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Monday, January 20, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Tesla calls claims of unintended acceleration in NHTSA petition ‘completely false’

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 12:20 PM PST

Tesla pushed back Monday against claims that its electric vehicles may suddenly accelerate on their own, calling a petition filed with federal safety regulators “completely false.”

Tesla also questions the validity of the petition, noting that it was submitted by a Tesla short-seller.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration said it would review a defect petition that cited 127 consumer complaints of alleged unintended acceleration of Tesla electric vehicles that may have contributed to or caused 110 crashes and 52 injuries.

The petition, which was first reported by CNBC, was filed by Brian Sparks, an independent investor who is currently shorting Tesla’s stock. Sparks has hedged his bets and has been long Tesla in the past, according to the CNBC report.

At the time, Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment. Now, in a blog post, the company said that it routinely reviews customer complaints of unintended acceleration with NHTSA.

“In every case we reviewed with them, the data proved the vehicle functioned properly,” Tesla wrote in a blog post on its website.

The automaker argued that its vehicles are designed to avoid unintended acceleration, noting that its system will default to cutting off motor torque if the two independent position sensors on its accelerator pedals register any error.

“We also use the Autopilot sensor suite to help distinguish potential pedal misapplications and cut torque to mitigate or prevent accidents when we’re confident the driver’s input was unintentional,” the company wrote.

Here is the complete response from Tesla:

This petition is completely false and was brought by a Tesla short-seller. We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed. In other words, the car accelerates if, and only if, the driver told it to do so, and it slows or stops when the driver applies the brake.

While accidents caused by a mistaken press of the accelerator pedal have been alleged for nearly every make/model of vehicle on the road, the accelerator pedals in Model S, X and 3 vehicles have two independent position sensors, and if there is any error, the system defaults to cut off motor torque. Likewise, applying the brake pedal simultaneously with the accelerator pedal will override the accelerator pedal input and cut off motor torque, and regardless of the torque, sustained braking will stop the car. Unique to Tesla, we also use the Autopilot sensor suite to help distinguish potential pedal misapplications and cut torque to mitigate or prevent accidents when we’re confident the driver’s input was unintentional. Each system is independent and records data, so we can examine exactly what happened.

We are transparent with NHTSA, and routinely review customer complaints of unintended acceleration with them. Over the past several years, we discussed with NHTSA the majority of the complaints alleged in the petition. In every case we reviewed with them, the data proved the vehicle functioned properly.

Court rules Mike Rothenberg must fork over more than $31 million to settle SEC allegations

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 11:10 AM PST

Mike Rothenberg, the once high-flying VC bent on bringing the party to Silicon Valley, must now pay a whopping $31.4 million to settle a California federal court ruling in favor of Security and Exchange Commission allegations.

TechCrunch deemed Rothenberg a ‘virtual gatsby’ back in 2016, when we first broke the news about the downfall of his venture capital firm, Rothenberg Ventures. It seemed he took it as a compliment, changing his instagram handle to @virtualgatsby. Indeed, the name seemed appropriate for a man who seemingly lived a party boy lifestyle and spent lavishly to woo startup founders — including going on Napa Valley wine tours, holding an annual ‘founder field day’ where he rented out the whole San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium and spending unsparingly to executive produce a video for Coldplay.

But the party life came to a halt when top leadership jumped ship and the SEC started looking into the books. The SEC formally charged Rothenberg in August of 2018 for misappropriating millions of dollars of his investors' capital and funneling that money into his own bank account. Rothenberg settled with the SEC at the time and, as part of the settlement, was barred from the brokerage and investment advisory business for five years.

Rothenberg was later caught up in several lawsuits, including one from Transcend VR for fraud and breach of contract, which ended in a settlement. Another suit between Rothenberg and his former CFO, David Haase, ended with Rothenberg being ordered to pay $166,000 in damages.

But there was more to come from the SEC, following a forensic audit in partnership with the firm Deloitte showing the misuse or misappropriation of $18.8 million in investor funding. Under that examination, Deloitte showed Rothenberg had used the money either personally, to float his flashy lifestyle, or for other extravagances such as building a race car team and a virtual reality studio. Rothenberg has now been ordered to pay back the $18.8 million he took from investors, another $9 million in civil penalties, plus $3.7 million in interest.

Neither the SEC nor Rothenberg have responded for comment. It’s also important to note none of the charges so far have been criminal but were handled in civil court, as the SEC does not handle criminal cases. 

Through all of it, Rothenberg never admitted any guilt for his actions and it is important to note that, because of this in admission of any wrongdoing, he will be able to practice again after the bar is lifted in five years. He’s also made some decent early investments in startups like Robinhood and many investor sources TechCrunch spoke to over the years seemed quite loyal to him as an investor, despite the charges, employee mass exodus and fund implosion that followed. 

And it seems this saga is not over yet. Rothenberg told MarketWatch in a recent interview that he thought the ruling was, “historically excessive and vindictively punitive,” that he planned to appeal it and would be suing Silicon Valley Bank, which Rothenberg used to funnel several investments, over the matter. 

Rothenberg Ventures already filed suit against Silicon Valley Bank in August of 2018, the same day the SEC filed formal charges against Rothenberg himself. In that suit, Rothenberg alleged negligence, fraud and deceit on the part of the bank and sought a trial before jury. Silicon Valley Bank said it would defend against the case at the time.

We’ve reached out to Silicon Valley Bank and are waiting to hear back. The real question is, if Rothenberg were to come back to investing in Silicon Valley, would anyone still trust him? 

Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 is a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 11:02 AM PST

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission for 2020 – a dedicated rocket launch on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) with a launch window that opens on January 31. The Electron rocket Rocket Lab is using for this mission will take off from its Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand, and it’ll be the first mission Rocket Lab secured under a new contract the NRO is using that allows it to source launch providers quickly and at short notice.

This new Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract model is pretty much ideal for Rocket Lab, since the whole company’s thesis is based around using small, affordable rockets that can be produced quickly thanks to carbon 3D printing used in the manufacturing process. Rocket Lab has already demonstrated the flexibility of its model by bumping a client to the top of the queue when another dropped out last year, and its ability to win an NRO mission under the RASR contract model is further proof that its aim of delivering responsive, timely rocket launch services for small payloads is hitting a market sweet spot.

The NRO is a U.S. government agency that’s in charge of developing, building, launching and operating intelligence satellites. It was originally established in 1961, but was only officially declassified and made public in 1992. Its mandate includes supporting the work of both the U.S. Intelligence Community, as well as the Department of Defense.

Increasingly, the defense industry is interested in small satellite operations, mainly because using smaller, more efficient and economical satellites means that you can respond to new needs in the field more quickly, and that you can also build resiliency into your observation and communication network through sheer volume. Traditional expensive, huge intelligence and military satellites carry giant price tags, have multi-year development timelines and offer sizeable targets to potential enemies without much in the way of redundancy. Small satellites, especially acting as part of larger constellations, mitigate pretty much all of these potential weaknesses.

One of the reasons that Rocket Lab opened its new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) launch pad in Wallops Island, Virgina, is to better serve customers from the U.S. defense industry. Its first mission from that site, currently set to happen sometime this spring, is for the U.S. Air Force.

Israel’s cybersecurity startup scene spawned new entrants in 2019

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 11:00 AM PST

As the global cybersecurity market becomes increasingly crowded, the Start Up Nation remains a bulwark of innovation and opportunity generation for investors and global cyber companies alike. It achieved this chiefly in 2019 by adapting to the industry's competitive developments and pushing forward its most accomplished entrepreneurs in larger numbers to meet them.

New data illustrates how Israeli entrepreneurs have seized on the country's reputation for building radically cutting-edge technologies as the number of new Israeli cybersecurity startups addressing nascent sectors eclipses its more traditional counterparts. Moreover, related findings highlight how cybersecurity companies looking to expand beyond their traditional offerings are entering Israel's cybersecurity ecosystem in larger numbers through highly strategic acquisitions.

Broadly, new findings also reveal the Israeli cybersecurity market's overall coming of age, seasoned entrepreneurial dominance and greater appetite for longer-term visions and strategies — the latter of which received record-breaking investor backing in 2019.

Breaking records

Diligent’s Vivian Chu and Labrador’s Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 10:55 AM PST

Too often the world of robotics seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Assistive robotics, on the other hand, are among one of the primary real-world tasks existing technology can seemingly address almost immediately.

The concept for the technology has been around for some time now and has caught on particularly well in places like Japan, where human help simply can't keep up with the needs of an aging population. At TC Sessions: Robotics+AI at U.C. Berkeley on March 3, we'll be speaking with a pair of founders developing offerings for precisely these needs.

Vivian Chu is the cofounder and CEO of Diligent Robotics. The company has developed the Moxi robot to help assist with chores and other non-patient tasks, in order to allow caregivers more time to interact with patients. Prior to Diligent, Chu worked at both Google[X] and Honda Research Institute.

Mike Dooley is the cofounder and CEO of Labrador Systems. The Los Angeles-based company recently closed a $2 million seed round to develop assistive robots for the home. Dooley has worked at a number of robotics companies including, most recently a stint as the VP of Product and Business Development at iRobot.

Early Bird tickets are now on sale for $275, but you better hurry, prices go up in less than a month by $100. Students can book a super discounted ticket for just $50 right here.

Soft Robotics raises $23 million from investors including industrial robot giant FANUC

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 10:29 AM PST

Robotics startup company Soft Robotics has closed its Series B round of funding, raising $23 million led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact, and including participation from exiting investors including Honeywell, Yahama, Hyperplane and more. This round also brings in FANUC, the world’s largest maker of industrial robots and a recently announced strategic partner for Soft Robotics .

The company said in a press release announcing this latest round of funding that the round was oversubscribed, which suggests it isn’t looking to glut itself on capital investors, given that this $23 million follows a similarly sized $20 million round that closed in 2018 which it also referred to as “oversubscribed.” Prior to that, Soft Robotics had raised $5 million in a Series A round closed in 2015. It has plenty of large, global clients already, so it’s probably not hurting for revenue.

Soft Robotics is focused on developing robotic grippers that, as you might’ve guessed from the name, make use of soft material endpoints that can more easily grip a range of different objects without the kind of extremely specific and tolerance-allergic complex programming that’s required for most traditional industrial robotic claws.

With its 2018 funding raise, Soft Robotics said that it was expanding further into food and beverage, as well as doubling down on its presence in the retail and logistics industries. This round and its new partnership with FANUC (which involves a new integrated system that pairs its mGrip robotic gripper with a new Mini-P controller, all with simple integration to FANUC’s existing lineup of industrial robots) will give it strategic and functional access to what is the most influenentioal industrial robotics company in the world.

This round will specifically help Soft Robotics spend on growth, looking to increase its variability even further and work on expanding its food packaging and consumer goods applications, as well as diving into e-commerce and logistics – specifically to help automate and improve the returns process, a costly and ever-growing challenge as more retail moves online.

Decrease user churn by better managing expectations

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 10:15 AM PST

We've aggregated many of the world's best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this growth report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that's hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of 1,000 startup founders and VPs of growth from later-stage companies. We have 400 YC founders, plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo and Ritual.

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve's marketing webinars, Slack group or marketing training program.

Without further ado, onto our community's advice.

Decrease user churn by better managing expectations

Three takeaways from the 2019 venture capital market

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 09:52 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re digging into the Q4 venture capital market — specifically unpacking three pieces of data that stood out as we read the Crunchbase News Q4 global report — and Pitchbook and NVCA’s comparative, U.S.-focused Q4 data dive. As always, each contains a wealth of charts and numbers, so if you have a specific question, happy hunting.

Our exercise today is to cut through the data deluge to dig up a few key facts that will give us a good grasp of where the market wound up last year. We’ll start with early-stage results, talk about the global market in aggregate and close with a unicorn-focused datum to chew on. Ready?

Early-stage plateau

Fable Studio founder Edward Saatchi on designing virtual beings

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 08:42 AM PST

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don't perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of "virtual beings," I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 3 of 3: designing virtual companions

In this discussion, Fable CEO Edward Saatchi addresses the technical and artistic dynamics of virtual companions: AIs created to establish one-to-one relationships with consumers. After mobile, Saatchi says he believes such virtual beings will act as the next paradigm for human-computer interaction.

Google’s Sundar Pichai doesn’t want you to be clear-eyed about AI’s dangers

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 06:11 AM PST

Alphabet and Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, is the latest tech giant kingpin to make a public call for AI to be regulated while simultaneously encouraging lawmakers towards a dilute enabling framework that does not put any hard limits on what can be done with AI technologies.

In an op-ed published in today’s Financial Times, Pichai makes a headline-grabbing call for artificial intelligence to be regulated. But his pitch injects a suggestive undercurrent that puffs up the risk for humanity of not letting technologists get on with business as usual and apply AI at population-scale — with the Google chief claiming: “AI has the potential to improve billions of lives, and the biggest risk may be failing to do so” — thereby seeking to frame ‘no hard limits’ as actually the safest option for humanity.

Simultaneously the pitch downplays any negatives that might cloud the greater good that Pichai implies AI will unlock — presenting “potential negative consequences” as simply the inevitable and necessary price of technological progress.

It’s all about managing the level of risk, is the leading suggestion, rather than questioning outright whether the use of a hugely risk-laden technology such as facial recognition should actually be viable in a democratic society.

“Internal combustion engines allowed people to travel beyond their own areas but also caused more accidents,” Pichai writes, raiding history for a self-serving example while ignoring the vast climate costs of combustion engines (and the resulting threat now posed to the survival of countless species on Earth).

“The internet made it possible to connect with anyone and get information from anywhere, but also easier for misinformation to spread,” he goes on. “These lessons teach us that we need to be clear-eyed about what could go wrong.”

For “clear-eyed” read: Accepting of the technology-industry’s interpretation of ‘collateral damage’. (Which, in the case of misinformation and Facebook, appears to run to feeding democracy itself into the ad-targeting meat-grinder.)

Meanwhile, not at all mentioned in Pichai’s discussion of AI risks: The concentration of monopoly power that artificial intelligence appears to be very good at supercharging.

Funny that.

Of course it’s hardly surprising a tech giant that, in recent years, rebranded an entire research division to ‘Google AI’ — and has previously been called out by some of its own workforce over a project involving applying AI to military weapons technology — should be lobbying lawmakers to set AI ‘limits’ that are as dilute and abstract as possible.

The only thing that’s better than zero regulation are laws made by useful idiots who’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for industry-expounded false dichotomies — such as those claiming it’s ‘innovation or privacy’.

Pichai’s intervention also comes at a strategic moment, with US lawmakers eyeing AI regulation and the White House seemingly throwing itself into alignment with tech giants’ desires for ‘innovation-friendly’ rules which make their business easier. (To wit: This month White House CTO Michael Kratsios warned in a Bloomberg op-ed against “preemptive, burdensome or duplicative rules that would needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth”.)

The new European Commission, meanwhile, has been sounding a firmer line on both AI and big tech.

It has made tech-driven change a key policy priority, with president Ursula von der Leyen making public noises about reining in tech giants. She has also committed to publish "a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence" within her first 100 days in office. (She took up the post on December 1, 2019 so the clock is ticking.)

Last week a leaked draft of the Commission proposals for pan-EU AI regulation suggest it’s leaning towards a relatively light touch approach (albeit, the European version of light touch is considerably more involved and interventionist than anything born in a Trump White House, clearly) — although the paper does float the idea of a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public places.

The paper notes that such a ban would “safeguard the rights of individuals, in particular against any possible abuse of the technology” — before arguing against such a "far-reaching measure that might hamper the development and uptake of this technology", in favor of relying on provisions in existing EU law (such as the EU data protection framework, GDPR), in addition to relevant tweaks to current product safety and liability laws.

While it’s not yet clear which way the Commission will jump on regulating AI, even the lightish-touch version its considering would likely be a lot more onerous than Pichai would like.

In the op-ed he calls for what he couches as “sensible regulation” — aka taking a “proportionate approach, balancing potential harms, especially in high-risk areas, with social opportunities”.

For “social opportunities” read: The plentiful ‘business opportunities’ Google is spying — assuming the hoped for vast additional revenue scale it can get by supercharging expansion of AI-powered services into all sorts of industries and sectors (from health to transportation to everywhere else in between) isn’t derailed by hard legal limits on where AI can actually be applied.

“Regulation can provide broad guidance while allowing for tailored implementation in different sectors,” Pichai urges, setting out a preference for enabling “principles” and post-application “reviews”, to keep the AI spice flowing.

The op-ed only touches very briefly on facial recognition — despite the FT editors choosing to illustrate it with an image of the tech. Here Pichai again seeks to reframe the debate around what is, by nature, an extremely rights-hostile technology — talking only in passing of “nefarious uses” of facial recognition.

Of course this wilfully obfuscates the inherent risks of letting blackbox machines make algorithmic guesses at identity every time a face happens to pass through a public space.

You can’t hope to protect people’s privacy in such a scenario. Many other rights are also at risk, depending on what else the technology is being used for. So, really, any use of facial recognition is laden with individual and societal risk.

But Pichai is seeking to put blinkers on lawmakers. He doesn’t want them to see inherent risks baked into such a potent and powerful technology — pushing them towards only a narrow, ill-intended subset of “nefarious” and “negative” AI uses and “consequences” as being worthy of “real concerns”. 

And so he returns to banging the drum for “a principled and regulated approach to applying AI” [emphasis ours] — putting the emphasis on regulation that, above all, gives the green light for AI to be applied.

What technologists fear most here is rules that tell them when artificial intelligence absolutely cannot apply.

Ethics and principles are, to a degree, mutable concepts — and ones which the tech giants have become very practiced at claiming as their own, for PR purposes, including by attaching self-styled ‘guard-rails’ to their own AI operations. (But of course there’s no actual legal binds there.)

At the same time data-mining giants like Google are very smooth operators when it comes to gaming existing EU rules around data protection, such as by infesting their user-interfaces with confusing dark patterns that push people to click or swipe their rights away.

But a ban on applying certain types of AI would change the rules of the game. Because it would put society in the driving seat.

Laws that contained at least a moratorium on certain “dangerous” applications of AI — such as facial recognition technology, or autonomous weapons like the drone-based system Google was previously working on — have been called for by some far-sighted regulators.

And a ban would be far harder for platform giants to simply bend to their will.

The marketplace of ideas is a weapons market now

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

The most interesting thing I saw online this week was Venkatesh Rao’s “Internet of Beefs” essay. I don’t agree with all of it. I’m not even sure I agree with most of it. But it’s a sharp, perceptive, well-argued piece which offers an explanation for why online public spaces have almost all become battlefields, or, as he puts it:

“are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers … Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation … as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict.” He goes on to taxonomizes the online knights and mooks who fight in this conflict, in incisive detail.

I agree this continuous conflict exists. (There exists another theory arguing that it’s really mostly bots and disinformation ops. Maybe, I guess, but that claim seems increasingly unconvincing.) I think this seething tire-fire conflict is part of something larger: the transition of the marketplace of ideas from a stock market into a weapons market.

Once, the idea was, there existed a “marketplace of ideas,” wherein people from across the political spectrum — generally the highly educated, but with some room for notions bubbling up from the grassroots — would introduce ideas for initiatives, actions, programs, and/or laws. These ideas would be considered, contrasted, debated, honed, amended, and weighed, and over time, in the same way stock markets identify the best companies, the the marketplace of ideas would identify the finest concepts. These in turn would then see actual implementation, courtesy of those in power — i.e. the rich and the elected — for the greater good of all.

This was the world of think tanks, of policy documents, of presentations at important conferences, of reporting breathlessly on major speeches, of trial-balloon op-eds, of congressional and parliamentary testimony, of councils and summits and studies that produced lavishly bound reports with the expectation that they would be seriously and judiciously considered by all sides of a debate. It was a world where new ideas might climb the hierarchy of the so-called great and good until they rose high enough that it was seen fit to actually implement them.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if we ever lived in a world anything like that, well, we don’t any more. Some reject it on the (correct) grounds that this so-called marketplace of ideas, shockingly, always seemed to favor entrenching the interests of those “great and good,” the rich and the elected, the councilors and the presenters, rather than the larger population. Others simply want more for themselves and less for everyone else, rather than aiming for any kind of Pareto-optimal ideal outcome for all.

Nowadays the primary goal is to win the conflict, and other outcomes are at best secondary. Policy documents and statistical analyses are not taken for serious across-the-board consideration; they are simply weapons, or fig leaves, to serve as defenses or pretexts for decisions which have already been made.

This may seem so self-evident that it’s not even worth writing about — you probably need only consider your local national politics — but the strange thing is that so many of the participants in the whole apparatus, the policy analysts and think tankers and speechgivers and presenters, don’t seem to realize that nowadays their output is used as weapons and pretexts, rather than ideas to compete with other ideas in a rational marketplace.

Let’s pick a few relatively apolitical/acultural ones, to minimize the chance of your own ingrained conflict responses kicking in. Consider NIMBYism in Bay Area real estate: the opposition to building more housing on the grounds that this could not possibly lower housing prices. It’s a perfect object example of a low-level constant conflict in which all participants have long sine decided on their sides. There is no point in bringing conflicting data to a NIMBY (and, of course, they would say the same about a YIMBY like myself) as they will find a way to dismiss or ignore it. You can lead a horse to data, but you can’t make them think.

A couple more low-politics examples from my own online spaces: in the cryptocurrency world, most participants are so incentivized to believe in their One Truth that nearly every idea or proposal leads to an angry chorus denouncing all other truths. Or consider advocates of greater law enforcement “lawful access” to all encrypted messaging, vs. my own side, that of privacy advocates devoutly opposed to such. Neither side seems particularly interested in actually seriously considering any new data or new idea which might support the other side’s arguments. The dispute is more fundamental than that.

There exist a few remaining genuine marketplaces of ideas. Engineering standards and protocols, for one. (Yes, politics and personal hobbyhorses / vendettas get everywhere, even there, but relatively speaking.) The law, for another, albeit seemingly decreasingly so. But increasingly, academic papers, policy analyses, cross-sectional studies, closely argued op-eds, center-stage presentations, etc., are all artifacts of a world which no longer exists, if it ever really did. Nowadays these artifacts are largely just used to add a veneer of respectability to pre-existing tribal beliefs.

This isn’t true of every politician, CEO, billionaire, or other decisionmaker. And it’s certainly more true of one side than the other. But the increasingly irrelevant nature of our so-called marketplace of ideas seems hard to ignore. Perhaps, when it comes to the the tangible impact of these ceaseless online coal-fire conflicts, that old joke at the expense of academia applies: the discourse is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

Max Q: SpaceX succeeds with a spectacular Crew Dragon test launch

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 05:08 AM PST

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.

If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.

SpaceX successfully tests Crew Dragon safety system

SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.

The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.

The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.

Elon Musk details Starship operational plans

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.

SpinLaunch raises $35M more for catapult launcher

Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.

What 2020 holds for space startup invesment

I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).

Rocket Lab is expanding its LA presence

Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.

Orbex lands a new customer with lots of rideshare mission experience

‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.

We’re having a space event!

Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.

Google takes on AWS and Azure in India with Airtel cloud deal

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 02:00 AM PST

Google has inked a deal with India's third-largest telecom operator as the American giant looks to grow its cloud customer base in the key overseas market that is increasingly emerging as a new cloud battleground for AWS and Microsoft .

Google Cloud announced on Monday that the new partnership, effective starting today, enables Airtel to offer G Suite to small and medium-sized businesses as part of the telco's ICT portfolio.

Airtel, which has amassed over 325 million subscribers in India, said it currently serves 2,500 large businesses and over 500,000 small and medium-sized businesses and startups in the country. The companies did not share details of their financial arrangement.

In a statement, Thomas Kurian, chief executive of Google Cloud, said, "the combination of G Suite's collaboration and productivity tools with Airtel's digital business offerings will help accelerate digital innovations for thousands of Indian businesses."

The move follows Reliance Jio, India's largest telecom operator, striking a similar deal with Microsoft to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership in August last year to "serve millions of customers."

AWS, which leads the cloud market, interestingly does not maintain any similar deals with a telecom operator — though it did in the past. Deals with carriers, which were very common a decade ago as tech giants looked to acquire new users in India, illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments. According to a report by lobby group Nasscom, India's cloud market is estimated to be worth more than $7 billion in three years.

Like in many other markets, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are locked in an intense battle to win cloud customers in India. All of them offer near identical features and are often willing to pay out a potential client's remainder credit to the rival to convince them to switch, industry executives have told TechCrunch.

The three companies have also launched a range of tools and conducted training in India in recent years to help mom-and-pop stores easily build presence on the web. Last week, Amazon said it was investing $1 billion into its India operations to help about 10 million merchants come online.

France improves stock options policies for startup employees

Posted: 20 Jan 2020 12:00 AM PST

A couple of weeks ago, France's digital minister Cédric O announced some changes when it comes to stock options in France. President Emmanuel Macron is going to talk about the new policy today ahead of the World Economic Forum.

While I don't want to be too technical, here's a quick overview of the changes.

First, the price of stock options (also known as BSPCE in France) won't be based on the same VC-determined valuation. Let's take an example — a VC fund invests in a Series A round, valuing the company at €12 million.

If you join the company after, you can get stock options based on a lower valuation, which increases the chances of higher returns. Going forward, there will be a different valuation for employees getting stock options.

Second, if you work for a foreign startup but you're based in France, you couldn't receive stock options. For instance, if you're a Citymapper employee — a startup that is headquartered in London — based out of the Paris office, you could forget about stock options. Employees based in France can now receive stock options even if the company isn't incorporated in France.

Third, the French Tech Visa now also works for foreign companies with an office in Paris. If you work for Berlin-based N26 and you want to hire a great Brazilian data scientist in your Paris office, you can now go through the fast-track visa process for startup employees.

Last year, VC firm Index Ventures coordinated an effort to overhaul stock option policies across Europe by lobbying policymakers. Hundreds of tech CEOs have signed the 'Not Optional' letter since then.

According to Index Ventures, Germany, Spain and Belgium are the lowest-ranked European countries when it comes to the regulatory framework around stock options.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

Posted: 19 Jan 2020 09:09 PM PST

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund's investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s companies, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world's unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa's 1 billion people don't have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale payment solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan's Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year  commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets such as Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Open banking platform Tink raises €90M at a post-money valuation of €415M

Posted: 19 Jan 2020 09:00 PM PST

Tink, the European open banking platform, is disclosing €90 million in new funding, just 11 months after the Sweden-headquartered company announced a €56 million round of funding.

Co-leading this new round is Dawn Capital, HMI Capital and Insight Partners. The round also includes the incumbent postal operator and Italy's largest financial services network Poste Italiane as a new investor, along with existing investors Heartcore Capital, ABN AMRO Ventures and BNP Paribas' venture arm, Opera Tech Ventures.

The injection of capital will enable Tink to accelerate its European expansion plans and further develop its product accordingly.

“During 2020, we are committed to building out our platform with more bank connections and, on top of that, expand our product offering,” Tink co-founder and CEO Daniel Kjellén tells me. “Our aim is to become the preferred pan-European provider of digital banking services and increase our local presence across the region”.

Originally launched in Sweden in 2013 as a consumer-facing finance app with bank account aggregation at its heart, Tink has long since repositioned its offering to become a fully-fledged open banking platform, requisite with developer APIs, to enable banks and other financial service providers to ride the open banking/PSD2 train.

Through its various APIs, Tink provides four pillars of technology: "Account Aggregation," "Payment Initiation," "Personal Finance Management" and "Data Enrichment." These can be used by third parties to roll their own standalone apps or integrated into existing banking applications.

“We have grown significantly, both in terms of our platform's connectivity and as an organisation,” says Kjellén, when asked what has changed in the last 11 months. “We have during the year launched our platform in Belgium, Austria, the U.K., Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Italy. In total, our open banking platform is right now live in twelve European markets and connects to more than 2,500 banks that reach more than 250 million bank customers across Europe”.

The company’s headcount has also grown a lot, too. In the beginning of 2019 it sat at around 120, but is now at 300 employees. Most but not all are based in its headquarters in Stockholm, alongside local offices including recently opened sites in Paris, Helsinki, Oslo, Madrid, Warsaw, Milan and Copenhagen.

Perhaps better positioned than most, I asked Kjellén what types of use cases are really resonating with open banking, given that many industry commentators don’t think it has quite yet lived up to the hype.

“Many of our customers are seeing the advantage of being able to build smart multi-banking products with the data that they are now able to fetch and use to add value for their end users,” he says. “The use cases that really show the potential of open banking that we see our customers thriving with are those that leverage the full value of the financial data to deliver truly personalised experiences at scale, or remove friction in the user journey to a minimum, such as proactive price comparison, enhanced credit scoring and onboarding. Use cases such as these show that the consumer's data can really work for them and bring improvements to their everyday interactions”.

One example Kjellén gives me is Klarna, the checkout credit provider, which he says is using open banking to provide a “wonderful” in-app experience. “I love that I as a consumer can now choose to change my mind and slice up the payments for a purchase I have already paid in full with my bank card,” he explains. “This shows how the potential of open banking goes way beyond just accessing a transaction history and allows the most innovative players, such as Klarna, to create a new standard in consumer experience”.

Kjellén says another standout use-case is using PSD2 APIs to verify identity to complete any type of customer registration completely automatically. “[That is] something that I find very innovative. It automates the previously time-consuming administration on the business side and delivers a completely seamless digital service on the end user side,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tink says its customer numbers have “quadrupled” in the past year, and includes PayPal, Klarna, NatWest, ABN AMRO, BNP Paribas Fortis, Nordea and SEB. “More than 4,000 developers are currently using Tink to build and power new innovative financial services and products,” adds Kjellén.

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