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SOSV, a twenty-year-old fund with $500M in assets under management, has been running accelerators for years. Their oldest one, HAX, is the premier hardware accelerator in San Francisco and Shenzhen and they’ve recently launched a food accelerator in New York and a pair of biology accelerators. Now, however, they’ve just announced dLab, a crypto accelerator that is paired with Cardano to build out distributed apps and solutions. It is led by Nick Plante, a programmer integral in drafting the JOBS Act and who co-founded Wefunder, a successful crowdfunding platform. “We can only make this sort of commitment to ecosystems we feel are incredibly compelling; it takes a substantial amount of dedication, education, staffing, and of course the long term financial commitment to support the space and the companies,” said Plante. “We invest in ecosystems that we identify as ‘macro trends’ like disruptive food, life sciences and synthetic biology, Chinese market entry, IoT and robotics… things that will fundamentally alter the way that we live in the next 100 years.” “Decentralization is clearly a macro trend, in the macro sense. What’s happening with blockchain and digital ledger technologies has the potential to upend some of the most basic economic incentives that lie beneath the things we do every day; to affect the ways that humans collaborate, identify, trust, govern, and bring new ideas to life… it underlies all of it,” he said. Dlab supplies up to $200,000 in pre-seed funding as well as perks from the SOSV global network of accelerators. They are also offering fellowships in partnership with Cardano to work with projects that would further blockchain research. “Through last year and the start of this year we kept watching the blockchain ecosystem do some amazing things – along with some criminal things. The surveys and reports about the fraud rates of ICOs and other unpleasantness kept underlining our concerns report after report. The potential for the big economic shifts I mentioned earlier were clearly here but there were so, so many problems; there was a real need for education, for curation, and for proper governance and incentive structures to be put in place,” said Plante. The group is accepting applications now for a January cohort. The group invests in 150 startups per year, a heady number in these cash-poor times.

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If you’ve ever bought a movie on Google Play and decided to save a few bucks by buying it in standard definition, you might’ve just lucked out. Google has just announced that it’s upgrading all previously purchased movies to 4K (if a 4K version is available) free of charge. Even if you bought SD instead of HD when the latter was available, they’re bumping it all the way up to 4K. (Before you go trying to be sneaky-sneaks: no, you can’t go and buy an SD version of something now and immediately get the 4K version free instead. Google says only movies “bought or redeemed before October 23, 2018 will be upgraded.”) Meanwhile, they’re also dropping prices on 4K content almost across the board. Most 4K movies on Google Play will now cost less than $20 (down from ~$30, in many cases). We first noticed them starting to test out this change back in September of last year. Worth noting: not all movies are available in 4K. Hell, most movies aren’t in 4K. While the list of 4K titles is steadily growing, it’s still an itty bitty chunk of what’s out there. If any of your previously purchased movies got the upgrade treatment, though, you should see a notification (like the one above) pop up the next time you open the Play app.

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Apple’s still-untitled morning show drama already has some serious star power, with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as its leads. Now it’s adding Steve Carell to the cast. This will be Carell’s first regular role on a TV show since his seven seasons starring in the U.S. version of “The Office.” He’ll be playing Mitch Kessler, a morning show anchor who’s struggling to stay relevant. And no, it’s not the first time he’s playing a news anchor. The series will focus on the world of morning TV, drawing material from reporter Brian Stelter’s book “Top of the Morning.” (Stelter serves as a consultant.) It was one of the first shows that Apple announced as part of its push into original streaming content, with two seasons of 10 episodes each already ordered. The company plans to start production in Los Angeles next week. Aniston and Witherspoon (who’s working on more than one show with Apple) are both serving as executive producers, as is director Mimi Leder (who directed many of the best episodes of “The Leftovers”) and showrunner Kerry Ehrin (who previously co-created “Bates Motel”). In other Apple streaming news, regular TechCrunch readers may be aware that I am extremely excited about the upcoming adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels. Well I’m even more excited with today’s announcement from comics writer and fantasy novelist Saladin Ahmed that he’s joining the show. Still unclear: What Apple’s streaming service will be called, and what, if anything, it will cost viewers.

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A few weeks after Circle announced the launch of USD Coin (or USDC for short), Coinbase also announced that customers can now buy, sell, send and receive USDC on Coinbase. A USDC is a token that is worth exactly 1 USD. Its value is going to stay stable against USD — hence the name stablecoin for this type of coins. Unlike traditional cryptocurrencies, you can be sure that the value of your USDC wallet isn’t going to fluctuate like crazy. It opens up new possibilities and use cases. While Coinbase lets you hold USD in your Coinbase account, this isn’t safe. If somebody hacks into your account, you could end up with an empty wallet. That’s why you should always try to control the keys of your wallet and transfer your coins to a safer wallet, such as a Ledger wallet or at least a software solution like MyEtherWallet. But if you want to short cryptocurrencies without sending your USD back to your bank account, you can now convert your tokens to USDC. This way, it’ll be easier to buy cryptocurrencies again in the future. And maybe you can avoid paying taxes by hiding your tokens from taxation authorities… USDC also works just like a regular token. You just need a wallet address to send some USDC. USDC is an ERC-20 token, which means that it leverages the Ethereum blockchain and ecosystem. But stablecoins need to be regulated more tightly. Circle, Coinbase and a bunch of other companies have created the CENTRE consortium to define the policies around stablecoins. For instance, if you want to handle stablecoins on your exchange, you need to send regular audited reports that prove that you have as many USD sitting on a bank account as issued tokens. With both Coinbase and Circle on board, it’s clear that USDC is off to a good start. Now let’s see if there’s enough interest to create other stablecoins based on EUR, CNY and other fiat currencies.

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We already knew that the electronic scooter space in Europe was heating up, with Berlin’s Tier announcing today it has raised €25 million in a round led by Northzone, and rumours circulating that Delivery Hero founder Lukasz Gadowski has ventured into the space — all within the context of U.S. companies Bird and Lime recently expanding to Europe. However, now it seems that Balderton Capital could be about to make its move by investing in Sweden’s VOI Technology, another e-scooter rental play with pan-European ambitions. According to multiple sources, the London-based venture capital firm is gearing up to lead a round in Stockholm-based VOI. Two sources say the amount being invested is $15 million at a pre-money valuation of between $35-40 million, while another source said it could be as much as $25 million. Separately, I’m hearing that with multiple term sheets on the table and the pace at which the company is growing, VOI is actually considering increasing the round to $50 million. Other VC firms thought to be participating are Berlin’s Project A, and Netherland-based Prime Ventures. To date, VOI has raised around just shy of $3 million in seed funding from Vostok New Ventures. I contacted Balderton Capital earlier today, but haven’t heard back. A spokesperson for Project also declined to comment. Neither Prime Ventures or VOI could be reached at the time of publication. What is particularly noteworthy about Balderton’s entrance into the e-scooter market is that three of the other “big four” London VC firms have already made U.S. investments in the space. Index and Accel have backed Bird, and Atomico has backed Lime. As I noted in my earlier Tier funding story — which marked the biggest financial backing for a European company in the space to date — this isn’t stopping a number of European investors getting busy trying to create the “Bird or Lime of Europe,” even if it is far from clear that Bird or Lime won’t take that title for themselves (which is obviously the bet being made by Index, Accel and Atomico). The general sentiment of European VCs steadfastly trying to nurture a European born competitor is that they don’t want to see the e-scooter rental market be rolled over by the U.S. in the same way that Uber rode in and knocked out many local players. With that said, the worse case scenario in the eyes of many of those same VCs (and those VCs standing on the sidelines not participating) is that Bird or Lime will eventually acquire the most promising European e-scooter company or companies. In other words, the downside is mitigated somewhat, failing an outright home run. Meanwhile, Tier, VOI and Gadowski’s Go Flash aren’t the only European born e-scooter startups with pan-European ambitions. There’s also Coup, an e-scooter subsidiary owned by Bosch and backed by BCG Digital Ventures that operates in Berlin, Paris and Madrid. And just two month’s ago Taxify announced its intention to do e-scooter rentals under the brand Bolt, first launched in Paris but also planning to be pan-European, including Germany. Not that everyone is convinced. Two early-stage European VCs I spoke to today said they hated the space. “I just don’t understand, isn’t it going to be a massive bloodbath?” said one of the VCs, before questioning the total number of rides we could see in Europe annually. “I just don’t see how Europe is going to produce multiple multibillion dollar businesses in this space. I think the market size caps it”.

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Google sometimes experiments with new features in beta versions of its various Android applications on Google Play. However, the recently spotted YouTube beta program will not, unfortunately, be a testbed for upcoming additions to the video-sharing service. Instead, Google says it only plans to test the stability of the YouTube app at this time, not features. The company quietly rolled out a YouTube beta program last week on Google Play, where it was soon spotted by the folks at Android Police. Originally, the belief was that Google would use this new beta to try out features it was planning to bring to the YouTube app – in fact, that’s what Google’s own help documentation about the beta said! Not only that, but the documentation urged testers not to share information about the features they see in the app until they’re publicly launched. That all sounds pretty exciting, right? (At least for us early adopters who love to get mess around with the latest new thing before anyone else.) But after asking Google for more information on the program, the company updated its help documentation to remove the wording about “experimental features.” It now says testers will only help YouTube to stabilize its app. We also understand, too, that YouTube has always run a beta program, the only change is that, as of last week, it become more broadly accessible. Users can now join the program to help YouTube test stability of the app and can then opt out at any time they choose. At this point, however, Google doesn’t plan on trying out new features in the beta build. That could, of course, change at any time in the future. So if you really want to be the first to know, you may want to join the beta program just in case. But YouTube for a long time now has been testing its new additions by way of server-side testing. It even decided this year to be more public about those tests – disclosing its experiments by way of its @TeamYouTube handle and the Creator Insider channel. For example, this is where the company first announced its test of a new Explore tab on iPhone a few months ago, and more recently said it would try different ways of inserting ads into videos, to see if users prefer fewer interruptions even if it meant multiple ads per interruption. YouTube beta program members may or may not be opted into those same experiments, as they roll out. It will depend on if they’re in the testing bucket that’s targeted at that time.

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Repairing a phone is harder than it needs to be. With phone manufacturers spending the last decade chasing device slimness and building devices meant to last however long a phone contract lasts, user repairability just doesn’t seem to be something they care much about. Need a repair part? Good luck on eBay, friendo! In what might, maybe, hopefully be a sign of that tide changing, Motorola is now selling official repair kits in a partnership with iFixit . You probably know iFixit as the folks that somehow manage to rip apart nearly every new popular device within hours of its release. Their deep gadget teardowns show you how the clocks tick and the silicon hamster wheels turn, allowing a peek inside while your own hard-earned gear stays in one happily functioning piece. But they also sell a bunch of bits and bobs for when things stop working. They source tons of individual parts for repairing all sorts of devices, from aging iPods to console controllers. And now, for a handful of Motorola phones, they’re doing it with Motorola’s blessing. They’ve just started shipping a handful of pre-assembled repair kits with replacement parts sourced straight from Motorola. At this point they’ve got kits for eight different phones (Moto Z, Moto X, Droid Turbo 2, Moto Z Play, Moto G5, Z Force, X Pure and G4 Plus). They’re focusing on the two biggest, most frequently replaced components — the battery and the screen — and each kit contains everything you need to get the phone apart, patched up and put back together. The battery replacement kits cost around $40, while the screen kits cost around $100-$200. Will other manufacturers follow suit? It’s hard to say. But I’d sure hope so. With each subsequent generation of smartphone getting less and less enticing (“The camera is slightly better! The screen is… brighter? Harder? Faster? Stronger?”), it’d be great to see more of them embrace repair. (Image source: iFixit’s Moto Z repair guide)

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If Facebook Messenger’s redesign succeeds, you won’t really notice it even happened. I hardly did over the past week of testing. There’s just a subtle sense that the claustrophobia has lifted. Perhaps that’s why Facebook decided to throw a big breakfast press event with 30 reporters today at its new downtown San Francisco office, complete with an Instagram-worthy donut wall. Even though the changes are minimal — fewer tabs, color gradients thread backgrounds, and a rounder logo — Facebook was eager to trigger an unequivocally positive news cycle. Old Messenger vs New Messenger In the seven years since Facebook acquired group chat app Beluga and turned it into Messenger, it’s done nothing but cram in more features. With five navigation bar options, nine total tabs, Stories, games, and businesses, Messenger’s real purpose — chatting with your friends — started to feel buried. So today Messenger is rolling out a simpler interface with a lot more white space, a little less redundancy, and a casual vibe. Here’s a comparison of the app before and after. Old Messenger:  Previously, there were five main navigation buttons along the bottom of the app. Between the actually useful Chats section that’d been invaded by Stories and the chaotic People section, there were tabs for calls, group chats, active friends, . Between then  a camera button that aggressively beckoned you to post Stories, a dedicated Games tab, and a Discover tab for finding businesses and utility app. New Messenger: Now there are just three navigation buttons. The camera button has been moved up next to the chat composer inside the Chat section above Stories, People now contains the Active list as well as all Stories by friends, and Discover combines games and businesses. The fact that Stories is in both the Chats and People section make it seem that the company wants a lot more than the existing 300 million users across Facebook and Messenger opening its Snapchat copycat. All the old features are still available, just not quite as prominent as before. The one new feature is several color gradients you can use to customize specific chat threads. If you rapidly scroll through the messages, you’ll see the bubble background colors fade through the gradient.  And one much-requested feature still on the way is Dark Mode, which Facebook says will launch in the next several weeks to reduce glare and make night time usage easier on the eyes. Finally, Messenger has a softer new logo. The sharp edges have been rounded off the quote bubble and lightning insignia. It seems designed to better compete with Snapchat and remind users that Messenger is fun and friendly as well as fast. With the company’s downward scandal spiral of breaches, election interference, and fake news-inspired violence, it’s not just Messenger that’s a mess. It’s all of Facebook, both literally and metaphorically. Cleaning up, fighting back —  those are the messages the company wants to drive home. Facebook scored a win on this front last week by getting dozens of journalists (myself included) to breathlessly cover its election “war room”, until everyone realized they’d played themselves for page views. Today’s Messenger event felt a little like deja-vu as Facebook drilled the word “simple” into our heads. And with the news going live just an hour after the event ended, many reporters stayed, writing their posts about Facebook while still inside Facebook.

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Last month, the internet was a buzz with reports that Apple was sweetening up selfies on the iPhone XS and XS Max. The shots appeared to have an effect applied, in a manner similar to “beauty” filters offered on competing handsets. Apple denied it was intentionally touching photos, but not before it earned the predictable name, “Beautygate.” Turns out it wasn’t just your imagination. The shots were getting softer, as a result of a software bug, according to the company. As The Verge reports, however, Apple will be fixing things with the upcoming iOS 12.1 update. Apple has since confirmed the fix with TechCrunch, noting that it’s also available in the current beta. The long and short of what’s happening is this: the HDR processing has been defaulting to a longer shutter speed. That coupled with a loss of front-facing OIS leads to shakier images and blurrier photos. In other words, your phone wasn’t making you prettier, so much as a bit more blurry. Honestly though, sometimes we’ll take what we can get. The beta of the update is available now and should be rolling out to everyone else soon.

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The office might not seem like an area in desperate need of disruption, but Envoy — a Silicon Valley company used to sign in over 100,000 visitors at offices across the world each day; and a TechCrunch SF office neighbor! — has raised $43 million to do just that. The company started life five years digitizing the sign-in book with a simple iPad-based approach, and it has moved on to office deliveries with an automated system that simply involves scanning a barcode. In both cases, alerts are routed directly to the person collecting the goods or visitor using an app. The concept is simple: no more pen and paper, no calls or prompts, everything goes digital. The result is an easier life for office workers and more efficiency for front desk staff, who have more time for important items. A basic version of Envoy is available for free, but the feature-rich options include two-tiered plans ($99/$249 per month) and bespoke packages for more advanced integrations. This new Series B capital takes Envoy to $59.5 million raised to date. The round was led by Menlo Ventures with participation from existing backers Initialized Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Envoy’s previous round was a $15 million Series A in 2015, and its seed investors include Marc Benioff as well as Initialized Capital partners Gary Tan and Alexis Ohanian. Envoy has certainly expanded since that first $1.5 million seed deal. CEO and founder Larry Gadea, who spent four years at Google after joining at 19 and later worked for Twitter, told TechCrunch in an interview that its customer base spans 72 countries. Over 32 million visitors have been signed in to date and Gadea is particularly proud that 80 percent of its 10,000 daily companies — which includes well-known names like Yelp, Mailchimp and Rakuten — are based outside of Silicon Valley. That, he rightly asserts, is evidence that the issue isn’t just a Silicon Valley/first world problem like so many ideas spun out of The Valley can be. “The growth has been absolutely nuts. It’s a very viral product… people see it, use it and then take it back to their company,” Gadea, who joined Google from high school in Canada, explained. “The majority of our deals happening through inbound.” Child prodigy Larry Gadea was plucked from high school in Canada by Google after the company discovered a plug-in he had developed for its desktop search service Organic growth is a good start, but $43 million is a lot of money and it’ll be used to go push things further still and expand the Envoy team which is currently at around 100 people. You can expect more new office digitizations from the company since its ultimate goal is to make the entire office smarter. That could include products like meeting room booking and other small pieces which, when put together, Gadea hopes will allow workers to concentrate on their work not unnecessary admin. Just as Envoy has done with front desk staff. “We’re known for the front desk and sign-in but where I think it’s really interesting, and where our future is, is that the rest of the office is just so broken,” he explained. “There’s so much low-hanging fruit we can go after.” Gadea explained a little more in an Envoy blog post announcing the new round: Though we’ve helped modernize over 10,000 lobbies with automated iPad-based sign-in, and started bringing some order to the chaos of the mailroom, the rest of the workplace remains largely untouched: people are losing their keys/badges (and being locked out of their office!), meeting rooms are reserved but are unoccupied, lights/heating are left on after-hours, there’s all sorts of out-of-place things that nobody’s reporting, etc. Where are the products to fix all those things? And to unify them all together. The ultimate vision is a kind of ‘office OS’ platform that other companies can build off. Gadea compares the potential impact to what Nest has done to the home with its smart products, which started with the thermostat. Gadea is still working on a name for the platform, and he isn’t saying exactly what features it might include. Certainly, now that there’s an additional $43 million in the kitty, expectations for what might (first) appear to be a modest proposal for the front desk have been raised.

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Industry vets and students alike crammed into UCLA’s historic Royce Hall last week for TC Sessions: AR/VR, our one-day event on the fast-moving (and hype-plagued) industry and the people in it. Disney, Snap, Oculus and more stopped by to chat and show off their latest; if you didn’t happen to be in LA that day, read on and find out what we learned — and follow the links to watch the interviews and panels yourself. To kick off the day we had Jon Snoddy from Walt Disney Imagineering. As you can imagine, this is a company deeply invested in “experiences.” But he warned that VR and AR storytelling isn’t ready for prime time: “I don’t feel like we’re there yet. We know it’s extraordinary, we know it’s really interesting, but it’s not yet speaking to us deeply the way it will.” Next came Snap’s Eitan Pilipski. Snapchat wants to leave augmented reality creativity up to the creators rather than prescribing what they should build. AR headsets people want to wear in real life might take years to arrive, but nevertheless Snap confirmed that it’s prototyping new AI-powered face filters and VR experiences in the meantime. I was onstage next with a collection of startups which, while very different from each other, collectively embody a willingness to pursue alternative display methods — holography and projection — as businesses. Ashley Crowder from VNTANA and Shawn Frayne from Looking Glass explained how they essentially built the technology they saw demand for: holographic display tech that makes 3D visualization simple and real. And Lightform’s Brett Jones talked about embracing and extending the real world and creating shared experiences rather than isolated ones. Frayne’s holographic desktop display was there in the lobby, I should add, and very impressive it was. People were crowding three or four deep to try to understand how the giant block of acrylic could hold 3D characters and landscapes. Maureen Fan from BaoBab Studios touched on the importance of conserving cash for entertainment-focused virtual reality companies. Previewing her new film, Crow, Fan noted that new modes of storytelling need to be explored for the medium, such as the creative merging of gaming and cinematic experiences. Up next was a large panel of investors: Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Jacob Mullins (Shasta Ventures), Catherine Ulrich (FirstMark Capital), and Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia). The consensus of this lively discussion was that (as Fan noted earlier) this is a time for startups to go lean. Competition has been thinned out by companies burning VC cash and a bootstrapped, efficient company stands out from the crowd. Oculus is getting serious about non-gaming experiences in virtual reality. In our chat with Oculus Executive Producer Yelena Rachitsky, we heard more details about how the company is looking to new hardware to deepen the interactions users can have in VR and that new hardware like the Oculus Quest will allow users to go far beyond the capabilities of 360-degree VR video. Of course if Oculus is around, its parent company can’t be far away. Facebook’s Ficus Kirkpatrick believes it must build exemplary ‘lighthouse’ AR experiences to guide independent developers towards use cases they could enhance. Beyond creative expression, AR is progressing slowly since no one wants to hold a phone in the air for too long. But that’s also why Facebook is already investing in efforts to build its own AR headset. Matt Miesnieks, from 6d.ai, announced the opening of his company’s augmented reality development platform to the public and made a case of the creation of an open mapping platform and toolkit for opening augmented reality to collaborative experiences and the masses. Augmented reality headsets like Magic Leap and Hololens tend to hog the spotlight, but phones are where most people will have their first taste. Parham Aarabi (Modiface), Kirin Sinha (Illumix) and Allison Wood (Camera IQ) agreed that mainstreaming the tech is about three to five years away, with a successful standalone device like a headset somewhere beyond that. They also agreed that while there are countless tech demos and novelties, there’s still no killer app for AR. Derek Belch (STRIVR), Clorama Dorvilias (DebiasVR), and Morgan Mercer (Vantage Point) took on the potential of VR in commercial and industrial applications. They concluded that making consumer technology enterprise grade remains one of the most significant adoption to virtual reality applications in business. (Companies like StarVR are specifically targeting businesses, but it remains to be seen whether that play will succeed.) With Facebook running the VR show, how are small VR startups making a dent in social? The CEOs of TheWaveVR, Mindshow and SVRF all say that part of the key is finding the best ways for users to interact and making experiences that bring people together in different ways. After a break, we were treated to a live demo of the VR versus boxing game Creed: Rise to Glory, by developer Survios co-founders Alex Silkin and James Iliff. They then joined me for a discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of social and multiplayer VR, both in how they can create intimate experiences and how developers can inoculate against isolation or abuse in the player base. Early stage investments are key to the success of any emerging industry and the VR space is seeing a slowdown in that area. Peter Rojas of Betaworks and Greg Castle from Anorak offered more details on their investment strategies and how they see success in the AR space coming along as the tech industry’s biggest companies continue to pump money into the technologies. UCLA contributed a moderator with Anderson’s Jay Tucker, who talked with Mariana Acuna (Opaque Studios) and Guy Primus (Virtual Reality Company) about how storytelling in VR may be in very early days, but that this period of exploration and experimentation is something to be encouraged and experienced. Movies didn’t begin with Netflix and Marvel — they started with picture palaces and one-reel silent shorts. VR is following the same path. And what would an AR/VR conference be without the creators of the most popular AR game ever created? Niantic already has some big plans as it expands its success beyond Pokémon GO. The company which is deep in development of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is building out a developer platform based on their cutting edge AR technologies. In our chat, AR research head Ross Finman talks about privacy in the upcoming AR age and just how much of a challenger Apple is to them in the space. That wrapped the show; you can see more images (perhaps of yourself) at our Flickr page. Thanks to our sponsors, our generous hosts at UCLA, the motivated and interesting speakers, and most of all the attendees. See you again soon!

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Following news of Hulu’s plans to move towards skinnier bundles, including those consisting of premium add-ons, the streaming service this morning announced the addition of Starz to its service. The Starz premium add-on will be available across all tiers of Hulu’s service, including its Limited Commercials and No Commercials plans, as well as its Live TV service. It costs an extra $8.99 per month – the same price it sells for on rival services, like Amazon’s Prime Video Channels, for example. This is the fourth premium add-on to come to Hulu, and the most affordable, following HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, which cost $14.99/month, $10.99/month, and $9.99/month, respectively. Hulu, so far, has been surprisingly slow to roll out a customizable set of add-on subscriptions for those who want access to premium entertainment or sports programming. Meanwhile, rival live TV service YouTube TV offers the NBA League Pass, Fox Soccer Plus, Curiosity Stream, Showtime, Starz, AMC Premiere, Shudder, and Sundance Now. Sling TV breaks up its extras into bundles customers can pick and choose from, and AT&T’s DirecTV Now offers programming tiers with optional add-ons, too. But Hulu’s bundles and pricing may change in the future – CEO Randy Freer told The Information recently it’s eying a revamp of its service that will break up programming into smaller packages. Hulu wouldn’t comment today on whether it has plans for more add-ons in the future, however. Hulu already had a deal with Starz to be the exclusive subscription streaming home to past seasons of Starz’ Original series “Power,” which arrived on Hulu last year, and has now been streamed for a total of 50 million hours by Hulu subscribers. With the Starz add-on, subscribers can watch all seasons of the show, including Season 5 – and they can watch it live as it airs or on-demand. Other Starz series of note include “Outlander,” Vida,” “Counterpart,” and “American Gods.” It’s also currently featuring movies like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and exclusive documentaries.  

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Online dating is trash. Seriously, try to find anyone who disagrees with me. Vibes, founded by an all-female team, aims to be different. Sure, the swipe mechanics are still there, but that’s about the only similarity you’ll find between Vibes and the likes of Tinder, Hinge, Bumble and others. “Because of how crowded the space is, when people hear the words ‘dating app’ they’re like ‘ugh, why do I need another one? My dance card’s full,” Vibes co-founder Jenais Zarlin told TechCrunch. “But those same people are also the ones to say the ratio of good experiences to negative ones, or ones that feel transactional is way off.” The basis for Vibes is that meaningful connections are rooted in respect and authenticity, Zarlin told me. That’s why she sees Vibes as an extension of physical safe spaces “we know and admire.” “Text and semi-anonymity really embolden people to behave in ways they wouldn’t in person,” Zarlin said. That’s why text-based messaging is not part of the experience at all. When you sign up (via Facebook)*, you first must agree to the app’s code of conduct. Vibes’ code of conduct centers around respecting difference (not being racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and body-shaming) and generally respecting others by not being sexually explicit or threatening harm. Next, you select whether you’re down to vibe with people whose preferred pronouns are him, her or them. “In other apps, the heteronormative agenda is pretty front and center and gender binaries are pretty core to them,” Zarlin said. “It feels like we’re at a time where we need to move past that.” Next, you select some photos you want to feature and then choose a conversation starter. If you match with someone, you’ll record a short, pixelated video answering their question. Vibes pixelates the video for those who may be shy. But even with the video pixelated, people can still hear your voice and pick up on mannerisms, just as they would be able to in person. “It’s a much heavier lift sending a video message, but we expect that it will result in more quality interactions — but probably fewer overall interactions,” Zarlin said. Its emphasis on moderation also sets Vibes apart from other dating apps. For every first message you receive, Vibes requires you to actively acknowledge if the message was or was not okay with you. The present day also feels like the right time for Vibes to launch to the masses, Zarlin told me. “2018 has been a very interesting year for a lot of reasons and there’s been dialogue around self-care, respect and equality,” Zarlin said. “We’ve never talked so much about those issues and yet I think we’re still not innovating around them, or not innovating enough. So Vibes really does to me feel like it has so much potential to be transformative and it was always designed with all of those ideals and values in mind.” Vibes soft-launched back in July and currently has a few hundred people using the app. Vibes, which has $1.5 million in funding, is free to use but envisions developing a freemium model down the road. *Zarlin said the decision to use Facebook was made before all of Facebook’s data scandals. Vibes does eventually plan to remove Facebook from the sign-up process.

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Y Combinator, the wildly successful San Francisco-based startup accelerator, is issuing a request for startups that will focus on different kinds of geo-engineering technologies in a bid to mitigate the effects of climate change. With the acknowledgement earlier this month from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that drastic measures are going to be required to reverse climate change and protect the globe from catastrophic climatological events by 2050, the startup accelerator is hoping that its call to action might spur some new thinking. This is not fine “I’ve been thinking about this over the past year or so. [And I] keep meeting really smart people, and the situation keeps seeming to get more dire. This isn’t anyone’s plan A, but we seem to totally be failing at curbing emissions fast enough,” wrote Y Combinator partner Sam Altman, in an email. “If one talented group of people decided to take this seriously and work on one of these ideas, I’d be delighted.  We have good luck with RFS’s that sound extremely ambitious in the past. I believe you have to set out very ambitious goals, and think about what’s at the edge of possible, in order to get significant breakthroughs to happen.” Limiting the damage caused by climate change, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050 — meaning that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air. No government is anywhere near achieving this goal and certainly not the world’s most populous and most polluting nations — including the U.S., India, and China. Indeed, the response from the current U.S. administration seems to be “smoke ’em if you got ’em.” As its own reports reveal the disaster of climate inaction, Trump proposes climate inaction As the Y Combinator statement announcing the new initiative itself suggests, the world is well past reversing climate change by simply reducing emissions. “Phase 1” of climate change is reversible by reducing emissions, but we are no longer in “Phase 1.” We’re now in “Phase 2” and stopping climate change requires both emission reduction and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. “Phase 2” is occurring faster and hotter than we thought. If we don’t act soon, we’ll end up in “Phase 3” and be too late for both of these strategies to work. So the company has put out its call for what it’s dubbing “frontier technologies”. These include developing new strains of ocean phytoplankton, carbon fixing through electro-geochemical processes, genetically modified enzymatic carbon fixing using cell-free systems, and desert flooding to create micro-oases and carbon sinks of new (somewhat arable) land. If all of these things sound insane and completely unfeasible without government support, that’s because they essentially are. But as we’ve written ourselves, it’s time for the world to start thinking about geo-engineering as an option. At what point do we admit that geoengineering is an option? Some iterations of Y Combinator’s plan for carbon sequestration already exist or have been tried by previous startups. In its blog post, the accelerator pointed to bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, which would require growing new biomass to convert into energy and then capturing the emissions created when that biomass is burned for power and burying it in the ground. Other methods that have been floated include direct air capture; a technology used by companies like Carbon Engineering — a Bill Gates-backed company that takes carbon dioxide from the air and converts it into fuels and chemicals; LanzaTech, a New Zealand company that converts carbon into chemicals and fuels; and the Australian cement manufacturer Calix. Further afield is solar radiation management, which would reflect inbound sunlight back into space. Researchers have proposed sending satellites into space that would reflect solar energy, injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, cloud-seeding to make them more reflective, or whitening roofs and developing reflective crops that would not absorb as much sun. Those technologies are (to some degree) here already, what Y Combinator is asking for from startups and entrepreneurs are the next generation of geo-engineering technologies. This new initiative from Y Combinator is both the ultimate expression of Silicon Valley hubris and a clear-eyed attempt to wrestle with what is quickly becoming accepted as the reality of climate change and its impact on the world. And fortunately or unfortunately for everyone, without the support of the word’s governments, none of these solutions, however viable or compelling will ever see the light of day. What’s equally troubling is the thought that some government, recognizing how dire the situation is, might go rogue and unilaterally implement some of these technologies without regard to the consequences of the global ecosystem. If the apocryphal butterfly flapping its wings could create monsoons halfway around the world, what might the potential implications be of creating new life in the ocean to absorb global emissions? Altman acknowledges that the best solution is still emissions reduction — and he’s invested in nuclear power companies that could be a part of that solution — but the growing consensus is that emissions reduction may no longer be enough (unless a moonshot discovery is made). That leaves building a world that’s better able to adapt to the consequences or changing the world to the solve the problem.

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Futrli, a cloud-based business decision-making platform aimed at small businesses, has raised a £4m Series A from e.ventures, Notion Capital and firstminute Capital. Bootstrapped to date, Futrli claims to have over 40,000 businesses and 1,100 accountants in 130 countries using it. The four-year-old business led by CEO and founder Hannah Dawson says it uses AI/ML techniques to produce actionable insights for small businesses. Dawson said: “Futrli was born from my own typical experience as a small business owner. I needed a way to run my business that looked to the future, as making decisions is hard and full of risk when you haven’t got all of the information in one place.” A spokesperson for Futrli said the way it works is that “static screens are removed, multiple sources of information have relationships drawn between them (sources well beyond just financial data from the likes of Xero, QBO etc.), are prioritized and then decisions and actions can be made and taken in one seamless smartspace.” Giles Palmer, CEO of business intelligence company Brandwatch, joins as chairman. Futrli competes with Manthan, among many, many others in the space.

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Berlin-based startup GoEuro just raised a new $150 million funding round from Kinnevik and Temasek, with Hillhouse Capital also participating. According to Crunchbase, the company has raised nearly $300 million to date. Chances are you’ve used some sort of flight aggregator before to compare prices and find the best deal. But if you live in Europe, this isn’t enough. Sometimes, you want to compare flights with trains and buses. GoEuro allows you to do just that. After entering two cities, you can compare all possible routes and book a ticket. This is a tedious problem as there are countless of airlines, train and bus companies. But it is also a different offering compared to all the flight aggregators out there. You can see why investors see some value in GoEuro. Transportation in Europe is fragmented. You can book tickets for 80 percent of transport providers on GoEuro. It creates an important barrier to entry for other aggregators. In other words, in addition to generating revenue from ticket sales, GoEuro’s technology platform is valuable by itself. GoEuro operates in 36 European countries and works with all transportation providers in 15 markets. In fact, GoEuro recently acquired BusRadar to improve bus search results. 27 million people use GoEuro every month.

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It’s a good week to be Josh Kushner, venture capitalist, founder of the health insurance unicorn Oscar, brother to President Donald Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner and son of real estate tycoon Charles Kushner. Days after marrying supermodel Karlie Kloss, Kushner’s VC firm Thrive Capital has announced the close of $1 billion in new capital for its sixth flagship venture fund. The firm has raised $600 million for late-stage deals and an additional $400 million for earlier bets. Thrive is stage and industry agnostic with investments in Oscar, Cadre, a real estate software company co-founded by the Kushner brothers, Glossier, Warby Parker, Slack, Robinhood and Stripe. Its exits include Spotify, Twitch and GitHub, of which it owned a 9 percent stake at the time of its $7.5 billion sale to Microsoft earlier this year. Kushner, a close friend to Instagram’s former chief executive officer Kevin Systrom, famously doubled his money in 72 hours after investing in the photo-sharing app days before Facebook’s acquisition. He launched Thrive in 2009 and has quickly risen to prominence as both a founder and successful venture investor. The New York-based firm’s funds have grown successively larger. Its fifth fund closed on $700 million in 2016. Before that, Thrive brought in $400 million in October 2014 for its fourth effort, $150 million in 2012 for its third, $40 million in 2011 for its second and $10 million for its 2009 debut fund. The $1 billion vehicle is its largest to date. Kushner, who at just 33 years old is one of the youngest billion-dollar fund managers, has been on a fundraising spree as of late. Oscar secured a $165 million investment in March at a reported valuation of $3.2 billion, bringing its total raised to date to some $1.2 billion. Thrive’s latest infusion brings its total assets under management to date to $2.5 billion. Looks like Tiger Global Management just closed the second biggest venture fund this year

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Back in May Power Ledger, the Australian-born startup which allows consumers to buy and sell renewable energy directly between one another using a blockchain platform, launched its first commercial deployment in the US. It’s now extending its mission to allow individuals and communities to share in the profits of renewable energy assets by trading in a crypto token it will launch. To achieve this Power Ledger is literally acquiring energy assets to make the token asset-backed. This Asset Germination Event (AGE) token has, says the company, the potential to disrupt the traditionally centralized energy market and thus grow the renewable energy industry, because of course, ownership of the token will incentivize people to invest in renewable energy. This might be of some relief to observers who have seen some nation states lately captured by populist politicians withdraw or reduce funding for renewable energy, as has happened in the UK. The token will be attached to energy from assets like solar and wind farms and community-owned batteries. Dr. Jemma Green, co-founder and chairman of Power Ledger, said: “We’ve developed a model that we believe will define the world’s best practice when it comes to fully regulated blockchain token offerings, while allowing people to actively help the environment by supporting renewable energy all over the world.” She believes it will also empower more small-scale investment in renewable energy resources. Power Ledger’s AGE token aims to increase the amount of capital flowing towards renewable energy by allowing an investor class previously denied the opportunity to participate in many projects of this nature as they were not ‘sophisticated investors’. Most of these products are currently only available to ‘sophisticated investors’ who are able to invest in large-scale energy projects, not retail investors. For example, in Australia, which has plenty of sun, you need at an annual income of at least AUD250,000. Power Ledger says the asset-backed token will pay out distributions from renewable energy generation, unlike a utility token whose value corresponds to its future use. To ensure their token is asset-backed, Power Ledger says it is acquiring its first assets; a grid-connected battery and a commercial solar system, and will then issue tokens that pay distributions from the energy generated by those assets as part of an investment fund structure. As Green says: “When everyday people can invest in and co-own commercial renewable energy assets, we will be closer to our goal of a decentralized and democratized energy ecosystem.” Power Ledger also provides several other blockchain-based energy trading platforms, including xGrid, which enables Peer-to-Peer electricity trading across the grid, and μGrid, designed for microgrid energy management, electricity metering and secure blockchain transactions. Energy has increasingly become attractive to the Blockchain world which sees the ability to create a transparent, auditable and automated record of energy generation and consumption. Last year UK startup DOVU launched to become “the global marketplace for transport data” powered by the “DOV” token, and received seed funding from InMotion Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s investment arm.

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There’s a war brewing to become the cloud pharmacy for men’s health. Roman, which launched last year offering erectile dysfunctional medication and recently added a ‘quit smoking’ kit, is taking on $97 million-funded Hims for the hair loss market. Today, Roman launched four new products it hopes to cross-sell to users through a unified telemedicine subscription and pill delivery app. It now sells meds for premature ejaculation, oral herpes, genital herpes, and hair loss at what’s often a deep discount versus your local drug store. And for those who are too far gone, it’s launching a “Bald Is Beautiful, Too” microsite for finding the best razors, lotions, and head shaving tips. Roman CEO Zachariah Reitano “It’s unlikely that you’ll buy razors from Bonobos or pants from Dollar Shave Club. But with a doctor, it’s actually the exact opposite” Roman CEO Zachariah Reitano tells me. “As a customer you’re frustrated if they send you somewhere else.” And so what started as a single product startup is blossoming into a powerful product mix that can keep users loyal. Roman starts with a telemedicine doctor’s visit where patients can talk about their health troubles without the embarrassment of going to their general practitioner. When appropriate, the doc can then prescribe medications customers can then instantly buy through Roman. “If you have something that’s truly consuming your day-to-day, it makes it really hard or nearly impossible to think about the long-term. If you’re 30 pounds overweight and experiencing erectile dysfunction, [it’s the latter symptom] that’s dominating your head space” Reitano explains. The doctor might focus on the underlying health issue, but most humans aren’t so logical, and want the urgent issue fixed first. Reitano’s theory is that if it can treat someone’s erectile dysfunction or hair loss first, they’ll have the resolve to tackle bigger lifelong health challenges. “We’re hoping to work on this so you can take a deep breath and get the monkey off your back” the CEO tells me. But one thing Roman won’t do is prescribe homeopathic remedies or spurious remedies. “We will only ever offer products that are backed by science and proven to work” Reitano declares. Taking a shot at Roman’s competitor, he says “Hims sells gummies. Roman does not.  No doctor would say Biotin would help you regrow hair”, plus the vitamin can distort blood pressure readings that make it tough to tell if someone is having a heart attack. “Roman will never slap sugar on vitamins, sell them on Snapchat, and say they’ll regrow your hair” Reitano jabs. Roman also benefits from the fact that Reitano’s father and one of the company’s advisors Dr. Michael Reitano was a lead author on a groundbreaking study about how Valacyclovir could be used to suppress transmission of genital herpes. So what is Roman selling? Erectile Dysfunction – $31/month –  Viagra, Sildenafil (generic Viagra), Cialis, or Tadalafil (generic Cialis) Premature Ejaculation – $19/month – Sertraline, Tadalafil (generic Cialis), Sildenafil (generic Viagra) Hair Loss – $17/month – Finasteride Genital Herpes – $14/month Valacyclovir (generic Valtrex) Cold Sores / Oral Herpes – $14/month Valacyclovir (generic Valtrex) With Roman, Hims, Amazon acquisition PillPack, and more, there’s a powerful trend in direct-to-consumer medication emerging. Reitano sees it as the outcome of five intersecting facts. The evolution of telemedicine regulation allowing physicians to have a national presence by seeing patients online Physicians are being reimbursed less by Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers for the same activity, pushing them towards telemedicine A patent cliff is making many medications suddenly affordable under generic names. Insurance deductibles are increasing, turning patients into consumers Technology is making it easier and cheaper to start medical startups Roman’s $88 million Series A it announced last month is proof of this growing trend. Investors see the traditional pharmacy structure as highly vulnerable to disruption. Roman will have defeat not just security threats and competitors, but also the status quo of keeping a stiff upper lip. A lot of men silently suffer these conditions rather than speak up. By speaking candidly about his own erectile dysfunction as a side-effect of heart medication, Reitano is trying to break the stigma and get more patients seeking help wherever feels right to them.

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Streaming service SoundCloud is making it easier for its users to share music from its service directly to Instagram . The company announced this morning a new feature that allows users to share tracks to Instagram Stories. However, there’s a big caveat here – the tracks are shared as a link that appears within Stories . To actually listen to the track, users have to click the “Play on SoundCloud” link, which then redirects them to the SoundCloud app to begin listening. This offers a way for fans and artists to promote their music through Instagram’s hugely popular Stories platform, but it’s not quite the same as being able to actually share music via Instagram, as the listening takes place elsewhere. Prior to this, people shared their SoundCloud discoveries via workarounds – like taking screenshots, for example. To use the new feature, you first find the track you want to share, and tap the “Share” icon at the bottom of the screen. You then tap the Instagram icon or select “Share to Instagram Stories,” depending on whether you’re on an iOS or Android smartphone. The link to the track is then shared right in your Instagram Story. There’s a sticker label you can drag around to place on the screen. To listen, viewers click the “Play on SoundCloud” link at the top of the Instagram Story. This sharing feature was actually first announced in May at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, alongside news of Instagram’s support for sharing from other third-party apps, like Spotify and GoPro, among others. However, SoundCloud confirms that it simply hadn’t been implemented until now. The sharing feature follows the recent launch of SoundCloud’s monetization program for artists, and serves as another means for musicians to reach their fans outside of the platform itself. However, because users have to click a link to listen, it’s not necessarily a way to expose friends to new music the way that Instagram’s own soundtracks feature can. SoundCloud says sharing feature is live in the latest version of the SoundCloud iOS and Android app.

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Artificial intelligence touches just about every aspect of the tech world these days, aiming to provide new ways of making old processes work better. Now, a startup that has built an AI platform that tackles the ever-present, but never-perfect, business of customer service has quietly raised a large round of funding as it gears up for its next act, an IPO. Afiniti, which uses machine learning and behavioral science to better match customers with customer service agents — “behavioral pairing” is how it describes the process — has closed a $130 million round of funding ($75 million cash, $60 million debt) — a Series D that Afiniti CEO Zia Chishti says values his company at $1.6 billion. If you are not familiar with the name Afiniti, you might not be alone. The company has been relatively under the radar, in part because it has never made much of an effort to publicise itself, and in part because the funding that it has raised up to now has largely been from outside the hive of VCs that swarm around many other startup deals that push those startups into the limelight. At the same time, its backers make for a pretty illustrious list. This latest round includes former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg; Fred Ryan, the CEO and publisher of the Washington Post; and investors Global Asset Management, The Resource Group (which Chishti helped found), Zeke Capital, as well as unnamed Australian investors. The previous Series C round of $26.5 million, also has an interesting list of backers and also was not widely reported. They included McKinsey & Company, Elisabeth Murdoch, former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer, and former BP CEO John Browne, alongside Global Asset Management, The Resource Group, Seidenberg and Ryan. That Series C was at a $100 million valuation, meaning that Afiniti’s valuation has increased more than 10 times in the last year on the back of 100 percent revenue growth each year over the last five. That momentum led the company also to file confidentially for an IPO — although ultimately Chishti told TechCrunch that the company decided to raise privately at the potential IPO valuation since the money was easy to come by. (It’s also been one of the reasons he said he’s also rebuffed acquisitions, although at least one of the companies that’s approached him, McKinsey, now an investor.) Now, Chishti — who is a repeat entrepreneur, with his previous company, Align Technology (which makes teeth alignment alternatives to braces), now at a $24 billion market cap — said that Afiniti has started to tip into profitability, so it seems the prospect of an IPO might be back on the table. That is possibly one reason that the company has started to speak to the press more and to make itself more visible. Chishti and Afiniti are based out of the US, but it has roots into a range of local businesses globally in part by way of its well-connected team of advisors and local leaders. Among them, Princess Beatrice (or Beatrice York), currently 8th in line to the throne to succeed Queen Elizabeth, is the company’s vice president of partnerships. Alonso Aznar, the son of the former prime minister of Spain, runs Afiniti’s operations in Madrid. The company itself sits in the general area of CRM, and specifically among that wave of startups that are trying to build tools using AI and other new technology to improve on the old ways of getting things done (it’s not alone: just today we noted that People.ai raised $30 million for its own AI-based CRM tools). Afiniti on one hand calls itself a traditional AI company, but on the other, its CEO laments how overused and hackneyed the term has become. “AI is just a bubble,” he said in an interview. “The intensity of interest in AI is unwarranted because nothing has changed. It’s the same algorithms and software, and we just have faster hardware now.” In actual fact, what Afiniti does is supply an AI layer to a process that is otherwise “ninety-nine percent human”, in the words of Chishti. The company uses AI to analyse sales people’s performance with specific types of calls and situations, and also to analyse customers in terms of their previous interactions with a company. It then matches up customer service reps who it believes will be most compatible with specific customers. Afiniti’s pricing model has been an important lever for getting its foot in the door with companies. The company does not price its service per-seat or even per-month, but on a calculation between how well the company does when its call routing and running through Afiniti, versus how much is sold when it does not. “We run systems on for 15 minutes, off for 5 minutes, and we do that perpetually,” Chishti said. It integrates with a company’s CRM, sales and telephony systems at the back end, in order both to route calls but also to track when those calls result in a sale. “We count the revenues, calculate the delta, and we get a share of that delta.” If that sounds like a tricky measure, it doesn’t to customers, it seems. The zero-cost-to-try-it model is how it has surmounted the hurdle of getting used by a number of large, often slow-moving carriers and other large incumbents. “It means we have to continuously prove our value,” Chishti added. As one example of how this works out, he used the example of Verizon (which is the owner of TechCrunch, by way of Oath). “Say Verizon makes $120 billion in revenues in a year,” he said, “and $30 billion of that is in phone-based sales. Afiniti would make $600 million on that.” Times that by dozens of customers in 22 countries, and that may point to how the company has quietly reached the valuation that it has. Beyond its core product, the company has dozens of patents and more in the application phase in the US and other jurisdictions.

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Oracle is a traditional tech company that has been struggling to gain traction in the cloud, but it could see blockchain as a way to differentiate itself. At Oracle OpenWorld today it announced the Oracle Blockchain Applications Cloud, a series of four applications designed for transactions-based processing scenarios using Internet of Things as a data source. “Customers struggle with how exactly to go from concepts like smart contracts, distributed ledger and cryptography to solving specific business problems,” Atul Mahamuni, VP of IoT and Blockchain at Oracle told TechCrunch. The company actually introduced a more generalized blockchain as a service offering at OpenWorld last year, but this year they have decided to focus more on specific use cases, announcing four new applications. The blockchain comes into account because of its nature as an irrefutable and immutable record. In cases where there is a dispute over the accuracy of a particular piece of data, the blockchain can provide incontrovertible proof. As for the Internet of Things, that provides data points you can use to provide that proof. Your sensor feeds the data and it (or some reference to it) gets added to the blockchain, leaving no room for doubt. The four applications involve supply chain-transaction data including a track and trace capability to follow a product through its delivery from inception to market, proof of provenance for valuables like drugs, intelligent temperature tracking (what they are calling Intelligent Cold Chain) and warranty and usage tracking. Intelligent Cold chain ensures that a product that is supposed to be kept cold didn’t get exposed to higher than recommended temperatures, while warranty tracking ensures that a product was being used in a proscribed fashion and should be subject to warranty claims. Each of these plays to the some of Oracle’s strengths as a company that builds databases and ERP software. It can draw on the information it tends to collect any way as part of the nature of its business processes and add it to a blockchain and other applications when it makes sense. “So what we do is we we get events and insights from IoT systems, as well as from supply chain ERP data, and we get those insights and translation from all of this and then put them into the blockchain and then do the correlations and artificial intelligence machine learning algorithms on top of those transactions,” Mahamuni explained. This year perhaps even more so than the last couple, Oracle is trying to differentiate itself from the rest of the cloud pack, as it tries to right its cloud business. By building applications on top of base technologies like blockchain, IoT and artificial intelligence, while taking advantage of their domain knowledge around databases and ERP, they are hoping to show customers they can offer something their cloud competitors can’t.

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New platforms are all about the content, and Resolution Games is one of the rare game studios going all in on AR/VR gaming. The Stockholm-based startup has swept up $7.5 million in Series B funding at an $87.5 million valuation. The round was led by MizMaa Ventures with participation from GV, GP Bullhound, Fly Forever, David Helgason, Partech, Bonnier Ventures, Creandum and Sisu Game Ventures. The company has raised $13.5 million to date. The studio has been primarily building for headset based experiences and has been among the first adopters for a lot of the emerging platforms. Resolution Games has titles for Magic, Leap, Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Daydream and HTC Vive though most of their work has been focused on mobile VR systems. The company is also working on a follow-up to their Bait! fishing title which brings the gameplay to mobile via ARKit. We took a deep dive look at Angry Birds: First Person Slingshot a few weeks ago, a title Resolution Games partnered with Rovio to make happen. It’s one of Magic Leap’s first titles and it’s really a great example of how certain types of 2D gameplay on mobile can effectively migrate to 3D platforms like AR and VR headsets. Magic Leap One’s first big game is another Angry Birds; here’s what it’s like We chatted with Resolution Games CEO Tommy Palm during our demo who gave some of his thoughts on the immersive platforms his team of 35 is building for. “I’ve always been very fascinated at being able to do things at the forefront of technology, I definitely think that games are going to be trailblazing on these platforms when it comes to user interface and just coming up with what you can use it for.”

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Maybe it was her lipstick applying robot. Or her terrifying vegetable-chopping death machine. Or the robot that tried its best (and failed wonderfully) to feed her breakfast. Chances are good you’ve seen one of Simone Giertz’s ridiculous creations, be it on the Colbert show or GIF’d into your newsfeed. As the “Queen of Shitty Robots” (her words!), she’s mastered the art of taking an idea for a “useless” machine and transforming it into hilarious, bite-sized, oh-so-shareable Internet gold. Now she’s branching out. Dozens upon dozens of creations later, she’s building something that she hopes is less “useless”, and more “life improving”. Called the Every Day Calendar, it encourages you to do one thing each and every day by pushing you to maintain a running streak. What that “thing” is, of course, is up to you. Maybe it’s playing guitar. Maybe it’s reading, or jogging, or calling your mom. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s something you want to do more often than not. In Simone’s case, the inspiration was practicing yoga — or, more accurately, a bunch of false starts in trying to practice yoga. “Most of us have a hunch of what we could do to make our lives better, or to make ourselves happier,” she told me earlier this week. “But how do you find the motivation to keep up with it, and to keep yourself accountable? I wanted a physical thing I could see every day. Sometimes when you put so much effort into self-care, it’s like it goes out into a void. But having this progress bar that shows the days you’ve put in, it really helps.” Could the same thing be done with an app on your phone? Sure. Apps like that exist. But by making it big, and physical, and glowy, it becomes something harder to ignore — something you can’t just swipe away. Simone’s calendar is sort of like one massive PCB. It’s an array of 365 capacitive touch sensors, each tied to an LED and wired back to a board that keeps track of everything that needs to stay lit. The gold tracing accents of the conductive sensors are pushed forward rather than hidden away, with the whole board then encased in a bamboo frame. It comes together into something that looks homebrew and bespoke, yet modern and pretty enough to fit right into in a lot of rooms. Want the calendar to do something else? There’s a USB programming port on the back. And if you’re feeling super hacky (and don’t mind wiring up a few hundred LEDs on your own), they’re planning on open sourcing the schematics for all to tear into. Simone started working on this project about a year ago, originally intending to build a one-off board for herself. After a non-malignant brain tumor led her to need brain surgery (and, as she notes with a laugh, caused her to miss a day on her yoga calendar), she focused on making the calendar something that others could have, too. On building a product for others for the first time, Simone tells us: “It’s.. crazy. The difference between making one prototype, for something that needs to work once on camera, vs doing something for manufacturing and building at scale. They’re not even related. Or they’re like distant cousins that don’t talk to each other. Fortunately, we have a team that has a ton of experience that helped flesh out the process.” The calendar goes live on Kickstarter this morning, with a fundraising goal of $35,000. The early bird first batch will go for $250 each, after which the price bumps up to $300. They expect the calendar to ship by December of next year (or May, for early birds.) And don’t worry: she’s not done making silly things for the Internet.

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Lyft, the transportation on demand company that is heading to a $15 billion IPO in 2019, is racing ahead with its autonomous vehicle plans. TechCrunch has learned that it is acquiring the London-based augmented reality startup Blue Vision Labs and unveiling its first test vehicle with Ford to advance its vision for self-driving cars. The first Ford car from Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving initiative will be the Ford Fusion Hybrid. It’s the culmination of a yearlong partnership the two companies had announced last September and will be hitting city streets “soon” the company said. The Ford Fusion (now with Lyft autonomy!) While the integration of Lyft’s autonomous technologies and Ford’s hardware is impressive, perhaps more meaningful is the company’s acquisition of Blue Vision Labs, a startup out of London that has developed a way of ingesting street-level imagery and is using it to build collaborative, interactive augmented reality layers — all by way of basic smartphone cameras. Blue Vision will sit within Lyft’s Level 5 autonomous car division headed up by Luc Vincent (who joined the company last year as VP of engineering after creating and running Google Street View). The startup and its staff of 39 (everyone is joining Lyft) will also become the anchor for a new R&D operation in London or the San Francisco-based company, focused on that autonomous driving effort. Level 5 is stepping up a gear in another way today, too: Lyft is unveiling a new vehicle that it will be using for testing. Blue Vision has developed technology that provides both street level mapping and interactive augmented reality that lets two people see the same virtual objects. The company has already built highly detailed maps that developers can now use to develop collaborative AR experiences — it’s like the maps of these spaces become canvasses for virtual objects to be painted on. Over time, we may see various uses of it throughout the Lyft platform, but for now the main focus is Level 5. “We are looking forward to focusing Blue Vision’s technology on building the best maps at scale to support our autonomous vehicles, and then localization to support our stacks,” Vincent said in an interview. “This is fundamental to our business. We need good maps and to understand where every passenger and vehicle is. To make our services more efficient and remove friction, we want their tech to drive improvements.” People familiar with the acquisition tell us Blue Vision is being acquired for around $72 million with $30 million on top of that based on hitting certain milestones. Lyft has declined to comment on the valuation. Blue Vision had raised $17 million and had only come out of stealth last March, after working quietly on the product for two years. Investors included GV, Accel, Horizons Ventures, SV Angel and more. This deal is notable in part because this is the first acquisition that Lyft has made to expand its autonomous car operation, which now has 300 people working on it. At a time when many larger companies are snapping up startups that have developed interesting applications or technologies around areas like AR, mapping, and autonomous driving, there may be more to come. “We are always evaluating build versus buy,” Vincent said when asked about more acquisitions. But he also acknowledged that it is a very crowded field today, even when considering just the most promising companies. “I don’t have a crystal ball but arguably there are quite a few players today, including big tech, startups, OEMs and car makers. There are well over 100 [strong] companies in the space and there is bound to be some consolidation.” Lyft earlier this year also inked an investment and partnership with Magna to integrate its self-driving car system into components it supplies to car makers. [gallery ids="1736064,1736065,1736066,1736067,1736069,1736070,1736071,1736072"] But it also might face other pressures. The company counts Didi and GM among its investors, and both of these companies are making their own big strides in self-driving technology and each has inked deals to have more partners using that tech, in part to justify some of their own hefty investment. Lyft, of course, will hope that acquisitions like Blue Vision will give it more leverage, and make it one of the consolidators, rather than the consolidated. Blue Vision’s use of smartphones to ingest data to create its street-level imagery and mapping is crucial to Lyft’s quest for scale. In effect, every Lyft vehicle in operation today, with a smartphone on the dashboard, could be commandeered to become a “camera” watching, surveying and mapping the roads that those cars drive on, and how humans behave on them, using that to help Lyft’s autonomous vehicle (AV) platform learn more about driving overall. In the race for data to “teach” these AI systems, having that wide network of cameras deployed and picking up data so quickly is “game changing,” said Peter Ondruska, the co-founder and CEO of Blue Vision. “The amount of data you have affects how much you can rely on your system,” Ondruska said in an interview. “What our tech allows us to do is to utilise Lyft’s fleet to train the cars. That is really game changing. I was working on this for eight years and you have to have a lot of data to get to the right level of safety. That is hard and we can get there faster using our technology.” Lyft up to now has really concentrated its business presence in North America, and so this marks at least one kind of way that it is expanding on the other side of the pond. It opened its first European office in Munich earlier this year, a sign that it’s looking to this part of the world at least for R&D, if not to expand its business footprint to consumers, just yet. Vincent declined to comment on whether Lyft would get involved in autonomous trials in London, nor whether it would expand its transportation service there. Another key area that is worth noting is that Blue Vision’s “collaborative” VR, which lets people look at the same spot in space and both see and create interactive, virtual figures in it, could be used by Lyft either to help drivers and would-be passengers better communicate, or even help passengers discover more services during a journey or at their destination. When Ondruska first spoke to TechCrunch earlier this year as the company emerged from stealth, ride hailing applications, in fact, were one of the use cases that we pointed out could be helped by its tech. Peter Ondruska, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, [said] that Blue Vision’s tech can pinpoint people and other moving objects in a space to within centimeters of their actual location — far more accurate than typical GPS — meaning that it could give better results in apps that require two parties to find each other, such as in a ride-hailing app. (Hands up if you and your Uber driver have ever lost each other before you’ve even stepped foot in the vehicle.) Blue Vision Labs, which builds ‘collaborative’ AR, emerges from stealth with $14.5M led by GV Blue Vision isn’t the only company working to develop these virtual maps for the world. Startups like 6d.ai, Blippar and the incredibly well capitalized and wildly successful AR technology developer Niantic Labs are also building out these virtual maps on which developers can create applications. Indeed, Niantic’s Pokemon Go game is the most successful augmented reality application to date. Large media companies have also been investing building content for these platforms, and investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into startups like 6d, Niantic, Blue Vision, and others that are building both software and hardware to usher in this new age of how we will, apparently, all soon be seeing the world. The development of these new platforms will go a long way toward ensuring that more useful applications are just around the corner, waiting for users to pick them up. “One of the reasons why AR hasn’t really reached mass market adoption is because of the tech that is on the market,” Ondruska told us earlier this year. “Single-user experiences are limiting. We are allowing the next step, letting people see the right place, for example. None of that was possible before in AR because the backend didn’t exist. But by filling in this piece, we are creating new AR use cases, ones that are important and will be used on a daily basis.” The deal marks Lyft’s tenth acquisition, according to CrunchBase. In 2015, Lyft acquired the disappearing messaging company, Leo, to bring the company’s messaging expertise in house. Two years later, the ride-hailing company went on an acquisition tear, hoovering up FinitePaths, YesGraph, DataScore, and Kamcord. The first three seem like strategic acquisitions to bulk up mapping and marketing efforts  internally; but Kamcord, a social media network for video sharing, seemed a little farther afield. For more on Lyft’s bigger plans for AV, watch the video below of Vincent talking about the company’s roadmap (so to speak).

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