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Friday, February 7, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Los Angeles-based SureSale is developing an independent certification service for used cars

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 04:02 PM PST

Donny Hall, the chief executive and co-founder of the used car certification service, SureSale, knows used cars. The serial entrepreneur built and sold a previous business, CarSure, which was an insurance plan for vehicle repairs.

After selling that business in 2017 to Innovative Aftermarket Systems, Hall decided that his next venture would be to take on the used car industry’s dominant source for historical information about a vehicle — Carfax .

His Santa Monica, Calif.-based SureSale has raised $7 million in financing from the LA-based investment firm Upfront Ventures to create a national used car certification service that dealers and car shoppers around the country can turn to for an unbiased assessment of a vehicle and its problems, according to Hall.

“66 percent of consumer want to buy cars that are certified and only 7 percent do,” says Hall. “Independents don’t have any national [certification] program and dealers don’t have national programs.”

The company integrates background checks, insurance, and provides a limited warranty and five-day exchange options for vehicles assessed through its program.

To launch the business, Hall partnered with Jeffrey Schwartz, the co-founder of the used car marketplace and review platform, Autobytel.

The company currently counts 75 dealerships as users of its service in states across the country including North Carolina, Illinois, and California.

Used car dealerships are hurting in the ecommerce age just like other traditional retailers. SureSale is betting that its value-added services and better reporting standards can give dealers a competitive advantages versus online services like Carmax.

Dealerships pay for the service, but in return their customers get a full inspection, a title and a background check alongside the five month warranty.

“Even though there have been a number of recent startups that have seen massive exits in this category like Carvana ($13BN market cap) and Carmax ($16BN market cap), given that each company has less than 2% market share, any market this large is always ripe for continued efficiency gains,” wrote UpFront Ventures partner and SureSale director, Kobie Fuller, in a blog post.

White House reportedly aims to double AI research budget to $2B

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 02:51 PM PST

The White House is pushing to dedicate an additional billion dollars to fund artificial intelligence research, effectively doubling the budget for that purpose outside of Defense Department spending, Reuters reported today, citing people briefed on the plan. Investment in quantum computing would also receive a major boost.

The 2021 budget proposal would reportedly increase AI R&D funding to nearly $2 billion, and quantum to about $860 million, over the next two years.

The U.S. is engaged in what some describe as a “race” with China in the field of AI, though unlike most races this one has no real finish line. Instead, any serious lead means opportunities in business and military applications that may grow to become the next globe-spanning monopoly, a la Google or Facebook — which themselves, as quasi-sovereign powers, invest heavily in the field for their own purposes.

Simply doubling the budget isn’t a magic bullet to take the lead, if anyone can be said to have it, but deploying AI to new fields is not without cost and an increase in grants and other direct funding will almost certainly enable the technology to be applied more widely. Machine learning has proven to be useful for a huge variety of purposes and for many researchers and labs is a natural next step — but expertise and processing power cost money.

It’s not clear how the funds would be disbursed; It’s possible existing programs like federal Small Business Innovation Research awards could be expanded with this topic in mind, or direct funding to research centers like the National Labs could be increased.

Research into quantum computing and related fields is likewise costly. Google’s milestone last fall of achieving “quantum superiority,” or so the claim goes, is only the beginning for the science and neither the hardware nor software involved have much in the way of precedents.

Furthermore quantum computers as they exist today and for the foreseeable future have very few valuable applications, meaning pursuing them is only an investment in the most optimistic sense. However, government funding via SBIR and grants like those are intended to de-risk exactly this kind of research.

The proposed budget for NASA is also expected to receive a large increase in order to accelerate and reinforce various efforts within the Artemis Moon landing program. It was not immediately clear how these funds would be raised or from where they would be reallocated.

As its fundraising lags, SoftBank’s second Vision Fund could be near-sighted

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 02:33 PM PST

SoftBank, the technology conglomerate that transformed the venture capital industry and made waves in the technology world with its $100 billion Vision Fund, may not be able to repeat the performance or sustain its revolutionary approach to tech investing, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the Journal, SoftBank may only be able to raise half of the $108 billion target it had set for its sequel to the Vision Fund — with most of that money coming from the Japanese company itself.

Big backers like the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund (which helps support the financial stability of a regime responsible for assassinating journalists), and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Co. both balked at SoftBank’s attempts to set up Vision Fund II, telling SoftBank that it would have to use capital from the profits made off of previous investments to finance the second firm.

Those profits reportedly amount to roughly $10 billion.

While the Vision Fund launched with much fanfare and no small amount of jealous grumbling from investors, analysts and media amazed at the size of capital SoftBank’s founder and enigmatic chief executive Masayoshi Son was able to raise, the results have not managed to keep pace with the hype.

Part of the problem has been the disastrous investment SoftBank made in the co-working company WeWork. SoftBank wrote down its $4.4 billion investment in the company by roughly $3.5 billion.

WeWork’s woes may just be the tip of the iceberg for SoftBank, which has significantly curtailed its capital commitments to other portfolio companies. Those companies have recently slashed staff to reduce spending sending ripples through the broader tech industry and hinting at a potentially broader slowdown.

The Japanese conglomerate’s investment arm is also shedding staff. Earlier this week, the company lost one of its top managers, Michael Ronen, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs and was instrumental in SoftBank’s investments in companies like ParkJockey, Nuro and GM Cruise.

Ronen isn’t the only big departure. The company’s chief people officer, Michelle Horn and another U.S.-based managing director, David Thevenon, have also left the company in the past five months.

Catching up with B Capital, the fast-growing firm founded by Eduardo Saverin and Raj Ganguly

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 01:58 PM PST

B Capital Group, formed in in 2015 by Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin and Raj Ganguly, formerly of Bain Capital, has been quietly building its business since closing its first fund with $360 million in capital commitments, anchored by the management consulting giant Boston Consulting Group.

Already the firm, which is investing out of its second $410 million fund, employs 50 people and we hear a much bigger fund could be coming. Among its newest additions is a general partner, Rashmi Gopinath, who was previously a managing director with M12, Microsoft's corporate venture group.

Gopinath — who specializes in enterprise tech and specifically on cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity, and dev ops, among other areas — is now the fifth of the firm’s GPs, including Saverin; Ganguly; Kabir Narang, who focuses on fintech largely and came from Eight Roads Ventures India (Fidelity’s venture arm); and Karen Page, who spent nearly a decade with Box and a year with Apple before joining B Capital last year.

The firm also has a COO, a CFO, and 15 other investors scouring deals across the globe from four offices — in L.A., San Francisco, New York, and Singapore. Indeed, part of this group includes another new hire: Crissy Costa, a principal who just joined the firm from Primary Venture Partners.

Yesterday, we caught up with Ganguly to learn more about the growing organization and where it’s placing its bets. He declined to comment on whether or not the outfit is raising a fund, but he did pull back the curtain a bit on some of its other activities.

Part of what we learned is just how tightly BCG is woven into the fabric of B Capital. Not only is BCG the outfit’s biggest outside limited partner (the partners themselves are the firm’s biggest investors), but the two have a strong strategic partnership.

As Ganguly explains it, B Capital “companies get access to a dedicated BCG partner who then opens up their resources and network,” which can ostensibly result in big partnerships and other deals. B Capital also gets an inside track into what BCG’s clients are missing, including, for example, big pharma companies, so it can invest in startups accordingly.

A bet on Notable Labs, which uses AI to predict more effective cancer treatments for patients, partly came out of these conversations. (The company raised $40 million in Series B funding last year co-led by B Capital.) More broadly, digital health has become one of B Capital’s main areas of concentration because of its learnings about the industry.

As for where else it’s shopping, B Capital is also very focused right now on fintech, “primarily around small business, which we think is an area that’a been underserved by large banks,” says Ganguly. (Rather than fund competitors, he explains, B Capital is investing in tech that can help them, with related bets in the U.S., India, and Indonesia.)

The firm is also likes horizontal enterprise software, where Gopinath and Page — who co-lead B Capital’s San Francisco office — spend most of their time. In fact, the outfit is in the process of closing its first cybersecurity investments, and Ganguly suggests to expect more.

Worth noting: though B Capital’s first two funds have not been large by today’s standards, it’s focused on later-stage investing, writing checks of between $10 million and $45 million to startups that B, C, and D stages. Most of these companies have between $10 million and $50 million in annual revenue by the time they’re a B Capital candidate, and most are either cross-border businesses or eager to become one.

Ganguly points to Evidation Health, an eight-year-old, San Mateo, Calif. company that provides clinical validation of health apps and whose B, and C rounds have involved B Capital. It recently announced that it’s expanding into Asia and opening an office in Singapore; that move was quietly helped along by B Capital.

As for where, exactly, it’s investing, Ganguly says he firm is “somewhat geographically agnostic” given that it is “very thematically driven,” but the team sees South America as increasingly interesting (though it has yet to invest there), along with Europe, (four deals), the U.S., and India.

It will back similar companies in different geographies, as happened with the L.A.-based scooter company Bird, and a more recent and very big bet on the scooter and bike company Bounce, in India. Ganguly says of both that B Capital loves the space. “We think the profitability of the scooter business is better than car-sharing businesses, and we think it’s a space that in some way investors have grown less favorable on but whose unit economics are very positive. ”

As for possible conflicts of interest between Bird and Bounce down the line, Ganguly suggests it isn’t a concern. “If you look at how car sharing evolved, it was local winners who understood local markets who did well.” India, he notes, has a very different use case for scooters than the U.S. “People are using them for much longer distances. It really is a prime mechanism for them to do business and get to work. They can’t function without these scooters; that’s very different than in developed regions.”

B Capital’s biggest bets to date range in location, in fact, from Icertis, an 11-year-old, Seattle-based contract life cycle management software company; to Evidation in California; to Ninja Van, a now six-year-old, Singapore-based company that specializes in next day deliveries for e-commerce companies.

The “biggest thing we’re really focused on [with all our portfolio companies” is high re-up rates with early customers,” Ganguly says. “We think a lot of people focus on a company’s ability to grow their total user base quickly. But in enterprise investing [especially], we like to see early customers who aren’t just loyal, but who are increasing their spending year over year.”

B Capital has “always really been focused one the enterprise and business tech,” he adds. “It’s where we think the biggest opportunities will be over the next two decades.”

Senators attempt to force Twitter to ban Iranian leadership

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 12:12 PM PST

Four senators, including Ted Cruz (R-TX), have asserted that, as a consequence of sanctions placed on Iran, Twitter must cease providing its services to Ayatollah Khamenei and other leaders in the country. “The Ayatollah enjoys zero protection from the United States Bill of Rights,” he wrote in a letter to the company.

Although the move comes as relations between Iran and the U.S. grow ever more strained following a series of violent incidents connected with the country, it is also an attempt to exert executive power over tech companies that have resisted the yoke of federal regulation.

In a letter (PDF) sent to Twitter, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California and others, the senators explained the rationale for their demand. The Obama administration created rules in 2014 that specifically made an exception to export rules allowing free messaging and social media-type services to be offered to Iranians. The idea being that, though Twitter and many other such apps are mostly banned in Iran, it could not hurt to offer tools for free expression and communication to its citizens.

But there are exceptions even to exceptions, and this is what Cruz et al. claim now apply to Twitter. Specifically, they say that following Trump’s executive order in June imposing additional sanctions on Iran, the Khamenei and foreign minister Javad Zarif have lost the protection the law previously offered.

“All Americans — including you and Twitter — are prohibited from ‘the making of any contribution of provision of…goods or services’ to them,” the letter reads. “While the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of Americans… the Ayatollah and any American companies providing him assistance are entirely subject to U.S. sanctions laws.”

Not being an expert in import/export law myself, I can’t judge the merits of this argument, though on its face it seems sound. But it may not be a question of whether Twitter can or can’t “offer services” to persons blacklisted by the federal government.

There is the argument that Twitter choosing to offer the use of its platform to others is itself a protected act of free speech.

After all, the White House could just as easily have issued an E.O. blacklisting the leaders of the countries subject to the travel ban. Should that be a possibility? Is it the right of a U.S. company to extend its platform for free speech to anyone in the world, regardless of their legal status in the eyes of the government?

Sens. Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-NJ) think otherwise.

Twitter declined to comment.

CCPA won’t be enough to fix tech’s data entitlement problem

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 12:09 PM PST

When the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) rolled out on January 1st, many companies were still scrambling to become compliant with the data privacy regulation, which is estimated to cost businesses $55 billion. But even checking all of the compliance boxes isn’t enough to safeguard consumer data. The past few years of rampant breaches and data misuse have shown how quickly personal details can fall into the wrong hands. They've also shown how often simple user error enabled by poor data practices leads to big consequences.

The way to solve this issue isn’t solely through legislation — it’s companies taking a hard look at their behavior and processes. Laws like CCPA and GDPR help set the groundwork for change, but they don't address the broader issue: businesses feel entitled to people's data even when it's not part of their core product offering and have encoded that entitlement into their processes.

Legislated and top-down calls for accountability won't fix the problem on their own. To protect consumers, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship rather than data ownership. Doing so will establish processes that not only hit compliance benchmarks but make responsible data handling the default action.

Privacy compliance over true procedural change is a cop-out

The prevailing philosophy in Silicon Valley is one of data ownership, which impacts how consumers' personal information is used. The consequences have been widely reported on everything from the revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica to Uber's 57-million-user data breach. Tech companies are losing the trust of customers, partners and governments around the world. In fact, Americans' perception of tech companies has steadily dropped since 2015. More must be done to win it back.

Companies that rely on regulations like CCPA and GDPR to guide their data policies essentially ask someone else to draw the line for them, so they can come as close to it as possible — which leads to a "check-the-box" approach to compliance rather than a core philosophy that prioritizes the privacy expectations of their customers. If tech and security leaders build data policies with privacy in mind, we won't have to spend valuable resources meeting government regulations.

How to take the entitlement out of data handling

Responsible, secure data handling is achievable for every company. The most important step is for businesses to go beyond the bare minimum when reevaluating their data access processes. What's been most helpful for the companies I've worked with is organizing these practices around a simple idea: You can't lose what you don't have.

In practice, this idea is known as the Principle of Least Privilege, whereby companies give employees only the data access they need to do their jobs effectively. Here's an example that applies to most customer-facing businesses out there: Say I'm a customer service rep and a person calls me about a problem with their account. If I operate according to the Principle of Least Privilege, the following data access rules would apply:

  1. I would only have access to that specific customer's account information;
  2. I would only have access to the specific part of their account where the problem is happening;
  3. I would only have access until the problem is solved.

Sounds intuitive, right? Yet, many companies — particularly those operating without the Principle of Least Privilege in place — discovered through the GDPR and CCPA compliance process that their data access controls did not work this way. This is how major breaches happen. An employee downloads an entire database — much more data than they need to perform a specific task — their laptop is compromised, and suddenly hackers can access the entire database.

POLP works because it introduces a bit of friction into the data-request process. The goal here is to make the right decision easy and the wrong decision harder, so everyone is intentional about their data use. How a company achieves this will differ based on their business model and growth stage. One option is to have only a single database with an added layer of infrastructure that grants data access through POLP rules.

Alternatively, companies can work these rules into their CRM software. In the example I mentioned, the system would grant data access to a rep only when it recognizes a corresponding customer support case. If an employee tries to access data that is not directly tied to a customer problem, they would encounter an additional login step like two-factor authentication.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach; rather, data access should operate on a spectrum. For one business, it may mean limiting data access to a single business account and the related set of customer information. At another company, an engineer may need access to multiple customers' information to fix a product issue. When this happens, the data access should be both time-bound and highly visible, so that other employees can see how the data is used. There may also be times when an employee needs to access data in the aggregate to do their job — for example, to run a report. In this case, the data should always be anonymized.

Protecting consumer data is a moral obligation, not just a legal one

The power of privacy-focused data processes and a system like the Principle of Least Privilege is that, by design, they guide employees to use data with the customer's best interest in mind. The Golden Rule should apply: We each must treat consumer data in the way we'd want our own data used. With the right functional procedures in place, infrastructure can make responsible data access intuitive.

No company is entitled to data; they are entrusted with it. Consumers must be aware of how their data is treated and hold companies accountable. Regulations like CCPA make this easier, but businesses must uphold their end of the bargain.

Trust, not data, is the most valuable currency for businesses today. But current data practices do nothing to earn that trust and we can't count on regulation alone to change that. Only practices built with privacy and transparency in mind can bring back customer trust and keep personal data protected.

3 unicorn takeaways from the Casper and One Medical IPOs

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 11:55 AM PST

With Casper’s public offering earlier this week, we’ve closed the book on the first two venture-backed IPOs of note in 2020. Casper, joined by One Medical, carried over $870 million of private capital, venture and otherwise, across the finish line.

Even though each IPO featured an unprofitable tech-enabled business that had posted sub-30% growth and gross margins under 50% (far more, in the case of One Medical), they wound up miles apart in terms of their market reception and resulting valuation, measured in revenue multiples terms.

So what can we learn from the two IPOs as we look ahead to other unicorn debuts in 2020? A great number of things that help set the stage for the rest of 2020’s IPO class. Let’s discuss three observations that stick out the most.

Tech-enabled businesses can secure high-flying valuations in public offerings

The surprise of the year so far has been the public market’s reaction to One Medical’s IPO. The company, today worth $3.13 billion, is trading at 11.3x times the top end of its 2019 revenue projections (the company has yet to close the books on its Q4 accounting).

Recommendations for fintech startups navigating the procurement process

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 11:15 AM PST

The expanding scope of fintech has been well documented in these digital pages. Payments, investing, financial planning and lending often spring to mind as "classic" fintech startups, but other business models like regtech, compliance, human resources and marketing are on the ascent.

For passionate and talented founders, the tireless pursuit of building innovative technology is critical and fundamental. That said, to be successful in financial services, significant time and effort needs to be dedicated to other business fundamentals: corporate setup, privacy and security. The financial services customer base presents unique challenges for fintech startups as the regulatory and operational requirements for third-party vendor assessment and management are, in comparison to most other industries, brutal. Issues that might go overlooked during the early stages of product design and team-building could turn into obstacles during the sales process.

Understanding the dynamics of the financial services procurement process is essential if you want to negotiate it as quickly and seamlessly as possible. And before diving head-first into the development of your killer fintech app, consider the following questions:

  • Is my technical architecture secure?
  • Who is responsible for cybersecurity in the organization?

ACLU says it’ll fight DHS efforts to use app locations for deportations

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 11:09 AM PST

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight newly revealed practices by the Department of Homeland Security which used commercially available cell phone location data to track suspected illegal immigrants.

“DHS should not be accessing our location information without a warrant, regardless whether they obtain it by paying or for free. The failure to get a warrant undermines Supreme Court precedent establishing that the government must demonstrate probable cause to a judge before getting some of our most sensitive information, especially our cell phone location history,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Earlier today, The Wall Street Journal reported that Homeland Security, through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies, was buying geolocation data from commercial entities to investigate suspects of alleged immigration violations.

The location data, which aggregators acquire from cellphone apps, including games, weather, shopping and search services, is being used by Homeland Security to detect undocumented immigrants and others entering the U.S. unlawfully, the Journal reported.

According to privacy experts interviewed by the Journal, because the data is publicly available for purchase, the government practices don’t appear to violate the law — despite being what may be the largest dragnet ever conducted by the U.S. government using the aggregated data of its citizens.

It’s also an example of how the commercial surveillance apparatus put in place by private corporations in Democratic societies can be legally accessed by state agencies to create the same kind of surveillance networks used in more authoritarian countries like China, India and Russia.

"This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government," Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a think tank that pushes for stronger privacy laws, told the newspaper.

Behind the government’s use of commercial data is a company called Venntel. Based in Herndon, Va., the company acts as a government contractor and shares a number of its executive staff with Gravy Analytics, a mobile-advertising marketing analytics company. In all, ICE and the CBP have spent nearly $1.3 million on licenses for software that can provide location data for cell phones. Homeland Security says that the data from these commercially available records is used to generate leads about border crossing and detecting human traffickers.

The ACLU’s Wessler has won these kinds of cases in the past. He successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Carpenter v. United States that geographic location data from cellphones was a protected class of information and couldn’t be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant.

CBP explicitly excludes cell tower data from the information it collects from Venntel, according to what a spokesperson for the agency told the Journal — in part because it has to under the law. The agency also said that it only accesses limited location data, and that data is anonymized.

However, anonymized data can be linked to specific individuals by correlating that anonymous cell phone information with the real-world movements of specific individuals, which can be either easily deduced or tracked through other types of public records and publicly available social media.

ICE is already being sued by the ACLU for another potential privacy violation. Late last year the ACLU said that it was taking the government to court over the DHS service’s use of so-called “stingray” technology that spoofs a cell phone tower to determine someone’s location.

At the time, the ACLU cited a government oversight report in 2016 that indicated that both CBP and ICE collectively spent $13 million on buying dozens of stingrays, which the agencies used to "locate people for arrest and prosecution."

Unpacking Uber’s new profitability promise

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 10:11 AM PST

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

Yesterday Uber reported its Q4 2019 financial performance. Today, following the news, shares of the ride-hailing giant are up over 9%, pushing Uber’s stock above $40 per share. While Uber’s shares are still under its $45-per-share IPO price, the company’s earnings report appears to indicate that there may be an end in sight for Uber’s infamous losses.

After promising to reach adjusted profitability in 2021, Uber made a better pledge yesterday to generate a loose form of profit in Q4 2020, earlier than it or investors previously anticipated.

This morning, we’re going to quickly skim Uber’s results, unpack the profitability promise to understand if what the company promised today is impressive or not and wrap with a note on cash burn and more traditional profit definitions to frame the news.

If Uber has turned the corner on profitability, the halo effect from the good news could prove a boon to other on-demand companies, especially the private cohort who are struggling to combat a narrative that when it comes to making money, they are all forecast and no follow-through.

Results

Daily Crunch: Netflix makes autoplay previews optional

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 09:15 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. Netflix's horrible autoplay previews can be turned off

Netflix’s autoplay trailers are now optional. That's it. That's the news.

And here’s how to turn them off now: Click “Manage Profiles,” choose your profile, then untick “Autoplay previews while browsing on all devices.”

2. Instagram prototypes letting IGTV creators monetize with ads

Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that it has internally prototyped an Instagram Partner Program that would let creators earn money by showing advertisements along with their videos. By giving creators a sustainable and hands-off way to generate earnings from IGTV, those creators might be inspired to bring more and higher-quality content to the service.

3. Carta debuts fund to invest in startups that tap into its platform

Carta has created an investing vehicle called Carta Ventures. The well-funded unicorn hopes to foster an ecosystem around its core products and services.

4. SoftBank-backed Fair puts the brakes on weekly car rentals for Uber drivers

When Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October, CEO Scott Painter promised it wasn't shuttering its leasing services to on-demand fleets. But just one week later, Painter was removed as CEO and replaced in the interim by Adam Hieber, a CFA from Fair investor SoftBank.

5. Is your startup using AI responsibly?

Since they started leveraging the technology, tech companies have received numerous accusations regarding the unethical use of artificial intelligence. Gramener’s Ganes Kesari says that to address the issue, fixing the model is not enough. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. NASA panel recommends Boeing software process reviews after revealing second Starliner issue

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is recommending that Boeing's software testing processes undergo a review, following the discovery of another problem with the on-board system that was in operation during the CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Space Station docking test launch in December.

7. Motorola embraces the stylus life on its budget G series

This morning, at an event in Chicago, Motorola introduced two new entries into the G line: the Moto G Power and Moto G Stylus, which will run $300 and $250, respectively.

Our.News fights misinformation with a ‘nutrition label’ for news stories

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 09:09 AM PST

A startup called Our.News is working to make its users smarter consumers of the news.

In other words, it’s confronting some big, seemingly intractable problems. For one thing, there’s a tremendous amount of disinformation online — as Our.News founder and CEO Richard Zack put it, “Unfortunately, you have thousands of people all over the world who intentionally make it hard for people to know what's true.

At the same time, many people don’t trust the media and don’t trust fact-checkers. (Also, facts don’t actually change people’s minds.)

All of this adds up to an environment where no one is quite sure what to believe, or they simply accept the stories that reinforce their existing beliefs.

“You can't fight misinformation by telling people what's true, because they don't believe it,” Zack said. His solution? Something that he described as a “nutrition label for news.” “It doesn't tell you it’s good or bad, it doesn't say buy it or don't buy it, it leaves the buying decision in the hands of the consumers.”

In some ways, the approach is similar to NewsGuard, which rates online news sources. In fact, Zack said, “We really support NewsGuard and what they’re doing.” Still, he suggested that evaluating publishers isn’t enough, which is why Our.News provides labels for individual articles — he compared it to “trying to choose between Lucky Charms and Cheerios,” where it’s not enough to know that both cereals are manufactured by General Mills.

To put it another way, you don’t want to just accept what a publisher tells you. Even the best publisher can make mistakes, so you also want to understand what claims they’re making, what their sources are and whether those claims have been vetted by independent fact checkers.

Our.News screenshot

An Our.News label is accessible through Firefox and Chrome browser extensions, as well as an iOS app. The label includes publisher descriptions from Freedom Forum, along with bias ratings from AllSides; information about an article’s sources, author and editor; fact-checking information from sources like PolitiFact, Snopes and FactCheck.org; labels like “clickbait” or “satire”; and user ratings and reviews.

Zack said Our.News has created around 600,000 labels to date, generating about 5,000 new ones every day. Of course, there’s still a good chance that the article you’re reading won’t have a label, but if that’s the case, Our.News might still be able to show you publisher information, and users can also click a button to add the article into the system.

“We've intentionally combined objective facts [about the article] with subjective views,” Zack added. “We think that's the solution … If you go purely subjective, then it’s just a popularity contest. If it’s just objective, then who’s the determiner of truth? We’re mixing the two together, condensing it all into the nutrition label, so news consumers can more quickly make their own decision.”

He also acknowledged that different users will treat the labels in different ways. Some, for example, may still not trust the fact-checkers, but even then, Zack argued there’s still value in giving them a way to provide feedback to publishers in a way that’s more structured than a regular comments section.

He also noted that user ratings will be weighted based on their interaction with the label — if you skip the publisher information, skip the sources and skip the fact-checking, then your rating won’t be worth as much as someone else who carefully considered all of that information.

In addition to its current, consumer-focused distribution, Our.News just launched a way for publishers and other businesses to incorporate its labels. Zack said this could be used by “news publishers, content aggregators, social networks, anywhere that's displaying articles.” (This is also how he plans to make money.)

The hope is that Our.News partners can use these labels to make readers more comfortable trusting their content, and to collect feedback from those readers. There will be some degree of customization available, but Zack emphasized that publishers won’t be able to change the actual content of the labels.

AssoConnect is a service that helps you manage your nonprofit organization

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 08:58 AM PST

Meet AssoConnect, a French startup that is building a software-as-a-service application to give you all the tools you need to manage your nonprofit organization (association in French).

The company just raised a $7.7 million (€7 million) funding round with XAnge and ISAI leading the round. Various business angels, such as Nicolas Macquin, Rodolphe Carle, Michaël Benabou, Thibaud Elzière and Phil Tesler are also participating in today's funding round.

Many nonprofit organizations use tools and services that aren't really designed for this type of organization. Some manage members in an Excel spreadsheet, waste a ton of time with accounting tasks and leave money on the table by making it hard to accept donations and memberships.

AssoConnect combines multiple services in its web interface. First, it lets you centralize information about your members in a single database. It acts as a light CRM, and you can create multiple groups of members depending on what they do in the organization.

Second, AssoConnect handles memberships and donations directly. You can create a form that interacts directly with your database to help new users join your organization. You also can create a donation module that can automatically generate tax forms. And you can create an online store if you're selling goods.

If you don't have a website already, you can use AssoConnect's template-based website builder. You also can create events and email your members from AssoConnect using Mailgun.

Finally, the startup tries to generate accurate accounting reports based on donations, membership fees, ticket sales, etc. That's why it makes sense to centralize everything through AssoConnect.

The service offers a free tier for organizations with 30 members or fewer. But you'll have to pay a monthly subscription fee if you have higher needs. It's a tough sell, given that nonprofit organizations usually don't have a ton of money to spend on tools and services.

But the company has managed to convince 10,000 French organizations to switch to AssoConnect so far. Up next, AssoConnect wants to hire 80 people in 2020 and launch its service in the U.S.

What to expect when pitching European VCs

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 08:36 AM PST

Fundraising is the single most important thing you can do for your business, but I know very few founders who enjoy the process.

It's inherently stressful: you're running out of capital, which is why you're trying to get more of it. There's also no clear roadmap to getting funding and almost every company goes through the process differently. I've talked a lot about what makes a successful early-stage pitch deck and what you can expect when you're trying to close a funding round. But do those same best practices still apply when you're fundraising outside of the United States?

Before we continue, the research project that we've completed is opt-in, and we don't look at anyone's data without their express permission. We take privacy very seriously, but we also work with an amazing group of founders who are willing to pass on what they've learned to the next generation of founders going through the process. If you want to be included in our next round of research, you can find the survey links at the bottom of this blog post.

So what can you expect while sending your pitch deck out to European VCs?

Have a 9-12 month runway

When DocSend conducted this study previously, we found that the average length of a Series seed or pre-seed was about 11-15 weeks. In fact, according to our research, if you're in the United States and you're sending your pitch deck to investors, you can expect about 50 percent of your views to come in just the first nine days. You'll also hit 75 percent of your visits in just over a month, which is very much in line with the 11-15 week average window.

However, when we look outside of the U.S., the numbers change dramatically.

Sending out your pitch deck in Europe, you can expect to wait over two weeks (15 days) for the first 50 percent of your visits. And you'll likely wait nearly two months (53 days) for 75 percent of your visits. There are a lot of reasons for the discrepancies. It could be that your potential investors are more spread out. We also don't see the same level of urgency in EU funding rounds as we often see in the U.S. No matter the reason, you're going to want to have enough runway to survive the fundraising gauntlet in your region. While I usually recommend having at least six months in the bank, you may want to look at having 9-12 months of runway so you're not desperate by the end of your fundraising round.

However, your round speed will most likely vary depending on the type of company you are. There has been a trend in recent years of U.S. investors looking to make deals with European startups. We also know American investors are looking for 100x companies to make solid returns for their funds. There are only so many 100x-type companies in the U.S you can invest in, but Europe is an emerging market. But American VCs have a different pace and rounds for hot startups can last weeks, not months. So if you think you have a unicorn in the making (and are comfortable with a more aggressive growth plan and the burn rate that goes with it), you can use U.S. investors to help create a sense of urgency. But even if that's your plan, I would still recommend having a healthy runway to get you through in case the round doesn't go as you expect.

VCs are likely to spend more time on your deck — you should too

A clear indicator of VC interest is the amount of time they spend reading your deck before they request a meeting. Knowing how long they spend reading your deck and what pages they stop on (which isn't necessarily a good thing) can help you gauge VC interest.

We've seen an interesting trend in Europe over the last few years. The average amount of time VCs are spending reading a deck has increased and not by a small amount. We've seen an increase of more than 20 seconds between 2018 and now, even while the length of the standard fundraising deck has stayed stable. It's still within the industry average (both in and outside of the U.S.) of 19-20 pages. With page length staying stable, that extra time on a deck means VCs are willing to spend more time assessing an investment.

If you know your slides will be scrutinized, make sure you have content in each of the key sections VCs expect to see in your deck. Be very clear with the goal for each page and don't include too much information. If your page is describing the problem your company is solving, you don't need to add in your market size and the traction you've already gotten. Remember, the pitch deck is just there to get you the meeting; you don't need to include every detail about your business. Your goal is to build an understandable narrative that will make a VC want to know more.

You could face more competition for European VCs' attention

Investments are heating up outside of the U.S.

With fund sizes increasing, especially in the earlier rounds, there's more money being invested. But with the continual focus on unicorns, that money is being concentrated in fewer companies. In fact, in the U.S., we've seen the number of decks with six or more views drop by nearly a full percentage point from 2018 to 2019. But the trend is the opposite in Europe. The number of pitch decks that are being viewed six or more times is actually on the rise.

We've also seen the number of pitch decks being viewed only once drop outside of the U.S. by 1.2 percent. This could be due to several factors. The number of VC firms in Europe viewing decks has grown by 56 percent on our platform in the last year. In the U.S., it's only grown by 35 percent since 2018. Having more active VCs means there are more opportunities to pitch your company. But with a decrease in pitch decks that aren't getting any action, it could be that the quality of startups is increasing, so VCs are saturated with opportunities. With well over 250 accelerators in Europe, it isn't hard to imagine that with more and more resources available, startups are further along when looking for that initial investment than they were just a few years ago.

Takeaways

Raising a funding round is completely different in Europe than it is in the U.S.

Investors in Europe aren't in a rush to view your deck, but when they do, they will likely spend more time reading it through and considering it. Combine that with the fact that the number of highly-viewed decks is increasing, and you have the makings for a long and potentially arduous round pitching to VCs who have multiple good investments on offer.

If your business will support a more aggressive growth plan and investment, it may be worth it to court outside investment. But if you'd like to play it safe, aiming for a U.S. VC may be a waste of time.

Apple fined $27 million in France for throttling old iPhones without telling users

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 08:25 AM PST

France's competition watchdog DGCCRF announced earlier today that Apple will pay a $27.4 million (€25 million) fine due to an iOS update that capped performance of aging devices. The company will also have to display a statement on its website for a month.

A couple of years ago, Apple released an iOS update (10.2.1 and 11.2) that introduced a new feature for older devices. If your battery is getting old, iOS would cap peak performances as your battery might not be able to handle quick peaks of power draw. The result of those peaks is that your iPhone might shut down abruptly.

While that feature is technically fine, Apple failed to inform users that it was capping performances on some devices. The company apologized and introduced a new software feature called "Battery Health," which lets you check the maximum capacity of your battery and if your iPhone can reach peak performance.

And that's the issue here. Many users may have noticed that their phone would get slower when they play a game, for instance. But they didn't know that replacing the battery would fix that. Some users may have bought new phones even though their existing phone was working fine.

France's DGCCRF also notes that iPhone users can't downgrade to a previous version of iOS, which means that iPhone users had no way to lift the performance capping feature. "Failing to inform consumers represented a misleading business practice using omission," the French authority writes.

Apple accepted to settle by paying a €25 million fine and recognizing its wrongdoing with a statement on its website.

The CIA wants to upgrade its cloud tech without DoD’s JEDI drama

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 07:55 AM PST

The CIA is ready to update its cloud technology, and multiple reports this week indicated that the agency has begun a multi-billion-dollar procurement process. A CIA spokesperson was tight-lipped when asked to confirm.

That could be because an agency used to working in secret simply wants to avoid all the attention that the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud procurement process got, and quietly go about its business. As we’ve learned, when you’re dealing with large cloud vendors like Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, and the contract involves billions, fireworks tend to follow.

What we do know is that the CIA’s plan is part of a process known as Commercial Cloud Enterprise (C2E). In a March 2019 presentation (pdf) by the Directorate of Digital Innovation, a division of the CIA, the department outlined its vision for C2E. It would be broad and include infrastructure, platform and software cloud services supporting a broad range of users, with a variety of security clearances and a worldwide presence. The price tag: “tens of billions.”

The procurement process would be in two phases. In the first phase, they would pursue multiple vendors to provide “foundational cloud services.” In Phase 2, the department would layer on platform and software services on top of that Phase 1 foundation.

“The principal C2E Program objective is to acquire cloud computing services directly from commercial cloud service providers with established records for innovation and operational excellence in cloud service delivery for a large customer base,” the department stated in the presentation.

It’s worth noting that it’s been almost a year since this presentation, and things have likely changed. In fact, Bloomberg Government reported this week that the RFP has dropped the platform and software services component. According to Nextgov, the draft RFP was released this week with a final request for proposals coming in the spring and a decision due in September.

The intelligence community also outlined its broader cloud strategy for the foreseeable future in a document (pdf) published by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) last June called “The Strategic Plan to Advance Cloud Computing in the Intelligence Community.” It outlines in broad strokes a plan for a U.S. intelligence technology future centered on the cloud, and concludes that with the explosion of data, a future in the cloud is imperative to help deal with all of it:

Information is exploding in volume and velocity and challenging our ability to expeditiously collect, analyze, and draw conclusions from disparate data sets. Additional manpower will not close the resulting gap; we must leverage leading edge technology. The future IC cloud environment presented herein will effectively function as a force multiplier to enhance our effectiveness and address mission challenges.

The CIA was an early adherent of the cloud when it chose Amazon to build a $600 million private cloud in 2013. That was a big win at the time for Amazon and the broader cloud services transition, because it wasn’t as mainstream then as it is now. The Atlantic called it a “radical departure for the risk-averse intelligence community” in a 2014 article.

Cloud technology has certainly evolved in the seven years since the CIA last did this exercise, and it makes sense that it would want to update a system this old, which is really ancient history in technology terms. The CIA likely sees the same cloud value proposition as the private sector around flexibility, agility and resource elasticity, and wants the intelligence community to reap the same benefits of that approach. Certainly, it will help store, process and understand an ever-increasing amount of data, and put machine learning to bear on it as well.

By now, we know all about the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud contract procurement story. Over a two-year period from the time the Pentagon chose the cutesy Star Wars-influenced name for the $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all project, the procurement has been a drama-filled free-for-all. Even now, months after Microsoft was declared the winner, Amazon is protesting the decision, putting that award in doubt.

This is not the way government technology procurement typically goes. It’s mostly out of the public spotlight, covered by the government trade press, but largely ignored by mainstream tech publications. Perhaps that explains why the CIA, in need of a cloud update, has decided to be a bit more discreet about its plans.

Attempt to fold Motorola’s Razr 100,000 times doesn’t go great

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 07:36 AM PST

The Galaxy Fold felt like an omen for a burgeoning category. The fascinating and promising product was plagued by broken review units that forced Samsung to go back to the drawing board with a reinforced model. But even that version ultimately ran into issues, as I can personally attest.

No doubt other companies readying their own devices took the opportunity to reconsider their strategy. Huawei, for one, very publicly noted that it would push back the release of the promising Mate X, just to be on the safe side. Perhaps it was the compelling form factor coupled with an assumed abundance of caution, but many no doubt expected the Razr's arrival to be different.

Like clockwork, CNET was on the scene for the Razr's arrival with the same folding machine it used to stress test the Galaxy Fold. While that device made it a bit over 100,000 folds, The Motorola Razr fell significantly short in testing this week. The original headline "Motorola Razr fails to reach 100,000 folds in our test" doesn't quite capture how short the device fell. The hinge started going wonky in a little over 27,000 folds. That's just under four hours into the video — a pretty big gulf compared to the 14-hour marathon for the Fold.

Certainly one test shouldn't be regarded as the end-all, be-all. The truth is, however, that in spite of the product currently being available for sale, there aren't many review units out there. Of course, that seems reason enough to approach with caution, as it would with any first-gen product and new form factor. Those who did purchase the foldable have already taken to Twitter to complain about a loud hinge sound. Again, not a deal breaker, perhaps, but also not great.

I suspect the device will come with warnings about treating it with an abundance of caution, similar to the paperwork that started shipping with the Fold. But while the device is more affordable than the Fold, it's still $1,500 — a big price to pay for something you need to hold with kid gloves. Follow this space to see how things play out in the coming weeks, but after a good deal of excitement following the original unveil, this probably isn't the kind of press Motorola was banking on.

Meantime, can I interest you in a nice, $300 Moto G?

More tech workers are starting to unionize

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 07:15 AM PST

Within the last two months, two groups of gig workers have effectively organized and joined unions. The first was a group of 40 San Francisco-based workers for scooter startup Spin that joined Teamsters Local 665. The second was a group of Instacart shoppers in Chicago who voted last weekend to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546.

Unions, which act as an intermediary between workers and their employers, advocate on behalf of employees for better wages, working conditions and other benefits through collective bargaining. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had weekly earnings of $1,095, compared to $892 for non-union members in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the right to form or join a labor union is only available to those classified as employees; because these Spin and Instacart workers were employees, rather than independent contractors, they were eligible to organize. The majority of these workers are responsible for tasks like scooter deployment and collections, operations and shift leadership.

"This is significant because this is an industry that was based on independent contractors with little to no workplace protections and now they're becoming employees and workers are organizing," Teamsters Joint Council 7 Political Director Doug Bloch said in a statement about Spin at the time. "It's a model for the tech industry moving forward."

NASA confirms two Boeing Starliner issues would’ve led to spacecraft loss without intervention

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 07:08 AM PST

NASA and Boeing are sharing more details about the issues that were encountered during the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew spacecraft uncrewed demo mission in December, and their progress on investigating the causes and implementing fixes. In a new blog post, NASA lays out the three different specific issues that occurred, and notes that for two of them, the spacecraft would’ve been lost without direct intervention by the ground crew.

The first issue identified is the mission timer issue that Boeing and NASA were very transparent about during the actual mission itself. This led to the spacecraft’s automated navigation systems believing it was in a different part of the mission later than it actually was. That then incurred thruster firing which used fuel and necessitated ground control stepping in to manually position the spacecraft in a different orbit than planned to ensure it could continue flying.

The second issue detailed in this new post was a software issue in the part of the launch where the Service Module attached to the capsule is discarded prior to re-entry and landing, which resulted in another propulsion issue and another case where to save the spacecraft the ground crew had to step in and execute corrective action roughly two hours ahead of its planned de-orbit.

“Regarding the first two anomalies, the team found the two critical software defects were not detected ahead of flight despite multiple safeguards,” NASA explains in the post. “Ground intervention prevented loss of vehicle in both cases. Breakdowns in the design and code phase inserted the original defects. Additionally, breakdowns in the test and verification phase failed to identify the defects preflight despite their detectability. While both errors could have led to risk of spacecraft loss, the actions of the NASA-Boeing team were able to correct the issues and return the Starliner spacecraft safely to Earth.”

As for what this means for the Boeing commercial crew program, NASA continues that these defects finding their way all the way through design and development to flight can be attributed to “no simple cause,” and instead will “require systemic corrective actions” starting with 11 “top-priority” ones already identified by the investigation team, with more to follow as the investigation continues.

NASA also said that it’s too early to definitely identify either the root causes of the problems, or all the fixes that will be required for Boeing’s Starliner system prior to future flights. The agency does say it expects that it will reach that point by the end of February, however. It’s holding a press conference with Boeing later this afternoon (at 3:30 PM EST) to discuss these findings and its progress in more detail.

Brilliant makes your smart home more manageable

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 07:00 AM PST

Controlling your smart home gadgets from your phone or by voice isn’t exactly a chore, but after setting up a bunch of smart lights, a Wi-Fi lock, thermostat and a few more smart devices, I came to miss the ability to control at least some of them with a physical switch. Add to that the simple fact that your visitors suddenly don’t have a clue how to turn off the lights and you may just want to go back to basic light switches. Thankfully, that’s something the industry has realized, too, and we’re seeing a few more smart hardware controllers now, too.

At CES this year, Brilliant announced a new smart plug and switch to complement its existing touchscreen smart home controller. The new hardware is still a few weeks away, but ahead of the launch, I got a chance to try out the existing Brilliant controller, which has been on the market for a while but has received numerous updates and support for new integrations ever since. One of the latest integrations is with Schlage’s Encode Wi-Fi lock, which I also tested.

The promise of the Brilliant Controls is that you will be able to control all supported smart home gadgets from the physical and touchscreen controls — and, of course, it also turns the light switches you replace with it into smart switches. It also comes with a built-in camera (with a privacy shutter) that you can use either for room-to-room video chats or to check up on your home while you are away. The video quality isn’t great, but good enough for its intended purpose.

Supported devices include Wemo smart plugs, Ring alarms, Sonos speakers, Philips Hue and Lifx lights, as well Schlage, Yale and August locks, among others. The number of integrations keeps growing and covers most of the major brands, but if you’ve bet on other systems, this isn’t the controller for you. It also comes with built-in Alexa support and works with the Google Assistant, too.

Depending on how you feel about working with electricity in your home, the physical installation of the Brilliant Controls (I tested the $299 single and $349 dual switches) is either a breeze or will cause you nightmares. If you’ve ever changed a light switch, though, the installation couldn’t be easier, and Brilliant offers both an in-depth printed installation guide and video tutorials.

My own experience was pretty straightforward, assuming that your home’s electricity system is relatively modern and conforms to today’s standards. Installing the single switch took me about half an hour and the more complex dual switch was ready to go in about 45 minutes or so — and that was the first time I changed a light switch in a few years. If you’ve never done this before, though, that rats nest of cables behind your switches may take a little bit to figure out, but thankfully, all electric cables in modern homes should be color-coded.

One nice feature here is that you first install the backplate, which has physical buttons to let you test your installation before you put on the actual touchscreen unit. That way, you don’t have to unscrew everything in case you did make a mistake.

As for the software side, once you put on the screen, the Android -based interface should pop up within a few minutes. From there, you go through the usual Wi-Fi setup procedure and most likely a software update. After that, you should be ready to go.

Managing the lights that are directly attached to the control from the touchscreen or the capacitive strips on the side (for the two-switch control and up) is easy enough. Adding your third-party devices to the system takes a little while, but isn’t too onerous either, and you’re only going to do it once, after all.

I found the overall menu system a bit confusing, though, and takes a while to navigate. That especially becomes a problem when you want to program scenes (maybe to turn on all the different smart lights in your living room or bedroom). For this, you have to program both a scene that turns on all the lights, which take a few taps for every single one — and then a second scene that turns them all off. Because you can duplicate scenes, that second step is a bit faster, but I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better solution for this. At the same time, though, this allows you to create pretty complex scenes. You can do most of this through the Brilliant app on your phone, too, which is probably the way to go as it’s a bit easier and faster.

Once everything is set up, though, the system is actually incredibly easy to use, and even your house guests who have never seen a smart plug will finally be able to turn your lights on and off (and yes, I’m aware that this shouldn’t be a problem in 2020, but here we are). I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it pretty much just works.

One problem I’ve had with Brilliant is that the Controls are pricey, starting at $299 for the single switch and $349 for the dual switch. At those prices, you’re not going to put those into a lot of your rooms (unless you think that’s not that pricey, in which case, congrats). With the upcoming screen-less dimmer switches, which only require you to have a single control in your home and will retail for just under $70, that equation changes. We’ll give those new switches a try once they are available later this year.