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Monday, November 4, 2019

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Workday to acquire online procurement platform Scout RFP for $540M

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 03:20 PM PST

Workday announced this afternoon that it has entered into an agreement to acquire online procurement platform Scout RFP for $540 million. The company raised more than $60 million on a post valuation of $184.5 million, according to PitchBook data.

The acquisition builds on top of Workday’s existing procurement solutions, Workday Procurement and Workday Inventory, but Workday chief product product officer Petros Dermetzis wrote in a blog post announcing the deal that Scout gives the company a more complete solution for customers.

“With increased importance around the supplier as a strategic asset, the acquisition of Scout RFP will help accelerate Workday's ability to deliver a comprehensive source-to-pay solution with a best-in-class strategic sourcing offering, elevating the office of procurement in strategic importance and transforming the procurement function,” he wrote.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research says that Workday has been trying to be the end-to-end cloud back office player. In spite of their own offerings in this area, he says, “One of their big gaps has been in procurement.”

Wang says that Workday has been investing with eye toward filling gaps in the product set for some time. In fact, Workday Ventures has been an investor in Scout RFP since 2018, and it’s also an official Workday partner.

“A lot of the Workday investments are in portfolio companies that are complimentary to Workday’s larger vision of the future of Cloud ERP. Today’s definition of ERP includes finance, HCM (human capital management), projects, procurement, supply chai and asset management, Wang told TechCrunch

As the Scout RFP founders stated in a blog post about today’s announcement, the two companies have worked well together and a deal made sense. “Working closely with the Workday team, we realized how similar our companies' beliefs and values are. Both companies put user experience at the center of product focus and are committed to customer satisfaction, employee engagement and overall business impact. It was not surprising how easy it was to work together and how quickly we saw success partnering on go-to-market activities. From a culture standpoint, it just worked,” they wrote. A deal eventually came together as a result.

Scout RFP is a fairly substantial business, with 240 customers in 155 countries. There are 300,000 users on the platform, according to data supplied by the company. The company’s 160 employees will be moving to Workday when the deal closes, which is expected by the end of January, pending standard regulatory review.

WeWork-owned Meetup confirms restructuring, layoffs

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 03:18 PM PST

WeWork's efforts to cut costs following the ouster of its chief executive officer and a delayed initial public offering looks to be impacting its subsidiaries. Meetup, which WeWork acquired for a reported $200 million in 2017, announced a round of layoffs this morning, TechCrunch has learned.

The company, which helps people foster in-person connections by facilitating events across the globe, has shed as much as 25% of its workforce, most of which were employees of the company's engineering department, sources tell TechCrunch.

"Meetup's top priority is building the best possible product for our community of more than 44 million members around the world,” a representative of the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Today we made some organizational changes with that goal in mind, including restructuring across some of our departments."

The news follows WeWork's own well-documented attempts at restructuring its high-loss business. Late last month, SoftBank provided the over-valued co-working business a much-needed lifeline in the form of a $5 billion loan, a $3 billion tender offer and another $1.5 billion in equity funding, according to The Wall Street Journal. That's in addition to the billions already invested by the Japanese telecom giant, which now owns a roughly 80% stake. SoftBank’s mountain of cash had previously valued WeWork at an eye-popping $47 billion; the latest investment package, however, valued the company at just $8 billion. 

Understandably, WeWork's new leadership (former vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and former president and chief operating officer Artie Minson are serving as co-CEOs) seem to be hyper-focused on its new cost-cutting strategy. Multiple reports have indicated the business is weighing sales of several of its subsidiaries, including Meetup, Managed by Q and Conductor. We’ve asked Meetup whether its parent company enforced the staff cuts and will update this story if we hear back.

As for WeWork, it must make a concerted effort to boost its balance sheet in the next few months if it plans to stay committed to a 2020 IPO. The company initially revealed its IPO prospectus in August, disclosing revenue north of $1.5 billion in the six months ending June 30 on losses of $904.6 million. Shortly after, its co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann's misbehaviors were published in a number of incriminating stories by The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Neumann’s trashed reputation coupled with WeWork’s mounting losses forced the company to replace its founding CEO and shelve its IPO, which would have been the second-largest offering of 2019 behind only Uber.

Meetup, founded in 2002, was one of the first IRL social networks. Today's cuts are not the first since WeWork came into the picture, according to earlier reporting by Gizmodo. Meetup shed roughly 10% of its staff amid negotiations for the acquisition and underwent cultural changes as managers pushed for growth and "more aggressiveness in the workplace."

The future of Meetup is unclear. WeWork may move forward with a sale of the business or pressure its own cost-cutting measures on the company. In a recent email to Meetup members, CEO David Siegel wrote that he appreciated the recent outpouring of support from the community, as it became apparent the company was in a precarious position because of its owner.

"As you may be aware, there has been significant news about our parent company, WeWork, and what this means for the future of Meetup," Siegel wrote. "As Meetup's CEO, I want to personally tell you we're as committed as ever to bringing people together in person. 

The 7 most important announcements from Microsoft Ignite

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 02:45 PM PST

It’s Microsoft Ignite this week, the company’s premier event for IT professionals and decision-makers. But it’s not just about new tools for role-based access. Ignite is also very much a forward-looking conference that keeps the changing role of IT in mind. And while there isn’t a lot of consumer news at the event, the company does tend to make a few announcements for developers, as well.

This year’s Ignite was especially news-heavy. Ahead of the event, the company provided journalists and analysts with an 87-page document that lists all of the news items. If I counted correctly, there were about 175 separate announcements. Here are the top seven you really need to know about.

Azure Arc: you can now use Azure to manage resources anywhere, including on AWS and Google Cloud

What was announced: Microsoft was among the first of the big cloud vendors to bet big on hybrid deployments. With Arc, the company is taking this a step further. It will let enterprises use Azure to manage their resources across clouds — including those of competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. It’ll work for Windows and Linux Servers, as well as Kubernetes clusters, and also allows users to take some limited Azure data services with them to these platforms.

Why it matters: With Azure Stack, Microsoft already allowed businesses to bring many of Azure’s capabilities into their own data centers. But because it’s basically a local version of Azure, it only worked on a limited set of hardware. Arc doesn’t bring all of the Azure Services, but it gives enterprises a single platform to manage all of their resources across the large clouds and their own data centers. Virtually every major enterprise uses multiple clouds. Managing those environments is hard. So if that’s the case, Microsoft is essentially saying, let’s give them a tool to do so — and keep them in the Azure ecosystem. In many ways, that’s similar to Google’s Anthos, yet with an obvious Microsoft flavor, less reliance on Kubernetes and without the managed services piece.

Microsoft launches Project Cortex, a knowledge network for your company

What was announced: Project Cortex creates a knowledge network for your company. It uses machine learning to analyze all of the documents and contracts in your various repositories — including those of third-party partners — and then surfaces them in Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams and its Office apps when appropriate. It’s the company’s first new commercial service since the launch of Teams.

Why it matters: Enterprises these days generate tons of documents and data, but it’s often spread across numerous repositories and is hard to find. With this new knowledge network, the company aims to surface this information proactively, but it also looks at who the people are who work on them and tries to help you find the subject matter experts when you’re working on a document about a given subject, for example.

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Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

What was announced: Microsoft is combining its ConfigMgr and Intune services that allow enterprises to manage the PCs, laptops, phones and tablets they issue to their employees under the Endpoint Manager brand. With that, it’s also launching a number of tools and recommendations to help companies modernize their deployment strategies. ConfigMgr users will now also get a license to Intune to allow them to move to cloud-based management.

Why it matters: In this world of BYOD, where every employee uses multiple devices, as well as constant attacks against employee machines, effectively managing these devices has become challenging for most IT departments. They often use a mix of different tools (ConfigMgr for PCs, for example, and Intune for cloud-based management of phones). Now, they can get a single view of their deployments with the Endpoint Manager, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described as one of the most important announcements of the event, and ConfigMgr users will get an easy path to move to cloud-based device management thanks to the Intune license they now have access to.

Microsoft's Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

What was announced: Microsoft’s Chromium-based version of Edge will be generally available on January 15. The release candidate is available now. That’s the culmination of a lot of work from the Edge team, and, with today’s release, the company is also adding a number of new privacy features to Edge that, in combination with Bing, offers some capabilities that some of Microsoft’s rivals can’t yet match, thanks to its newly enhanced InPrivate browsing mode.

Why it matters: Browsers are interesting again. After years of focusing on speed, the new focus is now privacy, and that’s giving Microsoft a chance to gain users back from Chrome (though maybe not Firefox). At Ignite, Microsoft also stressed that Edge’s business users will get to benefit from a deep integration with its updated Bing engine, which can now surface business documents, too.

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You can now try Microsoft's web-based version of Visual Studio

What was announced: At Build earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would soon launch a web-based version of its Visual Studio development environment, based on the work it did on the free Visual Studio Code editor. This experience, with deep integrations into the Microsoft-owned GitHub, is now live in a preview.

Why it matters: Microsoft has long said that it wants to meet developers where they are. While Visual Studio Online isn’t likely to replace the desktop-based IDE for most developers, it’s an easy way for them to make quick changes to code that lives in GitHub, for example, without having to set up their IDE locally. As long as they have a browser, developers will be able to get their work done..

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

What was announced: Power Virtual Agents is Microsoft’s new no-code/low-code tool for building chatbots. It leverages a lot of Azure’s machine learning smarts to let you create a chatbot with the help of a visual interface. In case you outgrow that and want to get to the actual code, you can always do so, too.

Why it matters: Chatbots aren’t exactly at the top of the hype cycle, but they do have lots of legitimate uses. Microsoft argues that a lot of early efforts were hampered by the fact that the developers were far removed from the user. With a visual too, though, anybody can come in and build a chatbot — and a lot of those builders will have a far better understanding of what their users are looking for than a developer who is far removed from that business group.

Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

What was announced: Cortana lives — and it now also has a male voice. But more importantly, Microsoft launched a few new focused Cortana-based experiences that show how the company is focusing on its voice assistant as a tool for productivity. In Outlook on iOS (with Android coming later), Cortana can now read you a summary of what’s in your inbox — and you can have a chat with it to flag emails, delete them or dictate answers. Cortana can now also send you a daily summary of your calendar appointments, important emails that need answers and suggest focus time for you to get actual work done that’s not email.

Why it matters: In this world of competing assistants, Microsoft is very much betting on productivity. Cortana didn’t work out as a consumer product, but the company believes there is a large (and lucrative) niche for an assistant that helps you get work done. Because Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of consumer data, but does have lots of data about your work, that’s probably a smart move.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 02: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bonus: Microsoft agrees with you and thinks meetings are broken — and often it’s the broken meeting room that makes meetings even harder. To battle this, the company today launched Managed Meeting Rooms, which for $50 per room/month lets you delegate to Microsoft the monitoring and management of the technical infrastructure of your meeting rooms.

BMW’s magical gesture control finally makes sense as touchscreens take over cars

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 01:52 PM PST

BMW has been equipping its cars with in-air gesture control for several years and I never paid attention to it. It seemed redundant. Why wave your hand in the air when there are dials, buttons and touchscreens to do the same thing? Until this week, that is, when I took delivery of a BMW 850i loaner equipped with the tech. This is about the future.

I didn’t know the 850i used gesture control, because, frankly, I had forgotten BMW had this technology; I stumbled upon it. Just make a motion in the air to control the volume or tell the navigation to send you home. Now, in 2019, with giant touchscreens set to takeover cars, I find BMW’s gesture control smart and a great solution to a future void of buttons.

It’s limited in use right now. There are only a few commands: volume, nav, recent calls and turning on and off the center screen. It’s easy to see additional functions added in the future. It’s sorely missing the ability to step back a screen. I want that function the most.

Here’s how it works: To control the volume, take one finger and spin it in the air above the center stack. Anywhere. The range is impressive. A person can do this next to the screen or two feet away. A person’s arm could be resting on the center armrest and lift in the air and twirl their finger. Bam, it controls the volume. Put two fingers up – not spinning, like a flat peace sign – and the screen turns on or off. Make a fist and open it twice to load the navigation or phone (user picks the function).

After using the system for several days, I never had a false positive. The volume control took about 10 minutes to master, while the other gestures worked the first time.

In this car, these commands work in conjunction with physical buttons, dials and a touchscreen. The gestures are optional. A user can turn off the function in the settings, too.

I found the in-air control a lovely addition to the buttons, though. At night, in the rain, they’re great as they do not require the driver to remove their focus from the road. Just twirl your fingers to turn down the volume.

I’m not convinced massive touchscreens are better for the driver. The lack of actual, tactile response along with burying options in menus can lead drivers to take their eyes off the road. For the automaker, using touchscreens is less expensive than developing, manufacturing and installing physical buttons. Instead of having rows of plastic buttons and dials along with the mechanical bits behind them, automakers can use a touchscreen and program everything to be on-screen. Tesla did it first; Ram, Volvo and now Ford are following.

In-air gesture control could improve the user experience with touchscreens. When using BMW’s system, I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road to find the volume — something that I have to do occasionally, even in my car. Instead, I just made a circle in the air with my right hand. Likewise, BMW’s system lets the user call up the nav and navigate to a preset destination (like work or home) by just making another gesture.

As touchscreens take over cars, automakers will likely look to similar systems to supplement the lack of physical buttons. While gestures aren’t as good, they’re better than just a silly touchscreen.

Where VCs are looking for voice startup investments

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 01:30 PM PST

Led by Amazon’s Alexa, smart speakers’ install base is expected to reach 200 million units worldwide by 2020. A quarter of Americans over the age of 12 own a smart speaker, and the majority of those users have more than one device in their home. Moreover, Apple could sell 50 million of its Airpods this year (generating $8 billion in sales) as Bluetooth earpieces explode in popularity.

For the market penetration of this hardware, the app ecosystem remains limited in terms of mainstream adoption. Podcast production and consumption has exploded, but they don’t take advantage of smart speakers and headphones as interactive devices. Even though there were 57,000 Alexa skills available at the end of last year, most people are using smart speakers mainly to check the weather, check the news, ask simple questions and play music.

If voice is a new operating system, where are the opportunities to build giant companies on top of it?

To get a better sense of how the smart money views this market, I asked five VCs who have spent the most time in this space to share which types of startups have captured their attention:

  • Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures
  • Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
  • Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon
  • Ann Miura-Ko, Partner at Floodgate
  • Jordan Cooper, Partner at Pace Capital

Here are their responses:

Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures

The most recent wave of audio was about constant connectivity and streaming, and we invested in Anchor, Gimlet, and other audio-first businesses that would thrive in the podcast renaissance. For the next wave of audio, we’re focused [on] three broad categories: personalization, new behaviors/new interfaces, and monetization. Personalization means both utilizing location, Apple Watch, and other data to create magical audio experiences and customized audio content, but also advances in generative content like Resemble.ai and Descript that can create custom audio. 

In terms of new behaviors/new interfaces, people are leaving their Airpods in longer, which means there may be an opportunity for “Airpod-first” product design. Finally, as audio becomes an industry, monetization will be improved and also re-thought: subscription products such as Shine and Headspace are interesting in the context that if they don’t really work as ad-supported podcasts, and they are packaged in such a way that people are willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription.

Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

We are in between platforms and it's not clear what the next platform will be. VR and AR are options, but I believe voice will be the next major platform with mass adoption. The biggest hurdle right now is discoverability which in turn leads to engagement and retention issues. This was the same for mobile before the App Store allowed us to discover new apps. We need the same for voice.

We will then see voice move from a music and list creation tool to one which quickly becomes part of popular culture around shopping, games, travel, meditation, etc. Leading audio apps such as Calm, the meditation and sleep app, are already set up to take advantage of the move to voice.

Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon

Alexa got its start in the home, but we knew early on that bringing this experience to customers outside the home would become important. Our investments in companies like North (smart glasses), Vesper (power-efficient microphones) and Syntiant (power-efficient AI chip) were inspired by this vision, and reflect the idea that ambient computing is becoming part of daily life.

These companies are also helping create the surface area for interactive entertainment and information services, such as Drivetime's trivia games (we are an investor there too), and social ones like TTYL, which enables friends wearing earbuds to maintain "audio-presence" with each other throughout their day while they multi-task. We also expect to see innovation in how voice can help seniors aging in place — our recent investment in Labrador Systems, which builds assistive robots, is a good example of this trend.

Goldman Sachs leads $50M round for credit card platform Deserve

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 12:50 PM PST

Deserve, a credit card startup helping young people establish themselves, as well as a cloud-based credit card platform for businesses, has raised $50 million in a new round of Series C funding led by Goldman Sachs, the company announced today. Others participating in the round include existing investors Sallie Mae, Accel, Aspect Ventures, Pelion Venture Partners and Mission Holdings.

The funds will be put toward Deserve’s further development of what it calls its “Card as a Service” (CaaS) platform, which helps businesses, brands and others tailor credit card products to their own unique customer bases.

In doing so, Deserve will to some extent compete with other white-labeled and co-branded credit card issuers, like Synchrony Financial and Alliance Data, with its CaaS service aimed at businesses, fintech companies, consumer brands and universities that want to offer their own financial products.

Deserve’s turnkey, cloud-based and API-based Deserve Credit Platform promises partners the ability to set up a program in as fast as 90 days, instead of the typical 18 to 24 months. It also leverages technology like machine learning alongside traditional financial data and other alternative and proprietary data sources in order to underwrite a larger population — including those who may be new to credit.

This is particularly important as many younger consumers have been avoiding credit cards in the hopes of not being dragged down by debt. Those born in or after 1995, for example, make up only 5% of U.S. consumers who carry credit card debts, reports have said. But as these consumers enter the market for the first time, they’re often choosing credit cards over other credit products, a recent report from TransUnion found. However, without an established credit history, many younger users often fail to qualify for traditional cards.

That’s where Deserve can help. In addition to helping consumers quickly apply for credit right from their phones and get approved in minutes, the program also features financial education and other perks like cashback rewards, and incentive programs from Amazon (Prime Student), Mastercard (cellphone protection), Priority Pass (airport lounges) and others — like Deserve’s own cards offer.

Since its August 2018 fundraising round, Deserve has partnered with clients like Sallie Mae, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Honor Society to help them launch credit cards designed for their specific audiences. Its overall platform today serves more than 100,000 consumers.

With its new investment led by Apple Card partner Goldman Sachs, Deserve plans to further build out its platform’s tools, APIs and machine learning capabilities with data science and engineering hires, while also expanding its B2B sales and marketing departments.

“Goldman Sachs is supportive of Deserve's mission to expand access to credit, and to simplify the ability for organizations to offer their own bespoke credit card products,” said Ashwin Gupta, managing director, Goldman Sachs, in a statement. “We believe Deserve's card platform will bring meaningful savings and new opportunities to institutions across a range of verticals.”

The funding brings Deserve’s total raise to date to around $100 million. The company is not yet profitable, but that could now change.

“This current round will lead us to profitability,” Deserve co-founder and CEO Kalpesh Kapadia claims.

Deserve declined to share its valuation.

Currently, Deserve is a team of 60, but it aims to grow to 100 over the next six months.

DJI Mavic Mini Review

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 12:22 PM PST

The $399 Mavic Mini lives in a sweet spot of core features and a low price. It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun. And it’s so small that you’re more likely to throw it in your bag and take it on Instagram adventures.

The small size is the Mavic Mini’s main selling point. It weighs 249 grams, and that odd number isn’t an accident. Drones that weight 250 grams and above have to be registered to fly. And yet, even though the Mavic Mini is lightweight and foldable, it’s packed with core features: 30-minute flight time, 4 km HD video transmission, three-axis gimbal holding a 2.7K camera and a physical controller that works with Android and iOS devices. At $399, it’s a lot of drone for the money even though it’s missing features found in DJI’s other drones.

There are more expensive drones packed with a lot of features. I own most of those drones. They’re fun, but several years ago, feature creep started sneaking into DJI’s products. Now, with a convoluted product line, a spreadsheet is needed to decipher DJI’s drones. Most come loaded with countless features owners will likely never use. The Mavic Mini is something different. It’s basic, and I dig it.

Here’s what’s missing: collision detection, ultra-long-range connection, 4K camera, gesture control and advanced camera features like trackable follow, panoramic, time lapse and optical zoom.

The Mavic Mini is quick enough to be fun, but it won’t win any races. It’s responsive and fast enough. Light and easy. Compared to a Mavic 2, it feels smaller and less powerful — because it is — and yet it never feels too small or underpowered. The Mavic Mini is well-balanced, and owners should find it enjoyable to fly.

Despite its tiny size, the Mavic Mini holds up well in high wind. I took it up to 200m on a windy fall day in the Midwest. The wind was clearing leaves off the trees, and I was bundled up in hat and gloves. It was gusty. The Mavic Mini didn’t care. It took off like a drone much larger and stood tall against the wind. What’s more, the video didn’t suffer. The gimbal held the camera steady as it recorded the autumn landscape.

The drone uses DJI’s new app, and I’m using a beta version to test the drone. Called DJI Fly, it’s a streamlined version of DJI Go and packs several enhancements. Safe fly zones are better integrated into the app and have an additional level of detail over the older app. DJI also offers better built-in support for its social community app, SkyPixel. However, as this version is streamlined, it lacks a lot of information standard on the Go version, most notably, a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I’m hoping DJI adds more features to this app after it launches.

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The camera is good for the price. The pictures here were taken from the drone and not altered or adjusted. They were taken on cloudy and sunny days. The range is surprisingly good, as the drone can capture blue skies and dark highlights. Occasionally in direct sunlight, the camera colors become washed out.

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s where the Mavic Mini comes in. The best drone is the one you have with you. For years, I lugged around a massive Pelican case containing Phantom 2 and later a Phantom 3. I thought I was the coolest. At a moment’s notice, I could go to my car’s trunk and retrieve a suitcase containing a flying camera. A few minutes later, after my phone synced to the drone, and the controller joined the drone’s network, I had 15 minutes of flight time. Then came the foldable Mavic, which fit alongside my camera gear like a large telephoto lens. Other drones came and went. I liked the GoPro Karma for a time.

The tiny Mavic Mini is a game-changer. It’s small enough that I’ll bring it everywhere. It’s small and light enough that it feels like a large point and shoot in my computer bag.

Want more features and a better camera but keep the portable size? Earlier this year DJI announced the $919 foldable Mavic Air that has a 4K camera and five-mile video transmission.

The Mavic Mini gets everything right. It’s small, comes with a lovely case, and in a $499 bundle, two extra batteries with a clever charging pack. The camera is surprisingly good though admittedly less powerful than DJI’s more expensive drones. The Mavic Mini is the perfect drone for a first-timer or experienced drone enthusiast. DJI stuffs enough features into the 249 gram body to make this a fantastic drone for anyone.

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DJI Mavic Mini announcement

MIT develops a way for autonomous delivery robots to find your front door

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 11:12 AM PST

Researchers at MIT have developed a new method of navigation for robots that could be very useful for the range of companies working on autonomous last-mile delivery. In short, the team has worked out how a robot can figure out the location of a front door, without being provided a specific map in advance.

Most last-mile autonomous delivery robots today, including the “wheeled cooler”-style variety that was pioneered by Starship and has since been adopted by a number of other companies, including Postmates, basically meet customers at the curb. Mapping isn’t the only barrier to having future delivery bots go all the way to the door, just like the humans who make those deliveries today.

MIT News points out that mapping an entire neighborhood with the level of specificity required to do true front-door delivery would be incredibly difficult — particularly at national (let alone global) scale. Since that seems unlikely to happen, and especially unlikely for every company looking at building autonomous delivery networks to source separately, they set out to devise a navigation method that lets a robot process cues in its surroundings on the fly to figure out a front door’s location.

This is a variation on what you may have heard of referred to as SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping. The MIT team’s innovative twist on this approach is that in place of a semantic map, wherein the robot identifies objects in its surroundings and labels them, they devised a “cost-to-go” map, which uses data from training maps to color-code the surroundings into a heat map wherein it can determine which parts are more likely to be close to a “front door” and which are not, and immediately chart the most efficient path to the door based on that info.

It’s a much, much more simplified version of what we do when we encounter new environments we’ve never seen directly before — you know what’s likely to be the front door of a house you’ve never seen just by looking at it, and you know that essentially because you’re comparing it against your memory of past houses and how those properties have been laid out, even if you’re doing that all without even thinking about it.

Delivery is only one use case for this kind of intelligent local environment mapping, but it’s a good one that might see actual commercial use sooner rather than later.

Battery tech startup Sila Nano lands $45 million and Tesla veteran Kurt Kelty

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 10:52 AM PST

Sila Technologies, the battery materials company that has partnered with BMW and Daimler, landed $45 million in new funding and hired two high-profile executives, including Kurt Kelty, who led the battery cell team at Tesla for more than a decade.

Kelty, who was on Sila Nano’s advisory board, has been appointed vice president of automotive, according to Sina Nanotechnologies. The company also hired Bill Mulligan, the former executive vice president of global operations at SunPower, as its first COO.

Kelty was most recently senior vice president of operations at indoor vertical farming company Plenty . But he was best known for his time at Tesla, where he was considered a critical link between the automaker and battery cell partner Panasonic.

“As part of Sila Nano’s advisory board, I’ve seen the results of the breakthrough battery chemistry firsthand and I could not pass up the opportunity to take it a step further and lead the company’s automotive partnership efforts,” Kelty said in a statement.

The company said Monday that an additional $45 million in investment came from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, bringing its total funding to $340 million. Earlier this year, Sila Nano secured $170 million in Series E funding led by Daimler AG.

This latest investment and expanded leadership team comes as the company, which is valued at more than $1 billion, aims to bring its first batteries to market.

Sila Nanotechnologies has developed a drop-in silicon-based anode that replaces graphite in lithium-ion batteries without requiring changes to the manufacturing process. The company claims that its materials can improve the energy density of batteries by 20% and has the potential to reach 40% improvement over traditional li-ion.

Here’s what that all means.

A battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. An electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier that moves ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Graphite is commonly used as the anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries. However, a silicon anode can store a lot more lithium ions.

The basic premise — and one that others are working on — is this: by replacing graphite in the cell with silicon, there would be more space to add more active material. This would theoretically allow you to increase the energy density — or the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per its volume — of the cell.

Using silicon also helps reduce costs. In the end, the battery would be cheaper and have more energy packed in the same space.

The company says its innovative approach can be used in consumer electronics like wireless earbuds and smartwatches as well as electric vehicles — and even energy storage for the grid.

The company started building the first production lines for its battery materials in 2018. That first line is capable of producing the material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries, Sila Nanotechnologies CEO Gene Berdichevsky, an early employee at Tesla who led the technical development of the automaker’s Roadster battery system, told TechCrunch back in April.

Sila Nanotechnologies said Monday that it will continue to ramp up production volume and plans to supply its first commercial customers in consumer electronics within the next year. The company also said it plans to go to market with battery partner Amperex Technology Limited and automotive partners BMW and Daimler.

CTO.ai’s developer shortcuts eliminate coding busywork

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 10:38 AM PST

There’s too much hype about mythical “10X developers.” Everyone’s desperate to hire these “ninja rockstars.” In reality, it’s smarter to find ways of deleting annoying chores for the coders you already have. That’s where CTO.ai comes in.

Emerging from stealth today, CTO.ai lets developers build and borrow DevOps shortcuts. These automate long series of steps they usually have to do manually, thanks to integrations with GitHub, AWS, Slack and more. CTO.ai claims it can turn a days-long process like setting up a Kubernetes cluster into a 15-minute task even sales people can handle. The startup offers both a platform for engineering and sharing shortcuts, and a service where it can custom build shortcuts for big customers.

What’s remarkable about CTO.ai is that amidst a frothy funding environment, the 60-person team quietly bootstrapped its way to profitability over the past two years. Why take funding when revenue was up 400% in 18 months? But after a chance meeting aboard a plane connected its high school dropout founder Kyle Campbell with Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, CTO.ai just raised a $7.5 million seed round led by Slack Fund and Tiger Global.

“Building tools that streamline software development is really expensive for companies, especially when they need their developers focused on building features and shipping to customers,” Campbell tells me. The same way startups don’t build their own cloud infrastructure and just use AWS, or don’t build their own telecom APIs and just use Twilio, he wants CTO.ai to be the “easy button” for developer tools.

Teaching snakes to eat elephants

“I’ve been a software engineer since the age of 8,” Campbell recalls. In skate-punk attire with a snapback hat, the young man meeting me in a San Francisco Mission District cafe almost looked too chill to be a prolific coder. But that’s kind of the point. His startup makes being a developer more accessible.

After spending his 20s in software engineering groups in the Bay, Campbell started his own company, Retsly, that bridged developers to real estate listings. In 2014, it was acquired by property tech giant Zillow, where he worked for a few years.

That’s when he discovered the difficulty of building dev tools inside companies with other priorities. “It’s the equivalent of a snake swallowing an elephant,” he jokes. Yet given these tools determine how much time expensive engineers waste on tasks below their skill level, their absence can drag down big enterprises or keep startups from rising.

CTO.ai shrinks the elephant. For example, the busywork of creating a Kubernetes cluster such as having to the create EC2 instances, provision on those instances and then provision a master node gets slimmed down to just running a shortcut. Campbell writes that “tedious tasks like running reports can be reduced from 1,000 steps down to 10,” through standardization of workflows that turn confusing code essays into simple fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions.

The CTO.ai platform offers a wide range of pre-made shortcuts that clients can piggyback on, or they can make and publish their own through a flexible JavaScript environment for the rest of their team or the whole community to use. Companies that need extra help can pay for its DevOps-as-a-Service and reliability offerings to get shortcuts made to solve their biggest problems while keeping everything running smoothly.

5(2X) = 10X

Campbell envisions a new way to create a 10X engineer that doesn’t depend on widely mocked advice on how to spot and capture them like trophy animals. Instead, he believes one developer can make five others 2X more efficient by building them shortcuts. And it doesn’t require indulging bad workplace or collaboration habits.

With the new funding that also comes from Yaletown Partners, Pallasite Ventures, Panache Ventures and Jonathan Bixby, CTO.ai wants to build deeper integrations with Slack so developers can run more commands right from the messaging app. The less coding required for use, the broader the set of employees that can use the startup’s tools. CTO.ai may also build a self-service tier to augment its seats, plus a complexity model for enterprise pricing.

Now it’s time to ramp up community outreach to drive adoption. CTO.ai recently released a podcast that saw 15,000 downloads in its first three weeks, and it’s planning some conference appearances. It also sees virality through its shortcut author pages, which, like GitHub profiles, let developers show off their contributions and find their next gig.

One risk is that GitHub or another core developer infrastructure provider could try to barge directly into CTO.ai’s business. Google already has Cloud Composer, while GitHub launched Actions last year. Campbell says its defense comes through neutrally integrating with everyone, thereby turning potential competitors into partners.

The funding firepower could help CTO.ai build a lead. With every company embracing software, employers battling to keep developers happy and teams looking to get more of their staff working with code, the startup sits at the intersection of some lucrative trends of technological empowerment.

“I have a three-year-old at home and I think about what it will be like when he comes into creating things online,” Campbell concludes. “We want to create an amazing future for software developers, introducing automation so they can focus on what makes them such an important aspect. Devs are defining society!”

[Image Credit: Disney/Pixar via WallHere Goodfon]

Daily Crunch: Adobe launches Photoshop for iPad

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 10:31 AM PST

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. Adobe Photoshop arrives on the iPad

Adobe has released Photoshop for the iPad, making good on an announcement that it made last October.

The tablet version of the popular photo-editing software is free to download, and includes a 30-day free trial. After that it's $9.99 per month via in-app purchase, or you can get access as part of an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription.

2. Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company's overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

3. Apple commits $2.5 billion to address California's housing crisis and homelessness issues

The investment includes a $1 billion commitment to an affordable housing investment fund, $1 billion toward a first-time homebuyer mortgage assistance fund and $300 million in Apple-owned land that will be made available for affordable housing.

4. A startup just launched red wine to the International Space Station to age for 12 months

The wine isn’t being sent just to help the ISS astronauts relax. Instead, it's part of an experiment that will study how the aging process for wine is affected by a microgravity, space-based environment.

5. Lemonade gets a nastygram from Deutsche Telekom over its use of magenta, says it will fight

Deutsche Telekom’s German lawyers have sent a letter to AI insurance startup Lemonade, demanding it cease using magenta — a color that appears across Lemonade's logo and marketing material — globally.

6. Where tech companies should look to expand

Zillow’s Cheryl Young says the company has analyzed data to determine the best markets that provide fertile environments for startups or tech companies looking to put down stakes for their next office.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

On the latest episode of Equity, Alex and Kate discuss Sam Altman’s investment in Quill, a company that could eventually challenge Slack. And on Original Content, we review the Netflix series “Living with Yourself,” in which Paul Rudd plays two different versions of the same man.

Ben Horowitz on shocking rules and dramatic object lessons

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 10:27 AM PST

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, has a new book out titled "What You Do Is Who You Are," which takes a look at how to create culture at a company.

We sat down with Horowitz last month to discuss some of the lessons he aims to impart and why he felt compelled to write about culture now — including whether it has to do with the growing tech backlash against once-small companies that have taken over the world, and whose cultures are magnified exponentially as a result.

We published parts of our chat here, where we talked about Uber and WeWork specifically. The rest, which dives more into practical advice for founders, follows. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Extra Crunch: One of the problems we’re dealing with right now, that’s driving this big tech backlash in ways, has a lot to do with just how empowered founders are. And that seemingly goes back to them having more say than other shareholders via dual-class shares. How much power should these founders have?

Ben Horowitz: I think it’s pretty important for tech companies to have some sort of long-term view of the business. Now, fast forward and Eric Ries has this new idea of a Long Term Stock Exchange, which basically says, okay, founders won’t have to have dual-class shares, but the shareholders and the founders will be in it together. So the shareholders have to vest their shares to get voting rights and if you hold the stock for years, and you can get some power, but you don’t get it right off the bat.

I think that that’s probably the optimal model. But I would say that, at least in my view, dual-class is still better than activist investors going after tech companies, because you can’t get to the next product. It’ll just make the company very short-term.

Also, and maybe I’m talking like an old CEO, but I think one of the things that gets lost in the kind of conversation between founders and shareholders is employees. It’s very bad for employees when activist investors get control of the company and drive it toward short-term returns because often, everybody ultimately loses their job in those scenarios.

What about phasing out those dual-class shares over time, though, maybe over five, or seven, or 10 years, which is a decent amount of time for founders to transition their startups to publicly-traded companies?

I think that that would make sense if the people who got power were long-term investors. I just think that if you have short-term investors, making decisions about [a] technology company, the easier way to expand profits is to stop doing R&D because it’s not going to show up in the next two years. But long-term, that’ll spell doom. And I think that’s kind of the way these proxy battles have gone. It’s been like, ‘Okay, stop spending, stop investing.’

I don’t think the kind of cultural issues that companies have run into have much to do with voting power. I think it just has more to do some combination of lack of skill and how fast the companies are growing.

Going back to the book, why weave in the cultural figures that you have — Toussaint Louverture, Genghis Khan and Shaka Senghor [a contemporary who served time for murder and today is a criminal justice reform advocate]. There are so many people you could have included, and you focused on these three individuals.

It’s a weird origin story, but Prince years ago put out an album called 3121, and he opened this club in Vegas called the 3121, and he would perform there, like, every weekend. And the show would start at 10 and he would show up at midnight or 1 a.m., but during that time in between, he would show these old films with these really interesting dancers in these elaborate clothes. And you’d just be watching these old guys, and then Prince would start to splice in [his own movies, including] “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Purple Rain,” and you’d go, ‘well those are the dance moves from those guys [in the older films] and that’s a quote from those guys,’ and you realize: that was what he was trying to express. And I thought, you know, I finally really understand him. And I thought, you know, [these three] have really influenced my views on culture [for a variety of reasons] and it would be a good way to tell this story.

It’s fascinating how it comes together. Were you ever a teacher?

When I was in graduate school, I was a computer science kind of TA, so I taught the freshmen computer science, programming languages, and whatnot.

My grandfather was a teacher — he was fired actually during the McCarthy era for being a communist teacher; he was teaching junior high.

He was a communist. So at least McCarthy got that part right. But it makes me very nervous, people wanting to remove people from their positions these days because of their points of view. My grandfather supported Stalin, and, like, Stalin was really bad. But I don’t think he should have been fired for being a teacher. I just don’t think it’s very good for society. Everybody’s got to be able to have a bad point of view. When you go, ‘You have a bad point of view and that’s illegal, to think that, and now we’re going to take away your job from you, make you not a legitimate person . . .’

We just saw that in the sports world, which was pretty crazy. Speaking of which, in the book you talk about the need to create shocking rules as part of establishing a company culture. As part of that section, you reference former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlan, who started meetings five minutes early and fined players $1,000 for every minute they were late. Doesn’t Andreessen Horowitz do something like that, penalize people for being late?

Venture capitalists ‘like and subscribe’ to influencers

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 09:47 AM PST

Danielle Bernstein is just 27 years old, but she's been running her own business for 10 years. First it was street-style photography, then came the launch of her popular fashion blog WeWoreWhat. Next she took to Instagram, a new social media platform that quickly became the most effective tool in a blogger's toolkit. With new followers — today her account, @weworewhat, has 2.2 million — came opportunities to monetize her influence. She created and launched an overall brand and a swim collection, then came the book deal (“This is Not a Fashion Story: Taking Chances, Breaking Rules, and Being a Boss in the Big City” is expected out May 2020). Naturally, the next step in Bernstein's evolution from blogger to businesswoman was a technology startup.

Her newest venture, Moe Assist, claims to be the first project management and payments tool for influencers. Last month, the product launched with $1.2 million in funding from Rebecca Minkoff and other unnamed investors. Creators and influencers like Bernstein are forging a path from content creator to full-fledged business, with multiple revenue streams via podcasts, licensing deals, branded merchandise and even software products.

"A company like Moe will help legitimize the industry," Bernstein tells TechCrunch. "I feel this responsibility to my industry to put the best business practices I've learned along the way into a platform so I can help other influencers."

We are in phase three of the influencer economy. Bain Capital Ventures' Jamison Hill

Tech entrepreneurs, quick to pounce on any emerging economy, have also begun building services for creators and influencers from marketplaces that connect individuals with brands, financial solutions that help capitalize burgeoning influencer-led businesses, tailored monetization platforms and even a “LinkedIn for Influencers” intended to foster connections between influencers and brands.

"We are in phase three of the influencer economy," Bain Capital Ventures senior principal Jamison Hill, who led the firm's investment in the influencer shoutout marketplace Cameo, tells TechCrunch. "The first phase was the rise of the media platforms: YouTube, Instagram, etcetera, that allowed creatives to build audiences. The second phase was the emergence of influencer marketing, or connecting those influencers to brands to leverage their audiences … Now that influencer marketing has become an established part of the marketing playbook, we are in phase three: tools to help influencers further monetize their influence, like Cameo, and then manage their lives."

While some businesses, like Cameo, have successfully raised venture financing, VCs have yet to fully tackle the influencer and creator economy. Founders and investors circling the space suspect a wave of Silicon Valley interest is coming, however, and that it will alter the category entirely.

"2020 will be a watershed year for investment in businesses around the creator economy," Neil Robertson tells TechCrunch. Robertson is the founder of Influence, a networking tool for influencers that's expected to announce its Series A financing in the coming weeks. "Influencers and creators are small businesses and if you think about all the things that small businesses need these days to succeed, they will be repurposed for the influencer marketing space."

GettyImages 1161682970

CEO of Patreon Jack Conte attends VidCon 2019 at Anaheim Convention Center on July 12, 2019 in Anaheim, California (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

‘People say we’re crazy’

As venture capitalists wake up to the business opportunity, they’re seeding startups that help influencers go from hobbyists to professionals.

We know creators are legit businesses. Karat, a startup building a bank for creators

Karat, a startup expected to enter Y Combinator's Winter 2020 batch, is building a "bank for creators," with its debut product focused on lending to individuals through a revenue-share agreement. The company was co-founded by Eric Lei, a former product manager at Instagram who focused on the creator and influencer side of the business.

The startup has already secured a seed investment from Maveron and CRV, TechCrunch has learned, and will receive another $150,000 in exchange for 7% equity upon entering YC next year. The company plans to give creators and influencers more independence from existing platforms by allowing them access to funding from a team well-versed in their unique capital needs.

Banks won't underwrite an individual based on qualifications like their Instagram following, of course, and given that influencers don't typically have a consistent income or a W2 statement to showcase their earnings, they may not be able to receive a bank loan to invest in their own brand. Imagine receiving a loan based on the size of your TikTok or YouTube following? Karat and other new startups focused on monetization could accelerate an influencer's path to entrepreneurship.

"People say we're crazy, but we know creators are legit businesses," Karat writes on its website — the company didn't respond to a request to chat about what they’re working on. "And just like any other business, you need capital to grow faster, services to make you more money, tools to manage it all."

Karat's approach to treating individual digital content creators as future “unicorns” is not isolated. Podfund, for example, writes checks sized between $25,000 to $50,000 to emerging podcasters. The company asks for 7% to 15% of revenue for three to five years depending on current traction, revenue and projected growth. Patreon, one of the first businesses to develop a tech solution for artists and creators seeking consistent income, recently announced Super Patron, a $50,000-per-year grant for creators, according to The Verge.

Influence, the “LinkedIn for influencers,” doesn’t directly invest in influencers or creators; rather, gives them a central meeting point to land gigs, learn about production, gain insights into brand deals and communicate with or befriend other influencers. Indeed, 175,000 people are using the platform, 30,000 of which are businesses, which pay between $229 and $600 in annual fees to reach influencers on the platform. Influencers, for their part, pay $48 per year for access to the company’s premium features.

"Think of the old days when a young woman got off the bus at Hollywood & Vine and said 'where do I go to be a star?,'” Robertson, the chief executive officer of Influence, said. "That’s happening in the influencer marketing space, but there’s no answer to that question. People in the industry need a place to go and figure it out, to talk about it and learn about it."

GettyImages 1137978831

YouTuber Caspar Lee, the co-founder of a startup called Influencer, attends the UK Gala Screening of “Wonder Park” in London, England (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

Rethinking value

While angel investors like Rebecca Minkoff might be savvy to the business proposition of influencers, many investors have remained skeptical. Influence's Robertson tells us venture capitalists were initially uncertain of his latest startup despite his track record, which includes the sale of multiple software businesses, including the affiliate marketing company VigLink.

"We had to explain that there was a very different way to create value in the marketing economy," Robertson said. "We needed VCs to rethink how value could be created in the influencer marketing space."

Everyone wants to become an influencer. Influencer CEO Ben Jeffries

The first businesses to crop up in the space were traditional two-sided marketplaces: influencers on one side, companies and brands on the other. Naturally, these were also the first business to get funded. Ben Jeffries launched his startup, Influencer, in London in 2014 after his close friend matched with Caspar Lee, a YouTuber with 7.3 million followers, on Tinder. Once Jeffries and Lee were introduced, the pair begin brainstorming what became Influencer, a marketing platform that helps brands and influencers build more meaningful relationships. The business has attracted about $4.5 million in funding to date, including a recent $3.6 million Series A led by Puma Private Equity, a U.K.-focused fund.

"There's money coming into the industry and with this influx of money is more companies entering the market," Influencer co-founder and CEO Jeffries tells TechCrunch. "Attached to that, brands are becoming much more savvy in how to run influencer campaigns."

The company has used its new cash to open an office in New York City and expand its American clientele. Another company, Tribe, has similarly raised VC to grow its American footprint. The Australian startup, which connects brands to "micro-influencers,” or every-day people with more than 3,000 followers on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, raised a $7.5 million Series A in March. But even these straightforward marketplaces had trouble explaining their market to investors.

"What we used to always say to investors was ‘I guarantee if you ask your kids about influencers, that will spark a conversation and help you understand the industry and how crazy it's going to become,’ " Jeffries said. "When I was younger, everyone wanted to become a famous sports star. Now, everyone wants to become an influencer."

Los Angeles-based funds, in closer proximity to the entertainment industry, have been quicker to invest in the creator economy. In fact, new funds have launched there with expertise in the category. Next 10 Ventures, an LA-based $50 million venture capital fund founded by Benjamin Grubbs, YouTube's former global director of top creator partnerships and Paul Condolora, the former co-head of the Harry Potter franchise at Warner Bros., invests exclusively in the space. The firm even launched an accelerator for YouTube personalities in late 2018. The program, called The EduCator Incubator, planned to seed 25 to 40 "emerging video creators" with $25,000 to $75,000 in seed funding. Similar to Karat and PodFund, Next 10 signs a revenue-share agreement with participants of the accelerator, with a possibility for an equity investment in the future.

Rx3 Ventures, a new venture fund led by long-time Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is helping influencers in sports and entertainment get stakes in the companies for which they are hired to be spokespeople. The SoCal outfit has tapped influencers to become limited partners in their fund, giving them the opportunity to develop equitable relationships with the brands requesting their promotion.

"If I am going to support something, why don't I take an equity position and benefit from the upside?," Rx3 Ventures vice president Ryan McGuigan tells TechCrunch. "It’s all about getting a stake in these brands as opposed to signing some sort of endorsement."

Lil Miquela

Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer created by the venture-backed startup Brud, poses for a selfie

When anyone can be an influencer

This year, companies are expected to spend a total of $8 billion on influencer marketing campaigns, a figure that should swell to $15 billion by 2022, per data collected by Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency.

We all have that friend that somehow has 10,000 followers. Rx3 Ventures' Ryan McGuigan

Factors including the onset of shoppable video and live shopping — a category still in its infancy led by startups like Tiltsta — will give more autonomy to influencers, who have proven an ability to transform browsers to buyers time and time again. CGI influencers like Lil Miquela, a digital avatar with 1.7 million followers created by the venture-backed startup Brud, or the lifelike personalized avatars that Genies, SuperPlastic and Toonstar have cooked up, should drum up more dollars. Plus, efforts to democratize the path to influencer, including courses on how to become an influencer and marketing channels that allow for people with only a few thousand followers to earn money, should expand the market size and fuel growth.

"We all have that friend that somehow has 10,000 followers," McGuigan of Rx3 Ventures said. "Giving them the tools to monetize that reach is going to be important and also a valuable angle to approach influencer marketing for brands."

“Now, more and more, we are seeing that anyone can turn into a “micro-influencer," he adds. "Anyone with a decent following or free time can post about products — why can't they be an influencer as well?”

With the expected influx of venture cash, entrepreneurship from creators themselves and startups looking to capitalize on the phenomenon, the creator and influencer economy is poised for a boom.

Google Play’s US Store adds a rewards program with points for purchases, downloads & more

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 09:47 AM PST

Google Play is launching a new rewards program, Googe Play Points, that will allow you to earn points for everything you do on the Google Play marketplace, from downloading new apps to subscribing to services to buying movies, books and more. Users can redeem the points earned in the program for things like in-app purchases of characters, gems and other items in apps like Candy Crush or Pokémon GO, for example. Play Points also can be turned into Google Play Credit, then put toward renting a movie or buying an audiobook, Google says.

These rewards points will encourage people to launch their apps more often and more broadly participate in the Google Play ecosystem.

The program launched in Japan and South Korea, in September 2018 and April 2019, respectively. This is the first time it’s arriving in the U.S.

It’s also been slightly tweaked in terms of point value and levels for its U.S. launch.

The new U.S. program has four levels — Bronze through Platinum. You move up as you earn more points. At the higher levels, you’ll also earn weekly prizes.

The point value begins at $1 USD for the Bronze level and goes up to $1 for 1.4 points at Platinum.

Special events may be hosted where you’ll have the opportunity to earn more points than usual. For example, for this kickoff week, everyone will earn 3x the usual Play Points on everything they buy.

In addition, users can donate their points to support a charitable cause, like Doctors Without Borders USA, Save the Children or the World Food Program USA. These nonprofits will rotate over time.

Beyond Candy Crush and Pokémon Go, there are dozens of other apps also participating in Play Points at launch, with more to come. Google is funding the points, so there’s no impact on developer revenue. That is, developers won’t have to choose to participate and accept points as opposed to earning revenue from purchases.

A program like this gives Google more control over its marketplace, as it can turn the dials to boost engagement by offering rewards to its users. Participating apps benefit because it can drive customers to their app, where they’ll eventually spend more money over time.

Google is already familiar with how to incentivize users through gamification techniques — it rewards Local Guides for contributing to Google Maps, for example, with nothing more than badges and a handful of small perks.

The same goes for Play Points — these rewards are relatively small in scale, but could create a much larger incentive, by comparison, to download, play and purchase from Google Play. There’s also a longer-term goal of keeping users in the Android ecosystem by rewarding their loyalty with points that work like cash, in a sense.

Google Play Points will be available over the next week. The program is free to join and there’s no ongoing fee. To access Play Points, just go to the menu in the Play Store app and tap on “Play Points.”

Worldwide, Google Play has more than 2 billion users in 190 countries, but those with a rewards program like this — Japan, South Korea and now the U.S. — are Google Play’s most lucrative markets. In fact, they’re No. 1 (U.S.), No. 2 (Japan) and No. 3 (South Korea), in terms of 2018 consumer spend on Google Play, according to data from App Annie. That makes them the most important markets for Google to target with rewards, in terms of boosting usage and spending.

 

The Google News mobile app now supports bilingual users

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 09:06 AM PST

Google News is going bilingual. The company announced this morning a new feature that will allow users to update their Google News settings to support two languages instead of one, in an effort to better serve the more than 60% of people worldwide who speak and read news across two or more languages.

The change means you won’t have to constantly toggle between two languages in order to keep up with news that’s being covered elsewhere. This is particularly important for those who have moved to a different country, but want to keep up with their news from back home, as well as in places where it’s common for people to speak multiple languages.

Google cites the ability to read both English and Hindi news at the same time as a key example.

The update won’t impact your other personalization preferences, Google notes — it will just pull in more stories that match the topics and interests you care about.

The changes follow a larger revamp of the Google News product and destination website that’s been underway for over a year. At Google’s developer conference in 2018, the company announced its plans to leverage AI technology to help select which stories were shown first and how the news selection would be customized to each user, while not trapping them in so-called “filter bubbles” where they don’t have access to fact checks or the other side’s opinion.

That AI-powered version of the Google News app rolled out last spring. 

More recently, Google revamped the Google News tab on the desktop to organize articles in a card-style layout, which was meant to improve readability and better highlight the publisher sources.

Today’s new bilingual feature, however, is aimed at the Google News mobile app user base.

Google says the feature is available now across 141 countries and 41 languages on the Google News app for both iOS and Android. (On the desktop, you still have to pick just one language, we found.)

The company notes that being able to read news in other languages can also help people widen their perspective on issues.

“There's still lots more to do to help connect people with quality and trustworthy news on the issues they care about, but we hope today's update will make it easier to connect with different cultures and perspectives from the comfort of your device,” Google says.

Volterra announces $50M investment to manage apps in hybrid environment

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 08:50 AM PST

Volterra is an early-stage startup that has been quietly working on a comprehensive solution to help companies manage applications in hybrid environments. The company emerged from stealth today with a $50 million investment and a set of products.

Investors include Khosla Ventures and Mayfield, along with strategic investors M12 (Microsoft's venture arm), Itochu Technology Ventures and Samsung NEXT. The company, which was founded in 2017, already has 100 employees and more than 30 customers.

What attracted these investors and customers is a full-stack solution that includes both hardware and software to manage applications in the cloud or on-prem. Volterra founder and CEO Ankur Singla says when he was at his previous company, Contrail Systems, which was acquired by Juniper Networks in 2012 for $176 million, he saw first-hand how large companies were struggling with the transition to hybrid.

“The big problem we saw was in building and operating applications that scale is a really hard problem. They were adopting multiple hybrid cloud strategies, and none of them solved the problem of unifying the application and the infrastructure layer, so that the application developers and DevOps teams don’t have to worry about that,” Singla explained.

He says the Volterra solution includes three main products — VoltStack​, VoltMesh and VoltConsole — to help solve this scaling and management problem. As Volterra describes the total solution, “Volterra has innovated a consistent, cloud-native environment that can be deployed across multiple public clouds and edge sites — a distributed cloud platform. Within this SaaS-based offering, Volterra integrates a broad range of services that have normally been siloed across many point products and network or cloud providers.” This includes not only the single management plane, but security, management and operations components.

Diagram: Volterra

The money has come over a couple of rounds, helping to build the solution to this point, and it required a complex combination of hardware and software to do it. They are hoping organizations that have been looking for a cloud-native approach to large-scale applications, such as industrial automation, will adopt this approach.

Facebook’s new branding distinguishes app from acquisitions

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 08:21 AM PST

Facebook wants more people to know it owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus while still maintaining a distinct identity for its main app. So today Facebook launched a new capitalization and typography format for its company name, using all capital letters and a shifting color scheme that highlights Instagram’s purple gradient and WhatsApp’s green tint.

“Over the coming weeks, we will start using the new brand within our products and marketing materials, including a new company website,” Facebook’s CMO Antonio Lucio writes. For example, the bolder “from FACEBOOK” branding will appear at the bottom of the Instagram login screen and settings menu. Facebook previously used a blue or white lowercase “f” as a logo.

Facebook had considered moving to a different name for the overarching company entirely. Lucio tells me “We had to consider all options but decided that it was important to keep the company name. We always have been and will continue to be Facebook. It was important to retain the company’s name in order to own what we stand for, the decisions we make, our responsibility to people, and how our brands relate to each other." It’s true that ditching the top-level name could have been seen as an effort to ditch its problematic past.

 

Facebook began its rebranding process in June, adding “from Facebook” taglines to its products. The Information reported Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was unsatisfied with the credit Facebook was getting for owning Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg double-down on that sentiment during this month’s earnings call as a response to questions about anti-trust investigations against the company that could seek to force a spin-off of its acquisitions. Zuckerberg noted that it was Facebook’s resources in areas like anti-spam, internationalization and ads that helped turn Instagram from a sub-50 million user product to a billion-plus one today.

Some see Facebook as preemptively mounting a defense against antitrust action. Beyond rebranding, it’s working on making Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct a unified interoperable and encrypted messaging system where users can chat across the apps. Building them all on a centralized infrastructure could make Facebook tougher to break up.

Yet from another perspective, the rebranding efforts feel ham-handed and egotistical. Facebook likely benefits from the fact that most people don’t actually know it owns Instagram and WhatsApp. A recent Pew study found only 29% of Americans correctly named the two as companies owned by Facebook.

Given Facebook’s rash of data security, developer platform, election interference and ongoing privacy scandals, it’s probably better off if people think they can escape the toxicity by using Instagram. The acquisitions effectively acted as a brand lifeboat for Facebook.

Now it seems Facebook is happy to burn down some of the credibility of its younger apps if it builds up the central company. Autonomy at the acquired companies has seemed to wane since Facebook installed loyal lieutenants like Adam Mosseri and Will Cathcart to run Instagram and WhatsApp, respectively.

The big problem for Facebook, beyond government regulation? If current/potential talent view Facebook as choking the potential of its subsidiaries, top workers might be hesitant to join or stay at the family of social networks.

TC Sessions: Mobility returns In 2020

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 08:00 AM PST

TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Companies are racing to deploy autonomous vehicles and flying cars, scale their scooter operations and adjust to headwinds in the vehicle subscription and car-sharing businesses. At the center of the mobility maelstrom is TechCrunch. 

TechCrunch held its inaugural TC Sessions: Mobility event in summer 2019 with a mission to do more than highlight the next new thing. We aimed to dig into the how and why, the cost and impact to cities, people and companies, as well as the numerous challenges that lie along the way, from technological and regulatory to capital and consumer pressures.

We met our goal, and now we're back to push further with TC Sessions: Mobility 2020.

Attendees of TC Sessions: Mobility can expect interviews with founders, investors and inventors, demos of the latest tech, breakout sessions, dozens of startup exhibits and opportunities to network and recruit.

If you're wondering what to expect, take a look at some of the speakers we had onstage at the first event:

  • Amnon Shashua, Mobileye, co-founder, president and CEO
  • Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo, CTO
  • Summer Craze Fowler, Argo AI, chief security officer
  • Katie DeWitt, Scoot, VP of Product
  • Karl Iagnemma, Aptiv, president
  • Seleta Reynolds, head of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation
  • Caroline Samponaro, Lyft, head of Micromobility Policy
  • Ted Serbinski, Techstars, founder and managing director of The Mobility Program
  • Ken Washington, Ford, CTO
  • Sarah Smith, Bain Capital Ventures, partner
  • Dave Ferguson, Nuro, co-founder and president
  • Michael Granoff, Maniv Mobility, founder and managing partner
  • Jesse Levinson, Zoox, CTO and co-founder

TechCrunch will announce in the coming weeks and months the participants of TechCrunch Mobility's fireside chats, panels and workshops.

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TikTok expands its influence to third-party apps with new developer program & SDK

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 07:56 AM PST

TikTok is looking to expand its influence by integrating with popular third-party video creation and editing apps. The company today announced a new TikTok for Developers program which will introduce tools for third-party app developers, including those that allow them to access TikTok’s creative offerings as well as push content from their apps to TikTok directly. The first of these tools is the new Share to TikTok SDK, which will let users edit videos in other apps then publish them from that app to TikTok.

One of the key launch partners for the new SDK is Adobe Premiere Rush, Adobe’s mobile app for video editing. With the new TikTok integration, Premiere Rush users can access video editing features like aspect ratio switching, transitions, color filters, time lapse and slo-mo, audio control and more, then share instantly to TikTok and other video destinations.

In addition to Adobe, the apps supporting the Share to TikTok SDK at launch also include looping video creator Plotaverse, AR app Fuse.it, gaming highlights recorder Medal, Momento GIF Maker, PicsArt and Enlight Videoleop.

For some of the smaller, single-purpose apps, being able to become a useful tool for the creator community can have an outsized impact on their growth and revenues. For example, Facetune’s maker Lightricks has built a profitable business across its suite of photo and video editing apps, including Enlight Videoleap, and has now raised a total of $205 million.

In addition to built-in sharing features, apps that integrate with the new TikTok SDK will also gain access to a wider selection of creative tools, says TikTok.

But the apps will benefit in another way, too — when creators share their videos, they’ll include the specified partner hashtag along with the content. This will help to give the app the ability to gain exposure among even more TikTok users.

“This new Share to TikTok feature enriches the content available on TikTok, diversifies the types of videos users can discover, and offers more editing choices for users to explore in addition to TikTok’s built-in creative tools,” explained TikTok, in an announcement. “Most importantly, it gives users multiple avenues to create new original, high-quality content using platforms with exciting creative tools,” the company said.

The TikTok for Developers program also includes tools to embed videos on the web, and offers developer documentation, demos and more. The program’s terms of service restricts developers from collecting users’ personal data or other nefarious activity, and threatens developers’ access could be removed if terms are violated.

The news follows reports that the U.S. government has opened a national security review of TikTok owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, specifically with regard to its $1 billion acquisition of U.S. app Musical.ly.

TikTok didn’t say what other plans its has in store for the developers program, only that it will continue to expand access to its own creative tools further across the wider app ecosystem.

Robocorp announces $5.6M seed to bring open-source option to RPA

Posted: 04 Nov 2019 07:50 AM PST

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been a hot commodity in recent years as it helps automate tedious manual workflows inside large organizations. Robocorp, a San Francisco startup, wants to bring open source and RPA together. Today it announced a $5.6 million seed investment.

Benchmark led the round, with participation from Slow Ventures, firstminute Capital, Bret Taylor (president and chief product officer at Salesforce) and Docker CEO Rob Bearden. In addition, Benchmark’s Peter Fenton will be joining the company’s board.

Robocorp co-founder and CEO Antti Karjalainen has been around open-source projects for years, and he saw an enterprise software category that was lacking in open-source options. “We actually have a unique angle on RPA, where we are introducing open source and cloud native technology into the market and focusing on developer-led technologies,” Karjalainen said.

He sees a market that’s top-down and focused on heavy sales cycles. He wants to bring the focus back to the developers who will be using the tools. “We are all about removing friction from developers. So, we are focused on giving developers tools that they like to use, and want to use for RPA, and doing it in an open-source model where the tools themselves are free to use,” he said.

The company is built on the open-source Robot Framework project, which was originally developed as an open-source software testing environment, but he sees RPA having a lot in common with testing, and his team has been able to take the project and apply it to RPA.

If you’re wondering how the company will make money, they are offering a cloud service to reduce the complexity even further of using the open-source tools, and that includes the kinds of features enterprises tend to demand from these projects, like security, identity and access management, and so forth.

Benchmark’s Peter Fenton, who has invested in several successful open-source startups, including JBoss, SpringSource and Elastic, sees RPA as an area that’s ripe for a developer-focused open-source option. “We're living in the era of the developer, where cloud-native and open source provide the freedom to innovate without constraint. Robocorp's RPA approach provides developers the cloud native, open-source tools to bring RPA into their organizations without the burdensome constraints of existing offerings,” Fenton said.

The company intends to use the money to add new employees and continue scaling the cloud product, while working to build the underlying open-source community.

While UIPath, a fast-growing startup with a hefty $7.1 billion valuation recently announced it was laying off 400 people, Gartner published a study in June showing that RPA is the fastest growing enterprise software category.