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Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:09 PM PST

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

Flutterwave and Visa launch African consumer payment service GetBarter

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:00 PM PST

Fintech startup Flutterwave has partnered with Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa called GetBarter.

The app based offering is aimed at facilitating personal and small merchant payments within countries and across Africa's national borders. Existing Visa card holders can send and receive funds at home or internationally on GetBarter.

The product also lets non card-holders (those with accounts or mobile wallets on other platforms) create a virtual Visa card to link to the app.  A Visa spokesperson confirmed the product partnership.

GetBarter allows Flutterwave—which has scaled as a payment gateway for big companies through its Rave product—to pivot to African consumers and traders.

"Rave is B2B, this is more B2B2C since we're reaching the consumers of our customers," Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola—aka GB—told TechCrunch.

The app also creates a network for clients on multiple financial platforms, such as Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, to make transfers across payment products, national borders, and to shop online.

"The target market is pretty much everyone who has a payment need in Africa. That includes the entire customer base of M-Pesa, the entire bank customer base in Nigeria, mobile money and bank customers in Ghana—pretty much the entire continent," Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will focus on building a GetBarter user base across mobile money and bank clients in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, with plans to grow across the continent and reach those off the financial grid.

"In phase one we'll pursue those who are banked. In phase-two we'll continue toward those who are unbanked who will be able to use agents to work with GetBarter," Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will generate revenue through fees from financial institutions on cards created and on fees per transaction. A GetBarter charge for a payment in Nigeria is roughly 40 Naira, or 11 cents, according to Agboola.

With this week's launch users can download the app for Apple and Android devices and for use on WhatsApp and USSD.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. It allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Facebook, Booking.com, and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

Flutterwave has processed 100 million transactions worth $2.6 billion since inception, according to company data.

The company has raised $20 million from investors including Greycroft, Green Visor Capital, Mastercard, and Visa.

In 2018, Flutterwave was one of several African fintech companies to announce significant VC investment and cross-border expansion—see Paga, Yoco, Cellulant, Mines.ie, and  Jumo.

Flutterwave added operations in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October that saw former Visa CEO Joe Saunders join its board of directors.

The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Flutterwave hasn't yet released revenue or profitability info, according to CEO Olugbenga Agboola.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with its largest operations center in Nigeria, the startup plans to add operations centers to South Africa and Cameroon, which will also become new markets for GetBarter.

India’s Ola is adding a monthly billing option for its ride-hailing customers

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:30 PM PST

Ola, the ride-hailing service battling Uber in India, is introducing credit services to its users as it moves closer to a major new funding round.

Today the company took the wraps off Ola Money Postpaid, a service that builds on Ola’s existing payment service — which can be used to pay rides and also third-party services — but offering a credit facility without additional charges. Essentially, the postpaid service lets passengers accumulate rides on Ola and then pay for 15-days of charges in one go, in the same way that we pay for electricity or a phone bill once a month.

Ola said it has trialed the service with 10 percent of its 150 million users and seen a 90 percent repeat rate from those guinea pigs. Testing over, it plans to roll the service out to all users over “the coming months.” While doing that, it said it will increase the billing cycle to 30-days — so you pay for a month of Ola — and bring support for the postpaid service to third-parties.

The latter makes sense as it may boost Ola Money, Ola’s payment service that was given a standalone app in 2015 with a view to being used to pay bills, food and more. Ola hasn’t said much about the service, and we don’t know how well it fairs against competitors like Paytm, Flipkart’s PhonePe or Google Pay, formerly known as Tez.

More broadly, Ola Money Postpaid looks to be an effort to wean users off of cash payments. Cash is still a popular medium in India — to the point that Uber, the great advocate of seamless paying, added it a few years ago — and Ola Money has helped get some users into cashless, but not all have done. The postpaid service, then, appears to be a halfway house between the two.

The key quote from Ola is this one from Nitin Gupta, who is CEO of Ola Financial Services:

“Ola is dedicated to supporting the Government's vision of a cashless economy and we are committed to being a major force in India's rapidly growing digital payments market. We will continue to invest in innovative solutions that promote the digital economy across India while extending the benefits of this first of its kind Postpaid offering to more Indians,” he said.

Ola is the midst of a raising a new round that’s likely to be in excess of $1 billion, sources have told TechCrunch, and already investors are contributing. Last week, regulatory filings showed that existing investor Steadview Capital injected $75 million towards the round in a deal that values Ola at around $6 billion. SoftBank, Temasek and others are expected to join.

The company operates across more than 100 locations in India, and its service include ride-hailing, payments and food deliveries. Ola recently invested in an electric scooter startup, and it branched overseas with launches in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. last year.

Microsoft pledges $500M to create affordable housing around Seattle

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:53 PM PST

At a time when tech companies are being blamed for creating housing shortages in cities across the country, Microsoft told the Seattle Times it will make a $500 million pledge, its largest ever, to create affordable housing around Seattle. The company is currently in the middle of a multi-billion dollar expansion of its Redmond, Washington campus.

Microsoft's pledge comes half a year after Seattle City Council failed to pass a "head tax" that would have required companies making more than $200 million a year to pay $275 per employee in taxes. The money would have been used to address housing issues and homelessness, but council members blamed the repeal of the new tax ordinance on Amazon, which said it would stop construction on a new building if it passed. Amazon is based in Seattle, but also planning new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and Long Island City, New York.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said the housing pledge grew out of conversations the company began having with Challenge Seattle, an alliance formed by 18 businesses to address civic issues in the area, last summer. Most of the funds will be used to increase housing for low- to middle-income workers across the Puget Sound region.

"At some level we as a region are going to need to either say there are certain areas where we're comfortable having more people live, or we just want to permanently force the people who are going to teach our kids in schools, and put out the fires in our houses, and keep us alive in the hospital, to spend four hours every day getting to and from work," Smith told the newspaper. "That is not, in our view, the best outcome for the community."

Smith added that he hopes the pledge will help create "tens of thousands of units." In addition to being the largest pledge ever made by Microsoft, which holds $135 billion in cash reserves and short-term investments, the company says it is one of the largest housing contributions ever by a private corporation.

The money will be used in three ways: $225 million will be loaned at below-market interest rates to developers building units for households making between $62,000 to $124,000 a year; $250 million will be used for market-rate loans to support the construction of affordable housing for people making up to 60 percent of the local median income, or about $48,150 for a two-person household; and the rest of the money, $25 million, will be donated to services for low-income and homeless people. Loans will be made over a period of three years and any profit will be put back in the fund.

Microsoft's affordable housing initiative is partially modeled after Housing Trust Silicon Valley, which provides loans for affordable housing and services for the homeless in the Bay Area.

AWS launches Backup, a fully-managed backup service for AWS

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:23 PM PST

Amazon’s AWS cloud computing service today launched Backup, a new tool that makes it easier for developers on the platform to back up their data from various AWS services and their on-premises apps. Out of the box, the service, which is now available to all developers, lets you set up backup policies for services like Amazon EBS volumes, RDS databases, DynamoDB tables, EFS file systems and AWS Storage Gateway volumes. Support for more services is planned, too. To back up on-premises data, businesses can use the AWS Storage Gateway.

The service allows users to define their various backup policies and retention periods, including the ability to move backups to cold storage (for EFS data) or delete them completely after a certain time. By default, the data is stored in Amazon S3 buckets.

Most of the supported services, except for EFS file systems, already feature the ability to create snapshots. Backup essentially automates that process and creates rules around it, so it’s no surprise that the pricing for Backup is the same as for using those snapshot features (with the exception of the file system backup, which will have a per-GB charge). It’s worth noting that you’ll also pay a per-GB fee for restoring data from EFS file systems and DynamoDB backups.

Currently, Backup’s scope is limited to a given AWS region, but the company says that it plans to offer cross-region functionality later this year.

“As the cloud has become the default choice for customers of all sizes, it has attracted two distinct types of builders,” writes Bill Vass, AWS’s VP of Storage, Automation, and Management Services. “Some are tinkerers who want to tweak and fine-tune the full range of AWS services into a desired architecture, and other builders are drawn to the same breadth and depth of functionality in AWS, but are willing to trade some of the service granularity to start at a higher abstraction layer, so they can build even faster. We designed AWS Backup for this second type of builder who has told us that they want one place to go for backups versus having to do it across multiple, individual services.”

Early adopters of AWS Backup are State Street Corporation, Smile Brands and Rackspace, though this is surely a service that will attract its fair share of users as it makes the life of admins quite a bit easier. AWS does have quite a few backup and storage partners, though, who may not be all that excited to see AWS jump into this market, too, though they often offer a wider range of functionality — including cross-region and offsite backups — than AWS’s service.

 

New pre-seed fund powered by First Round Capital will target recent graduates

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 05:48 PM PST

In 2012, early Uber investor First Round Capital decided it needed an avenue to access the best companies brewing inside dormitories across the U.S. So the seed-stage venture capital firm launched Dorm Room Fund, a pool of capital managed by students for students. The project has brought 250 startups, including Harper Wilde and Brooklinen, and more than 400 entrepreneurs into the First Round network to date.

“But there's an even bigger community of founders just on the other side of that graduation threshold; and if students can make great founders, then recent graduates make great founders as well,” wrote Bruno Faviero, a former managing partner of Dorm Room Fund and current co-founder and chief executive officer of Synapse Technology, in a recent blog post. “Yet the level of resources and support drops off when you're no longer in school.”

Faviero, in partnership with Segment.com product manager Lauren Reeder, Totemic co-founder Neal Khosla and former Google project manager Parthi Loganathan, has formed Graduate Fund, a pre-seed fund targeting recent graduates of undergraduate or master’s programs. Just like Dorm Room Fund, Graduate Fund is supported by First Round Capital, leveraging the firm’s financial and managerial expertise but operating independently.

The Graduate Fund will write “angel-sized investments” or roughly $100,000 checks — larger than Dorm Room Fund’s $20,000 investments — to startups that lack a network of angel investors and that are not ready for big-name investor support. The idea is to not only fill First Round’s pipeline of viable investments but to protect projects from turning to startup accelerators that ask for a large stake in return for a small investment.

The Graduate Fund has backed five companies so far: And Comfort, a direct-to-consumer plus-sized clothing brand; Floating Point Group, a cryptocurrency trading platform; Ally Shoes, which makes high-performance high-heeled shoes for women; Spellbrush, an AI assistant for artists; and probiotics maker Zbiotics.

Pre-seed investing emerged a couple of years ago as a result of the growing size of seed and Series A deals. A pre-seed check is typically under $1 million, or, in other words, the size a seed deal was a decade ago. The median U.S. seed deal hit a new high of $2.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 and the median Series A funding grew to $8 million.

Many in the venture capital community still scoff at the notion of pre-seed investing but multiple funds, The Graduate Fund being the latest, have cropped up with pre-seed at the center of their theses. Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn partnered to launch Hustle Fund in 2017. The pre-seed firm closed on $11.5 million late last year. Afore Capital, led by Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain, pulled in $47 million for their debut pre-seed vehicle in 2017. Bee Partners, K9, Pear, Precursor, Notation and Wonder have similarly startup pre-seed-focused outfits.

Facebook urged to give users greater control over what they see

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 04:00 PM PST

Academics at the universities of Oxford and Stanford think Facebook should give users greater transparency and control over the content they see on its platform.

They also believe the social networking giant should radically reform its governance structures and processes to throw more light on content decisions, including by looping in more external experts to steer policy.

Such changes are needed to address widespread concerns about Facebook’s impact on democracy and on free speech, they argue in a report published today, which includes a series of recommendations for reforming Facebook (entitled: Glasnost! Nine Ways Facebook Can Make Itself a Better Forum for Free Speech and Democracy.)

“There is a great deal that a platform like Facebook can do right now to address widespread public concerns, and to do more to honour its public interest responsibilities as well as international human rights norms,” writes lead author Timothy Garton Ash.

“Executive decisions made by Facebook have major political, social, and cultural consequences around the world. A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national (or even EU-wide) legislation.”

Here’s a rundown of the report’s nine recommendations:

  1. Tighten Community Standards wording on hate speech — the academics argue that Facebook’s current wording on key areas is “overbroad, leading to erratic, inconsistent and often context-insensitive takedowns;” and also generating “a high proportion of contested cases.” Clear and tighter wording could make consistent implementation easier, they believe.
  2. Hire more and contextually expert content reviewers — “the issue is quality as well as quantity,” the report points out, pressing Facebook to hire more human content reviewers plus a layer of senior reviewers with “relevant cultural and political expertise;” and also to engage more with trusted external sources such as NGOs. “It remains clear that AI will not resolve the issues with the deeply context-dependent judgements that need to be made in determining when, for example, hate speech becomes dangerous speech,” they write.
  3. Increase “decisional transparency” — Facebook still does not offer adequate transparency around content moderation policies and practices, they suggest, arguing it needs to publish more detail on its procedures, including specifically calling for the company to “post and widely publicize case studies” to provide users with more guidance and to provide potential grounds for appeals.
  4. Expand and improve the appeals process — also on appeals, the report recommends Facebook gives reviewers much more context around disputed pieces of content, and also provide appeals statistics data to analysts and users. “Under the current regime, the initial internal reviewer has very limited information about the individual who posted a piece of content, despite the importance of context for adjudicating appeals,” they write. “A Holocaust image has a very different significance when posted by a Holocaust survivor or by a Neo-Nazi.” They also suggest Facebook should work on developing “a more functional and usable for the average user” appeals due process, in dialogue with users — such as with the help of a content policy advisory group.
  5. Provide meaningful News Feed controls for users — the report suggests Facebook users should have more meaningful controls over what they see in the News Feed, with the authors dubbing current controls as “altogether inadequate,” and advocating for far more. Such as the ability to switch off the algorithmic feed entirely (without the chronological view being defaulted back to algorithm when the user reloads, as is the case now for anyone who switches away from the AI-controlled view). The report also suggests adding a News Feed analytics feature, to give users a breakdown of sources they’re seeing and how that compares with control groups of other users. Facebook could also offer a button to let users adopt a different perspective by exposing them to content they don’t usually see, they suggest.
  6. Expand context and fact-checking facilities — the report pushes for “significant” resources to be ploughed into identifying “the best, most authoritative, and trusted sources” of contextual information for each country, region and culture — to help feed Facebook’s existing (but still inadequate and not universally distributed) fact-checking efforts.
  7. Establish regular auditing mechanisms — there have been some civil rights audits of Facebook’s processes (such as this one, which suggested Facebook formalizes a human rights strategy), but the report urges the company to open itself up to more of these, suggesting the model of meaningful audits should be replicated and extended to other areas of public concern, including privacy, algorithmic fairness and bias, diversity and more.
  8. Create an external content policy advisory group — key content stakeholders from civil society, academia and journalism should be enlisted by Facebook for an expert policy advisory group to provide ongoing feedback on its content standards and implementation; as well as also to review its appeals record. “Creating a body that has credibility with the extraordinarily wide geographical, cultural, and political range of Facebook users would be a major challenge, but a carefully chosen, formalized, expert advisory group would be a first step,” they write, noting that Facebook has begun moving in this direction but adding: “These efforts should be formalized and expanded in a transparent manner.”
  9. Establish an external appeals body — the report also urges “independent, external” ultimate control of Facebook’s content policy, via an appeals body that sits outside the mothership and includes representation from civil society and digital rights advocacy groups. The authors note Facebook is already flirting with this idea, citing comments made by Mark Zuckerberg last November, but also warn this needs to be done properly if power is to be “meaningfully” devolved. “Facebook should strive to make this appeals body as transparent as possible… and allow it to influence broad areas of content policy… not just rule on specific content takedowns,” they warn.

In conclusion, the report notes that the content issues it’s focused on are not only attached to Facebook’s business but apply widely across various internet platforms — hence growing interest in some form of “industry-wide self-regulatory body.” Though it suggests that achieving that kind of overarching regulation will be “a long and complex task.”

In the meanwhile, the academics remain convinced there is “a great deal that a platform like Facebook can do right now to address widespread public concerns, and to do more to honour its public interest responsibilities, as well as international human rights norms” — with the company front and center of the frame given its massive size (2.2 billion+ active users).

“We recognize that Facebook employees are making difficult, complex, contextual judgements every day, balancing competing interests, and not all those decisions will benefit from full transparency. But all would be better for more regular, active interchange with the worlds of academic research, investigative journalism, and civil society advocacy,” they add.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on their recommendations.

The report was prepared by the Free Speech Debate project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, St. Antony's College, Oxford, in partnership with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, the Project on Democracy and the Internet, Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Last year we offered a few of our own ideas for fixing Facebook — including suggesting the company hire orders of magnitude more expert content reviewers, as well as providing greater transparency into key decisions and processes.

Google raises its G Suite prices

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 03:00 PM PST

Google today announced that it is raising the price of its G Suite subscriptions for the first time. In the U.S., the prices of G Suite Basic and G Suite Business editions will increase by $1 and $2 per user/month, respectively, while increases in other regions will be adjusted according to the local currency and market. G Suite Enterprise pricing will remain the same.

The new pricing will go into effect on April 2; those on annual plans will pay the new price when their contract renews after that date.

Usually, a $1 or $2 price increase wouldn’t be a big deal, but this is the first time Google has raised the price of its G Suite subscriptions. The company argues that it has added plenty of new services — like video conferencing with Hangouts Meet, team messaging with Hangouts Chat, increased storage quotas and other security and productivity tools and services — to the platform since it first launched its paid service with its core productivity tools back in 2006.

That seems like a fair argument to me, though a 20 percent price increase may be hard to swallow for some small businesses. It’s also worth remembering that G Suite is now big business for Google. There are now more than 4 million businesses on G Suite, after all, and while some of them are surely on enterprise plans with a price point their teams negotiated privately, the vast majority of them are surely on the standard monthly or annual plans.

Ford’s iconic F-Series trucks are going electric

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 02:55 PM PST

Ford’s legendary and popular F-Series pickup line will soon have electric options, the company announced today. The move is intended to “future-proof” the enormous truck business against rising gas prices and regulations favoring electric vehicles over internal combustion.

Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, announced the news at a press conference in Detroit. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, he specified that there will be both pure/battery electric and hybrid options — they aren’t dipping their toe but jumping in at the deep end.

Ford has been leaning into electric harder than ever over the last year, detailing an ambitious $11 billion plan to offer 40 electrified vehicles by 2022; some of those are entirely new cars, like the “Mustang-inspired electric crossover” coming next year, while others will be electric versions of classic lines like the F-Series.

Tesla is also planning an electric pickup, but that company’s success in the luxury sedan market is unlikely to translate directly to the much different truck market. Rivian has one entering production, but it’s hard to imagine the brand breaking out of a rather small niche with its first model.

Ford knows that trucks and utility vehicles are its stronghold: it dedicates 90 percent of its capital to that side of the business. A million F-Series trucks sold last year, and even if a tiny percentage of those were to be electric it would be a huge barrier to entry for companies with less reputation.

As more evidence of the company leaning into the renewable future, Ford announced last year that it would stop selling all but two cars in the U.S.: the Mustang and Focus Active. That doesn’t include SUVs and trucks, of course, but one senses there will be a similar shift once those product categories are ready to be similarly phased out.

Ford detailed more general plans for its various regions and businesses in a press release.

“Over the last 19 months, we have worked to reshape and transform our company – sharpening our competitiveness, taking actions to improve our profitability and returns, and investing in our future,” said president and CEO Jim Hackett in the release.

Resolute Ventures sticks to its knitting with $75 million fourth fund

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 02:24 PM PST

Resolute Ventures, an early-stage firm with offices in San Francisco and Boston, just closed its fourth fund with $75 million.

It’s an almost shockingly conservative amount of capital in today’s era of big-is-better funds. And with valuable companies like the real estate startup OpenDoor, the applicant tracking system company Greenhouse and the dog products company BarkBox in its portfolio, one imagines that seven-year-old Resolute could have raised more.

It didn’t want to do that, says firm founder Mike Hirshland, who spent 17 years with Polaris Partners before founding Resolute and soon after bringing aboard the firm’s only other general partner, Raanan Bar-Cohen, a former exec with WordPress parent company Automattic.

It’s much the same story as Hirshland shared with us back in 2017, when the firm closed its third fund with $65 million. As he told us in a call yesterday, “There was a lot of interest in having us raising a larger fund, but that would require a shift in strategy, and we want to stick with what we do.” What that is, exactly: investing “very early, in some cases, pre-product and pre-launch.” Says Hirshland, “Much of the seed-stage industry has become more focused on early signs of traction, but we’re really still betting on teams.”

Hirshland points to OpenDoor, calling its team so “phenomenal” that it “didn’t take a genius to say yes to that one.”

Greenhouse was meanwhile “two guys and a really crappy PowerPoint” when Resolute met with the team. Founders Daniel Chait and Jon Stross “wildly impressed” Hirschland, but their pitch also resonated. Says Hirshland, “There was nothing special or sexy about this big recruiting jobs market” the company was chasing. But Chait and Stross had “both done a bunch of stuff at large companies” and “seemed like the perfect team. Daniel was very CEO-like. He had a technical background but also knows how to run a business; Jonathan was the quintessential product guy.”

OpenDoor was most recently valued at roughly $2 billion. Greenhouse has not disclosed its valuation, but it has raised $110 million to date, including from Riverwood Capital and Benchmark.

“On the spectrum,” says Hirshland, “we lean toward going with a team. However, we fundamentally need to believe in the market opportunity.” Yet even then there are exceptions to the rule, he says. One case in point is BarkBox, the New York-based pet supplies company that is surviving and — says Hirshland — thriving on customers who pay it a monthly subscription fee.

Founder Matt Meeker, who previously founded Meetup.com, had “had worked with me [when I was with Polaris],” says Hirshland, and “I did not like the idea. I didn’t think a subscription doggy business would be a big one. But,” he continues, “I’d back Matt any day of the week, and now BarkBox is enjoying hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, so we know who was right and wrong about that one.”

Resolute looks to fund between 30 and 35 companies with each fund. Its median size check is $750,000.  It also prefers to lead deals, typically securing 10 percent of a startup’s equity by working with teams at their most nascent stages.

Asked whether Resolute has taken advantage of the vibrant secondary market to sell any of its still-private shares, he suggests it has not, but that it may well. Asked if Resolute might raise an opportunity fund at some point to support its breakout winners, Hirshland says that that’s “always on the table. We’ve been approached about one, but we don’t have the conviction yet that we know the right answer.”

For now, he says, the firm relies from time to time instead on special purpose vehicles — basically pop-up funds created to back one company at a time — to ensure its investors have as much exposure as possible to Resolute’s hardiest startups.

It has also seen a few outright exits in its portfolio, including the sale of the calendaring app Sunrise to Microsoft for more than $100 million in 2015, and the sale of Orbitera, a platform for cloud marketplaces, which also sold for a reported $100 million, to Google the following year.

US will reportedly seek criminal case against Huawei for stealing tech secrets

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 01:24 PM PST

According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, U.S. federal prosecutors are preparing a criminal indictment against Huawei for stealing trade secrets. The report, which cites sources with knowledge of the indictment, specifically mentions Huawei’s actions surrounding a T-Mobile smartphone testing tool known as “Tappy.” The report notes that the current investigation is far enough along that an indictment may come soon.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Tappy. In 2014, T-Mobile sued Huawei for allegedly gaining access to a company lab outside of Seattle and photographing and attempting to steal parts of the robotic smartphone testing device. In May 2017, T-Mobile won $4.8 million against Huawei, only a fraction of the $500 million the U.S. mobile carrier sought. The current federal criminal investigation reportedly arose from that civil suit.

The Chinese phone maker has faced increased scrutiny, escalating to open hostility from U.S. agencies and lawmakers who believe that Huawei poses a security threat due to its close relationship with the Chinese government. The tension escalated considerably last December, when Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S. Meng was charged with fraud for deceptive practices that allowed the Chinese company to avoid U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Huawei, now the world’s number two smartphone maker, trails only Samsung when it comes to mobile device sales, beating Apple for the second slot in late 2018.

SpaceX opts for Texas over LA to build Starship prototypes

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 01:10 PM PST

Update: CEO Elon Musk says on Twitter that Starship and Raptor (rocket engine) development is staying in Hawthorne, while prototypes are being built in Texas. Musk also said that the story “stems from a miscommunication by SpaceX .” Original story follows (the headline has also been updated).

SpaceX is centering some of its next-generation development not its Los Angeles-area headquarters but in south Texas facilities, the company said today. Development of at least the test versions of its next-generation Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle will take place in Texas, while Falcon 9 and Dragon work will remain at Hawthorne. The L.A. Times first reported the news.

The decision spells trouble for workers at the Hawthorne, Calif. facility, where many of SpaceX’s work has been done heretofore — however, it may also come as little surprise to those who have been following closely. The layoffs announced last week, the bulk of which are reportedly at Hawthorne, is logical considering the company’s shift away from development to operation and maintenance of the Falcon 9 system.

Initial plans had been for SpaceX to build at least some of its Starship and Super Heavy kit at the L.A. port and perform tests at the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. But as evident not just from today’s news, but the actual presence of the eye-catching steel hopper in Texas, that will no longer be the case.

SpaceX offered the following statement:

To streamline operations, SpaceX is developing and will test the Starship test vehicle at our site in South Texas. This decision does not impact our current manufacture, design, and launch operations in Hawthorne and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Additionally, SpaceX will continue recovery operations of our reusable Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft at the Port of Los Angeles.

It’s a soft way of saying that they’ll keep the old (but still very important and active) SpaceX stuff at Hawthorne but that it’s putting the rest of its eggs in the Texas basket.

Update: Technically SpaceX’s statement only says that the test vehicle will be developed in Texas, not necessarily the full-scale Starship and Super Heavy vehicles. That said it is rather hard to imagine that the company would build, assemble, and test it in Texas, with all the enormous and specialized equipment and personnel that requires, and relocate afterwards. It also seems unlikely that a city councilperson would characterize the move as “pulling the #SuperHeavy out of the @PortofLA” if that were not the case.

I’ve asked SpaceX for clarification on what specific Starship and Super Heavy operations it intends to continue in Hawthorne.

Shutdown could delay challenge of FCC’s net neutrality rollback

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:41 PM PST

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has already had adverse effects on millions nationwide, and now could even delay a major legal challenge to the FCC’s infamous net neutrality repeal. The agency moved yesterday to delay oral arguments scheduled for just two weeks from now.

The arguments in a consolidated lawsuit against the FCC led by the likes of Mozilla, Vimeo and industry group INCOMPAS were set to begin on February 1. But of course no one could have predicted a record-setting government shutdown (well — some might have). That has serious implications in a case taking place in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a court filing, the FCC explained its position:

…Due to the recent lapse in funding for the FCC and the relevant component of the Department of Justice, the Commission believes that, in an abundance of caution, it should move for an extension to ensure that attorneys may fully prepare for argument consistent with the Antideficiency Act…

That Act essentially prohibits the government from operating without adequate funding, which in this case includes U.S. legal counsel who would arguably be working without pay.

However, as you can imagine, there are plenty of federal court cases that can’t be delayed, and in those cases a judge can authorize the continued involvement of the federal lawyers and things will proceed. (This is all an extreme simplification, but sufficient for our purposes today.)

The FCC argues, not without reason, that arguments should be postponed; the Department of Justice did issue blanket guidance earlier that civil cases like this one should in general be put off.

INCOMPAS, however, quickly filed an opposition to this idea, pointing out that the court had in previous cases denied similar requests:

…When federal appropriations lapsed in 2013, resulting in a 'shutdown' from October 1 to October 17, 2013, the court received Government motions to stay oral argument in at least sixteen cases. Every one of these motions was denied; and every time, the Government then participated in oral argument.

It’s down to the judge to determine whether the case is urgent enough to authorize federal counsel to work during the shutdown. If it decides to delay, it could be weeks or months before it is rescheduled.

A quick response is requested, as whichever decision the judge makes, both sides will need to be ready to accommodate it. I’ll update this post if I hear a decision is reached.

Steve Carell is coming to Netflix in a new comedy about the US government’s new Space Force

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:36 PM PST

Steve Carell is coming back to small-screen comedy for a new Netflix series about the people tasked with creating the “Space Force” — the proposed sixth branch of the military.

Details about the new show from Carell and Greg Daniels, who was the mind behind the American version of “The Office,” are sketchy. Netflix hasn’t given any specifics about the number of episodes or potential release date.

What’s certain is that this Space Force is less likely to draw criticism and condemnation than the real proposal put forward by President Donald Trump last year.

Vice President Pence announced that the Space Force would make its debut in 2020. That could be well after Netflix gets the Carell series up and running.

The Space Force project marks the second series Carell has signed on to do with a streaming service provider. He’s also on board for the Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon-led ensemble drama about a morning TV show.

Facebook poaches Google’s AR/VR engineering lead to take over Portal team

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:26 PM PST

Facebook is bringing on the engineering lead for Google’s entire AR/VR team to tackle Portal hardware.

Ryan Cairns comes aboard after 12 years at Google, where he was most recently the engineering lead for a team of more than 500 people tackling AR/VR at the big G, including Daydream, Lens and ARCore, according to his LinkedIn.

His arrival comes after some big changes to Facebook’s hardware team. Last month, the company shook up its Building 8 hardware team, splitting it up into Facebook Reality Labs (AR/VR) and Portal teams. Rafa Camargo took over the Portal team while Michael Abrash stayed in charge of Facebook Reality Labs, according to a Business Insider report. Today’s shakeup shifts Camargo to taking over AR/VR, while Cairns will take on Portal.

No word on how this affects the role of Michael Abrash, who has been a very public face for the company’s AR/VR efforts. We’ve reached out to Facebook for more info.

Update 12:42 PT: Facebook has confirmed Abrash still holds his role as chief scientist leading Facebook Reality Labs.

Bringing an AR/VR engineer to take on Portal while the guy who was leading Portal takes on AR/VR may seem a bit questionable but Facebook does see quite a bit of crossover between the two hardware efforts which both heavily leverage computer vision tech. While Portal takes the similar form factor of other smart screens from Google and Amazon, what distinguishes it are the features that track people’s bodies and faces to automatically frame shots when users are further away from the camera as well as applying AR selfie masks that are available in other products.

TV broadcaster Sinclair launches STIRR, a free streaming service with local news and sports

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:11 PM PST

Local TV broadcasting company Sinclair Broadcast Group today announced the launch of a new streaming service called STIRR that aims to bring local TV news and other content to the growing number of cord cutters across the U.S. The company today owns more than 190 TV stations, which it’s leveraging in order to create its own “skinny bundle.” However, unlike TV streaming services such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV or YouTube TV, for example, STIRR will be free and ad-supported instead of a paid subscription.

The service will offer access to national news, sports, entertainment and digital-first channels and a video-on-demand library in addition to its local content, which serves as the anchor for the new service.

In a special channel called STIRR CITY (yes, all caps), the service will stream a curated, 24/7 program lineup based on where the viewer lives. This will include local news, local and regional sports, entertainment and city-focused lifestyle programming from the local Sinclair TV station in that city.

STIRR CITY joins other original channels developed for the service, including STIRR Movies (for some reason, no caps), STIRR Sports and STIRR Life.

STIRR Sports and Life will offer locally focused programs, we’re told. For example, the Sports channel may show high school football, and the Life channel might show a local lifestyle show like “Seattle Refined.” When local content isn’t available, the channels will be fleshed out with content aggregated from other networks on STIRR.

STIRR Movies will also be aggregated content, but the company is exploring additional deals, we’re told.

At launch, there are more than 20 national networks and digital-first stations available, but few are notable.

The list includes: BUZZR, Charge, Cheddar, Comet, CONtv, Dove Channel, DUST, FailArmy, Futurism, Gravitas, Mobcrush, MovieMix, NASA TV, Outdoor America, The Pet Collective, SOAR, Stadium, TBD, The T and World Poker Tour.

The company says it plans to grow its selection to more than 50 networks by the end of 2019.

It’s clear, however, that the network selection won’t be the draw here — it’s the local content.

Today, it’s still fairly difficult for cord cutters to access local programming. While consumers can use a digital antenna to capture over-the-air TV signals for free, it requires the installation of a not-very-aesthetically-pleasing antenna. (At least Amazon’s Fire TV Recast gives you the option of hiding the antenna in a back room so as not to junk up your entertainment center.)

But even with an antenna, signals can be hit-or-miss — some areas have poor reception, or are too far from the signal’s source for a good experience.

And while the new crop of live TV streaming services provide another means of accessing local channels, they are not free.

Plus, the live TV services include cloud DVRs, which subscribers use to record programs then skip the ads. STIRR doesn’t have a recording option, which may make it attractive to advertisers.

“Despite the explosive growth of new national over-the-top (OTT) services, local TV station’s programming, especially local news, has remained some of the most popular and desired content to audiences and advertisers alike,” said Adam Ware, STIRR’s General Manager, in a statement. “By creating the STIRR CITY channel format, local TV stations can now extend their programming strength to OTT,” he added.

Ware also points out that STIRR will give advertisers a way to reach a different demographic that is no longer watching traditional TV.

"Local broadcast traditionally skews older. Streaming skews younger,” he tells TechCrunch. “This brings the two together for the first time,” he says.

STIRR’s ad sales will be coordinated between Sinclair Digital, OTT Compulse and Sinclair's local stations. And its ad revenue is shared with content partners. (The company hasn’t ruled out a premium version that eliminates ads, we understand, but has nothing like that at launch.)

Also of note, you don’t have to live in a particular city to tune into its local programming via STIRR. That’s good, too, because STIRR doesn’t have a presence in all major metros. But it will suggest your closest markets when you load the app.

One caveat about STIRR: while local programming is available, STIRR won’t stream the prime time shows that these networks carry — you’ll still need your antenna or a paid streaming service for that. (Or, if you’re like a growing number of TV viewers, you don’t watch much network TV these days, in favor of streaming shows on Netflix and Amazon.)

In time, STIRR’s selection of content could be enhanced by more regional sports channels, as it’s a top bidder for those being sold by Disney and Fox. That could make the service more compelling.

STIRR is available for free on the web, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku.

*We’ve run into some launch bugs when testing STIRR, and have gotten page load errors when trying to access the Channel Guide. Hopefully these will smooth out in time as traffic stabilizes.

Email security company Tessian is closing in on a $40M round led by Sequoia Capital

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 12:02 PM PST

Continuing a trend that VCs here in London tell me is seeing an increasing amount of deal-flow in Europe attract the interest of top-tier Silicon Valley venture capital firms, TechCrunch has learned that email security provider Tessian is the latest to raise from across the pond.

According to multiple sources, the London-based company has closed a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital. I understand that the deal could be announced within a matter of weeks, and that the round size is in the region of $40 million. Tessian declined to comment.

Founded in 2013 by three engineering graduates from Imperial College — Tim Sadler, Tom Adams and Ed Bishop — Tessian is deploying machine learning to improve email security. Once installed on a company's email systems, the machine learning tech analyses an enterprise's email networks to understand normal and abnormal email sending patterns and behaviours.

Tessian then attempts to detect anomalies in outgoing emails and warns users about potential mistakes, such as a wrongly intended recipient, or nefarious employee activity, before an email is sent. More recently, the startup has begun addressing in-bound email, too. This includes preventing phishing attempts or spotting when emails have been spoofed.

Meanwhile, Tessian (formerly called CheckRecipient) raised $13 million in Series A funding just 7 months ago in a round led by London’s Balderton Capital. The company’s other investors include Accel, Amadeus Capital Partners, Crane, LocalGlobe, Winton Ventures, and Walking Ventures.

Behold, Slack’s new logo

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 11:23 AM PST

New year, new you, new Slack. The popular workplace chat service's resolution clearly involved a bit of a facelift, starting with a new logo. A redesigned version of the familiar grid logo launched this week, and appears to have rolled out on most major platforms.

Slack did the customary thing of explaining the hell out of the new design over on its blog. All of the usual stuff about maintaining the spirit while modernizing the thing a bit is there. The company also calls the design "simpler," which is certainly up for debate. That's fair enough from the standpoint of the color scheme, but try drawing this one from memory. It's considerably tougher that the old tic-tac-toe version.

 

The new logo does away with the tilted hashtag/pound symbol of overlapping translucent colors in favor of a symmetrical arrangement of rounded rectangles and pins. The multiplying colors have been pared down to four (light blue, magenta, green and yellow) and the whole effect is reminiscent of a video game console or hospital.

"It uses a simpler color palette and, we believe, is more refined, but still contains the spirit of the original," the company writes. "It's an evolution, and one that can scale easily, and work better, in many more places."

Created by Michael Bierut at the New York firm Pentagram Design, the new logo marks the first major redesign since the company was launched (in fact, the original apparently predates Slack’s official launch).

“The updated palette features four primary colors, more manageable than the original's eleven, which suffered against any background color other than white,” the firm writes in its own post. “These have been optimized to look better on screen, and the identity also retains Slack's distinctive aubergine purple as an accent color.”

The new design does potentially open up another issue:

Unintentional, obviously, and the orientation of the above negative space addition is the ancient symbol that was later mirrored and co-opted by the worst people, ever. As a number of designers have noted, well, these things can happen, though the association and “once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it” effect could eventually prove the new logo’s ultimate undoing.

Lance Armstrong just wrote his first check as VC

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 11:09 AM PST

Lance Armstrong revealed last month that an early investment in Uber — courtesy of a $100,000 check that he funneled into the company in 2009 through Lowercase Capital — “saved” his family from financial ruin. This was after evidence surfaced in 2012 that he used performance-enhancing drugs and he was stripped not only of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles but also lost the many lucrative endorsement deals he enjoyed at the time.

Armstrong, talking with CNBC in December, declined to say how big a return that Uber investment has produced, but it seemingly gave him a taste for the riches that venture capital can produce when the stars align. To wit, Armstrong just founded his own venture fund, Next Ventures, to back startups in the sports, fitness, nutrition and wellness markets, and it today announced is first investment.

That portfolio company: Carlsbad, Calif.-based PowerDot, a 2.5-year-old maker of an app-based, smart muscle stimulation device that sends electrical pulses to contract tender soft tissue, helping runners and other athletes recover from their workouts.

We weren’t able to talk with Armstrong — a public relations spokesperson for the firm said he isn’t prepared to speak in detail about it yet — but last month, he spoke candidly about his past actions continuing to haunt him, including years of lying to the public and race organizers, as well as his “bullying,” which he called “terrible,” adding: “It was the way I acted; that was my undoing.”

In fact, Armstrong, who has been banned from cycling from life, said that as he has begun reaching out for meetings, not everyone is eager to take his calls. As he told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, “You have to assume that’s what they’re thinking: ‘I don’t want this association; I don’t trust this guy.'”

Armstrong seems to be getting by in the meantime. Just this week, Architectural Digest took readers on a tour through Armstrong’s contemporary Aspen home and his art collection. Armstrong purchased the 6,000-square-foot home a decade ago. He and his family now live in Colorado full-time.

Robots learn to grab and scramble with new levels of agility

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 11:06 AM PST

Robots are amazing things, but outside of their specific domains they are incredibly limited. So flexibility — not physical, but mental — is a constant area of research. A trio of new robotic setups demonstrate ways they can evolve to accommodate novel situations: using both “hands,” getting up after a fall, and understanding visual instructions they’ve never seen before.

The robots, all developed independently, are gathered together today in a special issue of the journal Science Robotics dedicated to learning. Each shows an interesting new way in which robots can improve their interactions with the real world.

On the other hand…

First there is the question of using the right tool for a job. As humans with multi-purpose grippers on the ends of our arms, we’re pretty experienced with this. We understand from a lifetime of touching stuff that we need to use this grip to pick this up, we need to use tools for that, this will be light, that heavy, and so on.

Robots, of course, have no inherent knowledge of this, which can make things difficult; it may not understand that it can’t pick up something of a given size, shape, or texture. A new system from Berkeley roboticists acts as a rudimentary decision-making process, classifying objects as able to be grabbed either by an ordinary pincer grip or with a suction cup grip.

A robot, wielding both simultaneously, decides on the fly (using depth-based imagery) what items to grab and with which tool; the result is extremely high reliability even on piles of objects it’s never seen before.

It’s done with a neural network that consumed millions of data points on items, arrangements, and attempts to grab them. If you attempted to pick up a teddy bear with a suction cup and it didn’t work the first ten thousand times, would you keep on trying? This system learned to make that kind of determination, and as you can imagine such a thing is potentially very important for tasks like warehouse picking for which robots are being groomed.

Interestingly, because of the “black box” nature of complex neural networks, it’s difficult to tell what exactly Dex-Net 4.0 is actually basing its choices on, although there are some obvious preferences, explained Berkeley’s  Ken Goldberg in an email.

“We can try to infer some intuition but the two networks are inscrutable in that we can’t extract understandable ‘policies,’ ” he wrote. “We empirically find that smooth planar surfaces away from edges generally score well on the suction model and pairs of antipodal points generally score well for the gripper.”

Now that reliability and versatility are high, the next step is speed; Goldberg said that the team is “working on an exciting new approach” to reduce computation time for the network, to be documented, no doubt, in a future paper.

ANYmal’s new tricks

Quadrupedal robots are already flexible in that they can handle all kinds of terrain confidently, even recovering from slips (and of course cruel kicks). But when they fall, they fall hard. And generally speaking they don’t get up.

The way these robots have their legs configured makes it difficult to do things in anything other than an upright position. But ANYmal, a robot developed by ETH Zurich (and which you may recall from its little trip to the sewer recently), has a more versatile setup that gives its legs extra degrees of freedom.

What could you do with that extra movement? All kinds of things. But it’s incredibly difficult to figure out the exact best way for the robot to move in order to maximize speed or stability. So why not use a simulation to test thousands of ANYmals trying different things at once, and use the results from that in the real world?

This simulation-based learning doesn’t always work, because it isn’t possible right now to accurately simulate all the physics involved. But it can produce extremely novel behaviors or streamline ones humans thought were already optimal.

At any rate that’s what the researchers did here, and not only did they arrive at a faster trot for the bot (above), but taught it an amazing new trick: getting up from a fall. Any fall. Watch this:

It’s extraordinary that the robot has come up with essentially a single technique to get on its feet from nearly any likely fall position, as long as it has room and the use of all its legs. Remember, people didn’t design this — the simulation and evolutionary algorithms came up with it by trying thousands of different behaviors over and over and keeping the ones that worked.

Ikea assembly is the killer app

Let’s say you were given three bowls, with red and green balls in the center one. Then you’re given this on a sheet of paper:

As a human with a brain, you take this paper for instructions, and you understand that the green and red circles represent balls of those colors, and that red ones need to go to the left, while green ones go to the right.

This is one of those things where humans apply vast amounts of knowledge and intuitive understanding without even realizing it. How did you choose to decide the circles represent the balls? Because of the shape? Then why don’t the arrows refer to “real” arrows? How do you know how far to go to the right or left? How do you know the paper even refers to these items at all? All questions you would resolve in a fraction of a second, and any of which might stump a robot.

Researchers have taken some baby steps towards being able to connect abstract representations like the above with the real world, a task that involves a significant amount of what amounts to a sort of machine creativity or imagination.

Making the connection between a green dot on a white background in a diagram and a greenish roundish thing on a black background in the real world isn’t obvious, but the “visual cognitive computer” created by Miguel Lázaro-Gredilla and his colleagues at Vicarious AI seems to be doing pretty well at it.

It’s still very primitive, of course, but in theory it’s the same toolset that one uses to, for example, assemble a piece of Ikea furniture: look at an abstract representation, connect it to real-world objects, then manipulate those objects according to the instructions. We’re years away from that, but it wasn’t long ago that we were years away from a robot getting up from a fall or deciding a suction cup or pincer would work better to pick something up.

The papers and videos demonstrating all the concepts above should be available at the Science Robotics site.