posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
India said it will publicly release the source code of its contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, in a relief to privacy and security experts who have been advocating for this ever since the app launched in early April. Ajay Prakash Sawhney, secretary in the ministry of electronics and information technology, made the announcement on Tuesday, dubbing the move as “opening the heart” of Aarogya Setu app, which has amassed over 114 million users in less than two months — an unprecedented scale globally, to allow engineers to inspect and tinker with the code. The source code of Aarogya Setu’s Android app will be published on GitHub at midnight Tuesday (local time). Sawhney said the government will also offer cash prizes of up to $1,325 to security experts for identifying and reporting bugs and vulnerabilities in the code of Aarogya Setu. (Nearly 98% of Aarogya Setu app users are on Android platform.) Several privacy and security advocates, as well as India’s opposition party, had urged the government to release the code of the app for public auditing after some alleged lapses in the app were found, which New Delhi dismissed as features at the time. Sawhney said today’s move should allay people’s concern with the app that is designed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus disease. Earlier this month, Sawhney said the government was not open sourcing Aarogya Setu app as it worried that it would overburden the team, mostly comprising of volunteers, that is tasked to develop and maintain it. The ministry said today that two-thirds of Aarogya Setu users had taken the self-assessment test to evaluate their risk of exposure. More than half a million Indians have been alerted to have made contact with someone who is likely ill with the disease, it said. The app, which uses both Bluetooth and location data to function, has advised more than 900,000 users to quarantine themselves, or test for potential exposure to the disease to date. Almost 24% of them have confirmed to be positive with Covid-19, the ministry said. “Opening the source code to the developer community signifies our continuing commitment to the principles of transparency and collaboration,” the ministry of electronics and information technology said in a statement. “Aarogya Setu’s development has been a remarkable example of collaboration between government, industry, academia, and citizens.” Aarogya Setu, unlike the contact tracing technology developed by smartphone vendors Apple and Google, stores certain data in a centralized server. Privacy experts, including researcher Baptiste Robert, had argued that this approach would result in leakage of sensitive details of several Indians if that server was ever compromised. “Open-sourcing Aarogya Setu is a unique feat for India. No other government product anywhere in the world has been open-sourced at this scale,” said Amitabh Kant, chief executive of government-run think-tank NITI Aayog, in a press conference today. More than 145,300 coronavirus infections have been reported in India to date, of which about 4,100 have died.

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As the leader of a publicly traded corporation with 135,000 employees, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg has a unique perspective on the state of the world. When he appears today on Extra Crunch Live, our virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members, we’ll ask him about this extraordinary moment in history and his plans for seeing the company through a black swan event that’s reshaping the global economy. The discussion starts at 2 p.m. EDT/11 a.m. PDT/9 p.m. GMT. You can find the full details below. Vestberg served as president and CEO at Ericsson for six years and joined Verizon as its CTO and president of Global Networks in 2017 before stepping into the CEO role a little more than a year later. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon). We’ll talk to Vestberg about his tactics for managing a company at scale through a crisis and will check in on the company’s 5G rollout, a platform inflection point that should change the landscape for founders and entrepreneurs. Verizon recently acquired BlueJeans, which competes directly with Zoom and WebEx, so we’ll also ask Vestberg about the company’s forward-looking investment strategy. Extra Crunch members are encouraged to ask their own questions during the Zoom call, so please come prepared. If you’re not already a member, sign up on the cheap right here. You can also check out the full Extra Crunch Live schedule here. See you soon!

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Baton, an early-stage startup that wants to help customers organize the post-sales implementation process, emerged from stealth today with a $10 million Series A investment. Activant Capital led the round with help from Global Founders Capital and Hybris founder Carsten Thoma. Like so many startups, the idea for Baton stemmed from a pain point that founder and CEO Alex Krug experienced first hand. He was co-founder at Behance, which was later sold to Adobe and he saw that there were tools to organize your customers and get you through the sale, but there was something distinctly lacking when it came to implementation post-sale. Krug said that most companies hacked together a solution consisting of general project management tools, spreadsheets and email, but what was missing was a dedicated platform to help with this part of the process. He put his team to work to build it. “We reconfigured a lot of the team that I worked with at Behance and Adobe and really started to build a platform around optimizing the implementation, what happens in between your presale and post sale and how customers get on boarded through a platform,” Krug told TechCrunch. He says where project management tends to be internally focussed, Baton is designed to bring all the parties from vendor to client to systems integrator together in one tool, so everyone knows their responsibilities and targets. While Krug understands that this may not be an optimal time to launch a startup out of stealth in the middle of a pandemic and corresponding economic crisis, he still sees a real need for a tool like Baton. “This era of top line growth is gone. Efficient growth is here to stay and Baton really optimizes processes and standardizes a toolset that allows you to grow efficiently from your fifth customer to your thousandth customer, whereas previous iterations of implementation have been these static spreadsheets and chasing people for manual updates.” He believes his company is offering a reasonable alternative to that, as does his lead investor Peter McCoy at Activant Capital. “The best SaaS companies are built off of product-led growth, that can be network effects, novel go-to-market strategies or some other distribution advantage. The problem I kept seeing was even companies that had one or a couple of these attributes created operational debt, when they bloated up their services teams to keep up with top line growth. The need for a platform like Baton was super clear to me,” McCoy said in a statement. Beginning today, the company will set forth on its startup journey as it attempts to carve out a market in difficult times, and help customers with this crucial part of the selling cycle.

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Good morning and welcome back to TechCrunch’s Equity Monday, a brief jumpstart for your week. This is a messed-up edition, because we are both hosting Equity Monday on Tuesday (because that makes sense) and our normal host Alex Wilhelm is on vacation, leaving (editor’s note: poor and massively underpaid) managing editor Danny Crichton to wake up early on the first day of the workweek to talk to himself in front of a microphone. Here’s what we (okay I) talked about this morning: We talked about remote work and an article I wrote called “Work From Home is dead, long live Work From Anywhere” Remote worker payroll startup Deel’s A16Z funding round Facebook’s cost-of-living adjustment controversy and remote workforce initiatives An article I wrote on digital nomads a few years back called Digital nomads are hiring and firing their governments Run The World’s second fundraise in two months, this time from Founders Fund The big court decision for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou tomorrow, who has been under house arrest in British Columbia since December 2018. The UK’s reversal of a decision to include Huawei in its 5G network plans, also referencing Scott Bade’s piece on Huawei and the West. And finally, getting ready to chat with Verizon CEO (and TechCrunch’s ultimate head honcho) Hans Vestberg later today at 2pm EDT / 11am PDT since we can’t get enough about telecommunications. Equity will be back Friday morning with more. Welcome to the week! Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 AM PT and Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify and all the casts.

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New numbers from Gartner show a sizable — if not unexpected — decline in device shipments for 2020. According to the analyst firm, the category (including phones, tablets and PCs) is currently on track to decline 13.6% for the year. An already struggling smartphone market takes a big hit from COVID-19 COVID-19 is, naturally, largely to blame here. The virus has permeated virtually every sector of society, and hardware is certainly not immune. Phones are projected to take the biggest hit, down 14.6% from 2019. That list includes both dumb and smartphones, the latter of which now comprises most handset purchases. Smartphones as a category are down 13.7% year over year. The smartphone market has been on a slide for recent years. But 2020 was going to be the year smartphone makers turned things around (for a little while, at least), thanks to the arrival of 5G. Like so many other things in this world, however, COVID-19 has put a damper on those figures, with the technology only expected to represent 11% of phone shipments for the year. Interestingly, PC shipments weren’t impacted as strongly as might have been expect. The decline is still sizable at 10.5%, but a push to implement work from home models for many employees has helped lessen the slide. In particular, laptops, Chromebooks and tablets appear to be the least impacted of the bunch.

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Food waste and the pressures on the global food supply chain wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have captured headlines around the world, and one small startup based in the coastal California city of Santa Barbara has just announced $250 million in financing to provide a solution. The company is called Apeel Sciences and over the past eight years it’s grown from a humble startup launched with a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to a giant, globe-spanning company worth more than $1 billion and attracting celebrity backers like Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry as well as large multi-national investors like Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. What’s drawn these financiers and the fabulously famous to invest is the technology that Apeel has developed which promises to keep food fresh for longer periods on store shelves, which prevents waste and (somewhat counterintuitively) encourages shoppers to buy more vegetables. At least, that’s the pitch that Apeel Sciences founder and chief executive James Rogers has been making for the last eight years. It’s netted his company roughly $360 million in total financing and attracted investors like Upfront Ventures, S2G Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Powerplant Ventures. “The [food] system is taxed beyond its limit,” says Rogers. “We view our job at Apeel to build the food system and support the weight of a couple of more billion people on the planet.” Rogers started working on the technology that would become the core of Apeel’s product while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The first-time entrepreneur’s epiphany came on the road from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory where he was working as an intern. Driving past acres of California cropland, Rogers surmised that the problem with the food supply network that exists wasn’t necessarily the ability to produce enough food, it was that much of that food is spoiled and wasted between where it’s grown and where it needs to be distributed. In the past, farmers had turned to pesticides to prevent disease and infestations that could kill crops and preservative methods like single-use plastic packaging or chemical treatments that had the seeds of other environmental catastrophes. “We’re out of shortcuts,” says Rogers. “Single use plastic had its day and pesticides had their day.” For Rogers, it’s time for Apeel’s preservative technologies to have their day. With all the new cash in Apeel’s coffers, Rogers said that the company would begin expanding its operations and working with the big farming companies and growers in Africa, Central America and South America. “To maintain 52 weeks of supply on shelves we need to have operations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres,” Rogers said. For all of the company’s lofty goals, the company is working with a relatively limited range of produce — avocados, asparagus, lemons and limes. Still, the pitch — and Rogers’ vision — is much broader. “Let’s take what the orange knows and teach it to the cucumber so that it doesn’t have to be wrapped in plastic,” says Rogers. “When you reduce that waste there’s a ton of economic value that is unlocked.” Right now, the way the business works is through convincing retailers about all that economic value that’s waiting to be unlocked. In practice, once a company agrees to try out Apeel’s technology it installs the company’s treatment systems at the back end of its supply chain where all of their vegetable deliveries come in to be shipped to various locations, according to Rogers. A single run of Apeel’s system can treat 10,000 kilograms of food in an hour, Rogers said. So far this year, Apeel is on track to treat 20 million pieces of fruit with its coatings, the company said.  Apeel Sciences is already working with food retailers in the U.S. and Europe. On average, grocers that use Apeel have experienced a 50% reduction in shrink, a 5-10% growth in dollar sales, and an incremental 10% growth in dollar sales when sold in conjunction with in-store marketing campaigns, the company said. “Food waste is an invisible tax imposed on everyone that participates in the food system. Eliminating global food waste can free up $2.6 trillion annually, allowing us to make the food ecosystem better for growers, distributors, retailers, consumers and our planet,” said Rogers in a statement. “Together, we’re putting time back on the industry’s side to help deal with the food waste crisis and the challenges it poses to food businesses.”  

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Tax-advantaged benefits, like flexible spending accounts, can save employees in the United States thousands of dollars annually, and reduce the amount of payroll taxes companies pay. But those benefits are often underutilized, simply because they can be confusing to navigate. Benepass wants to make the process easier with a mobile app that centralizes all of an employee’s tax-advantaged accounts, and is linked to physical and virtual payment cards. The startup announced today that it has raised a $2.4 million seed round. The funding was led by Gradient Ventures, Google’s AI-focused venture fund, with participation from Global Founders Capital, Y Combinator, Soma Capital, Amino Capital, AltalR and Elysium Ventures. It will be used on hiring, product development and customer acquisition. Benepass recently completed Y Combinator’s winter 2020 program. Benepass was founded last year by CEO Jaclyn Chen, CTO Kabir Soorya and COO Mark Fischer. Part of its mission is enabling small- to medium-sized companies to offer benefit packages that can compete with ones at larger employers. In addition to its tools for tax-advantaged benefits, Benepass also enables clients to offer company stipends for perks like wellness programs. In a statement, Gradient Ventures general partner Darian Shirazi said, “Quality employee benefits are essential in today’s economy to hire and retain the best teams, but most tools for distributing and managing these benefits are difficult to use, confusing and poorly designed. We’re excited to partner with the Benepass team as they reimagine the pre- and post-tax employee benefits product suite and automate the processes that maximize team health and well-being especially during this uncertain time.” The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is for companies to have flexibility when creating their benefits packages.Before the pandemic, Benepass was building additional features for commuter benefits, but is now focused on health and dependent care flexible savings accounts instead. New legislation related to the crisis, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), have also impacted many benefits. For example, health flexible spending accounts can be used for more things, including over-the-counter medications, menstrual products and telehealth services, and mid-year changes to them are also now allowed. In addition, many companies have also started redirecting budget originally used for in-office perks to help their employees set up home offices instead. Chen said Benepass was able to immediately adjust approvals for eligible spending. Tax-advantaged benefits mean employees can set aside part of their paycheck, up to a certain amount, for health flexible and dependent care flexible spending accounts, student loan repayments, transportation and other programs. Companies can also contribute, and employee and company contributions are exempt from income and payroll taxes, respectively. But Chen told TechCrunch that the average employee currently deducts only about 3% of the total they are eligible for, meaning they are potentially missing out on thousands of dollars in savings. Based on interviews done by the startup, Chen said low utilization is often because existing solutions are difficult to use, and there is little awareness or confusion about the benefits. For example, debit cards linked to pre-tax benefits are often denied, making employees less likely to use them again. Sometimes employees simply forget about their benefits, because their company’s intranet portals and expense software make them hard to navigate. The combined work history of Benepass’ founding team include positions at Sidewalk Labs, Google X, Goldman Sachs and TPG Capital. Working for large companies meant they had generous benefit packages, but those were often tricky to navigate. “There were intranet pages full of logos of benefits that we never used,” Chen said. “A lot of them were really great deals, but most of them didn’t really fit my individual needs.” Figuring out tax-advantaged benefits could also be a headache. For example, Chen lost a commuter card with money and couldn’t get it replaced because she didn’t have the right log-in information. “None of these experiences made us particularly excited to continue engaging with benefits, and we were effectively leaving lots of money on the table,” Chen said. But Benepass’ founders believed many of these issues could be solved with things that already familiar to most smartphone users, like mobile payments, digital sign-ups, push notification and reminders. “Benefits should be no different, but today tax-advantaged cards are woefully behind,” Chen added. Benepass replaces outdated tools with its app, which makes it easier for employees to discover new benefits. The app also notifies them when a transaction is approved and keeps track of spending history. All benefits are managed through the same platform, so companies can see monthly analytics on employee engagement and utilization, and it also handles claims and compliance. There is a growing roster of startups that want to make it easier for employees to take advantage of benefits. These include companies centered on flexible benefits like Zestful and Compt. Benepass differentiates by focusing on tax-advantaged benefits, as well as company-funded stipends. Chen said Benepass took on tax-advantage benefits because “they are the only benefit that saves companies money immediately, through direct payroll savings, not ROI studies. They’re essential benefits for employees, so it’s a win-win.” “We are unique in that we are a card-first product,” she added. “We think it provides a differentiated experience and enables us to have real-time feedback with the employee as they are purchasing their benefits. We are really focused on consumer education of their benefits, making sure onboarding is smooth and people really understand the selections that are right for them. We’re ultimately trying to solve a distribution and communications challenge within benefits and think our platform is uniquely positioned to do that.”

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As more online brands look for ways to move beyond third-party cookies as a way of gaining more direct insights about their users and customers, a startup that has developed a platform to help them has raised a big round of funding. Bluecore, a marketing technology firm that uses data gained from direct marketing like email, social media, site activity and combines that with machine learning to make better predictions about who might want to buy what among its customers, is today announcing that it has raised $50 million. The funding will be used to build the next generation of the Bluecore platform, expected later this year, which will tap into aggregated engagement data (but not actual browsing individuals) from “hundreds” of brands, which customers can combine with their own first-party data — based on consent-based, first-party customer IDs — to develop better targeting insights. “There are a lot of systems that focus on customer data and transactional data but no system that focuses on the product and product catalogue, which we think is the key asset,” said Fayez Mohamood, the co-founder and CEO, in an interview. He says that the company manages over 200 million products and SKUs, second only to Amazon’s and bigger than Walmart’s, that companies can matches with consumer identities (from email and other direct channels). “We can deliver insights on what customers might want even if they have never engaged with a particular product.” The Series D is being led by Georgian Partners, with FirstMark and Norwest also participating. All three are existing investors in the company and I’ve confirmed with Mohamood that it’s a significant valuation jump on its previous valuation of $148 million (based on its $35 million Series C in 2017, per PitchBook), but is still under $500 million. The company has raised $110 million to date. The funding comes at a key moment in the world of martech. The New York Times hit the news last week because of a move it has made to shift its data sourcing activity from third-party to first-party data for ads and other money-making activities on its properties. That is, it’s tapping its own channels to source information rather than relying on the Googles, Facebooks, and the many third-party data aggregators, of this world to provide the information. That story was interesting because it taps into what seems to be a trend at the moment, where businesses are shifting to first-party data to reduce their reliance on data that may be harder to trace (and thus potentially falls afoul of a lot of privacy and data protection measures), and in part just to strengthen their own businesses. Just as the NYT is building this concept out in the media world, there has been a lot of activity in this area of marketing specifically in the world of e-commerce, which is the sector that Bluecore focuses on. It’s a timely place to be: e-commerce has been on everyone’s minds of late because of the pandemic, and there has been a surge of activity on sites as consumers turn to the web to buy what they might have previously shopped for in person. But Bluecore was actually already on a roll before the pandemic hit. The funding comes on the heels of significant growth for the company, and Bluecore believes that its platform and how its used influences some 10% of all non-Amazon Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) in the U.S. Given how fragmented the e-commerce landscape is (once you remove Amazon from the equation, of course) that is a significant percentage. Its 400 customers today include high-profile names like Sephora, CVS, Teleflora and Tommy Hilfiger. Given the huge shift to shopping online that we’ve seen take hold of the world, it’s no surprise that this has had a big effect on business for companies like Bluecore, which helps retailers but also brands make better sense of what’s going on when they can no longer see customers, track footfall, and sell to them as humans. “We have had a lot of conversations with existing customers, yes, but what we’re also seeing are new ones, some some non traditional brands that have only sold in stores,” he said. “My LinkedIn has never seen so much inbound messaging from brand names that have previously been stuck inside stores, now just starting to think of how to approach DTC.” It’s not just brands of course, but retailers having to quickly rethink priorities. “A retail executive of a huge department store told me they’ve spent more money on lighting fixtures than on their technology budget. It really tells you something. That hit it home for me.” And, it seems, hit it home for investors, too. “Bluecore is uniquely equipped to deliver the advanced artificial intelligence capabilities that retailers need to navigate rapidly changing market conditions,” said Tyson Baber, Partner, Georgian Partners, in a statement. “We are delighted to be deepening our partnership with Bluecore with this funding round, as well as continuing our long-standing research and development partnership. Their work is helping brands get actionable intelligence from one of the richest sets of retail industry data in the world.”

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Security researchers have found a major vulnerability in almost every version of Android, which lets malware imitate legitimate apps to steal app passwords and other sensitive data. The vulnerability, dubbed Strandhogg 2.0 (named after the Norse term for a hostile takeover) affects all devices running Android 9.0 and earlier. It’s the “evil twin” to an earlier bug of the same name, according to Norwegian security firm Promon, which discovered both vulnerabilities six months apart. Strandhogg 2.0 works by tricking a victim into thinking they’re entering their passwords on a legitimate app while instead interacting with a malicious overlay. Strandhogg 2.0 can also hijack other app permissions to siphon off sensitive user data, like contacts, photos, and track a victim’s real-time location. The bug is said to be more dangerous than its predecessor because it’s “nearly undetectable,” Tom Lysemose Hansen, founder and chief technology officer at Promon, told TechCrunch. The good news is that Promon said it has no evidence that hackers have used the bug in active hacking campaigns. The caveat is that there are “no good ways” to detect an attack. Fearing the bug could still be abused by hackers, Promon delayed releasing details of the bug until Google could fix the “critical”-rated vulnerability. A spokesperson for Google told TechCrunch that the company also saw no evidence of active exploitation. “We appreciate the work of the researchers, and have released a fix for the issue they identified.” The spokesperson said Google Play Protect, an app screening service built-in to Android devices, blocks apps that exploit the Strandhogg 2.0 vulnerability. Standhogg 2.0 works by abusing Android’s multitasking system, which keeps tabs on every recently opened app so that the user can quickly switch back and forth. A victim would have to download a malicious app — disguised as a normal app — that can exploit the Strandhogg 2.0 vulnerability. Once installed and when a victim opens a legitimate app, the malicious app quickly hijacks the app and injects malicious content in its place, such as a fake login window. When a victim enters their password on the fake overlay, their passwords are siphoned off to the hacker’s servers. The real app then appears as though the login was real. Strandhogg 2.0 doesn’t need any Android permissions to run, but it can also hijack the permissions of other apps that have access to a victim’s contacts, photos, and messages by triggering a permissions request. “If the permission is granted, then the malware now has this dangerous permission,” said Hansen. Once that permission is granted, the malicious app can upload data from a user’s phone. The malware can upload entire text message conversations, said Hansen, allowing the hackers to defeat two-factor authentication protections. The risk to users is likely low, but not zero. Promon said updating Android devices with the latest security updates — out now — will fix the vulnerability. Users are advised to update their Android devices as soon as possible. Millions downloaded dozens of Android apps from Google Play that were infected with adware

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Feedr, the food tech startup that delivers personalised meals to office workers as an alternative to companies setting up their own canteens, has been acquired by Compass Group, the publicly-listed foodservice company. The price is described as “in the region” of $24 million, while I understand the the deal between the two companies was completed in early March 2020. Compass Group says the purchase of Feedr will help accelerate its digital transformation, and — amidst the coronavirus crisis — form part of its “return to work” strategy. Specifically, it plans to utilise Feedr’s software across its portfolio of corporate clients in the U.K. and Ireland, with further potential applications of the technology in education and healthcare sectors. “Feedr’s mobile ordering and pre-pay technology will enable Compass to transform the way people interact with on-site restaurants, so employees can browse menus, pay and collect more flexibly, enhancing their food at work experience,” explains Compass Group UK and Ireland. Launched in 2016 by Riya Grover and Lyz Swanton, Feedr pitched itself as a “cloud canteen”. This sees it operate a two-sided marketplace that connects healthy food suppliers with office workers at companies, in addition to arranging delivery. To do this, Feedr publishes a “unique rotating menu” every day and asks workers to choose what they want to eat by 10.30am. It then pools those orders and sends them to the food suppliers it works with, which are mostly artisan and independent food producers, to have ready for delivery at lunch time. However, the technology behind Feedr handles logistics planning, in terms of predicting and helping to manage demand for each meal on offer from specific suppliers. There is also a large emphasis on personalised recommendations based on the preferences of individual customers and their order history. And it’s this aspect of Feedr’s offering that Compass Group thinks has utility when applied to on-site restaurants and canteens, too. With that said, in addition to adopting Feedr’s technology, Compass says it will also invest in growing Feedr as an independent brand that will continue to operate in the delivery market with its cloud canteen product. Riya Grover, co-Founder and CEO of Feedr comments: “We are thrilled to be part of Compass Group and to integrate our ordering, payments and health technology across their portfolio. Operating at new levels of scale will allow us to accelerate our product innovation, and to support our marketplace of restaurant partners with new opportunities.” Meanwhile, Damien Lane, partner at Episode 1, and early backer of Feedr, adds: “We invested in Feedr because we bought in to Riya and Lyz’s vision of using technology to deliver healthier meal options to the workplace, and have been hugely impressed with the progress made since our investment. I’m sure that Feedr will prove to be a hugely successful acquisition for Compass, who will be able to deploy Feedr’s technology platform into its worldwide network and accelerate Feedr’s mission of bringing healthy food choices to consumers and employees”. Alongside Episode 1, which led Feedr’s £1.5 million pre-Series A funding in 2018, other investors include Founders Factory, and angel investors Errol Damelin (Wonga founder and renowned fintech investor), Richard Glynn (former Ladbrokes CEO and founder of Alinsky Partners) and David Pritchard (founder of OpenTable Europe). The company had raised £2.7 million in total.

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Enterprise barcode scanner company Scandit has closed an $80 million Series C round, led by Silicon Valley VC firm G2VP. Atomico, GV, Kreos, NGP Capital, Salesforce Ventures and Swisscom Ventures also participated in the round — which brings its total raised to date to $123M. The Zurich-based firm offers a platform that combines computer vision and machine learning tech with barcode scanning, text recognition (OCR), object recognition and augmented reality which is designed for any camera-equipped smart device — from smartphones to drones, wearables (e.g. AR glasses for warehouse workers) and even robots. Use-cases include mobile apps or websites for mobile shopping; self checkout; inventory management; proof of delivery; asset tracking and maintenance — including in healthcare where its tech can be used to power the scanning of patient IDs, samples, medication and supplies. It bills its software as “unmatched” in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as the ability to scan in bad light; at any angle; and with damaged labels. Target industries include retail, healthcare, industrial/manufacturing, travel, transport & logistics and more. The latest funding injection follows a $30M Series B round back in 2018. Since then Scandit says it’s tripled recurring revenues, more than doubling the number of blue-chip enterprise customers, and doubling the size of its global team. Global customers for its tech include the likes of 7-Eleven, Alaska Airlines, Carrefour, DPD, FedEx, Instacart, Johns Hopkins Hospital, La Poste, Levi Strauss & Co, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toyota — with the company touting “tens of billions of scans” per year on 100+ million active devices at this stage of its business. It says the new funding will go on further pressing on the gas to grow in new markets, including APAC and Latin America, as well as building out its footprint and ops in North America and Europe. Also on the slate: Funding more R&D to devise new ways for enterprises to transform their core business processes using computer vision and AR. The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated demand for mobile computer vision on personal smart devices, according to Scandit, which says customers are looking for ways to enable more contactless interactions. Another demand spike it’s seeing is coming from the pandemic-related boom in ‘Click & Collect’ retail and “millions” of extra home deliveries — something its tech is well positioned to cater to because its scanning apps support BYOD (bring your own device), rather than requiring proprietary hardware. “COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for rapid digital transformation in these uncertain times, and the need to blend the physical and digital plays a crucial role,” said CEO Samuel Mueller in a statement. “Our new funding makes it possible for us to help even more enterprises to quickly adapt to the new demand for ‘contactless business’, and be better positioned to succeed, whatever the new normal is.” Also commenting on the funding in a supporting statement, Ben Kortlang, general partner at G2VP, added: “Scandit’s platform puts an enterprise-grade scanning solution in the pocket of every employee and customer without requiring legacy hardware. This bridge between the physical and digital worlds will be increasingly critical as the world accelerates its shift to online purchasing and delivery, distributed supply chains and cashierless retail.”

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Bolt, a rival to Uber and others providing on-demand ridesharing, scooters and other transportation services across some 150 cities in Europe and Africa, is today announcing another capital raise as it weathers a difficult market climate where, because of COVID-19, many are staying in place and avoiding modes of transport that put them into contact with others. The Estonia-based company is today announcing that it has picked up an additional €100 million ($109 million) in a convertible note. Bolt also confirmed that is now valued at €1.7 billion (or nearly $1.9 billion at today’s rates). The money is coming from a single investor, Naya Capital Management, which was also a major backer of the company in its last round, a $67 million Series C in July 2019. The funding is one more example of how investors are continuing to support their most promising, and/or most capitalised, portfolio companies as they face drastic losses of business during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can only be more complicated for a startup built on a business model that — even in the best of times — is very capital-intensive. Before this round, in April we were hearing that Bolt was running out of runway and that they were in discussion also with the Estonian government — a big supporter of the country’s tech industry — to underwrite debt in the company. Bolt has confirmed that this whole funding is in the form of a convertible note (that is, debt), with no additional equity at this point. “We have no plans that we can discuss at the moment,” a spokesperson said, so it sounds like a further equity round is something it’s working on regardless, given these take more time to close. Bolt — which says it has 30 million users in over 35 countries globally — has now raised over €300 million including debt and equity, with other investors including Nordic Ninja — a new fund out of Helsinki backed by a number of Japanese LPs to invest in Northern European startups (Bolt is based out of Tallinn) — Creandum, G Squared, Invenfin (a fund out of South Africa backed by investment holding company Remgro) and Superangel, a fund out of Estonia that has been backing the startup since its earliest days, as well as Didi (and, by association, SoftBank and Uber), Daimler, Korelya Capital and Spring Capital. Formerly known as Taxify, Bolt rebranded last year as it expanded beyond private car rides into other areas like electric scooters and food delivery — and the plan will be to use this funding to expand all three business areas in the coming months, along with newer product categories like Business Delivery in-city same-day courier services and Bolt Protect for people to continue to use its ride-hailing services by kitting out cars with plastic sheeting between driver and passenger seats. Uber, Bolt’s publicly traded business rival, has laid bare just how painful the pandemic has been for business. The company has laid off nearly 7,000 employees in recent weeks, and while we currently have little visibility of the impact this has had on the contractors Uber engages to move people, food and other items in its network, its next quarterly earnings (which will cover the full brunt of the pandemic) should more clearly spell out the drop-off in overall business. Bolt doesn’t go into the details of that situation itself, except to acknowledge that business is not business as usual. “Even though the crisis has temporarily changed how we move, the long-term trends that drive on-demand mobility such as declining personal car ownership or the shift towards greener transportation continue to grow,” said Markus Villig, CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “We are happy to be backed by investors that look past the typical Silicon Valley hype and support our long term view. I am more confident than ever that our efficiency and localisation are a fundamental advantage in the on-demand industry. These enable us to continue offering affordable transportation to millions of customers and the best earnings for our partners in the post-COVID world.” A lot of people have talked about how fundraising has become more complicated in the current climate. Not only are founders and investors not able to meet in person and get more embedded in evaluating an opportunity, but many are unable to see what the future will hold in terms of market demand and the overall economy, making the bets all the more laden with risk. That’s left a lot of the activity spread between startups that are seeing business lift precisely because of present circumstances; startups that have businesses that are continuing to enjoy a lot of trade despite present circumstances; and startups that are strong enough (or already so highly capitalised) that investors want to support them to make sure they don’t go under. More typically, startups that are securing funding are falling into more than one of the above categories, as is the case with Bolt. “We are delighted to have the opportunity to invest in Bolt at this stage in the company’s growth story,” Masroor Siddiqui, managing partner, CIO and founder of Naya Capital Management, said in a statement. “Under Markus’ leadership, Bolt has established itself as one of the most competitive and innovative players in global mobility. We believe that Bolt is helping drive a fundamental change in how consumers interact with the transport infrastructure of their cities and look forward to the company’s continued execution on its strategic vision.” Update: Bolt confirmed after we published that this is actually all debt, so this is not a Series D.

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Medwing, a German startup with an ambition to tackle Europe’s shortage of healthcare workers, said on Tuesday that it has secured €28 million ($30 million) in a Series B financing round. Global venture capital firm Cathay Innovation led the round, marking its first investment in a German company. Other participating investors include Northzone, Cherry Ventures and Atlantic Labs. The World Bank forecasted a worldwide shortage of 15 million health professionals by 2030, with demand being highest in affluent regions like Europe with an aging labor force and an aging population in need of care. The pressing issue inspired Johannes Roggendorf, who previously worked at Rocket Internet and Bain & Company, to launch Medwing in 2017 and later brought on his co-founder Dr. Timo Fischer. The entrepreneurs discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, many healthcare workers in Europe wanted to work more, not less. Part of the reason why jobs were not filled was information asymmetry that led to a mismatch between supply and demand. “There is a group of people who are willing to work more if they can manage their schedule,” Roggendorf told TechCrunch over a phone interview. “There are many qualified workers who left the healthcare system often because of inflexible working hours.” In a survey that Medwing conducted, 50% of those who left the healthcare system said they would return if they were given more flexible working conditions. Medwing’s solution is an automatic job matching system connecting workers with hospitals, nursing homes and other medical institutions. Focusing on Europe, the startup has so far registered more than 200,000 workers and 2,500 partner employers — including 80% hospitals in Berlin . Employers pay Medwing a commission every time a candidate is successfully placed. Each month, the platform is adding 15,000 new applicants, placing over 100 health experts in permanent positions and filling some 2,000 individual shifts. 20% of its users are looking for non-permanent jobs, according to Roggendorf. The platform strives to differentiate itself by “starting with the candidates,” asserted the founder. Unlike traditional staffing sites, which search for applicants based on recruiters’ criteria, Medwing does the opposite and filters recruiters according to candidates’ preferences on whether the position is flexible or permanent, part-time or full-time. It’s an approach that the founder believes can optimize worker satisfaction. In addition to matchmaking, the platform also provides career consulting services to job seekers. To Jacky Abitbol, who oversaw the deal for Cathay Innovation, Medwing is addressing two kinds of technological innovation his fund hunts for. For one, Medwing is driving “the future of work” by giving employees more autonomy and freedom. Terminal, which lets companies build out remote engineering teams overseas, is another startup in this category that has attracted financing from Cathay Innovation. “Medwing is also bringing digital to a more traditional sector,” Abitbol told TechCrunch on the phone. That means streamlining the recruiting process by eliminating agencies or middlemen, saving time and costs for both workers and employers. “What sounds very logical was not done this way until today,” the investor added. Medwing operates a team of over 200 employees from over 30 countries, many of which have been hit hard by COVID-19. The startup is providing some of its services pro bono to fight the virus, placing professionals and volunteers in hospitals, nursing homes and private households that need support. Abitbol said the impact of the health crisis on the startup’s revenue remains “slight”, as only certain facilities are designated as coronavirus hospitals and demand will return to normal as the pandemic starts to ease.

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Meituan’s shares hit a record high on Tuesday, bringing its valuation to over $100 billion. The Hong Kong-listed giant, which focuses on food delivery with smaller segments in travel and transportation, is the third Chinese firm to reach the landmark valuation. Tencent and Alibaba respectively topped the number back in 2013 and 2014. Tencent-backed Meituan saw shares rally to HK$138 ($17.8) on Tuesday after it earmarked a smaller-than-projected decrease in revenue during Q1 and a net loss of 1.58 billion yuan ($220 million) after three consecutive profitable quarters. While nationwide lockdowns might have increased the need for food delivery, Chinese consumers have been tightening their belt amid a worsening economy triggered by COVID-19. Overall food delivery transactions slid as a result. Meituan also had to pay incentives to delivery riders who work during the pandemic and subsidies to merchants to keep their heads above the water. There’s one silver lining: While Meituan’s daily average number of transactions dropped by 18.2% to 15.1 million, the average value per order jumped by 14.4% as delivered meals, which were conventionally seen as a habit for office workers, became normalized among families that stayed at home. In the first quarter, a large number of premium restaurants joined Meituan’s food delivery services, and they could continue to attract bigger ticket purchases in the post-pandemic era. All in all, though, Meituan executives warned of the uncertainties brought by COVID-19. “Moving on to the remaining of 2020, we expect that factors including the ongoing pandemic precautions, consumers’ insufficient confidence in offline consumption activities and the risk of merchants’ closure would continue to have a potential impact on our business performance.”

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Uber is cutting 600 jobs in India, or 25% of its workforce in the country, it said on Tuesday as it looks to cut costs to steer through the coronavirus pandemic. The job cuts, which affect teams across customer and driver support, business development, legal, policy, marketing, and finance, are part of the company’s global restructuring that eliminated 6,700 jobs this month. The American giant, which claimed to be the top cab hailing service in India earlier this year, said it was providing 10 to 12 weeks of salary to the employees who were being let go, in addition to offering them medical insurance for the next six months. “The impact of Covid-19 and the unpredictable nature of the recovery has left Uber India with no choice but to reduce the size of its workforce. Around 600 full time positions across driver and rider support, as well as other functions, are being impacted. These reductions are part of previously announced global job cuts this month. Today is an incredibly sad day for colleagues leaving the Uber family and all of us at the company. We made the decision now so that we can look to the future with confidence,” said Pradeep Parameswaran, President for Uber’s India and South Asia businesses, in a statement through a spokesperson. “I want to apologise to departing colleagues and extend my heartfelt thanks to them for their contributions to Uber, the riders, and the driver partners we serve in India,” he added. Uber’s announcement follows a similar cost cutting measures enforced by its local rival Ola, which eliminated 4,000 jobs, or 35% of its workforce last week. Ola said its food delivery unit was one of the key businesses to be affected by the job losses. Uber sold its Indian food delivery business to Zomato earlier this year. India announced a lockdown in late March that shut down all public transportation services across the country. In recent weeks, New Delhi has eased some restrictions, however, that has enabled both Ola and Uber to resume several of their services — excluding pool rides — in most parts of the country except those where concentration of coronavirus cases is very high. As in most other parts of the world, the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted several industries in India including food delivery, hospitality and travel. Food delivery startups Swiggy and Zomato have together eliminated about 2,600 jobs (with 2,100 at Swiggy alone) as many of their existing customers attempt to avoid exposure to the world. Travel and hospital firms such as MakeMyTrip and Oyo have also cut several jobs or furloughed thousands of employees in recent months as their revenues drop significantly.

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NASA and SpaceX are closer than ever to a moment both have been preparing for since the beginning of the Commercial Crew program in 2010. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft are now set to fly with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard, making a trip to the International Space Station, and both the agency and SpaceX announced today that they have officially passed the final flight readiness review, meaning everything is now a ‘go’ for launch. According to NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Leuders during a press conference on Monday, everything went well with all pre-launch flight checks thus far, including a full-length static test fire of the Falcon 9’s engines, and a dress rehearsal of all launch preparation including strapping Hurley and Behnken into the rocket. The only remaining major hurdle for SpaceX and NASA now is the weather, which is currently only looking around 40% favorable for a launch attempt on schedule for Wednesday, May 27 at 4:33 PM EDT, though during today’s press conference officials noted it is actually trending upwards as of today. SpaceX and NASA will be paying close attention to the weather between now and Wednesday, and since this is a highly sensitive mission with actual astronauts on board the spacecraft, you can bet that they’ll err on the side of caution for scrubbing the launch if weather isn’t looking good. That said, they do have a backup opportunity of May 30 in case they need to make use of that, as well as another window on May 31. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, noted that there were “no showstoppers” during the static test fire on Friday, and also commented that seeing the actual astronauts climb aboard the Crew Dragon during the dry dress rehearsal really drove home the seriousness and impact of this moment. It will mark the first ever human spaceflight for SpaceX, and the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Koenigsmann went through the schedule for launch day, which include Behnken and Hurley getting ready and suited up around 4 hours before, be drive over in the custom Tesla Model X astronaut transit vehicle at around 3 hours prior, and get into the capsule at around 2.5 hours before launch time. The rest from there is somewhat similar to other Falcon 9 launches, he said, with the exception of the escape system arming at 45 minutes prior to launch, and the arm retracting 10 minutes later, at which point the automated launch system takes over just like it does for other Falcon 9 flights. Post-launch, Behnken and Hurley will spend 19 hours on orbit, with orbit-raising burns and also a manual flight test (the rest of the time Crew Dragon should be under fully automated control) for around 30 minutes just prior to docking. Then, it’ll dock and open the hatch around 2 hours later. The departure schedule for Behnken and Hurley to leave the ISS is in flux – NASA will provide that date, sometime between 6 weeks and 16 weeks from launch. The astronauts will then back into Dragon, suit up, undock from the station, and land in the Atlantic around two hours later for recovery. This is the culmination of many years’ work, and will be the first human flight for the Commercial Crew program. If all goes well, SpaceX could then begin flying astronauts during regular operational missions for ferrying astronauts to and from the Space Station as early as later this year.

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On Monday, Virgin Orbit attempted the first full flight of its orbital payload launch system, which includes a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ that acts as a carrier aircraft for its air-launched rocket LauncherOne. While Virgin Orbit has flown Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne previously for different tests and demonstrations, this was the first end-to-end system test. Unfortunately, that test ended much earlier than planned – just shortly after the LauncherOne rocket was released from Cosmic Girl. We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base. — Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) May 25, 2020 Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.” While the Cosmic Girl crew and all other employees are confirmed safe by the company, this is likely to be a disappointing test. Still, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don’t go quite as planned – which is why you test, after all. The full planned flight map today for Virgin One’s orbital test. The company will still likely be able to collect a lot of valuable data from this mission, which should provide insight into what went wrong. We’ll also be reaching out to the company to seek details of what caused the early ending to today’s mission. Once the company addresses the problems, it’s likely to set another attempt, and that might not be as far away as you might expect because Virgin has been very active on its launch vehicle pipeline and has backup craft nearly ready to fly.

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Serial entrepreneur Rohit Nadhani, who last sold his Newton email app to Essential in 2018— an app so popular it’s been saved from shutting down multiple times — is today launching a new startup, Kubera. The service aims to offer an alternative to using a spreadsheet to keep track of your assets, investments, cryptocurrencies, debts, insurance, and other important documents that would need to be transferred to a loved one in the event of your death. The founder was inspired to create Kubera — a reference to the Indian “lord of wealth” — due to a traumatic personal experience. While swimming in Costa Rica, he was caught in a riptide and had to be rescued. After coming home, the first thing he did was to start putting together a list of all his assets to share with his wife in the event of his death. The task was fairly difficult, as it turned out, as that list now included more than just real estate, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts, and insurance. Nadhani realized he also wanted to list other assets like crypto investments, collectibles, precious metals, private and foreign investments, trademarks and other digital assets, as well as debts owed him — like loans he had made to family and friends. Plus, he wanted a few more features that a simple spreadsheet could provide — like the ability to automatically update the value of the assets, similar to Intuit’s Mint, and basic reporting. More importantly, he didn’t want to share access to his personal net worth data and accounts unless it was absolutely necessary. Existing solutions didn’t meet Nadhani’s needs, he said, as they used outdated technology, lacked the features he wanted, or used users’ data to make budgeting or investment recommendations. That, along with feedback from friends who said they were also stuck using spreadsheets for this task, prompted the founder to create his own solution with Kubera. To do so, he reached out to former colleague Manoj Marathayil, the founding engineer at Nadhani’s two prior companies, CloudMagic (Newton) and Webyog, which exited to IDERA in 2018. Also joining Kubera is the former Head of Product & Design from Newton Mail at CloudMagic, Umesh Gopinath. Kubera is launching today as a custom-built solution for the task of listing your assets, both traditional and non-traditional alike. To use the service, you begin by listing your assets in a simple table, then add details like cost, value, or the documents associated with them, if available. You can either opt to update the values in the table as you go, or you can connect assets to your online accounts to update their value automatically.   The service uses trusted financial data aggregation services like Plaid and Yodlee to make the connections, which means it has “read-only” access to your financial data — Kubera cannot make transactions on your behalf. This also allows it to support connections to over 10,000 banks across the world. The service also uses the open standard AES-256 encryption algorithm to encrypt user data, requires HTTPS on all web pages, uses HSTS to require browsers use only secure connections, and supports 2-step verification through Google Sign-in with other 2-step options launching soon. The company’s business model is a subscription service, which allows it to generate revenue without having to share data with a third-party or advertiser. The basic service is free to use if you don’t want to automatically update your asset values. If you do, it’s $10 per month. Once the initial entry has been done, Kubera will periodically remind you to update asset values and check in. Its “life beat” check will track if you’ve been inactive for a certain number of days (specified by you during setup) and try to reach you. If you don’t respond to Kubera’s attempts to reach you, it will then try to reach your beneficiary by way of email and text, if provided. The service sends an email with all the information you’ve provided in a downloadable format to your beneficiary. If they don’t respond after several reminders, Kubera will then reach out to your backup contact, a “Trusted Angel.” Kubera to some extent competes with services like Mint, YNAB and other online budgeting tools. But these services don’t offer the same extensive net worth tracking and have a different focus. It also competes with financial advisor and wealth management companies, like Personal Capital. But instead of pushing you to connect with a financial advisor or other paid services, Kubera isn’t doling out investing advice. Further down the road, Kubera may expand into estate planning — like helping with wills or trusts, or connecting you to partners who can provide these services. But for the time being, the service is meant to be used in conjunction with users’ existing wills and trusts. The bootstrapped startup is a five-person team. At launch, Kubera is offering 100-day free trials, allowing you the time to organize assets before making a decision on subscribing to the service.  

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
This week could be the biggest week to date for private spaceflight, with landmark launch attempts coming from both Virgin Orbit and SpaceX . Virgin Orbit is looking to join the elite club of private launch companies that have actually made it to space, with a full flight test of its combined Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne system. Meanwhile, SpaceX is looking to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft with people on board – achieving a number of milestones, including returning U.S. crew launch capabilities, and human-rating its Falcon 9 rocket. Here’s what Virgin Orbit hopes their first flight will do Virgin Orbit was supposed to launch its first full demonstration flight on Sunday, but a sensor bug that showed up during pre-launch checkouts means that it’s now pushing things back to at least Monday to check that out. Extra precaution is hardly surprising since this milestone mission could help the company become an operational satellite launch provider – one of only a small handful of private companies that can make that claim. SpaceX cleared to proceed for historic crew flight Wednesday SpaceX passed its first crucial flight readiness review (FRR) on Friday for its first ever crewed astronaut launch, setting it up for a full rehearsal of the mission on Saturday leading up to the actual launch Now it’s set for another FRR with partner NASA on Monday, and then the launch should take place on Wednesday – weather and checkouts permitting. This will definitely be one to watch. MHI retires a space workhorse Mitsubishi Heavy Industries flew its last mission with its H-II series rocket, and the space transfer vehicle it carries to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The company is readying a successor to this highly successful and consistent rocket, the H3, which is set to make its launch debut sometime in 2022 if all goes to plan. NASA human spaceflight chief abruptly resigns While SpaceX is aiming to make history with NASA and two of its astronauts, the person in charge of the agency’s human spaceflight endeavors made a surprising and abrupt exit from the agency last week. Doug Loverro resigned from his position, reportedly over some kind of inappropriate activity he engaged in with a prospective agency business partner ahead of the contract awards for NASA’s commercial human lander program. Xilinx debuts a new chip made for machine learning in space Xilinx specializes in building processors that are designed to withstand the rigors of use in space, which include heavy radiation exposure, extreme temperatures and plenty more. The company just debuted a new FPGA for space-based applications that is the first 20nm-based processor for space, and the first with dedicated machine-learning capabilities built in for edge computing that truly redefines the term. NASA’s ‘Artemis Accords’ look to redefine international space cooperation Space has enjoyed a period of being relatively uncontested when it comes to international squabbles – mostly because it’s hard and expensive to reach, and the benefits of doing so weren’t exactly clear 30 to 40 years ago when most of those rules were set up. NASA’s new rules include a lot of the old ones, but also set up some modernizations that are sure to begin a lot of debate and discussion in the space policy community. ULA launches first U.S. Space Force spaceplane mission In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo) The United Launch Alliance launched the X-37B last week on behalf of the U.S. Space Force – marking the first time the mysterious experimental unscrewed space plane has launched for that newly-formed agency. The X-37B has flown plenty before, of course – but previously it was doing so under the authority of the U.S. Air Force, since the Space Force hadn’t been formed yet.

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Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds. Basics Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating. The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging. While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities. They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls. Design Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run. Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear. Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier. Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however. One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness. Performance It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond. Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing. In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout. Bottom Line Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.

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China’s space program will launch a Mars mission in July, according to its current plans. This will include deploying an orbital probe to study the red planet, and a robotic, remotely-controlled rover for surface exploration. The U.S. has also been planning another robotic rover mission for Mars, and it’s set to take off this summer, too – peak time for an optimal transit from Earth to Mars thanks to their relative orbits around the Sun. This will be the first rover mission to Mars for China’s space program, and is one of the many ways that it’s aiming to better compete with NASA’s space exploration efforts. NASA has flown four previous Mars rover missions, and its fifth, with an updated rover called ‘Perseverance,’ is set to take place this years with a goal of making a rendezvous with Mars sometime in February 2021. NASA’s mission also includes an ambitious rock sample return plan, which will include the first powered spacecraft launch from the red planet to bring that back. The U.S. space agency is also sending the first atmospheric aerial vehicle to Mars on this mission, a helicopter drone that will be used for short flights to collect additional data from above the planet’s surface. China has a number of plans to expand its space exploration efforts, including development and launch of an orbital research platform, its own space station above Earth, by 2022. The nation’s space program also recently test-launched a new crew spacecraft, which will eventually be used in its mission to land Chinese astronauts on the surface of the Moon. Meanwhile, NASA has issued a new set of draft rules that it is proposing for continued international cooperation in space, particularly as they related to reaching the Moon and setting up a more permanent human presence on Earth’s natural satellite. The agency is also hoping to return human space launch capabilities to the U.S. this week with a first demonstration launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on Wednesday.

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Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation, said on Twitter Monday that its service is blocked in China. The productivity app has attracted waves of startups and tech workers around the world — including those in China — to adopt its all-in-one platform that blends notes, wikis, to-dos, and team collaboration. The four-year-old San Francisco-based app is widely seen as a serious rival to Evernote, which started out in 2004. Notion said it is “monitoring the situation and will continue to post updates,” but the timing of the ban noticeably coincides with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country. Notion could not be immediately reached for comment. For Notion and other apps that have entered the public eye in China but remained beyond the arm of local laws, a looming crackdown is almost certain. The country’s cybersecurity watchdog could find Notion’s free flow of note-sharing problematic. Some users have even conveniently turned the tool’s friendly desktop version into personal websites. If Notion were to keep its China presence, it would have to bow to the same set of regulations that rule all content creation platforms in China. Its predecessor Evernote, for example, established a Chinese joint venture in 2018 and released a local edition under the brand Yinxiang Biji, which comes with compromised features and stores user data within China. Rivalry in work collaboration Just before its ban in China, Notion surged on May 21 to become the most-downloaded productivity app in the domestic Android stores, according to third-party data from App Annie. The sudden rise appears to be linked to its Chinese copycat Hanzhou (寒舟), which stirred up controversy within the developer community over its striking resemblance to Notion. In an apologetic post published on May 22, Xu Haihao, the brain behind Hanzhou and a former employee of ByteDance-backed document collaboration app Shimo, admitted to “developing the project based on Notion.” “We are wrong from the beginning,” wrote Xu. “But I intended to offend nobody. My intention was to learn from [Notion’s] technology.” As a resolution, the developer said he would suspend Hanzou’s development and user registration. Some of the largest tech firms in China are gunning for the workplace productivity industry, which received a recent boost during the coronavirus crisis. Alibaba’s Dingtalk claimed last August that more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million individual users had registered on its platform. By comparison, Tencent’s WeChat Work said it had logged more than 2.5 million enterprises and some 60 million active users by December.

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Thailand’s largest cell network AIS has pulled a database offline that was spilling billions of real-time internet records on millions of Thai internet users. Security researcher Justin Paine said in a blog post that he found the database, containing DNS queries and Netflow data, on the internet without a password. With access to this database, Paine said that anyone could “quickly paint a picture” about what an internet user (or their household) does in real-time. Paine alerted AIS to the open database on May 13. But after not hearing back for a week, Paine reported the apparent security lapse to Thailand’s national computer emergency response team, known as ThaiCERT, which contacted AIS about the open database. The database was inaccessible a short time later. It’s not known who owns the database. Paine told TechCrunch that the kind of records found in the database can only come from someone who’s able to monitor internet traffic as it flows across the network. But there is no easy way to differentiate between if the database belongs to the internet provider — or one of its subsidiaries — or a large enterprise customer on AIS’ network. AIS spokespeople did not respond to our emails requesting comment. DNS queries are a normal side-effect of using the internet. Every time you visit a website, the browser converts a web address into an IP address, which tells the browser where the web page lives on the internet. Although DNS queries don’t carry private messages, emails, or sensitive data like passwords, they can identify which websites you access and which apps you use. But that could be a major problem for high-risk individuals, like journalists and activists, whose internet records could be used to identify their sources. Thailand’s internet surveillance laws grant authorities sweeping access to internet user data. Thailand also has some of the strictest censorship laws in Asia, forbidding any kind of criticism against the Thai royal family, national security, and certain political issues. In 2017, the Thai military junta, which took power in a 2015 coup, narrowly backed down from banning Facebook across the country after the social network giant refused to censor certain users’ posts. DNS query data can also be used to gain insights into a person’s internet activity. Using the data, Paine showed how anyone with access to the database could learn a number of things from a single internet-connected house, such as the kind of devices they owned, which antivirus they ran, and which browsers they used, and which social media apps and websites they frequented. In households or offices, many people share one internet connection, making it far more difficult to trace internet activity back to a particular person. Advertisers also find DNS data valuable for serving targeted ads. Since a 2017 law allowed U.S. internet providers to sell internet records — like DNS queries and browsing histories — of their users, browser makers have pushed back by rolling out privacy-enhancing technologies that make it harder for internet and network providers to snoop. One such technology, DNS over HTTPS — or DoH — encrypts DNS requests, making it far more difficult for internet or network providers to know which websites a customer is visiting or which apps they use. ICANN warns of “ongoing and significant” attacks against internet’s DNS infrastructure

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posted 8 days ago on techcrunch
Fashion is having its moment in the metaverse. A riot of luxury labels, music, and games are vying for attention in the virtual world. And as physical events and the entertainment industry that depends on them shuts down, virtual things have come to epitomize the popular culture of the pandemic. It’s creating an environment where imagination and technical ability, not wealth, are the only barriers to accumulating the status symbols that only money and fame could buy. Whether it’s famous designers like Marc Jacobs, Sandy Liang, or Valentino dropping styles in Nintendo’s breakout hit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons; HypeBae’s plans to host a fashion show later this month in the game; or various crossovers between Epic Games’ Fortnite and brands like Supreme (which pre-date the pandemic), fashion is tapping into gaming culture to maintain its relevance. One entrepreneur who’s spent time on both sides of the business as a startup founder and an employee for one of the biggest brands in athletic wear has launched a new app to try build a bridge between the physical and virtual fashion worlds. Its goal is to give hypebeasts a chance to collect virtual versions of their physical objects of desire and win points to maybe buy the gear they crave, while also providing a showcase where brands can discover new design talent to make the next generation of cult collaborations and launch careers. View this post on Instagram Selling any turnips We partnered with @AnimalCrossingFashionArchive to bring six of our favorite #THEMARCJACOBS pieces to #AnimalCrossing. Head to our Stories for download codes. A post shared by Marc Jacobs (@marcjacobs) on May 2, 2020 at 2:08pm PDT Aglet’s Phase 1 The app, called Aglet, was created by Ryan Mullins, the former head of digital innovation strategy for Adidas, and it’s offering a way to collect virtual versions of limited edition sneakers and, eventually, design tools so all the would-be Virgil Ablohs and Kanye Wests of the world can make their own shoes for the metaverse. When TechCrunch spoke with Mullins last month, he was still stuck in Germany. His plans for the company’s launch, along with his own planned relocation to Los Angeles, had changed dramatically since travel was put on hold and nations entered lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19. Initially, the app was intended to be a Pokemon Go for sneakerheads. Limited edition “drops” of virtual sneakers would happen at locations around a city and players could go to those spots and add the virtual sneakers to their collection. Players earned points for traveling to various spots, and those points could be redeemed for in-app purchases or discounts at stores. “We’re converting your physical activity into a virtual currency that you can spend in stores to buy new brands,” Mulins said. “Brands can have challenges and you have to complete two or three challenges in your city as you compete on that challenge the winner will get prizes.” Aglet determines how many points a player earns based on the virtual shoes they choose to wear on their expeditions. The app offers a range of virtual sneakers from Air Force 1s to Yeezys and the more expensive or rare the shoe, the more points a player earns for “stepping out” in it. Over time, shoes will wear out and need to replaced — ideally driving more stickiness for the app. Currency for in-app purchases can be bought for anywhere from $1 (for 5 “Aglets”) to $80 (for 1,000 “Aglets”). As players collect shoes they can display them on their in-app virtual shelves and potentially trade them with other players. When the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders came through, Mullins and his designers quickly shifted to create the “pandemic mode” for the game, where users can go anywhere on a map and simulate the game. “Our plan was to have an LA specific release and do a competition, but that was obviously thrown off,” Mullins said. The app has antecedents like Nike’s SNKRS, which offered limited edition drops to users and geo-located places where folks could find shoes from its various collaborations, as Input noted when it covered Aglet’s April launch. While Mullins’ vision for Aglet’s current incarnation is an interesting attempt to weave the threads of gaming and sneaker culture into a new kind of augmented reality-enabled shopping experience, there’s a step beyond the game universes that Mullins wants to create. Image Credits: Adidas (opens in a new window) The future of fashion discovery could be in the metaverse “My proudest initiative [at Adidas] was one called MakerLab,” said Mullins. MakerLab linked Adidas up with young, up-and-coming designers and let them create limited edition designs for the shoe company based on one of its classic shoe silhouettes. Mullins thinks that those types of collaborations point the way to a potential future for the industry that could be incredibly compelling. “The real vision for me is that I believe that the next Nike is an inverted Nike,” Mullins said. “I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have young kids on Roblox designing stuff in the virtual environments and it’ll pop there and you’ll have Nike or Adidas manufacture it.” From that perspective, the Aglet app is more of a Trojan Horse for the big idea that Mullins wants to pursue. That’s to create a design studio to showcase the best virtual designs and bring them to the real world. Mullins calls it the “Smart Aglet Sneaker Studio”. “[It’s] where you can design your own sneakers in the standard design style and we’ll put those in the game. We’ll let you design your own hoodies and then [Aglet] does become a YouTube for fashion design.” The YouTube example comes from the starmaking power the platform has enabled for everyone from makeup artists to musicians like Justin Bieber, who was discovered on the social media streaming service. “I want to build a virtual design platform where kids can build their own brands for virtual fashion brands and put them into this game environment that I’m building in the first phase,” said Mullins. “Once Bieber was discovered, YouTube meant he was being able to access an entire infrastructure to become a star. What Nike and Adidas are doing is something similar where they’re finding this talent out there and giving that designer access to their infrastructure and maybe could jumpstart a young kid’s career.”

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posted 8 days ago on techcrunch
I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups. In this edition: a new type of laser emitter that uses metamaterials, robot-trained dogs, a breakthrough in neurological research that may advance prosthetic vision and other cutting-edge technology. Twisted laser-starters We think of lasers as going “straight” because that’s simpler than understanding their nature as groups of like-minded photons. But there are more exotic qualities for lasers beyond wavelengths and intensity, ones scientists have been trying to exploit for years. One such quality is… well, there are a couple names for it: Chirality, vorticality, spirality and so on — the quality of a beam having a corkscrew motion to it. Applying this quality effectively could improve optical data throughput speeds by an order of magnitude. The trouble with such “twisted light” is that it’s very difficult to control and detect. Researchers have been making progress on this for a couple of years, but the last couple weeks brought some new advances. First, from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a laser emitter that can produce twisted light of record purity and angular momentum — a measure of just how twisted it is. It’s also compact and uses metamaterials — always a plus. The second is a pair of matched (and very multi-institutional) experiments that yielded both a transmitter that can send vortex lasers and, crucially, a receiver that can detect and classify them. It’s remarkably hard to determine the orbital angular momentum of an incoming photon, and hardware to do so is clumsy. The new detector is chip-scale and together they can use five pre-set vortex modes, potentially increasing the width of a laser-based data channel by a corresponding factor. Vorticality is definitely on the roadmap for next-generation network infrastructure, so you can expect startups in this space soon as universities spin out these projects. Tracing letters on the brain-palm

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