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Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is heading up a new game development house called Mountaintop Studios, joined by colleagues from around the gaming industry. The company aims to leave the crunch and toxic culture pervasive in game studios behind and make one that’s “collaborative, anti-crunch, diverse and inclusive.” The founding team includes Mitchell’s former colleague Mark Terrano, who was creative director at Oculus, Matt Hansen, former COO of Double Fine, and artist Rich Lyons, who worked at Naughty Dog and Vigil. According to its webpage, Mountaintop will be creating “multiplayer games for players who crave a challenge,” though when I chatted with Mitchell and Hansen, they cited mostly single-player titles. The theme they came back to was growth and a journey: mystery, but also mastery. As the company’s initial blog post puts it: It isn’t just the thrill of victory. It’s looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. How you were forced to grow, adapt and improve. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re better than you were before. And sometimes, it’s sharing the joy of the climb with your friends. While it’s too early for the team to reveal details on their first game, “We think we’re onto something,” Mitchell said. Considering the time and effort it takes to create a AAA game these days, and the fact that Mountaintop is currently only five full-timers, we can probably expect the first details no earlier than next year. But the founders were clear that the company is also about getting away from the culture problems in game development. “What we really want to do is have a studio that is people first,” Mitchell said. “There are so many folks across the industry who have just been burnt out by endless crunch. And the expectations around hours don’t allow for any sort of work-life balance. We want Mountaintop to be a place where people can come and still have that.” But it isn’t just labor issues of crunch and overtime plaguing gaming. Racism and sexism that are endemic and evident in both the final products and companies themselves. And it must be said that the founders themselves follow one of the most common and unfortunate trends in the industry: All four are white men. Mitchell and Hansen declined to make any specific commitments as far as diversity and inclusion go, despite those values being central to the new studio. They did, at least, acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of this pursuit. “There’s no silver bullet for inclusivity, a lot of it is long-term work,” Mitchell said. “Because it’s a fresh studio, a fresh culture, we can start from scratch with the right foundation. We never thought when we kicked off the studio that we’d be launching in the middle of not just a pandemic, but a global conversation about institutionalized racism, police violence and injustice. So talking about that stuff internally, where we stand as individuals and as a company, that informs how we act as a company.” “One of the earliest conversations we had was around getting the culture right. Our founders are all aligned in this,” added Hansen. “There’s a bunch of micro things we can do every day,” continued Mitchell. “Setting our cultural values, making sure people understand those, driving toward inclusivity and diversity training, excellent hiring practices, working with community groups and integrating and supporting them, maybe recruiting from there.” It’s a lot of promises and few concrete commitments, a common theme in tech and gaming these days. Having one’s heart in the right place is nice, but what the industries need is action. Hopefully the promises are preludes to lasting decisions, but only time (plus real and sustained effort on Mountaintop’s part) will tell.

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Sophie Alcorn Contributor Share on Twitter Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives. More posts by this contributor Dear Sophie: What does the Supreme Court’s DACA decision mean for employers? To create the jobs our economy needs, the US must expand immigration Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies. “Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.” “Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off. Dear Sophie: What is going on with recent USCIS furloughs and Trump’s H-1B ban? I handle recruitment for several tech companies. Is immigration happening? Who can I hire? —Frustrated in Fremont Dear Fremont: Immigration is still possible and I will explain how below. The administration continues to miss the mark with immigration policy. Trump’s U.S. unemployment “solution” of cutting off the stream of global talent to the U.S. is short-sighted. The administration is shooting America in the foot by walling off the promise of post-COVID economic revitalization and job-creation for Americans through the talent of immigrant entrepreneurs, investors and talent. USCIS just provided a 30-day furlough notice to more than 70% of its employees. Reporters have been reaching out to me every day requesting stories of affected immigrants and HR professionals; please sign up to share your immigration story with journalists.

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Travis Montaque Contributor Share on Twitter Travis Montaque is CEO of Holler and made Entrepreneur Magazine's 2018 Most Daring Entrepreneur's list for his work in branding consumer conversations. He was also named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in 2016. We have a problem. In tech, our companies are not diverse. This is something we’ve known for a long time, but in an industry where we’ve innovated and solved some of the world’s most challenging problems, we have continued to fail here. I am one of few Black tech CEOs and I too have historically not done as much as I should have to harness the power of diversity in my business. I have been fast at work to change this, but I’ve learned that it requires rewriting the entire playbook. To better approach the lack of diversity in tech, one-dimensional diversity agendas will not cut it. Company cultures across the board need to be rewired at their core. Change has to happen at every level, from leadership to individual employees — even how a corporation behaves as an entity. Diversity is advantageous both for employees and the bottom line, but static, siloed diversity programs will not create systemic change. Shifting the company mindset around diversity means creating excitement around our differences, changing the idea that diversity is a zero-sum game and approaching diversity like every other challenge we face. It can be tempting to introduce a diversity agenda and say you’ve solved the problem. A step beyond this involves diversity and inclusion initiatives that aim to get more people in the door and create support networks within the company walls. It’s not just about meeting D&I standards; the goal is to foster a sense of belonging for all employees. Everyone should feel that their individuality, sexual orientation, gender and heritage are celebrated within the workplace, not just tolerated. Through diverse viewpoints, ideas can be challenged and made better. Without this level of acceptance and genuine excitement at every level of the organization, diversity initiatives will continue to fall flat. When thinking about diversity, inclusion and belonging, leaders must consider ways to engage the full group instead of creating support groups for small portions of your staff. True diversity in the workplace requires a holistic approach where the entire team is participating and engaged. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that on the most basic level, people want to feel seen and appreciated. Personally, I’ve always leaned into diverse cultural experiences. I would go to my friend’s Passover even though I am not Jewish. My friends and other guests didn’t care that I didn’t know what was about to happen — they appreciated that I was there and willing to learn. I’m trying to take this same emotional interaction and apply it to Holler’s culture. We need to look for ways to acknowledge that we are here and ready to learn about experiences other than our own. And remember — we don’t have to have all the answers. To address this, we’ve recently started to create holidays (or as we call them, Hollerdays) where we as a company will acknowledge and honor the holidays from various heritages, races and religions that our employees celebrate. This is not just a free day off. This is an opportunity for all of us to learn and celebrate cultures outside of our own. Education is the key element in diversity-focused activities having real impact. We need to create normalcy around educational opportunities. Through education, opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate diverse life experiences begins to be baked into the company culture. When introducing new educational opportunities, we must show that they are beneficial for everyone, not just catered to minority groups or hosted in order to meet a diversity standard. Corporate diversity can often feel like a box that can be checked by hiring more ethnically diverse candidates or implementing a program to help those individuals assimilate. What’s worse is that anything beyond these initiatives is perceived as special treatment or a chore to the full team. If an educational moment feels like a negative to employees, the outcome will be negative and mass adoption of equitable and inclusive company cultures will be slow. To introduce new educational programs at Holler, we recently asked one of the BLM founders, Opal Tometi, to speak with our employees in a live Q&A. This was during work hours and highly encouraged, but not required. It was a communal activity where we were able to discuss different perspectives and continue thinking about how we can each do better on an individual level. We created excitement around it and reinforced that these types of discussions are a company priority. The language we use around diversity also has a hand in creating real change. We need to focus on diversity as a way of lifting the entire ship and creating an equitable society. In tech specifically, team members who can think outside of their own lived experiences have a stronger sense of emotional intelligence. They can build algorithms or projects that address a larger collective — mitigating issues like biased machine learning solutions. They become more competitive as employees. A community focused on diversity, inclusion, and belonging will have a competitive advantage. Frankly, it’s the morally right thing to do. Business leaders should monitor the execution of diversity and inclusion programs to ensure equity and belonging are a part of the conversation as well. We as leaders in technology need to treat diversity and inclusion the same way we do any other tech challenge — with agility and openness to iteration. Many companies use agile methodology to yield the best results. To solve complex problems, agile practices encourage adaptability and promote continuous improvement, flexibility, collaboration and high quality. We must do the same for diversity. With so much pressure to change and do better, it is tempting to implement new policies and say that you are automatically diversity focused. Immediately stating how your company will “fix the problem” is a band-aid approach that often misses the larger task at hand. It also does not involve enough follow through. Rewiring your company culture to be more inclusive and diverse requires continuous effort, a commitment to hearing feedback and evolving as you learn. As a CEO, I’m trying to understand how each and every person within my company views diversity. Yes, this even includes white males. We need the perspectives of everyone in order to foster a sense of belonging and create company cultures that systematically embrace diverse backgrounds. We all need to be a part of the conversation and willing to grow. I’m also continuing to speak and listen to other business leaders to hear how they are approaching change. Not a single one of us has the answer, but through sharing ideas and really listening to what is working (and what’s not), we can start to make sustainable change. Think of diversity as an industry-wide open-source project. We cannot work in silos. Isolation will lead to furthering our fragmented industry and leave us without a standard for how all humans should be treated within the tech community. Sharing ideas and progress can be intimidating, but it’s okay to fail. The agile methodology promotes the idea of failure as an outcome and empowers iteration. We need to allow companies to miss the mark sometimes, as long as they are trying and iterating. Businesses inevitably won’t get this right every time. I’ve heard from white male executives that one of their biggest fears is rolling out well-intentioned initiatives and getting “canceled” when it doesn’t work out perfectly. If we do not allow today’s business leaders to make mistakes, we’ll suffocate progress. We need to focus on the good intent and keep moving forward. We each have to take on the responsibility to make change happen — at a corporate and an individual level. Once we learn to celebrate everyone at our companies for who they truly are, shift the rhetoric away from who wins and who loses in the fight for equity, and evolve our approach to problem solving, we can begin to make systemic changes to our company cultures. The process is only beginning and it is going to take all of us doing our part to fundamentally alter how we approach corporate diversity conversations. We must take our next steps together.

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In a new letter to Mark Zuckerberg, three Democratic lawmakers pressed the Facebook chief executive for accountability on his company’s role in amplifying white supremacy and allowing violent extremists, like those in “boogaloo” groups, to organize on its platform. Citing the “long-overdue” national reckoning around racial injustice, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Zuckerberg in an effort to highlight the rift Facebook’s stated policies and its track record. “The United States is going through a long-overdue examination of the systemic racism prevalent in our society. Americans of all races, ages, and backgrounds have bravely taken to the streets to demand equal justice for all,” the senators wrote. “While Facebook has attempted to publicly align itself with this movement, its failure to address the hate spreading on its platform reveals significant gaps between Facebook’s professed commitment to racial justice and the company’s actions and business interests.” The letter demands answers to a number of questions, some of which are relatively superficial asks for further commitments from Facebook to enforce its existing rules. But a few hit on something more interesting, calling on Zuckerberg to name the Facebook employee whose job explicitly addresses the spread white supremacy on the platform and asking the company to elaborate on the role that Joel Kaplan, Vice President of Global Public Policy and Facebook’s most prominent conservative voice, played in shaping the company’s approach to extremist content. The senators also ask if Kaplan influenced Facebook’s puzzling decision to include The Daily Caller, the right-wing new site co-created by Tucker Carlson and linked to white supremacists, as a partner in its fact-checking program. As advertisers revolt, Facebook commits to flagging ‘newsworthy’ political speech that violates policy The senators’ final question includes a thinly-veiled threat to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law protecting platforms from legal liability for user generated content. Last month, President Trump launched his own attack against the vital legal shield, which makes internet businesses possible and also undergirds the modern social internet as we know it. The letter from lawmakers come as Facebook faces a fresh wave of scrutiny around its platform policies from the #StopHateforProfit campaign. Launched by a group of civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change and the NAACP, the Facebook advertising boycott has swelled to encompass a surprising array of huge mainstream brands including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, Ford and Verizon. Other brands on board include Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Reebok, REI, Patagonia and Vans. While the unlikely mix of companies likely represents a similarly heterogenous mixture of motivations for temporarily suspending their Facebook ad spending, the initiative does make specific policy demands. On its webpage, the campaign advocates for some specific product changes, calling on Facebook to remove private groups centered on white supremacy and violent conspiracies, disable its recommendation engine for more hate and conspiracy groups and to hire a “C-suite level executive” who specializes in civil rights. View this document on Scribd

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Sex education in the United States is complicated. One example: For decades, the United States invested billions into abstinence-only programs. Eventually, schools rejected government funding for these programs and pushed a more comprehensive and medically accurate agenda. Even with progress, schools across the country continue to reckon with a legacy of inaccuracy. And the government is still funding abstinence-only programs. It’s bad news for students, and for founder of Lessonbee Reva McPollom, a change is long overdue. She can personally vouch for how non-comprehensive education in health classes can isolate students. As a child, McPollom said she was called a tomboy and felt confused because she identified as a female. There was no lesson teaching the danger of gender stereotypes and norms. “I felt wrong for liking sports, for wanting to play drums, I felt wrong for everything that I loved or liked or attached myself too as part of my identity,” she said. The silent suffering, she says, continued through high school: “If you look at my senior yearbook, like I’m not even in it, I just totally erased myself by that point.” Reva McPollom, the founder of Lessonbee (Image Source: Lessonbee) After working as a journalist, digital marketer and a software engineer, McPollom returned to her past with a new idea. She founded Lessonbee, a more comprehensive health education curriculum provider to express diverse scenarios in schools. The company’s goal is to help students avoid what she had to go through: missing out on the joy of education and feeling worthy enough to learn. The company sells a curriculum that covers a range of topics, from sex education to race to mental health, that integrates into existing K-12 school districts as a separate standalone course. The topics themselves then break down into smaller focus areas. For example, with the race unit launching soon Lessonbee will tackle the effects of race and ethnicity on quality of care, maternal health and food insecurity. Lessonbee has hundreds of educational videos and interactive lessons created by teachers and the company, updated regularly. Each lesson also comes with a downloadable guide that describes content, objectives and recommendations for homework and quizzes. Lessonbee gives a guide for how to create culturally inclusive education, in line with standards put out by National Health Education and National Sexuality Education. Image Source: Lessonbee “It needs to meet all types of kids, regardless of where they’re at,” McPollom said. One example scenario in the curriculum includes a student who starts having sex and then misses her period. Learners are then responsible for choosing what to do next, who to talk to and what they should do next time. It’s a “choose your adventure”-style learning experience. Students can log onto the platform and take self-paced classes on different health units, ranging from sex education to mental health and racism. The lessons are taught through text-message scenarios or gamified situations to make sure students are actively engaging with the content, McPollom tells TechCrunch. Image Source: Lessonbee State policy regarding education is often a nightmare of intricacies and politics. This is part of the reason so few startups try to solve it. If Lessonbee were to pull off its goal, it would initiate bigger conversations around racism and health into a kid’s day-to-day. McPollom is currently pitching the service to school districts, which have tight budgets, and venture capitalists, who say they are open for business. So far, the company has 600 registered schools on its platform. “It’s a non-core academic subject so it’s the last priority, and there’s just inequity all over the place,” she said. “There’s a mismatch of privacy policies across the United States handled differently and it kind of dictates the quality of health education that you’re going to receive.” Lessonbee subscription is priced low to be more accessible, starting at $16 per learner annually. Individual courses start at $8 per learner annually. Today, McPollom announced that she has raised $920,000 in financing. As for the future, McPollom views her go-to market health class strategy as Lessonbee’s “Trojan horse.” She wants to integrate the culturally diverse curriculum into social studies or science classes, and cover how interconnected the subjects are and their ties to inequity and health. McPollam says the team is developing an anti-racism course to introduce for the fall in the wake of the recent protests against police brutality. Topics in the anti-racism course include the effect of race and ethnicity on quality of care, ways racism impacts maternal health and structural racism and food insecurity. “We’re hoping to evolve to this idea of health across the curriculum,” she said. “For health to be effective, for you to actually move the needle, health needs to be holistic.”

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NASA has laid the groundwork for an order of up to six additional SLS solid core booster rockets, from supplier Northrop Grumman, the agency announced this week. The six additional boosters would join the existing three that NASA previously locked in for use on Artemis 1, Artemis 2 and Artemis 3, which includes the targeted 2024 mission that will bring the next American man and the first American woman to the lunar surface. While this is essentially a long-lead declaration of intent to help partner Northrop Grumman ensure its supply pipeline can supply the additional boosters in a timeline needed by NASA, rather than an actual order for the boosters themselves, it’s still a big step with a potential total contract value of $49.5 million, with initial funding unlocked now. The schedule currently calls for those additional boosters to be delivered sometime before December 31, 2030, to provide some kind of idea about when Artemis missions 4-9 might potentially actually fly. Solid boosters are used with the SLS (Space Launch System) in pairs, with one on each side flanking the SLS Core stage to provide around 75% of the total thrust power used during the take-off phase of its launch. They essentially take their design from those used during the Space Shuttle program, but with added oomph to help the heavier and larger SLS out of Earth’s atmosphere and into space. NASA has also been in the process of procuring new RS-25 engines and core stages needed for missions in the Artemis program beyond the initial three, and continues to prepare for Artemis 1, with the rocket assembly process for that at the point where the boosters are nearly ready to stack. Artemis 1 is currently targeting a November 2021 timeframe for launch.

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Discord wants to be more than just a place for gamers, and is now billing itself as the Slack for users’ social lives. The new pitch, and a new funding round of $100 million at a reported valuation of $3.5 billion, will help the company as it looks to erase its legacy as a home for gamers (and a virtual townhall for white nationalists). Discord shuts down alt-right server and accounts for ToS violations Now, the company has more money at its disposal to monitor its user base and promote the image that the service isn’t just for gamers. “It turns out that, for a lot of you, it wasn’t just about video games anymore,” write co-founders Jason Citron and Stanislav Vishnevskiy in a blog post. The two men frame their company as “a place designed to hang out and talk in the comfort of your own communities and friends.” Discord, they say, is “a place to have genuine conversations and spend quality time with people, whether catching up, learning something or sharing ideas.” It hadn’t always been that way. Three years ago, the company tried to boot a number of its most racist users, but their ability to use the platform to disseminate hate speech has stubbornly persisted. Up until mid-2019 white nationalists were comfortable enough using the service to warrant a shoutout from Daily Stormer founder, Andrew Anglin, who urged his fellow travelers to stop using the service. “Discord is always on and always present among these groups on the far-right,” Joan Donovan, the lead researcher on media manipulation at the Data & Society Research Institute, told Slate. “It’s the place where they do most of the organizing of doxing and harassment campaigns.” Discord says these users are a small (and dwindling) fraction of a user base that now also includes Black Lives Matter organizers, social media influencers, and, of course, gamers. There are now more than 100 million active users on the service that spend 4 billion minutes in conversation on 6.7 million active servers, according to a statement from the company. If anything, Discord’s success is both a function and feature of the rapid rise of social gaming and social media. The company’s servers enabled real time communication across gaming platforms that turned them into the dominant social experience for a generation of players. They also enabled influencers on a variety of social media platforms to have a more direct relationship with their fans. As Taylor Lorenz noted in her reporting on Discord’s newfound fanbase among social media entrepreneurs and celebrities: Last March, Ninja, one of the most popular video-game live-streamers in the world, taught Drake how to use Discord while playing Fortnite. YouTube A-listers such as Philip DeFranco, Grace Helbig, and the Try Guys all have their own servers, and subreddits such as those dedicated to discussing The Bachelor and The Real Housewives have their own Discord groups too. More than 200 million people use the service. “We designed Discord for talking. There’s no endless scrolling, no news feed, and no tracking likes. No algorithms decide what you ‘should’ see. We designed Discord to enable the experience and feelings we wanted to recreate: being together with your community and friends. You’ve made your servers into personal spaces filled with people you invited and set the topics of discussion,” the founders write. The kinder, gentler Discord belies both the company’s name and its roots. But it is a sign of its efforts to shift the perceptions of investors and woo potential new users to the service. In addition to its new cash, the company is highlighting a new user experience and added server video so that users can communicate more readily. There are templates available to help users create servers, and the company has increased its voice and video capacity by 200%. As part of this new focus on product, Discord has launched what it calls a “Safety Center” which clearly defines the company’s rules and regulations and what actions users can take to monitor and manage their use of service for hate speech and abuse. “We will continue to take decisive action against white supremacists, racists, and others who seek to use Discord for evil,” the founders write.  Danny Rimer, the co-founder of Index Ventures, which led the investor group that invested in Discord’s latest $100 million cash infusion, is an advocate for the company’s expanded vision for itself. “I believe Discord is the future of platforms because it demonstrates how a responsibly curated site can provide a safe space for people with shared interests,” Rimer wrote in a statement. “Rather than throwing raw content at you, like Facebook, it provides a shared experience for you and your friends. We’ll come to appreciate that Discord does for social conversation what Slack has done for professional conversation.” Discord shuts down alt-right server and accounts for ToS violations The parallels to Slack are interesting and begin with the fact that both companies began their lives as gaming studios before moving to become communications services. “In France this year, Discord was adopted as the primary app for distance learning after the government’s official service failed. As a result, Discord reached the top ten app downloads in France in March and is still in the top 50 in the US and UK today,” Rimer noted in his explanation of Index’s latest investment. “As Discord plans its next phase of growth, it will become even more inclusive and welcoming for new users and communities and it will continue to be guided by the users that have informed its development from the start.”

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U.S. challenger bank Chime, now valued at $5.8 billion, is entering the credit card market with today’s launch of a new card designed to help consumers build their credit history by way of everyday transactions. With the Chime Credit Builder Visa Credit Card, users can control how much they want to spend by transferring funds to a “Spending Account” and can then charge up to this amount wherever Visa is accepted. This makes the card feel more like a debit card, as it’s tied to how much cash is in a user’s bank account — rather than a traditional credit card that can allow for overspending. Chime wanted to develop a new kind of credit card experience due the growing popularity of debit cards in the U.S. In 2018, the U.S. Federal Reserve said debit cards represent 50% of all noncash transactions, the company noted. Younger consumers, in particular, prefer debit over credit, Chime had reported in the past. In a 2015 survey, Chime found that 67% of millennials preferred debit cards, which they feel are more secure and less likely to get them into debt. However, relying on debit cards alone means younger consumers aren’t building up their credit history — a decision that will come to matter when it’s time to finance a larger purchase, like a house. “Americans have embraced debit cards for greater control but this limits their ability to establish or build their credit score,” noted Chime CEO Chris Britt, in a launch announcement. “We created Credit Builder to help our members stay in control and safely build their credit with their everyday purchases,” he said. Chime’s credit card aims to straddle both worlds, debit and credit, by working to establish good credit while also preventing users from overspending. To make this work, Chime users first add money to their Chime Spending Account and then charge their everyday purchases — like gas, groceries or subscriptions — using the credit card. At the end of the month, Chime’s Safer Credit Builder feature will automatically pay off the credit card balance from the secured account on time. It then reports the credit card payment to the major credit bureaus, including TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. The card also has the appeal of a debit card for its lack of fees. It doesn’t include an annual fee, interest or a minimum security deposit, like many of the secured credit cards it competes with. Image Credits: Chime The company has been thinking about how to better address the credit building needs of its users for some time. In fall 2018, Chime acquired the credit score improvement service Pinch, which had focused on helping young adults build better credit. The startup was best known for a service called PinchRent, which reported on-time rent payments to credit bureaus to help its users increase credit scores. Chime says it took learnings from Pinch and tapped into the team’s expertise in its creation of Credit Builder. Chime has been beta testing Credit Builder since June 2019 and the service has grown to reach over 200,000 enrollees. During the test period Credit Builder has helped users increase their credit score by an average of 30 points, Chime says, citing data from Transunion. In addition, it helped 95% of members with no credit history establish a credit score for the first time. Anecdotal reports from its users, like these discussions on Reddit, also appear to support Chime’s statements about the card’s ability to improve their credit. Today, Chime is opening up access to the waitlist for Credit Builder to all its Chime banking customers and it will roll out the service to more members every week over the summer. Chime’s mobile banking app is now one of many challenger banks in the U.S. aiming to address a younger generation’s shift away from big banks with physical branches to modern, mobile and digital banking experiences. Chime, however, is not a bank itself. Instead, banking services are provided by The Bancorp Bank or Stride Bank, N.A. The Credit Builder card is also issued by Stride Bank. Like many of its rivals, Chime offers free checking accounts, with no overdraft fees, early access to direct deposit paychecks, automatic savings and more. But Chime has outpaced much of its competition, having raised a $500 million round in late 2019 to value its business at $5.8 billion — a sizable increase from the $1.5 billion valuation it had earlier in 2019. It’s now growing at 4x year-over-year, the company says, and reached 8 million FDIC-insured accounts as of February 2020 according to Bloomberg. Chime’s Credit Builder launch follows yesterday’s debut of the Apple Card “Path” program, which also helps to tackle the issue of young people who can’t quality for credit. In its case, the program alerts users to ways to improve their creditworthiness, like making payments to secured cards or resolving past due balances. This program is more educational in nature, however, whereas Chime’s Credit Builder is about actual credit building through transactions and payments.  

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YouTube TV is getting another price hike, making its live TV streaming service less competitive with the cable TV services it aims to replace. The company announced today its service would now cost $64.99 per month, starting today, June 30, for new members. The change will also be reflected on the next billing cycle for current members after June 30. The bump in pricing is now one of several price increases YouTube TV has seen since its debut, starting with a modest $5 per month bump in 2018, followed by a much more substantial price hike last year to $50 per month. The increases are due to the rising costs of programming for the streaming TV service as the pay TV industry collapses amid a rise in cord cutting — a trend now accelerating at even a faster pace due to the pandemic. YouTube TV had announced in May it would soon gain 14 more ViacomCBS channels as part of an expanded distribution deal. This included the addition of new channels like BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, TV Land and VH1 which are today being made available. This brings YouTube TV’s base plan to over 85 channels. Other channels that were are a part of that same deal — including BET Her, MTV2, MTV Classic, Nick Jr., NickToons, and TeenNick — are due to arrive at a later date, the company noted. While YouTube TV didn’t announce its plans to raise prices back in May, at this point it’s to be expected whenever a service says it’s adding channels to its core offering. But for YouTube TV’s some 2 million subscribers, new additions aren’t always welcome. The original promise of live TV streaming services were smaller lineups, sometimes even a la carte options, for a lower monthly price. Services like Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, Philo, and others offer pared down channel selections compared with the hundreds of channels offered by cable and satellite providers. But in the years since their respective launches, they’ve slowly closed the gap with cable by adding more and more channels to base packages and raising prices. In addition to the ViacomCBS channels, YouTube TV also recently introduced premium add-ons including Cinemax and HBO Max. Now, instead of wooing consumers on price, YouTube TV focuses on feature set. For example, YouTube TV announced today a new feature that allows users to jump to various segments within select news programs on the service, starting first on TV screens and coming to mobile in the next several weeks. It also touted its unlimited DVR, dark mode option, “Mark Watched” feature, and redesigned Live Guide with access to TV programming for the week ahead. “We don’t take these decisions lightly, and realize how hard this is for our members,” YouTube TV’s announcement read, in detailing the price hike. “That said, this new price reflects the rising cost of content and we also believe it reflects the complete value of YouTube TV, from our breadth of content to the features that are changing how we watch live TV,” wrote YouTube TV VP of Product Management, Christian Oestlien. “YouTube TV is the only streaming service that includes a DVR with unlimited storage space, plus 6 accounts per household each with its own unique recommendations, and 3 concurrent streams. It’s all included in the base cost of YouTube TV, with no contract and no hidden fees,” he said.

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Lululemon is paying $500 million to acquire a home fitness startup, India bans TikTok and Amazon Prime Video is the latest streaming service to add a co-viewing experience. Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 30, 2020. 1. Lululemon set to acquire home fitness startup Mirror for $500M The deal comes at a time when home workout solutions are in high demand thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when gyms begin to reopen in different locales, many will likely be wary of returning to a potentially high-risk enclosed space, at least for as long as the virus continues to spread. Although there’s stiff competition in the category of connected fitness slabs, including Tonal and Tempo, Mirror continues to be the biggest name of the bunch. And the two companies have a relationship dating back to late last year, when Lululemon become an investor in Mirror. 2. TikTok goes down in India, its biggest overseas market A growing number of internet service providers in India have started to block their subscribers from accessing TikTok a day after the Indian government banned the popular short-video app and 58 other services over security and privacy concerns. 3. Amazon Prime Video introduces ‘Watch Party,’ a social co-viewing experience included with Prime Amazon is the latest streaming service to roll out built-in support for co-viewing. While the U.S. was sheltering in place under coronavirus lockdowns, a browser extension called Netflix Party went viral. So HBO partnered with the browser extension maker Scener to offer a “virtual theater” experience for co-watching, while Hulu launched its own native Watch Party feature for its “No Ads” subscribers on Hulu.com. 4. After losing Grubhub, Uber reportedly hails Postmates Uber has reportedly made an offer to buy food delivery service Postmates, according to The New York Times. (The talks are still ongoing and the deal could fall through.) 5. 13 Boston-focused venture capitalists talk green shoots and startup recovery This is the second half of our Boston investor survey. Looking to the future, we asked: Are investors seeing green shoots? When is a recovery likely to begin? What’s making them feel hopeful in this tenuous era? (Extra Crunch membership required.) 6. Facebook says it will prioritize original reporting and ‘transparent authorship’ in the News Feed The change comes as a number of high-profile companies have said that they will pull their advertising from Facebook as part of the #StopHateforProfit campaign, organized by civil rights groups as a way to pressure the social network to take stronger steps against hate speech and misinformation. 7. In a significant expansion, Spotify to launch real-time lyrics in 26 markets Last November, Spotify confirmed it was testing real-time lyrics synced to music in select markets. Today, the company is announcing the launch of its new lyrics feature in 26 worldwide markets across Southeast Asia, India and Latin America. The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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What would the world look like if encryption were outlawed? If three Republican senators get their way, it might just happen. Under the guise of national security, the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed through a draft bill that would end “warrant-proof” encryption — that is strong, near-impossible to break encryption that lets only the device owner unlock their data and nobody else. Silicon Valley quickly embraced this approach, not least because it cuts even the tech giants out of the loop so that the feds can’t demand they hand over their users’ data. Except that didn’t happen. The opposite happened. The FBI cried foul, as did the Justice Department, claiming it makes it harder to solve crimes, while conveniently neglecting to mention its vast array of hacking tools that also makes it easier than ever to get the data that prosecutors seek. Now a legislative fix to the government’s near-nonexistent problem. The bill, if passed, would create a “backdoor mandate” that would force tech companies to build in “backdoors” to let police, with a warrant, access an encrypted device’s photos, messages, files and more. The same would apply to data “in motion” as it traverses the internet, undermining the security that keeps our emails safe and our online banking secure, and effectively banning end-to-end messaging apps like Signal, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Experts decried the bill, as expected, and as they have done with every other attempt to undermine the security of the internet. Their argument is simple, and mathematically irrefutable: If police can get a backdoor, so can hackers. There’s no secure way to give one access and not the other. Lawmakers seem set on changing the law of the land, but they can’t change the laws of mathematics. More on that in this week’s Decrypted. THE BIG PICTURE ‘BlueLeaks’ dumps data on decades of police files Hacking collective Anonymous crashed onto the internet a decade ago by publishing reams of secret files and stolen data from governments and corporations. Last week the collective emerged after a long hiatus, returning with a massive trove of data obtained from hundreds of U.S. police departments in an operation dubbed BlueLeaks. The data was published by Distributed Denial of Secrets, an alternative to WikiLeaks that’s dedicated to publishing files in the public interest. The data contains a decade’s worth of police training materials and other internal law enforcement data, like protest containment strategies, which have come under fire after tactics used against protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

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The Federal Communication Commission has declared Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE “national security threats,” a move that will formally ban U.S. telecom companies from using federal funds to buy and install Huawei and ZTE equipment. FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that the “weight of evidence” supported the decision. Federal agencies and lawmakers have long claimed that because the tech giants are subject to Chinese law, they could be obligated to “cooperate with the country’s intelligence services,” Pai said. Huawei and ZTE have repeatedly rejected these claims. “We cannot and will not allow the Chinese Communist Party to exploit network vulnerabilities and compromise our critical communications infrastructure,” the Republican-majority FCC said in a separate statement. The order, published by the FCC on Tuesday, said the designation takes immediate effect, but it’s not immediately clear how the designation changes the status quo. In November of last year, the FCC announced that companies deemed a national security threat would be ineligible to receive any money from the Universal Service Fund. The $8.5 billion fund is the FCC’s main way of purchasing and subsidizing equipment and services to improve connectivity across the country. Huawei and ZTE were “initially designated” as security threats at the time, but the formal process of assigning them that status has taken place in the intervening months, resulting in today’s declaration. We’ve asked the FCC for comment but did not immediately hear back. In a public statement, FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, explained that labeling the companies threats is a start, but that there is a great deal of Huawei and ZTE equipment already in use that needs to be identified and replaced. “The Commission has taken important steps toward identifying the problematic equipment in our systems, but there is much more to do,” he wrote. “Funding is the missing piece. Congress recognized in the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act that many carriers will need support to transition away from untrustworthy equipment, but it still has not appropriated funding for replacements.” The declaration is the latest move by the FCC to crack down on Chinese technology providers seen. But it puts telecom companies working to expand their 5G coverage in a bind. Huawei and ZTE are seen as leading the way in 5G, far ahead of their American rivals. Spokespeople for Huawei and ZTE did not immediately comment. FCC bans spending on Huawei, ZTE and other ‘national security threats’

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While there has been a wealth of bad news the past few months in the venture capital world as firms take account of the changing macroeconomic conditions in the wake of COVID-19, that hasn’t stopped some top investment firms from continuing to raise huge piles of capital and getting bolder in their investment theses. Case in point: Summit Partners, a venerable investor at the growth stage for startups and focused on the ecosystems in North America and Europe, has raised two new megafunds. The firm also announced that it has hired Melanie Whelan, who formerly was CEO of SoulCycle, as a new managing director. She is currently an EIR at the firm. Summit raised a $1 billion growth equity fund focused on North American startups, and also raised a €1.1 billion ($1.24 billion) fund focused on European startups. The firm said that the funds will target growth equity-style investments with a check size of between roughy $10 million and $60 million for North American startups, and a bit larger for their European counterparts. In recent months, the firm has invested in companies like cyber security platform RiskIQ, workflow automation startup AppWay, interaction management service Podium, consumer bedding brand Brooklinen, and cyber-skills platform Immersive Labs, according to Crunchbase. While Summit is traditionally known for its enterprise investments, it appears the firm wants to double down on consumer with the hiring of Whelan. She will focus on “high-growth consumer and technology-enabled services,” according to Summit. Whelan had a long career at SoulCycle, joining the company as COO in 2012 and then took the CEO title in 2015. There, she drove market expansion and worked to ready the somewhat cultish fitness brand for the public markets, with an IPO that was scheduled in mid-2018. That IPO ended up being pulled by the company, which faced headwinds from Peloton and other fitness upstarts, and Whelan left the CEO job near the end of 2019 (which, given the near complete shutdown of in-person fitness studios, seems incredibly fortuitously timed). She officially joined Summit as an EIR in February, right before the spread of the novel coronavirus slowed down much of the venture world. The firm today has 100 people scattered across its myriad of offices, and has $21 billion under management.

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Ready to breathe some life into your 60-second pitch? Turn your internet dial to our next Pitchers & Pitches webinar tomorrow, July 1 at 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT. It’s free for everyone, and all you need to do is register right here. Tune in as five early-stage startup founders (all of whom you’ll find exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley during Disrupt 2020) step to the mound to bring the heat. Translation: They’ll deliver their best 60-second elevator pitch to a panel of judges — and benefit from real-time critique, feedback and advice from industry experts who know how to craft a winning pitch. Judging this session we have pitch-savvy TechCrunch editors, Jordan Crook and Kirsten Korosec, plus two VCs — Matthew Hartman of Betaworks Ventures and Dayna Grayson of Construct Capital. Yes, essential feedback from startup investors — the very people founders need to impress most. Not only will the five pitching founders come away with a stronger presentation, one of them will walk away with a pretty cool prize. The viewing audience (that would be you) decides who wins a consulting session with cela, a company that connects early-stage startups to accelerators and incubators that can help scale their businesses. Note: Only companies that purchase a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package are eligible to pitch. You’ll still learn valuable tips and strategies — even if you’re not facing the judges. Watch, listen, and apply the expert tips and strategies to power up your pitch — your handshake to the startup world. This is your chance to make it firm and impressive. Here are the startups we randomly selected to compete tomorrow: Cognidna – provides DNA insights on cognitive traits, helping parents make more informed educational decisions for their children. Munch – a digital platform for restaurants designed to create better customer experiences. Flexlane – an online wholesale marketplace that transforms the way local retailers in Asia buy for their stores. Bitsensing – aims to design future safety in the era of Autonomous Vehicles. Evertracker – a neutral platform that provides end-to-end visibility and predictability along global supply chains on an item-level. Don’t miss this masterclass. Register for Pitches & Pitchers and tune in tomorrow, July 1 at 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT. If you want a shot at pitching during the Pitchers & Pitches session scheduled on July 22, be sure to buy your Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package first to be eligible. Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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In light of COVID-19 and social distancing regulations, the UK has been working on making it easier for people to get from point A to B in cities without resorting to buses and trains or bringing more cars to congested roads, and today that strategy took an interesting leap forward. The country’s Department for Transportation today announced that it would start allowing e-scooters, by way of e-scooter rental companies, to legally operate across the country initially in a trial phase starting no later than August. Councils and other authorities, including across London and other major cities, are working on putting together trials that could run for as long as 12 months under guidelines provided by the government. The regulations come into force on July 4, the DfT said, with the first trials expected to begin a week later. “As we emerge from lockdown, we have a unique opportunity in transport to build back in a greener, more sustainable way that could lead to cleaner air and healthier communities across Great Britain,” said Transport Minister Rachel Maclean in a statement. “E-scooters may offer the potential for convenient, clean and cost-effective travel that may also help ease the burden on the transport network, provide another green alternative to get around and allow for social distancing. The trials will allow us to test whether they do these things.” There are some restrictions in place: e-scooters will not be able to go faster than 15.5 miles per hour, and they will only be able to use roads and cycle lanes, not sidewalks or other areas reserved for pedestrians. Users will need a drivers license (full or provisional). The scooters themselves will not need to be registered as vehicles but will need insurance. And as with bicycles, users will be recommended — but not required — to wear helmets. It seems that privately-owned e-scooters will not be included in the rule relaxation, but it’s not clear what steps regulators will take — if any — to avoid the cluttering that we have seen in some cities overrun with too many dock-less scooters crowding sidewalks. The list of e-scooter hopefuls is long. From the word go, those that are looking to operate in the UK include Bird, Bolt (the ridesharing startup out of Estonia), Tier, Neuron Mobility, Lime, Voi, and Zipp Mobility. We’re contacting the DfT with our questions and will update this post as we learn more. Electric scooters will now join the ranks of other shared transportation options that include bikes and e-bikes, as a complement to mass transit and of course walking or using your own non-autonomotive wheels as an alternative to using cars. E-scooters have been seen both as an alternative for short distances (between 1 and 5 miles) but also as a last-mile solution in combination with  The news today lifts restrictions that had previously been in place that classified e-scooters as motor vehicles and therefore required the e-scooters to be licensed and taxed, and for operators to have licenses to use them. Those rules also meant that the e-scooters were illegal to use on sidewalks, with the only exception to all that being legal usage across select (and very limited) campuses on private land. The moves comes on the heels of a consultation in March to pilot e-scooter use in three regions of the UK, along with a number of other initiatives including e-cargo carriers and using drones to transport medical supplies — the aim being to explore in quick order a number of new technologies to expand transportation options available to consumers, as well as essential businesses and the people who work in them. The bigger trend has seen other cities also looking to relax rules to improve transportation options to people who wish to socially distance but still need to get around urban areas in ways that are quicker than walking. New York City is also expected to unveil its own roadmap for e-scooter pilots in the near future. The news made official today had been something of a badly-kept secret, specifically among transportation startups whose businesses have been in a holding pattern waiting for the regulator to ease up on restrictions that had been in place. Just about all of those startups have been sending out alerts to journalists for over a week now with comments on government’s widely-expected announcements. “We welcome the DfT’s announcement and are excited to be one step closer to the starting the e-scooter trials,” said Zachary Wang, CEO of Neuron Mobility, in a statement. “We are already in discussions with quite a few councils, as no two towns or cities are the same we look forward to partnering with them to safely introduce e-scooters in a way that best suits their individual needs. COVID-19 has led to a fundamental rethink of the way we travel and e-scooters have the potential to radically improve how we get around our towns and cities. We are delighted that people in the UK will soon be able to benefit from shared e-scooters, they will allow people to continue social distancing while also providing a more efficient travel option than gas-guzzling alternatives.” Some have been waiting for a chance to operate for some time. “We welcome today’s announcement from the Government as it looks to get cities moving again safely and in an environmentally friendly way,” said Roger Hassan, COO of TIER Mobility, in a statement. “We already have more than 1,000 of our industry leading scooters in our UK warehouse, ready to be deployed and we will be shipping more over very soon. Everyone at TIER is looking forward to working with the Government and with local authorities to make e-scooters in the UK a huge success story.” While there had been restrictions in place before now, I should point out that they were often badly enforced: in London there have always been some private e-scooter owners zooming around alongside bikes and cars on the roads, and I’ve even stopped at red lights on my bike, with an e-scooter on one side of me, and a policeman on the other, and not a word gets exchanged, just a simple shrug of “what can you do?” So decriminalising, as it has done in other industries, will hopefully mean better oversight, alongside better choice for users.

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The COVID-19 global health pandemic has had an almost immeasurable negative impact on the wider economy. Specifically in the job market, there have been millions of job losses, and in the US alone unemployment numbers like these have not been seen since the Great Depression. Now, tech companies are slowly stepping up to try to address the crisis, and the latest development on that front comes from Microsoft. The company today announced a wide-ranging, global portal for free skills training for people who are out of work. And alongside that, Microsoft said it plans to disperse $20 million in grants to non-profit organizations, both which are working to help those who have lost jobs due to COVID-19 and subsequent shifts in the economy, and with a specific emphasis on those that are working with groups that are underrepresented in the tech world. The move comes as we are seeing other tech companies try to make their own efforts to leverage their platforms to provide their own versions of relief efforts connected to COVID-19. Google has built special portals to keep people informed on local, national and global progress of COVID-19 and related news. Facebook has also built an information portal and has also created an avenue for people to offer volunteering help to those in need specifically in their community. The money that Microsoft will be granting to non-profits is aimed at a wide swathe of organizations, not just those focused on helping groups learn new skills, but just those helping specific groups. Those that Microsoft already works with include Trust for the Americas, Fondazione Mundo Digitale in Italy, the Nasscom Foundation in India,  Tech4Dev across Africa, NPower in Canada, and the National Urban League aimed at long-term unemployed and African Americans, and Skillful. The education and training news, meanwhile, is interesting not only because of the push that Microsoft is trying to make by leveraging the assets that it already has, but that it’s doing so in tandem with LinkedIn, the social network and professional education platform it acquired for $26.2 billion in 2016. Even though they are the same company, it’s often the case that you see less collaboration between the two than you might think would exist, but this seems to be a shift from that position. Microsoft notes that using data from LinkedIn, it identified 10 specific tech jobs that are in particular demand right now and will continue to be in demand, offer a livable wage, and require skills that can be learned online if you don’t already have them. They are software developer, sales rep, project manager, IT admin, customer services rep, digital marketer, IT support, data analyst, financial analyst and graphic designer. LinkedIn has designed “Learning Paths” that it offers through its online education portal for these jobs, and these will now be available to everyone free to use, globally, until the end of March 2021, in English, French, Spanish and German, with content getting updated in the tracks as needed. Alongside these, Microsoft Learn is offering supplemental technical content to these Paths, and Microsoft is also making GitHub’s Learning Lab free to practice if you’re learning software developer skills. Alongside these, Microsoft is also giving a push to so-called “soft skills” that complement hunting for a job at the moment, including tips on looking for a job right now, learning “critical” soft skills, more on the concept and meaning of digital transformation, and a learning track focused on diversity, inclusion and allyship. You can look at a list of all the content available and ultimately relevant jobs on LinkedIn’s purpose-built portal. In addition to the online learning efforts, LinkedIn is also launching a separate track for those who want to either leverage LinkedIn to get spotted more easily for job opportunities, and for those who want to volunteer to help others, to offer advice and mentorship for those looking for work, or get more training to get through interviews. For those who want to signal their job seeking, they can now add an “OpenToWork” frame on their profile pictures, which links to a separate banner that runs under your profile picture which lets people see what kinds of jobs you would like to consider. The offer to help is not unlike LinkedIn’s efforts at cultivating a mentorship program: the idea is that there are people who have the time and desire to use their skills to help others than just themselves and the companies they work for. As with the mentoring, those interested can indicate what they would like to do — making introductions, resume help or just providing advice. LinkedIn’s interview preparations, meanwhile, are another step into working closer with Microsoft: LinkedIn’s built a set of tools that uses Microsoft’s AI platform for feedback throughout the training.

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All founders love “free” money, but with the global pandemic going on, the necessity of free money has taken on a whole new meaning this year. First, there was the scramble to secure PPP loans a few weeks back for U.S.-based startups, and then the second wave of PPP loans when Congress offered a second tranche of funding. Two weeks ago, I covered a company called MainStreet, which is helping startups apply for local economic development credits which cities offer to businesses relocating to their regions. Free money for startups? It’s possible with MainStreet’s platform for economic development incentives In the same vein, Neo.tax wants to help startups secure R&D research credits from the federal government — which tend to be fairly easy to acquire for most software-based startups given the current IRS rules for what qualifies as “research.” The free money is good, but what sets this startup apart is its ambitious vision to bring machine learning to company accounting — making it easier to track expenses and ultimately save on costs. It’s a vision that has attracted top seed investors to the startup. Neo.tax announced today that it raised $3 million in seed funding from Andy McLoughlin at Uncork Capital and Mike Maples at Floodgate, with Michael Ma at Liquid2 and Deena Shakir at Lux Capital participating. The round closed last week. Neo.tax was founded by Firas Abuzaid, who spent the past few years focused on a PhD in computer science from Stanford, where he conducted research in machine learning. He’s joined by Ahmad Ibrahim, who most recently was at Intuit launching small business accounting products; Stephen Yarbrough, who was head of tax at Kruze Consulting, a popular consultancy for startups on accounting and financial issues; and Leonardo De La Rocha, who was creative director of Facebook Ads for nearly five years. Neo.tax’s Stephen Yarbrough, Firas Abuzaid, and Ahmad Ibrahim. Photos via Neo.tax Or in short, a perfect quad of folks to tackle small business accounting issues. Neo.tax wants to automate everything about accounting, and that requires careful application of ML techniques to an absolutely byzantine problem. Abuzaid explained that AI is in some ways a perfect fit for these challenges. “There’s a very clearly defined data model, there’s a large set of constraints that are also clearly defined. There’s an obvious objective function, and there’s a finite search space,” he said. “But if you wanted to develop a machine-learning-based solution to automate this, you have to make sure you collect the right data, and you have to make sure that you can handle all of the numerous edge cases that are going to pop up in the 80,000 page U.S. tax code.“ That’s where Neo.tax’s approach comes in. The software product is designed to ingest data about accounting, payroll, and other financial functions within an organization and starts to categorize and pattern match transactions in a bid to take out much of the drudgery of modern-day accounting. One insight is that rather than creating a single model for all small businesses, Neo.tax tries to match similar businesses with each other, specializing its AI system to the particular client using it. “For example, let’s train a model that can target early-stage startups and then another model that can target Shopify businesses, another one that can target restaurants using Clover, or pizzerias or nail salons, or ice cream parlors,” Abuzaid said. “The idea here is that you can specialize to a particular domain and train a cascade of models that handle these different, individual subdomains that makes it a much more scalable solution.” While Neo.tax has a big vision long-term to make accounting effortless, it wanted to find a beachhead that would allow it to work with small businesses and start to solve their problems for them. The team eventually settled on the R&D tax credit. “That data from the R&D credit basically gives us the beginnings of the training data for building tax automation,” Ibrahim explained. “Automating tax vertical-by-vertical basically allows us to be this data layer for small businesses, and you can build lots of really great products and services on top of that data layer.“ So it’s a big long-term vision, with a focused upfront product to get there that launched about two months ago. For startups that make less than $5 million in revenue (i.e. all early-stage startups), the R&D tax credit offers up to a quarter million dollars per year in refunds from the government for startups who either apply by July 15th (the new tax date this year due to the novel coronavirus) or who apply for an extension. Neo.tax will take a 5% cut of the tax value generated from its product, which it will only take when the refund is actually received from the government. In this way, the team believes that it is better incentive-aligned with founders and business owners than traditional accounting firms, which charge professional services fees up front and often take a higher percentage of the rebate. Ibrahim said that the company made about $100,000 in revenue in its first month after launch. The startup is entering what has become a quickly crowded field led by the likes of Pilot, which has raised tens of millions of dollars from prominent investors to use a human and AI hybrid approach to bookkeeping. Pilot was last valued at $355 million when it announced its round in April 2019, although it has almost certainly raised more funding in the interim. Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M Ultimately, Neo.tax is betting that a deeper technical infrastructure and a hyper-focus on artificial intelligence will allow it to catchup and compete with both Pilot and incumbent accounting firms, given the speed and ease of accounting and tax preparation when everything is automated.

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Google today announced a couple of updates to Google Sheets that will make building spreadsheets and analyzing data in them a little bit easier. The most interesting feature here, surely, is the upcoming launch of Smart Fill. You can think of it as Smart Compose, the feature that automatically tries to finish your sentences in Gmail, but for spreadsheets. The idea here is that Smart Fill, which will launch later this year, can autocomplete your data for you. “Say you have a column of full names, but you want to split it into two columns (first and last name, for example),” Google explains in today’s announcement. “As you start typing first names into a column, Sheets will automatically detect the pattern, generate the corresponding formula, and then autocomplete the rest of the column for you.”   That’s a nifty feature, though it’s worth noting that Microsoft has made some major strides in bringing a lot of ML-based features to Excel, too, which can now automatically create new columns based on its understanding of what your spreadsheet is about, for example. It just extended the number of these AI-driven data types to well over 100 at its Build developer conference. The use case here is a bit different, but both companies are using similar techniques to make building spreadsheets easier. One feature that’s nice about how Google built this is that it doesn’t so much auto-magically fill a column but that it builds a formula to fill it, giving you quite a bit of flexibility to then manipulate that data as needed. The second new feature that will be coming in the near future is Smart Cleanup, which, as the name implies, can help you clean up your data by finding duplicate rows and formatting issues. The tool will suggest changes, which users can then accept or ignore. The company also today announced the general availability of Connected Sheets, a feature that connects a BigQuery data warehouse with Sheets so that you can analyze petabytes of data in sheets without having to know SQL or really any programming language. This feature aims to democratize access to big data analytics by giving anybody in a company who knows how to use a spreadsheet the ability to analyze that data and create charts based on it. Connected Sheets is now available to G Suite Enterprise, G Suite Enterprise for Education and G Suite Enterprise Essentials users.

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Startups often dance between selling dreams and building products, and we’ve enlisted the help of noted investor Charles Hudson to help founders sell an idea before they’ve built a product. Hudson is speaking at TechCrunch’s inaugural, virtual event TechCrunch Early Stage. The two-day event runs July 21 and 22 and will feature sessions targeting all aspects of building a startup. Hudson has seen a lot of startups over his career as an investor and knows what it takes to sell an idea when there isn’t yet a product. As he’ll explain, this is often a tough skill to learn, and it takes practice to craft the correct message that shows obtainable goals while putting the investor at ease. Charles Hudson is a managing partner at Precursor Ventures, where he focuses on pre-seed investments in companies building B2B and B2C software applications. Before this role, he was an investor at Uncork Capital (formerly SoftTech VC) and In-Q-Tel, the VC arm of the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency. Along the way, he’s held various executive and board positions at startups and organizations. Hudson’s session at TC Early Stage is a must-watch for early-stage founders. Startups begin as an idea, and often that idea needs funds to turn into a product. Hudson will help show founders how to get an investor to buy into the concept before the product is built. TC Early Stage takes place over two days in July and features 50+ experts across startup core competencies, such as fundraising, operations, and marketing. The virtual event features some of the best operators, investors, and founders in the startup world. Hear from Ann Miura-Ko on how to find a product-market fit. Ali Partovi is set to talk about how to hire early engineers, and Caryn Marooney’s session will explore how to make your brand stand out. What’s more, most of the speakers, who happen to be investors, are participating in TechCrunch’s CrunchMatch, our program that connects founders to investors based on shared interests. Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Buy your ticket today, and you can sign up for the breakouts we are announcing today, as well as those already published. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)  Get your TC Early Stage pass today and jump into the inside track on the sessions we announced today, as well as the ones to be published in the coming days. Possible sponsor? Hit us up right here. ( function() { var func = function() { var iframe = document.getElementById('wpcom-iframe-3214719ca3ffa3e90fb43c1b8f2c3637') if ( iframe ) { iframe.onload = function() { iframe.contentWindow.postMessage( { 'msg_type': 'poll_size', 'frame_id': 'wpcom-iframe-3214719ca3ffa3e90fb43c1b8f2c3637' }, "https:\/\/tcprotectedembed.com" ); } } // Autosize iframe var funcSizeResponse = function( e ) { var origin = document.createElement( 'a' ); origin.href = e.origin; // Verify message origin if ( 'tcprotectedembed.com' !== origin.host ) return; // Verify message is in a format we expect if ( 'object' !== typeof e.data || undefined === e.data.msg_type ) return; switch ( e.data.msg_type ) { case 'poll_size:response': var iframe = document.getElementById( e.data._request.frame_id ); if ( iframe && '' === iframe.width ) iframe.width = '100%'; if ( iframe && '' === iframe.height ) iframe.height = parseInt( e.data.height ); return; default: return; } } if ( 'function' === typeof window.addEventListener ) { window.addEventListener( 'message', funcSizeResponse, false ); } else if ( 'function' === typeof window.attachEvent ) { window.attachEvent( 'onmessage', funcSizeResponse ); } } if (document.readyState === 'complete') { func.apply(); /* compat for infinite scroll */ } else if ( document.addEventListener ) { document.addEventListener( 'DOMContentLoaded', func, false ); } else if ( document.attachEvent ) { document.attachEvent( 'onreadystatechange', func ); } } )();

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Société Générale is acquiring French startup Shine. Terms of the deal are undisclosed. According to a source, Shine is getting acquired for around €100 million in an all-cash deal (around $112.6 million). The startup had previously raised €10.8 million ($12.2 million) in total from Daphni, Kima Ventures, XAnge and various business angels. If you’re not familiar with Shine, the startup has been building a challenger bank for freelancers and small companies in France. It lets you create a business account, get a debit card and take care of some of the most boring administrative tasks. For instance, Shine helps you incorporate your company and also lets you create invoices directly from the app. You can send a link to your client, you get a notification when your client opens the invoice and they can view your Shine IBAN directly on the invoice. And because the invoicing tool is integrated with your business bank account, your invoices are automatically marked as paid in the app. When it comes to receipts, you can also open a card transaction and attach a receipt to that transaction. This way, all accounting information remains in the same app. If you’re working with an accountant, you can set up an automatic export of receipts, invoices and transactions once per month. But the best feature of Shine is that it helps you stay on top of paperwork. You receive notifications to remind you that you should pay your taxes, you can see how much money will be left once you paid your taxes and more. And it’s been working well with 70,000 freelancers and very small companies using Shine for their bank account. But Shine is built on top of Treezor, a banking-as-a-service company that provides financial services and debit cards to other fintech companies. At this scale, it would make sense for Shine to build its own infrastructure. Shine has taken a different decision and is joining Société Générale, which also happens to be the company that acquired Treezor a few years ago. Shine will operate independently from Société Générale and will still accept new customers — the two co-founders are staying at the helm of Shine. But the two companies have plans to cross-promote their respective offerings. Société Générale could offer Shine to its business customers. And as freelancers start working with other people and turn their small independent business into a full-fledged company, Shine could also tell its customers to choose Société Générale for their business bank account. Shine will also take advantage of Société Générale’s banking license and products. As a Shine customer, you could image getting a credit line from Société Générale. Having a banking giant behind you could greatly improve Shine’s offering. Now, let’s see if Société Générale manages to boost the potential of Shine.

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Google confirmed today via blog post that it has acquired Canadian smart glasses company North, which began life as human interface hardware startup Thalmic Labs in 2012. The company didn’t reveal any details about the acquisition, which was first reported to be happening by The Globe and Mail, last week. The blog post is authored by Google’s SVP of Devices & Services Rick Osterloh, which cites North’s “strong technology foundation” as a key driver behind the deal. Osterloh also emphasizes Google’s existing work in building “ambient computing,” which is to say computing that fades into the background of a user’s life, as the strategic reasoning behind the acquisition. North will join Google’s existing team in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, where North is already based, and it will aid with the company’s “hardware efforts and ambient computing future,” according to Osterloh. In a separate blog post, North’s co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant discuss their perspective on the acquisition. They say the deal makes sense because it will help “significantly advance our shared vision,” but go on to noted that this will mean winding down support for Focals 1.0, the first-generation smart glasses product that North released last year, and cancelling any plans to ship Focals 2.0, the second-generation version that the company had been teasing and preparing to release over the last several months. Focals received significant media attention following their release, and provided the most consumer-friendly wearable glasses computing interface ever launched. They closely resembled regular optical glasses, albeit with larger arms to house the active computing components, and projected a transparent display overlay onto one frame which showed things like messages and navigation directions. Around the Focals 1.0 debut, North co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake told me that the company had originally begun developing its debut product, the Myo gesture control armband, to create a way to interact naturally with the ambient smart computing platforms of the future. Myo read electrical pulses generated by the body when you move your arm and translated that into computer input. After realizing that devices it was designed to work with, including VR headsets and wearable computers like Google Glass, weren’t far enough along for its novel control paradigm to take off, they shifted to addressing the root of the problem with Focals. Focals had some major limitations, however, including initially requiring that anyone wanting to purchase them go into a physical location for fitting, and then return for adjustments once they were ready. They were also quite expensive, and didn’t support the full range of prescriptions needed by many existing glasses-wearers. Software limitations, including limited access to Apple’s iMessage platform, also hampered the experience for Apple mobile device users. North (and Myo before it) always employed talented and remarkable mechanical electronics engineers sources from the nearby University of Waterloo, but its ideas typically failed to attract the kind of consumer interest that would’ve been required for sustained independent operation. The company had raised nearly $200 million in funding since its founding; as mentioned, no word on the total amount Google paid, but it doesn’t seem likely to have been a blockbuster exit. In an email to North customers, the company also said it would be refunding the full amount paid for any Focals purchases – likely to defray any complaints about the end of software support, which occurs relatively soon on July 31, 2020.

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Bay Area-based robotics startup RIOS is coming out of stealth today to announce $5 million in funding. The round is being led by Valley Capital Partners and Morpheus Ventures, with participation from a long list of investors, including Grit Ventures, Motus Ventures, MicroVentures, Alumni Ventures Group, Fuji Corporation and NGK Spark Plug Co. The move comes during a time of increased interest in factory automation. A number of different startups have received massive funding of late, including Berkshire Grey’s massive $263 million raise in January. RIOS’s raise is considerably smaller, of course, but the young company has more to prove. Even so, investors are clearly eyeing automation with great interest amid an ongoing global pandemic that has both screeched many industries to a halt and led many to look to alternative production elements that remove the human element of virus transmission. RIOS was founded in 2018, as a spin-out of Stanford University, with help from a number of Xerox PARC engineers. The startup has operated in stealth for the past year and a half while testing its technologies with a select group of partners. The company’s first product is DX-1, a robot designed for a variety of industrial tasks, including static bin picking and conveyor belt operations. The system is powered by the company’s AI stack, including a perception system and a variety of tactile sensors mounted on the robotic hand. The plan is to charge a monthly fee for the robotic system that includes a variety of services, including programming, maintenance, monitoring and regular updates.

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Consumer spending on mobile apps and app installs grew significantly during the first half of 2020, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data from Sensor Tower. In the first half of the year, consumers spent $50.1 billion worldwide across the App Store and Google Play — a figure that’s up 23.4% from the first half of 2019. Previously, revenue had grown 20% between the first half of 2018 and 2019, for comparison. In addition, first-time app installs were up 26.1% year-over-year in the first half of 2020 to reach 71.5 billion downloads. Apple’s App Store accounted for 18.3 billion of those downloads, up 22.8% year-over-year, while Google Play delivered 53.2 billion new app installs, up 27.3%. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Though Google Play saw far more app installs, Apple’s App Store continued to outpace its rival on consumer spending. During the first half of the year, the App Store generated $32.8 billion from in-app purchases, subscriptions, and premium apps and games, Sensor Tower estimates. This figure is up 24.7% year-over-year from the $26.3 billion spent during the first half of 2019. It’s also nearly twice the estimated gross revenue on Google Play, which was $17.3 billion, an increase of 21% year-over-year. Image Credits: Sensor Tower The pandemic’s impacts are only somewhat reflected in the top-earning (non-game) apps of the first half of 2020. The biggest earner, for example, was Match’s online dating app Tinder — an app that, one would think, would have dropped out of the top 5 due to social distancing requirements. During the first half of the year, Tinder generated an estimated $433 million in spending across both app stores, combined. However, this number does represent a decrease of about 19% from the first half of 2019, or $532 million. It’s unclear how much that decline is related to consumers’ changing behavior and spending habits during the pandemic. Though shelter-in-place orders and quarantines kept people indoors and social distancing, social networking apps — and particularly those focused on online communication — have boomed amid lockdowns. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Tinder embraced the growing interest in online networking by making its “Passport” feature free. This setting allows users to match with other singles around the world, turning Tinder into more of a social app than one focused on real-world dating. But this change could have also led to a decrease in Tinder’s total revenues for the first half of the year. The No. 2 top grossing app during the first half of 2020 was YouTube, bringing in an estimated $431 million globally. This was followed by ByteDance’s TikTok with $421 million. The social video app, which includes Douyin in China, had also broken download records during the first half of the year, passing 2 billion total global downloads, Sensor Tower earlier reported. Tencent Video and Netflix were the No. 4 and No. 5 top grossing apps, respectively. Meanwhile, consumers stuck at home during the pandemic have been downloading apps and games in greater numbers. During the first half of the year, consumers installed 71.5 billion apps for the first time, up 26.1% from the first half of 2019. Image Credits: Sensor Tower TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the first half of the year with 626 million downloads. But its position may look quite different in the second half of year, given the recent changes in India where the government has now banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok. The No. 2 and No. 3 apps were WhatsApp and Zoom, respectively — the latter an indication of the rapid shift to work-from-home and consumers’ embrace of online video conferencing, in general. In addition to WhatsApp, Facebook snagged the No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 positions in the top 10, with Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, in that order. Snapchat’s social app was No. 7 and No. 8 was video app Likee, which is similar to TikTok but offers a variety of face effects and filters. Netflix and YouTube rounded out the top 10. Mobile gaming also saw a boost during the pandemic, with game spending up 21.2% year-over-year to reach an estimated $36.6 billion during the first half of the year, Sensor Tower found. Spending on the App Store grew 22.7% year-over-year to reach $22.2 billion, while Google Play game spending grew 19% to reach $14.4 billion. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Tencent’s PUBG Mobile beat out Honor of Kings as the top-grossing game for the first half of the year. Tencent’s game, which includes its localized versions (Game for Peace and Peacekeeper Elite) generated $1.3 billion across both app stores, not including China’s third-party Android app stores. Honor of Kings, meanwhile, pulled in roughly $1 billion. The remaining top 10 included, in order, Monster Strike ($632M), Roblox, Coin Master, Candy Crush Saga, AFK Arena, Gardenscapes, Fate/Grand Order, and Pokémon Go. The latter recently adapted to indoor gaming amid government lockdowns. Roblox, in particular, has been surging due to the pandemic as kids stuck indoors have gone online to play and socialize with friends in its virtual environment. In June, Sensor Tower reported Roblox had surpassed a milestone of $1.5 billion in lifetime player spending, for instance. Coin Master, meanwhile, is approaching the $1 billion lifetime player milestone, the firm found. In terms of top game installs, PUBG Mobile came out on top here as well, followed by another battle royale title, Garena Free Fire. Ruby Game Studio’s Hunter Assassin, Eyewind Limited’s Brain Out, and Playrix’s Gardenscapes — which many found to be a relaxing distraction during a stressful time — rounded out the top five. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Across all of the mobile gaming market, downloads grew 42.5% year-over-year to reach 28.5 billion first-time installs in the first half of 2020. Of those, Google Play downloads grew 46.2% year-over-year to 22.8 billion while App Store downloads grew 29.5% to 5.7 billion. Image Credits: Sensor Tower   COVID-19 impacts more apparent in Q2  Indications of COVID-19’s impact on the app market can be found among the figures for the first half of the year — like the growth seen by Zoom or social gaming platforms like Roblox, for example. But a closer look at the second quarter of 2020 alone makes the COVID-19 impacts more apparent. Sensor Tower’s initial projections show consumer spending on apps and games jumped 11% on a quarterly basis from Q1 to Q2, and grew 28.8% year-over-year to reach $26.4 billion worldwide. This is a sizable increase from the 1.4% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2019. Downloads were up 12% on a quarterly basis and up 31.7% year-over-year to reach 37.8 billion worldwide. Again, a large increase from the 2.5% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2020.

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Qualcomm today announced the launch of its new Snapdragon Wear platforms for wearables, the Snapdragon Wear 4100 and 4100+. Based on a 12nm process technology, these new platforms promise to breathe new life into the Android Wear ecosystem. One of the first things users will notice is that, compared to the previous generation of Wear 3100 chips, the 4100+ platform will offer support for a far richer ambient mode, which can now show more colors in this energy-efficient mode all while supporting sleep tracking, live complications and adaptive brightness. Traditionally, in the Android Wear ecosystem, the ambient mode was quite pared down compared to the live mode, but this new platform is going to change that. According to Qualcomm’s data, most smartwatches spent 95% of their time in ambient mode, so that was an obvious feature to improve upon. For its sports mode, the watch falls back to a similar mode, which now features similar capabilities to keep you up to date while you are on a run, for example, and are using various sensors, maps and the GPS. Image Credits: Qualcomm As for the actual technology, the 4100+ platform consisted of a main system Cortex A53-powered system on a chip that promises 85% higher performance compared to the previous generation, all while offering 25% longer battery life. The GPU itself is 2.5 times faster than only a generation ago, which should make for a far smoother user experience. Step counting, heart rate monitoring and more is handled by a tiny always-on co-processor, (it measures 5mmx4mm), while a 4G modem provides high-speed connectivity. Image Credits: Qualcomm One other major advantage, especially for sport-oriented smartwatches, is improved GPS support with significantly lower power requirements. For connected smartwatches, Qualcomm promises a 25% improvement in battery life (and these connected watches have traditionally had pretty dismal battery life). If you really want to conserve battery life, a lot of recent Android Wear watches let you switch to a low-battery mode, which until now meant you only got to see the time. This ‘enhanced watch mode’ is getting a major update on the new 4100+ platform with the addition of step and heart rate support, a battery indicator, alarms and reminders (and yes, you can still see the time and date, too. It’s a watch, after all). Image Credits: Qualcomm It’s worth stressing that Qualcomm will launch two variants of the 4100 platform, the 4100+, which features the main system on a chip, the always-on co-processor and the various connectivity chips, as well as the 4100, which will not feature the always-on co-processor. The first watches to use the new 4100 chips will come from Mobvoi, the makers of the TicWatch line, and imoo, which will launch a kid-centric smartwatch based on the platform. Image Credits: Qualcomm

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The U.S. government is warning that foreign nation-state hackers will “likely attempt” to exploit a new “critical”-rated security vulnerability found in a number of widely used Palo Alto Networks’ network appliances, which if exploited could allow an attacker to break into a company’s network with relative ease. That’s the warning from US Cyber Command, a division of the Dept. of Defense and former sister-agency to the NSA, which said enterprises should patch their vulnerable devices as soon as possible. Please patch all devices affected by CVE-2020-2021 immediately, especially if SAML is in use. Foreign APTs will likely attempt exploit soon. We appreciate @PaloAltoNtwks’ proactive response to this vulnerability. https://t.co/WwJdil5X0F — USCYBERCOM Cybersecurity Alert (@CNMF_CyberAlert) June 29, 2020 The flaw lies in the software that powers several Palo Alto Networks firewalls and enterprise VPN appliances, which let employees access their corporate network from home — access that is crucial during the pandemic — while keeping unauthorized users out. Typically employees must enter their corporate username and password, and often a two-factor code. But the flaw could, under certain conditions, let an attacker take control of one of these devices without needing a password, granting them access to the rest of the network. Palo Alto said that a fix was pushed out in a software update, but enterprises can also switch off SAML — a way of letting a user log in to the network — to mitigate the flaw. But the clock is ticking on enterprises getting those fixes installed. VPN appliances and firewalls are a huge target for hackers as they can provide unfettered access to a corporate network. Last year, researchers found flaws in three corporate VPN appliances — including Palo Alto. Although fixes were quickly rolled out, enterprises that were slow to patch found their networks under attack, prompting Homeland Security’s cyber advisory unit to issue an alert. In some cases, hackers used the vulnerability to spread ransomware across the network. For the time being, Palo Alto says there’s no evidence yet of hackers exploiting this vulnerability. But given the immediate risk to networks, companies should patch as soon as possible. As ransomware gets craftier, companies must start thinking creatively

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