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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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Meet Oneleaf, a new startup that wants to make hypnosis mainstream. The startup has designed an app that helps you get started with hypnosis and follow various programs to quit smoking, reduce anxiety or lose weight. Oneleaf raised $4.6 million (€4.2 million) from Frst, Kima Ventures, Raise Ventures and several business angels. Bpifrance also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of that through equity-free financing. “How to quit smoking was a topic that really mattered to me. I discovered a whole new world, and that’s hypnosis,” founder and CEO Eliott Cohen-Skalli told me. “And the digital experience is better than the physical one. Hypnosis is a state of relaxation and focus at the same time.” According to Cohen-Skalli, the reason why it’s easier to practice self-hypnosis at home is that you’re in a peaceful and familiar environment. You’re not in someone’s office sitting next to a stranger. There is also a reason why an app might perform well in the hypnosis industry. Real-life hypnosis sessions can be quite expensive, especially in the U.S. Oneleaf has written a handful of 21-day programs that will help you with smoking, weight management or poor sleep. The company has worked with hypnosis professionals to design those sessions, such as Laurent Taton, Emily Balcetis and Judith Prochaska. The startup then recorded these sessions and added some binaural beats for background music. The result is an audio-only experience that you can start whenever you want from your phone. Each session lasts 20 to 30 minutes. Like meditation or fitness apps, Oneleaf is betting on subscription revenue. Users can pay $68 to access Oneleaf’s content library. There are also in-app purchases that let you unlock a program in particular. The app has been around for a few weeks already and feedback has been good so far. The company now hopes it can generate 10,000 downloads per month as quickly as possible. When it comes to the distribution strategy, the company will generate some downloads via ads, attract web users with content that is optimized for popular keywords, and sign partnerships with some influencers. At the end of 2023, Oneleaf hopes that it can also convince companies to pay for its product so that it can be part of the benefits package. A lot of companies pay for employee assistance programs and various subscription products. Adding Oneleaf to this lineup of apps and services makes sense and could create an interesting second revenue stream for the startup. But first, it’s going to be interesting to see if Oneleaf manages to build a loyal user base with its consumer product in the coming months. Image Credits: Oneleaf Oneleaf is self-hypnosis app that guides you through audio programs by Romain Dillet originally published on TechCrunch

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Tesla’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2022 earnings are upon us, and with it expectations from Wall Street for the electric vehicle maker to hit revenue for the quarter of $24.03 billion and adjusted earnings per share to land around $1.13, according to Yahoo Finance data. If Tesla hits that revenue estimate, it’ll mark a record for the company, but also the slowest pace of growth since mid-2020. As usual, Tesla will share its results Wednesday after market close, and management will discuss the earnings and answer analyst questions during a webcast that will he held at 5:30 p.m. ET. The automaker is closing out a tumultuous year in which its stock price fell 65% due to factors ranging from CEO Elon Musk’s distraction with Twitter to fears over slowing sales in a pandemic-affected China. Tesla is expected to address these concerns, as well as its recent vehicle price cuts and missed Q4 delivery estimates, during the call tomorrow. In fact, so much has happened over the last few months in Tesla-land that Dan Ives, a managing director at Wedbush Securities, said the upcoming earnings call and guidance commentary will be “one of the most important moments in the history of Tesla and for Musk himself.” Before we dive into our expectations for the call, let’s note that Tesla shares closed Tuesday at $143.89, rallying more than 30% since earlier this month after shedding two-thirds of its value from April 2022. An appearance from Musk Musk doesn’t always join Tesla’s earnings calls — and is in fact currently busy defending himself in court over claims that he defrauded investors with his infamous 2018 “funding secured” tweet — but the CEO is expected to make an appearance tomorrow, if only to assuage investor fears that he’s not giving Tesla enough of his attention since taking over Twitter. The executive also went to trial in November to defend his $56 billion Tesla pay package after a shareholder filed suit to rescind the deal, which he said was given unjustly to Musk, a “part-time CEO.” Missed delivery estimates During Tesla’s third-quarter earnings call, Musk promised Tesla would deliver an “epic end of year.” The automaker set record vehicle sales and deliveries, but still missed its own and Wall Street estimates. In part fueled by last-minute discounts to Model Y and 3 vehicles in December, Tesla delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter. The street had expected anywhere from 420,000 to 425,000 units to be delivered. Analysts will likely question the company on its misses, as Q4 marked the third quarter in a row that the automaker didn’t make it to as many deliveries as it promised. Tesla might be called on to provide more realistic estimates for 2023. We might also see updated delivery and sales numbers for the fourth quarter when earnings are released. Margins on vehicle price cuts Earlier this month, Tesla lowered the price of its long-range Model Y crossover (20% to $52,990) and Model 3 sedan (14% to $53,990) for U.S. buyers. The new, lower base price of the vehicles qualifies them for the $7,500 federal tax credit under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law in August. Under the terms of the IRA, the threshold for electric sedans is $55,000 and for SUVs, pickup trucks and vans is $80,000. Tesla also lowered the prices of its Model S sedan and Model X, which are still too expensive to qualify for the EV tax credit. The most recent price slashes mark at least the fourth time the automaker has discounted its vehicles or offered credits in the past several months. Tesla announced price cuts in China up to 9% on the Model 3 and Model Y in October, reducing prices further by nearly 14% earlier this month. The company also issued first a $3,750 discount for Model Y and 3s in the U.S. and Canada in early December, before kicking it up to $7,500 later in the month. Investors have not taken kindly to the price cuts, which they feared signaled a dip in demand for the iconic EVs. However, the price cuts seem to have in fact boosted demand for the vehicles. What investors will be hoping to gauge is whether the price cuts have cut too significantly into Tesla’s margins. It might be too early to have those answers, but Tesla will likely provide some guidance. Updates on new gigafactories Tesla announced Tuesday plans to invest $3.6 billion more into its gigafactory in Nevada, adding two new facilities dedicated to building battery cells and Tesla Semis. The automaker might discuss these plans further, such as when they hope to break ground on the facilities and start production. The automaker has said it has a multi-year plan to boost production by 50%, so analysts will want to hear about other new gigafactories. There have been reports that Tesla is planning a $10 billion gigafactory in Mexico, and the company is getting close to a deal to build factories in Indonesia, as well. More on the Semi and Cybertruck Tesla finally revealed in December its first production versions of the long-delayed electric Semi, handing over the first few of Pepsi’s order of 100 trucks, which the company ordered back in 2017. A number of high-profile companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi, Walmart and UPS, also reserved Semis, so we might get some updates on production and when those companies can expect deliveries. Tesla’s Cybertruck has also suffered multiple delays, but Musk said in July that the company was on track to launch the truck toward the middle of this year. We’re expecting further updates on timing, as well as new features. In September, Musk said the Cybertruck would be “waterproof enough to serve briefly as a boat.” Big factories, big trucks and big Musk: Tesla Q4 earnings expectations by Rebecca Bellan originally published on TechCrunch

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Terra Drone said today it has raised $14 million in Series C funding from Wa’ed Ventures, the venture capital arm of Saudi Aramco, marking the VC firm’s first investment in Asia.  The Japan-headquartered company, which builds drone software, hardware and uncrewed aircraft traffic management software, said the new capital brings its total raised to $97 million since its inception in 2016. It declined to comment on its post-money valuation. According to sources familiar with the situation, the startup was valued at more than $200 million in March last year when Terra Drone closed a $70 million Series B.  Japan’s Terra Drone lands $70M Series B funding to accelerate global expansion  The move comes in line with Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” plan, which lays out goals to reduce the nation’s dependence on hydrocarbons and promote the use of drones in services. For example, fossil fuel companies in Saudi Arabia will utilize Terra Drone’s technology for inspection services. Drones are supposed to detect things like oil leakage. Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest oil producer and plans to increase fossil fuel production in coming years despite scientific consensus that such activities are wrecking the Earth’s climate.   Terra Drone director Teppei Seki told TechCrunch that the startup participated in a drone program run by the nation Saudi Aramco held last year for Saudi Vision 2030.  Saudi’s $500 billion Neom project, a 25,600 km2 city-building project on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, also will utilize Unifly’s uncrewed traffic solutions for drone services. Terra Drone is the largest shareholder in Unifly, which will work for the Neom project to commercialize drones, aiming to complete the first phase of the project in 2025.  With the latest funding, Terra Drone plans to set up a new subsidiary, Terra Drone Arabia, wholly owned by Terra Drone, and further promote drone inspections in the region. On top of that, the company plans further international penetration in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) through the new office in Saudi Arabia.   Terra Drone currently offers its drone and UAM solutions to 10 countries. Denmark uses Terra Drone’s uncrewed aircraft traffic management (UTM) in Danish health drones and its Health Drone Project to carry blood and medicine. Terra Drone’s UT drone for inspection is certified as a ship inspection by the International Register of Shipping, the Japan-based startup said.  Since its last fundraising, its subsidiaries’ sales have grown by more than 50%, the company said.  CEO of Terra Drone Toru Tokushige founded Terra Drone in 2016 to develop drone software like global air traffic management to prevent collisions by enabling safe and efficient drone and urban air mobility operations.  “Supported by the global track record of Terra Drone, our investment represents a compelling attempt at building the UAM ecosystem in the Kingdom, one that circles a sustainable economy,” said managing director at Wa’ed Ventures Fahad Alidi. “We foresee rapid adoption for UAM technology as an emerging tech vertical in the region, and Terra Drone is well-positioned to localize their innovation across the region, starting with the Kingdom.”  Japan’s Terra Drone gets $14M lift from Saudi investors by Kate Park originally published on TechCrunch

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Asteroid mining startup AstroForge will head to space twice this year, as it attempts to do what no other company has been able to before: unlock the potentially limitless value of precious minerals in deep space. When TechCrunch covered AstroForge’s seed round last April, we noted that the company was planning a demonstration mission sometime this year. Today, AstroForge released more details on that mission, plus announced an additional mission later in the year that will take the company to a target asteroid for observation. AstroForge’s refinery operating in the simulated vacuum of space. Image Credits: AstroForge/Ed Carreon The first mission will launch in April aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-7 rideshare launch. The 6U CubeSat, which is being provided by space tech company OrbAstro, will be pre-loaded with “asteroid-like material” to demonstrate AstroForge’s refining and extraction capabilities in the zero-gravity environment. The second mission will see the company head into deep space, to gather data on the surface of an asteroid the company hopes to mine later in the decade. “We have to find some way to go get the regolith off the asteroid and process it in our refinery, and we believe we’ve solved that for our target asteroid,” CEO Matt Gialich said in an interview with TechCrunch. He said the company is working with advisors from universities, NASA and the research nonprofit Planetary Science Institute to help identify the most promising asteroids to exploit. The company also recently published a paper with the Colorado School of Mines evaluating the metal content on asteroids that could be mined and sold as commodities on Earth or used in-space. That paper noted that “textures of metal-rich asteroid surfaces remain to be investigated,” and Gialich confirmed that the second mission will be to study the surface of the target asteroid using high-resolution images. He declined to provide much more information about the asteroid, other than that it is closer to home than, say, a rock in the asteroid belt that’s between Mars and Jupiter. “The asteroid belts, they’re far away, they would take us like 14-year round trips,” he said. “It’s something that is much better suited for research and exploration. […] That’s not a viable business case for us.” Instead, the company will be hitching a ride to lunar orbit with Houston-based Intuitive Machines before moving on to deep space. AstroForge’s spacecraft, again being supplied by OrbAstro, will head on a much shorter 11-month journey to the target asteroid. AstroForge is actively planning its third mission to land on the asteroid, and the fourth mission, which would be the company’s first refining mission to bring platinum back to Earth. Asteroid mining startup AstroForge will test its metal refinery tech in space this year by Aria Alamalhodaei originally published on TechCrunch

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Tesla is investing $3.6 billion into expanding its existing gigafactory in Nevada. Confirming White House reports from earlier today, the company said it will build two new production facilities in the state — a 100-gigawatt-hour battery cell factory and Tesla’s first high-volume Semi truck factory. Taking up a combined 4 million square feet of space, the new factories will expand on Tesla’s existing Nevada gigafactory, which is home to Model 3 electric motors and battery packs, as well as Tesla’s energy storage products Powerwall and Powerpack. The facilities will be built east of Sparks at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. In December, Tesla finally revealed the first production versions of its long-delayed electric Semi during an event at the company’s gigafactory in Sparks, during which the first Semis were handed over to Pepsi, Tesla’s first Semi customer. The new factory is expected to deliver Semis at high volume. The new cell factory will produce Tesla’s 4680-type cylindrical lithium-ion battery cells with capacity to produce enough batteries for 2 million light-duty vehicles annually, the company said. The news comes a day before Tesla shares its fourth-quarter and full-year 2022 earnings, during which Tesla is expected to address missed Q4 delivery estimates, the effects of vehicle price cuts on margins and perhaps even claims that CEO Elon Musk has been distracted by his overhaul of social media company Twitter. Musk is also in the middle of a securities fraud trial over his infamous 2018 “funding secured” tweet to take Tesla private, which did not end up happening. Tesla’s latest capital push in Nevada mirrors its $3.5 billion investment into its first gigafactory in Sparks in 2014. Since then, the company has invested a total of $6.2 billion in Nevada, building a 5.4-million-square-foot facility that has produced 3.6 million drive units, 1.5 million battery packs and 7.3 billion battery cells, according to Tesla. The company said the new facilities will add 3,000 jobs to the region. Tesla did not say when it intends to break ground on the new factories, nor when it expects to start production on cells and Semis. It’s likely that the cells produced there will go directly into Semis, since Musk had previously said supply chain challenges and limited availability of battery cells contributed to the multiple production delays of the truck. Musk had originally introduced an electric Class 8 truck prototype in 2017 and planned to start production in December 2019, but Tesla only managed to start producing Semis in October 2022. Tesla invests $3.6B in two new Nevada factories to build Semis and cells by Rebecca Bellan originally published on TechCrunch

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here. What’s up, Crunchers? Good to see you again! We’re so glad to have you with us. It’s been a really busy day on the site today, and Haje has been busy getting real grumpy at Tesla for not recording the car crash he was in today. (He’s fine. Or at least, as fine as he was before the car crash.)  — Christine and Haje The TechCrunch Top 3 Apparently the hacker’s LastPass wasn’t truly the last one: Two months after LastPass experienced a breach, we are now learning more about what the hackers got. Carly writes that the company’s owner, GoTo, says hackers stole customers’ encrypted backups. If you like the great outdoors: Strava, the activity tracking and social community platform, acquired Fatmap, a 3D mapping platform for the great outdoors, to make that next hike a doozy, Paul reports. What’s up with WhatApp: Ivan is following a developing story about WhatsApp releasing its native macOS client in public beta. He writes that “until now, Mac users had to rely on either WhatsApp for the web or its web-based WhatsApp client. Both are not ideal in terms of performance or getting a full-featured experience.” Startups and VC It’s a tough time to be a richly priced company that didn’t go public when the getting was good. Not only are there fewer later-stage players with the resources and appetite to support such companies (e.g., SoftBank and Tiger Global have pulled back dramatically), but also secondary investors have even lost interest. At least, that’s Connie’s read of a new report, in her excellent article Opportunistic investors are giving up on aging pre-IPO companies. Connie also reported that Cowboy Ventures closed two new funds totaling $260 million in capital commitments. The outfit garnered $140 million in commitments for its fourth flagship fund and another $120 million for its first opportunity-type fund (its “Mustang Fund”). And we have five more for you: Staff out, money in: SoundHound, the voice AI company, raises $25 million after laying off 40% of staff earlier this month, Ingrid reports. Blockchain infrastructure galore: Jacquelyn writes that QuickNode raises $60 million at a $800 million valuation to become the “AWS of blockchain.” It’s electrifying: Haje wrote about Orange and its fundraise targeted at making it easier to get EV charging in your building. The Trim Reaper: Brian reports that Scythe raises $42 million for its electric robotic mower. You can’t do that: Spain’s delivery platform Glovo fined again for breaching labor laws, reports Natasha L. A VC’s perspective on deep tech fundraising in Q1 2023 Image Credits: Xi Huo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images Successful deep tech startups and SaaS companies generally reach billion-dollar valuations in the same time frame. “The median deep tech startup took $115 million and 5.2 years to become a unicorn,” says Karthee Madasamy, managing partner at MFV Partners. New companies in this sector raised around $600 million last year, a steep decline from $800 million in 2021. But Madasamy says recent climate regulation, automation and space are just a few factors stirring investors’ interest during this downturn. “As it becomes increasingly difficult to realize big exits in the years ahead, the technologies within deep tech that are transforming entire industries offer some of the only paths to ’10x exits.'” A VC’s perspective on deep tech fundraising in Q1 2023 Three more from the TC+ team: Web3 needs to be more sustainable: Web3 gaming needs to focus on sustainable economies, Immutable co-founder says, reports Jacquelyn. A long time ago in a land far away: Can Korean digital storytelling platforms captivate North American and European audiences? wonders Kate. Track this on your path to profit: Paris Heymann summarizes the metrics that matter in 3 KPIs to track on the path to profitability. TechCrunch+ is our membership program that helps founders and startup teams get ahead of the pack. You can sign up here. Use code “DC” for a 15% discount on an annual subscription! Big Tech Inc. Selling or renting a home comes with all sorts of fun, including having to vacate at a moment’s notice and strangers walking around your home. If there could be a rainbow amid the rainstorm, it’s Zillow wanting to make booking a home tour for rentals easier. Enter its Calendly-like instant booking feature that can be used without having to get in contact with anyone. Ivan writes that the feature is already available for thousands of properties and will eventually include the ability to choose between a virtual, in-person or self-guided tour. Now here’s five more: Nothing but net: Kyle attended a Niantic event about NBA All-World to give you an inside look at why the Pokémon GO maker is trying its hand at sports. Money management, but juicier: Plum’s money management app is now in five more countries, Romain writes. Waiting will cost you: You better be ready when the Lyft driver arrives. The ride-hailing app Lyft added wait-time fees, nearly seven years after Uber, Darrell writes. Google sued: Darrell and Devin report that the U.S. Department of Justice officially sued Google on claims that the search engine giant has a digital ad monopoly. On to the next adventure: Tapbots launches a new Mastodon client, Ivory, after Twitter kills its Tweetbot app. Sarah has more. Daily Crunch: Hackers pinched LastPass customers’ encrypted password vaults, parent company admits by Christine Hall originally published on TechCrunch

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Pegasus Tech Ventures, a Silicon Valley-headquartered venture capital firm that helps corporations invest in startups, said it has set up a $100 million fund with Japanese chemical and life science company Denka.  Denka, a 107-year-old firm, is the sole limited partner of the newly established corporate venture capital fund and in line with its 2030 mission, is interested in investing in startups that address pressing global issues, including sustainability and population growth. Pegasus Tech currently manages more than 30 strategic funds, or CVC funds, via partnerships with large global corporations in Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Europe and the U.S., said founder and chief executive of Pegasus Tech, Anis Uzzaman. These corporate partners — moshtly in the manufacturing sector, like industrials, chemicals, and pharma — want to put capital in startups to incorporate advanced technologies into their core business, Uzzaman told TechCrunch.  Pegasus Tech will help Denka more specifically search for early- to late-stage startups in renewable energy, EV batteries, chips, and health tech. According to Uzzaman, check sizes will range from $500,000 to $1 million for early-stage startups and $2 million to $10 million for later-stage companies.  After a candidate is targeted for investment, Denka plans to have a team work with Pegasus on validating the startup’s thesis. Still, Pegasus will make the final decision on investments, Uzzaman said. Indeed, a group of partners at Pegasus, including Uzzaman, and investment managers Bill Reichert, Steve Payne, John Lim and Justin Jackson will be heavily involved in the operations of this fund, Uzzaman added.  Pegasus has focused on connecting corporates and startups to leverage its “VC as a service” model since its inception in 2011, and has invested in more than 250 startups to date and has more than $2 billion in assets under management.  Other partners the VC firm has worked with include Sega, the video game and entertainment company; Japanet, a television shopping company; NGK Spark plugs, a Japan-based maker of automotive spark plugs; Asus, a Taiwan-headquartered computer hardware company; Aisin, a Japan-based automotive firm; Bandai Namco, an entertainment company; Kalbe, an Indonesia-based pharmaceutical firm; and Sinar Mas, an Indonesian conglomerate.   NGK Spark Plugs launches $100M corporate venture fund, will seek M&A opportunities Chemical giant Denka dives into VC with $100 fund managed by Pegasus Tech by Kate Park originally published on TechCrunch

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One of the most remarkable things about construction robotics is the sheer breadth of tasks that can potentially be automated. As I’ve noted before, the entire category is a prime target for robotics startups, given that it fills all of the big Ds of automation — dull, dirty and (quite often) dangerous. It’s also one of those areas that have become increasingly difficult to staff, post-pandemic, even as construction work came roaring back. So, if I’m running a fairly successful company that makes construction robots, I’m certainly thinking of diversification. The quickest way to jump start that is, of course, acquiring another, smaller startup. It’s something I suspect we’ll be seeing with increasing regularity as early-stage firms struggle to get funding to stay afloat amid a broadly stagnating VC market. Built Robotics, currently best known for its earth excavating autonomous heavy machine, Exosystem, announced today that it has acquired Roin Technologies (putting some of that fundraising to good use). The smaller firm is YC-backed, and best known for its concrete robots, which trowel and shoot (shotcrete) the stuff. In fact, Roin’s URL already redirects to its parent company. “Since their founding, Roin’s team has pushed the boundaries of construction autonomy, which has created a unique expertise in our industry,” Built Robotics founder and CEO Noah Ready-Campbell said in a release. “With Roin joining Built, the combined teams will continue developing new autonomous construction applications and customers can expect to see robotic applications expanding beyond earthmoving.” Roin CEO Jim Delaney will be joining Built as part of the engineering team. He notes, “We see joining Built as the next step in Roin’s story. I have always admired what Built has launched and how they’ve moved the construction industry forward in adopting new technologies, and I am excited to have the opportunity to join their team.” This isn’t one of those cases of a one-to-one technology acquisition. Rather than being competitors, it seems the two construction systems can be potentially complementary, representing two distinct pieces of the broader construction puzzle. Built buys fellow construction robotics firm, Roin by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

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Waymo, the self-driving technology unit under Alphabet, quietly laid off workers Monday, according to The Information and several posts on LinkedIn and Blind. The cuts at the autonomous vehicle company follow a swell of layoffs at Alphabet and Google late last week. It’s not yet clear how many of Waymo’s staff will be affected, and Waymo said it would be “a limited number of roles.” Based on posts from former employees, workers across the board were let go — from engineers working on perception and motion control to recruiters to fleet and vehicle technicians. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch Waymo is killing its trucking program, Waymo Via. Workers posting on Blind, a forum where verified professionals post about company layoffs, said many of the affected staffers were working on “Husky,” which they say was the code name for Waymo Via. Waymo denied claims that it was closing down Via, but a spokesperson did say Waymo was pulling back slightly on its fully autonomous deployment for freight trucking. Waymo will continue to develop its “Driver” in a way that’s applicable across business lines, which includes freeway capabilities that can be applied to both ride-hailing and trucking, the spokesperson said. Reading news about company layoffs isn’t at all surprising in 2023 after the year we just had. Most companies, including Alphabet, find themselves course-correcting after hiring for a different economic reality than we find ourselves in today. Last week, Alphabet cut 6% of its global workforce, or around 12,000 people, including, we’re now learning, part of Waymo’s team. Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, was also significantly affected by the layoffs. The cuts at Waymo, however, might go deeper than the surface-level economic issues that are affecting virtually every technology company. After Argo AI shutdown last year, many investors and OEMs have become more bearish on the future of autonomous vehicles — at least in the near term. The problem of self-driving is consistently a hard and expensive one to solve. Autonomous trucking competitor TuSimple also recently laid of 25% of its staff in order to streamline operations and keep the company in business. As part of its restructuring, TuSimple decided to scale back freight expansion, particularly as it involves unprofitable trucking lanes. Waymo currently runs several robotaxi programs in California and Arizona, and recently reached the milestone of opening driverless rides to the Phoenix airport to members of the public. If Waymo is indeed cutting or scaling back its trucking program, it will be able to redirect resources to robotaxi efforts so it can better compete with Cruise, the General Motors subsidiary that is neck-and-neck with Waymo in terms of technological progress. Waymo, with its 2,500 employees, has the largest headcount of Alphabet’s side projects. The unit doesn’t generate nearly enough revenue to cover its massive losses, which include the costs of developing proprietary hardware like lidar, machine learning models to train the “drivers” and cloud computing to analyze data captured by vehicles. Not to mention the costs of dealing with massive headaches like the crash of one of Waymo’s autonomous semi-trucks last May. Waymo doesn’t have a dedicated line on Alphabet’s balance sheet, but the parent company’s third-quarter earnings last year show a 27% drop in profits compared to 2021. The biggest loss-makers for the company were Google Cloud and “other bets,” under which Waymo falls. Other bets, which also includes the Wing drone delivery project, lost $1.6 billion, which is up from $1.29 billion lost the year prior. Activist investor TCI recently called on CEO Sundar Pichai to curb spending, pointing to Ford and Volkswagen’s decision to dead their own self-driving projects, which resulted in the shutdown of Argo AI. Waymo’s main revenue stream today comes from its robotaxi services in California and Arizona. In November, Waymo began charging for fully driverless rides in San Francisco and in downtown Phoenix, but the company has been working with paying customers in Chandler, Arizona for a few years. Waymo’s current and future pilots with trucking partners, like C.H. Robinson, J.B. Hunt and Uber Freight, are likely not yet bringing in any revenue, but the company wouldn’t confirm or deny this speculation. Burned by layoffs, tech workers are rethinking risk Waymo lays off staff as Alphabet announces 12,000 job cuts by Rebecca Bellan originally published on TechCrunch

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YouTube announced today that it’s partnering with Arizona State University and educational video company Crash Course to launch a new program that enables students to earn college credit. The Google-owned company says the new program, which is called College Foundations, is designed to create an affordable and accessible way to earn college credit. Starting today, students can sign up for four courses that start on March 7, 2023 and offer eligibility for transfer credit. The program does not require applications or a minimum GPA for enrollment. It includes common first-year college courses, including Intro to Human Communication, Rhetoric and Composition, Real World College Math and US History to 1865. The program is expected to expand to 12 available courses by January 2025 to give students a chance to receive credit for an entire first year of college. There is a $25 fee if a student elects to sign up and begin coursework, and a $400 fee to receive college credit for each course. Those who sign up before March 7 will receive a $50 discount. Courses can be taken as often as needed until the student is content with their grade. The credit can then be used at institutions that accept credits from Arizona State University. College Foundations is an expansion of an existing Study Hall partnership between Arizona State University, YouTube and Crash Course, which is an educational channel with over 14 million subscribers and was founded by John and Hank Green. Image Credits: YouTube “Developed and taught by the same faculty who conduct research and teach students on ASU’s campuses, the lessons combine ASU’s academic excellence with Crash Courses’s compelling storytelling — all on YouTube’s wide-reaching platform,” the company said in a blog post. To get started, students can take a free sneak-peak of courses and then register for a course of their choice, after which they can start earning credit. Once you’re in a course, you can contact a success coach via email to get help with assignments. You can complete your coursework when it’s convenient for you, but you will have weekly due dates for most of the courses. If you want to access additional support, some instructors hold optional office hours. YouTube has been home to educational content for quite some time now, and the ability to earn college credits takes this content focus even further by providing users with a direct path to formal education. The announcement comes as YouTube recently unveiled Courses, a feature that will seek to bring structured learning experience on YouTube in India. Teachers will be able to publish and organize their videos and provide text reading materials and questions right on the video app. YouTube to launch Courses in edtech push in India YouTube unveils new program that enables students to earn college credits by Aisha Malik originally published on TechCrunch

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Less than a year after assuming the role, All Raise CEO Mandela SH Dixon has stepped down from her position at the nonprofit. The entrepreneur, who previously ran Founder Gym, an online training center for underrepresented founders, said in a blog post that the decision was made after she realized “being in the field working directly with entrepreneurs everyday” is her passion. Dixon said that she will be exploring new opportunities in alignment with that. Her resignation is effective starting February 1st, 2023. She will remain an advisor to the Bay Area-based nonprofit. This is the second chief executive to leave All Raise since it was first founded in 2017. In 2021, Pam Kostka resigned as the helm of the nonprofit to rejoin the startup world as well; Kostka is now an operator in residence and limited partner at Operator Collective, according to her LinkedIn. With Dixon gone, Paige Hendrix Buckner, who joined the outfit as chief of staff nine months ago, will step in as interim CEO. In the same blog post, Buckner wrote that “Mandela leaves All Raise in a strong position, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue the hard work of diversifying the VC backed ecosystem.” Dixon did not immediately respond to comment on the record. It is unclear if All Raise is immediately kicking off a permanent CEO search. The nonprofit has historically defined its goals in two ways: first, it wants to increase the amount of seed funding that goes to female founders from 11% to 23% by 2030, and, second, it wants to double the percentage of female decision-makers at U.S. firms by 2028. In previous interviews, Dixon said that the company will work on creating explicit goals around what impact it wants to have for historically overlooked individuals. The data underscores the challenge ahead. Black and LatinX women receive disproportionately less venture capital money than white women; non-binary founders can also face higher hurdles when seeking funding, as All Raise board member Aileen Lee noted in the blog post.  The nonprofit has created specific programs for Black and Latinx founders but has not disclosed a specific goal for the cohort yet. These disconnects can be lost if not tracked. All Raise’s last impact report was published in 2020 and they’re working on bringing that analysis back, Lee tells TechCrunch in an interview. “All Raise is in great hands with Paige as interim leader and we’ve got a lot of exciting things that we’re shaping and scaling,” Lee said. “We have to all continue to link arms to try and continue to make improvements for our industry…we’ve made good progress that we can’t let up.” Since launch, the nonprofit has raised $11 million in funding, and opened regional chapters in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC and, soon, Miami. How investors are playing offense right now (their words, our two cents) Another All Raise CEO steps down by Natasha Mascarenhas originally published on TechCrunch

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A number of major crypto companies in recent months have laid off employees in an effort to keep their businesses afloat. But as big players drop talent back into the pool, startups are getting the opportunity to snatch them up. Recruiters and talent heads alike shared their thoughts with TechCrunch on what this means and how talent should navigate the current hiring environment. “Hiring in a bear market is unique in that those who seek to join the space during downturns are more likely to be passionate about, understand and believe in the industry long term,” Zack Skelly, head of talent at crypto-focused investment firm Dragonfly, said to TechCrunch. “They’re in it for the right reasons versus simply needing to find another job or hoping to financially take advantage of a hype cycle.” On Monday, reports emerged that Gemini, a crypto startup that intermingled with the now-bankrupt Genesis, is laying off 10% of its staff, according to internal messages viewed by The Information. This was not the first time Gemini laid off staff, either. In July, the firm executed a second round of layoffs, just seven weeks after cutting 10% of its workforce due to “turbulent market conditions,” TechCrunch reported. Gemini is one of many major crypto firms cutting back. Earlier this month, Coinbase and Crypto.com both axed 20% of their jobs as the firms tried to weather the downturn in the crypto market. Even though layoffs are happening to major crypto firms, that’s just one segment in a broader resizing of tech workforces: Salesforce, Amazon, Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft have all conducted layoffs in recent weeks. “More broadly, this means access to an even larger pool of proven, capable talent,” Gus Brewer, a recruiter at Alchemy, said to TechCrunch. “Many of the companies facing layoffs are known for their extremely high standards when it comes to recruiting, which should definitely be a consideration when evaluating newly available talent.” Some crypto projects and startups are revising their hiring plans to capitalize on this influx of talent, Skelly said. “Yet while a larger pool of candidates may make it easier to fill headcount overall, I’ve heard some founders say that it’s been harder to find those who are truly mission-aligned. There are more qualified resumes appearing — yes — but there’s also more to filter through when it comes to the intangibles.” But it’s important to note that not every crypto sector is hiring aggressively. “There’s very minimal opportunities in trading right now,” Dan Eskow, founder of web3 talent agency Up Top, said to TechCrunch. “There doesn’t seem to be any action whatsoever. Whether it’s developers, traders, researchers, there’s not much to be done.” Eskow focuses on helping talent find jobs in early-stage projects or companies. “You don’t see a ton of layoffs [for startups] because many wait until they absolutely have to. [ … ] Within the DeFi space, there’s a much higher job stability situation,” he noted. Now is a slow period, Tyler Feinerman, head of talent and people operations at Wachsman, said to TechCrunch. “January is typically a slower time of year for hiring, but macroeconomic factors have certainly exacerbated conditions,” Feinerman noted. “February to April is typically the hottest period for the job market, so while things might remain a little slower than usual, I think we can expect to see some green shoots on the horizon.” How to stand out Crypto recruiters see opportunity to snatch up talent amid Big Tech layoffs by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

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Last week, the video game giant Riot Games revealed that hackers had compromised its “development environment”— where the company stores its source code — with a social engineering attack. While the company reassured its users that “there is no indication that player data or personal information was obtained,” the hack could still be damaging, as hackers got their hands on the source code for Riot’s popular games League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics, as well as the source code for the company’s legacy anti-cheat system. The theft of the anti-cheat’s source code — even an old system — could help hackers develop better and less detectable cheats, according to industry experts who spoke to TechCrunch. “From Riot’s perspective it’s bad (beyond just embarrassing) because it makes it easier for cheat developers to understand the game and therefore easier to develop new cheats, it also makes it easier for third party league servers/clients to get made,” Paul Chamberlain, who led Riot’s anti-cheat team until September 2020, told TechCrunch. Chamberlain said that the legacy anti-cheat hasn’t been part of League of Legends for five years, but given that developing cheats is “is as much (perhaps more) about the game itself than the anti-cheat system, having access to the game source code means you don’t have to reverse engineer the released binaries (which are often also obfuscated or encrypted) and gives cheat developers better access to the intent of the game code through comments and variable/function/class names.” “Access to an obsolete anti-cheat system is mostly a curiosity but it could give some insight into how the anti-cheat developers think and what the company prioritizes in terms of what needs protection,” Chamberlain explained. Riot itself admitted this risk. In a tweet on Tuesday, the company said that “any exposure of source code can increase the likelihood of new cheats emerging,” and that its developers are working to assess the impact of the theft and “be prepared to deploy fixes as quickly as possible if needed.” When reached by email, Riot spokesperson Joe Hixson declined to answer TechCrunch’s questions beyond the company’s tweets. An industry insider with knowledge of anti-cheat systems, who asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak to the press, agreed that the theft of the anti-cheat system’s source code has the potential to hurt Riot and its players. “They are in trouble if the anti-cheat code gets published,” he said. “If the anti-cheat source code is disclosed, cheat developers will have an easy time bypassing everything.” The insider explained that Riot’s old anti-cheat system is probably still being used to prevent a number of cheats and working to detect and block them. The theft of the system may compromise Riot’s ability to identify the hardware used by cheaters—game companies use identify and fingerprint the hardware used by cheaters to ban them—as well as the detection systems used to find cheat developers, and may even require a rewrite of the anti-cheat system. Moreover, the insider said, the source code could even be used by malware developers. “It will be easier to find vulnerabilities in the [game’s] driver that could be exploited by malware,” the insider said. Motherboard reported on Tuesday that the hackers are demanding Riot Games pay a ransom of $10 million to not publish the stolen code. “We have obtained your valuable data, including the precious anti-cheat source code and the entire game code for League of Legends and its tools, as well as Packman, your usermode anti-cheat. We understand the significance of these artifacts and the impact their release to the public would have on your major titles, Valorant and League of Legends. In light of this, we are making a small request for an exchange of $10,000,000,” read the ransom note obtained by Motherboard. Do you have more information about this hack? Do you do cybersecurity research on video games or game consoles? Or do you develop cheats for games or reverse engineer anti-cheat software? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, or via Wickr, Telegram and Wire @lorenzofb, or email [email protected] UK police arrest teenager suspected of Uber, GTA 6 hacks Riot Games hack could help cheaters by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai originally published on TechCrunch

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TechCrunch Live is back! I’m thrilled to bring this event series back for its third season. We’re booked for months, and I’m delighted to host the upcoming guests. Join us for our first episode with Benchmark and Cambly taking place on February 1, 2023 at 11:30am PT / 2:30pm ET.  TCL’s mission is still to help founders build better venture-backed businesses. But going into 2023, there’s new urgency behind this mission. TechCrunch Live started in the heady days of 2021, and now in early 2023, the startup world is experiencing new challenges. It’s harder to fundraise, sales cycles are much longer, and investors (and their LPs) have different expectations. Our first guests are Sameer Shariff, CEO and co-founder of Cambly, and Sarah Tavel, a long-time investor at Benchmark and previously Greylock. They’re the perfect guests to kick off the third season of TCL! Cambly looks like a sure bet right now, but as you’ll hear from Sameer, it was a struggle to get to this point. After failing to raise a Series A, the company had to change its model overnight. When VC after VC said no, Cambly had to find a way to make a profit to keep the doors open. Since then, the company went on to raise a $20 million Series A and a $60 million Series B, but only because the company took the hard steps to seek profitability earlier than expected. Cambly’s Series B fundraise went wildly different from its Series A, and I hope you can join the live event to hear the lessons Sameer learned from both rounds. Sarah Tavel led Benchmark’s investment and can speak to what made Cambly a perfect fit for the firm — and you’ll hear from Sameer on why Benchmark was an ideal fit for Cambly too. Register Here Questions I want to ask How did the company’s mindset change following the failure to raise a Series A, and how did the founders keep the team focused and on target? What steps should founders take when seeking profitable growth before raising venture capital? Cambly is a unique marketplace — how did the company initially acquire customers, and when did the company outgrow and replace the strategy for scale? There are countless language learning marketplaces and services, so what Cambly metrics led Benchmark to lead a Series B? And I want you to ask questions too! Join the live event on Hopin, and ask questions in the chat. I’ll do my best to ask them when possible. Can’t make the live event, but can listen to the replay/podcast? Tweet at me, and I’ll be sure to ask your questions. Want to get feedback on your pitch during the show? Pitch Practice is back! Apply to present your company using this form. We’ll select 3 companies to pitch during the show, including 1 wildcard company that will be selected from our Hopin audience during the episode. Hear how Cambly found profits after failing to raise a Series A on TechCrunch Live by Matt Burns originally published on TechCrunch

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“May I suggest respectfully that Ticketmaster ought to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem, it’s me,'” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, referencing Taylor Swift’s latest hit “Anti-Hero.” In a hearing on consumer protection and competition in live entertainment, senators grilled Live Nation CFO and president Joe Berchtold over concerns that the company, which bought Ticketmaster in 2010, may be a monopoly. In November, the “verified fan” presale for Swift’s highly anticipated Eras tour went horribly wrong. In an unprecedented move, Ticketmaster halted sales due to overwhelming demand, stating that the site experienced 3.5 billion system requests, or more than four times its previous peak, due to bot attacks. A month later, Mexican regulators fined Ticketmaster when thousands of fans were turned away from a Bad Bunny concert, despite holding tickets purchased on Ticketmaster (regulators said the company oversold tickets, but Ticketmaster said these were fake tickets). After years of paying hidden fees and losing out tickets to scalpers, fans and regulators alike have had enough. Making yet another of many Swift references, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said that music and sports fans now understand the risks of corporate consolidation “all too well.” And as Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan said at the time of the Swift ticketing fiasco, the incident “converted more Gen Z’ers into antimonopolists overnight than anything I could have done.” When the government investigated the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation over twelve years ago, the Justice Department reported that the combined company would control 80% of major concert venues. When questioned under oath on Tuesday, Berchtold said he believes the company actually controls around 50 to 60% of that market, due to the rise of secondary resale markets on sites like SeatGeek; its founder and CEO Jack Groetzinger testified at the hearing as well. Still, Ticketmaster sells tickets for 80 of the top 100 arenas in the country, while Live Nation can sometimes operate as the promoter, owner and operator of that same venue. The arrangement is bad for fans, who might watch as their favorite artist sells out an arena show in seconds, only for thousands of bot-purchased tickets to be immediately reposted for double the price. But it also harms the musicians themselves. Testifying before the senate, independent musician Clyde Lawrence said, “In a world where the promoter and the venue are not affiliated with each other, we can trust that the promoter will look to get the best deal from the venue; however, in this case, the promoter and the venue are part of the same corporate entity, so the line items are essentially Live Nation negotiating to pay itself.” Lawrence added that artists get no cut of ticketing fees, coat checks, parking passes or bar tabs, while Live Nation takes 20% of their revenue from merch sales. If he plays a show where tickets cost $42 including fees, Lawrence said his band would get $12. After putting half of that toward touring costs, the band receives $6 per ticket in profit, which is split up among all of its members, pretax. The Justice Department had approved this merger in 2010 with the condition of a consent decree, which was intended to prevent Live Nation and Ticketmaster from acting too much like a monopoly. But in 2019, Justice officials alleged that the company violated the agreement, since Live Nation had pressured venues to sign contracts with Ticketmaster. As a result, the decree — which was set to expire that year — was extended to remain in effect until 2025, including some modifications. Now, in light of the Swift snafu, the department is investigating Live Nation again. “If the Department of Justice establishes facts that involve monopolistic and predatory abuses, there ought to be structural remedies, such as breaking up the company,” Blumenthal said at Tuesday’s hearing. “We’ll see what the Department of Justice finds.” Some Senators proposed potential solutions to the problem. Passed under the Obama administration in 2016, the Better Online Ticket Sales Act (aptly named, the BOTS Act) gives the FTC license to crackdown on bot-driven ticket resale firms. Senator Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) argued that, in the same vein, the FTC needs to pressure Live Nation to figure out its bot problem. “There ought to be people you can get some good advice from, because our critical infrastructure in this country — whether it is utilities, electric water, power, banking services, credit card processors, payment processors, healthcare companies — you know what, they get bot attacks every single day, by the thousands and thousands, and they have figured it out but you guys haven’t,” Senator Blackburn said. The BOTS Act has only been enforced one time since 2016, when the FTC charged three ticket brokers with over $31 million in penalties in 2021. “We have a limited level of power on something that hasn’t been consistently enforced,” Berchtold testified. Senator Blumenthal retorted, “You have unlimited power to go to court.” Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) suggested that Live Nation make tickets nontransferable in order to prevent bot resales. The witnesses were quiet for a moment, and Kennedy said, sarcastically, “Don’t all jump in at once.” The proposal might make simple conveniences difficult, like buying two tickets and sending one to a friend, or selling a ticket if you get sick before a show; plus, it could encourage sales of fraudulent tickets. Groetzinger, who operates a major resale site, said he would not support such a policy; Berchtold said he would.  The committee’s path forward to hold Live Nation accountable is unclear, but the Department of Justice’s investigation of Live Nation is ongoing. Ticketmaster faces antitrust scrutiny after Taylor Swift ticket chaos Mexican regulators are fining Ticketmaster after Bad Bunny concert fiasco Senate questions Live Nation president amid Taylor Swift ticketing debacle by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

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The final report from the government’s National AI Research Resource recommends a new, multi-billion-dollar research organization to improve the capabilities and accessibility of the field to U.S. scientists. The document presents “a roadmap and implementation plan for a national cyberinfrastructure aimed at overcoming the access divide, reaping the benefits of greater brainpower and more diverse perspectives and experiences.” The NAIRR report (PDF) has been a long time coming: since the establishment of the task force back in 2020 headed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They haven’t been idle, in that time producing numerous smaller reports and an extensive “blueprint for an AI bill of rights” that you can read here. The full thing is many pages long, but the executive summary gets to the point: To realize the positive and transformative potential of AI, it is imperative to harness all of America’s ingenuity to advance the field in a manner that addresses societal challenges, works for all Americans, and upholds our democratic values. Yet progress at the current frontiers of AI is often tied to access to large amounts of computational power and data. Such access today is too often limited to those in well-resourced organizations. This large and growing resource divide has the potential to limit and adversely skew our AI research ecosystem. A widely accessible AI research cyberinfrastructure that brings together computational resources, data, testbeds, algorithms, software, services, networks, and expertise, as described in this report, would help to democratize the AI research and development (R&D) landscape in the United States for the benefit of all. To that end, they propose a new independent research organization (under governance of the appropriate agencies and departments) that would make available “a federated mix of computational and data resources, testbeds, software and testing tools, and user support services via an integrated portal.” They advise that this not include standing up its own datacenters at least at first, which would be costly and potentially difficult to scale, but rather working with partners who can assign existing resources to the project. (This could be private companies or National Labs, one presumes.) The “operating entity,” i.e. the research organization, should also be “be proactive in addressing privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties issues by integrating appropriate technical controls, policies, and governance mechanisms from its outset.” Image Credits: NAIRR Congress would need to fund the new organization to the tune (NAIRR proposes) of approximately $750 million every two years over a six-year period to build out its capabilities, totaling $2.25 billion. It would then require some $60-70 million per year for its ongoing operations. This does not include any associated grants or such programs, which would likely go through the National Science Foundation or other existing programs. Much more detail on how it would all be run is in the full report, but the specifics will of course ultimately have to wait until money and other resources are assigned. “We see the NAIRR as a foundational investment that would amplify efforts across the Federal Government to cultivate AI innovation and advance trustworthy AI,” writes the team in the intro to the final report. “Research, experimentation, and innovation are integral to our progress as a Nation, and it is imperative that we engage people from every zip code and every background to live up to America’s unique promise of possibility and ensure our leadership on the world stage.” Task force proposes new federal AI research outfit with $2.6B in funding by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

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A number of consumer advocacy groups have a problem with Walmart’s entry into the metaverse. The online retailer last fall announced the launch of two new virtual worlds on Roblox, “Walmart Land” and “Universe of Play,” aimed at engaging the next generation of shoppers. The experiences allow Roblox users to play games featuring toys and popular kids’ characters, earn virtual toys that drop from a blimp, complete challenges, and explore “toy worlds,” among other things. But the groups argue that Walmart is blurring the lines between advertising and organic content and doesn’t properly disclose that the content within these virtual worlds are essentially ads, and should be labeled as such. Walmart, however, disputes these allegations and says it’s in compliance with U.S. children’s privacy laws. The groups, led by the ad watchdog truthinadvertising.org (TINA.org), sent a letter to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), asking them to audit Walmart’s Roblox games. CARU is a part of the larger non-profit BBB National Programs, which oversees a dozen industry self-regulation programs in the U.S. In January 2001, CARU’s program became the first Federal Trade Commission (FTC)-approved Safe Harbor under the U.S.’s children’s online privacy law, COPPA. That means participants who adhere to CARU’s guidelines are considered to be in compliance with COPPA, which protects them from any FTC enforcement action. Simply put, being flagged as being potentially non-compliant with CARU’s program is not something a participant would want to happen as it could put them on the FTC’s radar. In the letter, the advocacy groups write to CARU’s Senior Vice President Dona Fraser to warn the organization about Walmart’s Roblox experience, “Universe of Play,” alleging that the virtual world targeted towards young children is deceptively marketing Walmart’s goods and services without providing proper disclosures that the game itself, and the content it contains, are actually ads. In addition, the groups note that Walmart is using CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor Program seal to convey the message that the game is compliant with the organization’s guidelines. The letter describes various aspects of the Walmart Roblox experience which the groups feel indicate its nature as an “advergame.” This includes how the game is modeled on Walmart’s toy catalog and its use of popular toys and characters, like L.O.L Surprise!, Jurassic World-branded items, PAW Patrol, Magic Mixie, Razor scooters, and others sold in Walmart stores and online. The game also encourages kids to “collect the hottest toys,” where only in fine print does the game note that “this is an advertisement.” Similarly, as kids walk around the island they unlock gift boxes where, again, toys are featured, but the message “this is an advertisement” appears in a barely visible font. These gift boxes reveal top sellers in the toys category, like a Vtech smartwatch for kids, popular dolls, race cars, and more. Other inconspicuous ad disclosures appear throughout other parts of the game as well — like signs that the players’ avatars walk by as they collect coins, find toy boxes, or engage in other virtual activities, the letter states. Similarly, the groups take issue with “Walmart Land,” another Roblox virtual world where kids can play as avatars and where “Universe of Play” is also marketed. Both games, combined have attracted more than 12 million visits since its launch, the letter states. Both games are also accessible to children of any ages as the “Age Guidelines” for the games on Roblox are labeled as “N/A.” The letter stresses that children under the age of 13 do not “fully understand the persuasive intent” of things like entertainment marketing. “Walmart’s brazen use of stealth marketing directed at young children who are developmentally unable to recognize the promotional content is not only appalling, it’s deceptive and against truth-in-advertising laws,” said TINA.org’s Legal Director Laura Smith, in a press release. “We urge CARU to take swift action to protect the millions of children being manipulated by Walmart on a daily basis,” she added. In addition to TINA.org, the groups who signed the letter include Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates. They’re asking CARU to audit Walmart’s games for compliance. However, Walmart, when reached for comment, claims this already took place. In a statement shared with TechCrunch, the retailer said: In December 2022, Walmart was approved to join CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor Program after demonstrating that Universe of Play, a new immersive Roblox experience, complies with the stringent requirements of COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines. Because of its younger user base, Roblox has already attracted the attention of other companies looking to market to kids, including Sanrio (Hello Kitty) and Mattel, which last year launched a He-Man game on the platform. Mattel also partnered with Forever 21 in 2021 on a Barbie-inspired collection and Kellogg’s debuted “Froot Loops” world. Outside of kids’ brands, many other companies have targeted Roblox’s younger users too, like H&M, Spotify, Netflix, Samsung, Chipotle, Nike, Vans, and more. To what extent Walmart either does or does not have to make adjustments to its Roblox games could help to set precedent as more brands enter gaming worlds and the metaverse and the ad industry defines its practices for this new form of social networking. Consumer advocacy groups want Walmart’s Roblox game audited for ‘stealth marketing’ to kids by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

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Amazon made headlines this month when the company began to work through its long-rumored 18,000 job cuts. Going, too, are a number of products and strategies as the company right-sizes for the current state of the economy, the market’s attitude to tech stocks and the current landscape as dictated by its competitors and would-be rivals. One thing that looks like it’s here to stay, though, is the Alexa Fund, the company’s venture fund founded back in 2015 and used to back companies in spaces that are strategically interesting to Amazon itself. Initially covering products and services leveraging its namesake, the interactive voice platform that was launched not long before the fund itself, the Alexa Fund has over the years expanded to cover other areas of AI, connected home, health, media services and more — as limitless, potentially, as Amazon itself sometimes seems to be. Amazon is famously murky when it comes to disclosing discretionary metrics that speak to its size. That’s the case here, too, as it declines to comment on how much it has invested in aggregate through the Alexa Fund, nor anything like AUM (assets under management, or the total valuation of startups in its portfolio). As a general marker, it has invested at least $200 million, based on an initial injection of $100 million and a further commitment of $100 million two years later. A few notable exits from the fund, and its growing scope, may well have meant more was pitched in over time. “We invest off the balance sheet so it’s an evergreen process,” and Paul Bernard, the longtime Amazon employee and investment lead who first started the fund, in a conversation with TechCrunch. “We’re not constrained by a certain fund size.” The fund currently lists 93 companies, but the list doesn’t include startups that might have shut down or been acquired. One estimate puts the total figure at 120. Corporate investing is sitting in an interesting position at the moment in the venture landscape. Traditional VC funds have tightened, and in many cases drastically slowed down, their investment process — which had become pretty fast and loose in recent, heady years with heavy competition to get into rounds, rocketing valuations, growing audiences for digital services and enough flashy exits to give everyone lots of hope. Now, there is a much stronger focus on making sure that investments do have a more reasonable shot at returns and that they are fitting current and future market conditions. Those are also under pressure further up the food chain, with limited partners more reluctant to deploy capital, even when it’s already been committed. All of that calculus hits differently with corporate VCs that may face their own pressures: If the parent company is struggling, or restructuring, or simply rethinking all cost centers with no stone unturned, that could impact the funds it’s willing to commit to betting on what might or might not be coming around the corner. There is also the big question of what role those corporate investors play between the businesses and the startups. A number of startups over the years have alleged that Amazon picks up intel about what those startups are working on and then launches its own products based on that, to the detriment of the startup in question; and that the Alexa Fund effectively has operated as a Trojan horse in that effort. Amazon has always denied this and suggests that it, like other corporate funds, has long played a role aligning portfolio businesses with strategic interests, sometimes with those investments turning into acquisitions (as in the case of Ring), or partnering to develop new services (as with Ecobee). Another example of how the fund functions as a middle-man comes in the form of Superplastic, a startup founded by Paul Budnitz that describes itself as an entertainment brand that builds and manages “synthetic artists and influencers.” “The IP and these characters can manifest across all of our media businesses,” Bernard said of Superplastic. “We’ve got these media verticals, games, music, TV and films, but we don’t have a model for how to work with Superplastic. So we dive in and help figure that out.” Corporate VCs have their own challenges beyond the role they play with startups, which are around their corporate profile. How responsive should and can the corporate VC funds be to the priority du jour in the C-suite. Do they scramble for the next big AI investment because your rival has inked a massive deal to fund one? Arguably you could say that Amazon “missed out” on OpenAI, but just as easily you could say that if there is a future in generative AI (still a debatable point, not just among naysayers) we’re just in the early innings. Being less beholden to a network of limited partners, there is a lot of potential flexibility in a corporate fund like Amazon’s to step out and make investments in areas at a time when others are reducing activity. Case in point: We’ve been hearing that deep tech is going to have an especially hard time of it in the current market climate, being even further from commercialization than so many other areas of tech. It turns out that, according to Bernard, the Alexa Fund’s just invested in a promising deep tech startup alongside another corporate VC. All the same, it too faces pressures. “I think one of the angles on Ring is that all of our investments need to be good venture investments,” said Bernard. “We need it to be financially viable.” Putting all this together, it’s an interesting time to catch up with the Alexa Fund. We sat down with Bernard earlier this month, before Amazon officially announced the cuts last week. In light of those, it’s worth watching how the Alexa Fund evolves. What follows is an edited version of the conversation we had. Alexa Fund has been around since 2015. Nearly eight years on, how has it evolved? We were Amazon’s first venture fund. Amazon hadn’t really done organized venture investing at the time so to pitch the Alexa Fund [to promote] the Alexa service, I wrote a proposal. I was part of the corporate development team doing M&A, and I’d been doing that for a couple years. I pitched the idea and Jeff [Bezos] liked it, so I was turned into a venture investor, trying to figure that out in real time. We came at it initially through the lens of trying to build the Alexa ecosystem. The simple idea was to invest in companies that could advance the art of the possible. At first that was integrations with Alexa, building skills and Alexa voice service (AVS) extensions. But that was just the first stage, investing in companies that were building Alexa interfaces or integrations? Along the way we found that we were getting pulled and there was a lot of demand for us to broaden our footprint and so that was the next extension of our work, to think more broadly about consumer electronics and smart electronics. That’s still a big, big part of our work today. Now we have this layer of ambient intelligence. Is it part of the deal that you back companies that will eventually integrate voice even if they don’t do it now? I would say it differently. Now, it’s more that voice is so ubiquitous that most companies that we’re going to have an interest in, in the future of smart electronics for the home or for mobility, most of the time they are considering doing a voice integration anyway. Is the Labrador [assistive robot] Echo Show functionality an example of that? Did you invest so that they would build that?  In the case of Labrador we invested in the founders [Mike Dooley and Nikolai Romanov] before they had a product. [Our deal] was based on customer focus group videos, target customers and the problem they were trying to solve. Also they have the iRobot background… [Amazon is acquiring iRobot for $1.7 billion; the two co-founders previously held senior roles there.] But certainly, when we think about investments, we do it through the lens of how it can advance or take advantage of services that we’re building at Amazon. Once we make an investment, there’s a team at the Fund, where all they do is interface with the portfolio. It almost becomes like extended business development. What else are you getting more interested in? New media: synthetic media, virtualization, the metaverse and creator economy stuff. We’re taking on working more with the media part of Amazon, as a new value proposition right now for the portfolio. The fit with an Amazon service or experience is typically very forward leaning. We can see these things that are often first of a kind, have never been done before. It’s a strategic fund that at its core places bets on emerging areas of technology that in themselves can have future relevance; in our case mostly for our devices business, or our media business. There are some companies that cut across the board. CTRL-labs was an example. [Meta acquired CTRL-labs.] That deal was reported at between $500 million and $1 billion when Meta bought it, but Amazon didn’t get the tech in the end, Meta did. Is that still a good outcome for you? We need to make money and be viable, right? Financial performance is not our first priority, but it’s certainly a validation that we know what we’re doing. Amazon is laying off big swathes of employees and rethinking product strategy in a lot of areas, including Alexa. How does that impact the Alexa Fund? I don’t have any more nuanced talking points than what you’re probably already hearing from others, but, look, it’s a time when Amazon is making some choices about how to map what’s going on with the economy to some projects that we don’t feel like we can support anymore. There’s still a massive investment in Alexa. You could quibble about whether it is the right amount or not, but it’s still massive and I don’t think that’s changing. Our work continues to be the same, but I think more what’s probably changing is the venture market itself. How much has the Alexa Fund invested to date? We invest off the balance sheet so it’s an evergreen process. We’re not constrained by a certain fund size. When we announced the fund, we announced $100 million and then another $100 million, but we don’t really talk about cumulative figures. Most of the time, we’re a minority investor and not leading rounds. We have though and are doing a little bit more of that recently, especially in the area of entertainment companies that we are investing in. But most of the time we’re a single-digit percentage owner, entering in Series A and Series B, with check sizes in single millions to $5 million. Unlike institutional investors, who work back from ownership goals where they need a certain percentage of a company, and that defines how much you need to put into it and whether the price is right to get into it, we took a different approach: get into the best deals with the most interesting companies and help them figure out how to work with Amazon, even if it means that we have to be a small investor. Because we’re Amazon, we can make our model work while being a relatively small investor. We invested in Superplastic, which is building virtual characters. The IP and these characters can manifest across all of our media businesses. We’ve got these media verticals, games, music, TV and films, but we don’t have a model for how to work with Superplastic. So we dive in and help figure that out. Alexa was a loss leader for a long time. When the company is trying to determine the future of that division, do they consult the fund? There’s a sense that we’re thought leaders out in the field. We’re touching things that are beyond the three-to-five-year plan of like each of the business teams that we work the most closely with. We have a set of eyes and ears and takes on things by virtue of having these investments. As somebody who’s looking the three-to-five-year scope, where’s voice going? I think the companies that we invest in, they all want to deploy it as part of their systems. So more ubiquity. But what happens with these generative AI systems? Without getting into details of things I can’t talk about, these companies building on top of stuff like OpenAI’s, they’re building classes of products that are going to be conversational and integrate hardware in compelling new ways. I don’t know if you’d call it competitive to like Amazon’s take on the world, but I think it’s going to supercharge how people think about the art of the possible and the intersection of conversational system, there are going to be new kinds of devices. Did you want to invest in OpenAI? Do you feel like you missed an opportunity there? Ah, I don’t even know that we even evaluated it. I think with all this, I get it’s core. It’s natural language processing. We’ve got a big investment in our way of doing that. You could argue OpenAI was built and funded to counterbalance Amazon’s way. I think if you talk to Amazon engineers, they might say yeah, we have our own foundational models equivalent to, you know, OpenAI, Stable Diffusion and whatever else. And we are approaching it with applications that Amazon has a point of view on what the product that we want to build on them is. My take when I step back and I think about it, like, I think that the momentum, that they are going to create and the art of the possible is just going to be good for moving forward, the whole field, right? Do you think that you might try to build voice products that compete with OpenAI? I don’t know the answer to that question. That would be more of like an AWS question. I do think that AWS probably wants all those large foundational models to run on AWS. [Note: OpenAI has a close partnership with and investment from Microsoft; AWS works closely with Stability AI.] In this field of generative AI, there’s a company we invested in through our media lens called Splash [the Alexa Fund co-led a $20 million round in November 2021], which builds machine learning-based music, used first in Roblox games, where their tools are used by Roblox players to create music and perform it on a stage. They’ve got millions of users doing this. What’s really interesting is that it’s democratizing music creation and empowering kids, giving them agency to create music. What Splash is doing is fundamentally generative AI. They’ve released a beta version of text to singing tech, that works off a text prompt: I want to have a song that says “X” and their system generates the lyrics, the music and the voice. They’re working on it as a technology. Music is a much more complicated machine learning problem than ChatGPT and generating search results. It’s going to be a complicated thing because it’s the models getting trained by IP and running on Spotify. I don’t have opinions on that other than it’s gonna be challenging. I suspect that people will say that this sounds like crypto three years ago, but it feels usable right? It’s got customers and the utility is immediate. With crypto, you really had to spin yourself around in circles to try to understand it. Since the Alexa fund was created under Jeff Bezos, how has that changed now that Andy Jassy is running the show? The short answer is not much has changed. Our leadership is active and they engage and they like to hear about what we’re doing. That interest is still very much there. There’s been no shift. In fact, in some ways, it’s the opposite. Might we do more enterprise deals? We’ve invested in some fundamental AI and science and companies and we’ve dabbled a little bit in health. And I think we may end up dabbling more. I have this theory that the consumerization of technology is affecting healthcare, both from a hardware and from a digital services point of view. A company we had invested in last year called Nesos was building a device you put on your ear that stimulates the vagus nerve to treat inflammatory diseases. The company failed. But that kind of thing where you have consumerization of hardware as a vector, that can improve a product. That’s interesting and I could see us doing more of that kind of thing. Given the state of the market right now, are you looking for a specific go-to-market runway right now for the companies that you invest in? No, I think we’re fine with science. We are fine with investing in companies that are at the science stage, the research stage, where there’s enough signal that they’re on the path to a breakthrough. We’ve also recently invested in a deep tech company with Google. Alexa Fund’s Paul Bernard talks OpenAI, what’s catching his eye and remaining relevant as Amazon restructures by Ingrid Lunden originally published on TechCrunch

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Although the crypto gaming industry remains below its 2021 peaks, it still pulled in substantial venture funding last year. But looking to the future, the subsector may look outside of tokenomics to grow and sustain itself for the long haul. “Tokens are a fantastic way to share ownership of economies. I’m very supportive of tokens and think they’re a brilliant invention and have done a lot,” Robbie Ferguson, co-founder and president at Immutable, said to TechCrunch. “But we will definitely see increased retail skepticism and diligence where they want to see traction on these games.” For Immutable, which raised $200 million at a $2.5 billion valuation last year, the most important element is “to build a fantastic experience for players — the economy has to be sustainable and user experience has to be fantastic,” Ferguson said. “From there, everything will flow.” “The future isn’t shouting to gamers why they should love NFTs; it’s showing them with a product they want to play.” Immutable's Robbie Ferguson Since the beginning of 2022, the top 10 blockchain gaming projects by market capitalization fell as much as 95% due to the inability to maintain sustainable in-game economies and player bases, according to Delphi’s The Year Ahead for Gaming report. For example, the token price for Axie Infinity, one of the biggest web3 games to gain traction, hit all-time highs of $160 in November 2021 but has since declined 92% to less than $12, according to CoinMarketCap data. “We believe that most projects shouldn’t have live tokens in the market until the bulk of their core game loops are established, which can immunize them against speculation and inflated expectations,” the Delphi report stated. There will be a much higher standard for how effectively and efficiently a foundation uses its tokens and the direct return on tokens spent, Ferguson said. “I think a lot of tokens are spent poorly at the moment.” Web3 gaming needs to focus on sustainable economies, Immutable co-founder says by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

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Honda is establishing a division dedicated to the development of electric vehicles and other electrical products including storage and generation, the company said on Tuesday (via Reuters). The Japanese automaker somewhat lags the rest of the market when it comes to EVs to date. Last year, Honda announced expansive plans to electrify its lineup, including the intent to launch 30 fully electric vehicles by 2030, and a goal of ramping to a production volume of over 2 million EVs per year by the same time. Honda also earmarked $40 billion for electrification over the course of the next decade – across its automotive division, but also including development of other electrified products, including robots, personal transport options and space-based technology. At CES earlier this month, Honda also introduced its joint venture with Sony to build EVs, under the new brand name ‘Afeela,’ and showed off their first prototype vehicle. The plan is to start preorders for the first Afeela cars in 2025, with shipments beginning in 2026 in North America. The new dedicated electrification division at Honda will start as of April 1, and will bring together resources within the company that are currently spread out across various parts of its internal organizational structure. Honda also said that it intends to market mid- to large-sized EVs in North America and China, with small- to mid-size cars making up most of its offerings rest-of-world. Honda is setting up a dedicated EV division by Darrell Etherington originally published on TechCrunch

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It’s a tough time to be a richly priced company that didn’t go public when the getting was good. Not only are there fewer later-stage players with the resources and appetite to support such companies — SoftBank and Tiger Global have pulled back dramatically, for example — but even secondary investors have lost interest. That’s our reading of a new report by the private securities marketplace Forge, which itself went  public in 2021 by merging with a special purpose acquisition company. Per the report, though 40% to 50% of investor interest on the platform at “various points” in 2020 was directed at companies that had been operating for more than 10 years, in recent months, interest in companies that are 10 years or older has dropped to just 8%. Forge speculates that there are two reasons behind the trend, including that 2020 and 2021 were big years for IPOs and a lot of investors were keen to jump in ahead of public market investors. It also notes that last year, some highly valued companies like Stripe and Instacart massively slashed their valuations in response to “shifting investor appetites for risk assets and dour macroeconomic conditions.” We’d go even further and guess that investors are simply finding better deals on the public markets right now. Why spend money on a potentially overvalued private company that missed its chance to go public when there is so much on sale that’s also far more liquid? Consider Forge itself; valued at $2 billion at the time it was brought to market, the outfit currently has a market cap of $340 million, which isn’t a lot more than the $238 million that VCs had poured into the company when it was still privately held. It’s not all doom and gloom for maturing, privately held companies; there seems to be a tipping point when it comes to how old is too old. According to Forge, while it has seen a major shift into younger companies on the secondary market,  it says that in the fourth quarter of last year, the “sweet spot” for companies in the current market — and over time, looks like — are decacorns that are between six and ten years old. In fact, the report mentions interest specifically in companies like Discord, Databricks, Chime, and Airtable. Here’s the chart Forge put together to highlight what’s happening: Opportunistic investors are giving up on aging pre-IPO companies, shows a new report by Connie Loizos originally published on TechCrunch

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Instagram announced today that it’s introducing a new dynamic profile photo feature that lets users showcase both their profile photo and their avatar. Prior to this update, you had to choose between displaying a profile picture or your avatar on your profile. Now, you can flip between the two. “Now you can add your avatar to the other side of your pic — and people who visit your profile can flip between the two,” the Meta-owned company said in a tweet. New profile pic, who this? Now you can add your avatar to the other side of your pic — and people who visit your profile can flip between the two pic.twitter.com/hEyzW4G19W — Instagram (@instagram) January 24, 2023 To add an avatar to the other side of your profile picture, you need to navigate to the “Edit Profile” button. After adding the avatar, your profile picture will automatically flip over to your avatar when people visit your profile. The social media network notes that this update is the first time that it’s introducing avatar animation, as your avatar will wave when it is displayed. Meta brought avatars to Instagram nearly a year ago, and is now working to make them more prominent within the app with the addition of the dynamic profile photo feature. The company initially launched avatars in 2020 as a way to compete with Snap’s Bitmoji and has been continuously updating them since across Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Messenger. The launch of the new dynamic profile photo feature comes a few days after Instagram head Adam Mosseri said the social network will look to make photos more of a focus in 2023. In a weekly Q&A with users, Mosseri admitted that Instagram showed too many videos and not enough photos last year. He also reassured users that photos will always be important for the platform. Meta brings 3D avatars to Instagram, rolls out new options for Facebook and Messenger Instagram’s new dynamic profile photo flips between your picture and avatar by Aisha Malik originally published on TechCrunch

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Tapbots, the makers of a popular third-party Twitter app Tweetbot that was recently killed by Twitter’s API changes, is releasing its next new product. Hoping to fill the void that Tweetbot leaves behind, the company is now making its anticipated Mastodon client app Ivory available on the App Store as an Early Access release. The “Early Access” label is a subtitle that Tapbots put on its release to indicate there will still be features missing as it debuts, the company told us. However, by launching publically on the App Store, Tapbots is able to put Ivory into more people’s hands after filling up the limited number of TestFlight slots it had for its test version. Tapbots founder Paul Haddad told TechCrunch that Ivor’s App Store release was approved just yesterday but the company had a few technical issues to address around subscriptions before publicizing the launch. For longtime Tweetbot users, Ivory will offer a familiar experience. But instead of serving as a client for Twitter’s network, the company has now embraced the promising open-source platform Mastodon. Though not quite as simple to use or understand as Twitter, Mastodon has gained traction in the months following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. As Twitter’s new owner implemented controversial changes and the site’s performance degraded at times, some people had begun looking for a new home to post short updates, as they did Twitter. That led to a flurry of interest in new apps and other Twitter alternatives, like Mastodon. As of December, Mastodon had grown to 2.5 million monthly active users across some 8,600 different servers or, in Mastodon lingo, “instances.” However, some Mastodon newcomers didn’t like the official native mobile app — especially after using the faster, more polished Twitter native mobile app or those from third parties, like Tweetbot. That helped attract interest in the up-and-coming apps like Ivory and others being built by former Twitter third-party app developers, including Mammoth. Third-party Twitter app makers turn their attention to Mastodon Tapbots says Ivory’s feature set takes advantage of the over a dozen of years of experience Tapbots had in building its award-winning Tweetbot client for Twitter’s platform, At launch, it sports dozens of features, ranging from support for baseline functionality to clever bells and whistles, like being able to theme the app or change its icon. The app supports multiple accounts, and lets you view your local and federated timelines, trending posts, post statistics, notifications, and more. It also enables Mastodon-specific options that weren’t available on Twitter — like the ability to add content warnings to posts — as well as more common features, like the ability to post GIFs and polls. Image Credits: Tapbots There are other thoughtful touches designed to appeal to power users, too, like hashtag tracking, mute filters with regex support, and timeline filters that let you show or hide posts that meet certain criteria you set. This could appeal to Mastodon’s older users, as well, who may want to mute and avoid some of the posts shared by Mastodon newcomers who are bringing Twitter’s culture to the platform, leading to unwanted posts without content warnings in their timelines. Ivory also allows users to personalize the app in other ways. In addition to the filters, themes and icon choices, users can configure the navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen to show them what they want to see, by pressing down on buttons to switch between tabs for different areas of the app like bookmarks, favorites, statistics, your profile, notifications, lists, search, and more. The app additionally promises fast performance, smooth scrolling and an attractive user interface and sound design. For a debut release, Ivory is already a fairly robust client. However, the company says it has much more to still add to the app, including things like tools for editing your profile or editing your posts (take that, Edit Tweet button!), as well as others for reading the alt/description text for media, improved hashtags, support for custom instance emoji, an improved notifications tab with better filtering, and improved nav bar, and a feature to suppress duplicate posts. The app will generate revenue, as Tweetbot did, by way of in-app subscriptions. The App Store lists these as costing either $1.99 per month or $14.99 per year. A “Premier” subscription is also available for $24.99 per year. The latter includes all the features in the Pro subscription, and will later include a few extras, the company says. Haddad says the Premier tier was added mainly because people were asking to pay more money to help the company out, but it plans to include a few perks for those people in the future, including possibly, things like extra icons or wallpapers. These subscriptions are available in the Ivory app at present, and enable some of the power user features like configuring which notifications you want to receive, among other things. Users can also “demo” the app for free without committing to a subscription. As Tweetbot’s revenue was cut to zero by Twitter’s API changes, apps like Ivory only have a future if consumers are willing to adopt Mastodon and subscribe to alternative clients. And since Mastodon has a much smaller global user base to draw from, compared with Twitter, Ivory’s revenue potential has a smaller ceiling than the company’s Tweetbot app once did. (If you’re feeling nostalgic, visit its memorial page.) We have been testing Ivory for a few weeks through its TestFlight version and found that it offered a performant and rich user Mastodon experience that’s in many ways superior to the official app, making it easily one of the top choices for using Mastodon on iOS devices, even in its early days. Tapbots launches a new Mastodon client, Ivory, after Twitter kills its Tweetbot app by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

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Lyft has introduced wait time fees – in other words, charges incurred if a Lyft driver has to wait for you upon pickup. The rideshare platform hasn’t had these previously, despite its main competitor Uber having them since 2016. Lyft’s wait time fees kick in two minutes after on-time arrival for standard rides and five minutes after for Black and Black XL, and are charged on a per-minute basis. Wait time fees also don’t apply to early arrivals for pickups – until the driver is waiting after the originally scheduled pick up time. They also don’t apply to a number of specific ride types, including Shared, Access, Assisted and Car Seat rides. And you also don’t pay wait time fees if the ride ends up being cancelled (you just pay the cancellation fee if it’s on your end). This is hardly a surprising change from Lyft, and it introduced more consistency for drivers who are operating across both platforms. But it is Lyft giving up on one of the remaining differentiators between it and its competition on the rider side. Lyft adds wait time fees, nearly seven years after Uber by Darrell Etherington originally published on TechCrunch

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