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Microsoft attempts to spin its role in counterfeiting case

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 09:20 PM PDT

Earlier this week Eric Lundgren was sentenced to 15 months in prison for selling what Microsoft claimed was “counterfeit software,” but which was in fact only recovery CDs loaded with data anyone can download for free. The company has now put up a blog post setting “the facts” straight, though it’s something of a limited set of those facts.

“We are sharing this information now and responding publicly because we believe both Microsoft's role in the case and the facts themselves are being misrepresented,” the company wrote. But it carefully avoids the deliberate misconception about software that it promulgated in court.

That misconception, which vastly overstated Lundgren’s crime and led to the sentence he received, is simply to conflate software with a license to operate that software. Without going into details (my original post spells it out at length) it maintained in court that the discs Lundgren was attempting to sell were equivalent to entire licensed operating systems, when they were simply recovery discs that any user, refurbisher, or manufacturer can download and burn for free. Lundgren was going to sell them to repair shops for a quarter each so they could hand them out to people who needed them.

Hardly anyone even makes these discs any more, certainly not Microsoft, and they’re pretty much worthless without a licensed copy of the OS in the first place. But Microsoft convinced the judges that a piece of software with no license or product key — meaning it won’t work properly, if at all — is worth the same as one with a license.

Lundgren had already pleaded guilty to infringing Dell’s trademark by copying the look of its discs, but the value Microsoft convinced the judges those discs have (a total of $700,000) directly led to his 15-month sentence.

Anyway, the company isn’t happy with the look it has of sending a guy to prison for stealing something with no value to anyone but someone with a bum computer and no backup. It summarizes what it thinks are the most important points as follows, with my commentary following the bullets.

Microsoft did not bring this case: U.S. Customs referred the case to federal prosecutors after intercepting shipments of counterfeit software imported from China by Mr. Lundgren.

This is perfectly true, however Microsoft has continually misrepresented the nature and value of the discs, falsely claiming that they led to lost sales. That’s not possible, of course, since Microsoft gives the contents of these discs away for free. It sells licenses to operate Windows, something you’d have to have already if you wanted to use the discs in the first place.

Lundgren established an elaborate counterfeit supply chain in China: Mr. Lundgren traveled extensively in China to set up a production line and designed counterfeit molds for Microsoft software in order to unlawfully manufacture counterfeit discs in significant volumes.

Microsoft is trying to make it sound like the guy is some criminal mastermind running some big time Windows pirating empire. He literally gave a Dell recovery disc to a duplication shop and told them to make exact copies of it, including the label and paper sleeve.

Lundgren failed to stop after being warned: Mr. Lundgren was even warned by a customs seizure notice that his conduct was illegal and given the opportunity to stop before he was prosecuted.

I can’t speak to this one, but Lundgren told me that the first notice he had that this was being pursued by anyone was when they raided his house. The monetary value of the discs was so small and the counterfeiting piece so minor (fake labels for duplicates of discs that Dell doesn’t even provide any more) that if anything it would be a fine and confiscation of the shipment, not a 5-year case alleging millions in damages.

Lundgren pleaded guilty: The counterfeit discs obtained by Mr. Lundgren were sold to refurbishers in the United States for his personal profit and Mr. Lundgren and his codefendant both pleaded guilty to federal felony crimes.

Lundgren pleaded guilty to counterfeiting the Dell discs, not to counterfeiting Microsoft software. It’s an important distinction because the discs are nearly worthless and copyright crimes are sentenced based on the value of the infringed item. I’ve asked him about the claim that he sold 8,000 of them to some buyer for $28,000, or $3.50 each — something that would make so sense, since any buyer would know these things can be made for pennies.

Lundgren went to great lengths to mislead people: His own emails submitted as evidence in the case show the lengths to which Mr. Lundgren went in an attempt to make his counterfeit software look like genuine software. They also show him directing his co-defendant to find less discerning customers who would be more easily deceived if people objected to the counterfeits.

Printing an accurate copy of a label for a disc isn’t exactly “great lengths.” Early on the company in China printed “Made in USA” on the disc and “Made in Canada” on the sleeve, and had a yellow background when it should have been green — that’s the kind of thing he was fixing.

Lundgren intended to profit from his actions: His own emails submitted as evidence before the court make clear that Mr. Lundgren's motivation was to sell counterfeit software to generate income for himself.

The plan was to sell these nearly worthless discs —remember, anybody can make one for free — for a quarter each to refurbishers.

Microsoft has a strong program to support legitimate refurbishers and recyclers: Our program supports hundreds of legitimate recyclers, while protecting customers.

The implication is that that Lundgren is not a legitimate refurbisher or recycler. He pointed out earlier, however, that his company, which handles recycling for Lenovo, Nintendo, and others, takes care of more e-waste in a year than Microsoft has in a decade.

When a refurbisher installs a fresh version of Windows on a refurbished PC, we charge a discounted rate of $25 for the software and a new license – it is not free.

But if they’re not installing a fresh version of Windows, because the machine already has a licensed copy on it, as so many do, the software is free. There’s no limit on how many a company can make on its own; Microsoft only charges for the licenses. Here, go make one yourself in case you need to do it.

Mr. Lundgren's scheme was simple. He was counterfeiting Windows software in China and importing it to the United States. Mr. Lundgren intended the software to be sold to the refurbisher community as if it was a legitimate, licensed copy of Windows.

There’s the key right there. “As if it was a legitimate, licensed copy of Windows.”

These are not licensed copies of Windows! They’re discs anyone can make, and that manufacturers and refurbishers can print as many of as they like, to give to customers who already have a copy of Windows. These discs are for repairing or re-installing a copy of the OS. They did not come with licenses and Lundgren was not selling or providing licenses.

Don’t let Microsoft fool you the way they helped fool the judges. A recovery disc is something you or I or a refurbisher can make right now for free. A license to operate Windows comes from Microsoft and costs good money. They’re not the same thing and Lundgren was going to sell the former, not the latter.

I’ve asked Microsoft to explain this last point and will update the post if I hear back.

Apple is reportedly building an insane ’16K’ VR headset

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 03:06 PM PDT

Apple has long been rumored to be working on a pair of augmented reality glasses, but a report today suggests that they’re looking to compete with Google, Microsoft and Facebook in the virtual reality space as well.

CNET reports that Apple has its eye set on the 2020 release of a wireless headset that combines AR and VR technologies. The report also gives specific details for the project internally referred to as T288. Namely, sources told CNET that the headset will have an 8K display for each eye and will connect wirelessly to a dedicated “box.”

Vrvana’s Totem headset

One of the general assumptions many in the market had been operating under was that Apple might “skip” entertainment-focused VR altogether in favor of approaching the lifestyle-focused AR technologies that put a digital layer between users and the real world.

I’m fairly skeptical that they would combine these two initiatives as this report suggests; I find it more likely that the “AR” described to CNET is closer to the “mixed reality” technologies that Microsoft has implemented into its VR headsets, basically tech that can take in more environmental information to influence the in-headset VR experience. This is in line with what Vrvana was working on before Apple acquired them last year. For Apple to truly merge AR and VR at the resolutions detailed, they would likely need a fairly bulky design that I would be surprised to see them pursue with an AR product.

The technologies that allow for 8K images per eye would likely have to be microLEDs and, at that resolution, they’d be prohibitively expensive right now and almost mind-bogglingly power-hungry. Even testing twin 8K displays currently would take multiple high-end GPUs tethered together. The report suggests that this would be a wireless and connect to an external system running an Apple-designed chip. Streaming dual 8K feeds wirelessly would also undoubtedly pose a daunting challenge, though rendering technologies enabled by eye-tracking could reduce the streaming load considerably.

Magic Leap’s lightwear

Two years is far away, so perhaps Apple is banking on their own ability to minimize costs on the display-front here. Bloomberg recently reported that the Cupertino company has opened a secret manufacturing facility for the display type, which have a keen use case in head-mounted displays where tight pixel densities matter more due to the lenses as well as the physical distance from your eyes.

The report states that this device is slated for 2020, though things could of course change in the meantime.

VR seems to be continuing to improve at a steady pace, and while the hype powering its initial boon has largely died off, the tech giants that can afford to nurture the industry have continued to do so. Facebook’s efforts with Oculus have become quite polished in some regards (though there are still plenty of limitations to speak of), and it appears that Apple is recognizing that there’s too much to lose out on if things take off.

Facebook shrinks fake news after warnings backfire

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 03:04 PM PDT

Tell someone not to do something and sometimes they just want to do it more. That’s what happened when Facebook put red flags on debunked fake news. Users who wanted to believe the false stories had their fevers ignited and they actually shared the hoaxes more. That led Facebook to ditch the incendiary red flags in favor of showing Related Articles with more level-headed perspectives from trusted news sources.

But now it’s got two more tactics to reduce the spread of misinformation, which Facebook detailed at its Fighting Abuse @Scale event in San Francisco. Facebook’s director of News Feed integrity Michael McNally and data scientist Lauren Bose held a talk discussing all the ways it intervenes. The company is trying to walk a fine line between censorship and sensibility.

These red warning labels actually backfired and made some users more likely to share, so Facebook switched to showing Related Articles

First, rather than call more attention to fake news, Facebook wants to make it easier to miss these stories while scrolling. When Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers verify an article is inaccurate, Facebook will shrink the size of the link post in the News Feed. “We reduce the visual prominence of feed stories that are fact-checked false,” a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me.

As you can see below in the image on the left, confirmed-to-be-false news stories on mobile show up with their headline and image rolled into a single smaller row of space. Below, a Related Articles box shows “Fact-Checker”-labeled stories debunking the original link. Meanwhile on the right, a real news article’s image appears about 10 times larger, and its headline gets its own space.


Second, Facebook is now using machine learning to look at newly published articles and scan them for signs of falsehood. Combined with other signals like user reports, Facebook can use high falsehood prediction scores from the machine learning systems to prioritize articles in its queue for fact-checkers. That way, the fact-checkers can spend their time reviewing articles that are already qualified to probably be wrong.

“We use machine learning to help predict things that might be more likely to be false news, to help prioritize material we send to fact-checkers (given the large volume of potential material),” a spokesperson from Facebook confirmed. The social network now works with 20 fact-checkers in several countries around the world, but it’s still trying to find more to partner with. In the meantime, the machine learning will ensure their time is used efficiently.

Bose and McNally also walked the audience through Facebook’s “ecosystem” approach that fights fake news at every step of its development:

  • Account Creation – If accounts are created using fake identities or networks of bad actors, they’re removed.
  • Asset Creation – Facebook looks for similarities to shut down clusters of fraudulently created Pages and inhibit the domains they’re connected to.
  • Ad Policies – Malicious Pages and domains that exhibit signatures of wrong use lose the ability to buy or host ads, which deters them from growing their audience or monetizing it.
  • False Content Creation – Facebook applies machine learning to text and images to find patterns that indicate risk.
  • Distribution – To limit the spread of false news, Facebook works with fact-checkers. If they debunk an article, its size shrinks, Related Articles are appended and Facebook downranks the stories in News Feed.

Together, by chipping away at each phase, Facebook says it can reduce the spread of a false news story by 80 percent. Facebook needs to prove it has a handle on false news before more big elections in the U.S. and around the world arrive. There’s a lot of work to do, but Facebook has committed to hiring enough engineers and content moderators to attack the problem. And with conferences like Fighting Abuse @Scale, it can share its best practices with other tech companies so Silicon Valley can put up a united front against election interference.

DNA analysis site that led to the Golden State Killer issues a privacy warning to users

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 03:02 PM PDT

As more details emerge about the arrest of the man suspected to be the Golden State Killer, it’s clear that one of the most infamous unsolved cases of all time was cracked using a popular free online genealogy database.

The site, known as GEDmatch, is a popular resource for people who have obtained their own DNA through readily available consumer testing services and want to fill in missing portions of their family tree to conduct further analyses. Compared to a polished service like 23andMe, GEDmatch is an open platform lacking the same privacy and legal restrictions that govern user data on more mainstream platforms.

To home in on their suspect, investigators used an intact DNA sample taken at the time of a 1980 Ventura County murder linked to the serial killer. The team uploaded data from the sample into GEDmatch and were able to identify distant relatives of the suspect — a critical breakthrough that soon led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, 72.

Given the high-stakes nature of DNA data and the popularity of voluntary online DNA databases, the case immediately raised a number of flags for data privacy advocates.

On Friday, GEDmatch confirmed on its landing page for logged-in users that law enforcement sifted through its DNA database in the case:

To correct a BIG misunderstanding, we do not show any person’s DNA on GEDmatch. We only show manipulations of data such as DNA [matches].

We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer. Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy

While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes.

If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded. To delete your registration contact gedmatch@gmail.com.

Though an initial misunderstanding raised suspicion that law enforcement used a major player in consumer genetic testing like 23andMe or Ancestry DNA in the Golden State Killer development, investigators instead leveraged another voluntary DNA database with no such hoops to jump through. Both 23andMe and Ancestry require law enforcement to create a legal request in the form of a search warrant or a court order before accessing any specific genetic or personal information.

23andMe explains its policies toward forensics in a special page dedicated to its relationship with law enforcement:

Use of the 23andMe Personal Genetic Service for casework and other criminal investigations falls outside the scope of our services intended use.

Therefore, it is a violation of our TOS for law enforcement officials to submit samples on behalf of a prisoner or someone in state custody who has been charged with a crime.

While the revelation that investigators have apprehended a suspect in the long-cold case is good news, the incident is reigniting justifiable concerns around consumer DNA testing.

In an interview with The New York Times, Paul Holes, the Contra Costa county investigator who helped crack the case, marveled at the power of GEDmatch. “I was blown away with what it could do,” Holes said.

This soft robotic arm is straight out of Big Hero 6 (it’s even from Disney)

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 02:43 PM PDT

The charming robot at the heart of Disney’s Big Hero 6, Baymax, isn’t exactly realistic, but its puffy bod is an (admittedly aspirational) example of the growing field of soft robotics. And now Disney itself has produced a soft robot arm that seems like it could be a prototype from the movie.

Created by Disney Research roboticists, the arm seems clearly inspired by Baymax, from the overstuffed style and delicate sausage fingers to the internal projector that can show status or information to nearby people.

“Where physical human-robot interaction is expected, robots should be compliant and reactive to avoid human injury and hardware damage,” the researchers write in the paper describing the system. “Our goal is the realization of a robot arm and hand system which can physically interact with humans and gently manipulate objects.”

The mechanical parts of the arm are ordinary enough — it has an elbow and wrist and can move around the way many other robot arms do, using the same servos and such.

But around the joints are what look like big pillows, which the researchers call “force sensing modules.” They’re filled with air and can detect pressure on them. This has the dual effect of protecting the servos from humans and vice versa, while also allowing natural tactile interactions.

“Distributing individual modules over the various links of a robot provides contact force sensing over a large area of the robot and allows for the implementation of spatially aware, engaging physical human-robot interactions,” they write. “The independent sensing areas also allow a human to communicate with the robot or guide its motions through touch.”

Like hugging, as one of the researchers demonstrates:

Presumably in this case the robot (also presuming the rest of the robot) would understand that it is being hugged, and reciprocate or otherwise respond.

The fingers are also soft and filled with air; they’re created in a 3D printer that can lay down both rigid and flexible materials. Pressure sensors within each inflatable finger let the robot know whether, for example, one fingertip is pressing too hard or bearing all the weight, signaling it to adjust its grip.

This is still very much a prototype; the sensors can’t detect the direction of a force yet, and the materials and construction aren’t airtight by design, meaning they have to be continuously pumped full. But it still shows what they want it to show: that a traditional “hard” robot can be retrofitted into a soft one with a bit of ingenuity. We’re still a long way from Baymax, but it’s more science than fiction now.

T-Mobile is reportedly much closer to a merger deal with Sprint

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 02:09 PM PDT

It looks like a potential merger deal between T-Mobile and Sprint, two of the major telecom companies in the U.S., is getting closer and now has set valuation terms, according to a report by Bloomberg.

The deal could be announced as soon as Sunday, according to a report by CNBC. The proposed tie-up of the two companies was called off in November last year, but now that deal appears to be coming closer, with T-Mobile’s backer valuing Sprint at around $24 billion, according to Bloomberg. As part of the deal, Deutsche Telekom AG will get a 69% voting interest on a 42% stake in the company, according to that report. (Both reports, however, disagree on the valuation — with CNBC citing a $26 billion valuation.)

This deal seems to have been a long time coming, and consolidates two of the four major telecom providers in the U.S. into one larger entity. That could, in theory, offer it some more flexibility as they expand into 5G networks. Still, a deal of this scale could still fall apart and would be subject to regulation — with significant international ownership of both companies (Softbank for Sprint, and Deutsche Telekom for T-Mobile).

Sprint shares fell more than 8% in extended trading to under $6, while T-Mobile shares were largely unchanged. Shares of Sprint were up around 8% on the day up to $6.50 in early trading.

A representative from Sprint declined to comment. A representative from T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Essential’s first handset is coming to more markets

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 01:46 PM PDT

It's hard launching a phone company — something Essential was pretty candid about from the start. Andy Rubin's latest endeavor got off to something of a slow start, according to outside accounts, but today the well-funded hardware startup is getting ready to add a whole bunch of new markets to its online store.

On Twitter today, the company announced a handful of key additions to its coverage map, including Canada, France, Japan and the U.K. As Engadget notes, availability in some of those markets already exists, but not through the company's own shop, most notably Canada, where users can pick up the handset via Amazon or Telus.

There are also some country-specific caveats here. Those can be found through the company's Terms of Service, which notes that the handset is now also available in Germany.

It's been a slow roll out for the company, but understandably so. It's not easy starting this kind of endeavor from scratch, even with the $300 million in funding the company managed to drum up. Essential spent its first year primarily focused on its home market, delivering Amazon and Best Buy availability, along with a Sprint deal.

Building distribution channels this time out should ease some of the burden of launching when the time comes to deliver version 2.0.

Why the tech industry should care about the farm bill being drafted right now

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 12:13 PM PDT

For some food stamp recipients, 2018 could shape up to be a particularly aggravating year, including for one of the only startups trying to find ways to innovate on the ways that food stamps are delivered and managed.

It’s not something that’s talked about much in tech circles, but perhaps it should be, given that 42 million Americans rely on the more than 50-year-old, anti-hunger program behind the stamps — called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — for basic food assistance.

What’s the problem? It’s twofold essentially. First, let’s take a look at the farm bill, which subsidizes SNAP.

The farm bill, which got its start in 1933 as part of FDR’s New Deal legislation, expires and is updated and passed anew by Congress every five years, after which the sitting U.S. president signs it into law. The last bill was signed in February of 2014, so Congress is working on the next version now.

But things aren’t looking very promising for SNAP recipients. Already, the first draft of the House Republicans' farm bill, which passed through one committee, looks to cut $20 billion from the program over the next 10 years, potentially cutting off two million people in the process.

The cuts will be debated on the House floor beginning early next month, meaning it’s far from clear what happens from here. While Republicans argue they want to promote self-sufficiency (the cuts are expected to come via tightened work requirements), poverty experts see the proposal as chipping away at the already shrinking safety net for America’s most vulnerable. As an article in Vox notes, half of the 42 million people who rely on SNAP for food assistance are children.

By now you might be wondering what startups have to do with any of this. Stick with us.

Propel, a four-year-old, Brooklyn-based company, makes software for low-income individuals. Its founder, Jimmy Chen, is a former Facebook manager who knows about need; he received a full scholarship to Stanford based on it.

Propel is a venture-backed for-profit enterprise that makes money through marketing. For example, though its app primarily helps food stamp recipients check their balances (they’ve historically had to keep track of this themselves or else call an 800 number), Propel’s features also include coupons and notices about job opportunities, and it receives referral fees from both food companies and employers for these services.

Still, the 11-person outfit remains rare in its focus on improving a public sector service, which is perhaps why more than 1 million people — or roughly 5 percent of SNAP participants — now actively use its technology. Indeed, the company’s app, which also enables users to create shopping lists, has grown its user base fourfold over the last eight months alone, largely via families telling other families.

Alas, Propel is newly in the cross hairs of a much bigger company that worries Propel is encroaching on its territory. Big government contractor Conduent — which runs the food stamp networks for 25 states — manages the database that Propel’s app relies on to help people check their accounts, and it keeps finding ways to cut off Propel’s access.

It’s hamstringing Propel’s users in the process. One young mother told the New York Times earlier this week that she recently lost access to the time-saving app for a month.

Conduent says it’s just protecting itself. In emailed replies to questions from the Times, Conduent said that Propel’s smartphone app was launched “without the knowledge, input or consent from Conduent." It further accused Propel of creating a "capacity ambush,” owing to its data requests. It said its measures were aimed at preventing the “unauthorized access to data — from Propel or any other unauthorized user."

Chen calls it all a misunderstanding. “We saw an opportunity for [the food stamp program] to be part of a modern financial product.”

Propel has taken a “fairly conservative approach to data” he adds. Because Propel is dealing with highly sensitive information, it doesn’t run data in the background of anyone’s phone, retrieving information only when someone opens the app, which he says users do seven times a month on average.

Most important, says Chen, Propel isn’t trying to replace Conduent or any other electronic benefit transfer (EBT) processor that makes money through state contracts.

“We’re a direct-to-consumer software play that makes no money from the government and is not looking to [secure] government contracts,” he says. “Instead of trying to displace them, we’re trying to work with them, and we think we can do it in a way that’s productive for all parties.”

Which takes us back to that farm bill.

Perhaps Conduent can be persuaded to work in concert with Propel. If not, Propel — and others who may try in their own ways to serve low-income Americans — may have no recourse unless Congress steps in.

We hope it will. Part of why the farm bill is reauthorized on a regular basis owes to changes in modern tech. While lawmakers examine the changes they want to make this time around, they might also consider stories like that of Propel and well-meaning founders like Chen. Maybe they think a government contractor should be able to stamp out a company that it sees as competitive; it’s hard to understand Congress’s calculations much of the time.

What is certain: in order to encourage more startups to innovate on behalf of low-income Americans, legislators need to protect the companies doing the innovating. If they really want to see recipients grow become more self-sufficient, it’s a much better place to start.

Here’s how SF wants to regulate electric scooters

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 11:30 AM PDT

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is gearing up to present its proposal for electric scooter permitting. This comes after the SF Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance for the SFMTA to create a permitting process to better regulate the plethora of electric scooters from Bird, Lime and Spin.

The SFMTA’s proposal lays out a 24-month pilot program, which would grant up to five permits and 500 scooters per permit. As part of the program, electric scooter companies would need to provide user education and insurance, share its detailed trip data with the city, have a privacy policy that protects user data, offer a low-income plan and operate in a to-be-approved service area.

That means the city would allow no more than 2,500 electric scooters on the streets at any one time. In order to receive a permit, each company would need to first pay an application fee of $5,000 and show how they would ensure safe use and proper storage of scooters.

“The SFMTA supports innovative solutions that have the potential to complement our existing transportation network,” the proposal states. “Powered Scooter Share Programs introduce a new transportation option that may be convenient for users making short trips or as a "last mile" solution when paired with public transit. Furthermore, if Powered Scooter Share users replace trips they would otherwise have taken by automobile, they have the potential to reduce traffic congestion, parking demand, and carbon emissions. SFMTA staff have received numerous emails from Powered Scooter Share Program users expressing their support for these programs.”

The SFMTA’s proposal also describes how the city has received numerous complaints from residents pertaining to electric scooters. The complaints cover improper parking that blocks sidewalks and access to doors, as well as someone tripping over a scooter that was left on a sidewalk.

“This is of particular concern to members of the public who travel in a wheelchair or who have visual impairments, and have greater difficulty seeing and avoiding (or moving) Powered Scooter Share Scooters blocking their path,” the proposal states. “The SFMTA has been informed of one instance in which a person with a visual impairment fell after tripping on a scooter, as well as a report of a person breaking a toe after tripping on a Powered Scooter Share scooter.”

As of earlier this week, the San Francisco Department of Public Works had impounded 319 scooters, resulting in impoundment fees of $5,774 for Bird, Lime and Spin. As part of the proposed permitting process, companies would need to pay $10,000 for a “public property repair and maintenance endowment” in the event the city incurs additional costs due to the damaging of public property or needing to store improperly parked scooters.

The SFMTA Board of Directors is holding a public hearing next week to consider implementing this permit process.

EcoFlow raises $4M from unconventional investors to grow its mobile power business

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 10:07 AM PDT

EcoFlow, a U.S.-Chinese hardware firm developed by former DJI engineers that sells portable power stations, has pulled in a Series A round of over $4 million ahead of the imminent launch of new products and an international sales expansion.

The Shenzhen/San Francisco-based company has taken an interesting route. Founded in 2016, the startup burst on to the scene when it launched its River product in an Indiegogo campaign that pulled in $1 million. Today, River is available in the U.S. where it is sold via Home Depot, Camping World, Amazon, HSN and the EcoFlow website for $599 upwards.

That’s pretty impressive progress for a young company, and CEO and co-founder Eli Harris told TechCrunch in an interview that relationships with key partners are at the core of that. In particular, EcoFlow has raised strategic investment from supply chain partners rather than traditional VC and that is the case again. This new $4 million came courtesy of battery makers Guangzhou Penghui Energy and SCUD Group, industrial design tooling factory ESID, and supply chain-focused firms Delian Capital and Chunjia Assets.

Names that aren’t known in Silicon Valley, for sure, but the key is what they bring to the table.

“Our investors are almost entirely vertically integrated with every component in our supply chain,” Harris said. “That gives us access to these top-tier manufacturers that no startups could enjoy and help us get direct access to vendors at large companies.”

Aside from reaching quality components and getting a good price, relationships with these component makers help EcoFlow with its cash flow — always a challenge puzzle piece for hardware startups. Harris explained that the relationships allow his company to delay paying for components rather than having to pay upfront — before product is sold and revenue comes in — which optimizes the books and means the capital can be put to work on R&D, sales and marketing and more.

The River itself is touted as industry-leading portable power. Aside from an aesthetic design, the li-ion-based device has a total output of 500 watts, weighs just 11 pounds and features two quick-charge USB ports, two USB type C ports, two standard USB ports, two AC outlets, two DC outlets and one 12V car port.

Now EcoFlow is doubling down with plans to launch two new products before the end of this year. Harris isn’t providing specific details right now, but he said the company is looking to take advantage of its promising growth.

“We think we are around 18 months ahead of the market in terms of engineering capabilities. Most experienced battery players are going after electronic vehicles and industrial opportunities, while smaller players have issues getting to manufactures, talent and money to build portable energy solutions,” he said.

While $699 may make the product a luxury for some — despite a $100 price cut — Harris said that the price is likely to decrease going forward as technology develops.

“Batteries are expensive products but we will see costs come down with the expansion of the EV market, so we'll be trending in the right direction. But people who understand the tech don’t think it is an expensive product,” Harris explained.

“A lot of the tech we use now will be utilized in future products so that’ll mean lower development costs as we leverage existing IP. We’re also exploring using second life batteries since cells are one of the biggest expenses of the product,” he added.

Working with those battery makers that it also counts as investors could help on that second-life battery push, which could cut the costs to one-fourth of what EcoFlow pays now.

While tactically selected investors are a boon for many reasons, Harris admitted that they do require educating of the investor-investee relationship as it is unconventional in their space. But, he said, increasingly large component and manufacturing firms are keen to do startup investments to help get new ideas, open relationships in the U.S. and explore other new areas of focus.

“A lot of the manufacturing industry players have been stuck in that OEM wheelhouse and there's more competition now. The previous models of just churning out product might not be sustainable, and margins are thinner,” he said.

Most immediately, EcoFlow is looking to expand sales beyond the U.S and Canada with plans to move into Europe later this year. It also plans to raise a “significant” funding round before 2018 is out as the two new products hit the market.

Note: the original version of this story has been updated to correct the price of the River.

CultureCrush breaks out of the swipe right box

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 10:06 AM PDT

Most dating apps are aimed at a general population, but people of color and immigrants are rarely well-represented. CultureCrush wants to fix that. This app, created by a team led by former attorney Amanda Spann, lets you search the dating pool by nationality, ethnicity and tribe in an effort to help fish out of water find a match.

“We have 24,000 users, 5% of which are premium paid users, and the app has generated revenue every month since its existence. Upon our relaunch, we anticipate this number to rapidly accelerate,” said Spann. “CultureCrush is the only app of its kind that enables you to search by nationality, ethnicity, and tribe. We have nearly 1,000 tribes from across the continent of Africa. Akin to JDate, CultureCrush allows users to connect with others from specific ethnic or national backgrounds. Anyone who grew up in a specific culture understands the magic of connecting with others from the same or similar background. CultureCrush improves upon the JDate model by establishing an inclusive ecosystem where all cultures can find and date each other, or any other culture they like.”

The app also supports friend-to-friend matchmaking and has a three-day message countdown that dumps matches after 72 hours. The app is similar to other niche dating services like BlackPeopleMeet, PlentyOfGeeks and even Trump.Dating. There’s someone for everyone, the thinking goes, but sometimes you have to shrink the pool.

Spann created the app in Chicago after talking with a friend of hers from Nigeria. She said her friend found it difficult to date especially because of the cultural divide she experienced on traditional dating apps. Further, Spann and her friend felt uncomfortable on traditional dating apps after getting fetish comments like “Hi Chocolate Goddess.” For her, enough was enough.

“It’s predicted that by the end of this year African-Americans will be the most represented out of any ethnic group online. Pairing this with the fact that African-Americans are currently spending nearly 48 billion on travel annually and 8.7 percent of the overall US black population is comprised of immigrants, we believe that 2018 is ripe with opportunity for CultureCrush,” she said. “We're excited to see how our users respond to the new features and we are looking forward to focusing our energy and attention back into growing our user base after our initial setbacks.”

“We decided to pursue the project after observing that mainstream dating apps often fail to account for cultural preferences and rarely yield positive experiences for users of color,” said Spann. “Imagine being a Nigerian man who just moved from Lagos to Chicago for med school, it might be nice to meet a local woman from your tribe. Or being a Jamaican woman spending a week in Copenhagen for work who wants to grab a drink with someone of Caribbean descent. Or what if you are an African-American who lives in a predominately white community, having difficulty meeting other people of color,” she said.

The app is available now and you can sign up to be notified when the new app hits the stores.

Tesla shareholder wants to remove Elon Musk from chairman position

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 09:58 AM PDT

Ahead of Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting in June, stockholder Jing Zhao has submitted a proposal to replace the board’s chairman, Elon Musk, with an independent director. Musk, the chief executive officer at Tesla, has been chairman of the board since 2004.

“Although the current leadership structure, in which the positions of Chairman and CEO are held by one person, could provide an effective leadership for Tesla at the early stage, now in this much more highly competitive and rapidly changing technology industry, it is more and more difficult to oversee Tesla’s business and senior management (especially to minimize any potential conflicts) that may result from combining the positions of CEO and Chairman,” Zhao wrote in his proposal.

Zhao, who holds 12 shares of the company’s common stock, also noted Musk’s positions at SolarCity and SpaceX, and how Musk’s involvement could lead to conflicts down the road. But the likelihood of this happening is slim to none.

And the board has already expressed its opposition, recommending a vote against this proposal. In its statement, the board says Tesla’s success would not have been possible without Musk at the helm of both the board and the company itself.

“In light of the significant future opportunities for growth and the careful execution needed in order for the Company to achieve it, the Board believes that the Company is still best served by Mr. Musk continuing to serve as Chairman,” the board stated. “Moreover, the role of the Lead Independent Director protects the Company against any potential governance issues arising from a non-independent director serving as Chairman. This position is vested with broad authority to lead the actions of the independent directors and communicate regularly with the Chief Executive Officer. Additionally, the Company now has seven independent directors following the addition of two additional independent directors in July 2017.”

I reached out to Tesla for comment and the company directed me to the board’s response. Here it is in full:

The Board believes that the Company's success to date would not have been possible if the Board was led by another director lacking Elon Musk's day-to-day exposure to the Company's business. In light of the significant future opportunities for growth and the careful execution needed in order for the Company to achieve it, the Board believes that the Company is still best served by Mr. Musk continuing to serve as Chairman.

Moreover, the role of the Lead Independent Director protects the Company against any potential governance issues arising from a non-independent director serving as Chairman. This position is vested with broad authority to lead the actions of the independent directors and communicate regularly with the Chief Executive Officer. Additionally, the Company now has seven independent directors following the addition of two additional independent directors in July 2017. The Board believes that the broad authority of the Lead Independent Director and the presence of six other independent directors ensures that the Board acts independently. This current Board structure also is consistent with majority practice at large public companies: according to the 2017 Spencer Stuart Board Index, 72% of companies in the S&P 500 do not have an independent board chairman.

The proponent acknowledges that a combined Chief Executive Officer and Chairman is an effective form of leadership for an early-stage company, until it faces increased competition and rapid technological changes. The Board believes that it is precisely during times when a company must quickly adapt to constant change and outside pressures that Board leadership needs to be lockstep with the Company's operations. Our achievements to date notwithstanding, the Company is still at a point in its development where we must execute well in order to realize our long-term goals, and separating the roles of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman at this time would not serve the best interests of the Company or its stockholders.

Battle royale smash-hit Fortnite’s next move could be super

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 09:33 AM PDT

Fortnite Battle Royale has transcended your average video game to become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. In fact, the third-person shooter saw a peak 3.4 million concurrent players in March, with the servers buckling under the pressure. Fortnite Battle Royale also holds the record for individual streamer numbers on Twitch with Ninja’s stream featuring Drake.

Part of that has to do with the popularity of Battle Royale games in general, and part of it has to do with the Epic Games’ ability to add small details (like these dances) to a colorful, fun-to-watch world.

But perhaps most importantly, Epic Games seems to be obsessive about keeping the game fresh, whether it’s adding new player skins, new areas of the map, or new equipment within the game. In that vein, Fortnite
BR is structured in seasons, lasting three months each, that add a new flavor to Battle Royale.

Season 3, with a space theme, ends on April 30. But beyond space-themed skins, Epic has also layered in a little storyline, with a comet set to hit the game map. As part of this, meteors have been gradually getting closer to the map, and recently hitting it. TVs throughout the game are broadcasting an emergency message. Rooftops and mountain peaks now have telescopes and lawn chairs where people supposedly set up to check out the incoming comet.

The question on every Battle Royale players mind? Will a comet strike the map? Will it hit Tilted Towers, the figurative ‘downtown’ of the map and the most popular landing spot by far? The mystery surrounding this comet, which has had no effect on the actual game, has made Fortnite Battle Royale all the more top of mind to players and spectators alike.

In just a few days, we’ll get our answers as Season 4 begins.

Epic Games has teased Season 4 via Twitter with a graphic that seems to hint at a Superhero-themed season. Within a streak of fire (the comet?) is the image of a person in an Iron Man-esque mask. Or perhaps he looks more like the Flash. Today, Epic tweeted out another image that might hint at a new skin, with a female character who look strikingly similar to Wonder Woman.

Again, Epic Games is staying as relevant as possible. The Marvel universe is thriving, and Avengers: Infinity War comes out today.

Forbes contributor Paul Tassi posits that the comet and the Super Hero theme are interconnected. Perhaps the comet is the superhero, landing to usher in Season 4. Maybe the superhero is arriving to save the world from the comet. Or maybe the comet strikes, aliens land with it, and Season 4 centers around a battle between aliens and superheroes.

Honestly, anything could happen. But the fact that people, myself included, care enough to spend time creating and wading through various theories indicates that Fortnite’s Battle Royale is not slowing down anytime soon.

Facebook’s Messenger Kids’ app gains a ‘sleep mode’

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 08:51 AM PDT

Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the social network’s new chat app for the under-13 crowd, has been designed to give parents more control over their kids’ contact list. Today, the app is gaining a new feature, “sleep mode,” aimed at giving parents the ability to turn the app off at designated times. The idea is that parents and children will talk about when it’s appropriate to send messages to friends and family, and when it’s time for other activities – like homework or bedtime, for example.

The app, which launched last December, has not been without controversy.

Some see it as a gateway drug for Facebook proper. Others whine that “kids should be playing outside!” – as if kids don’t engage in all sorts of activities, including device usage, at times. And of course, amid Facebook’s numerous scandals around data privacy, it’s hard for some parents to fathom installing a Facebook-operated anything on their child’s phone or tablet.

But the reality, from down here in the parenting trenches, is that kids are messaging anyway and we’re desperately short on tools.

Instead of apps built with children’s and parents’ needs in mind, our kids are fumbling around on their own, making mistakes, then having their devices taken away in punishment.

The truth is, with the kids, it’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Our children are FaceTime’ing their way through Roblox playdates, they’re texting grandma and grandpa, they’re watching YouTube instead of TV, and they’re begging for too-adult apps like Snapchat – so they can play with the face filters – and Musical.ly, which has a lot of inappropriate content. (Seriously, can someone launch kid-safe versions?)

Until Messenger Kids, parents haven’t been offered any social or messaging apps built with monitoring and education in mind.

I decided to install it on my own child’s device, and I’ll admit being conflicted. But I’m using it with my child as a learning tool. We talk about how to use the app’s features, but also about appropriate messaging behavior – what to chat about, why not to send a dozen stickers at once, and how to politely end a conversation, for example.

Unlike child predator playgrounds like Kik, popularity-focused social apps like Instagram, or apps where messages simply vanish like Snapchat, Messenger Kids lets parents choose the contact list and control the experience. And, as a backup, I have a copy of the app on my own phone, so I can spot check messages sent when I’m not around.

With the new sleep mode feature, I can now turn Messenger Kids off at certain times. That means no more 8 AM video calls to the BFF. (Yes, we’ve discussed this – after the fact. Sorry, BFF’s parents.) And no more messaging right at bedtime, either.

To configure sleep mode, parents access the Messenger Kids controls from the main Facebook app, and tap on the child’s name. You can create different settings for weekdays and weekends. If the child tries to use the app during these times, they’ll instead see a message that says the app is in sleep mode and to come back later.

The control panel is also where parents can add and remove contacts, delete the child’s account, or create a new account.

Facebook suggests that parents have a discussion with kids about the boundaries they’re creating when turning on sleep mode.

[gallery ids="1629819,1629820,1629821,1629822"]

That may seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly not. I’ve actually heard some parents scoff at parental control features because they think it’s about offloading the job of parenting to technology. It’s not. It’s about using tools and parenting techniques together – whether that’s internet off times, device or app “bedtimes,” internet filtering, or whatever other mechanisms parents employ.

I understand if you can’t get past the fact that the app is from Facebook, of all places. Or you have a philosophical point of view on using Facebook products. But Facebook integration means this app could scale. In the few months it’s been live, the app has been download around 325,000 times, according to data from Sensor Tower.

Messenger Kids is a free download on iOS and Android.

Yawn: Amazon cloud business just keeps rolling along

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 08:45 AM PDT

It’s almost becoming boring reporting that the Amazon cloud had a monster quarter. It’s not news at this point, because of course they did. Yesterday, it once again blew away analyst expectations with 49 percent revenue growth for the quarter. Oh ya, and that revenue? Well that was $5.44B for the quarter, a ways above the projected $5.26B. Ho hum. Another day in paradise for the Amazon cloud.

That’s a $21.76 billion run rate for a business that is but one piece of Amazon’s vast empire. Amazon’s cloud arm, AWS, has been running away with infrastructure services marketshare for a long time. When you consider companies the likes of Microsoft, IBM, Google and Alibaba are chasing them, it makes their run even more remarkable.

Conventional economic wisdom would suggest that the bigger you get, the harder it is to maintain big growth numbers, yet AWS has defied that wisdom and just keeps on growing, quarter after quarter after quarter. It says something about the way Amazon as whole operates. It never backs down and it never gives in.

Meanwhile across the lake, Microsoft was also reporting its earnings yesterday as well, and the cloud numbers were also quite good with what Microsoft calls ‘The Intelligent Cloud’ up 17 percent and Azure earnings up an impressive 93 percent. That was compared to 15 percent growth for Intelligent Cloud and 98 percent Azure growth in the previous quarter.

Microsoft clearly represents the best hope to give Amazon a run for its money and it’s doing its part to make that happen, but even with all of that growth, Amazon just keeps growing too– albeit at a smaller rate at this point, but certainly strong enough to maintain its hefty marketshare advantage.

Tracking the numbers

Canalys, a firm that tracks cloud marketshare numbers says that Amazon’s revenue is nearly double that of its nearest competitor, Microsoft, and far ahead of Google. While Google did not break out its cloud numbers in its earnings report this week, Canalys ranked it third, up 89% for the quarter to US$1.2 billion.

In terms of how that translated into marketshare, AWS continues to own about third of the market, while Microsoft is around 15 percent and Google around 5 percent, according to Canalys’ latest numbers.

That tracks fairly consistently with Synergy Research Group, another firm that tracks the market. It had Amazon at 33%, Microsoft at 13% with IBM 8%, Google 6% and Alibaba 4%. Synergy’s John Dinsdale says the growth we have seen the last two quarters has been quite remarkable.

“Normal market development cycles and the law of large numbers should result in growth rates that slowly diminish – and that is what we saw in late 2016 and through most of 2017. But the growth rate jumped by three percentage points in Q4 and by another five in Q1,” Dinsdale said in a statement.

Overall, while the cloud market continues to grow as companies shift more workloads there, the revenue numbers increase, but the marketshare percentages have held relatively steady. Amazon continues to control the vast majority of marketshare, and while there are others chasing them with deep pockets and large investments, it appears that none of these companies is a threat to Amazon’s dominance for now.

DocuSign closes up 38% and Smartsheet 30% in their debuts on Nasdaq and NYSE

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 08:33 AM PDT

It was a big day for enterprise tech IPOs, which have been on a roll in 2018. Today, not one but two enterprise tech companies, DocuSign and Smartsheet, saw their share prices pop as they made their debuts on to the public markets, trends that continued throughout the day.

At the close of the markets New York time, DocuSign closed at $39.96, up nearly 38 percent from its IPO price of $29 and giving the company a market cap of $6 billion. Smartsheet closed at $19.50, up 30 percent from its initial price of $15 and giving it a market cap of $1.9 billion.

Smartsheet was first out of the gates. Trading on NYSE under the ticker SMAR, the company clocked an opening price of $18.40. This represented a pop of 22.7 percent on its IPO pricing of $15 yesterday evening — itself a higher figure than the expected range of $12-$14. Smartsheet, whose primary product is a workplace collaboration and project management platform (it competes with the likes of Basecamp, Wrike and Asana), raised $150 million in its IPO and is currently trading around $18.30/share. Its price went as high as $19.70 in trading today and never dipped below $18.06.

Later in the day, DocuSign — which facilitates e-signatures and other features to speed up contractural negotiations online, competing against the likes of AdobeSign and HelloSign — started to trade, and it saw an even bigger pop. Trading on Nasdaq under DOCU, the stock opened at $37.75, which worked out to a jump of 30 percent on its IPO price last night of $29. Like Smartsheet, DocuSign had priced its IPO higher than the expected range of $26-$28, raising $629 million in the process. In all, it went as high as $40.89 in trading today.

In the case of both companies, they are coming to the market with net losses on their balance sheets, but evidence of strong revenue growth. And in a period that seems to be a generally strong market for IPOs at the moment, combined with the generally positive climate for cloud-based enterprise services (with both Microsoft and Amazon crediting their cloud businesses for their own strong earnings), that rising tide appears to be lifting these two boats.

Rohit Kulkarni, MD and head of research at brokerage firm SharesPost notes that this bodes very well for more IPOs this year of so-called “unicorns” — startups valued at more than $1 billion that might have in past years been very strong candidates for IPOs, but have in more recent years been more likely to sit an raise privately, averting potentially less receptive public markets and taking advantage of the vast amounts of funding available via VC, private equity houses and other private channels.

But he believes that generally we’re now seeing a swing to more sober and less exuberant IPOs. “This doesn't mean companies will go no faster to an IPO now,” he added. “They will still have a long gestation of seven to 10 years, and, when they do go public, they will be stronger and more mature, with a clear pathway to profitability, which will help them thrive.”

In terms of trends, the proliferation of enterprise cloud companies that we’ve seen in the world of startups is going to translate into yet more enterprise cloud IPOs. “We expect more enterprise cloud companies to public this year,” he said. “Trends in the past 16 months have been lopsided, with Cloud and Enterprise software companies accounting for 75% of public unicorns. Clearly, these companies are the backbone of the private tech growth asset category.”

DocuSign underscores that trend. The company reported $518.5 million in revenue for its fiscal year ending in 2018 in its IPO filings, up from $381.5 million last year and $250.5 million in 2016. Losses were $52.3 million, but that figure was halved over 2017, when it posted a net loss of $115.4 million. DocuSign’s customers include T-Mobile, Salesforce, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America.

Smartsheet, meanwhile, reported a strong 3.6 million users in its IPO filings, with business customers including Cisco and Starbucks. The company brought in $111.3 million in revenue for its fiscal 2018 year, but as with many SaaS companies, it’s going public with a loss. Specifically in 2018 it reported a loss of $49.1 million for 2018, up from a net loss of $15.2 million and $14.3 million in 2017 and 2016 respectively.

And as for those highly capitalised startups who are staying private for now, their valuations continue to ratchet up, he added. “This year, we have tracked just one down-round IPO, whereas there were eight such down-round IPOs in 2017,” said Kulkarni. “Plus, more than 50% of the VC-backed companies going public this year have raised their IPO pricing range at least once. Clearly, a sign of healthy appetite for such companies among public investors.”

Other strong enterprise tech public offerings this year have included Dropbox, Zscaler, Cardlytics, Zuora and Pivotal. All of them closed above their opening prices, in what is shaping up to be a huge year for tech IPOs overall.

Aloe Bud is the adorable self-care app you’ve been waiting for

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:47 AM PDT

The buzz or chime of a push notification on your phone is, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a source of stress and anxiety. A new app called Aloe Bud wants to make those push notifications into something more welcome: gentle reminders to take care of yourself and your own needs. With its configurable reminders, Aloe Bud will encourage you to take a break, drink water, move your body, rest, breathe, and more.

The app is the latest to enter the booming “self-care” market, which caters to a largely younger demographic who are better handling the pressures of modern-day life by carving out time for themselves to mediate, relax, and practice other mindfulness techniques. Some older folks have scoffed at the movement, claiming millennials are too self-involved – or they just scratch their head in confusion. (“Mindfulness?”)

But there’s real demand for these self-care applications and services – in the first quarter of the year, the top ten self-care apps pulled in $15 million in revenue. Now who’s scoffing?

However, most of the self-care apps today are focused on meditation and calming techniques, not on the day-to-day aspects of self-care.

That’s where Aloe Bud comes in.

Even cynics will have to admit the app is kind of adorable with its soft color scheme and its original, retro-ish pixel art icons.

It’s also simple to use – there’s no sign-up process where you have to give your name, email or phone number. No “friend-finding” function, nor the competitive pressures of joining yet another social network, where people can track your activity and judge you accordingly. Instead, the app launches you right into a simple screen where you tap icons like “hydrate,” “breathe,” or “motivate” to set up when and how you want to be reminded. You can choose to use Aloe Bud without reminders by just checking in to those activities, if you prefer, and you can use it for journaling, too.

If you plan on using Aloe Bud long-term, you’ll probably want to pop for the $4.99 expansion pack which includes different versions of the reminder texts so your notifications’ messaging doesn’t become too routine. However, the app itself is free to use.

The idea for Aloe Bud – whose name is meant to invoke the soothing qualities of the Aloe plant – comes from Amber Discko.

Discko’s background in community, social, and development led to a number of opportunities over the years, including running social media for the popular Denny’s Twitter account, working as a creative strategist at Tumblr, founding the online publication and community Femsplain, and working on the digital organizing team for the Hillary for America campaign.

When the election was over, Discko needed to recover, and turned to self-care apps.

“I found myself destroyed mentally afterwards. I wasn’t leaving the house at all. I needed to find a way to get myself back to a grounded normal state,” they said.

Discko then tried a number of other self-care apps, but didn’t feel any of them did the trick.

“I didn’t find myself really keeping with it. I either forgot about the app, or I felt like they were shaming me, so I deleted them right away,” Discko said. “I couldn’t find one that felt like it worked for my personal needs – I’m a sensitive person. I work best with positive, encouraging reinforcement,” they added.

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Aloe Bud was born of these frustrations, but originally as an online community where people could check in with their self-care routines. However, there was growing demand to turn the self-care system into an app. To raise the funds for the app’s development, Discko ran a Kickstarter campaign, which led to 1,538 backers donating over $50,000 to the cause.

A year later, Aloe Bud officially arrived, with help from the development team Lickability (Houseparty, Jet, Meetup), user interface designer Tin Kadoic, and pixel art icon designer Katie Belton.

The app went up on the Apple App Store this week, and was pre-ordered by 1,000 people. By day one, it had already gained 5,000 downloads.

Aloe Bud is deceptively simple. A lot of care and research actually went into its making, as it turns out.

Discko worked with a mental health researcher to help craft the app, and referenced other research in the space, as well. They even carefully selected language in the app so it wouldn’t be triggering – for example, the reminders to eat aren’t referenced as “food,” which people have hang-ups about (or possibly even eating disorders). Instead, it’s referenced as “fuel.”

Aloe Bud is not for everyone, but it will make sense for those who appreciate little reminders to take care of ourselves – like those in Apple Watch, which now alerts you to stand and to breathe, for example.

And it could be especially useful for those who work online, or who face ongoing harassment because of their work – something Discko is familiar with, too.

“I was getting toxic push notifications and it was really destroying my sanity for a while. I deleted Twitter off my phone and replaced it with Aloe Bud,” said Discko. “I encourage a lot of people to do that.”

Aloe Bud is a free download for iOS.

Meet the first four startups in the MetaProp Bridge international accelerator

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:44 AM PDT

Real estate-focused MetaProp NYC has been adding new programs on top of its core accelerator. The latest: The MetaProp Bridge at Columbia University.

It’s an international accelerator designed specifically for real estate and property tech-related startups from Europe, the Middle East and Africa that are looking to expand into North America. Participants get access to MetaProp mentors, advisory services and up to $250,000 in financing.

The 14-week program begins with eight weeks in London before moving to New York City and concluding with a two-week, five-city roadshow across North America.

“From our first days on the ground in London, it was clear that this is a critical time for PropTech in EMEA," said MetaProp’s Leila Collins in a statement. "There is an abundance of compelling technology for the real estate industry emerging from the region. We are happy to now have the infrastructure to partner with and support some of the most promising EMEA PropTech startups as they launch in North America."

MetaProp says that less than 4 percent of applicants were admitted to this inaugural cohort. Here are the four participating startups:

  • Airlite says it’s creating natural paint that also purifies odors, bacteria and other air pollution. (UK, Switzerland and Italy)
  • 720° is a cloud-based analytics service for monitoring indoor air and environmental quality. (Finland)
  • Frontdoor offers business intelligence for real estate agents. (France)
  • YourWelcome is building a technology hub for vacation rental owners — specifically a tablet where they can provide instructions for their guests and earn money by offering tickets and deals. (UK)

The 2017 TechCrunch Include Progress Report

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:15 AM PDT

This is the second annual TechCrunch Include Progress Report. Covering diversity and inclusion in the tech industry cannot be done in a vacuum. As aspects of identity are intersectional, so too should be the way in which media approaches its coverage of the tech industry. With each passing year, companies big and small release diversity data, highlighting the need for more inclusive hiring. As a media company, it is our job to report these stories through a diversity and inclusion lens. You can track our coverage here.

Complementing our editorial coverage is a series of annual events produced by our outstanding events team. Our editorial and events teams work hard together throughout the year to bring you the most unique tech events that give startups from around the world a chance to pitch judges from the most prestigious venture capital firms. In 2017, TechCrunch added to its slate of global events, bringing together startup founders, developers, scientists and technologists. From our Disrupts, Hardware Battlefield at CES and the Crunchies to our inaugural Sessions and Battlefield X events, we set out to ensure that we had a diverse roster of speakers, judges and contestants.

The importance of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry has generated much attention since we published our last Include Program progress report. At TechCrunch, we understand the importance of diversity, and it begins with hiring. In keeping with our commitments in the core principles and mission for Include 2016, we assembled the following progress report on our initiatives, staff and workplace culture.

As in 2016, our methodology for collecting data on our event participants evolved. To date, we have tracked the gender and racial breakdown of our speakers, judges and Battlefield contestants through observed traits. In 2018, we will be implementing the use of anonymous, self-reporting surveys for all onstage participants in our events.

TechCrunch Events


In 2017, we hosted our TechCrunch Disrupt events in New York, San Francisco and Berlin. We continue to make strides in ensuring diverse attendance numbers in all facets of participation, from speakers, judges, Battlefield contestants and nonprofit groups. We also host groups of underserved and underrepresented students from local schools, sourced via local groups and representatives.

For all Disrupt events, we offered a Battlefield Scholarship Fund, which we piloted in 2016, to offset the costs of participating in the program. Tickets to Disrupt have been and will always be free for Battlefield participants. Five teams applied and received financial support ranging from $200 to $7,000, which they used to cover airfare, housing and other associated costs.

Finally, to mark the start of TechCrunch Disrupt, TechCrunch partners with organizations to host the Women in Tech(Crunch) event. This is a private event specifically for female speakers, female judges, Battlefield female founders and the TechCrunch editorial team. In addition to our Women in Tech(Crunch) event in each city, we also hosted Women of Disrupt Breakfasts, all of which included programming.

Disrupt New York

The number of women who appeared onstage at Disrupt New York in May 2017 improved over the prior year, with an increase in judges (6 percent) and Battlefield founders (8 percent). However, we saw 8 percent fewer female speakers. We made gains with racial diversity onstage in 2017, as well. Speakers (5 percent) and Battlefield founders (18 percent) saw increases, but we had about 4 percent fewer judges who were people of color.

We hosted 100 female founders, investors and TechCrunch staff at the Women in Tech(Crunch) event in partnership with General Catalyst . And with Live a Moment, we hosted 80 attendees at the Women of Disrupt Breakfast.

Our efforts to ensure attendance from all groups included providing five free Startup Alley tables to nonprofits selected from a pool of more than 30 applicants through an open application process announced on TechCrunch. In addition, we provided a 90 percent discount on Disrupt tickets for students.




Disrupt San Francisco

Disrupt San Francisco 2017 in September would be the last time we decided to hold this event at one of the piers off the San Francisco Bay. This year, Disrupt SF will be held at Moscone West, the sheer size of which will require us to step up our inclusion efforts.

In 2017, we saw an improvement over 2016 with female representation onstage, with speakers increasing 12 percent and judges increasing 13 percent. However, female representation on the Battlefield founder front decreased almost 6 percent.

To help introduce students from underserved communities, we hosted 86 middle and high school students from Dev Mission, Bishop O'Dowd High School, Hack the Hood, Founders Bootcamp and Albany High School. Student groups were selected from an applicant pool of more than 35 student groups through an open application process announced on TechCrunch.

We partnered with Greylock Partners to host 165 attendees for Women in Tech(Crunch). And for our Women of Disrupt Breakfast, Silicon Valley Editor Connie Loizos moderated a conversation with female founders from Away and Science Exchange and Alice, an artificial intelligence platform for women. We partnered with Intuit for this event that held 120 attendees.

We also offered the same student ticket discount and free Startup Alley tables to nonprofits as we had in prior years; this year we expanded on that effort.



Disrupt Berlin

Disrupt returned to Berlin in December 2017 after three years in London. We saw a 14 percent increase in female judges onstage over 2016. But female speakers and Battlefield founders decreased year-over-year by about 3 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

As part of our inclusion efforts, we hosted 32 refugees learning at the ReDI School of Digital Integration. They brought a group of 30 students who had the opportunity to explore Startup Alley, listen to our speakers on the main stage and have an intimate conversation with Slack co-founder, Cal Henderson. We also supported some of the Battlefield companies with our scholarship fund and continued the student ticket discounts.

Factory Berlin helped us host 65 attendees at our Women in Tech(Crunch) event. In addition, we hosted 80 attendees at the Women of Disrupt Breakfast.



Hardware Battlefield at CES

In January 2017, we once again hosted a Hardware Battlefield at CES. Female representation for speakers, judges and Battlefield founders were down slightly from 2016. By contrast, for the first time in a Hardware Battlefield, minority founders were represented equally, with 50 percent.



Battlefield X

Building off of the overwhelming success of Disrupt Battlefield, we decided to spin it out into its own event and give it a new name: Battlefield X. In 2017, we sent teams to Africa and Australia with the intent to showcase startups doing amazing work in their respective corners of the globe.

Battlefield Africa

For the competition in Nairobi in October, we specifically looked for companies targeting social good, productivity and utility, and gaming and entertainment. Sub-Saharan African startups are helping unleash the region's potential, from last-mile technologies that deliver edtech, agtech and medtech to remote areas, to mobile-based fintech innovations that ease financial transactions and lending in bustling cities.



Battlefield Australia

To bring Battlefield to Australia in October 2017, TechCrunch partnered with the ELEVACAO Foundation, whose mission to empower women tech entrepreneurs globally aligns with TechCrunch's Include program to encourage more diversity in tech. We are also joining forces with Founders for Founders, a group dedicated to supporting tech entrepreneurs across Australia, and Hoist, which is promoting innovation through collaboration between entrepreneurs and corporates.





Last year we debuted Sessions, our new one-day events that dive deep on a single topic, bringing together experts in the field and those interested in the theme.

With these events, we intend to drop the barrier between speaker and attendee to allow for plenty of interaction with networking time and a big reception at the end of each day. Our very first event was Sessions: Justice in June followed by Sessions: Robotics in July.

Sessions: Justice

During the one-day event in June around diversity, inclusion and justice in tech, we heard from social justice activist DeRay Mckesson, Uber Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Bernard Coleman, Salesforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet, Safety Pin Box co-founder Leslie Mac, The Last Mile co-founder Chris Redlitz, CryptoHarlem founder Matt Mitchell and others.

TechCrunch Sessions: Justice was the most racially inclusive event we've ever put on. That said, we could've done better with getting more Latinx speakers onstage. In addition, we collected statistics about gender and sexual orientation.





Sessions: Robotics

Our aim with this one-day event, which was hosted at MIT in July, was to bring together the key players in robotics. MIT CSAIL, iRobot, CyPhy, DARPA and Mass Robotics were represented. As you can see from the data below, we need to ensure higher numbers of women and people of color are represented.




The 10th anniversary of the Crunchies was also the last. In 2017 we renewed our intention to showcase and reward the diversity across Silicon Valley and beyond. We gave Project Include the second-ever TechCrunch Include Award. The goal of Project Include is to make the conversation a lot easier to have. Led by Erica Joy Baker, bethanye McKinney Blount, Tracy Chou, Laura I. Gómez, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Freada Kapor Klein, Ellen Pao and Susan Wu, Project Include provides tools for tech CEOs to help foster working environments of inclusion for underrepresented groups.



Include Office Hours

Launched in 2014, TechCrunch's Include program applies resources uniquely available to TechCrunch, including our editorial and events platforms, to create access and opportunity for underserved and underrepresented founders.

TechCrunch Include Office Hours are a part of this effort. The program launched in October 2015. Each month, TechCrunch partners with a VC in New York or San Francisco to host private 20-minute sessions that are valuable opportunities for entrepreneurs to gain key insights and advice from seasoned investors.

In 2017, we hosted eight Office Hours in San Francisco and New York. There were 317 total applications that resulted in 78 founders having meetings totaling 26 hours. The following firms participated:

  • Betaworks Ventures
  • BCV & Matrix
  • Flybridge
  • General Catalyst
  • Canaan Partners
  • Intel Capital
  • Greylock Partners
  • Cavalry Ventures

TechCrunch Staff/Culture

Beginning last year, TechCrunch made it a priority to improve our recruiting and hiring in order to make our workplace more diverse, and we will continue to do so.

With respect to gender representation, TechCrunch is ahead of typical tech companies. Compared to internet-based media companies, however, the TechCrunch editorial staff is in the range of most other publications, with women holding about 27 percent of newsroom jobs. This is far from where we aim to be. We have the most work to do, however, in the area of racial diversity, where we are more than 80 percent white on the editorial staff and 78 percent white across all company departments.

As the issue of diversity and inclusion in tech continues to command conversations all over Silicon Valley and beyond, it will remain at the forefront of our coverage and around the world at our events.

With contributions from Alexandra Ames, director of marketing, and Neesha Tambe, Battlefield and CrunchMatch manager.

MIST paints your walls so you don’t have to

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:00 AM PDT

If you’ve ever painted a room you know that getting every nook and cranny is pretty difficult and Tim Allen help you if you have hardwood or carpet. The tarp alone costs more than the paint. Now, thanks to MIST, your robot can manage the entire job, slapping paint up like a robotic Jackson Pollock.

The robot uses mapping technology and a sort of elevator-like neck to spray up and down walls. The team, which hails from the University of Waterloo, has finished their prototype and it’s called Maverick. The team has experience working at multiple big names including Apple and Facebook. It includes Shubham Aggarwal, Utkarsh Saini, Baraa Hamodi, Hammad Mirza, and Dhruv Sharma.

This is just the beginning for Maverick. The team plans on adding other features that make it easier to use.

“We actually plan on mounting a camera behind the sprayer so that it follows the sprayer up and down, and hence can use image processing to make decisions about whether to actuate the spray or not. We’ve already implemented this logic in software and even have a paint quality detection algorithm. That being said, we haven’t mounted the camera just yet as seen in this video,” the team said.

As you can see below the project involves a platform, arm, and spray system. The robot maps the room and then rolls around, hitting spots that are supposed to be painted and avoiding spots that aren’t. Obviously you’re going to want to tape up some spots but for the most part Maverick will blast your walls with a few layers of paint in the time it would take you to go down to the paint store.

I’ve reached out to the team for more information on their project but until then enjoy their jaunty video below. I, for one, welcome our robotic spraying overlords.