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Friday, April 19, 2019

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Caterina Fake is known for her trend-spotting; here’s some of what she’s chasing now

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 04:04 PM PDT

Roughly a year ago, entrepreneurs Caterina Fake and Jyri Engeström decided to form a traditional venture outfit called Yes VC. Fast forward, and the duo has nearly closed on $50 million for their debut fund, including backing from Supercell founder Ilkka Paananen, former Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson and the family office of Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasmaa.

That investors would want to invest alongside them isn’t surprising. Fake famously co-founded the photo-sharing site Flickr, which sold to Yahoo, before co-founding Hunch, which sold to eBay. Engeström co-founded Jaiku, a mobile social network that sold to Google, before co-founding Ditto, a mobile local recommendations app that was acquired by Groupon. They’ve also written early checks as angel investors to a wide number of companies. Fake backed Kickstarter and Etsy, among tens of others; Engeström's various bets include the popular clothing label Betabrand, and startups like Applifier (acquired by Unity Technologies) and Moves (acquired by Facebook).

Now, investing on behalf of San Francisco-based Yes VC, Fake and Engeström have invested in a dozen more startups, including a clothing retailer that we reported on earlier this week called Kids on 45th that’s not in Silicon Valley and doesn’t photograph what it sells to customers online — which is a big departure from nearly every other e-commerce concept we’ve covered. In fact, because we thought it was so interesting, we asked Fake to hop on the phone with us and share what else she’s seeing — and funding. Unfortunately, one of the most intriguing investments that we wound up discussing we can’t include (the founders would not be pleased), but we can share it soon. Our conversation has otherwise been lightly edited for length.

TC: Kids on 45th seems very unique in that it caters to those willing to buy kids clothing sight unseen in exchange for affordability and time savings. It’s rare to see an e-commerce company that’s not catering to status-conscious consumers.

CF: They are rare, my goodness. It’s a severely under-addressed market. Its [customers] tend to be middle-class and lower-income moms who are super busy working and don’t care about brands or or have a lot of time to select kids’ clothing. So many Silicon Valley startups cater to college dudes who are trying to get out of doing their chores, I find it kind of offensive. This is a company that supports moms who really need the support, who can’t afford to have their groceries delivered or their packages dropped off and picked up — who are really pulling their weight, and everyone else’s.

TC: It’s in Seattle. How did you meet the company?

CF: We met [founder] Elise [Worthy] through [the consumer VC firm] Maveron. It was a little early for them so they introduced us. We often get referrals from Series A firms and from founders who know what we look for and what we like, and Maveron knew Elise was perfect for us.

Only three [of our new portfolio companies] are in the Bay Area, by the way. We have one in Portland, Maine; in Boise; in Vancouver. Silicon Valley is still Rome, but other places are becoming much stronger.

We’re also seeing a lot of stuff from women, partly because it’s a 50-percent female partnership here. There are so many awesome companies led by women and female entrepreneur networks. Our secret sauce is that we see a lot of these opportunities. Etsy I took all around the Valley for a seed round and everyone pooh-poohed it because they had this blind spot of not understanding businesses that cater to women. But there are huge opportunities all over the place.

TC: We talked when you were launching Yes VC and you were really enthusiastic about decentralization. Are you investing in blockchain startups?

CF: There isn’t a lot of compelling blockchain stuff that we’ve seen, though I do believe that the massive consolidation of power in the top five companies is not good for tech industry, startups or the broader ‘innovation ecosystem.’ What I find interesting lately is all the stuff going on in social platforms and online communities that are fine grained, meaning networks for specific or narrower communities, of developers, of women, of people dealing with a certain problem.

When Flickr started a year or two after Facebook, the Internet was so huge [and open] that it could serve these faceted networks. I think we’ve since seen the results of trying to be all things too all people —  nuns, white supremacists, truck drivers — [and] you shouldn’t serving all those people.

TC: You clearly think about these things a lot. You started a podcast this year, “Should This Exist,” about technologies that affect humanity. 

CF: It’s stuff I’ve been talking about all along and conversations I’ve been having online for a long time. In recent years, we’ve seen the effect of blitzscaling, and ‘move fast and break things,’ and development principles that the Valley has been flaming the flames of, so we ask [on the podcast]: Can this exist? Can it get funding? And should this exist? We’re putting out an episode every couple of weeks, and we’re halfway through this first season, with a plan to put out 10 episodes altogether.

We did one episode on ‘neuropriming,’ or zapping your brain to make it learn faster; another on AI therapy, with AI replacing people in the form of therapists and teachers and surgeons in diagnosing brain tumors. We’ve also talked about facial recognition and drones and supersonic flight, and stuff coming up in genetics — scary things with both huge potential to serve humanity and also to go really, terribly wrong. It’s important to [ask more questions] at the beginning of these industries rather than later, when we’re making a last-ditch effort to [solve the problems they’ve created].

TC: What are your theses right now when it comes to investing?

CF: All of our confreres in VC are like, ‘You got to have a thesis.’ It all sounds kind of like crap. What we did was retrospected all the stuff that has done really well [that we’ve helped fund], including Etsy and Cloudera, and what they had in common. One is a marketplace for handmade goods, the other an open-source tech platform, but what they have in common is that they were both at the vanguard of movements. Etsy became the vanguard of the DIY movement. Kickstarter [another early angel investment] became the vanguard of crowdfunding. Blue Bottle Coffee was the vanguard of the artisanal coffee movement. Public Goods [a membership club for natural and sustainable bathroom products] is in the vanguard [away from this] glut of marketing where you’re being constantly bombarded with messaging. It’s about simplification. Sometimes, you just want shampoo without being assaulted by branding first.

TC: What size checks are you writing?

CF: Typically, it’s a $500,000 check into a pre-seed deal, or we’ve gone as high as $1.5 million, writing follow-on checks selectively.

TC: Biggest investment out of the new fund?

CF: It may be either Kids on 45th or Public Goods.

TC: Are you seeing less frothy valuations in other markets?

CF: That’s true to some extent, but Valley fever is a contagion that takes hold as much in Indiana as California. It really is the case that the price is whatever the market will bear.

Tesla’s board is about to get a lot smaller

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 03:46 PM PDT

Tesla is cutting its board down by more than one-third to seven directors by 2020, a move that includes the loss of some CEO Elon Musk’s early advisers and allies, according to regulator filings posted Friday.

The filing comes days before a busy week for Tesla that will include an April 22 event meant to highlight its progress with autonomous vehicle technology, its April 24 quarterly earnings call, and a hearing with a judge to determine whether Musk and the SEC were able to reach a resolution contempt of court request over his Twitter use.

Longtime board member Brad Buss and Linda Johnson Rice, who joined two years ago as an independent director, will not seek re-election this year. Their terms will expire at the upcoming annual meeting. The board said in the proxy filing that it doesn’t plan to fill their seats.

Antonio Gracias, whose term ends in 2020, and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson will leave the board in 2020.

The changes are the latest moves by the board to gain more independence and follow the company and Musk’s settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last year. Under the settlement, Tesla agreed to add two independent directors and Musk would step down as chairman for three years.

In December, Tesla added two independent directors to its board — Oracle founder, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison and Walgreens executive Kathleen Wilson-Thompson.

Jurvetson, an early adviser of Musk, just returned this month from a leave of absence from the board. Jurvetson had been on leave from the Tesla and SpaceX since 2017 following his resignation as partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson amid an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. Jurvetson has since launched an early-stage venture firm Future Ventures, and recently announced he has raised $200 million for its debut fund.

Ira Ehrenpreis and Kathleen Wilson-Thompson were nominated for re-election at the 2019 annual meeting.

The settlement between Musk, Tesla and the SEC grew out of a tweet in August that he had "funding secured" for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share.  The SEC filed a complaint in federal district court in September alleging that Musk lied.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC without admitting wrongdoing and Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk's statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

The relationship between Musk and the SEC has remained strained. Musk has openly criticized the SEC via Twitter on various occasions, openly mocking the agency at times, even days after the settlement was reached. The SEC requested Musk be held in contempt for a tweet sent in February that the agency argued contained material information.

Fastly, the content delivery network, files for an IPO

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 03:31 PM PDT

Fastly, the content delivery network that’s raised $219 million in financing from investors (according to Crunchbase), is ready for its close up in the public markets.

The eight-year-old company is one of several businesses that improve the download time and delivery of different websites to internet browsers and it has just filed for an IPO.

Media companies like The New York Times use Fastly to cache their homepages, media and articles on Fastly’s servers so that when somebody wants to browse the Times online, Fastly’s servers can send it directly to the browser. In some cases, Fastly serves up to 90 percent of browser requests.

E-commerce companies like Stripe and Ticketmaster are also big users of the service. They appreciate Fastly because its network of servers enable faster load times — sometimes as quickly as 20 or 30 milliseconds, according to the company.

The company raised its last round of financing roughly nine months ago, a $40 million investment that Fastly said would be the last before a public offering.

True to its word, the company is hoping public markets have the appetite to feast on yet another “unicorn” business.

While Fastly lacks the sizzle of companies like Zoom, Pinterest or Lyft, its technology enables a huge portion of the activities in which consumers engage online, and it could be a bellwether for competitors like Cloudflare, which recently raised $150 million and was also exploring a public listing.

The company’s public filing has a placeholder amount of $100 million, but given the amount of funding the company has received, it’s far more likely to seek closer to $1 billion when it finally prices its shares.

Fastly reported revenue of roughly $145 million in 2018, compared to $105 million in 2017, and its losses declined year on year to $29 million, down from $31 million in the year-ago period. So its losses are shrinking, its revenue is growing (albeit slowly) and its cost of revenues are rising from $46 million to around $65 million over the same period.

That’s not a great number for the company, but it’s offset by the amount of money that the company’s getting from its customers. Fastly breaks out that number in its dollar-based net expansion rate figure, which grew 132 percent in 2018.

It’s an encouraging number, but as the company notes in its prospectus, it’s got an increasing number of challenges from new and legacy vendors in the content delivery network space.

The market for cloud computing platforms, particularly enterprise-grade products, “is highly fragmented, competitive and constantly evolving,” the company said in its prospectus. “With the introduction of new technologies and market entrants, we expect that the competitive environment in which we compete will remain intense going forward. Legacy CDNs, such as Akamai, Limelight, EdgeCast (part of Verizon Digital Media), Level3, and Imperva, and small business-focused CDNs, such as Cloudflare, InStart, StackPath, and Section.io, offer products that compete with ours. We also compete with cloud providers who are starting to offer compute functionality at the edge like Amazon's CloudFront, AWS Lambda, and Google Cloud Platform.”

Equity Shot: Pinterest zooms into the public markets (and yet another tech company files for an IPO)

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 03:09 PM PDT

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch's venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is a relaxed, Friday, Equity Shot. That means Kate and Alex were on deck to chew through the latest from the IPO front. We’ll keep doing extra episodes as long as we have to, though we’re slightly sorry if we’re becoming a bit much.

That’s a joke — we’re not sorry at all.

So, three things this week. First, Fastly filed an S-1 (Alex’s notes here); second, Zoom completed its highly anticipated IPO (Kate’s post here, Alex has notes too); and third, Pinterest went public too (more from TechCrunch here). Ultimately, Pinterest’s stock offering valued the company at $12.6 billion (higher than its latest private valuation), but we’ve got some notes on the “undercorn” phenomenon anyway (here and here).

Fastly is going public after raising more than $200 million at a valuation greater than $900 million. Founded in 2011, the content-delivery company surpassed the $100 million revenue mark in 2017, growing a little under 40 percent in 2018. It’s an unprofitable shop, but it has a clear path to profitability. And given how Zoom’s IPO went, it’s probably drafting a bit off of market momentum.

As mentioned, Zoom had a wildly successful first day of trading. The company ended up pricing its shares above range at $36 apiece, only to debut on the Nasdaq at $65 apiece. Yes, that’s an 81 percent pop, and yes, we were a bit floored.

Finally, Pinterest’s debut was solid, leading to a more than 25 percent gain over its above-range IPO price. What’s not to like about that? It’s hard to find fault with the offering. Pinterest got past the negative press and questions about private market valuations, went public, raised a truckload of money and now just has to execute. We’ll be watching.

If you’re looking for more Uber IPO content, don’t worry, there’s plenty more of that to come. See ya next week.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Malware researcher Marcus Hutchins pleads guilty, ending his legal case

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 01:52 PM PDT

Malware researcher Marcus Hutchins has pleaded guilty to two counts of creating and selling a powerful banking malware, ending a long and protracted battle with U.S. prosecutors.

Hutchins, a British national who goes by the online handle MalwareTech, was arrested in August 2017 as he was due to fly back to the U.K. following the Def Con security conference in Las Vegas. Prosecutors charged Hutchins with his involvement with creating the Kronos banking malware, dating back to 2014. He was later freed on bail.

A plea agreement was filed with the Eastern District of Wisconsin, where the case was being heard on Friday. His trial was set to begin later this year.

Hutchins agreed to plead guilty to distributing Kronos, a trojan that can be used to steal passwords and credentials from banking websites. In recent years, the trojan has continued to spread. He also agreed to plead guilty to a second count of conspiracy.

Hutchins faces up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors have dropped the remaining charges.

In a brief statement on his website, Hutchins said: “I regret these actions and accept full responsibility for my mistakes.”

“Having grown up, I've since been using the same skills that I misused several years ago for constructive purposes,” he said. “I will continue to devote my time to keeping people safe from malware attacks.”

His attorney Marcia Hofmann did not immediately return a request for comment.

Hutchins rose to prominence after he stopped the spread of the WannaCry ransomware attack in May 2017, months before his arrest. The attack used powerful hacking tools developed by the National Security Agency, which were later leaked, to backdoor thousands of Windows computers and install ransomware. The attack was later attributed to hackers backed by North Korea, knocking U.K. hospitals offline and crippling major companies around the world.

By registering a domain name found in the malware’s code, Hutchins stemmed the spread of the infection. He was hailed a hero for stopping the attack.

Prior to his release and after, Hutchins gained further praise and respect from the security community for his contributions to the malware-reversing field, and demonstrating his findings so others can learn from his findings.

Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas declined to comment.

Prosper is the latest Silicon Valley company to get dinged by, and settle charges with, the SEC

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 12:39 PM PDT

Another Silicon Valley company is settling with the SEC: the online lending company Prosper, which the SEC had accused of “miscalculating and materially overstating annualized net returns to retail and other investors.” Prosper has agreed to pay $3 million as part of the settlement, in which it has neither admitted nor denied the agency’s allegations.

According to a new release from the SEC: “For almost two years, Prosper told tens of thousands of investors that their returns were higher than they actually were despite warning signs that should have alerted Prosper that it was miscalculating those returns.” The 14-year-old, San Francisco-based company “excluded certain non-performing charged off loans from its calculation of annualized net returns” that it communicated to investors from around July 2015 through May 2017.

The mistake owed to a coding error that excluded the defaulted loans from its computations, the SEC said, causing Prosper to overstate its annualized net returns to more than 30,000 investors on individual account pages on its site and in emails soliciting additional investments from investors.

The SEC added that “many” investors decided to make additional investments based on the overstated annualized net returns and the “Prosper failed to identify and correct the error despite [its] knowledge that it no longer understood how annualized net returns were calculated and despite investor complaints about the calculation.”

The settlement is the second for the SEC in two week’s time. On April 2, the SEC announced that the founder and former chief executive of Jumio has agreed to pay the agency $17.4 million to settle charges that he defrauded investors in the mobile payments and identity verification startup before it went bankrupt.

Hacker dumps thousands of sensitive Mexican embassy documents online

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 11:09 AM PDT

A hacker stole thousands of documents from Mexico’s embassy in Guatemala and posted them online.

The hacker, who goes by the online handle @0x55Taylor, tweeted a link to the data earlier this week. The data is no longer available for download after the cloud host pulled the data offline, but the hacker shared the document dump with TechCrunch to verify its contents.

The hacker told TechCrunch in a message: “A vulnerable server in Guatemala related to the Mexican embassy was compromised and I downloaded all the documents and databases.” He said he contacted Mexican officials but he was ignored.

In previous correspondence with the hacker, he said he tries to report problems and has received bounty payouts for his discoveries. “But when I don’t get a reply, then it’s going public,” he said.

More than 4,800 documents were stolen, most of which related to the inner workings of the Mexican embassy in the Guatemalan capital, including its consular activities, such as recognizing births and deaths, dealing with Mexican citizens who have been incarcerated or jailed and the issuing of travel documents.

More than a thousand passports — including identification issued to diplomats — were stolen. (Image: supplied)

We found more than a thousand highly sensitive identity documents of primarily Mexican citizens and diplomats — including scans of passports, visas, birth certificates and more — but also some Guatemalan citizens.

Several documents contained scans of the front and back of payment cards.

One of the diplomatic visas issued to a Mexican diplomat stolen in the files. (Image: supplied)

The stolen data also included dozens of letters granting diplomatic rights, privileges and immunities to embassy staff. Diplomatic rights grant employees of the foreign embassy certain protections from their host country’s government and law enforcement. Diplomatic immunity, for example, allows staff to be granted safe passage in and out of the country and are generally safe from prosecution. Other documents seen by TechCrunch were signed off personally by Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Manuel López Moreno, and were instructed to be transported by diplomatic bag, which foreign missions use to transport official correspondence between countries that cannot be searched by police or customs.

Many of the files were marked “confidential,” though it’s not known if the hacked data included anything considered by the Mexican government to be classified or secret. Other files were internal administrative documents relating to staff medical expenses, vacation and time off and vehicle certifications.

When reached Friday, Gerardo Izzo, a spokesperson for the consul general in New York, said it is taking the matter “very seriously” but did not immediately have comment.

Friday is a national holiday in Mexico.

Related stories:

Apply now to be a TC Top Pick at Disrupt San Francisco 2019

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 11:00 AM PDT

Psst! We're looking at you, early-stage startup founders. How would you like your startup to be a media and investor darling at Disrupt San Francisco 2019? If you think your startup has what it takes to make the cut, apply to be a TC Top Pick. The application process is super easy, free and potentially — dare we say — life changing. Yup, we dare.

Our TC Top Picks program is competitive and highly selective. TechCrunch editors are a notoriously picky bunch, and they'll review every application thoroughly before choosing up to five top startups in each of these categories: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, SaaS and Social Impact & Education.

Every startup selected as a TC Top Pick receives a free Startup Alley Exhibition package, invitations to special events at Disrupt SF — like the investor reception — and prime real estate in the Startup Alley exhibition hall.

It's one thing for us to tell you that being a TC Top Pick can change your startup's trajectory, but it's more effective to hear first-hand experiences from previous Top Picks — like this one.

Israeli-based CAARESYS earned a TC Top Pick designation in the mobility category at Disrupt SF 2018. The startup's vehicle monitoring system uses low-emission radio frequency radar and contactless biometrics to track the body location and physical state — respiration rate, heart rate and heart-rate variability — of each passenger in the car.

According to Konstantin Berezin, the company's COO and co-founder, the connections they made as a TC Top Pick at Disrupt SF resulted in projects with three OEM and Tier 1 companies. The company is currently in the integration phase with auto manufacturers to get the systems into cars by 2021.

"We also followed up with a potential customer we met at Disrupt and, as a result of that meeting, we signed a memorandum of understanding to partner on a mutual project," said Berezin. "I can't disclose the name just yet, but we're very excited. Being a TC Top Pick really put us on the map."

Another perk that comes with being a TC Top Pick is the interview with a TechCrunch editor on the Showcase stage in Startup Alley. That video interview, which we promote across our social media platforms, provides valuable media exposure long after the conference ends.

"The interview was terrific, and TechCrunch did a very professional job shooting and editing the video," said Berezin. "Sending our video to current and potential customers gives us prestige and a certain cool factor. We love it!"

Of course, there's more than one way to grab the spotlight at Disrupt SF. While you're applying to be a TC Top Pick, why not apply to compete in Startup Battlefield, too? Our epic startup pitch competition carries a $100,000 equity-free cash prize. Yowza!

Disrupt San Francisco 2019 takes place October 2-4. Take a life-changing step to get the most out of your time at Disrupt and apply to the TC Top Pick program today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt SF? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is developing visual cues to indicate when their tech is monitoring you

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 09:56 AM PDT

Alphabet’s subsidiary focused on urban tech development, Sidewalk Labs, is now trying to reinvent signage for smart cities. These signs aren’t to direct the flow of traffic, or to point the way to urban landmarks — they’re designed to let citizens know when they’re being monitored.

The proposal is part of a push by the company to acclimate people to the technologies that it’s deploying in cities like New York and Toronto.

Globally, competition for contracts to deploy sensors, data management and predictive technologies in cities can run into the tens of millions, if not billions of dollars, and Sidewalk Labs knows this better than most. Because its projects are among the most ambitious deployments of sensing and networking technologies for smart cities, the company has also faced the most public criticism.

So at least partially in an attempt to blunt attacks from critics, the company is proposing to make its surveillance and monitoring efforts more transparent.

“Digital technology is all around us, but often invisible. Consider: on any one urban excursion (your commute, perhaps), you could encounter CCTVs, traffic cameras, transit card readers, bike lane counters, Wi-Fi access points, occupancy sensors that open doors — potentially all on the same block,” writes Jacqueline Lu, whose title is “assistant director of the public realm” at Sidewalk Labs.

Lu notes that while the technologies can be useful, there’s little transparency around the data these technologies are collecting, who the data is being collected by and what the data is collected for.

Cities like Boston and London already indicate when technology is being used in the urban environment, but Sidewalk Labs convened a group of designers and urban planners to come up with a system for signage that would make the technology being used even more public for citizens going about their day.

Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Back in 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission called for the development of these types of indicators when it issued a call for mobile privacy disclosures. But that seems to have resulted in companies just drafting reams of jargon-filled disclosures that obscured more than they revealed.

At Sidewalk, the goal is transparency, say the authors of the company’s suggested plan.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding. For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” writes Lu and her co-authors Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert.

As an example, Sidewalk showed off potential designs for signage that would alert people to the presence of the company’s Numina technology.

That tech monitors traffic patterns by recording, anonymizing and transmitting data from sensors using digital recording and algorithmically enhanced software to track movement in an area. These sensors are installed on light poles and transmit data wirelessly.

At the very least, the technology can’t be any worse than the innocuously intended cameras that are monitoring public spaces already (and can be turned into surveillance tools easily).

The hexagonal designs indicate the purpose of the technology, the company deploying it, the reason for its use, whether or not the tech is collecting sensitive information and a QR code that can be scanned to find out more information.

The issue with experiments like these in the public sphere is that there’s no easy way to opt out of them. Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project is both an astounding feat of design and the apotheosis of surveillance capitalism.

Once these decisions are made to cede public space to the private sector, or sacrifice privacy for security (or simply better information about a location for the sake of convenience), they’re somewhat difficult to unwind. As with most of the salient issues with technology today, it’s about unintended consequences.

Information about a technology’s deployment isn’t enough if the relevant parties haven’t thought through the ramifications of that technology’s use.

Netflix says it’s testing a shuffle feature for when you don’t know what to watch

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 09:19 AM PDT

Netflix is testing a new feature that can help you start streaming when you don’t know what to watch. The company confirmed it’s testing a shuffle mode of sorts, which will allow you to easily click on a popular show to start playing a random episode. The idea with the feature is to offer an experience that’s more like traditional TV — where you could just turn the set on, and there would be something to watch.

With today’s streaming services, that sort of seamless experience is more difficult to achieve. Instead, viewers now have to first select a streaming app, then scroll through endless menus and recommendations before they can settle on their next title.

The new shuffle feature, instead, offers something closer to the experience of turning on cable TV, when there was always some classic favorite show playing in syndication.

The shows being tested with the new feature appear to be those that people choose when they don’t know what else to watch, like “The Office,” “New Girl,” “Our Planet,” “Arrested Development” and others.

“The Office,” in particular, has a reputation for being a go-to pick for when you’re not in the middle of some other binge fest.

The TV shows appear in a new row, titled “Play a Random Episode.” To get started, you’d click any TV show’s thumbnail, and a random episode from the series then starts playing.

The thumbnails themselves are also adorned with a red “shuffle” icon to indicate they’ll play a random episode.

(Above: Seems someone had the right idea)

The new feature was first spotted by the folks at Android Police, who saw the option appear in the Android version of Netflix’s app.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the shuffle feature is something it’s considering, but hasn’t yet committed to rolling out.

“We are testing the ability for members to play a random episode from different TV series on the Android mobile app. These tests typically vary in length of time and by region, and may not become permanent,” a Netflix spokesperson said.

Netflix for some time has been focused on ways to get users streaming its content faster, after they log in. That’s where its decision to run autoplaying trailers comes in, for example, or why it now features those Stories-inspired previews, or why it tested promoting its shows right on the login screen.

Image credit: Android Police

Daily Crunch: Zoom and Pinterest go public

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 09:15 AM PDT

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Zoom pops 81 percent in Nasdaq debut

Thursday was a big day for tech IPOs, with Zoom opening trading at $65 a share. The company’s initial public offering gave it a fully diluted market cap of roughly $16 billion.

Meanwhile, Pinterest debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $23.75 per share.

2. Facebook now says its password leak affected 'millions' of Instagram users

"We discovered additional logs of Instagram passwords being stored in a readable format," the company said. "We now estimate that this issue impacted millions of Instagram users. We will be notifying these users as we did the others."

3. Mueller report sheds new light on how the Russians hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign

At one point, the Russians used servers located in the U.S. to carry out the massive data exfiltration effort, the report says.

The Instagram app is seen on an iPhone on 16 March, 2017. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

4. Instagram hides Like counts in leaked design prototype

Hiding Like counts could reduce the herd mentality, where people just Like what's already got tons of Likes. It could also reduce the sense of competition.

5. The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

While the consumer version of BlackBerry Messenger is shutting down, the service will still exist. In fact, BlackBerry announced a plan to open its enterprise version to general consumers.

6. Amazon launches ad-supported music service to Echo owners

Until this week, Echo owners who wanted to stream music from Amazon could either pay for an annual Prime membership in order to access Prime Music, or they could pay $3.99 per month to stream from Amazon Music Unlimited.

7. The different playbooks of D2C brands

Venture capital firms have invested over $4 billion in D2C brands since 2012, with 2018 alone accounting for over $1 billion. How are these D2C brands going to evolve and how could they sustain as businesses? (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Ramotion

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 09:05 AM PDT

Ramotion is a remote branding and product design agency that has worked with Bay Area tech startups since 2014. While they typically do branding for funded, fast-growing startups, Ramotion has helped companies ranging from Bitmoji's early brand identity to Mozilla's rebrand. We spoke to Ramotion's CEO Denis Pakhaliuk about their iterative approach, his favorite branding projects and more.  


Ramotion's branding philosophy:

"We are a big fan of starting small: designing a small package, releasing it and then iterating on top of that. So, founders need to be focused on what’s really necessary right now for their next round of investment or product releases."

On common founder mistakes:

"I think some founders think they need everything, but they actually need an MVP and product design. The same goes for brand identity. They need to have some key elements like colors, typeface and the logo. There is no need to do everything in the beginning, because the logo and brand identity becomes meaningful after it’s used. It'll eventually improve."

"They’re the reason we have such an amazing logo today." Kevin Sproles, Austin, founder & CEO at Volusion

Below, you'll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven't already.


Interview with Ramotion's CEO Denis Pakhaliuk

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me about your journey and how you came to create Ramotion?

Denis Pakhaliuk: Yeah, I started as a CG designer more than 10 years ago. I was doing computer graphics, CG modeling, digitalization of architectural design and automotive design. I was initially very focused on German cars and industrial design. Once iPhone 3G came out, I switched to doing UI design for mobile apps, which was a very hot topic at the time.

From that point I met a guy who just said, “Hey, I'm thinking of building an agency,” and so we decided to do it together. It started with a few people and now we have up to 30. We focus on different products, from small companies to more established brands, like Salesforce, among others. So yeah, it's been a fun journey.

Yvonne Leow: At what point did Ramotion start working with startups?

How do you hire a great growth marketer?

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 09:05 AM PDT

Editors Note: This article is part of a series that explores the world of growth marketing for founders. If you’ve worked with an amazing growth marketing agency, nominate them to be featured in our shortlist of top growth marketing agencies in tech.

Startups often set themselves back a year by hiring the wrong growth marketer.

This post shares a framework my marketing agency uses to source and vet high-potential growth candidates.

With it, early-stage startups can identify and attract a great first growth hire.

It'll also help you avoid unintentionally hiring candidates who lack broad competency. Some marketers master 1-2 channels, but aren't experts at much else. When hiring your first growth marketer, you should aim for a generalist.

This post covers two key areas:

  1. How I find growth candidates.
  2. How I identify which candidates are legitimately talented.

Great marketers are often founders

One interesting way to find great marketers is to look for great potential founders.

Let me explain. Privately, most great marketers admit that their motive for getting hired was to gain a couple years' experience they could use to start their own company.

Don't let that scare you. Leverage it: You can sidestep the competitive landscape for marketing talent by recruiting past founders whose startups have recently failed.

Why do this? Because great founders and great growth marketers are often one and the same. They're multi-disciplinary executors, they take ownership and they're passionate about product.

You see, a marketing role with sufficient autonomy mimics the role of a founder: In both, you hustle to acquire users and optimize your product to retain them. You're working across growth, brand, product and data.

As a result, struggling founders wanting a break from the startup roller coaster often find transitioning to a growth marketing role to be a natural segue.

How do we find these high-potential candidates?

Finding founders

To find past founders, you could theoretically monitor the alumni lists of incubators like Y Combinator and Techstars to see which companies never succeeded. Then you can reach out to their first-time founders.

You can also identify future founders: Browse Product Hunt and Indie Hackers for old projects that showed great marketing skill but didn't succeed.

There are thousands of promising founders who've left a mark on the web. Their failure is not necessarily indicative of incompetence. My agency's co-founders and directors, including myself, all failed at founding past companies.

How do I attract candidates?

To get potential founders interested in the day-to-day of your marketing role, offer them both breadth and autonomy:

  • Let them be involved in many things.
  • Let them be fully in charge of a few things.

Remember, recreate the experience of being a founder.

Further, vet their enthusiasm for your product, market and its product-channel fit:

  • Product and market: Do their interests line up with how your product impacts its users? For example, do they care more about connecting people through social networks, or about solving productivity problems through SaaS? And which does your product line up with?
  • Product-channel fit: Are they excited to run the acquisition channels that typically succeed in your market?

The latter is a little-understood but critically important requirement: Hire marketers who are interested in the channels your company actually needs.

Let's illustrate this with a comparison between two hypothetical companies:

  1. A B2B enterprise SaaS app.
  2. An e-commerce company that sells mattresses.

Broadly speaking, the enterprise app will most likely succeed through the following customer acquisition channels: sales, offline networking, Facebook desktop ads and Google Search.

In contrast, the e-commerce company will most likely succeed through Instagram ads, Facebook mobile ads, Pinterest ads and Google Shopping ads.

We can narrow it even further: In practice, most companies only get one or two of their potential channels to work profitably and at scale.

Meaning, most companies have to develop deep expertise in just a couple of channels.

There are enterprise marketers who can run cold outreach campaigns on autopilot. But, many have neither the expertise nor the interest to run, say, Pinterest ads. So if you've determined Pinterest is a high-leverage ad channel for your business, you'd be mistaken to assume that an enterprise marketer's cold outreach skills seamlessly translate to Pinterest ads.

Some channels take a year or longer to master. And mastering one channel doesn't necessarily make you any better at the next. Pinterest, for example, relies on creative design. Cold email outreach relies on copywriting and account-based marketing.

(How do you identify which ad channels are most likely to work for your company? Read my Extra Crunch article for a breakdown.)

To summarize: To attract the right marketers, identify those who are interested in not only your product but also how your product is sold.

Other approaches

The founder-first approach I've shared is just one of many ways my agency recruits great marketers. The point is to remind you that great candidates are sometimes a small career pivot away from being your perfect hire. You don't have to look in the typical places when your budget is tight and you want to hire someone with high, senior potential.

This is especially relevant for early-stage, bootstrapping startups.

If you have the foresight to recognize these high-potential candidates, you can hopefully hire both better and cheaper. Plus, you empower someone to level up their career.

Speaking of which, here are other ways to hire talent whose potential hasn't been fully realized:

  • Find deep specialists (e.g. Facebook Ads experts) and offer them an opportunity to learn complementary skills with a more open-ended, strategic role. (You can help train them with my growth guide.)
  • Poach experienced junior marketers from a company in your space by offering senior roles.
  • Hire candidates from top growth marketing schools.

Vetting growth marketers

If you don't yet have a growth candidate to vet, you can stop reading here. Bookmark this and return when you do!

Now that you have a candidate, how do you assess whether they're legitimately talented?

At Bell Curve, we ask our most promising leads to incrementally complete three projects:

  • Create Facebook and Instagram ads to send traffic to our site. This showcases their low-level, tactical skills.
  • Walk us through a methodology for optimizing our site's conversion rate. This showcases their process-driven approach to generating growth ideas. Process is everything.
  • Ideate and prioritize customer acquisition strategies for our company. This showcases their ability to prioritize high-leverage projects and see the big picture.

We allow a week to complete these projects. And we pay them market wage.

Here's what we're looking for when we assess their work.

Level 1: Basics

First — putting their work aside — we assess the dynamics of working with them. Are they:

  • Competent: Can they follow instructions and understand nuance?
  • Reliable: Will they hit deadlines without excuses?
  • Communicative: Will they proactively clarify unclear things?
  • Kind: Do they have social skills?

If they follow our instructions and do a decent job, they're competent. If they hit our deadline, they're probably reliable. If they ask good questions, they're communicative.

And if we like talking to them, they're kind.

Level 2: Capabilities

A level higher, we use these projects to assess their ability to contribute to the company:

  • Do they have a process for generating and prioritizing good ideas? 
    • Did their process result in multiple worthwhile ad and landing page ideas? We're assessing their process more so than their output. A great process leads to generating quality ideas forever.
    • Resources are always limited. One of the most important jobs of a growth marketer is to ensure growth resources are focused on the right opportunities. I'm looking for a candidate that has a process for identifying, evaluating and prioritizing growth opportunities.
  • Can they execute on those ideas? 
    • Did they create ads and propose A/B tests thoughtfully? Did they identify the most compelling value propositions, write copy enticingly and target audiences that make sense?
    • Have they achieved mastery of 1-2 acquisition channels (ideally, the channels your company is dependent on to scale)? I don't expect anyone to be an expert in all channels, but deep knowledge of at least a couple of channels is key for an early-stage startup making their first growth hire.

If you don't have the in-house expertise to assess their growth skills, you can pay an experienced marketer to assess their work. It'll cost you a couple hundred bucks, and give you peace of mind. Look on Upwork for someone, or ask a marketer at a friend's company.

Recap

  • If you're an early-stage company with a tight budget, there are creative ways to source high-potential growth talent.
  • Assess that talent on their product fit and market fit for your company. Do they actually want to work on the channels needed for your business to succeed?
  • Give them a week-long sample project. Assess their ability to generate ideas and prioritize them.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine is considering book-themed subscription boxes

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 08:41 AM PDT

Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine already has its hands in movies, television, Apple TV+ shows, podcasts, Audible originals, books and more. Now it’s weighing an entry into the subscription box business to further capitalize on its brand and its appeal to women.

The subscription boxes under consideration would operate out of Reese’s Book Club — the curated selection of book recommendations whose focus is on titles with strong female leads. The club, which some believe may one day rival Oprah’s, is already capable of driving sales at Amazon and elsewhere. It’s also now a feeder into other Hello Sunshine projects — like HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of “Little Fires Everywhere” and others.

Now the company is gathering feedback as to how to turn the book club’s online brand — which began with Witherspoon posting books to Instagram — into a revenue-generating business of its own.

Hello Sunshine members recently received a survey asking for their feedback about Hello Sunshine and Reese’s Book Club. But the questions it posed were almost entirely focused on gathering information about what members would want to see in a subscription box.

For example, would they prefer items that are seasonal, themed to the book club’s current pick or those that  are related to reading — like book lamps and bookmarks? Or would members be open to anything Reese just likes herself, for whatever reason?

To some extent, Hello Sunshine has already begun the process of curating other non-book items through the site’s online shop, where it features things like totes, mugs, pins, hats, notebooks, makeup bags and even jewelry. These could easily be added into subscription boxes, if the time comes.

The survey also asked for feedback about how the books would be paired with the other items. Members were asked if they would prefer the monthly book club selection or themed boxes like “favorite books,” “classics” or “summer reads,” for example.

Finally, the survey asked about how customers would like to pay — monthly, quarterly, annually and so on.

While the larger subscription box craze may have passed, many that have a more female-friendly focus are still surviving — like Birchbox and Ipsy’s makeup boxes, jewelry focused Rocksbox, FabFitFun and others. And some are even thriving — like Stitch Fix’s subscription-based clothing boxes.

Hello Sunshine’s potential in this space would instead come from its growing fan base, rather than something it has to start from scratch. Today the book club has 1 million Instagram followers, up from 390,000 a year ago. That’s in addition to the 471,000 who follow Hello Sunshine and the 17.3 million who follow Witherspoon.

Hello Sunshine did not return requests for comment.

Apple could be adding Siri Shortcuts and Screen Time to macOS

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 08:32 AM PDT

Apple wants to add more iOS features to macOS according to a report from 9to5Mac's Guilherme Rambo. And it starts with improvements to Siri.

While Siri has been available on macOS for a while, it feels like a scaled-down version of Siri. Sure, you can ask for the weather, NBA scores or a word translation. You can also turn off the Wi-Fi or look up a file on your hard drive.

But Siri on macOS doesn't work with any third-party app. You can't send a message on WhatsApp, you can't send some money using Square Cash, you can't order an Uber.

According to 9to5Mac, this will change with macOS 10.15 this fall. Apple is working on adding support for Siri Shortcuts, which means that you'll theoretically be able to create custom voice shortcuts to trigger actions in third-party apps.

Existing macOS apps won't be able to add hooks for Siri Shortcuts — the feature should be limited to iOS ports that leverage the upcoming Marzipan framework. As a result, you can also expect a Shortcuts app to create your own scripts in a visual interface. Shortcuts has become the equivalent of Automator for iOS. Let's see what happens to Automator after macOS 10.15.

The macOS update won't just focus on Siri. You should expect to see Screen Time, the iOS feature that tells you how much time you spent in each app on your devices. The current implementation of Screen Time combines your usage across all your iOS devices, such as your iPhone and your iPad. But adding macOS data to the mix is key if you want to see the full picture.

Finally, Apple will let you control your Apple ID more easily from the Mac. Instead of relying on Apple's website, you'll be able to set up family sharing and more from a new panel in System Preferences.

ProcessOut improves payment data visualization

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 08:01 AM PDT

ProcessOut has grown quite a lot since I first covered the startup. The company now has a ton of small and big clients, from Glovo to Vente-Privée and Dashlane. The company has become an expert on payment providers and payment analytics.

The core of the product remains the same. Clients sign up to get an overview on the performance of their payment systems. After setting up ProcessOut Telescope, you can monitor payments with expensive fees, failed payments and disappointing payment service providers.

And this product is quite successful. Back in October 2018, the company had monitored $7 billion in transactions since its inception — last month, that number grew to $13 billion.

The company is adding new features to make it easier to get insights from your payment data. You can now customize your data visualization dashboards with a custom scripting language called ProcessOut Lang. This way, if you have an internal payment team, they can spot issues more easily.

ProcessOut can also help you when it comes to generating reports. The company can match transactions on your bank account with transactions on different payment providers.

If you're a smaller company and can't optimize your payment module yourself, ProcessOut also builds a smart-routing checkout widget. When a customer pays something, the startup automatically matches card information with the best payment service provider for that transaction in particular.

Some providers are quite good at accepting all legit transactions, such as Stripe or Braintree. But they are also more expensive than more traditional payment service providers. ProcessOut can predict if a payment service provider is going to reject this customer before handing the transaction to that partner. It leads to lower fees and a lower rejection rate.

The company recently added support for more payment service providers in Latin America, such as Truevo, AllPago and Mercadopago. And ProcessOut now routes more transactions in one day compared to the entire month of October 2018.

As you can see, the startup is scaling nicely. It will be interesting to keep an eye on it.

Security flaw in French government messaging app exposed confidential conversations

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 05:18 AM PDT

The French government just launched its own messaging app called Tchap in order to protect conversations from hackers, private companies and foreign entities. But Elliot Alderson, also known as Baptiste Robert, immediately found a security flaw. He was able to create an account even though the service is supposed to be restricted to government officials.

Tchap wasn’t built from scratch. The DINSIC, France's government agency in charge of all things digital, forked an open-source project called Riot, which is based on an open-source protocol called Matrix.

In a few words, Matrix is a messaging protocol that features end-to-end encryption. It competes with other protocols, such as the Signal Protocol that is widely used by consumer apps, such as WhatsApp, Signal, Messenger's secret conversations and Google Allo's incognito conversions — Messenger and Allo conversations aren't end-to-end encrypted by default.

Riot is a Matrix client that works on desktop and mobile. You can join rooms, start private conversations, share photos and do everything you'd expect from a modern messaging app. Here’s what it looks like:

Developing Tchap became essential as Emmanuel Macron's campaign team relied heavily on Telegram — the French government still uses Telegram and WhatsApp for many sensitive conversations. By default, Telegram doesn't use end-to-end encryption. In other words, people working for Telegram could easily read Macron's conversations. It's a serious security weakness.

Similarly, you don't want the Ministry of Defense to use Slack to talk about sensitive operations. The U.S. government could potentially issue a warrant to access those conversations on Slack's servers.

Tchap features end-to-end encryption, and encrypted messages are stored on French servers. Access is restricted to government officials, as you need to have an active email address that ends in @something.gouv.fr, or in @elysee.fr.

Yesterday, Alderson found out that you can create an account and access public channels even if you don't have an official address. Adding @elysee.fr at the end of his email address was enough to receive the confirmation email to his real email address.

Alderson quickly disclosed the bug to the Matrix team. Matrix quickly issued a fix and deployed it. It was related to the identification system used by the French government.

According to Alderson, there's a bug in the parsing method used in a well-known Python module. The bug hasn't been fixed since July 2018.

The good news is that Tchap is officially launching today. The DINSIC managed to fix this security flaw just in time before the official launch and somebody could leverage it. In its press release, the government says that the DINSIC will launch a bug bounty program to identify other vulnerabilities.

Sequoia reveals first cohort for its ‘Surge’ accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Posted: 19 Apr 2019 04:19 AM PDT

Back in January, Sequoia India announced plans for its first early-stage startup accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia, and today the firm revealed the first cohort of 17 startups.

To recap, the program — which is called Surge — gives each startup a $1.5 million check and participation in a four-month program that’s split across India and Singapore, as well as the wider Sequoia global presence in China and San Francisco.

The program kicked off last month, but the startups were only unveiled for the first time today — here they are:

  • Azani Sports: a “full stack” sports clothing startup based in India that sells online and through selected high street retails
  • Bobobox: a capsule hotel company based in Indonesia
  • Bulbul: a live-streaming service with a focus on e-commerce across India
  • DancingMind: a Singapore startup that uses VR to enable remote care for stroke victims and patients of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s
  • Doubtnut: an India-based education startup that uses photos, videos and AI
  • Flynote: a travel booking service with a focus on personalized trips
  • Hippo Video: a platform developing, editing and analyzing marketing and sales videos
  • InterviewBit Academy: a computer science training and development platform in India — that’s not unlike recent Y Combinator graduate Skill-Lync
  • Khatabook: an accounting service for SMEs in India that already claims 120,000 weekly users
  • Qoala: a micro-insurance startup based in Indonesia, which competes with rivals like PasarPolis — which is backed by three of Indonesia’s unicorns
  • ShopUp: a social commerce startup that helps sellers in Bangladesh do business through Facebook — that’s a similar concept to established Indian startups Meesho (another YC alum) and LimeRoad, which enable sellers on WhatsApp
  • Skillmatics: a startup headquartered in India that develops learning games for pre-school and primary school kids aged under 10
  • Telio: a b2b commerce platform that aims to digitize the process of brands and wholesalers selling to retailers
  • Uiza: a Singapore-Vietnam startup that lets publishers and companies develop their own video infrastructure independent of platforms like YouTube
  • Vybes: an e-commerce platform for social media influencers that’s based out of Singapore
  • Zenyum: a startup that provides invisible braces for consumers in Southeast Asia at a lower cost than traditional alternatives

There’s one additional startup, which is being kept “under the radar” for now, Sequoia said.

Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh previously told TechCrunch that Surge would support a “curated” selection of fellow VCs who could invest in the cohort alongside the firm, and Sequoia said that the 17 startups have attracted a total of $36 million in investment. A spokesperson also pointed out that five of the selections have at least one female co-founders, which is almost certainly above average for the region, although it is tricky to get reliable data covering India and (in particular) Southeast Asia.

Surge is an interesting effort for Sequoia, which has traditionally played in post-seed and growth stages of the investment cycle. Sequoia closed its most recent fund for India and Southeast Asia at $695 million last year, and it also has access to a globally active “growth” fund that is targeted at $8 billion. Reports have suggested that Surge will get its own sparkling new $200 million fund, which would make a lot of sense, given the potential conflict and confusion of investing via its main fund. But the firm is declining to comment on that possibility for now.

One major addition to the program that has been confirmed, however, is Rajan Anandan, the executive who previously ran Google's business in India and Southeast Asia and is a well-known angel investor. His arrival was announced earlier this month and he will lead the Surge initiative.

His recruitment is a major win for Sequoia, which is betting that Surge’s early-stage push will reap it richer dividends in India and Southeast Asia. That part remains to be seen, but certainly, there is a dearth of early-stage programs in both regions compared to other parts of the world.

Uber’s self-driving car unit raises $1B from Toyota, Denso and Vision Fund ahead of spin-out

Posted: 18 Apr 2019 10:17 PM PDT

Uber has confirmed it will spin out its self-driving car business after the unit closed $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

The development has been speculated for some time — as far back as October — and it serves to both remove a deeply unprofitable unit from the main Uber business, helping Uber scale back some of its losses, while giving Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (known as Uber ATG) more freedom to focus on the tough challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to market.

The deal values Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, the companies announced. In terms of the exact mechanics of the investment, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

The deal is expected to close in Q3, and it gives investors a new take on Uber’s imminent IPO, which comes with Uber ATG. The company posted a $1.85 billion loss for 2018, but R&D efforts on “moonshots” like autonomous cars and flying vehicles dragged the numbers down by accounting for more than $450 million in spending. Moving those particularly capital-intensive R&D plays into a new entity will help bring the core Uber numbers down to earth, but clearly there’s still a lot of work to reach break-even or profitability.

Still, those crazy numbers haven’t dampened the mood. Uber is still seen as a once-in-a-generation company, and it is tipped to raise around $10 billion from the IPO, giving it a reported valuation of $90 billion-$100 billion.

Like the spin-out itself, the identity of the investors is not a surprise.

The Vision Fund (and parent SoftBank) have backed Uber since a January 2018 investment deal closed, while Toyota put $500 million into the ride-hailing firm last August. Toyota and Uber are working to bring autonomous Sienna vehicles to Uber’s service by 2021 while, in further proof of their collaborative relationship, SoftBank and Toyota are jointly developing services in their native Japan, which will be powered by self-driving vehicles.

The duo also backed Grab — the Southeast Asian ride-hailing company in which Uber owns around 23 percent — perhaps more aggressively. SoftBank has been an investor since 2014, and last year Toyota invested $1 billion into Grab, which it said was the highest investment it has made in ride hailing.

“Leveraging the strengths of Uber ATG's autonomous vehicle technology and service network and the Toyota Group's vehicle control system technology, mass-production capability, and advanced safety support systems, such as Toyota Guardian, will enable us to commercialize safer, lower cost automated ridesharing vehicles and services,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, the executive VP who leads Toyota’s “connected company” division, said in a statement.

Here’s Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s shorter take on Twitter:

Boston Dynamics debuts the production version of SpotMini

Posted: 18 Apr 2019 04:27 PM PDT

Last year at our TC Sessions: Robotics conference, Boston Dynamics announced that SpotMini will be its first commercially available product. A revamped version of the product would use the company's decades of quadrupedal robotics learnings as a basis for a robot designed to patrol office spaces.

At today's event, founder and CEO Marc Raibert took to the stage to debut the production version of the electric robot. As noted last year, the company plans to produce around 100 models this year. Raibert said the company is aiming to start production in July or August. There are robots coming off the assembly line now, but they are betas being used for testing, and the company is still doing redesigns. Pricing details will be announced this summer.

New things about the SpotMini as it moves closer to production include redesigned components to make it more reliable, skins that work better to protect the robot if it falls and two sets of cameras on the front and one on each side and the back, so it can see in all directions.

The SpotMini also has an arm (with a hand that's often mistaken for its head) that is stabilized in space, so it stays in the same place even when the rest of the robot moves, making it more flexible for different applications.

Raibert says he hopes the SpotMini becomes the “Android of robots” (or Android of androids), with navigation software and developers eventually writing apps that can run in and interact with the controls on the robot.

SpotMini is the first commercial robot Boston Dynamics is set to release, but as we learned earlier, it certainly won't be the last. The company is looking to its wheeled Handle robot in an effort to push into the logistics space. It's a super-hot category for robotics right now. Notably, Amazon recently acquired Colorado-based start up Canvas to add to its own arm of fulfillment center robots.

Boston Dynamics made its own acquisition earlier this month — a first for the company. The addition of Kinema will bring advanced vision systems to the company's robots — a key part in implementing these sorts of systems in the field.