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Snagging Pearson’s AR assets and $1 million in cash, GIGXR is ready for its close up

16:57 | 18 December

Meet GIGXR, the new owner of all of the assets of Pearson Immersive Learning Group, a subsidiary of the education and media publishing giant, Pearson.

Formed specifically to roll up Pearson’s virtual and augmented reality assets, GIGXR is helmed by David King Lassman, the founder of streaming media company Vyclone and the Southern Californian venture capital firm White Hart Ventures.

The serial entrepreneur had been in discussions with Pearson for the better part of a year to acquire the company’s VR and AR assets. Initially established as part of a collaboration with Microsoft back in 2014 when the company first began work on its Hololens, the media giant is spinning out the team as it explores the broader sale of certain assets.

The group has intellectual property for virtual and augmented reality training programs for hospitals, nursing schools and universities, according to a statement.

Based in Los Angeles, GIGXR now owns flagship products including HoloPatient and HoloHuman, mixed reality training programs for medical schools that operate on the new Hololens 2 headset.

“We’re thrilled to continue our partnership with GIGXR on the heels of our release of HoloLens 2, which has been incredibly well received,” said Dan Ayoub, General Manager for Mixed Reality Education at Microsoft, in a statement. “Our collaboration with the GIGXR suite of applications and team of technology entrepreneurs and thought leaders will dramatically impact the way the world uses mixed reality solutions for enhanced learning now and into the future.”

Operating at the intersection of the $252 billion education market and the $61 billion extended reality industries, GIGXR is actually mining one of the few veins where virtual reality has found a real customer painpoint. As a training tool in enterprises, virtual and augmented reality headsets find themselves following a similar trajectory as Google’s trailblazing (and much maligned) Glass technology.

If there’s one place where emerging technology can be embraced, it’s in businesses where there’s an actual use case for the tech. Whether on the assembly line or in human resources training, companies are turning to virtual and augmented reality in ways that consumer buyers haven’t.

Indeed, Pearson customers including Texas Tech University, University of Queensland, Bucks County Community College, University of Canberra, University of Leeds and other campuses across the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom, will continue to receive support from GIGXR for their augmented reality-influenced curriculum.

Lassman said the company had raised $1 million in seed financing and would be seeking to raise additional capital in the first half of 2020.



Jumpstart nabs $8.5M led by Sequoia for a recruitment platform that aims to increase diversity

16:37 | 18 December

When it comes to calibrating for an optimal workforce, diversity and inclusion have become a more prominent priority for companies in recent years. Today a startup that’s built a recruitment platform to help organizations source and hire in a more holistic way is announcing a round of funding to capitalise on a rise in demand for its services. Jumpstart, which provides a way for organizations to tap into a wider pool of candidates, who themselves have been more carefully ordered by way of Jumpstart’s algorithms, is today announcing that it has raised $8.5 million.

The company today focuses primarily on filling entry/early-stage roles in “knowledge worker” positions such as engineering internships, junior-level marketing roles, and business analysts. Founder and CEO Ben Herman said in an interview that the plan will be to continue moving up the funnel to target an ever-wider range of experiences and jobs. To date, the company has helped place peole with big names like Akamai, Adobe, Twitch, Lyft, Pinterest and many more.

The Series A is being led by storied VC firm Sequoia Capital, with participation from Michael Lynton, the chairman of Snapchat’s parent Snap Inc.; and Joshua Steiner, the co-chairman of commodity trading firm Castleton Commodities International LLC. Those names and affiliations, significantly, speak to what kinds of power holders are looking at the challenge of diversity and inclusion in hiring, not just who is investing in trying to fix it.

“Almost every company at scale manages early-career recruiting differently than industry recruiting. That’s because the techniques for identifying great early-career talent are just different than folks with a decade of experience. We think there’s an opportunity for Jumpstart to be a global platform for early-career talent,” said Mike Vernal, a partner at Sequoia.

Jumpstart has an interesting jumpstart story of its own. Ben Herman, the founder and CEO, got his start in recruiting when he dropped out of high school in north London, England. He turned out to be a scrappy and very successful recruiter, working on behalf of a number of companies, in part because he was good at looking beyond the basic signals that many use to decide whether inbound applicants are good bets (those basic signals include things like what school you went to, your references, and where you might have already worked), and expanding them to look at things like “passion projects”, interests, long term goals and more.

When those clients started to approach him with proposals to come in house, he thought of putting his enterprising nature to work for himself, by starting his own business at age 21. Eventually, he found himself working for a lot of companies out of the US and decided to make the move and see how and if he could bring a technology approach into the equation to improve the overall process — specifically by using AI to replicate the pattern recognition that Herman himself had used up to then in his successful recruiting endeavors.

“Most of the tools in the market today are targeted at saving recruiters time,” Herman said to me in an interview this week. “They are overwhlelmed by the amt of work they have to do. But the consequence is that they escalate the other problems [such as addressing diversity]. I look at these platforms as tools for putting a bandaid on those bigger problems.”

There is a lot about recruitment that is the opposite of “technology challenges.” Much of it requires a human touch and sensibility not just of what might really be the best fit for a business, but what might be the best fit for a specific person looking for a job. While that kind of nuance is more likely to be there the higher up the chain you go — partly because the “cost” of getting it wrong can be that much higher — it’s not as ubiquitous in the lower, lower-paid, more populated ranks of the job market.

However, in the grand tradition of every problem now being a tech problem, this is now getting addressed, and Jumpstart is one of the companies aiming to do that.

As Herman described how it works, the process starts in part by working with big companies, who are given access to the pool of candidates on its platform — that pool currently numbers 100,000 users. Those candidates themselves have been screened in advance with a set of questions that help place them into more ordered categories based on what they are looking for in a job experience, and what they are qualified to do (based on what they studied). In all, there are some 30 data points on each person in the Jumpstart system, he said.

The pool of candidates grows, meanwhile, both organically (people can sign up on their own), or by way of those companies recruiting them onto the platform. Once the companies sign up to Jumpstart, they are asked to invite candidates to opt in to become a part of the pool.

The thinking goes something like this: you may not have gotten this job, but sign up here to get considered for other exciting roles here and elsewhere. The pool of “no’s” are always going to be much bigger than the pool of “yes’s”: only around 2% of applicants end up securing internships and entry-level roles at the most sought-after places of employment, Herman said. This gives those employers a way of helping that other 98% find other opportunities.

Herman says that the basic platform is already a big development for many of these companies, which in the past might have made a few trips to select schools to connect with students at career fairs, essentially leaving out most other universities and candidates from getting a look in.

The focus on taking the recruitment game away from campuses and specific outreach to universities is an important way of expanding a company’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. It’s also a notable contrast with Handshake, another early-level recruitment startup that’s aiming to make hiring more diverse. (Its efforts specifically start with university relationships.)

It also seems to be working. Herman says that Lyft hired 1/3 of its interns for 2020 via Jumpstart, and 82% were from underrepresented groups. (He also noted that Lyft used to use four different platforms to do the same work that it now does just through Jumpstart.)

Like Handshake, Jumpstart (and others) are capitalising on an interesting moment in the world of online recruitment. Companies like Indeed and LinkedIn (not to mention behemoths like Facebook that are new to the space but are big enough to be formidable rivals) have long been able to leverage their economies of scale when it comes to sourcing qualified applicants, or for applicants to tap into an interesting pool of job opportunities.

More recent shifts, however, into looking for more diverse workforces has changed the game: since platforms like LinkedIn where never built (and cannot really be used today) to help source more diverse candidate pools, that creates an opportunity for newer platforms to build themselves with those kinds of priorities baked in from the start.

And that’s not just important for recruiters, but also for the people getting recruited. On the part of students, the aim will be to do more than just give them access to more job openings, but also a way to share questions and ideas with others like them. “Jumpstart is focused on letting early-career talent express their skills and interests directly by creating a very in-depth profile,” said Vernal. “We are also focused on creating a community of folks with similar backgrounds and interests to help navigate the transition into the workforce.”

This latest funding brings the total raised by Jumpstart to $12.5 million.



Europe’s space agency just launched a satellite to study planets outside our solar system

16:09 | 18 December

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched a satellite early this morning, aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket that took off from the Guiana Space Center in French Guyana. Atop the Soyuz is the so-called “Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite” (CHEOPS for short) that will deploy to orbit around Earth, where it’ll have a better view of nearby stars that we’ve previously determined have planets in their own respective orbits.

CHEOPS will specifically be looking to spot the ‘exoplanets’ (planets that are outside our own solar system) as they pass in front of their stars – at which point they become observable because they block some of the light emitted from the distant suns. The satellite will be looking to track large planets in particular, with sizes ranging from larger than Earth to those closer to our own medium-large gas giants like Neptune.

The main thing it’ll be looking to discover about these exoplanets is their density, or whether they’re rockier like Earth and Mars, or more gaseous like Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus. That is a key ingredient in determining the potential habitability of a planet.

As of this morning, CHEOPS made contact with an Antarctic ground station so it appears as though everything has gone to plan in terms of its orbital delivery and operations. The Soyuz rocket that delivered it also carried a number of other payloads, including additional science and research satellites to be used by the ESA, the French national space agency, and more.



#ANGELS founding partner raises $25M for debut fund Moxxie Ventures

16:00 | 18 December

Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Twitter executive and co-founder of the #ANGELS investment collective, has raised $25 million for her debut venture capital fund Moxxie Ventures.

As the sole general partner, she plans to invest between $250,000 and $500,000 in underrepresented and underestimated founders, Stanton tells TechCrunch, with a focus on “products that make life and work better.”

Stanton co-founded #ANGELS alongside Chloe Sladden, Jessica Verrilli, April Underwood, Vijaya Gadde and Jana Messerschmidt in 2014 with a goal of getting more women on startup cap tables. The #ANGELS, four of whom are Moxxie limited partners, share deal flow but invest in startups independently. Stanton said she will continue her work with the collective as she ramps up Moxxie Ventures.

“I wanted more agency over the types of companies I wanted to back,” Stanton said of her decision to raise capital from LPs rather than stick to investing personal capital. As for her decision to invest primarily in minority entrepreneurs, Stanton cited recent statistics.

In 2019, just 2.8% of U.S. venture capital invested went to female-led startups, a small increase from last year’s 2.2%. Despite efforts from new organizations like All Raise, venture capital firms tapping their first-ever female check-writers or new funds cropping up focused on the underfunded, the latest data paints a disappointing picture.

“We just aren’t moving fast enough,” Stanton said. “We need to take bigger swings to move the needle faster. The fastest way to make progress isn’t to move inside those existing institutions but by creating new ones.”

Stanton is not new to investing, having built a portfolio of some 40 companies over the last several years, including Cameo, Carta, Coinbase, Ethel’s Club, Lambda School, Literati, Modern Fertility, Shape Security and Threads. As such, she was able to raise the $25 million effort in roughly six months. However, even with an extensive network of Silicon Valley heavyweights, Stanton said she pitched 279 individuals and organizations before closing the fund: “I told myself if I’m not getting rejected daily, I’m not trying hard enough.”

The process made her a better investor, she said. A whopping 29% of the entities she initiated conversations with ghosted her after an initial reply indicating interest. “A fast no is a lot better than a long maybe,” she said. “It’s kind of like we went on these dates — it’s not like we had a great date — and I never heard from him again.”

Entrepreneurs, of course, are all too familiar with the concept of ghosting, as venture capital investors are prone to disappearing or elongating an eventual “sorry, we’re not interested.”

Moxxie enters the market at an interesting time for venture capital fundraising and investing. There are more funds than ever deploying more capital than ever. In fact, there are so many new sub-$100 million funds, there are new names to differentiate the sub $25 million funds, or nano funds, from the $25 million to $100 million funds, or micro funds. In total, U.S. VCs were expected to dole out more than $120 billion this year, surpassing last year’s all-time high of $117 billion.

The frothy markets have allowed entrepreneurs to be pickier than in the past, leading to swelling valuations and frustrated investors. Stanton, like any optimistic VC, said she plans to be very disciplined and committed to the strategy she pitched LPs, meaning she will do her best to avoid the buzzy Y Combinator graduates that seek a $37 million valuation right out of the gate.

“People are raising a lot more money now just because they can,” Stanton said. “I am trying to maintain some discipline and have some constraints around the valuation. When I hear things valued at $20 million at seed pre-revenue, I just back away. There’s going to be a correction at some point and I worry for those founders.”

Moxxie has invested in four startups to date, including women’s professional network Elpha, hiring platform Purple Dot, a soon-to-launch tool for arranging meetings called Sesh and Honeycomb Labs, a parenting tech startup.

“My kids were encouraging me to do this and I realized it really just takes courage to do what founders do every day and to create something from nothing,” Stanton said of the firm’s name, Moxxie. “I added the extra X for the female chromosome because of my passion for the broader female founder and investor community.”

I’m really proud of this,” she added. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done but it’s something that I think is important to do.”



SAP spinout Sapphire Ventures raises $1.4B for new investments

16:00 | 18 December

Sapphire Ventures, the former corporate venture arm of SAP, has raised $1.4 billion for growth investments, including a $150 million opportunity fund to support larger deals.

The firm, which focuses primarily on enterprise tech companies in the U.S., Europe and Israel, writes checks to Series B through pre-IPO businesses. Its portfolio includes 23andMe, Sumo Logic and TransferWise.

The new funds brings Sapphire Ventures, which became independent from the German software company SAP in 2011, assets under management to north of $4 billion. Sapphire will write checks sized between $5 million and $100 million with the new funds, allowing the team “to do any financing we need to or want to,” chief executive officer and managing director Nino Marakovic tells TechCrunch. Sapphire’s fourth growth fund is the firm’s largest to date at more than double the size of Sapphire Ventures $700 million Fund III. 

“Wee need this fund because companies are staying private much longer because they want to get to a $200 million revenue run rate before they go public,” Sapphire Ventures president and co-founder Jai Das (pictured) tells TechCrunch. “We want to have the capital to support these companies as they keep growing.”

News of the fund comes nearly one year after Sapphire Ventures lassoed $115 million from new limited partners to invest at the intersection of tech, sports, media and entertainment. Sapphire Sport has ties to the sports industry, from City Football Group, which owns English Premier League team Manchester City, to Adidas, the owners of the Indiana Pacers, New York Jets, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.

Before that, the firm closed on $1 billion for its third flagship venture fund.

With seven check writers and another seven investment professionals focused on growth-stage investments, Sapphire has had a number of recent wins, counting a total of 21 initial public offerings and 55 exits since the firm’s inception.

“We’re excited to have no reached critical mass with $4 billion under management,” Marakovic said. “We are the right size to take advantage of our target area of early and later-stage enterprise software companies. We are innovating on the model by adding value-add LPs and trying to align our whole model of services to the target companies to serve them as best as possible.”



Can a wearable improve memory? Humm raises $2.6 million so consumers can find out

15:12 | 18 December

There’s an emerging body of research suggesting that electrical stimulation applied to the brain can help improve memory and cognitive function.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Boston University this year found that 70 year-old participants in a clinical trial performed certain memory tasks as well as 20 year-olds after exposure to mild electrical neurostimulation. The results were published in April in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, and reported by Science Daily.

Now Humm, a graduate of the Berkeley Skylab accelerator program, has raised $2.6 million to commercialize its own product, which draws from years of research into the effects of electrical stimulation on the brain.

The company actually conducted its own study with the University of California at Berkeley. Published earlier this year the report said that of the 40 participants in the study who were given Humm’s wearable patches, all saw their performance on certain specific memory tests improve roughly 20% above the placebo or control group. It was an improvement approximately 120 times greater than the natural learning effect of the control group in the study, the company said.

Simply put, the electrical stimulation boosts brainwaves and enhances what neuroscientists call working memory, which determines the amount of information a person can retain at one time. The patch sends out a small electric pulse that triggers neurons to resonate together at a similar frequency. By prompting the more neurons to fire in concert, it primes more of the brain to process information.

Humm is one of several startups that are developing neuro-stimulation wearables for all kinds of applications. Halo Neuroscience has a wearable for improving athletic performance; Kernel and Flow Neuroscience are examining the technology’s ability to treat depression; BrainCo is another company looking to improve learning through neurostimulation; while Neuros Medical is using the technology to treat chronic pain.

According to the company, this seed financing will be used to scale production of the company’s first product, which was launched in August.

“As software and biology continue to be on a collision course, new technology paradigms will emerge that will unleash creativity and empower scientists, clinicians and engineers to read, edit and write biology – including key human functions,” said Ciarán O’Leary, General Partner at Blueyard Capital, which led the most recent investment into the company. “Humm’s technology improves the performance of the human mind and has the potential to expand healthspan for millions of people.”

The initial market for the company’s products are middle-aged, middle-class consumers looking to learn a new skill or language, according to the company’s chief executive and co-founder, Iain McIntyre.

“Using the patch is as easy as sticking on a band-aid — nothing bulky or awkward. In a 15-minute session, our clinical trial shows a 20 percent improvement in working memory capacity [against placebo] within the first three minutes of wearing a patch, that then lasts for more than an hour afterwards,” McIntyre said. “In our testing with hundreds of early access users this year we’ve seen people doing exciting things with that boost, like accelerating the speed they can learn a language or remembering more of what they read.”

At $5 per-patch, the company’s pitch is that it costs about as much as a fancy cup of coffee, and has better results for stimulating productivity.

Users just slap a Humm strip onto their forehead and leave it on for about thirty minutes. McIntyre recommends using the patch no more than twice a day.

Early access for the device is currently closed (after the Air Force reportedly put in an order for 10,000 of the devices to trial them), but the company is setting up a waitlist for folks looking to try it out. The company expects its device to be commercially available by the third quarter of next year.



Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating with a safety screen

15:02 | 18 December

Make space for another dating app in your single life: Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating but with female-friendly guardrails in the form of a user-controlled video blur effect.

The idea is pretty simple: Singles are matched randomly with another user who meets some basic criteria (age, location) for a three minute ‘ice breaker’ video call. The app suggests chat topics — like ‘pineapple on pizza, yay or nay’ — to get the conversation flowing. After this, each caller chooses whether or not to match — and if both match they can continue to chat via text.

The twist is that the video call is the ‘first contact’ medium for determining whether it’s a match or not. The call also starts “100% blurred” — for obvious, ‘dick pic’ avoidance reasons.

Blindlee says female users have control of the level of blur during the call — meaning they can elect to reduce it to 75%, 50%, 25% or nothing if they like what they’re (partially) seeing and hearing. Though their interlocutor also has to agree to the reduction so neither side can unilaterally rip the screen away.

Dating apps continue to be a bright spot for experimental ideas, despite category giants like Tinder dominating with a much cloned swipe-to-match formula. Tech giant Facebook also now has its own designs on the space. But turns out there’s no fixed formula for finding love or chemistry.

All the data in the world can’t necessarily help with that problem. So a tiny, bootstrapping startup like Blindlee could absolutely hit on something inspired that Tinder or Facebook hasn’t thought of (or else feels it can’t implement across a larger user-base).

Co-founder Sacha Nasan also reckons there’s space for supplementary dating apps.

“We’re focusing on blind dating which is a subset of dating so you can say that indirectly rather than directly we are competing with the big dating apps (Tinder etc). This is more niche and is definitely a new, untried concept to the dating world,” he argues. “However the good thing about dating apps is that they are not substitutes but complements.

“Just like people may have installed Uber on their phone but also Hailo and Lyft, people have multiple datings app installed as well (to maximise their chances of finding a partner) and that is an advantage. Nonetheless we still think that we only indirectly compete with other dating apps.”

Using a blur effect to preserve privacy is not in itself entirely a new idea. For example Muzmatch, a YC-backed dating app focused on matchmaking Muslims, offers a blur feature to users not wanting to put their profile photos out there for any other user to see.

But Blindlee is targeting a more general dating demographic. Though Nasan says it does plan to expand matching filters, if/when it can grow its user-base, to include additional criteria such as religion.

“The target is anyone above 18 (for legal reasons) and from the data we see most users are under 30,” he says. “So this covers university students to young professionals. On the spectrum of dating apps where ‘left’ would be hookups apps (like Tinder used to be) and ‘right’ would be relationship app (like Hinge), we position ourself more on the right side (a relationship app).”

Blindlee is also using video as the chemistry-channeling medium to help users decide if they match or not.

This is clever because it’s still a major challenge to know if you’ll click with an Internet stranger in real life with only a digitally mediated version of the person to go on. At least live on camera there’s only so much faking that can be done — well, unless the person is a professional actor or scammer.

And while plunging into a full-bore videochat with a random might sound a bit much, a blurry teaser with conversation prompts looks fairly low risk. The target user for Blindlee is also likely to have grown up online and with smartphones and Internet video culture. A videocall should therefore be a pretty comfortable medium of expression for these singles.

“The idea came from my experience in the app world (since the age of 14) combined with a situation where my cousin… went on a date from one of the dating apps where the man who showed up was about 15 years older. The man had used old pictures on his profile,” explains Nasan. “That’s just one story and there are plenty like these so I grew tired of the sometimes fake and superficial aspect of the online dating world. Together with my cousin’s brother [co-founder, Glenn Keller] we decided to develop Blindlee to make the process more transparent and safer but also fun.

“Blindee makes for a fun three-minute blurred video experience with a random person matching your criteria. It’s kind of like a short, pre-date ice-breaker before you potentially match and decide to meet in real life. And we put control of the blur filter in the woman’s hand to make it safer for women (but also because if the men would have control they would straight away ask to unblur it — and we have tested this!).”

The app is a free download for now but the plan is to move to a freemium model with a limit on the number of free video chats per day — charging a monthly subscription to unlock more than three daily calls.

“This will be priced cheap around £3-4/month compared to usual dating premium subscription which cost £10+ a month,” he says. “We basically look at this income as a way of paying the server bills (as every minute of video costs us).”

The London-based startup was founded in March and launched the app in October on iOS, adding an Android version earlier this month. Nasan says they’ve picked up around 5,000 registered users so far with only minimal marketing — such as dropping flyers on London university campuses.

While they’re bootstrapping the launch he says they may look to take in angel funding “as we see growth picking up”.



‘The Rise of Skywalker’ delivers a messy but satisfying finale to the new Star Wars trilogy

11:00 | 18 December

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is the ninth and final film in what Lucasfilm is calling The Skywalker Saga. It’s the end of the story — that’s both its greatest asset and its heaviest burden.

Certainly, if you’re hoping that a single movie can effectively wrap up every storyline, complete every character arc and answer every lingering question from the eight preceding films, you should abandon that hope now. Director J.J. Abrams is pitching this as the culmination of a nine-film epic, but how could any single movie live up to 40 years of theories and daydreams from millions of Star Wars fans?

(This review describes the general plot of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” but contains no major spoilers.)

Yes, you’ll see some returning faces from the original trilogy, including Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa (courtesy of unused footage from “The Force Awakens”) and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.

But their roles are pretty small. In fact, I’d argue that only Williams is used effectively. That’s okay, though — this isn’t their story anymore. They’re here to pass the torch.

The Rise of Swkywalker

Anthony Daniels is C-3PO, John Boyega is Finn and Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

So it’s the new characters who fully step into the spotlight this time around. More than anything, “The Rise of Skywalker” serves as one last chance for the new trilogy’s three main heroes — scavenger-turned-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) — to have an adventure together.

The film begins with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) having ascended to the role of Supreme Leader of the First Order (a.k.a. the new Empire). He lands on a mysterious planet to track down transmissions that appear to come from the long-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, clearly relishing his return to the role).

It’s quickly established that Palpatine somehow survived his death at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and he’s been the secret mastermind behind the First Order all along. Now he’s assembled a giant fleet of even deadlier ships — and if Kylo wants to take command, all he has to do is kill Rey first.

This scene sets the template for the rest of the film, combining moody, gorgeous visuals with a breakneck pace, while delivering any and all exposition with the absolute minimum amount of detail.

The first half of “The Rise of Skywalker” turns into one long chase, as our heroes search for a mysterious artifact that may be crucial to defeating the Emperor, while Kylo and his Knights of Ren are close behind.

The Rise of Skywalker

Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and Anthony Daniels is C-3PO in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

It’s not hard to notice that many of these early plot developments seem designed to fill time, keeping our heroes busy before the grand finale. The film is both hurried and drawn out — constantly coming up with new destinations to visit, then rushing over as quickly as possible.

This didn’t bother me as much as I would have expected, largely because the plot brings us from one richly imagined world to another. They’re filled with some of the most delightfully bizarre aliens in the franchise, and they adds up to the most expansive tour of the Star Wars universe that I can recall.

As for the film’s second half, you can probably guess where the story will end — especially if you’ve watched “Return of the Jedi” recently. But even it doesn’t surprise you, you can still appreciate how Abrams has expanded on the older film’s scale and stakes.

When he revived the franchise in 2015 with “The Force Awakens,” Abrams seemed largely content to remix the original trilogy. With “The Rise of Skywalker,” on the other hand, he was apparently inspired to be more “daring,” and the film contains some of the most striking images of his career — a tiny skimmer struggling to stay afloat on an impossibly choppy ocean, a vast, ancient throne room filled with shadowy figures, a light saber duel amid the floating ruins of an old Death Star.


Sadly, Abrams the screenwriter (working with co-writer Chris Terrio) didn’t do quite as good a job. The dialogue is clunkier and more obvious than it was in the past two films, with jokes than rarely land as effectively.

There’s a slipshod quality to the plotting as well, with many major events seemingly to transpire for no reason except that they have to, because it’s the last movie. And while “The Last Jedi” tried to put the mystery of Rey’s parentage to rest, “The Rise of Skywalker” can’t quite move on. It takes up the question again, providing a final answer that’s reasonably satisfying on its own, but doesn’t quite justify the enormous build-up and back-and-forth over the course of three movies.

Ultimately, while I liked “The Rise of Skywalker” well enough, I also thought it was the weakest installment of the new trilogy. I’m particularly hard-pressed to recall any moments that affected me as deeply as the end of “The Last Jedi” — there’s nothing here that can match the quiet sadness of Luke’s reunion with Leia, or his lonely last stand against the First Order.

But even if “The Rise of Skywalker” isn’t the grand culmination that I’d been hoping for, it’s still a diverting adventure, not to mention a worthy farewell to Luke, Leia and all the others. When the forces of good and evil lined up for one final battle, I felt that old Star Wars thrill. And when I saw the last shot, I knew the story was ending where it was always supposed to end.



Indian education startup Byju’s turns profitable

10:41 | 18 December

One of India’s biggest tech startups is no longer losing money. Education tech startup Byju’s on Tuesday posted a net profit of $2.8 million on revenue of $188.8 million in the financial year that ended in March this year.

During the same period, Byju’s revenue increased to $208 million, from $73.2 million a year ago. The eight-year-old Bangalore-headquartered startup, which was valued at $5.75 billion in its previous financing round earlier this year, said it is on track to double its revenue to $422 million by March 31, 2020.

Anita Kishore, Chief Strategy Officer at Byju’s, told TechCrunch in an interview on Wednesday clarified that the startup has included taxes and all other expenses in its net profit. “We are profitable now,” she said.

In comparison, Byju’s had reported a net loss of $4 million on revenue of $69 million in the fiscal year that ended in March last year.

The improvement in the the startup’s financial comes as it works on courting students to its subscription service — though its tactic to sign up customers has received some criticism (paywalled).

The startup, which helps all school-going children understand complex subjects through its app where tutors use real-life objects such as pizza and cake, has amassed 2.8 million paying subscribers, up from 2.4 million in July, it said. Overall, it has 40 million registered users.

Byju’s, which also prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, said its education app is gaining significant traction in smaller cities and towns in India. Its subscribers from outside metro cities already account for 60% of its paying customers base, it said.

Mrinal Mohit, Chief Operating Officer of Byju’s, said the startup will soon explore more new products, including Byju’s Online Tutoring to “further accelerate growth and profitability in the coming year.”

To court users outside of large cities, Byju’s has tweaked the English accents in its app and adapted to different education systems. Mohit said the startup plans to launch programs in vernacular languages.

“We have always focused on sustainable growth and our efforts will continue to be on creating learning experiences that will help students become better learners. […] We strongly believe that we have the capability to create a global product that can revolutionize learning for students across the world,” he said.

The startup has previously said it plans to enter the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand markets. Earlier this year, it acquired Osmo, a U.S.-based learning startup that is popular among kids aged between five and 12, for $120 million. Osmo this year unveiled a new product to serve the pre-schoolers’ market.

Byju’s, which raised $925 million to date, is now part of a very small club of profitable startups in the nation.



Nigeria’s Rensource raises $20M to power African markets by solar

10:30 | 18 December

Nigerian startup Rensource Energy has raised a $20 million Series A round co-led by CRE Venture Capital and the Omidyar network.

The renewable energy company builds and operates solar powered micro-utilities that provide electricity to commercial community structures, such as open-air trading bazaars.

Launched in 2016, the startup has shifted its operating strategy. “We’ve pivoted away from a residential focus…and we’re building much larger systems to become essentially the utility for these large urban markets we have a lot of in Nigeria,” Rensource co-founder Ademola Adesina told TechCrunch.

The company has a partnership with German manufacturer BOS AG, with whom its designs specialized panels for it use case. Rensource also has developer teams in Nigeria and Europe for its software related programs.

In addition to becoming a micro-energy provider to Nigeria’s robust SME classes, the startup aims to offer them B2B services. With the $20 million round Rensource is launching its Spaces Offline to Online platform for supply-chain services, including business-analytics and working capital options.

“It’s a mini-ERP tool. We’re trying bring a universe of people who are banked, but…still offline — their products are offline, they don’t track anything, and there’s no data behind their business — online,” said Adesina.

Rensource Africa Nigeria App

The benefit Rensource seeks to bring to Nigeria’s SMEs — at a profit for itself — is to lower overhead costs through better business practices and free them from the bane of generators.

Across marketplaces in West Africa, noisy, fuel-guzzling, and pollution producing generators are like an unwelcome, yet necessary business partner.

Lack of affordable and reliable electricity in Nigeria creates a massive real and opportunity cost to Africa’s largest economy.

For perspective, the West African country is roughly the size of Texas, with a 200 million population larger than Russia, and generates less gigawatt hours of electricity annually than the U.S. state of Connecticut.

Nigerian businesses (and citizens) adjust for these power deficiencies by spending on diesel fuel and generators.

The IMF’s 2019 Nigeria report quoted economic losses of $29 billion in Nigeria due to unreliable electricity supply. On global Doing Business rankings, Nigeria ranked 169 out of 190 countries in the category of “Getting Electricity”.

This difficulty and cost weighs particularly heavy on Nigeria (and the continent’s) SMEs, which often operate in Africa’s informal economy — projected to be one of the largest off-the grid commercial spaces in the world.

Rensource Solar Nigeria AfricaRensource’s micro-utility model deploys power clusters — made up of solar-panels, batteries, and a power management system — adjacent to markets and commercial hubs. The energy application isn’t totally clean, as the startup still uses its own diesel backup system.

Rensourse has used this model to become an off-grid energy provider in six states in Nigeria, and powers the Sabon Gari market — one of the the country’s largest, located in northern Kaduna state.

The company plans to expand to 100 markets within Nigeria and to additional African countries within 24 months, according to Adesina.

Rensource generates revenue from charging merchants daily, weekly, or monthly fees. “In 2017, we did a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue. Last year we did about $7 million in revenue, and this year we’ll do better than that,” CEO Ademola Adesina said.

The company doesn’t release official financials, but generated a small profit last year, according to Adesina. He named deploying more of its micro-utilities to new markets and diversifying services as the path to long-term profitability.

The company differentiates itself from many home-kit solar energy startups in Africa, such as M-Kopa, by becoming a renewable energy utility at scale.

ademola adesina rensourceRensource’s CEO sees the model as a classic leapfrog tech business, effectively bypassing Nigeria’s existing electricity grid and providing a less capital intensive alternative to large (and often complicated) energy infrastructure projects.

The company is also following a trend by some Nigeria based startups, such as trucking-logistics company Kobo360 and motorcycle ride-hail company Gokada, to shape a suite of additional services around the needs of core clients.

In Rensource’s case, those clients are SMEs and traders in the informal economy. “This informality of theirs is what we see as an opportunity in building this new business line and bringing these [merchants] into the online world,” said Adesina.



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