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Biden Makes a Deal With Uber and Lyft in the Name of Vaccines

May 12, 2021 No Comments

Despite his unease with the ride-hail business model, the president needs help getting more Americans to vaccination sites to meet his July 4 deadline.
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How Duolingo became a $2.4B language unicorn

May 10, 2021 No Comments

At the heart of Duolingo is its mission: to scale free education and increase income potential through language learning. However, the same mission that has helped it grow to a business valued at $ 2.4 billion with over 500 million registered learners, has led to tensions that continue to define the business.

How do you survive as a startup if you don’t want to charge users? How do you design a startup that isn’t too hard to lose people, but isn’t too easy to compromise education? How do you balance monetization goals while also keeping education as a product free?

For my first EC-1, I spent months with Duolingo executives, investors, and of course, competitors, to answer some of these questions.

One of my favorite details in the story that got left on the cutting room floor was Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn comparing his company to the elliptical. I was pressing him on the efficacy of Duolingo, and the long-standing critique that it still can’t teach a user how to speak a language fluently.

“Now, there’s a difference between whether you know you’re doing the elliptical or yoga or running, but by far, the most important thing is that you’re doing something [other than] just walking around,” he said.

What von Ahn is getting at is that Duolingo’s biggest value proposition is that it helps people get motivated to learn a language, even if it’s just five minutes — or an elliptical workout — a day. He thinks motivation is harder than the learning itself. Do you agree?

If you enjoyed my series, make sure to check out other EC-1s and subscribe to ExtraCrunch to support me, this newsletter and the rest of the team. I’d also love it if you followed me on Twitter @nmasc_.

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about Tesla, the morality of going public and verticalized telehealth.

There’s always a Tesla angle

When I was working in Boston, the newsroom saying was “there’s always a Boston Angle.” In a remote, tech-dominated world, I’ll tweak it: There’s always a Tesla angle. While we all prepare for Elon Musk to grace the SNL stage, there’s a story you might want to check out.

Here’s what to know: Tesla tapped a small Canadian startup to build cleaner and cheaper batteries. The price tag will shock you, but the story tells a bigger narrative about patented technology, and the outsized impact that a tiny startup has on Tesla’s route to batteries.

Literally moving us along:

Tesla electric vehicle china

Image Credits: Getty Images

The clash of the CFOs

While Equity usually keeps it light and punny, we chewed into a deeper topic this week: the morality of going public. Startups are staying private longer than ever before, but one CFO argues that it’s a moral obligation to leave the nest and provide returns to the general public. We had that CFO on the show, along with another CFO at a company pursuing a SPAC. It ended up being the most interesting clash of the CFOs I’ve been a part of.

Here’s what to know: The growth of venture capital as an asset class has a role to play in this whole mess and has kept the nest warm for many startups. We talk about if the tides are turning, or we’re saying goodbye to a world in which a company like Salesforce would debut price for $ 11 per share.

While you’re focused on Twitter’s tip jar, here’s other money news you may have missed in the meantime: 

Image Credits: Getty Images / dane_mark

Where telehealth goes from here

As I start to cover digital health, one of the biggest questions I ask and get asked is where telehealth goes from here. Virtual caretaking had an uptick in usage because of the pandemic but is now starting to slow as the world reopens and vaccinations are on the rise. For telehealth startups, it means crafting a pitch that explains why virtual care makes sense for the conditions you serve.

Here’s what to know: I talked about how to become pandemic-proof in healthcare with Expressable, a virtual speech therapy startup that just raised millions in venture capital money. Part of the startups’ product differentiation is an edtech platform that motivates consumers to asynchronous practice speech exercises with the help of parents and friends.

And down the rabbit hole we go: 

Image Credits: Getty Images / drante

Around TechCrunch

Seen on TechCrunch

Seen on Extra Crunch

And that’s that. Thank you for reading along and supporting me. I’ll never get over it.

N


Startups – TechCrunch


When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working

May 8, 2021 No Comments

The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.


Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents


Mobile – TechCrunch


Following Apple’s launch of privacy labels, Google to add a ‘safety’ section in Google Play

May 7, 2021 No Comments

Months after Apple’s App Store introduced privacy labels for apps, Google announced its own mobile app marketplace, Google Play, will follow suit. The company today pre-announced its plans to introduce a new “safety” section in Google Play, rolling out next year, which will require app developers to share what sort of data their apps collect, how it’s stored and how it’s used.

For example, developers will need to share what sort of personal information their apps collect, like users’ names or emails, and whether it collects information from the phone, like the user’s precise location, their media files or contacts. Apps will also need to explain how the app uses that information — for example, for enhancing the app’s functionality or for personalization purposes.

Developers who already adhere to specific security and privacy practices will additionally be able to highlight that in their app listing. On this front, Google says it will add new elements that detail whether the app uses security practices like data encryption; if the app follows Google’s Families policy, related to child safety; if the app’s safety section has been verified by an independent third party; whether the app needs data to function or allows users to choose whether or not to share data; and whether the developer agrees to delete user data when a user uninstalls the app in question.

Apps will also be required to provide their privacy policies.

While clearly inspired by Apple’s privacy labels, there are several key differences. Apple’s labels focus on what data is being collected for tracking purposes and what’s linked to the end user. Google’s additions seem to be more about whether or not you can trust the data being collected is being handled responsibility, by allowing the developer to showcase if they follow best practices around data security, for instance. It also gives the developer a way to make a case for why it’s collecting data right on the listing page itself. (Apple’s “ask to track” pop-ups on iOS now force developers to beg inside their apps for access user data.)

Another interesting addition is that Google will allow the app data labels to be independently verified. Assuming these verifications are handled by trusted names, they could help to convey to users that the disclosures aren’t lies. One early criticism of Apple’s privacy labels was that many were providing inaccurate information — and were getting away with it, too.

Google says the new features will not roll out until Q2 2022, but it wanted to announce now in order to give developers plenty of time to prepare.

Image Credits: Google

There is, of course, a lot of irony to be found in an app privacy announcement from Google.

The company was one of the longest holdouts on issuing privacy labels for its own iOS apps, as it scrambled to review (and re-review, we understand) the labels’ content and disclosures. After initially claiming its labels would roll out “soon,” many of Google’s top apps then entered a lengthy period where they received no updates at all, as they were no longer compliant with App Store policies.

It took Google months after the deadline had passed to provide labels for its top apps. And when it did, it was mocked by critics — like privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo — for how much data apps like Chrome and the Google app collect.

Google’s plan to add a safety section of its own to Google Play gives it a chance to shift the narrative a bit.

It’s not a privacy push, necessarily. They’re not even called privacy labels! Instead, the changes seem designed to allow app developers to better explain if you can trust their app with your data, rather than setting the expectation that the app should not be collecting data in the first place.

How well this will resonate with consumers remains to be seen. Apple has made a solid case that it’s a company that cares about user privacy, and is adding features that put users in control of their data. It’s a hard argument to fight back against — especially in an era that’s seen too many data breaches to count, careless handling of private data by tech giants, widespread government spying and a creepy adtech industry that grew to feel entitled to user data collection without disclosure.

Google says when the changes roll out, non-compliant apps will be required to fix their violations or become subject to policy enforcement. It hasn’t yet detailed how that process will be handled, or whether it will pause app updates for apps in violation.

The company noted its own apps would be required to share this same information and a privacy policy, too.

Mobile – TechCrunch


Instagram adds a captions option for Stories and soon, Reels

May 5, 2021 No Comments

Instagram is making its video Stories and Reels more accessible with the launch of a new “captions sticker” that will allow users to watch without having the sound on. The addition will not only make it easier for users who are hard of hearing or deaf to engage with video content, it also offers a way for users to watch videos when they’re somewhere they don’t want to have their sound on — and either don’t want to wear or don’t have access to headphones or earbuds.

To use the feature, creators will first record a new video using the Stories or Reels Camera in the Instagram app, or select a video to upload from their phone’s gallery. Then, you’ll open the sticker tray and look for the new “Captions” sticker, which will convert your speech to text. You also can edit the style, position of the caption and the text and color so it matches your content. When you post, the captions will appear alongside your video for everyone to see.

At launch, the feature is only available in English and in English-speaking countries, but Instagram plans to roll it out to other countries and languages soon, it says. It’s also rolling out the captions sticker first to Stories and will then begin testing it in Reels, with a broader launch to follow.

The captions sticker had been spotted last year while in development, alongside other potential new additions, like a Collab sticker, Link sticker, Reshare sticker and others. Instagram parent Facebook also appears to have a captions sticker of its own in development. The sticker then began testing earlier this spring with some number of Instagram users.

The addition comes only weeks after TikTok announced its own captions feature, which it calls auto captions. The two products are somewhat different, however. Auto captions automatically translate the speech from a TikTok video in either American English and Japanese, to start, but the text itself isn’t customizable and can be turned on or off by the viewer from the app’s share panel. It also hasn’t yet been broadly adopted and many TikTok creators tend to still use captions they create themselves or via third-party apps.

Instagram notes it had previously launched support for captions across Threads and IGTV, but its expansion to Stories and Reels will make more of an impact, given that Instagram Stories alone is used by more than 500 million people every day.

 

Mobile – TechCrunch


Gatheround raises millions from Homebrew, Bloomberg and Stripe’s COO to help remote workers connect

May 3, 2021 No Comments

Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.

A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.

“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.” 

So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.

“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”

Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.

The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.

Image Credits: Gatheround

Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.

All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $ 3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $ 500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.

Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky. 

Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle. 

The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.

“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.

Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.

“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”

He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”

“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.” 

James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.

“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”

The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.

“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”

Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $ 16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft  launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”


Startups – TechCrunch


Extra Crunch roundup: Fintech stays hot, Brex doubles, and startup IRR is up all over

May 1, 2021 No Comments

Tech companies in Silicon Valley, the geography, have had an incredible year. But one indicator points to longer-term changes. The internal rate of return (IRR) for companies in other startup hub cities has been even better. A big new analysis by AngelList showed aggregate IRR of 19.4% per year on syndicated deals elsewhere versus 17.5% locally. A separate measure, of total value of paid-in investment, revealed 1.67x returns for other hubs versus 1.60x in the main Silicon Valley and Bay Area tech cities.


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The data is based on a sample of 2,500 companies that have used AngelList to syndicate deals from 2013 through 2020. Which is just one snapshot, but a relevant one given how hard it can be to produce accurate early-stage startup market analysis at this scale. I believe we’ll see more and more data confirming the trends in the coming years, especially as more of the startup world acclimates to remote-first and distributed offices. You can increasingly do a startup from anywhere and make it a success. Not that Silicon Valley is lacking optimism, as you’ll see in a number of the other stories in the roundup below!

Eric Eldon
Managing Editor, Extra Crunch

(Subbing in for Walter today as he’s enjoying a well-deserved break and definitely not still checking the site.)

Optimism reigns at consumer trading services as fintech VC spikes and Robinhood IPO looms

With the Coinbase direct listing behind us and the Robinhood IPO ahead, it’s a heady time for consumer-focused trading apps.

Mix in the impending SPAC-led debut of eToro, general bullishness in the cryptocurrency space, record highs for some equities markets, and recent rounds from Public.com, M1 Finance and U.K.-based Freetrade, and you could be excused for expecting the boom in consumer asset trading to keep going up and to the right.

But will it? There are data in both directions.

After going public, once-hot startups are riding a valuation roller coaster

A short meditation on value, or, more precisely, how assets are valued in today’s markets.

Long story short: This is why I only buy index funds. No one knows what anything (interesting) is worth.

Should you give an anchor investor a stake in your fund’s management company?

Image of a red anchor resting on pile of money.

Image Credits: Matthias Kulka (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Raising capital for a new fund is always hard.

But should you give preferential economics or other benefits to a seed anchor investor who makes a material commitment to the fund? Let’s break down the pros and cons.

2021 should be a banner year for biotech startups that make smart choices early

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Last year was a record 12 months for venture-backed biotech and pharma companies, with deal activity rising to $ 28.5 billion from $ 17.8 billion in 2019.

As vaccines roll out, drug development pipelines return to normal, and next-generation therapies continue to hold investor interest, 2021 is on pace to be another blockbuster year.

But founder missteps early in the fundraising journey can result in severe consequences.

In this exciting moment, when younger founders will likely receive more attention, capital and control than ever, it’s crucial to avoid certain pitfalls.

Two investors weigh in: Is your SPAC just a PIPE dream?

A picture of a Dandelion in the wind, with a background of cool blue colours, blurred from the narrow pane of focus. Composition made in photoshop. (A picture of a Dandelion in the wind, with a background of cool blue colours, blurred from the narrow

Image Credits: Maxime Robeyns/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The fundamental thing to remember about the SPAC process is that the result is a publicly traded company open to the regulatory environment of the SEC and the scrutiny of public shareholders.

In today’s fast-paced IPO world, going public can seem like simply a marker of success, a box to check.

But are you ready to be a public company?

There is no cybersecurity skills gap, but CISOs must think creatively

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Image Credits: Westend61 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Those of us who read a lot of tech and business publications have heard for years about the cybersecurity skills gap. Studies often claim that millions of jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified candidates available for hire.

Don’t buy it.

The basic laws of supply and demand mean there will always be people in the workforce willing to move into well-paid security jobs. The problem is not that these folks don’t exist. It’s that CIOs or CISOs typically look right past them if their resumes don’t have a very specific list of qualifications.

In many cases, hiring managers expect applicants to be fully trained on all the technologies their organization currently uses. That not only makes it harder to find qualified candidates, but it also reduces the diversity of experience within security teams — which, ultimately, may weaken the company’s security capabilities and its talent pool.

To be frank, we do not know how to value Honest Company

We do not know how to value Honest Company.

It’s outside our normal remit, but that the company is getting out the door at what appears to be a workable price gain to its final private round implies that investors earlier in its cap table are set to do just fine in its debut. Snowflake it is not, but at its current IPO price interval, it is hard to not call Honest a success of sorts — though we also anticipate that its investors had higher hopes.

Returning to our question, do we expect the company to reprice higher? No, but if it did, The Exchange crew would not fall over in shock.

How Brex more than doubled its valuation in a year

Henrique Dubugras BrexDSC02452

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Brex, a fintech company that provides corporate cards and spend-management software to businesses, announced Monday that it closed a $ 425 million Series D round of capital at a valuation of around $ 7.4 billion.

The new capital came less than a year after Brex raised $ 150 million at a $ 2.9 billion pre-money valuation.

So, how did the company manage to so rapidly boost its valuation and raise its largest round to date?

TechCrunch spoke with Brex CEO Henrique Dubugras after his company’s news broke. We dug into the how and why of its new investment and riffed on what going remote-first has done for the company, as well as its ability to attract culture-aligned and more diverse talent.

Founders who don’t properly vet VCs set up both parties for failure

Portrait of two men in cardboard boxes

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There’s a disconnect between reality and the added value investors are promising entrepreneurs. Three in five founders who were promised added value by their VCs felt duped by their negative experience.

While this feels like a letdown by investors, in reality, it shows fault on both sides. Due diligence isn’t a one-way street, and founders must do their homework to make sure they’re not jumping into deals with VCs who are only paying lip service to their value-add.

Looking into an investor’s past, reputation and connections isn’t about finding the perfect VC, it’s about knowing what shaking certain hands will entail — and either being ready for it or walking away.

Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace and Hippo’s Assaf Wand discuss proptech’s biggest opportunities

Image Credits: Jeff Newton / Hippo

What is the biggest opportunity for proptech founders? How should they think about competition, strategic investment versus top-tier VC firms and how to build their board? What about navigating regulation?

We sat down with Brendan Wallace, co-founder and general manager of Fifth Wall, and Hippo CEO Assaf Wand for an episode of Extra Crunch Live to discuss all of the above.

SaaS subscriptions may be short-serving your customers

Suggesting scarcity, a single green pea rests in the middle of a dinner plate surrounded by tableware.

Image Credits: emyerson (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Software as a service (SaaS) has perhaps become a bit too interchangeable with subscription models.

Every software company now looks to sell by subscription ASAP, but the model itself might not fit all industries or, more importantly, align with customer needs, especially early on.

What can the OKR software sector tell us about startup growth more generally?

In the never-ending stream of venture capital funding rounds, from time to time, a group of startups working on the same problem will raise money nearly in unison. So it was with OKR-focused startups toward the start of 2020.

How were so many OKR-focused tech upstarts able to raise capital at the same time? And was there really space in the market for so many different startups building software to help other companies manage their goal-setting? OKRs, or “objectives and key results,” a corporate planning method, are no longer a niche concept. But surely, over time, there would be M&A in the group, right?

Internal rates of return in emerging US tech hubs are starting to overtake Silicon Valley

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Tech innovation is becoming more widely distributed across the United States.

Among the five startups launched in 2020 that raised the most financing, four were based outside the Bay Area. The number of syndicated deals on AngelList in emerging markets from Austin to Seattle to Pittsburgh has increased 144% over the last five years.

And the number of startups in these emerging markets is growing fast — and increasingly getting a bigger piece of the VC pie.

Fund managers can leverage ESG-related data to generate insights

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Image Credits: Guido Mieth (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Almost two centuries ago, gold prospectors in California set off one of the greatest rushes for wealth in history. Proponents of socially conscious investing claim fund managers will start a similar stampede when they discover that environmental, social and governance (ESG) insights can yield treasure in the form of alternative data that promise big payoffs — if only they knew how to mine it.

ESG data is everywhere. Learning how to understand it promises big payoffs.

 

Dear Sophie: What’s the latest on DACA?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

My company is looking to hire a very talented data infrastructure engineer who is undocumented. She has never applied for DACA before.

What is the latest on DACA? What can we do to support her?

—Multicultural in Milpitas

Zomato juice: Indian unicorn’s proposed IPO could drive regional startup liquidity

The IPO parade continued this week as India-based food-delivery unicorn Zomato filed to go public. 

The Zomato IPO is incredibly important. As our own Manish Singh reported when the company’s numbers became public, a “successful listing [could be] poised to encourage nearly a dozen other unicorn Indian startups to accelerate their efforts to tap the public markets.”

So, Zomato’s debut is not only notable because its impending listing gives us a look into its economics, but because it could lead to a liquidity rush in the country if its flotation goes well.

Investment in construction automation is essential to rebuilding US infrastructure

Well bought construction workers building house

Image Credits: Donald Iain Smith (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

With the United States moving all-in on massive infrastructure investment, much of the discussion has focused on jobs and building new green industries for the 21st century.

While the Biden administration’s plan will certainly expand the workforce, it also provides a massive opportunity for the adoption of automation technologies within the construction industry.

Despite the common narrative of automating away human jobs, the two are not nearly as much in conflict, especially with new investments creating space for new roles and work.

In fact, one of the greatest problems facing the construction industry remains a lack of labor, making automation a necessity for moving forward with these ambitious projects.

How to fundraise over Zoom more effectively

Image showing person at computer and person presenting seeking funding.,

Image Credits: fourSage (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Even though in-person drinks and coffee walks are on the horizon, virtual fundraising isn’t going away.

Now, it’s imperative to ensure your virtual pitch is as effective as your IRL one.

Not only is it more efficient — no expensive trips to San Francisco or trouble fitting investor meetings into one day — virtual fundraising helps democratize access to venture capital.

Hacking my way into analytics: A creative’s journey to design with data

Abstract Particle connection network background

Image Credits: Xuanyu Han (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a growing need for basic data literacy in the tech industry, and it’s only getting more taxing by the year.

Words like “data-driven,” “data-informed” and “data-powered” increasingly litter every tech organization’s product briefs. But where does this data come from?

Who has access to it? How might I start digging into it myself? How might I leverage this data in my day-to-day design once I get my hands on it?

Fintech startups set VC records as the 2021 fundraising market continues to impress

The first three months of the year were the most valuable period for fintech investing, ever.

Where did the fintech venture capital market push the most money in Q1, and why? Let’s dig in.

Healthcare is the next wave of data liberation

Image of a balloon carrying away a brain.

Image Credits: PM Images (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Why can we see all our bank, credit card and brokerage data on our phones instantaneously in one app, yet walk into a doctor’s office blind to our healthcare records, diagnoses and prescriptions?

Our health status should be as accessible as our checking account balance.

The liberation of healthcare data is beginning to happen, and it will have a profound impact on society — it will save and extend lives.

What private tech companies should consider before going public via a SPAC

Image of intertwining arrows on a chalkboard to represent decision-making.

Image Credits: cnythzl (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The red-hot market for special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, has “screeched to a halt.”

As the SPAC market grew in the past six months, it seemed that everyone was getting into the game. But shareholder lawsuits, huge value fluctuations and warnings from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have all thrown the brakes on the SPAC market, at least temporarily.

So what do privately held tech companies that are considering going public need to know about the SPAC process and market?

The era of the European insurtech IPO will soon be upon us

Detail of Euro note showing European continent

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Once the uncool sibling of a flourishing fintech sector, insurtech is now one of the hottest areas of a buoyant venture market. Zego’s $ 150 million round at unicorn valuation in March, a rumored giant incoming round for WeFox, and a slew of IPOs and SPACs in the U.S. are all testament to this.

It’s not difficult to see why. The insurance market is enormous, but the sector has suffered from notoriously poor customer experience, and major incumbents have been slow to adapt. Fintech has set a precedent for the explosive growth that can be achieved with superior customer experience underpinned by modern technology. And the pandemic has cast the spotlight on high-potential categories, including health, mobility and cybersecurity.

This has begun to brew a perfect storm of conditions for big European insurtech exits.

The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

Medicine doctor hand working with modern computer interface as medical network concept

Image Credits: Busakorn Pongparnit (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The recent movement toward data transparency is bringing about a new era of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data.

What’s the main difference, and how can startups solve these problems?

 

 


Startups – TechCrunch


The Best Weighted Blankets for Calm and Comfort

April 30, 2021 No Comments

These accessories might not cure your anxiety or insomnia, but they can feel like a hug when you really need one.
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Ivorian startup Afrikrea partners with DHL and Visa to launch SaaS e-commerce platform ANKA

April 28, 2021 No Comments

In 2016, Ivorian e-commerce startup Afrikrea started as a marketplace for African-based and inspired clothing, accessories, arts, and crafts. Over the past five years, Afrikrea has served more than 7,000 sellers from 47 African countries and buyers from 170 countries.

Per the company’s data, it records more than 500,000 visits monthly, with the majority of its customers from Europe and North America recording over $ 15 million in transactions.

But while Afrikrea presents African merchants to showcase and sell their products to the world, it is just one of the many channels available, including personal websites and social media.

Co-founder and CEO Moulaye Taboure says that he noticed that merchants were splitting time and concentration across different channels, which affected their engagement with Afrikrea.

“We noticed that it was getting harder for our sellers to make sales because they were losing time, money and energy switching between channels,” Taboure told TechCrunch. “Every time they want to sell a product, they put it on social media, Afrikrea, and other websites. And when one buyer shows interest, there is no single place to track and see all the orders. That’s hard for these businesses to offer quality services and grow effectively.”

Then last year, Afrikrea began testing an all-in-one SaaS e-commerce platform for these merchants. Today, it is announcing its launch. The platform called ANKA will allow users to sell from Africa, ship products to anywhere in the world and get paid through local and international African payment methods.

Afrikrea

Image Credits:

E-commerce, payments and global shipping. That’s ANKA’s play for thousands of micro-retailers and businesses on the continent and around the world.

The platform lets users sell via an omnichannel dashboard with a single inventory, orders and messages management. Customers can carry out transactions via a customized online storefront like Shopify, social media platforms, links such as on Gumroad and the Afrikrea marketplace.

Merchants can carry out payments and payouts via a wallet and an Afrikrea Visa card. The platform, which costs $ 12, allows customers to perform mobile money and mobile banking transactions with MPesa, Orange, MTN and PayPal

Shipping completes the entire sales life cycle, from the point of sale to receipt of goods. In 2019, Afrikrea partnered with global logistics partner DHL to offer shipping services to its customers.

Fashion is ANKA’s best-selling category because of its affiliation with Afrikrea. The African fashion and apparel market is worth $ 31billion, per Euromonitor, and Afrikrea estimates the yearly spend of its major markets to be worth $ 12.5 billion. A breakdown from the company puts “the African diaspora in Europe at $ 1 billion, those in America and the Caribbean at $ 9 billion and non-Africans with links to the continent at $ 2.5 billion.”

But in terms of general e-commerce activities on the continent, McKinsey & Company pegs consumer spending to reach $ 2.1 trillion by 2025. African e-commerce is also expected to account for up to 10% of retail sales.

Platforms like Jumia, Mall4Africa and Takealot have been at the forefront of this growth over this past decade. MallforAfrica struck a partnership with DHL in 2015, then launched DHL Africa eShop with the logistics giant four years later. More than 200 sellers from the U.S. and U.K. serve African consumers in more than 30 countries on the platform.

Unlike MallforAfrica and other e-commerce platforms, ANKA differentiates itself as a platform for export rather than import, specifically for African products. According to Moulaye, ANKA is currently the largest e-commerce exporter on the continent, and since its partnership with DHL, it has shipped more than 10 tons of cargo monthly from Africa

“We are the biggest client of DHL exporting from Africa. We ship 10 tons every month and have sellers in 47 African countries, with Kenya and Nigeria as our largest markets. We have something African that is going to a global scale. That’s one of the angles we had with Afrikrea, and we want to keep that with ANKA. What sets us apart is that we’re not just trying to solve a purely African problem; we want to solve a global problem for Africans.”

Since launching five years ago, Afrikrea, which Taboure launched with Luc B. Perussault Diallo and Kadry Diallo, has raised a total of $ 2.1 million per Crunchbase. In this period, the company has seen its revenue grow 5x and claims to have ARR more than it has raised in its lifetime. To continue its growth efforts, Afrikrea is in the process of concluding a Series A round later this year.


Startups – TechCrunch


SLAIT’s real-time sign language translation promises more accessible online communication

April 26, 2021 No Comments

Sign language is used by millions of people around the world, but unlike Spanish, Mandarin or even Latin, there’s no automatic translation available for those who can’t use it. SLAIT claims the first such tool available for general use, which can translate around 200 words and simple sentences to start — using nothing but an ordinary computer and webcam.

People with hearing impairments, or other conditions that make vocal speech difficult, number in the hundreds of millions, rely on the same common tech tools as the hearing population. But while emails and text chat are useful and of course very common now, they aren’t a replacement for face-to-face communication, and unfortunately there’s no easy way for signing to be turned into written or spoken words, so this remains a significant barrier.

We’ve seen attempts at automatic sign language (usually American/ASL) translation for years and years: in 2012 Microsoft awarded its Imagine Cup to a student team that tracked hand movements with gloves; in 2018 I wrote about SignAll, which has been working on a sign language translation booth using multiple cameras to give 3D positioning; and in 2019 I noted that a new hand-tracking algorithm called MediaPipe, from Google’s AI labs, could lead to advances in sign detection. Turns out that’s more or less exactly what happened.

SLAIT is a startup built out of research done at the Aachen University of Applied Sciences in Germany, where co-founder Antonio Domènech built a small ASL recognition engine using MediaPipe and custom neural networks. Having proved the basic notion, Domènech was joined by co-founders Evgeny Fomin and William Vicars to start the company; they then moved on to building a system that could recognize first 100, and now 200 individual ASL gestures and some simple sentences. The translation occurs offline, and in near real time on any relatively recent phone or computer.

Animation showing ASL signs being translated to text, and spoken words being transcribed to text back.

They plan to make it available for educational and development work, expanding their dataset so they can improve the model before attempting any more significant consumer applications.

Of course, the development of the current model was not at all simple, though it was achieved in remarkably little time by a small team. MediaPipe offered an effective, open-source method for tracking hand and finger positions, sure, but the crucial component for any strong machine learning model is data, in this case video data (since it would be interpreting video) of ASL in use — and there simply isn’t a lot of that available.

As they recently explained in a presentation for the DeafIT conference, the first team evaluated using an older Microsoft database, but found that a newer Australian academic database had more and better quality data, allowing for the creation of a model that is 92 percent accurate at identifying any of 200 signs in real time. They have augmented this with sign language videos from social media (with permission, of course) and government speeches that have sign language interpreters — but they still need more.

Animated image of a woman saying "deaf understand hearing" in ASL.

A GIF showing one of the prototypes in action — the consumer product won’t have a wireframe, obviously.Image Credits: Slait.ai

Their intention is to make the platform available to the deaf and ASL learner communities, who hopefully won’t mind their use of the system being turned to its improvement.

And naturally it could prove an invaluable tool in its present state, since the company’s translation model, even as a work in progress, is still potentially transformative for many people. With the amount of video calls going on these days and likely for the rest of eternity, accessibility is being left behind — only some platforms offer automatic captioning, transcription, summaries, and certainly none recognize sign language. But with SLAIT’s tool people could sign normally and participate in a video call naturally rather than using the neglected chat function.

“In the short term, we’ve proven that 200 word models are accessible and our results are getting better every day,” said SLAIT’s Evgeny Fomin. “In the medium term, we plan to release a consumer facing app to track sign language. However, there is a lot of work to do to reach a comprehensive library of all sign language gestures. We are committed to making this future state a reality. Our mission is to radically improve accessibility for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.”

From left, Evgeny Fomin, Dominic Domènech, and Bill Vicars.Image Credits: Slait.ai

He cautioned that it will not be totally complete — just as translation and transcription in or to any language is only an approximation, the point is to provide practical results for millions of people, and a few hundred words goes a long way toward doing so. As data pours in, new words can be added to the vocabulary, and new multi-gesture phrases as well, and performance for the core set will improve.

Right now the company is seeking initial funding to get its prototype out and grow the team beyond the founding crew. Fomin said they have received some interest but want to make sure they connect with an investor who really understands the plan and vision.

When the engine itself has been built up to be more reliable by the addition of more data and the refining of the machine learning models, the team will look into further development and integration of the app with other products and services. For now the product is more of a proof of concept, but what a proof it is — with a bit more work SLAIT will have leapfrogged the industry and provided something that deaf and hearing people both have been wanting for decades.


Startups – TechCrunch