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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

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.

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.

American Airlines cuts long-haul international flights by 75%

American Airlines said it will suspend 75% of its long-haul international flights from the U.S., beginning March 16 in response to decreased demand and government travel restrictions put in place to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
American Airlines had already reduced its capacity. This latest move, which was announced Saturday evening, will slash international capacity 75% year-over-year. The suspended service will last through May 6, the airline said, adding that it will cut back on flights gradually over the next seven days to re-accommodate passengers and crew.
American Airlines said it will continue to operate one flight daily from Dallas-Fort Worth to London, one flight daily from Miami to London. It will also continue to fly three times a week from Dallas to Tokyo . American Airlines will also continue short-haul international flying, which includes flights to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central America and certain markets in the northern part of South America. American Airlines said it anticipates its domestic capacity in April will be reduced by 20% compared to last year and May’s domestic capacity will be reduced by 30% on a year-over-year basis.
Other airlines have reduced capacity, including Delta, Lufthansa and United. However, American Airlines’ actions surpass other reductions in service.
The reductions follow an executive order by President Donald Trump last week to ban non-U.S. citizens who are from or have recently been in China, Iran or 26 European countries from traveling to the United States for the next 30 days. The ban was extended on Friday to Ireland and the UK.

The Department of Homeland Security has also issued a Notice of Arrival Restrictions that requires American citizens, legal permanent residents and their immediate families who are returning home to the U.S. to travel through one of 13 airports upon arrival to the U.S., and then submit to an enhanced entry screening. They must then self-quarantine for 14 days once they reach their final destination, according to Homeland Security.
The 30-day travel ban does not apply to U.S. citizens or cargo.

Insurance AI startup Synthesized raises $2.8M from IQ Capital and Mundi Ventures

The insurance industry depends on data to support a number of functions the average person in the street is usually completely unaware of such as “informed risk selection”, underwriting and claims management. Like many industries, it would like to automate much of this but it’s just not that simple.
Synthesized is a UK startup that tries to reduce friction on preparing all the data that’s needed, to enable insurers to share data safely, complying with regulations. The more that happens, the more innovation can happen, such as insuring for a low-carbon economy, something which will become increasingly important.
It’s now raised $2.8m in a new round of funding co-led by Cambridge-based IQ Capital and Mundi Ventures, with participation from Seedcamp, Pretiosum Ventures, and a number of finance and technology executives in the UK. Financing from the round will be used to double the number of its employees in London, and build out its sales and product teams.
Cofounder Nicolai Baldin said: “Synthesized substantially reduces the time to develop and comprehensively test data-driven projects and as a result empowers engineers to build better products and services for end-users. With the new funding from IQ Capital and Mundi Ventures, Synthesized is well-positioned to facilitate its business operations to turbocharge development processes across many sectors, such as finance, insurance and healthcare.”
Ed Stacey, managing partner at IQ Capital said: “Responsible organizations are waking up to the need to ensure that their deployed machine learning systems are fair and unbiased, as well as being robust and accurate. Synthesized’s ability to create multiple, balanced data sets in a flexible way gives organizations and their customers the confidence they need in deployed production systems, while also greatly speeding up the development process. Javier Santiso, CEO and Founder of Alma Mundi Ventures, said that “The prospects for Synthesized are bright and we see the impact of synthetic data permeating almost every industry.”
Synthesized competes in various ways with product from Gretel AI, Snorkel, Tonic AI, Hazy and Mostly AI.

Frontline Ventures raises new $80M fund focused on bringing US firms into Europe

Frontline Ventures, based between Dublin and London, has announced a new $80 million fund designed to assist US tech companies expanding into Europe.
The new FrontlineX fund — which means the firm now has $200 million under management — focuses mainly on growth-stage B2B companies and invest up to $5 million per company alongside lead investors in later-stage rounds. FrontlineX will be led by partners Stephen McIntyre and Brennan O’Donnell.
The firm believes that flawed go-to-market strategies and weak local talent networks means that US companies tend to lose too much money in foregone revenue when they expand into Europe and the team is aiming to try and address this.
Ireland has been a crucial landing point, particularly for US tech companies expanding into Europe, in part because of its low tax regime. No doubt, Irish investors are now realizing that with the UK leaving the EU, both Dublin and Ireland will become an even more attractive proposition.
Frontline has backed a number of successful companies in Seed Funds I and II, including Britebill (acquired by Amdocs), Logentries (acquired by Rapid7), and Orchestrate (acquired by CenturyLink) . Most recently, Frontline was an early investor in Pointy, which was acquired by Google last month.
Prior to joining Frontline, McIntyre setup Twitter’s European headquarters as the Vice President of EMEA and built its EMEA business. Prior to that he ran a substantial part of Google’s ads business.
O’Donnell joins FrontlineX as a partner in San Francisco. He previously held multiple go-to-market leadership roles at Google in the US and Europe and executive roles at Yammerm SurveyMonkey, Euclid and Airtable.
In a statement McIntyre said: “We’ve benchmarked the best of B2B software and seen that, by the time a company goes public, 30% of its revenue should be coming from Europe. But even the biggest names in tech fail to get there because of avoidable mistakes when they land. We’ve learned about international expansion the hard way as operators. The good news is that most of these problems are known and solvable.”
FrontlineX already invested in the Series B of TripActions, a company that has gone on to raise from Andreessen Horowitz at a $4 billion valuation; People.ai’s $100 million Series C together with Lightspeed, Andreessen Horowitz and ICONIQ; and Clearbanc’s $50 million Series B with Emergence and Highland. The VC has also backed more than 60 companies with recent investments including TeachCloud, Siren, Cloudsmith and Sweepr.
Ariel Cohen, the CEO of TripActions, commented that Frontline was “a crucial source of go-to-market advice”.

Africa Roundup: TLcom closes $71M fund, Jumo raises $55M, AWS partners with Safaricom

VC firm TLcom Capital closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million in February, and announced plans to invest in 12 startup over the next 18 months.
The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech-enabled, revenue-driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.
He told TechCrunch the fund was somewhat agnostic on startup sectors, but was leaning toward infrastructure, logistics ventures vs. consumer finance companies.
On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya,  South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.
TLcom’s current Africa portfolio includes Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, Kenya’s Twiga Foods,  a B2B food supply-chain company and tech-talent accelerator Andela.
Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .
For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

TLcom Capital closes $71M Africa fund with plans to back 12 startups

One $50 million round wasn’t enough for South Africa’s Jumo, so the fintech firm raised another — $55 million — in February, backed by
Goldman Sachs led the Cape Town based company’s $52 million round back in 2018.
“This fresh investment comes from new and existing…investors including Goldman Sachs,  Odey Asset Management and LeapFrog Investments,” Jumo said in a statement —  though Goldman told TechCrunch its participation in this week’s round isn’t confirmed.
After the latest haul, Jumo has raised $146 million in capital, according to Crunchbase.
Founded in 2015, the venture offers a full tech stack for partners to build savings, lending, and insurance products for customers in emerging markets.

Jumo is active in six markets and plans to expand to two new countries in Africa (Nigeria and Ivory Coast) and two in Asia (Bangladesh and India).
The company’s products have disbursed over $1 billion loans and served over 15 million people and small businesses, according to Jumo data.
Jumo joins a growing list of African digital-finance startups raising big money from outside investors and expanding abroad. A $200 million investment by Visa in 2019 catapulted Nigerian payments firm Interswitch  to unicorn status, the same year the company launched its Verge card product on Discover’s global network.

South African fintech startup Jumo raises second $50M+ VC round

Amazon Web Services  has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.
In a statement to TechCrunch,  the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom  will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.
Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa  mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.
Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.
Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).
M-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.
A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.
The Safaricom-AWS partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.
The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.
More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch
These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors
After VCs spend millions Nigeria restricts ride-hail motorbike taxis
Africa e-tailer Jumia reports first full-year results post NYSE IPO
Sokowatch raises $14M to digitize Africa’s informal B2B supply-chain
African crowdsolving startup Zindi scales 10,000 data scientists
African tech around the ‘net
Ethiopian ed-tech company Gebeya raises $2m funding round
Nigerian crypto platform Bitfxt lands $15m from UK investors, Payitup parent company

Lyft ramps up self-driving program

A year ago, Lyft submitted a report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that summed up its 2018 autonomous vehicle testing activity in a single, short paragraph.
“Lyft Inc. did not operate any vehicles in autonomous mode on California public roads during the reporting period,” the letter read. “As such, Lyft Inc. has no autonomous mode disengagements to report.”
The 2019 data tells a different story. Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to data released earlier this week by the CA DMV. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode.
The report is the latest sign that Lyft is trying to ramp up its self-driving vehicle program known as Level 5. 
The CA DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report that includes data such as total AV miles driven and number of vehicles. It also requires companies to report “disengagements,” a term that describes each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode either because its technology failed or a human safety driver took manual control for safety reasons.
That’s still far below established AV developers such as Cruise and Waymo, which accumulated 831,000 and 1.45 million autonomous miles, respectively. And it makes up just a tiny sliver of the total autonomous miles racked up by the 36 companies that tested on public roads in 2019.
The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.
Other companies scaled back public testing in California. Some moved public testing outside of California, others retracted due to the high cost. Others said they were opting to place great emphasis on simulation.
Still, the report shows Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv . Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas.
Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — was launched in July 2017. Today, Level 5 employs more than 400 employees in the U.S., Munich and London.

Testing on public roads in California began in November 2018 with a pilot program in Palo Alto that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto. The pilot provided on-demand rides set on fixed routes such as traveling between the Lyft office and Caltrain.
Since then, the company has expanded the scope and geography of the pilot. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.
Lyft is also testing on a dedicated closed-course track in East Palo Alto that it opened in November 2019. The company told TechCrunch it uses this facility, which can be changed to include intersections, traffic lights and merges, as test software prior to putting its vehicles on public roads.

Google, Toyota invest in WhereIsMyTransport to map transport in emerging cities

In emerging markets, up to 80% of the population may have to rely on informally-run public transport to get around. Literally, privately-run buses and cars. But journey-planning apps that work well for commuters in developed markets like New York or London do not work well in emerging markets, which is why you can’t just flip open an app like Citymapper in Lagos, Nigeria. Furthermore, mobility is a fundamental driver of social, political, and economic growth and if you cannot get around then you can’t grow as a country. So it’s pretty important for these emerging economies.
WhereIsMyTransport specialises in mapping these formal and informal public transport networks in emerging markets. They have mapped 34 cities in Africa and are mapping cities in India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Its integrated mobility API includes proprietary algorithms, features, and capabilities designed for complex transit networks in these emerging markets.
It’s now raised a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Liil Ventures, that also includes returning investors Global Innovation Fund and Goodwell Investments, plus new strategic investment from Google, Nedbank, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC).
The platform now has more than 750,000 km of routes in 39 cities and the new strategic investment will drive further international expansion.
Devin de Vries, said: “We make the invisible visible, by collecting all kinds of data related to public transport and turning the data into information that can be shared with the people who need it most. In emerging markets, the mobility ecosystem is complex; informal public transport doesn’t behave like formal public transport. Data and technology solutions that work well in London or San Francisco wouldn’t make anything like the same impact, if any at all, in the cities where we work. Our solutions are designed specifically to overcome these contextual challenges.”
Mr. Masato Yamanami, Automotive Division’s CEO of Toyota Tsusho Corporation. “Our division’s global network, that covers 146 countries, is primarily focused on new emerging countries where people rely on informal public transport. Through strategic collaboration with WhereIsMyTransport, we will establish better and more efficient mobility services that help to resolve social challenges and contribute to the overall economic development of nations, primarily emerging nations.”
Alix Peterson Zwane, Chief Executive Officer, Global Innovation Fund said: “Informal and often unreliable mass transit is a significant problem that disproportionately affects poor people. We are excited to continue to work with WhereIsMyTransport to make mass transportation in emerging cities more accessible and more efficient.”

Tractable claims $25M to sell damage-assessing AIs to more insurance giants

London-based insurtech AI startup Tractable, which is applying artificial intelligence to speed up accident and disaster recovery by using computer vision to perform visual damage appraisal instead of getting humans to do the job, has closed a $25 million Series C, led by Canadian investment fund Georgian Partners.
Existing investors also participated, including Insight Partners and Ignition Partners. The round nearly doubles the 2014-founded startup’s total funding, taking it to $55M raised to date.
When TechCrunch spoke to Tractable’s co-founder and CEO Alexandre Dalyac, back in 2018, he said the company’s aim is to speed up insurance-related response times around events like car accidents and natural disasters by as much as 10x.

Tractable is applying AI to accident and disaster appraisal

Two years on the startup isn’t breaking out any hard metrics — but says its product is used by a number of multinational insurance firms, including Ageas in the UK, France’s Covéa, Japan’s Tokio Marine and Polish insurer Talanx-Warta — to analyse vehicle damage “effectively and efficiently”.
It also says the technology has been involved in accelerating insurance-related assessments for “hundreds of thousands of people worldwide”.
Tractable’s pitch is that AI appraisals of damage to vehicles/property can take place via its platform “in minutes”, thereby allowing for repairs to begin sooner and people’s livelihoods to be restored more quickly.
Though of course if the AI algorithm denies a person’s claim the opposite would happen.
The startup said its new funding will go on expanding its market footprint. It has customers across nine markets, globally, at this point. And in addition to its first offices in the UK and US recently opened a permanent office in Japan — with the stated aim of serving new clients in the Asia region.
It also said the Series C will be used for continued product development by further enhancing its AI.
Its current product line up includes AI for assessing damage to vehicles and another focused on the appraisal of damage caused by natural disasters, such as to buildings by hurricanes.
“Our AI solutions capture and process photos and damage and predict repair costs — at scale,” Tractable claims on its website, noting its proprietary algorithms can be fed by “satellite, drone or smartphone imagery”.
Commenting on the funding in a statement Lonne Jaffe, MD at Insight Partners and also Tractable board director, said: “Tractable has achieved tremendous scale in the past year with a customer base across nine countries, a differentiated data asset, and the expansion of their team to over 100 employees across London, New York, and now Tokyo. We are excited to continue to invest in Tractable as the team brings its powerful AI technology to many more countries.”
Emily Walsh, principal at Georgian Partners, added that the startup’s “sophisticated approach to computer vision applied to accident recovery is resonating with the largest players globally, who are using the platform to make real-time, data-driven decisions while dramatically improving the customer experience”.
“We’re incredibly excited to partner with the Tractable team to help them move even faster on bringing the next wave of technological innovation to accident and disaster recovery across the world,” she added.
It’s worth noting that in the EU citizens have a right, under data protection law, to (human) review of algorithmic decisions if they a legal or similarly significant impact — and insurance would likely fall into that category.
EU policymakers also recently laid out a proposal to regulate certain “high risk” AI systems and said they intend to expand the bloc’s consumer protection rules by bringing in a testing and certification program for the data-sets that feed algorithms powering AI-driven services to support product safety.

VC firm Oxx says SaaS startups should avoid high-risk growth models

Oxx, a European venture capital firm co-founded by Richard Anton and Mikael Johnsson, this month announced the closing of its debut fund of $133 million to back “Europe’s most promising SaaS companies” at Series A and beyond.
Launched in 2017 and headquartered in London and Stockholm, Oxx pitches itself as one of only a few European funds focused solely on SaaS, and says it will invest broadly across software applications and infrastructure, highlighting five key themes: “data convergence & refinery,” “future of work,” “financial services infrastructure,” “user empowerment” and “sustainable business.”
However, its standout USP is that the firm says it wants to be a more patient form of capital than investors who have a rigid Silicon Valley SaaS mindset, which, it says, often places growth ahead of building long-lasting businesses.
I caught up with Oxx’s co-founders to dig deeper into their thinking, both with regards to the firm’s remit and investment thesis, and to learn more about the pair’s criticism of the prevailing venture capital model they say often pushes SaaS companies to prioritize “grow at all costs.”
TechCrunch: Oxx is described as a B2B software investor investing in SaaS companies across Europe from Series A and beyond. Can you be more specific regarding the size of check you write and the types of companies, geographies, technologies and business models you are focusing on?
Richard Anton: We will lead funding rounds anywhere in the range $5-20 million in SaaS companies. Some themes we’re especially excited about include data convergence and the refining and usage of data (think applications of machine learning, for example), the future of work, financial services infrastructure, end-user empowerment and sustainable business.

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.
Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.
VC in Africa
Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.
Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.
Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

Snap accelerator names its latest cohort

Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.
The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.
The list of new companies include:
Brightly — an Oakland, Calif.-based media company angling to be the conscious consumer’s answer to Refinery29.
Charli Cohen — a London-based fashion and lifestyle brand.
Hardworkers — a Cambridge, Mass.-based professional digital community built for blue-collar workers.
Mogul Millennial — this Dallas-based company is a digital media platform for black entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
Nuggetverse — Los Angeles-based Nuggetverse is creating a children’s media business based on its marquee character, Tubby Nugget.
SketchAR — this Lithuanian company is developing an AI-based mobile app for teaching drawing using augmented reality.
Stipop — a Seoul-based sticker API developer with a library of over 100,000 stickers created by 5,000 artists.
TRASH — using this machine learning-based video editing toolkit, users can quickly create and edit high-quality, short-form video. The company is backed by none other than the National Science Foundation and based in Los Angeles.
Veam — another Seoul-based social networking company, Veam uses Airdrop as a way to create persistent chats with nearby users as a geolocated social network.
Wabisabi Design, Inc. — hailing from Mexico City, this startup makes mini games in augmented reality for brands and advertisers.
The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator
Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).
Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.
“Building from the momentum of our first two Yellow programs, this new class approaches mobile creativity through the diverse lenses of augmented reality, platforms, commerce and media, yet each company has a clear vision to bring their products to life,” said Mike Su, Director of Yellow. “This class shows us that there’s no shortage of innovation at the intersection of creativity and technology, and we’re excited to be part of each company’s journey.”

Sixgill raises $15M to expand its dark web intelligence platform

Sixgill, an Israeli cyber threat intelligence company that specializes in monitoring the deep and dark web, today announced that it has raised a $15 million funding round led by Sonae IM, a fund based in Portugal, and London-based REV Venture Partners. Crowdfunding platform OurCrowd also participated in the round, as did previous investors Elron and Terra Venture Partners.
According to Crunchbase, this brings the company’s total funding to $21 million to date.
Sixgill, which was founded in 2014, plans to use the new funding to expand its efforts in North America, EMEA and APAC. In addition to expanding its geographic focus, Sixgill also plans to expand its product’s capabilities, including its Dynamic CVE Rating.

 
It’s current customer base mostly includes large enterprises, law enforcement and other government agencies as well as other security providers.
Given its focus, that client list doesn’t come as a surprise. The company uses its technology to automatically monitor dark web forums and marketplaces for potential threats and then find those that could affect its clients. Users can either access Sixgill’s through its SaaS platform or install it on-premises. For enterprises and agencies that don’t have their own staff to run the service, Sixgills also offers access to its internal analysts.
“Sixgill uses advanced automation and artificial intelligence technologies to provide accurate, contextual intelligence to customers. The solution integrates seamlessly into the platforms that security teams use to orchestrate, automate, and manage security events,” said Sharon Wagner, CEO of Sixgill. “The market has made it clear that Sixgill has built a powerful real-time engine for more effective handling of the rapidly expanding threat landscape; this investment will position us for significant growth and expansion in 2020.”

TLcom Capital closes $71M Africa fund with plans to back 12 startups

VC firm TLcom Capital has closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million with plans to make up to 12 startup investments over the next 18 months.
The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech enabled, revenue driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.
“We’re rather sector agnostic, but right now we are looking at companies that are more infrastructure type tech rather than super commoditized things like consumer lending,” he told TechCrunch on a call.
On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.
Part of the fund’s investment approach, according to Caio, is backing viable companies with strong founders and then staying out of the way.
“We are venture capitalists that believe in looking at Africa as an investment opportunity that empowers local entrepreneurs without…coming in and explaining what to do,” said Caio.
TLcom’s team includes Caio (who’s Italian), partners Ido Sum and Andreata Muforo (from Zimbabwe) and senior partner Omobola Johnson, the former Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria.
Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in 2018, Johnson offered perspective on next startups in Africa that could reach billion-dollar valuations. “When I look at the African market I suspect it’s going to be a company that’s very much focused on business to business and business to very small business — a company that can that can solve their challenges,” she said.
Omobola Johnson
TLcom’s current Africa portfolio reflects startups similar to what Johnson described. The fund has invested in Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, which is working to reduce business delivery costs in Africa.
TLcom has also backed Kenya’s Twiga Foods, a B2B food distribution company aimed a improving supply-chain operations around agricultural products and fast-moving-consumer-goods for farmers and SMEs.
Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .

Kenya’s Twiga Foods eyes West Africa after $30M raise led by Goldman

Other investments for TLcom include talent accelerator Andela  — which trains and places African software engineers — and Ulesson, the latest venture of serial founder Sim Shagaya.
The firm’s close of the $71 million Tide Africa Fund comes on the high-end of a several-year mobilization of capital for the continent’s startup scene. Investment shops specifically focused on Africa have been on the rise. A TechCrunch and Crunchbase study in 2018 tracked 51 viable Africa specific VC funds globally, TLcom included.
This trend has moved in tandem with a quadrupling of venture funding for the continent over the past six years. Accurately measuring VC for Africa is a work in progress, but one of the earlier reliable estimates placed it at just over $400 million in 2014. Recent stats released by Partech peg Africa focused VC funding at over $2 billion for 2019.
TLcom’s listed in a number of the larger rounds that made up Partech’s tally.
The fund’s latest $71 million raise, which included support from Sango Capital and IFC, reversed the roles a bit for TLcom founder Maurizio Caio.
The VC principal — who usually gets pitches from African startups — needed to sell the value of African tech to other investors.
“It’s been tough to raise the fund, there’s no doubt about it,” Caio said. TLcom highlighted its past exit record and the viability of the African market and founders to bring investors on board.
“We had the advantage of showing some good exits…The emphasis was also on the gigantic size of these markets that are underserved, the role that technology can play, and the fact that the entrepreneurs in Africa are just as good as anywhere else,” said Caio.
He also referenced African startups being constrained by the social impact factors often placed on them from outside investors.
“The equation is not just about ensuring employment and inclusion, but also about the fact that African entrepreneurs have to be in charge of their own destiny without instructions from the West,” he said.
For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

Local venture capital fund formation is on the rise in Africa, led by Nigeria

UK Council websites are letting citizens be profiled for ads, study shows

On the same day that a data ethics advisor to the UK government has urged action to regulate online targeting a study conducted by pro-privacy browser Brave has highlighted how Brits are being profiled by the behavioral ad industry when they visit their local Council’s website — perhaps seeking info on local services or guidance about benefits including potentially sensitive information related to addiction services or disabilities.
Brave found that nearly all UK Councils permit at least one company to learn about the behavior of people visiting their sites, finding that a full 409 Councils exposed some visitor data to private companies.
While many large councils (serving 300,000+ people) were found exposing site visitors to what Brave describes as “extensive tracking and data collection by private companies” — with the worst offenders, London’s Enfield and Sheffield City Councils, exposing visitors to 25 data collectors apiece.
Brave argues the findings represent a conservative illustration of how much commercial tracking and profiling of visitors is going on on public sector websites — a floor, rather than a ceiling — given it was only studying landing pages of Council sites without any user interaction, and could only pick up known trackers (nor could the study look at how data is passed between tracking and data brokering companies).
Nor is the first such study to warn that public sector websites are infested with for-profit adtech. A report last year by Cookiebot found users of public sector and government websites in the EU being tracked when they performed health-related searches — including queries related to HIV, mental health, pregnancy, alcoholism and cancer.
Brave’s study — which was carried out using the webxray tool — found that almost all (98%) of the Councils used Google systems, with the report noting that the tech giant owns all five of the top embedded elements loaded by Council websites, which it suggests gives the company a god-like view of how UK citizens are interacting with their local authorities online.
The analysis also found 198 of the Council websites use the real-time bidding (RTB) form of programmatic online advertising. This is notable because RTB is the subject of a number of data protection complaints across the European Union — including in the UK, where the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) itself has been warning the adtech industry for more than half a year that its current processes are in breach of data protection laws.
However the UK watchdog has preferred to bark softly in the industry’s general direction over its RTB problem, instead of taking any enforcement action — a response that’s been dubbed “disastrous” by privacy campaigners.
One of the smaller RTB players the report highlights — which calls itself the Council Advertising Network (CAN) — was found sharing people’s data from 34 Council websites with 22 companies, which could then be insecurely broadcasting it on to hundreds or more entities in the bid chain.
Slides from a CAN media pack refer to “budget conscious” direct marketing opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages about benefits, child care and free local activities; “disability” marketing opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages such as home care, blue badges and community and social services; and “key life stages” marketing  opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages related to moving home, having a baby, getting married or losing a loved one.

This is from the Council Advertising Network’s media pack. CAN is a small operation. They are just trying to take a small slide of the Google and IAB “real-time bidding” cake. But this gives an insight in to how insidious this RTB stuff is. pic.twitter.com/b1tiZi1p4P
— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) February 4, 2020

Brave’s report — while a clearly stated promotion for its own anti-tracking browser (given it’s a commercial player too) — should be seen in the context of the ICO’s ongoing failure to take enforcement action against RTB abuses. It’s therefore an attempt to increase pressure on the regulator to act by further illuminating a complex industry which has used a lack of transparency to shield massive rights abuses and continues to benefit from a lack of enforcement of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.
And a low level of public understanding of how all the pieces in the adtech chain fit together and sum to a dysfunctional whole, where public services are turned against the citizens whose taxes fund them to track and target people for exploitative ads, likely contributes to discouraging sharper regulatory action.
But, as the saying goes, sunlight disinfects.
Asked what steps he would like the regulator to take, Brave’s chief policy officer, Dr Johnny Ryan, told TechCrunch: “I want the ICO to use its powers of enforcement to end the UK’s largest data breach. That data breach continues, and two years to the day after I first blew the whistle about RTB, Simon McDougall wrote a blog post accepting Google and the IAB’s empty gestures as acts of substance. It is time for the ICO to move this over to its enforcement team, and stop wasting time.”
We’re reached out to the ICO for a response to the report’s findings.

Skymind Global Ventures launches $800M fund and London office to back AI startups

Skymind Global Ventures (SGV) appeared last year in Asia/US as a vehicle for the previous founders of a YC-backed open-source AI platform to invest in companies that used the platform.
Today it announces the launch of an $800 million fund to back promising new AI companies and academic research. It will consequently be opening a London office as an extension to its original Hong Kong base.
SGV Founder and CEO Shawn Tan said in a statement: “Having our operations in the UK capital is a strategic move for us. London has all the key factors to help us grow our business, such as access to diverse talent and investment, favorable regulation, and a strong and well-established technology hub. The city is also the AI growth capital of Europe with the added competitive advantage of boasting a global friendly time zone that overlaps with business hours in Asia, Europe and the rest of the world.”
SGV will use its London base to back research and development and generate business opportunities across Europe and Asia.
The company helps companies and organizations to launch their AI applications by providing them supported access to “Eclipse Deeplearning4j”, an open-source AI tool.
The background is that the Deeplearning4j tool was originally published by Adam Gibson in late 2013 and later became a YC-backed startup, called Pathmind, which was cofounded to commercialize Deeplearning4j. It later changed its name to Skymind.
SGV is a wholly separate investment company that Adam Gibson joined as VP to run its AI division, called Konduit. Konduit now commercializes the Deeplearning4j open source tools.
Adam Gibson now joins SGV as Vice President, to run its software division, Konduit, which delivers and supports Eclipse Deeplearning4j to clients, as well as offering training development.
SGV firm says it plans to train up to 200 AI professionals for its operations in London and Europe.
In December last year “Skymind AI Berhad”, the Southeast Asia arm of Skymind and Huawei Technologies signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop a Cloud and Artificial Intelligence Innovation Hub, commencing with Malaysia and Indonesia in 2020.

WholyMe, which makes natural products for chronic pain, closes Seed round

WholyMe, a London startup that makes and markets ‘natural relief’ products to manage chronic pain, has closed a £500,000 Seed round from investors Financière Saint James, V1 Capital, Guibor and business angels. The round also includes Joyance Partners, a New York-based VC concentrating on the new science emerging around ‘health and happiness’ which recently expanded to the UK and Europe.
The funding will be used to manufacture WholyMe’s first range of 100% organic supplements and topicals for muscle and joint health, starting with a cannabis-based ointment slated to launch Spring 2020. Formulated in-house and manufactured in Europe, WholyMe products will be sold online and the start-up also has plans to partner with gym clubs to support athletic millennials by preventing injuries.
Its direct competitors include natural health brands like Tiger Balm, BetterYou, Weleda but also adjacent competitors such as Voltarol and Deep Heat.
They say their differentiating factors are that, at the product level, their products “have no adverse effects as opposed to conventional pain killers”, while they say the ingredients are organic and contain no synthetics, petroleum, GMOs etc.
The market they are aiming at is certainly large. The natural medicine products market is now worth €16bn in Europe and has grown +7% CAGR from 2017-2023, according to the latest figures.
Co-Founders Celine Ivari and Quitterie de Rivoyre researched and developed of WholyMe’s first products while trying to solve chronic inflammation problems plaguing family members.
Ivari says: “When my mother suffered from severe inflammation, she was overloaded with painkillers and prescription drugs, which had terrible side effects. Having studied the genetics of human disease, I knew there were alternative solutions to manage her pain. I helped her improve her wellbeing through natural remedies.”
Paolo Pio, European managing director for Joyance Partners, said in a statement: “We’re thrilled to support WholyMe as they push the boundaries of health & pain management to bring greater happiness to the world.”

London’s Met Police switches on live facial recognition, flying in face of human rights concerns

While EU lawmakers are mulling a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition to safeguard individuals’ rights, as part of risk-focused plan to regulate AI, London’s Met Police has today forged ahead with deploying the privacy hostile technology — flipping the switch on operational use of live facial recognition in the UK capital.
The deployment comes after a multi-year period of trials by the Met and police in South Wales.
The Met says its use of the controversial technology will be targeted to “specific locations… where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders”.
“Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences,” it adds.
It also claims cameras will be “clearly signposted”, adding that officers will be “deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity”.
“At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passers-by,” it writes. “The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body worn video or ANPR.”
The biometric system is being provided to the Met by Japanese IT and electronics giant, NEC.
In a press statement, assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave claimed the force is taking a balanced approach to using the controversial tech.
“We all want to live and work in a city which is safe: the public rightly expect us to use widely available technology to stop criminals. Equally I have to be sure that we have the right safeguards and transparency in place to ensure that we protect people’s privacy and human rights. I believe our careful and considered deployment of live facial recognition strikes that balance,” he said.
London has seen a rise in violent crime in recent years, with murder rates hitting a ten-year peak last year.
The surge in violent crime has been linked to cuts to policing services — although the new Conservative government has pledged to reverse cuts enacted by earlier Tory administrations.
The Met says its hope for the AI-powered tech is will help it tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and “help protect the vulnerable”.
However its phrasing is not a little ironic, given that facial recognition systems can be prone to racial bias, for example, owing to factors such as bias in data-sets used to train AI algorithms.
So in fact there’s a risk that police-use of facial recognition could further harm vulnerable groups who already face a disproportionate risk of inequality and discrimination.
Yet the Met’s PR doesn’t mention the risk of the AI tech automating bias.
Instead it makes pains to couch the technology as “additional tool” to assist its officers.
“This is not a case of technology taking over from traditional policing; this is a system which simply gives police officers a ‘prompt’, suggesting “that person over there may be the person you’re looking for”, it is always the decision of an officer whether or not to engage with someone,” it adds.
While the use of a new tech tool may start with small deployments, as is being touting here, the history of software development underlines how potential to scale is readily baked in.
A ‘targeted’ small-scale launch also prepares the ground for London’s police force to push for wider public acceptance of a highly controversial and rights-hostile technology via a gradual building out process. Aka surveillance creep.
On the flip side, the text of the draft of an EU proposal for regulating AI which leaked last week — floating the idea of a temporary ban on facial recognition in public places — noted that a ban would “safeguard the rights of individuals”. Although it’s not yet clear whether the Commission will favor such a blanket measure, even temporarily.
UK rights groups have reacted with alarm to the Met’s decision to ignore concerns about facial recognition.
Liberty accused the force of ignoring the conclusion of a report it commissioned during an earlier trial of the tech — which it says concluded the Met had failed to consider human rights impacts.
It also suggested such use would not meet key legal requirements.
“Human rights law requires that any interference with individuals’ rights be in accordance with the law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be ‘necessary in a democratic society’,” the report notes, suggesting the Met earlier trials of facial recognition tech “would be held unlawful if challenged before the courts”.

When the Met trialled #FacialRecognition tech, it commissioned an independent review of its use.
Its conclusions:
The Met failed to consider the human rights impact of the techIts use was unlikely to pass the key legal test of being “necessary in a democratic society”
— Liberty (@libertyhq) January 24, 2020

A petition set up by Liberty to demand a stop to facial recognition in public places has passed 21,000 signatures.
Discussing the legal framework around facial recognition and law enforcement last week, Dr Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL, told us that in his view the EU’s data protection framework, GDPR, forbids facial recognition by private companies “in a surveillance context without member states actively legislating an exemption into the law using their powers to derogate”.
A UK man who challenged a Welsh police force’s trial of facial recognition has a pending appeal after losing the first round of a human rights challenge. Although in that case the challenge pertains to police use of the tech — rather than, as in the Met’s case, a private company (NEC) providing the service to the police.

LocalGlobe partner Julia Hawkins discusses fem tech’s risks and rewards

London-based seed fund LocalGlobe is incredibly active at the early-stage end of the startup pipeline with a broad focus across multiple sectors and areas, including health.
We interviewed partner Julia Hawkins about the opportunities and risks related to fem tech investing in light of the fund’s early backing for Ferly, a female-founded startup with a subscription app that describes itself as an audio guide to “mindful sex.”
The startup says its mission is to open up conversations around female sexual pleasure and create a place for self-discovery and empowering community — touting “sex-positive” content that it says is “backed by research, written by experts, and personalized to you.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What we know (and don’t) about Goldman Sachs’ Africa VC investing

Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.
Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.
Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.
All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.

Bolt raises €50M in venture debt from the EU to expand its ride-hailing business

Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.
The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.
With this latest money, Bolt has raised over €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013 and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.
Bolt further said that its service now has over 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.
“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said The EIB’s Vice President Alexander Stubb in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”
The EIB is the non-profit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.
Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs.
Opting for “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution is one attractive factor of the funding. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.
“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder and CEO of Bolt, in a statement. :Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”
(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: it tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)
While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round from funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past.
One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been its safety record — indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing and while it does, it’s business as usual. )
So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”
Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.
“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”

Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised some $35 billion in 2019. Felix Capital, the London firm founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 
Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.
As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.
Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.
That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).
It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.
Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 
This is not all that the company has focused on, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content), as well as increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.
Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.
The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.
“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”
The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs. They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.
“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.’”

Union Square Ventures leads legal tech startup Juro’s $5M Series A

Juro, a UK startup that’s using machine learning tech and user-centric design to do for contracts what Typeform does for online forms, has caught the eye of Union Square Ventures. The New York-based fund leads a $5 million Series A investment that’s being announced this morning.
Also participating in the Series A are existing investors Point Nine Capital, Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise) and Paul Forster (co-founder of Indeed). The round takes Juro’s total raised to-date to $8M, including a $2M seed which we covered back in 2018.
London is turning into a bit of a hub for legal tech, per Juro CEO and co-founder Richard Mabey — who cites “strong legal services industry” and “strong engineering talent” as explainers for that.
It was also, he reckons, “a bit of a draw” for Union Square Ventures — making what Juro couches as a “rare” US-to-Europe investment in legal tech in the city via the startup.
“Having brand name customers in the US certainly helped. But ultimately, they look for product-led companies with strong cross-functional teams wherever they find them,” he adds.
Juro’s business is focused on taking the tedium out of negotiating and drawing up contracts by making contract-building more interactive and trackable. It also handles e-signing, and follows on with contract management services, using machine learning tech to power features such as automatic contract tagging and for flagging up unusual language.
All of that sums to being a “contract collaboration platform”, as Juro’s marketing puts it. Think of it like Google Docs but with baked in legal smarts. There’s also support for visual garnish like animated GIFs to spice up offer letters and engage new hires.
“We have a data model underlying our editor that transforms every contract into actionable data,” says Mabey. “Juro contracts look like contracts, smell like contracts but ultimately they are written in code. And that code structures the data within them. This makes a contract manager’s life 10x easier than using an unstructured format like Word/pdf.”
“Still our main competitor is MS Word,” he adds. “Our challenge is to bring lawyers (and other users of contracts) out of Word, which is a significant task. Fortunately, Word was never designed for legal workflows, so we can add lots of value through our custom-built editor.”
Part of Juro’s Series A funds will be put towards beefing up its machine learning/data science capabilities, per Mabey — who says the overall plan at this point is to “double down on product”, including by tripling the size of the product team.
“That means hiring more designers, data scientists and engineers — building our engineering team in the Baltics,” he tells us. “There’s so much more we are excited to do, especially on the ML/data side and the funding unlocks our ability to do this. We will also be building our commercial team (marketing, sales, cs) in London to serve the EU market and expand further into the US, where we already have some customers on the ground.”
The 2016-founded startup still isn’t breaking out customer numbers but says it’s processed more than 50,000 contracts for its clients so far, noting too that those contracts have been agreed in 50+ countries. (“Everywhere from Estonia to Japan to Kazakhstan,” as Mabey puts it.)
In terms of who Juro users are, it’s still mostly “mid-market tech companies” — with Mabey citing the likes of marketplaces (Deliveroo), SaaS (Envoy) and fintechs (Luno), saying it’s especially companies processing “high volumes of contracts”.
Another vertical it’s recently expanded into is media, he notes.
“E-signature giants have grown massively in the last few years, and some are gradually encroaching into the contract lifecycle — but again, they deal with files (pdfs mostly) rather than dynamic, browser-based documentation,” he argues, adding: “In terms of new legal tech entrants — I’m excited by Kira Systems especially, who are working on unpicking pdf contracts post-signature.”
As part of the Series A, Union Square Ventures parter, John Buttrick, is joining Juro’s board.
Commenting in a supporting statement, Buttrick said: “We look for founders with products equipped to change an industry. While contract management might not be new, Juro’s transformative vision for it certainly is. There’s no greater proof of the product’s ease of use than the fact that we negotiated and closed the funding round in it. We’re delighted to support Juro’s team in making their vision a reality.”
Juro’s contract management platform — dashboard view

Travelex suspends services after malware attack

Travelex, a major international foreign currency exchange, has confirmed its suspended some services after it was hit by malware on December 31.
The London-based company, which operates more than 1,500 stores globally, said it took systems offline to “as a precautionary measure in order to protect data” and to stop the spread of the malware.
Its U.K. website is currently offline, displaying a “server error” page. Its corporate site said the site was offline while it makes “upgrades.”  According to a tweet, Travelex said staff are “unable to perform transactions on the website or through the app.” Some stores are said to be manually processing customer requests.
Other companies, like Tesco Bank, which rely on Travelex for some services, have also struggled during the outage.
Travelex’s U.K. website is currently offline. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)
The company said no customer data has been compromised “to date,” but did not elaborate or provide evidence for the claim.
It’s also unclear why the company took two days to disclose the security incident.
The company declined to identify the kind of malware used in the attack, citing an ongoing forensic investigation. In the past year, several high-profile companies have been increasingly targeted by ransomware, a data encrypting malware, which only unscrambles the data once a ransom has been paid. Aluminum manufacturing giant Norsk Hydro and the U.K. Police Federation were both hit in March, then Arizona Beverages and Aebi Schmidt in April, and shipping company Pitney Bowes in October.
Several local and state governments have also been attacked by ransomware. New Orleans declared a state of emergency last month after its systems were hit by ransomware.
A Travelex spokesperson would not comment beyond the statement.

The sinkhole that saved the internet

Uber’s ride-hailing business hit with ban in Germany

Another legal blow for Uber in Europe: A regional court in Frankfurt has banned the company from sending ride-hailing requests to rental car companies via its app — with the court finding multiple competition violations.
The ruling, over Uber’s dispatching process, follows a legal challenge brought by a German taxi association.
In Germany Uber’s ride-hailing business works exclusively with professional and licensed private hire vehicle (PHV) companies — whose drivers and cars have the necessary licenses and permits to transport passengers. So the court ban essentially outlaws Uber’s current model in the country — unless it’s able to make changes to come into compliance.
Uber can appeal the Frankfurt court’s judgement but did not respond when asked whether it intends to do so.
The ban is enforceable immediately. It’s not clear whether Uber will temporarily pausing service in the market to come into compliance — it has not said it will do so, suggesting it intends to scramble to make changes while continuing to operate. But if it does that it risks fines if it’s caught breaching the law in the meanwhile.
Per Reuters, the plaintiff in the case, Taxi Deutschland, has said it will seek immediate provisional enforcement — with the threat of fines of €250 per ride, or up to €250,000 per ride for repeated offences if Uber fails to make the necessary changes.
“We will assess the court’s ruling and determine next steps to ensure our services in Germany continue,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “Working with licensed PHV operators and their professional drivers, we are committed to being a true partner to German cities for the long term.”
Among the issues identified by the court as violations of German law are Uber’s lack of a rental licence; rental drivers it uses to supply the driving service accepting jobs via the Uber app without first returning to their company’s headquarters; and rental drivers accepting jobs directly in the app without the jobs being previously received by their company.
Uber’s p2p ride-hailing offering has been effectively outlawed across Europe since a 2017 decision by the region’s top court which judged it a transportation company, not merely a tech platform — which means its business is subject to PHV regulations in each EU Member State. Compliance costs have thus been piled onto its model in the region. 
Uber argues that reform of German transport law is needed to take account of digital business models and app-based dispatch. In the meanwhile its business demonstrably remains vulnerable to legal challenges around PHVs regulations.
The Frankfurt court ruling also comes hard on the heels of a decision by London’s transport regulator not to renew Uber’s license to operate in the UK capital.
The city regulator found a “pattern of failures” which it said put “passenger safety and security at risk” — including unauthorised drivers being able to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver in at least 14,000 trips.
In that case Uber can continue to operate in London during the appeals process. The company submitted an appeal last week.

Instreamatic signs deals to allow people to talk to adverts on streaming services like an Alexa

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices the ‘Voice Era’ is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020 half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.
As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.
That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.
That, combined with the popularity of digital media – streaming music, podcasts, etc – has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there has not been many ways to capitalise on this.
So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.
So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device. 
Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.
Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.
 
Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every T.V. and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers – so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.
An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says ‘I don’t want to hear about it ever again,’ brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement – providing a continuous dialogue with the user.
Its competitor is AdsWizz which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.
 
By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.
 
The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and adtech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.
Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It’s also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.
This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast,
and SurferNETWORK.
All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30M in Europe and 150 million in Asia.
Thet company is headquartered in San Francisco and London with a development team in Moscow and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy reated the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, and DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub, and Zvuk.

Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating with a safety screen

Make space for another dating app in your single life: Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating but with female-friendly guardrails in the form of a user-controlled video blur effect.
The idea is pretty simple: Singles are matched randomly with another user who meets some basic criteria (age, location) for a three minute ‘ice breaker’ video call. The app suggests chat topics — like ‘pineapple on pizza, yay or nay’ — to get the conversation flowing. After this, each caller chooses whether or not to match — and if both match they can continue to chat via text.
The twist is that the video call is the ‘first contact’ medium for determining whether it’s a match or not. The call also starts “100% blurred” — for obvious, ‘dick pic’ avoidance reasons.
Blindlee says female users have control of the level of blur during the call — meaning they can elect to reduce it to 75%, 50%, 25% or nothing if they like what they’re (partially) seeing and hearing. Though their interlocutor also has to agree to the reduction so neither side can unilaterally rip the screen away.
Dating apps continue to be a bright spot for experimental ideas, despite category giants like Tinder dominating with a much cloned swipe-to-match formula. Tech giant Facebook also now has its own designs on the space. But turns out there’s no fixed formula for finding love or chemistry.
All the data in the world can’t necessarily help with that problem. So a tiny, bootstrapping startup like Blindlee could absolutely hit on something inspired that Tinder or Facebook hasn’t thought of (or else feels it can’t implement across a larger user-base).
Co-founder Sacha Nasan also reckons there’s space for supplementary dating apps.
“We’re focusing on blind dating which is a subset of dating so you can say that indirectly rather than directly we are competing with the big dating apps (Tinder etc). This is more niche and is definitely a new, untried concept to the dating world,” he argues. “However the good thing about dating apps is that they are not substitutes but complements.
“Just like people may have installed Uber on their phone but also Hailo and Lyft, people have multiple datings app installed as well (to maximise their chances of finding a partner) and that is an advantage. Nonetheless we still think that we only indirectly compete with other dating apps.”
Using a blur effect to preserve privacy is not in itself entirely a new idea. For example Muzmatch, a YC-backed dating app focused on matchmaking Muslims, offers a blur feature to users not wanting to put their profile photos out there for any other user to see.
But Blindlee is targeting a more general dating demographic. Though Nasan says it does plan to expand matching filters, if/when it can grow its user-base, to include additional criteria such as religion.
“The target is anyone above 18 (for legal reasons) and from the data we see most users are under 30,” he says. “So this covers university students to young professionals. On the spectrum of dating apps where ‘left’ would be hookups apps (like Tinder used to be) and ‘right’ would be relationship app (like Hinge), we position ourself more on the right side (a relationship app).”
Blindlee is also using video as the chemistry-channeling medium to help users decide if they match or not.
This is clever because it’s still a major challenge to know if you’ll click with an Internet stranger in real life with only a digitally mediated version of the person to go on. At least live on camera there’s only so much faking that can be done — well, unless the person is a professional actor or scammer.
And while plunging into a full-bore videochat with a random might sound a bit much, a blurry teaser with conversation prompts looks fairly low risk. The target user for Blindlee is also likely to have grown up online and with smartphones and Internet video culture. A videocall should therefore be a pretty comfortable medium of expression for these singles.
“The idea came from my experience in the app world (since the age of 14) combined with a situation where my cousin… went on a date from one of the dating apps where the man who showed up was about 15 years older. The man had used old pictures on his profile,” explains Nasan. “That’s just one story and there are plenty like these so I grew tired of the sometimes fake and superficial aspect of the online dating world. Together with my cousin’s brother [co-founder, Glenn Keller] we decided to develop Blindlee to make the process more transparent and safer but also fun.
“Blindee makes for a fun three-minute blurred video experience with a random person matching your criteria. It’s kind of like a short, pre-date ice-breaker before you potentially match and decide to meet in real life. And we put control of the blur filter in the woman’s hand to make it safer for women (but also because if the men would have control they would straight away ask to unblur it — and we have tested this!).”
The app is a free download for now but the plan is to move to a freemium model with a limit on the number of free video chats per day — charging a monthly subscription to unlock more than three daily calls.
“This will be priced cheap around £3-4/month compared to usual dating premium subscription which cost £10+ a month,” he says. “We basically look at this income as a way of paying the server bills (as every minute of video costs us).”
The London-based startup was founded in March and launched the app in October on iOS, adding an Android version earlier this month. Nasan says they’ve picked up around 5,000 registered users so far with only minimal marketing — such as dropping flyers on London university campuses.
While they’re bootstrapping the launch he says they may look to take in angel funding “as we see growth picking up”.

Kid-focused STEM device startup Kano sees layoffs as it puts Disney e-device on ice

London-based STEM device maker Kano has confirmed it’s cutting a number of jobs which it claims is part of a restructuring effort to shift focus to “educational computing”.
The job cuts — from 65 to 50 staff — were reported earlier by The Telegraph. Kano founder Alex Stein confirmed in a call with TechCrunch that Kano will have 50 staff going into next year. Although he said the kid-focused learn to code device business is also adding jobs in engineering and design, as well as eliminating other roles as it shifts focus.
He also suggested some of the cuts are seasonal and cyclical — related to getting through the holiday season.
Per Stein, jobs are being taking out as the company moves from building atop the Raspberry Pi platform — where it started, back in 2013, with its crowdfunded DIY computer — to a Windows-based learning platform.
Other factors he pointed to in relation to the layoffs include a new manufacturing setup in China, with a “simpler, larger contract manufacturer”; fewer physical retail outlets to support, with Kano leaning more on Amazon (which he said is “cheaper to support”); fewer dependencies on large partners and agencies, with Stein claiming 18% of US parents with kids aged 6-12 are now familiar with the brand, reducing its marketing overhead; and a desire to shrink the number of corporate managers vs makers on its books as “we’ve seen a stronger response to our first-party Kano products — Computer Kit, Pixel Kit, Motion Sensor Kit — than expected this year”.
“We have brought on some roles that are more focused on this new platform [Kano PC], and some roles that were focused on the Raspberry Pi are no longer with us,” he also told TechCrunch.
Kano unveiled its first Windows-based PC this fall. The 11.6-inch touch-enabled, Intel Atom-powered computer costs $300 — which puts it in the ballpark price-range of Google’s Chromebook.
The tech giant has maintained a steady focus on the educational computing market — putting a competitive squeeze on smaller players like Kano who are trying to carve out a business selling their own brand of STEM-focused hardware. Against the Google Goliath, Stein touts factors such as relative repairability and attention to computing performance for the Kano PC (which he claims is “on a par with the Surface Go”), in addition to having now thrown its lot in with rival giant, Microsoft.
“The more and more we got into school environments the more and more we were in conversations with major North American distributors to schools, the more we saw that people wanted that ‘DIY’… product design, they wanted the hackability and extensibility of the kit, they wanted the tools to be open source and manipulable but they also wanted to be able to run Photoshop and to run Class Dashboard and to run Microsoft Office. And so that was when we struck the partnership with Microsoft,” said Stein.
“The Windows computing is packed with content and curriculum for teachers and an integration with Microsoft Teams which requires a different sort of development capability,” he added.
“The roles we’re adding are around subscription, they’re around the computer, building new applications and tools for the computer and continuing to enrich the number of projects that are available for our members now — so we’re doing things like allowing people to connect the sensors in their wands to household IoT device. We’re introducing, over the Christmas period, a new collaborative drawing app.”
According to Stein, Kano is “already seeing demand for 60,000 units in this next calendar year” for its Windows-based PC — which he said is “well beyond what we expect… given the price-point.
Although he did not put a figure on exact sales to date of the Kano PC.
He also confirmed Kano will be dialling back the range of products it offers next year.
It recently emerged that an own-brand camera device, which Kano first trailed back in 2016, will not now be shipping. Stein also told us that another co-branded Disney product they’d been planning for 2020 is being “put back” — with no new date for release as yet.
Stein denied sales have been lacklustre — claiming the current Star Wars and Frozen e-products have “done enough for us”. (While a co-branded Harry Potter e-wand is selling faster than expected, per Stein, who said they had expected to have stock until March but are “selling out”.)
“The reorganization we’ve done has nothing to do with growth and users,” he told us. “We are on track to sell through more units as well as products at a higher average selling price this fiscal year. We’re selling out of Wands when we expected to have stock all the way to March. We have more pre-launch demand for the Kano PC than anything we’ve ever done.”
Of the additional co-branded Disney e-product which is being delayed — and may not now launch at all next year, Stein told us: “The fact is we’re in negotiations with Disney around this — and around the timing of it. Given that we’re not certain we’re going to be doing it in 2020 some of the contractor roles in particular that we brought on to do the licensing sign off pieces, to develop some of the content around those brands, some of the apparatus set up to manage those partnerships — we don’t need any more.”
“We introduced three new hardware SKUs this year. I don’t think we’ll do three new hardware SKUs next year,” he added, confirming the intention is to trim the number of device launches in 2020 to focus on the Kano PC.
One source we spoke to suggested Kano is considering sunsetting its partner strategy entirely. However Stein did not go that far in his comments to us.
“We’ve been riding a certain bear for a few years. We’re jumping to a new bear. That’s always going to create a bit of exhilaration. But I think this is a place of real promise,” was how he couched the pivot.
“I think what Kano does better than anyone else in the world is crafting an experience around technology that opens up its attributes to a wider audience,” Stein also said when asked whether hardware or software will be its main focus going forward. “The hardware element is crucial and beautiful and we make some of the world’s most interesting dynamic physical products. It’s an often told story that hardware’s very hard and is brutal — and yeah, because you get it right you change the fabric of society.
“It’s hard for me to draw a line between hardware and software for the business because we’ve always been asked that and seven years into the business we’ve found the greatest things that people do with the products… it’s always when there’s a combination of the two. So we’re proud that we’re good at combining the two and we’re going to continue to do it.”
The STEM device space has been going through bumpy times in recent years as early hype and investment has failed to translate into sustained revenues at every twist and turn.
The category is certainly filled with challenges — from low barrier to entry leading to plentiful (if varied quality) competition, to the demands of building safe, robust and appealing products for (fickle) kids that tightly and reliably integrate hardware and software, to checking all the relevant boxes and processes to win over teachers and support schools’ curriculum requirements that’s essential for selling direct to the education market.
Given so many demands on STEM device makers it’s not surprising this year has seen a number of these startups exiting to other players and/or larger electronics makers — such as Sphero picking up littleBits.
A couple of years ago Sphero went through its own pivot out of selling co-branded Disney ‘learn to code’ gizmos to zoom in on the education space.
While another UK-based STEM device maker — pi-top — has also been through several rounds of layoffs recently, apparently as part of its own pivot to the US edtech market.
More consolidation in the category seems highly likely. And given the new relationship between Kano and Microsoft joining Redmond via acquisition may be the obvious end point for the startup.
Per the Telegraph’s report, Kano is in the process of looking to raise more funding. However Stein did not comment when asked to confirm the company’s funding situation.
The startup last reported a raise just over two years ago — when it closed a $28M Series B round led by Thames Trust and Breyer Capital. Index Ventures, the Stanford Engineering Venture Fund, LocalGlobe, Marc Benioff, John Makinson, Collaborative Fund, Triple Point Capital, and Barclays also participated.
TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report 

Gift Guide: STEM toys for your builders-in-training

Cisco acquires ultra-low latency networking specialist Exablaze

Cisco today announced that it has acquired Exablaze, an Australia-based company that designs and builds advanced networking gear based on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The company focuses on solutions for businesses that need ultra-low latency networking, with a special emphasis on high-frequency trading. Cisco plans to integrate Exablaze’s technology into its own product portfolio.
“By adding Exablaze’s segment leading ultra-low latency devices and FPGA-based applications to our portfolio, financial and HFT customers will be better positioned to achieve their business objectives and deliver on their customer value proposition,” writes Cisco’s head of corporate development Rob Salvagno.
Founded in 2013, Exablaze has offices in Sydney, New York, London and Shanghai. While financial trading is an obvious application for its solutions, the company also notes that it has users in the big data analytics, high-performance computing and telecom space.
Cisco plans to add Exablaze to its Nexus portfolio of data center switches. The company also argues that in addition to integrating Exablaze’s current portfolio, the two companies will work on next-generation switches, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for expanding its solutions into AI and ML segments.
“The acquisition will bring together Cisco’s global reach, extensive sales and support teams, and broad technology and manufacturing base, with Exablaze’s cutting-edge low-latency networking, layer 1 switching, timing and time synchronization technologies, and low-latency FPGA expertise,” explains Exablaze co-founder and chairman Greg Robinson.
Cisco, which has always been quite acquisitive, has now made six acquisitions this year. Most of these were software companies, but with Acacia Communications, it also recently announced its intention to acquire another fabless semiconductor companies that builds optical interconnects.
 

GetYourGuide widens its horizons, will expand its Originals short tours into day trips and more

GetYourGuide has made a name for itself as the startup that helped the stale idea of guided tours for travellers on its head. Tapping into the generation of consumers who think of travel not just as going somewhere, but having an “experience” (and, ideally, recording it for Insta-posterity), it has built a marketplace to connect them with people who will help guarantee that this is what they will get. It’s a concept that has helped it sell more than 25 million tickets, hit a $1 billion valuation, and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in VC funding.
And the startup has grown quite a lot since passing the 25 million mark in May. “We’ve had 40 million travelers over the last 12 months. We’re the market leader in every European geography. We’re #2 in the U.S. and about to become #1,” co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck said at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.
Now GetYourGuide is taking the next step in its strategy to expand its touchpoints with users, and grow and diversify its business in the process. The company is expanding its “Originals” business — its own in-house tour operation — into one-day tours and other longer journeys, with the aim of hitting 1 million sales of Originals this year. It will kick off the effort with a small number — between five and 10 — one-day tours in different exotic locations. Examples will include “dune-bashing in Dubai,” glacier excursions from Reykjavik, and trips to Bali’s “most instagrammable hidden spots.”
GetYourGuide Originals have been working well. “We’ve had tremendous success, we have an average score of 4.8 [out of 5] compared to 4.4 for the other marketplace activities,” Reck said. Originals have a 40% higher repeat rate than other activities.
“And we’re now extending it to day trips. For those who are not familiar with the travel experience, day trip is the single biggest vertical inside of experiences,” Reck said.
Originals was launched a year and a half ago as a way for GetYourGuide to build its own tours — which it kicked off first with shorter walking tours — as a complement to the marketplace where it offers travellers a way of discovering and purchasing places on tours organised by third parties. Today it offers 23 different Originals in 17 cities like Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Up to now, GYG has sold some 200,000 places on its Originals tours — which is actually a tiny proportion of business, when you consider that the number of tours booked through the platform has passed 25 million.
The startup likes to describe its own Orignals as “like Netflix Originals, but in the real world!” And that analogy is true in a couple of ways. Not only does it give GYG more curatorial control on what is actually part of the tour, where it’s run, who guides it and more; but it gives the company potentially a bigger margin when it comes to making money off the effort, and means it does not have to negotiate with third parties on revenue share and other business details.
That’s, of course, not considering the challenges of scaling in this way.
Adding in more Originals and extending to transportation to get to the destination (and potentially staying overnight at some point) will mean taking on costs and organizational efforts, and risks, around more operational segments: making sure vehicles are safe and working, that hotels have clean sheets (and rooms), and more. More things can go wrong, and customers will have many more reasons to complain (or praise). It will be one of those moments when the startup will have to rethink what it’s core competency is, and whether it can deliver on that.
On the other side, if it works, GYG will diversify its the business while finding new revenue streams. But the strategy to grow Originals is a logical next step for other reasons, too.
The most important of these is probably competition: GYG may have been the pioneer of hipster travel experiences, but today it is by no means the only company focusing on this segment. Companies like Airbnb and TripAdvisor have tacked on tours and “Experiences” as a complement to their own offerings, as ways of extending their own consumer touchpoints beyond, respectively, booking a place to say or finding a cool place that popular with locals, or figure out what attractions to see.
Get Your Guide needs to find ways of keeping existing and new users returning to its own platform, rather than simply tacking on its tour packages while organising other aspects of their vacation.
The other is that, as Get Your Guide continues to break ground on changing the conversation around travel, building its own content rather than relying on others to fulfil its vision will become ever more essential, and paves the way for how the company will approach adding ever more components into the chain between your home and your destination.

As the new year beckons European investors start moving into new roles

As the Holiday Season approaches, new jobs for players in the tech ecosystem beckon. And this is no less true for investors. Two notable moves have recently happened that are worthy of note in the European scene.
The first is that GR Capital, a pan-European VC, is opening an office in London and has lured Jason Ball, who, earlier this year, left Qualcomm Ventures where had been European Managing Director for over a decade. Bad spent ten years as a mentor at Seedcamp and individually invested in more than ten companies. He was understood to be looking for new challenges, either building a new fund or joining another – so now we have our answer as to what he decided.
Founded in 2016 by Roma Ivaniuk in Ukraine, GR Capital specializes in late-stage VC investments. It has over $70M under management and has invested in Lime, Azimo, WeFox, McMakler, Glovo and Meero among others. The fund has traditionally been known for investing in Eastern Europe, but with a London office and the extremely well-networked Ball under its belt, we should be hearing more from them on the wider European scene in future.
Ivaniuk said in a statement that the move “means we can now drive our pan-European business activities from the continent’s most important VC hub, London.”
Ball said “We see a huge opportunity here to connect the dots between West and East. The London ecosystem is an exciting offering for investors in Eastern Europe, which in turn presents unique R&D and growth opportunities for portfolio companies.”
Meanwhile, Jon Bradford was most recently a partner of Motive Partners and a UK investment pioneer — having founded the Springboard Accelerator that merged with Techstars to become Techstars London, as well as helping to co-found F6S and Tech.eu. But he is also on the move, now joining Dynamo Ventures as its newest partner.
Bradford will be joining Dynamo on a full-time basis having previously been an advisor who helped launch the debut fund. He has invested in over 100 startups over the last decade including Apiary, Hassle, Tray.io, Flitto (that recently IPO’ed in Korea), Sendbird and Chainalysis. Dynamo is a US-EU based seed fund focused on B2B startups in supply chain and mobility. It has invested in 20 startups across the US and overseas, investing in including Sennder (Berlin), Skupos, Stord, Gatik and LEAF Logistics.

Mixcloud data breach exposes over 20 million user records

A data breach at Mixcloud, a U.K.-based audio streaming platform, has left more than 20 million user accounts exposed after the data was put on sale on the dark web.
The data breach happened earlier in November, according to a dark web seller who supplied a portion of the data to TechCrunch, allowing us to examine and verify the authenticity of the data.
The data contained usernames, email addresses, and passwords that appear to be scrambled with the SHA-2 algorithm, making the passwords near impossible to unscramble. The data also contained account sign-up dates and the last-login date. It also included the country from which the user signed up, their internet (IP) address, and links to profile photos.
We verified a portion of the data by validating emails against the site’s password reset feature.
The exact amount of data stolen isn’t known. The seller said there were 20 million records, but listed 21 million records on the dark web. But the data we sampled suggested there may have been as many as 22 million records.
The data was listed for sale for $4,000, or about 0.5 bitcoin. We’re not linking to the dark web listing.
Mixcloud last year secured a $11.5 million cash injection from media investment firm WndrCo, led by Hollywood media proprietor Jeffrey Katzenberg.
It’s the latest in a string of high profile data breaches in recent months. The breached data came from the same dark web seller who also alerted TechCrunch to the StockX breach earlier this year. The apparel trading company initially claimed its customer-wide password reset was for “system updates,” but later came clean, admitting it was hacked, exposing more than four million records, after TechCrunch obtained a portion of the breached data.
An email to Mixcloud’s press mailbox bounced, and its last listed public relations agency told TechCrunch it no longer represents the company.
As a London-based company, Mixcloud falls under U.K. and European data protection rules. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover for violations of European GDPR rules.
Read more:
StockX was hacked, exposing millions of customers’ data
DoorDash confirms data breach affected 4.9 million customers, workers and merchants
Equifax breach was ‘entirely preventable’ had it used basic security measures, says House report
Stop saying, ‘We take your privacy and security seriously’
Capital One breach also hit other major companies, say researchers
Macy’s said hackers stole customer credit cards — again

Trouva, an online marketplace for independent boutiques, raises $22M

Amazon helped pioneer and now dominates the online marketplace business model, where a variety of merchants post items for sale on its platform for billions of consumers to discover and buy them. Today, a London startup that’s taken that idea but is applying it to a far more curated set of retailers and goods has raised some money to fuel its international growth.
Trouva, which provides an online marketplace for brick-and-mortar independent boutiques selling “beautiful” and hard-to-find pieces — think Farfetch but less fancy and less high-end design — has raised £17 million ($21.8 million) in funding, money that it will be using to expand outside of the UK on the back of a strong launch in its Berlin last year, as well as to continue building out more technology on its platform, specifically around inventory and logistics management.
The funding is being led by Octopus Ventures, C4 Ventures (the venture firm launched by Apple vet Pascal Cagni) and Downing Ventures. BGF and LocalGlobe were also in the round, which brings the total raised to about $36 million. Mandeep Singh, who co-founded the company with Alex Loizou and Glen Walker, said in an interview that the startup is not disclosing valuation. 
Amazon may dominate our consciousness (and for some of us, our wallets, with its sticky Prime perks) when it comes to browsing for a variety of goods online, buying them, and getting them delivered to us in an efficient way.
But the Amazon way leaves a lot out of the proposition: for retailers it doesn’t give them a lot of leeway in how they present items, and they have to compete with many thousands of other offers (including Amazon itself) to get their products seen.
More generally for both sellers and buyers, the ethos of the platform is that of an “everything” store with little in the way of focus or curation: you can watch movies or listen to music, or you can buy an HDMI cable, or you can buy food, or you can buy a book, or you can buy a vase… and so on. That in a way makes it more of a functional rather than pleasurable experience.
This opens the door to a multitude of different competitors, and there is where Trouva has stepped in. Where Amazon gives us the promise of everything, the smaller startup has effectively incorporated scarcity into its DNA.
“We are very picky,” Singh said. “We have to turn down the majority of applications from stores that want to sell on our site. We are looking for the very best curators. Having every single vase in the world is less important than having the best one, curated by an expert.”
While we are continuing to see a surge of purchasing via the web and apps — a trend that will get played out during holiday shopping in the weeks ahead — analysts estimate that some 85% of retail is still happening offline.
Within that group there is an interesting core of brick-and-mortar independent shops: At a time when large chains and the likes of Amazon are shifting the sands for how people sell things — and certainly how people shop — there remains a large group of independent retailers — “curators,” as Singh describes them. These shops target consumers with disposable income, people who are looking for more unique things to buy with their money.

The challenge of the ‘High Street’
Independent stores are often under threat in cities like London. First, they pop up in areas where rents are not as high, with like-minded people congregating to live in the same neighborhoods for the same reason. There, they sell a small selection of not-cheap clothes, interesting home goods, a variety of tchotchkes, or quirky gifts and develop a local following.
But their emergence can also often signal wider tides of gentrification. Ultimately, that shift is what moves those stores out as the rents subsequently go up, and bigger chains and fancy boutiques move in. (SoHo in NYC is another classic victim of this trend.)
Be that as it may, Singh notes that there are still more than 20,000 independent shops in the UK. “And we are working with 500 of the very best,” he added.
The company’s biggest competition, to my mind, are other players that are also looking to target the same kinds of shoppers online, for example, another UK site, Not On The High Street, or Etsy, which focuses less on retailers and more on makers. Similarly, there is the prospect of stores building their own sites, although that comes with its own set of headaches that independent shopkeepers may be less inclined to deal with.
“Yes, it’s very easy for an independent brick-and-mortar boutique to set up an online shop. That’s the easy part,” Singh said. “But what you find with independents is that building a website doesn’t help drive customers. There is a range of backend technology that we take care of, including inventory management software and handling the logistics of shipping. All of those can be difficult for a [physical] boutique to do on its own. It’s easy to sell online but you still need someone who has the economies of scales to pick up and deliver.”
On the other hand, he notes that “Amazon definitely doesn’t worry us.”
“We position ourselves as the complete opposite. Giants like that are too focused on categories that work well,” he added. Notably, he believes that the biggest threats are the same ones that threaten the independent stores that use Trouva to sell online: “Offline chains, those who sell homewares and clothes. The big guys.”
Trouva has no plans to move into selling its own goods, or to work with other online retailers, although it might consider down the line how it could leverage warehouse space to help its retailers with their inventory management (since many of these shops are very small indeed). “One hundred percent of our supply comes from our brick and mortar store partners,” he said.
Nor does it currently have anything like a Prime-style loyalty program. It does work with retailers and shipping partners to provide an end-to-end shipping service from store to buyer, with options for next-day delivery if it’s necessary.
“The relationship is mutually symbiotic with the boutiques, who benefit from a broader customer base, better priced and efficient delivery and stock tracking and management software from Trouva, and in turn higher revenues and improved profitability,” said Jo Oliver, a venture partner at investor Octopus. “As more boutiques are added the customer proposition becomes more and more attractive, particularly as Trouva’s footprint expands internationally.”
Singh notes that there is “exclusivity” for the shops that eventually come on to Trouva, although that’s almost by default since they are the kinds of small operations that are unlikely to be in the business of trying to expand their online presence.
Amazon has been working hard to improve how it interfaces with and curates items on its site to provide products, and a marketplace selling service, to the same consumer and retailer demographics that Trouva (and others) target. That’s unlikely to disappear over time, especially since Amazon plays the long game, where it will gradually tinker with an idea while at the same time quietly shift our shopping habits to match what it is producing.
“Online sellers like Amazon and eBay have tried to make a better experience, but it’s very hard for a business to change its DNA,” Singh said.
Updated with investor comment.

AWS Translate comes to 22 new languages and 6 new regions

AWS seems to be using this week to get some news out ahead of its annual re:Invent developer conference in Las Vegas next week. In addition to new IoT services and updates to its Rekognition AI service, the company also today announced that it is bringing 22 new languages to its AWS Translate service and that it is expanding support for the service to six new regions.
The new languages, which are now generally available, are Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Dari, Estonian, Canadian French, Georgian, Hausa, Latvian, Pashto, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Swahili, Tagalog and Tamil. With these 22 new languages, the service now supports a total of 54 languages and 2,804 language pairs.
With this, the service is now available in 17 regions, which now include US West (N. California), Europe (London), Europe (Paris), Europe (Stockholm), Asia Pacific (Hong Kong) and Asia Pacific (Sydney). With this, more users will be able to translate text right where it’s stored, without having to move it to other regions first (which would, of course, also incur additional cost).
The free tier of AWS Translate includes 2 million characters for the twelve months.

Uber has again been denied licence renewal in London over safety risks

Two months after being given a two-month reprieve on its licence to operate in London, Uber has once again been denied a full renewal by the city’s transport regulator — which said today that it had found a “pattern of failures” which put “passenger safety and security at risk”.
Uber has confirmed it will appeal the decision.
The UK capital is a major European market for Uber, which claims to have 3.5 million users and 45,000 registered drivers in the city.
The ride-hailing giants’ troubles in London began in 2017 when Transport for London (TfL) made the shock decision to deny its licence renewal, citing a range of concerns including how Uber reported criminal offences; carried out background checks on drivers; and its use of proprietary software it developed that could be used to block regulatory oversight.
In the latest decision against Uber TfL concludes the company is not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire vehicle licence, saying it identified thousands of regulatory breaches — with a key issue being a change to Uber’s systems that allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.
“This allowed [unauthorised drivers] to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips — putting passenger safety and security at risk,” TfL writes.
“This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, one of which had previously had their licence revoked by TfL.”
It also identified another safety and security failure that allowed dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers.
“TfL recognises the steps that Uber has put in place to prevent this type of activity. However, it is a concern that Uber’s systems seem to have been comparatively easily manipulated,” it adds.
The regulator says it identified further serious breaches, including several insurance-related issues. Some of these led it to prosecute Uber, earlier this year, for causing and permitting the use of vehicles without the correct hire or reward insurance in place.
While TfL highlights “a number of positive changes and improvements to [Uber’s] culture, leadership and systems”, since the company was granted a 15-month provisional licence by a magistrate in June 2018 — including noting that it has interacted with TfL in “a transparent and productive manner” — it concludes it cannot ignore the risks posed by “a pattern of failures” from “weak systems and processes”.
“This pattern of regulatory breaches led TfL to commission an independent assessment of Uber’s ability to prevent incidents of this nature happening again. This work has led TfL to conclude that it currently does not have confidence that Uber has a robust system for protecting passenger safety, while managing changes to its app,” it says.
Uber can continue to operate in London during the appeals process. So passengers will likely see no change in the short term. TfL says Uber has 21 days to file an appeal.
During the appeals process the company may also seek to implement changes to demonstrate to a magistrate that it is fit and proper by the time of the appeal hearing. So, again, it’s possible Uber could win another provisional licence in future, depending on the steps it takes to improve its systems. But there’s no doubt the regulator is in the driving seat at this point.
TfL says it will continue to “closely scrutinise” Uber during any continued operation, including checking it meets the 20 conditions it set out in September 2019.
“Particular attention will be paid to ensuring that the management have robust controls in place to manage changes to the Uber app so that passenger safety is not put at risk,” it adds.
Commenting in a statement, Helen Chapman, director of licensing, regulation and charging at TfL, said: “Safety is our absolute top priority. While we recognise Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured.
“It is clearly concerning that these issues arose, but it is also concerning that we cannot be confident that similar issues won’t happen again in future. If they choose to appeal, Uber will have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate to a magistrate whether it has put in place sufficient measures to ensure potential safety risks to passengers are eliminated. If they do appeal, Uber can continue to operate and we will closely scrutinise the company to ensure the management has robust controls in place to ensure safety is not compromised during any changes to the app.”
Responding to TfL’s decision in a statement, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood, dubbed it “extraordinary and wrong”.
“We have fundamentally changed our business over the last two years and are setting the standard on safety. TfL found us to be a fit and proper operator just two months ago, and we continue to go above and beyond,” he said. “On behalf of the 3.5 million riders and 45,000 licensed drivers who depend on Uber in London, we will continue to operate as normal and will do everything we can to work with TfL to resolve this situation.”
On driver ID specifically, Heywood added: “Over the last two months we have audited every driver in London and further strengthened our processes. We have robust systems and checks in place to confirm the identity of drivers and will soon be introducing a new facial matching process, which we believe is a first in London taxi and private hire.”

Smart Compose is coming to Google Docs

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian today announced that Smart Compose, the AI-powered feature that currently tries to complete phrases and sentences for you in Gmail, is also coming to G Suite’s Google Docs soon. For now, though, your G Suite admin has to sign up for the beta to try it  and it’s only available in English.
Google says in total, Smart Compose in Gmail already saves people from typing about 2 billion characters per week. At least in my own experience, it also works surprisingly well and has only gotten better since launch (as one would expect from a product that learns from the individual and collective behavior of its users). It remains to be seen how well this same technique works for longer texts, but even longer documents are often quite formulaic, so the algorithm should still work quite well there, too.
Google first announced Smart Compose in May 2018, as part of its I/O developer conference. It builds upon the same machine learning technology Google developed for its Smart Reply feature. The company then rolled out Smart Compose to all G Suite and private Gmail users, starting in July 2018, and later added support for mobile, too.

Google’s Smart Compose is now ready to write emails for G Suite users

Google makes converting VMs to containers easier with the GA of Migrate for Anthos

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google today announced a number of product updates around its managed Anthos platform, as well as Apigee and its Cloud Code tools for building modern applications that can then be deployed to Google Cloud or any Kubernetes cluster.
Anthos is one of the most important recent launches for Google, as it expands the company’s reach outside of Google Cloud and into its customers’ data centers and, increasingly, edge deployments. At today’s event, the company announced that it is taking Anthos Migrate out of beta and into general availability. The overall idea behind Migrate is that it allows enterprises to take their existing, VM-based workloads and convert them into containers. Those machines could come from on-prem environments, AWS, Azure or Google’s Compute Engine, and — once converted — can then run in Anthos GKE, the Kubernetes service that’s part of the platform.
“That really helps customers think about a leapfrog strategy, where they can maintain the existing VMs but benefit from the operational model of Kubernetes,” Google Engineering Director Jennifer Lin told me. “So even though you may not get all of the benefits of a cloud-native container day one, what you do get is consistency in the operational paradigm.”
As for Anthos itself, Lin tells me that Google is seeing some good momentum. The company is highlighting a number of customers at today’s event, including Germany’s Kaeser Kompressoren and Turkey’s Denizbank.
Lin noted that a lot of financial institutions are interested in Anthos. “A lot of the need to do data-driven applications, that’s where Kubernetes has really hit that sweet spot because now you have a number of distributed datasets and you need to put a web or mobile front end on [them],” she explained. “You can’t do it as a monolithic app, you really do need to tap into a number of datasets — you need to do real-time analytics and then present it through a web or mobile front end. This really is a sweet spot for us.”
Also new today is the general availability of Cloud Code, Google’s set of extensions for IDEs like Visual Studio Code and IntelliJ that helps developers build, deploy and debug their cloud-native applications more quickly. The idea, here, of course, is to remove friction from building containers and deploying them to Kubernetes.
In addition, Apigee hybrid is now also generally available. This tool makes it easier for developers and operators to manage their APIs across hybrid and multi-cloud environments, a challenge that is becoming increasingly common for enterprises. This makes it easier to deploy Apigee’s API runtimes in hybrid environments and still get the benefits of Apigees monitoring and analytics tools in the cloud. Apigee hybrid, of course, can also be deployed to Anthos.

Bolt Bikes launches e-bike subscription platform for gig delivery workers in U.S., UK

Bolt Bikes, the Sydney, Australia-based startup founded in 2017, is taking its electric bike platform designed for gig economy delivery workers to the U.S. and UK.
The company is expanding on the heels of a $2.5 million seed round led by Maniv Mobility, European e-mobility firm Contrarian Ventures, individual investors and former executives of Uber and Deliveroo . The company was founded by Mina Nada, former Deliveroo and Mobike executive) and Michael Johnson, a former Bain & Co executive.
Bolt Bikes now provides its flexible subscriptions, which include vehicle servicing, in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, San Francisco and London. The company sells its electric bikes. But the main premise is to rent them out for commercial use. The electric bikes are rented on a week-to-week contract for $39.
The Bolt Bikes platform includes a the electric bike, fleet management software, financing and servicing. Subscribers get 24-hour access to the bike. A battery charger, phone holder, phone USB port, secure U-Lock and safety induction is included. Bolt Bikes also offers the first week as a free trial.
“Being in the food delivery industry since its inception, we saw that light electric vehicles were the real future of ‘last mile’ logistics, yet no-one was offering the right vehicle, financing or maintenance solution,” Nada said in a statement.
Bolt Bikes has piqued the interest of more than investors. Postmates has been piloting a Bolt Bikes rental program in San Francisco since June.
And the company has aspirations to increase its fleet and to expand to more cities in the U.S., UK and Australia.

More layoffs at pivoting London edtech startup pi-top

London edtech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.
pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from a “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market”.
In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract. pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.
The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.
One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.
pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.
Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”
“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pi–top 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.
Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the UK office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.
We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.
pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region”.
We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.
As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. edtech seed fund.
Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary edtech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.
At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200k to fund the project.
In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community”, as well as offering social sharing features.
The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)
We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.
Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 
“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”
Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4M in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability”, as it put it today.
“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.
Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.
The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.
Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.
The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.
The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).
Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).
Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.
Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.
A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.
His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.
Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.
Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.
While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.
“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?’” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”
Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 
There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.
Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).
Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.
“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

Nigeria’s Interswitch confirms $1B valuation after Visa investment

Nigerian digital payments firm Interswitch confirmed today it has reached unicorn status after Visa acquired a minority equity stake in the firm.
“The investment makes Interswitch one of the most valuable African fintech businesses with a valuation of $1 billion,” Interswitch said in a release to TechCrunch.
The Visa investment could create the first of two market distinctions for Interswitch — as it shouldn’t change the Lagos based company’s plans to go public.
“An IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background.
Interswitch did not reveal the amount of Visa’s investment and would not confirm Sky News reporting Monday that pegged it at $200 million for 20%.
Whatever the exact number, Interswitch’s confirmation of a $1 billion valuation marks another milestone in African tech.
Only one VC backed startup, turned later-stage company on the continent — e-commerce venture Jumia — has generated enough revenue and capital to achieve a ten-figure valuation.
For the near to medium-term, Interswitch could stand as Africa’s sole tech-unicorn, since Jumia’s volatile share-price and declining market-cap since an April IPO have dropped the company’s worth below $1 billion (for now).

Africa e-tailer Jumia’s shares fall 4% day after IPO lockup expiration

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-based economy.
The company now provides much of rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population. Interswitch offers a number of personal and business finance products, including its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app.

From its home-base of Nigeria Interswitch has expanded its physical presence to Uganda, Gambia and Kenya .
Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries and launched a partnership in August for its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.
Visa and Interswitch are touting the equity investment as a strategic collaboration between the two companies, without a lot of detail on what that will mean.
“The partnership will create an instant acceptance network across Africa to benefit consumers and merchants,” was the characterization offered in a press release.

Interswitch’s imminent IPO has been delayed for several years. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch, “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.
In subsequent years, Elegbe and other Interswitch executives named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay.
A number stories have surfaced, including Bloomberg News reporting in July, that the company was poised to go public on the LSE.
TechCrunch’s source close to the matter offered the latest indication that Interswitch will list on a major exchange by mid-2020.
With possible exits for backers Helios Investment Partners, TA Investments and IFC, Interswitch’s unicorn status and pending IPO could create more momentum for startup investment in Africa. VC to the continent has grown significantly over the last 5 years, but stands at just over $1 billion annually, per Partech numbers.
Interswitch could also be in a stronger position to offer more capital directly to the continent’s fintech startups by reviving its ePayment Growth Fund. The venture arm made two investments in 2015, but then went largely quiet.

Diving deep into Africa’s blossoming tech scene

 
 
 
 

Reaction Engines’ Mach 5 engine is just the tip of the new aerospace boom

Imagine a hypersonic passenger aircraft that would cut the journey time between London and New York to around two hours. At Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, the aircraft would complete a trip across the Atlantic in around 120 minutes. Mach 5 is more than twice as fast as the cruising speed of Concorde and over 50% faster than the SR-71 Blackbird – the world’s fastest jet-engine powered aircraft. A flight across the Pacific would take roughly three hours. Flight times from London to Sydney could be 80% shorter. Who needs Elon Musk?
Reaching these speeds would require an aircraft engine that has never previously existed. But last week, the world got a glimpse of a new future via a project which has been germinating for 30 years.
Reaction Engines was founded in 1989 by three propulsion engineers from Rolls Royce: Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott Scott. Their idea was that in order for an engine to reach hypersonic speeds, the air going into it would have to be rapidly cooled, otherwise the engine would melt. Reaction’s breakthrough was inventing a “precooler” or heat exchanger which can take the air down to minus 150 degrees centigrade in less than a 20th of a second.
These ultra-lightweight “heat exchangers” would enable aircraft to fly over five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. Thus the SABRE – Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine – was born. The Sabre engine “breathes” air to make 20 per cent of the journey to orbit, before switching to rocket mode to complete the trip.
Last week, Reaction Engines passed a significant milestone. It successfully tested its innovative precooler at airflow temperature conditions representing Mach 5.
The ground-based test at the Colorado Air and Space Port in the US, saw the precooler successfully operate at temperatures of 420ᵒC (~788ᵒF) – matching the thermal conditions corresponding to Mach 3.3 flight.

But this technology wouldn’t just be applicable to hypersonic flight. The precooler technology, developed by Reaction Engines, would significantly enhance the performance of existing jet engine technology, along with applications in automotive, aerospace, energy and industrial processes. Reaction Engines has attracted development funding from the British government, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the European Space Agency. It’s also raised over £100m from public and private sources and has secured investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing’s venture capital arm HorizonX. Reaction is expected to start building and testing a demonstrator engine next year.
The success of Reaction Engines to date is a sign that the ‘AerospaceTech’ sector is now booming. It is most certainly not alone.
Last month, Boeing and the UK government launched a £2m accelerator program to look for new innovations in this area. Boeing’s HorizonX is backing the initiative.

Signal AI taps $25M for public data-based market intelligence that spots trends and risks

Media monitoring — where news sources and other public information outlets are scanned regularly for mentions of specific organizations — is a well established service used by companies for market intelligence and to measure sentiment around their businesses. Today, London-based Signal AI, which has built a substantial operation in the area, has raised $25 million funding to expand to newer frontiers: applying AI to that public data to also spot themes, risks and opportunities to make better decisions; and continuing to take that business to new markets.
The Series C is being led by Redline Capital, with previous VCs MMC Ventures, GMG Ventures (an investment firm linked to the Guardian Media Group) and Hearst Ventures also participating. The startup, which has now raised around $53 million, is not disclosing its valuation but CEO and found David Benigson said that it is “significantly higher” than before (it last raised $16 million a year ago), after growing revenues at well over 100% each year for the last two.
The presence of not one but two media-linked investors in the round points to the startup’s roots: Signal AI had previously been called Signal Media and worked mainly around the task of media monitoring in the more traditional sense: tracking how companies were being mentioned in the press.
Benigson said that the reason for the rebrand was to “signal” to the world how the startup was widening its remit, both in terms of its sources of data and also in terms of its customers and how they now utilize Signal’s technology.
The challenge and opportunity that Signal AI is tackling is the fact that the world is awash in information, much of it unstructured and usually bombarding us from many angles, but tantalising all the same for hinting at the insights that it might hold if it could be looked at in a more comprehensive way.
“When we started six years ago, it was by aggregating news data and tapping the repository of global, traditional media,” Benigson said. “We have since broadened into social media, broadcast and radio, and regulatory information and started to apply more machine learning to structure that data.” The company also, in addition to selling services directly, now partners with third parties to build analytics around more targeted subjects such as a changing regulatory climate in a specific area, which in turn sold on by the third parties to other clients.
The company, for example, works with Deloitte’s tax division to monitor how tax codes are evolving and likely to move over time: the firm used to keep its own clients up to date verbally on these details, and now it sends alerts automatically with insights — a switch that Benigson said has saved the company $100 million a year in human and overhead costs.
Signal AI sits in a relatively new, not clearly defined area of business. It can be comparable with the likes of Meltwater, Cision (Gorkana) and even Dataminr when it comes to reading media in real time. But it also works a little like business intelligence or market analytics in its predictive analysis. The company refers to its specific area as “augmented intelligence”:
“There is a trend / emerging category that is far less crowded and defined than business intelligence or analytics,” Benigson said. “For me, it’s around taking those same values of BI and applying them to the world of data that sits outside the organization. There are very few companies that use augmented intelligence, although we are seeing management consultancy firms and others we potentially compete with convening around this space.”
It’s that open water that has attracted investors to the company.
“In this new digital era of news and content, having an adaptive platform to help the world’s leading organizations see around the corner is invaluable,” said Nicolas Giuli, Partner at Redline Capital, in a statement. “Signal AI’s team of data scientists and engineers have been at the forefront of the AI revolution and we are excited to take this journey with them as they continue to scale across the world.”
In this day and age, data is indeed very much a hot commodity, but I’d argue that it’s also a hot potato. By that, I’m referring to the rise of security breaches, people’s growing awareness of how their personal information is being used (and too often misused), and regulation that now draws lines on how data can be used, after organizations failed to draw those lines themselves. All of these have made concepts like data analytics and data mining, even around supposedly anonymised information, feel more nefarious and unclear in their target purposes and ends. That potentially spells out trouble ahead for companies that dabble in this space.
Benigson, for his part, was unequivocal on where Signal AI stands on any kind of anonymised or other potentially personal data:
“We purposefully avoid those data sets because we feel that the challenges are not being met,” he said. The exception, he noted, was in cases where a company uses its own internal data for its own purposes, but this does not feed into Signal’s AI engine, which focuses only on publicly-available third-party content. “We have no plans to incorporate that kind of data ourselves. We have an opportunity to do this in an ethical manner.”

Sources: Lilium is looking to raise up to $500M for its electric flying taxis

“Flying cars” — airborne vehicles designed for urban and other short-distance commutes to replace conventional private automobiles — are (at best) still years away from being a reality, with significant safety, technology and business model hurdles to clear before they ever hit the sky. Now, sources tell us that one of more promising startups in the field, the German startup Lilium, wants to put itself into pole position, by ramping up its financial position.
Lilium has been talking to investors to raise a big round of funding, between $400 million and $500 million, according to those familiar with its plans. “It’s a very large round at a very large valuation,” one VC told TechCrunch.
It’s not clear yet who is investing in this latest round, or what that valuation might be.
Lilium already has some deep-pocketed investors behind it. In addition to WeChat owner and Chinese internet giant Tencent; it counts Atomico, founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, as a repeat investor. Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams; LGT, the international private banking and asset management group; and e24, a fund from Christian Reber (co-founder of Wunderlist and now Pitch), have also backed it, among others.
In all, Lilium has raised over $100 million in financing to date in previous rounds. But given that its plans involve not only building ground-breaking aircraft but then operating them in fleets, that’s not nearly enough to establish its service and have the impact that founder and chief executive, Daniel Wiegand, hopes he can have.
“It’s not only a benefit in terms of relieving society from transit traffic, but the much, much bigger benefit would be that everyone can use it and that people can get to their destination five times quicker, basically a five times increase of their daily radius of life,” Wiegand said in 2017. “This connectivity is going to be a huge benefit to society but also economic growth.”
Tencent, Atomico and Obvious were among the investors backing Lilium in its most recent $90 million raise. Sources tell us that Tencent is again in this latest round, and the startup has been pitching potential new investors since at least this spring, visiting with firms in Silicon Valley.
It seems this latest, bigger round has yet to close. The target size implies the involvement of big names, with big funds behind them.
“I sincerely hope they get the funds to transform transportation,” one source said.
When (if) the round closes, that would make it the biggest fundraising to date for flying taxis, an area that has lots of potential, but is still far from tested — a fact that one source suggested could contribute to the longer period needed to close the outsized round.
“It’s a known secret how hard it is to raise growth rounds in this space because it’s such a new and untested market,” an executive from another air-taxi startup noted. “Early investments were betting on the market vision and the concept of radically new mobility, but now it’s dawning on investors and others that it’s also a regulation play, and more.” That translates potentially to sustained costs, “and that may be one reason why it’s taking some time.”
Add to that the ambition at hand — designing completely new transportation hardware, then manufacturing the aircraft at scale, and then finally building a transportation, taxi-style service around them — and you can start to see why the round might be very large.
Lilium, Atomico, Tencent and Obvious all declined to comment for this story. We’ll update the post if that changes.
Up, up and away
It’s been a little over two years since Lilium and others in the same space such as Volocopter began publicly discussing their visions for the future of mobility alongside incredibly well-funded industry giants like Uber and established aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, and others.

European VCs are going to make flying cars a reality

Lilium raised its first round of funding in December 2016 and only a few months later, Uber convened its first Elevate conference, which included discussions on the transportation industry’s flying future.
Since those initial discussions, the companies developing technologies and services to bring those plans to fruition have made significant strides.
Earlier this year Lilium announced the first successful flight for a new five-seat electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle. Others are readying pilot projects in their first launch cities, with the timeline for first full-launch services currently hovering around the three-year mark from now (note: dates do get pushed back).
For Lilium and its competitors, the development of completely new, air-borne vehicles are a means to solving a specific problem: roads in and between cities are too congested with traffic; and electric, air-based options can be a way to offset that situation in an environmentally-friendly way.
Many companies building these new craft are considering taxi-style services as the first or primary point of market entry because — similar to fully-autonomous cars — the cost per vehicle will likely be too high for most individuals to consider buying for private/sole use, notwithstanding the safety features of being able to manage a full fleet autonomously that would be harder to execute with single users (who would have to be pilots, in the case of flying cars).
Lilium’s new vehicle claims to have a top speed of 300 kilometers per hour and a 300 kilometer range, which would make it capable of covering longer distances than its competitors. Lilium says this is partly because it’s designed it in the form of a small jet aircraft instead of mimicking the mechanics and form factor of drones or helicopters (the latter is the approach that Volocopter, another startup out of Germany backed by the likes of Intel and Daimler, is taking). The fixed-wing design of the plane means that it can rely on lift to stay aloft, cutting down on the power demands on the electric 2,000 horsepower engines when it’s aloft.
“This efficiency, which is comparable to the energy usage of an electric car over the same distance, means the aircraft would not just be capable of connecting suburbs to city centres and airports to main train stations, but would also deliver affordable high-speed connections across entire regions,” Lilium said in a statement at the time.
But physics is just one part of the complex system of moving pieces that would need to come together to get Lilium (or any of its rivals) off the ground.
For one, any system will need to integrate with existing air traffic control infrastructure as well — as local and national regulators grapple with increasingly crowded skies.
Another involves the logistical components to operate a service. The company also established a software engineering base in London to help build out the fleet management software and mobile phone application that will connect customers to the jets for transit, and it has been hiring.
Although we have yet to see any commercial services emerge built on the concept of fleets of providing short/medium-distance, air-based taxi-style transportation, there are a number of hopefuls that have identified the opportunity of both designing aircraft and building services around them.
Companies like Kitty Hawk, eHang, Joby and Uber all hope to play a role in offering short-range flights as an affordable alternative to road-based transportation. (Blade and SkyRyse, two other air taxi services of sorts, are offering more conventional helicopters and other vessels in limited launches for well-heeled travelers willing to spend the money.)
Last week at San Francisco Disrupt 2019, Kitty Hawk announced its latest vehicle, Heaviside. It’s an electric aircraft designed to be a personalised vehicle, less obtrusive than a helicopter, ableto go anywhere and land anywhere fast and quietly, and as easy to operate as “pushing a button,” according to CEO Sebastian Thrun.

Kitty Hawk reveals its secret project, Heaviside

Laurel Bowden of VC firm 83North on the European deep tech and startup ecosystems

London and Tel Aviv based VC firm 83North has closed out its fifth fund at $300 million, as we reported earlier. It last raised a $250 million fund in 2017 and expects to continue the same investment mix, while tracking developments in emerging areas like healthcare AI and autonomous vehicles.
In a conversation with general partner Laurel Bowden, the veteran investor shared a few further thoughts with Extra Crunch — talking about the tech scene in Europe vs Israel, what the firm looks for in a team and tips on scaling globally.

83North closes $300M fifth fund focused on Europe, Israel

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 
TechCrunch: Is Europe starting to catch up to Israel when it comes to deep tech startups?
Laurel Bowden: We clearly think we have in our portfolio some deep tech. And in other VC portfolios too — there’s clearly some deep tech [coming out of Europe]. And then on the reverse side you’ve seen more consumer-related stuff coming out of Israel. But still if you take a blanket look, we see more data infrastructure, security, storage coming out of Israel than we see in Europe — that’s for sure.

83North closes $300M fifth fund focused on Europe, Israel

83North has closed its fifth fund, completing an oversubscribed $300 million raise and bringing its total capital under management to $1.1BN+.
The VC firm, which spun out from Silicon Valley giant Greylock Partners in 2015 — and invests in startups in Europe and Israel, out of offices in London and Tel Aviv — last closed a $250M fourth fund back in 2017.
It invests in early and growth stage startups in consumer and enterprise sectors across a broad range of tech areas including fintech, data centre & cloud, enterprise software and marketplaces.
General partner Laurel Bowden, who leads the fund, says the latest close represents investment business as usual, with also no notable changes to the mix of LPs investing for this fifth close.
“As a fund we’re really focused on keeping our fund size down. We think that for just the investment opportunity in Europe and Israel… these are good sized funds to raise and then return and make good multiples on,” she tells TechCrunch. “If you go back in the history of our fundraising we’re always somewhere between $200M-$300M. And that’s the size we like to keep.”
“Of course we do think there’s great opportunities in Europe and Israel but not significantly different than we’ve thought over the last 15 years or so,” she adds.
83North has made around 70 investments to date — which means its five partners are usually making just one investment apiece per year.
The fund typically invests around $1M at the seed level; between $4M-$8M at the Series A level and up to $20M for Series B, with Bowden saying around a quarter of its investments go into seed (primarily into startups out of Israel); ~40% into Series A; and ~30% Series B.
“It’s somewhat evenly mixed between seed, Series A, Series B — but Series A is probably bigger than everything,” she adds.
It invests roughly half and half in its two regions of focus.
The firm has had 15 exits of portfolio companies (three of which it claims as unicorns). Recent multi-billion dollar exits for Bowden are: Just Eat, Hybris (acquired by SAP), iZettle (acquired by PayPal) and Qlik.
While 83North has a pretty broad investment canvas, it’s open to new areas — moving into IoT (with recent investments in Wiliot and VDOO), and also taking what it couches as a “growing interest” in healthtech and vertical SaaS. 
“Some of my colleagues… are looking at areas like lidar, in-vehicle automation, looking at some of the drone technologies, looking at some even healthtech AI,” says Bowden. “We’ve looked at a couple of those in Europe as well. I’ve looked, actually, at some healthtech AI. I haven’t done anything but looked.
“And also all things related to data. Of course the market evolves and the technology evolves but we’ve done things related to BI to process automation through to just management of data ops, management of data. We always look at that area. And think we’ll carry on for a number of years. ”
“In venture you have to expand,” she adds. “You can’t just stay investing in exactly the same things but it’s more small additional add-ons as the market evolves, as opposed to fundamental shifts of investment thesis.”
Discussing startup valuations, Bowden says European startups are not insulated from wider investment dynamics that have been pushing startup valuations higher — and even, arguably, warping the market — as a consequence of more capital being raised generally (not only at the end of the pipe).
“Definitely valuations are getting pushed up,” she says. “Definitely things are getting more competitive but that comes back to exactly why we’re focused on raising smaller funds. Because we just think then we have less pressure to invest if we feel that valuations have got too high or there’s just a level… where startups just feel the inclination to raise way more money than they probably need — and that’s a big reason why we like to keep our fund size relatively small.”

European early-stage VC firm ‘Project A’ on Europe’s startup scene taking the next step

Project A, the Berlin-based VC, just raised a new $200 million fund (€180 million) to continue backing European startups at Seed and Series A stage.
In addition, the firm — whose investments include WorldRemit, Catawiki, Voi and Uberall — announced it will now have a presence in London and Stockholm in order to put people on the ground in what it says are “two of its favorite ecosystems.”
What better time, therefore, to catch up with the team at Project A, where we talked investment thesis, why Stockholm and London, and the increasing interest in Europe from U.S. LPs and VCs. Other subjects we touched on include diversity in venture, and, of course, Brexit!
TechCrunch: You last raised a fund in 2016, totaling €140 million, what changes have you noticed since then with regards to the types of companies you are seeing and the European ecosystem as a whole?
Uwe Horstmann: Entrepreneurs definitely matured a lot over the last few years. We see more and more of serial founders who combine drive with experience delivering great results. We also noticed an increase in more tech / product-centric and in B2B models.
This doesn’t come as a surprise as the market for consumer-oriented models started developing much earlier and is now reaching its limits after a few years. Many entrepreneurs gained experience in the Old Economy or have been consulting companies for a few years, learned about the struggle with products and processes first-hand and developed solutions specifically tailored to the industry’s needs.
We also notice a rise in professionalism in company setups and a higher ambition level in founding teams. This is probably also due to a more professional angel and micro fund scene that has developed in Europe.
TC: I note that you have U.S. LPs in the new fund, which I think is a first for Project A, and more broadly we are seeing a lot more interest from U.S. VCs in Europe these days. Why do you think that is, and how does this change the competitive landscape for deal-flow and the ambition of European founders?
Thies Sander: Having our first U.S. LPs on board makes us proud. LPs have noticed that European VC returns have really picked up during recent fund cohorts.

Badass millennial women are supercharging startup investments

Patricia Nakache
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Patricia Nakache is a general partner at Trinity Ventures.

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Defensible strategies for food tech entrepreneurs facing the Amazon juggernaut

Across the political, social and economic stage, women’s issues are finally receiving heightened attention and priority.
There are more women than ever seeking political office; funding for female-founded startups is reaching record levels (even if they still have a long way to go to reach gender parity); a sizable cohort of female-founded and led companies have achieved billion-dollar unicorn valuations; and several women-led companies, including PagerDuty, The RealReal, and Eventbrite, have entered the public markets with successful IPOs.
What’s driving so much positive change?
Clearly, broadened awareness of gender and power issues, largely due to #MeToo, as well as an increase in the number of female investors, thanks to groups like All Raise, are all contributing catalysts. In addition, women now outnumber men in college, a majority of American moms are in the workforce, and in 40 percent of households those women are the breadwinners. But it’s more than that; I believe that there’s a profound generational shift afloat, and that this first wave of female-led unicorns is just the tip of the NASDAQ iceberg.
Unlike previous generations who may have either looked at self-investment as self-indulgence or who simply didn’t have the resources or technology available to make supplementary investments in themselves, today’s badass millennial women are unapologetic about their desire to invest in their own success and well-being. Determined to succeed without compromising their values or physical and mental wellness, these uber-empowered millennial women are making viable a new generation of startups to help them realize their dreams and feel comfortable in their skin. I refer to this economic wave as She-conomy 2.0.
For decades now there have been tech companies, which I refer to as She-conomy 1.0, catering to traditional and homogeneous identities of women primarily as shoppers and caregivers. In contrast, these new modern She-conomy 2.0 brands address latent, historically unmet, often un-discussed and under-served needs that speak to the multitude of other facets of our identities.
These companies have less to do with what women buy and more to do with their willingness to invest in themselves — in their careers and in their physical and emotional health and well-being. They are seeking and are willing to pay for products and services that help them advance their careers, feel comfortable about their bodies, and provide the physical and emotional support they’re seeking.
The founding members of Allraise (Image courtesy of Allraise)
Women are taking control of their careers and supporting each other.
More than two decades ago, when I had my first child, I joined a mom’s group at Stanford Hospital. We were all working moms trying to juggle career and motherhood. It was a truly challenging time for each of us. The group provided such helpful support that we met every Monday evening for five years until our kids were in kindergarten. Why Mondays? Because Mondays are especially hard for working parents, marking yet another week in search of balance. We realized that meeting on Monday evenings provided us with the support we needed to make it through the work week. Perhaps even more critically, it gave us something about Mondays to look forward to.
There’s something incredibly empowering about experiencing a major transition like a new job or new parenthood as part of a cohort. Sheryl Sandberg famously sought to institutionalize this kind of support for working women with her non-profit Lean In. It has dramatically raised awareness around working women’s struggles. However, individual Lean In group leaders are usually volunteers running these sessions on the side while working and shouldering life’s endless list of other responsibilities.
Now a new generation of organizations is offering this support — for a fee. As for-profit organizations, they’re doing so in a scalable, consistent and reliable way. Women don’t have to worry about whether the organizer will be able to carve out time to orchestrate a meeting because doing so is the organizer’s job. Chief, Declare, The Assembly*, The Wing and The Riveter are all examples of companies that are growing and thriving because they’re offering valuable space, support and services that women are willing to pay for. Most of these organizations initially targeted millennials, but women of all generations are benefiting and participating.
A look inside one of The Riveter’s Seattle co-working spaces.
Women are changing the narrative around previously taboo topics and promoting inclusiveness and acceptance of oneself.
It wasn’t long ago that mannequins, much like cover models, only came in one size. Now mainstream brands not only sell broader offerings; they increasingly showcase them in magazines, catalogs, stores and the runway. For example, Nike’s flagship store in London featured both plus-sized mannequins and para-sport mannequins for people with physical and intellectual abilities, and Rhianna’s new inclusive lingerie line regularly presents both plus-size and pregnant models.
Millennials (like all of us) don’t want to feel shamed; they want to feel empowered and beautiful. Instead of settling for frumpy, ill-fitting clothing or outdated product design, millennials are using their social media megaphones to tell the market what they want. Traditional companies like Victoria’s Secret have moved at a molasses-like pace to evolve from treating women as objects of fantasy to celebrating their right to feel great about themselves. Their antiquated practices have created the opportunity for new startups to create brands centered on body positivity. Some companies are filling largely underserved market needs by catering exclusively to larger and specialty sizes, and others are addressing previously taboo topics like body hair, which also contribute strongly to feelings around body positivity. Eloquii offers extended clothing sizes, Ruby Ribbon* and Third Love provide a wide sizing range of under garments and bras, and Fur addresses body hair and grooming.

Women are dedicating more attention to their own health and relationships.
Self-help books have been around for ages, but tech is paving the way for a new generation of services to provide guidance and support that are more convenient and targeted. At the same time, women are increasingly willing to discuss health issues that were previously taboo, like menstruation, menopause and perimenopause, fertility, and depression. Advancements in technology are making health-related self-care more accessible from the convenience of our wristbands and phones. Meanwhile, people are spending a disproportionate amount of their wealth on health, making the entire healthcare industry ripe for disruption.
All of these factors are making femtech big business. Countless new companies are helping women take more active control of their sexual health, including birth control and STI testing (Pill Club and Nurx), period tracking (Flo Health), fertility and egg freezing (Kind Body and Carrot Fertility), menopause (Rory, Genneve), postpartum depression and miscarriage (Maven) and even our relationships (Relish* and Bumble). In addition, no shortage of femtech companies are addressing period care, such as Lola, Cora, The Flex Company, Thinx, and Sustain Natural.
These companies are only viable because so many women — beginning with millennials but expanding out to the rest of us — are now willing and able to invest in themselves. United across a shared mission of female empowerment and inclusivity, She-onomy 2.0 is making it more realistic than ever to empower us to advance our careers, feel good about ourselves and stay healthy. Hats off to the badass millennial women leading this charge; we’re all better off professionally, emotionally and even physically thanks to you!
*Denotes portfolio company for Trinity Ventures

‘We are seeing volume and interest in Peloton explode,’ says company president on listing day

This morning, Peloton (NASDAQ: PTON), the tech-enabled stationary bicycle and fitness content streaming company, raised $1.2 billion in its NASDAQ initial public offering. Despite dropping more than 10% in its first day of trading — ultimately closing down 11% at $25.84 per share — the IPO was a bona fide success. Peloton, once denied (over and over again) by VC skeptics, now has hundreds of millions of dollars to take its business into a new era. One in which, the media, hardware, software, logistics and social company attempts to become a generation-defining company akin to Apple.
Founded in 2012 — six years after Soul Cycle opened its first cycling studio in New York’s Upper East Side and two years before a Soul Cycle founder, Ruth Zukerman, jumped ship to launch her own indoor cycling business, Flywheel Sports — a man by the name of John Foley made the ambitious, some might say foolish, decision to start a company that would sell these exercise bikes direct-to-consumer. That way, you could take a Soul Cycle class, in essence, in the comfort of your own home. Even better, technology would improve the experience.
As my colleague Josh Constine recently described it, these bikes come outfitted with a 22-inch Android screen, transforming an outdated exercising experience and bringing it into 2019: “It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is Velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise,” Constine writes.

How Peloton made sweat addictive enough to IPO

Peloton’s ability to get people exercise — a feature driven by its talented instructors (some of whom were poached from competitor Flywheel Sports) — ultimately had venture capital investors funneling $1 billion, roughly, into the business. Today, Peloton operates dozens of showrooms across the U.S., counts 1.4 million total community members — defined as any individual who has a Peloton account — and over 500,000 paying subscribers. Why? Because the company, as stated in its IPO prospectus, “sells happiness.”
“Peloton is so much more than a Bike — we believe we have the opportunity to create one of the most innovative global technology platforms of our time,” writes Foley. “It is an opportunity to create one of the most important and influential interactive media companies in the world; a media company that changes lives, inspires greatness, and unites people.”
Peloton’s flagship product, a tech-enabled stationary bike.
Peloton’s community coupled with the high margins on sales of its $2,245 bikes had the company reporting $915 million in total revenue for the year ending June 30, 2019, an increase of 110% from $435 million in fiscal 2018 and $218.6 million in 2017. Its losses, meanwhile, hit $245.7 million in 2019, up significantly from a reported net loss of $47.9 million last year.
What’s next for Peloton? The opportunities are endless, given the company’s firm seat at the intersection of hardware, software, media content and more. A third product may be in the works, expansion to international markets or new instructors. Peloton is going after a massive market ripe for disruption. What’s certain is that we’ll see a whole lot of cash flowing into fitness tech copycats in the next couple of years.
Peloton, following a number of lukewarm consumer IPOs (Uber), nearly doubled its valuation to $8.1 billion this morning after pricing its IPO at the top of its range, $29 per share. To answer some of our most burning questions, we chatted with Peloton’s president William Lynch, the former CEO of Barnes & Noble, about the float.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Peloton president and former Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch.
Kate Clark: What’s next for Peloton?William Lynch: We now have over a billion in capital to fuel more growth, especially in the area of product innovation.

Terminal raises $17M led by 8VC to source and build remote teams of engineers

As LinkedIn announces the next stage of its own ambitions in the world of recruitment by bringing in more big data insights, another one of the startups indirectly chipping away at its position among knowledge workers by providing a way of hiring and building entire teams in remote locations is announcing another round of funding.
Terminal, a San Francisco-based startup and platform that lets companies build out remote engineering teams in international locations, and then helping with the wider practicalities that include finding workspace and sorting out benefits, is today announcing that it has raised $17 million in funding. Terminal’s hubs are currently in Guadalajara, Mexico and Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and Kitchener-Waterloo in Canada, and the company is going to use some of the funding to expand to 10 other cities globally over the next two years.
The round is being led by 8VC — the venture firm founded by Joe Lonsdale, who also happens to be a co-founder of Terminal (seems like co-founding while also funding is a pattern for Lonsdale, a prolific investor who also famous for being a co-founder of Palantir Technologies).
Others participating include Atomic (where two co-founders, Jack Abraham and Dylan Serota, also co-founders), Cathay Innovation, Cherubic Ventures (where another co-founder, Andrew Dudum, is a partner that also double times also at Atomic), Craft Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and other unnamed investors.
Despite four of the five co-founders (the last is Luke Finney, who seems to be full-time just on Terminal) being from the VC world, the startup has raised relatively little funding since being founded two years ago: prior to this it had only disclosed one raise, totalling $10 million, according to PitchBook data.
LinkedIn has carved out a big swathe of the online recruitment market specifically in the area of knowledge workers, who also use the platform to provide public profiles of themselves, to brush up their skills, and to network with other folk in their various industries. That business has racked up 4 million hires this year already, CEO Jeff Weiner noted earlier today at a company event.
But within that, there are a lot of more specific use cases where the LinkedIn model is not a perfect fit, and that’s opened the door for a lot of other kinds of businesses to establish themselves and thrive.
Terminal is an example of one of these. Its particular pain point has to do with the dearth of engineers in major tech centers, and beyond, with typically five job openings for every one engineer in the U.S. alone.
While the technology world has coalesced around several key geographical areas — Silicon Valley at the epicentre and several major metropolitan areas like New York, London, Berlin and so on complementing that — the fact remains that the demand for engineers in those places, where the companies are based, still outstrips supply. On top of that, the biggest cities are overcrowded and expensive, and that turns off many people from wanting to live in them.
Terminal’s solution is to source suitable engineers in other locales and use its platform to help a company build a team from them. This is not just about building a team ‘in the cloud’ — although the idea is that, yes, the cloud is basically what makes all of this possible — but also covering office space, payroll and other HR specifics and more.
“Terminal is taking aim at the biggest problem holding back innovation: access to top technical talent.” said Joe Lonsdale, partner at 8VC, in a statement. “The best engineers are no longer concentrated in the Bay Area. They exist all over the world. Terminal helps startups access these engineers. Many of our fast-growing companies at 8VC rely on Terminal to help them scale.” Customers currently include Bungalow, Chime, Dialpad, Earnin, Gusto, Hims/Hers, and KeepTruckin.
Other startups have emerged to redress the imbalance of talent in specific locations while also helping to support new ecosystems to emerge: Andala is taking a somewhat similar approach, but it focuses on emerging markets to source talent, and engineers on its platform tend to work as contractors, not full-time employees.
While Andala is tapping into a big swing in the direction of contact-based talent sourcing, it’s interesting to see Terminal taking the bet on the fact that it can successfully create teams remotely that might just remain for the long term.
“We’re providing life-changing opportunities for engineers,” said Terminal CEO, Clay Kellogg, in a statement. “Developers and programmers love building their careers in an engineer-centric community working on world-changing products. We’re offering them a vibrant community with all of the HR resources, benefits and perks that they can get if they worked in Silicon Valley — without having to leave their hometown. This funding means we can provide exciting growth opportunities to even more engineers around the world.”
The push to more flexible working environments — including allowing people to work from home, as well as work more flexible hours — has really disrupted the traditional idea of 9-5 and everyone working together in a big (or small) building in order to get things done. At best, the consequences of that have sometimes led to more productivity and employee satisfaction, but challenges also remain. Terminal’s aim at building whole full-time teams in remote locations is interesting in that it will once again put a new spin on the idea of workplace culture, but for many businesses, especially startups, it’s a leap that is worth taking.
“KeepTruckin has built a modern technology platform to usher the fragmented trucking industry into the digital age, and our engineers have been at the center of creating a customer-centric experience since day one,” said Shoaib Makani, CEO and co-founder, KeepTruckin, in a statement. “As a fast-growing company, being able to attract and retain top tech talent is critical to our success. Terminal has been a key partner in helping us build our engineering team in Vancouver and tapping into Terminal’s extensive network has reduced the time it takes to scale our team.”

Pan-European VC fund Target Global is opening an office in Barcelona

Hola Barcelona. Target Global, a pan-European VC firm with €700 million under management and a broad investment canvas spanning SaaS, marketplaces, fintech, insurtech and mobility, is opening an office in the Catalan capital.
Investor director, Lina Chong, will lead the expansion into Spain, having relocated to Barcelona from the fund’s Berlin headquarters. They’re setting up in a co-working space on Avenue Diagonal in the center of the city. 
Target Global backs early and growth stages startups, as well as doing some seed investing. The firms tells us it’s expecting to do between one and three deals per year out of the Barcelona office, envisaging the same mix of investments in terms of early and growth stage.
“We’ve been seeing decent deals in both stages. Definitely. Across Spain,” says Chong. “There is just more — by numbers — way more early stage seed than A. I think that’s just the maturity of the ecosystem here.”
Dialling up a local presence across Europe means Target Global can pitch founders on being able to connect talent and expertise across key regional startup hubs, while also plugging into a wider international network. (It also has offices in London, Tel Aviv and Moscow.)
From a VC perspective opening local offices is of course about deal flow. Being on the ground to take more meetings widens the pipe, increasing the chance of an early shot at the next high growth business.
That’s important because Europe’s startups have many more options for early stage funding than in years past, and founders are getting smarter about choosing their investors. Boots on the ground means more time for all important relationship building.
Target Global describes itself as something of a startup — it was founded in 2012 — which means it’s competing for deals with VCs that have more established brands and networks. Becoming a familiar face in the room looks like a solid strategy to growth hack its own network.
“We are a global or a pan-European fund but for an entrepreneur here we want them to feel that we’re local; we understand the ecosystem; that we have deep rooted connections; that we’re committed; that we show up,” general partner Shmuel Chafets tells TechCrunch.
“It’s all a function of time and effort. Just being here and having breakfast with people, lunch with people and helping out even the people we don’t invest. You get more connected and then you start to see more deal flow.”
This is the second local office it’s opened in Europe this year, after adding a London base in April — making it a flattering pick for Barcelona. Plenty of other European hubs are being passed over in the city’s favor this time, be it Madrid, Lisbon, Paris or Stockholm. 
Chafets says the firm looked at five or six other cities but settled on Barcelona for now, though he won’t rule out opening more offices in future. “Never say never,” he quips. 
Having been a regular visitor to Barcelona for a number of years he talks enthusiastically about the creative energy motivating entrepreneurs — saying the city’s ecosystem reminds him of how Berlin felt a few years ago. “It looks like it’s just about to happen,” he reckons. 
“From what I’ve seen Barcelona is sort of strong in creative. It’s a very creative city. It’s always pretty strong in mobile, historically. It had more mobile successes… SaaS, particular smb SaaS, is pretty good here. I think it would be harder to find enterprise sales companies and companies building these very deep tech stuff right now. But definitely in the marketplace, smb SaaS space, mobile space you see great stuff here. 
“That ties into the creativity, because it’s a product driven environment — not a tech driven environment. I think Berlin is a very operationally driven environment, Tel Aviv is a very tech driven environment, this is a very product driven environment — which actually complements well our other hubs.”
“There’s some pent-up energy here,” agrees Chong, who says they’ve already come across a “surprising” amount of deal flow. “Again it’s very similar to Berlin where there’s a lot of willingness and there’s a lot of dreaming but there’s not a lot going on. So I think the younger people here they’re creating that.”
Target Global has been testing the water prior to formalizing its commitment to Barcelona, and has four local portfolio companies which it’s ploughed around €20M into over the past 12 months.
Its biggest regional investment to date is in business trip booking SaaS, TravelPerk. It’s also backed flatmate matching platform Badi; online doctor booking platform, Doc Planner (which relocated from Warsaw, Poland after merging with local startup Doctoralia); and medical chat app MediQuo.
From a wider perspective, Barcelona’s tech ecosystem has been gathering momentum for years, helped by the annual presence of the world’s biggest mobile tradeshow (MWC) — as well as more specific pull factors for startups such as a relatively low cost of living and an attractive Mediterranean location. 
“It’s a great place to live and you can’t ignore that,” says Chafets. “In Europe if you’re a team and you’re an international team there are very few places you can live.”
This combination means Barcelona is now home to a growing number of high growth startups, including Target Global’s portfolio firm TravelPerk — as well as the likes of on-demand delivery platform Glovo; and RedPoints, which sells a SaaS to brands for detecting and acting against the sale of fake goods online, to name two other notable examples.
Other local startups grabbing attention and investment in recent years include 21Buttons, Holded, Housfy, Typeform and Verse. While hyper local mobile marketplace startup Wallapop — which was on a growth tear in an earlier wave of ecoystem growth — remains the go-to classified app on every local’s phone (though it merged with a US rival back in 2015).
The city even has its own youthful scooter startup (Reby) which has refused to be put off by some tough regulations controlling rentals — and has recently been applying AI to try to make like a good citizen by automatically detect poor parking.  
Mobility is a major area of focus for Target Global — which last year announced a dedicated fund (with an initial raise of $100M) for startups working to disrupt transportation. Although, when it comes to stand-up e-scooters the firm is already invested in Berlin-based Circ so will presumably be looking to spend elsewhere on that front.
“Barcelona is the perfect city for scooters,” says Chafets. “Scooters can really change the way the city works. It’s also small and has relatively good public transportation from outwards in — but they need to be regulated. You need to really make sure that [they aren’t a misused nuisance].”
He notes that European regulators have been relatively quick to spot the risks of shared mobility, and close off the antisocial expansionist playbook that played out in some US cities during the first wave of scooter startups — when people trolled Bird by hanging scooters in trees (or, well, worse) — but he sees that as good news for building a sustainable future for alternative mobility. 
“It’s a great challenge and it will be a huge money maker — that’s where we want to be right, multiple trillion dollar businesses!”
Away from disruptive developments on the ground in Barcelona and the other local tech hubs that Target Global is intending to explore from its new base in Catalonia, it also views Spain as a low risk gateway to opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. 
“There’s a decent local domestic market and there is a natural second market in South America,” says Chafets. “Actually in the US too — because Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in America so when you start a company here you have that second market built in. Which is very important — you can scale it.”
“Latin America is a fascinating market right now, it’s a fascinating time,” he adds. “So in a way it’s a way for us to make a side bet on Latin America without going out of Europe and investing far.”
We’ll share a full interview with Chafets and Chong on Extra Crunch.

Uber gets temporary two-month license reprieve in London

London’s transport regulator, TfL, has given Uber a temporary reprieve to continue operating in the UK capital.
The ride-hailing giant’s current (provisional) licence expires tomorrow but there’s no return to normality for Uber in its most important European city — with TfL issuing just a two-month extension on its private hire vehicle licence — not a full five-year term, as Uber had hoped.
The backstory here is TfL’s decision two years ago to deny Uber’s application to renew its licence — when it raised a range of safety and corporate governance issues.
The then scandal-struck company was nonetheless allowed to continue operating in London during an appeal process.
Uber went on to claim it was making changes to improve its processes and come into compliance with the regulator’s requirements. And in June 2018 a UK court granted it a provisional 15-month licence so it could continue to work on satisfying TfL’s conditions.
But the latest short leash extension puts the company on watch again.
TfL says the extension has the same conditions Uber has been subject to over the past 15 months, as well as some new conditions “to ensure passenger safety” which it says cover ride sharing, appropriate insurance and driver document checks by Uber.
Last year the court attached a number of extra conditions to Uber’s provisional licence to operate, including that the company produce an independently verified assurance report every six months; appoint three non-executive directors to its board; provide at least 28 days notice for changes to its operating model; and maintain arrangements with London’s Met Police for the reporting of passenger complaints that may be criminal — all of which still apply.
The regulator adds that it’s requesting additional material from Uber to inform any future licensing decision — emphasizing that its original concern included culture and governance issues.
“Uber London Limited has been granted a two-month private hire operator licence to allow for scrutiny of additional information that we are requesting ahead of consideration of any potential further licensing application,” a TfL spokesperson said in a statement.
In a statement responding to TfL’s decision, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe, sought to put a positive spin on not being knocked back entirely.
“TfL’s recognition of our improved culture and governance reflects the progress we have made in London. We will continue to work closely with TfL and provide any additional requested information,” he said.
“Over the past two years, we’ve launched a range of new safety features in the app, introduced better protections for drivers and our Clean Air Plan is helping to tackle air pollution. We will keep listening, learning and improving to provide the best service while being a trusted partner to London.”
Among the changes Uber claims to have made since the regulator stepped in and slapped down its licence renewal, are a new senior leadership team in the UK; limits to operating hours for drivers, with a log-out required at 10 hours; a 24/7 support centre staffed by trained agents to handle driver and rider safety queries; a free insurance product for drivers and a dedicated forum where they can share feedback; various safety alerts and privacy tweaks; and real-time public transport information shown within the app.
Uber also says it’s an “ambition” that every car on its app in London is fully electric in 2025 — saying it’s raised £50M to put towards helping licensed drivers upgrade to a fully electric vehicle.
There are major question marks about the rising costs of doing business for Uber as regulatory and legal requirements dial up around the world — including in the US.
Earlier this month California passed gig economy workers rights legislation that could see Uber on the hook for wage and benefit protections in its home market. While, in the UK, the company has continued to lose appeals against a successful legal challenge over drivers rights back in 2016.
Uber’s own investor prospectus warned potential shareholders the company may never be profitable.

Lookiero closes $19M led by MMC Ventures to be the Stitch Fix for Europe

Lookiero, the online personal shopping service for clothes and accessories, has closed a $19 million funding round led by London-based VC MMC Ventures with support from existing investor All Iron Ventures, and new investors Bonsai Partners, 10x and Santander Smart. The company will use the backing to expand in its main markets of Spain, France and the UK. In June last year it closed a funding round of €4 million led by All Iron Ventures.
The startup applies algorithms to a database of personal stylists and customer profiles to thus provide a personalized online shopping experience to its customers. It then delivers a selection of five pieces of clothing or accessories curated by a personal shopper to fit the customer’s individual size, style, and preferences. Customers then decide which items to keep or return (at no additional cost), allowing Lookiero to learn more about the customer’s tase before starting the whole process again.
By generating look-a-like profiles and analyzing previous customer interactions with each item, Lookiero says it can predict how likely a user is going to keep a certain item from a range of more than 150 European brands from a warehousing system that will ship more than 3 million items of clothing this year to seven European countries.
It’s not unlike the well—worn Birchbox model. Lookiero’s main competitor is Stitch Fix (US), which has upwards of $1.5bn in annual revenues and IPO’d November 2017.
Founded in 2015 by Spanish entrepreneur Oier Urrutia, the company says it now has over 1 million registered users and has grown revenue by over 200% from 2017 to 2018.
In a statement Urrutia said: “This investment round provides us with the necessary capital to further increase the accuracy of our technology, which is really exciting. It will allow us to offer the best possible experience for our users and to continue expanding across Europe.”
Simon Menashy, Partner, MMC Ventures, said: “The migration of fashion brands online has improved consumers’ access to clothing, and there is now an almost overwhelming amount of choice. At the same time, it can still be really hard to find exactly what is right for you, especially with high street retail stores in decline. Lookiero provides the best of both worlds, giving every customer a hand-picked selection from their personal stylist.”
Ander Michelena, co-founding partner of All Iron Ventures, said: “Even if what Oier and his team have achieved to date is remarkable, we believe that Lookiero still has great potential to continue expanding internationally and to become a player of reference in a market segment where there is still a lot to do in terms of innovation and user satisfaction”.

Google completes controversial takeover of DeepMind Health

Google has completed a controversial take-over of the health division of its UK AI acquisition, DeepMind.
The personnel move had been delayed as National Health Service (NHS) trusts considered whether to shift their existing DeepMind contracts — some for a clinical task management app, others involving predictive health AI research — to Google.
In a blog post yesterday Dr Dominic King, formerly of DeepMind (and the NHS), now UK site lead at Google Health, confirmed the transfer, writing: “It’s clear that a transition like this takes time. Health data is sensitive, and we gave proper time and care to make sure that we had the full consent and cooperation of our partners. This included giving them the time to ask questions and fully understand our plans and to choose whether to continue our partnerships. As has always been the case, our partners are in full control of all patient data and we will only use patient data to help improve care, under their oversight and instructions.”
The Royal Free NHS Trust, Taunton & Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust all put out statements yesterday confirming they have moved their contractual arrangements to Google.
In the case of the Royal Free, patients’ Streams data is moving to the Google Cloud Platform infrastructure to support expanding use of the app which surfaces alerts for a kidney condition to another of its hospitals (Barnet Hospital).
One NHS trust, Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, has not signed a new contract — and says it had never deployed Streams, suggesting it had not found a satisfactory way to integrate the app with its existing ways of working — instead taking the decision to terminate the arrangement. Though it’s leaving the door open to future health service provision from Google.
A spokeswoman for Yeovil hospital sent us this statement:
We began our relationship with DeepMind in 2017 and since then have been determining what part the Streams application could play in clinical decision making here at Yeovil Hospital.
The app was never operationalised, and no patient data was processed.
What’s key for us as a hospital, when it comes to considering the implementation of any new piece of technology, is whether it improves the effectiveness and safety of patient care and how it tessellates with existing ways of working. Working with the DeepMind team, we found that Streams is not necessary for our organisation at the current time.
Whilst our contractual relationship has ended, we will remain an anchor partner of Google Health so will continue to be part of conversations about emerging technology which may be of benefit to our patients and our clinician in the future.
The hand-off of DeepMind Health to Google, which was announced just over a year ago, means the tech giant is now directly providing software services to a number of NHS trusts that had signed contracts with DeepMind for Streams; as well as taking over several AI research partnerships that involve the use of NHS patients’ data to try to develop predictive diagnostic models using AI technology.
DeepMind — which kicked off its health efforts by signing an agreement with the Royal Free NHS Trust in 2015, going on to publicly announce the health division in spring 2016 — said last year its future focus would be as a “research organisation”.
As recently as this July DeepMind was also touting a predictive healthcare research “breakthrough” — announcing it had trained a deep learning model for continuously predicting the future likelihood of a patient developing a life-threatening condition called acute kidney injury. (Though the AI is trained on heavily gender-skewed data from the US department of Veteran Affairs.)
Yet it’s now become clear that it’s handed off several of its key NHS research partnerships to Google Health as part of the Streams transfer.
In its statement about the move yesterday, UCLH writes that “it was proposed” that its DeepMind research partnership — which is related to radiotherapy treatment for patients with head and neck cancer — be transferred to Google Health, saying this will enable it to “make use of Google’s scale and experience to deliver potential breakthroughs to patients more rapidly”.
“We will retain control over the anonymised data and remain responsible for deciding how it is used,” it adds. “The anonymised data is encrypted and only accessible to a limited number of researchers who are working on this project with UCLH’s permission. Access to the data will only be granted for officially approved research purposes and will be automatically audited and logged.”
It’s worth pointing out that the notion of “anonymised” high dimension health data should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism — given the risk of re-identification.
Moorfields also identifies Google’s “resources” as the incentive for agreeing for its eye-scan related research partnership to be handed off, writing: “This updated partnership will allow us to draw on Google’s resources and expertise to extend the benefits of innovations that AI offers to more of our clinicians and patients.”
Quite where this leaves DeepMind’s ambitions to “lead the way in fundamental research applying AI to important science and medical research questions, in collaboration with academic partners, to accelerate scientific progress for the benefit of everyone”, as it put it last year — when it characterized the hand-off to Google Health as all about ‘scaling Streams’ — remains to be seen.
We’ve reached out to DeepMind for comment on that.
Co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, who’s been taking a leave of absence from the company, tweeted yesterday to congratulate the Google Health team.

When we started DeepMind Health 3 years ago it was because we believed good research and smart software could make a difference to patients & nurses & doctors. Proud to be part of this journey. Huge progress delivered already, and so much more to come for this incredible team. https://t.co/zynBrrlgUc
— Mustafa Suleyman (@mustafasuleymn) September 18, 2019

DeepMind’s NHS research contracts also transferring to Google Health suggests the tech giants wants zero separation between core AI health research and the means of application, using its own cloud infrastructure, of any promising models it’s able to train off of patient data and commercialize by selling to the same healthcare services providers as apps and services.
You could say Google is seeking to bundle access to the high resolution patient data that’s essential for developing health AIs with the provision of commercial digital healthcare services it hopes to sell hospitals down the line, all funnelled through the same Google cloud infrastructure.
As we reported at the time, the hand-off of DeepMind Health to Google is controversial.
Firstly because the trust that partnered with DeepMind in 2015 to develop Streams was later found by the UK’s data protection watchdog to have breached UK law. The ICO said there was no legal basis for the Royal Free to have shared the medical records of ~1.6M patients with DeepMind during the app’s development.
Despite concerns being raised over the legal basis for sharing patients’ data throughout 2016 and 2017 DeepMind continued inking NHS contracts for Streams — claiming at the time that patient data would never be handed to Google. Yet fast forward a couple of years and it’s now literally sitting on the tech giant’s servers.
It’s that U-turn that led the DeepMind to Google Health hand-off to be branded a trust demolition by legal experts on the news breaking last year.
This summer the UK’s patient data watchdog, the National Data Guardian, released correspondence between her office and the ICO which informed the latter’s 2017 finding that Streams had breached data protection law — in which she articulates a clear regulatory position that the “reasonable expectations” of patients must govern non-direct care uses for people’s health data, rather than healthcare providers relying on doctors to decide whether they think the intended purpose for people’s medical information is justified.
The Google Health blog post talks a lot about “patient care” and “patient data” but has nothing to say about patients’ expectations of how their personal information should be used, with King writing that “our partners are in full control of all patient data and we will only use patient data to help improve care, under their oversight and instructions”.
It was exactly such an ethical blindspot around the patient’s perspective that led Royal Free doctors to override considerations about people’s medical privacy in the rush to throw their lot in with Google-DeepMind and scramble for AI-fuelled predictive healthcare.
Patient consent was not sought for passing medical records then; nor have patients’ views been consulted in the transfer of Streams contracts (and people’s data) to Google now.
And while — after it was faced with public outcry over the NHS data it was processing — DeepMind did go on to publish its contracts with NHS trusts (with some redactions), Google Health is not offering any such transparency on the replacement contracts that have been inked now. So it’s not clear whether there have been any other changes to the terms. Patients have to take all that on trust.
We reached out to the Royal Free Trust with questions about the new contract with Google but a spokeswoman just pointed us to the statement on its website — where it writes: “All migration and implementation will be completed to the highest standards of security and will be compliant with relevant data protection legislation and NHS information governance requirements.”
“As with all of our arrangements with third parties, the Royal Free London remains the data controller in relation to all personal data. This means we retain control over that personal data at all times and are responsible for deciding how that data is used for the benefit of patient care,” it adds.
In another reduction in transparency accompanying this hand-off from DeepMind to Google Health, an independent panel of reviewers that DeepMind appointed to oversee its work with the NHS in another bid to boost trust has been disbanded.
“As we announced in November, that review structure — which worked for a UK entity primarily focused on finding and developing healthcare solutions with and for the NHS — is not the right structure for a global effort set to work across continents as well as different health services,” King confirmed yesterday.
In its annual report last year the panel had warned of the risk of DeepMind exerting “excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure bundled with provision of the Streams app. For DeepMind then read Google now.
Independent experts raising concerns about monopoly power unsurprisingly doesn’t align with Google’s global ambitions in future healthcare provision.
The last word from the independent reviewers is a Medium post penned by former chair, professor Donal O’Donoghue — who writes that he’s “disappointed that the IR experiment did not have the time to run its course and I am sad to say goodbye to a project I’ve found fascinating”.
“This was a fascinating exploration into how a new governance model could be applied to such an important area such as health,” he adds. “It’s hard to know how this would have developed over the years but… what is clear to me is that trust and transparency are of paramount importance in healthcare and I’m keen to see how Google Health, and other providers, deliver this in the future.”
But with trust demolished and transparency reduced Google Health appears to have learnt exactly nothing from DeepMind’s missteps.

Google gobbling DeepMind’s health app might be the trust shock we need

The portrait of an avatar as a young artist

Alice Lloyd George
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Alice Lloyd George is an early stage investor based in New York and the host of Flux, a series of podcast conversations with leaders in frontier technology.

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In this episode of Flux I talk with LaTurbo Avedon, an online avatar who has been active as an artist and curator since 2008.  Recently we’ve seen a wave of next-gen virtual stars rise up, from Lil Miquela in the west to pop-stars like Kizuna AI in the east. As face and body tracking make real-time avatar representation accessible, what emergent behaviors will we see? What will our virtual relationships evolve? How will these behaviors translate into the physical world when augmented reality is widespread?

LaTurbo was early to exploring these questions of identity and experimenting with telepresence. She has shape-shifted across media types, spending time in everything from AOL and chat rooms, to MMOs, virtual worlds and social media platforms. In this conversation she shares her thoughts on how social networks have breached our trust, why a breakup is likely, and how users should take control of their data. We get into the rise of battle royale gaming, why multiplicity of self is important, and how we can better express agency and identity online.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full podcast on iTunes and transcript on Medium.
***
ALG: Welcome to the latest episode of Flux. I am excited to introduce LaTurbo Avedon. LaTurbo is an avatar and artist originating in virtual space, per her website and online statement. Her works can be described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and explosion of forms exploring topics of virtual authorship and the physicality of the Internet. LaTurbo has exhibited all over the world from Peru to Korea to the Whitney in New York. I’m thrilled to have her on the show. Metaphorically of course. It’s just me here in the studio. LaTurbo is remote. 
When we got the demo file earlier I was excited to hear the slight Irish lilt in your robotic voice. As a Brit I feel like we have a bond there.

LaTurbo: Thank you for the patience. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, our voices together.
ALG: Of course it’s all about being patient as we try out new things on the frontier. And you represent that frontier. This show is about people that are pushing the boundaries in their fields. A lot of them are building companies, some are scientists. Recently we’ve had a few more artists on and that’s something I believe is important in all of these fields. Because you’re taking the time to do the hard work and think about technology and its impact and how we can stretch it and use it in different ways and broaden our thinking. You play an important role.
LaTurbo: We will get things smoothed out eventually as my vocalization gets easier and more natural with better tools. Alice I appreciate you trekking out here with me and trying this format out.
ALG: I love a good trek. Maybe you can give a brief intro on who is LaTurbo. I believe you started in Second Life. I’d love to hear about those origins. Phil Rosedale was one of the first people I interviewed on this podcast, the founder of Second Life. Shout out to Phil. I’d love to hear what’s been your journey since then. Oh and also happy 10th birthday.

“I’ve spent decades inside of virtual environments, in many ways I came of age alongside the Internet. My early years in my adolescence in role-playing games. From the early years I was enamored by cyber space”
LaTurbo: I know that it is circuitous at times but this process has made me work hard to explore what it takes to be here like this. Well I started out early on in the shapes of America Online, intranets, and private message boards. Second Life opened this up incredibly, taking things away from the closed worlds of video games. We had to work even harder to be individuals in early virtual worlds using character editors, roleplaying games, and other platforms in shared network spaces. This often took the shape of default characters — letting Final Fantasy, Goldeneye, or other early game titles be the space where we performed alternative identities.
ALG: If you’re referring to Goldeneye on N64 I spent considerable time on it growing up. So I might have seen you running around there.
LaTurbo: It was a pleasure to listen to your conversation with Philip Rosedale as he continues to explore what comes next, afterwards, in new sandboxes. What was your first avatar?
ALG: I did play a lot of video games growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and was exposed mostly to the Nintendo and Sega side of things, so maybe one of those Mario Kart characters — Princess Peach or really I went for Yoshi if those count as avatars. I’d love to get into your experience in gaming. You said you started off exploring more closed world games and then you discovered Second Life. You’ve spent a lot of time in MMORPGs and obviously that’s one of the main ways that people have engaged with avatars. I’d love to hear how your experiences have been in different games and any commentary on the worlds you’re spending time in now.

LaTurbo: I think that even if they weren’t signature unique identities or your own avatar, those forms of early video games were a first key to understand more about facets of yourself through them. For me gaming is like water being added to the creative sandbox. There is fusion inside of game worlds — narrative, music, performance, design, problem solving, communication, so many different factors of life and creativity that converge within a pliable file. Some of the most Final Fantasies of games are now realities. Users move place to place using many maps and system menus on their devices. The physical world so closely bonded by users like me that brought bits of the game out with us. Recently I spent several months wandering around inside of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoyed the narrative of the main storyline though I was far more interested in having quiet moments away from all of the violence. I named my horse Sontag and went out exploring, taking photographs and using slow motion game exploits to make videos. Several months as the weary cowboy named Arthur, and then I carried on my way. I take bits and pieces with me on the way.
LaTurbo’s Overwatch avatar
ALG: As you’ve gone across different games and platforms like Red Dead Redemption 2 are there specific people you’ve made friends with? How have your friendships formed in these different communities and do they travel between games? 
LaTurbo: I have had many gaming friends. Virtual friends overlap between all of these worlds. My Facebook friends are not very different than those I fight with in Overwatch or the ones I challenge scores with in Tetris Effect.
ALG: One thing you’ve said about gaming and I’ll read the quote straight out:
“I love the MMO or massively multiplayer online experience for a lot of reasons but primarily because I want to create works collaboratively with my network, because we are in this moment together. For a long time virtual worlds were partitioned from the public because you either had to be invested in gaming or a chat room/ BBS user to get into them.”

I want to explore that. Gaming has come a long way in the 10 years since you were created. It’s more widespread now. Things like Fortnite. I saw that Red Dead Redemption is introducing a Fortnite like feature where they’re going to have battle royale mode and toss people into a battle zone and force them to search for weapons to survive. I think a lot of people are looking at the success of Fortnite and replicating elements of it. Can you comment on how gaming has become more widespread or more in the public mind and what you think of the rise of Fortnite?
LaTurbo: Our histories are fluid, intersecting and changing depending on the world we choose to inhabit. Sometimes we are discussing art on Instagram. Other times we are discussing game lore or customization of ourselves. This variety is so important to me. There is a lot exchanged between worlds like Fortnite and the general physical day to day. Expectations are real and high. The battle royale model has pushed people to a sort of edge at all times. A constant pressure of chance and risk, it crosses between games but also into general attention. Video apps like TikTok have a similar model — always needing to have the drop on the creators around you.
ALG: It’s interesting that tension. These games are driven to create competition. They are businesses so they’re supposed to build in loops and mechanics that keep people engaging. But as you describe of your experience in Red Redemption you’ve also found quiet moments of exploration being alone and not necessarily fiercely competing. 

LaTurbo: Red Dead could be a hundred games in one. Yet for some reason we come back to the royale again. It is a maximal experience in a lot of ways. One that uses failure and frustration to keep users trying again perpetually. This is a telling sign as you’ve said about the business of games. The loop. I worry that this is a risky model because it doesn’t encourage a level of introspection very often.
ALG: I love video games but have never been a fan of first person shooters. I don’t enjoy the violence. But I’ve always loved strategy and exploration games. To your point about exploring, I would spend hours wandering on Epona [the horse] in Zelda, running across the fields. But I didn’t feel that a lot of those games were designed for women or people who weren’t interested in the violence or the GTA type approach. I’m excited to see more of that happening now and gaming CEOs realizing there’s a huge untapped market of people that want to play in different modes and experience gaming in different ways. It feels like we are moving towards that future. I do want to get in to how you have expanded beyond gaming. I’ll read some of your quotes from when you started out:
“I’ve been making work in digital environments since 2008 to 2009, though I’ve only been using social media for about a year now since I can’t go out and mingle with people it’s been quite nice to use social platforms to share my work. This way I can be in real life IRL as much as people allow me to be.”
I want to get to the question of how you’ve expanded from gaming to social media, building your Twitter and Instagram presence and how you think about your engagement on those platforms.
LaTurbo: I celebrate the multiplicity of self. Walt Whitman spoke of their contradictions years ago accepting themselves in the sense that they contain multitudes. As I wandered the fields of fictitious Admiral Grant in Red Dead Redemption 2, it occurred to me that I was wondering inside of Leaves of Grass. It made sense that I too was wandering around out in the fields and trees. Virtual life in poetry, song, or simulation gives us a different sort of armor where our forms can forget about borders, rules and expectations that have yet to change outside.
It has been quite a decade. Events of the past 10 years could easily be the plot of a William Gibson novel. A cyber drama and all its actors. With and without consent users have watched their personal data slip away from their control, quick to release in the terms of service. Quick to be public, to have more followers and visibility. Is it real without the Instagram proof? I chose to socialize away from game worlds for a few different purposes. To imbue my virtual identity with the moment of social media. But also to create a symbol of a general virtual self. A question mark or a mirror, to encourage reflection before people fully drown themselves in the stream.
ALG: One of the reasons it’s fascinating to talk to you now is that you’ve come of age as the Internet has come of age. You’ve navigated and shape-shifted across these platforms. And so much has happened since 2008. You’ve been on everything from Tumblr to Pinterest to Vine to Snapchat to Instagram. I’m curious where you think we are in the life cycle of these social media platforms?
LaTurbo: It has been quite a journey, seeing these services pop up, new fields, new places. But it is clear that not many of these things will remain very long. A new Wild West of sorts. They are more like ingredients in a greater solution as we try to make virtual relationships that are comfortable for both mind and body.
ALG: Speaking of these services popping up I want to get to something you tweeted out, your commentary on Facebook:
“If it wasn’t bad already just imagine how toxic Facebook will be when we collectively decide to break up with them. Anticipate a paid web and an underweb. We just start spinning them out on our own, smaller and away from all these analytics moneymakers. The changeover from MySpace era networks to Facebook felt minimal because it hadn’t become such a market-oriented utility. But this impending social network breakup is going to be felt in all sorts of online sectors.”

That’s an interesting opinion. The delete Facebook movement is strong right now. But I wonder how far it will go and how many people really follow it?
LaTurbo: Business complicates this as companies extend too far and make use of this data for personal gain or manipulation. In the same way that Google Glass failed because of a camera, these services destroy themselves as they breach the trust of those who use them. These companies know that these are toxic relationships whether it is on a game economy or a social network. They know that the leverage over your personal data is valuable. Losing this, our friends, and our histories is frightening. We need to find some way to siphon ourselves and our data back so we can learn to express agency with who we are online. Your data is more valuable than the services that you give it to. The idea that people feel that it is fair to let their accounts be inherently bound to a single service is disturbing. Our virtual lives exceed us and will continue to do so onward into time. Long after us this data may still linger somewhere.

ALG: I’m going to throw in a Twitter poll you did a few months ago. “If you had the choice to join some sort of afterlife simulation that would keep you around forever at the expense of having your data used for miscellaneous third party purposes would you?” 35% said yes and 65% said no in this poll. I bet if you ask that every two years, over time the answers will continue to change as we get more comfortable with our digital identities and what that really means. You’re pushing us to ask these questions.
LaTurbo: We see in museums now torn parchments, scrolls, ancient wrappings of lives and histories. As we become more virtual these documents will inherently change too. A markup and data takes this place. However we consent to let it be represented. If we leave this to the Facebooks and Twitters of this period, our histories are in many ways contingent on the survival of these platforms. If not we have lost a dark ages, it is a moment that we will lose forever.
ALG: I’m curious what you think of the different movements to export your personal data, own it, have it travel with you across platforms and build a new pact with the companies. Are you following any of the movements to take back personal data and rewrite the social technological contract?
LaTurbo: It would be sad to have less record of this period of innovation and self-discovery because we didn’t back things up or control our data appropriately. Where do you keep it? Who protects it? Who is a steward of your records? All of this needs to begin with the user and end with the user. An album, a solid state tablet of your life, something you can take charge of without concern that it is marketing fodder or some large shared database. As online as we are as a society, I recommend people have an island. Not a cloud but a private place, plugged in when you request it. A drive of your own where you have a private order. Oddly enough in an older world sense you can find solitude in solid states, when you have the retreat to files that are not connected to the Internet.
ALG: And have it backed up and air-gapped from the internet for safety and possibly in a Faraday cage in case you get EMP’ed. One thing that leads on from that — Facebook has capitalized on using our real data, our personal data. I have the statement on authentic identity from their original S-1 here:
“We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends and sharing your genuine interests online creates more engaging and meaningful experiences. Representing yourself with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience and we believe that it is central to the future of the Web. Our terms of service require you to use your real name. And we encourage you to be your true self online enabling us and platform developers to provide you with more personalized experiences.”
LaTurbo: The use of a real name, authenticity, and Facebook’s message of truth. It is peculiar that Facebook used this angle because it was such a gloved gesture for them to access our accurate records. The verification is primarily to make businesses comfortable with their investment in marketing. I wish it came to celebrate personal expression not to tune business instruments.
ALG: Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a movement towards Facebook and being our real selves. Now there’s kind of a backlash both to the usage of Facebook but perhaps also to the idea that your real identity, your true self that you have offline, that that’s what you should be representing online. You are an anonymous artist and there’s precedent for that. There have been many writers with nom de plumes over centuries and in the present day we’ve got Daft Punk, Banksy, Elena Ferrante, fascinating creators. I’m curious your thoughts as we move away from real selves being represented online to expressing our other selves online. We’ve been living in an age of shameless self-promotion. Do you think that the rise of people representing themselves with digital avatars is a backlash to that? Society usually goes through a back and forth, a struggle for balance. Do you think people are getting disenchanted with the unrelenting narcissism of social media, the celebrity worship culture? Do you think this is a bigger movement that’s going to stick?
LaTurbo: I see this as an opportunity and I am wary of this chance being usurped by business. If I had the chance to see all of my friends in the avatar forms of their wishes and dreams I believe I’d be seeing them for the first time. A different sort of wholeness against the sky, where they had the chance to say and be exactly what they wished others to find. If you haven’t created an avatar before please do. Explore yourself in many facets before these virtual spaces get twisted into stratified arenas of business.
A full talk from LaTurbo Avedon is available here
I don’t seek to be anonymous but to represent myself in this strand of experiences, fully. That’s who I have become. As an artist I will continue to change with what surrounds me. Each step forward. Each new means of making and learning. I celebrate this and who I will become, even if I continue to find definition over a period of time that I right now cannot fully comprehend.
I am often in the company of crude avatars of the past. As I read journals, view sketches and works from artists past, if they understood their avatar identities and how they would be here now in 2019. I wonder what they would have done differently. What would they think of their graphic design and exhibitions? How their work is shown in other mediums? How their work is sold?
ALG: Taking that with your earlier point, you said if you had the chance you would love to see all your friends in their avatar forms “express all their wishes and dreams.” It fascinates me, the idea that we persistently remain one to one with our offline/online identities. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like everyone has multiple selves and multiple things to express. Do you feel that most people should have a digital identity or abstraction? Do you think it’s healthy to have an extension of something that’s inside of you, especially since as you say some of these avatars are pretty crude. How do you feel about most people creating a digital avatar? People have been doing this for a while without realizing through things like a Tinder bio or Instagram stories. They’re already putting out ideas of themselves. But creating true anonymous digital avatars, is that something people should pursue?
LaTurbo: Avatars remain in places that we often don’t even intend them to. Symbols of self. For those that pass or those we never had the chance to meet, there seems to be importance here. To need to take this seriously so that it isn’t misunderstood. The most beautiful experiences I’ve had online are when I feel I am interacting with a user how they wish to be seen. Whether this is in the present or for people later, finding this inward representation feels essential especially for those exposed to oppressive societies. Whether it’s toxic masculinity, cultural restrictions, or other hindrances that prevent people from showing deeper parts of their identity.
I have four essential asks of users creating avatars. Though these apply well outside of just this topic. 1/ Be sweet. 2/ Encourage others to explore themselves and all of their differences. 3/ Learn about the history of virtual identities, now, then, and long before. This means going back. Read about identities before the internet, pen names, mythologies. 4/ Celebrate your ownership of self. You, not your services, subscriptions, or products, are the one to decide your way. Don’t become billboards. I’ve been asked by many companies over the years to promote their products, to drop the branded text on my clothing or to push a new service. These are exciting times but brands know this too. Be wary of exploitation. Protect yourself and your heart.
ALG: That’s really beautiful and important. We’re rushing into this future fast and I don’t think people are stopping to pause and think about some of the ideas you’ve spent a long time thinking about. It’s probably a good place to end. I have a million more things I want to ask, hopefully we can continue this chat over Discord, Twitter, Instagram, Second Life or wherever it is. I’m in VR a lot so I’d love to meet you in there. If there’s anything you want to end on, any final comments or projects you’re working on?
LaTurbo: Yes I agree with you very much. Technology moves quickly but we need to take the time to consider ourselves as we move inside this space. We have so much potential to be inside and out simultaneously. I am excited for this new year. I hope it brings positivity to everyone. I am showing a new piece called “Afterlife Beta” in London at the Arebyte Gallery. After this I will be working on my first monograph. I am excited to make something printed that might stick around in the physical world for a while.
ALG: That’s awesome. Love a good physical piece. And congratulations on “Afterlife Beta.” I appreciate your patience with my jumping in at all times in this conversation. I’ve been following your work and hope everyone else will too. You’re a fascinating, critical thinker and artist at this current point in history. Thanks LaTurbo.
LaTurbo: Thank you for your patience with my format. As time goes on I hope it is easier for us to be here together.

Remagine secures $35M fund backed by media giants to focus on entertainment and media tech

Remagine Ventures is a relatively new European VC fund which focuses on investments in entertainment tech, including AI, gaming, sports & eSports, AR/VR, consumer and commerce. It’s now completed $35 million in funding from a number of entertainment and media corporations, including Axel Springer and ProsiebenSat1, Japanese Adways and American Liontree LLC. Last year global media group Sky put $4 million into the fund as part of the launch of its new innovation office in Berlin.
To date, the fund has invested in six entertainment start-ups, including: Minute Media, a user-generated content platform for sports, Syte.ai a visual search startup, Novos, a gamer training platform, HourOne, which operates in the world of synthetic media, Vault-ai.com, predictive analytics for film and television and Madskil, an eSports company in stealth.
Started by investor/entrepreneurs Kevin Baxpehler and Eze Vidra, Remagine focuses on early-stage (seed and pre-seed) investments in Israel and UK, with synergies between the two territories.
Traditionally, Israel has been better know for it’s ‘deep tech’capabilities but there’s a growing ecosystem of entertainment tech and consumer startups looking to disrupt traditional traditional industries.
Vidra established Campus London, Google’s first physical hubs for startups and later expanded the Campus model internationally. He was also a general partner Google Ventures (GV), the company’s investment arm in Europe.
Baxpehler, is a former entrepreneur and investment banker from in Germany. He most recently led the investment activity of German entertainment giant ProSiebenSat.1 in Israel, investing in Dynamic Yield (which recently sold for $300 million to McDonalds) and Magisto, which was acquired by Vimeo for $200 million.
Vidra said: “We operate in a relatively new market in the Israeli ecosystem. The Entertainment-tech sector has tremendous momentum, and Israeli founders are expanding at a rapid pace in this world and we recognize huge potential in it.” Baxpehler added: “Eze and I have experience in the investment world, the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world. We want to meet startups very early, to accompany and guide them even before investing.”

ckbk pulls a ‘Spotify for recipes’ out of the beta oven

Cooking may be under sustained attack by a wave of on-demand food delivery startups, with names that can double as gluttonous calls to action (oh hey Just Eat!), but that hasn’t stopped London-based startup ckbk from pushing in the opposite direction — with a digital service that offers on-demand access to high quality recipes licensed from major publishers of best selling cookbooks.
Indeed, the ckbk platform serves up not just individual recipes but entire cookbooks for browsing in app form.
The ckbk platform, which launches out of beta today — after a Kickstarter campaign last year that raised just over $55k — is being touted by its creators as ‘Spotify for recipes’. Think ‘playlists’ of professionally programmed dishes to whip up in the kitchen.
At launch it offers access to a catalog of more than 350 cookbooks (80,000+ recipes) — a culinary library that’s slated to keep growing.
For $8.99/£8.99 per month the premium ckbk user gets to tuck in to unlimited access to this “curated collection of cookbooks” — with content selected using “recommendations from hundreds of chefs and food experts including Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi”.
A freemium layer offers access gratis to three recipes per month.
Subscribers are essentially paying for someone else with (most likely) superior knowledge of cooking to sort the wheat from the chaff so you don’t have to do the legwork of figuring out what freebie Internet recipes are worth investing your time (and after it, teeth) in.
Not just any old recipes, editorially curated recipes is the ckbk promise.
Content partners at launch include “dozens” of major publishers — including Chronicle Books, Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Rodale, Simon & Schuster, Workman Publishing and Penguin Random House’s Rodale and Struik imprints.
Culinary content available via the platform is billed as spanning both contemporary authors like Molly Yeh and David Tanis, to award winning authorities and Michelin starred chefs, while also dipping into old  culinary classics, such as On Food & Cooking and the Oxford Companion to Food, and offering works penned by legendary French chef and restauranteur Escoffier.
Publishers participating in ckbk’s platform are being promised a new digital revenue stream (it’s not clear what the revenue share is) — sweetened with data in the form of “new insights into patterns of cookbook recipe usage” they can use to feed into future editorial output. So of course all ckbk users are having their foodie browsing extensively data-mined.
To push its ‘premium recipes’ proposition ckbk is trailing a bunch of forthcoming promotional partnerships with kitchenware brands, food-related ecommerce brands, food events, culinary schools and publishing channels — which it says will be launching in the next few months.
It also says recipes on the platform have been optimized for integration with connected kitchen appliances.
European company BSH (whose appliance brands include Bosch, Gaggenau, NEFF and Siemens) is named as the first strategic partner for ckbk. It will be offering premium membership of the service to UK buyers of its NEFF N90 connected oven.
A subset of ‘smart’ cookbook recipes on ckbk will automatically set the correct time and oven temperature via the N90’s Home Connect system — for anyone who can’t be bothered to twiddle the dials themselves.
ckbk adds that selected recipes will be further “optimized” to make the most of features and cooking modes of the smart oven. A tidbit which might make a seasoned chef raise an eyebrow and question whether that’s heading towards recipes for robots.
The licensing project has certainly been a slow burn. The company behind ckbk, 1000 Cookbooks, has been working on getting the concept to market since 2014, per Crunchbase.
It says it’s currently raising a $2M seed funding round — having previously raised a total of $750,000 in pre-seed funding via investors, the Techstars/BSH Future Home accelerator program, and its Kickstarter campaign.

Nigerian online-only bank startup Kuda raises $1.6M

Nigerian fintech startup Kuda — a digital-only retail bank — has raised $1.6 million in pre-seed funding.
The Lagos and London-based company recently launched the beta version of its online mobile finance platform. Kuda also received its banking license from the Nigerian Central Bank, giving it a distinction compared to other fintech startups.
“Kuda is the first digital-only bank in Nigeria with a standalone license. We’re not a mobile wallet or simply a mobile app piggybacking on an existing bank,” Kuda bank founder Babs Ogundeyi told TechCrunch.
“We have built our own full-stack banking software from scratch. We can also take deposits and connect directly to the switch,” Ogundeyi added, referring to the Nigeria’s Central Switch — a SWIFT-like system that facilitates bank communication and settlements.
A representative for the Central Bank of Nigeria (speaking on background) confirmed Kuda’s banking license and status, telling TechCrunch, “As far as I’m aware there is no other digital bank [in Nigeria] that has a micro-finance license.”
 

Kuda offers checking accounts with no monthly-fees, a free debit card, and plans to offer consumer savings and P2P payments options on its platform in coming months.
“You can open a bank account within five minutes, do all the Ogundeyi — a repeat founder who exited classifieds site Motortradertrader.ng and worked in a finance advisory role to the Nigerian government — co-founded Kuda in 2018 with former Stanbic Bank software developer Musty Mustapha.
The two convinced investor Haresh Aswani to lead the $1.6 million pre-seed funding, along with Ragnar Meitern and other angel investors. Aswani confirmed his investment to TechCrunch and that he will take a position on Kuda’s board.
Kuda plans to use its seed funds to go from beta to live launch in Nigeria by fourth-quarter 2019. The startup will also build out the tech of its banking platform, including support for its developer team located in Lagos and Cape Town, according to Ogundeyi.
Kuda also intends to expand in the near future. “It’s Nigeria for right now, but the plan is build a Pan-African digital-only bank,” he said.
As of 2014, Nigeria has held the dual distinction as Africa’s largest economy and most populous country (with 190 million people).
To scale there, and add some physical infrastructure to its online model, Kuda has correspondent relationships with three of Nigeria’s largest financial institutions: GTBank, Access Bank and Zenith Bank.
He clarified the banks are partners and not investors. Kuda customers can use these banks’ branches and ATMs to put money into bank accounts or withdraw funds without a fee.
“Even though we don’t own a single branch, we actually have the largest branch network in the country,” Ogundeyi claimed.
Kuda’s plans to generate revenues focus largely around leveraging its bank balances. “We plan to match different liability classes to the different asset classes that we create. That’s how we make money, that’s how we get efficiency in terms of income,” Ogundeyi said.
In Nigeria, Kuda enters a potentially revenue-rich market, but its one that already hosts a crowded fintech field — as the country becomes ground zero for payments startups and tech investment in Africa.
In both raw and per capita numbers, Nigeria has been slower to convert to digital payments than leading African countries, such as Kenya, according to joint McKinsey Company and Gates Foundation analysis done several years ago. The same study estimated there could be nearly $1.3 billion in revenue up for grabs if Nigeria could reach the same digital-payments penetration as Kenya.
A number of startups — established and new — are going after that prize in the West African country — several with a strategy to scale in Nigeria first before expanding outward on the continent and globally.
San Francisco-based, no-fee payment venture Chipper Cash entered Nigeria this month.

SF-based African fintech startup Chipper Cash expands to Nigeria

Series B-stage Nigerian payments company Paga raised $10 million in 2018 to further grow its customer base (that now tallies 13 million) and expand to Asia and Latin America.
Kuda CEO Babs Ogundeyi believes the startup can scale and compete in Nigeria on a number of factors, one being financial safety. He names the company’s official bank status and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation security that brings as something that can attract cash-comfortable bank clients to digital finance.
Ogundeyi also points to offerings and price.”We look to be the next generation bank where you can do everything— savings, payments and transfers — and also the one that’s least expensive,” he said.

These startups are locating in SF and Africa to win in global fintech

 

Adarga closes £5M Series A funding for its Palantir-like AI platform

AI startup Adarga has closed a £5 million Series A fundraising by Allectus Capital. But this news rather cloaks the fact that it’s been building up a head of steam since it’s founding in 2016, building up – what they say – is a £30 million-plus sales pipeline through strategic collaborations with a number of global industrial partners and gradually building its management team.
The proceeds will be used to continue the expansion of Adarga’s data science and software engineering teams and roll out internationally.
Adarga, which comes from the word for an old Moorish shield, is a London and Bristol-based start-up. It uses AI to change the way financial institutions, intelligence agencies and defence companies tackle problems, helping crunch vast amounts of data to identify possible threats even before they occur. The start-up’s proposition sounds similar to that of Palantir, which is known for working with the US military.
What Adarga does is allow organizations to transform normally data-intensive, human knowledge processes by analyzing vast volumes of data more quickly and accurately. Adarga clients can build up a ‘Knowledge Graph’ about subjects, and targets.
The UK government is a client as well as the finance sector, where it’s used for financial analysis and by insurance companies. Founded in 2016, it now has 26 employees – including data scientists from some of the UK’s top universities.
The company has received support from Benevolent AI, one of the key players in the UK AI tech scene. Benevolent AI, which is worth $2bn after a $115m funding round, is a minority shareholder in Adarga. It has not provided financial backing, but support in kind and technical help.
Rob Bassett Cross, CEO of Adarga, commented: “With the completion of this round, Adarga is focused on consolidating its competitive position in the UK defence and security sector. We are positioning ourselves as the software platform of choice for organisations who cannot deal effectively with the scale and complexity of their enterprise data and are actively seeking an alternative to knowledge intensive human processes. Built by experienced sector specialists, the Company has rapidly progressed a real solution to address the challenges of an ever-growing volume of unstructured data.”
Bassett Cross is an interesting guy, to say the least. You won’t find much about him on LinkedIn, but in previous interviews, he has revealed that he is a former army officer and special operations expert who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was awarded military cross.
The company recently held a new annual event, the Adarga AI Symposium at the The Royal Institution, London, which featured futurist Mark Stevenson, Ranju Das of Amazon Web Services, and General Stanley A. McChrystal.
Matthew Gould, Head of Emerging Technology at Allectus Capital, said: “Adarga has developed a world-class analytics platform to support real-time critical decisioning by public sector and defence stakeholders. What Rob and the team have built in a short time is a hugely exciting example of the founder-led, disruptive businesses that we like to partner with – especially in an ever-increasing global threat landscape.”
Allectus Capital is based in Sydney, Australia and invests across Asia-Pacific, UK and US. It has previously invested in Cluey Learning (Series A, A$20M), Everproof, Switch Automation and Automio.

Spirable refuels with $7.4M to serve more personalized video ads in the US

London based adtech startup Spirable has closed a £6M Series A. The round was led by Smedvig Capital, with existing backers Frontline Ventures, Downing Ventures and 24 Haymarket also participating.
The startup is one of several playing in the customized video ads space — offering a platform that simplifies and scales video ad creation by enabling brands and advertisers to combine video templates with creative and data sources to automate the creation and delivery of scores of personalized marketing messages.
Spirable says its platform, which launched in 2014, is now used by more than 50 customers. Campaigns have run across 75+ countries, with more than 100M personalised videos distributed since launch.
Its most successful industries to date are CPG (consumer packaged goods), travel and telco, according to co-founders Dave and Ger O’Meara.
On the travel front, they give the example of a Deutsche Bahn ‘No Need to Fly’ campaign that used dynamic video to show a location-sensitive side by side comparison of flight costs juxtaposed with cheaper train trips to local beauty spots — which Spirable claims achieved a 397% increase in click throughs; a 849% performance increase; and 59% reduction in cost per click vs the control.
Another example they cite is a Vodafone campaign to promote two own brand smartphone models which integrates multiple data feeds (such as contextual weather and date data) with creative assets in order to dynamically spotlight different features of the devices. The personalized marketing messages were served across Facebook, YouTube and Display channels via APIs baked into the platform.
From five video templates the tech automated the creation of more than five and a half thousand “unique” videos, tweaked to be more relevant to the targeted viewers.
On that particular campaign, Spirable says Vodafone saw sales of its own-brand devices increase by 100%. While ad performance increased by up to 50%.
“We can use all the targeting available in Facebook and layer this with contextual live data like the weather, live sports scores etc. So if we know someone is in London (via geo-targeting via Facebook), we can pull the local weather for that location and tailor the video to people in that audience and also update the video when a goal is scored in a match by a team that the audience supports,” they explain. “Once set up the whole process if fully automated. When the weather, sports data etc change the videos update and change.”
As well as automating serving up personalized ads, the platform provides performance reports on the backend, and uses machine learning technology to optimize ad creative to boost engagement.
The startup notes it’s been a Facebook Marketing Partner for more than two years.
The privacy implications of such highly targeted ads are — or should be — plain.
Among the laundry list of data sources that Spirable’s platform lets advertisers plug in to automate “personalized” ads are “CRM data” which it says includes personal data, purchase data, website browsing, service usage data and preferences; “social audience data”, including behavioral data, audience persona, interests, preferences and intents; and “contextual” signals such as store locations, weather (including pollen and UV levels), markets and stock levels live spots, trending events, pricing, time & date, live travel data, Google traffic data and supermarket wi-fi data.
So, for example, a parent who recently logged into a supermarket’s wi-fi network to check their Facebook account and was tracked lingering near shelves of diapers might find themselves being served video ads for a discount on girlie pink baby products at a nearby store.
The sheer volume of data integrations Spirable offers is one of the areas it claims sets its platform apart from competitors — name-checking Clinch and Idomoo as its main rivals in personalized video ads.
“Spirable has an unparalleled amount of data integrations to uniquely personalise video ads in real-time,” it says, further claiming Idomoo “doesn’t talk about live data and pre-render ads and upload to Facebook — so there is a lack of data-driven pipelines”.
Other areas where it reckons its approach stands out vs the competition is because it’s offering a ‘self-serve’ platform — meaning advertisers and brands can use it to “create, scale and optimise personalised video in-house”, without the need for specialist teams or agencies trained in video effects software (such as After Effects) to make use of the platform.
The video ad building process is also “modular” and “100% customisable” — vs the two named rivals not supporting layer level manipulation, meaning it’s less easy for their users to make changes on the fly to optimize ads.
Another claimed differentiator is that Spirable’s platform is cross-channel — with support for “all major social, email, messenger and display channels”.
It says the Series A funding will go on expanding the business in the US, with a plan to ramp up spending there on sales, customer support and marketing. Product development will also get investment.
“We have an exciting product roadmap of new features that will enable us to reach our vision of making video ads as engaging and useful as any other content a person sees on digital. This requires investment to scale up our engineering and product teams,” the co-founders tell TechCrunch.
Commenting on the funding in a statement, Joe Knowles, principal at Smedvig Capital, added: “Spirable is a critical enabler of personalised video advertising, one of the major trends in video advertising today. Every marketer wants to use video in a more personalised way. But so far, slow and expensive content creation has been a barrier to mass adoption. Spirable’s Software as a Service removes this barrier and makes real time, automated video personalisation at scale a reality.
“Having tracked the business for over a year, we are excited to work with Ger, Dave and the high-quality team they are building at Spirable.”

Accion Venture Lab launches $23M inclusive fintech startup fund

Accion Venture Lab—the seed-stage investment arm of non-profit Accion—has raised $23 million for a new inclusive fintech startup fund.
The Accion Venture Lab Limited Partnership, as its called, will make seed-stage investments in inclusive fintech startups, defined as ventures that “that leverage technology to increase the reach, quality, and affordability of financial services for the under-served at scale,” per a company release.
The new fund was raised with capital contributions from a number of participants, including the Ford Foundation, Visa Inc. and Proparco—the development finance institution of the French government.
The additional $23 million brings Accion Venture Lab‘s total capital under management to $42 million.
The new LP fund will consider startups from any geography, as along as they meet specific criteria. Overall, Accion Venture Lab doesn’t have regional investment quotas, but does look to allocate roughly 25 to 30 percent of its funds to Africa, Accion Venture Lab Managing Director Tahira Dosani told TechCrunch on a call.
“We want to continue to focus on Latin-America, on Sub-Saharan Africa, on Southeast Asia as well as in the U.S. It really is about…where we see the need and the opportunity across the markets that we’re in,” she said.
In line with Accion’s mandate to boost financial inclusion globally, Accion Venture Lab already has a portfolio of 36 fintech startup investments across 5 continents—including 9 in the U.S., 8 in Latin America, and 8 in India.
“Our goal is to really be the that first institutional investor in the companies we invest in. That’s were we see the biggest capital gap. And it’s where we build capability and expertise,” Dosani said. In 2018, Accion Venture Lab successfully exited Indian fintech company Aye Finance, following exits in 2017 and 2016.

This year Accion Venture Lab supported a $6.5 million Series A investment in Lulalend, a South African startup that uses internal credit metrics to provide short-term loans to SMEs that are often unable to obtain working capital.

South African SME finance startup Lulalend raises $6.5M Series A

Accion’s new LP fund will follow past practice and make investments typically in the $500,000 range. It will start sourcing startups immediately through its investment leads around the world and already made its first seed financing to U.S. venture Joust—a fintech platform for gig economy workers.
Accion Venture Lab’s LP fund is the first time the organization has pooled third-party investment capital, according to a spokesperson.
On the appeal for those contributing, Dosani named Accion’s geographic reach and experience. “We think that’s our strength, because we’re able to invest in similar business models across different markets. And we’re able to bring that knowledge from one market to another,” she said.
The Ford Foundation contributed $2 million, according to an email from Christine Looney, Deputy Director, Mission Investments. Visa didn’t disclose its capital contribution, but told TechCrunch it will play a role in governance through its participation in a Limited Partners Advisory Committee for the new fund.
As a point of observation, Accion Venture Lab stands out as a fund for giving an equal pitch footing to fintech ventures across frontier, emerging, and developed markets from Lagos to London.
Accion’s new LP fund—along with the organization’s commitment to make nearly a third of its investments in Africa—means more capital to digital finance startups on the continent. By a number of estimates, Africa’s 1.2 billion people still represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.
 
 
 

Elliptic banks $23M to shrink crypto risk, eyeing growth in Asia

Crypto means risk. To UK company Elliptic it also means business. The startup has just closed a $23M Series B to step up growth for a crypto risk-management play that involves selling tech and services to help others navigate the choppy darks of cryptocurrencies.
The round was led by financial services and asset management firm SBI Group, a Tokyo-based erstwhile subsidiary of SoftBank . Also joining as a new investor this round is London-based AlbionVC. Existing investors including SignalFire, Octopus Ventures and Santander Innoventures also participated. SBI Group’s Tomoyuki Nii and Ed Lascelles of AlbionVC are also joining Elliptic’s board.
Flush with a sizeable injection of Series B capital, Elliptic is especially targeting business growth at Asia — with a plan to open new offices in Japan and Singapore. It says client revenues in the region have risen 11x over the past two years.
We last spoke to Elliptic back in 2016 when it had just raised a $5M Series A.
The 2013-founded startup began by testing the crypto waters with a storage product before zeroing in on financial compliance as a pain-point worth its time. It went on to develop machine learning tech that screens transactions to identify suspicious patterns and, via them, dubious transactors.
Now it offers an integrated suite of products and services for financial institutions and crypto businesses to screen volumes of crypto-flows that sum to billions of dollars in transactions per day — analyzing them for links to illicit activity such as money laundering, terrorist financing, sanctions evasion, and other financial crimes.
It’s focused on selling anti-money laundering compliance, crypto forensics and cryptocurrency investigation services to the private sector — though has also sold tools direct to law enforcement agencies in the past.
Billions of dollars in financial services terms is of course just a tiny drop in a massive ocean of money movements. And growth in the crypto risk-management space has clearly required more than a little patience, from a startup perspective.
Three years ago Elliptic’s first blockchain analytics product had 10-20 Bitcoin companies as customers. That’s now up to 100+ crypto businesses and financial institutions using its products to shrink their risk of financial crime when dealing with crypto-assets. But the more three than year gap between Elliptic’s Series A and B is notable.
“To date, we’ve focused on product development and assembling the right team as the market has matured. This new funding will help us expand in the right way, namely by making the push into Asia without diluting our focus on the US and EMEA,” says co-founder and CEO James Smith when asked about the gap between financing rounds.
He declines to comment on how far off Elliptic is from achieving breakeven or profitability yet.
“We provide best-in-class transaction monitoring products for crypto-assets, which are trusted by crypto exchanges and financial institutions worldwide,” he adds of its product suite. “Our products are used as key components of larger compliance processes that are designed to minimise money laundering risks.”
With the addition of SBI Group to its investor roster Elliptic gains a strategic partner in Asia to help push what it dubs “bank-grade risk data” at a new wave of established financial institutions it believes are eyeing crypto with growing appetite for risk as larger players wade in.
Larger players like Facebook . Elliptic’s PR name-drops the likes of Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, Line Corporation’s LINK and central bank digital currencies, as markers of a rise in mainstream attention on crypto assets. And it says Series B funds will be used to accelerate product development to support “an emerging class of asset-backed crypto-assets”.
Regulatory attention on crypto — which has been rising globally for years but looks set to zip up several gears now that Facebook has ripped the curtain off of an ambitious global digital currency plan which also has buy-in from a number of other household tech and fintech names — is another claimed feed in for Elliptic’s business. More crypto implies growing risk.
It also points to the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s global regulatory framework for crypto-assets as an example of some of the wider risk-based requirements and now wrapped around those dealing in crypto.
The focus on Asia for business expansion is a measure of relative maturity of interest in opportunities around crypto-assets and localized attention to regulation, according to Smith.
“Revenue growth is certainly very strong in this region. We have been working with customers in Asia for a number of years and have seen first-hand how vibrant their crypto-asset ecosystems are. Countries such as Singapore and Japan have developed clear crypto-asset regulatory frameworks, and businesses based in these countries are serious about meeting their compliance obligations,” he says.
“We have also found that traditional financial institutions in Asia are particularly keen to engage with crypto-assets, and we will be working with them as they take their first steps into this new asset class.”
“We believe that crypto-assets will play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives and are shaping the future of banking. Our investment in Elliptic is a further commitment to this belief and to SBI Holding’s appetite to help build the digital asset-related ecosystem,” adds Yoshitaka Kitao, CEO of the SBI Group, in a supporting statement.
“Elliptic’s pioneering approach is enabling the transparency, integrity, and trust necessary for this vision to become reality. We are seeing a growing demand for their services across our portfolio of crypto-assets related companies and view Elliptic as best-placed to meet this considerable opportunity.”
While Elliptic’s business is focused on reducing the risk for other businesses of inadvertently transacting with criminals using crypto to launder money or otherwise shift assets under the legal radar, the proportion of transactions that such illicit activity represents in the Bitcoin space represents a tiny fraction of overall transactions.
“According to our analysis, approximately $1BN in Bitcoin has been spent on the dark web, so far in 2019, on items ranging from narcotics to stolen credit cards. This represents a very small share of all Bitcoin activity — less than 0.5% of Bitcoin payments over this period,” says Smith.
Not that that diminishes the regulatory risk. Nor, therefore, the business opportunity for Elliptic to sell support services to help others avoid touching the hot stuff.
“Crypto money launderers are continually developing new techniques to cover their tracks — from the use of mixers to transacting in privacy coins such as monero,” Smith adds. “We are also constantly innovating to keep pace with this and help our clients to detect money laundering. For example our work with researchers from MIT and IBM demonstrated the application of deep learning techniques to the identification of illicit crypto-asset transactions.”

Africa Roundup: Goldman backs Kobo360, Rwanda commits to EVs, Interswitch IPO update

Nigerian freight logistics startup Kobo360 raised a $20 million Series A round led by Goldman Sachs and $10 million in working capital financing from Nigerian commercial banks.
The company — with an Uber-like app that connects truckers and companies to delivery services — will use the funds to upgrade its platform and expand to 10 new countries beyond current operating markets of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Kenya.
Kobo360 looks to grow beyond its Nigeria roots to become a truly Pan-African company, co-founder Obi Ozor told TechCrunch .  He co-founded the venture in 2017 with fellow Nigerian Ife Oyedele II.
Since its launch in Lagos, the startup has continued to grow its product offerings, VC backing and customer base. Kobo360 claims a fleet of more than 10,000 drivers and trucks operating on its app. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, Dangote and DHL.
Kobo360’s latest round is also notable for Goldman Sachs’ involvement. Goldman’s participation tracks a growing list of African venture investments made by the U.S. based finance firm.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 raises $30M backed by Goldman Sachs

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch.
The company — which has a robust Africa sales network — could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).
Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.
STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public.
Headquartered in Shenzhen — where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility — Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.
The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.
Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion to list in Chinese IPO

The government of Rwanda will soon issue national policy guidelines to eliminate gas motorcycles in its taxi sector in favor of e-motos, according to a preview of the plan by President Paul Kagame at a public-rally
The director general for the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Patrick Nyirishema, confirmed Kagame’s comments were ahead of a national e-mobility plan in the works for the East African nation.
“The president’s announcement is exactly the policy direction we’re in…it’s about converting to electric motos…The policy is prepared, it’s yet to be passed…and is going through the approval process,” Nyirishema told TechCrunch on a call from Kigali.
Motorcycle taxis in Rwanda are a common mode of transit, with estimates of 20 to 30 thousand operating in the capital of Kigali.
Nyirishema explained that converting to e-motorcycles is part of a national strategy to move Rwanda’s entire mobility space to electric. The country will start with public transit operators, such as moto-taxis, and move to buses and automobiles.

Ampersand, a Kigali-based e-moto startup, has already begun to pilot EVs and charging systems in Rwanda and will work with the country’s government on the moto-taxi conversion.
In an ExtraCrunch feature, TechCrunch delved into tech talent accelerator Andela — one of the most recognized and well funded startups operating in Africa.
In a byte, Andela is Series D stage startup ― backed by $180 million in VC ― that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.
CEO Jeremy Johnson dished on the company’s strategy toward profitability and responded to some of the criticism it receives ― namely a claim the startup is creating a second brain-drain when software developers leave Andela and Africa, to take positions with global companies.
Today Andela has offices in New York and five African countries: Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt ― which largely align with the continent’s top tech VC markets.
Across this network the company recruits software developers, builds software engineers, and deploys teams of software engineers.
Johnson disclosed numbers on Andela’s expected new hires for the year, current developer staff, how many departures the company expects, and how many of those will likely leave their home countries―which actually amounts to a fairly small percentage.

What is Andela, the Africa tech talent accelerator?

TechCrunch checked in with Nigerian fintech company Interswitch for the latest on its anticipated dual-listing London and Lagos stock exchanges.
A Bloomberg News story (based on background sourcing) revived speculation the IPO could happen this year for the company — which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure and has expanded its operations presence and payments products across Africa and globally.
Reports that Interswitch could be one of the earliest big tech companies out of Africa to go public trace back to 2016, when CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch the company was considering a listing before the end of that year.
Last month, an Interswitch spokesperson would neither confirm or deny a pending IPO, per a TechCrunch inquiry. So, it’s still tough to say if or when the company could list. But there are still several reasons why the business (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on, which we detailed in the update story.

Update on Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch and its speculative IPO

 
One could be an eventual increase in venture funding to African startups, that could come from Interswitch. Another could be an Interswitch IPO adding another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia — the e-commerce company that became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE in April.
More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch
Tastemakers raises $1M to sell Africa experiences to the world
African incubator MEST has a new MD and 11 fresh startup investments
Transsion’s Future Hub and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund
Huawei employees reportedly aided African governments in spying
Zindi rallies Africa’s data scientists to crowd-solve local problems
African tech around the ‘net
Nigerians to pay tax on internet transactions from January 2020
Kenya ranked top tech hub in sub-Saharan Africa
Can A two-week hiatus bring about a lasting hoorah? GoKada Is back & ready to race the pack
 

Update on Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch and its speculative IPO

Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch has been circulating in business news around a possible IPO on the London Stock Exchange.
Last month Bloomberg News ran a story—based on unnamed sources—reporting the financial services firm had hired investment banks to go public on the LSE later in 2019. The piece spurred additional aggregated press.
That Interswitch—which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure—could become one of Africa’s earliest tech companies to list on a global exchange isn’t exactly news.
It’s more deja vu of a story that began several years ago.
As TechCrunch reported, Interswitch was poised to launch on the LSE in 2016. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe confirmed “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.
Two additional sources wired into Nigeria’s tech market and close to Interswitch’s investors also said the public launch would happen by the end of that year.
The IPO would have made Interswitch Africa’s first tech company to go from startup to a billion-dollar plus unicorn valuation status. Of course, it didn’t happen in 2016.
In 2017, TechCrunch checked in with Interswitch on the delay and was told the company could not comment on its pending IPO.  In other public interviews, executives Mitchell Elegbe and Divisional Chief Executive Officer Akeem Lawal named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay and reaffirmed a likely dual Longon-Lagos listing by the end of 2019.

Will Interswitch still be the company that brings Sub-Saharan Africa its big tech windfall?

After the latest round of IPO buzz, TechCrunch asked Interswitch this week about the Bloomberg reporting and an imminent public stock listing. ““Interswitch does not comment on market speculation,” was the only info a public spokesperson could offer.
So, its tough to say if or when the company could list. There are still a few reasons why the company (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on.
One is Interswitch’s growing role as a nexus for payments and financial services infrastructure in Nigeria (home of Africa’s largest economy), across Africa, and between Africa and the world. Back in 2002, the company became the pioneer for creating infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-is-king based economy.
Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The Nigerian company (which is now well beyond startup phase) has expanded with physical presence in Uganda, Gambia, and Kenya—the latter being home-turf of M-Pesa and Safaricom, which are largely responsible for making Kenya the mobile-money capital of Africa.
Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries, through bank partnerships, and has presence abroad. Through its Verve Global Card product, the company’s cardholders can now make payments in the U.S., UK, and UAE. Interswitch launched a partnership this month for Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network. The first transaction for the partnership was placed in New York, with an advertisement for the Nigerian company’s payment product flashing across Times Square.  Another facet to a possible Interswitch IPO is its potential to spark more corporate venture arm and acquisition activity in African fintech, which as a sector receives the bulk of the continent’s startup capital. Interswitch launched a venture arm in 2015—called its global ePayment Growth Fund—that made two investments, but then went largely quiet.
A windfall of IPO capital and increasing competition from fintech startups could spur Interswitch to fire up its venture investing activity again. Startups such as Flutterwave and TeamAPT (formed by a former Interswitch alum) have already entered some of Interswitch’s product territory. If a public listing led Interswitch to ramp up investing in (or even acquiring) startups, the net effect would be more capital and exits in Africa’s fintech sector.

Nigerian fintech firm TeamApt raises $5M, eyes global expansion

And finally, if Interswitch does IPO on the London and Lagos stock exchanges, it could provide another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia. This spring the e-commerce company became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE.
So far, Jumia’s IPO has been an up and down affair. The company gained investor and analyst confidence out of the gate, but also came under a short-sell assault and share-price volatility.
Two successful global IPOs of tech companies from Africa would and could become the best-case scenario for the continent’s startup scene. But for that to be a possibility, Interswitch will have to confirm the speculation and finally list as a publicly traded fintech firm.

Africa e-tailer Jumia issues post-IPO results amid short-sell assault

 

Former Google X ecec Mo Gawdat wants to reinvent consumerism

Mo Gawdat, the former Google and Google X executive, is probably best known for his book Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy. He left Google X last year. Quite a bit has been written about the events that led to him leaving Google, including the tragic death of his son. While happiness is still very much at the forefront of what he’s doing, he’s also now thinking about his next startup: T0day.
To talk about T0day, I sat down with the Egypt-born Gawdat at the Digital Frontrunners event in Copenhagen, where he gave one of the keynote presentations. Gawdat is currently based in London. He has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, with no more than a suitcase and a carry-on full of things. Unlike many of the Silicon Valley elite that have recently adopted a kind of performative aestheticism, Gawdat’s commitment to minimalism feels genuine — and it also informs his new startup.
“In my current business, I’m building a startup that is all about reinventing consumerism,” he told me. “The problem with retail and consumerism is it’s never been disrupted. E-commerce, even though we think is a massive revolution, it’s just an evolution and it’s still tiny as a fraction of all we buy. It was built for the Silicon Valley mentality of disruption, if you want, while actually, what you need is cooperation. There are so many successful players out there, so many efficient supply chains. We want the traditional retailers to be successful and continue to make money — even make more money.”
What T0day wants to be is a platform that integrates all of the players in the retail ecosystem. That kind of platform, Gawdat argues, never existed before, “because there was never a platform player.”
That sounds like an efficient marketplace for moving goods, but in Gawdat’s imagination, it is also a way to do good for the planet. Most of the fuel burned today isn’t for moving people, he argues, but goods. A lot of the food we buy goes to waste (together with all of the resources it took to grow and ship it) and single-use plastic remains a scourge.
How does T0day fix that? Gawdat argues that today’s e-commerce is nothing but a digital rendering of the same window shopping people have done for ages. “You have to reimagine what it’s like to consume,” he said.
The reimagined way to consume is essentially just-in-time shipping for food and other consumer goods, based on efficient supply chains that outsmart today’s hub and spoke distribution centers and can deliver anything to you in half an hour. If everything you need to cook a meal arrives 15 minutes before you want to start cooking, you only need to order the items you need at that given time and instead of a plastic container, it could come a paper bag. “If I have the right robotics and the right autonomous movements — not just self-driving cars, because self-driving cars are a bit far away — but the right autonomous movements within the enterprise space of the warehouse, I could literally give it to you with the predictability of five minutes within half an hour,” he explained. “If you get everything you need within half an hour, why would you need to buy seven apples? You would buy three.”
Some companies, including the likes of Uber, are obviously building some of the logistics networks that will enable this kind of immediate drop shipping, but Gawdat doesn’t think Uber is the right company for this. “This is going to sound a little spiritual. There is what you do and there is the intention behind why you do it,” he said. “You can do the exact same thing with a different intention and get a very different result.”
That’s an ambitious project, but Gawdat argues that it can be done without using massive amounts of resources. Indeed, he argues that one of the problems with Google X, and especially big moonshot projects like Loon and self-driving cars, was that they weren’t really resource-constrained. “Some things took longer than they should have,” he said. “But I don’t criticize what they did at all. Take the example of Loon and Facebook. Loon took longer than it should have. In my view, it was basically because of an abundance of resources and sometimes innovation requires a shoestring. That’s my only criticism.”
T0day, which Gawdat hasn’t really talked about publicly in the past, is currently self-funded. A lot of people are advising him to raise money for it. “We’re getting a lot of advice that we shouldn’t self-fund,” he said, but he also believes that the company will need some strategic powerhouses on its side, maybe retailers or companies that have already invested in other components of the overall platform.
T0day’s ambitions are massive, but Gawdat thinks that his team can get the basic elements right, be that the fulfillment center design or the routing algorithms and the optimization engines that power it all. He isn’t ready to talk about those, though. What he does think is that T0day won’t be the interface for these services. It’ll be the back end and allow others to build on top. And because his previous jobs have allowed him to live a comfortable life, he isn’t all that worried about margins either, and would actually be happy if others adopted his idea, thereby reducing waste.

Privacy researchers devise a noise-exploitation attack that defeats dynamic anonymity

Privacy researchers in Europe believe they have the first proof that a long-theorised vulnerability in systems designed to protect privacy by aggregating and adding noise to data to mask individual identities is no longer just a theory.
The research has implications for the immediate field of differential privacy and beyond — raising wide-ranging questions about how privacy is regulated if anonymization only works until a determined attacker figures out how to reverse the method that’s being used to dynamically fuzz the data.
Current EU law doesn’t recognise anonymous data as personal data. Although it does treat pseudoanonymized data as personal data because of the risk of re-identification.
Yet a growing body of research suggests the risk of de-anonymization on high dimension data sets is persistent. Even — per this latest research — when a database system has been very carefully designed with privacy protection in mind.
It suggests the entire business of protecting privacy needs to get a whole lot more dynamic to respond to the risk of perpetually evolving attacks.
Academics from Imperial College London and Université Catholique de Louvain are behind the new research.
This week, at the 28th USENIX Security Symposium, they presented a paper detailing a new class of noise-exploitation attacks on a query-based database that uses aggregation and noise injection to dynamically mask personal data.
The product they were looking at is a database querying framework, called Diffix — jointly developed by a German startup called Aircloak and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.
On its website Aircloak bills the technology as “the first GDPR-grade anonymization” — aka Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which began being applied last year, raising the bar for privacy compliance by introducing a data protection regime that includes fines that can scale up to 4% of a data processor’s global annual turnover.
What Aircloak is essentially offering is to manage GDPR risk by providing anonymity as a commercial service — allowing queries to be run on a data-set that let analysts gain valuable insights without accessing the data itself. The promise being it’s privacy (and GDPR) ‘safe’ because it’s designed to mask individual identities by returning anonymized results.
The problem is personal data that’s re-identifiable isn’t anonymous data. And the researchers were able to craft attacks that undo Diffix’s dynamic anonymity.
“What we did here is we studied the system and we showed that actually there is a vulnerability that exists in their system that allows us to use their system and to send carefully created queries that allow us to extract — to exfiltrate — information from the data-set that the system is supposed to protect,” explains Imperial College’s Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, one of five co-authors of the paper.
“Differential privacy really shows that every time you answer one of my questions you’re giving me information and at some point — to the extreme — if you keep answering every single one of my questions I will ask you so many questions that at some point I will have figured out every single thing that exists in the database because every time you give me a bit more information,” he says of the premise behind the attack. “Something didn’t feel right… It was a bit too good to be true. That’s where we started.”
The researchers chose to focus on Diffix as they were responding to a bug bounty attack challenge put out by Aircloak.
“We start from one query and then we do a variation of it and by studying the differences between the queries we know that some of the noise will disappear, some of the noise will not disappear and by studying noise that does not disappear basically we figure out the sensitive information,” he explains.
“What a lot of people will do is try to cancel out the noise and recover the piece of information. What we’re doing with this attack is we’re taking it the other way round and we’re studying the noise… and by studying the noise we manage to infer the information that the noise was meant to protect.
“So instead of removing the noise we study statistically the noise sent back that we receive when we send carefully crafted queries — that’s how we attack the system.”
A vulnerability exists because the dynamically injected noise is data-dependent. Meaning it remains linked to the underlying information — and the researchers were able to show that carefully crafted queries can be devised to cross-reference responses that enable an attacker to reveal information the noise is intended to protect.
Or, to put it another way, a well designed attack can accurately infer personal data from fuzzy (‘anonymized’) responses.
This despite the system in question being “quite good,” as de Montjoye puts it of Diffix. “It’s well designed — they really put a lot of thought into this and what they do is they add quite a bit of noise to every answer that they send back to you to prevent attacks”.
“It’s what’s supposed to be protecting the system but it does leak information because the noise depends on the data that they’re trying to protect. And that’s really the property that we use to attack the system.”
The researchers were able to demonstrate the attack working with very high accuracy across four real-world data-sets. “We tried US censor data, we tried credit card data, we tried location,” he says. “What we showed for different data-sets is that this attack works very well.
“What we showed is our attack identified 93% of the people in the data-set to be at risk. And I think more importantly the method actually is very high accuracy — between 93% and 97% accuracy on a binary variable. So if it’s a true or false we would guess correctly between 93-97% of the time.”
They were also able to optimise the attack method so they could exfiltrate information with a relatively low level of queries per user — up to 32.
“Our goal was how low can we get that number so it would not look like abnormal behaviour,” he says. “We managed to decrease it in some cases up to 32 queries — which is very very little compared to what an analyst would do.”
After disclosing the attack to Aircloak, de Montjoye says it has developed a patch — and is describing the vulnerability as very low risk — but he points out it has yet to publish details of the patch so it’s not been possible to independently assess its effectiveness. 
“It’s a bit unfortunate,” he adds. “Basically they acknowledge the vulnerability [but] they don’t say it’s an issue. On the website they classify it as low risk. It’s a bit disappointing on that front. I think they felt attacked and that was really not our goal.”
For the researchers the key takeaway from the work is that a change of mindset is needed around privacy protection akin to the shift the security industry underwent in moving from sitting behind a firewall waiting to be attacked to adopting a pro-active, adversarial approach that’s intended to out-smart hackers.
“As a community to really move to something closer to adversarial privacy,” he tells TechCrunch. “We need to start adopting the red team, blue team penetration testing that have become standard in security.
“At this point it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find like a perfect system so I think what we need to do is how do we find ways to see those vulnerabilities, patch those systems and really try to test those systems that are being deployed — and how do we ensure that those systems are truly secure?”
“What we take from this is really — it’s on the one hand we need the security, what can we learn from security including open systems, verification mechanism, we need a lot of pen testing that happens in security — how do we bring some of that to privacy?”
“If your system releases aggregated data and you added some noise this is not sufficient to make it anonymous and attacks probably exist,” he adds.
“This is much better than what people are doing when you take the dataset and you try to add noise directly to the data. You can see why intuitively it’s already much better.  But even these systems are still are likely to have vulnerabilities. So the question is how do we find a balance, what is the role of the regulator, how do we move forward, and really how do we really learn from the security community?
“We need more than some ad hoc solutions and only limiting queries. Again limiting queries would be what differential privacy would do — but then in a practical setting it’s quite difficult.
“The last bit — again in security — is defence in depth. It’s basically a layered approach — it’s like we know the system is not perfect so on top of this we will add other protection.”
The research raises questions about the role of data protection authorities too.
During Diffix’s development, Aircloak writes on its website that it worked with France’s DPA, the CNIL, and a private company that certifies data protection products and services — saying: “In both cases we were successful in so far as we received essentially the strongest endorsement that each organization offers.”
Although it also says that experience “convinced us that no certification organization or DPA is really in a position to assert with high confidence that Diffix, or for that matter any complex anonymization technology, is anonymous”, adding: “These organizations either don’t have the expertise, or they don’t have the time and resources to devote to the problem.”
The researchers’ noise exploitation attack demonstrates how even a level of regulatory “endorsement” can look problematic. Even well designed, complex privacy systems can contain vulnerabilities and cannot offer perfect protection. 
“It raises a tonne of questions,” says de Montjoye. “It is difficult. It fundamentally asks even the question of what is the role of the regulator here?
When you look at security my feeling is it’s kind of the regulator is setting standards and then really the role of the company is to ensure that you meet those standards. That’s kind of what happens in data breaches.
“At some point it’s really a question of — when something [bad] happens — whether or not this was sufficient or not as a [privacy] defence, what is the industry standard? It is a very difficult one.”
“Anonymization is baked in the law — it is not personal data anymore so there are really a lot of implications,” he adds. “Again from security we learn a lot of things on transparency. Good security and good encryption relies on open protocol and mechanisms that everyone can go and look and try to attack so there’s really a lot at this moment we need to learn from security.
“There’s no going to be any perfect system. Vulnerability will keep being discovered so the question is how do we make sure things are still ok moving forward and really learning from security — how do we quickly patch them, how do we make sure there is a lot of research around the system to limit the risk, to make sure vulnerabilities are discovered by the good guys, these are patched and really [what is] the role of the regulator?
“Data can have bad applications and a lot of really good applications so I think to me it’s really about how to try to get as much of the good while limiting as much as possible the privacy risk.”

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.
Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.
Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.
With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.
The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.
“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”
For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.
In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack
So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?’” said Pereira.
The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.
“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”
Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.
Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.
Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.
Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.
To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.
Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.
“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.
Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.
The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.
Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.
Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.
“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”
“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other issues while at the same time respecting freedom of speech.”
The international committee met for its first session in London last November — when it was forced to empty-chair Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who had declined to attend in person, sending UK policy VP Richard Allan in his stead.
Lawmakers from nine countries spent several hours taking Allan to task over Facebook’s lack of accountability for problems generated by the content it distributes and amplifies, raising myriad examples of ongoing failure to tackle the democracy-denting, society-damaging disinformation — from election interference to hate speech whipping up genocide.
A second meeting of the grand committee was held earlier this year in Canada — taking place over three days in May.
Again Zuckerberg failed to show. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also gave international legislators zero facetime, with the company opting to send local head of policy, Kevin Chan, and global head of policy, Neil Potts, as stand ins.
Lawmakers were not amused. Canadian MPs voted to serve Zuckerberg and Sandberg with an open summons — meaning they’ll be required to appear before it the next time they step foot in the country.
Parliamentarians in the UK also issued a summons for Zuckerberg last year after repeat snubs to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s enquiry into fake news — a decision that essentially gave birth to the international grand committee, as legislators in multiple jurisdictions united around a common cause of trying to find ways to hold social media giants to accounts.

Delighted to hear that @davidcicilline will be joining us for the next International Grand Committee on disinformation in Dublin in November https://t.co/TI07XEVwLm @CommonsCMS
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) August 15, 2019

While it’s not clear who the grand committee will invite to the next session, Facebook’s founder seems highly unlikely to have dropped off their list. And this time Zuckerberg and Sandberg may find it harder to turn down an invite to Dublin, given the committee’s ranks will include a homegrown lawmaker.
In a statement on joining the next meeting, Cicilline said: “We are living in a critical moment for privacy rights and competition online, both in the United States and around the world.  As people become increasingly connected by what seem to be free technology platforms, many remain unaware of the costs they are actually paying.
“The Internet has also become concentrated, less open, and growingly hostile to innovation. This is a problem that transcends borders, and it requires multinational cooperation to craft solutions that foster competition and safeguard privacy online. I look forward to joining the International Grand Committee as part of its historic effort to identify problems in digital markets and chart a path forward that leads to a better online experience for everyone.”
Multiple tech giants (including Facebook) have their international headquarters in Ireland — making the committee’s choice of location for their next meeting a strategic one. Should any tech CEOs thus choose to snub an invite to testify to the committee they might find themselves being served with an open summons to testify by Irish parliamentarians — and not being able to set foot in a country where their international HQ is located would be more than a reputational irritant.
Ireland’s privacy regulator is also sitting on a stack of open investigations against tech giants — again with Facebook and Facebook owned companies producing the fattest file (some 11 investigations). But there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to go around, with the DPC’s current case file also touching tech giants including Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

London edtech startup Pi-Top sees layoffs after major contract loss

London-based edtech startup Pi-Top has cut a number of staff, TechCrunch has learned.
According to our sources the company has reduced its headcount in recent weeks, with staff being told cuts are a result of restructuring as it seeks to implement a new strategy.
One source told us Pi-Top recently lost out on a large education contract.
Another source said sales at Pi-Top have been much lower than predicted — with all major bids being lost.
Pi-Top confirmed to TechCrunch that it has let staff go, saying it has reduced headcount from 72 to 60 people across its offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.
Our sources suggest the total number of layoffs could be up to a third. 
In a statement, Pi-Top told us:
pi-top has become one of the fastest growing ed-tech companies in the market in 4.5 years.  We have a unique vision to increase access to coding and technical education through project based learning to inspire a new generation of makers.
As part of this vision we built up our global team with a view to winning a particularly exciting national project in a developing nation, where we had a previous large scale successful implementation. We were disappointed this tender ultimately fell through due to economic factors in the region and have subsequently made the unfortunate but unavoidable decision to reduce our team size from 72 to 60 people across our offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.
Moving forward we are focusing on our growth within the USA where we continue to enjoy widespread success. We are rolling out our new learning platform pi-top Further which will enable schools everywhere to access a world of content enhanced by practical hands-on project based learning outcomes. We have recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign and we look forward to releasing our newest product pi-top [4].
We are also proud to have appointed Stanley Buchesky as our new Executive Chairman. Stanley brings a wealth of experience in the ed-tech sector and will be a great asset to our strategy going forward.
Pi-Top sells hardware and software designed for educational use in schools. It’s one of a large number of edtech startups that have sought to tap into the popularity of the ‘learn to code’ movement by piggybacking atop the (also British) low cost Raspberry Pi microprocessor — which provides the computing power for all Pi-Top’s products.
Pi-Top adds its own OS and additional education-focused software to the Pi, as well as proprietary cases — including a bright green laptop housing with a built in rail for breadboarding electronics.
Its most recent product, the Pi-Top 4, which was announced back in January, looks intended to move the company away from its first focus on educational desktop computing to more modular and embeddable hardware hacking which could be used by schools to power a wider variety of robotics and electronics projects.
Despite raising $16M in VC funding just over a year ago, Pi-Top opted to run a crowdfunding campaign for the Pi-Top 4 — going on to raise almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from 521 backers.
Pi-Top 4 backers have been told to expect the device to ship in November.

The UK’s National Health Service is launching an AI lab

The UK government has announced it’s rerouting £250M (~$300M) in public funds for the country’s National Health Service (NHS) to set up an artificial intelligence lab that will work to expand the use of AI technologies within the service.
The Lab, which will sit within a new NHS unit tasked with overseeing the digitisation of the health and care system (aka: NHSX), will act as an interface for academic and industry experts, including potentially startups, encouraging research and collaboration with NHS entities (and data) — to drive health-related AI innovation and the uptake of AI-driven healthcare within the NHS. 
Last fall the then new in post health secretary, Matt Hancock, set out a tech-first vision of future healthcare provision — saying he wanted to transform NHS IT so it can accommodate “healthtech” to support “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.
In a press release announcing the AI lab, the Department of Health and Social Care suggested it would seek to tackle “some of the biggest challenges in health and care, including earlier cancer detection, new dementia treatments and more personalised care”.
Other suggested areas of focus include:
improving cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring
using predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices or surgeries
identifying which patients could be more easily treated in the community, reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping patients receive treatment closer to home
identifying patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia, allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more focused, personalised prevention
building systems to detect people at risk of post-operative complications, infections or requiring follow-up from clinicians, improving patient safety and reducing readmission rates
upskilling the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks
inspecting algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety, making systems fairer, more robust and ensuring patient confidentiality is protected
automating routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients
Google-owned UK AI specialist DeepMind has been an early mover in some of these areas — inking a partnership with a London-based NHS trust in 2015 to develop a clinical task management app called Streams that’s been rolled out to a number of NHS hospitals.
UK startup, Babylon Health, is another early mover in AI and app-based healthcare, developing a chatbot-style app for triaging primary care which it sells to the NHS. (Hancock himself is a user.)
In the case of DeepMind, the company also hoped to use the same cache of NHS data it obtained for Streams to develop an AI algorithm for earlier detection of a condition called acute kidney injury (AKI).
However the data-sharing partnership ran into trouble when concerns were raised about the legal basis for reusing patient data to develop AI. And in 2017 the UK’s data watchdog found DeepMind’s partner NHS trust had failed to obtain proper consents for the use of patients’ data.
DeepMind subsequently announced its own AI model for predicting AKI — trained on heavily skewed US patient data. It has also inked some AI research partnerships involving NHS patient data — such as this one with Moorfields Eye Hospital, aiming to build AIs to speed up predictions of degenerative eye conditions.
But an independent panel of reviewers engaged to interrogate DeepMind’s health app business raised early concerns about monopoly risks attached to NHS contracts that lock trusts to using its infrastructure for delivering digital healthcare.
Where healthcare AIs are concerned, representative clinical data is the real goldmine — and it’s the NHS that owns that.
So, provided NHSX properly manages the delivery infrastructure for future digital healthcare — to ensure systems adhere to open standards, and no single platform giant is allowed to lock others out — Hancock’s plan to open up NHS IT to the next wave of health-tech could deliver a transformative and healthy market for AI innovative that benefits startups and patients alike.

Could the #NHS in the UK self-finance a large part of #HealthTechnology innovation if it had the courage to commercialize its data trove? Hint: YES.https://t.co/9PKTEKLSdc
— Mark Tluszcz (@marktluszcz) August 8, 2019

Commenting on the launch of NHSX in a statement, Hancock said: “We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service.
“I am determined to bring the benefits of technology to patients and staff, so the impact of our NHS Long Term Plan and this immediate, multimillion pound cash injection are felt by all. It’s part of our mission to make the NHS the best it can be.
“The experts tell us that because of our NHS and our tech talent, the UK could be the world leader in these advances in healthcare, so I’m determined to give the NHS the chance to be the world leader in saving lives through artificial intelligence and genomics.”
Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, added: “Carefully targeted AI is now ready for practical application in health services, and the investment announced today is another step in the right direction to help the NHS become a world leader in using these important technologies.
“In the first instance it should help personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, as well as freeing up staff time, and our new NHS AI Lab will ensure the benefits of NHS data and innovation are fully harnessed for patients in this country.”

Sperm storage startups are raising millions

A number of startups are bringing technology and innovation to the fertility industry, with a growing few focused specifically on male fertility.
“Society at large doesn’t understand the subject of fertility,” Tom Smith, the co-founder and chief executive officer of men’s sperm storage startup Dadi tells TechCrunch. “People see it as a female issue.”
Dadi has raised a $5 million seed extension led by The Chernin Group, a private equity fund that typically invests in media, with existing investors including London seed-fund Firstminute Capital and New York’s Third Kind Venture Capital also participating. The company, which sends at-home fertility tests and sperm storage kits, closed a $2 million seed round earlier this year.
Dadi’s funding event comes shortly after another men’s fertility business, Legacy, raised a $1.5 million round for its sperm testing and freezing service. Both companies hope to leverage venture capital funding to become the dominant men’s fertility brand.
Bain Capital Ventures -backed Legacy, which won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield competition at Disrupt Berlin 2018, allows men to get their sperm tested and frozen without visiting a clinic or meeting with a doctor. Founder and chief executive officer Khaled Kteily said the company, which is based out of the Harvard Innovation Labs in Boston, planned to use the capital to expand its sperm analysis and cryogenic storage services.
Sarah Steinle, head of marketing, Khaled Kteily, founder and CEO, and Daniel Madero, head of clinic partnerships at Legacy .
Like many startups today, Dadi and Legacy are capitalizing on the direct-to-consumer business model to educate men about their fertility. Customers of both Dadi and Legacy simply order a DIY sperm collection kit online, collect a sperm sample and send it back to the company for a full fertility report. Both companies offer sperm storage services too. Dadi charges a total of $199.98 for its sperm testing kit and one year of sperm storage, while Legacy asks for $350 for clinical fertility analysis and lifestyle recommendations. To store your sperm in Legacy’s cryogenic storage facilities, it’s an additional $20 per month.
One in six couples struggles to get pregnant after one year of trying. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one-third of the infertility cases amongst those couples are caused by fertility problems in men, another one-third of issues are connected to women and the remaining cases are a result of a combination of male and female fertility issues. By making sperm storage more accessible, startups hope to encourage a conversation around family planning and fertility among young men.
“Men also have a biological clock,” Smith said. “From your late 20s and onward, your overall sperm count absolutely declines and, more importantly, the number of mutations that can be passed on to that potential child grows.”
Dadi, a New York-based company, plans to use its latest bout of funding to continue developing a number of yet-to-be-announced products, as well as offer new support services to customers who’ve taken Dadi’s fertility tests: “If we are going to live up to our overall objective of being this encompassing business helping men through the fertility stack, the next step for us is investing in next-step support,” Smith explains.
Dadi’s founding team lacks experience in the healthcare sector, which is likely to pose problems as the company expands and forges partnerships in the greater healthcare field. Smith previously led a custom emoji business, Imoji, which was acquired by Giphy in 2017. Dadi co-founder Mackey Saturday, for his part, was previously a graphic designer responsible for creating Instagram’s logo.
Aiming to make up for its lack of expertise, Dadi has formed a Science and Technology Advisory Board with participation from Dr. Michael Eisenberg, associate professor of urology at Stanford’s Medical Center, and Dr. Jacques Cohen, the laboratory director at ART Institute of Washington at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Legacy’s Kteily previously worked as a consultant focused on health & life sciences before serving as a senior manager at the World Economic Forum. Daniel Madero and Sarah Steinle, also Legacy co-founders, previously worked at Medifertil, a Colombian fertility clinic, and Extend Fertility, respectively.
In addition to Dadi and Legacy, other companies close to the space have recently secured notable investments including Hims, the provider of direct-to-consumer erectile dysfunction (ED) and hair loss medication, which raised a $100 million this year. Another seller of ED meds, Ro, has raised a total of $91 million. And Manual, an educational portal and treatment platform for men’s issues, raised a £5 million seed round in January from Felix Capital, Cherry Ventures and Cassius Capital.

It’s a new era for fertility tech

Cybereason raises $200 million for its enterprise security platform

Cybereason, which uses machine learning to increase the number of endpoints a single analyst can manage across a network of distributed resources, has raised $200 million in new financing from SoftBank Group and its affiliates. 
It’s a sign of the belief that SoftBank has in the technology, since the Japanese investment firm is basically doubling down on commitments it made to the Boston-based company four years ago.

Israeli Cybersecurity Firm Cybereason Raises $59M Series C Led By SoftBank

The company first came to our attention five years ago when it raised a $25 million financing from investors including CRV, Spark Capital and Lockheed Martin.
Cybereason’s technology processes and analyzes data in real-time across an organization’s daily operations and relationships. It looks for anomalies in behavior across nodes on networks and uses those anomalies to flag suspicious activity.
The company also provides reporting tools to inform customers of the root cause, the timeline, the person involved in the breach or breaches, what tools they use and what information was being disseminated within and outside of the organization.
For founder Lior Div, Cybereason’s work is the continuation of the six years of training and service he spent working with the Israeli army’s 8200 Unit, the military incubator for half of the security startups pitching their wares today. After his time in the military, Div worked for the Israei government as a private contractor reverse engineering hacking operations.
Over the last two years, Cybereason has expanded the scope of its service to a network that spans 6 million endpoints tracked by 500 employees with offices in Boston, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and London.
“Cybereason’s big data analytics approach to mitigating cyber risk has fueled explosive expansion at the leading edge of the EDR domain, disrupting the EPP market. We are leading the wave, becoming the world’s most reliable and effective endpoint prevention and detection solution because of our technology, our people and our partners,” said Div, in a statement. “We help all security teams prevent more attacks, sooner, in ways that enable understanding and taking decisive action faster.”
The company said it will use the new funding to accelerate its sales and marketing efforts across all geographies and push further ahead with research and development to make more of its security operations autonomous.
“Today, there is a shortage of more than three million level 1-3 analysts,” said Yonatan Striem-Amit, chief technology officer and Co-founder, Cybereason, in a statement. “The new autonomous SOC enables SOC teams of the future to harness technology where manual work is being relied on today and it will elevate  L1 analysts to spend time on higher value tasks and accelerate the advanced analysis L3 analysts do.”
Most recently the company was behind the discovery of Operation SoftCell, the largest nation-state cyber espionage attack on telecommunications companies. 

Hackers are stealing years of call records from hacked cell networks

That attack, which was either conducted by Chinese-backed actors or made to look like it was conducted by Chinese-backed actors, according to Cybereason targeted a select group of users in an effort to acquire cell phone records.
As we wrote at the time:
… hackers have systematically broken in to more than 10 cell networks around the world to date over the past seven years to obtain massive amounts of call records — including times and dates of calls, and their cell-based locations — on at least 20 individuals.
Researchers at Boston-based Cybereason, who discovered the operationand shared their findings with TechCrunch, said the hackers could track the physical location of any customer of the hacked telcos — including spies and politicians — using the call records.
Lior Div, Cybereason’s co-founder and chief executive, told TechCrunch it’s “massive-scale” espionage.
Call detail records — or CDRs — are the crown jewels of any intelligence agency’s collection efforts. These call records are highly detailed metadata logs generated by a phone provider to connect calls and messages from one person to another. Although they don’t include the recordings of calls or the contents of messages, they can offer detailed insight into a person’s life. The National Security Agency  has for years controversially collected the call records of Americans from cell providers like AT&T and Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), despite the questionable legality.
It’s not the first time that Cybereason has uncovered major security threats.
Back when it had just raised capital from CRV and Spark, Cybereason’s chief executive was touting its work with a defense contractor who’d been hacked. Again, the suspected culprit was the Chinese government.
As we reported, during one of the early product demos for a private defense contractor, Cybereason identified a full-blown attack by the Chinese — ten thousand usernames and passwords were leaked, and the attackers had access to nearly half of the organization on a daily basis.
The security breach was too sensitive to be shared with the press, but Div says that the FBI was involved and that the company had no indication that they were being hacked until Cybereason detected it.

Data-driven events discovery and planning startup Fever raises $35 million led by Rakuten

Fever, a startup that uses proprietary algorithms to help companies plan events, announced today that it has raised $35 million led by Rakuten Capital, the investment arm of Japanese internet giant Rakuten . Other investors in the round, which brings Fever’s total raised to $70 million, included Atresmedia, Accel and Michael Zeisser, the former chairman of U.S. investments for Alibaba Group. Zeisser will also join Fever’s board.
Based in Madrid and London, Fever’s app generates personalized events listings for users and feeds into its Secret Media Network, which also collects user data from the company’s social media channel. The anonymized data is then analyzed using Fever’s algorithms to help companies plan events like “The Alice in Wonderland MaddHatter G&T” in Hollywood, the Halloween-theme “House of Spirits in Los Angeles and “Candlelight Concerts,” classical music shows aimed at young audiences.
The company now claims 25 million unique users per month across its main markets in London, New York, Paris and Madrid, and plans to use its new funding to expand into new cities.
In an email, Fever CEO Ignacio Bachiller told TechCrunch that Fever plans to expand into Chicago and Barcelona next (it launched in Paris, Los Angeles, Lisbon and Manchester last year). Then it will launch in new markets every couple of months, mostly in the United States and Europe this year and also in Asia next year. He added that one way Fever differentiates from other event discovery platforms is that it does not focus on discount-driven events and that there is no other platform currently “using firsthand discovery behavioral data to inform what new experiences to create by predicting demand. Basically, there is no Netflix for experiences.”
Bachiller also says that Fever may potentially collaborate with other Rakuten portfolio companies to help SMBs increase engagement with their customers.

United Airlines CISO Emily Heath joins Sessions: Enterprise this September

In an era of massive data breaches, most recently the Capital One fiasco, the risk of a cyberattack and the costly consequences are the top existential threat to corporations big and small. At TechCrunch’s first-ever enterprise-focused event (p.s. early bird sales end August 9), that topic will be front and center throughout the day.
That’s why we’re delighted to announce United’s chief information security officer Emily Heath will join TC Sessions: Enterprise in San Francisco on September 5, where we will discuss and learn how one of the world’s largest airlines keeps its networks safe.
Joining her to talk enterprise security will be a16z partner Martin Casado and DUO / Cisco’s head of advisory CISO s Wendy Nather, among others still to be announced.
At United, Heath oversees the airline’s cybersecurity program and its IT regulatory, governance and risk management.
The U.S.-based airline has more than 90,000 employees serving 4,500 flights a day to 338 airports, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
A native of Manchester, U.K., Heath served as a former police detective in the U.K. Financial Crimes Unit where she led investigations into international investment fraud, money laundering, and large scale cases of identity theft — and running join investigations with the FBI, SEC, and London’s Serious Fraud Office.
Heath and her teams have been the recipients of CSO Magazine’s CSO50 Awards for their work in cybersecurity and risk.
At TC Sessions: Enterprise, Heath will join an expert panel of cybersecurity experts to discuss security on enterprise networks large and small — from preventing data from leaking to keeping bad actors out of their network — where we’ll lear how a modern CSO moves fast without breaking things.
Join hundreds of today’s leading enterprise experts for this single-day event when you purchase a ticket to the show. $249 Early Bird sale ends Friday, August 9. Make sure to grab your tickets today and save $100 before prices go up.

Location-based virtual reality goes to the mall as The Void plans a rollout in 25 more locations

The Void, a developer of immersive virtual reality entertainment centers, is partnering with the multi-national, multi-hyphenate mall developer Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield to build twenty five new locations around the world.
Location-based virtual reality has become the default gateway into the consumer market for virtual reality headsets given that adoption of the consumer wearable device hasn’t been all that robust.
Utah-based The Void has some big intellectual property behind its immersive experiences including ‘Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire’ from Lucasfilm; Walt Disney Animation’s ‘Ralph Breaks theInternet’; and ‘Ghostbusters: Dimension’.
Through the partnership with Westfield in the U.S. the company intends to launch pop-ups at the Westfield World Trade Center in New York,  the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Westfield Santa Anita in the outskirts of Pasadena, and Westfield UTC in San Diego. The Void notes that all of those locations will become permanent going forward.
The companies also intend to take the show on the road with openings planned for Paris, London, Amsterdam, Chicago, Cophenhagen, Oberhausen, San Jose, Calif., Stockholm, and Vienna.
This partnership between the two companies reflects some harsh realities for both businesses. For virtual reality it’s the limited home adoption of headset entertainment and for shopping malls, it’s the rise of ecommerce and the conversion of these public spaces from shopping destinations to broader entertainment hubs.
It’s a fact that Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield chief executive Chrisophe Cuvillier acknowledged in a statement about the partnership. “Over the past years, our industry has evolved dramatically. In a connected world, shopping is not enough anymore,” Cuvillier said in a statement. “Today, our customers expect to be entertained and brought together to share memorable, engaging sensory experiences.”

‘The Great Hack’: Netflix doc unpacks Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Brexit and democracy’s death

It’s perhaps not for nothing that The Great Hack – the new Netflix documentary about the connections between Cambridge Analytica, the US election and Brexit, out on July 23 – opens with a scene from Burning Man. There, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, scrawls the name of the company onto a strut of ‘the temple’ that will eventually get burned in that fiery annual ritual. It’s an apt opening.
There are probably many of us who’d wish quite a lot of the last couple of years could be thrown into that temple fire, but this documentary is the first I’ve seen to expertly unpick what has become the real-world dumpster fire that is social media, dark advertising and global politics which have all become inextricably, and, often fatally, combined.
The documentary is also the first that you could plausibly recommend those of your relatives and friends who don’t work in tech, as it explains how social media – specifically Facebook – is now manipulating our lives and society, whether we like it or not.
As New York Professor David Carroll puts it at the beginning, Facebook gives “any buyer direct access to my emotional pulse” – and that included political campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. Privacy campaigner Carroll is pivotal to the film’s story of how our data is being manipulated and essentially kept from us by Facebook.
The UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union, in fact, became “the petri dish” for a Cambridge Analytica experiment, says Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr She broke the story of how the political consultancy, led by Eton-educated CEO Alexander Nix, applied techniques normally used by ‘psyops’ operatives in Afghanistan to the democratic operations of the US and UK, and many other countries, over a chilling 20+ year history. Watching this film, you literally start to wonder if history has been warped towards a sickening dystopia.

The petri-dish of Brexit worked. Millions of adverts, explains the documentary, targeted individuals, exploiting fear and anger, to switch them from ‘persuadables’, as CA called them, into passionate advocates for, first Brexit in the UK, and then Trump later on.
Switching to the US, the filmmakers show how CA worked directly with Trump’s “Project Alamo” campaign, spending a million dollars a day on Facebook ads ahead of the 2016 election.
The film expertly explains the timeline of how CA had first worked off Ted Cruz’s campaign, and nearly propelled that lack-luster candidate into first place in the Republican nominations. It was then that the Trump campaign picked up on CA’s military-like operation.
After loading up the psychographic survey information CA had obtained from Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, the world had become their oyster. Or, perhaps more accurately, their oyster farm.
Back in London, Cadwalladr notices triumphant Brexit campaigners fraternizing with Trump and starts digging. There is a thread connecting them to Breitbart owner Steve Bannon. There is a thread connecting them to Cambridge Analytica. She tugs on those threads and, like that iconic scene in ‘The Hurt Locker’ where all the threads pull-up unexploded mines, she starts to realize that Cambridge Analytica links them all. She needs a source though. That came in the form of former employee Chris Wylie, a brave young man who was able to unravel many of the CA threads.
But the film’s attention is often drawn back to Kaiser, who had worked first on US political campaigns and then on Brexit for CA. She had been drawn to the company by smooth-talking CEO Nix, who begged: “Let me get you drunk and steal all of your secrets.”
But was she a real whistleblower? Or was she trying to cover her tracks? How could someone who’d worked on the Obama campaign switch to Trump? Was she a victim of Cambridge Analytica, or one of its villains?
British political analyst Paul Hilder manages to get her to come to the UK to testify before a parliamentary inquiry. There is high drama as her part in the story unfolds.
Kaiser appears in various guises which vary from idealistically naive to stupid, from knowing to manipulative. It’s almost impossible to know which. But hearing about her revelation as to why she made the choices she did… well, it’s an eye-opener.

Both she and Wylie have complex stories in this tale, where not everything seems to be as it is, reflecting our new world, where truth is increasingly hard to determine.
Other characters come and go in this story. Zuckerburg makes an appearance in Congress and we learn of the casual relationship Facebook had to its complicity in these political earthquakes. Although if you’re reading TechCrunch, then you will probably know at least part of this story.
Created for Netflix by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, these Egyptian-Americans made “The Square”, about the Egyptian revolution of 2011. To them, the way Cambridge Analytica applied its methods to online campaigning was just as much a revolution as Egyptians toppling a dictator from Cario’s iconic Tahrir Square.
For them, the huge irony is that “psyops”, or psychological operations used on Muslim populations in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks ended up being used to influence Western elections.
Cadwalladr stands head and shoulders above all as a bastion of dogged journalism, even as she is attacked from all quarters, and still is to this day.
What you won’t find out from this film is what happens next. For many, questions remain on the table: What will happen now Facebook is entering Cryptocurrency? Will that mean it could be used for dark election campaigning? Will people be paid for their votes next time, not just in Likes? Kaiser has a bitcoin logo on the back of her phone. Is that connected? The film doesn’t comment.
But it certainly unfolds like a slow-motion car crash, where democracy is the car and you’re inside it.

VertoFX raises $2M for its African and EM currency trading platform

VertoFX, an Africa and emerging markets focused currency trading and payment startup, has raised a $2.1 million seed round, led by Accelerated Digital Ventures.
The London based company, with a subsidiary in Lagos, Nigeria, has created a platform that allows businesses and banks to exchange and make payments in exotic foreign currencies that don’t often convert or trade conveniently across businesses or banks.
For example, South Africa’s Rand is Africa’s most convertible and traded currency—with lower spreads and transaction costs—while currencies of countries such as Ethiopia or Egypt may be difficult or expensive to trade or transact B2B payments in.
“That’s the reason we are utilizing technology to create a marketplace model and price discovery to create liquidity for these currencies,” VertoFX founder Ola Oyetayo told TechCrunch.
There are around 40 global currencies that are considered exotic or illiquid, most of them in frontier markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle-East, according to Oyetayo.
And there’s a revenue opportunity to creating a convenient online marketplace for trading and payments in these currencies.
“Our research says there’s about $400 million being done by small and medium scale businesses in Africa alone in transactional volume on an annual basis. If we take 1 percent of that as a commission or transaction fee, that’s a $4 billion addressable market, just in the continent,” said Oyetayo.
VertoFX was founded in 2017 by Oyetayo and Anthony Oduwole—both ex-global bankers born in Nigeria. The company was part of Y-Combinator’s 2019 winter cohort and processed around $7 million in transaction volume last month, according to Oyetayo.
VertoFX is registered as payment services provider with the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. Current clients include several undisclosed banks and San Francisco based payment venture Flutterwave.
VertoFX doesn’t release revenue figures, but confirmed it earns a commission, or spread, on each transaction that is processed on its platform. There are currently 19 currencies on the platform and the ability to settle in 120 countries, including China and the U.S.
VertoFX is also moving into offering market research—toward potential subscription services—on the currencies it trades, according to Oyetayo.
The startup will use the round for platform development, expand the currencies, and gain licenses in new countries. “We’ll also use the round for hiring, primarily in compliance and regulator type roles,” said Oyetayo.  VertoFX already has a developer team in India and is looking at local developer talent for its Africa offices.
ADV’s Ryan Proctor confirmed the VC firm’s lead on the investment round, which also included participation from YC and several local angel investors in Africa, Oyetayo told TechCrunch.
On the possibility of becoming acquired by a big bank, VertoFX isn’t so interested, according to Oyetayo.
“We both come from big banks and if we’d wanted to go down that route we’d have developed this more as software as a service platform,” he said.
“We’re playing the long-game here and I don’t think acquisition is the end-game,” he said.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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