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The mobile game Valiant Hearts: Coming Home by Ubisoft will launch exclusively on Netflix Games on January 31. Previously announced in September 2022, Netflix and Ubisoft announced the official release date of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home yesterday. As part of a recent partnership, this is the first of three mobile games from Netflix and Ubisoft. Also coming to Netflix Games in 2023 are Ubisoft’s The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot and an Assassin’s Creed mobile game. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a narrative game set during World War I. It blends puzzle games, adventure and action as players follow the story of four war heroes who are trying to survive. According to Netflix and Ubisoft, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home takes inspiration from the Harlem Hellfighters, one of the first African American infantry regiments during WWI and WWII. The upcoming game is the sequel to Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the puzzle adventure game that was released in 2014 on Android and iOS devices, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One, and other platforms. Valiant Hearts: The Great War won multiple awards, so the upcoming mobile game sequel is a smart addition to Netflix’s gaming lineup. The company has launched other popular games in order to boost its audience, such as Oxenfree, Into the Breach, Lucky Luna, and more. Netflix’s gaming division is known to use popular IP as a way to entice gamers. For instance, Netflix recently launched its latest mobile game, Narcos: Cartel Wars Unlimited based on the hit TV series “Narcos.” The strategy game lets players take on the role of a cartel kingpin, build their own empire and destroy enemies. The company is also planning on releasing more games this year, including Vikings: Valhalla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. To access Netflix mobile games, you need a Netflix subscription. Subscribers can go to the Netflix app under the “Netflix Games” tab or download titles directly through the Google Play Store or Apple Store. There are over 50 games available on the platform. Netflix rolls out two more mobile games, will release a Vikings: Valhalla game next year Valiant Hearts mobile game sequel is set to launch on Netflix Games on Jan 31 by Lauren Forristal originally published on TechCrunch

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Twitter owner and self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist“, Elon Musk, is facing a legal challenge in Germany over how the platform handles antisemitic hate speech. The lawsuit, which was filed yesterday in the Berlin regional court by HateAid, a group that campaigns against hate speech, and the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), argues that Musk-owned Twitter is failing to enforce its own rules against antisemitic content, including holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany — which has strict laws prohibiting antisemitic hate speech — making the Berlin court a compelling arena to hear such a challenge. “[A]lthough Twitter prohibits antisemitic hostilities in its Rules and Policies, the platform leaves a lot of such content online. Even if the platform is alerted about it by users,” the litigants argue. “Current studies prove that 84% of posts containing antisemitic hate speech were not reviewed by social media platforms, as shown in a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Which means that Twitter knows Jews are being publicly attacked on the platform every day and that antisemitism is becoming a normality in our society. And that the platform’s response is by no means adequate.” For his part, Musk has repeatedly claimed Twitter will respect all laws in the countries where it operates (including European speech laws). Although he has yet to make any public comment on this specific lawsuit. Since the Tesla CEO took over Twitter at the end of October, he has drastically reduced Twitter’s headcount, including in core safety functions like content moderation — also slashing staff in regional offices around Europe, including in Germany. Plus he’s entirely disbanded Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council and reinstated scores of accounts that had previously been banned for breaking Twitter’s rules — creating conditions that look ideal for hate speech to flourish unchecked. Musk’s impact on content moderation at Twitter faces early test in Germany Over Musk’s roughly three month run as Twitter CEO, there have been anecdotal reports — and some studies — suggesting an increase in hate on the platform. While many former users have blamed a rise in hate and abuse for abandoning the platform since he took over. Notably the lawsuit is focused on examples of hate speech that have been posted to Twitter over the past three months since Musk was in charge, per Bloomberg, which reported on the litigation earlier. So it looks like an interesting legal test for Musk as the lawsuit applies an external lens to how the platform is enforcing anti-hate speech policies in an era of erratic (and drastic) operational reconfiguration under the new owner’s watch. While the billionaire libertarian generally tries to deflect criticism that he’s steering Twitter into toxic waters — via a mix of denial, fishing for boosterism, targeted attacks on critics and ongoing self-aggrandizement (of what he couches as a quasi-neo-enlightenment effort to be a handmaiden to the future of human civilization, by ‘freeing the bird’, as he couches his Twitter speech ‘reforms’) — he did admit to an early surge in hate on the platform back in November. At the time, tweeting a chart to illustrate a claim that Twitter engineers had succeeded in reducing hate speech impressions to a third less than “pre-spike levels” (as he christened the sudden uptick in hate seen in the period directly after his takeover of Twitter). Although he also suggested that spike was only linked to a small number of accounts, rather than to any wider reduction in the efficacy of content moderation since he took over and set about ripping up the existing rulebook. Hate speech impressions down by 1/3 from pre-spike levels. Congrats to Twitter team! pic.twitter.com/5BWaQoIlip — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2022 While Musk seems to enjoy cultivating an impression that he’s a “free speech absolutist”, the truth, as ever with the space cowboy, looks far less binary. For example, at Twitter he has taken a series of apparently unilateral and arbitrary decisions on whether to censor (or not) certain posts and/or accounts — including, initially, unbanning Kanye West (aka Ye) and then re-banning him for tweeting an image of a Swastika with a Star of David; the latter being a symbol of Judaism, the former a Nazi emblem. Or unbanning former US president Donald Trump’s account, which was suspended after the violent attack on the US capital by Trump supporters — but steadfastly refusing to reinstate InfoWars’ hate preacher, Alex Jones, as Musk appears to object to Jones’ infamous conspiracy falsehood that children who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting were actors. Other decisions taken by Musk around Twitter content moderation appear to be driven purely by self interest — such as banning an account that tweeted the location of his private jet (which he dubbed “assassination coordinates”). Last year he also suspended a number of journalists who reported on the episode as he argued their reporting had the same implications for his personal safety — before reversing course in the face of a storm of criticism that he was censoring the free press. Yet when not banning journalists, Musk has literally invited a number of hand-picked hacks in to sift through internal documents — and publish what he’s dubbed the “Twitter files” — in what looks like a naked (but very tedious) bid to shape the narrative about how the platform’s former leadership handled content moderation and related issues, like inbound from state agencies making requests for tweet takedowns etc; and throw fuel on conservative conspiracy theories that claim systematic shadowbanning and/or downranking of their content vs liberal views. (Whereas actual research conducted by Twitter, pre-Musk, looking at its algorithmic amplification of political tweets found, on the contrary, its AIs actually give more uplift to right wing views, concluding: “In 6 out of 7 countries studied, the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left.” But who cares about non-cherry-picked data right?) On abuse and hate, Musk is also quite capable of dishing it out himself on Twitter — using his tactic of megaphoning trolling and mockery of vulnerable groups (or “wokism”) to toss red meat to his right wing base at the expense of people who are at a disproportionate risk of being abused, such as the trans and non-binary people whose pronouns he’s deliberately mocked. Musk has also stooped to tweeting and/or amplifying targeted attacks on individuals that have led to abusive pile-ons by his followers — such as the one that forced Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, to flee his own home. So hypocrisy about personal safety risks? Very much. Even a casual observer of Musk-Twitter would surely conclude there’s a lack of consistency to the Chief Twit’s decision-making — which, if this arbitrariness filters through into patchy and partial enforcement of platform policies, spells bad news for the trust and safety of Twitter users (and RIP for any concept of ‘conversational health’ on the platform). Whether Musk’s inconsistencies will also lead to a court order in Germany requiring Twitter to take down illegal hate speech, via this HateAid-EUJS lawsuit, remains to be seen. “Twitter’s actions are based solely on its own, intransparent rules, relying on the fact that users have no chance to appeal — for example, when it comes to the non-deletion of incitements to hatred,” argues Josephine Ballon, head of legal for HateAid in a statement. “There has been no single case where a social network was prosecuted for this by the authorities. This is why civil society has to get involved, looking for ways to demand the removal of such content. We as an NGO act as representative for the affected communities which are subject to hostility and incitements of hatred on a daily basis. Thus we can build pressure on the platforms in the long term.” Interestingly, the lawsuit does not appear to be being brought under Germany’s long-standing hate speech takedown law — aka NetzDG — which, at least on paper, gives regulators the power to sanction platforms up to tens of millions of dollars if they fail to swiftly remove illegal content that’s reported to them. But, as Ballon notes, there have not been any NetzDG prosecutions related to content takedown breaches (although messaging app Telegram was recently fined a small amount for breaches related to not having proper reporting channels or legal representation in place). One local lawyer we spoke to, who is not directly involved in the HateAid-EUJS case, suggested there’s been something of a tacit arrangement between federal authorities and social media firm that Germany won’t enforce NetzDG on the content moderation issue — also with an eye on incoming EU digital regulation as the Digital Services Act, which starts to apply later this year for larger platforms, harmonizes governance and content reporting rules across the bloc under a single, pan-EU framework that should replace the older German hate speech regulation regime. For their part, the litigants in this hate speech case against Twitter say they want to get legal clarity on whether individuals (and advocacy groups) can sue in court for the removal of “punishable, antisemitic and inciting content” — such as Holocaust denial — even when they are not personally insulted or threatened by the content. In an FAQ on a webpage detailing their arguments, they explain [emphasis theirs]: Whether we can demand this is to be decided by the court. To date it is unclear to what extent Twitter users, on the basis of Twitter’s Rules and Policies, are entitled to demand the deletion of such content in cases where they are not themselves affected. We believe that Twitter has to abide by its own rules which it boasts about in its contract terms — to remove antisemitic posts and make sure that Jews can feel safe on the platform.   With our action, we take Twitter up on its contractual promises. We believe that platforms must delete antisemitic content – obviously, the platform needs to be compelled into doing so.  If they are successful, they say their hope is it will become easier for users to assert their rights to the deletion of illegal content against other major platforms, too. So there could be wider implications if the suit prevails.  “With this fundamental process, we want to have the courts clearly establish that platforms like Twitter are already obliged to protect users from antisemitic digital violence based on their own user agreements,” they add. “Such a judgment will make it easier for users to assert their rights against the major platform operators in the future. The principle behind it is simple: If the terms of the contract state that hate speech is prohibited, then Twitter owes the user to remove it. This could then be enforced, for example, by NGOs such as HateAid to make the Internet more secure.” Twitter was contacted for a response to the lawsuit — but since Musk took over the platform has abandoned having a routine external comms function and has yet to respond to any of TechCrunch’s requests for comment. (But we still asked.) It’s worth noting that, pre-Musk, Twitter wasn’t earning overwhelming plaudits for success in tackling illegal hate speech either. Back in November, the most recent EU report monitoring the bloc’s anti-hate speech code — a voluntary agreement which Twitter and a number of other social media platforms have been signed up to for years — found that, prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter was performing relatively poorly vs other signatories when it came to quickly responding to reports of illegal hate speech, with the Commission reporting that it removed just 45.4% of such content within 24 hours (vs an aggregate removal rate of 63.6%). While, over the monitored period of March 28 to May 13, Twitter received the second largest number of reports of illegal hate speech (Facebook got the most) — reporting just under 1,100 reports. So it appeared to be both hosting a relatively large amount of illegal hate speech (vs peer platforms) and trailing its rivals in how quickly it deleted toxic stuff. So it will certainly be interesting to see the state of those metrics when (or if) Musk-owned Twitter reports a fresh batch of data to the Commission later this year. Musk at Twitter has ‘huge work’ ahead to comply with EU rules, warns bloc Elon Musk tells Europe Twitter will comply with bloc’s illegal speech rules Elon Musk’s Twitter hit with holocaust denial hate speech lawsuit in Germany by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch

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Crowdbotics, a software development platform with a library of prebuilt app architectures, today announced that it raised $40 million in a Series B round led by NEA with participation from Homebrew, JSV, Harrison Metal and Cooley. The new cash will be put toward expanding Crowdbotics’ enterprise presence, CEO Anand Kulkarni told TechCrunch in an email interview, as well as growing the company’s product offerings and invest in helping increasing its current customer base. Kulkarni founded Crowdbotics in 2017 after launching LeadGenius, which used AI to crawl the web and discover sales leads. With Crowdbotics, he sought to create a catalog of reusable modules of code to simplify the process of planning and deploying software. “Because up to 80% of requirements are similar between software applications — things like single sign-on flows or payment gateways don’t vary much between products — customers can build applications using strategies and reusable modules of code that have worked in the past, and focus custom engineering efforts just on the parts of their application that are truly unique,” Kulkarni said. “Customers specify custom software products using our planning engine, which is powered by a growing repository of historical data about how applications are built. Customers can convert these specifications into code on Crowdbotics, typically in React, React Native and Django, and deploy applications into the web, Android and iOS app stores, or on-premise environments, with staging and production workflows included.” Kulkarni thinks of Crowdbotics as a sort of ERP for software creation. ERP, or enterprise resource planning, is a type of system that helps organizations automate and manage core business processes. Instead of business processes, Crowdbotics orchestrates the management of development processes, helping keep app development in line and — with any luck — on time. Image Credits: Crowdbotics On the surface, the idea isn’t dissimilar to DhiWise, which converts visual app elements into structured, readable and modular code that can be later built upon for scalability. In terms of potential rivals, there’s also Appsmith, which offers an open source platform for internal development teams to build custom apps, and WorkOS and Onymos, which lets developers add enterprise features like single sign-on (SSO) and directory sync to apps, “We’re displacing last-generation app-building tools like Microsoft PowerApps and Mendix,” Kulkarni said confidently. “Crowdbotics prices based on the number of features in the application irrespective of the number of users … [and] lets developers work directly in open source software development frameworks like React Native and Django, and also lets CIOs set and enforce their own standards for development and security — generating readable code.” Kulkarni says that most enterprises on Crowdbotics create a private module library on the platform, categorizing their own organization’s reusable components of code plus data. Developers can use these private module libraries to rapidly generate their own IT-approved feature libraries that can be maintained and repurposed across the org. Or they can hire project managers and developers from Crowdbotics’ gig marketplace, paying a monthly subscription for hosting, infrastructure, maintenance, monitoring and more. “By reusing standardized, well-supported architectures and quickly snapping together modules of interoperable code, customers can build stable apps quickly, or have applications built to their specifications,” Kulkarni added. “By decreasing development time and budget, and facilitating code reuse at scale, while playing nice with an organization’s own standards, there are benefits to the CTO, CIO and other IT department heads that directly impact their performance and their department’s bottom line.” There might be a bit of hyperbole there. But Crowdbotics, which has raised over $68 million in funding to date, certainly hasn’t failed to nab customers. The startup claims to have over 500, the largest being the U.S. Air Force, which is using Crowdbotics to build flight analysis and training tools. Kulkarni says that Crowdbotics’ revenue has been tripling year-over-year for the past three years and that its 90-person workforce is on track to double by year-end 2023. “Right now the changing economy is looming over most businesses, and making sure capital isn’t wasted will be a critical concern. Crowdbotics is positioned to help by allowing organizations to be more strategic and efficient with their development resources,” Kulkarni said. “Not only does it reduce overall cost and overhead, but also creates a path for code reuse, ensuring all future development carries the same cost efficiencies … We’ve seen accelerating impact from the pandemic as digital transformation initiatives moved to the forefront of every company’s strategy, and we expect business to continue to grow even in 2023’s market as companies start to look to use code reuse to reduce software development costs and turn to Crowdbotics.” Crowdbotics raises $40M to help devs build apps from modular code by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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The global app economy slowed for the first time last year, as consumer spending on apps dropped 2% to $167 billion, according to a recent annual report put out by data.ai. At the same time, downloads were up 11% year-over-year — a seemingly positive indication that app adoption was still taking place, driven in particular by emerging markets. But a deeper analysis of the fourth quarter points to more recently slowing download growth during a time of year that’s typically a boon for the app ecosystem. The holiday season tends to bring new phones and more free time for consumers to try new apps and games, which makes these new figures all the more surprising. According to app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, mobile app adoption across the App Store and Google Play Store leveled off in Q4 2022, declining a slight 0.1% year-over-year to reach 35.5 billion new installs in the quarter. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Its analysis is on a per-user basis, meaning additional downloads of an app by the same person on different devices aren’t counted towards the total. It also doesn’t count app re-installs in order to show only new download growth. However, its figures are only estimates. While the fourth-quarter trends weren’t enough to pull down the overall year-over-year download growth metrics, it seems, it’s another signal of a stagnating app economy — one, no doubt, still normalizing after outsized growth during Covid and one that remains impacted by the overall macroeconomic forces, which also play a key a role in app marketing spend. But there’s another argument to be made here, as well, and that’s that the years of high-priced commissions on app sales and in-app purchases across the global app stores have finally begun to impact the innovation taking place in the wider app ecosystem. If companies have to share up to 30% of their revenues just to distribute their apps and games to a mobile audience, it’s more difficult for them to weather a storm like a down economy. And entrepreneurs may be less inclined to build for mobile, specifically, when other areas of the market are less restrictive. Look at the developments around crypto and Web3, for example — they couldn’t fully expand to mobile because of app store guidelines and the platforms’ need to profit from in-app purchases. With so much pressing down on app innovation, it’s not surprising to see downloads and spending suffer. This trend isn’t only apparent in the metrics surrounding the stagnating app install rates and declining spending. Another example of the ecosystem’s floundering is visible in Apple’s editorially selected top app of 2022. An accolade meant to reflect the opportunity to be had in building for mobile, the Cupertino company highlighted the Gen Z social networking app BeReal as its “App of the Year.” While arguably a breakout success with younger people, it’s also an app whose daily active users fell far behind its download figures and one that has no business model at present — the app doesn’t yet generate revenue. Its continued existence is being fueled by VC funding, not app stores’ ability to provide a platform where new ideas can easily monetize. And its developers are struggling to come up with what sort of subscription or in-app purchases they could convince their young users to pay for — the result of an app marketplace that sold consumers for years on the idea that mobile software should be free. Then there are the apps that are at the top of Sensor Tower’s list of the most-downloads apps in Q4 2022 — they are the apps from tech giants like Meta and ByteDance, angling each other for the top spots. For years, it’s been rare to see any newcomers find a way onto this list, and that remains true in the fourth quarter. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Worldwide, Instagram edged out TikTok for the No. 1 spot, and Meta’s other apps found a place in the top 10 (Facebook at No. 3, WhatsApp at No. 5, Messenger at No. 8, and WhatsApp Business at No. 9.) ByteDance’s CapCut, an extension of TikTok’s workflow, is No. 4. Other top apps include the usual suspects, like Snapchat, Telegram, Spotify, Amazon, Flipkart, Twitter, and more big names. In games, Subway Surfers was No. 1, followed by Garena Free Fire, Stumble Guys, Roblox, FIFA Mobile, Ludo King and Candy Crush Saga. Subway Surfers had ended the year with nearly 292 million installs, up 48% from 2021. Newcomer Stumble Guys gained the No. 3 spot with over 184 million downloads, which is notable given it was only launched in 2021 while the other top five apps were released in 2017 or earlier — a bright spot in what was otherwise a quarter-over-quarter decline for mobile game installs. On the App Store, game downloads declined 6.9%, on Google Play, they gained a small 0.6%. Image Credits: Sensor Tower Still, the games category continues to drive app installs. On the App Store, it’s responsible for almost three times as many installs as the No. 2 Category, Utilities, the report noted. But worryingly, the App Store’s games category dipped below 2 billion for the first since Q1 2019. On Google Play, the games category was responsible for more installs (11.7 billion) than all categories on the App Store combined (8.1 billion), but the Play Store’s non-game categories were down 1.5% year-over-year, to 15.8 billion installs. It’s too soon to say whether or not current trends represent a final cooling off of the app store gold rush, given how wider economic forces are clearly playing a role here in app adoption and spending. Plus, new app markets are coming online which means there will be more people downloading apps for the first time. But for the time being, the trend is a signal that there’s some saturation in top app markets and suggests that further innovation and growth may need to be kickstarted by forcing the app stores to engage in increased competition. App downloads were stagnant in the fourth quarter, new analysis finds by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

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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 are some fast options for hiring someone on an expiring grace period? Dear Sophie: Any tips for presenting a strong H-1B case? What if I’m not selected? 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.” TechCrunch+ members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off. Dear Sophie, I am currently working in Seattle after relocating from Chile on an L-1B visa. Can I change my L-1B visa to an H-1B with a different company? My understanding is that L visas are restricted to working only with the issuing company. — Charming Chilean Dear Charming, Congrats on taking the first step in seeking out new opportunities — and thanks for including me on your journey! Yes, you are correct: L visas for intra-company transferees enable you to work only for the company that sponsored you for the visa. All non-immigrant work visas, including the L-1B, require you to have a job offer and an employer sponsor, and your visa is tied to your job with that employer. The short answer to your question is: yes, you can take a new job with a different company that is willing to sponsor you for an H-1B specialty occupation visa or other work visas. Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window) It’s great that you’re looking to make this change now, because filing fees for the H-1B and other work visas are soon to increase substantially. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has proposed raising the fees for the L-1, H-1B, and most other non-immigrant visas and green cards, as well as increasing the premium processing time from 15 calendar days to 15 business days. Under the proposal, the registration fee for the H-1B lottery would increase to $215 from just $10, and the H-1B filing fee would increase to $780 from $460. DHS, which asserts that these increases are necessary to reduce processing times and eliminate backlogs, will accept public comments on the proposed rule through March 6, 2023, and I urge you to let DHS know how these changes might affect your ability to change jobs.Dear Sophie: How do I change my L-1B to an H-1B through the lottery? by Ram Iyer originally published on TechCrunch

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Starting January 30, v13.40 of Fortnite on iOS and Google Play will become unavailable to players under 18, Epic Games has announced. Although Fortnite was removed from the iOS, macOS and Google Play stores in August 2020, the game is still playable by users who already had it installed, but it’s been stuck on the v13.40 update and been somewhat buggy. Players will also no longer be able to spend V-Bucks, the games in-app currency, beginning January 30. “We want all versions of our games to use the current suite of Epic Online Services including parental controls, purchasing defaults, and parental verification features,” the company said in a tweet. “We are not able to update the app on these platforms given Apple and Google’s restrictions on Fortnite.” We want all versions of our games to use the current suite of Epic Online Services including parental controls, purchasing defaults, and parental verification features. We are not able to update the app on these platforms given Apple and Google’s restrictions on Fortnite. (2/2) — Fortnite Status (@FortniteStatus) January 23, 2023 In December, Epic Games introduced limited accounts that prevent kids from spending money in Fortnite’s in-game store and using voice chat without a parent’s consent. That same month, Epic Games agreed to pay $520 million in fines related to allegations from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that Fortnite violated the Children’s Online Privacy Act and also tricked people into making unintentional purchases. Although Epic Games has addressed these concerns with new updates, Fortnite on iOS and Google Play devices can’t receive updates. As a result, blocking access for anyone under 18 was the only option available to Epic Games. To address the FTC’s claim that Fortnite tricked players into making unintentional purchases, the company is removing the ability to spend V-Bucks. It’s worth noting that most players likely won’t be affected by the new restrictions rolling out in a few days, given that there are ways to access the popular game without having to go through the App Store or Google Play stores. For instance, if you want to access the game on iOS or macOS, you can do so through GeForce Now. You can also download the game natively to Android from Epic Games’ website. FTC fines Fortnite maker Epic Games $520M over children’s privacy and item shop charges Fortnite on iOS and Google Play will be 18+ starting on January 30 by Aisha Malik originally published on TechCrunch

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, a podcast about the business of startups, where we unpack the numbers and nuance behind the headlines. This is our Wednesday show, where we niche down to a single person, think about their work and unpack the rest. This week, Natasha interviewed Sarah Oh, the co-founder of T2, a Twitter rival, and Twitter’s former Human Rights Advisor. She also spent time traveling around the world to help companies build safer, more responsible companies. We get into a lot, not limited to but including what her job titles really encompass, the danger of going viral, re-building a clone, and generative AI. We also talk about what moderation 3.0 looks like, and T2 daring to dream when building a Twitter-like company with safety at its core. Oh is clearly is a changemaker, considering that the 30 minutes I spent with her already expanded my understanding of how platforms think about – and invest in – trust at scale. Twitter rival ‘T2’ raises its first outside funding, $1.1M from a group of high-profile angels Equity drops at 10:00 a.m. PT every Monday and at 7:00 a.m. PT on Wednesdays and Fridays, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify and all the casts. TechCrunch also has a great show on crypto, a show that interviews founders, one that details how our stories come together and more! All is fair in love and moderation by Natasha Mascarenhas originally published on TechCrunch

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Flutter, Google’s open-source framework for building multi-platform apps for mobile, web and desktop, is hosting its Flutter Forward event in Nairobi, Kenya today. As the name implies, the team is using the event to showcase up-and-coming features of the framework — most of which are still very early in their development cycle. The main highlights here are massively improved graphics performance, the ability to more easily embed Flutter code into existing web and mobile apps, and support for new architectures like Web Assembly and RISC-V. Virtually all of these capabilities still sit in canary branches and behind experiment flags, but they do show where Google plans to take this project in the months ahead — and help the overall open-source ecosystem around it understand where some complimentary work could be useful (about 40% of contributors to Flutter are outside of Google). Tim Sneath, Google’s director of product and UX for Flutter and the Dart programming language, told me that the team decided to completely rewrite Impeller, Flutter’s rendering runtime. This new version aims to fix some of the existing glitches of the previous engine but also greatly improves performance — all while still offering support for hot reloads and other core Flutter features.  “It’s such a different sort of experience. It’s just so silky smooth,” he said. “Essentially, we’re able to build a graphics rendering engine that’s tailored for Flutter rather than leveraging a general-purpose renderer.” To enable this performance, the engine now features pre-compiled shaders, avoiding the frame drops of the previous engine during shader compilation. There’s also now support for custom shaders and pixel shaders, which enables a number of new effects — which in turn will enable developers to build a host of new experiences on top of Flutter. Underneath all of this sit the low-level Vulkan and Metal 3D graphics APIs of Android and iOS. Currently, the team is focusing its work here on mobile, though many of these new graphics capabilities should also work on macOS and Windows already. “Our general model for Flutter is take it everywhere you can paint pixels,” Sneath said. Talking about taking Flutter everywhere, another new feature the team is previewing is element embedding. For web developers, that means they can use this to easily embed Flutter content using a standard element. While one could obviously write an entire application with Flutter and Dart, a lot of developers may want to integrate this new code into existing apps that may have been written in a different language. The team is also working on a new package that enables better JavaScript and Dart interoperability, as well as new tooling that will allow Flutter to more easily call system APIs on Android and iOS. It already had that ability before, but getting this to work involved writing a lot of boilerplate code for developers. Looking ahead, the team is also launching its first efforts to compile Flutter to WebAssembly. With the hype around this binary format growing rapidly — and both browser support and server-side tooling maturing — it’s maybe no surprise that the Flutter team is also interested in this technology. For the most part, this is about getting additional performance from Flutter, Sneath explained. “Dart transpiles into very tightly compiled JavaScript code, but it’s still JavaScript code so it’ll be loaded and interpreted — and, for us, WebAssembly looks like it’s going to give us some improved time to load, reduce the size and number of megabytes transferred over the wire. That seems interesting,” he said. “The potential for WebAssembly is — both on the web and even beyond — to become this new sort of portable lingua franca. I like the idea that we can take and use other code in other languages in WebAssembly as well.” The RISC-V-based ClockworkPi DevTerm Kit. As for RISC-V, the open standard royalty-free chip architecture that is also starting to get traction across the industry, Sneath noted that it is still very early days (though he said he really enjoyed playing with the RISC-V-based ClockworkPi DevTerm Kit) but he believes supporting this architecture may open up new platforms for Flutter, especially in the embedded space. With Google’s Android team also investing in this architecture, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on what Google is doing here, even as the number of developers who are specifically targeting this architecture is surely still quite low. Finally, the Flutter team is also launching an interesting new toolkit for news publishers, which builds on the success of a similar initiative the team launched for game developers at Google’s I/O developer conference last year. This toolkit should enable new publishers to quickly build a new-centric mobile app with support fo authentication, ad integrations, notifications and more — all without having to design these elements from scratch. Google’s Flutter showcases new graphics capabilities, WebAssembly and RISC-V support by Frederic Lardinois originally published on TechCrunch

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Many believe the key to keeping networks and data secure lies in watertight identity and log-in management, but what happens when you are using a variety of apps, platforms, and a hybrid of cloud and other servers and networks that cannot be used with the same ID management tool? A startup called Strata Identity working in the area of identity orchestration, a platform that promises to bridge those gaps, is today announcing a round of funding, underscoring the market demand for tools like these. The company has raised $26 million in a Series B round, which it will be using to continue expanding its business. The round is being led by Telstra Ventures — which is backed by the Australian telco but now operates independently of it. Menlo Ventures, Forgepoint Capital and Innovating Capital — all previous backers — are also in this round. Strata has now raised $42.5 million, and it’s not disclosing its valuation with this round. Somewhat confusingly, PitchBook notes that in June 2022, Strata was raising a Series B of $35 million at a $100 million pre-money valuation. Strata tells us this is not accurate — the round was raised and closed in the last 90 days, co-founder and CEO Eric Olden told TechCrunch. There are a number of identity orchestration providers on the market today, including the likes of Ping, Entrust, Forge Rock and others. Strata’s unique selling point, said Olden, is that its flagship product, Maverics, lets customers run logins for legacy applications alongside those of more modern tools, plus any new applications that get added over time, without needing to rewrite any code. This is something that Olden wanted to build in part out of his direct experience. He is a veteran of the security industry, having founded two different companies that have played key parts in the evolution of identity access management. Both startups in their time were eventually acquired by RSA; and he’s also spent time at Oracle running its cloud security and identity management business. Through all of that, he could see that even when tools purported to provide identity coverage for various applications, in reality they did not because enterprises still use a hodge-podge of legacy and modern services and applications. “We really needed ID management for a new generation,” he said in an interview. “The thing that was missing was how to make it all work together.” Orchestration is not a new concept in enterprise IT. It’s used in relation to managing data in containers, automating certain services, and more. What Strata is doing is applying that concept to identity, covering access control, authentication and auditing. Typically the companies it’s working with might use between six and 10 identity management tools, with Okta for example covering some services, but not able to cover on-premise applications; and Microsoft covering others, an issue that becomes compounded with businesses acquire or merge with other businesses. “Now Strata makes all this work together,” he said. He says the effect is akin to VMware’s with its virtualization of IT environments, but most importantly, the connectors that Strata has built to work with other identity products saves customers potentially millions of dollars that they would have had to dedicate to re-writing applications or adopting new ones so that everything can be managed in a more cohesive way. The company is not disclosing revenue figures but says that they have grown more than 350% in the last year. The opportunity is ripe: Overall the identity and access market is projected to be a $37 billion market by 2030, growing at a rate of 14.12%, Strata said. “Strata is disrupting the traditional proprietary identity management model by making it possible for legacy and cloud identity systems to interoperate, all without the need to modify applications,” said Marcus Bartram, general partner at Telstra Ventures, in a statement. “We believe the company’s first-of-its-kind identity orchestration platform has the potential to eliminate decades of vendor lock-in for customers and slingshot Strata to the top of the identity market leader board.” Strata is focused right now on North America primarily, but Bartram told TechCrunch that the plan will be to help the company scale in Asia Pacific, likely in 2024. What will be interesting too is where the industry settles when it comes to interfaces for identity access. Passwords, two-factor authentication, security keys and newer technologies like fingerprints or face ID all sit alongside each other today. With identity management now inching towards being centralized, will the format in which we authenticate ourselves simplify as well? Strata, a provider of identity orchestration to bridge disparate log-in procedures, raises $26M by Ingrid Lunden originally published on TechCrunch

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Madrid has renewed the operating licenses for scooter-sharing services in the city. The city council has chosen three operators for the next three years — Dott, Lime and Tier. This trio of companies will sound familiar as these companies also won tender processes in several European cities in recent years. Madrid even says that it drew inspiration from 17 European cities, and Paris and London in particular. Dott, Lime and Tier also operate in Paris, but the Mayor has decided that Parisians will get to vote whether they want to ban shared scooters. It’s a different story for Madrid as Dott, Lime and Tier now have some clarity until 2026. The operators will be able to roll out 6,000 scooters in total — 2,000 scooters for each company. There can be some adjustments down the road. If there is more demand than expected, the city of Madrid can decide to increase the cap so that companies can roll out more vehicles — there will be an evaluation every four months. Similarly, the city can grant license extensions after the licenses expire in 2026. If you live in Madrid or recently traveled to the city, you may have already seen scooters spread around the city. The city of Madrid had already authorized free-floating scooters back in 2019. And it’s been a mixed bag. While the city has decided to renew the licenses for another three years, it is adding some requirements. In 2019, Madrid originally decided to create a 10,000 hard cap for the total number of scooters in the city. But there wasn’t any limit on the number of operators. Overall, 18 companies obtained an operating license from the City Council, leading to unnecessary fragmentation. Many scooter companies already withdrew from Madrid. Starting in May, there will only be three different scooter companies. Riders won’t be able to park their scooters wherever they want. The city will allocate some specific parking spaces for scooters in the city center. Thanks to the onboard GPS module, users won’t be able to end their ride if they haven’t parked their scooter properly. Scooter companies can also require a photo when you end your ride. Outside of the city center, riders should park their scooter in a moped, bike or scooter parking space. If you are more than 50 meters away from a dedicated space, you can lock your scooter and end your ride. According to the city council, there has already been some improvements when it comes to fines due to improper parking. But things should definitely look better in May. The three operators promised that they will remove an incorrectly parked scooter within one hour. Scooters in Paris are at a crossroads Madrid selects Dott, Lime and Tier for scooter licenses by Romain Dillet originally published on TechCrunch

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Working with, microservices-based development environments presents a unique set of testing challenges. Richard North developed an open source solution called Testcontainers in 2015 to help ease this problem for developers. Today, the open source project is used by companies like Uber, Netflix, Spotify and Capital One. North and co-founder Sergei Egorov (who was a co-maintainer of Testcontainers) founded AtomicJar in 2021 to build a commercial company on top of the open source tooling. They have taken the original idea a step further by creating a cloud-based version to expand the tool’s capabilities and move some of the resource-intensive testing from a developer’s laptop to the cloud. Today, the company announced a $25 million Series A and that it was opening a public beta of Testcontainers Cloud. GA could come later this year. Egorov, who is the startup’s CEO, says that a big testing issue for developers is that they have been using a representation of the testing components, rather than the actual software, and they often lacked confidence that these tests were actually reproducing what would happen in a live environment. Testcontainers changed that by testing against real versions of the dependent software pieces. “If I’m developing my application with Postgres, Kafka and Redis, I’m testing with real Postgres, real Kafka and real Redis, similar to how it would be in production. And then I test with real databases, and not just some mocks of the same technologies that are not giving me enough confidence [that they will work the same way in production],” Egorov told TechCrunch. TestContainers Cloud moves the resource-heavy parts of the testing process to the cloud, while still allowing developers to use their familiar tool set on their laptops. “It gives developers a tool they can use. It’s not a framework. It’s not something that tells them how they should develop software. It’s a generic tool. They can add it to any stack they like and start testing, where they previously would use emulators for real dependencies,” he said. In addition, TestContainers Cloud has been built for groups instead of a lone developer working on a laptop. “The commercial version allows companies to adopt Testcontainers consistently across developer environments and CI environments. And it also brings scalability to those testing approaches because the open source version is constrained to a single machine where tests are running,” Egorov explained. Today, the company has 23 employees. Egorov is hiring, and says the employment market is stabilizing, and he is seeing higher quality talent in the pipeline. He says that the company hired a recruiter in November, who is helping put a stronger focus on diversity and inclusion in their hires. Today’s $25 million round was led by Insight Partners with participation from existing investors Boldstart Ventures, Tribe Capital, Chalfen Ventures and Snyk co-founder Guy Podjarny and Snyk CEO Peter McKay. The company previously raised a $4 million seed round in 2021. AtomicJar opens public beta of Testcontainers Cloud, cloud version of open source testing tool by Ron Miller originally published on TechCrunch

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Injective, a layer-1 blockchain focused on building financial applications, has launched a $150 million fund ecosystem initiative, the platform’s CEO and co-founder, Eric Chen, told TechCrunch. “We’ve seen a lot of ecosystem funds in the past do various things, but there isn’t really an established ecosystem fund for Injective and Cosmos as a whole,” Chen said. “We call it a venture consortium because they can get investments from there or direct institutions.” Injective was incubated by Binance Labs in 2018 and later backed by Jump Crypto, Pantera Capital and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban. In the third quarter of 2022, it raised an institutional funding round from Brevan Howard and Jump. Its ecosystem works with decentralized applications (dApps) such as Coinbase, Figment, Pyth and Wormhole, to name a few. Its new ecosystem fund is backed by previous investors like Pantera and Jump as well as other web3 players, including Kraken Ventures, Kucoin Ventures, Delphi Labs, Flow Traders, Gate Labs and IDG Capital. The $150 million was pooled capital from the consortium and will be deployed over “a few years,” Chen said. The group aims to support projects building on Injective or Cosmos blockchains in the interoperability, DeFi, trading, proof-of-stake infrastructure and scalability solutions sectors, it said. “It will start backing early-stage projects then slowly move from seed to later stages as the ecosystem grows as a whole,” Chen added. “With the launch of this consortium, we are going to kick off this ecosystem fund with a hackathon to bring in investors and backers. This will basically introduce a lot more opportunities for consortium members as well.” The Injective Global Virtual Hackathon will start in March for a four-week online event with $1 million in prizes, grants and investments. “It’s a pivotal time to stand up and back people building,” Chen said. “For Injective’s case, there’s a huge surge in builders coming from other layer-1 networks, but more importantly [centralized finance] builders like exchanges and trading firms that are committed to creating something truly decentralized.” In the current market, there’s a lot of quality projects looking for backing but having more difficulty reaching investors, Chen noted. “They’re still deploying and this consortium is a strong signal that they’ll be backing new projects and their funds are actively participating in the ecosystem.” Injective launches $150M ecosystem fund to accelerate interoperable infra and DeFi adoption by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

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Chances are you used a toilet at some point today, and you didn’t think much of it. But if you used a port-a-potty, you probably did think about it. Maybe a lot. And it probably wasn’t pleasant. “No one likes the port-a-potty,” said Brophy Tyree, co-founder and CEO of Wasted. “It’s embedded into a really antiquated operations and servicing industry and so there’s a chance to make all of that better.” But Tyree, along with co-founders Thor Retzlaff and Taylor Zehren, wants to do more than just redesign the smelly plastic boxes. The company’s first order of business is to turn the waste from port-a-potties into fertilizers for farmers. “Farmers have been applying manure and other forms of animal waste to farms for millennia,” Tyree said. “When you talk to a farmer, they completely understand the value proposition right away. You don’t need to educate them on the fact that what’s coming through our body is valuable and has nutrients, because that’s just the water that they swim in.” Human waste contains plenty of nutrients, but urine appears to be the real gold mine. Urine contains a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and wastewater in cities contains enough of the nutrients to offset around 13% of global fertilizer demand, according to one study. Today, human waste is used as a fertilizer in some places. King County in Washington sells a biosolids soil amendment to farmers and foresters, for instance, and Milwaukee sells Milorganite to farmers and homeowners. They’re excellent examples of the reuse of human waste, but those products emerge at the end of a traditional sewage treatment process, which is energy intensive and vulnerable to severe storms and flooding. Wasted wants to eventually serve as a backup for traditional sewage systems or even a replacement, particularly in regions where sanitation systems are underdeveloped. But it’s starting with port-a-potties for a few reasons. We flush valuable nutrients down the toilet. Wasted wants to save them by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

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Google is revising its business agreements with phonemakers in India and making a series of other changes in the South Asian market to comply with local antitrust watchdog’s directions. The company, which was slapped with a $161 million fine by the Competition Commission of India and was ordered to make a series of changes in its business practices, said Wednesday that it will allowsmartphone vendors in India to license individual apps for pre-installation on their Android-powered devices. The Android-maker will also give consumers the ability to change search engine and use third-party billing options for apps and games purchases on Play Store starting next month, it said. Following is the full-set of changes Google is introducing in India: OEMs will be able to license individual Google apps for pre-installation on their devices. Android users have always been able to customize their devices to suit their preferences. Indian users will now have the option to choose their default search engine via a choice screen that will soon start to appear when a user sets up a new Android smartphone or tablet in India. We’re updating the Android compatibility requirements to introduce changes for partners to build non-compatible or forked variants. User choice billing will be available to all apps and games starting next month. Through user choice billing, developers can offer users the option to choose an alternative billing system alongside Google Play’s billing system when purchasing in-app digital content. Android has always supported the installation of apps from a variety of sources, including via sideloading, which involves app downloads directly from a developer’s website. We recently made changes to the Android installation flow and auto-updating capability for sideloaded apps and app stores while ensuring users understand the potential security risks. Google said it will continue to appeal the Competition Commission of India’s directions. But it’s going ahead with the changes to comply with the land of the law. The changes are limited to company’s business practices in India. In a setback earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court rejected Google’s plea to block the CCI order. Google had a deadline until Thursday to comply with the antitrust regulator’s order. More to follow… Google to ease agreement with phonemakers, allow third-party billing in India in major business revamp by Manish Singh originally published on TechCrunch

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The biotech industry is experiencing a rush of AI-powered tools for many aspects of the complex drug discovery process. But one that has flown under the radar, increasingly thought to be key to certain diseases but woefully understudied, is RNA. With $35 million in new funding, Atomic AI aims to do for RNA what AlphaFold did for proteins, and find entirely new treatments in the process. If you can still recall your high school biology, you probably remember RNA as sort of a middle man between DNA (long term information storage) and proteins (the machinery of cellular life at the molecular level). But like most things in nature, it doesn’t seem to be quite that simple, explained Atomic AI’s CEO and founder, Raphael Townshend. “There’s this central dogma that DNA goes to RNA, which goes to proteins. But it’s emerged in recent years that it does much more than just encode information,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch. “If you look at the human genome, about 2% becomes protein at some point. But 80 percent becomes RNA. And it’s doing… who knows what? It’s vastly underexplored.” Compared to DNA and proteins, little work has been done in this area. Academia has focused on other pieces of the puzzle and pharmaceuticals have, partly as a consequence of that, pursued proteins as the mechanisms for drugs. The result is a severe lack of knowledge and data on RNA structures. But what Atomic AI posits is that RNA is functional and worth pursuing as a method of treatment. The secret is in the “non-coding” regions of RNA, which are like the header and footer on a document. They do protein-like work but aren’t proteins — and they’re not the only example. You can think about RNA strands as beaded necklaces, much more string than bead. The string is “floppy” and more or less what its detractors think it is: an intermediary. But every once in a while you get a really interesting knot that seems unlikely to have formed by accident. As with proteins, if you can figure out their structure, that goes a long way towards understanding what they do and how they can be affected. “The key is to find those beads, those structured bits. It’s high information content, it’s targetable, and it’s likely functional as well,” said Townshend. “It’s seen in drug discovery as a key new frontier.” An interesting idea for a graduate thesis, perhaps (and it was for Townshend), but how can you build a business around it? First, if the field is about to become more important, building out the methods for studying has a lot of value. Then, if you do build those methods, you can be first in line to use them. Atomic AI is doing both simultaneously. A rotating 3D model of an RNA strand structure predicted by PARSE. The core of Atomic’s IP is, though this is something of a simplification, an AlphaFold for RNA. The biology is different, and the way the models work is different, but the idea is the same: a machine learning model trained on a limited set of a type of molecule that can make accurate predictions about the structure of other molecules of that type. What’s wild is that Townshend’s team made just such a model, which outperforms others by a large margin, by feeding it the characteristics of just 18 RNA molecule structures “published between 1994 and 2006.” This absolutely bare-bones model wiped the floor with others, as disclosed in a front-page article published in Science in 2021. Since then, Townshend was quick to add, the company has vastly augmented its models and methods with more raw material, much of which it has created itself in its own wet labs. They call the updated set of tools PARSE: Platform for AI-driven RNA Structure Exploration. “The Science paper represented an initial breakthrough, but we have actually generated a huge amount of… structure-adjacent data,” he explained. “Not the full structure itself, but data related to the structure, tens of millions data points; the same scale of data you’d need to train big language models. And combined with other machine learning work, we have been able to dramatically improve both the speed and accuracy from the paper.” That means Atomic AI is the only one who, publicly at least, has a system that can take a RNA molecule’s raw data in and spit out a reasonably confident estimate of its structure. That’s useful to anyone doing RNA research in or out of medicine, and with gene therapies and mRNA vaccines, the field is definitely on the rise. Another RNA structure (but rendered differently). With such a tool you could go one of two ways: license it as a “structure as a service” platform, as Townshend put it, or use it yourself. Atomic has opted for the latter, and is pursuing its own drug discovery program. This approach has a notable difference from a lot of the AI discovery processes out there. The general idea is you have a protein, say one you want to inhibit expression of in the human body, but what you don’t have is a chemical that binds reliably and exclusively to that protein, exactly where and when you want it to (and cheaply, if possible). AI drug discovery efforts tend to produce thousands, millions, even billions of candidate molecules that might work, rank them, and let the wet labs start working through the list as fast as they can. If you can find one that meets those above characteristics, you can produce a novel drug or replace a more expensive one on the market. But the key thing is you’re competing to find new binders to a known protein. “We’re not just finding binders, we’re finding what’s targetable in the first place. The reason that’s interesting is because at the end of the day, these big pharmaceuticals care more about novel biology than novel molecules. You’re enabling something that wasn’t doable before by finding this new target, as opposed to augmenting the number of molecules available to target it,” said Townshend. Not only that, but some proteins have been found to be nigh undruggable for whatever reason, producing illnesses resistant to medication. RNA could allow treatment of these same illnesses by making an end run around the problem protein. For the present, Atomic AI has narrowed down the list to certain cancers that result in pathological overproduction of proteins (and hence good options for preempting the mechanism), and neurodegenerative diseases that may also benefit from upstream intervention. Of course all this work is immensely costly, necessitating as it does a large amount of both lab work and intense data science. Fortunately the company has raised a $35 million A round, led by Playground Global, with participation from 8VC, Factory HQ, Greylock, NotBoring, AME Cloud Ventures, as well as angels Nat Friedman, Doug Mohr, Neal Khosla, and Patrick Hsu. (The company previously raised a $7 million seed round.) “People have picked all the low-hanging fruit in protein land,” said Townshend. “Now there’s new biology to go after.” With new funding, Atomic AI envisions RNA as the next frontier in drug discovery by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

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Sequoia Capital and Bain Ventures are among the high-profile investors that have backed the venture firm Kearny Jackson’s second fund, the early-stage focused firm said Wednesday as it gears up to invest in more startups. Kearny Jackson, founded by former Spotify executive Sriram Krishnan, said it has closed $14 million second fund. It has also roped in Sunil Chhaya, formerly a VC at Menlo Ventures, as a co-GP. The fund, whose name is inspired from the street names where the two longtime friends have hung out over the years, plans to continue to invest in SaaS, fintech, infrastructure security firms, aiming to spot them early and fund their pre-seed and seed rounds, it said. “From KJ2, we’d like to invest $150k to $300K into pre-seed or seed stage startups, with the occasional series A. We’re directionally hoping for 0.5% to 2% ownership so we’re happy to collaborate with lead VCs in these rounds. With the addition of Sunil Chhaya, we are now looking to increase our check-sizes for KJ2 and beyond,” Krishnan told TechCrunch. A number of venture investors including a16z’s Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon, Iconiq’s Doug Pepper, Greg Stanger, Arnav Bhimbet, Will Griffith and Divesh Makan, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Blackrock’s Mark Woolley, and a number of operators including Polygon co-founder Jaynti Kanani and Microsoft’s Manik Gupta have also backed the fund. Menlo Ventures, Kleiner Perkins and Foundation Capital are also LPs in the fund. “We are very honored that they’re coming back again for KJ2 and look forward to deepening our relationship with them. The founders in our portfolio have greatly benefited from connecting with top-tier investors who, in addition to providing capital, also offer valuable insights and guidance,” said Krishnan. It’s remarkable that so many operators and VCs have backed Kearny Jackson. Krishnan said the firm makes high-quality introductions of founders to bigger funds, in what is a “win-win for founders/VCs.” Kearny Jackson backed Sprig in its pre-seed round and introduced the founder to Bill Trenchard of First Round Capital. The two hit it off and First Round Capital led the seed round of Sprig. Unit, another Kearny Jackson portfilio startup, has been backed by Accel and Insight Partners. Seed financing round of CTRLStack and seed and Series A financing rounds of Cortex, two more KJ portfolio firms, was led by Sequoia Capital. Both Krishnan and Chhaya have also made a series of successful investments over the years. Krishnan is an investor in Figma, Notion, Airbase, AngelList, Sorare, Calm and Khatabook, for instance. Chhaya, who has also had stints at Piper Jaffray, Tenaya Capital and NextWorld, has sourced and deployed over $60 million over the years whose current value is nearly $500 million, he said. The duo co-GPs said they plan to host a number of events with other funds, for founders and those looking to start their own ventures in San Francisco and New York this year. Kearny Jackson has distributed about 20% of its $3.6 million 2018 maiden fund, Krishnan said. “I’ve worked with dozens of investors in my career — and pound-for-pound, Kearny Jackson is at the absolute top tier in terms of value added. KJ was a partner to me and to CtrlStack since before day 1, and was the first committed capital. As I was working through my vision for CtrlStack, thinking through sequencing and resourcing, KJ helped me narrow down the strategic landscape and accelerate the drive towards product-market fit,” said Dev Nag, founder and chief executive of CtrlStack. Nag, who sold his previous startup Wavefront to VMWare, is also an LP in the fund. Sequoia, Marc Andreessen back early-stage fund Kearny Jackson by Manish Singh originally published on TechCrunch

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Tanmay Chopra Contributor Share on Twitter Tanmay Chopra works in machine learning at AI search startup Neeva, where he wrangles language models large and small. Previously, he oversaw the development of ML systems globally to counter violence and extremism on TikTok. Last summer could only be described as an “AI summer,” especially with large language models making an explosive entrance. We saw huge neural networks trained on a massive corpora of data that can accomplish exceedingly impressive tasks, none more famous than OpenAI’s GPT-3 and its newer, hyped offspring, ChatGPT. Companies of all shapes and sizes across industries are rushing to figure out how to incorporate and extract value from this new technology. But OpenAI’s business model has been no less transformative than its contributions to natural language processing. Unlike almost every previous release of a flagship model, this one does not come with open-source pretrained weights — that is, machine learning teams cannot simply download the models and fine-tune them for their own use cases. Instead, they must either pay to use them as-is, or pay to fine-tune the models and then pay four times the as-is usage rate to employ it. Of course, companies can still choose other peer open-sourced models. This has given rise to an age-old corporate — but entirely new to ML — question: Would it be better to buy or build this technology? It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question; I’m not trying to provide a catch-all answer. I mean to highlight pros and cons of both routes and offer a framework that might help companies evaluate what works for them while also providing some middle paths that attempt to include components of both worlds. Buying: Fast, but with clear pitfalls While building looks attractive in the long run, it requires leadership with a strong appetite for risk, as well as deep coffers to back said appetite. Let’s start with buying. There are a whole host of model-as-a-service providers that offer custom models as APIs, charging per request. This approach is fast, reliable and requires little to no upfront capital expenditure. Effectively, this approach de-risks machine learning projects, especially for companies entering the domain, and requires limited in-house expertise beyond software engineers. Projects can be kicked off without requiring experienced machine learning personnel, and the model outcomes can be reasonably predictable, given that the ML component is being purchased with a set of guarantees around the output. Unfortunately, this approach comes with very clear pitfalls, primary among which is limited product defensibility. If you’re buying a model anyone can purchase and integrate it into your systems, it’s not too far-fetched to assume your competitors can achieve product parity just as quickly and reliably. That will be true unless you can create an upstream moat through non-replicable data-gathering techniques or a downstream moat through integrations. What’s more, for high-throughput solutions, this approach can prove exceedingly expensive at scale. For context, OpenAI’s DaVinci costs $0.02 per thousand tokens. Conservatively assuming 250 tokens per request and similar-sized responses, you’re paying $0.01 per request. For a product with 100,000 requests per day, you’d pay more than $300,000 a year. Obviously, text-heavy applications (attempting to generate an article or engage in chat) would lead to even higher costs. You must also account for the limited flexibility tied to this approach: You either use models as-is or pay significantly more to fine-tune them. It is worth remembering that the latter approach would involve an unspoken “lock-in” period with the provider, as fine-tuned models will be held in their digital custody, not yours. Building: Flexible and defensible, but expensive and risky On the other hand, building your own tech allows you to circumvent some of these challenges.When it comes to large language models, should you build or buy? by Ram Iyer originally published on TechCrunch

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When Shutterstock and OpenAI announced a partnership to help develop OpenAI’s Dall-E 2 artificial intelligence image-generating platform with Shutterstock libraries to train and feed the algorithm, the stock photo and media giant also hinted that it would soon be bringing its own generative AI tools to users. Today the company took the wraps off that product. Customers of Shutterstock’s Creative Flow online design platform will now be able to create images based on text prompts, powered by OpenAI and Dall-E 2. Key to the feature — which does not appear to have a brand name as such — is that Shutterstock says the images are “ready for licensing” right after they’re made.  This is significant given that one of Shutterstock’s big competitors, Getty Images, is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against Stability AI — maker of another generative AI service called Stable Diffusion — over using its images to train its AI without permission from Getty or rightsholders. In other words, Shutterstock’s service is not only embracing the ability to use AI, rather than the skills of a human photographer, to build the image you want to discover, but it’s setting the company up in opposition to Getty in terms of how it is embracing the brave new world of artificial intelligence. Stability AI has been backed with significant funding, but as of yesterday, not as much as OpenAI, which closed a massive, $10 billion round and extended partnership with Microsoft. In addition to Shutterstock’s work with OpenAI, the company earlier this month also announced an expanded deal with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp parent Meta, which will be (similar to OpenAI) using Shutterstock’s photo and other media libraries (it also has video and music) to build its AI datasets and to train its algorithms. You can expect more generative AI tools to be rolling out as a result. What’s interesting is that while we don’t know the financial terms of those deals with OpenAI, Meta or another partner, LG, there is a clear commercial end point with these services. Shutterstock’s bet seems to be that it’s worth jumping in and getting involved with these new technologies, and try to build a business around them, rather than stand by and let itself get cannibalized by those tools. The big question will be whether what Shutterstock offers will have a clear enough differentiation, and unique selling point, from others offering generative AI tools for making images. Yes the licensing is currently one aspect that will be compelling, but longer term, if all are built on the same platform, what will set one apart from the other? In image libraries the idea is that one might simply have a better selection, better pricing, better discovery, and overall better experience, for the paying customer (and for the photographer uploading images). Will those parameters remain the same in the AI world or be obliterated? To be fair, Shutterstock is pitching itself as an “ethical” partner here, with promises of paying out to artists whose images have been used to feed these new services. Again, though, the issue will be whether these payouts be anywhere near the compensation those artists and photographers might have gotten for supplying the images themselves. “Shutterstock has developed strategic partnerships over the past two years with key industry players like OpenAI, Meta, and LG AI Research to fuel their generative AI research efforts, and we are now able to uniquely bring responsibly-produced generative AI capabilities to our own customers,” said Paul Hennessy, Chief Executive Officer at Shutterstock, in a statement today. “Our easy-to-use generative platform will transform the way people tell their stories — you no longer have to be a design expert or have access to a creative team to create exceptional work. Our tools are built on an ethical approach and on a library of assets that represents the diverse world we live in, and we ensure that the artists whose works contributed to the development of these models are recognized and rewarded.” After inking its OpenAI deal, Shutterstock rolls out a generative AI toolkit to create images based on text prompts by Ingrid Lunden originally published on TechCrunch

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Suneeta Kohli, a female Uber driver in New Delhi, had her account suddenly disabled one evening while she was en route to pick up a rider in a southern part of the capital city. “I was reaching the destination, but it took some time due to heavy traffic. The ride eventually got canceled. But after that, my account was blocked,” she recalled. Kohli, who has been driving for Uber for nearly four years and covers a distance of 112-124 miles daily, received a message saying her account had been blocked due to “an excessive number of fraudulent trips.” Kohli claimed that she had not taken any such fraudulent trips but pointed out the blocking happened to occur just days after participating in the country’s first women-driver strike in the capital in December. She was one of the prominent faces during the hours-long protest. As the sole earner in her family and a single parent of two daughters, Kohli said she often avoids taking leaves because it significantly impacts her household budget. Kohli’s account was restored, unlike some of her co-protesters who remained blocked on the platform for some days. They believed it was due to their recent protest, though Uber denied this and put the blame on their service. “There is no truth to it. No driver IDs were blocked related to the protest,” an Uber spokesperson said. Many gig workers in India, like Kohli, frequently experience deactivation of their accounts on platforms, often for simply speaking out about issues. However, the platforms tend to evade accountability for these actions. South India’s Telangana Gig and Platform Workers’ Union (TGPWU), which has more than 10,000 members, receives 25-30 cases of workers facing account deactivations by platforms every week. Sometimes, platforms block the accounts of these hard-earner workers for as many as four weeks (TechCrunch reviewed some screenshots shared by some affected workers). Account blockings and platform delistings are not limited to India, as drivers in the U.S. and Europe also face similar actions regularly. Nonetheless, gig workers in India who work with platforms such as cab-hailing companies Ola and Uber, as well as food and grocery delivery apps such as Swiggy, Zomato and Zepto and service platforms including Urban Company, have many pain points that are either unique to or quite significant in the South Asian nation, which aims to become a $1 trillion digital economy by 2025. The problems are chiefly related to declining income, increasing variable expenses and lack of welfare schemes and social security. As the country is becoming more digital and has attracted global tech companies and startups, gig workers’ pain is growing in severity — and so are their protests. TechCrunch has spoken with several workers associated with cab aggregators and food delivery platforms, spokespersons of their local unions and researchers closely looking at their lives to understand their concerns better. The beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, followed by nationwide lockdowns and restrictions, helped internet-based platforms grow their businesses in India — just like in many parts of the world. But that growth also made jobs of gig workers in the country more challenging: They saw a decline in payouts and increased competition with the surge of new workers joining these platforms after being made redundant from salaried roles. Per the details shared by the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), which has amassed more than 35,000 members across the country since early 2020, food and grocery delivery platform workers earn an average of between $0.18-$0.24 per order. This declined between 43-57% from the $0.42 they were getting until the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies have also increased their delivery area radius from 2.4 miles to 12.4 miles, the workers’ union said, which could mean drivers take longer journeys, and thus fewer trips in a working day. Cab drivers on SoftBank-backed Ola and Uber get the equivalent of between $6 and $10 daily. This comes after deducting the commission cab aggregators take for each ride they offer drivers. IFAT said the aggregator cut previously was 20%, though it increased to 25-30% following the initial pandemic phase. Although payments to cab drivers have stayed the same in the last couple of years, the increased commission rate has reduced their net earnings, the union said. On the other hand, delivery workers who deliver food and groceries get anywhere between $4 and $6 per day. They used to earn between $6 and $10 daily until the beginning of the pandemic, IFAT’s data shows. A Swiggy spokesperson refuted the claims of seeing a decline in payments and said the earnings of its delivery workers increased by 22% in 2022 compared to when the pandemic started in 2020. The spokesperson said the earnings comprise three components: per-order pay, surge pay and incentive pay. The startup also shares 100% of tips given by consumers to its delivery workers, the spokesperson said. The company, however, did not share any exact earning details to justify its claims. Platforms claim they offer flexibility to log in and out to their workers. “Statistically, 95% of Swiggy’s delivery executives who do a shift of 8-9 hours, hit their delivery targets and earn their weekly incentives,” the Swiggy spokesperson said. However, Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of IFAT, told TechCrunch that workers with food and grocery delivery and cab aggregator platforms work at least 12-14 hours a day to generate the average income. He worked as a cab driver until September last year. On top of seeing the dip in their earnings, workers need to pay more for the fuel their vehicles require to enable these services, as the country has hiked petrol and diesel prices multiple times in the last couple of years. The price of compressed natural gas (CNG), which fuels most cabs in the country, has also increased a whopping 86%, from $0.52 in December 2020 to $0.97 last month. Worker unions have been demanding that platforms limit the radius within which they get their customers — for both deliveries and cab bookings — as workers sometimes travel miles to reach their customer destination. This incurs unnecessary fuel consumption and time. But no significant move has been seen from the platforms’ side. Gig work platforms try to gamify their models to push workers and convince them to do their jobs rigorously, Salauddin said. However, as the workers become more experienced and see no significant incentives coming out of that platform-driven stimulus, they start getting frustrated. Swiggy, Ola and Uber app screenshots (from left to right) showing gamifications on their platforms encouraging workers to continue to work hard. Image Credits: IFAT Platforms used to have managers and team leaders in place to reduce the frustration of their workers and listen to their problems. But to avoid the costs of keeping active last-mile support, most platforms have switched to automated or remote ways to readdress worker issues, according to workers’ unions. “A zone manager is now replaced with a remote operation control person,” said Rikta Krishnaswamy, Delhi-NCR coordinator of the All India Gig Workers’ Union (AIGWU). She said that most platforms provide a web-based form or redirect workers to a call center executive who has no power or information to solve any reported issues. “Whenever a worker faces a challenge, it’s very hard for them to get recourse from anywhere. Most of these big platforms are geared toward alleviating customers’ grievances,” said Aayush Rathi, research and programs lead at the Centre for Internet and Society. Platforms claim they have multiple channels to communicate with their workers. The Swiggy spokesperson said it has fleet managers as the primary contact for workers to raise their concerns and feedback and sourcing and onboarding centers as the first point of contact for workers joining the platform and act as channels to direct queries and concerns to the startup through its representative. The spokesperson also said that it hosts delivery executive townhalls at a hyperlocal level, as well as offers in-app comments on the partner app and 24×7 Swiggy hotline support. Nonetheless, several workers still find it challenging to convey their demands. Platform companies call gig workers “partners,” but to get maximum business from these so-called partners, platforms use performance-based ratings and algorithms. Workers take some time to understand these moves. But even when they get them, most workers find no solution to make things easier and continue to live under the pressure that platforms put through ratings and algorithms. “I don’t see an option to move away from this business as what else we can do. What will I do with my car that is still on installments? I couldn’t give it to someone to drive,” said Kohli. In addition to the ratings and algorithms, workers need to fulfill specific targets in their service — whether they are into food or grocery deliveries or are running cabs. Examples can be fulfilling tens of deliveries or completing tens of trips in a single day. The imposition of excessively high targets, combined with gamification and penalties, can sometimes lead to dangerous situations and accidents, resulting in deaths in some cases. This is a growing concern, particularly among delivery workers — including those enabling quick deliveries — who operate two-wheeled vehicles on public roads and feel pressure to meet their grocery and food delivery targets. “We’ve seen terrible accidents, including loss of lives of workers, just because they don’t want to get a bad customer rating,” said Krishnaswamy. In a few cases, the mental pressure build-up due to tainted working conditions forces workers to commit suicide. According to the data recorded by TGPWU, at least 10 cases of Ola and Uber drivers committing suicide have emerged in Telangana, which is home to offices of big tech companies, including Google and Microsoft. Additionally, Indian media outlets have reported that some delivery workers across the country have been killed in road accidents while delivering food and grocery orders. Platforms claim to offer insurance and support to their workers, though unions including AIGWU, IFAT and TGPWU claim these are of little to no use. Companies only respond to issues and help drivers avail support including insurance once they appear in some media reports, one of the delivery workers, who did not want to be named, alleged. The process of claiming insurance for gig workers can be so cumbersome and time-consuming that many workers ultimately choose not to pursue it. Research firm Fairwork India recently blasted platforms, including Ola, Uber, Dunzo and Amazon Flex, for their poor conditions for gig workers. Of the 12 platforms it studied, the firm awarded the first point to Big Basket, Flipkart, Swiggy, Urban Company and Zomato under its “Fair Conditions” criteria “for simplifying their insurance claims processes and for having operational emergency helplines on the platform interface.” Others are found not to have such fair conditions. The five platforms that were found to have “Fair Conditions” for work were also noted to have other key aspects, including giving fair pay and having fair management. Fairwork India 2022 ratings suggest some of the ongoing issues with gig platforms. Image Credits: Fairwork India Balaji Parthasarathy, IIIT Bangalore professor and lead investigator for the Fairwork project in India, told TechCrunch that no platform from the 12 they studied was willing to talk to or acknowledge the need to speak with a worker collective. Union leaders at IFAT and AIGWU have also echoed Parthasarathy’s words and said that most platforms do not communicate with them to understand workers’ problems. In March last year, Uber formed a Driver Advisory Council in India to mimic the model of a traditional union. The company claims the Council has 48 drivers from six cities and aims to “facilitate a two-way dialogue between Uber and drivers.” The Council has a third-party review board led by the Bengaluru-based think tank Aapti Institute. It has convened three times since its inception and taken up issues on earnings, product enhancements and social security, among others, the company spokesperson said. “Uber has always met with driver partners to listen to their feedback about their experience with Uber and ensure we take that into account when making product changes and formulating policies. During COVID, we engaged with the driver community specifically to ask them how best to disburse emergency relief funds,” the spokesperson said when asked whether the company has ever communicated with existing driver associations such as IFAT and AIGWU to understand driver concerns better. The Swiggy spokesperson said it engaged with all the delivery workers “directly and consistently through multiple channels.” “At Swiggy, we like to keep our communication and engagement open to address our delivery executives’ concerns,” the spokesperson said when asked about the startup’s communication with driver associations. Unlike Uber and Swiggy, a Zomato spokesperson has said that it had engaged with IFAT and AIGWU. Issues with gig workers in India manifest when we look at women workers who need to pay onboarding fees again when they come back after maternity leave or regularly suffer due to the lack of public toilets in the country. Most of these women workers are single parents and sole earners in their families. Earlier this month, a female Uber driver in New Delhi was allegedly assaulted by some local gangsters while taking a passenger early in the morning. The attackers broke a glass bottle and used the shards to cut the woman’s neck, causing her to receive seven stitches. “I was not in a condition to call anyone at the time, but I was on duty when the incident happened,” she said. She added that Uber did not check for her well-being hours after the attack, and the police took 25 minutes to reach the spot. Local drivers nearby came to her aid and called the ambulance. When reached for a comment on the matter, the Uber spokesperson said the company was in touch with the driver. “What this driver went through is horrifying. We are in touch with the driver and wish her a speedy and full recovery. Her injury-related medical expenses will be covered under Uber’s on-trip insurance provided through a third-party insurance partner. We stand ready to support law enforcement authorities in their investigation,” the spokesperson said. “Platforms do nothing for our issues,” said Sheetal Kashyap, a woman Uber driver who participated in the Delhi protest in December along with Kohli. She told TechCrunch that before sitting down in the capital, the women drivers’ group tried reaching out to the company by visiting its offices in Gurugram. Instead of being granted a meeting with the management, the group was met with bouncers at the office who were unable to offer assistance, according to the driver’s account. The drivers also attempted to convey concerns of women drivers to the state government. However, they did not receive any response, which ended up kicking off their protest, which has not yet seen any fruitful results. Kashyap said that women drivers in the state drive 16 hours a day to earn enough to pay for monthly installments of their cabs and meet their family expenses. The cabs in Delhi have a panic button to help riders in an emergency since a driver reportedly raped a passenger in 2015. Once pressed, cab companies claim that the button initiates alerts to the state transport department and law enforcement agencies. Some reports suggested that most cabs do not have a functioning panic button. Nevertheless, the option is explicitly given to riders and is not meant to be used by drivers. Uber has, however, offered an in-app emergency button for drivers to let them connect with local authorities if they need assistance. Kashyap said the state government takes money, which in her case is around $85, from drivers for the panic button each time it passes their vehicle’s fitness. Sporadic strikes — a state of affairs now Frustrated workers often choose to raise their concerns through strikes and sit-downs. In a recent incident, thousands of delivery workers associated with SoftBank and Goldman Sachs-invested Swiggy sat on a strike in south India’s Kerala capital Kochi that lasted 44 days. The workers demanded changes such as an increase in their payments, the addition of late-night payment surges and the appointment of zonal managers. The sit-down, which was originally aimed to be “indefinite,” disrupted Swiggy’s service in some parts of the state. The food delivery company, though, fixed that disruption by bringing workers from a third party. This has become a general practice among food delivery platforms to deploy third-party workers to avoid outages if their motorists strike. Swiggy also reached out to the court to seek police protection of its office premises, employees and third-party workers. Eventually, the startup convinced the workers protesting to call it off — without accepting their demand or giving any confirmation in writing. The Swiggy spokesperson said that in Kochi, the weekly payout of its delivery workers increased close to 20% in the last 12 months and remained the industry-best. The startup “initiated positive dialogues to convey these details and assuage their concerns about the payouts and earning opportunities,” the spokesperson said, adding that its top-two delivery executives were from Kerala in 2022. This was not the first time that workers conducted a strike against these platforms. In fact, some Swiggy workers made a similar protest in the southernmost Indian state of Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai last year, which also resulted in a disruption in its service. But it was called off shortly after — without seeing any changes from the startup side. Similar strikes from Swiggy workers happened around the same issues in cities including Hyderabad, Kolkata and Noida as well, but workers resumed work after a few days — with hope to see some action on their demands over time. Swiggy workers protested against their declining wages in Kolkata last year. Image Credits: NurPhoto / Contributor In addition to Swiggy, Zomato and grocery startup Blinkit, which Zomato acquired last year, have seen their workers going on sit-downs for similar issues. The workers raising their problems through these protests have not yet received any firm resolutions. According to Krishnaswamy of AIGWU, there is a strike every 15 days in the Delhi-NCR region. However, it seems that the platforms are not greatly affected by these protests. “Unless you can sustain yourself for a week, you should not strike. A strike is like the last resort,” Krishnaswamy said. Salauddin of IFAT said that workers go on strike when they feel pain. It’s the moment when workers listen to nothing and want their demands to be immediately addressed, he said. Instead of getting significant pressure to address concerns or fulfill demands, platforms often ban accounts of workers going on strike to limit their protests. Google-backed Dunzo was last year seen threatening delivery workers to suspend their accounts permanently if they were found participating in or supporting any strikes. Swiggy also apparently took a similar action against its delivery workers protesting in a strike in December. Unions, finding that strikes alone have not produced the desired outcomes, are now exploring alternative methods and reserving strikes as a last resort. “These small struggles, these sporadic struggles, I am not at all belittling them. They are a crucial stepping stone to building an organization. And they’re a very, very crucial stepping stone for workers to understand how mighty the odds are stacked against them,” Krishnaswamy said. Some protests did help workers to bring their issues into the limelight in the recent past. One such example is those associated with Urban Company in 2021. In that case, women workers were able to bend the startup to slash its commission rate and increase their service charges after protesting on the streets. However, Urban Company later in December 2021 sued the protesting workers. Krishnaswamy said one of those workers included a pregnant woman who faced fabricated criminal and civil injunctions due to raising her voice. The startup quietly withdrew the case in April last year because they knew it did not have any teeth in the matter, she said. In another case, some cab drivers in 2021 protested against Ola for allegedly not returning their leased vehicles and selling some of them. Ola initially directed more than 30,000 drivers to park their leased cars in its parking spaces following the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal tweeted at the time. However, according to the affected drivers, the startup did not return the cars when the lockdown restrictions eased in the country. Drivers deposited a refundable security deposit between $255-$376 to get the car on lease and were required to pay some monthly rent. But that all went in vain as drivers said the startup did not return that money after trickily getting back their leased vehicles. Marketing material shared by IFAT shows drivers were promised to earn up to $303 a month and get ownership of their leased cars in four years. Ola lease vehicles were promised to give better earnings. Image Credits: IFAT Ola initially convinced drivers to get leased vehicles by telling them they would be offered better business options, said Moeiz Syed, one of the affected drivers in Hyderabad, who lost the deposit of nearly $1,200 for three leased cabs. He also lost over $72 in Ola Money, which was to be transferred to his account during the lockdown. Due to initial protests and some impacted drivers taking the matter to court, Ola did pay a partial amount in some cases. Syed, though, alleged that he did not get anything from the startup to date since he had raised some concerns with Ola earlier and participated in protests. Ola also blocked his account and made it inaccessible. That made it impossible for him to get evidence of getting those cars on lease as the details were available only on the app, he said. Syed, who was earlier paying six drivers to drive his cabs, had to move his house from Hyderabad to a nearby village and sell the gold jewelry of his wife to survive. He finally started working as a driver for a local goods carrier at a monthly wage of $121-$145. Ola did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. Slow moves from the government side Gig work has been in the country for over a decade, and most platforms have raised billions of dollars from global investors in the last few years. Nonetheless, it was only in 2020 that New Delhi defined gig workers and platform workers as a part of its code related to social security (PDF). It is, however, yet to be operationalized and is not in force in most Indian states. Gig worker unions and researchers also call the code vague and not the ultimate move to protect the social security of gig workers. In 2020, India’s transport ministry also amended (PDF) the existing motor vehicle law to include the businesses and practices of platform aggregators in the country. The new rules are, though, yet to be considered by most Indian states. The labor ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Regulatory uncertainty has a negative impact on the operations of gig platforms in India. Last year, companies such as Ola, Uber and Rapido have faced temporary bans on their services due to perceived violations of state rules. As a result, hundreds of drivers were fined for continuing to operate during the ban. The ban was eventually stayed by the Karnataka High Court. Currently, Rapido’s services are facing similar issues in Maharashtra. Parthasarathy of the Fairwork project said there is complete silence on key issues such as fair wages and willingness or ability to bargain collectively. “Better regulation is absolutely critical,” he said. “I don’t think platforms are going to necessarily pay attention to any voluntary code.” In September 2021, the Indian government launched the e-Shram (e-labor in English) portal to build a comprehensive database of unorganized workers, including those who are a part of gig platforms, such as cab aggregators Uber and Ola and food and grocery delivery apps Swiggy, Dunzo and Zomato, among others. But its complicated registration process and complex requirements have restricted various gig workers from signing up on the portal, workers’ unions including IFAT said. The portal also does not support multiple Indian languages. It is limited to Hindi and English, though the country has several gig workers speaking local languages, and its constitution considers 22 official languages. The eShram portal is available to gig workers in India. Image Credits: Screenshot / TechCrunch The government’s data shared in the lower house of the country’s parliament in July showed (PDF) that 717,686 gig workers had been registered on the e-Shram portal as of January 2022. The number is significantly lower than the 6.8 million gig and platform workers reported by the country’s federal think tank NITI Aayog in June. The think tank also predicted that these workers will hit 23.5 million by 2030. The NITI Aayog’s report (PDF) itself, though, does not give a clear picture of India’s gig economy, according to researchers and worker unions. In an article published last year in response to the think tank’s report, researchers Asiya Islam and Damni Kain underlined that it carries unsubstantiated claims that gig and platform economy work has improved employment opportunities for women and people with disabilities. The report also does not hold the government accountable for developing public facilities to help create workforce participation and instead shifts the responsibility of enabling skill development and jobs from the state to private corporations, the researchers said. “There’s this model that’s being constantly thrown at us and being proposed by the government, which is about platformizing everything like that, specifically use the term ‘platformization.’ That’s becoming a catchphrase, a popular term, where all responsibility is being abdicated by the government in favor of the platform’s doing everything,” Islam, who is a lecturer in work and employment relations at the University of Leeds, told TechCrunch. In 2021, IFAT filed a writ petition with the country’s Supreme Court against the Indian government and platforms including Ola, Uber and Zomato, seeking to treat gig workers as employees based on the nature of their work and get them social security benefits. “The aggregators and government should be held responsible for contributing toward the schemes that are being introduced, and a proposal can be worked out on how this can be done,” said Gayatri Singh, a senior advocate involved with IFAT on the petition. The petition has yet to be listed for hearing in the apex court. India versus global markets Gig workers’ problems are not exclusive to India, as these workers in the U.S. and Europe have raised several concerns yet to be addressed. And in most countries, like the U.S.. there are no unions to speak of to represent gig workers’ interests. Nonetheless, the scale of consumption in the South Asian nation, which is the world’s second-biggest internet market, makes it different and more complex. “There is a crisis of overproduction,” said Krishnaswamy of AIGWU. In 2020, a judge in California ruled that cab companies Uber and Lyft must classify their drivers as employees, not self-employed. A similar judgment came from the U.K.’s Supreme Court in 2021. India has yet to see such rulings to favor its growing number of gig workers. Fairwork’s Parthasarathy said that it is not appropriate to compare India with other markets directly as the law around the gig economy is gray around the globe. “What drives people to work on platforms here is different from what drives people to work on platforms there [in affluent countries], and legal structures etc., are quite different,” he said. Islam of Leeds University stated India’s large informal economy complicates the scenario. The country’s informal sector employs about 80% of its total labor force and produces 50% of its gross domestic product. “If you’re talking about the U.K., we end up comparing gig workers with workers who are in the formal economy because that’s the dominant alternative form of employment, whereas in India, that’s not necessarily the case. In India, most people are employed in the informal economy,” Islam said. Currently, India lacks adequate measures to support its unemployed population, which often leads people to turn to delivery platforms and ride-hailing services to make ends meet when they lose their jobs or are struggling in their current employment. “Why do our state governments not actually announce an unemployment allowance? If they do so, 90% of the workforce for these hyperlocal delivery companies will just quit and sit at home to wait out and get a better opportunity,” Krishnaswamy said. For the past few years, India has also seen religious hatred and bigotry impacting gig workers. Last year, a Muslim Uber driver in Hyderabad named Syed Lateefuddin reportedly faced a violent attack, in which he was assaulted and his car was pelted with stones. The driver did not receive any response from Uber’s emergency services after several attempts and eventually called the police, TGPWU said. Uber driver Syed Lateefuddin’s car was allegedly attacked with stones in Hyderabad last year. Image Credits: IFAT Similar bigotry issues cropped up on Ola, Swiggy and Zomato as well. In some cases, customers made bigoted requests. The incidents were tweeted by a couple of parliamentarians of opposition parties, though the Indian government did not direct queries in any of these cases. Most companies also did not respond to the workers’ demands following the incidents to ensure redressal. However, Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal, in one case in 2019, publicly responded to the issue and said that they were not “sorry” to lose business if it came in the way of their values. “We are proud of the idea of India – and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners,” he said in a tweet. When asked about its take on the communal hatred and bigotry on its platform, the Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that it condemned any form of discrimination on its platform as it violates its community guidelines meant to maintain safety standards for riders and drivers. “We have created multiple touch points for drivers to reach us in case they face a problem. Through our in-app emergency button, they can connect with the local law enforcement directly in case of an emergency. They also have the option to connect to an Uber support agent through a dedicated 24×7 phone support to share their concern,” the spokesperson said. The Swiggy spokesperson also said that there was no place for discrimination on its platform. “The assignment of orders is entirely automated and does not make alterations based on the religion or community of the delivery executive and deter their earning opportunities,” the spokesperson said, adding that the startup barred customers from its platform who defy its anti-discriminatory policy that is displayed on the app and covers its customers, delivery workers and restaurant partners. “Discrimination based on religion, caste, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, age or any other metric is deemed unlawful under applicable laws. Any credible proof of such discrimination, including any refusal to provide or receive goods or services based on the above metrics, shall render the user liable to lose access to the platform immediately,” the spokesperson said. Are there any platforms that are not detrimental? Although workers associated with various significant platforms have raised concerns due to their ongoing behavior, some new platforms are showing some care to their workers. One such platform is EV ride-hailing startup BluSmart, backed by BP Ventures, which pays its drivers on a weekly basis. Some drivers who moved from Ola and Uber told TechCrunch that they have found significantly less pressure when they started working with BluSmart. However, the Gurugram-headquartered startup does have target-based incentives and requires drivers to work regularly 10-14 hours a day, with up to two hours of break, to generate maximum earnings. Drivers are allowed to take one day off per week and one emergency leave per month, on any day of their choosing. BluSmart CBO Tushar Garg told TechCrunch that the drivers have the liberty to get as many leaves as they may wish to take if informed in advance. They also choose on Fridays how much and when they want to drive for the coming week, he said. BluSmart pays its drivers on a weekly basis. Image Credits: BluSmart Unlike cab aggregators such as Ola or Uber, BluSmart operates its own fleet of EVs, which drivers must take from designated hubs each day. This model may not be suitable for those who have their own commercial cabs. “What we would do with our cab if we get on a platform like BluSmart?” Kashyap said. Even Cargo is another example of operating differently for workers, but it is not a gig worker platform. The New Delhi-based social enterprise works as a women-only, last-mile e-commerce logistics provider. It allows workers to come to its hub in the morning, where they can access the washroom — before beginning their work. “That’s something that’s actually quite crucial to getting people who’ve been otherwise marginalized in the labor market, including women. This is what gives them the opportunity to enter the labor market,” Islam of Leeds University said. Workers’ unions remain skeptical about new gig worker platforms bringing any key differences. “You have to realize that these companies are answerable only to their shareholders, their shareholders only care about super profits, and super profits come out of super-exploitation,” Krishnaswamy of AIGWU said. India’s gig economy drivers face bust in the country’s digital boom by Jagmeet Singh originally published on TechCrunch

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Electric vehicle charging management systems are usually end-to-end solutions for managing EV charging operations, billing, energy, drivers, and even fleets. This means EV charging service providers can optimize the monetization of their operations. A number of players have proliferated over the last few years. Driivz from Israel has raised $23.1M in VC funding to date and was recently selected by Shell to run its charging and smart energy management platform. Greenflux from the Netherlands has pulled in €11M. Then there’s ChargeLab (raised $20.4M) out of Canada, Monta (€50M) out of Denmark, and EV Energy ($13.5M) out of the UK. Meanwhile, originally hailing from Sofia, Bulgaria, but now with operations across Europe, is Ampeco, a startup which until now hasn’t popped up on the VC funding radar with its own EV charging management platform. That changes today with the news that Ampeco has raised a series A round of $13M led by BMW iVentures, taking its total raised to date to $16M. The startup plans to use the cash to drive further into North America, as well as growing product. The Series A round also included Bulgaria’s LauncHub Ventures (which last year announced a €70M fund, substantial for the South Eastern Europe region) and Cavalry Ventures (out of Berlin) as well as a handful of angel investors. It’s worth remembering that BMW iVentures has form in this area, backing a number of earlier players. It was an early investor in Chargepoint (now on the NYSE) and Chargemaster (acquired by BP). Ampeco offers a solution to EV charging providers that covers the public sector, private business fleets, and residential. The idea is that its platform lets customers manage chargers at scale and then pick and choose / mix and match from hardware partners, rather than being locked-in to one hardware provider. It also works with smart meters, building management systems, and renewable energy sources. In a statement Orlin Radev, CEO, AMPECO said: “There is an incredible opportunity for EV charging providers to build and scale a profitable business using innovative technologies.” Four years after launching, Ampeco says it has pulled-in 120 customers in 45 markets, reached 62,000 charging points and doubled in size to over 80 people.  Baris Guzel, Partner, BMW i Ventures, added: “As EV sales are proliferating, access to EV charging infrastructure becomes more critical than ever. Ampeco’s hardware-agnostic and comprehensive software solution enables clients to launch and grow their own EV charging networks quickly.” BMW continues its love affair with EVs, backing this Bulgarian startup’s $13M A-round by Mike Butcher originally published on TechCrunch

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Gemba, an enterprise-focused virtual reality (VR) training startup used by some of the world’s biggest companies, has raised $18 million in a Series A round of funding. Gemba designs and delivers so-called virtual “masterclasses” spanning subject matters such as supply chain management and lean manufacturing, working in conjunction with experts from the respective fields to deliver the courses which can run over several days. The core selling point behind Gemba’s programs is that they are designed to be as life-like as possible, which means that they are delivered live and can facilitate real-time interactions between all the participants. “A Gemba masterclass is entirely interactive — it’s 3D, immersive, and we use the same software that 90% of video games are created in (Unity),” Gemba CEO Nathan Robinson told TechCrunch. “In Gemba, you can freely walk around, grab objects, participate in simulations -– you can do everything you can do in real life, plus a load more that you can’t do in real life.” All participants have a corresponding avatar, and they can join from pretty much anywhere they wish, including their office or home living room. “A typical masterclass has 25 senior executives attending from cross-sector companies, such as VPs from Pfizer, Nike, Adidas, Dell, Volvo, Roche and more,” Robinson added. “It has one masterclass leader who is a recognized subject matter expert, and two guest speakers from companies like Amazon and AstraZeneca.” Gemba in action While Gemba’s software currently only works with Meta’s Quest headsets, which it provides as part of the package, the company said that it’s working to expand its support to all popular VR and AR devices throughout 2023. The story so far While the metaverse hype spurred by companies such as Facebook’s parent Meta may be somewhat premature, it’s clear that VR, AR, and mixed reality have been gaining at least a little more traction outside of gaming circles in recent times — the pandemic may have played a part in this. Training in particular remains a central focus for many current VR applications, and investors have been taking note. Last month, for example, Loft Dynamics raised $20 million to tackle helicopter pilot shortage with VR training, while medical simulation platform FundamentalVR secured $20 million to help surgeons learn through VR. And then there’s VRAI, which recently raised a modest $3.2 million to bring VR simulation training to hazardous industries such as the offshore wind sector. Founded back in 2010 initially as an executive training company called The Leadership Network, London-based Gemba rebranded to its current name last April as part of an ongoing transition away from its legacy training business. While the pandemic may have bolstered Gemba’s ambitions in the VR space, it had in fact started to shift its focus some years previous, as it sought new ways to capture the knowledge from its training courses and scale it to thousands of users. Indeed, the company delivered its first VR enterprise training in 2019, with its masterclasses kicking off the following year. “From inception to completion, this process has taken more than five years,” Robinson said. “In 2017, VR was still clunky, challenging, and only really being used in niche gaming, but all the ingredients for the metaverse were there. What we saw was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create immersive learning that feels as good as a face-to-face experience, with limitless creative possibilities, all the efficiencies of a digital platform, and huge environmental and societal benefits for a changing workforce.” Gemba in action All its research and development through the pivot to VR was essentially self-funded from the profits it made from its traditional training programs, but now it’s looking to ramp things up and build on a foundation that has seen it garner major customers including Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Nike, each of which started out as Gemba customers in its traditional in-person training business before transitioning with Gemba to the VR realm. The core selling point for customers is that VR helps them eliminate travel time and costs, and also meet whatever corporate carbon-cutting commitments they may have in place. However, Gemba’s courses aren’t exactly cheap, with each masterclass costing around $7,250 per person per program, though enterprise subscriptions are available starting at around $120,000 for a 50-person team each year, going all the way up to $1.2 million for larger scale rollouts. Participants also get to keep their Meta Quest headset at the end of the program, though with the enterprise subscription plan companies buy the headsets separately and re-uses them on future programs. With $18 million in the bank, representing its first ever external funding, Gemba said that it plans to expedite its growth across the EMEA region and eventually expand into the North American market. Indeed, Gemba’s Series A round was led by New York-based Parkway Venture Capital, which has previously invested in the likes of Lyft, Intel-owned Mobileye, Coursera, and China’s Didi. Gemba, a corporate VR training platform used by Coca-Cola and Pfizer, raises $18M by Paul Sawers originally published on TechCrunch

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Scores of Microsoft services including Teams, Xbox Live, Outlook and Microsoft 365 suite are inaccessible to thousands of users around the globe. Microsoft has acknowledged the outage, and said it’s working on a fix. According to DownDetector, a popular tool that tracks service reliability, users began reporting accessibility issues with multiple services including Microsoft 365, Outlook, Teams, Minecraft, Azure, GitHub and Microsoft Store about an hour ago (2.30 a.m. Pacific Time). We're investigating issues impacting multiple Microsoft 365 services. More info can be found in the admin center under MO502273. — Microsoft 365 Status (@MSFT365Status) January 25, 2023 ms teams and outlook down, tapos nagsend ako chat sa viber — g | vibe • bss 02.06 (@__svtofjune) January 25, 2023 MS Teams and Outlook down? @MicrosoftTeams I guess some companies will opt to announce early work dismissal or “Be right back” status is the key #MicrosoftTeams #MSTeams #MSTeamsDown — WALTER CES (@waltzjces) January 25, 2023 Microsoft’s status page for Office 365 currently says that “users may be unable to access multiple Microsoft 365 services.” Apart from the services reported by users, the company said SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and Microsoft Graph were also facing outages. “We’ve identified a potential networking issue and are reviewing telemetry to determine the next troubleshooting steps,” the page said. Microsoft laid off 10,000 employees last week as a response to “macroeconomic conditions and changing customer priorities.” “As we saw customers accelerate their digital spend during the pandemic, we’re now seeing them optimize their digital spend to do more with less,” Nadella wrote in an email memo sent to employees. “We’re also seeing organizations in every industry and geography exercise caution as some parts of the world are in a recession and other parts are anticipating one.” He added that historically the company has had to make these kinds of “hard choices” to remain relevant in the industry “that is unforgiving to anyone who doesn’t adapt to platform shifts.” Multiple Microsoft services including Outlook, Teams and Xbox Live suffer outage by Ivan Mehta originally published on TechCrunch

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Does the average person want to shop for apparel in virtual reality (VR)? Speaking for myself, it sounds rather cumbersome — having to plop on a headset to browse for, say, trousers as opposed to click through a few galleries. But not everyone agrees — particularly those who hope to build a business out of VR retail. Enter Emperia, an “immersive” retail startup that — to its credit — has already created virtual stores for brands including Bloomingdales, Dior, Ralph Lauren and Lacoste. Launched in 2019, the idea came from one of the co-founders, Olga Dogadkina, who previously worked in the luxury retail sector. “It became clear to me that while e-commerce was the future of retail, 2D websites were merely a tool that enabled an online purchase through a simple grid of images and text but lacked the customer journey, storytelling and the ability to provide the customer experience and product discovery retailers’ physical stores strive to achieve,” Dogadkina told TechCrunch in an email interview. “My other co-founder, Simonas Holcmann, and I launched Emperia to bridge the gap between the transactional nature of an e-commerce purchase and the personalized shopping experience brands can cultivate in store.” Emperia’s platform offers tools brands can use to create virtual experiences, including stores in VR. It integrates with existing e-commerce and stock management software, tracking demographics, store activity and purchases. With Emperia, brands can put on live events with hosts that walk them through a virtual space, or customize exhibits and displays with 3D models and images of real-world inventory. “Visitors” to Emperia’s virtual spaces don’t have to wear a VR headset, crucially. The platform — which can be embedded in existing websites — supports phones, laptops and tablets and doesn’t require installing an app or software. “Using technology, Emperia aims to make virtual worlds into the future of e-commerce, expanding the reach to new and future online shoppers, increasing brand loyalty and creating a complete new shopping experience,” Dogadkina said. “Emperia works directly with retailers’ heads of e-commerce, solving user experience, data analysis and online engagement issues they’ve been struggling with from the inception of e-commerce, by providing a new solution that leverages virtual worlds’ ability to equate and exceed the in-store customer experience and appeal to new target audiences, who use their mobile devices as getaway to retail.” Emperia collects a lot of data — data that not every shopper might be comfortable sharing. Studies show that many VR and “metaverse” platforms record info that could be used to identify a person, even if their data is de-identified on-device. A virtual store created with Emperia’s platform. Dogadkina asserts that Emperia only collects engagement, transaction and demographics data to give brands “visibility over how users are navigating and engaging in [their] virtual spaces.” She also notes the data — which she claims isn’t personally identifiable — is stored for “a limited time,” in compliance with GDPR rules. On the horizon for Emperia are new verticals and better personalization tools, Dogadkina says. The startup’s experimenting with machine learning as well, focusing on the tech’s ability to create visuals and 360-degree videos for product demos. “This is a nascent industry and so there is a lot of both market and user education involved in introducing people to this technology and ensuring brands can capitalize on its potential,” Dogadkina said. “As a relatively new industry, retailers find themselves needing to search out multiple solutions in order to build and design their virtual worlds. While rich in solutions, from data to security, 3D modeling and digital tokens, to a wide-variety of metaverse platforms, each with its own audience and specific capabilities, the choices are all out there but integrating them all together is a daunting task. That’s one of the driving forces behind our desire to bring complementing solutions under one roof.” But will VR have staying power — and is retail in VR actually catching on? Perhaps so. According to an August 2022 report from PwC, around a third of consumers had tried a VR app in the last six months, and — of those consumers — 32% bought products after checking them out in VR.  A separate poll of over 2,000 U.S. shoppers, taken in November 2022, found that roughly 37% planned to shop using VR and augmented reality. On the other hand, a Deloitte survey from September found that just 5% of U.S. internet users were expected to shop in VR ahead of the 2022 holiday season. Highlighting the pressure platform developers face, AltspaceVR, one of the first social applications of VR, was recently sunsetted by parent company Microsoft. Dogadkina is choosing to believe the optimistic predictions — and has some reason to. Despite competition from vendors like Obsess and ByondXR, Emperia has 45 customers across sectors including fashion, beauty, luxury apparel and sports. It’s also attracted a $10 million Series A investment led by Base10 Partners, joined by Daphni, Sony Ventures, Background Capital, Stanford Capital Partners and Concept Ventures. Emperia expects to grow the size of its workforce from 40 people to 120 by the end of the year. Image Credits: Emperia “The pandemic definitely accelerated awareness amongst retailers of what immersive, tech-powered e-commerce experiences could do and the role they could play in their sales strategy,” Dogadkina said. “The earlier marketing hype, which was campaign-dependent, short-lived virtual space has now become a permanent, long-term e-commerce solution, which is treated as a ‘flagship virtual store.’ Retailers are much more experienced, with specific roles within those organizations specializing and overseeing the creation and maintenance of these spaces, with the understanding that the virtual store is a completely new experience, different to the physical store environment, which presents a true opportunity to expand the brand’s appeal to the shoppers of the future.” Emperia is helping brands like Bloomingdales build shopping experiences in VR by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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In another flip-flop move, Twitter says that it will now remember the feed — the algorithmic “For You” or chronological “Following” — its users have chosen on the web. This change will give relief to many who had complained that the social network showed them the algorithmic timeline by default each time they visited the service. The move is the latest in a series of changes Twitter has made to its implementation of the dual timeline in recent days. It first made the algorithmic timeline default on iOS earlier this month. On the web, things are a little more confusing. January 13: Twitter rolled out the dual-timeline update to the web but at that time the social network used to remember your choice. January 20: The company made the “For You” feed default on the web when users first opened Twitter in a tab or refreshed the page. January 24: Now, Twitter remembers your choices again. World peace. Twitter also added that a similar update will be rolled out to the Twitter iOS and Android apps. So soon there will be no more algorithmic timeline as default on mobile apps either. Were any of you (all of you) asking for your timeline to default to where you left it last? Starting today on web, if you close Twitter on the “For you” or “Following” tabs, you will return to whichever timeline you had open last. iOS and Android coming soon! https://t.co/uKz9DpNRux — Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) January 24, 2023 Many power Twitter users who used third-party Twitter apps never had to deal with the algorithmic timeline. But now that Elon Musk & co. have killed third-party apps by making changes to the API rules, users have no option but to use the official Twitter app or website. This week’s move goes into the growing file of reversed decisions under Musk. The file includes pulling back the newly launched Twitter Blue program in November and removing terms that prohibited users from posting links to other social media profiles in December. How the recently shuttered third-party apps contributed to Twitter’s development Twitter won’t force you to the ‘For You’ timeline on web anymore by Ivan Mehta originally published on TechCrunch

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In 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states signed the Value Added Tax (VAT) agreement paving way for the introduction of the general levy on consumption across the region. The United Arabs Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia became the first member states to adopt the treaty in 2018, and its implementation meant that for the first time businesses in these territories were required to file VAT returns periodically. Nadim Alameddine, a UAE resident, says he immediately saw an opportunity in the accounting space as businesses sought to file returns as required by the new law. This inspired him to launch Wafeq in 2019, a startup that initially offered accounting services and later, in 2021, launched a scalable accounting and e-invoicing SaaS solution focused on clients in UAE and Saudi Arabia. Wafeq is now exploring new growth opportunities in Egypt while doubling down on its existing markets as businesses comply with evolving accounting and financial requirements. The growth plans follow a $3 million seed funding it has secured in a round led by Raed Ventures and participated by Wamda Capital. “There are regulatory changes happening in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and that is what we are trying to capitalize on at the moment… we are also doubling down on our existing markets, where we already have good traction,” Alameddine told TechCrunch. Egypt and Saudi Arabia currently require businesses to be e-invoicing compliant, which he says has led to a surge in demand for accounting software, which Wafeq is tapping through its enterprise (API) product. Wafeq is a ratified provider in Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (e-invoicing is not mandatory there yet). The startup is in the process of seeking approval from the Egyptian Tax Authority too. Alameddine said the North African country offers massive opportunities for the startup as it is home to millions of small medium businesses. Wafeq says its powering accounting and financial compliance for SMEs. Image courtesy: Wafeq Its accounting platform, on the other hand, makes it easy for clients to generate their VAT returns, manage inventory, payrolls, bills and track expenses. It also generates actionable financial reports and insights for businesses. “We position ourselves as a full accounting software for SMEs, and we offer three different plans serving businesses looking to send compliant invoices, manage their accounts payable, or those seeking a full accounting solution that includes inventory management and payroll services,” said Alameddine. Currently, over 630,000 invoices are created every month through its platform, with the total monthly invoiced amounts exceeding $117 million. They anticipate this to grow enormously in the wake of its growth plans. Commenting on the deal, Talal Alasmari, the founding partner of Raed Ventures said; “We are thrilled to back Wafeq as they solve a problem that impacts thousands of businesses in the region. The digitalization of accounting practices will truly transform how SMEs here operate, increasing operational transparency, creating efficiencies and contributing to economic growth.” YC-backed Zywa, a neobank for Gen Z, raises $3M to expand across MENA Qureos raises $3M to grow its learn to earn platform Dubai-based accounting and financial compliance startup, Wafeq, raises $3M by Annie Njanja originally published on TechCrunch

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