderline ‘amber to red’ grade.
Just two of the 38 controllers got a ‘green’ rating (substantially compliance with any concerns straightforward and easily remedied); and one more got a borderline ‘green to amber’ grade.
EU law means that if a data controller is relying on consent as the legal basis for tracking a user the consent must be specific, informed and freely given. Additional court rulings last year have further finessed guidance around online tracking — clarifying pre-checked consent boxes aren’t valid, for example.
Yet the DPC still found examples of cookie banners that offer no actual choice at all. Such as those which serve a dummy banner with a cookie notice that users can only meaningless click ‘Got it!’. (‘Gotcha data’ more like.. )
In fact the watchdog writes that it found ‘implied’ consent being relied upon by around two-thirds of the controllers, based on the wording of their cookie banners (e.g. notices such as: “by continuing to browse this site you consent to the use of cookies”) — despite this no longer meeting the required legal standard.
“Some appeared to be drawing on older, but no longer extant, guidance published by the DPC that indicated consent could be obtained ‘by implication’, where such informational notices were put in place,” it writes, noting that current guidance on its website “does not make any reference to implied consent, but it also focuses more on user controls for cookies rather than on controller obligations”.
Another finding was that all but one website set cookies immediately on landing — with “many” of these found to have no legal justification for not asking first, as the DPC determined they fall outside available consent exemptions in the relevant regulations.
It also identified widespread abuse of the concept of ‘strictly necessary’ where the use of trackers are concerned. “Many controllers categorised the cookies deployed on their websites as having a ‘necessary’ or ‘strictly necessary’ function, where the stated function of the cookie appeared to meet neither of the two consent exemption criteria set down in the ePrivacy Regulations/ePrivacy Directive,” it writes in the report. “These included cookies used to establish chatbot sessions that were set prior to any request by the user to initiate a chatbot function. In some cases, it was noted that the chatbot function on the websites concerned did not work at all.
“It was clear that some controllers may either misunderstand the ‘strictly necessary’ criteria, or that their definitions of what is strictly necessary are rather more expansive than the definitions provided in Regulation 5(5),” it adds.
Another problem the report highlights is a lack of tools for users to vary or withdraw their consent choices, despite some of the reviewed sites using so called ‘consent management platforms’ (CMPs) sold by third-party vendors.
This chimes with a recent independent study of CPMs — which earlier this year found illegal practices to be widespread, with “dark patterns and implied consent… ubiquitous”, as the researchers put it.
“Badly designed — or potentially even deliberately deceptive — cookie banners and consent-management tools were also a feature on some sites,” the DPC writes in its report, detailing some examples of Quantcast’s CPM which had been implemented in such a way as to make the interface “confusing and potentially deceptive” (such as unlabelled toggles and a ‘reject all’ button that had no effect).
Pre-checked boxes/sliders were also found to be common, with the DPC finding ten of the 38 controllers used them — despite ‘consent’ collected like that not actually being valid consent.
“In the case of most of the controllers, consent was also ‘bundled’ — in other words, it was not possible for users to control consent to the different purposes for which cookies were being used,” the DPC also writes. “This is not permitted, as has been clarified in the Planet49 judgment. Consent does not need to be given for each cookie, but rather for each purpose. Where a cookie has more than one purpose requiring consent, it must be obtained for all of those purposes separately.”
In another finding, the regulator came across instances of websites that had embedded tracking technologies, such as Facebook pixels, yet their operators did not list these in responses to the survey, listing only http browser cookies instead. The DPC suggests this indicates some controllers aren’t even aware of trackers baked into their own sites.
“It was not clear, therefore, whether some controllers were aware of some of the tracking elements deployed on their websites — this was particularly the case where small controllers had outsourced their website management and development to a third-part,” it writes.
The worst sector of its targeted sweep — in terms of “poor practices and, in particular, poor understanding of the ePrivacy Regulations and their purpose” — was the restaurants and food-ordering sector, per the report. (Though the finding is clearly based on a small sampling across multiple sectors.)
Despite encountering near blanket failure to actually comply with the law, the DPC, which also happens to be the lead regulator for much of big tech in Europe, has responded by issuing, er, further guidance.
This includes specifics such as pre-checked consent boxes must be removed; cookie banners can’t be designed to ‘nudge’ users to accept and a reject option must have equal prominence; and no non-necessary cookies be set on landing. It also stipulates there must always be a way for users to withdraw consent — and doing so should be as easy as consenting.
All stuff that’s been clear and increasingly so at least since the GDPR came into application in May 2018. Nonetheless the regulator is giving the website operators in question a further six months’ grace to get their houses in order — after which it has raised the prospect of actually enforcing the EU’s ePrivacy Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation.
“Where controllers fail to voluntarily make changes to their user interfaces and/or their processing, the DPC has enforcement options available under both the ePrivacy Regulations and the GDPR and will, where necessary, examine the most appropriate enforcement options in order to bring controllers into compliance with the law,” it warns.
The report is just the latest shot across the bows of the online tracking industry in Europe.
The UK’s Information Commission’s Office (ICO) has been issuing sternly worded blog posts for months. Its own report last summer found illegal profiling of Internet users by the programmatic ad industry to be rampant — also giving the industry six months to reform.
However the ICO still hasn’t done anything about the adtech industry’s legal blackhole — leading to privacy experts to denouncing the lack of any “substantive action to end the largest data breach ever recorded in the UK”, as one put it at the start of this year.

Privacy experts slam UK’s ‘disastrous’ failure to tackle unlawful adtech

Ireland’s DPC, meanwhile, has yet to put the decision trigger on multiple cross-border investigations into the data-mining business practices of tech giants including Facebook and Google, following scores of GDPR complaints — including several targeting their legal base to process people’s data.
A two-year review of the pan-EU regulation, set for May 2020, provides one hard deadline that might concentrate minds.

Bringg nabs $30M to expand its delivery logistics platform used by Walmart and others

Over the last several years, delivery services have become a key component of how retailers, or anyone selling or distributing products and services, do business. Now, with a global health pandemic in full swing keeping people indoors (and away from physical storefronts), delivery has become an essential must-have if you want your business to stay alive. Today, a startup called Bringg, which helps companies build and run delivery operations, is announcing a growth round of $30 million to meet expanding demand for its services.
Tel Aviv-based Bringg already counts giants like Walmart, McDonalds and Coke among its customers, and most recently introduced a last-mile delivery platform called BringgNow aimed at small and medium businesses to mobilise and manage their own and third-party fleets of delivery people.
The funding, a Series D, is being led by Viola Growth, with Next47, Salesforce, OG Tech Ventures, and GLP (all previous investors) also participating.
It brings the total raised to around $83 million, and while Bringg is not disclosing its valuation, for context, PitchBook placed its last valuation ($25 million Series C in January 2019) at $214.7 million. Its revenues have been on the rise over the last year and Guy Bloch, the CEO, said in an interview that it’s definitely an up round.
“The company is growing very fast, and closing a round in ‘corona times’ says a lot,” he said.
Indeed, Bringg’s funding is coming at a key time for the delivery and logistics sector overall.
Delivery services, and businesses based around offering them, have been on an expansion tear over the last several years fuelled by the rise of the on-demand economy. But the past several weeks — where consumers have been staying at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, staying away from going outside; and businesses have been severely curtailing operations to limit people congregating in enclosed physical spaces — have turned all growth modelling on its head.
Those that already delivered as part of their service (for example take-out food or groceries) are seeing unprecedented levels of demand, and businesses that have never had that option now are finding that offering customers a delivery service is the only way to stay in business.
“We have been building the company on a vision of the market that we believed would come in a couple of years’ time, say between 2022 and 2025,” Bloch said. “Now it’s just happening in front of our eyes, right now. We are being pulled into a vacuum.”
Alongside businesses seeing huge demand for delivery options — with that being the only way to deliver their products and services in some cases — Bloch and Bringg’s founder Lior Sion (who had previously helped to build the tech underpinning Uber competitor Gett) both noted that another significant shift has been among consumer preferences.
Trust had been a big gating factor in the growth of delivery services, something that is now moving significantly and may never go back to the way it was before, something that will mean that Bringg’s current surge of business — growth 24% just in the last week — will be sustained even after COVID-19 (hopefully) subsides.
“Delivery will never be 100% but this is about offering a better experience,” Sion said. “Now with for groceries, restaurants, and other services, people are being exposed to using them when they hadn’t before. Or, they used to use one service, but now are realising what happens when that disappears, and they are now using more than one. They will say to themselves, I need to diversify.”
Bringg’s platform essentially gives businesses — it works with obvious customers like retailers, restaurants and grocery stores, but also large distributors, field service providers and healthcare companies — an end-to-end offering to manage their delivery operations. These include tools (AI-based or otherwise) not only to optimise and understand where and how much stock exists, but to route it in the most efficient way to sync up with online ordering platforms to make sure stock and services and people can get to who needs them. The last-mile services both work with retailers’ existing fleets of vehicles and people, but also brings in third-party services to complement that when needed.
While a lot of what Bringg is doing has been focused on for-profit businesses, the startup has been doing its own part to give something to the wider volunteer effort that we’ve seen surging throughout the tech industry. In its case, it’s working with local government organizations pro bono to help mobilise people to deliver goods to those in need, and has essentially opened its door to any and all other non-profits needing help. (Contact them if this applies to you.)
The bigger picture is that Bringg is bringing (sorry) something to everyone, at a time when we really need it, but will be relying on that model for years to come, even without a crisis hanging over us.
“We’re living in a ‘delivery economy’ and the latest market upheaval brought on by COVID-19 will only expedite this new reality in which brands won’t be able to afford to do business without this kind of solution” said Eran Westman, Partner at Viola Growth, in a statement. “Bringg enables brands to take full control of their data, increase customer satisfaction, and ultimately their revenues. We believe this market has major expansion potential and that Bringg, with its exceptional vision and execution, is ripe to take leadership, which is why we decided to lead this round.”
“Today with COVID-19 keeping consumers homebound, delivery is not a business differentiator but a critical logistics model, keeping businesses afloat. Our latest investment demonstrates our belief in the value Bringg delivers to the market, providing businesses of all sizes the capabilities to connect logistics data across different silos and optimize their operational models for rapid, convenient delivery service,”  said Matthew Cowan, General Partner at Next47, in a separate statement.

Blossom Capital’s ‘Cultivate’ is an angel program seeking to back European unicorn alumnus

Just a few months after closing a new $185 million fund to continue backing early-stage European startups, Blossom Capital, the VC firm founded by Ophelia Brown, is announcing a new angel investment program seeking to back European unicorn alumnus.
Dubbed “Cultivate,” the new program looks to create a 30-strong angel network made up of founders or operators from European unicorns or those with a European HQ, who will be tasked with backing alumni starting up.
This idea is to act as a catalyst for a more robust angel ecosystem in Europe, and in turn trigger a virtuous cycle as employees inevitably leave successful companies to hopefully build the next generation of European unicorns, backed by experienced operators.
At launch, the Cultivate angel network includes Des Traynor, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Intercom, Guillaume Pousaz, CEO and founder of Checkout.com, Nilan Peiris VP Growth at Transferwise, and Shakil Khan, an early investor in Spotify. Additional angels are expected to join in the coming months.
“In the first year of the program, we’ve just made it available to people spinning out of unicorns,” Ophelia Brown tells me. “And so if you know you’re the CEO of Intercom or the CEO of Checkout, you’re going to have people leave your company, that’s just a fact, and you hope that they’re gonna go off and start something great. So they’re sourcing, in that they can refer either their former employees or anyone else that they meet building a startup, but they’re not going to be spending their day to day sourcing. Blossom is helping with the sourcing as well”.
Over the next 12 months, Blossom says it aims to invest a total of $5 million via the Cultivate program into 20 startups in Europe, with a focus on seed and pre-seed (as apposed to Blossom’s Series A sweet spot). Each startup will get an equal investment of $250,000, although individual angels are invited to make additional co-investments, too. Beyond capital, Cultivate backed founders will be given access to the angel network throughout the year for insights, advice and learnings.
“This is different [from an angel scout program] in that the angels are all acting in concert together,” explains Brown. “They will review the applications as a group and make a decision based on that. I think it’s [the] first of its kind in that it sits somewhere between a scout program and something like Y Combinator, because with YC, the power’s in the network. And we’ve kind of taken the best of both and made it fit for Europe”.
Asked why founders might choose Cultivate over applying to YC, Brown is quick to heap praise on the renowned Silicon Valley accelerator program, but says it doesn’t necessarily make sense for startups in Europe.
“For lots of European businesses that are building their core in Europe, why would you want to move to the valley for that period to come back to build in Europe? It’s disruptive,” she says. “And also I think people are beginning to realise that the 7% tax that YC takes is actually significant when you’re doing future rounds in terms of how diluted it could be. So I think YC is no doubt a great program. Like, it’s absolutely amazing, but it’s not one size fits all. And certainly, for European founders, we wanted them to get access to founders who have experience of scaling businesses in Europe. It’s a different ecosystem”.
On that note, Brown says she hopes to grow the Cultivate angel program over time. This may well include opening it up beyond unicorn alumni, once the concept it proven, and hopefully inspiring the angel network to take on a life of its own.
“Europe really lacks an angel ecosystem in the way that we need it to exist,” adds the Blossom founder. “And so we hope that we spawn the first group and then as they feel comfortable, they’ll go and do it independently of Blossom”.

A conversation with ‘the most ambitious female VC in Europe’

Atomico unveils Angel Programme to ‘activate’ the next generation of European investors

COVID-19 crisis spurs triple-digit growth for refurbishing startup Back Market

Eva Yoo
Contributor

Eva Yoo is founder of Seek Road, the project wherein she cycles from Seoul to London while interviewing startups on the Silk Road.

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While a number of startups have been hard hit by efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, refurbishing firm Back Market is showing increased growth globally.
The Paris -based startup encourages customers to send in their old devices so they can be refurbished and resold into the e-commerce secondhand market. The growth achieved in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is partly due to increased laptop sales as people seek better devices to work remotely.
For people who are unsure whether refurbished products are reliable, Back Market permits customers to send in old devices, exchange them for newer versions and pay the difference. CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze said this payback service is currently possible only in France, but starting in Q2, it will be available in other markets.
Founded in 2014, Back Market has raised a total of €48 million in funding over two rounds, most recently a Series B in June 2018. The company is profitable and reportedly still has money to spend from its last funding round.
“We don’t release the gross merchandise volume, but it’s a three-digit growth rate,” Hug de Larauze told TechCrunch. “We saw an increase in demand for laptops, printers and other devices needed for working at home. Demand for refurbished phones is going down as people seek to get the first necessity items, like food for their situation.”
Over the past two weeks, Back Market saw skyrocketing demand from Italy, a nation with a high coronavirus death toll where citizens were warned they would be confined to their homes for four weeks.
Another factor that helped the platform’s growth: Smartphone brands like Apple and Samsung closed their retail stores, a move that turned Back Market into a major supply channel. While offline retailers and carriers are shut down in Europe, Hug de Larauze says Chinese offline retailers and refurbishing factories are starting to get back to work.

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

A group of European privacy experts has proposed a decentralized system for Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contacts tracing which they argue offers greater protection against abuse and misuse of people’s data than apps which pull data into centralized pots.
The protocol — which they’re calling Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-PPT) — has been designed by around 25 academics from at least seven research institutions across Europe, including the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich and KU Leuven in the Netherlands.
They’ve published a White Paper detailing their approach here.
The key element is that the design entails local processing of contacts tracing and risk on the user’s device, based on devices generating and sharing ephemeral Bluetooth identifiers (referred to as EphIDs in the paper).
A backend server is used to push data out to devices — i.e. when an infected person is diagnosed with COVID-19 a health authority would sanction the upload from the person’s device of a compact representation of EphIDs over the infectious period which would be sent to other devices so they could locally compute whether there is a risk and notify the user accordingly.
Under this design there’s no requirement for pseudonymized IDs to be centralized, where the pooled data would pose a privacy risk. Which in turn should make it easier to persuade EU citizens to trust the system — and voluntarily download contacts tracing app using this protocol — given it’s architected to resist being repurposed for individual-level state surveillance.
The group does discuss some other potential threats — such as posed by tech savvy users who could eavesdrop on data exchanged locally, and decompile/recompile the app to modify elements — but the overarching contention is such risks are small and more manageable vs creating centralized pots of data that risk paving the way for ‘surveillance creep’, i.e. if states use a public health crisis as an opportunity to establish and retain citizen-level tracking infrastructure.
The DP-PPT has been designed with its own purpose-limited dismantling in mind, once the public health crisis is over.
“Our protocol is demonstrative of the fact that privacy-preserving approaches to proximity tracing are possible, and that countries or organisations do not need to accept methods that support risk and misuse,” writes professor Carmela Troncoso, of EPFL. “Where the law requires strict necessity and proportionality, and societal support is behind proximity tracing, this decentralized design provides an abuse-resistant way to carry it out.”
In recent weeks governments all over Europe have been leaning on data controllers to hand over user data for a variety of coronavirus tracking purposes. Apps are also being scrambled to market by the private sector — including symptom reporting apps that claim to help researchers fight the disease. While tech giants spy PR opportunities to repackage persistent tracking of Internet users for a claimed public healthcare cause, however vague the actual utility.

Telco metadata grab is for modelling COVID-19 spread, not tracking citizens, says EC

The next big coronavirus tech push looks likely to be contacts-tracing apps: Aka apps that use proximity-tracking Bluetooth technology to map contacts between infected individuals and others.
This is because without some form of contacts tracing there’s a risk that hard-won gains to reduce the rate of infections by curtailing people’s movements will be reversed, i.e. once economic and social activity is opened up again. Although whether contacts tracing apps can be as effective at helping to contain COVID-19 as policymakers and technologists hope remains an open question.
What’s crystal clear right now, though, is that without a thoughtfully designed protocol that bakes in privacy by design contacts-tracing apps present a real risk to privacy — and, where they exist, to hard-won human rights. 
Torching rights in the name of combating COVID-19 is neither good nor necessary is the message from the group backing the DP-PPT protocol.
“One of the major concerns around centralisation is that the system can be expanded, that states can reconstruct a social graph of who-has-been-close-to-who, and may then expand profiling and other provisions on that basis. The data can be co-opted and used by law enforcement and intelligence for non-public health purposes,” explains University College London’s Dr Michael Veale, another backer of the decentralized design.
“While some countries may be able to put in place effective legal safeguards against this, by setting up a centralised protocol in Europe, neighbouring countries become forced to interoperate with it, and use centralised rather than decentralised systems too. The inverse is true: A decentralised system puts hard technical limits on surveillance abuses from COVID-19 bluetooth tracking across the world, by ensuring other countries use privacy-protective approaches.”
“It is also simply not necessary,” he adds of centralizing proximity data. “Data protection by design obliges the minimisation of data to that which is necessary for the purpose. Collecting and centralising data is simply not technically necessary for Bluetooth contact tracing.”
Last week we reported on another EU effort — by a different coalition of technologists and scientists, led by by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI) — which has said it’s working on a “privacy preserving” standard for Covid-19 contacts tracing which they’ve dubbed: Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT).
At the time it wasn’t clear whether or not the approach was locked to a centralized model of handling the pseudoanonymized IDs. Speaking to TechCrunch today, Hans-Christian Boos, one of the PEPP-PT project’s co-initiators, confirmed the standardization effort will support both centralized and decentralized approaches to handling contacts tracing.
The effort had faced criticizm from some in the EU privacy community for appearing to favor a centralized rather than decentralized approach — thereby, its critics contend, undermining the core claim to preserve user privacy. But, per Boos, it will in fact support both approaches — in a bid to maximize uptake around the world.
He also said it will be interoperable regardless of whether data is centralized or decentralized. (In the centralized scenario, he said the hope is that the not-for-profit that’s being set up to oversee PEPP-PT will be able to manage the centralized servers itself, pending proper financing — a step intended to further shrink the risk of data centralization in regions that lacks a human rights frameworks, for example.)
“We will have both options — centralized and decentralized,” Boos told TechCrunch. “We will offer both solutions, depending on who wants to use what, and we’ll make them operable. But I’m telling you that both solutions have their merits. I know that in the crypto community there is a lot of people who want decentraliztion — and I can tell you that in the health community there’s a lot of people who hate decentralization because they’re afraid that too many people have information about infected people.”
“In a decentralized system you have the simple problem that you would broadcast the anonymous IDs of infected people to everybody — so some countries’ health legislation will absolutely forbid that. Even though you have a cryptographic method, you’re broadcasting the IDs to all over the place — that’s the only way your local phone can find out have I been in contact or no,” Boos went on.
“That’s the drawback of a decentralized solution. Other than that it’s a very good thing. On a centralized solution you have the drawback that there is a single operator, whom you can choose to trust or not to trust — has access to anonymized IDs, just the same as if they were broadcast. So the question is you can have one party with access to anonymized IDs or do you have everybody with access to anonymized IDs because in the end you’re broadcasting them over the network [because] it’s spoofable.”
“If your assumption is that someone could hack the centralized service… then you have to also assume that someone could hack a router, which stuff goes through,” he added. “Same problem.
“That’s why we offer both solutions. We’re not religious. Both solutions offer good privacy. Your question is who would you trust more and who would you un-trust more? Would you trust more a lot of users that you broadcast something to or would you trust more someone who operates a server? Or would you trust more that someone can hack a router or that someone can hack the server? Both is possible, right. Both of these options are totally valid options — and it’s a religious discussion between crypto people… but we have to balance it between what crypto wants and what healthcare wants. And because we can’t make that decision we will end up offering both solutions.
“I think there has to be choice because if we are trying to build an international standard we should try and not be part of a religious war.”
Boos also said the project aims to conduct research into the respective protocols (centralized vs decentralized) to compare and conduct risk assessments based on access to the respective data.
“From a data protection point of view that data is completely anonymized because there’s no attachment to location, there’s no attachment to time, there’s no attachment to phone number, MAC address, SIM number, any of those. The only thing you know there is a contact — a relevant contact between two anonymous IDs. That’s the only thing you have,” he said. “The question that we gave the computer scientists and the hackers is if we give you this list — or if we give you this graph, what could you derive from it? In the graph they are just numbers connected to each other, the question is how can you derive anything from it? They are trying — let’s see what’s coming out.”
“There are lots of people trying to be right about this discussion. It’s not about being right; it’s about doing the right thing — and we will supply, from the initiative, whatever good options there are. And if each of them have drawbacks we will make those drawbacks public and we will try to get as much confirmation and research in on these as we can. And we will put this out so people can make their choices which type of the system they want in their geography,” he added.
“If it turns out that one is doable and one is completely not doable then we will drop one — but so far both look doable, in terms of ‘privacy preserving’, so we will offer both. If one turns out to be not doable because it’s hackable or you could derive meta-information at an unacceptable risk then we would drop it completely and stop offering the option.”
On the interoperability point Boos described it as “a challenge” which he said boils down to how the systems calculate their respective IDs — but he emphasized it’s being worked on and is an essential piece.
“Without that the whole thing doesn’t make sense,” he told us. “It’s a challenge why the option isn’t out yet but we’re solving that challenge and it’ll definitely work… There’s multiple ideas how to make that work.”
“If every country does this by itself we won’t have open borders again,” he added. “And if in a country there’s multiple applications that don’t share data then we won’t have a large enough set of people participating who can actually make infection tracing possible — and if there’s not a single place where we can have discussions about what’s the right thing to do about privacy well then probably everybody will do something else and half of them will use phone numbers and location information.”
The PEPP-PT coalition has not yet published its protocol or any code. Which means external experts wanting to chip in with informed feedback on specific design choices related to the proposed standard haven’t been able to get their hands on the necessary data to carry out a review.
Boos said they intend to open source the code this week, under a Mozilla licence. He also said the project is willing to take on “any good suggestions” as contributions.
“Currently only beta members have access to it because those have committed to us that they will update to the newest version,” he said. “We want to make sure that when we publish the first release of code it should have gone through data privacy validation and security validation — so we are as sure as we can be that there’s no major change that someone on an open source system might skip.”
The lack of transparency around the protocol had caused concern among privacy experts — and led to calls for developers to withhold support pending more detail. And even to speculation that European governments may be intervening to push the effort towards a centralized model — and away from core EU principles of data protection by design and default.

I read this as saying that the PEPP-PT enables different configurations, depending on what the ‘user’ (government, platform) prefers. That is not DPbDD. Also I got no answer to the question who are the partners, what NDAs are involved and what downstream data-flows are enabled.
— Mireille Hildebrandt (@mireillemoret) April 6, 2020

As it stands, the EU’s long-standing data protection law bakes in principles such as data minimization. Transparency is another core requirement. And just last week the bloc’s lead privacy regulator, the EDPS, told us it’s monitoring developments around COVID-19 contacts tracing apps.
“The EDPS supports the development of technology and digital applications for the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and is monitoring these developments closely in cooperation with other national Data Protection Supervisory Authorities. It is firmly of the view that the GDPR is not an obstacle for the processing of personal data which is considered necessary by the Health Authorities to fight the pandemic,” a spokesman told us.
“All technology developers currently working on effective measures in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic should ensure data protection from the start, e.g. by applying apply data protection by design principles. The EDPS and the data protection community stand ready to assist technology developers in this collective endeavour. Guidance from data protection authorities is available here: EDPB Guidelines 4/2019 on Article 25 Data Protection by Design and by Default; and EDPS Preliminary Opinion on Privacy by Design.”
We also understand the European Commission is paying attention to the sudden crop of coronavirus apps and tools — with effectiveness and compliance with European data standards on its radar.
However, at the same time, the Commission has been pushing a big data agenda as part of a reboot of the bloc’s industrial strategy that puts digitization, data and AI at the core. And just today Euroactiv reported on leaked documents from the EU Council which say EU Member States and the Commission should “thoroughly analyse the experiences gained from the COVID-19 pandemic” in order to inform future policies across the entire spectrum of the digital domain.
So even in the EU there is a high level appetite for data that risks intersecting with the coronavirus crisis to drive developments in a direction that might undermine individual privacy rights. Hence the fierce push back from certain pro-privacy quarters for contacts tracing to be decentralized — to guard against any state data grabs.

Europe sets out plan to boost data reuse and regulate ‘high risk’ AIs

For his part Boos argues that what counts as best practice ‘data minimization’ boils down to a point of view on who you trust more. “You could make an argument [for] both [deccentralized and centralized approaches] that they’re data minimizing — just because there’s data minimization at one point doesn’t mean you have data minimization overall in a decentralized system,” he suggests.
“It’s a question who do you trust? It’s who would you trust more — that’s the real question. I see the critical point of data as not the list of anonymized contacts — the critical data is the confirmed infected.
“A lot of this is an old, religious discussion between centralization and decentralization,” he added. “Generally IT oscillates between those tools; total distribution, total centralization… Because none of those is a perfect solution. But here in this case I think both offer valid security options, and then they have both different implications on what you’re willing to do or not willing to do with medical data. And then you’ve got to make a decision.
“What we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that the options are available. And we’ve got to make sure there’s sound research, not just conjecture, in heavyweight discussions: How does what work, how do they compare, and what are the risks?”
In terms of who’s involved in PEPP-PT discussions, beyond direct project participants, Boos said governments and health ministries are involved for the practical reason that they “have to include this in their health processes”. “A lot of countries now create their official tracing apps and of course those should be connected to the PEPP-PT,” he said.
“We also talk to the people in the health systems — whatever is the health system in the respective countries — because this needs to in the end interface with the health system, it needs to interface with testing… it should interface with infectious disease laws so people could get in touch with the local CDCs without revealing their privacy to us or their contact information to us, so that’s the conversation we’re also having.”
Developers with early (beta) access are kicking the tyres of the system already. Asked when the first apps making use of PEPP-PT technologies might be in general circulation Boos suggested it could be as soon as a couple of weeks.
“Most of them just have to put this into their tracing layer and we’ve already given them enough information so that they know how they can connect this to their health processes. I don’t think this will take long,” he said, noting the project is also providing a tracing reference app to help countries that haven’t got developer resource on tap.
“For user engagement you’ll have to do more than just tracing — you’ll have to include, for example, the information from the CDC… but we will offer the skeletal implementation of an app to make starting this as a project [easier],” he said.
“If all the people that have emailed us since last week put it in their apps [we’ll get widespread uptake],” Boos added. “Let’s say 50% do I think we get a very good start. I would say that the influx from countries and I would say companies especially who want their workforce back — there’s a high pressure especially to go on a system that allows international exchange and interoperability.”
On the wider point of whether contacts tracing apps is a useful tool to help control the spread of this novel coronavirus — which has shown itself to be highly infectious, more so than flu, for example — Boos said: “I don’t think there’s much argument that isolating infection is important, the problem with this disease is there’s zero symptoms while you’re already contagious. Which means that you can’t just go and measure the temperature of people and be fine. You actually need that look into the past. And I don’t think that can be done accurately without digital help.
“So if the theory that you need to isolate infection chains is true at all, which many diseases have shown that it is — but each disease is different, so there’s no 100% guarantee, but all the data speaks for it — then that is definitely something that we need to do… The argument [boils down to] if we have so many infected as we currently have, does this make sense — do we not end up very quickly, because the world is so interconnected, with the same type of lockdown mechanism?
“This is why it only makes sense to come out with an app like this when you have broken these R0 values [i.e how many other people one infected person can infect] — once you’ve got it under 1 and got the number of cases in your country down to a good level. And I think that in the language of an infectious disease person this means going back to the approach of containing the disease, rather than mitigating the disease — what we’re doing now.”
“The approach of contact chain evaluation allows you to put better priorities on testing — but currently people don’t have the real priority question, they have a resource question on testing,” he added. “Testing and tracing are independent of each other. You need both; because if you’re tracing contacts and you can’t get tested what’s that good for? So yes you definitely [also] need the testing infrastructure for sure.”

COVID-hit UK startups cry out for help, as UK gov trails Europe in its response

The UK government is reportedly looking at a range of options to support the startup industry, possibly involving a co-investment model involving state-owned funds (via the British Business Bank) and private VC funds. Investors have been warning that typically loss-making, early-stage startups are at risk of collapse amid the coronavirus crisis. But the moves come far later than generous packages put together by Continental European governments to support their startup sectors.
Ministers understood to be keen to support the strong UK startup and innovation sector and options allegedly being considered include convertible loans, which could either be later repaid or turned into equity stakes owned by the state. This would require matched co-investment with VCs, ensuring only existing venture-backed startups would be eligible.
The FT reports that ministers want to do this on a case-by-case basis and only after companies have first sought fresh capital from private investors.
Also being considered is additional grant funding via InnovateUK, a government body providing support to innovative businesses, and an expansion of R&D tax credits.
However, the scale of any government intervention is expected to be far more modest than the government’s previously announced support for small, medium and large companies and their workers, given investors are normally deep-pocketed and tech startups typically employ far fewer people than traditional industries. By contrast, the French and German governments committed €4bn and €2bn in relief for their respective tech startup sectors.
The proposals under consideration include ones put forward by a number of significant players in the UK tech industry, who jointly launched a campaign over the weekend to pressure the government into creating a support package to aid startups struggling to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
The move comes in the wake of moves by other European countries, such as France and Germany, which have announced significant initiatives.
The Save Our Startups (SOS) campaign published an open letter to British prime minister Boris Johnson warning the country could “lose a generation of startups and high growth businesses to COVID-19.”
It claims more than 30,000 startups employing some 330,000 people do not qualify for existing support measures and are therefore in jeopardy if new policies are not developed to help them.
The campaign was launched by crowdfunding platform Crowdcube and industry body Coadec, and is supported by leading tech figures including Brent Hoberman, the co-founder of Lastminute.com; Alex Chesterman, the cofounder of Zoopla, LoveFilm and Cazoo; and Arnaud Massenet, cofounder of Net-a-Porter.
It is also joined by organizations including The Entrepreneurs Network, Draper Esprit, Virgin Startups, Vala Capital, Innovate Finance, UK Business Angels Association (UKBAA), EISA, Tech London Advocates, Capital Enterprise and Seedrs .
Jeff Lynn, executive chairman and co-founder of Seedrs, who was a signatory to the letter, commented: “The growth of the startup ecosystem has been one of the great successes of the UK economy over the past decade. All that work is now threatened by COVID-19, and that’s why it is essential that the government step in to help at this precarious time–just as the French and German governments are doing. The Save Our Startups campaign sets out three sensible and crucial requests that will make all the difference in ensuring that our startups can continue to be European and world leaders in the decade ahead. I am very pleased that Seedrs and Coadec, both of which I co-founded and chair, are Founding Partners of the campaign, and I hope everyone in the ecosystem will sign onto it.”
The open letter said: “These businesses are making a huge contribution to the economy but are often yet to make a profit because they are investing in their people, technology and bringing innovative products and services to market. They are highly unlikely to qualify for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), which was introduced to provide financial support for SMEs during this pandemic.”
The letter points out that the French and German Governments have already worked to craft support for startups.
Save Our Startups has a three-point proposal for the government, calling on it to:
• Provide an equity-based liquidity package suitable to save startups at risk. While CBILS covers a proportion of UK businesses, the majority of startups and high-growth companies will be excluded and as a result, unsupported.
• Fast track payments to startups from public funding schemes – in particular, R&D tax credits and Innovate UK funding grants. Private sector liquidity has taken a major hit during the crisis with angels and micro-funds unable to provide startups and high growth businesses with bridging money.
• Change EIS, SEIS and VCTs to stimulate private equity investment into startup and high growth businesses, since many startups are losing access to debt or equity support.
However, some investors are cool on the idea, pointing out that the government could end up owning stakes in companies that would not otherwise have raised private-sector money, and that there should be a natural falling-off of weaker companies at a time of public crisis.
Investor Robin Klein of Localglobe commented on Twitter that: “The UK Govt has done an incredible job supporting the startup ecosystem” but he called the SOS campaign a “knee jerk” reaction and although he was “100% in favour of rapid BBB and other govt support” this would be through established tools.”

The UK Govt has done an incredible job supporting the startup ecosystem: EIS, BBB, InnovateUK, R&D tax credits. 8 out of 10 startups won’t reach Series A. Please don’t ‘knee jerk’ react to the call to ‘save our startups’ by deploying much needed Tax payers ££ directly.
— Robin Klein (@robinklein) April 5, 2020

Luke Lang, cofounder of Crowdcube, which initiated the campaign with Coadec, commented: “Other European countries have raced to rescue its startup and tech communities, with French and German Governments committing €6bn in funding. The UK is sluggish by comparison, and further delays are unforgivable and threaten thousands of promising startup and high-growth businesses with huge potential.”
The full letter by Save Our Startups can be read here. And the list of signatories is below:
Darren Westlake — cofounder and chief executive, Crowdcube
Luke Lang — cofounder, CrowdcubeBrent Hoberman — cofounder and chairman, Founders Factory; previously cofounder, Lastminute.com
Alex Chesterman — founder and chief executive, Cazoo; previously cofounder, LoveFilm and Zoopla
Arnaud Massenet — cofounder, Net-a-Porter
Mike Muller — cofounder, ARM
Anthony Fletcher — chief executive, Graze
Tania Boler — founder, Elvie
Doug Monro — cofounder and chief executive, Adzuna />
Jeff Lynn — cofounder and executive chairman, Seedrs
Saurav Chopra — cofounder and chief executive, Perkbox
Daniel Korski — founder and chief executive, PUBLIC
David Dunn — chair, UK Tech Cluster Group
Philip Salter — founder, The Entrepreneurs Network
Andrew Tibbitts — chief operating officer, TechHub
Charlotte Crosswell — chief executive, Innovate Finance
Jenny Tooth OBE — chief executive, UKBAA
Jonathan Sibilia — partner, Draper Esprit
Dom Hallas — executive director, The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec)
John Spindler — cofounder and chief executive, Capital Enterprise
Mark Brownridge — director general, EIS Association
Natasha Guerra — cofounder, Runway East
Andy Fishburn — managing director, Virgin Startup
Russ Shaw — founder, Tech London Advocates
Alex Davies — founder and chief executive, Wealth Club
Bruce Davies — director, UK Crowdfunding Association
Andrew Roughan — managing director, Plexal
Jasper Smith — founder, Vala Capital
Gaby Hersham — founder, Huckletree
Carlos Silva — cofounder, Seedrs
Robert Walsh — managing partner, Q Ventures

Lydia lets you donate to hospitals and charities

Fintech startup Lydia is the dominating mobile payment app in France with most of its 3.3 million users in its home country. That’s why the startup has been working hard over the past ten days to ship a feature that was originally planned for this summer — donations to charities and hospitals.
Starting today, Lydia users can choose between 17 charities and send money to those charities using the familiar Lydia payment flow. It works like sending money to your friends and family.
Donations start at €0.50 and those are one-off payments — you can’t set up recurring payments or round up transactions for instance.
Lydia recently introduced “the market”, a marketplace of financial products, such as small credit lines, phone insurance and free credit on home insurance and utility bills. The market menu was buried under the profile tab. The company is now surfacing that screen in its own tab right next to your accounts and transaction history. You can find donations as a new button in the market.
There’s another way to donate. On the payment screen, when you tap a sum and hit next, in addition to the usual list of recipients, you can choose to send money to a charity from there as well. This feature is live on Android and will be available soon on iOS — iOS users have to go through the market for now.
The startup has selected 17 charities for now, but that list could grow over time. You’ll find public hospitals (Paris, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Lille and Nice), charities focused on health as well as general public interest charities (Fondation de France, Fondation 101, Médecins du Monde, Epic, Action contre la Faim, La Croix Rouge française, La Fondation Abbé Pierre, La Ligue Nationale contre le Cancer, Réseau Entourage and La Maison des Femmes de Saint-Denis).

If you’re not a Lydia user, you can still use Lydia’s payment flow in your web browser with a credit or debit card. (But nothing is stopping you from donating directly on the charity websites of course.)
If you want to give a large sum of money and deduct part of your donation from your income taxes, you’ll have to ask charities directly. Lydia can’t give you a tax form directly as it only acts as an intermediary.
Eventually, Lydia will deduct processing fees from your donations before handing them over to charities. But the company is waving fees until June 30 due to the coronavirus crisis.

Open banking fintech Yapily raises $13M Series A

Yapily, one of a number of fintech startups that offer an opening banking API to let enterprises, such as financial service providers and merchants, connect to banks, has raised $13 million in Series A funding. Leading the round is Lakestar, which is also a backer of fintech unicorn Revolut.
Existing investors HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, and LocalGlobe also participated. Yapily last disclosed $5.4 million in seed funding in May 2019, and counts the likes of Taavet Hinrikus (TransferWise chairman and co-founder), Ott Kaukver (Twilio’s CTO), Roberto Nicastro (UniCredit’s former deputy CEO) and Frank Strauss (Former CEO of Deutsche Postbank) as angel backers.
Founded in mid 2017 by ex-Goldman Sachs employee Stefano Vaccino, Yapily’s open banking platform makes it easier for various service providers to connect to banks. Specifically, it provides a way to retrieve financial data and initiate payments via a “single secure API” that in turn connects to each supported bank’s open API.
Customers are said to include Fortune 500 companies and fast growth fintechs, including Intuit QuickBooks, where Yapily’s API is used by the accounting software provider to help SMEs access insights and financial information from bank accounts in the U.K., France, and Ireland. Another customer of Yapily is GoCardless, the London fintech that makes it easy to offer customers the option to pay by direct debit.
More broadly, Yapily’s platform can be used by anything from accountancy firms, companies in the payment space, to crypto currency providers, digital wealth applications and e-commerce companies.
To that end, the open banking fintech says it will use the investment to “drive open banking adoption by organisations across Europe,” noting that more than 6,000 banks will be affected by the PSD2 (European open banking) deadline. This means that most European countries are set to release open banking-style APIs publicly in 2020, which Yapily hopes to benefit from.

Open banking platform Tink raises €90M at a post-money valuation of €415M

Germany’s Xpension pension platform raises €25M in A Series C growth round

The German pension and insurance industry was a laggard in the word of online a few years ago, but in recent times it’s quickly caught up. There’s further evidence of this trend with the news that Xpension (trading as xbAV), an online platform for pensions and life insurance, has raised €25m in its Series C financing round. This will take its total funding to date to more than €50m.
The financing round was led by HPE Growth, a growth capital fund. Existing investors Cinco Capital, led by Lars Hinrichs (founder of XING and chairman of Xpension), and Armada Investment, led by Daniel S. Aegerter (founder of Tradex) also participated.
The new funding will be used to scale up Xpension’s corporate pension and life insurance SaaS platform in Germany; expand the offering into private pensions and life insurance and corporate health insurance; and prepare a rollout into other European countries. The company has also launched a video platform for agents to speak to clients, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To date, Xpension has attracted more than 40 life insurers, 11,000 insurance agents and 3,000 SMEs onto its platform.
Martin Bockelmann, CEO & Founder commented: “After several years of intensive R&D and broad-based user acquisition, this partnership with HPE Growth allows us to unleash the full potential of our platform in Germany and abroad.”
Tim van Delden, Partner at HPE Growth, said: “The move online of the €2.5 trillion global pension and life insurance industry is a huge topic. A SaaS platform like Xpension – which connects life insurers, agents and their corporate and private customers to buy and manage policies – will be a game-changer.”
Speaking to TechCrunch, Hinrichs, the active Chariman and largest private shareholder, said: “We target not just occupational pensions but the entire segment, which is worth 700 billion Euros in premiums a year. German pensions are the leading pensions segment in Europe. And we are taking advantage of the recent changes in pension policy.”
It would appear that Xpension is in a strong position to potentially open up to end-consumers who don’t have pensions at some point, as have similar US platforms, or even to leverage its position to build its own insurance company at some point.

Valispace raises $2.4M lead by JOIN Capital to become the ‘Github for hardware’

Hardware engineering is mostly document-based. A typical satellite might be described in several hundred thousand PDF documents, spreadsheets, simulation files and more; all potentially inconsistent between each other. This can lead to costly mistakes. NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units, for instance.
Germany-HQ’d Valispace, which also has offices in Portugal, dubs itself as “Github for hardware”. In other words, it’s a collaboration platform for engineers, allowing them to develop better satellites, planes, rockets, nuclear fusion reactors, cars and medical devices, you name it. It’s a browser-based application, which stores engineering data and lets the users interconnect them through formulas. This means that when one value is changed, all other values are updated, simulations re-run and documentation rewritten automatically.
That last point is important in this pandemic era, where making and improving medical ventilators has become a huge global issue.
Valispace has now raised a Seed Extension funding round of €2.2M / $2.4M lead by JOIN Capital in Berlin and was joined by HCVC (Hardware Club), based in Paris.
The funding will be used to expand into new industries (e.g. medical devices, robotics) and expansion of the existing ones (aeronautics, space, automotive, energy). The company is addressing the Systems Engineering Tool market in Europe which is worth €7Billion, while the US market is at least as big. It’s competitors include RHEA CDP4, Innoslate, JAMA and the largest player Status Quo.
Marco Witzmann, CEO of Valispace said: “Valispace has proven to help engineers across industries to develop better hardware. From drones to satellites, from small electronic boxes to entire nuclear fusion reactors. When modern companies like our customers have the choice, they chose an agile engineering approach with Valispace.”
Tobias Schirmer from JOIN Capital commented: “Browser-based collaboration has become a must for any modern hardware company, as the importance of communication across teams and offices increases.”
The company now counts BMW, Momentus, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Airbus as customers.
Witzmann previously worked on Europe’s biggest Satellite Program (Meteosat Third Generation) as a Systems Engineer, while his Portugal-based co-founder Louise Lindblad (COO) worked at the European Space Agency, developing satellites and drones.
As satellite engineers, both were surprised that while the products they were working on were cutting edge, the tools to develop them seemed to be from the 80s. In 2016 they launched Valispace as a company, convincing Airbus to become one of their first customers.

In the wake of COVID-19, UK puts up £20M in grants to develop resilient tech for critical industries

Most of the world — despite the canaries in the coal mine — was unprepared to cope with the coronavirus outbreak that’s now besieging us. Now, work is starting to get underway both to help manage what is going on now and better prepare us in the future. In the latest development, the UK government today announced that it will issue £20 million ($24.5 million) in grants of up to £50,000 each to startups and other businesses that are developing tools to improve resilience for critical industries — in other words, those that need to keep moving when something cataclysmic like a pandemic hits.
You can start your application here. Unlike a lot of other government efforts, this one is aimed at a quick start: you need to be ready to kick of your project using the grant no later than June 2020, but earlier is okay, too.
Awarded through Innovate UK, which part of UK Research and Innovation (itself a division of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), the grants will be available to businesses of any size as long as they are UK-registered, and aim to cover a wide swathe of industries that form the core fabric of how society and the economy can continue to operate.
“The Covid-19 situation is not just a health emergency, but also one that effects the economy and society. With that in mind, Innovate UK has launched this rapid response competition today seeking smart ideas from innovators,” said Dr Ian Campbell Executive Chair, Innovate UK, in a statement. “These could be proposals to help the distribution of goods, educate children remotely, keep families digitally connected and even new ideas to stream music and entertainment. The UK needs a great national effort and Innovate UK is helping by unleashing the power of innovation for people and businesses in need.”
These include not just what are typically considered “critical” industries like healthcare and food production and distribution, but also those that are less tangible but equally important in keeping society running smoothly, like entertainment and wellbeing services:
community support services
couriers and delivery (rural and/or city based)
education and culture
entertainment (live entertainment, music, etc.)
financial services
food manufacture and processing
healthcare
hospitality
personal protection equipment
remote working
retail
social care
sport and recreation
transport
wellbeing
The idea is to introduce new technologies and processes that will support existing businesses and organizations, not use the funding to build new startups from scratch. Those getting the funding could already be businesses in these categories, or building tools to help companies that fall under these themes.
The grants were announced at a time where we are seeing a huge surge of companies step up to the challenge of helping communities and countries cope with COVID-19. That’s included not only those that already made medical supplies increase production, but a number of other businesses step in and try to help where they can, or recalibrate what they normally do to make their factories or other assets more useful. (For example, in the UK, Rolls Royce, Airbus and the Formula 1 team are all working on ventilators and other hospital equipment, a model of industry retooling that has been seen in many other countries, too.)
That trend is what helped to inspire this newest wave of non-equity grants.
“The response of researchers and businesses to the coronavirus outbreak have been remarkable,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a statement. “This new investment will support the development of technologies that can help industries, communities and individuals adapt to new ways of working when situations like this, and other incidents, arise.”
The remit here is intentionally open-ended but will likely be shaped by some of the shortcomings and cracks that have been appearing in recent weeks while systems get severely stress-tested.
So, unsurprisingly, the sample innovations that UK Innovate cites appear to directly relate to that. They include things like technology to help respond to spikes in online consumer demand — every grocery service in the online and physical world has been overwhelmed by customer traffic, leading to sites crashing, people leaving stores disappointed at what they cannot find, and general panic. Or services for families to connect with and remotely monitor vulnerable relatives: while Zoom and the rest have seen huge surges in traffic, there are still too many people on the other side of the digital divide who cannot access or use these. And better education tools: again, there are thousands of edtech companies in the world, but in the UK at least, I wouldn’t say that the educational authorities had done even a small degree of disaster planning, leaving individual schools to scramble and figure out ways to keep teaching remotely that works for everyone (again not always easy with digital divides, safeguarding and other issues).
None of this can cure coronavirus or stop another pandemic from happening — there are plenty of others that are working very squarely on that now, too — but these are equally critical to get right to make sure that a health disaster doesn’t extend into a more permanent economic or societal one.
More information and applications are here.

Google is now publishing coronavirus mobility reports, feeding off users’ location history

Google is giving the world a clearer glimpse of exactly how much it knows about people everywhere — using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users go and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.
In a blog post today the tech giant announced the publication of what it’s branding ‘COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports‘. Aka an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world.
The coronavirus pandemic has generated a worldwide scramble for tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.
Google’s data dump looks intended to dangle a similar idea of public policy utility while providing an eyeball-grabbing public snapshot of mobility shifts via data pulled off of its global user-base.
In terms of actual utility for policymakers, Google’s suggestions are pretty vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings”, it writes.
“Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing,” it goes on. “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”
The location data Google is making public is similarly fuzzy — to avoid inviting a privacy storm — with the company writing it’s using “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day”, as it puts it.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”
“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” it adds, tacitly linking an existing offering in Google Maps to a coronavirus-busting cause.
The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.
So, for example, a March 29 report for the whole of the US shows a 47 per cent drop in retail and recreation activity vs the pre-CV period; a 22% drop in grocery & pharmacy; and a 19% drop in visits to parks and beaches, per Google’s data.
While the same date report for California shows a considerably greater drop in the latter (down 38% compared to the regional baseline); and slightly bigger decreases in both retail and recreation activity (down 50%) and grocery & pharmacy (-24%).
Google says it’s using “aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential”. The trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior, it adds.
The company says it’s not publishing the “absolute number of visits” as a privacy step, adding: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”
Google’s location mobility report for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the extent of the change from lockdown measures applied to the population — with retail & recreation dropping 94% vs Google’s baseline; grocery & pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.
The same report shows an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity at workplaces; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) of activity in residential locations — as many Italians stay at home, instead of commuting to work.
It’s a similar story in Spain — another country hard-hit by COVID-19. Though Google’s data for France suggests instructions to stay-at-home may not be being quite as keenly observed by its users there, with only an 18% increase in activity at residential locations and a 56% drop in activity at workplaces. Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although numbers of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise across the region.
While policymakers have been scrambling for data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fuelled efforts on individual rights, while also querying the wider utility of some of this tracking.

And yes, the disclaimer is very broad. I’d say, this is largely a PR move.
Apart from this, Google must be held accountable for its many other secondary data uses. And Google/Alphabet is far too powerful, which must be addressed at several levels, soon. https://t.co/oksJgQAPAY
— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) April 3, 2020

Contacts tracing is another area where apps are fast being touted as a potential solution to get the West out of economically crushing population lockdowns — opening up the possibility of people’s mobile devices becoming a tool to enforce lockdowns, as has happened in China.
“Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,” is the succinct warning of a trio of academics from London’s Imperial College’s Computational Privacy Group, who have compiled their privacy concerns vis-a-vis COVID-19 contacts tracing apps into a set of eight questions app developers should be asking.
Discussing Google’s release of mobile location data for a COVID-19 cause, the head of the group, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, gave a general thumbs up to the steps it’s taken to shrink privacy risks.
Although he also called for Google to provide more detail about the technical processes it’s using in order that external researchers can better assess the robustness of the claimed privacy protections. Such scrutiny is of pressing importance with so much coronavirus-related data grabbing going on right now, he argues.
“It is all aggregated, they normalize to a specific set of dates, they threshold when there are too few people and on top of this they add noise to make — according to them — the data differentially private. So from a pure anonymization perspective it’s good work,” de Montjoye told TechCrunch, discussing the technical side of Google’s release of location data. “Those are three of the big ‘levers’ that you can use to limit risk. And I think it’s well done.”
“But — especially in times like this when there’s a lot of people using data — I think what we would have liked is more details. There’s a lot of assumptions on thresholding, on how do you apply differential privacy, right?… What kind of assumptions are you making?” he added, querying how much noise Google is adding to the data, for example. “It would be good to have a bit more detail on how they applied [differential privacy]… Especially in times like this it is good to be… overly transparent.”
While Google’s mobility data release might appear to overlap in purpose with the Commission’s call for EU telco metadata for COVID-19 tracking, de Montjoye points out there are likely to be key differences based on the different data sources.
“It’s always a trade off between the two,” he says. “It’s basically telco data would probably be less fine-grained, because GPS is much more precise spatially and you might have more data points per person per day with GPS than what you get with mobile phone but on the other hand the carrier/telco data is much more representative — it’s not only smartphone, and it’s not only people who have latitude on, it’s everyone in the country, including non smartphone.”
There may be country specific questions that could be better addressed by working with a local carrier, he also suggested. (The Commission has said it’s intending to have one carrier per EU Member State providing anonymized and aggregated metadata.)
On the topical question of whether location data can ever be truly anonymized, de Montjoye — an expert in data reidentification — gave a “yes and no” response, arguing that original location data is “probably really, really hard to anonymize”.
“Can you process this data and make the aggregate results anonymous? Probably, probably, probably yes — it always depends. But then it also means that the original data exists… Then it’s mostly a question of the controls you have in place to ensure the process that leads to generating those aggregates does not contain privacy risks,” he added.
Perhaps a bigger question related to Google’s location data dump is around the issue of legal consent to be tracking people in the first place.
While the tech giant claims the data is based on opt-ins to location tracking the company was fined $57M by France’s data watchdog last year for a lack of transparency over how it uses people’s data.
Then, earlier this year, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) — now the lead privacy regulator for Google in Europe — confirmed a formal probe of the company’s location tracking activity, following a 2018 complaint by EU consumers groups which accuses Google of using manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.
“The issues raised within the concerns relate to the legality of Google’s processing of location data and the transparency surrounding that processing,” said the DPC in a statement in February, announcing the investigation.
The legal questions hanging over Google’s consent to track likely explains the repeat references in its blog post to people choosing to opt in and having the ability to clear their Location History via settings. (“Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline,” it writes in one example.)
In addition to offering up coronavirus mobility porn reports — which Google specifies it will continue to do throughout the crisis — the company says it’s collaborating with “select epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic”.
“Data of this type has helped researchers look into predicting epidemics, plan urban and transit infrastructure, and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” it adds.

Forward Partners launches Forward Advances, a revenue-based finance solution for startups

Forward Partners, the early-stage venture fund and startup studio, has long offered something a little different to the U.K’s tech startup ecosystem, and today the VC is continuing that trend with the launch of “Forward Advances,” a revenue-based finance solution for startups that need to bolster marketing.
Aimed at “fast-growing” e-commerce, marketplace and B2C SaaS businesses, Forward Advances will provide growth capital to startups in return for a 6% flat fee, with repayments taken as a small percentage of monthly revenue.
“Unlike traditional venture capital or standard bank loans, a Forward Advance unlocks a novel way for founders to finance their marketing spend without giving up equity, or having to commit to personal warranties,” explains Forward.
Crucially, this sees repayments structured as a percentage of revenues, meaning that companies won’t be required to make large repayments during tough economic times i.e. slower months mean smaller payments.
In addition to the loan, Forward Partners says founders will have access its startup studio team, comprising product and growth specialists that can offer hands-on expertise and help accelerate their growth. The idea is that alongside capital, Forward Advances will provide insight into how the marketing cash is best deployed to make the most difference.
Forward Partners’ Luke Smith is leading Forward Advances, and says that customer research carried out by the VC revealed that raising capital to invest in marketing is often difficult. “Founders find it lengthy, costly, dilutive, stressful or a combination of all four,” he says. One way to remedy this is by combining “flexible funding” with in-house growth specialists, which is exactly what Forward Partners is doing.
Which brings us to the current Coronavirus pandemic and resulting slowdown and certainty, leading me to ask if there could be a worse time to launch a revenue-based finance product?
‘This is definitely a hard time for a lot of e-commerce and marketplace companies, particularly those in sectors that have been hit hard by COVID-19 disruption such as travel or events and we’ve sadly had to turn down some companies in those spaces,” says Smith.
“However, we’ve seen that a number of sectors such as household goods, gaming or edtech are showing strong growth. We will focus on sectors that are positively impacted or unaffected by the disruption for the next few months and then broaden our sector focus as the market improves. With VC funding expected to pull back, we expect that a lot of companies with strong fundamentals will need cash to fund growth”.
More broadly, Smith underlines that Forward Advances is focusing on companies with “strong fundamentals”. This sees the VC look at cash flow as part of the decision making process and will only make advances to companies that it believes will be able to repay the loan. “That said, the loans are unsecured so we can’t be sure we will get our money back and if companies revenues fall to zero we don’t get repaid,” he explains.
Asked why more VCs don’t offer this kind of product, Smith says that despite making lots of risky investments, the VC industry is generally “very conservative” when it comes to its own business model. “Forward Partners has always been a little different, first by building our studio team that offers a level of support to our portfolio not seen at other VC funds, and now by launching Forward Advances,” he adds. “We see ourselves as a service provider to entrepreneurs and plan to keep broadening the range of services that we offer”.

Nordic challenger bank Lunar adds €20M to its Series B

Lunar, the Nordic challenger bank that started out life as a personal finance manager app (PFM) but since acquired a full banking license last year, has extended it Series B round with an additional €20 million in funding. It brings the Series B total to €46 million, having disclosed €26 million in August last year.
The Series B extension is led by Seed Capital, with participation from Greyhound, Socii, and Augustinus. In addition, I’m told that David Helgason, founder of Unity Technologies, has joined the round.
The mobile-only bank is also announcing that Ole Mahrt, Monzo’s former head of product from 2015-2019, is joining the company’s board of directors. The other non-executive board seats are held by Henning Kruse Pedersen, former CEO of Nykredit, Tuva Palm, former CTO at Nordnet Bank and Director at Klarna, Gary Bramall, CMO of Zoopla, and Lars Andersen, general partner at Seed Capital.
Having acquired a banking license, Lunar launched its new bank in March, which it says it built from scratch. Accounts are offered for free, alongside a subscription-based service Lunar Premium. In the coming months, the challenger bank says it plans to launch other new financial products including credit facilities, loans and “sustainability driven services,” in a bit to become a fully-fledged alternative to incumbent banks in the Nordics.
Lunar also offers “Lunar Business,” catering for small business banking, including accounting software integrations, loans, and more.
“We are pleased to extend our latest funding round and bolster Lunar’s pan-Nordic play,” says Ken Villum Klausen, founder and CEO of Lunar. “We have a vertical strategy focusing only on the Nordics, allowing us to go deep into the defensive banking infrastructure”.
Meanwhile, Lunar claims more than 150,000 users in the Nordics. The bank has offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and currently has just over 120 employees.

Amazon begins running temperature checks and will provide surgical masks at warehouses

Amazon has detailed someone  measures its taking to prevent any further spread of COVID-19 at its warehouse facilities in the U.S. and Europe, according to Reuters, including taking temperature checks and distributing facemasks to employees at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores. The commerce giant has seen a dramatic increase in demand as countries and regions globally have ordered lock-down and varying degrees of self-isolation and quarantine measures, and has also seen confirmed cases of COVID-19 among warehouse workers across the U.S.
Amazon has already described some precautions it’s been taking, including mandatory paid 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive, as well as increased cleaning and sanitization efforts of families and infrastructure. The new measures to be introduced next week include taking temperatures of employees at the entrances to warehouses, with any individuals wth a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to be sent home, where they’ll have to have three consecutive days without fever to return to work. Employees will also be provided with surgical masks starting next week, the company says, once it receives shipments of orders of “millions” placed a few weeks ago.
In addition to these measures, Amazon will also be using machine-learning powered software to monitor footage from cameras in and around buildings to ensure that employees are maintaining the safe, recommended distances from one another during shifts.
There have been a number of employee actions in response to Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, which led to the firing of the worker who led the action. Employees at a Detroit Amazon warehouse are also planning a walkout to protest what they cite as dangerous working conditions.
Meanwhile, Amazon is also staffing up to deal with the increased need for warehouse and fulfilment employees. The company previously announced a plan to hire as many as 100,000 new workers to handle the uptick, and told Reuters on Wednesday that it has already hired 80,000 since making that goal.

Collibra nabs another $112.5M at a $2.3B valuation for its big data management platform

GDPR and other data protection and privacy regulations — as well as a significant (and growing) number of data breaches and exposées of companies’ privacy policies — have put a spotlight on not just on the vast troves of data that businesses and other organizations hold on us, but also how they handle it. Today, one of the companies helping them cope with that data trove in a better and legal way is announcing a huge round of funding to continue that work. Collibra, which provides tools to manage, warehouse, store and analyse data troves, is today announcing that it has raised $112.5 million in funding, at a post-money valuation of $2.3 billion.
The funding — a Series F from the looks of it — represents a big bump for the startup, which last year raised $100 million at a valuation of just over $1 billion. This latest round was co-led by ICONIQ Capital, Index Ventures, and Durable Capital Partners LIP, with previous investors CapitalG (Google’s growth fund), Battery Ventures, and Dawn Capital also participating.
Collibra, originally a spin-out from Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium, today works with some 450 enterprises and other large organizations — customers include Adobe, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), insurers AXA, and a number of healthcare providers. Its products cover a range of services focused around company data, including tools to help customers comply with local data protection policies, store it securely, and to run analytics and more.
These are all tools that have long had a place in enterprise big data IT, but have become increasingly more used and in-demand both as data policies have expanded, and as the prospects of what can be discovered through big data analytics have become more advanced. With that growth, many companies have realised that they are not in a position to use and store their data in the best possible way, and that is where companies like Collibra step in.
“Most large organizations are in data chaos,” Felix Van de Maele, co-founder and CEO, previously told us. “We help them understand what data they have, where they store it and [understand] whether they are allowed to use it.”
As you would expect with a big IT trend, Collibra is not the only company chasing this opportunity. Competitors include Informatica, IBM, Talend, Egnyte, among a number of others, but the market position of Collibra, and its advanced technology, is what has continued to impress investors.
“Durable Capital Partners invests in innovative companies that have significant potential to shape growing industries and build larger companies,” said Henry Ellenbogen, founder and chief investment officer for Durable Capital Partners LP, in a statement (Ellenbogen is formerly an investment manager a T. Rowe Price, and this is his first investment in Collibra under Durable). “We believe Collibra is a leader in the Data Intelligence category, a space that could have a tremendous impact on global business operations and a space that we expect will continue to grow as data becomes an increasingly critical asset.”
“We have a high degree of conviction in Collibra and the importance of the company’s mission to help organizations benefit from their data,” added Matt Jacobson, general partner at ICONIQ Capital and Collibra board member, in his own statement. “There is an increasing urgency for enterprises to harness their data for strategic business decisions. Collibra empowers organizations to use their data to make critical business decisions, especially in uncertain business environments.”

Scoutbee launches free tool to help organisations search for COVID-19 support-related supplies

Scoutbee, the supplier discovery platform, has rolled out a new free tool for organisations helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic and who are in need of critical supplies.
Targeting NGOs, public bodies, local and national governments and healthcare providers, the platform does real-time analysis of terabytes of global supply chain data to significantly speed up the “request for proposal” (RFP) process.
The idea is to help organizations find suppliers 75% faster for critically needed medical equipment and supplies, such as surgical masks, hazmat suits, swabs and tubes, hand sanitizers etc.
Scoutbee is able to do this because it has essentially mapped out the world’s global manufacturing supply chain, and claims that its AI-powered procurement solution understands capacity as it expands and contracts across different geographical locations and for different kinds of products.
“When coronavirus began to cause pharma and medical supply shortages, we knew we should help,” says Gregor Stűhler, co-founder and managing director of Scoutbee, revealing that the team were able to build a simple tool in only 48 hours.
“The problem many NGOs face right now is that the peak demand is concentrated on a handful of suppliers that can be found on Google. We work to spread the demand broadly to help ease the situation. AI can really help in such a crisis. Traditional procurement methods are not transparent and awfully slow. The search and validation for a supplier would often take two or three weeks. The COVID-19 crisis makes it clear how vulnerable the old system is when time is pressing”.
Since rolling out the tool, Stűhler says Scoutbee has already seen the impact it is having by enabling users to target the right supplies at speed.
“For example, in a number of latest sourcing cases we can see that Chinese suppliers are now having capacity again and can readily deliver. On the same cases, we observe that more Indian suppliers are becoming unavailable. During the crisis, we have been able to facilitate the demand for several thousand breathing masks, protective suits and gloves, which were requested from us, within 48 hours”.

Encore’s musical messages let you commission a video performance to send to loved ones

Encore, the U.K. marketplace that lets you find and book a musician or band online for your event, is launching a new online product to help musicians find an additional revenue stream during the coronavirus pandemic, and bring a little joy to all of us.
Dubbed musical messages, the new offering lets you pay one of Encore’s musicians to create and send a personalised musical message to loved ones, or anyone you cannot be with in-person, whilst also supporting the U.K.’s national health service (NHS). That’s because, for every message commissioned, Encore is making a donation of £2.50 to the NHS.
At launch, videos cost from £15 and customers have the opportunity to support musicians further by adding a tip once they receive the video. Encore co-founder James McAulay tells me during the MVP tests carried out over the last week, some customers have tipped up to £50 per video, in a spirit of wanting to keep musicians in work.
“Coronavirus has caused thousands of events to be cancelled or postponed around the U.K., [and] musicians all over the U.K. are now stuck at home unable to earn money from performing,” McAulay explains. “In March alone, the Encore team had to process almost 500 gig cancellations, so we began brainstorming ways to help these musicians make money from home”.
He said the most obvious route to income for a musician right now is asking for donations on livestreams, “but we heard from our musicians that they’ve seen mixed results from this approach”. That’s likely because the internet is now awash with live streaming, and supply is perhaps outpacing demand.
“We wanted to go beyond this and develop a compelling product that didn’t rely on asking for donations,” says McAulay. “We also wanted to find a way to spread messages of love and hope throughout one of the darkest periods any of us have lived through, which led us to the idea of personalised music messages”.
In testing, Encore has already had almost 100 videos requested and filmed since last week, generating nearly £1,000 for a handful of musicians and donating hundreds of pounds to the NHS. But (hopefully) it’s just the start.
“The reactions from both the senders and recipients have been extremely heartwarming and musicians are having fun with it!” adds the Encore co-founder. “This is also reflected in the success of the tipping mechanism, with people sometimes tipping more than the original video amount”.
Meanwhile, examples of musical messages sent so far include birthday messages when people can’t celebrate in person, wedding anniversaries, messages to people in hospital or isolation, or something as simple as “We love you and miss you” requests.
“We’ve worked with 10 musicians over the last week to build the beta, and we’re about to release to all 20,000 musicians this week,” says McAulay.

Money transfer service Azimo partners with Siam Commercial Bank for faster payments to Thailand

Azimo, the London-headquartered international money transfer service, has partnered with Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to deliver instant payments for its customers from Europe to SCB bank accounts in Thailand.
According to the World Bank, Thailand is one of the top remittance destinations globally, with $6.7 billion received from abroad each year, and Azimo says it remains one of the most expensive countries to send and receive money. That’s something the U.K. fintech wants to help change as it continues to expand to Asia as a key corridor.
Specifically, the SCB tie-in takes advantage of “PromptPay,” which comprises a real-time clearing and settlement infrastructure to enable instant transfers to Thai bank accounts. For reference, it is similar to the U.K.’s Faster Payments.
“More and more countries are going to instant payment,” Azimo co-founder and executive chairman Michael Kent tells me over WhatsApp. “Thailand recently launched theirs, and this partnership with the largest bank in the country allows us to get the time to settle payments down from around 24 hours to an average of 22 seconds. [It’s] faster to send money to Thailand than to someone else in U.K.”.
In addition, the new service uses RippleNet, the global payment network that harnesses blockchain to let users track funds, delivery time, and status.
“[RippleNet] provides a standardised protocol for the messaging that is much more accurate and hi-fidelity than what people have tended to use, which is SWIFT. It means we could do the integration faster and have more confidence that it’s enterprise grade from the time we go live,” says Kent.
Adds Arthit Sriumporn, Senior Vice President of Wholesale Banking Platform Department at SCB: “We are very pleased to partner with Azimo and expand our reach across Europe. With the service available 24×7 and instant payment to any Thai bank account within minutes, Azimo customers are able to send money to their loved ones back in Thailand fast, cheaply and with certainty. We are very excited about this launch and being part of helping to make people’s lives better”.
Meanwhile, the SCB partnership follows news in February that Azimo had secured €20 million in debt from the European Investment Bank (EIB), the lending arm of the European Union.
The financing is supported by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), the financial pillar of the EU’s “Investment Plan for Europe.” At the time of the announcement, Azimo said the capital provided by EIB will be used to accelerate the company’s R&D and to “scale up” its proprietary payments platform. I gather the company continues to hire.
Azimo has raised $50 million of equity funding to date — investors include Rakuten, eVentures, Greycroft and Frog Capital — and in August the company said it was profitable. It offers low-cost international payments to 200+ countries and territories around the world and claims over 2 million registered customers.

Flux and Pleo partner to bring itemised digital receipts to Pleo’s ‘smart’ expense cards

When three former employees of Revolut founded Flux in 2016, the mission was clear: build a platform to bridge the gap between the itemised receipt data captured by a merchant’s point-of-sale (POS) system and what little information typically shows up in your bank statement or mobile banking app.
Off the back of this, the young fintech saw an opportunity to power loyalty schemes and card-linked offers, and provide merchants with deeper analytics. However, that was always intended to be just the start.
Once Flux had made fully itemised digital receipts a reality — which requires bank and merchant partnerships — it foresaw that there were a multitude of other use cases where automated digital receipts could be useful, including expense reports.
Today, that particular use case comes into focus with the announcement that Flux has partnered with Danish fintech Pleo, the “business spending platform” that lets companies easily issue employees with cards and help them manage expenditure.
The tie-in will provide what the two fintechs are describing as the U.K.’s first “paperless” and fully automated expensing solution for businesses and employees. This will see digital receipts automatically generated and, crucially, reconciled within Pleo’s expensing software.
Once activated — and presuming you are a user of both services — Flux will send real-time, itemised digital receipts direct to Pleo when cardholders shop online or in-store at Flux-supported retailers using a Pleo card. The process is described as automatic and invisible to the end-user.
Unlike other solutions, Flux does not require photos, QR codes or any use of OCR (optical character Rrecognition) technology to generate and deliver its digital receipts. “Pleo users will not need to photograph a paper receipt or upload an email,” say the two companies.
In other words, Flux is a fully digital solution — even if it is only as useful as the merchants it is supported by. They currently include Just Eat, chuh, KFC, itsu, Pure, Giraffe, Ed’s Easy Diner, Japan Centre and Sakagura, with several more retailers due to be announced this year. On the banking side, alongside Pleo, Flux has integrations with Barclays Launchpad, Monzo and Starling Bank.
Cue statement from Roisin Levine, Head of Banks at Flux: “Here at Flux we’re passionate about improving the experience for our customers. Expensing is a natural partnership for us as a digital receipts company – we’ve all experienced the pain of trying to manage expenses and reconcile accounts! We’re incredibly excited to be working with Pleo to bring the U.K. its first fully-automated, invisible expensing solution, and we look forward to rolling this out by Q4 2020 to the 7,000 companies using Pleo in the U.K.”

An EU coalition of techies is backing a “privacy-preserving” standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.
China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.
Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.
The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.
In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.
The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.
The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.
While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?
Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.
Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.
Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.
The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.
“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.
“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”
Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”
The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.
Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.
On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.
Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”
While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”
Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:
Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.
Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.
However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.
Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.
— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.
“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.
“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.
“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”
We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.
“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”
“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.
“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”
The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.
Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.
Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.
Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.
But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.
Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.
Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

Scaleway launches managed Kubernetes clusters

Cloud hosting company Scaleway has launched Kubernetes Kapsule, a new service that lets you manage Kubernetes clusters on Scaleway’s infrastructure. The service works with a wide-range of Scaleway instances and lets you create large clusters that scales depending on demand.
Kubernetes is an open-source platform to manage containers and the server infrastructure behind those containers. Building an application using containers lets you divide your application into multiple applications and services that you can deploy and upgrade individually without interacting with the main operating system of the server.
And thanks to Kubernetes, you can spin up more nodes (more servers) and containers to scale your infrastructure. This way, you always have enough resources to handle peaks. It can also scale down your cluster to save money.
Scaleway’s managed Kubernetes service is free of charge, which means you only have to pay for nodes that you use. Scaleway scales your cluster, checks that your nodes are working as expected every 15 minutes and gives you a web dashboard to monitor your cluster.
The company also says that there’s some redundancy for the control plane so that it remains available if your control plane fails (99.95% SLA). It supports 500 nodes at a time.
Kapsule supports Scaleway’s cloud instances, GPU-based instances, block storage and load balancers. The company also provides a container registry to store your container images. You could imagine building a cluster that looks like this:

Kapsule respects the Cloud Native Computing Foundation standards, which means that you can migrate existing CNCF clusters to Scaleway, or you could build a multi-cloud infrastructure.
A managed Kubernetes service could help Scaleway attract more enterprise and large-scale clients. It could be particularly useful for clients looking for another cloud hosting provider to add some redundancy.

Addionics, a startup creating ‘next-gen’ batteries for electric cars and more, raises $6M

Addionics, an Israeli/U.K. startup that is developed next-generation rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and other applications, has raised $6 million in funding. The round is led by Next Gear Ventures, and includes a $2.5 million grant as part of the European Union’s Horizon2020 innovation competition.
Founded by former Imperial College London academics, Addionics has created what it claims are improved rechargeable batteries through a redesign of chargeable battery architecture. It has developed a “patent-protected” and scalable 3D metal fabrication method that are said to enhance car battery performance, increase mileage and safety, and reduce cost and charging time.
Specifically, this new so-called “smart 3D structure” minimises internal resistance and improves the “mechanical longevity, thermal stability and other fundamental limitations and degradation factors” in standard batteries, says Addionics.

It also says its approach is different to other companies that are trying to improve batteries, which tend to focus on chemistry rather than on physics. Addionics’ chemistry agnostic approach means that it can still benefit from advances in chemistry, while bringing something additional to the table.
Addionics CTO Dr. Vladimir Yufit explains in a statement: “We are agnostic to the battery chemistry. Therefore, we can take existing or future batteries and enhance their performance by our smart 3D components. No matter what chemistry technology will win the electrification race, we will improve it even more”.
Or to put it more colourfully, Yufit says Addionics is “betting on the race, and not on the horse”.
To that end, the company is initially targeting the automotive market but also sees its technology finding a home in other products such as consumer electronics, medical devices, grid energy storage, drones, and more.
In terms of commercial traction, it’s still early days. However, Addionics says it is currently working with an unnamed tier-1 American automotive company on a proof-of-concept design and testing Addionics cells in vehicles.
Dr. Moshiel Biton, Addionics CEO, says that the goal is to have 3-4 major collaborations with “world-leading OEMs” over the next year.

VR chair startup raises funds, as pandemic boosts prospects for VR and gaming

Roto VR, startup which markets an interactive, ‘360 degree’ chair, has raised £1.5 million in a funding round led by Pembroke VCT. Others in the round include TVB Growth Fund, managed by The FSE Group.
The chair is designed to make VR more accessible to a mass audience, many of whom have turned to VR and gaming to while away the hours as much of the world is locked-down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Founded in 2015 by video games industry veterans, Elliott Myers and Gavin Waxkirsh, Roto VR is an interactive chair that addresses the physical problems of consuming VR whilst seated, such as motion sickness and tangling cables, whilst also enhancing the immersive experience with haptic / vibration feedback in the chair.
The Roto chair is motorized and can auto-rotate to wherever the user is looking, allowing for 360-degree viewing, and thus allows the user to stay in the VR simulation for longer periods of time.
The inbuilt desktop also supports input devices such as a keyboard and mouse which means it can be used in 360-degree desktop computing.
“Most people sit down to watch movies, work, play games and browse the internet whilst seated and we see no reason why the exciting new medium of VR will be any different,” said Myers.
The product is compatible with most VR Head Mounted Displays and is also compatible with all movies and games, as well as additional accessories such as racing wheels and joysticks.
The company is due to launch the consumer and office version of Roto imminently. In addition, it will be marketed to cinemas and arcades.
Andrew Wolfson, CEO Pembroke Investment Managers LLP, said: “In Elliott we have found an entrepreneur who has solved a problem for the VR market with a solution that addresses the physical issues encountered whilst consuming VR content, as well as significantly enhancing the experience. We see future customers coming from both the B2B and B2C markets, in fields such as experiential attractions, home, cinemas and shopping centres.”

Operation Covid-19 will allow self-reporting of cases, to get ahead of official figures

The Canadian founder of a startup who caught Covid-19 from Justin Trudeau’s wife has launched an initiative to allow anyone to self-report their own case of the disease and publish the results, helping authorities to get ahead of the pandemic.
Operation Covid-19 will visualize both official and suspected cases of the Coronavirus in data lists and on a map, with the aim of saving lives and improving global public health systems. People will be able to self-report the case via an anonymous questionnaire.
The site aims to demonstrate how many official tests — compared to suspected COVID-19 cases — there are.
“The more people who can contribute their COVID-19 experiences, we can turn the table on this pandemic and build more intelligence to save lives,” said co-founder Jillian Kowalchuk.
Kowalchuk is cofounder of “street-smart” safety app Safe & The City, but fell ill with COVID-19 symptoms after meeting the Prime Minister of Canada’s wife, Sophie Trudeau — who later tested positive for the disease — on March 5th at Canada House in London, as she Instagrammed.

She was later dismayed to learn she was refused a test for COVID-19 in a UK hospital and was instead told to go home and self-isolate, making her concerned about the lack of testing and public awareness of the scale of the problem.
“First-hand experiences like this are becoming more common throughout the world as more are refused testing, leaving the majority of COVID-19 cases unknown, under-estimating the severity of the problem, limiting preventative measures and resource mobilization into other needed public health monitoring systems,” she told TechCrunch.
The initiative will collect insights from people who have contracted COVID-19 to provide back to the medical and public health authorities.
In doing so it will create a map visualization of both official and self-reported COVID-19 cases, recovered and deaths to support best practices globally, including more testing.
To contribute software development to the project you can access its Github here or volunteer by emailing [email protected] or joining the Facebook group.

Pre-school EdTech startup Lingumi raises £4m, adds some free services during Covid-19

At these difficult times, parents are concerned for their children’s education, especially given so much of it has had to go online during the Covid-19 pandemic. But what about pre-schoolers who are missing out?
Pre-school children are sponges for information but don’t get formal training on reading and writing until they enter the classroom when they are less sponge-like and surrounded by 30 other children. Things are tougher for non-English speaking children who’s parents want them to learn English.
Lingumi, a platform aimed at toddlers learning critical skills, has now raised £4 million in a funding round led by China-based technology fund North Summit Capital – a fund run by Alibaba’s former Chief Data Scientist Dr Min Wanli – alongside existing investors LocalGlobe, ADV, and Entrepreneur First.
The startup, launched in 2017, is also announcing the launch of daily free activity packs and videos to support children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, and has pledged to donate 20% of its sales during this period to the Global Children’s Fund.
Lingumi’s interactive courses offer one-to-one tutoring with a kind ‘social learning’ and its first course helps introduce key English grammar and vocabulary from the age of 2.
Instead of tuning into live lessons with tutors, which are typically timetabled and expensive, Lingumi’s lessons are delivered through interactive speaking tasks, teacher videos, and games. At the end of each lesson, children can see videos of Lingumi friends speaking the same words and phrases as them. Because the kids are watching videos, Lingumi is cheaper than live courses, and thus more flexible for parents.
The company launched the first Lingumi course in China last year, focused on teaching spoken English to non-English speakers. The platform is now being used by more than 100,000 families globally, including in mainland China, Taiwan, UK, Germany, Italy, and France. More than 1.5 million English lessons have taken place in China over the past six months, and 40% of active users are also playing lessons daily. Lingumi says its user base grew 50% during China’s lockdown and it has had a rapid uptake in Europe.
“Lingumi’s rapid expansion in the Chinese market required a strategic local investor, and Dr Min and the team had a clear-sighted understanding of the technology and scale opportunity both in China, and globally.”
Dr Wanli Min, general partner at North Summit Capital, commented: “It is only the most privileged children who can access native English speakers for one-on-one tutoring… Lingumi has the potential to democratize English learning and offer every kid a personalized curriculum empowered by AI & Lingumi’s ‘asynchronous teaching; model.”
Competitors to include Lingumi include live teaching solutions like VIPKid, and learning platforms like Jiliguala in China, or Lingokids in the West.

Uber Eats beefs up its grocery delivery offer as COVID-19 lockdowns continue

Uber Eats has beefed up grocery delivery options in three markets hard hit by the coronavirus.
Uber’s food delivery division said today it’s inked a partnership with supermarket giant Carrefour in France to provide Parisians with 30 minute home delivery on a range of grocery products, including everyday foods, toiletries and cleaning products.
The service is starting with 15 stores in the city, with Uber Eats saying it plans to scale it out rapidly nationwide “in the coming weeks”.
In Spain it’s partnered with the Galp service station brand to offer a grocery delivery service that consists of basic foods, over the counter medicines, beverages and cleaning products in 15 cities across the following 8 provinces: Badajoz, Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia.
Uber Eats said there will be an initial 25 Galp convenience stores participating. The service will not only be offered via the Uber Eats app but also by phone for those without access to a smartphone or Internet.
The third market it’s inked deals in is Brazil, where Uber said it’s partnering with a range of pharmacies, convenience stores and pet shops in Sao Paulo to offer home delivery on basic supplies.
“Over the counter medicines will be available from the Pague Menos chain of pharmacies, grocery products from Shell Select convenience stores and pet supplies from Cobasi — one of the largest pet shop chains in the country,” it said. “The new services will be available on the Uber Eats app, with plans to launch in other Brazil states and cities in the coming weeks.”
The grocery tie-ups are not Uber Eats’ first such deals. The company had already inked partnerships with a supermarket in Australia (Coles) and the Costcutter brand in the UK, where around 600 independent convenience stores are offered via its app.
Uber Eats also lets independent convenience stores in countries around the world self listed on its app. However the latest tie-ups put more branded meat on the bone of its grocery offer in Europe and LatAm — with the Carrefour tie-up in France marking its first partnership with a major supermarket in Europe.
It’s worth noting Spain’s food delivery rival, Glovo, has an existing grocery-delivery partnership with the French supermarket giant in markets including its home country — which likely explains why Uber Eats has opted for a different partner in Spain.
Asked whether it’s looking to further expand grocery deliveries in other markets hit by the public health emergency Uber Eats told us it’s exploring opportunities to partner with more supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers around the world.
As part of its response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has switched all deliveries to contactless by default — with orders left at the door or as instructed by a user.

Europe’s Deliveroo and Glovo switch on contactless delivery during COVID-19 pandemic

It also told us it’s providing drivers and delivery people with access to hand sanitiser, gloves and disinfectant wipes, as soon as they become available. And said it’s dispensing guidance to users of its apps on hygiene best practice and limiting the spread of the virus.
Uber Eats has previously said it will provide 14 days of financial support for drivers and delivery people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading the virus, with the amount based on their average earnings over the last six months or less.
The policy is due for review on April 6.

Damon Motorcycles makes acquisition, raises $3M and extends pre-orders

EV startup Damon Motorcycles has acquired the IP of Mission Motors, raised $3 million in funding and announced a special production run of its debut model.
The Vancouver-based venture unveiled the 200 mph Hypersport in January and began taking pre-orders for the e-moto, with a base price of $24,995. Damon has positioned its EV entry as an ultra-fast, smart and safe motorcycle.
In addition to its go-straight-to-jail top-speed, the Hypersport boasts 200 miles of highway range, 147 ft-lbs of torque, charges to 80% in 20 minutes and weighs less than 500 pounds, Damon CEO Jay Giraud told TechCrunch earlier this year.
These features, along with digitally controlled riding-modes, are just part of Damon’s signature. The seed-stage startup has also engineered the cloud-connected Hypersport with proprietary safety and ergonomics technology that provide adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.
Image Credits: Damon Motorcycles
Damon packed a lot into its latest announcement and shared some insight on appealing to the elusive millennial market and weathering the economic tremors of the COVID-19 crisis.
On the acquisition, the startup purchased the IP of Mission Motors, a now defunct San Francisco e-motorcycle venture that powered down in 2015. Though Mission’s EV development outran its capital, the company’s motorcycles achieved a number of performance benchmarks and captured the attention of Jay Leno.
Mission Motors was also one of first e-moto companies to roll into the competition arena, fielding an entry in the famed Isle of Man TT race in 2009.
Damon will draw on Mission’s product and racing tech, including the company’s full stack development for EV drive-trains and battery power.
“There are certain bits of that we’re going to roll into the commercialized Hypersport,” Damon COO Derek Derek Dorresteyn told Techcrunch on a call with CEO Jay Giraud.
“Specifically, we’re using the motor development that they had as a platform to advance our motor design…We’re looking at achieving 12 newton-meters per kilogram of torque output from an electric motor,” Dorresteyn said.
Giraud explained that could translate to Damon producing an electric motorcycle with roughly 160 kilowatts of power, 200 horsepower and 200 ft-lbs of torque. That would outdo one of the fastest production e-motorcycles, Energica’s EGO, with 145 horsepower and 159 ft-lbs of torque.
Energica’s Ego, Image Credits: TechCrunch
On funding, Damon Motors now has $3 million in additional capital, raised at the pre-seed level from undisclosed angel investors.
The startup will use the backing on product development and accelerating time to market, Giraud said.
Damon’s founder also noted that the company was on track to fill its initial target of 1000 pre-orders for both its Hypersport standard and Premiere models. As such, the startup will extend orders on a limited run, $34,995 Hypersport Premiere founder edition in two different color-schemes: Arctic Sun and Midnight Sun.
Damon is highlighting the demographics of those placing deposits on its Hypersport e-motorcycles.
“Half the people ordering are under the age of 40,” said Giraud. “It really speaks to product market fit.”
The ability to draw millennials to motorcycle purchases is significant, given they’ve been the hardest market segment to crack. Young buyers used to be a mainstay of the industry, but the last 10 years have seen sharp declines in motorcycle ownership by everyone under 40, according to Motorcycle Industry Council stats.
Damon believes its proprietary tech and plans for a direct-to-consumer sales and service model can attract affluent younger buyers and the Tesla crowd to its fast and safe motorcycles.
Though TechCrunch hasn’t yet ridden a Hypersport, the two-wheeler’s specs offer unique features compared to any current production gas or electric motorcycle. On safety, Damon’s CoPilot system uses sensors, radar and cameras to track moving objects around the motorcycle and alert riders to danger.
Image Credits: Damon Motorcycles
The startup’s debut EV also brings smart ergonomics in Damon’s patented Shift system that allows riders to electronically adjust the motorcycle’s windscreen, seat, foot-pegs and handlebars to different riding positions and conditions.
Even with the demand Damon has seen for the Hypersport, it still faces a stagnant motorcycle market that has become crowded with EV competitors.
Harley Davidson introduced its all electric 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 as Italy’s Energica and U.S. startup Zero  — which launched its $19,000, 120 mph SR/F in 2019.
On top of strong competition in the e-moto space, there’s a growing uncertainty on the buying appetite for motorcycles of any kind that could exist for the remainder of 2020, and potentially beyond, given the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world.
As of this week, Harley Davidson had halted all motorcycle production due the coronavirus and Energica confirmed to TechCrunch it had shutdown all operations per a decree of the Italian government.
Zero Motorcycles — located in Scott’s Valley, California — is still producing motorcycles “following the standard health orders of the CDC”, according to a company spokesperson.
Damon’s leadership believes the company can power through whatever lies ahead. The company has a global supply-chain across Europe, Asia and North America, but builds its battery packs and assembles its motorcycles in Canada .
“There are real challenges to get anyone to do anything today. We don’t expect that to be true forever,” COO Derek Dorresteyn said of supply-chain and meeting production demand. 
CEO Jay Giraud believes the current situation with COVID-19 will likely create an economic slump that could drag on longer than the 2008 Great Recession.
On how Damon Motorcycles will manage, “Like every core startup in the world, we’re gonna have to raise a lot of money no matter what. But we’re in a good place right now,” he said.

Talking to Zero Motorcycles’ CEO and taking home the 2020 SR/F

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

Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank with over 4 million account holders, is taking a number of precautionary steps to help see it through the current coronavirus downturn, including voluntary furloughs and its CEO forgoing a salary, TechCrunch understands.
In an internal company-wide memo issued by co-founder and CEO Tom Blomfield, he tells the bank’s over 1,500 staff that he won’t be taking a salary for the next twelve months, and that the senior management team and board have volunteered to take a 25% cut in salary, as have other “Monzonaughts” within the company.
In addition, a limited number of Monzo’s U.K. employees are being offered voluntary furloughing for two months, as part of the scheme rolled out by the U.K. government to protect jobs during the coronavirus lockdown, which is already impacting many companies — not just Monzo — including several other fintechs I know of. Furlough ensures that employees still get paid even when work has decreased and that when things hopefully return to normal there is a job to come back to.
Although well capitalised, like other banks and fintechs, Monzo has seen customer card spend reduce at home and (of course) abroad, meaning it is seeing less revenue from interchange fees. New account signups have also slowed, as has customer support requests. It therefore makes sense to utilise the furlough scheme to help protect jobs in the future when demand picks up again. By making it voluntary, it also means staff with kids to home school or loved ones to take care of, can use the option to hopefully make their lives easier for the time being.
Specifically, I understand Monzo is accepting up to 175 furlough applications in customer support, and up to 120 applications from other parts of the business.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear if other U.K. challenger banks are also using the government’s furlough scheme. I’ve asked Starling and Revolut, for example, but have yet to hear back. As already mentioned, the scheme is available to U.K. companies right across the board and several startups, including fintechs, have already applied furloughing as a pre-cautionary measure.
Lastly, it should be stressed that none of the above should impact customers at Monzo, which, as a digital bank, is pretty well-positioned to operate during lockdown and with all staff already working from home. It is also a fully licensed bank, with customer deposits up to £85,000 protected as part of the U.K. government’s deposit protection scheme.

D-Wave gives anyone working on responses to the COVID-19 free cloud access to its quantum computers

D-Wave, the Canadian quantum computing company, today announced that it is giving anyone who is working on responses to the COVID-19 free access to its Leap 2 quantum computing cloud service. The offer isn’t only valid to those focusing on new drugs but open to any research or team working on any aspect of how to solve the current crisis, be that logistics, modeling the spread of the virus or working on novel diagnostics.
One thing that makes the D-Wave program unique is that the company also managed to pull in a number of partners that are already working with it on other projects. These include Volkswagen, DENSO, Jülich Supercomputing Centre, MDR, Menten AI, Sigma-i Tohoku University, Ludwig Maximilian University and OTI Lumionics. These partners will provide engineering expertise to teams that are using Leap 2 for developing solutions to the Covid-19 crisis.
As D-Wave CEO Alan Baratz told me, this project started taking shape about a week and a half ago. In our conversation, he stressed that teams working with Leap 2 will get a commercial license, so there is no need to open source their solutions and won’t have a one-minute per month limit, which are typically the standard restrictions for using D-Wave’s cloud service.
“When we launched leap 2 on February 26th with our hybrid solver service, we launched a quantum computing capability that is now able to solve fairly large problems — large scale problems — problems at the scale of solving real-world production problems,” Baratz told me. “And so we said: look, if nothing else, this could be another tool that could be useful to those working on trying to come up with solutions to the pandemic. And so we should make it available.”
He acknowledged that there is no guarantee that the teams that will get access to its systems will come up with any workable solutions. “But what we do know is that we would be remiss if we didn’t make this tool available,” he said.
Leap is currently available in the U.S., Canada, Japan and 32 countries in Europe. That’s also where D-Wave’s partners are active and where researchers will be able to make free use of its systems.

Qarnot raises $6.5 million for its computer servers that heat buildings

French startup Qarnot has raised a $6.5 million (€6 million) funding round. The company manufactures heaters and boilers with a special trick — they pack computers as computers tend to generate a lot of heat. Qarnot then lets companies leverage that computing power by running tasks on those unusual servers.
Banque des Territoires, Caisse des Dépôts, Engie Rassembleur d’Énergies, A/O PropTech and Groupe Casino are participating in today’s funding round.
When you design a data center, you transform electricity into computing resources and heat. Data centers always have to find clever new ways to get rid of heat with powerful cooling mechanisms.

Qarnot is designing alternative data centers by taking advantage of heat instead of fighting heat. The company first started with computing heaters, an electrical heater with a server. The company sells those devices to construction companies looking for heaters for their new buildings.
People living or working in those buildings can then control heating directly on the heaters or through a mobile app. Nearly 1,000 social housing units are heated by Qarnot.
At the other end of the equation, companies such as BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Natixis rent those servers for their own needs. Illumination Mac Guff is also using the platform to generate 3D models for animated movies.
Heating suffers from seasonality. That’s why Qarnot has also designed scalable boiler systems. Those boilers pack CPU servers or a mix of CPU and GPU servers. Qarnot has also set up a joint venture with Groupe Casino to heat warehouses with computer racks.

One.com acquires Hostnet as hosting providers continue consolidation in Europe

The coronavirus pandemic has all but halted a lot of business activity, but today comes news of a deal that underscores how M&A is still happening in some sectors despite (not because of) everything else going on. One.com — the big hosting provider in Europe with around 1.5 million customers, itself acquired just over a year ago by PE firm Cinven — has acquired Hostnet, a smaller Netherlands-based competitor with about 210,000 customers.
Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed but a spokesperson for One.com said that it includes all of Hostnet’s existing business — which includes management of 810,000 domain names and 85,000 websites; domain registration, web hosting and SaaS applications services; and managed and virtual private services — and its existing employees.
The spokesperson added that the deal has been in the works for several weeks and closed in the last couple of weeks, with the teams “working through the coronavirus pandemic” to finalise it.
“We are pleased to announce the acquisition of Hostnet given its focus on operational excellence and high brand awareness,” said Stephan Wolfram, Group CEO of One.com, in a statement. “As a result of this transaction, we are now a leading operator in the Dutch hosting market that is core to the development of our business strategy. We look forward to working with the team at Hostnet and significantly enhancing our European presence and product range for our customers.”
You might wonder if Hostnet and One.com are being impacted by the pandemic — specifically, whether the fact that both count small businesses, which have been some of the hardest-hit in terms of operations, as a primary customer base, and whether that is impacting their own bottom line or leading to payment delinquency. The spokesperson said that this was not a factor in this deal or in the financial terms.
There is some data to support that: the consolidation of multiple smaller hosting providers has been a theme for a while now, with companies looking for more economies of scale.
“Hostnet is a highly regarded player in the hosting market with capabilities, awareness and products that will contribute to further accelerate the development of one.com’s business,” Harold Douwes, founder and CEO of Hostnet, said in a statement. “Within the consolidating hosting market, it was important for Hostnet to connect with a strong partner. We found it in one.com, an ambitious party with a lot of knowledge and experience. This offers plenty of possibilities and opportunities for the future.”
As we have pointed out before, web hosting and related services represent a significant, if not wildly evolving, part of the tech landscape. So, for as long as businesses and consumers continue to use the web — and, as everyone is staying at home, we have had even more web traffic of late than ever — there will be a need for companies who sell and host domain names and provide various cloud services around that.
But since there  is a lot of competition in this space, that means prices are competitive to customers, and that, in turn, also means that margins, particularly in the resale of SaaS tools, are low. In other words, we’re likely to see more consolidation in this area over time.
Now backed by Cinven, One.com itself has been pursuing that strategy over the last year. Its other acquisitions have included other regional leaders such as SYSE and Digital Garden in the nordics.

Online tutoring marketplace Preply banks $10M to fuel growth in North America, Europe

Online learning looks likely to be a key beneficiary of the social distancing and quarantine measures that are being applied around the world as countries grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In turn, this looks set to buoy some relative veterans of the space. To wit: Preply, a 2013-founded tutoring marketplace, is today announcing a $10 million Series A. It said the funding will be used to scale the business and beef up its focus on the US market, where it plans to open an office by the end of the year.
The Series A is led by London-based Hoxton Ventures, with European VC funds Point Nine Capital, All Iron Ventures, The Family, EduCapital, and Diligent Capital also participating.
Preply’s press release also notes a number of individual angel investors jumped aboard this round: Arthur Kosten of Booking.com; Gary Swart, former CEO of Upwork; David Helgason, founder of Unity Technologies; and Daniel Hoffer, founder of Couchsurfing.
The startup said it has seen a record number of daily hours booked on its platform this week. It also reports a spike in the number of tutors registering in markets including the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain — which are among the regions where schools have been closed as a coronavirus response measure.
Also this week Preply said some countries have seen the number of tutor registrations triple vs the same period in February, while it also reports a doubling of the number of hours students are booking on the platform in some markets.
The former TechStars Berlin alum closed a $1.3M seed back in 2016 to expand its marketplace in Europe, when it said it had 25,000 “registered” tutors — and was generating revenue from more than 130 countries.
The new funding will be used to help scale mainly in North America, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK, it said today.
Another core intent for the funding is to grow Preply’s current network of 10,000 “verified” tutors, who it says are teaching 50 languages to students in 190 countries around the world. So tackling the level of tutor churn it has evidently experienced over the years — by getting more of those who sign up to stick around teaching for a longer haul — looks to be one of the priorities now it’s flush with Series A cash.
It also plans to spend on building additional data-driven tools — including for assessments and homework.
The aim is to increase the platform’s utility by adding more features for tutors to track students’ progress and better support them to hit learning goals. “Preply wants to engage and enable tutors to develop alongside the platform, giving them the opportunity to explore training and lessons plans so they can streamline their income and maximize their classes,” it said in a press release.
Another area of focus on the product dev front is mobile. Here, Preply said it will be spending to boost the efficiency and improve the UX of its Android and iOS apps.
​“The new funding allows us to bring a more in-depth, immersive and convenient experience to both tutors and learners all over the world. Today, we are laser focused on language learning, but ultimately, I envision a future where anyone can learn anything using Preply,” said Kirill Bigai, CEO of Preply, in a statement.
“Getting to know Kirill and the team at Preply we were most impressed with their tremendous growth already in the US market as well as the size of the global market in online language tutoring. We believe the team has vast opportunity ahead of it, especially in the English-learning segment of the market where Preply already demonstrates market leadership,” added Hoxton Ventures’ Rob Kniaz in another supporting statement.
To date, Preply says some two million classes have been taken with teachers of 160 nationalities, via its marketplace. The platform maintains a strong focused on language learning, although topic-based lessons are also offered — such as maths and physics.
The business model entails taking a lead generation fee — in the form of the entire fee for the first lesson — after which it takes a revenue share of any lessons booked thereafter. The average price of a lesson on the platform is $15 to $20 per hour, per Preply, with tutors having leeway to set prices (within some fixed bounds, such as a minimum per lesson price).
The company currently employs 125 staff, based out of Kyiv (Ukraine) and Barcelona (Spain) and says its revenues have grown tenfold in the last three years.
A core tech component of the marketplace is a machine-learning matching system which it uses to increase the efficiency of pairing tutors with learners — touting this as a way to make “smarter connections” that “crack the code of effective language learning”.
In plainer language, it’s using automated decision-making to help users find a relevant teacher without having to do lots of search legwork themselves, while the platform can use AI-matching to drive bookings by managing the experience of tutor discovery in a way that also avoids students being overwhelmed by too much choice.

Air Doctor scores $7.6M to connect travellers with local doctors

Air Doctor, the health tech startup that connects travellers with local doctors, has raised $7.8 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Kamet Ventures (the AXA-backed venture builder), and The Phoenix Insurance Company.
Founded in 2016, Air Doctor aims to empower travellers who get sick when abroad and need non-emergency advice or treatment. It has created a network of local private physicians that travellers can access, typically via travel insurance or perks. The platform is available across 42 countries in 5 continents, and lets you search by location, language, specialty, and cost.
“Air Doctor was born out of the founding team’s own travelling experiences, out of that terrible feeling you get when you fall ill in a foreign country and don’t know who to turn to or how to get the fast response you need,” says Jenny Cohen Derfler, CEO and co-founder of Air Doctor.
“Yam [Derfler, Head of Product Innovation] came up with the idea after eight months of travelling around South America, in which both he and his friends at different times felt completely helpless when they got sick and, more often than not, couldn’t find English-speaking doctors”.
Derfler says Air Doctor’s initial focus was that of the travelling patient, but the team quickly realised that this is a problem that affects an entire ecosystem around medical care for travellers.
“Local doctors have no reliable way of accessing a whole new group of private customers, insurance companies waste huge amounts of money on tedious and questionable medical services, and also want to improve the customer experience of being connected to healthcare, and travel agents want a reliable service to bundle up as part of their packages. It became clear we needed to build a platform that would benefits all parties,” she says.
By combining a global network of medical professionals with a digital platform, Air Doctor is able to lower costs for insurance companies, and offer value-added solutions for credit card companies and mobile operators. On the supply end, it also claims to increase physicians’ income and digital presence, while providing “the highest level of healthcare” for international travellers in their native languages.
“Our aim is to provide every traveler in the world access to experienced local doctors and specialists when they need it, and by doing so to help them avoid having to go to hospitals or tourist clinics,” adds Derfler.
The that end, Air Doctor’s first customer was The Phoenix, one of Israel’s leading insurance companies, which has subsequently invested as part of this Series A round. By offering Air Doctor to its customers, The Phoenix was able to reduce its loss ratio by reducing claim costs, reorienting patients to outpatient clinics rather than emergency services, and streamlining payments.
“Our big selling point for the travellers themselves is control,” underlines the Air Doctor CEO. “When you’re sick while away from home, you want to feel like you are in control of your situation. Our online platform helps patients find immediate solutions, by providing them with a wealth of information about a wider range of local practitioners so they can choose the most appropriate doctor for their needs and preferences. Most importantly, we help them access medical care in their native language, which is one of the biggest things when it comes to feeling in control of your situation”.
Meanwhile, this latest round follows Air Doctor’s seed round of $3.1 million in July 2018. The new investment will be used to bolster Air Doctor’s medical network and R&D capabilities and for international expansion across the insurance, telecom, and credit card industries.

The Station: Bird and Lime layoffs, pivots in a COVID-19 era and a $2.2 trillion deal

Hello folks, welcome back (or hi for the first time) to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the all the ways people and packages move around this world. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.
I also have started to publish a shorter version of the newsletter on TechCrunch . That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole enchilada — which comes out every Saturday — you can subscribe to the newsletter by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!
Before I get into the thick of things, how is everyone doing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m being earnest. I want to hear from you (note my email below). Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you are doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.
Please reach out and email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.
Micromobbin’

It was a rough week for micromobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bird laid off about 30% of its employees due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.
In a memo obtained by TechCrunch, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said:
The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.
The fallout from COVID-19 isn’t limited to Bird. Lime is also reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Meanwhile, Wheels deployed e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus. NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.
The upshot to all of this: COVID-19 is turning shared mobility on its head. That means lay offs will continue. It also means companies like Wheels will try to innovate or pivot in hopes of staying alive.
While some companies pulled scooters off city streets, others changed how they marketed services. Some turned efforts to gig economy workers delivering food. Others, like shared electric moped service Revel, are focusing on healthcare workers.
Revel is now letting healthcare workers in New York rent its mopeds for free. To qualify, they just need to upload their employee ID. For now, the free rides for healthcare workers is limited to Brooklyn, Queens and a new service area from upper Manhattan down to 65th street. Revel expanded the area to include hospitals in one of the epicenters of the disease.
Revel is still renting its mopeds to the rest of us out there, although they encourage people to only use them for essential trips. As you might guess, ridership is down significantly. The company says it has stepped up efforts of disinfecting and cleaning the mopeds and helmets. Revel also operates in Austin, New York City, Oakland, and Washington. It has suspended service in Miami per local regulations.
— Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)
Deal of the week

Typically, I would highlight a large funding round for a startup in the “deal of the week” section. This week, I have broadened my definition.
On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act. President Donald Trump signed it hours later. The CARES act contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
TechCrunch has just started what will be a multi-day dive into the 880-page document. And in the coming weeks, I will highlight anything related or relevant to the transportation industry or startups here.
I’ll focus today on three items: airlines, public transit and small business loans.
U.S. airlines are receiving $58 billion. It breaks down to about $25 billion in loans for commercial carriers, $25 billion in payroll grants to cover the 750,000 employees who work in the industry.  Cargo carriers will receive $4 billion in loans and $4 billion in grants. These loans come with some strings attached. Airlines will have to agree not to lay off workers through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.
Public transit has been allocated $24.9 billion. The CARES Act provides almost three times the FY 2020 appropriations for this category, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The funds are distributed through a formula that puts $13.79 billion to urban, $2 billion to rural, $7.51 billion towards state of good repair and $1.71 billion for high-density state transit. APTA notes that these funds are for operating expenses to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 beginning on January 20, 2020.
Amtrak received an additional $1 billion in grants, that directs $492 million of those funds towards the northeast corridor. The remaining goes to the national network.
Small business loans are a critical piece of the bill, and an area where many startups may be focused. There is a lot to unpack here, but in basic terms the act provides $350 billion in loans that will be administered by the Small Business Administration to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. These loans are meant to cover an eligible borrower’s payroll, rent, utilities expenses and mortgage interest for up to eight weeks. If the borrower maintains its workforce, some of the loan may be forgiven.
Venture-backed startups seeking relief may run into problems qualifying. It all comes down to how employees are counted. Normally, SBA looks at a company’s affiliates to determine if they qualify. So, a startup owned by a private equity firm is considered affiliated with the other companies in that firm’s portfolio, which could push employment numbers far beyond 500. That rule also seems to apply to venture-backed startups, in which more than 50% of voting stock is held by the VC.
The guidance on this is still spotty. But Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, said in recent explainer that the rule has the “potential to be problematic for startups because the SBA affiliation rules are highly complex and could cause lenders to group together several otherwise unaffiliated portfolio companies of a single venture capital firm in determining whether a borrower has no more than 500 employees.”
One final note: The SBA has waived these affiliation rules for borrowers in the food services and food supply chain industry. It’s unclear what that might mean for those food automation startups or companies building autonomous vehicles for food delivery.
More deal$
COVID-19 has taken over, but deals are still happening. Here’s a rundown of some of partnerships, acquisitions and fundraising round that got our attention.
Lilium, the Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and aspires to run in its own taxi fleet, has raised $240 million in a funding round led by Tencent. This is being couched as an inside round with only existing investors, a list that included participation from previous backers such as Atomico, Freigeist and LGT. The valuation is not being disclosed. But sources tell us that it’s between $750 million and $1 billion.
Wunder Mobility acquired Australia-based car rental technology provider KEAZ. (Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but as part of the deal KEAZ founder and CTO Tim Bos is joining Wunder Mobility) KEAZ developed a mobile app and back-end management tool that lets rental agencies, car dealerships, and corporations provide shared access to vehicles.
Cazoo, a startup that buys used cars and then sells them online and delivers to them your door, raised $116 million funding. The round was led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
Helm.ai came out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. Helm.ai says it developed software for autonomous vehicles that can skip traditional steps of simulation, on-road testing and annotated data set — all tools that are used to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
RoadSync, a digital payment platform for the transportation industry, raised a $5.7 million in a Series A led by Base10 Partners with participation from repeat investor Hyde Park Venture Partners and Companyon Ventures. The company developed cloud-based software that lets businesses invoice and accept payments from truck drivers, carriers and brokers. Their platform is in use at over 400 locations nationwide with over 50,000 unique transactions monthly, according to RoadSync.
Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale. The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America.
A final word
Remember, the weekly newsletter features even more mobility news and insights. I’ll leave ya’ll with this one chart from Inrix. The company has launched a U.S. traffic synopsis that it plans to publish every Monday. The chart shows traffic from the week of March 14 to March 20. The upshot: COVID-19 reduced traffic by 30% nationwide.

Detroit Auto Show canceled in preparation for FEMA to turn venue into field hospital

The North American International Auto Show, which was scheduled for June in Detroit, has been canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and the city prepares to repurpose the TCF Center into a temporary field hospital.
NAIAS is held each year in the TCF Center, formerly known as the Cobo Center. Organizers said they expected the Federal Emergency Management Agency to designate the TCF Center as a field hospital.
“Although we are disappointed, there is nothing more important to us than the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of Detroit and Michigan, and we will do what we can to support our community’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak,” NAIAS Executive Director Rod Alberts said in an emailed statement.
The NAIAS is the latest in a long line of events and conventions that have been canceled as COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has spread from China to Europe, and now the U.S. and the rest of the world.
More than 100 convention centers and facilities around the country are being considered to potentially serve as temporary hospitals. Alberts said it became clear that TCF Center would be an inevitable option to serve as a care facility.
The NAIAS, also known as the Detroit Auto Show, will be held in June 2021. Organizers are discussing plans for a fundraising activity later this year to benefit the children’s charities that were designated as beneficiaries of the 2020 Charity Preview event.
This year’s show was highly anticipated because it had moved from January to summer, following years of encouragement to schedule it during the warmer months.
All tickets purchased for the 2020 NAIAS show, including tickets for the Public Show, Industry Preview and Charity Preview will be fully refunded, organizers said. Charity Preview ticket holders will be given the option of a refund, or the opportunity to donate the proceeds of their refund to one of the nine designated Charity Preview beneficiaries. The NAIAS ticket office will be in contact with all ticket holders, according to the organizers.

Zyl resurfaces old photos to create collaborative stories

French startup Zyl has released a major update of its mobile app for iOS and Android. The app is all about finding long-forgotten memories of important life events in your photo library.
Zyl scans your photo library and magically finds photos that matter. Every day, the app sends you a notification to tell you that you can unlock a new memory — a new Storyl. It instantly brings you back to that special day with an automatically generated story. All your photos are already stitched together, the app is just waiting for you.
With today’s update, Zyl lets you share your memory with your friends and family members who were part of this past event. They can contribute and add their own photos from their photo library.
Sure, each user could have created their own version of this story. But collaborative stories lead to something more powerful. Years after celebrating something, Zyl brings you closer to your friends right now.

Behind the scene, the company has been working on machine learning-powered algorithms to understand the emotions behind your photo. The company has a privacy-focused approach. It scans your photo library on your devices — your photos aren’t uploaded to Zyl’s servers. You don’t need to create a user account either.
Zyl doesn’t want to overwhelm you with a ton of content at once. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock a new Storyl. That slow-paced approach sets it apart from Instagram, where you have to frenetically tap on the screen to gobble as much content as possible.
Just like with your memories, you have to make room for new memories and cherish the most important ones. In the future, Zyl could remove some of your old Storyls to let you focus on the ones that matter. If you haven’t shared it with a friend, chances are that it wasn’t that important.
Instead of traditional comments, the startup is also working on a way to add some meaningful content on top of your photos. Again, Zyl is focused on emotions and generating a good vibe. For me, it has been a great way to forget about the news cycle for a few minutes.

Telco metadata grab is for modelling COVID-19 spread, not tracking citizens, says EC

As part of its response to the public health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has been leaning on Europe’s telcos to share aggregate location data on their users.
“The Commission kick-started a discussion with mobile phone operators about the provision of aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data,” it said today.
“The idea is to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts, and hence the risks of contamination. This would be an important — and proportionate — input for tools that are modelling the spread of the virus, and would also allow to assess the current measures adopted to contain the pandemic.”
“We want to work with one operator per Member State to have a representative sample,” it added. “Having one operator per Member State also means the aggregated and anonymised data could not be used to track individual citizens, that is also not at all the intention. Simply because not all have the same operator.
“The data will only be kept as long as the crisis is ongoing. We will of course ensure the respect of the ePrivacy Directive and the GDPR.”
Earlier this week Politico reported that commissioner Thierry Breton held a conference with carriers, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, asking for them to share data to help predict the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Europe has become a secondary hub for the disease, with high rates of infection in countries including Italy and Spain — where there have been thousands of deaths apiece.
The European Union’s executive is understandably keen to bolster national efforts to combat the virus. Although it’s less clear exactly how aggregated mobile location data can help — especially as more EU citizens are confined to their homes under national quarantine orders. (While police patrols and CCTV offer an existing means of confirming whether or not people are generally moving around.)
Nonetheless, EU telcos have already been sharing aggregate data with national governments.
Such as Orange in France which is sharing “aggregated and anonymized” mobile phone geolocation data with Inserm, a local health-focused research institute — to enable them to “better anticipate and better manage the spread of the epidemic”, as a spokeswoman put it.
“The idea is simply to identify where the populations are concentrated and how they move before and after the confinement in order to be able to verify that the emergency services and the health system are as well armed as possible, where necessary,” she added. “For instance, at the time of confinement, more than 1 million people left the Paris region and at the same time the population of Ile de Ré increased by 30%.
“Other uses of this data are possible and we are currently in discussions with the State on all of these points. But, it must be clear, we are extremely vigilant with regards to concerns and respect for privacy. Moreover, we are in contact with the CNIL [France’s data protection watchdog]… to verify that all of these points are addressed.”
Germany’s Deutsche Telekom is also providing what a spokesperson dubbed “anonymized swarm data” to national health authorities to combat the corona virus.
“European mobile operators are also to make such anonymized mass data available to the EU Commission at its request,” the spokesperson told us. “In fact, we will first provide the EU Commission with a description of data we have sent to German health authorities.”
It’s not entirely clear whether the Commission’s intention is to pool data from such existing local efforts — or whether it’s asking EU carriers for a different, universal data-set to be shared with it during the COVID-19 emergency.
When we asked about this it did not provide an answer. Although we understand discussions are ongoing with operators — and that it’s the Commission’s aim to work with one operator per Member State.
The Commission has said the metadata will be used for modelling the spread of the virus and for looking at mobility patterns to analyze and assess the impact of quarantine measures.
A spokesman emphasized that individual-level tracking of EU citizens is not on the cards.
“The Commission is in discussions with mobile operators’ associations about the provision of aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data,” the spokesman for Breton told us.
“These data permit to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts and hence the risks of contamination. They are therefore an important and proportionate tool to feed modelling tools for the spread of the virus and also assess the current measures adopted to contain the Coronavrius pandemic are effective.”
“These data do not enable tracking of individual users,” he added. “The Commission is in close contact with the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) to ensure the respect of the ePrivacy Directive and the GDPR.”
At this point there’s no set date for the system to be up and running — although we understand the aim is to get data flowing asap. The intention is also to use datasets that go back to the start of the epidemic, with data-sharing ongoing until the pandemic is over — at which point we’re told the data will be deleted.
Breton hasn’t had to lean very hard on EU telcos to share data for a crisis cause.
Earlier this week Mats Granryd, director general of operator association the GSMA, tweeted that its members are “committed to working with the European Commission, national authorities and international groups to use data in the fight against COVID-19 crisis”.
Although he added an important qualifier: “while complying with European privacy standards”.

The @GSMA and our members are committed to working with the @EU_Commission, national authorities and international groups to use data in the fight against COVID-19 crisis, while complying with European privacy standards. https://t.co/f1hBYT5Lqx
— Mats Granryd (@MatsGranryd) March 24, 2020

Europe’s data protection framework means there are limits on how people’s personal data can be used — even during a public health emergency. And while the legal frameworks do quite rightly bake in flexibility for a pressing public purpose, like the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not mean individuals’ privacy rights automatically go out the window.
Individual tracking of mobile users for contact tracing — such as Israel’s government is doing — is unimaginable at the pan-EU level. Certainly unless the regional situation deteriorates drastically.
One privacy lawyer we spoke to last week suggested such a level of tracking and monitoring across Europe would be akin to a “last resort”. Though individual EU countries are choosing to respond differently to the crisis — such as, for example, Poland giving quarantined people a choice between regular police checks up or uploading geotagged selfies to prove they’re not breaking lockdown.
While former EU Member, the UK, has reportedly chosen to invite US surveillance-as-a-service tech firm Palantir to carry out resource tracking for its National Health Service during the coronavirus crisis.
Under pan-EU law (which the UK remains subject to, until the end of the Brexit transition period), the rule of thumb is that extraordinary data-sharing — such as the Commission asking telcos to share user location data during a pandemic — must be “temporary, necessary and proportionate”, as digital rights group Privacy International recently noted.
This explains why Breton’s request is for “anonymous and aggregated” location data. And why, in background comments to reporters, the claim is that any shared data sets will be deleted at the end of the pandemic.

What are the rules wrapping privacy during COVID-19?

Not every EU lawmaker appears entirely aware of all the legal limits, however.
Today the bloc’s lead privacy regulator, data protection supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiórowski, could be seen tweeting cautionary advice at one former commissioner, Andrus Ansip (now an MEP) — after the latter publicly eyed up a Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing app deployed in Singapore.
“Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder,” wrote Wiewiórowski.
So it remains to be seen whether pressure will mount for more privacy-intrusive surveillance of EU citizens if regional rates of infection continue to grow.

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.
— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

As we reported earlier this week, governments or EU institutions seeking to make use of mobile phone data to help with the response to the coronavirus must comply with the EU’s ePrivacy Directive — which covers the processing of mobile location data.
The ePrivacy Directive allows for Member States to restrict the scope of the rights and obligations related to location metadata privacy, and retain such data for a limited time — when such restriction constitutes “a necessary, appropriate and proportionate measure within a democratic society to safeguard national security (i.e. State security), defence, public security, and the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences or of unauthorised use of the electronic communication system” — and a pandemic seems a clear example of a public security issue.
Thing is, the ePrivacy Directive is an old framework. The previous college of commissioners had intended to replace it alongside an update to the EU’s broader personal data protection framework — the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — but failed to reach agreement.
This means there’s some potential mismatch. For example the ePrivacy Directive does not include the same level of transparency requirements as the GDPR.
Perhaps understandably, then, since news of the Commission’s call for carrier metadata emerged concerns have been raised about the scope and limits of the data sharing. Earlier this week, for example, MEP Sophie in’t Veld wrote to Breton asking for more information on the data grab — including querying exactly how the data will be anonymized.

Fighting the #coronavirus with technology: sure! But always with protection of our privacy. Read my letter to @ThierryBreton about @EU_Commission’s plans to call on telecoms to hand over data from people’s mobile phones in order to track&trace how the virus is spreading. pic.twitter.com/55kZo9bMhN
— Sophie in ‘t Veld (@SophieintVeld) March 25, 2020

The EDPS confirmed to us that the Commission consulted it on the proposed use of telco metadata.
A spokesman for the regulator pointed to a letter sent by Wiewiórowski to the Commission, following the latter’s request for guidance on monitoring the “spread” of COVID-19.
In the letter the EDPS impresses on the Commission the importance of “effective” data anonymization — which means it’s in effect saying a technique that does genuinely block re-identification of the data must be used. (There are plenty of examples of ‘anonymized’ location data being shown by researchers to be trivially easy to reidentify, given how many individual tells such data typically contains, like home address and workplace address.)
“Effective anonymisation requires more than simply removing obvious identifiers such as phone numbers and IMEI numbers,” warns the EDPS, adding too that aggregated data “can provide an additional safeguard”.
We also asked the Commission for more details on how the data will be anonymized and the level of aggregation that would be used — but it told us it could not provide further information at this stage. 
So far we understand that the anonymization and aggregation process will be undertaken before data is transferred by operators to a Commission science and research advisory body, called the Joint Research Centre (JRC) — which will perform the data analytics and modelling.
The results — in the form of predictions of propagation and so on — will then be shared by the Commission with EU Member States authorities. The datasets feeding the models will be stored on secure JRC servers.
The EDPS is equally clear on the Commission’s commitments vis-a-vis securing the data.
“Information security obligations under Commission Decision 2017/464 still apply [to anonymized data], as do confidentiality obligations under the Staff Regulations for any Commission staff processing the information. Should the Commission rely on third parties to process the information, these third parties have to apply equivalent security measures and be bound by strict confidentiality obligations and prohibitions on further use as well,” writes Wiewiórowski.
“I would also like to stress the importance of applying adequate measures to ensure the secure transmission of data from the telecom providers. It would also be preferable to limit access to the data to authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science.”
Data retention — or rather the need for prompt destruction of data sets after the emergency is over — is another key piece of the guidance.
“I also welcome that the data obtained from mobile operators would be deleted as soon as the current emergency comes to an end,” writes Wiewiórowski. “It should be also clear that these special services are deployed because of this specific crisis and are of temporary character. The EDPS often stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone. I would like to stress that such solution should be still recognised as extraordinary.”
teresting to note the EDPS is very clear on “full transparency” also being a requirement, both of purpose and “procedure”. So we should expect more details to be released about how the data is being effectively rendered unidentifiable.
“Allow me to recall the importance of full transparency to the public on the purpose and procedure of the measures to be enacted,” writes Wiewiórowski. “I would also encourage you to keep your Data Protection Officer involved throughout the entire process to provide assurance that the data processed had indeed been effectively anonymised.”
The EDPS has also requested to see a copy of the data model. At the time of writing the spokesman told us it’s still waiting to receive that.
“The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings,” Wiewiórowski added in the letter.

UK tech industry forms Code4COVID.org to fight the Coronavirus crisis

A coalition of grassroots UK tech initiatives has come together to co-ordinate the key groups of tech industry people supporting the UK’s response to the Coronavirus.COVID19 Tech Response (CTR) aims to co-ordinate the supply of available tech talent; work on the problems that need solving and the matching of the two. So far, they have brought over 400 tech volunteers together, mostly from the UK, some of whom have been providing volunteer support to local Covid Mutual Aid groups which have sprung up across the country.
CTR will also aim to co-ordinate tech industry volunteers to coach and support UK citizens who are experiencing problems during the crisis, with any tech solutions available. 
The coalition is working closely with the CoronavirusTechHandbook, an initiative by political technology college Newspeak House which has quickly become a global resource. 
The four main “call to arms” of the group are:1) Join the Code4COVID Slack as a volunteer or to source volunteers, or work on projects
2) Add your tech skills to the Covid-19 Tech Response Airtable form
3) Submit mainstream UK tech problems to Covid Tech Support
4) Contribute to and access the resources on the CoronavirusTechHandbook
CTR has been formed by many of those coming together to support anyone building solutions to the ongoing pandemic. These include:
Covidmutualaid.org – Find your local mutual aid group and volunteer or seek help
CoronavirusTechhandbook – A crowdsourced library of resources and organizations
Code4Covid Slack community  and TechForUK – Slack groups for collecting tech volunteers
Covid Tech Support – Collecting requests for technical support, for volunteers to work on
Covid19-Response – A US-based moderated scientific ‘request for ideas’ 
Helpwithcovid.com – International volunteer sign-ups and ideas board
Catalyst – a UK charitable collective providing digital support for civil society organizations.
TechForce19 – technology to combat self-isolation, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable
COVID19 Tech Response says its aim is not to build the individual solutions needed by those on the front line but instead be a steering group that provides the broad oversight that connects these individual efforts together. It also aims to put in place the system that enables new problems to be solved efficiently and effectively using technology. 
CTR hopes to create a “matching agency” where community volunteers are matched with technical problems. It will also be encouraging the tech community to talk to healthcare workers/public service workers they know and share tools and build tech teams who can be staged to solve problems.
The formation of the group was inspired by similar initiatives globally, including, Helpwithcovid.com and Covid19-response.
Commenting, Ed Saperia, co-founder of CoronavirusTechHandbook said: “Millions of knowledge workers are showing up to help. This is fantastic, and will change society, but it needs coordination. Often the hard part is not the tech, but understanding what you can do, and it’s here that you should apply your intelligence and creativity.”
Cinzia Ricciardone, co-founder of code4covid, said: “Formed on March 16th by a few technologist friends, code4covid now counts over 400 tech volunteers. Our mission is to find technology solutions and resources to help people during the COVID-19 crisis, and ensure energy gets directed to the right place in order to save lives.”
CTR Co-organiser Freddie Fforde said: “Like so many other groups across the country, people in tech are trying to play their part. We don’t know where this will lead but we have to start somewhere by helping people come together and seeing what they can build.
Josh Russell, co-founder of Tech For UK, said: “Our goal is for teams that emerge to have a good understanding of the problem space, so we’ll be forming a User Research (explainer) function that will feed insights to the community on a regular basis. User Research is the secret sauce, if you’re a User Researcher tick the right box when you register on code4covid.org.”
Marc Sloan, co-founder of Covid Tech Support, said: “Our aim is that no one should needlessly be put at risk because they didn’t have access to technology that a volunteer technologist could have helped with.”
Nathan Young, co-founder of CoronavirusTechHandbook said: “CoronavirusTechHandbook is a library of every project and resource, and working together with initiatives like CTR to illuminate problems and coordinate responses, we can achieve incredible things very quickly.”
Mike Butcher, co-founder of Tech For UK, said: “There are several UK tech communities responding to this crisis, but many are not co-ordinating or even aware each one exists. It’s our responsibility to get as many people into a broad group, where the UK can call on the greatest amount of tech talent at this time of need.”

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

Josh Nadeau
Contributor

Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.
According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

Astronomers warn of ‘worrisome’ light pollution from satellite constellations

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.
Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 
Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology such as sensors on a commercial scale.
The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.
TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.
TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.
The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.
The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

Major automakers Toyota, Honda, FCA extend factory closures

Toyota, Honda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will not reopen North American factories at the end of the month as planned as the COVID-19 disease spreads and dampens demand for new cars, trucks and SUVs.
FCA said Thursday that plants across the U.S. and Canada, as well as headquarters operations and construction projects, are intended to remain closed until April 14, dependent upon the various states’ stay-in-place orders and the readiness of each facility to return to production.
FCA’s Mopar Parts Distribution centers, which have been deemed essential to keeping first responders and commercial vehicles on the road, will continue to operate with paid volunteers. The status of production for FCA’s Mexico operations will be subject to a separate announcement, the company said in a statement emailed Thursday.
Meanwhile, Ford, Toyota and Honda also announced plans to extend closures. Ford will also said it will extend its closure until April 7.
Honda also said will keep all of its automobile, engine and transmission plants in the U.S. and Canada closed into the first week of April. Operations will resume on April 7, Honda said.
“This extension is in response to the continued steep decline in market demand across the automotive industry due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, resulting in the inability of consumers in many markets to purchase new vehicles,” Honda said in an emailed statement. “As the market impact of the fast-changing COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, Honda will evaluate conditions and make additional adjustments as necessary. In undertaking this production adjustment, Honda is continuing to manage its business carefully through a measured approach to sales that aligns production with market demand.”
Toyota said its manufacturing facilities will remain closed through April 17 and will resume production on April 20. Toyota has numerous factories in North America, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Baja California, Mexico and Guanajuato, Mexico.
Toyota said its service parts depots and vehicle logistics centers will continue to operate.
Earlier this month, major automakers suspended productions at factories across the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Most had planned to restart March 31. Now as that date gets closer, a number of automakers are pushing back plans to restart production.
COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has caused upheaval across every major industry as governments issue stay-at-home orders or directives for nonessential businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic. Closures first hit China, where the first cases of COVID-19 popped up three months. Those factories are now coming back online as plants in Europe and North America shut down temporarily.

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.
Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 
And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 
Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.
Customer service might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.
People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.
(And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work.)
“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”
On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.
This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.
“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.
“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”
Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.

Meet the European startups that pitched at EF’s 13th (and first virtual) Demo Day

Entrepreneur First (EF), the the London-headquartered company builder and “talent first” investor, unveiled its latest cohort of “deep tech” companies in a first virtual Demo Day, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Presenting startups, in the format of a slick pre-recorded video, are made up of teams formed across EF’s three European locations: London, Berlin and Paris. In total, 25 new startups have been created across deep technology fields such as AI, biotechnology, machine learning and robotics.
They include companies tackling drug discovery using digital twin cells, environmental pollutant monitoring, and artificial brain development for robotics applications, to name just a few (that last one was a mouthful).
It’s also worth re-capping that EF stands out from the many other demo days in U.K. and beyond — seeing the investor backs individuals “pre-team, pre-idea” — meaning that the companies pitching generally only came into existence during the three programmes and perhaps may have never seen the light of day without the founders bashing heads at EF.
Cue statement from Matt Clifford, co-founder Entrepreneur First: “While the format of today’s Demo Day event may have changed, the focus remains the same – introducing the globally important companies of the future to the world’s best investors. Entrepreneur First believes that the best way for the most ambitious and talented people to fulfil their potential is to use their exceptional talent to build companies, transform lives and change the world. With the right support, one talented individual has the potential to fundamentally change the way an entire industry operates – which is perhaps even more important in this period of global upheaval”.
Meanwhile, here’s an interesting tidbit: According to a source, one of the pitching EF companies, Ochre Bio — which is developing gene therapies to treat donor livers outside of the body — made the unusual decision to join Silicon Valley’s YC accelerator in the middle of the EF programme where the founders met, so they’re effectively coming into Demo Day with half their round filled.
The full list of presenting team video pitch links (described in their own words)
Ambify
Environmental pollutant monitoring to protect health and wellbeing.
(London)
Augmize
Augmize automates actuarial reserving in commercial insurance with interpretable machine learning.
(London)
Better Dairy
Building the future of food, starting with animal-free dairy.
(London)
Flaime
Revolutionising cloud gaming with dynamically distributed interactive 3D content delivery.
(London)
Bleep
Bleep lets you create and remix your favourite TV Shows, for and on, the channels we all know and love.
(London)
CARV3D
We generate on demand, new examples of unique and believable digital humans which do not exist in the real world.
(London)
cheMastery
Building the infrastructure for chemistry.
(London)
Exogene
Fast discovery of safer immunotherapies.
(London)
Micrographia Bio
Engineering the chemical atlas for modern drug discovery.
(London)
my110
AI health coach transforming how we eat, exercise and recover.
(London)
Ochre Bio
Gene therapies to treat donor livers outside of the body.
(London)
Omnipresent
We take away the pain of operating global teams. Our clients can onboard employees anywhere in the world with a few mouse clicks.
(London)
Verchable
Building next generation video search using Computer Vision.
(London)
Volatile AI
Combining existing gas sensors with bio-inspired AI algorithms to monitor food aroma.
(London)
Cargoflip
An all-in-one platform to simplify international trade for businesses.
(Berlin)
ElementZero Biolabs
The next generation of tools for capturing genetic information.
(Berlin)
hier foods
An end-to-end procurement tool for regional food.
(Berlin)
Iskra
Low code, complete Machine Learning platform.
(Berlin)
Blendeez
Blendeez helps business users make CRM external and internal apps work together at scale with no technical skills.
(Paris)
Contreeb
We enable online shops and their consumers to balance their carbon footprint.
(Paris)
DeepLife
DeepLife creates digital twins of cell to accelerate drug discovery.
(Paris)
EyePick
EyePick builds a brain for robots to see, understand and act in the real-world.
(Paris)
Lynceus
Lynceus is building the world’s most reliable manufacturing quality prediction software.
(Paris)
Samp
Digital twins for industrial facilities – reliable knowledge for everyone.
(Paris)
X80 Security
Generating intelligent cyber defences through automatic threat simulation.
(Paris)

EF raises $115M new fund, aiming to create another 300-plus startups in the next three years

Delivery Hero urges users to go cashless, no contact for food deliveries

Delivery Hero has switched to cash-less, non-contact for deliveries in areas it defines as “high risk” for the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to reduce personal contact between couriers and customers during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s encouraging all customers to make the switch.
“By introducing contactless delivery, we can ensure that our service is safe and convenient for customers, riders and restaurants,” said CEO, Niklas Östberg, in a press release. “We now encourage customers to pay without cash everywhere, and decide when and how they want their order to be delivered. These are options designed to reduce interpersonal contact and make our customer journey even more secure.”
It has also implemented no-contact drop-offs in high risk areas and is asking restaurants to sanitize packages to further shrink the risk of spreading the virus.
While there is no evidence that people have become infected by eating food contaminated with the microscopic agent — SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus; the primary transition route for infection appears to be via close contact with an infected person, when you might be more likely to breathe in tiny droplets that contain the virus, such as those expelled when someone coughs or sneezes — there could be a small risk posed by contaminated food packaging.
If, for example, an infected person, who had coughed into their hand, then touched a package which they gave to an uninfected person — who then touched their face without first washing their hands. Studies suggest the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain infectious for between several hours or days on certain surfaces.
To shrink the risk of such a scenario, Delivery Hero said it’s working closely with restaurant partners to ensure “the highest hygiene standards”.
The risk of infection via contaminated surfaces is reduced by everyone observing good hand hygiene — i.e. washing hands regularly and directly after touching things others may have touched — and by not touching their own face with unclean hands.
“Official health authorities around the world agree that there is a very limited chance of contracting COVID-19 through food,” said Delivery Hero today. “Neither the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have any reports of Coronavirus COVID-19 transmitted via food or food packaging. However, we are working closely with our restaurant partners to ensure that they continue to operate in a secure kitchen environment and carry out food preparation and packaging according to the highest hygiene standards.”
The company is also providing riders in “high risk” zones with hand sanitisers, masks and other safety materials — “where and when it is locally and culturally accepted”.
The Berlin -based takeaway platform operates across 44 markets in Europe, Asia, LatAm and the Middle East, operating under a variety of brand names.
We’ve asked which areas it’s defining as “high risk”.
In recent weeks a number of US and European food delivery startups have turned on a contactless delivery option to shrink the risks around COVID-19 during the epidemic. Delivery Hero said it started taking precautionary measures “as soon as the situation started to evolve in January”.
The company is using its rider app to communicate updates and “instruct on hygiene requirements, especially for pick-up and drop-off”. “By having direct access to new information, our riders can make informed decisions when on the road,” it added.
While many startups face a demand crunch during the epidemic as people dial back some of their regular activities, the opposite looks to be true for food delivery — as large-scale quarantine measures mean many people are eating more meals at home. Food delivery is also being actively being encouraged by some governments, such as the UK, as a convenient lever to keep more citizens locked down at home where they can’t spread the virus or increase their chance of exposure.
Delivery Hero said it’s responded to growing demand by implementing free delivery options in the majority of its markets — “to make online ordering accessible to as many people as possible”, as it puts it.
It said “several” of these options are “focused on when ordering from restaurants nearby” — in what looks like an attempt to streamline demand for restaurants and delivery workers by incentivizing local food orders.
In another support step for restaurants it’s offering more frequent payment cycles for some partners — “according to local need”. “For new restaurants joining our platform, we aim to onboard as fast as possible, in order to support them in maintaining order levels as well as provide more choice for our customers,” it added.
Zooming out, Delivery Hero said it’s closely liaising with local governments — and continuing to follow official health and safety guidelines provided in its different markets. And it gave examples of how some of its different brands are working on relief efforts related to COVID-19 around the world.
“Our brand HungerStation in Saudi Arabia is partnering with the Saudi Ministry of Health and Saudi Food & Drug Authority to provide hand sanitizers for people in need,” it said. “In the Czech Republic, our brand Damejidlo has also been selected as one of the Red Cross’ official partners, bringing food to senior citizens. As a part of a broader initiative to support their communities, our Latin American brand PedidosYa is giving up to 1,000 free lunches per day to people who are at the forefront of fighting the virus, such as employees in the health sector.”
Another area the company is ramping up to meet demand for food delivery in the time of the coronavirus is grocery store onboarding. Currently, customers across 21 markets in the MENA region, Asia-Pacific and Latin America can order groceries from supermarkets via the company’s local delivery apps, in addition to takeout meals.
“We have seen an increase in demand from our global customer community and to meet the growing need, we have accelerated the onboarding of grocery stores,” Delivery Hero said. “We have also increased delivery through our cloud stores, another way to secure that our customers have access to everyday necessities.”
It’s not clear what — if any — financial provision the company is making to support delivery riders who do not have a contract that includes sick pay.
We’ve asked and will update this report with any response.
“During these turbulent times, our immediate efforts go into securing the wellbeing of all Delivery Hero customers, riders and employees,” the company said. “We are monitoring the development of COVID-19 minute by minute and will implement further measures as necessary. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by the spread of the virus and to all who go the extra mile to keep our communities safe, healthy and fed.”

Meri Williams steps down as CTO of UK challenger bank Monzo

Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank that now counts over 4 million account holders, has lost its CTO, TechCrunch has learned.
According to multiple sources, Meri Williams, who joined the fast-growing fintech in September 2018 to much fanfare, announced internally that she was departing, saying that she wanted to voluntarily help with cost-cutting measures. However, it is worth noting that Williams had already cut back her involvement with Monzo and had been consulting for other tech companies. One source told TechCrunch she was most recently only working one day per week for Monzo.
Meanwhile, it is not clear who is taking up Williams CTO responsibilities, especially as previous CTO and Monzo co-founder Jonas Huckestein (pictured right, with Meri Williams) is thought to be on paternity leave. Monzo declined to comment.
Prior to holding the CTO role at Monzo, Williams worked at print and design company MOO — an early darling of the London startup ecosystem — and was brought to the bank for her experience “growing complex engineering organisations and managing fast-moving teams,” according to a press release issued at the time of her hire. Before working at MOO, she was Head of Engineering at M&S Digital and previously worked for the U.K.’s Government Digital Service.

Mike Hudack, former CTO of Deliveroo and now an ex-VC, has joined Monzo as Chief Product Officer

Qatar Airways adds 10K seats while other airlines draw down their schedules

While most domestic and international airlines are cutting thousands of flights from their schedules due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways is taking another route. The airline is actually stepping up some of its flying again, after also announcing some cuts in the last few days, by adding 10,000 extra seats back to its network.
It’s doing so by adding extra flights to Paris, Perth and Dublin from its hub in Doha, and by using its A380 fleet for flights to Frankfurt, London Heathrow and Perth. In addition, it’s adding charter service to Europe from the U.S. and Asia.
Unlike other airlines, Qatar still serves 75 destinations, including to the U.S., though the airline acknowledges that this could quickly change as some countries adopt tighter restrictions.
In many ways, Qatar’s decision seems counterintuitive, especially given that even its local competitors like Emirates have cut most of their schedules and many U.S. airlines now only serve a handful of international destinations. But Qatar argues that its mission right now is to “reunite stranded passengers with their loved ones.” The company’s data backs this up, with planes to the UK, France and Germany leaving with about 80 percent of their seats sold, but outbound flights only being 36 percent full. The airline says it flew about 100,000 passengers in the last seven days.
The demand here clearly is from passengers trying to get home. That likely won’t last and Qatar, too, will end up shutting down more of its routes. But for the time being, it’s one of the few airlines that are still offering flights on many of these routes, something it can do because its hub in Doha also remains open for transit passengers. Emirates and Ethiad, for example, would likely keep some of its flights going, too, but their hub airports are now closed and other major hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong have banned all transit passengers.

Airlines start canceling more flights from Europe as new restrictions go into effect

France launches marketplace to manage essential products against COVID-19

French startup Mirakl usually works with e-commerce websites in order to help them build out a marketplace with third-party sellers. This time, the company has developed a marketplace called StopCOVID19.fr to centralize the supply and demand of essential products during the fight against COVID-19. The French government is backing the project.
While many French companies have promised to manufacture hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and other essential products to protect healthcare professionals and people in general, it also creates many supply chain challenges. How do you make sure that hospitals that suffer the most from shortages get essential goods in time?
StopCOVID19.fr is starting with hand sanitizer with plans to expand to other protective goods. It helps companies and public institutions talk to each other. For instance, a chemical company has to connect with packaging manufacturers in order to store a large volume of hand sanitizer. Similarly, public and private hospitals don’t want to waste time contacting each manufacturer directly.
This isn’t an open marketplace. You have to be working for a health facility or an industrial company focused on COVID-19 protection goods. The French government screened all sellers that are currently listed on the marketplace. You have to contact Mirakl on the website to create an account.
A comprehensive marketplace could also become an essential service to analyze the country’s inventory over time. It could be particularly useful to distribute masks around the country and prepare for the end of the coronavirus lockdown.

Self-reporting app for Covid-19 symptoms for UK research sees 650k downloads in 24 hours

One of the big challenges (among many) with the coronavirus pandemic is that overwhelmed health services do not always know how best to deploy the limited resources that they have to meet the demand of people falling ill with Covid-19. For example, we know that more ventilators and beds will be needed, but where specifically are the outbreaks happening and how can those local areas be served better?
Now, an app in the UK called the C-19 Covid Symptom Tracker, developed out of an unlikely corner of medical research — looking into the progression of medical conditions by tracking twins — is asking people to self-report their symptoms in an effort to start to gather more of that detail.
And in a mark of how the public is trying to step up its efforts to get involved in the fight to contain the disease, the app has itself gone viral, with 650,000 downloads since being launched on Tuesday morning.
Developed by a startup called Zoe in partnership with researchers at Kings College Hospital in London, the plan is to bring the app next to the US, where the latter group had already been working with colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanford on a previous project (more on that below).

To be very clear, the app itself is not a diagnostic tool — these are being developed on a more national level, linking people through to local services. Nor is it designed to give the public any clarity on where Covid-19 symptoms are cropping up. (As we reported earlier, there are a number of those being built and used already, too, providing maps and other data.)
Instead, it’s a research app designed to bring together information that could be useful to medical professionals to better plan their responses.
At first, the plan was to build an app to figure out where there were clusters of cases in order to better determine where testing kits, in short supply, might be better allocated.
“We were actively speaking to a multitude of companies that are making or have testing kits, and the originally the idea was that if we identified people who were expressing symptoms, maybe we could get a testing kit to them faster,” said Sara Gordon, a spokesperson for the company. That proved to be too difficult, she added, since the testing arena is very fragmented and so it’s not clear whether they all reliably and consistently work the same (and work well).
Then, attention turned to where the data could be useful, and providing support to the NHS, the UK’s National Health Service, in determining the shape and evolution of the virus, in order to research it better and figure out how to deploy NHS resources, was where the team landed.
The ExCel conference center in the Docklands in East London is being set up as a field hospital now, “but there are many other places that will need hospitals opened,” she said, “and this could help figure out where.”
The app has a somewhat unlikely origin. It was created by Zoe, a spinout from Kings College Hospital that is now backed by some $27 million in funding — investors include Daphni in France, Accomplice (formerly Atlas Venture) in Boston, among others — in partnership with a research group at Kings College that has been tracking twins.
“We’re a healthcare startup that has been running the world’s largest nutrition study,” Gordon said, spanning some 25 years (predating the startup materialising or getting spun out) and 8,000 groups of twins, and covering not just people through Kings, but also Stanford and Mass General.
Researching food intake as well as blood and stool samples, the idea was to “understand everything about how genes determine how we metabolise food, our immune responses, and more,” using twins with nearly identical DNA to do this, and using that input to determine new insights into cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Last week, Zoe’s co-founder, Tim Spector, who is also Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and director of the Twins UK study, spoke to the Zoe team about creating an app to reach out to the 8,000 twins in the study (who had already been using Zoe to track other parts of their lifestyles) to see how many of them were expressing signs of the novel coronavirus. It could have been a useful test pool also for determining what role age plays in this, since the long-term study means many of the people involved are older.
Events overtook those plans, too:
“From the conversations we were having with Kings” — the inner-city hospital (which happens to be my local hospital) has been very much at the front lines of the coronavirus response in London and the UK — “we decided that if we’re making this available to twins, maybe we should open it up to more people,” Gordon said. “One of the main issues here in the UK and other countries has been that governments haven’t been able to get good enough data about where the virus is spreading or how bad symptoms are.”
There are some major caveats with the app, which it seems are still a work in progress.
The biggest of these is that the app itself is self-reporting. That means that you are putting a lot of trust into people to be accurate and also consistent with each other in how they are describing their symptoms. (Is my idea of a continuous, unproductive cough the same as yours? And are our coughs even a reliable enough indicator of what is going on?)
“We’re relying on the public to be honest about their symptoms,” Gordon said more than once during my conversation with her. That would have been one reason too why tying the surveys to testing kits (the original idea) might have been problematic: so many people want some assurance that I’m guessing a lot would have reported just to get the kits.
The other is that it requires regular, habitual use: a person reporting one day is only really useful if that person reports for the rest of the days subsequent to that to get a picture of how and if symptoms progress. On the other hand, that could be a boost to self-reporting too: even if my version of a continuous cough is different from yours, at least I’ll now be showing how and if anything else gets added to that cough over time.
“What we’re trying to do is scale what we see and what scientists are classifying as severity of symptoms,” she said. “If someone has fever over a certain period, then that’s logged as red. Amber is feeling ill.”
Over the next few days she said the team is hoping to separate Covid-19 symptoms apart from those associated with a common cold. “We’re working to make sure that in reporting we’re being able to divide which are common cold or flu and which are Covid-19.”
A third issue is the data usage on the app. The privacy terms on Zoe note that the data is only there to be used by the researchers, but it also notes that it could travel outside of the EU not just for analytics but to be shared with other research partners.
“The data policy we have is the one we have had legal advice on,” Gordon said. “It’s compliant with GDPR, and if if and when we pass to others, people’s names are anonymised and switched to code. We feel we have super strict data rules on our side.” She added that the compliance in the US is even more strict because any research we do there has to go through a clinical process to make sure it is protected “so there should be absolutely no concerns about data privacy.” All the same, even with all the best intentions, there could also be a risk of your data getting misappropriated when handed off from one party to another and no longer under local jurisdictions.
Zoe itself is set up as a business, but this project specifically was built without any of that in mind.
“Building this to meet the current need was just a decision we made,” Gordon said. “The team switched from the commercial product to this for the next few weeks, and the plan is to make it open source and to hand it off to the right people eventually. We just want to get the ball rolling.”
Remember to stay two meters apart from others when you go out, and stay at home when you can. Keep well, TC readers.

UK’s National Health Service launches £500,000 COVID19 tech competition

The innovation arm of the UK’s National Health Service, NHSx has launched a £500,000 funding competition for innovators and startups who can find digital ways to support people in need during the Coronavirus outbreak. The fund will concentrate on tech initiatives that help people with mental health support and those with social care needs, and support for those who may be most affected by the consequences of remaining housebound for long periods of time.
Dubbed Techforce19, the program is being launched by NHSx and will be managed by GovTech venture firm PUBLIC. which has stated that it will not receive any payment for running the competition.
The closing date for applications is 26 March 2020. The announcement of projects selected to take part in the programme will take place on 3 April. Funding of up to £25,000 per company will be made available to innovators with solutions that could be deployed at scale in the next few weeks, and could include: 
 
• Providing remote social care – for example by locating and matching qualified carers to those in need and managing and delivering care in care homes

• Optimisation of the care and volunteer sector –  for example by developing tools to recruit, train and coordinate local volunteers into clinical and non-clinical workers. Or by developing tools to predict demand for health and care workers across the country to improve deployment and management of resources

• Improving mental health support – for example by making it easier to discover and deliver mental health services and support, or by developing tools to support self-management of mental health and well-being.

• Any other solutions to ease pressures on services and people during this time.

Announcing the fund, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said: “Staying at home and avoiding contact with others will be absolutely necessary in reducing the spread of this virus and ultimately it will save lives. However, we know isolation is not easy – especially for older people, those who live alone, have mental health problems or those who care for others. If people cannot leave the house, we need to quickly find ways to bring support to them and today I am calling on the strength of our innovative technology sector to take on this challenge.”
Matthew Gould, Chief Executive of NHSX, said: “Tech can play an important role in helping the country deal with the challenges created by coronavirus.  This competition is focussed on the problems created by isolation, which lend themselves to digital solutions.   It will allow NHSX to accelerate the development of those solutions, so within weeks they can help those in isolation suffering from loneliness, mental health issues and other problems.”
The UK government has strongly advised everyone in the country – but especially those aged 70 or over, people with underlying medical conditions or pregnant women – to reduce social interaction to help minimise the spread of the virus. Those considered most at risk of having serious complications from the virus – for instance people receiving treatment for cancer – have also been asked to stay at home for 12 weeks as part of efforts to ‘shield’ them from the virus. 
Daniel Korski, CEO of PUBLIC, said: “The spread of COVID-19 has rapidly driven huge changes to British life. For many of us, our usual day-to-day is on hold as we work from home and avoid socialising with others. For those most vulnerable, however, social distancing and self-isolation will take a much greater toll. We hope that TechForce 19 will be a useful step towards identifying technologies which can be deployed quickly to help people when they need it most.”

Battery analytics software startup Twaice raises €11M Series A led by Creandum

Twaice, the Munich-based startup that has built analytics software to help with battery management in electric vehicles and other devices, has raised €11 million in Series A funding.
Leading the round is European early-stage venture capital firm Creandum, with participation from existing investors Cherry Ventures, UVC Partners and Speedinvest, which backed the company’s earlier seed round.
Already used in trucks, cars, e-scooters and stationary power storage, the Twaice software creates a “digital twin” of battery systems by utilising sensor data, and physical and data-driven battery models. From here it claims to be able to analyse and make accurate real-time predictions about the “health status” of an energy storage system.
Use-cases include closing the loop between product development and application, as well as new possibilities such as predictive maintenance and extending a product’s warranty.
Twaice says the increasing popularity of lithium-ion batteries within the energy market is also accelerating its growth. “Stationary storage units, for example, are used to avoid increased grid fees or to stabilize the grid,” explains the startup. “However, due to their cost and complexity, batteries are especially challenging regarding significant test scopes during development, a lack of transparency about their condition, and remaining lifetime during operation”.
Meanwhile, Peter Specht, Principal at Creandum, says that the battery market is at an “inflection point,” driven by rapid electrification in the mobility and energy sectors. “Twaice predictive analytics solution unlocks a tremendous amount of value along the full battery lifecycle,” he says. “We were impressed by the deep battery expertise of the team, the sophistication of their analytics platform and rapidly growing customer demand. We’re thrilled to support the team along their journey to further scale and expand to new markets”.

Kry launches free service for doctors to do video consultations during COVID-19 crisis

Swedish telehealth startup Kry has launched a tool for healthcare professionals to conduct remote consultations during the coronavirus pandemic. Calls for EU citizens to self isolate to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is driving major demand for video appointments, it said.
The platform — Care Connect by Kry — is launching in Europe, with ten languages supported initially, but will shortly be opening up worldwide. CEO and co-founder, Johannes Schildt, told us it’ll be launching in North America within a matter of “days”. 
Last week US regulators relaxed rules around the use of telehealth platforms for delivering a broader range of healthcare services — opening up the market for remote consultations during the coronavirus crisis.
“We are working extremely hard at all levels because this is time critical,” said Schildt. “We want to get this out there as soon as we possibly can. Today we’re launching it in Europe, we’re aiming to have it available within days in the US and Canada.”
The web-based platform for healthcare professionals to carry out encrypted video consultations does not require a Kry account. Instead doctors sign up (and in) with an email address and are able to send a one-time SMS link to a patient’s mobile phone number — which the patient then clicks on to begin a video consultation with the doctor from their smartphone.
Kry says the clinician’s email will never be shared with the patient. 
“We have been doing this for a long time but now it’s more important than ever that you have as many as possible of the current consultations now happening in physical locations are moved to digital,” said Schildt. “It’s for all clinicians, for anyone that’s run their own practice — to enable them to move their consultations to video in an easy way.”
He said Kry has seen demand for its commercial video-chat-with-a-doctor roughly doubling in recent weeks as Europeans seek alternatives for accessing primary care during the coronavirus crisis.   
“We’ve seen a big increase in demand… from patients. But a lot of that is also not driven by COVID-19 specific things — it’s everything else,” he told TechCrunch. “Obviously you have a new virus that is spreading but you also have a lack of access to GP practices and traditional healthcare — because a lot of traditional primary care is closing down. So you still have a lot of people that have urinary track infections, eye infections, skin conditions and other things that we can help with.
“So we see a big uplift in all symptoms. What’s also very encouraging to see is that we see a big uplift in older patients… understanding the benefits of digital healthcare. Usually when we’re launching in new markets the first cohort is the young and slightly more tech savvy population.”
Schildt said Kry is recruiting clinicians “all across Europe” to cope with increased demand. 
“We’re getting a lot of senior, retired clinicians,” he told us. “We’re unlocking a lot of underused talent so we now have a lot of retired doctors joining and helping out. And they should obviously not be in an intensive care unit or at the primary healthcare center where they risk getting the disease because they are old and might be fragile but they’re usually very, very senior doctors. 
“We’re also getting a lot of doctors who are on parental leave or part time sick leave and so on. So it’s a massive exercise for us now across all our European markets.”
The 2015-founded startup has served up some 1.6 million digital doctors appointments across Europe at this stage. It said it will offer training to doctors signing up to Care Connect on how to carry out remote consultations — given many may be doing so for the first time.
While the intent with Care Connect is to support heavily burdened public healthcare services during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s clearly scope for Kry to turn the platform into an additional revenue-generating service in future — once some of the doctors it onboards now for free have become comfortable using it.
Although Schildt emphasizes that’s not why they’ve scrambled to get the product out there right now. 
“We’re building this because we feel a huge responsibility to help out,” he said. “I think that everybody has a responsibility to help out. And what we can do of course in the market that we’re in we are working super hard on all levels and we’re working very closely with different governments in the markets that we’re in — but this is also a way for us to help out in the markets where we currently don’t have our own medical staff.
“So this is a solution that could be helpful in Spain, Italy, and in other markets around the globe.”
Kry has more products to help fight COVID-19 in the pipeline — and has already launched a symptom-checker for the disease within its existing apps for patients (aka Kry, or Livi) in all its European markets. It’s also doing some home-monitoring partnerships for patients who are in quarantine, per Schildt.
He won’t be drawn on what else it’s working on — noting it’s “working very closely with some of the European governments”. “In some of those cases they have specifically asked us not to be specific about what we’re doing,” he said. 
Asked about how else it’s using symptom data generated by use of its services, he said it’s sharing aggregated data with existing paying customers, such as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).
He also told us European governments are keen to get access to data that might help them track how the coronavirus is spreading.
“Obviously this is really interesting data — at an aggregated level — as we can see where you have symptoms starting to spread. And obviously as a big partner to some of the largest payers of healthcare in the world — [e.g.] European governments — we are monitoring this very closely together with them,” said Schildt.
“We can see in real time, more or less, where you have different symptoms that are trending — and we already, before you had the big COVID-19 outbreak, you could see that viral infections and upper respiratory infections started to trend in a bit unusual way compared to last year. And that data we’re also sharing with our main [healthcare customers, including the UK’s NHS] to help their staff understand demand.”

France announces $4.3 billion plan to support startups

France’s Ministry of State for Digital Affairs Cédric O and public investment bank Bpifrance announced a comprehensive support plan for startups this morning. Some French startups are going to face revenue issues as well as funding issues in the coming months.
The French government wants to temporarily bridge that gap with refinancing and liquidity measures — overall it represents $4.3 billion (€4 billion).
“Startups represent a growing part the economy — especially when it comes to jobs,” Cédric O said in a statement. “They are also working on innovative products and services that have been particularly useful during the lockdown, such as telemedicine appointments, remote work solutions or deliveries.”
France has already announced a widespread economic support plan. French companies that are facing revenue issues can skip tax payments as well as rent and utility bills. The French government is mobilizing $320 billion (€300 billion) in liquidity support, which should make it much easier to get a loan as the government is backing loans.
More importantly, if your company has to stop its operations, France has a short-time working scheme to avoid layoffs. Employees receive 84% to 100% of their salary — the government will reimburse companies.
And yet, startups are always on the verge of bankruptcy. That’s why the French government is going one step further with a startup-focused support plan with additional measures.
First, startups that were in the process of raising a new funding round will be able to raise a bridge round through Bpifrance’s PIA (Programme d’Investissements d’Avenir). Some VC firms might retract terms sheets, others might slow down their investment pace. Bpifrance is putting $86.7 million (€80 million) on the table. Private investors will co-invest as much as $86.7 million (€80 million) as well.
Second, the government is detailing liquidity support measures for startups. Just like other companies, they can borrow money as part of the $320 billion (€300 billion) liquidity scheme. For startups, they can borrow as much as two years of payroll for employees based in France or 25% of annual revenue — whichever is higher. This should represent $2.2 billion (€2 billion).
Third, startups can get tax returns more quickly, and in particular VAT returns and tax returns on research and development investments (crédit d’impôt recherche). This represents a liquidity injection of $1.6 billion (€1.5 billion).
Fourth, Bpifrance is speeding up public support payments. It is going to transfer $270 million (€250 million) ahead of schedule.

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.
The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.
Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.
COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.
Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.
Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive of COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.
COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.
COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.
It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced, Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.
Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar
Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”
The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34 kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)
But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.
Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which is produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.
The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

ePlane, the B2B sourcing and BI platform for aerospace parts and repair, raises $9M

ePlane, described as a B2B sourcing and business intelligence platform for the aerospace parts and repair market, has raised $9 million in funding. The round is led by Japanese trading and investing company Marubeni Corporation, along with a number of previous investors.
Founded in 2016 and launched fully in 2018, ePlane has built to let users trade aircraft parts, locate repair services, and improve supply chain bottlenecks and reduce costs. The idea is that by throwing tech at the problem, including an online marketplace — covering buying, selling, repairing, loaning, and exchanging aircraft parts — many inefficiencies within the aerospace parts and repair market can be eradicated.
For example, the platform’s “Autopilot” feature claims to use an AI algorithm to match buyers and sellers based on needs, available inventory, past transactions, and required timeframe. It then automatically sends requests for quotes (RFQs) to appropriate sellers, therefore eliminating the need to send each request manually.
More broadly, ePlane’s platform digitizes the procurement process, “syncing enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and custom inventories, to ensure that inventories are most up to date in real time”.
The aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market is said to be large, too, totalling $80 billion globally. ePlane says the market is expected to grow to $116 billion by 2029, and therefore is prime for its B2B sourcing platform.
To that end, I’m told the aviation industry is already embracing Cyprus-headquartered ePlane. The startup is now receiving over $50 million in monthly demand from over 4,000 major companies in the aerospace industry.

UK fintech community comes together to build Covid Credit and let sole traders self-certify lost income

It all started with a tweet from 11:FS co-founder Simon Taylor. If the U.K. government could be persuaded to provide financial support to the self-employed during the Coronavirus crisis, as it has already pledged for full-time employees, then Open Banking technology could be used to self-certify lost income, and therefore overcome one of the main hurdles of administering potential compensation.
The founders of two other London-based fintechs, Fronted and Credit Kudos, were first to accept the challenge, and soon they were joined by dozens of other volunteers from the wider U.K. fintech community, with the aim of turning around a working prototype of “Covid Credit” in just 48 hours.
“Like many, we saw a challenge for non-salaried workers who are currently ineligible for government relief,” says Fronted’s Jamie Campbell. “By using Open Banking, we have been able to quickly develop a simple process that allows non-salaried workers to generate a proof statement which details their past income and the impact of COVID-19”.
The Covid Credit team’s hypothesis is that evidencing and validating the income of a sole trader is significantly harder than a salaried worker, and that there was an opportunity to use Open Banking (via Credit Kudos’s existing API) to quickly access and analyse data from the bank accounts of a sole trader and generate a validated income statement, something Campbell frames as a “Covid Credit ‘minted’ self-certification”.
“Using the application, applicants answer a few simple questions relating to their legal status and the impact of COVID-19 on their income,” he explains. “The application processes this information and creates a unique link that (in time) can be shared with the appropriate government body in order to prove loss of income”.

Under the hood, Covid Credit exists as a standalone Python web application which is running on Google Cloud. The app uses the Credit Kudos API, and aggregates data from an individual’s bank accounts and applies a number of pattern recognition algorithms in order to calculate key income figures.
“We believe Covid Credit can provide a crucial piece of the puzzle in identifying and validating the needs of freelancers and non-salaried workers affected by COVID-19,” adds Campbell. “In practice, this might help extend the reach of furloughed worker relief (part of the government’s package for full-time workers) to include self-employed workers, though, this is just a hypothesis. We plan to present the finished solution to key stakeholders this week and support the potential roll out in the coming days”.
To that end, the Covid Credit team say they have already engaged with a number of key stakeholders across HMT, HMRC and the FCA, and are hopeful that sole traders will be supported, with or without the app being part of the solution.
“This afternoon the Covid Credit team have spoken to @TheFCA, @HMRCgovuk, submitted a response to @hmtreasury and been given direction to help Number 10,” tweeted Campbell yesterday.

LetsBeatCOVID.net launches to track the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK/US

A startup behind one of the world’s most successful tech platforms for doctors has launched a new initiative to try and track the spread of the Coronavirus, initially in the UK but soon in the US.
Developed by MedShr – the app used by a million doctors to aid them in the diagnostic process – LetsBeatCOVID.net is designed to allow members of the public to complete a short survey about their health and exposure to COVID-19 in order that health services can save more lives.
Members of the public are asked to complete a short anonymous survey about themselves and are able to add information for others in their household or family. They can then update their responses if their situation changes using a randomly generated code to log back in. MedShr says users will, therefore, be able to hide their identity if they are concerned about their privacy. They will, however, be asked to verify their location via the phone’s browser in order to generate more accurate data about the spread of symptoms.
 
Anyone who completes the survey and chooses to enter their email will also get personalized guidance to help them understand their personal situation.
The not-for-profit initiative is led by Dr Asif Qasim, a Consultant Cardiologist based in London, England. Dr Qasim founded MedShr, an online network that enables doctors to connect and share data and knowledge with each other, in 2013.
Dr. Qasim said: “A million doctors around the world are working very hard to protect patients with COVID-19 in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We are hearing from them that they don’t have the information they need to plan services and avert a crisis such as the one Italy is now facing. We believe this app could help.” Dr. Qasim says the data will be shared with health authorities fighting the pandemic.
LetsBeatCOVID.net could make it easier for members of the public to provide the information urgently needed by hospitals and governments by allowing hospitals to understand how many people are: more likely to require medical help or hospitalization; have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 but do not have any symptoms; have mild symptoms of COVID-19; or believe or know they have already had COVID-19 and recovered.
The spread and devastating impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is unprecedented. Hospitals in China and Italy have struggled to care for the large numbers of people who become infected with the virus, especially those who needed Intensive Care and breathing support with a ventilator. Doctors and scientists believe that the UK, US and many other countries could be just a few weeks away from the devastating death toll that Italy is now experiencing. 
MedShr is a HIPAA and GDPR compliant professional network for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals currently used by over one million members in 190 countries.

Revolut launches its neobank in the US

European fintech startup Revolut is launching its app and service in the U.S. Starting today, anybody can sign up and get a Revolut debit card. In the U.S., Revolut has partnered with Metropolitan Commercial Bank for the banking infrastructure — deposits are FDIC insured up to $250,000.
In just a few years, Revolut has managed to attract over 10 million customers by building a financial hub that lets you spend, send, receive and manage money from a single app. The company recently raised a $500 million funding round, valuing the company at $5.5 billion.
But the U.S. has been watching from the sidelines. Tens of thousands of customers have signed up to the waiting list and they’ll now be able to access all of Revolut’s core features.
Like competing challenger banks, such as Chime and N26, Revolut lets you open an account from your phone. After downloading the app, you enter personal details and send a few official documents to comply with know-your-customer regulation.
After that, you get U.S. account details and you can instantly top up your account with a bank transfer or a card transfer. A few days later, you also receive a physical debit card. You can also generate a virtual debit card from the app.
Revolut lets you control your debit card from the app directly. You can receive notifications every time you make a transaction. You can freeze and unfreeze your card, set some limits and restrict some feature, such as online payments or ATM withdrawals.
One of Revolut’s key features is that you can convert from one currency to another at a low fee — sometimes without any markup for popular currencies and small transactions (more details on foreign exchange fees here). You can hold foreign currencies in your Revolut account or send money to another Revolut user or a bank account in another country. Revolut also gives you local banking details to receive EUR or GBP.
In the U.S., Revolut offers the ability to receive your salary two days in advance if you share your Revolut banking details with your employer.
Revolut offers a ton of additional features in Europe, but the company is starting with this basic feature set in the U.S. You can expect more features in the future, such as the ability to purchase cryptocurrencies and invest on the stock market.
In Europe, Revolut also offers insurance products through premium monthly subscriptions, mobile phone insurance, savings accounts, credit, rewards and more. Many of those features require partnerships with third-party companies. But it gives you an idea of Revolut’s roadmap in the U.S.

With lower bandwidth, Disney+ opens streaming service in UK, Ireland, 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Switzerland; it also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7.
Seven is the operative number here, it seems: it’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.
“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”
Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month, or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.
The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.
The expansion of Disney+ has been caught a bit in the crossfire of world events. The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming: because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home.
That means huge demand for new services to entertain and distract people who are now sheltering in place. But it has also been putting a huge strain on broadband networks, and to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.
Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.
Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).
With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years. In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.
Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Imatag inserts invisible watermarks to track images around the web

Meet Imatag, a French startup that has been working on a watermarking product. Watermarking is nothing new, but the company has found a way to mark images even if they are resized, cropped, edited or compressed.
Many photographers and brands watermark their photos so that you can see who’s the original source when the photo gets re-uploaded around the web and on social networks. But it’s not perfect. If you put a tiny logo in a corner, you can just crop the photo to leave the logo out of the photo.
Stock photo databases, such as Getty and Shutterstock, put a gigantic logo in the middle of the photo so that’s it’s literally unusable if you don’t have the right licensing rights.
Imatag takes a different approach. When you mark a photo, individual pixels are modified all around the image so that you can’t notice it when you compare it with the original shot. When you modify a photo, some pixels will be modified, but not all. This way, you can always find the watermark again.
“It’s not a good idea to modify colors directly. You have to start with grayscale analysis and that’s what we do,” co-founder and CEO Mathieu Desoubeaux. “We apply psychovisual masks to make sure that you can’t see it with human eyes.”
Imatag assigns a signature with each photo that it processes. By following the same process, you can just compare the signatures of multiple shots to see if they come from the similar source.
The startup goes one step further and offers a service for multiple use cases. With Imatag Monitor, the company monitors your images on the web to see where they appear.
Some clients use it to fight back against illegal use, such as photo agencies. But brands also use it to see if product shots appear on social networks for instance. They don’t want to refrain people from sharing those photos, but they want to monitor the response to a new product.
Imatag also works with smartphone manufacturers or car makers so that they can identify leaks before an official announcement. When you send photos of a new smartphone to various retailers, you can tag them with Imatag. This way, you can trace back the source of a leak in case your product shots start leaking.
Imatag lets you integrate their watermarking technology in your image flow if you’re dealing with a high volume of photos. Companies who don’t work with a lot of images can just use Imatag’s website directly.

EU parliament moves to email voting during COVID-19

The European Parliament will temporarily allow electronic voting by email as MEPs are forced to work remotely during the coronavirus crisis.
A spokeswoman for the parliament confirmed today that an “alternative electronic voting procedure” has been agree for the plenary session that will take place on March 26.
“This voting procedure is temporary and valid until 31 July,” she added.
Earlier this month the parliament moved the majority of its staff to teleworking. MEPs have since switch to full remote work as confirmed cases of COVID-19 have continued to step up across Europe. Though how to handle voting remotely has generated some debate in and of itself.

Working in Brussels, without being in Brussels. European Parliament goes digital for #IMCO coordinators, @RenewEurope presidency & #EPbureau meetings. Next week voting remotely. Stay and work safe! pic.twitter.com/0weG9O7vow
— Dita Charanzová (@charanzova) March 20, 2020

“Based on public health grounds, the President decided to have a temporary derogation to enable the vote to take place by an alternative electronic voting procedure, with adequate safeguards to ensure that Members’ votes are individual, personal and free, in line with the provisions of the Electoral act and the Members’ Statute,” the EU parliament spokeswoman said today, when we asked for the latest on its process for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The current precautionary measures adopted by the European Parliament to contain the spread of COVID-19 don’t affect legislative priorities. Core activities are reduced, but maintained precisely to ensure legislative, budgetary, scrutiny functions,” she added.
The spokeswoman confirmed votes will take place via email — explaining the process as follows: “Members would receive electronically, via email to their official email address, a ballot form, which would be returned, completed, from their email address to the relevant Parliament’s functional mailbox.”
“The results of all votes conducted under this temporary derogation would be recorded in the minutes of the sitting concerned,” she further noted.
Last week, ahead of the parliament confirming the alternative voting process, German Pirate Party MEP, Patrick Breyer, raised concerns about the security of e-voting — arguing that what was then just a proposal for MEPs to fill and sign a voting list, scan it and send it via email to the administration risked votes being vulnerable to manipulation and hacking.
“Such a manipulation-prone procedure risks undermining public trust in the integrity of Parliament votes that can have serious consequences,” he wrote. “The procedure comes with a risk of manipulation by hackers. Usually MEPs can send emails using several devices, and their staff can access their mailbox, too. Also it is easy to come by a MEP’s signature and scan it… This procedure also comes with the risk that personally elected and highly paid MEPs could knowingly allow others to vote on their behalf.”
“eVoting via the public Internet is inherently unsafe and prone to hacking, thus risks to erode public trust in European democracy,” he added. “I am sure powerful groups such as the Russian intelligence agency have a great interest in manipulating tight votes. eVoting makes manipulation at a large scale possible.”
Breyer suggested a number of alternatives — such as parallel postal voting, to have a paper back-up of MEPs’ e-votes; presence voting in EP offices in Member States (though clearly that would require parliamentarians to risk exposing themselves and others to the virus by traveling to offices in person); and a system such as “Video Ident”, which he noted is already used in Germany, where the MEP face identify in front of a webcam in a live video stream and then show their voting sheets to the camera.
He also suggested MEPs might not notice manipulations even if voting results were published — as looks to be the case with the parliament’s agreed procedure.
It’s not clear whether the parliament is applying a further back-up step — such as requiring a paper ballot to be mailed in parallel to an email vote. The parliament spokeswoman declined to comment in any detail when we asked. “All measures have been put in place to ensure the vote runs smoothly,” she said, adding: “We never comment on security measures.”
Reached for his response, Breyer told us: “My concerns definitely stand.”
However security expert J. Alex Halderman, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan — who testified before the US Senate hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Election — said e-voting where the results are public is relatively low risk provided MEPs check their votes have been recorded properly.
“Voting isn’t such a hard problem when it’s not a secret ballot, and I take it that how each MEP votes is normally public. As long as that’s the case, I don’t think this is a major security issue,” he told TechCrunch. “MEPs should be encouraged to check that their votes are correctly recorded in the minutes and to raise alarms if there’s any discrepancy, but that’s probably enough of a safeguard during these challenging times.”  
“All of this is in stark contrast to election for public office, which are conducted with a secret ballot and in which there’s normally no possibility for voters to verify that their votes are correctly recorded,” he added. 
NationBuilder probe closed
In further news related to the EU parliament the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) announced today that it’s closed an investigation into the former’s user of the US-based political campaign group, NationBuilder last year.

EDPS closes investigation into European Parliament’s use of a US-based political campaigning company to process #personaldata as part of its 2019 election activities. Read the press release: https://t.co/y18NzWFzYK pic.twitter.com/rloQNyxSd2
— EDPS (@EU_EDPS) March 23, 2020

Back in November the EU’s lead data regulator revealed it had issued its first ever sanction of an EU institution by taking enforcement action over the parliament’s contract with NationBuilder for a public engagement campaign to promote voting in the spring election.
During the campaign the website collected personal data from more than 329,000 people, which was processed on behalf of the Parliament by NationBuilder. The EDPS found the parliament had contravened regulations governing how EU institutions can use personal data related to the selection and approval of sub-processors used by NationBuilder.
The contract has been described as coming to “a natural end” in July 2019, and the EDPS said today that all data collected has been transferred to the European Parliament’s servers’.
No further sanctions have been implemented, though the regulator said it will continue to monitor the parliament’s activities closely.
“Data protection plays a fundamental role in ensuring electoral integrity and must therefore be treated as a priority in the planning of any election campaign,” said EDPS, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, in a statement today. “With this in mind, the EDPS will continue to monitor the Parliament’s activities closely, in particular those relating to the 2024 EU parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, I am confident that the improved cooperation and understanding that now exists between the EDPS and the Parliament will help the Parliament to learn from its mistakes and make more informed decisions on data protection in the future, ensuring that the interests of all those living in the EU are adequately protected when their personal data is processed.”
At the time of writing the parliament had not responded to a request for comment.

Cazoo, the used-car sales portal, raises another $116M

The rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic has put a freeze on many in-person sales and transactions for goods and services, so in what might be a sign of the times for funding in the startup world, today a company in the UK that’s been building a portal to carry out car sales in the virtual world is announcing a large fundraise.
Cazoo, a startup modelled on the Vroom/Beepi-type model that buys in used cars and then sells them online and delivers to your door, today is announcing that it has raised £100 million ($116 million), funding that it plans to use to continue expanding its business. The company has now raised £180 million since first being founded 18 months ago.
“It’s clear that UK consumers are ready to buy cars online in a convenient, hassle-free way,” said Alex Chesterman, Founder & CEO of Cazoo, in a statement. “Cars are an important form of transport for many in our society, whether conducting deliveries or getting to essential jobs and we want to ensure that those who need one can continue to get one. This new round of funding is a strong signal from investors of the scale of the opportunity. Our mission is to deliver the best experience for car buyers across the UK by delivering better selection, value, convenience and quality. That mission is now also focused on keeping consumers safe by not having to leave their homes to buy a car. We are also looking at how Cazoo can help other organisations move essential supplies around the country via our fleet of car transporters in these difficult times.”
This round is being led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
Cazoo has so far not revealed its valuation (we are asking). PitchBook notes that as of September 2019 its valuation was around $220 million, which on a basic straight curve would put its valuation now at around $336 million.
It may seem like a crazy time to be raising money for a startup — much less one that is not only focused on vehicles to get people around at a time when governments the world over are urging people to stay at home; but one that is passing used vehicles from one owner to another at a time when people don’t fully understand how the coronavirus infection spreads, and how long it might last on surfaces and in enclosed spaces (like cars).
There are a few reasons for why it did, it seems.
The first of these is the business of Cazoo itself: it notes that in the first three months of commercial operations, it has had £20 million in sales, which seems to point to a strong trajectory of growth (at least up to now). That’s before we consider some of the other challenges that startups in this space have seen because of the difficulties of balancing costly inventories and executing on sales and deliveries at strong enough margins without burning a lot of cash: at its heart it’s an interesting business model and someone will eventually get it right.
In addition to that, there is the pedigree of the startup. Cazoo is founded by Alex Chesterman, a repeat entrepreneur who first founded film rental/streaming service LoveFilm (which was thought of as ‘the Netflix of Europe’) and then sold it to Amazon, where it became a cornerstone of its Prime Video operation, making the £200 million price it paid for it sound like a song. Then he founded and eventually sold the property sales and rental portal Zoopla (for £3 billion, to Silver Lake).
No company can operate right now in a bubble separate from what is happening around the coronavirus pandemic, and the same very much goes for Cazoo.
The FAQ’s on the company’s site cut right to the chase in trying to reassure customers about how vehicles are sold and delivered at the moment. The company says that it “fully reconditions” all its vehicles before selling and delivering them, and the handover process is now being done “at a safe distance” to protect both customers and employees. “As with other retail marketplaces, the current Coronavirus situation is accelerating the shift from offline to online transactions given its unique delivery proposition,” it added.
It’s also taking the very specific step of not carrying out any deliveries to people who are self-isolating, although as with many of the measures that are being put in place, a lot of the execution is down to personal willpower and judgement.
“If you are self-isolating due to being in contact with someone with the virus or you are unwell or in an at-risk group, we’re currently unable to make the delivery for your safety and the safety of our Delivery Specialists,” it notes. “We will put your order on hold until we can rearrange a suitable delivery time and you won’t be charged for rescheduling. If you have chosen to self-isolate, have no symptoms and are not in a group at risk then the delivery can still go ahead. Our handovers will take place from a safe distance and our Delivery Specialists will wear personal protective equipment to keep you both safe. They’ll also remain outside of your car whilst they talk you through the features.”
It’s hard to tell right now what the next three months are going to look like in the UK, as well as the world, economy, so we may well be seeing a lot of rounds coming up specifically from VCs betting not just on businesses that have a chance of faring well in the current climate, but those that are strong enough that you don’t want to see them disappear and so are throwing them lifelines of runway and support. Many will fall into both of those camps, hopefully.
“We are very excited to continue to support Alex and the team at Cazoo. The pace of what they’ve achieved and the level of adoption they’ve seen in the first few months since launch is remarkable,” said Manuel Lopo de Carvalho of DMG Ventures in a statement. “With almost 8 million used car transactions a year in the UK, there is a clear opportunity to provide a more convenient way to buy a car and shift part of the market online.”

Facebook and Disney to downgrade streaming quality in Europe due to COVID-19

Facebook is temporarily downgrading the quality of video streaming in Europe on its social platforms Facebook and Instagram in response to a call for action from the European Commission, per Reuters.
Disney has also said it will work to shrink bandwidth used by its streaming service, Disney+, which is due to begin launching in Europe from tomorrow.
Last week Netflix, YouTube and Amazon said they would switch to SD streaming by default in the region.
The EU’s executive has expressed concerned about the load on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis as scores of citizens log on from home to work or try to keep themselves entertained during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Telcos in the region have reported significant increases in traffic as EU Member States have called for or instructed citizens to stay at home during the public health emergency.
Collectively, streaming platforms account for a major chunk of global Internet traffic. Online video accounted for more than 60% of the total downstream volume of traffic per a 2019 Sandvine report — while in another report last month it said YouTube alone accounted for a quarter of all mobile traffic.
“To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe,” a Facebook spokesman also told Reuters yesterday.
We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions.
Per Reuters the measure will remain in place for as long as there are concerns about the region’s Internet infrastructure.
In related news Disney is pressing ahead with a planned launch of its new video streaming service, Disney+, in Europe starting from tomorrow but Bloomberg reports it will also take measures to reduce bandwidth utilization by at least 25% in European markets.
“We will be monitoring Internet congestion and working closely with Internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, in a statement.
Last week the company said it would postpone the launch of Disney+ in India after the biggest local attraction — the Indian Premier League cricket tournament — was rescheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Enable raises $13M to help distributors, manufacturers and retailers manage rebates

Enable, a U.K. startup that has developed a cloud-based “rebate management solution” to help distributors, manufacturers and retailers manage rebates, is announcing $13 million in Series A funding.
The round is led by Menlo Ventures, with participation from Sierra Ventures. As part of the investment, Menlo Ventures’ Steve Sloane has joined the Enable board.
Founded by long term business partners Andrew Butt and Denys Shortt in 2015 but launched fully in 2017, Enable makes it easy for distributors to track, manage, and optimise rebates. Rebate incentives offered by suppliers are a common industry practice, while the rebates offered are increasingly relied on by distributors to turn a profit.
However, the agreements put in place and the tracking and validating of qualifying terms has created a back office headache and many wasted hours on behalf of parties involved. Enable has set out to digitise the whole process and in turn bring suppliers and distributors more closely aligned.
“We take the pain away with our fully automated platform which becomes the system of record for all B2B deals, and the calculator of granular deal earnings,” explains Enable’s Andrew Butt. This includes a breakdown by product, location, day, supplier, and customer and the reconciliation of sales and purchase transactions pertaining to those deals.
“The complexity of these deals has also massively increased,” says Butt. “For distributors to survive, they must take full control of these deals and ensure that money is not being left on the table, yet until now there has been a lack of software that is designed around the distributor”.
In addition, he says that Enable is also allowing customers to create more targeted and better deals that “increase sales and profit, improve cash flow, and strengthen relationships” with suppliers. “We do this by identifying opportunities in the exiting deals and spotting where new deals can be created,” he adds.
Butt says the opportunity is huge, too, with Manufacturers issuing more than $1 trillion in rebates each year. Noteworthy, until now the company has been largely and in the last two years has on-boarded more than 2,000 trading partners processed rebates on more than $30 billion in sales. Customers include Rexel, Travis Perkins, and Wolseley, as well as other distributors, buying groups, and retailers from across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Adds Butt: “Our competitors focus on manufacturers and rebates payable – we’ve flipped the model on its head and deal with distributors and rebates receivable, which is more tricky to manage because distributors deal with a higher number and diversity of products compared to manufacturers. Also, it’s more important as rebates are now more than 100% of the profit for distributors across many verticals”.
More broadly, Butt frames Enable as a “collaborative platform” where manufacturers and distributors come together in a shared ecosystem to do better deals. “It’s like a ‘Dropbox for deals’,” he says. “[In contrast,] our competitors provide a traditional ‘private’ installation of their solution, totally segregated for each customer”.

Global Savings Group acquires French cashback company iGraal for €123.5M

Germany’s Global Savings Group (GSG), the e-commerce content company, has acquired French cashback company iGraal for €123.5 million in a mixture of cash and stock.
Specifically, the deal was reached with iGraal’s majority owner M6 Group, and consists of €35 million in cash and the remaining made up of an exchange of shares. The acquisition is said to be one of the largest in the cashback and loyalty space in recent years, with iGraal considered the leading digital cashback player in France.
“In 2019, GSG and iGraal jointly saw more than six million members using its loyalty tools and connected advertisers to around 400 million consumers,” says GSG. “The deal makes GSG the largest rewards, savings and shopping content platform in Europe”.
As a result of the acquisition, Munich-based GSG says it expects to have more than half a billion shopping-related touchpoints and to facilitate over 40 million transactions to its merchant partners in 2020. (Coronavirus world recession permitting.)
It is also talking up the data is has access too, saying that the additional user interactions provide GSG with valuable new insights into the shopping behaviour of millions of consumers worldwide and will enable it to build an “even smarter” advertising platform for its partners.
In combination, iGraal and GSG say the two companies intend to expand their cashback and loyalty solutions into new European markets and significantly increase its member base and reach. Despite strong investments and market expansion, GSG expects to stay profitable also in 2020,” adds the company.
Meanwhile, the acquisition of iGraal follows GSG buying Pouch, the U.K.-based money-saving browser extension, in January 2019. This saw the Pouch team join GSG, and Pouch founders Ben Corrigan, Jonny Plein, and Vikram Simha becoming Pouch “Global Product Leads” at GSG.
Launched publicly in September 2016, Pouch is best known for its shopping tool that automatically alerts buyers to working voucher codes as they visit over 3,000 U.K. e-commerce sites. The Pouch browser extension is available for Google Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

The tech industry is mobilizing its considerable resources to attempt to support efforts against the growing global coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their company’s ongoing contributions, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread of infection.
Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is joining “millions of masks” for this use. Apple also detailed some of its other updates via earlier releases, including a $15 million donation, along with two-to-one corporate matching for all employee donations that go towards COVID-19 response.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided an update on Saturday on the company’s official blog that included details about the change in Amazon’s prioritization for its warehousing and logistics operations, which now focus on essential items including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies. Bezos also reiterated Amazon’s commitment to hiring 100,000 new roles, along with raising hourly wages for fulfilment workers.
Bezos notes that while the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” that it intends to distribute to its full-time and contract workers who are not able to work from home, “very few of those orders have been filled” to to the global supply shortage. He further notes that these resources are likely to go to frontline healthcare workers first, and that the company will focus on getting them to their staff in order of priority once they become available.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella provided a lengthy update about his company’s various efforts in a LinkedIn post on Saturday, publishing an email he sent to all Microsoft employees for external consumption. Nadella describes some of its telehealth platform software work, as well as a number of collaborative data projects, including the John Hopkins University global COVID-19 confirmed case tracker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a chatbot assessment tool for COVID-19 that uses Microsoft’s health chatbot tech as its underlying framework.
Microsoft is also seeing Teams and Minecraft being used globally for remote learning iniativies designed to supplement in-perosn school closures, and it’s working on machine learning and big data projects to support global research efforts. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz announced that it would be providing an open research data set in partnership with colleagues at academic institutions around the world, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. The data set, called the COVID-19 Open Research Data Set, includes more than 29,000 scholarly articles about the virus, and will grow as more are published.

Voi, the European e-scooter rentals startup, ‘pauses’ operations in several countries

Following similar moves by Lime, Bird, Tier and others, Voi Technology, the European e-scooter rentals and so-called micro-mobility startup, says it has “paused” operations in several countries due to the Coronvirus pandemic. This sees the company suspend operations in all but nine key cities.
In a short statement issued to media on Friday, Voi said it had regrettably been “forced” to pause operations in the majority of cities it operates in, with only a handful of its largest cities being serviced.
The cities where Voi is continuing to operate in are: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Oslo in the Nordics, and Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Munich in Germany.
More broadly, the Coronavirus outbreak is a major blow to e-scooter companies as cities around the world are restricting movement and social distancing and isolation is, to varying degrees, being practiced. This is seeing many companies putting in place work-from-home policies and negating the need for daily commutes, where e-scooters are often favoured. The world economy is also taking a hit and therefore recreational spending and travel is on an escalating downwards trend too.
More broadly, the business plans of e-scooter rental startups factor in seasonal demand and sources told me a few months ago that runway across the industry was based on deep enough pockets and operational smarts to get through Winter and be in a strong position to capitalise on peak Spring and Summer season demand. Coronavirus inevitably means “Winter” could now last for a very long time indeed.
The rest of the statement from Voi — which raised $85 million in Series B funding in November — follows below:
In the cities we keep open we will drastically reduce our fleet size but will continue to serve our communities and wherever possible we will keep capacity at important hubs, like major transport interchanges and hospitals.
We have been forced to make this hard decision as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. People are working from home and no longer visiting restaurants, pubs, theatres and friends and consequently have stopped using Voi e-scooters to get around.
We plan to kick start our operations again when the situation allows.

Here’s a wrap of the main tech-related Coronavirus news in the last 24 hours

Much of the world is waking up to a strange new reality. As the Coronavirus COVID-19 swept across the planet, today may go down in history as the day when huge numbers of countries were largely united in a global shut-down to address the pandemic.
TechCrunch brings you a wrap of the technology world’s response to the virus do far in our own dedicated “COVID-19-updates” coverage.
• In Extra Crunch we cover how you should pitch a story in the era of COVID-19
In our main coverage:
• Google says Coronavirus has become its biggest search topic by a country mile this year, and to continue its efforts to harness that attention in the best possible way, late on Friday the company launched a new information portal dedicated to the pandemic as well as an improved search experience for desktop and mobile.
• In response to COVID-19, Hulu has added a free live news stream to its on-demand app for customers who only subscribe to its on-demand service, not its live TV add-on. The news coverage is provided in partnership with ABC News Live, and brings live news 24/7 to Hulu on-demand subscribers as part of their existing subscription.
• Unfortunately, “Robocalls”, which have been targeting the vulnerable and unsuspecting for years, are taking advantage of the current global catastrophe to enhance their scams. The FCC warns that it has received numerous reports of coronavirus-related robocall cons in the wild — here’s what to look for.
• Two major tech companies — Amazon and IBM — have each announced programs to encourage developers to find solutions to a variety of problems related to the pandemic.
• Google announced on Twitter that it is canceling its annual I/O developer conference out of concern for the health and safety of all involved. It will not be holding any online conference in its place either.
• Rivian, the buzzy electric vehicle startup that is backed by Amazon and Ford, is shutting down all of its facilities due to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by Coronavirus. Rivian employs more than 2,000 workers across several locations, including its headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., a factory in Normal, Ill. as well as operations in San Jose and Irvine, Calif., where engineers are working on autonomous vehicle technology. Rivian also has an office in the U.K.
• During two of this week’s White House briefings, President Trump referred specifically to two potential treatments that have been identified by medical researchers and clinicians. But no drugs or treatments have been proven as effective for either the prevention of contracting COVID-19 or for its treatment. While chloroquine has been used for decades to treat malaria, and chronic rheumatoid arthritis, it can have dangerous side effects, including death, if taken incorrectly. Even when taken correctly, it can cause things like stomach distress and even permanent damage to a person’s vision.
• The COVID-19 outbreak isn’t just affecting movie theaters — it has also halted TV and film production around the world. For Netflix, that has included production on high-profile titles like “The Witcher” and “Stranger Things.” So the streaming company just announced that it has created a $100 million fund that it says will support the cast and crew who have suddenly found themselves out of work.
• Elon Musk tweeted Friday that Tesla and SpaceX employees are “working on ventilators” even though he doesn’t believe they will be needed. His confirmation on Twitter that both of the companies he leads are working on ventilators comes a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a direct plea to Musk to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.
• Uber Eats is waiving delivery and activations fees in the UK to support restaurants hit by decreasing demand during the coronavirus crisis. The measure will apply until March 31 when it says it will review it. On Monday the on-demand food delivery giant announced a similar waiver of delivery fees in the US. The announcement by Uber Eats UK comes shortly after Just Eat UK said it would reduce its commission and waive some fees for 30 days — as part of an emergency support package for partner restaurants struggling to cope with disruption to their businesses.
• Privacy-hostile practices by tech giants face ongoing legislative challenges, but a pandemic is clearly an exceptional circumstance. These days, governments are now turning to the tech sector for help. US President Donald Trump was reported last week to have summoned a number of tech companies to the White House to discuss how mobile location data could be used for tracking citizens. And in another development this month he announced Google was working on a nationwide coronavirus screening site — in fact it’s Verily, a different division of Alphabet. But concerns were quickly raised that the site requires users to sign in with a Google account, suggesting users’ health-related queries could be linked to other online activity the tech giant monetizes via ads.
• Diligent Robotics wants to give nurses a helper droid that can run errands for them around the hospital. The startup’s bot Moxi is equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand and full mobility so it can hunt down lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic’s hallways and drop them off for the nurse. With the world facing a critical shortage of medical care professionals, Moxi could help healthcare centers use their staff as efficiently as possible. And because robots can’t be infected by COVID-19, they’re one less potential carrier interacting with vulnerable populations.
In other news from around the web:
• The Telegram app emerged a few years ago as a challenger to WhatsApp and took off largely in non-Western countries. A story today in the China Tech site Abacus explores how Telegram is emerging as an alternative source of news form outside China ‘Great Firewall’, and is being accessed by citizens there who are hungry for uncensored news about the COVID-19 pandemic. The “2019-nCoV outbreak real-time broadcast,” channel now has more than 87,000 subscribers, with recent messages getting between 15,000 and 20,000 views, according to Telegram channel’s view counter.
• Another report today in The Verge explores how Amazon workers across the US and in many other countries are finding themselves designated as “key workers” who must continue to show up to deliver goods nations, like the US, which have gone into an effective quarantine. However, many of those workers are concerned that safety precautions, benefits, and protections have not changed sufficiently to reflect the new reality of living and working in a pandemic, and that even Amazon warehouses that keep operating as everything else shuts down many workers there are of course likely to contract the virus.
• Getaround is a startup that actually launched at TechCrunch Disrupt several years ago, and the car-sharing company has soared in distribution and valuation in the last few years. But with the Coronavirus outbreak suddenly affecting people unwilling or unable to share a personal car that might well be owned by someone infected by the virus, Getaround is now experiencing a huge plunge in demand. As a result, the company is now, according to Bloomberg. reportedly seeking a sale after finding itself “dangerously short on cash”, according to people familiar with the matter.
• Over at Microsoft, the tech giant is now offering its Healthcare Bot service to organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response to help screen patients for potential infection and care. As an example, the CDC just released a COVID-19 assessment bot that can quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors for people worried about infection, provide information and suggest the next course of action such as contacting a medical provider or, for those who do not need in-person medical care, managing the illness safely at home.
The news is significant because several healthcare startups such as Babylon Health and Ada Health already offer such AI-powered ‘chat’ apps which many will likely be turning to in this crisis.

Uber Eats UK waives fees during the coronavirus crisis

Uber Eats is waiving delivery and activations fees in the UK to support restaurants hit by decreasing demand during the coronavirus crisis.
The measure will apply until March 31 when it says it will review it.
On Monday the on-demand food delivery giant announced a similar waiver of delivery fees in the US.
The announcement by Uber Eats UK comes shortly after Just Eat UK said it would reduce its commission and waive some fees for 30 days — as part of an emergency support package for partner restaurants struggling to cope with disruption to their businesses.
“The high street is being hit hard by Coronavirus but the sector can play a critical role in helping the thousands of people who rely on it — for work and as an essential service — during this difficult time,” said Eats UK general manager, Toussaint Wattinne, in a statement.
“We are putting in place a range of initiatives to continue to support restaurant partners, particularly small business owners, as they keep their kitchens firing to feed people across the country.”
Another support measure it’s offering is a new opt-in program for all restaurants on its platform to get daily payments, rather than the standard weekly payment — to help with cash flow.
Today the UK government finally ordered bars and restaurants to close — having previously only advised citizens to stay away from social spaces to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Confirmed cases in the country have been increasing steady in recent weeks, approaching 4,000 at the time of writing, with 177 deaths recorded in total so far.
The closure order applies to bars and restaurants nationwide from tonight (Saturday morning) — cementing the economic shock the coronavirus is dealing to the sector.
However food delivery remains an option on the table: Earlier this week the government said it would relax planning regulations to allow pubs and restaurants to offer takeout services straightaway, without needing to apply for permission.
Uber Eats looks to be hoping to capitalize on the contingency provision by onboarding restaurants that haven’t previously offered takeout. It said today it’s adding a fast-tracked onboarding process for new restaurants to help them get online on its platform as soon as possible.
It’s also expanding the number of convenience stores available via the app — and waiving delivery fees for them too.
Keeping the nation fed through the crisis is another pressing operational headache for the UK government as worried shoppers have stripped supermarket shelves — putting strain on ‘just in time’ supply chains. Again, Uber looks to be hoping to help plug any gaps by expanding the surface area for food and grocery orders.
Also today it said it will be introducing a new contactless delivery product feature as a measure that’s intended to shrink the health risks for couriers making deliveries.
The public health crisis has shone a critical spotlight on the lack of protections for platform workers who aren’t covered by employment rights like sick pay — meaning they can either self isolate or earn money.
Several other European on-demand delivery apps have already added similar contactless provisions.

How Uber, Lyft, Seamless and more are addressing taxed gig economy workers

What are the rules wrapping privacy during COVID-19?

In a public health emergency that relies on people keeping an anti-social distance from each other to avoid spreading a highly contagious virus for which humans have no pre-existing immunity governments around the world have been quick to look to technology companies for help.
Background tracking is, after all, what many Internet giants’ ad-targeting business models rely on. While, in the US, telcos were recently exposed sharing highly granular location data for commercial ends.
Some of these privacy-hostile practices face ongoing challenges under existing data protection laws in Europe — and/or have at least attracted regulator attention in the US, which lacks a comprehensive digital privacy framework — but a pandemic is clearly an exceptional circumstance. So we’re seeing governments turn to the tech sector for help.
US president Donald Trump was reported last week to have summoned a number of tech companies to the White House to discuss how mobile location data could be used for tracking citizens.
In another development this month he announced Google was working on a nationwide coronavirus screening site — in fact it’s Verily, a different division of Alphabet. But concerns were quickly raised that the site requires users to sign in with a Google account, suggesting users’ health-related queries could be linked to other online activity the tech giant monetizes via ads. (Verily has said the data is stored separately and not linked to other Google products, although the privacy policy does allow data to be shared with third parties including Salesforce for customer service purposes.)
In the UK the government has also been reported to be in discussions with telcos about mapping mobile users’ movements during the crisis — though not at an individual level. It was reported to have held an early meeting with tech companies to ask what resources they could contribute to the fight against COVID-19.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy — which remains the European nation worst hit by the virus — has reportedly sought anonymized data from Facebook and local telcos that aggregates users’ movement to help with contact tracing or other forms of monitoring.
While there are clear public health imperatives to ensure populations are following instructions to reduce social contact, the prospect of Western democracies making like China and actively monitoring citizens’ movements raises uneasy questions about the long term impact of such measures on civil liberties.
Plus, if governments seek to expand state surveillance powers by directly leaning on the private sector to keep tabs on citizens it risks cementing a commercial exploitation of privacy — at a time when there’s been substantial push-back over the background profiling of web users for behavioral ads.
“Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world,” warns civil rights campaign group Privacy International, which is tracking what it dubs the “extraordinary measures” being taken during the pandemic.
A couple of examples include telcos in Israel sharing location data with state agencies for COVID-19 contact tracing and the UK government tabling emergency legislation that relaxes the rules around intercept warrants.
“Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers, only to be used temporarily in emergencies. Others use exemptions in data protection laws to share data. Some may be effective and based on advice from epidemiologists, others will not be. But all of them must be temporary, necessary, and proportionate,” it adds. “It is essential to keep track of them. When the pandemic is over, such extraordinary measures must be put to an end and held to account.”

As the pandemic gets worse, we’re going to see increased pressure by all governments to access #private consumer data to identify:
1) who is infected 2) who they’ve been in contact with (“contact tracing”)
This is going to be an incredibly slippery slope if we’re not careful.
— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) March 18, 2020

At the same time employers may feel under pressure to be monitoring their own staff to try to reduce COVID-19 risks right now — which raises questions about how they can contribute to a vital public health cause without overstepping any legal bounds.
We talked to two lawyers from Linklaters to get their perspective on the rules that wrap extraordinary steps such as tracking citizens’ movements and their health data, and how European and US data regulators are responding so far to the coronavirus crisis.
Bear in mind it’s a fast-moving situation — with some governments (including the UK and Israel) legislating to extend state surveillance powers during the pandemic.
The interviews below have been lighted edited for length and clarity
Europe and the UK
Dr Daniel Pauly, technology, media & telecommunications partner at Linklaters in Frankfurt 
Data protection law has not been suspended. At least when it comes to Europe. So data protection law still applies — without any restrictions. This is the baseline on which we need to work and for which we need to start. Then we need to differentiate between what the government can do and what employers can do in particular.
It’s very important to understand that when we look at governments they do have the means to allow themselves a certain use of data. Because there are opening clauses, flexibility clauses, in particular in the GDPR, when it comes to public health concerns, cross-border threats.
By using the legislation process they may introduce further powers. To give you one example what the Germany government did to respond is they created a special law — the coronavirus notification regulation — we already have in place a law governing the use of personal data in respect of certain serious infections. And what they did is they simply added the coronavirus infection to that list, which now means that hospitals and doctors must notify the competent authority of any COVID-19 infection.
This is pretty far reaching. They need to transmit names, contact details, sex, date of birth and many other details to allow the competent authority to gather that data and to analyze that data.
Another important topic in that field is the use of telecommunications data — in particular mobile phone data. Efficient use of that data might be one of the reasons why they obviously were quite successful in China with reducing the threat from the virus.
In Europe the government may not simply use mobile phone data and movement data — they have to anonymize it first and this is what, in Germany and other European jurisdictions, happened — including the UK — that anonymized mobile phone data has been handed over to organizations who start analyzing that data to get a better view of how the people behave, how the people move and what they need to do in order to restrict further movement. Or to restrict public life. This is the view on the government at least in Europe and the UK.
Transparency obligations [related to government use of personal data] are stemming from the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation]. When they would like to make use of mobile phone data this is the ePrivacy directive. This is not as transparent as the GDPR is and they did not succeed in replacing that piece of legislation by new regulation. So the ePrivacy directive gives again the various Member States, including the UK, the possibility to introduce further and more restrictive laws [for public health reasons].
[If Internet companies such as Google were to be asked by European governments to pass data on users for a coronavirus tracking purpose] it has to be taken into consideration that they have not included this in their records of processing activities — in their data protection notifications and information.
So it would be at least from a pure legal perspective it would be a huge step — and I’m wondering whether it would be feasible without the governments introducing special laws for that.
If [EU] governments would make use of private companies to provide them with data which has not been collected for such purposes — so that would be a huge step from the perspective of the GDPR at least. I’m not aware of something like this. I’ve certainly read there are discussions ongoing with Netflix to reduce the net traffic but I haven’t heard anything about making use of the data Google has.
I wouldn’t expect it in Europe — and particularly in Germany. Tracking people, tracking and monitoring what they are doing this is almost last resort — so I wouldn’t expect that in the next couple of weeks. And I hope then it’s over.
[So far], from my perspective, the European regulators have responded [to the coronavirus crisis] in a pretty reasonable manner by saying that, in particular, any response to the virus must be proportionate.
We still have that law in place and we need to consider that the data we’re talking about is health data — it’s the most protected data of all. Having said that there are some ways at least the GDPR is allowing the government and allowing employers to make use of that data. In particular when it comes to processing for substantial public interest. Or if it’s required for the purposes of preventive medicine or necessary for reasons of public interest.
So the legislator was wise enough to include clauses allowing the use of such data under certain circumstances and there are a number of supervisory authorities who already made public guidelines how to make use of these statutory permissions. And what they basically said was it always needs to be figured out on a case by case basis whether the data is really required in the specific case.
To give you an example, it was made clear that an employer may not ask an employee where he has been during his vacation — but he may ask have you been in any of the risk areas? And then the sufficient answer is yes or no. They do not need any further data. So it’s always [about approaching this] a smart way — by being smart you get the information you need; it’s not the flood gate suddenly opened.
You really need to look at the specific case and see how to get the data you need. Usually it’s a yes or no which is sufficient in the particular case.
The US
Caitlin Potratz Metcalf, senior U.S. associate at Linklaters and a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP/US)
Even though you don’t have a structured privacy framework in the US — or one specific regulator that covers privacy — you’ve got some of the same issues. The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] will go after companies that take any action that is inconsistent with their privacy policies. And that would be misleading to consumers. Their initial focus is on consumer protection, not privacy, but in the last couple of years they’ve been wearing two hats. So there is a focus on privacy even though we don’t have a national privacy law [equivalent in scope to the EU’s GDPR] but it’s coming from a consumer protection point of view.
So, for example, the FCC back in February actually announced potential sanctions against four major telecoms companies int he US with respect to sharing data related to cell phone tracking — it wasn’t the geolocation in an app but actually pinging off cell towers — and sharing that data to third parties without proper safeguards. Because that wasn’t disclosed in their privacy policies.
They haven’t actually issued those fines but it was announced that they may pursue a $208M fine total against these four companies: AT&T, Verizon*, T-Mobile, Sprint… So they do take it very seriously about how that data is safeguarded, how it’s being shared. And the fact that we have a state of emergency doesn’t change that emphasis on consumer protection.
You’ll see the same is true for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — that’s responsible for any medical or health data.
That is really limited towards entities that are covered entities under HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] or their business associates. So it doesn’t apply to everybody across the board. But if you are a hospital health plan provider, whether you’re an employer and you have a group health plan, an insurer, or a business associate supporting one of those covered entities then you have to comply with HIPAA to the extent you’re handling protected health information. And that’s a bit narrower than the definition of personal data that you’d have under GDPR.
So you’re really looking at identifying information for that patient: Their medical status, their birth date, address, things like that that might be very identifiable and related to the person. But you could share things that are more general. For example you have a middle aged man from this county who’s tested positive for COVID and is at XYZ facility being treated and his condition is stable. Or his condition is critical. So you could share that kind of level of detail — but not further.
And so HHS in February had issued a bullet stressing that you can’t set aside the privacy and security safeguards under HIPAA during an emergency. They stressed to all covered entities that you have to still comply with the law — sanctions are still in place. And to the extent that you do have to disclose some of the protected health information it has to be to the minimum extent necessary. And that can be disclosed either to other hospitals, to a regulator in order to help stem the spread of COVID and also in order to provide treatment to a patient. So they listed a couple of different exceptions how you can share that information but really stressing the minimum necessary.
The same would be true for an employer — like of a group health plan — if they’re trying to share information about employees but it’s going to be very narrow in what they can actually share. And they can’t just cite as an exception that it’s for the public health interest.. You don’t necessarily have to disclose what country they’ve been to it’s just have they been to a region that’s on a restricted list for travel. So it’s finding creative ways to relay the necessary information you need and if there’s anything less intrusive you’re required to go that route.
That said, just last week HHS also issued another bullet saying that they would waive HIPAA sanctions and penalties during the nationwide public health emergency. But it was only directed to hospitals — so it doesn’t apply to all covered entities.
They also issued another bulletin saying that they would lax restrictions on basically sharing data on using electronic means. So there’s very heightened restrictions on how you can share data electronically when it relates to medical and health information. And so this was allowing doctors to communicate by FaceTime or video chat and other methods that may not be encrypted or secure. Or communicate with patients etc. So they’re giving a waiver or just softening some of the restrictions related to transferring health data electronically.
So you can see it’s an evolving situation but they’ve still taken a very reserved and kind of conservative approach — really emphasizing that you do need to comply with your obligation to protect health data. So that’s where you see the strongest implementations. And then the FCC coming at it from a consumer protection point of view.
Going back to the point you made earlier about Google sharing data [with governments] — you could get there, it just depends on how their privacy policies are structured.
In terms of tracking individuals we don’t have a national statute like GDPR that would prevent that but it would also be very difficult to anonymize that data because it’s so tied to individuals — it’s like your DNA; you can map a person leaving home, going to work or school, going to a doctor’s office, coming back home — and it really does have very sensitive information and because of all the specific data points it means it’s very difficult to anonymize it and provide it in a format that wouldn’t violate someone’s privacy without their consent. And so while you may not need full consent in the US you would still need to have notice and transparency about the policies.
Then it would be slightly different if you’re a California resident — the degree that you need under the new California law [CCPA] to provide disclosures and give individuals the opportunity to opt out if you were to share their information. So in that case, where the telecoms companies are potentially going to be sued by the FCC for sharing data with third parties, that in particular would also violate the new California law if consumers weren’t given the opportunity to opt out of having their information sold.
So there’s a lot of different puzzle pieces that fit together since we have a patchwork quilt of data protection — depending on the different state and federal laws.
The government, I guess, could issue other mandates or regulations [to requisition telco tracking data for a COVID-related public health purpose] — I don’t know that they will. I would envisage more of a call to arms requesting support and assistance from the private sector. Not a mandate that you must share your data, given the way our government is structured. Unless things get incredibly dire I don’t really see a mandate to companies that they have to share certain data in order to be able to track patients.
[If Google makes use of health-related searches/queries to enrich user profiles it uses for commercial purposes] that in and of itself wouldn’t be protected health information.
Google is not a [HIPAA] covered entity. And depending on what type of support it’s providing for covered entities it may be in limited circumstances could be considered a business associate that could be subject to HIPAA but in the context of just collecting data on consumers it wouldn’t be governed by that.
So as long as it’s not doing anything outside the scope of what’s already in its privacy policies then it’s fine — so the fact that it’s collecting data based on searches that you run on Google that should be in the privacy policy anyway. It doesn’t need to be specific to the type of search that you’re running. So the fact that it’s looking up how to get COVID testing or treatment or what are the symptoms for COVID, things like that, that can all be tied to the data [it holds on users] and enriched. And that can also be shared and sold to third parties — unless you’re a California resident. They have a separate privacy policy for California residents… They just have to consistent with their privacy policy.
The interesting thing to me is maybe the approach that Asia has taken — where they have a lot more influence over the commercial sector and data tracking–  and so you actually have the regulator stepping in and doing more tracking, not just private companies. But private companies are able to provide tracking information.
You see it actually with Uber. They’ve issued additional privacy notices to consumers — saying that to the extent we become aware of a passenger that has had COVID or a driver, we will notify people who have come into contact with that Uber over a given time period. They’re trying to take the initiative to do their own tracking to protect workers and consumers.
And they can do that — they just have to be careful about how much detail they share about personal information. Not naming names of who was impacted [but rather saying something like] ‘in the last 24 hours you may have ridden in an Uber that was impacted or known to have an infected individual in the Uber’.
[When it comes to telehealth platforms and privacy protections] it depends if they’re considered a business associate of a covered entity. So they may not be a covered entity themselves but if they are a business associate supporting a covered entity — for example a hospital or a clinic or insurers sharing that data and relying on a telehealth platform. In that context they would be governed by some of the same privacy and security regulations under HIPAA.
Some of them are slightly different for a business associate compared to a covered entity but generally you step in the shoes of the covered entity if you’re handling the covered entity’s data and have the same restrictions apply to you.
Aggregate data wouldn’t be considered protected health information — so they could [for example] share a symptom heat map that doesn’t identify specific individuals or patients and their health data.
[But] standalone telehealth apps that are collecting data directly from the consumer are not covered by HIPAA.
That’s actually a big loophole in terms of consumer protection, privacy protections related to health data. You have the same issue for all the health fitness apps — whether it’s your fitbit or other health apps or if you’re pregnant and you have an app that tracks your maternity or your period or things like that. Any of that data that’s collected is not protected.
The only protections you have are whatever disclosures are in the privacy policies. And in them having to be transparent and act within that privacy policy. If they don’t they can face an enforcement action by the FCC but that is not regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services under HIPAA.
So it’s a very different approach than under GDPR which is much more comprehensive.
That’s not to say in the future we might see a tightening of restrictions on that but individuals are freely giving that information — and in theory should read the privacy policy that’s provided when you log into the app. But most users probably don’t read that and then that data can be shared with other third parties.
They could share it with a regulator, they could sell it to other third parties so long as they have the proper disclosure that they may sell your personal information or share it with third parties. It depends on how they’re privacy policy is crafted. So long as it covers those specific actions. And for California residents it’s a more specific test — there are more disclosures that are required.
For example the type of data that you’re collecting, the purpose that you’re collecting it for, how you intend to process that data, who you intend to share it with and why. So it’s tightened for California residents but for the rest of the US you just have to be consistent with your privacy policy and you aren’t required to have the same level of disclosures.
More sophisticated, larger companies, though, definitely are already complying with GDPR — or endeavouring to comply with the California law — and so they have more sophisticated, detailed privacy notices than are maybe required by law in the US. But they’re kind of operating on a global platform and trying to have a global privacy policy.
*Disclosure: Verizon is TechCrunch’s parent company

Crowd-lending platform October hits pause on loan repayments

French startup October wants to reduce the pressure on small and medium companies going through the Coronavirus crisis. In order to give them some headroom, companies that have borrowed money on October won’t have to pay back their loans for the next three months.
October works with small companies in France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and Germany who need a credit line. One of the company’s key advantages compared to borrowing money from a bank is that it’s much faster. You can apply to a credit line and get an answer just a few days later. Usually, companies pay back their loans over time with monthly repayments over three months to seven years.
October evaluates risk before handing out loans. It works with many institutional partners to raise funds and deploy capital in those loans. Some retail customers also invest on October directly on a company-by-company basis.
But many small European companies that have borrowed money on October won’t generate revenue for a little while. They could face cash flow issues and they could have issues repaying those loans.
That’s why October has decided with its institutional partners that it is postponing all outstanding loans for the next three months. Companies won’t have to pay a huge sum of money after that, October is also postponing the end date of the loans by three months.
October then asked retail investors to vote whether they are in favor or against postponing loans. 99.42% of retail investors who voted followed October’s move.
October is also waving its own fees for the next three months, but companies will still have to pay interests on outstanding capital.
This way, fewer companies should go bankrupt over the next three months. It should minimize the impact of the current economic crisis on the overall default rate of October loans.

YouTube goes SD streaming by default in Europe due to COVID-19

YouTube has switched to standard definition streaming by default in Europe.
We asked the company if it planned to do this yesterday — today a spokeswoman confirmed the step. The move was reported earlier by Reuters.
It’s a temporary measure in response to calls by the European Commission for streaming platforms to help ease demand on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis.
Users can still manually adjust video quality but defaults remain a powerful tool to influence overall outcomes.
A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the switch, sending us this statement:
People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times. While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity. We are in ongoing conversations with the regulators (including Ofcom), governments and network operators all over Europe, and are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the UK and the EU to Standard Definition. We will continue our work to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.
Yesterday Netflix announced it would default to SD streaming in the region for 30 days for the same reason.
In recent days the EU’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has held discussions with platform executives to urge them to help reduce the load on Internet infrastructure as scores of Europeans are encouraged or required to stay at home as part of quarantine measures.
The Commission is concerned about the impact on online education and remote work if there’s a major spike in demand for digital entertainment services — and is pushing for collective action from platforms and users to manage increased load on Internet infrastructure.
Breton met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcick to press the case for lowering the quality of video streams during the coronavirus crisis.
Today he welcomed YouTube’s move. “Millions of Europeans are adapting to social distancing measures thanks to digital platforms, helping them to telework, e-learn and entertain themselves. I warmly welcome the initiative that Google has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the Internet during the COVID19 crisis by having YouTube switch all EU traffic to Standard Definition by default. I appreciate the strong responsibility that Mr Pichai and Mrs Wojcicki have demonstrated. We will closely follow the evolution of the situation together,” said Breton in a statement. 
Google’s spokeswoman told us it hasn’t seen much change in regional traffic peaks so far but said there have been changes in usage patterns from more people being at home — with usage expanding across additional hours and some lower usage peaks. (The company routinely makes traffic data available in the Google Traffic and Disruptions Transparency Report.)
YouTube, along with other major social platforms, has faced scrutiny over the risks of their tools being used to spread coronavirus-related misinformation.
Although, in the case of Google, the company appears to have taken a proactive stance in suppressing bogus content and surfacing authoritative sources of health information. YouTube’s spokeswoman noted the homepage directs users to the World Health Organization for info on COVID-19 or other locally relevant authoritative organizations, for instance.
She also noted the company is donating ad inventory to governments and NGOs to use for education and information — pointing to a blog post earlier this month in which Pichai discussed some of the measures it’s taking to shield users from misinformation that could be harmful to public health.
YouTube will be rolling out a campaign rolling across Europe that encourages people to follow health authorities’ guidance and stay home, she added.
Google’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be a far swifter and more aggressive to the threat posed to public health than its approach to other types of content that can also be harmful to people’s health — such as anti-vaccination content, which YouTube only moved to demonetize last year.

Claimer raises seed backing to make it easier for UK startups to claim R&D tax credits

Claimer, a London-based startup that makes it easy for companies to claim R&D tax credits in the U.K., has raised £300,000 in seed funding.
Backing the already revenue-generating company is Ben Holmes (who was previously at Index Ventures), Nick Telson and Andrew Webster (the founders of DesignMyNight, which recently exited), Rupert Loman (founder of Gamer Network), and TrueSight Ventures.
Founded by Adam McCann in January 2018 and then launched in April 2019, Claimer streamlines the process of claiming R&D tax credits, which is a U.K. government subsidy popular with tech startups that is designed to encourage innovation. The startup claims its product is approximately 10x faster and up to 6x cheaper than using a tax consultant.
“Claimer is fixing the R&D tax relief space with tech,” McCann tells me. “If you’re not familiar with the scheme, it’s run by HMRC and allows U.K. businesses to claim back up to 33% of their research & development costs as a cash payment in any industry, such as software and hardware development, manufacturing, textiles, biotechnology, foodtech, and many others.
“Most accountants don’t have the in-house expertise to process claims, so they refer clients to R&D tax specialists. For many companies, the process is slow, expensive, and frustrating, because these specialists charge very high fees, often taking weeks to process claims”.
In contrast, McCann says Claimer’s platform makes it easy for businesses to reliably complete their R&D relief claims without any prior tax knowledge. After you upload a claim to the platform — which includes the ability to pull numbers from your accounting software — Claimer’s in-house tax specialists check and optimise it before it is submitted to HMRC.
“We’ve processed claims ranging from £1,000 to over £2 million with a 100% success rate (i.e. no rejections or reductions). Our customers have also awarded us 5 stars on TrustPilot,” he adds.
To that end, Claimer’s success is aligned with that of its customers. The startup charges a fee of 5% or less of the saving/credit received in R&D tax credits, capped to £10,000. McCann says this is much less than the typical uncapped 20-30% usually charged by specialists, “often with undesirable terms such as multi-year lock-in contracts, hidden costs, and large minimum fees”.
Meanwhile, Claimer plans to use the seed funding to grow its engineering team and build version two of the product, which McCann says will utilise open data and machine learning, making it possible for claims to be created automatically.
“And yes, we’ll be claiming R&D tax credits for developing our R&D tax credits platform,” quips the Claimer founder.

Just Eat cuts its take for 30-days to help restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis

UK takeout marketplace Just Eat has announced a 30-day emergency support package for restaurants on its platform to help them through disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis.
From tomorrow (March 20) until April 19 the package — which Just Eat says is worth £10M+ — will see funds directed back to UK partner restaurants in the form of a commission rebate of one third (33%) on all commissions paid to Just Eat by restaurants; and via the removal of commissions across all collection orders which it intends to help reduce pressure on restaurants’ delivery operations, where collection is still available.
Just Eat also said it’s waiving all sign-up fees for new restaurants joining its platform (which must still meet its standard conditions, such as being registered with the relevant local authority as a food business and having the required hygiene rating); and relaxing any existing arrangements that may be in place with partners to enable them to work with delivery aggregators — “regardless of existing contractual terms”.
It added that it will continue to pay restaurants weekly, including the rebate now in place.
Currently Just Eat has around 35,700 restaurants on its platform in the UK, with delivery available to 95% of UK postcodes.
Commenting in a statement, Andrew Kenny, Just Eat’s UK MD, said:
These are some of the most challenging times the restaurants we work with have ever been through. We want to show our support and help them to keep their doors open, so they can focus on doing what they do best — delivering food to people across the UK every day. We know our Restaurant Partners are worried about their teams — from chefs to delivery drivers — and these measures will go some way to helping them maintain their operations and support their people.
The food delivery industry has a crucial role to play at this time of national crisis and it is only right that as the market leader in the UK Just Eat steps up to help our independent partners so they can keep delivering for the communities that need them.
In the UK and elsewhere there is rising concern about the economic impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality sector as people are told to stay away from social spaces.
On Monday the UK government advised people not to go to bars and restaurants or other social spaces in a bid to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Although, unlike many other European countries, it has not yet issued strict quarantine measures such as ordering hospitality industry businesses to close their doors and citizens to work at home where possible.
On-demand food delivery remains one of the services that continues to operate even in locked down EU Member States. However with gig economy business models not typically offering platform workers an employment safety net of benefits such as sick pay the entire sector has come under fresh scrutiny for the legal status it assigns to delivery couriers, given the heightened risks posed to them by the novel coronavirus. In a nutshell it they need to self isolate they won’t be able to earn. 
In its press release today Just Eat said it’s working on other unspecified support initiatives for couriers, as well as for groups including the vulnerable and isolated, and frontline workers.
These will be announced in due course, it added. 
Although it also notes that the vast majority of orders placed through its network are delivered by restaurants with their own delivery capability. Its commission for such orders is a maximum of 14%, it added.
Some on-demand food delivery startups operating in Europe which do rely on gig workers to make deliveries have already announced emergency support funds to help platform workers who fall ill or need to self isolate during the COVID-19 crisis — including UK-based Deliveroo and Spain’s Glovo.
Although there has also been some criticism of how easy it is for couriers to access claimed support.

Netflix and other streaming platforms urged to switch to SD during COVID-19 crisis

The European Commission is putting pressure on Netflix and other streaming platforms to switch to standard definition during periods of peak demand as the coronavirus crisis puts unprecedented load on Internet infrastructure.
Across the European Union — a region with around 445M citizens —  it’s likely many millions of office workers will switch to teleworking, as countries impose quarantine measures and instruct people to work from home wherever possible. The European Commission itself, which employs around 32,000 people, moved all non-critical staff to remote work at the start of this week.
Yesterday Thierry Breton, the commissioner for the EU’s internal market who is also a former CEO of France Telecom, tweeted that he’d spoke to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to make the case for standard definition streaming by default during the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Important phone conversation with @ReedHastings, CEO of @Netflix
To beat #COVID19, we #StayAtHome
Teleworking & streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain.
To secure Internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary.
— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) March 18, 2020

A spokesman for Breton told us the Commission is inviting streaming platforms to follow the lead of telecom providers and consider adapting the throughput of video streaming, such as by temporarily moving to SD rather than HD streaming — at least for the most critical working hours.
In Breton’s call with Netflix a number of potential measures were discussed — per the spokesman — including an automatic switch to standard definition during peaks of Internet activities on impacted geographies, which the Commission says represents a “responsible option”, that will help secure telecommunications infrastructures while “keeping offering the best service to users and consumers, with no disruption”.
Many content and application providers are already applying this sort of flexibility measure, it added.
The Commission is also asking telecoms operators that provide Internet services to take steps to prevent and mitigate the impacts of impending network congestion, by inviting them to make use of “possibilities” offered by EU net neutrality rules.
Earlier this week Vodafone reported a 50% surge in Internet traffic in some European countries as scores of people logged on from home. “Covid-19 is already having a significant impact on our services and placing a greater demand on our network,” the company said in a statement, adding that: “We should expect this trend of data growth to continue.”
At the same time the Commission is calling for Internet users in the region to make responsible use of online recreational activities — such as by opting for settings that reduce data consumption, including using Wi-Fi (rather than mobile data) and choosing lower resolution for content whenever possible.
It wants joint action from all stakeholders to ease the pressure on infrastructure and facilitate remote working and online education at a time of region-wide public health crisis.
In a statement Breton added: “Europe and the whole world are facing an unprecedented situation. Governments have taken measures to reduce social interactions to contain the spread of Covid-19, and to encourage remote working and online education. Streaming platforms, telecom operators and users, we all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the Internet during the battle against the virus propagation.”
It’s not clear exactly what wiggle room the Commission envisages in EU net neutrality rules for prioritizing certain types of traffic over others during the coronavirus crisis.
We asked Breton’s spokesman for clarification on this point but he responded by emphasizing that the Commission is hoping to steer off such a scenario, telling us: “By calling for all stakeholders’ responsibility (platforms/telcos/users) we are proactively ensuring smooth functioning of the Internet so that the question of prioritization does not need to be asked.”
We also reached out to Netflix to ask what steps it’s taking to help manage bandwidth demand in the region. At the time of writing the company had not responded.
Breton’s spokesman said the commissioner is due to hold a follow-up call with Hastings in the coming days.
More broadly, the Commission is working on setting up a reporting mechanism to ensure regular monitoring of the Internet traffic situation in each Member State in order to be able to respond swiftly to capacity issues, liaising on this with the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications and with the support of national regulatory authorities.
We’ve also contacted YouTube for comment on the Commission’s call for proactive action from streaming platforms to help manage increased demand on Internet infrastructure.

Deliveroo riders can’t access coronavirus hardship fund, warns union

UK on-demand food delivery startup Deliveroo has been accused of setting up an inaccessible hardship fund for couriers in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that leaves gig economy workers on its platform unable to access claimed financial support if they become ill or are self isolating.
Gig economy delivery workers are one of the groups who face increased exposure to the coronavirus on account of the work bringing them into contact with many people, even as demand for meal delivery is likely to increase with people being encouraged or required to stay at home.
At the same time gig workers don’t have standard benefits and protections afforded to people who are legally classed as workers — such as sick pay. So, as we reported earlier this week, the coronavirus crisis has shone a lurid spotlight on ‘sharing economy’ business models that offer little or no safety net for platform workers who fall ill or otherwise cannot work.
Some of these companies have responded by announcing support measures for the core workers they define as independent contractors — people who are now on the front line, delivering food to others who may not be able to leave their house and/or may be infected with the highly contagious virus.
In the majority of cases this sums to switching on a contactless delivery option in a bid to reduce human contact between couriers and customers. Although so far it tends to rely on the paying customer being proactive about locating and activating the feature.
A few — including Deliveroo, Glovo and Uber — have also offered some financial support to plug lost earnings for gig workers who can’t work because they’re infected with COVID-19 or have been placed in quarantine.
UK-based Deliveroo was fast out of the gate with an announcement of a “multi-million” pound hardship fund it said it would use to support gig workers who fell ill or needed to go into quarantine — claiming it would pay impacted riders in excess of the equivalent statutory sick pay for 14-days. (Meanwhile UK government support for gig workers needing to self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis has been limited to telling them to claim an unemployment benefit that can take weeks to come through and offers a very low level of earnings compensation; the government has so far rejected calls to extend sick pay to gig workers.)
When we asked about this last week Deliveroo stipulated the fund will only pay impacted riders who are diagnosed with coronavirus or told to isolate themselves by a medical authority.
It’s those conditions that a UK union is objecting to. Today the IWGB, a union that represents gig workers, accused Deliveroo of operating an unworkable fund — saying riders have told it they’re unable to access the claimed support because it requires a doctor’s note. (Including in cases where Deliveroo has deactivated a rider’s account because it suspects they have contracted COVID-19.) 
With many GPs surgeries in the UK switching to telephone-only triage as they scramble to cope with the coronavirus crisis, telling people who are sick with flu-like symptoms not to come to the surgery and instead self isolate to avoid the risk of spreading potential contagion — it’s unclear how couriers would be able to obtain the required documentation to access any financial help from the gig economy giant.
Access to coronavirus testing in the UK is also severely limited at this point of high demand.  
The union also points out that Deliveroo has provided no information on how much the hardship fund will pay out — even in cases where a rider has been able to procure a doctor’s note.
It’s called for Deliveroo to implement full sick pay without preconditions, as well as for a guaranteed floor in earnings for riders (of the living wage plus costs) to protect them through any periods of low demand during the public health crisis, as well as safety equipment (such as hand sanitizer and face masks); regular testing for COVID-19; and enhanced pay for those who do put themselves at risk by continuing to work.
Commenting in a statement, IWGB couriers and logistics branch chair Alex Marshall said: “Once we pull the curtains on Deliveroo’s announcement on assistance for workers that are sick or self-isolating, it is obvious that behind the PR spin it is more of the same old deceitful tactics. Deliveroo and other so-called gig economy employers have to stop blocking their workers’ access to these funds and immediately introduce full contractual sick pay, without pre-conditions. Increasingly, these workers are being expected to play a huge role in feeding people during this time of crisis, so it is time for their employers and the government to give them the basic rights we expect in any decent and just society.”
We reached out to Deliveroo for a response to the criticism of its requirement that riders produce a doctor’s note to access he hardship fund. We also asked whether it has paid anything out so far — and if so how much it’s paying individual riders. At the time of writing the company had not responded to our questions.
Last May the company closed a $575M Series G, with ecommerce giant Amazon leading a funding injection that brought its total investment raised to in excess of $1.5BN.

Manage remote teams with a transparent culture

Many companies have been designed to optimize productivity when everybody is in the office. As offices close due to the coronavirus outbreak, many people are experimenting with remote work at scale for the first time.
Employees have to learn what it means to work remotely — but managers also have to learn how to keep their teams on track. That’s why it’s interesting to talk about what it’s like to manage a remote team.
Some companies have chosen to give up on the office and work completely remotely. I interviewed Reedsy’s co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Nataf (pictured above, right) about the company’s current work culture. Reedsy operates a marketplace of professionals in the publishing industries: If you’re a writer, you can find editors, designers, marketing experts and more. And if you’re a freelancer in one of those fields, you can find clients.
The short answer: Managing a remote team takes discipline. The long answer is much more interesting as Reedsy has implemented many different processes to foster information transparency. The interview was translated from French and edited for clarity and brevity.
TechCrunch: What does it mean to have a remote culture?
Emmanuel Nataf: I think our case is quite specific. We’re 30 people and what we do cannot necessarily work for a bigger team. It works for smaller teams but maybe not above 50 people.

CcHub funds tech to curb COVID-19 on concerns of an Africa outbreak

Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, will offer funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.
The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website this week, CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani told TechCrunch on a call.
CcHub will provide $5000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects covering last mile communication, support for the infected and the most vulnerable, production of essential medical supplies and support for disrupted food supply-chains.
The organization, and its iHub affiliate, will also open up engineering support and resources from its CcHub Design Lab to funded companies, according to Tijani.
He noted that established startups who want to create COVID-19 related projects on the side of their core-business can apply.
The initiative stems from concerns Africa could be less prepared than other regions in dealing with an outbreak of the virus that has spread in China, Europe and the U.S. and is wreaking economic havoc globally.
Tijani hopes CcHub can employ its network and resources to limit the spread and damage of COVID-19 in Africa.
The Lagos based innovation-space acquired Kenya’s iHub in 2019, bringing together two of Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, VC, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility.
“Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system…is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Reported cases in major population countries, such as Kenya and Nigeria, were in single-digits as late as last week, but those numbers are spiking. By the World Health Organization’s latest stats Wednesday there were 463 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 10 confirmed deaths related to the virus.
Governments are taking action. South Africa, which has the second-largest reported coranvirus outbreak on the continent, declared a national disaster this week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S. and UK. Kenya has also imposed its own travel and crowd restrictions.
Only two cases have been recorded in Nigeria, but CcHub’s Tijani fears the actual scenario for the West African country and Kenya could be much worse.

“I think Lagos and Nigeria are in denial. Some governments in Africa are taking action, but the focus in Africa has been relying on port of entry [measures], which isn’t reliable because…I suspect its already here…people may not have symptoms yet,” said Tijani.
If there is a rapid outbreak, he fears it will overwhelm a number of systems in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya.
“We don’t have the health systems to contain it. We don’t have the the welfare system that can work for the most vulnerable, such as elderly…we don’t manufacture most of these medical supplies and our food [supply-chain] is not reliable,” Tijani added.
Addressing these pending challenges related to COVID-19 in Africa is what CcHub hopes to support in its latest open call to fund projects.
The innovation incubator isn’t the only tech player on the continent shifting to respond to a possible coronavirus crises.

Kenya turns to M-Pesa mobile-money to stem the spread of COVID-19

Pan-African on-demand trucking logistics company Kobo360 has asked employees who can work remotely to do so in Ghana and Nigeria, according to the Chief Strategy Officer Kagure Wamunyu. The Goldman Sachs backed startup is also planning contingencies to ensure supply-chain continuity, should COVID-19 disrupt business and mobility in its markets.
In Kenya, the country is turning to its leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the the chances of an outbreak. Safaricom waived transaction fees on the app this week to increase digital-payments use and lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through physical handling of cash.

Revolut launches Revolut Junior to help you manage allowance

Revolut is introducing a new product specifically targeted toward kids aged 7-17 years old — Revolut Junior. Revolut Junior is a new app and service that integrates directly with the main Revolut app on the parent’s side.
Parents or legal gardians who are also Revolut users can create a Revolut Junior account for their kid. After that, your kid can download the Revolut Junior app and get a Revolut Junior card.
The new app offers a limited set of features with an interface divided in two tabs — Account and Profile. Kids can see a list of transactions in real time in the Account tab. They can configure card settings in the Profile tab. And that’s about it.
On the other end, parents can control their kids’ spending from Revolut. They can transfer money to a Revolut Junior account instantly. Parents can also access balances and transactions as well as disable some card features, such as online payments. They can also choose to receive notifications when a child is using their card.
The reason why Revolut Junior can attract a ton of users is that Revolut itself already has over 10 million users. It’s going to be easier to convince existing Revolut customers to use Revolut Junior over a custom-made challenger bank for teens, such as Kard or Step. Arguably, the biggest competitor of challenger banks for teens is still cash.
As kids grow up, chances are they’ll switch to a full-fledged Revolut account if they’ve been using Revolut Junior for years. Revolut Junior represents a great acquisition funnel as well.
Revolut Junior is only available to Premium and Metal customers in the U.K. for now. The company will eventually roll it out to more users and more countries.
Revolut plans to add more features to Revolut Junior in the future. For instance, parents will be able to set a regular allowance and financial goals. Kids will get savings options, spending reports, spending limits and more.

Ford, Daimler to suspend production at European factories due to COVID-19

Ford said Tuesday it will temporarily shutdown vehicle and engine production at its factories in Europe in response to the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus.
The shut down will begin Thursday and is expected to continue for a number of weeks, Ford said without providing a specific timeline. Ford said it hopes the closure will only be required for a short period, but the duration depends on a number of factors, including the spread of the coronavirus, government restrictions, supplier constraints, and the return of customers to dealerships, many of which are now closed.
Ford’s manufacturing sites in Cologne and Saarlouis in Germany, and its Craiova facility in Romania will halt production beginning Thursday. The company’s assembly and engine facility in Valencia, Spain has been closed since Monday, after three workers were confirmed with coronavirus over the past weekend.
The automaker made the decision following the World Health Organization’s designation of Europe as the new epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic.
“While the impact of coronavirus at our facilities so far has been limited thankfully, its effects on our employees, dealers, suppliers and customers, as well as European society as a whole, is unprecedented,” said Stuart Rowley, president, Ford of Europe. “Due to the dramatic impact this ongoing crisis is having on the European market and the supplier industry — together with the recent actions by countries to restrict all but essential travel and personal contact — we are temporarily halting production at our main continental Europe manufacturing sites.”
Ford said it will continue to provide essential maintenance and service across Europe.
Other automakers are also shuttering factories in Europe, including Volkswagen and Daimler. Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess announced plans to suspend production at factories in Spain, Portugal and Italy before the end of this week. VW’s native Germany and other European countries getting ready to follow suit.
Daimler Group announced Tuesday it will suspend the majority of its production in Europe, as well as work in selected administrative departments, for an initial period of two weeks.
The suspension applies to Daimler’s car, van and commercial vehicle plants in Europe and will start this week.

SpaceX will launch Intelsat’s next satellite using a re-used Falcon 9 in 2022

Intelsat has tapped SpaceX for the launch of its Intelsat 40e spacecraft, a high-throughput communications satellite that will join the company’s existing geostationary network. The satellite is being built by Maxar, Intelsat announced last month, and will be carried to its target orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket using a flight-proven first stage booster.
Intelsat is a connectivity infrastructure company that operates a communications network providing video and broadband services globally. The Intelsat 40e satellite will specifically help serve customers in North and Central America.
SpaceX has provided launch services for Intelsat previously, flying its 35e satellite to orbit in 2017. That satellite is currently in operation, offering connectivity to customers across North and South America, as well as in Europe and Africa.
This next launch is set to take place in 2022, so not immediately, but it’s an important get and a valuable return client for SpaceX

Business banking fintech Penta raises another €18.5M

Penta, the Berlin-based business banking challenger that also now operates in Italy, has raised €18.5 million, described as the first closing of a new funding round.
Leading the round is new investor RTP Global and existing investor HV Holtzbrinck Ventures. Also participating is ABN AMRO Ventures and Berliner Volksbank Ventures, and Finleap (the fintech company builder that has a majority stake in Penta).
The new investment sees Alex Pavlov, Partner RTP Global, join Penta’s board, which also includes Barbod Namini, Partner at HV, and Michael Hock, CFO at Finleap.
Comments RTP Global’s Pavlov: “We are always searching for exceptional teams who are ready for the sprints, prepare for the marathons and have the tenacity to grow their business and disrupt their respective market. In Penta, we found all of that: a strong team, rapid growth and the mission of solving the problems of their SME customers by thinking outside the traditional banking frame”.
Headquartered in Berlin, with offices in Milan and Belgrade, Penta provides banking for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In April 2019, it was acquired by Finleap, the German company builder that co-founded and also owns a stake in banking platform solarisBank, of which Penta is a customer. Shortly after the deal went through, it was confirmed that Marko Wenthin, who previously co-founded solarisBank, had become Penta’s new CEO, replacing outgoing CEO and Penta co-founder Lav Odorović.
Most recently, the banking fintech partnered with BBVA-backed card reader company SumUp in a bid to attract more offline businesses, such as restaurants, craftsman, healthcare and architects. Businesses can order a SumUp Card Reader via Penta, and in doing so will save money on the initial SumUp setup fee and be able to seamlessly integrate SumUp-powered payments with their Penta account.
They also get access to the existing Penta features, such as being able to open a business banking account entirely digitally, issue multiple payment cards, grant limits and permissions per card for staff, facilitate expense management and integrate with popular accounting tools.

RTP Global outs new $650M early-stage fund to back tech in US, Europe, India and South-East Asia

Refurbished electronics startup Refurbed raises $17M round, led by Evli Growth Partners

Renewed phones, laptops and tablets can be as much as 40% cheaper than their brand new cousins, working equally as well and, because they have been saved from the scrapheap, are therefore a great deal more environmentally friendly. Players in this space includeBack Market (raised €48M), Swappa (US) and Amazon Renew.
Refurbed, a marketplace for exactly these types of refurbished electronics plans to take advantage of this growing market, after raising a $17 million Series A round of funding led by Finland’s Evli Growth Partners. They have been joined in the round by Almaz Capital, Bonsai Partners, All Iron Ventures and FJ Labs as new investors. Existing investors Klaus Hofbauer and Inventure Partners also participated.
Refurbed is active in Austria, Germany, Poland and Italy, and now plans to use the capital to expand to additional markets in 2020, notably into the German market.
The startup’s refurbish devices are renewed through a 40-step process and come with a 12-month guarantee. Founded in 2017, it now has more than 150,000 customers throughout Europe with sales, its says, growing over five times in 2019. It claims to have also posted more than $45 million in gross merchandising volume.
Peter Windischhofer, co-founder of refurbed, said: “Our mission is to bring one refurbished product into every household in Europe and change the way we consume as a society,” , said. “This funding round is the next big step to reach our ambitious goal.”
But why is it that they think they can take on some of their larger competitors? “We only work with the best merchants across Europe with the highest quality and superior customer service. This leads to the highest customer satisfaction in the industry (e.g 4.8/5 on Trusted Shops),” Windischhofer told TechCrunch .
Riku Asikainen, managing partner of the lead investor Evli Growth Partners, added: “We admire the refurbed team that manages to have a positive impact on the world and is financially successful at the same time.”
At the Green Alley Award 2018 refurbed was ranked among the top 3 most sustainable tech startups in Europe, and took second place in the Climate Impact Battle 2018 at the Slush Festival.

GiveVision partners with Sony to develop and manufacture wearables for people with visual impairments

GiveVision, the U.K. startup creating wearable technology to help “restore” sight to people with visual impairments, is partnering with Sony (via the Sony UK Technology Centre) to develop and manufacture its next generation device.
Specifically, GiveVision says it will be working with Sony UK Tec to help bring to market a new, lightweight version of the startup’s “SightPlus” device. This will including condensing its existing “vision enhancing” technology into a single pair of glasses. The idea is to make it a lot more practical and less socially awkward for the person wearing the device.
“The collaboration with Sony will add to the expertise of the existing GiveVision team, and provide world leading technology expertise around camera, display and smartphone innovation, as well as a global manufacturing footprint,” says GiveVision.
As part of the collaboration, GiveVision will be relocating its design office to the Sony UK Tec facility in Wales in the U.K. To date, GiveVision has received support from Telefonica, Pfizer and the NHS.
GiveVision CEO Stan Karpenko tells me that around 1 in 3 people lose their sight by the age of 65 to conditions such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy. And that for those affected, there is currently no cure and very few options to restore vision.
“Those that have been affected suffer immensely every single day,” he says. “But with better ‘tools’ we can make them suffer less. We can help them to be more independent which will improve their quality of life significantly.
“At GiveVision we have developed a pair of electronic glasses that helps patients with even the most severe cases of un-curable sight loss to see clearly again by projecting a video of real-world into the working part of the retina”.
To that end, a recent study by Moorfields Eye Hospital found that almost 70% of users of the SightPlus prototype device reported that their visual acuity was enhanced to 0.2 logMAR or better, which I’m told is close to a normal level of vision.
“59 out of the 60 trial participants (98%) found that SightPlus improved their visual acuity by an average of six lines on a sight test chart (31 EDTRS letters or 0.6 logMar),” says the startup.
However, one of the biggest challenges that needed to be overcome is distilling the tech down to something that is actually wearable and still works. Consumer VR headsets not only remain quite bulky and heavy but they don’t provide a wide enough field of view to enable a visually impaired person to see.
“This is why this partnership with Sony is so important,” adds Karpenko. “We can manufacture a medical device that has 100 degree-plus field of view, and that actually works for the visually impaired, while looking like a pair of designer shades!”.

Monzo launches free and paid-for business bank accounts

Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank, is officially launching business bank accounts today, after an extensive trial period over the last 12 months that saw early access given to 2,500 business customers.
Perhaps surprisingly, right out of the gate Monzo is offering two versions of its business bank account — which is aimed at sold traders and SMEs — a free account and a premium paid-for account, confirming our scoop from last week.
The free Monzo business account is called “Business Lite” and has a feature-set similar to Monzo’s consumer account, in addition to providing web access not just mobile app-based banking. The paid business account is called “Business Pro” and costs £5 per month.
It has a host of business features, including “Tax Pots,” which lets businesses put aside a percentage of inbound payments in preparation for a future tax bill (a simple but fairly ingenious feature), integration with third-party accounting software, multi-user accounts, and in-app invoicing tools.
Monzo business account tiers
In a call with Monzo co-founder and CEO Tom Blomfield late last week, I asked him why the bank had decided to charge from the get-go, when others, such as rival challenger bank Starling, has so far kept business banking free (albeit it, heavily subsidised via state aid)
“Charging a small fee… allows us to invest more in power features,” he tells me. “So things like accounting integrations, multi-user access that that not all businesses need but cost us more to build. And so it seems fair to offer a free tier for people who don’t need that extra powerful functionality. And then a pro tier for people who do. I think for five pounds a month it’s fabulous value; the number of hours saved on bookkeeping through things like tax pots and integrations with Xero, will very, very quickly pay for that”.
Another noticeable aspect of Monzo’s business banking product is that it feels quite polished at launch. During its formative years, the upstart bank prioritised speed to market and an iterative product development process, which, for the most part, has served Monzo well. However, it also led to mishaps last year and at times the appearance of a ‘move fast, half bake things’ philosophy. With 4 million customers, Blomfield says the company is evolving its approach.
“Your point on polish is I think really apt,” he tells me. “I think In 2019, especially the first half of 2019, we tried to do too many things in parallel, and we spread ourselves too thin and launched too early. And I think we didn’t quite realise that we’re sort of a national brand now. YouGov named us the number one brand in the U.K. last year. And I think we were still operating a little bit like a scrappy startup rather than a mature bank. And so this year, and this is the first one, we will launch two or three things… [and] the level of polish and sort of maturity at launch will be much, much higher”.
Candidly, Blomfield acknowledges that this has required a different way of working, which he says the team has embraced. “I’m really really proud of this business product. It’s performing exceptionally well. The feedback so far has just been spectacular, so I’m really excited about it”.
Asked what assumptions proved correct and what was less obvious during the 12 months Monzo spent developing its business bank accounts, Blomfield says the team knew that multi-user access was going to be a big thing, and that instant notifications are a surprisingly useful for businesses as well. “If you’re a freelancer, knowing that your client has just paid you is really powerful,” he says.
In contrasts, web access became more important than the team had initially realised, leading Monzo to invest quite heavily in a web portal for business accounts. In addition, Blomfield frames tax pots as “a simple but such a powerful feature”.
“It’s similar to roundup functionality you have in a personal account,” he explains. “Basically, anytime you get paid, you want to set aside a percentage so you don’t have that unpleasant tax problem 9 to 12 months down the line. [It’s a feature] people have really, really loved from our feedback and surveys”.

TransferWise partners with Alipay for international money transfers

TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service most recently valued by investors at $3.5 billion, has partnered with China’s Aliplay for international transfers.
The launch enables TransferWise’s now 7 million-plus users to be able to send Chinese yuan from 17 currencies to users of Alipay, which serves more than 1.2 billion people worldwide including via its local e-wallet partners.
Promising “instant” money transfers — under 20 seconds, apparently — TransferWise users simply need the recipient’s name and Alipay ID to initiate a money transfer. The money will then be sent to the bank account linked to the recipient’s Alipay profile.
It could be a potentially smart bit of business by TransferWise, which has sometimes struggled to secure the kind of partnerships that can accelerate its customer base and increase transaction volume. According to a 2019 report, the fintech is citing, China is projected to be one of the top remittance recipient countries in the world, with £54bn expected to be sent back home by Chinese expats and migrants living abroad.
“The partnership is a major expansion for TransferWise as it reaches a new, additional market of people managing their money via the Alipay platform,” says the company.
With that said, Alipay is the second meaningful partnership that TransferWise has announced in the last few months. In November, it joined forces with GoCardless, the London fintech that lets customers pay via recurring bank payments (known as Direct Debits in the U.K.). GoCardless is used by more than 50,000 businesses worldwide, spanning multinational corporations to SMBs, and the partnership sees its own FX functionality powered by TransferWise.

Riot automatically educates your team about phishing

Meet Riot, a company participating in Y Combinator’s current batch that wants to help you fight phishing attempts. Riot runs fake phishing campaigns on your employees. For instance, your team members could receive an email saying that their Google account has been deactivated to see if they can spot real email notifications from fake ones.
It has never been easier to secure your products and internal tools thanks to two-factor authentication, single sign-on and access policies. And yet, humans remain the most important vulnerability. Many data breaches start with a compromised account from one of your employees.
In other words, your company’s security is as strong as your least careful employee. That’s why educating your employees about security risks will be key in the coming years.

Essential advice for securing your small startup

Riot is currently divided in three different modules. First, you can set up fake phishing campaigns on your employees. You can select a periodicity so that your employees receive a fake phishing attempt at least once every 45 days for instance. You then select between a template library. Right now, Riot can send you fake notifications about a suspended account on Microsoft, Google, Dropbox orSlack, a new shared document on Google or Dropbox and an unbranded voicemail notification.
“With the new voicemail received notification, the person should have noticed that the email came from the noreply.link domain name,” Riot founder and CEO Benjamin Netter told me.

Second, admins get a nice dashboard to check the level of their employees. You can see if they weren’t fooled, if some of them clicked on a link and (worse) if some of them entered a login and a password. This way, you can check progress over time or run frequent campaigns on some employees.
Third, if you failed a test as an employee, your company can assign you a quick security training. It looks like a chat interface with a few questions. It works on desktop and mobile and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Short, effortless trainings should be more efficient when it comes to getting the message across instead of boring webinars.
“The next step is CEO fraud training. It’s something I’ve noticed more and more. I’ve talked with a ton of people who said that assistants often receive emails from their managers asking them to buy 10 Amazon gift cards,” Netter said.
But CEO fraud could be even worse than that. Some attackers send invoices to the accounting department asking for a large bank transfer.
Eventually, Riot could offer more modules beyond education. For example, the startup could partner with an insurance company to negotiate better terms for a cybersecurity insurance product based on your Riot data.
Riot’s founder Benjamin Netter was previously the co-founder and CTO of October (formerly known as Lendix), one of the leading crowd-lending platform in Europe. He has experience when it comes to assessing risk.
The company is just getting started and has signed a handful of clients. Plans start at $200 per month for companies up to 50 employees.

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