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Google Cloud today announced the launch of its new E2 family of compute instances. These new instances, which are meant for general purpose workloads, offer a significant cost benefit, with saving of around 31 percent compared to the current N1 general purpose instances. The E2 family runs on standard Intel and AMD chips, but as Google notes, they also use a custom CPU scheduler “that dynamically maps virtual CPU and memory to physical CPU and memory to maximize utilization.” In addition, the new system is also smarter about where it places VMs, with the added flexibility to move them to other hosts as necessary. To achieve all of this, Google built a custom CPU scheduler “ with significantly better latency guarantees and co-scheduling behavior than Linux’s default scheduler.” The new scheduler promises sub-microsecond wake-up latencies and faster context switching. That gives Google efficiency gains that it then passes on to users in the form of these savings. Chances are, we will see similar updates to Google’s other instances families over time. Its interesting to note that Google is clearly willing to put this offering against that of its competitors. “Unlike comparable options from other cloud providers, E2 VMs can sustain high CPU load without artificial throttling or complicated pricing,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “This performance is the result of years of investment in the Compute Engine virtualization stack and dynamic resource management capabilities.” It’ll be interesting to see some benchmarks that pit the E2 family against similar offerings from AWS and Azure. As usual, Google offers a set of predefined instance configurations, ranging from 2 vCPUs with 8 GB of memory to 16 vCPUs and 128 GB of memory. For very small workloads, Google Cloud is also launching a set of E2-based instances that are similar to the existing f1-micro and g1-small machine types. These feature 2 vCPUs, 1 to 4 GB of RAM and a baseline CPU performance that ranges from the equivalent of 0.125 vCPUs to 0.5 vCPUs.

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The Porsche Taycan Turbo, one of several variants of the German automaker’s first all-electric vehicles, has an EPA estimated range of 201 miles, according to government ratings posted Wednesday. This is the first variant of the Taycan — Porsche’s first all-electric vehicle — to receive an estimated range from the EPA. The range, which indicates how far the vehicle can travel on a single charge, is far behind other competitors in the space, notably the Tesla Model S. But it also trails other high-end electric vehicles including the Jaguar I-Pace and the Audi e-tron. The biggest gulf is between the Taycan Turbo and the long-range version of the Model S, which has an EPA range of 373 miles. The performance version of the Model S has a range of 373 miles. It was also below the Jaguar I-Pace, an electric vehicle that launched in 2018. The EPA has given the Jaguar I-Pace and official estimated range of 234. However, the company recently said it was able to add another 12 miles of range to the vehicle through what it learned in the I-Pace racing series. The European standard known as the WLTP placed the range of the Porsche Taycan Turbo at up to 279 miles. Despite the lower EPA range estimate, Porsche said it’s not disappointed. “We sought to build a true Porsche, balancing legendary performance our customers expect of our products with range sufficient to meet their everyday needs,” a Porsche spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The Taycan is a phenomenal car built to perform and drive as a Porsche should. We stand by that.” Porsche introduced in September the Taycan Turbo S and Taycan Turbo — the more powerful and expensive versions of its all-electric four-door sports car with base prices of $185,000 and $150,900, respectively. In October, the German automaker revealed a cheaper version called the Porsche Taycan 4S that is more than $80,000 cheaper than its leading model. All of the Taycans, including the 4S, are the same chassis and suspension, permanent magnet synchronous motors and other bits. However, this third version, which will offer a performance-battery-plus option, is a little lighter, cheaper and a slightly slower than the high-end versions of the Taycan that were introduced earlier this yeasr. Theoretically, the 4S should also have a higher range. Porsche has always said it would have multiple versions of the Taycan. The 2020 Taycan Turbo will be among the first models to arrive in the United States. While Porsche said it isn’t disputing the EPA range, the automaker did send an email to dealers Wednesday to share additional data that shows a far rosier picture. Porsche asked AMCI Testing to conduct independent tests to evaluate the Taycan Turbo range, according to an email the automaker sent to dealers for Taycan customers. The independent automotive research firm came up with a range of 275 miles, a result that was calculated by averaging the vehicle’s performance over five test cycles.

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MindAffect, a team which presented in today’s TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield, wants to explore whats possible when we can control the devices around us with our minds — and to let others explore the possibilities, too. MindAffect was selected as a wildcard entry into the Startup Battlefield from the companies exhibiting at the show. One early area of research for the team has been helping those who are unable to move anything but their eyes (due to neurological disorders such as ALS or stroke) communicate by typing. Through this research, the team has designed a brain-computer interface which uses existing electroencephalogram (or EEG) hardware and unique flashing patterns to allow a user to control a device using only their eyes and the signals generated by their brain. Now they want to let others build with this interface (whether it’s for medical use cases like they’ve explored so far, or things like gaming/entertainment) with plans to launch a development kit next month at CES. Here’s MindAffect’s system wired up to control an AppleTV: While there are existing solutions for tracking eye movements to control computers, this approach sort of flips the concept upside down. Whereas eye tracking solutions mostly use cameras and infrared reflections bounced off the eye to determine where a user is looking, MindAffect’s approach analyzes signals from the brain to determine what a user is looking at. To accomplish this, MindAffect flashes each button on an interface (such as every key on an onscreen keyboard) at a different frequency. As the user shifts their gaze from button to button, the company says, the unique frequency the user sees causes their brain’s visual cortex to generate similarly unique signals. A non-invasive EEG headset detects and amplifies these signals, and MindAffect’s algorithms work backwards to match the signal to the desired action or input. MindAffect says its current algorithms require little to no training to function accurately. With those differences in mind, what are the advantages of this approach over camera-based eye tracking? In a chat with me backstage shortly before his pitch, MindAffect CEO Ivo de la Rive Box was quick to note that they’re still trying to figure that out. He mentions, as an example, environments where lighting conditions might interfere with eye trackers. MindAffect is on the hunt for use cases where this tech could prove particularly advantageous – something that opening up a dev kit to others could help with. Founded in September of 2017, the company has raised $1M to date.

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Acquia announced it has acquired customer data platform (CDP) startup AgilOne today. The companies did not disclose the purchase price. CDPs are all the rage among customer experience vendors, as they provide a way to pull data from a variety of channels to build a more complete picture of the customer. The goal here is to deliver meaningful content to the customer based on what you know about them. Having a platform like this to draw upon makes it more likely that you will hit the target more accurately. Acquia co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert says he has been watching this space for the last year, and wanted to add this piece to the Acquia tool chest. “Adding a CDP like AgilOne to our existing platform will help our customers unify their data across various tools in their technology stack to drive better, more personal customer experiences,” he said. In particular, he says he liked AgilOne because it used an intelligence layer while building the customer record. “What sets AgilOne apart from other CDPs are its machine learning capabilities, which intelligently segment customers and predict customer behaviors (such as when a customer is likely to purchase something). This allows for the creation and optimization of next-best action models to optimize offers and messages to customers on a 1:1 basis.” Like most startup founders, AgilOne CEO Omer Artun sees this as an opportunity to grow his company, probably faster than he could have on his own. “Since AgilOne’s inception, our vision has been to give marketers the direct power to understand who their customers are and engage with them in a genuine way in order to boost profitability and create the omnichannel experiences that customers crave. Through this acquisition, Acquia will enable us to continue to deliver, and build upon, this vision,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at the Real Story Group, has been watching the marketing automation space for some time, as well as the burgeoning CDP market. He sees this move as good for Acquia, but wonders how it will fit with other pieces in the Acquia stack. “This in theory allows them to support the unification of customer data across their suite,” Byrne told TechCrunch. But he cautions that the company could struggle incorporating AgilOne into its platform. “The Marketing Automation platform they purchased targets mostly B2B. AgilOne is dialed in on B2C use cases and a fairly narrow set of vertical segments. It will take a lot of work to make it into a CDP that could adequately serve Acquia’s diverse customer base,” he said. Acquia was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion in September, and it tends to encourage its companies to be more acquisitive than they might have been on their own. “Vista has been supportive of our M&A strategy and believes strongly in AgilOne as a part of Acquia’s vision to redefine the customer experience stack,” Buytaert said. AgilOne raised over $41 million, according to PitchBook data. Investors included Tenaya Capital, Sequoia Capital and Mayfield Fund. It had a post valuation of just over $115 million and was pegged as likely acquisition target by Pitchbook. AgilOne customers will be happy to hear that Acquia plans to continue to sell it as a stand-alone product in addition to making it part of the Acquia Open Marketing Cloud. How founder and CTO Dries Buytaert sold Acquia for $1B

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Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the grey space in between. Today we’re starting off with a venture capital Q&A, a quick look at Slack’s share price stability and some thoughts on direct listings and their possible future frequency. Bu before we do, I wanted to ask for help. As we look at startups and IPOs and the impact that public companies have on young tech companies, I want to make sure that I’m touching on the right topics. So, email me with thoughts and complaints. During December I’m going to riff and then settle a bit on format and topics as 2020 starts. With that, let’s begin. Piva’s $250M energy fund Petronas (Petroliam Nasional Berhad) is a Malaysian state energy company best for sponsoring Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One team, but the oil giant is drilling deeper into the startup world. The company announced a $350 million corporate venture fund in October, creatively named “Petronas Corporate Venture Capital.” Now, Petronas is back at it, putting up the capital for a new $250 million fund announced today called Piva. The fund will operate independently from the main corporation, even as the energy giant exists as its sole limited partner (LP). I was curious about the dollar amount and the goals of the new fund so I got in touch. Here’s a condensed and edited set of questions and answers to help better describe what all that oil money may buy: TechCrunch: Why is Piva’s first fund $250 million, and not, say, larger?  Piva: This is the ideal size for our first fund; not too small which would allow us to make too few deals, not too large that would force us to only focus on growth-stage deals. It provides us with the right amount of capital needed to back 15-20 companies we’re expecting to invest, given the size of the team that we have in mind. We expect to invest $5-$10 million per company initially, and $20-30 million overtime, in companies creating breakthrough technologies, services and solutions in the industrial and energy sectors. Is Piva’s goal to help fund strategic partners for Petronas, or strategic acquisitions? We have the freedom and independence to invest in any company that meets our investment criteria though we’re always looking for ways to introduce our portfolio to Petronas and its global partners. Therefore, we are not required to invest for strategic reasons and certainly can’t control who ultimately becomes the acquirer of our portfolio companies. Having said that, we are looking to leverage our partner Petronas to help create value for our portfolio companies, and similarly looking to leverage our portfolio companies to create strategic value to Petronas. We view that as a win-win-win. And like any VC fund, the goal of the fund in to make strong financial returns for investors. The rest of the interview, including notes on Piva’s views on battery tech, continues at the end of this post. Slack’s new stability Slack’s direct listening was a key moment in the startup world in 2019. By eschewing a traditional IPO, Slack helped stamp direct listings as the cooler way to go public. In the wake of its debut, Asana and Airbnb are also considering direct listings, for example. But while Slack’s direct listing went well, its share price has since suffered. After receiving a reference price of $26 and reaching an all-time high of $42, Slack is worth a little over $21 today. But notably, the slide that the company’s shares took through summer into fall has arrested. And, after its recent earnings report, Slack managed to stay in its $20 to $23 per share range, more or less. So, we now know what Slack is actually worth: about $11.7 billion. That’s far more than its final private round’s post-money valuation, mind, which put a $7.1 billion price tag on the corporate chat company. For Slack, finding its value must be a relief. Especially as its new trading band values it north of $10 billion. Call it an inverse Dropbox. The question now becomes if Slack’s market repricing is considered a positive (the company found price stability sans traditional banker support) or negative (it’s worth less than its reference price and suffered a public fall in value) for direct listings overall. Direct listings Sticking on the direct listing point I wonder if they are going to see as much of a place in the 2020 IPO market as many expect. Summarizing market sentiment (based on what I’ve read, and investors and founders that I’ve spoken with), there’s optimism that the stock market will see more direct listings in the future than the past, as they are — putatively — better mechanisms for pricing companies when they go public while reducing value capture by banks.

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Arcona Music took to the stage at Disrupt Berlin today to showcase its adaptive music service. The local startup utilizes machine learning to create musical beds capable of adapting to different contexts in real-time. The user simply needs to input a handful of parameters, and the service will adjust accordingly. “Give it a style, an emotion and a musical theme, and you can say, ‘play this,’ and the engine will take that blueprint and realize it,” service cofounder Ryan Groves explained, in a conversation with TechCrunch. “If, at any point, the emotion or style changes, it will adapt to that and create this essentially infinite stream of music. You can play a particular song blueprint for as long as is necessary in any dynamic environment.” The service is still in its infancy, at the moment. Its two founders are its only two full-time employees, along with a part-time developer. Groves and co-founder Amélie Anglade bootstrapped the scrappy startup, which has yet to seek funding.   Groves is a composer and musical theorist who formerly worked at popular AI-based music composition service, Ditty. Anglade is a music information retrieval specialist who worked at SoundCloud. Rhythm gaming is the first clear application for the service. The popular gaming genre is built around a changing soundtrack and could potentially benefit from music that requires minimal pre-programing. Moving forward, the potential for such a service is far broader. “In the very long term,” Groves said, “we should see this being almost your own personal orchestra, leveraging augmented reality, GPS and all that stuff, and just responding to your environment as you’re listening.

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In June, PayPal announced its Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready would be departing the company at the end of this year. Now we know where he’s ending up: Google. Ready will join Google in January as the company’s new commerce chief, reporting directly to Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP, Ads, Commerce and Payments. Ready’s role at Google will not involve payments, which means he won’t be directly involved with PayPal’s competitor, Google Pay. Instead, as Google’s new president of Commerce, Ready will focus on leading Google’s vision, strategy and delivery of its commerce products. However, the role will see Ready working in close partnership with both the advertising and payments operations. Google’s prior head of ads, commerce and payments, Sridhar Ramaswamy, left the company in 2018 after more than 15 years, which is when Raghavan stepped in. But Ready’s role is a new one, as it will focus on commerce specifically. “Bill’s exceptional track record building great experiences for consumers and deeply strategic partnerships makes him a powerful addition to our team. I couldn’t be more excited for the future of commerce at Google,” said Raghavan, in a statement. Added Ready, “I’ve long admired how Google has enabled access to the digital economy for everyone. Google has been making world-class commerce capabilities universally accessible to partners of all sizes, and I look forward to furthering that mission,” he said. Ready joined PayPal in 2013 when it acquired his startup, the payments gateway Braintree, for $800 million (he became CEO of Braintree and Venmo). Today, Braintree powers payments for businesses like Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Jet.com, while Venmo sees more than $25 billion in transaction volume on a quarterly basis. Once at PayPal, Ready moved up the ranks to become EVP and COO in 2016. In this role, he was responsible for product, technology and engineering at PayPal, as well as the end-to-end customer experiences for PayPal’s consumer, merchant, Braintree, Venmo, Paydiant and Xoom businesses. He was also co-chair of PayPal’s Operating Group, which focuses on delivering on revenue and profit goals for the company. At PayPal, Ready was behind a number of the company’s biggest moves, including the introduction of its most-rapidly adopted product ever, PayPal One Touch, as well as Pay with Venmo, the redesign of the PayPal mobile app, PayPal Commerce and the expansion of Braintree’s global reach. PayPal announced Ready’s plans for departure this summer, saying he was planning to engage in other entrepreneurial interests outside the company. Heading up commerce at Google will be a big task for Ready, given commerce’s close proximity to parent company Alphabet’s main source of revenue, which is advertising. In Q3 2019, Google’s ad revenue was $33.92 billion out of total revenue of $40.5 billion. Today, many consumers visit Google first to shop for products, which allows it to charge top dollar for its ads. But over the years, Amazon has been steadily chipping away at Google’s lead as more consumers go directly to its site to hunt for products. To address this challenge, Google has begun to transform its Shopping business. At Google Marketing Live this year, Google unveiled a new look and feel for its shopping properties, which included rebranding its Google Express app as the new Google Shopping app. The goal with the changes is to better serve the way consumers now shop online. Today, people often start “shopping” by doing things like browsing Pinterest for inspiration or seeing what influencers are posting on Instagram, for example. Instagram capitalized on this trend with the launch of Instagram Shopping in March, which allows users to checkout right in its app. PayPal is also now moving in this direction. The company recently made its largest-ever acquisition with a $4 billion deal for shopping and awards platform Honey. With Honey’s integrations, PayPal will be able to target shoppers with personalized promotions and offers earlier on in their shopping journey, then direct them to PayPal’s checkout as the final step. Google’s commerce plans are similar in that regard. It envisions a universal cart and new ways to shop across its platform of services, including Search, Shopping, Images and even YouTube and Gmail. This will allow Google to also capture shoppers’ attention as they engage with Google properties — like browsing images for product ideas or watching YouTube videos, for example. As a part of the Google Shopping revamp, the dedicated Shopping homepage was updated to allow consumers to filter products by brands they love and features they want, as well as read product reviews and videos. Shoppers could add items to a universal cart where purchases were backed by a Google guarantee, as well as receive customer service and make easy returns, as before with Google Express. Google’s travel business also falls under commerce, and similarly received new attention this year with updates designed to simplify the experience of trip planning on google.com/travel, and more features around tracking flight price drops and predictions.  On the advertising side, Google’s highly visual Showcase Shopping ads were expanded outside of Google Shopping. And Shopping Actions — customers’ ability to shop directly from Google surfaces, like Google Assistant — are making their way to new services, like YouTube. Google is also ramping up its ability to serve smaller and local businesses with features aimed at driving in-store pickup traffic to brick-and-mortar stores. Critical to making Google’s new Shopping platform successful is being able to forge retail partnerships — as, unlike Amazon, Google itself is not really in the business of selling directly to consumers, outside of its own hardware devices. Ready’s experience will prove valuable here, too. At PayPal, he was able to build strategic partnerships with a number of unlikely players — including Visa, Mastercard, Apple, Walmart, Samsung and even Google. What Ready’s strategy and vision will more precisely entail for Google will have to wait until after he’s on board, however. “I’m thrilled to welcome Bill to Google as we continue our work to create more helpful commerce experiences and build a thriving ecosystem for partners of all sizes,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet. Image Credits: Getty Images — Bloomberg/Contributor; Ready: Google

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Intel today introduced the latest addition to its RealSense line. The L515 is roughly the size of a tennis ball, targeted specifically for warehouse logistics — a hugely important and increasingly automated aspect of global trade. Other potential applications for the new camera include retail, healthcare, 3D scanning and robotics. The little hockey puck is capable of scanning a scene and creating a point cloud with millions of depth points a second, per Intel — a fairly impressive spec, given its size. Per Intel: The L515 is in a class of its own, providing consistently high accuracy over the supported range of 0.25m – 9m. It also provides over 23 million accurate depth pixels per second, with a depth resolution of 1024 x 768 at 30 frames per second. The Intel RealSense lidar camera L515 has an internal vision processor, motion blur artifact reduction and short photon-to-depth latency. The lightweight L515 consumes less than 3.5 watts of power, enabling easy mounting on handheld devices with the flexibility of long battery life. Always ready to use, the L515 retains its depth accuracy throughout its lifespan without the need for calibration. The new RealSense finds the company expending its operations to the massively profitable world of logistics, following similar cameras designed for drones, robotics and a slew of consumer hardware applications, including AR and VR.

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Childcare is one of the biggest expenses for American parents and it’s not just families who are taking a hit. Childcare issues cost the United States’ economy an estimated $4.4 billion in lost productivity each year and also impacts employee retention rates. Kinside wants to help with a platform that not only enables families to get the most out of their family care benefits, but also find the right providers for their kids. The startup announced the public launch of its platform today, along with $3 million in a new funding round led by Initialized Capital. This brings Kinside’s total raised since it was founded 18 months ago to $4 million. Its other investors include Precursor Ventures, Kairos, Jane VC and Escondido Ventures. Founded by Shadiah Sigala, Brittney Barrett and Abe Han, Kinside began its private beta with 10 clients while participating in Y Combinator last summer. Over the past year, it has signed up over a thousand employers, underscoring the demand for childcare benefits. “Getting meetings with employers has not been the hard part,” Sigala, Kinside’s CEO, tells TechCrunch. “Any subject line that says ‘do you want childcare for your employees?’ immediately gets a response. We a hit a nerve there and when we talked with them, we found that the biggest pain they expressed was that their employees were having a hard time finding childcare.” Kinside co-founders SShadiah Sigala, Brittney Barrett and Abe Han The U.S. is the only industrialized country without a national law that guarantees paid parental leave. Companies like Microsoft, Netflix and Deloitte offer strong family benefits in order to recruit and retain talent, but offering similar packages remains a challenge, especially for small- to medium-sized businesses. As a result, many employees, especially women, leave their jobs to care for their children, even if they had planned to continue working. “The worst case for bigger, more mature companies is a delayed return to work, which has a real impact on the bottom line because of lost productivity, but the deeper pain is when we lose the women,” Sigala says. “It’s documented that 43% of women in the professional sector will leave the workforce within one to two years of having a baby.” Other startups focused on early childhood care that have recently raised funding include Winnie, for finding providers, Wonderschool, which helps people start in-home daycares and preschools and London-based childcare platform Koru Kids. Before Kinside, Sigala co-founded Honeybook, a business management platform for small businesses and freelancers. When she got pregnant, Sigala began developing the company’s family benefit policies and became familiar with the hurdles small companies face. While in Y Combinator, Kinside focused on streamlining the process of using dependent care flexible spending accounts (FSA), or pre-tax benefits for caregiving costs, after its founders saw that the complicated claims process meant only a fraction of eligible parents get full use of the program. Kinside still helps parents with their accounts by partnering with FSA administrators. Now their app also includes a network of pre-screened early childcare providers ranging from home-based daycares to large preschools across the country. The startup pre-negotiates reserved spots and discounted rates for its users and gives them access to a “concierge” made up of childcare professionals to answer questions. Parents can search for providers based on location, cost and childcare philosophy. Sigala says the startup’s team found that many childcare providers have a 20% to 30% vacancy rate, which Kinside addresses by helping them manage openings and find families who are willing to commit to a spot. In addition to its app, Kinside also plans to integrate into human resources systems. Initialized was co-founded by Alexis Ohanian, also a founder of Reddit, and a vocal advocate of paid parental leave. One of the areas the firm focuses on is “family tech” and its portfolio also includes startups like the Mom Project, a job search platform for mothers returning to work. In an email, Initialized partner Alda Leu Dennis said the firm invested in Kinside because “we have this fundamental problem of gender inequality which can be partially attributed to imbalances in the workplace and at home. We have a gender wage gap and domestic responsibilities, still, largely falling on the mother. By solving a problem that men and women have—access to affordable and high-quality childcare—we can improve this situation.” Dennis added, “the business model innovation that Kinside brings to the table is to involve employers in the process of bringing peace of mind and stability to their employees’ home lives and in turn making their employees more productive.” Sigala says Kinside sees itself as part of the benefits equity movement, including paid parental leave and, eventually universal childcare, for all working parents. The platform’s users are split equally between men and women, highlighting that the need for caregiving benefits cross gender lines and impact an entire household. “It’s a complex issue. Our infrastructure and society is still designed for single breadwinner households and yet the economy means that for most households, being able to pay the bills depends on having two parents working,” she adds. “I see this as a movement. It’s the right time.”

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One of the largest civil liberties groups in the U.S. is suing two Homeland Security agencies for failing to turn over documents it requested as part of a public records request about a controversial cell phone surveillance technology. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) in federal court on Wednesday after the organization claimed the agencies “failed to produce records” relating to cell site simulators — or “stingrays.” Stingrays impersonate cell towers to trick cell phones into connecting to them, allowing its operator to collect unique identifiers from the device and determine their location. The devices are used for surveillance, but also ensnare all other devices in their range. It’s believed newer, more advanced devices can intercept all the phone calls and text messages in range. A government oversight report in 2016 said both CBP and ICE collectively spent $13 million on buying dozens of stingrays, which the agencies used to “locate people for arrest and prosecution,” the ACLU said. But little else is known about stingray technology because the cell phone snooping technology is sold exclusively to police departments and federal agencies under strict non-disclosure agreements with the device manufacturer. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2017 to learn more about the technology and how it’s used, but both agencies failed to turn over any documents, it said. The civil liberties organization said there is evidence to suggest that records exist, but has “exhausted all administrative remedies” to obtain the documents. Now it wants the courts to compel the agencies to turn over the records, “not only to shine a light on the government’s use of powerful surveillance technology in the immigration context, but also to assess whether its use of this technology complies with constitutional and legal requirements and is subject to appropriate oversight and control,” the filing said. The group wants the agencies’ training materials and guidance documents, and records to show where and when stingrays were deployed across the United States. CBP spokesperson Nathan Peeters said the agency does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy. A spokesperson for ICE did not comment. US border officials are increasingly denying entry to travelers over others’ social media

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BMW today announced that it is finally bringing Android Auto to its vehicles, starting in July 2020. With that, it will join Apple’s CarPlay in the company’s vehicles. The first live demo of Android Auto in a BMW will happen at CES 2020 next month and after that, it will become available as an update to drivers in 20 countries with cars that feature the BMW OS 7.0. BMW will support Android Auto over a wireless connection, though, which somewhat limits its comparability. Only two years ago, the company said that it wasn’t interested in supporting Android Auto. At the time, Dieter May, who was the senior VP for Digital Services and Business Model at the time, explicitly told me that the company wanted to focus on its first-party apps in order to retain full control over the in-car interface and that he wasn’t interested in seeing Android Auto in BMWs. May has since left the company, though it’s also worth noting that Android Auto itself has become significantly more polished over the course of the last two years, too. “The Google Assistant on Android Auto makes it easy to get directions, keep in touch and stay productive. Many of our customers have pointed out the importance to them of having Android Auto inside a BMW for using a number of familiar Android smartphone features safely without being distracted from the road, in addition to BMW’s own functions and services,” said Peter Henrich, Senior Vice President Product Management BMW, in today’s announcement. With this, BMW will also finally offer support for the Google Assistant, after early bets on Alexa, Cortana and the BMW Assistant (which itself is built on top of Microsoft’s AI stack). As the company has long said, it wants to offer support for all popular digital assistants and for the Google Assistant, the only way to make that work in a car is, at least for the time being, Android Auto. In BMWs, Android Auto will see integrations into the car’s digital cockpit, in addition to BMW’s Info Display and the heads-up display (for directions). That’s a pretty deep integration, which goes beyond what most car manufacturers feature today. “We are excited to work with BMW to bring wireless Android Auto to their customers worldwide next year,” said Patrick Brady, Vice President of Engineering at Google. “The seamless connection from Android smartphones to BMW vehicles allows customers to hit the road faster while maintaining access to all of their favorite apps and services in a safer experience.” BMW says ‘nein’ to Android Auto

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The team at Wotch has created a new social video platform — but wait, don’t roll your eyes quite yet. “Obviously, we’re very used to someone creating a new internet video-sharing platform,” said co-CEO Scott Willson. “It must be very irritating for everyone to hear that.” And yet Willson and his co-founder/co-CEO James Sadler have attempted it anyway, and they’re competing today as part of the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin. They’re only 22 years old, but Sadler said they’ve been working together for the past few years, with past projects including the development of e-learning platforms. They were inspired to create Wotch because of YouTube’s recent problems around issues like demonetization, where many YouTubers lost the ability to monetize their videos through advertising, and other controversies like an attempted overhaul of its verification system. Willson said YouTube has been “leaving out creators in terms of communications,” and as the controversies grew, the pair thought, “There has to be a better way of doing this.” The key, Sadler added, is giving video creators a bigger say in the process: “We’re very hands-on with these creators. We’re not just sending them an automated email.” In fact, they’re giving creators an opportunity to buy equity in Wotch to get a stake in the company’s success. They’re also appointing a creator board that will be consulted on company policy. Wotch creators will be able to make money by selling subscriptions, merchandise and ads — not the standard pre-roll or mid-roll ads (which Willson described as “irritants”), but instead partnerships where they incorporate brand products and messages in their videos. Asked whether this might create the same tension between advertisers and creators that YouTube has been struggling with, Willson argued, “What it comes down to is correctly matching advertisers with creators.” Some advertisers don’t mind working with video-makers who are “pushing the boundaries” — they just need to know what they’re getting into. Sadler also said that Wotch will be providing creators with more data about their viewers, like identifying their most loyal fans, their most engaged fans and their first “wotchers.” And the site will take a different approach to content moderation, using technologies like video frame analysis to identify “risky” content, as well as relying more on community moderation. Sadler said it will be a “consensus” approach, rather than the “dictatorship” of other platforms. “We’re rewarding users for helping to cleanse these platforms,” he added. Wotch isn’t identifying any of the big creators who he says have signed on, but Sadler told me that the company is largely focused on emerging markets and has already recruited 25 of the top creators in Brazil (where YouTube has an enormous audience, to sometimes detrimental effect) and throughout South America. Those creators won’t be posting on Wotch alone, but they will be creating exclusive videos for the service. Sadler said it’s those creators who will draw the viewers: “Consumers are loyal to the creators and not the platforms.” And once they’re drawn in, they’ll also experience “a more social platform — see the things your friends are ‘wotching,’ see the things that your favorite creators are ‘wotching.'” The startup has raised funding from Dominic Smales, the CEO of influencer marketing company Gleam Futures; Bidstack co-founder Simon Mitchell; and Melody VR founder and COO Steve Hancock. Smales is also leading the creator board. While a beta version of Wotch is already live, Sadler and Willson plan to launch a revamped version of the service early next year. You can get an early preview of the changes by using the promotional code “TECHCRUNCH.”

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Pricing in the smartphone wars has taken a sharp turn in recent years on the premium end of the spectrum. Ever since the arrival of the iPhone X, flagship devices have often arrived in excess of $1,000, as company push toward more premium components in order to remain competitive. Likely surprising no one, most consumers aren’t spending that much on devices. According to numbers from NPD’s latest Mobile Phone Tracking study, however, the numbers are pretty stark. Less than 10% of U.S. consumers are spending that much on devices. That could foretell some bleak numbers for 5G sales, as early units routinely run around $1,200. Not an encouraging sign as many manufacturers look toward 5G as the next major driver amid flagging global sales. One thing to consider here is that most phones are good at this point. Even mid-tier smartphones are pretty solid. While the devices have become a commodity, few if any users truly need to spend that much on a product. There’s a reason Samsung, Google and even Apple have been focused on lower cost alternatives of late. There are, however, reasons for manufacturers to be hopeful. For one thing, the arrival of 5G is often cited as one of the primary sources of slowed sales. Many premium users are likely waiting for more network coverage and devices before purchasing their next phone. NPD says that nearly 3/4ths of consumers are at least aware that 5G is a thing. Also notable is Qualcomm’s recent 765 announcement, which should help make 5G devices accessible for consumers are a lower price point in the coming year. 

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Machine learning is a complex process. You build a model, test it in laboratory conditions, then put it out in the world. After that, how do you monitor how well it’s tracking what you designed it do? Arthur wants to help, and today it emerged from stealth with a new platform to help you monitor machine learning models in production. The company also announced it had closed a $3.3 million seed round, which closed in August. Arthur CEO and co-founder Adam Wenchel says that Arthur is analogous to a performance monitoring platform like New Relic or DataDog, but instead of monitoring your systems, it’s tracking the performance of your machine learning models. “We are an AI monitoring and explainability company, which means when you put your models in production, we let you monitor them to know that they’re not going off the rails, that you can explain what they’re doing, that they’re not performing badly and are not being totally biassed — all of the ways models can go wrong,” Wenchel explained. Data scientists build machine learning models and test them in the lab, but as Wenchel says, when that model leaves the controlled environment of the lab, lots can go wrong, and it’s hard to keep track of that. “Models always perform well in the lab, but then you put them out in the real world and there is often a drop-off in performance — in fact, almost always. So being able to measure and monitor that is a capability people really need,” he said. Interestingly enough, AWS announced a new model monitoring tool last week as part of SageMaker Studio. IBM also announced a similar tool for models built on the Watson platform earlier this year, but Wenchel says the involvement of the big guys could work to his company’s advantage since his product is platform-agnostic. “Having a neutral third party for your monitoring that works equally well across stacks is going to be pretty valuable,” he said. As for the funding, it was co-led by Work-Bench and Index Ventures with participation from Hunter Walk at Homebrew, Jerry Yang at AME Ventures and others. Jonathan Lehr, a general partner at Work-Bench sees a company with a lot of potential. “We regularly speak with ML executives from Fortune 1000 companies and one of their biggest concerns as they become more data-driven is model behavior in production. The Arthur platform is by far the best solution we’ve seen for AI monitoring and transparency…” he said. The company, which is based in New York City, currently has 10 people. It launched 2018, and has been heads down working on the product since. Today, marks the release of the product publicly.

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If you thought the saga of the $7,000 Apple Pro Display XDR couldn’t get any more ridiculous, prepare yourself for the proverbial cherry on top: The company insists that you only use the single special cleaning cloth that comes with the monitor. If you lose it, you’re advised to order another. Apple, already under fire from longtime users for the ever-increasing price of its products, attracted considerable ire and ridicule when it announced the high-end monitor in June. Of course there are many expensive displays out there — it was more the fact that Apple was selling the display for $5,000, the stand separately for $999, and an optional “nano-texture” coating for an additional grand. Just wait till you see how much the Mac Pro that goes with it costs.   Technically it’s not actually a “coating” but an extremely small-scale etching of the surface that supposedly produces improved image quality without some of the drawbacks of a full-matte coating. “Typical matte displays have a coating added to their surface that scatters light. However, these coatings lower contrast while producing unwanted haze and sparkle,” the product description reads. Not so with nano-texture. Unfortunately, the unique nature of the glass necessitates special care when cleaning. “Use only the dry polishing cloth that comes with your display,” reads the support page How to clean your Apple Pro Display XDR. “Never use any other cloths to clean the nano-texture glass. If you lose the included polishing cloth, you can contact Apple to order a replacement polishing cloth.” (No price is listed, so I’ve asked Apple for more information.) Apple releases the $5,000 Pro Display XDR, a 32-inch, 6K display available this fall Obviously if you’re cleaning an expensive screen you don’t want to do it with Windex and wadded-up newspaper. But it’s not clear what differentiates Apple’s cloth from an ordinary microfiber wipe. Do the nano-scale ridges shred ordinary mortal cloth and get fibers caught in their interstices? Can the nano-texture be damaged by anything of insufficient softness? Apple seems to be presuming a certain amount of courage on the part of consumers, who must pay a great deal for something that not only provides an uncertain benefit (even Apple admits that the display without the coating is “engineered for extremely low reflectivity”) but seems susceptible to damage from even the lightest mishandling. No doubt the Pro Display XDR is a beautiful display, and naturally only those who feel it is worth the price will buy one. But no one likes to have to baby their gadgets, and Apple’s devices have also gotten more fragile and less readily repairable. The company’s special cloth may be a small, even silly thing, but it’s part of a large and worrying trend.

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Few spaces are hotter right now than enterprise SaaS and tools that streamline communications in the workplace have been some of the more popular investments for savvy VCs. The workplace email inbox is a nightmare, but there are plenty of wrong ways to kill it. Gmelius is building a workspace platform that lives inside Gmail, allowing teams to get more bespoke tools without adding yet another piece of software to their repertoire. Gmelius slots into the Gmail workspace, adding a host of features like shared inboxes, a help desk, an account-management solution and automation tools. This integration fits into the existing interface while hiding heavier tools including Trello-like Kanban boards inside Gmail. It can understandably feel like an awful lot of functionality to fit into one app. Gmelius has been around for a long time as a Chrome plugin, but the company has made significant strides this year to revamp their product as a premium tool for startups looking to supercharge their email and collaborate internally inside Gmail. The company still offers a free tier with limited functionality, but now has several professional tiers scaling up to a $49 per user enterprise plan. The startup is rebelling against an overwhelming trend of service unbundling which has led startups to pay for more SaaS products than ever. Gmelius is taking on competitors like Front and others that have built out their own distinct platforms. Gmelius recently graduated from Y Combinator and is in the midst of raising new funding to scale its team to take on more customers. They are competing in TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield.

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Keith McCarty could have retired after Microsoft bought Yammer. Instead, he founded Eaze to address cannabis delivery. He lead the company through its B round and then stepped back, but last year, he founded Wayv, a new cannabis startup to address an even more significant challenge for the industry: supply chain logistics. So far, it’s raised $5 million and is currently seeking its Series A. Fundraising is hard for any entrepreneur, but McCarty’s experience sets him apart from most cannabis industry founders. The company is now the first complete payment solution in the cannabis industry, allowing money to travel throughout the ecosystem in the fastest, safest way while remaining compliant with all of California’s regulations. We spoke at length about this ability and along the way, chatted about the cannabis startup landscape. McCarty has been in the industry for about five years, founding Eaze in 2014 and later leaving after raising a $13 million B round. At the time, startups generally didn’t seek venture funding and McCarty helped the company become one of the first to do so. Now founder and CEO of a new cannabis startup, he’s at it again.

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Ann Shepherd Contributor Ann Shepherd is co-founder of social impact venture Him For Her. She serves on the board of fintech startup HoneyBook. Over a recent dinner with twenty C-suite executives, one founder-CEO recounted how he was preparing a slide for a company all-hands with headshots of his board of directors when he was struck by the contrast between his gender-balanced employee base and his all-male board. “It wasn’t something I was proud to share with the team,” he told us, as heads around the table nodded. The other CEOs in the room got it. A board populated exclusively by men is at odds with efforts to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the organization. For too many CEOs, the composition of their boards can feel more like a liability than a strategic asset. Board diversity offers an array of benefits, including new perspectives that can improve decision-making and reduce “groupthink,” access to a broader talent pool, and of course the symbolic power of women and minorities at the top rung of the corporate ladder. Yet, according to a collaborative study published today by Crunchbase, Kellogg School of Management and Him For Her, the boards of 60 percent of the most heavily funded venture-backed startups don’t include a single woman.  As the study shows, some of the gender imbalance can be explained by the dearth of women founders and funders. With investors composing the majority of private-company board seats, the paucity of female check-writers in the venture community carries through to the boardroom. But the problem goes beyond that. Only 19 percent of independent directors — those appointed without a prior operating or investing relationship with the company — are women. Why should CEOs care about building boards that bring more women and minorities to the table? To answer this question, we sought input from three chief executives who’ve developed standout boards with an eye toward diversity. Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of blockchain payments solution Ripple Stephane Kasriel, CEO of hiring platform Upwork Zander Lurie, CEO of survey software company SurveyMonkey What follows is a synthesis of the advice they shared. View your board as a strategic asset Well-functioning boards help CEOs see the bigger picture by providing an external perspective. For Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, “our board has been the most useful in discovering blind spots, by asking questions that force us to think outside of our day-to-day way of looking at things.” Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse says his board brings “a satellite view of the world so that we can analyze global macro trends that may converge or diverge, affecting Ripple’s future.” For early-stage startups, board members can help address tactical needs, providing introductions to candidates or lending functional expertise to shape strategy. “Over time, you’ll rely on the board for flexing its fiduciary muscle,” according to Zander Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey. But “don’t be afraid of governance,” he advises. “A strong board is not your enemy — it’s there to help you thrive.” The bigger risk, he warns, “is in surrounding yourself with a bunch of ‘yes’ directors who heed your commands; that has proven to be a flawed strategy for all stakeholders.” Build a board that makes you proud If the most valuable contributions a board can make are to provoke thinking and see around corners, then having a range of voices in the boardroom is critical. For Kasriel, more diversity “means more viewpoints on the same problems. The whole point of having an eight-person board is to have eight very different and complementary — though sometimes conflicting, and that’s OK — perspectives.”  “It’s important to have diversity of thought to protect the company from groupthink,” adds Garlinghouse. “Also, diverse boards bring different personal networks to bear… as companies scale, especially for startups, the most effective, impactful boards are diverse ones.” A broader set of skills, life experiences and ways of thinking give CEOs more resources to draw from for assistance. Says Lurie, “a diverse set of perspectives and experiences will help you anticipate and respond to all kinds of challenges in your organization. Make sure your board has the skill sets and diversity attributes that make you proud to show your employees and customers. You wouldn’t make a TV commercial starring only seven white guys; make sure you exercise the same duty of care when creating your board.” This isn’t about optics. Lurie points to “one study [that] found that companies with one or more women on their board have 26 percent better share performance than companies with all-male boards. That’s part of why I’m so proud the SurveyMonkey board is comprised of 50% women and 50% men. More voices lead to better leadership.” Reach outside your network You’ve heard the argument that board diversity reflects a pipeline problem. Actually, it’s a marketplace problem. There is no shortage of exceptionally-qualified female and minority candidates. The real issue is that within the personal networks responsible for appointing most directors, these candidates are often simply invisible. So how can CEOs tap into this wealth of talent? “Plenty of us suffer from affinity bias,” Lurie acknowledges. “We unconsciously gravitate toward people who look like us, share the same work background, or maybe went to our alma mater. This homogenous network isn’t going to serve you in building a diverse board, a diverse leadership team, or a diverse organization. Start going out of your way to connect with people who are dissimilar to you. Find events to attend that wouldn’t normally be on your radar. Ask people you know to connect you with folks they know who might add a unique perspective. Investing in diversity takes effort in the beginning, but it’s well worth it for the gains you’ll see in performance, employee engagement, and more.” “It’s not really different from any other executive search,” observes Kasriel. “If you’re just leveraging your personal network, then it’s likely to have the same level of diversity as everything else in your personal life which, for many entrepreneurs, isn’t a lot. I’ve also found that simple InMail via LinkedIn works quite well: find someone you really admire, approach them directly, explain to them why you think they could be an amazing addition to your board and why being on your board could be interesting to them.” Garlinghouse cautions CEOs that, “building diverse boards and leadership teams take time and intention, so make it part of your mission from the beginning — it should not be an afterthought… otherwise, those with the ‘right’ experience who get the big jobs will continue to look the same.” Always be recruiting According to Garlinghouse, “CEOs should always be recruiting…it’s always the right time to take that coffee meeting.”  Kasriel concurs. “Recruiting is the number-two priority for a CEO — number one is, don’t run out of money — and this includes recruiting your board. A great board can have an outsized impact in your ability to succeed, helping you navigate difficult decisions, making sure you have the right strategy and helping you attract great executives, investors, partners and customers.” Focus on competencies, not titles When it comes to defining the ideal new board member, traditional wisdom says to look for a current or former CEO. But increasingly today’s chief executives reject that advice which inherently favors male candidates. Instead they focus on adding key competencies to fill out the expertise in their boardrooms. The first step is to assess your current board. “Take stock of where your board stands today and where you have gaps to fill,” counsels Lurie, “and draw a distinction between the titles listed on someone’s resume and the competencies they bring to the table.” Kasiel explains that, in building out the Upwork board, “We were very thoughtful in finding people who brought a specific expertise.” Recently added directors were selected for their deep knowledge of finance and operations, enterprise sales and M&A and tech marketing. “But equally importantly,” he adds, “we wanted board members who were passionate about the mission of Upwork — to create economic opportunities so people have better lives — and were aligned with our value of maximizing value for all stakeholders, not just our stockholders.” Garlinghouse suggests that CEOs “pay attention to what’s happening in adjacent verticals, especially if you’re in a space that’s constantly evolving; the perfect director might not — and likely won’t — have a career dedicated to what your company does, but skills always transfer.” “One potentially controversial tip,” offers Kasriel, “consider hiring ‘more junior’ board members. In tech, things move really fast and someone who has been a CMO for 20+ years may not know as much about recent marketing technology tools or marketing practices such as ABM and Inbound Marketing. The first 15 years of that 20-year experience may not be all that useful.” Add independent directors early When should a startup add its first independent director? According to these CEOs, it’s never too early. The first independent director at Upwork joined the board about six years before the company’s IPO. “I don’t think it was too early,” recalls Kasriel. “In fact, I often advise early stage companies to add an independent board member as early as they can.” “It’s never too early to have an independent director on the board,” agrees Garlinghouse at Ripple, where the first independent was appointed only a year after the company’s founding. “The advantage of having independent directors,” he points out, “is that CEOs can prioritize diversity of thought because they are not constrained by board seats controlled by shareholders… With independent directors, CEOs have more flexibility in choosing an expertise in a specific area or a unique experience that’s currently lacking to bring companies to the next stage of scale.” To CEOs worried about upsetting board dynamics, Kasriel responds, “the whole point of adding a new director is to change board dynamics! Obviously, you can make a bad hire on the board, just like you can make a bad hire on your management team, so it’s very important to make sure that the new board member is not only chosen well but also onboarded professionally so they can contribute fully to the functioning of the board. The onboarding may require existing board members to also evolve how they themselves operate. It goes both ways.”

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Uber is launching a new feature aimed at skiers and snowboarders. The ride-hailing company said Wednesday that beginning December 17 an Uber Ski icon will pop up on the app that will let customers order a ride with confirmed extra vehicle space or a ski/snowboarding rack. Uber is launching the feature in 23 U.S. cities located areas near mountain resorts such as Anchorage, Boise, Boston, Eastern Washington, Flagstaff, Arizona and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lehigh Valley, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Hampshire, Portland, Oregon, Portland,Maine,  Salt Lake City, Seattle, Upstate New York, Vermont, Wilkes-Barre Scranton and Worcester, Wyoming. Riders living in Colorado cities such as Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and the front range of the Rockies where numerous resorts are located will also have the feature. Uber hasn’t said if it will offer the ski feature outside of the United States. Uber Ski is the latest of additional features aimed at attracting new users or retaining existing ones. Uber wouldn’t say if a bike option might be next. However, Nundu Janakiram, head of rider experience, said to expect more features like this one. “No one customer is the same, which is why part of our platform strategy is unlocking capabilities for unique needs, at the right times,” Janakiram said. “Uber Ski is the latest step toward that goal, and we’ll have more to share in the future as we continue to identify ways we can do more in the vein of Uber Ski, Uber Pet, and more for riders that love Uber’s convenience.” The feature comes with a cost. Riders pay an additional surcharge for the selection, on top of their standard trip fare. Riders will be able to view the Uber Ski surcharge on their receipt, and the surcharge will be added to their upfront price when that option is selected in-app, the company said. Drivers don’t have to participate in Uber Ski. They can opt-out of Uber Ski trips in the driver preferences menu in the app, while still receiving other eligible trip opportunities, according to the company. If they choose to accept Uber Ski trips, drivers will also receive a significant portion of that surcharge, on top of their standard trip earnings. Drivers who want to participate will first need to snap and upload a photo of their vehicle to the app’s documents section to confirm eligibility.

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Another startup hoping to capitalize on the fintech opportunity in Mexico has closed on a new sum of funding. Mexican challenger bank Albo has secured a $19 million extension to its Series A financing, led by U.S.-based Valar Ventures. The neobank previously raised $7.4 million at the beginning of 2019, bringing the company’s total Series A funding amount to $26.4 million. This marks one of the larger early rounds for a Mexican startup. Albo joins the ranks of other Mexican startups that have raised larger-than-average Series A rounds like Y-Combinator backed scooter company Grin that scored a $45.7 million Series A and Klar, the Chime clone that raised $57.5 million in debt and equity seed funding. Albo is Valar Ventures’ first foray into Mexico, though it has a penchant for neobanks broadly. The fund, which was founded by Peter Thiel, notably invested in N26 and TransferWise. Mountain Nazca and Flourish Ventures also joined Albo’s Series A..  In its current form, Albo is a Mastercard debit card and a personal finance app that allows customers to open a bank account in 5 minutes through a branchless experience.  The challenger bank tech startup concept is one of the most lucrative opportunities in Mexico – which is the second largest economy in Latin America second to Brazil. Out of the 130 million population of Mexico, 45% are underbanked. While underbanked users have access to bank accounts, deep financial products designed to help them compound wealth through lending and savings features do not exist in the Mexican market through traditional banks. This leaves what founder 31-year-old Angel Sahagun describes as a total addressable market of 59 million people in Mexico alone. Traditional banks don’t serve the Mexican population. Existing incumbents shy away from lending, lack transparency, have high fees and are known for bad customer service.  Albo says it owns the market share in Mexico with 200,000 monthly active customers who are spending and making transactions in its platform. But it is far from the only consumer neobank option in the country. Brazil’s Nubank, one of the most high-funded startups in all of Latin America, expanded into Mexico in May of this year. Nubank says it has 8.5 million clients in Brazil, and the startup is reportedly fundraising at its $10 billion valuation. Not to mention the threat posed by European startups like N26 and Revolut that have reportedly had their eye on the Mexican market.  The Albo team has raised $26.4 million to scale its leading neobank. Sahagun says that while there may be some overlap in Nubank and Albo customers, the offerings are different. Nubank issues credit cards for people with existing credit history – not the same target customer as Albo.  Either way, with a new Mexican fintech product launching or getting funded seemingly every day, the market is growing saturated. That’s great for the ecosystem and for customers to have so much competition. But this will raise challenges around acquiring customers and hiring, and fundraising will undoubtedly get harder for those who want a piece of the Mexico fintech pie.  In the meantime, founders are taking more of a collaborative rather than competitive stance. “This isn’t a winner takes all market,” says Sahagun, arguing that the financial market in Mexico is diverse enough to thrive with numerous financial products.  Sahagun says the capital will be used to expand leadership roles and speed up customer acquisition. Albo will use the capital to build out new features: a savings product that lets users improve spending and saving habits, and what it says will be a transparent and easy-to-use lending option for customers who want access to loans. 

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As companies try to figure out how to comply with regulations like GDPR, ISO or Sarbanes Oxley, they face a huge challenge just getting started. Hyperproof, a Bellevue, Washington startup, is launching a new product to help companies build a workflow to get them in compliance in a more organized way. Company co-founder and CEO Craig Unger says most companies struggle with the complexity of compliance. It involves a lot of different activities and often requires the cooperation of employees, who typically aren’t involved in compliance. Hyperproof wants to provide a single place where companies can undertake their compliance activities. “In reality, there’s no single place where if you’re a compliance officer, you can say, ‘here is where I do my work’. Here is the equivalent of my SAP system for a CFO or my CRM system for a head of sales or head of marketing — and Hyperproof is just that,” Unger explained. He says most companies do compliance today in a fairly ad hoc way, relying on technology like spreadsheets to track tasks, and email to make requests for needed information. What Hyperproof does is package all of that into a single program. You indicate what compliance regimen you want to work with, and Hyperproof builds a workspace for you with all of the requirements you need for that compliance framework. Unger says at this point, the company is simply putting all of the tasks in a single workflow to simplify and organize your activities around this compliance framework.You can also import a spreadsheet to get that information inside Hyperproof, or outline the requirements in your own language in the program. “Once you have a defined program in place, you can start working with the rest of the organization in a collaborative way by sending emails. The evidence that comes back gets put inside Hyperproof as an immutable record with an audit trail around this data collection,” Unger explained. Should you get audited, you have a central place to show the auditor your work. The company has concentrated on building the workflow part of this, but in the future wants to add automation and APIs to connect directly to other systems to automate many of the activities. The goal with the initial release was to get companies a compliance framework workflow, and then build on that in the future. The company was founded last year and has raised $3 million from 23 angel investors in the Seattle area where they are based. In fact, Unger is a former Microsoft employee and also helped found Azuqua, a workflow startup he sold to Okta this year for $52.5 million. Okta to acquire workflow automation startup Azuqua for $52.5M

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Blue Origin will be looking to launch one of its New Shepard sub-orbital spacecraft today – a second attempt after weather didn’t cooperate yesterday. Conditions are looking much better at the company’s West Texas launch site, so the Jeff Bezos-founded space venture is much more optimistic that today’s launch will go off as planned. This mission, codenamed NS-12 because it’s the 12th flight of the New Shepard vehicle, will be the sixth re-use of the NS3 booster stage which provides the spacecraft’s initial thrust to get it off the ground. That will be a record for commercial reusable spaceflight, and it’s a key mission parameter, though the primary focus is still on delivering payloads for customers. Those payloads include a range of different science experiments, as well as postcards submitted by kids around the world via the Blue Origin ‘Club for the Future’ non-profit. Bezos announced this new organization at the big Blue Origin lunar lander unveiling in May, and it’s designed to provide educational materials around space exploration to schools, and the postcards project is its first big endeavor. Currently, Blue Origin is waiting to update their specific launch time due to heavy fog in the vicinity of its launch pad, but we’ll update this post with the exact time once it’s available.

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I’ve been following Estonia-headquartered Jobbatical and its founder, Karoli Hindriks, for years. Part of the vanguard of startups working on infrastructure for digital nomads, the startup has been building the base platform to help global job seekers hire and fire their governments. Digital nomads are hiring and firing their governments As Jobbatical has worked with more and more companies and governments though, it has learned that the friction here is not just finding employment globally for talented individuals, but rather the actual process of applying for immigration and work permits, ranging from forms that must be filed in person to the hours of labor it can take to fill out an application. “What started to happen was that the relocation part… became something that the clients came back to us and said, ‘Can you do relocation for everyone and not just those coming through Jobbatical?’” Hindriks explained. Last year, Jobbatical began to refocus its platform on powering relocation for workers at companies, and now its new strategy is coming into focus with the launch of the company’s new offices in Spain and Germany, announced on stage earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. In the process, the company hopes to not just make the immigration process easier — but also much faster. “How much time are government officials doing dummy work?” Hindriks asked. “30-40% of the consulate’s time is spent on answering the question of ‘what is the status of my visa?’” The problem is that feedback in the immigration system is not available to all the players involved. Immigration process agents at companies who handle their workers’ visas have to constantly search around to make sure they are moving each of their cases forward. Managers have no idea when their workers may move, while employees are kept in the dark about their current status, inducing anxiety. Hindriks’ vision is to help each of these three sides use a “TurboTax for immigration” to streamline the process. Jobbatical now can handle immigration applications in Estonia, Germany, and Spain and hopes to add Finland early next year. But the more ambitious vision is ultimately to help governments drive their processes faster. Similar to how, say, the U.S. tax agency the Internal Revenue Service offers eFiling, Hindriks sees a future where Jobbatical can help facilitate immigration filings and massively speed up the efficiency of governments around these processes by allowing workers to directly submit applications to the government. She is working with two countries today to create exactly these sorts of digital submission systems. It’s a space that has heated up in recent years as immigration continues to flow across the world. Boundless, for instance, helps individuals apply for U.S. green cards. Jobbatical is focused on the B2B market, focused on companies with global workforces. Despite the deep debate in many countries over immigration, the reality is that every country has skills deficits that can be helped with smart and efficient immigration. Jobbatical is one company that may make the system more fair and relaxing for stressed workers looking to build their international careers. Learn how to scale your startup globally at Disrupt Berlin

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China launched the Gaofen-7 imaging satellite in November, and the country has just shared the first of its high-resolution, 3D shots. The satellite is sensitive enough to height that it should be able to spot a single person from 500 kilometers up. Gaofen-7 is the latest in a planned series of 14 satellites intended to overhaul China’s orbital imaging capabilities. Companies like Planet are lofting hundreds of satellites to provide terrestrial businesses with up-to-date imagery, so it’s natural that China, among other countries, would want to have their own. Already the Gaofen project has led to a huge reduction in reliance on foreign sources for this critical data, which as frictions in other areas of technology have shown, may not always be possible to rely on. Each new satellite has added unique or improved capabilities to the constellation, using different orbits and equipment to provide different data to the surface. Gaofen-7 combines multispectral cameras with highly precise laser altimetry to provide extremely detailed 3D images of structures and land forms. Obviously this isn’t full resolution, but you get a sense of the level of detail provided. Under ideal conditions, the satellite can produce color imagery at a sub-meter resolution, meaning objects less than a meter across can be detected, and with about 1.5 meter resolution for depth. So if a person is lying down, it’ll see them — and if they stand up, they’ll see them too. NASA’s climate-monitoring space laser is the last to ride to space on a Delta II rocket Of course it’s nowhere near the sensitivity of a scientific instrument like NASA’s ICESat-2, which can detect height down to an inch or so. But Gaofen-7 is a more general-purpose satellite, intended for things like surveying and construction. “It’s like a precise ruler for measuring the land,” the satellite’s lead designer, Cao Haiyi, told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. “In the past, surveying and mapping work was labor-intensive and lasted for months or even years. With the new satellite, these tasks can be completed in minutes. Before the launch of Gaofen-7, we could only precisely locate super-highways, but now Gaofen-7 can help us accurately locate rural roads.” Gaofen-7 has already taken thousands of images and is intended to last at least eight years in orbit. Some of the imagery from the project will be made globally available, but Gaofen-7’s will probably be proprietary for some time to come.

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Buildings under construction are a maze of half-completed structures, gantries, stacked materials, and busy workers — tracking what’s going on can be a nightmare. Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can navigate this chaos and produce 3D progress maps in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off. Bottlenecks in construction aren’t limited to manpower and materials. Understanding exactly what’s been done and what needs doing is a critical part of completing a project in good time, but it’s the kind of painstaking work that requires special training and equipment. Or, as Scaled Robotics showed today at TC Disrupt Berlin 2019, specially trained equipment. The team has created a robot that trundles autonomously around construction sites, using a 360-degree camera and custom lidar system to systematically document its surroundings. An object recognition system allows it to tell the difference between a constructed wall and a piece of sheet rock leaned against it, between a staircase and temporary stairs for electric work, and so on. By comparing this to a source CAD model of the building, it can paint a very precise picture of the progress being made. They’ve built a special computer vision model that’s suited to the task of sorting obstructions from the constructions and identifying everything in between. All this information goes into a software backend where the supervisors can check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances, or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas. But it’s not all about making the suits happy. “It’s not just about getting management to buy in, you need the guy who’s going to use it every day to buy in. So we’ve made a conscious effort to fit seamlessly into what they do, and they love that aspect of it,” explained co-founder Bharath Sankaran. “You don’t need a computer scientist in the room. Issues get flagged in the morning, and that’s a coffee conversation – here’s the problem, bam, let’s go take a look at it.” The robot can make its rounds faster than a couple humans with measuring tapes and clipboards, certainly, but also someone equipped with a stationary laser ranging device that they carry from room to room. An advantage of simultaneous location and ranging (SLAM) tech is that it measures from multiple points of view over time, building a highly accurate and rich model of the environment. The data is assembled automatically but the robot can be either autonomous or manually controlled — in developing it, they’ve brought the weight down from about 70 kilograms to 20, meaning it can be carried easily from floor to floor if necessary (or take the elevator); and simple joystick controls mean anyone can drive it. A trio of pilot projects concluded this year and have resulted in paid pilots next year, which is of course a promising development. Interestingly, the team found that construction companies were using outdated information and often more or less assumed they had done everything in the meantime correctly. “Right now decisions are being made on data that’s maybe a month old,” said co-founder Stuart Maggs. “We can probably cover 2000 square meters in 40 minutes. One of the first times we took data on a site, they were completely convinced everything they’d done was perfect. We put the data in front of them and they found out there was a structural wall just missing, and it had been missing for 4 weeks.” The company uses a service-based business model, providing the robot and software on a monthly basis, with prices rising with square footage. That saves the construction company the trouble of actually buying, certifying, and maintaining an unfamiliar new robotic system. But the founders emphasized that tracking progress is only the first hint of what can be done with this kind of accurate, timely data. “The big picture version of where this is going is that this is the visual wiki for everything related to your construction site. You just click and you see everything that’s relevant,” said Sankaran. “Then you can provide other ancillary products, like health and safety stuff, where is storage space on site, predicting whether the project is on schedule.” “At the moment, what you’re seeing is about looking at one moment in time and diagnosing it as quickly as possible,” said Maggs. “But it will also be about tracking that over time: We can find patterns within that construction process. That data feeds that back into their processes, so it goes from a reactive workflow to a proactive one.” “As the product evolves you start unwrapping, like an onion, the different layers of functionality,” said Sankaran. The company has come this far on $1 million of seed funding, but is hot on the track of more. Perhaps more importantly, its partnerships with construction giant PERI and Autodesk, which has helped push digital construction tools, may make it a familiar presence at building sites around the world soon.

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