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Friday, March 20, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Tesla partner Panasonic is shutting down its operations at Nevada gigafactory

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 04:45 PM PDT

Panasonic is pulling its 3,500 employees from the massive Nevada factory it operates with partner Tesla over concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

The company said Friday it will ramp down operations early next week and then close for 14 days. The move only affects Panasonic employees. Tesla also employs thousands of workers at the so-called Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Gigafactory 1, which broke ground in June 2014, is a critical ingredient in Tesla's goal to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy by expanding global battery capacity and reducing the cost of electric vehicles. And Panasonic has been its most important partner as a supplier and partner in that project.

The factory produces Model 3 electric motors and battery packs, in addition to Tesla's energy storage products, Powerwall and Powerpack. Panasonic makes the cells, which Tesla then uses to make battery packs for its electric vehicles.

Here is the statement from Panasonic spokesperson Alberto Canal

Panasonic is committed to safeguarding the health and well-being of every employee. The Panasonic factory in Sparks, Nevada will begin ramping down operations early next week and will then close for 14 days. Employees impacted by the closure will receive full pay and benefits for the 14-day period. In the meantime, Panasonic has enacted several measures to enhance the cleanliness of the facility, encourage social distancing, and enable simple, safe and effective behaviors. During the 14-day period, the facility will undergo intensive cleaning.

Without Panasonic, Tesla could face a bottleneck in the supply chain. Tesla has agreed to suspend production beginning March 23 at its Fremont, Calif., factory, where it assembles the Model X, Model S, Model 3 and now the Model Y.

Californians can now order alcoholic beverages to go

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 04:18 PM PDT

In a memo yesterday detailing relief efforts for small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has temporarily allowed retailers to sell alcoholic beverages for takeout. This lifts a ban previously imposed on restaurants and bars to only sell alcohol in-house.

Bars can sell manufactured pre-packaged containers of liquid, such as pre-mixed drinks, cocktails, beer or wine, to customers to go when the beverage is purchased with a meal. If you sell an alcoholic beverage to go, you have to pack it in a container with a lid or cap without a sipping hole or opening for a straw.

While the notice temporarily lifted a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages, it did not impact the open-carry laws imposed by the state. If you pick up a beverage and want to drive home to enjoy it at a socially safe distance, you have to put the drink in the trunk. Not the utility compartment or glove compartment. You also can’t consume alcohol in public or in any area where open containers are prohibited, the memo notes.

Other relief efforts include allowing retailers to sell alcohol through drive-through windows or slide-out trays. This is in effect until further notice.

Healthcare startups Nurx and Carbon Health ship at-home COVID-19 test sample kits

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 03:58 PM PDT

Efforts to get at-home test kits for the COVID-19 coronavirus are ramping up quickly, and two more health industry startups are bringing their own products to market, with both Carbon Health and Nurx starting to ship their own in-home sample collection kits.

Both of these new offerings are the same in terms of approach to testing: They deliver swab-based sample collection hardware that people can use at home to collect a mucus sample, which they then ship back using included, safety approved, projective packaging to be tested by one of the existing FDA-approved commercial labs across the country.

These tests follow the PCR-based method, which tests for the genetic presence of the COVID-19 virus in a patient. These have a high degree of accuracy, at least when performed in a controlled setting and administered by a medical professional, and are the same tests that are available via drive-through testing stations being set up by state agencies.

At-home use is relatively new to market, and could introduce some potential for error in the collection part of the process, but both Carbon Health and Nurx are offering consultation with medical professionals to help ensure that samples are collected properly, and that results, when available, are correctly interpreted and provided with guidance on next steps for those taking the tests.

None of these tests are free — the Carbon Health test costs $167.50, and the Nurx test costs $181, including shipping and assessment. These are in line with other offerings, including the one from Everlywell we covered earlier this week, which retails for $135. These are described as essentially at-cost prices, and all parties say they are subject to coverage by FSA or HSA money, or potentially by insurers depending on a person’s plan.

One big question around these types of tests is how much supply will be available. Nasopharyngeal swabs used for the in-person type of testing are already reportedly in short supply in some regions, and testing needs are only growing. Carbon is using different swabs to collect a simple saliva sample, which it notes are not in as short supply as the nasopharyngeal version. Other types of tests, including a “serological” one being developed by startup Scanwell, instead work by analyzing a patient’s blood, and could provide some relief for the swab-based tests, especially now that the FDA has expanded its emergency guidance to include their use.

Nurx, which also offers at-home HPV screening, says that it will have 10,000 kits available to patients “over the coming weeks,” and hopes to expand to cover “over 100,000 patients” in the “near future.” Carbon Health CEO and co-founder Eren Bali tells me that it should ramp to around “10,000 per day capacity in about two weeks,” through its medical device partner Curative Inc., and that it can do 50 per day today, with an estimated increase to 150 per day by Monday and 1,000 per day by end of week.

All of these tests are gated by a screening and assessment questionnaire, and the round-trip time is likely to take a few days even with round-trip shipping due to testing times. It may seem like a lot of these are popping up, but these startups at least have proven track records in healthcare services, and there will be a need for very widespread testing in order for any broad attempt to flatten the curve of the virus to prove successful, so expect more of these providers to come on line.

NASA confirms Commercial Crew still a priority, but James Webb Telescope testing and other activities paused

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 03:29 PM PDT

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been sharing regular updates about how his agency is approaching the rapidly changing global coronavirus pandemic situation. This week, NASA escalated its response multiple times due to changing circumstances, including changing the state of working conditions at all of its facilities across the country. On Friday the agency summarized the current status of each of its facilities and major projects in a comprehensive update.

Work continues on a few missions that are deemed critical, and on projects where remote and telework are possible. These include the Commercial Crew Program, which is set to return human spaceflight capabilities to American soil via private partners. Boeing and SpaceX are NASA’s partners for this program, and NASA says that this is going ahead despite the requirement of in-person operations because it represents “a critical element to maintaining safe operations on the International Space Station and a sustained U.S. presence on the orbiting laboratory.” SpaceX and NASA confirmed earlier this week that they still plan to launch the first crewed Dragon mission to the ISS in mid to late May.

For the purpose of keeping ISS crew “fully supplied and safe,” NASA says that it will continue to operate its commercial resupply missions, too, which ferry experiments, food, water and more to the space station using vehicles including SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule. For similar reasons, it’ll keep open the Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center, with flight control personnel in place, though it’s adding “additional measures” to ensure the safety of those present.

Meanwhile, work on the James Webb Telescope in California is temporarily suspended, which means the integration and testing that was happening in preparation for its planned launch next March. Preparations for NASA’s Mars 2020 launch, which includes its Perseverance rover and Mars Helicopter exploration vehicles also continue: that mission is scheduled for July 2020.

There’s also virtual inspection work being done on the X-59 piloted supersonic test plane that’s being developed in California, and Lockheed Martin, which is building the aircraft for the agency, is continuing in-person work on that project. NASA is keeping the lights on at Ames Research Center in California, too, in order to ensure that the agency’s IT security and supercomputing operations can continue uninterrupted.

Existing spacecraft mission support will continue, as will astronaut training (which is generally subject to strict isolation protocols to prevent illness anyway). Earlier this week, the agency announced it would suspend work on the SLS spacecraft and the Orion capsule that will carry the fundamental components of its Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. Artemis has been sticking to a stated 2024 time frame for its mission of returning people to the surface of the Moon, but these setbacks in total represent the most sure sign yet that we’ll probably see that window slip, though many skeptical of the schedule have suggested it would actually be later than that anyway.

Here’s how to help restaurants while socially distancing yourself

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 03:26 PM PDT

The restaurant industry might look a lot different once we come out of this pandemic. As social distancing and lockdowns ripple across the nation in an attempt to fight COVID-19, some restaurants won't be able to handle the lack of income and might tip into bankruptcy. Some might never reopen again. Earlier today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo implemented a 90-day moratorium, or temporary prohibition, on evictions for residents and businesses such as restaurants.

Ayr Muir, the owner of Clover, a chain of veggie-friendly fast food joints, filed for unemployment recently. Clover is on hiatus but is working to connect its farmers and suppliers directly to customers to help them stay afloat. 

"It’s easy to say 'there’s unemployment benefits' or 'there are SBA loans,' but when you get down to the details it’s a lot more nuanced," Muir said. "I have staff who are scared to apply for government benefits, some fear it will impact their legal status, like if you’re here on a student visa. And the process can be really confusing."

He says he filled out his own unemployment application the other day but isn’t sure he did it correctly. “This just adds to the feeling of uncertainty and stress.”

Entrepreneurs from all over the country are trying to unlock different ways to help vulnerable local restaurants buy themselves some time. It's often in the form of purchasing gift cards from your favorite neighborhood spots.

The trend, much like other ways big tech is helping others out during this pandemic through free promos or access to services, can be looked at in two ways. First, it's a way to make this transition less stressful. Second, and perhaps more cynically thanks to capitalism, offering free services is a way to pipeline eventual customers down the road. 

Let's focus on the former, because it is Friday, I miss writing about good news and these efforts deserve a fist bump for being a net positive for local shops.


Started by Kaitlyn Krieger and her husband, Mike Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram, SaveOurFaves wants to help Bay Area residents buy gift cards for nearby restaurants. You can divide by neighborhood and region, like San Francisco, East Bay, Marin or South Bay, and pick a local business.

For what it's worth, some San Francisco restaurants have already temporarily closed, even though they could stay open and sell take out. La Taqueria, one of the city's most famous burrito spots, is one high-profile example. 

On the site, the duo notes that restaurants have tons of fixed costs, like rent, labor, loan repayments, insurance, supplies, repairs — the list goes on. Even "successful restaurants have razor thin margins of 3-5%, and a third have struggled to pay employees at least once."  

Help Main Street

Lunchbox, Eniac Ventures and a group of volunteers started Help Main Street so residents around the country could buy gift cards for their favorite businesses. The goal is to help local businesses recover lost revenue, and businesses range from Abettor Brewing Company in Winchester, Ky. to 45 Surfside in Nantucket, Mass. We wrote about it when it launched a couple days ago, and Eniac's Nihal Mehta said there will be a Patreon-of-sorts option coming soon. It has roughly 14,000 listings on the website so far. 

Open Table

Open Table, a company that lets you book reservations at restaurants, has a feature that lets users buy gift cards from restaurants. 

Rally for Restaurants

Boston-based unicorn Toast created Rally for Restaurants to help people buy gift cards for businesses and challenge their friends to do the same. This covers restaurants across the nation. 

Support Local

USA Today’s Support Local does the same as the sites above, with more pickings from San Francisco and Austin than other cities. 

Help Your Hood

Help Your Hood is another marketplace for people to buy gift cards. On the website, it notes that if you don't already have a gift card system set up in your business, the Gift Up App has agreed to waive its fees for the first $5,000 in vouchers for each business that comes through Help Your Hood. 

List your restaurant

Arteen Arabshahi, an investor at WndrCo, created a Google Form so restaurants could sign up to be featured on these services in one fell swoop. 

I worked at a local coffee shop during my last year of college right down the street from a Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and a Caffe Nero. The owners lived a five-minute walk, one-minute sprint away. The cook, Brandon, came in at 4 a.m. to make fresh cranberry scones. If you brought a crying baby in, Ali, the previous owner, couldn't resist giving you kind eyes and a fresh espresso brownie for free. And one customer came in every morning to grab four coffees to go, and came back every afternoon to return the tray so we could reuse it the next day.

That coffee shop is closed indefinitely, and like many restaurants, it is donating its inventory to people who might need it. The charm can't be remanufactured, and I hope it opens again soon.

I'll end with a note from Clover's Muir. He said that gift cards are a “nice expression of good will but they’re not going to halt the giant wave that threatens to wipe out restaurants everywhere.”

So, let's start small and give back. And then let's hope that we see more government officials show up to help restaurants on a larger scale. 

In response to COVID-19, Hulu adds a free live news stream to its on-demand app

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 03:18 PM PDT

In response to the COVID-10 outbreak, Hulu is adding a free, live news stream to its app for customers who only subscribe to its on-demand service, not its live TV add-on. The news coverage is provided in partnership with ABC News Live, and brings live news 24/7 to Hulu on-demand subscribers as part of their existing subscription.

This includes those who pay for Hulu alone as well as those who pay for the newer Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+ bundle subscription, the company noted. And it will be available to both tiers of Hulu’s on-demand service, including the ad-supported and Hulu’s No Ads plan.

The live stream will also be featured in the “Hulu Picks” section for easy access and will be available across living room and mobile devices, as well as popular game consoles.

Hulu Live TV customers, meanwhile, already have a number of live TV news channels they can watch as a part of their subscription. But Hulu’s on-demand service is far larger, with 27.2 million paid subscribers, compared with just 3.2 million for Live TV.

Health organizations and political leaders have urged Americans to get their news from trusted sources during the COVID-19 crisis — not from social media, where misinformation spreads more quickly than tech companies can moderate or remove. (When and if they try to do so.)

Meanwhile, the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak has led to a significant number of online rumors, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and snake oil cures. Earlier this week, for example, a fake news report of a national quarantine spread so quickly that the National Security Council had to post a statement to assure Americans the news was untrue.

The addition of live news for Hulu arrives at a time when a growing number of U.S. consumers have cut the cord with traditional pay TV or chose to never sign up in the first place. In Hulu’s case, the company says close to half its customers fall into one of those two buckets.

“More than 45 percent of Hulu viewers have either cut the cord or never had cable, and may not have access to live, televised news to receive critical information during times of national crisis,” the company said, in an announcement. “With this live stream, we aim to keep our viewers informed during this unprecedented time when having access to information is vital to our communities,” Hulu said.

In addition, fewer U.S. consumers today subscribe to a daily newspaper than in generations prior. Instead, much of our “TV viewing” is now taking place in on-demand apps like Netflix and Hulu, and our news is gathered in bits and pieces online.

Hulu isn’t the first streaming provider to add free live news to its service as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. This week, Sling TV launched free streaming that included live news from ABC News Live, as well.

Of course, you don’t need to be a Hulu subscriber to watch ABC News Live. The news service streams online and through the ABC News app for free. But integration into major streaming apps like Hulu will make the service more accessible and more visible, as it won’t require people to seek out a separate app just to watch.


Stuart Russell on how to make AI ‘human-compatible’

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 03:03 PM PDT

In a career spanning several decades, artificial intelligence researcher and professor Stuart Russell has contributed extensive knowledge on the subject, including foundational textbooks. He joined us onstage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI to discuss the threat he perceives from AI, and his book, which proposes a novel solution.

Russell’s thesis, which he develops in “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control,” is that the field of AI has been developed on the false premise that we can successfully define the goals toward which these systems work, and the result is that the more powerful they are, the worse they are capable of. No one really thinks a paperclip-making AI will consume the Earth to maximize production, but a crime-prevention algorithm could very easily take badly constructed data and objectives and turn them into recommendations that cause real harm.

The solution, Russell suggests, is to create systems that aren’t so sure of themselves — essentially, knowing what they don’t or can’t know and looking to humans to find out.

The interview has been lightly edited. My remarks, though largely irrelevant, are retained for context.

TechCrunch: Well, thanks for joining us here today. You’ve written a book. Congratulations on it. In fact, you’ve actually, you’ve been an AI researcher and author, teacher for a long time. You’ve seen this, the field of AI sort of graduated from a niche field that academics were working in to a global priority in private industry. But I was a little surprised by the thesis of your book; do you really think that the current approach to AI is sort of fundamentally mistaken?

Stuart Russell: So let me take you back a bit, to even before I started doing AI. So, Alan Turing, who, as you all know, is the father of computer science — that’s why we’re here — he wrote a very famous paper in 1950 called “Computing Machinery and Mind,” that’s where the Turing test comes from. He laid out a lot of different subfields of AI, he proposed that we would need to use machine learning to create sufficiently intelligent programs.

Be on guard for coronavirus robocalls, warns FCC

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 02:44 PM PDT

Robocalls have been targeting the vulnerable and unsuspecting for years, so it’s no surprise that the scumbags would take advantage of the current global catastrophe to enhance their scams. The FCC warns that it has received numerous reports of coronavirus-related robocall cons in the wild — here’s what to look for.

While previous robocall scams threatened IRS penalties or promised free vacations, the new ones are using both pandemic-related and personal information to make what could for some be a pretty convincing pitch. Here are a few common scams the FCC has been alerted to:

  • Warnings of national quarantine or martial law — these could be trying to get you to order something or just part of a coordinated disinformation campaign
  • Messages purporting to be from the WHO or charities asking for money
  • Offers of free virus test kits — some of these are targeting individuals with diabetes specifically, offering a free blood sugar monitor as well
  • Offering HVAC cleaning or upgrades to protect against the virus
  • Promotions of various bogus products and treatments for the virus
  • Asking for information to confirm a check from the government — the process for this if it happens will not be a random text message

The FCC post has some examples, including audio, of some of these scams, in case you’re wondering what it might sound like to receive a malicious HVAC solicitation.

As a general robocall rule, unknown numbers — especially from your home area code — are a red flag. Let them go to message and you can always listen later. If it’s a local business saying your order’s ready or a hospital reminding you of your appointment, they’ll say so.

Anyone asking for personal or payment info over phone, text or email is almost certainly a scammer. There is almost never any need to share this information insecurely.

Links in text messages from unknown or suspicious numbers are never to be touched. They may lead to being hacked or tracked via means hosted on the web.

Stay safe out there, and let’s hope the upcoming regulatory framework aimed at combating robocalls does the trick.

AWS, IBM launch programs to encourage developers solving COVID-19 problems

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 02:35 PM PDT

As society comes to grips with the growing worldwide crisis related to the COVID-19 virus, many companies are stepping up in different ways. Today, two major tech companies — Amazon and IBM — each announced programs to encourage developers to find solutions to a variety of problems related to the pandemic.

For starters, AWS, Amazon’s cloud arm, announced the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative. It has set aside $20 million, which it will distribute in the form of AWS credits and technical support. The program is designed to assist and encourage teams working on COVID-19 diagnostic issues with the goal of developing better diagnostic tooling.

“In our Amazon Web Services (AWS) business, one area where we have heard an urgent need is in the research and development of diagnostics, which consist of rapid, accurate detection and testing of COVID-19. Better diagnostics will help accelerate treatment and containment, and in time, shorten the course of this epidemic,” Teresa Carlson wrote in the company’s Day One blog today.

The program aims to help customers who are working on building diagnostics solutions to bring products to market more quickly, and also encourage teams working on related problems to work together.

The company also announced it was forming an advisory group made up of scientists and health policy experts to assist companies involved with initiative.

Meanwhile, IBM is refocusing its 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge developer contest on not only solving problems related to global climate change, which was this year’s original charter, but also solving issues around the growing virus crisis by building open-source tooling.

“In a very short period of time, COVID-19 has revealed the limits of the systems we take for granted. The 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge will arm you with resources […] to build open source technology solutions that address three main COVID-19 areas: crisis communication during an emergency, ways to improve remote learning, and how to inspire cooperative local communities,” the company wrote in a blog post.

All of these areas are being taxed as more people are forced to stay indoors as we to try to contain the virus. The company hopes to incentivize developers working on these issues to help solve some of these problems.

During a time of extreme social and economic upheaval when all aspects of society are being affected, businesses, academia and governments need to work together to solve the myriad problems related to the virus. These are just a couple of examples of that.

Spotify opens its podcast catalog to third-party apps, but not for streaming

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 02:35 PM PDT

Spotify is opening its podcast catalog to third-party apps. The company this week launched a new version of its Podcast APIs that makes it possible for third-party apps to connect to Spotify in order to manage a user’s podcast library, search its podcast catalog and fetch detailed information and podcast shows and episodes, the company says.

The launch is significant as it taps into the wider developer community to help Spotify grow its podcast user base. More importantly, it offers access to Spotify’s exclusive shows outside of Spotify’s own app for the first time.

Spotify, like many streaming providers, has begun to use the term “podcast” loosely. To Spotify, the name simply means an audio program, presented in an episodic format. But originally, the word was meant to refer to audio episodes made available over the web using the open format RSS.

Apple’s own Podcasts app, despite its majority market share, never changed what a podcast was by putting select shows behind some sort of paywall, membership or paid subscription.

But Spotify (and other newcomers like Luminary), have done exactly this. In Spotify’s case, it acquired technology startups designed to help people create and manage their podcasts, as well as a number of podcast networks — including The Ringer, Gimlet and Parcast — which put out some of the industry’s top shows. The investments in the podcast-streaming side of Spotify’s business helped boost podcast listening on its service by 200% last year, and have paved the way for the company to generate additional revenue through better-targeted ads. 

Today, many of Spotify’s 700,000-some podcasts are exclusive to its service. That means if you want to listen to them, you have to join Spotify.

Unfortunately for podcast listeners, it also means you had to use the Spotify app to stream these shows, instead of your otherwise preferred third-party podcast app like Overcast, Pocket Casts, Breaker, Castro or the many others that fill the app stores.

Spotify’s new podcast APIs don’t change this, sadly.

Instead, the new API is focused on podcast discovery, search and managing shows — not on streaming Spotify’s podcasts, exclusives or originals through a third-party app experience.

Spotify anticipates the new features available now will be useful to apps that import shows to a user's Spotify library, or for integrations with calendar apps, or social podcasting experiences to help Spotify users share what they're listening to with their friends.

“Launching this podcast API is very meaningful for Spotify right now as we continue to delve deeper into creating value in new ways for listeners with podcasting,” the company wrote in its announcement. “We are excited to unleash the creative power of the developer community and allow the expansion of Spotify into areas we've yet to explore,” it said.

Prior to the launch of its new podcast API, Spotify worked with a select group of partners who were building out their external integrations in order to gain feedback. Spotify made some revisions to the design of the API and improved the developer onboarding experience as a result. However, the company says it plans to continue to work closely on the project over the next six months to refine it further as it’s more broadly available.

Further down the road, it expects to highlight new apps on its developer website.

OneWeb confirms layoffs and potential launch schedule delays amid reported bankruptcy considerations

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 02:23 PM PDT

Satellite operator OneWeb has confirmed that its workforce has been reduced via layoffs, after TechCrunch learned that it reduced its workforce by as much as 10% this week. The company did not confirm the total size of the layoff, but provided a statement to TechCrunch regarding the current state of its operations, and citing cost that it deemed necessary in light of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic turmoil.

A OneWeb spokesperson provided this statement, provided in full, regarding the situation:

The OneWeb launch is going ahead on Saturday with more launches planned later in the year; however, like others, we are impacted by the global health and economic crisis and we need to dynamically adjust our workforce. Unfortunately, we think it is inevitable that there will be delays to our launch schedule and satellite manufacturing due to increasing travel restrictions and the disruption of supply chains globally. Therefore, we made the difficult decision to eliminate some roles and responsibilities as we work to focus on core operations.  We are sorry to have had to take this step and we're doing everything we can to support those affected.

This follows a report from Thursday by Bloomberg that OneWeb, which has nearly $3 billion in investment from SoftBank over its past two rounds, is considering filing for bankruptcy protection as one possible way to deal with a crunch in its available cash. Some of the highest-flying SoftBank-backed startups have faced challenges lately, precipitated in part by the high-profile reversal of co-working startup WeWork’s fortunes. OneWeb did not comment on the reported bankruptcy consideration.

Bloomberg’s report says that it is looking at other options beyond a formal bankruptcy filing to stay afloat, but the company faces big challenges in terms of operating costs. As noted in its statement to TechCrunch, OneWeb has a launch scheduled for Saturday, which will take 34 of its satellites to space aboard a Soyuz rocket taking off from Kazakhstan. That will put its total constellation at 74 satellites, including a batch of 34 that were launched earlier this year, and six that went up last March.

OneWeb aims to provide high-bandwidth communication services using low Earth orbit satellites, with a focus on rural and other areas that are hard-to-reach for terrestrial networks. It faces competition from companies including SpaceX, which has launched 302 Starlink satellites for its own network to date, and Amazon, which has yet to launch any spacecraft, but is planning a similar offering under its own Project Kuiper.

Google cancels I/O developer conference in light of COVID-19 crisis

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 01:39 PM PDT

Google announced on Twitter today that it was cancelling its annual I/O developer conference out of concern for the health and safety of all involved. It will not be holding any online conference in its place either.

“Out of concern for the health and safety of our developers, employees, and local communities — and in line with recent ‘shelter in place’ orders by the local Bay Area counties — we sadly will not be holding I/O in any capacity this year,” the company tweeted.

This is not a small deal, as Google uses this, and the Google Cloud Next conference, which it has also canceled, to let developers, customers, partners and other interested parties know about what new features, products and services they will be introducing in the coming year.

Without a major venue to announce these new tools, it will be harder for the company to get the word out about them or gain the power of human networking that these conferences provide. All of that is taking a backseat this year over concerns about the virus.

The company made clear that it does not intend to reschedule these events in person or in a virtual capacity at all this year, and will look for other ways to inform the community of changes, updates and new services in the coming months.

“Right now, the most important thing all of us can do is focus our attention on helping people with the new challenges we all face. Please know that we remain committed to finding other ways to share platform updates with you through our developer blogs and community forums,” the company wrote.

Corporate venture business strategies that work

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 01:25 PM PDT

There are nearly 2,000 corporate venture capital (CVC) firms in existence, many hundreds of them created by first-time investors, according to Global Corporate Venturing.

As GCV also reports, last year alone, CVCs raised $41 billion in investment funds, mostly from their corporate parents.

Given Merck Global Health Innovation Fund's (Merck GHIF) track record, I'm often asked as a long-time successful CVC investor to describe the business strategies used to ensure our scale and staying power. Merck GHIF is the digital health corporate venture capital arm of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Merck GHIF was founded in 2010 with an initial allocation of $125 million. Today it's a $500 million evergreen fund, and we've invested $800 million in more than 50 companies to date.

The four key strategies

No. 1: Developed an independent LLC with a defined investment charter

From the beginning, we set up an independent business structure with a well-defined investment charter. We created our investment model, strategy and expectations to ensure strategic and financial balance. As a seasoned corporate VC leader coming from Johnson & Johnson, I knew that there was not a corporate parent who says it's okay to lose money. I knew that if we lost money as a fund, we'd be out of business.

Rivian shuts down all facilities over COVID-19 pandemic concerns

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 01:25 PM PDT

Rivian, the buzzy electric vehicle startup that is backed by Amazon and Ford, is shutting down all of its facilities due to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Rivian employs more than 2,000 workers across several locations, including its headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., a factory in Normal, Ill. as well as operations in San Jose and Irvine, Calif., where engineers are working on autonomous vehicle technology. Rivian also has an office in the U.K.

The company said Friday that salaried and hourly employees will continue to be paid during the shutdown. Rivian told TechCrunch that most of its facilities have been at 2 to 5% occupancy for about a week. The length of the shutdown is undetermined at this time, a company spokesperson said.

Rivian spent the majority of its life in the shadows until November 2018, when it revealed its all-electric R1T pickup and R1S SUV at the LA Auto Show. Since then, the electric automaker has picked up investors and commercial customers such as Ford and Amazon, in addition to the reservations consumers have made for its pickup and SUV.

In December, Rivian announced it had raised $1.3 billion in new funding, the fourth round of capital announced by the company in 2019 alone. It followed prior announcements of $700 million led by Amazon, $500 million from Ford (which includes a collaboration on electric vehicle technology) and $350 million from Cox Automotive.

Lincoln, the luxury brand under Ford, is working with Rivian to develop an "all-new" electric vehicle. Amazon has ordered 100,000 all-electric delivery vans from Rivian, with the first deliveries expected to begin in 2021.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has prompted automakers to temporarily suspend operations in Europe and the U.S., where the disease has started to spread. In China, where the disease first started, factories are coming back online.

Automakers have had varied responses to the pandemic; some took action to suspend production faster than others. Honda kicked off closures in the U.S. Ford, GM and FCA followed after the Big 3 formed a task force with the United Auto Workers. Even as these automakers began implementing new safety precautions in its factories based on recommendations that came out of the task force, the UAW continued to pressure them to close. A couple of cases of employees testing positive for COVID-19 accelerated the closures. Nissan and Volkswagen have also paused operations in the U.S.

Tesla has been a notable holdout. The company announced Thursday it would shut down its Fremont, Calif. factory, beginning March 23. The decision to suspend production there came days after Alameda County officials issued an order to close all nonessential businesses. Tesla kept its doors open anyway, even after officials publicly said that it was not an essential business.

Tesla has suspended operations at its New York factory as well. Tesla’s gigafactory near Reno, Nev., which produces electric motors and battery packs, is fully operational.

Tesla told employees in an email sent March 18, and viewed by TechCrunch, that it was staying open because it has had "conflicting guidance from different levels of government" over whether it could operate. The human resources department told employees in the email to come to work if their job is to produce, service, deliver or test its electric vehicles.

But by Thursday, and after meetings with county officials, the company announced it would suspend production. Some basic operations that will support Tesla's charging infrastructure and what it describes as its "vehicle and energy services operations" will continue at the factory, which under normal circumstances has more than 10,000 people working there.

Hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and other potential COVID-19 treatments explained

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:37 PM PDT

During two of this week’s White House briefings, President Trump referred specifically to two potential treatments that have been identified by medical researchers and clinicians, and that have undergone various degrees of investigation and testing in the ongoing fight against the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s important to note upfront that regardless of what you may have heard, from Trump or any other sources, no drugs or treatments have been proven as effective for either the prevention of contracting COVID-19 or for its treatment.

That said, a number of different clinical studies are currently in progress all over the world, and in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health is looking to fill a 400-volunteer study that will provide clinical results related to use of remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead originally as a treatment for Ebola, but it’s still only in clinical trials even for treatment of that disease. This study could also add other drug candidates as additional test therapies. Meanwhile, studies in China and France have examined the effectiveness of anti-malarial drugs, including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — including one small-scale study that suggests the positive effects of hydroxycholoroquine in reducing both the duration and symptoms of COVID-19 in combination with an antibiotic called azithromycin.

The important thing to keep in mind when considering these or any other potential treatments for the novel coronavirus, which is still relatively young, is that a lot of what we know about them so far is effectively anecdotal, and based not on the kind of scientifically rigorous controlled clinical studies that are normally used in the years-long development and certification of drugs. Instead, treatments like remdesivir and chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine are being deployed in the field by healthcare practitioners based on their approved use in similar (but crucially not the same) situations, like the Ebola and SARS outbreaks.

Often, they’re being used under what’s called “compassionate” grounds in the U.S. This effectively amounts to employing a drug that’s not yet certified for general use in treatment of a patient whose condition is so severe that a doctor is willing to go to desperate lengths to try to alleviate their symptoms. This has the advantage of sidestepping typical testing and approval procedures, and requiring that the results of its use are documented, which contributes to the overall body of clinical knowledge in terms of its effects and interactions with patients and with COVID-19.

It’s not a clinical study, however, and that means there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to its use that just can’t be learned or asserted based on scattered, individual instances of compassionate care treatment.

“As the Commissioner of FDA and the president mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with the potential of an effect available to the American people, at the same time that we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective,” explained National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci during a press conference on Friday. “But the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal, it was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

During Thursday’s White House coronavirus pandemic task force briefing, Trump made false claims that chloroquine was already approved by the FDA as a treatment for COVID-19 under an emergency authorization. FDA Director Dr. Stephen Hahn clarified that this and remdesivir were being considered and studied by the FDA, as was an approach that would use plasma extracted from patients who’d recovered from COVID-19, as a potential source of antibodies for others. Still, all of these are still quite far away from clinical deployment in any generally approved way.

Meanwhile, Fauci’s cautions should be taken for what they are: Warnings that are primarily meant to emphasize that the reason the FDA requires clinical studies, even for drugs already tentatively approved for use in other cases, is because it has patient health and safety in mind. While chloroquine has been used for decades to treat malaria, and chronic rheumatoid arthritis, it can have dangerous side effects, including death, if taken incorrectly. Even when taken correctly, it can cause things like stomach distress, and even permanent damage to a person’s vision.

Fauci’s comments Friday explain the risks of putting too much stock in any potential treatment at this stage, even if they are showing promising results among small or even medium-sized deployments.

“You’ve got to be careful when you say ‘fairly effective,’ it was never done in a clinical trial that compared it to anything,” he said in answer to a reporter’s question about chloroquine’s efficacy in treating SARS. “It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it worked […] Whenever you do a clinical trial, you do standard of care, versus standard of care plus the agent you’re evaluating. That’s the reason why we showed back in Ebola why particular interventions worked.”

A summary survey of various prospective treatments and their current status was published today In Medscape, and this includes the current state of remdesivir and chloroquine investigations, as well as a number of other drugs being studied by researchers. As has been reported here and elsewhere, there are promising signs that they could prove effective in either treatment, or treatment and even preventative use (in the case of remedesivir), but these are, as Dr. Fauci puts it, only the first step that should lead to more sophisticated clinical studies, which themselves will then need competing peer studies to eventually prove out.

Netflix announces $100M relief fund after TV and film production halted

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:34 PM PDT

When it comes to the entertainment industry, the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t just affecting movie theaters — it has also halted TV and film production around the world. For Netflix, that has included production on high-profile titles like “The Witcher” and “Stranger Things.”

So the streaming company just announced that it has created a $100 million fund that it says will support the cast and crew who have suddenly found themselves out of work.

In the announcement, Netflix Chief Creative Ted Sarandos said that there are now “hundreds of thousands of cast and crew without jobs,” including “electricians, carpenters and drivers, many of whom are paid hourly wages and work on a project-to-project basis.”

He said that most of this money will go to “the hardest hit workers on our own productions around the world” — though it sounds like the company is still figuring out exactly what form that support will take. (Sarandos noted that Netflix is already providing two weeks’ pay to the productions suspended last week.)

In addition, Sarandos said $15 million will go to “third parties and non-profits providing emergency relief to out-of-work crew and cast in the countries where we have a large production base.”

In the United States, that includes $1 million each to the SAG-AFTRA COVID-19 Disaster Fund, the Motion Picture and Television Fund and the Actors Fund Emergency Assistance. In Canada, that includes $1 million that will be split between the AFC and Fondation des Artistes. Elsewhere, Sarandos said Netflix is “working with existing industry organizations to create similar creative community emergency relief efforts.”

FluSense system tracks sickness trends by autonomously monitoring public spaces

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:30 PM PDT

One of the obstacles to accurately estimating the prevalence of sickness in the general population is that most of our data comes from hospitals, not the 99.9 percent of the world that isn’t hospitals. FluSense is an autonomous, privacy-respecting system that counts the people and coughs in public spaces to keep health authorities informed.

Every year has a flu and cold season, of course, though this year’s is of course far more dire. But it’s like an ordinary flu season in that the main way anyone estimates how many people are sick is by analyzing stats from hospitals and clinics. Patients reporting “influenza-like illness” or certain symptoms get aggregated and tracked centrally. But what about the many folks who just stay home, or go to work sick?

We don’t know what we don’t know here, and that makes estimates of sickness trends — which inform things like vaccine production and hospital staffing — less reliable than they could be. Not only that, but it likely produces biases: Who is less likely to go to a hospital, and more likely to have to work sick? Folks with low incomes and no healthcare.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are attempting to alleviate this data problem with an automated system they call FluSense, which monitors public spaces, counting the people in them and listening for coughing. A few of these strategically placed in a city could give a great deal of valuable data and insight into flu-like illness in the general population.

Tauhidur Rahman and Forsad Al Hossain describe the system in a recent paper published in an ACM journal. FluSense basically consists of a thermal camera, a microphone, and a compact computing system loaded with a machine learning model trained to detect people and the sounds of coughing.

To be clear at the outset, this isn’t recording or recognizing individual faces; Like a camera doing face detection in order to set focus, this system only sees that a face and body exists and uses that to create a count of people in view. The number of coughs detected is compared to the number of people, and a few other metrics like sneezes and amount of speech, to produce a sort of sickness index — think of it as coughs per person per minute.

A sample setup, above, the FluSense prototype hardware, center, and sample output from the thermal camera with individuals being counted and outlined.

Sure, it’s a relatively simple measurement, but there’s nothing like this out there, even in places like clinic waiting rooms where sick people congregate; Admissions staff aren’t keeping a running tally of coughs for daily reporting. One can imagine not only characterizing the types of coughs, but visual markers like how closely packed people are, and location information like sickness indicators in one part of a city versus another.

“We believe that FluSense has the potential to expand the arsenal of health surveillance tools used to forecast seasonal flu and other viral respiratory outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or SARS,” Rahman told TechCrunch. “By understanding the ebb and flow of the symptoms dynamics across different locations, we can have a better understanding of the severity of a novel infectious disease and that way we can enforce targeted public health intervention such as social distancing or vaccination.”

Obviously privacy is an important consideration with something like this, and Rahman explained that was partly why they decided to build their own hardware, since as some may have realized already, this is a system that’s possible (though not trivial) to integrate into existing camera systems.

“The researchers canvassed opinions from clinical care staff and the university ethical review committee to ensure the sensor platform was acceptable and well-aligned with patient protection considerations,” he said. “All persons discussed major hesitations about collection any high-resolution visual imagery in patient areas.”

Similarly, the speech classifier was built specifically to not retain any speech data beyond that someone spoke — can’t leak sensitive data if you never collect any.

The plan for now is to deploy FluSense “in several large public spaces,” one presumes on the UMass campus in order to diversify their data. “We are also looking for funding to run a large-scale multi-city trial,” Rahman said.

In time this could be integrated with other first- and second-hand metrics used in forecasting flu cases. It may not be in time to help much with controlling COVID-19, but it could very well help health authorities plan better for the next flu season, something that could potentially save lives.

SpaceX and Tesla are ‘working on’ ventilators, Elon Musk says

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:22 PM PDT

Elon Musk tweeted Friday that Tesla and SpaceX employees are “working on ventilators” even though he doesn’t believe they will be needed.

His confirmation on Twitter that both of the companies he leads are working on ventilators comes a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a direct plea to Musk to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.

It’s unclear how many employees are working on the ventilators and which Tesla factory — it could be Buffalo, N.Y., Fremont, Calif., Sparks, Nev. or even Shanghai — has dedicated space to the project. The SpaceX facility is located in Hawthorne, Calif.

Musk didn’t describe what capacity would be or how long it might take to scale up such an endeavor. One Twitter follower recommended building one large ventilator with multiple branches and lines. Musk noted that a single computer, pump and pressure accumulator could do the job, but noted that individual valves per patient would be ideal.

Whatever Musk decides, his project still faces specific obstacles. Certified medical personnel will need to be involved in such an operation and ventilator hardware used in clinical settings still must be approved by the FDA, which could delay production.

Still, the need for ventilators is urgent, prompting other automakers to investigate ways of ramping up production. GM, Volkswagen and Ford have all reportedly either talked to the White House or committed to looking at the problem. Volkswagen said Friday it has created a task force to look into using 3D printing to make hospital ventilators.

De Blasio tweeted out his plea to Musk Thursday morning. "Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We're getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!"

The mayor's office has reached out to the person who runs Musk's family office, his communications director and his lobbyist, press secretary Freddi Goldstein told TechCrunch  in an email. "Given his response on Twitter, we're hopeful he will be able to help," Goldstein added

The COVID-19 pandemic had elicited a seemingly conflicting mix of responses from Musk. He has downplayed COVID-19 in emails to employees and on social media. In one company-wide email sent to SpaceX employees, Musk wrote that they have a higher risk of being killed in a car crash than dying from the coronavirus, BuzzFeed reported last week.

Since then, Musk wrestled with officials in Alameda County to keep Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory open, in spite of a government directive to close all non-essential businesses. Tesla announced plans Thursday to suspend production there beginning March 23.

Some basic operations that would support Tesla's charging infrastructure and what it describes as its "vehicle and energy services operations" will continue at the factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. Tesla is also suspending operations at its factory in Buffalo, N.Y., except for "those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains," the company said in a statement.

Musk has jumped into crises before with mixed results. In 2018, Musk and the Musk Foundation donated $480,350 to add ultraviolet water filtration systems and water stations to all 12 area schools in Flint, Mich. The effort was delayed but eventually the systems were installed, beginning in fall 2019.

In 2018, he put SpaceX engineers to work on a pod that could be used to save children trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. Rescuers didn’t use the device and an argument with a cave diving expert that played out on social media and national television led to a defamation lawsuit, after Musk repeatedly called him “pedo guy.” Musk was found not liable for defamation in a federal court in 2019.

Hospital droid Diligent Robotics raises $10M to assist nurses

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:08 PM PDT

Twenty-eight percent of a nurse’s time is wasted on low-skilled tasks like fetching medical tools. We need them focused on the complex and compassionate work of treating patients, especially amid the coronavirus outbreak. Diligent Robotics wants to give them a helper droid that can run errands for them around the hospital. The startup’s bot Moxi is equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand and full mobility so it can hunt down lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic’s hallways and drop them off for the nurse.

With the world facing a critical shortage of medical care professionals, Moxi could help healthcare centers use their staffs as efficiently as possible. And because robots can’t be infected by COVID-19, they’re one less potential carrier interacting with vulnerable populations.

Today, Diligent Robotics announces its $10 million Series A that will help it scale up to deliver “more robots to more hospitals,” CEO Andrea Thomaz tells me. “We've been designing our product, Moxi, side by side with hospital customers because we don't just want to give them an automation solution for their materials management problems. We want to give them a robot that frontline staff are delighted to work with and feels like a part of the team.”

The round, led by DNX Ventures, brings Diligent Robotics to $15.75 million in total funding that’s propelled it to the fifth generation of its Moxi robot. It currently has two deployed in Dallas, Texas, but is already working with two of the three top hospital networks in the U.S. “As the current pandemic and circumstance has shown, the real heroes are our healthcare providers,” says Q Motiwala, partner at DNX Ventures. The new cash from DNX, True Ventures, Ubiquity Ventures, Next Coast Ventures, Grit Ventures, E14 Fund and Promus Ventures will help Diligent Robotics expand Moxi’s use cases and seamlessly complement nurses’ workflows to help alleviate the talent crunch.

Thomaz came up with the idea for a hospital droid after doing her PhD in social robotics at the MIT Media lab. Her co-founder and CTO Vivian Chu had done a master’s at UPenn on how to give robots a sense of touch, and then came to work with Thomaz at Georgia Tech. They were inspired by a study revealing how nurses spent so much time acting as hospital gofers, so in 2016 they applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant of $750,000 that funded a six-month sprint to build a prototype of Moxi.

Since then, 18-person Diligent Robotics has worked with hundreds of nurses to learn about exactly what they need from an autonomous assistant.Today you will go about your day, and you probably won't interact with any robots….we want to change that,” Thomaz tells me. “The only way you can really bring robots out of the warehouses, off of the factory floors, is to build a robot that can work in our dynamic and messy everyday human environments.” The startup’s intention isn’t to fully replace humans, which it doesn’t think is possible, but to let them focus on the most human elements of their jobs.

Moxi is about the size of a human, but designed to look like an ’80s movie robot so as not to engender an uncanny valley cyborg weirdness. Its head and eyes can move to signal intent, like which direction it’s about to move, while sounds let it communicate with nurses and acknowledge their commands. A moving pillar lets it adjust its height, while its gripper hand and arm can pick and put down smaller pieces of hospital equipment. Its round shape and courteous navigation makes sure it can politely share crowded hallways and travel via elevator.

Diligent Robotics’ solution engineers work with hospitals to teach Moxi how to get around and what they need. The company hopes to eventually build the ability to learn and adapt right into the bot so nurses can teach it new tasks on the fly. "The team continues to demonstrate unmatched robotics-specific innovation by combining social intelligence and human-guided learning capabilities,” says True Ventures partner and Diligent board member Rohit Sharma.

Hospitals pay an upfront fee to buy Moxi robots, and then there’s a monthly fee for the software, services and maintenance. Thomaz admits that “Hospitals are naturally risk-averse, and can be wary to take up new technology,” so the startup is taking a slow and steady approach to deployment so it can convince buyers that Moxi is worth the learning curve.

Diligent Robotics will be competing with companies like Aethon’s TUG bot for pulling laundry and pharmacy carts. Other players in the hospital tech space include Xenex’s machine that disinfects rooms with light, and surgical bots like those from Johnson & Johnson’s Auris and Intuitive Surgical.

Diligent Robotics hopes to differentiate itself by building social intelligence into Moxi so it feels more like an intern than a gadget. “Time and again, we hear from our hospital partners that Moxi not only returns time back to their day but also brings a smile to their face,” says Thomaz. The company wants to evolve Moxi for other dull, dirty or dangerous service jobs.

Eventually, Diligent Robotics hopes to bring Moxi into people’s homes. “While we don’t see robots replacing the companionship and the human connection, we do dream of a time that robots could make nursing homes more pleasant by offsetting the often staggering numbers of caretakers to bed ratios (as bad as 30:1),” Thomaz concludes. That way, Moxi could “help people age with dignity and hold onto their independence for as long as possible.”

A few things to consider before pitching a COVID-19 story

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 12:05 PM PDT

In recent weeks, the novel coronavirus has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the work we do, to the food we buy, to the simple things we've tended to take for granted, like leaving our homes and socializing.

Even the stories I write that are ostensibly not about the virus are always — somehow — about the virus.

When we look back at this moment in time, the sheer ubiquity of the topic will, perhaps, be its defining characteristic. And while we flirt with notions of escapism, the fact of the matter is that we'll never fully get away from COVID-19 until it is completely eradicated.

Among the constant and mostly unwanted reminders in my own life is my work inbox. I'm being pitched coronavirus-related stories dozens of times a day at this point, running the gamut from the tasteful and thoughtful to the cringe-inducing. In the early days of the outbreak, when I first began receiving these pitches, they all sort of felt as though they were being done in bad taste.

Pitching against tragedy is not an uncommon practice in public relations. Like online content generators that juice SEO with trending buzzwords, the phenomenon is a common one amongst many PR reps. And frankly, by the time the realities of COVID-19 came to our shores, the isolated act of including references to the pandemic in a pitch no longer felt crass in the same way. COVID-19 is our reality now, and will be for a while. Perhaps it follows, then, that it will also bear mentions in the pitches that cross our inboxes.

I'm not an expert in communications or crisis management. And the extent of my work in PR was a few months fresh out of college, when I took a freelance writing gig to help keep my head above water in New York City. I hated it, and, frankly, I was probably extremely bad at it.

While I know enough now to recognize a distasteful pitch when I see it, I was curious how people in the public relations industry navigate the question. I reached out to handful of reps I've generally had a good experience with and asked how they best do their work when the world around them is falling apart at the seams.

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