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It’s not every day you see a company that employs 75,000 and once had a market cap of $20 billion facing instant doom on an hour-by-hour basis. But that’s the situation that Chinese telecom firm ZTE finds itself in right now. Following revelations that the company sold equipment with U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea in violation of U.S. sanctions, President Trump decided to kill the company. Then he decided not to kill it. Now, this week, Congress is deciding whether to kill it or not, much to the chagrin of the White House, who thought the matter closed. Senators like Tom Cotton (R-AK) this week have said they believe that the “Death penalty is right penalty for ZTE’s behavior.” Before we go further, let’s step back for a moment and just muse about what is happening here. Congress and the White House are politicking back and forth over the fate of one of China’s crown jewel tech companies, with tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs at stake. If that isn’t the definition of hegemonic power, I don’t know what is. And remember that both branches of government are run nominally by the same party. China has been leveraging its long-awaited approval of Qualcomm’s acquisition of NXP Semiconductors to push the Trump administration to concede to ZTE’s survival. The Trump administration has gotten that message loudly and clearly, which is among many reasons why it ended up selecting a $1 billion fine as the penalty and trying to move on. Congress, though, knows no such logic. It can’t handle the sort of multistep logic that connects Qualcomm’s success on NXP to U.S. dominance in 5G to ZTE’s survival. That’s three steps, and that’s probably three steps too much for the collective wisdom of Congress to comprehend. ZTE’s execution has now taken on its own political momentum. Worse for ZTE, the momentum is bipartisan, with perhaps even more aggression on the Democratic side than the Republican one. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was quoted by The Hill saying that saving ZTE “… would send a bad signal to anybody around the world watching that you can violate U.S. sanctions law with impunity and we shouldn’t be doing that.” For Democrats, hitting Trump hard on trade, National Security and China is a very powerful political weapon in an election year. Since the administration has come to an agreement with ZTE, its position is now fixed, allowing the senators free rein to be tougher than Trump on the issue. Ironically — and to be clear on this view, I am not getting this from sources, but rather pointing out a unique strategy vector here — it might well be Qualcomm that uses its DC policy shop to try to save ZTE. Those lobbyists protected Qualcomm from a takeover by Broadcom earlier this year, and it could try to make the case to Congress that it will be irreparably damaged if legislators don’t back off their threats. The irony of course is that the renewed trade jingoism in Congress is a function of Qualcomm’s fight against nominally Singapore-based Broadcom. Qualcomm got the deal blocked on national security grounds, and now has to face those same national security concerns hitting it on the closure of its most important corporate transaction. That classic short-term political thinking earlier this year will make moving forward for the company very difficult here. ZTE’s cards are few outside of Beijing’s direct interventions. First, it is applying for loans that might reach as much as $10.7 billion from two banks in China, according to the Financial Times. It’s also adding a slate of new directors to its board, to match its agreement with the Trump administration. That’s smart, since the more the deal seems to accomplish, the less impetus Congress has to act to kill the company. ZTE has other cards it could play. One would be to push for a massive expansion into the U.S. That, of course, contradicts its past history as well as its telco brother, Huawei, which has been mostly barred from entering the U.S. market. Nonetheless, given the priorities of this administration, I am surprised there haven’t been more attempts by ZTE to move jobs and manufacturing to U.S. soil as a peace offering, while gaining the vital support of at least some senators who see jobs springing up in their backyards. Another option for ZTE would be to increase its corporate transparency. Again, like Huawei, ZTE’s leadership remains relatively opaque, with Communist Party links that have never been fully explained. ZTE is a valuable asset for the Chinese government and economy, and there is a way of potentially blunting some of the momentum in Congress if it was willing to come forth with more info and commit to future work on its transparency. I don’t expect ZTE to use any of these cards. I am not even sure the Chinese government wants to prevent the company’s death. An execution ordered by Congress is about the clearest sign the CCP leadership could send to its population that economic development must continue at any cost. Li Yuan in The New York Times called this China’s Sputnik Moment, and I think that is apt. If Congress kills ZTE, it won’t be the death of a major Chinese company, but rather the death of open economies and the birth of a renewed nationalism around trade.

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In an embarrassing and mystifying about-face, the Seattle City Council has repealed a tax it passed unanimously just a month ago that would require large companies to pay a fixed amount per employee; the money would have been used to combat homelessness. Amazon was the most high-profile opponent of the tax, but not the only one by far, and apparently the Council decided that fighting the business community was “not a winnable battle.” The situation was in some ways a microcosm for government and grassroots efforts to wrangle with the extremely complex relationship between the growth of tech and various housing crises. I won’t attempt to characterize it here, but Seattle had come to the conclusion that if your company had more than $20 million in receipts, it could afford to pay $275 (down from a proposed $500) per employee per year. That would have been some $11 million from Amazon alone, so it fussed mightily and halted construction on several of its skyscrapers downtown. But ultimately it and other seemed to reach an unhappy compromise with the reduced per-employee amount. Not so: after fighting to have the law modified, Amazon, Starbucks, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan immediately lent their weight and cash to a referendum campaign that would put the tax up to a popular vote in November. This prospect apparently spooked the City Council so much that a special meeting was announced less than a day in advance, violating Washington’s own law requiring 24 hours’ notice. At this meeting the members voted 7-2 to repeal the tax that just a month earlier they had so confidently stood behind. Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant were the only holdouts, and cried shame on their peers: Sawant, known for her fiery rhetoric (perhaps too much so, as it has invited costly lawsuits), called it a “cowardly betrayal.” And indeed, the questionable merits of the proposed tax aside, it seems strange to think that the Council could feel itself so right just a month ago, and now, faced with the prospect of having to convince the public that it’s a good idea, completely abandoned that conviction. Inspiring government it isn’t. As some have said, perhaps it would be more convincing if there was a detailed and justified plan for how to address the homelessness problem in Seattle, and then a fundraising campaign — including taxes on businesses — created to enable it. Putting the latter before the former struck many as exemplary of a spendy local government of taxing first and making policy later. At any rate it may be remembered, perhaps not entirely accurately, as a moment when Seattle tried to reach out and touch Big Tech and Amazon slapped them down. Though that oversimplifies the situation greatly, there’s an element of truth to it and we may see it referenced as others mount similar attempts.

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One of the most popular movies in the U.S. is a terrible teen rom-com called “The Kissing Booth,” and it’s not in theaters. Instead, this Netflix Original with its paltry 17 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, shot up to become the No. 4 movie on IMDb, before more recently dropping down to No. 9. Its leads, Jacob Elordi and Joey King, also became the No. 1 and No. 6 most popular stars on IMDb’s StarMeter, respectively, shortly after the film’s launch. The secret to the movie’s success, however, is not just a combination of teenagers’ questionable taste in entertainment and the power of Netflix’s distribution — though both play a major role, clearly. Instead, it’s that “The Kissing Booth” is tapping into a built-in audience: teenage Wattpad users. Yes, Wattpad. In case you’re not familiar, Wattpad is an online site and mobile app where writers can share their original stories — often things like fan fiction or sappy love stories (ahem) — with a wide community of readers. Today, Wattpad is visited by more than 65 million monthly users, who spend a collective 15 billion minutes per month reading its online stories. “The Kissing Booth” was one of its successes. The original story was started on Wattpad back in 2011, and won one of the site’s “Watty Awards” that same year for “Most Popular Teen Fiction.” The story was read a whopping 19 million times while on Wattpad, before the then 17-year-old author Beth Reekles scored a three-book deal with Random House UK in 2013 — becoming the youngest Wattpad writer to earn a book deal at that time, the company notes. London- and L.A.-based Komixx Media — the movie’s producer, which specializes in finding young adult IP with commercial potential — reached out to the author within months of the book deal. And Netflix ordered its adaptation of “The Kissing Booth” in 2016. “The Kissing Booth is a great example of what is possible on Wattpad,” said Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios, the online community’s studio arm that helps make deals for its authors. “Beth was a fresh new voice whose story connected with millions of readers all over the world on Wattpad, before becoming a published book,” he noted. “We were able to work with Netflix to market the film on Wattpad and make sure the story’s fans around the world hit ‘play’ when it started streaming. And now it’s one of the most popular movies on the planet.” Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos also confirmed to Vulture the title is one of the streaming service’s most popular, saying that “The Kissing Booth” is “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe the world.” He didn’t cite hard numbers — Netflix doesn’t do that — but the IMDb rankings indicate the movie is at least resonating with its core teen audience. Since the movie launched on Netflix, the published book has also shot up the charts. It’s ranking in the top 10 of three “Teen” categories on Amazon, as of the time of writing, including No. 10 in the “Contemporary Teen Romance” category. Of course, going from an online story to one of the most popular releases in the country is not unique to Wattpad. “50 Shades of Grey” famously began online as “Twilight” fan fiction, for example. But Wattpad has a different audience for its romantic fare than the more adult “50 Shades.” And studios, both traditional and digital, are taking notice. Most recently, Sony Pictures Television acquired the rights to Wattpad story “Death is my BFF,” which was read more than 92 million times, and Hulu gave a straight-to-series order to “Light as a Feather,” which saw more than 2.9 million Wattpad reads. “Cupid’s Match,” which had over 36 million reads, got a pilot on CW Seed. Wattpad has also worked with Turner, Universal Cable Productions (a division of NBCUniversal), eOne and Paramount Pictures, among others. Critical reviews of “The Kissing Booth,” are, as you may expect, fairly negative. It’s panned as “lazy and amateur,” “clumsy and ham-handed” and just simply “not a good movie.” But critical interest in films and what people actually watch are often disconnected. That’s certainly the case here as “The Kissing Booth” has an audience score of 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s better than the top theatrical release, “Ocean’s 8,” which has a 52 percent score; or the even the No. 2 movie, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which is at 65 percent. “The Kissing Booth” may not be a “good” film, but that hardly seems to matter at this point. It’s popular among a largely younger crowd — a key target for streaming services. These kids and young adults have grown up watching TV and movies on mobile and computer screens, and often stay home from theaters. And they’re reading their fiction on the web and in mobile apps, too. Netflix has catered to this young audience before, with arguably “bad” but popular original films like “Bright” (26 percent critics versus 85 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes); or the “so bad it’s good” holiday film “A Christmas Prince.” With Netflix’s now 125 million subscribers and its $1.5 billion in new debt financing, the service has the potential to tap into any key demographic like this time and time again, and serve up a hit — terrible as it may be. And that hit can reach a mass audience, bigger than cable TV or even the Hollywood productions in theaters, in some cases. Hopefully, at least some of them will be “good” by all measures, though, not just viewership.

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Just in time for the World Cup, Telemundo Deportes, Universal Brand Development and the startup TreasureHunt, have launched a shootout game for the Instant Games platform on Facebook and Messenger. Telemundo Deportes is putting out the game in conjunction with its Spanish-language coverage of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. GOAL! SHOOTOUT (WHICH IS CLEARLY VERY EXCITING) lets players vie for the title of penalty kick all star so they can all bend it like the virtual Beckhams that they are. “The World Cup provides us with the opportunity to tap into the passion of soccer and engage with our viewers in different, authentic ways leading up to and throughout the tournament this summer,” said Miguel Lorenzo, Director, Digital Product Development, Telemundo Deportes, in a statement. “We are excited to launch this collaborative initiative with Universal Brand Development, which is Telemundo Deportes’ first release in the games space, and we look forward to offering a high quality social gaming experience for our soccer fans.” Through the game, folks get points by successfully taking penalty kicks. Over the course of the Cup, which runs from today through July 15, players can perfect their technique by practicing against special targets, unlock new designs for soccer balls and challenge friends to beat scores. “At Universal, we want to offer games wherever people want to play them, so we are thrilled to be launching our first game on Messenger,” said Chris Heatherly, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Games and Digital Platforms, Universal Brand Development, in a statement. The free-to-play game developed with TreasureHunt has to be one of the biggest opportunities yet for the young, Berlin-based startup. It was only last June that the company raised $6 million in its first institutional round of financing led by The Gauselmann Group, a Germany gaming company, with participation from angel investors. For Kyle Smith, the leader of TreasureHunt’s team of veteran game developers from companies like Electronic Arts, Zynga, Rovio and King, the goal was to appeal to the widest possible audience. “We really wanted to capture the momentum leading up to Telemundo’s coverage of the World Cup by creating a highly social, super accessible game that can be enjoyed by sports fans anywhere,” said Kyle Smith, CEO, TreasureHunt. “Our goal was to create an experience that appeals to a mainstream audience by making them feel part of this historic worldwide tournament.” The free to play GOAL! SHOOTOUT is out now. [gallery ids="1656886,1656887,1656888"]

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Juul Labs, the company behind the ever-popular Juul e-cig, has today announced a new policy around social media. This comes in the midst of Juul’s effort to get FDA approval, which has been made more arduous by the fact that the FDA has cracked down on Juul after learning how popular the device is with underage users. As part of the new policy, Juul will no longer feature models in pictures posted on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. FWIW, Juul doesn’t even have a Snapchat. Instead of using models to market the e-cig, Juul Labs will now use real former smokers who switched from combustible cigarette to Juul. Juul has always said that its product was meant to serve as an alternative to combustible cigarettes, which are considered far more harmful to your health. Juul has also initiated an internal team focused on flagging and reporting social media content that is inappropriate or targeted to underage users. The company mentioned that it has worked to report and remove more than 10,000 illegal online sales since February from various online marketplaces. We reached out to Juul to see if any changes have been made to the way that Juul targets ads on social media and elsewhere. We’ll update the post if/when we hear back. Here’s what Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns had to say in a prepared statement: While JUUL already has a strict marketing code, we want to take it one step further by implementing an industry-leading policy eliminating all social media posts featuring models and instead focus our social media on sharing stories about adult smokers who have successfully switched to JUUL. We also are having success in proactively working with social media platforms to remove posts, pages and unauthorized offers to sell product targeted at underage accounts. We believe we can both serve the 38 million smokers in the U.S. and work together to combat underage use – these are not mutually exclusive missions. In April, the FDA sent a request for information to Juul Labs as part of a new Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan, which is aimed at keeping tobacco products of any kind out of the hands of minors. The information request was meant to help the FDA understand why teens are so interested in e-cigs (particularly Juul) and whether or not Juul Labs was marketing the product intentionally to minors. In response, Juul announced a new strategy to combat underage use, with an investment of $30 million over the next three years going towards independent research, youth and parent education and community engagement efforts. Since August 2017, Juul has required that people be 21+ to purchase products on its own website, but online and offline third-party retailers have not been so diligent.

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Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last 2 months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours. Here’s how Atoms is modernizing the footwear experience: Pick your quarter size, say 10.25, and Atoms sends you 10s, 10.25s, and 10.5s, plus socks Try them on and pick any two, even different sizes for different feet, and send the rest back free No logos. Atoms come in jet black, pure white, or black top/white bottom, but don’t stick an ad on your feet Copper threads inside eat bacteria, preventing funky smells Elastic laces with subtle oval eyelets let Atoms slip on but stay tight so you rarely have to tie them Get a discount on your next pair if you send in your old Atoms for analysis and donation Image via Jeff Macke At $179, Atoms are pricier than $100 lifestyle Nikes or $79 Allbirds. But the basketball shoe giant just sells in half sizes, while Allbirds offers only whole sizes that fit few perfectly. The right quarter-size Atoms for each foot makes them feel molded to your body. “To make shoes better, you need to know why people wear shoes” Atoms co-founder Waqas Ali tells me. People buy fancy dress shoes they never wear, yet feel embarrassed by the childish designs and branding on most sneakers. “We perfected Atoms for your everyday routine — walking, standing, and commuting” he explains, “You are a person not a billboard, so there’s no logo”. That hasn’t stopped the shoes from going viral during their beta testing phase. Everyone who tries them on seems to rave about them. That’s driven 4000 people to sign up on the Atoms waitlist which you can join to be first in line. Atoms launch this summer in the U.S., with the first wave of customers getting their shoes in late June/July. The Big Bang Husband and wife duo Waqas and Sidra Ali started their first shoe company Markhor in Okara, Pakistan back in 2012. They attacked the market with one of the best qualities you can find in an entrepreneur: curiosity. Instead of coming in with preconceived notions, they traveled the world to research how people actually wear shoes. “You might assume that ‘Oh in Italy, everyone wears leather shoes’, but the young people there were all wearing sneakers” Waqas recalls. After launching a Kickstarter, the Alis came to Silicon Valley to go through the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator in Summer 2015. There, they drilled into more customer research and product design. Comfort and style were the big deciding factors in most sneaker purchases, so that’s where the couple wanted to differentiate. They discovered that over 70 percent of people have at least a quarter-size different feet, and over 7 have a half-size discrepancy. So why don’t other shoe company offer quarter sizes? “They make tons of different shoes” Waqas says. Suddenly, the two guiding principles of Atoms aligned. By designing just a single unisex model in a limited set of colors, it could make quarter sizing scalable while stripping away all the goofy extra fabrics and patterns. 35 percent of customers already take two different sizes. That breakthrough attracted $560,000 in seed funding from LinkedIn’s ex-head of growth Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital. But Atoms is determined to avoid being labeled a Silicon Valley shoe. Rather than coders, the company wants creative types like painters and graphic designers to be its early adopters. The vision is to create a sneaker a head chef could wear all night in the kitchen without hurting, but that look elegant enough that they could stride into the chic dining room with confidence. The Future Of Footwear “Most shoes in the market that claim they’re comfortable are only comfortable when you try them on” Waqas laments. Take that other shoe startup Allbirds. They’re super soft and made of wool, and the first steps feel like you’re wearing cloud slippers. But walk 10 blocks and you’ll find the bendy bottoms don’t protect you much. That’s why Atoms hired 18-year veteran of the shoe business Sangmin Lee who’s worked with Adidas and Puma out of Portland and South Korea. He prototyped tons of different versions for Atoms. The result is a strong but light outsole on the bottom with indents cut out for anti-slip traction and to reduce weight. Meanwhile, the upper’s tough mesh material breathes but holds its shape, and refuses stains. Image via Adam Bain “Shoe companies say they use sustainable materials but you go to the factories and everything is falling apart” Sidra tells me. Organic materials sound nice but can break down too quickly. “The way we make our shoes environmentally friendly is that they last long” Waqas says with a laugh. Two months of tough wear later, my Atoms are holding up great. The foamy mid-sole has frayed a tiny bit in the front like many shoes. And the knit materials ingrained some dust when I went camping in them that needed some brushing to get out. But they’ve succeeded in becoming my go-to shoe I can chill, work, and play in. Now Atoms is trying to build more commerce innovation to turn buyers into lifetime wearers. It’s working on a special pattern for the insole that will rub off based on where you put your weight. The idea is that when people send their old pairs in for a discount on the next, it can analyze that insole pattern to improve the shape of future models. One day, Atoms hopes to create a completely personalized shoe shopping experience. It hopes to actually give you slightly different insoles with more or less arch support depending on how you wore the last ones. And it’s planning early access to new color combinations and laces for repeat buyers. Atoms will need loyalty in case the shoe giants come out with their own minimalist, quarter-sized sneakers. Such a limited set of colors and single style mean plenty of people will simply find them ugly or outside their taste. And no, they’re not a great fit for the gym or with a suit. But if you want understated, durable shoes you don’t have to think about, Atoms excel. The startup must rely on its nimbleness and a flawless customer experience if it’s going to gain a foothold in a business dominated by brands with huge ad campaigns and brick-and-mortar distribution. One thing it’s thankful to its shoe startup competitor for is that “Allbirds has shown the world is not just ruled by Nike and Adidas”. Luckily Atoms has strong differentiation in a world of interchangeable sneakers. “I thought quarter-sizing was a joke or gimmick until I tried the 10.25s” one customer said. “How will I go back to a 10.5 when 10.25 fits so well?” Personally, there hasn’t been another tech or startup product in the past 10 years beyond Apple’s AirPods that has cemented itself so deeply into my daily life. “There’s no way to hack shoes” Waqas concludes. “You just have to make a good shoes.”

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Everyone from Elon Musk to AdBlock Plus wants to tell you which news sources are worth trusting. Now news aggregator Nuzzel is joining in. Specifically, it’s launching NuzzelRank, which founder and CEO Jonathan Abrams described as “our new authority ranking of thousands of top news sources, using signals from top business influencers.” He said it replaces a more “simplistic” ranking system that it was using for its news monitoring and research product Nuzzel Media Intelligence. You may also see NuzzelRank outside the company’s Media Intelligence reports. For one thing, there’s a new page with rankings of Nuzzel’s top sources. For another, Abrams said publishers will be able to add badges with their NuzzelRank scores to their websites, and he also plans to make this data available through an API. At this point, you’re probably wondering how Nuzzel does this ranking. You’re definitely wondering that if you looked at the top sources ranking and saw that TechCrunch is comes in at number four overall. That’s right: We score below The New York Times and The Washington Post, but above The New Yorker and Wired — which is both flattering and a little nuts. Abrams said there are three main ways that Nuzzel calculates the score. First, there’s data within Nuzzel itself, including the reading behavior of its users. Second, it’s looking at “external signals about the engagement and authority of news sources.” Third, it’s working with a whole bunch o outside organizations that have developed different approaches to scoring news sources and sorting out which ones are and aren’t trustworthy — so Nuzzel is joining the Trust Project and the Credibility Coalition, and it’s also partnering with NewsGuard and Deepnews.ai. In the announcement, Abrams emphasized that the company isn’t relying on human editors or making these judgments on its own: “Nuzzel has always focused on building scalable solutions that use software to aggregate existing valuable signals to provide useful results, rather than human approaches that are not scalable and subject to bias.”

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It’s been a year and a half since Google announced App Maker, its online tool for quickly building and deploying business apps on the web. The company has mostly remained quiet about App Maker ever since and kept it in a private preview mode, but today, it announced that the service is now generally available and open to all developers who want to give it a try. Access to App Maker comes with any G Suite Business and Enterprise subscription, as well as the G Suite for Education edition. The overall idea here is to help virtually anybody in an organization — including those with little to no coding experience — to build their own line-of-business apps based on data that’s already stored in G Suite, Google’s Cloud SQL database or any other database that supports JDBC or that offers a REST API (that that’s obviously a bit more of an advanced operation). [gallery ids="1656332,1656333,1656334"] To do this, App Maker provides users with a low-code application development environment that lets you build applications through a straightforward drag and drop environment. Though it takes a bit of work to set up the database connectivity, once that’s done, the actual design part looks to be pretty easy — and thanks to a set of responsive templates, those final applications should work, no matter whether you are on a phone or desktop. While many applications will likely rely on a database, it’s worth noting that developers can access Gmail, Google Calendar, Sheets and other data sources as well. In total, App Maker offers access to 40 Google Services. Unlike other low-code services like Mendix, K2 or even Microsoft’s PowerApps tools, Google’s App Maker seems to focus mostly on Google’s own services and doesn’t offer built-in connectivity with third-party services like Salesforce, for example. Chances are, of course, that now that App Maker is out of preview, Google will start adding more functionality to the service.

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If you’re planning to fly into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at some point in the future, you might be pleasantly surprised by the transit options. The city struck a deal with Elon Musk today to move forward with its plan to build a high-speed rail between O’Hare and downtown Chicago. In November, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his decision to go forward with plans for the high-speed rail line and asked for bids from teams interested in building and financing the project. Emmanuel’s goal is to transport travelers from the airport to Chicago’s center in 20 minutes or fewer, and at roughly a third of the cost of an expensive taxi or ride-sharing app. After five months of negotiations, the city announced that Musk’s company, The Boring Co., beat out runner-up O’Hare Xpress LLC, a consortium that includes the companies Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, First Transit and Mott MacDonald (the latter of which has experience in airport transportation, having developed plans for London’s Heathrow.) Musk’s plan proposes a 16-passenger autonomous vehicle that can whip passengers at speeds up to 100 MPH through tunnels between the airport and downtown. The final route of the new transit system is still being finalized, but Musk estimates that these vehicles could transport passengers downtown in only 12 minutes – a dramatic decrease from the usual 30- to 40-minute taxi ride – and for just $20-$25. Officials from city and Boring have stated that it’s too soon to estimate a timeframe or final cost for this project, but have stated that Boring will be fronting the bill. While Emmanuel seems optimistic about this new venture, telling the Chicago Tribune “every time [Chicago has] been an innovator in transportation, we have seized the future,” the fact remains that despite Musk’s emerging plans to construct these tunnels in cities like LA, DC and now Chicago, he has yet to actually complete one. As a man who once stated that public transportation “sucks,” time will tell how successful The Boring Co. and its founder can be at actually revamping it.

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Influential announced today that it has raised $12 million in Series B funding. The funding came from existing investors Capital Zed, ECA Ventures, Paradigm Talent Agency, ROAR and Tech Coast Angels, as well as from Hollywood agency WME . Just a couple weeks ago, Influential said it was working with (and had raised money from) WME. The agency is the first to try out a new Influential product called Talent Pro, which gives agents access to social data around a broader pool of talent. Influential founder and CEO Ryan Detert said the product will allow WME — and, in the future, other agencies — to sweeten endorsement and promotional deals with more data and to “take an A-list celebrity… and now surround that person with 10 lookalike influencers who are not celebrities themselves.” One of Influential’s big selling points is its use of artificial intelligence (it’s a developer partner with IBM Watson) to help brands and marketers find influencers who would be a good fit for their campaigns. However, Detert acknowledged that selling access to social media influencers is starting to feel overhyped — as he put it, “People think of influencer marketing sometimes as a four-letter word.” But in Detert’s view, influencer marketing is just one “tactic” that Influential supports: “We consider ourselves more of social intelligence and activation company.” And in fact, Influential already offers a social intelligence product that helps customers get a broader understanding of things like the broader competitive landscape. Detert also said Influential is working to measure the impact of brands’ social media campaigns, so that when they pay an influencer to make a promotional post, they “can actually map back that not only [the consumer] saw it, but that they engaged with it to make a real-world decision — walking into a location, buying a product in a grocery store.” The company has now raised a total of $26.5 million.

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TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF (Sept. 5-7) will be one for the record books, with twice the attendees and twice the programming sessions compared to past Disrupts, which means we can tackle emerging, super exciting categories like biotech with both great speakers and a section of Start Up Alley devoted to biotech startups. (Pssst biotech founders…there is still time to win a free TC Top Picks exhibition spot in Startup Alley complete with three Founder Passes to take in all of Disrupt SF.  Apply here.) Today we’re delighted to announce a panel of three top biotech investors, who will share their perspectives on key in key trends biotech and where they are looking to make their next investments. Laura Deming is the founder and partner in the $26 million Longevity Fund, a venture capital firm focused on biological research to reduce or reverse the effects of aging. Deming was accepted to MIT at age 14, but later dropped out to accept the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship and start a venture capital firm. Deming believes that before long we’ll retire the idea of growing old. So far, Deming has backed Unity Biotechnology, Precision Biosciences, Metacrine, Navitor, and Alexo Therapeutics.  Nina Kjellson is a general partner at Canaan Partners, where she invests in biopharma and digital health companies that serve unmet needs. Kjellson serves as a mentor to Blueprint Health and Springboard Life Sciences and on the boards of Essential Access Health, and the Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Center. She holds a B.A. in human biology from Stanford University, and her recent investments Annum Health, Dauntless, PACT Pharma, Tizona Therapeutics, and Vineti.  Arvind Gupta is a general partner at SOSV, a $150 million early stage venture capital fund, where he founded IndieBio, a biotech accelerator based in San Francisco. IndieBio focuses on startups that will either touch a billion people or create a billion in value. Arvind received his B.S. in Genetic Engineering from UCSB and has invested in  like Memphis Meats, Synthex, Medel.AI and Catalog.  And that’s not all – we have a lot more coming in health and biotech, plus 23andMe’s Ann Wojcicki, whom we have already announced. Get your passes now!

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The taxi of tomorrow might be dead but Ford today announced two new models that combine forward-looking technology with proven body styles. For the first time, Ford is offering a hybrid powertrain in a taxi model that is said to get a 40 mpg in the city. This news comes several weeks after Ford’s bombshell that it was dramatically reducing the amount of traditional cars it will sell in the North American market. The Fusion Hybrid Taxi is Ford’s first hybrid taxi model and is said to be Ford’s most fuel-efficient taxis to date. In addition to the new powertrain, the model features additional bits that should make cabbies happy. The midsize sedan shares parts with the Ford Police Responder Hybrid such as a police-tuned suspension, higher ride and improved brakes. And steelies. Got to have steelies. Ford also today announced the Transit Connect Taxi that rocks a 1.5-liter diesel engine and more room behind the second row than the competing Nissan NV200 Taxi. Today’s announcement is important signaling to the automotive market. The Ford Crown Victoria once ruled the taxi market and there is still countless tapped for duty across the United States. Ford is clearly attempting to stay relevant in this market and is doing so through the use of non-traditional powertrains, though, I guess, an argument could be made that hybrid and diesel powertrains are now nearly traditional powertrains.

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Amazon may be facing new competition from Microsoft on its cashierless, automated store technology, according to a new report from Reuters out this morning. The report claims Microsoft is in the process of developing its own systems for tracking what people place in their shopping carts, but doesn’t offer the details of how Microsoft’s technology operates, or how it may differ from others on the market. Presumably, it would be similar to existing systems, like Amazon’s. The Amazon Go convenience stores utilize a complex network of sensors on shelves, cameras, and A.I. to track what people pick up and place in their bag. Other startups are working on their own machine vision-powered checkout systems, as well, like Standard Cognition, AiFi, and AVA Retail, for example. The latter, along with half a dozen others, are already Microsoft partners building their own checkout-free services or related technology on Microsoft’s cloud. Microsoft also has an internal team of 10 to 15 working on retail store technologies within its Business AI group, including a computer vision specialist hired from Amazon Go, the report noted. The team has tested things like attaching cameras to shopping carts and using smartphones to pay in various ways. The focus of these efforts is not just to develop the new store technology itself, but also make it affordable for retailers, who tend to have small margins to work with. Microsoft has been talking to retailers about its efforts, and has shown off sample technology during these discussions, which have included Walmart. Neither company commented on Reuters’ report. If Microsoft were to take on Amazon in this space, it could give brick-and-mortar retailers a chance at fighting back as Amazon enters their own turf with its cashier-free stores and its grocery chain. But many of the retailers who are poised to lose to Amazon in this area can’t afford to develop this same sort of technology in-house, which they will need a partner like Microsoft.

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Ethos, the company that bills itself as making life insurance accessible, affordable and simple, has officially come out of stealth with an $11.5 million investment led by on of the world’s top venture firms, Sequoia Capital, and additional participation from the family offices of Hollywood’s biggest stars and an NBA all-star. Jay Z’s Roc Nation, the family funds of Kevin Durant, Robert Downey Jr. and Will Smith all participated in the new round for Ethos, and Sequoia Partner Roelof Botha is taking a seat on the company’s board. Because nothing says star power like a life insurance startup. The life insurance market is one that’s been attracting interest from venture investors for a little over a year now. Companies like England’s Anorak, HealthIQ, Ladder, Mira Financial, France’s Alan, which is backed by Partech Investments (among others), Fabric, and Quilt, are all pitching life insurance products as well. Ethos is licensed in 49 states, which is pretty comparable to the offering from providers like Haven Life, the Mass Mutual-backed life insurance product. What has made the life insurance market interesting for investors is the fact that consumers’ interest in it continues to decline. Whether it’s because no one trusts insurers to actually pay out, or because Americans are putting their faith in the anti-aging technologies from funds like the Longevity Fund, folks just aren’t buying insurance products the way they used to. So when investors see the numbers of users of a formerly ubiquitous product decline from 77% in 1989 to below 60% in 2018, the assumption is that there’s room for new companies to come in and provide better service. Scads of investors have taken the same bet, which makes Ethos a marketing play as much as anything else. In the company’s press release it touts the fast, easy, and inexpensive process for getting a quote. The initial process requires only four questions to et a quote and a ten minute survey to get a policy (in most cases). The company says 99% of its applicants don’t need a medical exam or blood test to get a policy. What may have been most interesting to investors is the pedigree of the company’s co-founders. Peter Colis and Lingke Wang have both worked in the insurance industry before. They previously co-founded a life insurance marketplace called, Ovid Life “Life insurance is critical for families, but the process is broken for those who want and need it,” said Peter Colis. “We are consumer advocates, intensely focused on expanding life insurance accessibility to the millions of US families who have college debt, mortgages​, spouses and children​ to care for, and who want to be financially empowered to live their lives without worry.”

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Today Snapchat finally gets a true developer platform, confirming TechCrunch’s scoop from last month about Snap Kit. This set of APIs lets other apps piggyback on Snap’s login for sign up, build Bitmoji avatars into their keyboards, display public Our Stories and Snap Map content, and generate branded stickers with referral links users can share back inside Snapchat. Snap Kit’s big selling point is privacy — a differentiator from Facebook. It doesn’t even let you share your social graph with apps to prevent a Cambridge Analytica-style scandal. Launch partners include Tinder bringing Bitmojis to your chats with matches, Patreon letting fans watch creators’ Stories from within its app, and Postmates offering order ETA stickers you can share in Snapchat that open the restaurant’s page in the delivery app. Developers that want to join the platform can sign up here. Snap Kit could help the stumbling public company colonize the mobile app ecosystem with its buttons and content, which might inspire Snapchat signups from new users and reengagement from old ones. “Growth is one of our three goals for 2018, so we absolutely hope it can contribute to that, and continue to strengthen engagement, which has always been a key metric for us” Snap’s VP of product Jacob Andreou tells me. That’s critical since Snapchat sunk to its lowest user growth rate ever last quarter under the weight of competition from Instagram and WhatsApp. “There have been areas inside of our products where we’ve really set standards” Andreou explains. “Early, that was seen in examples like Stories, but today with things like how we treat user data, what we collect, what we share when people login and register for our service . . . Snap Kit is a set of developer tools that really allow people to take the best parts of our products and the standards that we’ve set in a few of these areas, and bring them into their apps.” This focus on privacy manifests as a limit of 90 days of inactivity before your connection with an app is severed. And the login feature only requires you bring along your changeable Snapchat display name, and optionally, your Bitmoji. Snap Kit apps can’t even ask for your email, phone number, gender, age, location, who you follow, or who you’re friends with. “It really became challenging for us to see our users then use other products throughout their day and have to lower their expectations. . . having to be okay with the fact that all of their information and data would be shared” Andreou gripes. This messaging is a stark turnaround from four years ago when it took 10 days for CEO Evan Spiegel to apologize for security laziness causing the leak of 4 million users’ phone numbers. But now with Facebook as everyone’s favorite privacy punching bag, Snapchat is seizing the PR opportunity. “I think one of the parts that [Spiegel] was really excited about with this release is how much better our approach to our users in that way really is — without relying on things like policy or developer’s best intentions or them writing perfect bug free code, but instead by design, not even exposing these things to begin with.” Yet judging by Facebook’s continued growth and recovered share price, privacy is too abstract of a concept for many people to grasp. Snap Kit will have to win on the merits of what it brings other apps, and the strength of its partnerships team. Done right, Snapchat could gain an army of allies to battle the blue menace. Snapvengers Assemble Snap’s desire to maintain an iron grip on its ‘cool’ brand has kept its work with developers minimal until now. Its first accidental brush with a developer platform was actually a massive security hazard. Third-party apps promising a method to secretly screenshot messages asked users to login with their Snapchat usernames and passwords, then proceeded to get hacked, exposing some users’ risqué photos. Snap later cut off an innocent music video app called Mindie for finding a way to share to users’ Stories. Last year I wrote how A year ago I urged it to build a platform in my article “Snap’s anti-developer attitude is an augmented liability”, as it needs help to populate the physical world with AR. 2017 saw Snap cautiously extend the drawbridge, inviting in ads, analytics, and marketing developer partners to help brands be hip, and letting hacker/designers make their own AR lenses. But the real transition moment was when Spiegel said on the Q4 2017 earnings call that “We feel strongly that Snapchat should not be confined to our mobile application—the amazing Snaps created by our community deserve wider distribution so they can be enjoyed by everyone.” At the time that meant Snaps on the web, embedded in news sites, and on Jumbotrons. Today it means in other apps. But Snap will avoid one of the key pitfalls of the Facebook platform: over-promising. Snap Deputy General Counsel for Privacy Katherine Tassi tells me “It was also very important to us that there wasn’t going to be the exchange of the friends graph as part of the value proposition to third party developers.” How Snap Kit Works Snap Kit breaks down to four core pieces of functionality that will appeal to different apps looking to simplify signup, make communication visual, host eye-catching content, or score referral traffic. Developers that want access to Snap Kit must pass a human review and approval process. Snap will review their functionality to ensure they’re not doing anything shady. Once authorized, they’ll have access to these APIs: Login Kit is the foundation of Snap Kit. It’s an OAuth-style alternative to Facebook Login that lets users skip creating a proprietary username and password by instead using their Snapchat credentials. But all the app gets is their changeable, pseudonym-allowed Snapchat display name, and optionally, their Bitmoji avatar to use as a profile pic if the user approves. Getting that login button in lots of apps could remind people Snapchat exists, and turn it into a fundamental identity utility people will be loathe to abandon. Creative Kit is how apps will get a chance to create stickers and filters for use back in the Snapchat camera. Similar to April’s F8 launch of the ability to share from other apps to Instagram and Facebook Stories, developers can turn content like high scores, workout stats and more into stickers that users can overlay on their Snaps to drive awareness of the source app. Developers can also set a deep link where those stickers send people to generate referral traffic, which could be appealing to those looking to tap Snap’s 191 million teens. Bitmoji Kit lets developers integrate Snapchat’s personalized avatars directly into their app’s keyboard. It’s an easy path to making chat more visually expressive without having to reinvent the wheel. This follows the expansion of Friendmoji that illustrate you and a pal rolling out to the iOS keyboard. But Bitmoji Kit means developers do the integration work instead of having to depend on users installing anything extra. Story Kit allows developers to embed Snapchat Stories into their apps and websites. Beyond specific Stories, apps can also search through public Stories submitted to Our Story or Snap Map by location, time, or captions. A journalism app could surface first-hand reports from the scene of breaking news or a meme app could pull in puppy Snaps. The company will add extra reminders to the Our Story submission process to ensure users know their Stories could appear outside of Snapchat’s own app. One thing that’s not in Snap Kit, at least yet, is the ability to embed Snapchat’s whole software camera into other apps which TechCrunch erroneously reported. Our sources mistakenly confused Creative Kit’s ability to generate stickers as opposed to sharing whole stories, which Andreou called “an interesting first step” for making Snapchat the broadcast channel for other apps. Additional launch partners include bringing Bitmoji to Quip’s word processor, RSVP stickers from Eventbrite, GIF-enhanced Stories search in Giphy, Stories from touring musicians in Bands In Town, storytelling about your dinner reservation on Quandoo, music discovery sharing from SoundHound, and real-time sports score sharing from ScoreStream. While other platforms have escaped their host’s control, like Facebook’s viral game spam outbreak in 2009 or Twitter having to shut down errant clients, Snapchat’s approval process will let it direct the destiny of its integrations. Bitmoji Kit in Tinder When asked why Snapchat was building Snap Kit, Andreou explained that “We think that giving people more tools to be able to express themselves freely, have fun and be creative, both on Snapchat and other apps is a good thing. We also think that helping more people outside of Snapchat learn about our platform and our features is a good thing. And most importantly, being able to do this in a way that doesn’t compromise our users’ privacy is very good thing.” Without much data sharing, there’s a lot less risk here for Snapchat. But the platform won’t have the same draw that Facebook can dangle with its massive user base and extensive personal info access. Instead, Snapchat will have to leverage the fear of being left out of the visual communication era and tout itself as the catalyst for apps to evolve. The biggest driver of the platform might be youngins demanding their Bitmoji everywhere. Snap needs all the help it can get right now. If other apps are willing to be a billboard for it in exchange for some of its teen-approved functionality, Snapchat could find new growth channels amidst stiff competition. Platforms can entrench apps. And after its user count shrunk in March, Snap has to find a way to keep from disappearing

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While Salesforce and Microsoft have a dominant position in the world of sales software today, there are a number of startups nipping at their heels, and today one of the more promising of them has announced a growth round to help them in the effort. Pipedrive, a startup co-headquartered in Estonia and New York that offers tools to salespeople to help them close deals that are still in their pipeline, has picked up $50 million to expand its product, develop its business globally and potentially make acquisitions in the CRM space. The Series C round was co-led by new investor Insight Venture Partners and Bessemer Venture Partners, with participation also from Rembrandt Venture Partners and Atomico (which itself has Estonian roots: Atomico’s founder, Niklas Zennstrom, was the co-founder of Skype, which developed and built the core IP voice and messaging product in the country). It brings the total raised by Pipedrive to $80 million. Timo Rein, Pipedrive’s co-founder and CEO (and a former salesman himself), would not disclose the company’s valuation, saying only that it was “a pretty good round.” For some more context, Pitchbook writes that Pipedrive’s last funding, in 2016, valued the company at $188 million. Sources very close to the company tell us that the valuation now is $300 million+. (We’re asking around and will update this as and when we learn more.) The CRM market is currently estimated to be worth over $40 billion, according to Gartner, and so unsurprisingly there are a number of startups in the fray, from those that are infusing the process with AI (such as Clari) through to other startups that help organise leads to act on them better (such as Zoho and Hubspot), through to those focusing on specific verticals like software companies (Paddle out of the UK). Rein said that there was some skepticism when the company first launched that it would be possible to make a dent in landscape dominated by the likes of Salesforce and Microsoft. “When we entered the market in 2010, people asked us, ‘Why build a product in an area where Salesforce is already strong?’ But having been in sales for more than a decade ourselves, we realized that it’s not just the sheer number of features you offer users. The difference is finding the right spot on the spectrum where you are getting what you need out of a product that you can use,” Rein said. “We have proven that users are migrating from Salesforce and others and are coming to Pipedrive. We definitely have less functionality, but professional salespeople know that performance is largely about your personality.” In the case of Pipedrive, this translates to a software platform whose aim is to cut down on busywork to focus you on selling: all of your activity across emails and phone calls gets and other actions (it integrates some 100 other apps used in business, for example Google Apps, Trello, Zapier, MailChimp, Yesware and PandaDoc) is tracked without you needing to update the system, with the aim of making it easier for you to see what you might tackle next (and that gets tracked, too). This is not about finding sales leads, Rein said: that may be something the company would consider down the line, but for now it’s looking at what happens when you already have a lead and need to make it as easy as possible to close that deal. Ironically, Rein said that Pipedrive hasn’t been using its own tools in the majority of its own sales efforts. “In areas where we can use Pipedrive, we do,” he said, “but the service we offer is almost the opposite of what we built.” Pipedrive is priced on a monthly, SaaS basis ranging from $12.50 per user per month to $62.50 depending on number of users and features. One way to think of Pipedrive’s approach is akin to something like Razer for the gaming world, which touts its ethos as “For Gamers. By Gamers.” “Pipedrive is built primarily for salespeople, not just their managers,” said Teddie Wardi, a partner at Insight who also led the company’s Series B when he was still at Atomico. “This principle has helped them to create a product loved by users around the world, differentiate from competitors and propel the company to stellar growth.” And that growth has come: today the company has 75,000 customers in 170 countries, with triple digital revenue growth each year since it first opened for business in 2010. The plethora of startups in the market focusing on different aspects of the sales cycle and the CRM that surrounds that creates a ripe landscape not just for what Pipedrive might choose to tackle next, but how it might go about that. “Post-sales, when you already have a customer and now need to help manage it, is an opportunity,” Rein said. “But our main effort and focus has been a product to help sales people deal with their pressure, and their own need to stay focused on the steady flow of sales, from the beginning to the actual close.”  

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The wizards in lidar tech at Luminar are doubling down on the practical side of autonomous car deployment with a partnership with and investment from Volvo, as well as a new “perception development platform” that helps squeeze every last drop out of its laser-based imagery. Volvo Cars has been one of the big investors in autonomous vehicles, and while they have produced some cars equipped for driverless operation, the company seems to understand that this is a very long game it’s playing. There’s more to it than just slapping some sensors on a production vehicle and sending it on its way. Part of that long game is picking winners in the industry, as well, and Volvo seems to be confident that Luminar, whose lidar tech is in many ways leaps and bounds beyond the competition, will be among them. Volvo’s recently established Tech Fund has made an investment in Luminar — its first, and of an undisclosed size. That doesn’t mean they get a seat on the board or anything — it’s purely a financial play, Luminar’s founder and CEO Austin Russell told me. The two are also doubling down on their partnership as far as the actual lidar tech being used. Luminar today announced its “perception development platform,” for which Volvo is the first customer. Essentially Luminar itself is taking over some of the duties of spotting and identifying common objects its lidar units see, rather than leaving that entirely to the car’s systems. Russell told me that it was a matter of making sure that its data was being used effectively. “A lot of times we see 2D algorithms applied to true 3D data, and it just doesn’t make the most of it,” he said. He said that his team often sees partners (not necessarily Volvo) applying dated 2D analysis to rich 3D data. That might have been fine a couple years ago, he said, but with advances in lidar tech the point clouds and 3D data have improved by orders of magnitude — it’s become “almost camera-like.” So Luminar is making its own algorithms for detection and labeling of what its hardware sees. “We’re providing data that you can rely on to understand a given situation — the data you need to make a decision,” he said, though in response to my questions he emphasized that Luminar’s platform was not making any decisions on its own. As an example (illustrated in the gif above), imagine a car traveling down the road at 65 MPH. Luminar’s lidar unit, constantly bathing the area in front of it with lasers and analyzing the reflected signal, spots a stopped car blocking the shoulder about 700 feet ahead using its own smarts. Closer up it detects that there’s a person there and a spare tire on the ground. The lidar doesn’t have any idea what to do with that data — it just knows that it’s 90 percent sure what it sees. So it passes that information on to the car’s “brain,” perhaps before that brain has done its own analysis and spotted the car for itself. The brain can then decide whether to slow down, change lanes, or maybe even confer with other nearby autonomous vehicles. Russell said that Volvo, rather wisely, decided to constrain the application of this system strictly to highway driving. That makes it a much smaller problem space, but also a risky one. “Operating at higher speeds puts pressure on you to get a lot more range,” Russell said. “250 meters is still just like 7 and a half seconds ahead.” But every little bit counts. Volvo is the one of four major OEMs that Luminar has partnered with, and the second to be announced publicly — there’s the Toyota Research Institute, but the other two are still a mystery. Chances are, however, they’ll be getting something like this as well, though it will be different for everyone. “It’s a standardized platform,” Russell said. “The implementation is specific, but the software itself isn’t. We’re not just throwing it out there. And that’s also a reason why we’re working with 4 OEMs and not everyone under the sun. This will only be available to partners.” Luminar’s tech puts it in the lead in many ways, but competitors aren’t standing still. Strong partnerships, however, may prove to be more important than technological superiority — though of course it can’t hurt to have both.

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Email and a smarter notebook might be enough for handling communication for projects or experiments inside a team in a lab in some university basement. But when you have around 200 scientists working on discovering something new — say, a new drug — that communication process is going to quickly break down, and Sajith Wickramasekara that sits somewhere between science and software. That’s the goal for Benchling, which Wickramasekara hopes will make life easier for researchers and help simplify and speed up the process of scientific discovery. Specializing in life sciences, Benchling aims to create a comprehensive suite of tools that help researchers thoroughly log their processes and collaborate among other scientists. Benchling looks to provide a rigorous platform that can take a lot of the work away from researchers, who instead might be documenting everything in email, Excel sheets, or just in a notebook somewhere. Benchling said it has raised a $14.5 million round of financing led by Benchmark Capital, with participation from F-Prime Capital and Thrive Capital. Benchmark’s Eric Vishria is joining the company’s board of directors. “I was always planning to go to grad school to become a scientist,” Wickramasekara said. “Obviously since I’m working here I took a kind of left turn. As someone who was doing both science and software, on the software side of things I felt like i had really great tools for working with other people, and on the science side I felt like there were really great scientific tools but not great tools for working with other people.” At its core, Benchling is a suite of applications and tools that include ways to design experiments as well as document them during that process. Researchers can track materials they are producing, manage their physical inventory — like even tubes or containers — and helps scientists standardize and easily query information from existing or previous runs. The service seeks to capture all of this in some unified platform that a company can deploy across a whole fleet of researchers and teams. Wickramasekara says more than 100,000 scientists are using the platform. Benchling was initially born as a sort of smart notebook for scientists and academics. While that’s where it got started — and where a lot of the learning happened — eventually the team ended up creating something a little more formalized that it could sell as an actual product. That step proved a little more challenging as academics tend to be either alone or in small teams, so they don’t necessarily need the robust tools that a product like Benchling might have when commercialized. “The freeform nature of a lab notebook is actually sufficient [for academia],” Wickramasekara said. “In the industry, that’s where all the structure comes in. We have a team as part of our customer success and implementation, we help customers come up with the right model and complexity and adjust their business processes. At the end fo the day, all these customers do something slightly differently. But we work with probably more than 80 customers and 25 do antibody research, so we figure out all the best practices over time. We help customers think about the tradeoffs vs one data model for another.” Benchling also offers those same employees a suite of auditing tools, which Wickramasekara would be critical as it looked to move into larger companies that are dealing with more sensitive IP. For a company looking to discover new drugs, keeping that process under tight control is especially important — especially when they are working with organizations like the FDA. Benchling admins get a comprehensive view of who is doing what within the system, as well as guidelines around documentation. Part of the challenge will be catering to all the niches and needs these individual companies might have throughout their own unique experimentation processes. Each lab is different, with its own quirks, and Benchling aims to be a unified platform that covers as many scenarios as possible, even with help tuning and adjustable models. So that means that there is room for other tools that could tap other niches and becomes the one-size-fits-all. But over time and with enough data, a tool like Benchling could figure out not only the best practices for specific labs, but also ones they should use — and then cover all those bases.

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Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that people remember information better if it is presented in VR vs. on a two dimensional personal computer. This means VR education could be an improvement on tablet or device-based learning. “This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at UMD. The study was quite complex and looked at recall in forty subjects who were comfortable with computers and VR. The researchers was an 8.8 percent improvement in recall. To test the system they created a “memory palace” where they placed various images. This sort of “spatial mnemonic encoding” is a common memory trick that allows for better recall. “Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” said lead researcher Eric Krokos. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.” From the study: Both groups received printouts of well-known faces–including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Monroe–and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed the participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down. Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting–Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was positioned in the center of the room. Similarly, for the medieval town setting, users viewed images that included Hillary Clinton’s face on the left side of a building, with Mickey Mouse and Batman placed at varying heights on nearby structures. Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The research participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed. The key, say the researchers, was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and its relation to surrounding structures and faces–and also the location of the image relative to the user’s own body. Desktop users could perform the feat but VR users performed it statistically better, a fascinating twist on the traditional role of VR in education. The researchers believe that VR adds a layer of reality to the experience that lets the brain build a true “memory palace” in 3D space. “Many of the participants said the immersive ‘presence’ while using VR allowed them to focus better. This was reflected in the research results: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over the desktop display,” wrote the researchers. “This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace–experienced in an immersive virtual environment–could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” said researcher Catherine Plaisant.

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The European Commission has announced the names of 52 experts from across industry, business and civil society who it has appointed to a new High Level Group on AI which will feed its strategy and policymaking around artificial intelligence. In April the EU’s executive body outlined its approach to AI technology, setting out measures intended to increase public and private investment; prepare for socio-economic changes; and ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework. The High Level Group is a key part of the Commission’s AI strategy as the experts will feed its policymaking here by making detailed recommendations on ethical, legal and societal issues. The EC put out a call for experts for this “broad multi-stakeholder forum” back in March. The group announced today is comprised of 30 men and 22 women, and includes industry representatives from AXA, Bayer, Bosch, BMW, Element AI, Google, IBM, Nokia Bell Labs, Orange, Santander, SAP, Sigfox, STMicroelectronics, Telenor and Zalando. Google is represented by Jakob Uszkoreit, an AI Researcher in the Google Brain team. Also in the group: Jaan Tallinn, a founding engineer of Skype and Kazaa, and a former investor in and director of the Google-acquired AI company DeepMind. European civil society bodies represented in the forum include consumer rights group BEUC; digital rights group Access Now; algorithmic transparency advocacy group AlgorithmWatch; the EESC civil society association; the ETUC which advocates for workers rights and well being; and Austrian association that supports the blind and visually impaired. The list also includes representatives from several technology associations, along with political advisers and policy wonks, and academics and legal experts of various stripes. The full list is here. Towards a comprehensive AI strategy Back in April the Commission said it hoped to be able to announce a “coordinated plan on AI” by the end of the year — after saying, in March, that a “comprehensive European strategy on AI” was on the way “in the coming months”. “As any technology that has a direct impact on people’s lives and work, the emergence of AI also raises legitimate concerns that should be addressed to build trust and raise awareness,” it wrote then. “Given the broad impact AI is expected to have, the full participation of all actors including businesses, academics, policy makers, consumer organisations, trade unions, and other representatives of the civil society is essential.” The multi-stakeholder forum is also intended to serve as the steering group for the work of another, even broader multi-stakeholder forum — also announced in April, and called the European AI Alliance — which the Commission said will include an online platform to allow for anyone who wants to participate to sign up and join in the discussion. So the High Level Group is basically an AI expert talking shop intended to support this more public AI talking shop — to try to achieve some kind of pan-EU consensus on how to respond to the myriad socio-economic and ethical challenges that flow from the increasingly use and capabilities of autonomous technologies. In terms of specific tasks for the group, the Commission says it will be tasked to: advise it on next steps addressing “AI-related mid to long-term challenges and opportunities”, feeding policy development, legislative evaluation and next-gen digital strategy; propose draft AI ethics guidelines — covering issues such as “fairness, safety, transparency, the future of work, democracy and more broadly the impact on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, including privacy and personal data protection, dignity, consumer protection and non-discrimination”; and help with “further engagement and outreach mechanisms to interact with a broader set of stakeholders in the context of the AI Alliance, share information and gather their input on the group’s and the Commission’s work”

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Asian tech company M17, which operates a live-streaming platform and data app business, has confirmed that it has canceled its proposed U.S. public listing and raised private funding to keep its business alive. The Taiwan-based company dramatically halted its NYSE listing last Friday despite pricing its IPO, and now it has clarified the situation. Well, sort of. In an announcement, the company said it had run into “settlement issues” related the listing which is why it was called off. That’s fairly vague, but a little more color came from founder (and rapper) Jeffrey Huang, who lashed out at investment banks Citigroup and Deutsche Bank in a Facebook post (below), as noted by Bloomberg. A spokesperson representing the company declined to comment further. This dude .. a co founder .. not happy M17 IPO is a disaster, to be sure. pic.twitter.com/DkKOoIKC2x — Tim Culpan (@tculpan) June 13, 2018 Rather than going public, M17 will remain private. The IPO was set to raise around $60 million — having been scaled down from an original target of $115 million — but now M17 has taken a $35 million injection from existing backers that include Infinity Venture Partners, Majuven, Convergence and Global Grand Capital. The listing looked rocky from the start when M17 failed to hit that $115 million goal, while the shares were priced at $8, below the forecast range of $10-$12. Investors weren’t taken by the business, it seems, which is primarily live-streaming services for registered artists in markets included Taiwan and Japan. It monetizes by selling virtual gifts to viewers who in turn give them to streaming artists. The company also operates dating services courtesy of M17’s merger deal with Singapore-based Paktor last year, but that accounts for under 10 percent of revenue. TechCrunch Danny Crichton explained the situation last week when the IPO was halted, but M17’s surging revenue — which grew 3.2X year-on-year — was offset by significant losses — a negative $24.8 million in the first three months of this year — and stagnant active user growth. Alarmingly, the company had limited runway with just $31.4 million in cash and cash equivalents left on its books. M17 had developed ways to monetize its user base more efficiently, but with some quirks. For example, its top 10 users represent 12 percent of all revenue on the platform — to the tune of $447,220 per user in the first three months of 2018 — while more broadly its top 500 users were responsible for the majority of total revenue. On the artist side, the top 100 streamers picked up over one-third of total income, too. Finally, there may have been unease at the voting structure. Under a dual-class stock system, CEO Joseph Phua would maintain 56 percent of the voting rights with Class B shares voting at a 20:1 ratio against Class A shares. The fresh cash injection will keep the business running a little longer, M17 will need to quickly figure out a Plan B to remain out of trouble.

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If you sleep next to someone who snores you know that the endless horking and honking isn’t very fun… and it makes the snorer’s life even worse. Some students and doctors in Baltimore, Maryland, however, have created something that acts like an internal breathing strip to help you breathe better and snore less. Called assistENT, the company uses small, reusable rings that fit into the nostril and open the septum. You insert and remove them yourself with a little pair of forceps and they can survive sneezing and, one would assume, a good, hard midnight snoooorrrrrk. Patrick Byrne and Clayton Andrews created the product and it recently won the $10,000 “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for best product. Other members of the team include Melissa Austin, Talia Kirschbaum, Harrison Nguyen, Theo Lee, and Eric Cao. The team will be running a Kickstarter soon and is looking into a seed round for manufacture. The product, called N-Stent, costs 15 cents to make and will sell for about $4 a pair. “The design is inspired by the typical cartilage grafts used in functional rhinoplasty to improve nasal breathing. In essence, the device is a tapered silicone stent consisting of two flexible beams bridging two soft pads whose shape closely follows the complex internal nasal anatomy,” said Byrne. “When deployed, one pad grips the nasal septum and the other presses against the lateral nasal wall to dilate the passage and stent it open. This dilation force comes from the two flexible beams, which bend to provide a gentle spring force while forming a lumen to accommodate airflow.” The product fits into the nasal vestibule and to get it in and out you can either use the simple applicator or just stick it up there with your finger. The team is excited about the possibilities, especially since this can help people without forcing them to get surgery. “Although the mechanism for reversing nasal obstruction is straightforward, there is no viable alternative to surgery for those who struggle with nasal breathing throughout the day. Breathe Right strips lead this nighttime nasal dilator market with annual revenues of $145M, amounting to an 80% market share. However, experts estimate a $250M market opportunity for less-invasive nasal obstruction treatment,” said Byrne. “We have heard stories from dozens who have had surgery to correct nasal obstruction – with limited success and great expense – and hundreds who are reluctant to undergo surgery in the first place and feel they have no alternative for breathing better throughout the day, at night, or during exercise. This invention has potential to radically change the standard of care for nasal obstruction and provide a convenient, sensible solution to this widespread problem,” he said. Look for this anti-snort-hork-honnnnnking device in the next few months.

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PatSnap, a Euro-Asian company that offers a patent and R&D platform and services, has pulled in a $38 million Series D funding round led by existing investors Sequoia and Shunwei Capital, the investment firm founded by Xiaomi co-founder and CEO Lei Jun. Southeast Asia’s Qualgro also took part. All three backed the company in 2016 when it led an undisclosed Series C round. While PatSnap didn’t give a figure for that previous round, it is saying this time around that it has raised over $100 million to date. Doing some quick via math via figures on Crunchbase suggests that the Series C was something in the region of $50 million. PatSnap was founded in 2007 and it is based out of the UK and Singapore, with locations in China and the U.S.. The company started out as essentially a directory for IP, helping companies — and particularly enterprises — pull in data for R&D and product development purposes. The company claims 8,000 clients worldwide, with the U.S. its largest market for revenue. PatSnap said that in China, its second-largest market and a major focus for the firm, it said it has more than 4,500 clients. In addition to its core service, it is focused on going beyond a data repository to offer services for enterprises that help manage internal product development and other R&D initiatives. “Patent data let us kick down the door and earn respect, but now we’re looking at completely different products,” Ray Chohan, SVP of corporate strategy at PatSnap told TechCrunch in an interview. “We are working on new products for R&D with a long-term view of becoming the software stack for R&D teams.” That’s exactly how this new capital will be put to work, Tiong said. Related to that, the company plans to open an office in Toronto, Canada, for development. Already, the company has 700 staff across a range of offices that include London (commercial), China (product), Singapore (machine learning) and LA (go to market). Series D is a fairly advanced stage for a startup in Southeast Asia (and London) and exits are something that the tech industry is giving more thought to given the growth of the ecosystem, and events such as Sea’s U.S. listing last year. Despite that, Chohan — who founded the company’s London-based office — said that he’s not thinking too hard about the future for now. “Our obsession is our employees, customers and building great products, if we can do that then the byproduct of a liquidity event will happen by itself,” he explained. Chohan added that PatSnap is “well funded” and on course to become profitable over the next two to three years.

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Didi Chuxing’s inter-city carpooling service will resume night operations on a limited basis about a month after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who accessed the platform using his father’s account. Called Didi Hitch, the service will return on June 15 with new safety measures, including one that only allows drivers to serve passengers of the same sex during late night hours. Didi Hitch will also began piloting a new feature later this month called “guardian mode” (not “escort mode” as reported by some publications) that automatically shares ride details with a passenger’s emergency contacts. The company says Didi Hitch will resume partial nighttime service between the hours of 10PM to 12AM and 5AM to 6AM on June 15, but with what Didi says is a “tentative safety measure.” During those times, drivers will only be able to accept ride requests made by passengers of the same sex. In other words, male drivers can only accept male passengers, while female drivers can only accept female passengers. Guardian mode will launch on June 22 as a smale-scale pilot. When a passenger turns it on, their route is automatically shared with their emergency contacts. Didi also says its platform can monitor routes in real time and “intervene in case of any unusual activity.” Another new feature, called the shared information card, will launch on the same day and display photos of both the driver and passenger and vehicle information, with the aim of allowing both parties to verify each other’s identities. DiDi also said it will start trialing a voice recording feature for its other services, including Express, Select, ExpressPool and Minibus, in some cities. One of the most highly-valued startups in the world, Didi now claims about 30 million daily rides and 21 million driver partners. For some passengers, however, these new safety measures may not be enough to reassure them. For one thing, last month’s murder meant that the alleged perpetrator was able to overcome several safety measures. First, he used his father’s verified driver account to access the platform. Secondly, Didi Chuxing’s facial recognition technology, which it has used since 2016 to verify drivers when they first sign up and then when they log in to start shifts, failed. Didi also said that the account had received a sexual harassment complaint before the murder, though it was unclear if that was while the father or son was using it. Didi apparently failed to contact the account despite making five efforts, but the platform nevertheless continued to allow it to accept rides. While the new safeguards might placate some users, they don’t address the core issues brought up by the murder: making sure potentially dangerous people aren’t allowed on the platform in the first place, or are dealt with promptly when complaints surface. This is not the first time a murder has been linked to a Didi driver. Two years ago a driver allegedly confessed to robbing and killing a female passenger in Shenzhen. In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a DiDi spokesperson said: “After revamping our core safety functions (including enhanced facial recognition, upgraded in-app emergency buttons, and many more), we are taking cautious steps to gradually extend DiDi Hitch’s service hours in response to demands from users. This recent update will increase the range of mobility options available to passengers during these hours. As we do so, DiDi Hitch is trialing with a number of safety initiatives based on feedback and advice from riders, drivers and other members of the public in China. We understand some of the tentative initiatives that have attracted a lot of public support in this round of consultation might have never been tried before. We will closely monitor and review the results from such experiments with the public, and make continuous adjustments. Our focus is on ensuring the Hitch service is brought back in a safe and responsible way; and that users understand–and join us as we work through–the challenges involved in providing sustainable, fair and safe mobility services. The Hitch and other teams will continue to work around the clock for ever more satisfactory solutions. We will keep you posted.” TechCrunch has asked for further information about the sex ratio of drivers on Didi’s platform, since if they are predominantly male (as is the case with many taxi or ride-sharing services), then that may impact how many female passengers are able to get a late-night ride using Hitch, and will update this article if we hear back. DiDi also confirmed today that it has placed RMB 1 million (about $150,000 ) into a fiduciary account of the Beijing Global Law Office to reward informants who are able to give information that can help police solve the case. if no information or evidence has been confirmed by police by September 1, then Didi says the money will be donated to the China Foundation for Justice and Courage, which is overseen by the Ministry of Public Security.

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Farmdrop, the farmer-friendly online grocery platform based in the U.K., has picked up £10 million in new funding. New investors in this Series B round include LGT Impact Ventures (described as a growth equity investor that invests in businesses making a positive contribution to society), and Belltown Ventures, a renewable energy investment specialist with an interest in agricultural technology. Previous backer Atomico also followed on. Founded by ex-city broker Ben Pugh in 2014, Farmdrop originally launched as a ‘click and collect’ service that let you order groceries online from farmer-producers to pick up at a local collection point. However, the company has since pivoted to door-to-door delivery but with the same basic idea of a marketplace that bypasses the mass supermarkets. It claims to give consumers much fresher produce, and farmer-producers a more generous share of the retail price. Large supermarkets are known for squeezing suppliers in a bid to lower prices whilst maintaining their own profits, after all. “The fundamental problem is that the supermarket’s dominance over the last fifty years has put huge amounts of downward pressure on farmgate prices,” Pugh told me when Farmdrop raised its Series A. “In this environment, the only option for producers has been to focus on yields and durability which has led to a big depreciation in the taste and nutritional quality of homegrown foods”. To that end, Farmdrop says it now sells over 2,000 products ranging from high-welfare meat, dairy, fish, organic fruit and veg, plus household supplies and larder items. It says that 80 percent of its fresh produce is sourced directly from 208 “sustainable farmers and independent food makers” and that since 2014 the startup has generated over £5 million in revenue for small-scale British farmers. The new capital will be used to fund further U.K. expansion after the successful launch of a second hub in Bristol and Bath in September 2017, in addition to London. “Over the next six months Farmdrop will double the total number of households it can deliver to, initially growing in the South East but with plans for a northern hub in Manchester by end of 2019,” says the company. More broadly, Farmdrop is tapping the rise of online grocery — even if the offline to online switch is still happening quite slowly — coupled with a growing demand for high-quality produce that comes from a more ethical/sustainable supply chain (Farmdrop also uses electric vans for the last few miles of delivery). It seems to be working, too: the startup says it is now on track to achieve £10 million in annualised revenues before the end of 2018. Adds Niklass Zennström, Skype founder and CEO of Atomico: “What we find so compelling about Farmdrop is the way they’re using technology for good. By creating a direct route to market for farmers, Farmdrop is helping to create a healthier and more efficient supply chain. We’re proud to invest in such a fantastic team and are excited about helping them scale their innovative e-grocery platform.”

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