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Moovit raises another $50M led by Intel for its urban transit app, plans Mobileye collaboration

15:31 | 21 February

The race for pole position in the next generation of transportation services continues to gain speed, and today a startup providing data on how best to navigate transit in urban environments is announcing a significant round and partnership to help it get out in front.

Moovit — the Israeli startup whose iOS, Android and Web apps are now used by 120 million people globally across 2,000 cities in 80 countries — has raised another $50 million in funding.

The Series D was led by Intel Capital, and it is a strategic investment. As part of it, Mobileye, the $15.3 billion Intel subsidiary that builds autonomous driving solutions, will be partnering with Moovit to incorporate its data into Mobileye’s navigation system.

(And as part of it, significantly, Professor Amnon Shashua, Senior Vice President of Intel and CEO / CTO of Mobileye, is joining Moovit’s Board of Directors as an observer.)

Others in the round included all of the startup’s previous investors: Sequoia, BMW iVentures, NGP, Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, BRM, Gemini, Vaizra, Vintage, as well as another new investor, Hanaco.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand the company’s tech and business development.

“Moovit expects to surpass 1 billion users by 2021 and to expand significantly the number of cities that use Moovit’s data analytics to improve urban mobility,” said Nir Erez, the co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “We are especially thrilled about our plans to collaborate with Mobileye. It’s a synergistic relationship at an exciting time to be shaping the future of urban mobility.”

To date, Moovit has raised around $131 million in funding, and while it’s not revealing its valuation, in its last round in 2015 it was valued at $450 million, and given its growth since then (it only had 15 million users at the time, versus 120 million today), it’s very likely that the valuation now is well above $500 million post-money. We’ll be asking Erez when we speak to him later, to see if we can shed more light on that front.

The deal comes at an interesting time in the navigation and mapping space. Citymapper, a mapping and transit navigation app based out of London, has been testing out different ideas to figure out how to monetise its service. One of the latest developments is building its own transportation offering using buses and taxis — although it will have a lot of pre-existing competition, including city’s own services and heavily capitalised startups like Uber.

Meanwhile, we’re also seeing ever more companies looking to get in on the act. In addition to public and private transit services, there are automakers like GM and Ford (which itself has its own growing pains), and tech companies that also want to bring their AI-based systems into the fray. Alexa for autos, in fact, is just today adding its first mapping services, by way of a partnership with Mapbox, to go head to head with Google Maps and Apple’s Maps.

Moovit is taking a different tack, in that regard, by striking commercial deals that will bring its data and analytics — by way of its Smart Transit Suite — into other services that are getting used in autonomous vehicles and other smart, connected cars. This suite is based around a data-in-data-out principle: Moovit partners with municipalities and transit operators to bring in their data to help them manage their networks as well.

Similarly, this will give Mobileye one more application to enhance its own service and offering to car makers. “With significant investments in automated driving, mobility management platforms and smart infrastructure, Intel is at the forefront of a fundamental transformation of urban mobility,” Shashua said in a statement. “We’re working with some of the most innovative transit companies, municipalities and transit authorities to build critical foundational technologies for this transformation.”



Qualcomm launches its premium 820E embedded platform for IoT developers

15:30 | 21 February

When you think of Qualcomm these days, chances are you are either thinking about Broadcom’s hostile attempts to buy the company or its mobile chips, which power most Android-based smartphones. Chances are we’ll hear quite a bit more about the former in the near future, but beside mobile chips, Qualcomm has also spent the last few years on bringing its chips to a wider range of platforms. Indeed, it’s now selling more than a million chips per day for IoT solutions.

Today, it’s extending this ecosystem with the launch of a new embedded platform for IoT edge applications that rounds out the company’s IoT offerings with low- and mid-tier chips.

The new Snapdragon 820E platform provides the kind of computing power that you would expect from modern smartphones. Like with its mobile chips, the 800 designation highlights that this is a premium product. Until now, Qualcomm’s embedded systems centered around the 410E and 600E embedded platforms. Those are not going away, but for solutions where computing power at the edge matters, chances are that most developers will now opt for the more powerful and fully featured 820E platform.

As Qualcomm Director of Product Management Leon Farasati told me ahead of today’s announcement, the company tends to take its mobile chips and then bring those advances to its embedded systems. That means a system like the 820E will feature a 64-bit ARMv8 quad-core Kyro CPU, for example, with build-in 3D graphics support thanks to an Adreno 530 GPU. It’ll also feature a Qualcomm Hexagon 680 signal processor for media playback and image processing in drones and robots, for example. In addition, the platform offers the usual Bluetooth/WiFi connectivity and optional GPS support, as well as multi-channel audio.

What’s maybe even more interesting, though, is that Qualcomm has also partnered with Arrow Electronics to launch a new development board for developers (the DragonBoard 820c). The board is compatible with the open 96Boards specs, so the board will be able to work with plenty of accessories right from the start.

As Farasati noted, most IoT developers don’t need the latest and greatest chips (though they surely appreciate them), but they do want to know that the platform they are building on will be supported in the long run.High-end smartphone chips have a lifespan of maybe a year or two, but in that time, a manufacturer has maybe gone from prototyping to being ready to manufacturing an IoT product. Arrow, however, says that it will support the 820c board for ten years.

In addition to the new DragonBoard, Qualcomm also today announced the launch of two new IoT dev kits based on the memorably named QCA4020 and QCA4024 SoCs. The company designed these kits for smart city applications, toys, home control and automation systems, appliances and home entertainment solutions. 

While the 820E platform is mostly meant for startups and OEMs who want to fast-track the development of their embedded devices, the DragonBoard will also likely appeal to hobbyists and students. With the DragonBoard 410c, Qualcomm already offers a similar solution, though without the same amount of processing power as the flagship 820c board. Students have used that platform to build machine learning-enabled canes and voice-controlled virtual assistants that live in small 3D-printed houses, for example.



Google debuts AdSense ‘auto ads’ with machine learning to make placement and monetization choices

15:00 | 21 February

Google is today unveiling a new ad unit for AdSense that taps into the company’s big push to add more artificial intelligence into its business, and to potentially bring on more publishers who might consider ramping up their advertising efforts but don’t have the time or other resources to manage them.

Google is debuting “Auto Ads” — not commercials for cars, but a new ad unit that uses machine learning to “read” a page to detect and place what kinds of ads might be appropriate to place there, including where to place them, and how many to run. Publishers activate Auto Ads with a single line of code on the page.

The service was actually quietly rolled out in a limited beta around April of 2017, and now it is live for everyone. Google tells us that “publishers participating in the beta saw an average revenue lift of 10 percent with revenue increases ranging from five to 15 percent.”

For those who track or use AdSense, you know that there is already a fair degree of automation in the service. The product is used by tens of millions of web publishers to indicate where to place ads (banners and other units); with those ads then selected by Google based on a crawl of the page to figure out which ad might be most relevant. It already comprises a significant proportion of parent company Alphabet’s ad revenues, which accounted for $27 billion of its $32 billion of revenues in the most recent quarter.

What’s new with Auto Ads is that Google is taking on task of selecting the placement — doing all of the work for publishers in terms of figuring out how many ads to put on specific pages, where to put them, as well as what kind of ads will run.

Using machine learning is interesting here because it not only is being applied to figure out where an ad will go, but it is also being used to ingest analytics for how well that ad performs to “teach” the system how to place ads better in the future.

One black hole (and potential pitfall) is the fact that Google’s Auto Ads seems to decide just how many ads it will place on a page — something you would have had more control over without it. This thread on Webmaster World details how some of the early beta testers were not pleased about how many ads ended up crowding their pages, and what that did to user experience on the site.

We’re asking Google for a response to that point, and whether it will let users limit the number of units that Auto Ads can place on a page.

It will also highlight questions about how well Google’s judgement will be in all cases.

The AdSense service has come under the spotlight for letting lots of nefarious content seep into the mix, including ads carrying “fake news” and other misleading content. The company has been making efforts to combat this. Its “bad ads report” published in January 2017 noted that the company took down 1.7 billion dodgy ads and banned 200 publishers from AdSense.

For now, the aim seems to be to roll this out and see how many sign on for the convenience of the service, which you activate by signing into your AdSense account; checking global settings from “My ads”; copying the code that is there and pasting it between the header tags for every page where you want the ads to appear (they come on in 10-20 minutes, Google says).

In a blog post from AdSense engineering manager Tom Long and product manager Violetta Kalathaki, the two note that units included in the Auto Ad mix will include Anchor and Vignette ads, as well as Text and display, In-feed, and Matched content ads. (Not clear if newer formats like this larger banner will also be included.) They also write that publishers can specify which of these it wants to run.

For those who have been using Page-level ads (specifying different kinds of ads depending on the subject of a page, rather than a whole site), their code will all automatically get migrated to run with Auto Ads. And for those who are using Google’s AMP service for mobile pages, you need to use code for AMP Auto ads.



Nintendo accused of illegally denying refunds on pre-orders in Europe

14:21 | 21 February

Nintendo has been accused of breaking European law by not allowing consumers to obtain refunds on pre-ordered games.

The company been singled out as the worst offender of seven major digital video games platforms that were looked at by the Norwegian Consumer Council in this investigation. Though it only praises two platforms, Origin and Steam, for having what it describes as “adequate systems” for refunding purchased video games.

The Council has written to Nintendo setting out its concerns. In the letter it flags up a term on Nintendo’s eShop regarding its cancelation policy for digital purchases where it informs consumers that “all sales are final”, and warns them to check that their systems meet download requirements prior to purchase.

The Council argues that a pre-ordered game cannot qualify for an exemption to Europe’s Consumer Rights Directive for digital content because the supply of content has not yet begun. The Directive is applicable across EU and EEA countries (such as Norway).

In a press release about its action the Council writes: “[Nintendo] plainly states that all purchases are final. According to the right of withdrawal laid down in the consumer rights directive, such terms are illegal.”

“The video game industry uses incentives such as exclusive in-game content or other rewards in order to encourage consumers to pre-order games. However, pre-ordering could result in paying a lot of money for a product that turns out to be a disappointment. For most digital video game platforms, there are no possibilities to get your money back after the release date,” it adds.

At the time of writing Nintendo had not responded to a request for comment.

Lots of other video game platforms do not come out of the Council’s survey covered in glory, either. It published a report in December criticizing other players in the space, such as Battle.net, Uplay, Playstation Store and Xbox Store, for a range of less-than-consumer-friendly routes for obtaining refunds — like requiring that buyers contact customer support.

But it’s reserving its fiercest criticism for Nintendo because the company offers no option for consumers to cancel a purchase of pre-ordered game.

The Council suggests games fans wait until they’re 100% sure they want to buy a game before locking themselves into a pre-order.

“Consumers often face complicated systems, where they have to fill out long forms or contact customer support in order to cancel their pre-orders,” it writes. “With these hurdles in mind, we discourage consumers from pre-ordering video games, unless they are 100 % sure that the game will live up to their expectations.”



Uber officially launches Uber Express POOL, a new twist on shared rides

14:00 | 21 February

Uber has launched Uber Express POOL officially after a lengthy trial period that kicked off in San Francisco last November, and has until now remained available only in that market. Starting today, it’s coming to DC, LA, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and Denver, and more cities will be added over the next few weeks and months across the U.S.

The Express POOL launch brings a change to the current Uber POOL model that’s designed to make for more direct routing, with easier pickups for drivers and fewer annoying deviations from the route for riders thanks to two key actions Uber is asking riders to help out with: Walking and waiting. Basically, when riders hail an Uber Express POOL, they’ll be asked to wait a few minutes prior to the trip’s start, and/or walk to a nearby pick up spot, or from a nearby drop off point, in order to help optimize the route in as straight a line as possible along a path that can work for a number of different riders.

The Express POOL option will live right alongside the standard, existing POOL option that’s there right now in the app, at least for the foreseeable future, and riders can have the choice. But ultimately, Uber thinks that many riders will prefer opting to walk a bit and wait a bit, since the goal is to ultimately save everyone involved time and frustration.

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Some of the big challenges around making POOL work as designed to provide the lowest cost option of Uber’s various tiers to the most people possible have been around intelligent routing. The challenge of handling predictions of when and where people will be, along with building routes that not only work from an efficiency perspective, but also from the perspective of serving real humans in a way that doesn’t leave them frustrated or confused, proved to be a massive one.

Uber’s intent with POOL is to help lower the cost of entry to its product to make it the massive base of the ride hailing pyramid that can reach the most people thanks to affordability near on par with public transit. While it accounts for around 20 percent of rides in markets where it’s available, based on a rough average, that’s still not obviously the majority, and so it’s hoping that tweaks to the product that provide a better overall experience will help increase its general appeal.



Facebook inks music licensing deal with ICE covering 160 territories, 290K rightsholders on FB, Insta, Oculus and Messenger

13:39 | 21 February

Facebook today took its latest step towards making good on paying out royalties to music rightsholders around tracks that are used across its multiple platforms and networks. The company has signed a deal with ICE Services — a licensing group and copyright database of some 31 million works that represents PRS in the UK, STIM in Sweden and GEMA in Germany — to provide music licensing services for works and artists represented by the group, when their music is used on Facebook, Instagram, Oculus and Messenger.

The deal is significant because, as ICE describes it, it’s the first multi-territorial license Facebook has signed with an online licensing hub: it will cover 160 territories and 290,000 rightsholders.

So what will this be used for? Facebook has moved into a lot of different services over the years, but a streaming music operation to compete with the likes of Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music has not been one of them. However, in recent times it has been laying the groundwork to sign deals with record labels and others to make sure that the music that is used in videos and other items posted to its sites is legit and paid for to avoid lawsuits, takedown requests, and — yes — potentially the creation of new music-based services down the road, as it starts to tap into the opportunities that music affords it.

These days, music is particularly an interesting turn for Facebook. The social network has run into a lot of controversy for its prominent role in aggregating and distributing news to the world — with a significant part of that news turning out to be misleading and potentially damaging to public opinions and larger issues like the democratic process. Facebook, in turn, is looking for new and alternative content to continue driving people to its platform, and music could help it strike the right note, so to speak.

There are no financial terms being announced today by ICE and Facebook (we’ve asked), but a  report in September alleged that the social network is cutting deals in the hundreds of millions of dollars to set this right.

Other deals that Facebook has cut in the past several months have included an agreement with Universal Music Group over user-generated videos; another with Sony/ATV; and a third with Kobalt, HFA/Rumblefish and Global Music Rights. Facebook also has also pursued a secondary route of giving creators access to “no-name” music via a new service it’s launched called Sound Collection. ICE represents a number of artists and labels who would fall outside of those agreements either because of territorial coverage and/or label and licensing ties.

The deal will not only cover videos and the like that are uploaded by its 2.1 billion registered users (1.4 billion daily users) to Facebook, Instagram, Oculus and Messenger, but will also be added in a catalogue that people can tap into when they are creating and adding them to those platforms from scratch. Sound Collection isn’t cited by name in the press release from ICE but it sounds like it could be a part of that effort, meaning that this could be the first time that Facebook will be adding premium music to Sound Collection.

“We are delighted to continue deepening our relationship with music by partnering with ICE in a first-of-its-kind licensing deal,” said Anjali Southward, Head of International Music Publishing Business Development at Facebook, in a statement. “Facebook’s journey with music is just beginning and we look forward to working with ICE and songwriters to build a community together around music.”

ICE says that it will provide will be working with Facebook to build a royalties reporting system as part of the deal. The company already has similar arrangements in place with 40 other streaming platforms and has distributed 300 million euros in royalties to its members since it was established in 2016. (Why only 2016? Previously the three organizations worked independently and saw they could get much better bargaining power if they worked collectively).

Indeed, royalty collecting is a potentially lucrative business as streaming services continue to grow and overtake other formats for music consumption, with startups like Kobalt building services that it claims are better and faster at tracking even the smallest samples to make sure that those who are making their music are getting their due.

“We are excited to work with Facebook to ensure we are delivering value back to creators for the use of their works on Facebook platforms. The future of music depends on our industries working together to enable the development of new models for music consumption in the digital age, to ensure a healthy future for songwriters and composers.” said Ben McEwen, Commercial Director at ICE Services, in a statement.



Bosch acquires B2B rideshare startup SPLT and establishes mobility service arm

13:30 | 21 February

Bosch has acquired a ridesharing startup called SPLT that offered employers, universities and municipal authorities workforce-focused ridesharing services to help them offer shared commute as a means of increasing convenience and alleviating route congestion. Bosch, a leading global automotive industry supplier, is also establishing a new dedicated mobility services division, a sign of the changing times and nature of the automotive space.

The SPLT acquisition is a cornerstone piece of its new focus on mobility services, with the aim of offering everything from shared rides in cars to company buses on the same, easy to use platform with end user smartphone apps and easy ride booking. SPLT will continue to operate independently as a wholly owned subsidiary of Bosch post acquisition close.

Other mobility services offerings that Bosch has in market include e-scooter rental, via its subsidiary COUP, which began in Berlin in 2016, expanded to Paris last year and is expanding to Madrid later in 2018, bringing the total fleet size to 3,500 electric scooters. It also has system!e services it’s introducing today, which can offer up a true “extended range forecast” to help conquer range anxiety in potential EV buyers by offering a precise range based on the location and accessibility of charging spots along a route.

Basically, everyone wants a piece of the connectivity puzzle when it comes to the future of automotive and transportation, and mobility services is a good way to get there. Smart move by Bosch, but the transition is going to be interesting as more legacy players figure out where they sit in the coming post-ownership automotive world.



Skelter Labs raises $9M to help put Korea on the global AI map

13:21 | 21 February

China and the U.S. are the two countries most closely associated with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, but a startup in Korea is out to add its nation to mix after it raised more than $9 million from some big-name investors.

Skelter Labs, which was founded in 2015 by Google’s former chief technical officer in Korea, announced today that it has raised KRW 10 billion ($9.3 million). Korean internet and messaging giant Kakao is a major backer, investing in the round via both its ‘KakaoBrain’ AI unit and its K-Cube VC firm, both of which are existing investors. Stonebridge Ventures and Lotte Homeshopping, the TV and internet shopping business owned by multi-billion dollar retail giant Lotte, also participated.

(Kakao Group CEO Jimmy Rim arrived at Kakao via its acquisition of K-Cube in 2015, before going on to take the top job later that year — so it is a pretty strategic asset.)

Skelter Labs started out as an app development house when it was initially founded by CEO Ted Cho, the former engineering site director at Google Korea, with products that include a flight booking app, chatbot network and point-of-sale software, but, over the past year, it began to focus on AI.

It now works with a range of enterprises and businesses in Korea to bring its artificial intelligence and machine-learning smarts into play. In particular, the company specializes in conversational AI, deep learning — speech recognition and image recognition — and context recognition.

Like many AI startups, which collaborative with third parties on services, the exact scope of its work is fairly secretive. A representative from Skelter Labs declined to name specific customers, but they told TechCrunch that the startup is planning to expand its services overseas following this funding.

While it is working with large enterprise and third parties to refine its core technology, a representative explained that the wider vision is to bring its machine-learning technology to daily life and schedules. That, Skelter Labs explained, could take the form of “intelligent virtual assistant technology that can be widely applied to various areas including smart speakers, smartphones, home appliances, automobiles and wearable devices.”

The startup has more than 50 staff at its office in Seoul, with experience from companies like Google, Samsung, LG and science and technology research university KAIST’s AI division.

Korea is undoubtedly a hotbed for tech talent — with the likes of Samsung and LG employing huge numbers of people — but that is yet to translate a huge number of tech startups, although the progress is promising.

In the AI space, Korea hasn’t received anything like the global attention of China or the U.S.. Indeed, a recent CB Insights report concluded that China took 48 percent of the $5 billion-plus raised by AI startups in 2017. Overtaken by China for the first time, the U.S. placed second on 38 percent, but startups located in ‘the rest of the world’ accounted for only the remaining 14 percent.

Clearly, there’s potential to grow that tiny share. A $9 million round doesn’t move the investment needle on a global basis, but it is a significant sum for a Korean startup and it gives Skelter Labs the potential to accelerate its business.



Watch SpaceX launch a Falcon 9 carrying its first internet demo satellites live here

11:01 | 21 February

SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 with client Hisdesat’s PAZ satellite on board today, provided weather remains favorable and everything else goes according to plan. The satellite, an imaging and radar instrument with a planned lifespan of five and a half years, will serve Spanish government and commercial needs, and will also work as part of a constellation together with TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X to be used jointly between Hisdesat and Airbus.

The launch will make use of a first stage booster for the Falcon 9 rocket first used last August during the FORMOSAT-5 mission, and today’s launch will take place at 6:17 AM PST (9:17 AM EST) during an instantaneous launch window. A backup window is scheduled for Thursday, February 22 at the same time should the launch be scrubbed for Wednesday. It’s taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

This launch will also carry SpaceX’s first demonstration satellites for its satellite broadband internet service, to be tested ahead of a full-scale constellation launch. It’s also said to be the first launch of the second generation of SpaceX’s fairing, which is designed to be be better able to survive launch for re-use on future missions.

The livestream for the launch will kick off likely around 15 minutes prior to launch, or at just after 6 AM PST (9 AM EST).



Anyfin bags €4.8M Series A to let you refinance your existing loans by taking a photo

11:00 | 21 February

Anyfin, a startup based in Sweden that easily enables you to refinance your existing loans, including by taking a photo, has picked up €4.8 million in Series A investment. The round is co-led by Accel, and Northzone, with participation from Rocket Internet’s Global Founders Capital, and a number of unnamed angel investors from the consumer finance and fintech space.

Launched in November 2017, and currently only available in its home country despite harbouring wider European ambitions, Anyfin wants to make it easier to competitively refinance (or consolidate) loans and credit cards and therefore not get ripped off with high interest rates or compound interest.

It claims to do this with a combination of AI and publicly available consumer data, and with additional information garnered through talking a photo of your existing loan statement, including your repayment history. This, it says, gives Anyfin a more complete picture than your credit score alone, which is likely the main data point used by the original lender.

“Working in the consumer finance sector for so long we all realised that although consumer finance brings a lot of value to people, it also has this huge downside to it,” says Anyfin co-founder and CEO Mikael Hussain, who spent seven years working at Klarna where he headed up credit risk and decision science.

“Consumers are getting ripped off and paying way too much for their financing, whether that’s credit cards, loans or instalment financing – with no good alternatives. Often consumers are charged in excess of 25 percent annually on part payments and credit cards, even those with good credit scores. In many cases this is due to old and rigid processes that don’t consider the individual consumer’s situation”.

To remedy this, Hussain says Anyfin wants to make refinance “as easy as taking a selfie”. Where there was previously paperwork, the fintech startup has digitised the process, and where there were long forms to fill out, it claims to use AI to capture much of the data it needs.

“All the consumer has to do to save a bunch of money is to snap a picture of the credit card bill or loan statement and we do the rest. When a customer sends us their picture we use OCR to get the data we need, run that through our risk algorithms and, based on that, give the consumer an individual price. Typically, we’re able to cut the cost of financing by more than half,” he says.

Meanwhile, competitors are cited as credit card providers, point-of-sale financing companies, and traditional and neo banks (although I think fintech startups like the U.K.’s Pariti are worth mentioning, too). “In reality consumer credit is everywhere,” says the Anyfin co-founder. “You can barely go into a store where they don’t offer you a financing option, and practically everyone has at least one credit card”.

To that end, the Swedish fintech startup claims to be able to keep costs and rates low by automating its processes, including credit scoring, and cutting out middle companies. The latter sees it operate as a balance sheet lender, meaning that it borrows money from banking partners to finance the loans it sells at a higher interest rate.


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