posted about 1 hour ago on techcrunch
Compensation within private venture-backed startups can be a confusing minefield that if unsuccessfully navigated can lead to inconsistent salaries and the kind of ambiguity that breeds an unhappy workforce. Pave, a San Francisco-based startup that recently graduated from YC Combinator is aiming to end the pay and equity gap with a software tool it developed to make it easier to track, measure, and communicate how and what they pay their employees. The question is whether Silicon Valley, which has a history of pay inequity and gender disparities, is ready for that kind of transparency? Investors certainly think so. Andreessen Horowitz has poured millions into Pave’s $16 million Series A round, at a post-money valuation of $75 million, confirming our reports from August. The round also includes the a16z Cultural Leadership Fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, Bezos Expeditions (a personal investment company of Jeff Bezos), Dash Fund, and Y Combinator. Kristina Shen, a GP at A16z, will be joining the board. Marc Andreessen will take a board observer seat. A rebrand and re-focus Pave, known until now as Trove, is trying to build an online market of data and real-time tools that bring more fairness in compensation to the startup world. The tools allow a company to track, measure and ultimately communicate compensation on an employee-by-employee basis. It does so by integrating HR tools such as Workday, Carta and Greenhouse into one unified service that CEO Matt Schulman says it only takes the customer 5 minutes to set up with Pave. The service can then help companies figure out how to manage their employees’ pay, from promotion cycles and compensation adjustments to how to reward a bonus and how much equity to grant a new employee. Employees, meanwhile, can see data on their entire compensation package as well as predictive analytics on how they can grow their stake in the company. The tool is called Total Rewards, and its closest competitor, Welcome (which raised $6 million this week) launched a tool with the same name, and same goal. Pave’s Total Rewards Portal for employees. Schulman says that all startups struggle with figuring out stock options, equity, benchmarking data and promotion cycles because it’s an offline (and cumbersome) process. Clear communication about these details, though, helps with both hiring and retention. Pave’s biggest challenge, is convincing its startup customers to share data on their payment structures. While data is anonymized so employees can’t see their colleagues salaries, it does require buy-in from a company to track potential inequity in the first place. “I imagine there will be some late adopters that are not fully aligned with that vision at first,” Schulman admits. “How can we really change how compensation works as something that has been stagnant for decades upon decades? That’s not an easy challenge.” Right now, Pave is working with companies on a case by case basis to see how much they want to communicate with employees. Long-term, Schulman wants there to be a standard. Is the industry ready to be benchmarked? And the founder is optimistic that he can get there. Schulman pointed to Carta, a cap management tool, as an example of widespread adoption. “There were companies that at first resisted Carta, and they were not comfortable putting all of their records into one centralized database,” he said. “Now, it’s ubiquitous. Every company uses Carta among venture-backed companies.” But,even Carta has struggled with what it wants other companies to do: pay their employees fairly. Carta is currently facing a lawsuit from its former vice president of marketing, Emily Kramer, for gender discrimination. In the lawsuit, Kramer notes that she was paid $50,000 less relative to her peers, and her equity grant was one-third the amount of shares than her male counterparts. The company also laid off 16% of its employees, citing a lack of new customers. If Carta, valued at $3 billion, has difficulties, then an early-stage startup such as Pave will also come up against big hurdles around transparency. The startup is hoping that its new industry-wide benchmark project will help kickstart the conversation and nudge companies in the right direction. Launching today, Pave has teamed up with the portfolio companies of Bessemer Venture Partners, NEA, Redpoint Ventures and YC to gather compensation data. The data, which is opt-in, will allow Pave to release a compensation benchmark survey to show how companies pay their employees. The survey will be public but will aggregate all company responses, so there is no way to see which company is doing better than others. Other platforms have tried to do measure pay across roles, such as Glassdoor and Angellist. Schulman says that “companies don’t trust that data” because it’s crowdsourced and therefore has a survey bias. The tool would help companies go from doing a D&I analysis once a year to being able to do it consistently, “so they don’t drift away from a fair and equitable state,” he said. While Pave tries to convince other startups to share intimate information, as a company it is still figuring out how to do the same. The company declined to share the diversity break-down of its team, which grew from five to 13 employees in just months and has a 30-person target by end of year. Based on LinkedIn, Pave’s team skews white and male. A push from the rise of remote work might make transparency happen sooner than later. The rise of distributed workforces has forced companies to start asking questions around compensation, Schulman said. “How do you pay your San Francisco engineer who wants to move to Wyoming?” Schulman said. “That’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind.” The shift is making compensation become a mainstream conversation, the company has found interest in its service from companies including Allbirds, Checkr, Tide, and Allbase. Schulman says early adopters have been bullish about transparency. Once Pave can figure out how to support venture-backed startups, it’s looking outwards to other geographies and types of businesses. “There’s 3 billion humans in the world that work in a part of the labor market,” he said. “And right now it’s a black box in how they’re compensated.”

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posted about 2 hours ago on techcrunch
An update to Google’s Street View app on Android will now let anyone contribute their photos to help enhance Google Maps, the company announced this morning. Using a “connected photos” tool in the new version of the Street View app, users are able to record a series of images as they move down the street or a path. The feature requires an ARCore-compatible Android device, and for the time being, will only support image capture and upload in select geographic regions. ARCore is Google’s platform for building augmented reality experiences. It works by allowing the phone to sense its environment, including the size and location of all types of surfaces, the position of the phone in relation to the world around it, and the lighting conditions of the environment. This is supported on a variety of Android devices running Android 7.0 (Nougat) or higher. Meanwhile, Google’s Street View app has been around for half a decade. Initially, it was designed to allow users to share their own panoramic photos to improve the Google Maps experience. But as phones have evolved, so has the app. The updated version of the Street View app allows users to capture images using ARCore — the same AR technology Google users for its own Live View orientation experiences in Maps, which helps phones “see” various landmarks to help users get their bearings. After the images are published in the Street View app, Google will then automatically rotate, position and create a series of connected photos using those images, and put them in the correct place on Google Maps so others can see them. It will also use the same privacy controls on these contributed photos as are offered on its own Street View images (the ones it captured by driving the Street View car around). This include blurring people’s faces and license plates, and allowing users to report imagery and other content for review, if needed. Image Credits: Google The new system of connected photos won’t be as polished as Google’s own Street View images, but it does make the ability to publish to Street View more accessible. Now, the image capturing process no longer requires a 360-degree camera or other equipment mounted to a top of car, for example. And that means users who live in more remote regions will be able to contribute to Street View, without needing anything more than a supported Android phone and internet connection. Google says it will still default to showing its own Street View imagery when it’s available, which will be indicated with a solid blue line. But in the case where there’s no Street View option, the contributed connected photos will appear in the Street View layer as a dotted blue line instead. Image Credits: Google The company will also use the data in the photos to update Google Maps with the names and addresses of businesses that aren’t already in the system, including their posted hours, if that’s visible on a store sign, for instance. During early tests, users captured photo using this technology in Nigeria, Japan and Brazil. Today, Google says it’s officially launching the connected photos feature in beta in the Street View app. During this public beta period, users will be able to try the feature in Toronto, Canada, New York, NY and Austin, TX, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Costa Rica. More regions will be supported in the future as the test progresses, Google says.

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posted about 2 hours ago on techcrunch
VSCO, the popular photo and video editing app, today announced it has acquired AI-powered video editing app Trash, as the company pushes further into the video market. The deal will see Trash’s technology integrated into the VSCO app in the months ahead, with the goal of making it easier for users to creatively edit their videos. Trash, which was co-founded by Hannah Donovan and Genevieve Patterson, cleverly uses artificial intelligence technology to analyze multiple video clips and identify the most interesting shots. It then stitches your clips together automatically to create a final product. In May, Trash added a feature called Styles that let users pick the type of video they wanted to make — like a recap, a narrative, a music video or something more artsy. The Trash app’s new features can create AI-edited music videos and more After Trash creates its AI-powered edit, users can opt to further tweak the footage using buttons on the screen that let them change the order of the clips, change filters, adjust the speed or swap the background music. Image Credits: Trash With the integration of Trash’s technology, VSCO envisions a way to make video editing even more approachable for newcomers, while still giving advanced users tools to dig in and do more edits, if they choose. As VSCO co-founder and CEO Joel Flory explains, it helps users get from that “point zero of staring at their Camera Roll…to actually putting something together as fast as possible.” “Trash gets you to the starting point, but then you can dive into it and tweak [your video] to really make it your own,” he says. The first feature to launch from the acquisition will be support for multi-clip video editing, expected in a few months. Over time, VSCO expects to roll out more of Trash’s technologies to its user base. As users make their video edits, they may also be able to save their collection of tweaks as “recipes,” like VSCO currently supports for photos. “Trash brings to VSCO a deep level of personalization, machine learning and computer vision capabilities for mobile that we believe can power all aspects of creation on VSCO, both now and for future investments in creativity,” says Flory. The acquisition is the latest in a series of moves VSCO has made to expand its video capabilities. At the end of 2019, VSCO picked up video technology startup Rylo. A few months later, it had leveraged the investment to debut Montage, a set of tools that allowed users to tell longer video stories using scenes, where they could also stack and layer videos, photos, colors and shapes to create a collage-like final product. The company also made a change to its app earlier this year to allow users to publish their videos to the main VSCO feed, which had previously only supported photos. Gen Z fav photo-editing app VSCO further expands into video More recently, VSCO has added new video effects, like slowing down, speeding up or reversing clips and new video capture modes. As with its other video features, the new technology integrations from Trash will be subscriber-only features. Today, VSCO’s subscription plan costs $19.99 per year, and provides users with access to the app’s video editing capabilities. Currently, more than 2 million of VSCO’s 100 million+ registered users are paid subscribers. And, as a result of the cost-cutting measures and layoffs VSCO announced earlier this year, the company has now turned things around to become EBITDA positive in the second half of 2020. The company says it’s on the path to profitability, and additional video features like those from Trash will help. Image Credits: Trash VSCO’s newer focus on video isn’t just about supporting VSCO’s business model, however, it’s also about positioning the company for the future. While the app grew popular during the Instagram era, today’s younger users are more often posting videos to TikTok instead. According to Apple, TikTok was the No. 2 most downloaded free app of the year — ahead of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Apple releases its ‘Best of 2020’ App Store winners and most downloaded apps of the year Though VSCO doesn’t necessarily envision itself as only a TikTok video prep tool, it does have to consider that growing market. Similar to TikTok, VSCO’s user base consists of a younger, Gen Z demographic; 75% of VSCO’s user base is under 25, for example, and 55% of its subscribers are also under 25. Combined, its user base creates more than 8 million photos and videos per day, VSCO says. As a result of the acquisition, Trash’s standalone app will shut down on December 18. Donovan will join VSCO as Director of Product and Patterson as Sr. Staff Software Engineer, Machine Learning. Other Trash team members, including Karina Bernacki, Chihyu Chang and Drew Olbrich, will join as Chief of Staff, Engineering Manager and Sr. Software Engineer for iOS, respectively. “We both believe in the power of creativity to have a healthy and positive impact on people’s lives,” said Donovan, in Trash’s announcement. “Additionally, we have similar audiences of Gen Z casual creators; and are focused on giving people ways to express themselves and share their version of the world while feeling seen, safe, and supported,” she said. Trash had raised a total of $3.3 million — a combination of venture capital and $500,000 in grants — from BBG, Betaworks, Precursor and Dream Machine, as well as the National Science Foundation. (Multiple TechCrunch connections here: BBG is backed by our owner Verizon Media, while Dream Machine is the fund created by former TechCrunch editor Alexia Bonatsos.) “Han and Gen and the Trash team have always paid attention to the needs of creators first and foremost. My hope is that the VSCO and Trash partnership will turn all of us into creators, and turn the gigabytes of latent videos on our phones from trash to treasures,” said Bonatsos, in a statement about the deal. Flory declined to speak to the deal price, but characterized the acquisition as a “win-win for both the Trash team and for VSCO.” Former journo Alexia Bonatsos unveils her new venture fund, Dream Machine

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posted about 2 hours ago on techcrunch
New rules for online political advertising will be put forward by European Union lawmakers next year, with the aim of boosting transparency around sponsored political content. The Commission said today that it wants citizens, civil society and responsible authorities to be able to clearly see the source and purpose of political advertising they’re exposed to online. “We are convinced that people must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what microtargeting criteria were used,” said commissioner Vera Jourova, speaking during a press briefing at the unveiling of a Democratic Action Plan. “New technologies should be tools for emancipation — not for manipulation,” she added. In the plan, the Commission says the forthcoming political ads transparency proposal will “target the sponsors of paid content and production/distribution channels, including online platforms, advertisers and political consultancies, clarifying their respective responsibilities and providing legal certainty”. “The initiative will determine which actors and what type of sponsored content fall within the scope of enhanced transparency requirements. It will support accountability and enable monitoring and enforcement of relevant rules, audits and access to non-personal data, and facilitate due diligence,” it adds. It wants the new rules in place sufficiently ahead of the May 2024 European Parliament elections — with the values and transparency commissioner confirming the legislative initiative is planned for Q3 2021. Democracy Action Plan The step is being taken as part of the wider Democracy Action Plan containing a package of measures intended to bolster free and fair elections across the EU, strengthen media pluralism and boost media literacy over the next four years of the Commission’s mandate. It’s the Commission’s response to rising concerns that election rules have not kept pace with digital developments, including the spread of online disinformation — creating vulnerabilities for democratic values and public trust. The worry is that long-standing processes are being outgunned by powerful digital advertising tools, operating non-transparently and fatted up on masses of big personal data. “The rapid growth of online campaigning and online platforms has… opened up new vulnerabilities and made it more difficult to maintain the integrity of elections, ensure a free and plural media, and protect the democratic process from disinformation and other manipulation,” the Commission writes in the plan, noting too that digitalisation has also helped dark money flow unaccountably into the coffers of political actors. Other issues of concern it highlights include “cyber attacks targeting election infrastructure; journalists facing online harassment and hate speech; coordinated disinformation campaigns spreading false and polarising messages rapidly through social media; and the amplifying role played by the use of opaque algorithms controlled by widely used communication platforms”. During today’s press briefing Jourova said she doesn’t want European elections to be “a competition of dirty methods”, adding: “We saw enough with the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the Brexit referendum.” However the Commission is not going as far as proposing a ban on political microtargeting — at least not yet. EU parliament backs tighter rules on behavioural ads In the near term its focus will be on limiting use in a political context — such as limiting the targeting criteria that can be used. (Aka: “Promoting political ideas is not the same as promoting products,” as Jourova put it.) The Commission writes that it will look at “further restricting micro-targeting and psychological profiling in the political context”. “Certain specific obligations could be proportionately imposed on online intermediaries, advertising service providers and other actors, depending on their scale and impact (such as for labelling, record-keeping, disclosure requirements, transparency of price paid, and targeting and amplification criteria),” it suggests. “Further provisions could provide for specific engagement with supervisory authorities, and to enable co-regulatory codes and professional standards.” The plan acknowledges that microtargeting and behavioral advertising makes it harder to hold political actors to account — and that such tools and techniques can be “misused to direct divisive and polarising narratives”. It goes on to note that the personal data of citizens which powers such manipulative microtargeting may also have been “improperly obtained”. This is a key acknowledgement that plenty is rotten in the current state of adtech — as European privacy and legal experts have warned for years. Most recently warning that EU data protection rules that were updated in 2018 are simply not being enforced in this area. The UK’s ICO, for example, is facing legal action over regulatory inaction against unlawful adtech. (Ironically enough, back in 2018, its commissioner produced a report warning democracy is being disrupted by shady exploitation of personal data combined with social media platforms’ ad-targeting techniques.) Privacy experts slam UK’s ‘disastrous’ failure to tackle unlawful adtech The Commission has picked up on these concerns. Yet its strategy for fixing them is less clear. “There is a clear need for more transparency in political advertising and communication, and the commercial activities surrounding. Stronger enforcement and compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules is of utmost importance,” it writes — reinforcing a finding this summer, in its two-year GDPR review, when it acknowledged that the regulation’s impact has been impeded by a lack of uniformly vigorous enforcement. The high level message from the Commission now is that ‘GDPR enforcement is vital for democracy. But it’s national data supervisors which are responsibility for enforcement. So unless that enforcement gap can be closed it’s not clear how the Commission’s action plan can fully deliver the hoped for democratic resilience. Media literacy is a worthy goal but a long slow road vs the real-time potency of big-data fuelled adtech tools. Lack of big tech GDPR decisions looms large in EU watchdog’s annual report   “On the Cambridge Analytica case I referred to it because we do not want the method when the political marketing uses the privileged availability or possession of the private data of people [without their consent],” said Jourova during a Q&A with press, acknowledging the weakness of GDPR enforcement. “[After the scandal] we said that we are relieved that after GDPR came into force we are protected against this kind of practice — that people have to give consent and be aware of that — but we see that it might be a weak measure only to rely on consent or leave it for the citizens to give consent.” Jourova described the Cambridge Analytica scandal as “an eye-opening moment for all of us”. “Enforcement of privacy rules is not sufficient — that’s why we are coming in the European Democracy Action Plan with the vision for the next year to come with the rules for political advertising, where we are seriously considering to limit the microtargeting as a method which is used for the promotion of political powers, political parties or political individuals,” she added. The Commission says its legislative proposal on the transparency of political content will complement broader rules on online advertising that will be set out in the Digital Services Act (DSA) package — due to be presented later this month (setting out a suite of responsibilities for platforms). So the full detail of how it proposes to regulate online advertising also remains to be seen. Europe to limit how big tech can push its own services and use third-party data Tougher measures to tackle disinformation Another major focus for the Democracy Action Plan is tackling the spread of online disinformation. There are now clear-cut risks in the public health sphere as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with concerns that disinformation could undermine COVID-19 vaccination programs. And EU lawmakers’ concerns over the issue look to have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Tech giants must open up about the coronavirus ‘infodemic’, say EU lawmakers On disinformation, the Commission says it be overhauling its current (self-regulatory) approach to tackling online disinformation — aka the Code of Practice on disinformation, launched in 2018 with a handful of tech industry signatories — with platform giants set to face increased pressure from Brussels to identify and prevent co-ordinated manipulation via a planned upgrade to a co-regulatory framework of “obligations and accountability”, as it puts it. There will clearly also be interplay with the DSA — given it will be setting horizontal accountability rules for platforms. But the beefed up disinformation code is intended to sit alongside that and/or plug the gap until the DSA comes into force (not likely for “years”, following the usual EU co-legislative process, per Jourova). “We will not regulate on removal of disputed content,” she emphasized on the plan to beef up the disinformation code. “We do not want to create a ministry of truth. Freedom of speech is essential and I will not support any solution that undermines it. But we also cannot have our societies manipulated if there are organized structures aimed at sewing mistrust, undermining democratic stability and so we would be naive to let this happen. And we need to respond with resolve.” “The worrying disinformation trend, as well all know, is on COVID-19 vaccines,” she added. “We need to support the vaccine strategy by an efficient fight against disinformation.” Asked how the Commission will ensure platforms take the required actions under the new code, Jourova suggested the DSA is likely to leave it to Member States to decide which authorities will be responsible for enforcing future platform accountability rules. The DSA will focus on the issue of “increased accountability and obligations to adopt risk mitigating measures”, said also said, saying the disinformation code (or a similar arrangement) will be classed as a risk mitigating measure — encouraging platforms and other actors to get on board. “We are already intensively cooperating with the big platforms,” she added, responding to a question about whether the Commission had left it to late to tackle the threat posed by COVID-19 vaccine disinformation. “We are not going to wait for the upgraded code of practice because we already have a very clear agreement with the platforms that they will continue doing what they have already started doing in summer or in spring.” Platforms are already promoting fact-based, authoritative health information to counter COVID-19 disinformation, she added. “As for the vaccination I already alerted Google and Facebook that we want to intensify this work. That we are planning and already working on the communications strategy to promote vaccination as the reliable — maybe the only reliable — method to get rid of COVID-19,” she also said, adding that this work is “in full swing”. But Jourova emphasized that the incoming upgrade to the code of practice will bring more requirements — including around algorithmic accountability. “We need to know better how platforms prioritize who sees what and why?” she said. “Also there must be clear rules how researchers can update relevant data. Also the measures to reduce monetization of disinformation. Fourth, I want to see better standards on cooperation with fact-checkers. Right now the picture is very mixed and we want to see a more systematic approach to that.” The code must also include “clearer and better” ways to deal with manipulation related to the use of bots and fake accounts, she added. The new code of practice on disinformation is expected to be finalized after the new year. Current signatories include TikTok, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla. Big tech’s ‘blackbox’ algorithms face regulatory oversight under EU plan

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posted about 3 hours ago on techcrunch
ANYbotics, the creators of ANYmal, a four-legged autonomous robot platform intended for a variety of industrial uses, has raised a $22.3M Swiss Franc (~$20M) round A to continue developing and scaling the business. With similar robots just beginning to break into the mainstream, the market seems ready to take off. The company spun out of ETH Zurich in 2016, at which point the robot was already well into development. ANYmal is superficially similar to Spot, the familiar quadrupedal robot from Boston Dynamics, but the comparison mustn’t be taken too far. A four-legged robot is a natural form for navigating and interacting with environments build for humans. ANYbotics is on the third generation of the robot, which has progressively integrated computing units and sensors of increasing sophistication. “Our current ANYmal C model features three built-in high-end Intel i7 computers that power the robot and customer-applications such as automated inspection tasks,” explained co-founder and CEO Péter Fankhauser in an email to TechCrunch. “The availability of smaller and more performant sensors, propelled by AR/VR and autonomous driving applications, has enabled us to equip the latest ANYmal model with 360-degree situational awareness and long-range scanning capabilities. Where commercially available components are not satisfactory, we invest in our proprietary technologies, which have resulted in core components such as custom motors, docking stations, and inspection payload units.” Watch the ANYmal quadrupedal robot go for an adventure in the sewers of Zurich The most obvious application for robots like ANYmal is inspection of facilities that would normally involve a human. If a robot can traverse the same paths, climb stairs, open doors and so on, it can do so more frequently and regularly than its human counterparts, who tire and take breaks. It can also monitor and relay its surroundings in detail, using lidar and RGB cameras, among other tools. Humans can then perform the more difficult (and human) work of integrating that information and making decisions based on it. An ANYmal at a factory, power plant, or datacenter could save costs and shoe leather. Of course, that’s no use if the bot is fragile; fortunately, that’s not the case. “In terms of mobility, we have focused on what matters most to our industrial customers: Operational reliability and robustness to harsh environmental conditions,” Fankhauser said. “For example, we design and test ANYmal for day and night usage in indoor and outdoor locations, including offshore platforms with salty air and large temperature ranges. It’s less about agility in these environments but more about reliably and safely performing the tasks multiple times a day over many months without human intervention.” Swisscom Ventures leads the round, and partner Alexander Schläpfer said that good roots (ETHZ is of course highly respected) and good results from early commercial partnerships more than justified their investment. “Over ten years ago, some of our co-founders developed their first walking robots during their studies at ETH Zurich,” said Fankhauser. “Today, the industries are ready to adopt this technology, and we are deploying our robots to our early customers.”

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posted about 4 hours ago on techcrunch
Digital health startup Everlywell has raised a $175 million Series D funding round, following relatively fast on the heels of a $25 million Series C round it closed in February of this year. The Series D included a host of new investors, including BlackRock, The Chernin Group (TCG), Foresite Capital, Greenspring Associates, Morningside Ventures and Portfolio, along with existing investors including Highland Capital Partners, which led the Series C round. The startup has now raised over $250 million to date. Everlywell, which launched to the public at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 as a participant in Startup Battlefield, specializes in home health care, and specifically on home health care tests supported by their digital platform for providing customers with their results and helping them understand the diagnostics, and how to seek the right follow-on care and expert medical advice. Earlier this year, Everlywell launched an at-home COVID-19 test collection kit – the first of this type of test to receive an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its use that allowed cooperation with multiple lab service providers over time. The COVID-19 test kit joins its many other offerings, which include tests for thyroid hormone levels, food and allergen sensitivity, women’s health and fertility, vitamin D deficiency and more. I spoke to Everlywell CEO and founder Julia Cheek about the raise, and she acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic was definitely behind the decision to raise such a large amount so quickly again after the close of the Series C, since the company saw a sharp increase in demand coming out of the coronavirus crisis – not only for its COVID-19 test kit, but for at-home digital health care options in general. Everlywell gains first FDA authorization for a standalone, at-home, COVID-19 test sample collection kit “We obviously have a very successful COVID-19 test,” she said. “But we’ve also seen three-fourths of our test menu just explode at well over 100% year-over-year growth, and several of our tests are at 4x or 5x growth. That is really representative of this shift in consumer health behavior that will continue in a big way in many different verticals that include testing, and making things more convenient, digitally-enabled, and in the home.” Like other companies built on solving for a shift to more remote and virtual care options, Cheek said that Everlywell had already anticipated this kind of consumer demand – but COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the pace of change, which is why the startup put together this round, at this size, this quickly (she says they started the process of putting together the Series D just in September). “We’ve been talking about the digital health movement, and the consumer-directed movement probably for a decade now,” she told me. “I do believe that this will be the watershed moment, unfortunately. But hopefully, we will come out on the other side of the pandemic and say, ‘There are some good things that happened broadly for healthcare.’ That is the hope of what we lean into everyday, and  fundamentally, why we went out and raised this amount of capital in this tremendous growth year.” Image Credits: Everlywell Everlywell has also expanded availability of its products this year, with distribution in over 10,000 retail locations across Target, Walgreens, CVS and Kroger stores across the U.S. The company also landed a number of new partnerships on the diagnostic lab and insurance payer side, as well as with major employers – a key customer group since employers shoulder the largest share of healthcare spending in the U.S. due to employee benefit plans. Cheek says that despite their commercial and enterprise customer wins, the focus remains squarely on consumer satisfaction, which is what distinguishes their offering. “Our COVID-19 test is 75% new people buying our product, and it has an NPS [net promoter score] of 75,” she said. “And then it’s the most highly-referred product, and also one of our top tests where people buy other tests. Experience matters here – we know that if someone is a promoter of Everlywell, if they rate us a nine or a 10, on NPS, they are five times more likely to purchase again on the platform.” EverlyWell brings lab tests home, personalized health data online That’s not new for Everlywell, according to Cheek – customers have always had a high degree of satisfaction with the company’s products. But what is new is the expanded reach, and the realization among many Americans that virtual care and at-home options are available, and are effective. “What you have is this lightbulb moment for Americans in a new way that care can be delivered where then they definitely don’t want to go back,” she said. “It’s not just for Everlywell. This is all of these verticals, that have really shifted consumer behavior around healthcare in the home, and I think that will be somewhat permanent. That is the main driver here, and is what we’re seeing, and it’s why Everlywell has resonated so well with so many Americans.”

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posted about 5 hours ago on techcrunch
Realizing that modern, complex businesses can no longer be adequately managed using spreadsheet-style programs, the founders of Pigment decided there had to be a better solution. Their business forecasting platform has now raised a substantial Series A of $25.9 million, led by Blossom Capital. Also participating was New York-based FirstMark Capital and Frst, as well as angel investors including Paul Melchiorre, former CEO of business planning giant Anaplan, and David Clarke, the ex-CTO of Workday, another business planning incumbent. Those last two investors are significant because Paris-based Pigment competes with both Anaplan and Workday. Also of note is the fact that another planning product, Adaptive Insights, was sold to Workday for $1.6bn. Pigment has so far secured large-scale enterprise and pre-IPO start-up clients for its beta product, including a major European bank – although it declines to name any of its clients so far. Pigment says it aims to overhaul the painful experience of using error-prone spreadsheets and inflexible software to do business forecast forecasting, instead presenting a dashboard-like approach in real-time through charts, simulations and continuous modeling. Eléonore Crespo, co-founder and co-CEO of Pigment said in a statement: “We’re a bit like Minecraft for business strategy – with that kind of creative, organic potential for the user. Standard planning solutions are basically mechanical, treating a business like a machine with levers that you just push and pull.” Ophelia Brown, partner at Blossom Capital, said: ‘Existing planning software was built around 20th-century models of how to do business. Pigment is a 21-st century platform that reflects the way successful companies need to work today – socially and environmentally conscious, proactively scanning the horizon for risks and opportunities, and capable of unlocking new opportunities in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.” Pigment was founded in 2019 by Crespo, a former data analyst at Google and investor at Index Ventures, and Romain Niccoli, the former CTO and co-founder of Criteo – the ad-tech company which IPO’d on NASDAQ in 2013.

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posted about 5 hours ago on techcrunch
San Francisco-based construction startup Versatile is announcing today that it has raised a $20 million Series A. The round was led by Insight Partners and Entree Capital, along with existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Root Ventures and Conductive Ventures. The round follows $8.5 million in funding, including a $5.5 million seed round that arrived in August of last year. The URBAN-X accelerator alum has developed a piece of hardware designed to be mounted to a crane. From that vantage point, it’s capable of capturing and analyzing data across the construction site. “You can only improve what you can measure, and at Versatile we are just scratching the surface of what we can do to create value for our users and use data to turn job sites into controlled manufacturing with fast feedback loops,” co-founder and CEO Meirav Oren said in a release tied to the news. The company says it’s able to use that information to provide a picture of construction progress, with additional information on site materials, while targeting any potential redundancy in the space. With around $10 trillion currently spent on construction each year, the industry is prime for some big-ticket investments. Particularly those startups that can promise more efficiency in the space. The company says the round will be spent on accelerating the availability of its technology and developing additional AI components for users.

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posted about 5 hours ago on techcrunch
Bizay, a marketplace for small-to-medium-sized businesses allowing them to create highly customized products (such as merchandise), has raised a $38.6 million (€32 million) funding round. The Series C financing round was co-led by investors Indico Capital and the European Investment Bank, with “strong support” from Iberis Capital and existing investors including LeadX Capital Partners, Omnes Capital and Pathena. This means Bizay has now raised a total of more than €54 million. The company previously raised a Series B financing round of €22 million. This new round will accelerate the development of further product expansion targeted at SMBs and reinforce Bizay´s operation supplying more than one million SMBs in 21 countries across Europe and America. Bizay’s ideas is to become the ‘Amazon’ for SMBs in terms of merchandising, packaging, consumables, business essentials, decorations and uniforms, with good quality, at a fraction of the normal costs associated with these items. Bizay´s CEO, Sérgio Vieira, said: “The current health crisis accelerated the shift to online ordering of customizable products at reduced prices. Our platform will be a key facilitator for businesses to recover at a faster pace. We are totally confident in achieving the goals that will allow us to enter a new level of global ambition”. Speaking to TechCrunch Vieira added: “We are a software company, and our technology enables us to connect to industrial manufacturers that would usually work only for large corporations. We have no stock, we have no machines, no production. Using AI we aggregate multiple orders, and supply those orders using the network of industrial producers that we have in our marketplace. So we are able to offer these SMBs competitive prices for small individual orders. These industrial manufacturers would never normally supply SMBs because they are just too small.” Stephan Morais, Managing General Partner at Indico Capital Partners, said: “Bizay is entering a new growth phase and this round will consolidate their presence across Europe and enable them to capture the opportunity that stems from the shift towards online ordering of personalized products for SMBs.”

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posted about 7 hours ago on techcrunch
Ultimate.ai, a virtual customer service agent builder, has closed a $20 million Series A round of funding, led by Omers Ventures with participation from Felicis Ventures and existing investors HV Capital, and Maki.vc — bringing its total raised to date to $25M+. The European startup’s flagship claim for the data-ingesting bot-builder platform is it’s capable of automating up to 80% of customer support interactions. The focus, as tends to be the case for all these customer service conversational AI plays, is freeing (human) support agents from dealing with dull, repetitive stuff — so they can apply their (less limited) skills to more complex, consultative or emotionally demanding customer queries. When we last spoke to the Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup, back in 2018 for a $1.3M seed round, it described itself as a “language-agnostic” conversational AI — having started out with the hard (linguistic) challenge of Finnish — claiming that gave it an edge in a competitive space with customers in non-English speaking markets. (Though it did also tackle English too.) Two years on the startup’s marketing focus is broader; today it talks about its customer service automation platform as an “AI-first” ‘no code’ tool — sating it wants to empower b2c users to get the most out of AI by helping them design virtual agents that can usefully handle complex customer interactions. ultimate.ai will hand-hold you through the process of building a super savvy customer service robot, is the pitch. Co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen claims it’s always been “no code and intuitive” — though there’s now a handy reference label to align what it’s doing with a wider b2b trend. (‘No code’ or ‘low code’ referring to a digital tool-building movement that aims to widen access to powerful technologies like AI without the need for the user to possess deep technical know-how in order to make useful use of them.) Tracking the growth of low-code, no-code startups   “Everything we build is to guide users to creating the best virtual agents. The whole user journey — discovery, design, expansion — is all within ultimate.ai,” Kainulainen tells TechCrunch. “In the past two years, we have been laser focused on building a very deep customer service automation platform — one that goes beyond simple FAQ answers in chat — and enables brands to design complex, personalized workflows that can be deployed across all digital support channels. “We believe that customer service automation will be its own category in the future and so we are working hard to define what that means today.” As an example, Kainulainen points to “one click” integration with “any major CRM” (including Salesforce and Zendesk) — which lets customers quickly import existing customer support logs so ultimate.ai’s platform can analyze the data to help them build a useful bot. “Immediately, you are shown a breakdown of your most common customer service cases and the impact automation can have for your business,” he goes on, saying the platform shows templates and “best practices” to help the customer design their automation workflows — “tailored for your cases and industry”. Once a virtual agent is live users can run A/B tests via the platform to check and optimize performance — and, here too, the promise is further hand-holding, with Kainulainen saying it will “proactively suggests new cases and data to improve your virtual agent”. “Where we are very strong is in large-scale customer support organizations, who are looking for a holistic, advanced automation platform that can be managed and implemented by non-technical users,” he says. “The bigger picture is that each of our competitors views the opportunity more narrowly than ultimate.ai does: Our best competitors are either focused on chatbots only, or otherwise limited to the ecosystem of their mother company. Our vision has always been the big picture: Of automation becoming one of the primary means of providing customer service.” Having multilingual smarts remains an advantage, with ultimate.ai’s virtual agents able to handle interactions in over 20 languages at this point. “Our market — the customer service automation market — has a lot of players,” Kainulainen goes on, name-checking the likes of Ada Support and Einstein Bots (Salesforce’s own solution) as key competitors. “This is because it is new and, until recently, solutions were so early that there were virtually no barriers to entry. But the market has changed a lot in the last four years. There are now only a handful of players globally that are worth paying attention to and we are one of them.” The 2016-founded startup is hitting the nail on the head for a growing number of customers — with close to 100 signed up to its platform at this point, including the likes of Deezer, Telia, Footasylum, and Finnair. Per Kainulainen, it works best for “b2c brands with large (and often repetitive) customer service volumes”. “This is where automation can provide a huge impact from day one and really free up people to take on more creative and challenging work. We have a broad customer base of close to 100 great brands… and do particularly well in industries like retail/ecommerce, telecommunications and travel,” he adds. It’s enjoyed a major growth spurt this year, as businesses of all stripes were forced to ramp up their attention to online customer interactions as the coronavirus pandemic became an engine for digital activity. Customer retention has also risen in priority for many businesses, as a highly contagious virus and public health safety measures put in place to reduce its spread, flipped markets into recession — which Kainulainen points to as another growth driver. Overall, he says it’s tripled ARR over the last 12 months (albeit, it was the same growth story last year too). Plus it’s tripled headcount to deal with the COVID-19 effect. Now ultimate.ai is gearing up for fresh growth — saying it’s expecting major developments next year. “COVID-19 has… prompted one of the most accelerated periods of change in the customer service industry,” says Kainulainen, predicting 2021 will bring “immense innovation” in the space — and that “booming” automation technologies will take “center stage”. Of course it’s a convenient narrative for a customer service chatbot maker to tell. But COVID-19 is clearly accelerating digital transformation of consumer focused businesses — a movement that, logically, pumps demand for smarter tools to handle online customer support. So those positioned to harness new momentum for customer service automation — by being able to offer an accessible, scalable and effective product (as ultimate.ai claims it does) — are sitting pretty in the middle of a pandemic. “We believe that the best product will win this market,” adds Kainulainen. “We have a big vision for what we want ultimate.ai to be. Market maturity for our technology has accelerated massively in 2020, achieving in one year what could have probably taken five. We will capitalize on that by building more, faster.” The Series A funding will go on sales and marketing, with a planned market push in North America and a desire to go deeper throughout Europe, as well as being ploughed into further product development. And while — clearly — not every potential b2c customer will be able to ‘automagic’ away 80% of their customer support pings, Kainulainen argues ultimate.ai can still offer a compelling sales pitch to businesses with more “consultative” customer support needs, where automation will only be able to play a far more limited role. “There’s often a strong correlation between how consultative a customer service organization needs to be and how highly trained and experienced their team is. In other words, it is often the case that organizations with ‘lower bound’ automation potential also only need 10% automation to still drive a huge ROI,” he suggests. “For example, one of our customers is a large national pharmacy group, where customer service agents are qualified pharmacists who provide prescription medical advice. Here, the goal isn’t to achieve a very high automation rate but rather to automate basic, repetitive processes to free up the pharmacists for more challenging tasks that better use their capabilities. “For this customer, in addition to the automation of simple requests (which alone provides a huge value) our real-time answer recommendations help pharmacists respond faster and easier.” Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Omers Ventures managing partner, Jambu Palaniappan, dubbed the startup’s growth “truly spectacular”, as well as lauding its “world-class team” and founders “with a strong vision and unrivalled knowledge of AI”. “There are numerous chatbot companies out there but ultimate.ai represents something much bigger because at its core is an automation company with massive potential,” he added. “We look forward to working with Sarah, Reetu, Jaakko, and Markus as they expand internationally and advance their deep product capabilities even further.” “The customer service industry is undergoing an automation revolution. In ultimate.ai, we saw a vision that’s bold enough to lead the way,” added Aydin Senkut, founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, in another supporting statement. “We believe that, just in the same way that category leaders have defined marketing and sales automation, ultimate.ai will do the same for customer service.” Jambu Palaniappan, managing partner at Omers Ventures, will join the ultimate.ai board. Aydin Senkut, founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, will join as an investor, alongside former head of Airbnb for Business Mark McCabe, and former EVP global sales of payment giant Adyen, Thijn Lamers. Salesforce and Google want to build a smarter customer service experience Ada nets $19 million Series A to grow its customer service chatbot

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posted about 8 hours ago on techcrunch
China has pledged that it would be sharing its COVID-19 vaccines with other countries, especially those with which it has close ties. While the country is not ready to deploy its vaccines internationally, it is gearing up the infrastructure for mass distribution. This week, Alibaba announced that it has struck a partnership with Ethiopian Airlines to introduce a cold chain capable of transporting temperature-sensitive medicines from China to the rest of the world. The air freight will depart from Shenzhen Airport, which Alibaba says houses China’s first cross-border medical cold chain facility, twice a week to countries via Dubai and Addis Ababa. “As soon as the vaccines are ready, we will have the capabilities to transport them,” a Cainiao spokesperson told TechCrunch. Shenzhen is the home base of SF Express, another major logistics operator in China that has also been working on storing and shipping vaccines. The Alibaba route is carried out by the firm’s logistics arm Cainiao, which operates in over 200 countries and regions. It’s certified by the International Air Transport Association to fly Covid-19 vaccines, which normally need to be stored at low temperatures. Cabins will contain temperature-controlled monitors, for instance, and Ethiopia’s cargo terminal comes with facilities that can be adjusted between -23°C and 25°C, or -9.4°F and 77°F. “The launch of the cold chain air freight has further bolstered our global logistics capabilities and allow us to offer a one-stop solution for the global distribution of medical products such as the COVID-19 vaccines,” said James Zhao, general manager of Cainiao’s international supply chain unit. China is a major exporter of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s logistics giants, from Cainiao to SF Express, all promptly introduced programs specifically for shipping medical relief items. Salesforce creates for-profit platform to help governments distribute COVID vaccine when it’s ready

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posted about 9 hours ago on techcrunch
Web Summit announced today that it will revive RISE, one of Asia’s largest tech conferences, in March 2022, moving it to Kuala Lumpur after five years in Hong Kong. It also announced a new event, called Web Summit Tokyo, that will launch in 2022, too. The flagship Web Summit event is currently taking place as an online conference. In November 2019, Web Summit announced it was postponing RISE to 2021 amid the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Of course, this year has seen a series of other major event cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Web Summit cancels next year’s Rise conference over tension in Hong Kong Web Summit is planning for the 2022 edition of RISE to be in-person, and has signed a new partnership with Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation. In a press statement, Web Summit and RISE co-founder and chief executive officer Paddy Cosgrave said, “This is not a goodbye to Hong Kong. We hope to return to the city in the future with a brand new event.” Web Summit Tokyo, which will take place in September 2022, as part of its global expansion, which will also include an event in Brazil Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre are currently being considered as the location. Web Summit has already announced plans to hold its flagship event as an in-person conference in November 2021 in Lisbon, Portugal.

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posted about 10 hours ago on techcrunch
Bolt is better known for its ride-hailing service. But the company also operates an electric scooter service in 45 cities across Europe. Designed by the company’s in-house hardware team, the new model focuses on safety. As you can see on the photo, it’s a big scooter that weighs 19kg — that’s more than an average bike. It has a battery with a 40km range and it is primarily made of aluminum. The company says it should last up to 60 months thanks to a modular design. Bolt can replace parts without having to replace the scooter altogether. Behind the scenes, you’ll find built-in sensors to detect accidents and unsafe riding. If you fall or if you brake sharply, Bolt can be alerted. The scooter also recognizes unsafe riding patterns. Combined with audio and visual warnings, it should educate riders about what you’re supposed to do and not do. On the integrated dashboard, you can receive alerts telling you that you’re riding in a pedestrian area, or in a low-speed area. You can also see if you’re allowed to park in this area. Bolt plans to turn on front light blinking when you enter a pedestrian or low-speed area. Like most modern e-scooter models, Bolt can swap the battery without having to move the entire scooter. It is much more efficient to recharge detachable batteries than scooters themselves. A few weeks ago, Bolt unveiled plans to double-down on scooters. It plans to operate a scooter service in more than 100 cities in 2021. There could be as many as 130,000 electric scooters and electric bikes in European cities. Let’s see if the company delivers on its ambitious 2021 roadmap. Image Credits: Bolt How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

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posted about 10 hours ago on techcrunch
PhonePe, the crown jewel in Flipkart’s acquisition by Walmart, is “partially” spinning off, the financial services firm said on Thursday. To kick off its new journey, the firm said it has secured $700 million in a new financing round. This round, the name of which was not disclosed, was led by Walmart with participation from some existing investors, PhonePe said. The new round gave PhonePe, which was founded by a former Flipkart employee, a post-money valuation of $5.5 billion. Today’s announcement is a big boost to the confidence investors have on PhonePe. The startup has been engaging with investors for new capital for several quarters and had struggled to raise capital at a $3 valuation earlier this year, TechCrunch reported earlier. The partial spin-off means that Flipkart’s stake in PhonePe will reduce from a 100% to 87%. “This partial spin-off gives PhonePe access to dedicated long-term capital to pursue our vision of providing financial inclusion to a billion Indians,” said Sameer Nigam, founder and chief executive of PhonePe, in a statement. “As Flipkart Commerce continues to grow strongly serving the needs of Indian customers, we are excited at the future prospects of the group. This move will help PhonePe maximize its potential as it moves to the next phase of its development, and it will also maximize value creation for Flipkart and our shareholders,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart Group, in a statement. More to follow…

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posted about 11 hours ago on techcrunch
Last week I witnessed for myself how a new kind of robot really could — as sci-fi has been telling us for many years — create and serve us food. Today, Karakuri, a food robotics startup, unveils its first automated canteen to make meals: the “DK-One” robot. It’s also revealing a $8.4 million (£6.3million) investment, led by firstminute capital, which includes funding from Hoxton Ventures, Taylor Brothers, Ocado Group and the UK’s government-backed Future Fund. It has now closed a total of £13.5m in funding. Karakuri’s robotic system has been initially designed to make breakfast bowls. But the technology will end up being employed in a large array of scenarios, including restaurants, canteens, buffets, hotels and supermarkets. Posibly even tending vertical farms. It’s particular strength is in being able to create extremely tailor-made combinations of food, putting ‘personalized nutrition’ within practical reach. Remember those movies where the food is tailored by a robot? That. The post-Covid world is also highly likely to embrace this technology due to the robot’s inherent cleanliness and efficiency, compared to human-made food. That said, Karakuri is not positioned to replace humans but to augment them, taking on the boring and repetitive tasks which typically see kitchen staff have far more itinerant careers due to the sheer pressure of low-level jobs where a robot would be far more suitable. The DK-One robot is Karakuri’s first pre-production machine which uses the latest in robotics, sensing and control technologies. It’s capable of creating high quality hot and cold meals, which maximize nutritional benefits, restaurant performance and minimize food waste. Post-COVID restrictions, further on-customer-site trials of the DK-One are expected to take place in the first half of 2021. The DK-One robot zips around a circular enclosure at a rate of knots, each time measuring accurate portion sizes as determined by an app, where the customer can tailor to their tastes. It means anyone ordering something would be able to track the ingredients, nutrients, calories, and quantity of literally every meal. Up to 18 ingredients can be dispensed per installation, with each ingredient temperature controlled. It will dispense of any ingredient type including wet, dry, soft, or hard food onto plates, bowls, or a range of meal containers Because it’s so accurate it, therefore, reduces food waste around portions and allows for real-time data on ingredients. The thin margins restaurateurs typically have could be improved by using such a robot in repetitive tasks, and means employees can be tasked with more complex and fruitful and fulfilling work. It’s also easily integrated into existing commercial kitchens. Barney Wragg, CEO and co-founder of Karakuri, said in a statement: “This will be the first time we can use a pre-production machine to demonstrate the DK-One’s commercial and nutritional benefits in the real world and thus demonstrate our vision for the future of food.” Karakuri was founded by Simon Watt and Wragg, two longtime friends and colleagues who previously worked together at ARM. In April 2018 the Founders Factory venture studio invested in Karakuri and Brent Hoberman joined the board as Chairman and is also listed as a co-founder.

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posted about 13 hours ago on techcrunch
Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads. The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch. The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro. It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure. As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation. “We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative. The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities. “[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue. The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date. How China’s first autonomous driving unicorn Momenta hunts for data

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posted about 14 hours ago on techcrunch
The National Labor Relations Board today issued a complaint against Google after investigating the firing of several employees last November. The complaint alleges Google violated parts of the National Labor Relations Act by surveilling employees, and generally interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB also alleges Google discouraged “its employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities,” the complaint states. “This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” Laurence Berland, one of the fired Google employees, said in a statement. “This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society. Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society.” Ex-Googlers Berland and Kathryn Spiers previously filed a federal complaint with the NLRB arguing Google fired them for organizing, which is a protected activity. They had organized around a variety of topics, including Google’s treatment of its temporary, vendor and contractor workers, Google’s alleged retaliation against employees who organized, the company’s work with Customs and Border Protection and more. Additionally, in November 2019, Google put Rebecca Rivers and Berland on leave for allegedly violating company policies. At the time, Google said one had searched for and shared confidential documents that were not pertinent to their job, and one had looked at the individual calendars of some staffers. Following a protest in support of the two, Rivers, Berland, Duke and Waldman were fired. “Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously. We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.” This comes shortly after the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Google contractor HCL, alleging the company repeatedly violated the rights of unionized workers. Moving forward, Berland and Spiers are hoping the NLRB prosecutes the case against Google and seeks reinstatement and damages for them. But the next step is for the complaint to head to the desk of an administrative judge.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
There are now about 50 million people with dementia globally, a number the World Health Organization expects to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia and caregivers are often overwhelmed, without enough support. Neuroglee, a Singapore-based health tech startup, wants to help with a digital therapeutic platform created to treat patients in the early stages of the disease. Founded this year to focus on neurodegenerative diseases, Neuroglee announced today it has raised $2.3 million in pre-seed funding. The round was led by Eisai Co., one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder and chief executive officer of predictive healthcare startup Biofourmis. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 leads $100 million Series C in digital therapeutics company Biofourmis Neuroglee’s prescription digital therapy software for Alzheimer’s, called NG-001, is its main product. The company plans to start clinical trials next year. NG-001 is meant to complement medication and other treatments, and once it is prescribed by a clinician, patients can access its cognitive exercises and tasks through a tablet. Neuroglee founder and CEO Aniket Singh Rajput (brother of Kuldeep) told TechCrunch that its first target markets for NG-001 are the United States and Singapore, followed by Japan. NG-001 needs to gain regulatory approval in each country, and it will start by seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance. Once it launches, clinicians will have two ways to prescribe NG-001, through their healthcare provider platform or an electronic prescription tool. A platform called Neuroglee Connect will give clinicians, caregivers and patients access to support and features for reimbursement and coverage. The software tracks patients’ progress, such as the speed of their fingers and the time it takes to complete an exercise, and delivers personalized treatment programs. It also has features to address the mental health of patients, including one that shows images that can bring up positive memories, which in turn can help alleviate depression and anxiety when used in tandem with other cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. For caregivers and clinicians, NG-001 helps them track patient progress and their compliance with other treatments, like medications. This means that healthcare providers can work closely with patients even remotely, which is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.   As Alzheimer’s costs soar, startups like Neurotrack raise cash to diagnose and treat the disease

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
The Atlas for Cities, the 500 Startups-backed market intelligence platform connecting tech companies with state and local governments, has been acquired by the Growth Catalyst Partners-backed publishing and market intelligence company Government Executive Media Group. The San Diego-based company will become the latest addition to a stable of publications and services that include the Route Fifty, publication for local government and the defense-oriented intelligence service, DefenseOne. The Atlas provides peer-to-peer networks for state and local government officials to share best practices and is a marketing channel for the startups that want to sell services to those government employees. Through The Atlas, government officials can talk to each other, find case studies for best practices around tech implementations, and post questions to crowdsource ideas. Government contractors can use the site to network with leadership and receive buyer intent data to inform their strategy in the sector, all while getting intelligence about the problems and solutions that matter to state and local jurisdictions across the nation.  “The Atlas delivers on GEMG’s promise to look for companies that complement and supplement the full suite of offerings that we provide to our partners to reach decision makers across all facets of the public sector,” said Tim Hartman, CEO of Government Executive Media Group, said in a statement. Led by Ellory Monks and Elle Hempen, The Atlas for Cities launched in 2019 and is backed by financing from individual investors and the 500 Startups accelerator program. It now counts 21,000 government officials across 3,400 cities on its platform. “State and local governments in the United States spend $3.7 trillion per year. That’s almost 20% of GDP,” said Elle Hempen, co-founder of The Atlas. “Our mission to increase transparency and access for local leaders has the opportunity to transform this enormous, inefficient market and enable tangible progress on the most important issues of our times.”

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Google is almost running out of AR/VR projects to kill off. The company announced today in an email to Poly users that they will be shutting 3D-object creation and library platform “forever” next year. The service will shut down on June 30, 2021 and users won’t be able to upload 3D models to the site on April 30, 2021. Poly was introduced as a 3D creation tool optimized for virtual reality. Users could easily create low-poly objects with in-VR tools. The software was designed to serve as a lightweight way to create and view 3D assets that could in turn end up in games and experiences, compared to more art and sculpting-focused VR tools like Google’s Tilt Brush and Facebook’s (now Adobe’s) Medium software. Google has already discontinued most of the company’s AR/VR plays, including most notably their Daydream mobile VR platform. The AR/VR industry’s initial rise prompted plenty of 3D-centric startups to bet big on creating or hosting a library of digital objects. As investor enthusiasm has largely faded and tech platforms hosting AR/VR content have shuttered those products, it’s less clear where the market is for this 3D content for the time being. Users that have uploaded objects to Poly will be able to download their data and models ahead of the shutdown. Google launches Poly, a home for the world’s 3D objects built for creators

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Hulu’s social viewing feature, Watch Party, has now launched to all on-demand subscribers, the company announced today. The co-viewing feature was first introduced during the earlier days of the pandemic in 2020, allowing Hulu users to watch shows together from different locations, as well as chat and react to what they’re watching in a group chat interface on the side of the screen. Initially, the feature was only made available to Hulu’s “No Ads” subscribers before being tested with Hulu’s ad-supported subscribers in a more limited capacity. To celebrate the Season 2 premiere of Hulu Original “Pen15,” the company had offered the Watch Party experience to its ad-supported customers for 10 days, starting on Sept. 18. In November, Hulu began testing the Watch Party feature with election news live streams — the first time it had offered co-viewing with its live content. Today, Hulu says Watch Party is no longer in a “test” phase, and is now officially available to both sets of on-demand customers, including those on its commercial-free and ad-supported plans alike. At launch, Watch Party works across thousands of on-demand titles from Hulu’s library. This includes not only Hulu’s own original content but also other licensed and broadcast programs like The Golden Girls, This is Us, Family Guy, and The Bachelorette — all of which Hulu said had been popular titles for Watch Party during the testing period. To use Watch Party, you’ll look for the new Watch Party icon that appears on a title’s detail page on Hulu.com. This will provide a link that you can then share with up to seven other Hulu subscribers, age 18 or older. The experience doesn’t require a browser plugin, but works directly on the Hulu website itself. As the program plays, users can chat and react with emoji in the group chat window, or even pause the viewing experience if they need to take a quick break. This won’t pause the stream for other viewers, as with some other co-watching experiences — instead, the user can rejoin the group and stay behind others or they can use a “Click to Catch Up” button in the chat window to get back in sync. Co-watching has been a popular pandemic activity, as people looked for ways to stay connected with friends and family when they couldn’t spend time in person. In addition to Hulu, Amazon Prime Video launched co-viewing and Twitch launched its own Watch Parties. HBO teamed up with Scener, Plex launched Watch Together, and Instagram and Facebook rolled out co-viewing too. Netflix users still have to use third-party tools, however.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Shares of Salesforce traded lower today, despite the company hosting a multi-hour keynote that included a buffet of Marc Benioff. What’s going on? Essentially, since the Salesforce-Slack deal reached the ears of the public, shares of the CRM giant have fallen, while shares of the enterprise social upstart have risen sharply. That Slack did well since news of the deal broke is not a surprise. Salesforce is paying more for the company than it had been worth, the premium to its prior value constituting its argument that Slack’s investors should approve the deal. This is standard in corporate takeovers. Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal But what to make of Salesforce’s value declines? Let’s first calculate how much ground the company has lost on the stock market. Here’s what’s happened to Salesforce’s stock from November 25th, when the deal initially leaked during the day to today. We’re calculating the daily change between the preceding day’s close, and the listed day’s final price: November 25: -5.4% (deal leaks midday) November 27: +0.33% November 30: -0.74% December 1: -1.8% (deal is announced after-hours) December 2: -8.52% Salesforce saw its share price fall from around $264 before the deal became known, to $220.78 at the end of regular trading today. The loss in value works out to 16.5%. From a different perspective, Salesforce lost around $18.7 billion in value today alone. Those swings constitute a summary rejection of the deal by investors, I’d say, or of Salesforce’s recently stated guidance, which was inclusive of the deal. Salesforce has lost more value than the transaction is worth, which feels notable. My gut says that investors are worried that Salesforce is overpaying for Slack, and that potential synergies between the two won’t amount to as much as the two companies’ CEOs imagine. But I wanted to ask my colleague Ron Miller about the situation, to see if he could add anything to the why isn’t Wall Street liking this combo more question. Here is his take: While Wall Street appears to be taking an initial dislike to the deal — it is a big gaudy number — over time I think they should come to understand it better. Slack will give Salesforce the social piece it has been longing for since the days of Enterprise 2.0. They initially tried to build it themselves with Chatter, but that never quite caught on. Ten years later, they finally have their social component. Benioff’s instincts about what his company needs are usually on target, and while he may have overpaid for this bauble, the ability to tie his company’s products together under Slack’s communications and work integration umbrella proved too attractive to resist. Don’t forget in spite of the fact that Microsoft Team is making headway, mostly by giving it away for free with Office 365 subscriptions, Slack remains the darling of the developer class. And as long as Salesforce finds a way for it to maintain its independence, the marriage could work out. At the very least, it deserves a chance to prove that it can.  

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Apple releases its annual best apps list, a self-driving truck startup raises $350 million and the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine gets emergency approval in the United Kingdom. This is your Daily Crunch for December 2, 2020. The big story: Apple announces its best apps of 2020 There were different winners — all selected by App Store editors — for different devices. Home workout app Wakeout! was named the iPhone App of the Year, Disney+ was the Apple TV App of the Year and the productivity app Fantastical was the Mac App of the Year. As for the iPad App of the Year, it went to perhaps the most obvious choice: Zoom. As far as user popularity goes, Apple said that Zoom was the biggest free iPhone app, followed by TikTok and Disney+ (which must qualify as free on a technicality), while the most popular free iPhone game was Among Us. The tech giants Loon’s stratospheric balloons are now teaching themselves to fly better thanks to Google AI — Alphabet’s Loon has been using algorithmic processes to optimize the flight of its stratospheric balloons for years, but the company is now deploying a new navigation system. Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger is now available — The MagSafe Duo appeared yesterday on Apple’s own store and has delivery estimates as soon as this week. Google says its News Showcase will add free access to paywalled stories — So far, Google News Showcase has launched in countries including Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, France, U.K. and Australia. Startups, funding and venture capital Self-driving trucks startup TuSimple raises $350M from US rail, retail and freight giants — TuSimple was one of the first autonomous trucking startups to emerge in what has become a small-yet-bustling industry. Virta Health’s behavioral diabetes treatment service is now worth over $1B — Virta aims to reverse the presence of type 2 diabetes and other chronic metabolic conditions by changing a user’s diet and exercise. Space Perspective raises $7M for its plan to ferry tourists to the edge of space — Spaceship Neptune is designed to carry up to eight passengers on a six-hour journey that will include two hours spent at the upper edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch From surviving to thriving as a hardware startup — Six strategies from Minut CEO Nils Mattisson. A roundup of recent unicorn news — So much for a December news slowdown. (Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.) Everything else The U.K. approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use — The U.K. is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use. Discovery will launch its own streaming service on January 4 — Discovery is the latest media company to launch a standalone streaming service, and the latest to adopt the simple naming strategy of just adding a plus sign. Gift Guide: The best books for 2020 recommended by VCs and TechCrunch writers (Part 1) — Includes lots of good books for tech and business readers, plus my recommendation for the non-new, non-tech, yet extremely good novel “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
When the Salesforce-Slack deal was officially announced on Tuesday afternoon, and the number appeared, it was kind of hard to believe. Salesforce had shelled out more than $27 billion to buy Slack and bring it into the Salesforce family of products. The company sees a key missing piece in Slack, and that could explain why it was willing to spend such an astonishing amount of money to get it. With Slack, Salesforce now has what CEO Marc Benioff called the interface to everything, something he says that the company has thought about for years. In 2010, they tried building it themselves with Chatter, a social tool that never really caught on in a big way. With Slack they finally have it. “We’ve always had the vision of the social enterprise at Salesforce for more than a decade. Oh, we’ve had Dreamforces entirely dedicated to the vision of what a collaborative interface, a high production interface with applications and an ecosystem would look like wrapped on top of our Customer 360,” Benioff said. He added that ironically in a building right next door to Salesforce Park you’ll find Slack headquarters. They won’t have to go far to collaborate (or you know, they can just use Slack). From Chatter to Slack Neeraj Agrawal, general partner at Battery Ventures says that Benioff has had an interest in enterprise social going back years and this is his way of finally delivering.”Remember Chatter? Benioff was dead on with this trend. He lost Yammer to Microsoft (when Microsoft acquired it for $1.2 billion) about 7-8 years ago, and then launched Chatter. It was a huge bet, but didn’t work. Slack is really Chatter 2.0,” he said. Chuck Ganapathi, CEO and co-founder at Tact.ai was product lead on the Chatter product at Salesforce in the 2009 timeframe. He wrote in a soon-to-be-published blog post he shared with TechCrunch, that it failed for a lot of reasons, but mostly because at its core, Salesforce was still a bunch of database guys and enterprise social was a very different animal. As Slack acquisition rumors swirl, a look at Salesforce’s six biggest deals “Salesforce is a database-centric company, founded by Oracle ex-pats on a relational DB foundation. Messaging apps must be architected to handle unstructured data, with a big focus on UX, which weren’t core competencies at Salesforce. Sometime after I left, the company seemed to lose interest in improving Chatter, except maybe as a component of other products,” he wrote. But Benioff never lost interest in the concept of incorporating social into the Salesforce platform. It just took another 10 years or so and bushel of money to make it happen. A good match or not? Leyla Seka, a partner at Operator Capital, who formerly ran the AppExchange at Salesforce, sees good things ahead with a combined Slack and Salesforce. “Salesforce and Slack together will offer a powerful duo of applications that will help companies work more effectively together. I think that COVID-19 has shown us how critical it is to get employees the data they need to do their job, but also the community they need to thrive at their job. The marriage of Salesforce and Slack promises to do just that,” Seka told me. With Hyperforce, Salesforce lets you move your data to any public cloud Brent Leary, principal analyst at CRM Essentials was knocked out by the price tag, but says it shows that Salesforce is not afraid to go after what it wants, even if it has to pay a hefty price to get it. “This goes to show Salesforce has absolutely no fear in them when it comes to this deal. They are willing to throw down the big bucks on this acquisition because they see a huge payoff by adding this piece into their platform,” he said. As for Slack, he sees it as a way for them to take the fast track to the enterprise big leagues. “And for Slack they go from competing with AMOSS (Adobe, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Salesforce) to joining the one of them, and the company that really made the most sense for them to team up with,” he said. Laurie McCabe, an analyst and founder at SMB Group agrees with Leary’s take, saying Salesforce doesn’t hesitate when it thinks the value is there. “In this case, Slack gives them a strong collaboration offering that will help them compete more effectively against Microsoft’s growing cloud portfolio, which of course includes CRM and Teams,” she said. Show me the money Battery’s Agrawal believes this deal is all about generating revenue, and it was willing to pay a premium to move the needle in billion dollar chunks. The end game he believes is about catching Microsoft, or at the very least getting to $1 trillion (with a T, folks) in market cap. It’s worth noting that investors are not showing signs, initially at least, of liking this deal with the stock down over 8% today and 16.5% since the rumor of Salesforce’s interest in Slack surfaced last week before the Thanksgiving holiday. That translates into over $18 billion in lost market cap, probably not the reaction that they were hoping for. But Salesforce is big enough that it can afford to play a long game, and reach its financial goals with the help of Slack. Slack’s stock climbs on possible Salesforce acquisition “To get to a market cap of $1 trillion, Salesforce now has to take MSFT head on. Until now, the company has mostly been able to stay in its own swim lane in terms of products. […] To get to a trillion dollars in market cap, Salesforce needs to try to grow in two massive markets,” Agrawal said. Those would be either knowledge worker/desktop (see the 2016 Quip acquisition) or cloud (see the Hyperforce announcement). Agrawal says chances are the company’s best bet is the former, and it was willing to pay top dollar to get it. “The deal will help Salesforce maintain a 20%+ growth rate over next few years,” he said. Ultimately, he sees it moving the revenue needle, which should eventually drive market cap higher and help achieve those goals. It’s worth noting that Salesforce president and CEO Bret Taylor said while they intend to integrate Slack deeply into the Salesforce product family, they recognize the power and utility of Slack as a stand-alone product and they don’t intend to do anything that would mess with that. “Fundamentally, we want to make sure that Slack remains as a kind of technology agnostic platform. We know that Slack is used by millions and millions of people every day to connect every tool under the sun. The most remarkable thing is just how many customers have also just integrated their own custom internal tools as well into this is really kind of the central nervous system for the teams that use it, and we would never want to change that,” he said. It’s hard to judge a deal this large until we have some hindsight and see how well the two companies have meshed, how well they can incorporate Slack into the Salesforce ecosystem, while allowing that independence Taylor alluded to. If they can find a way to walk that line and Slack becomes that wrapper, that operating system, that glue that holds the Salesforce ecosystem together it will be a good deal, but if Slack stops innovating and withers under the weight of its corporate overlords, then it might not be money well spent. Time will tell which is the case. Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Studying for med school is tough. What if it was more Pixar-like? Sketchy, a visual learning platform, takes complex material that a med student might need to memorize for an exam, and puts the information in an illustrated scene. For example, it uses a countryside kingdom to explain the coronavirus, or a salmon dinner to explain Salmonella. The goal is for a student to be able to mentally go back to the scene while taking an exam, walk through it and retrieve all of the information. While Sketchy’s strategy might seem odd, it’s actually well-known. The “memory palace” technique matches objects to concepts for easier memorization. So far, Sketchy has more than 30,000 paid subscribers and is on track to hit $7 million in revenue this year. To charge this growth and break into new content verticals, Sketchy is taking venture capital on for the first time in its seven-year history. Last month, the team announced that it has raised a $30 million Series A led by The Chernin Group (TCG). Today, it tacks on $2 million to that total with financing from co-investor Reach Capital. It’s a big combined investment for a company that has been bootstrapping since birth — and the deal could help us see where online education is heading. Edtech investors are panning for gold The capital comes as Sketchy itself looks to grow past a content service for med students, and into an education platform tackling information in critical fields, from legal to nursing. With the new money, Sketchy plans to build an in-house animation studio and hire more artists and doctors, some of whom are currently consultants. The story A big part of Sketchy’s magic, and effectiveness, comes from the fact that all of its founding team have experience in medicine. The company began in 2013 when then-med students Saud Siddiqui and Andrew Berg were in desperate need of a better study solution for microbiology. To liven up their studying, Berg and Siddiqui began weaving characters into stories to try to memorize concepts — and after a few good test scores, they started creating stories for their classmates. “Neither Sid or I were artists, so they were pretty bad,” Berg said. As demand continued, the duo put their scraggly sketches on YouTube. Eventually, Siddiqui and Berg roped in classmate Bryan Lemieux, a good artist, to tell the stories with them. Eventually Bryan brought on his twin brother, Aaron, and the founding team was born. Fast-forward to today: Siddiqui and Berg have finished their residencies in emergency medicine, while the Lemieux brothers chose to leave medicine. All have moved full-time to the company after trying to balance both jobs. Still, the knowledge from working in the field continues to be useful. The startup’s name has evolved: born as SketchyMedical, it has since rebranded to just Sketchy. While the team chose the name to nod toward its focus on art, the name also has negative connotations. Expect a rebrand in the future. Despite this, the company claims that it is used by a third of med students in the United States. The majority of its revenues come from 12-month subscriptions for students looking to prep for med school exams like Step 1, and Step 2. While B2C is a promising business model for many reasons (it’s always easier to convince a human to pay instead of a entire, red-tape-bound institution), the company has also posted promising B2B growth. So far, 20% of its revenue comes from direct contracts it has with medical schools. The founders said that they will pursue both growth methods for now, but based on the price of med school (and student debt crisis), it would be great to see them grow through school contracts so students don’t have to face the brunt of costs. Beyond the coronavirus Reach Capital’s Jennifer Carolan, an investor in Sketchy, said that Sketchy’s product market fit with med students is a “strong signal that their content is worth it.” Even with competitors such as Picorize and Medcomic, she’s confident that Sketchy’s product is defensible and can expand into new verticals. Part of the reason the firm approached Sketchy to invest in them is because of low customer acquisition costs, Carolan notes in a blog post.  That said, unlike most edtech companies, which have enjoyed surging new user demand thanks to remote learning, Sketchy didn’t have a huge COVID-19 boom. “We weren’t one of those people that hadn’t found product market fit and then exploded after COVID,” said Berg. “We’ve always been there and been growing.” So the real trigger for today’s fundraise wasn’t COVID-19 momentum, but instead, a push to capitalize its sustained growth into more digital curriculum verticals. Long-term, think of Sketchy as joining a chorus of startups, including Top Hat Jr and Newsela, that want to replace textbook publishers. In a remote world, live, moving content is more rapidly losing value, and upstarts are trying to replace them with more effective and engaging content. “One of the challenges is just to make sure we don’t go too fast,” Siddiqui said. “We want to keep that degree of quality we’ve maintained for so many years, and do it at scale.” Equity Dive: Edtech’s 2020 wakeup call

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