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Atomico Partner Tom Wehmeier reviews ‘The State of European Tech’ 2019 report

01:33 | 3 December

Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, has released its latest annual The State of European Tech report, published in partnership with Slush and Orrick.

As part of the report, the authors surveyed 5,000 members of the ecosystem — including 1,000 founders — as well as pulling in robust data from other sources, such as Dealroom and the London Stock Exchange .

This year, the report reveals that the European tech ecosystem continues to mature and shows no sign of slowing — particularly highlighting the contrast from five years ago when the The State of European Tech report made its debut. Almost every key indicator is up and to the right, except, rather depressingly, diversity.

The data shows, for example, that competition for talent and access to the best founders has increased ferociously. And from a funding perspective, European founders have more choice than ever, especially with U.S. and Asian VC firms investing more and more in the region. Progress with gender diversity stalled, however, such as 92% of funding going to all-male teams.

I caught up with the report’s author Tom Wehmeier, Partner and Head of Insights at Atomico (also sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Mary Meeker of Europe”), where we discuss in more detail some of the key findings and why, it seems, that the rest of the world has finally woken up to Europe’s tech potential.

But first, a few headlines from the report:

  • European technology companies are on track to raise a record 30$B+ in funding in 2019, up from $25B the year before. (Source: Dealroom)
  • Despite failing to match the level of venture-backed exits of 2018, there was a record number of 40 $100M-plus deals as of September 2019, a size that many European tech sceptics did not believe was possible. (Source: Dealroom)
  • A number of multi-billion-dollar non-venture backed companies like Nexi and Trainline made their debut on the public markets.
  • European tech policymaking remains a mystery to many European founders.
  • When asked to describe the top priority of the European Commission in terms of tech policy, 40% of founders and startup employees say they don’t feel informed enough to comment. (Source: survey)
  • Despite this reported lack of awareness on policy issues, all respondents voted EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager as the person who had the most influence on European tech in 2019, good or bad. (Source: survey)
  • European parliamentarians aren’t talking about fintech and digital health, two sectors which investors poured a combined $12.7bn into last year (Source: Politico and Dealroom)
  • Europe’s diversity figures are still grim reading.
  • In 2019, 92% of funding went to all-male teams, a similar level to 2018. (Source: Dealroom)
  • There is still only one woman CTO in the 119 companies (<1%) based on a sample of executives in CxO positions at 251 European VC-backed tech companies that raised a Series A or B round between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019 with more than $10M funding, even though 7.5% of software engineers are women. (Source: Stack Overflow, Craft, Dealroom)
  • Looking beyond gender diversity, ethnic minorities in tech experienced discrimination at a much high rate than white peers. (Source: survey)
  • At least 80% of Black/African/Caribbean respondents who reported experiencing discrimination linked it to their ethnicity. (Source: survey)
  • 63% of women VCs reported increased focus on attending events with stronger participation from diverse founders. The corresponding number for men VCs was only 33% of female respondents suggested that their male counterparts are leaving female VCs to fix Europe’s diversity problem. (Source: survey)
  • European founders aren’t just aiming for commercial success — they are trying to solve some of the world’s largest problems.
  • One in five European founders states that their company is already measuring its societal and/or environmental impact. (Source: survey)
  • Only 14% of founders don’t believe it’s relevant for their company. Founders that are women are much more likely to be advanced in their approach to measuring impact. (Source: survey)
  • Employees are placing a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility, with 57% citing its importance in the State of European Tech survey. (Source: survey)

Extra Crunch: It is 5 years since Atomico published the first The State of European Tech report, which really attempted to capture a data-driven snapshot of the entire ecosystem. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen within European tech in the intertwining years or in this year in particular?

Tom Wehmeier: If I think back to when we did the first report, people who believe that Europe could actually be an interesting player in global technology, were largely limited to people who were in the tech industry in Europe itself. If you then fast forward to today, what has clearly happened — and I think 2019 was the year where this really materialized and became part of the narrative — was that belief translating from people on the inside to a bunch of people that were on the outside.

Most obviously has been the strength of interest from from the U.S. and the number of top-tier U.S. funds that are not just increasing their level of investment activity but committing to spending more and more time here on the ground, hiring people, building teams, building a network, and getting to know companies. I think it probably surprises people to know that 19% of all rounds this year will involve at least one U.S. investor in Europe, which is more than double since since the first year we did the report.

I think the other thing, where I come back to this idea that now we have finally convinced a certain group of people about the role that Europe can play, is mainstream institutional investors. I know it is not going to be lost on you, [but] this is going to be another record year for VC fund raising from Europe. And whilst the headline numbers might not be a surprise, I think what should catch people’s attention is that the composition of the LP base here in Europe is now shifting. And finally, there’s an unlocking of institutional investors, [by which] I mean pension funds, funds of funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, who are committing to European VC at levels that are significantly increased and elevated from where they had been in the past. So, if you just take pension funds, we’re going to see close to a billion dollars invested which is up nearly three fold.

It’s a validation of what’s happening around European tech to see that now coming through and I think is ultimately something that helps to build a foundation for the next five years of success. As much as this is a report that’s looking back, it’s also about trying to understand where things go from here.

With regards to the pension funds, do you think that is driven by the general bullishness towards European tech, or do you think it’s more the macro economic reality that maybe other places where they could put their money aren’t very attractive at the moment?

I think it’s really a reflection that there’s a strong level of belief that European venture as an asset class is an attractive investment opportunity. And that is reflected by the numbers. One of the charts that we’ve got in the report is from Cambridge Associates who do the benchmarking for the VC indices… And when you look back over a 1, 3, 5, or even a 10 year horizon, the performance from European VC is demonstrating that this is a place where for anyone building a diversified portfolio, they should have some allocation. I think it’s fundamentally the strength of the investment opportunity. That is the single biggest driver for why you’re seeing this happen.

I think the biggest thing that Europe has been able to prove is that it can take a great idea and turn it into a great company and that company can scale to not just a billion dollar outcome but to a multi-billion dollar outcome and go all the way through into an IPO or into a large scale acquisition. What you’ve seen happen in 2019 is in part A reflection of what happened last year where it was obviously this record year with Spotify, Adyen, Farfetch, Elastic and others that really showed you can go full cycle from start all the way to finish. And that the magnitude of those outcomes can be at a scale that makes them globally relevant.

Are the pension funds shifting their allocation of VC away from other geographies or are they just doing more VC as a whole?

 


0

Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

04:13 | 14 November

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

The changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure had not been communicated to users until news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about how secure Wire’s privacy policy will play out, given the company’s ownership now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via

, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion. We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003.

That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more. It was  a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Even with the Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.'”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.

 


0

JetPack Aviation raises $2M to build the prototype of its flying motorcycle

17:38 | 13 November

Flying cars are fine – but why use a car when you can have a motorcycle instead? YC-backed startup JetPack Aviation wants to answer that question with the world’s first flying motorcycle, a personal aircraft dubbed ‘The Speeder,’ a name that Star Wars fans will surely appreciate. Now, JetPack has raised a seed round of $2 million from investors indulging Draper Associates, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, YC, Catheis Ventures and a group of angels that it says will fund the development of the Speeder’s first functional prototype.

Back in March, JetPack revealed its plans for the Speeder, which it says will provide a fully stabilized ride that’s either pilot-controlled or fully autonomous. It can take off and land vertically, and reach top speeds of potentially over 400 MPH. There are not exposed rotors systems, which make it a lot safer and easier to operate than a lot of other VTOL designs and helicopters, and the company says it can also be refuelled in under 5 minutes, which is a dramatically shorter turn around time for powering up vs. an electric vehicle.

This isn’t JetPack’s first aerial rodeo: The company, led by CEO and founder David Mayman, has already created an actual jet pack. Mayman himself has demonstrated the personal aerial jet pack numerous times, and it’s been certified by the FAA, plus it landed a CARADA agreement with the U.S. Navy Special Forces for use in short-distance troop transportation. The jet pack also boasts a lot of features that sound, on paper, like diene fiction: Over 100 mph top seed, and suitcase-sized portability, for instance.

That track record is why when Mayman tells me this $2 million round “should fully fund the first full scale flying prototype, including all modelling designs and build,” I tend to believe him more than I would just about anyone else in the world making a similar claim.

Part of the reason the Speeder is more viable near-term than other VTOL designs is that it will rely on turbine propulsion, rather than battery-based flight systems. This is because, in Mayman’s opinion, “current battery energy density is just too low for most electrically powered VTOLs to be truly practical,” and that timelines optimistically for that to change are in the 5 to 10 year range. The Speeder, by comparison, should feasibly be able to provide quick cargo transportation for emergency services and military (its first planned uses before moving on to the consumer market) in a much shorter period.

 


0

Sources: Lilium is looking to raise up to $500M for its electric flying taxis

14:18 | 10 October

“Flying cars” — airborne vehicles designed for urban and other short-distance commutes to replace conventional private automobiles — are (at best) still years away from being a reality, with significant safety, technology and business model hurdles to clear before they ever hit the sky. Now, sources tell us that one of more promising startups in the field, the German startup Lilium, wants to put itself into pole position, by ramping up its financial position.

Lilium has been talking to investors to raise a big round of funding, between $400 million and $500 million, according to those familiar with its plans. “It’s a very large round at a very large valuation,” one VC told TechCrunch.

It’s not clear yet who is investing in this latest round, or what that valuation might be.

Lilium already has some deep-pocketed investors behind it. In addition to WeChat owner and Chinese internet giant Tencent; it counts Atomico, founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, as a repeat investor. Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams; LGT, the international private banking and asset management group; and e24, a fund from Christian Reber (co-founder of Wunderlist and now Pitch), have also backed it, among others.

In all, Lilium has raised over $100 million in financing to date in previous rounds. But given that its plans involve not only building ground-breaking aircraft but then operating them in fleets, that’s not nearly enough to establish its service and have the impact that founder and chief executive, Daniel Wiegand, hopes he can have.

“It’s not only a benefit in terms of relieving society from transit traffic, but the much, much bigger benefit would be that everyone can use it and that people can get to their destination five times quicker, basically a five times increase of their daily radius of life,” Wiegand said in 2017. “This connectivity is going to be a huge benefit to society but also economic growth.”

Tencent, Atomico and Obvious were among the investors backing Lilium in its most recent $90 million raise. Sources tell us that Tencent is again in this latest round, and the startup has been pitching potential new investors since at least this spring, visiting with firms in Silicon Valley.

It seems this latest, bigger round has yet to close. The target size implies the involvement of big names, with big funds behind them.

“I sincerely hope they get the funds to transform transportation,” one source said.

When (if) the round closes, that would make it the biggest fundraising to date for flying taxis, an area that has lots of potential, but is still far from tested — a fact that one source suggested could contribute to the longer period needed to close the outsized round.

“It’s a known secret how hard it is to raise growth rounds in this space because it’s such a new and untested market,” an executive from another air-taxi startup noted. “Early investments were betting on the market vision and the concept of radically new mobility, but now it’s dawning on investors and others that it’s also a regulation play, and more.” That translates potentially to sustained costs, “and that may be one reason why it’s taking some time.”

Add to that the ambition at hand — designing completely new transportation hardware, then manufacturing the aircraft at scale, and then finally building a transportation, taxi-style service around them — and you can start to see why the round might be very large.

Lilium, Atomico, Tencent and Obvious all declined to comment for this story. We’ll update the post if that changes.

Up, up and away

It’s been a little over two years since Lilium and others in the same space such as Volocopter began publicly discussing their visions for the future of mobility alongside incredibly well-funded industry giants like Uber and established aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, and others.

Lilium raised its first round of funding in December 2016 and only a few months later, Uber convened its first Elevate conference, which included discussions on the transportation industry’s flying future.

Since those initial discussions, the companies developing technologies and services to bring those plans to fruition have made significant strides.

Earlier this year Lilium announced the first successful flight for a new five-seat electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle. Others are readying pilot projects in their first launch cities, with the timeline for first full-launch services currently hovering around the three-year mark from now (note: dates do get pushed back).

For Lilium and its competitors, the development of completely new, air-borne vehicles are a means to solving a specific problem: roads in and between cities are too congested with traffic; and electric, air-based options can be a way to offset that situation in an environmentally-friendly way.

Many companies building these new craft are considering taxi-style services as the first or primary point of market entry because — similar to fully-autonomous cars — the cost per vehicle will likely be too high for most individuals to consider buying for private/sole use, notwithstanding the safety features of being able to manage a full fleet autonomously that would be harder to execute with single users (who would have to be pilots, in the case of flying cars).

Lilium’s new vehicle claims to have a top speed of 300 kilometers per hour and a 300 kilometer range, which would make it capable of covering longer distances than its competitors. Lilium says this is partly because it’s designed it in the form of a small jet aircraft instead of mimicking the mechanics and form factor of drones or helicopters (the latter is the approach that Volocopter, another startup out of Germany backed by the likes of Intel and Daimler, is taking). The fixed-wing design of the plane means that it can rely on lift to stay aloft, cutting down on the power demands on the electric 2,000 horsepower engines when it’s aloft.

“This efficiency, which is comparable to the energy usage of an electric car over the same distance, means the aircraft would not just be capable of connecting suburbs to city centres and airports to main train stations, but would also deliver affordable high-speed connections across entire regions,” Lilium said in a statement at the time.

But physics is just one part of the complex system of moving pieces that would need to come together to get Lilium (or any of its rivals) off the ground.

For one, any system will need to integrate with existing air traffic control infrastructure as well — as local and national regulators grapple with increasingly crowded skies.

Another involves the logistical components to operate a service. The company also established a software engineering base in London to help build out the fleet management software and mobile phone application that will connect customers to the jets for transit, and it has been hiring.

Although we have yet to see any commercial services emerge built on the concept of fleets of providing short/medium-distance, air-based taxi-style transportation, there are a number of hopefuls that have identified the opportunity of both designing aircraft and building services around them.

Companies like Kitty HawkeHang, Joby and Uber all hope to play a role in offering short-range flights as an affordable alternative to road-based transportation. (Blade and SkyRyse, two other air taxi services of sorts, are offering more conventional helicopters and other vessels in limited launches for well-heeled travelers willing to spend the money.)

Last week at San Francisco Disrupt 2019, Kitty Hawk announced its latest vehicle, Heaviside. It’s an electric aircraft designed to be a personalised vehicle, less obtrusive than a helicopter, ableto go anywhere and land anywhere fast and quietly, and as easy to operate as “pushing a button,” according to CEO Sebastian Thrun.

 


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Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer on focus and opportunity in autonomous delivery

20:02 | 3 September

Starship Technologies is fresh off a recent $40 million funding round, and the robotics startup finds itself in a much-changed market compared to when it got its start in 2014. Founded by software industry veterans including Skype and Rdio co-founder Janis Friis, Starship’s focus is entirely on building and commercialization fleets of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots.

Starship invented this category when it debuted, but five years later it’s one of a number of companies looking to deploy what essentially amounts to wheeled, self-driven coolers that can carry small packages and everyday freight including fresh food to waiting customers. CEO Lex Bayer, a former sales leader from Airbnb, took over the top spot at Starship last year and is eager to focus the company’s efforts in a drive to take full advantage of its technology and experience lead.

The result is transforming what looked, to all external observers, like a long tail technology play into a thriving commercial enterprise.

“We want to do 100 universities in the next 24 months, and we’ll do about 25 to 50 robots in each campus,” Bayer said in an interview about his company’s plans for the future.

 


0

Skype upgrades its messaging feature with drafts, bookmarks and more

22:10 | 30 August

Skype is best known for being a video calling app and, to some extent, that’s because its messaging feature set has been a bit underdeveloped. Today, the company is working to change that image with a series of improvements to Skype’s chatting features aimed at further differentiating it from rival apps.

One of the most useful of the new features is support for Message Drafts.

Similar to email, any message you type up in Skype but don’t yet send is saved within the conversation with a “draft” tag attached. That way you can return to the message to finish it and send it later on.

Skype new features 1b

It’s a feature it would be great to see other messaging clients adopt, as well, given how much of modern business and personal communication takes place outside of email.

People have wanted the ability to draft and schedule iMessage texts for years — so much so that clever developers invented app-based workarounds to meet consumers’ needs. Some people even type up their texts in Notepad, while waiting for the right time to send them.

In another email-inspired addition, Skype is also introducing the ability to bookmark important messages. To access this option, you just have to long-press a message (on mobile) or right-click (on desktop), then tap or click “Add Bookmark.” This will add the message to your Bookmarks screen for easy retrieval.

Skype new features 2

You’ll also now be able to preview photos, videos, and files before you send them through messages — a worthwhile improvement, but one that’s more about playing catch-up to other communication apps than being particularly innovative.

Skype new features 4

And if you’re sharing a bunch of photos or videos all at once, Skype will now organize them neatly. Instead of overwhelming recipients with a large set of photos, the photos are grouped in a way that’s more common to what you’d see on social media. That is, only a few are display while the rest hide behind a “+” button you have to click in order to see more.

Skype new features 3b

Unrelated to the messaging improvements, Skype also rolled out split window support for all versions of Windows, Mac, and Linux. (Windows 10 support was already available).

As one of the older messaging apps still in use, Skype is no longer the largest or most popular, claiming only 300 million monthly active users compared to WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion, for example.

However, it’s good to see its team getting back to solving real consumer pain points rather than trying to clone Snapchat as it mistakenly tried to do not too long ago. (Thankfully, those changes were rolled back.) What Skype remaining users appreciate is the app’s ease-of-use and its productivity focus, and these changes are focused on that direction.

Outside of the expanded access to split view, noted above, all the other new features are rolling out across all Skype platforms, the company says.

 

 

 


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Microsoft tweaks privacy policy to admit humans can listen to Skype Translator and Cortana audio

15:21 | 15 August

Microsoft is the latest tech giant to amend its privacy policy after media reports revealed it uses human contractors to review audio recordings of Skype and Cortana users.

A section in the policy on how the company uses personal data now reads (emphasis ours):

Our processing of personal data for these purposes includes both automated and manual (human) methods of processing. Our automated methods often are related to and supported by our manual methods. For example, our automated methods include artificial intelligence (AI), which we think of as a set of technologies that enable computers to perceive, learn, reason, and assist in decision-making to solve problems in ways that are similar to what people do. To build, train, and improve the accuracy of our automated methods of processing (including AI), we manually review some of the predictions and inferences produced by the automated methods against the underlying data from which the predictions and inferences were made. For example, we manually review short snippets of a small sampling of voice data we have taken steps to de-identify to improve our speech services, such as recognition and translation.

The tweaks to the privacy policy of Microsoft’s Skype VoIP software and its Cortana voice AI were spotted by Motherboard — which was also first to report that contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service, and to audio snippets captured by the Cortana voice assistant.

Asked about the privacy policy changes, Microsoft told Motherboard: “We realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job specifying that humans sometimes review this content.”

Multiple tech giants’ use of human workers to review users’ audio across a number of products involving AI has grabbed headlines in recent weeks after journalists exposed a practice that had not been clearly conveyed to users in terms and conditions — despite European privacy law requiring clarity about how people’s data is used.

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all been called out for failing to make it clear that a portion of audio recordings will be accessed by human contractors.

Such workers are typically employed to improve the performance of AI systems by verifying translations and speech in different accents. But, again, this human review component within AI systems has generally been buried rather than transparently disclosed.

Earlier this month a German privacy watchdog told Google it intended to use EU privacy law to order it to halt human reviews of audio captured by its Google Assistant AI in Europe — after press had obtained leaked audio snippets and being able to re-identify some of the people in the recordings.

On learning of the regulator’s planned intervention Google suspended reviews.

Apple also announced it was suspending human reviews of Siri snippets globally, again after a newspaper reported that its contractors could access audio and routinely heard sensitive stuff.

Facebook also said it was pausing human reviews of a speech-to-text AI feature offered in its Messenger app — again after concerns had been raised by journalists.

So far Apple, Google and Facebook have suspended or partially suspended human reviews in response to media disclosures and/or regulatory attention.

While the lead privacy regulator for all three, Ireland’s DPC, has started asking questions.

In response to the rising privacy scrutiny of what tech giants nonetheless claim is a widespread industry practice, Amazon also recently amended the Alexa privacy policy to disclose that it employs humans to review some audio. It also quietly added an option for uses to opt-out of the possibility of someone listening to their Alexa recordings. Amazon’s lead EU privacy regulator is also now seeking answers.

Microsoft told Motherboard it is not suspending human reviews at this stage.

Users of Microsoft’s voice assistant can delete recordings — but such deletions require action from the user and would be required on a rolling basis as long as the product continues being use. So it’s not the same as having a full and blanket opt out.

We’ve asked Microsoft whether it intends to offer Skype or Cortana users an opt out of their recordings being reviewed by humans.

The company told Motherboard it will “continue to examine further steps we might be able to take”.

 


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PayU, Naspers’ global fintech firm, enters Southeast Asia with acquisition of Red Dot Payment

05:13 | 5 July

PayU, the Naspers owned fintech firm that specializes in emerging markets, is broadening its global reach into Southeast Asia after it announced a deal to buy a majority stake in Singapore-based Red Dot Payment.

Naspers is best known for its payments and fintech business in markets like India, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, but now it will enter Southeast Asia, a market with over 600 million consumers and rapidly rising internet access.

PayU plans to tap that potential through Red Dot, an eight-year-old startup founded by finance veterans which offers services that include a payment gateway, e-commerce storefronts and online invoicing across Southeast Asia. PayU said it has acquired “a majority stake” in the business. It did not specify the exact size but it did disclose that the deal values Red Dot at $65 million.

It isn’t clear exactly how much Red Dot had raised from investors overall — its Series B was $5.2 million but the value of prior rounds were not disclosed — but its backers include Japan’s GMO, Wavemaker, Skype co-founder Toivo Annus and MDI Ventures. The company said that that “the majority” of its investors exited through this transaction, but some stakeholders — including CEO Randy Tan — are keeping shares with a view to a later buyout in full.

That’s important for PayU, according to CEO Laurent le Moal, who stressed that the company believes in retaining teams and empowering them through acquisitions, rather than simply buying an asset.

“We have to strike the balance between a solid majority [acquisition] and an opportunity” for founders, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

PayU plans to put “real investment” into the startup, whilst also integrating its services into its ‘Hub’ of services and tech, a stack that is shared with its mesh of global business and was built from its acquisition of Israel’s Zooz. PayU’s India business alone is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion, but its overall business is hard to value but more details emerge of its global business as Naspers lists select entities through an IPO in Europe.

Back to the deal, Tan called it “a marriage made in heaven,” and he also revealed that Red Dot had turned down recent investment and acquisition offers from three other suitors.

“They [PayU] operate globally and have over 300,000 merchants, including Facebook, Google and the kind of clients we aspire to win,” he said.

So why Southeast Asia, and why now?

“We want to build the number one payments company for high growth markets,” le Moal said. “If you look at what the top 10 economies will be in 2030, half are in Southeast Asia and the rest are growth markets we are already in

“We are number one in India, in the biggest markets in Africa, the fastest-growing part of Europe and Latin America, but we have no presence in Southeast Asia,” he continued. “It’s fundamental… you want to go where the consumer growth is.”

The initial focus post-deal is to supercharge the Red Dot business through shared tech, networks and expertise, but, further down the line, de Moal has a vision of going deeper into fintech and financial services to offer products such as consumer credit, as it has done in India.

Such a product launch isn’t likely to happen for another 12 months at least, the PayU CEO said. Before then, there will be a focus on growing Red Dot’s cross-border trade business and developing synergy with its business in other markets, especially India.

Laurent Le Moal 2017

PayU CEO Laurent Le Moal said the company is looking to dominate high-growth markets in Southeast Asia following its acquisition of Red Dot Payment

De Moal hinted also that PayU has ambitions to be in Japan and Korea, although he conceded that the exact strategy — which could include organic growth — is still to be defined. We can certainly expect to see an uptick from the company in Southeast Asia and the wider Asian continent.

“There will be an acceleration of investment and M&A,” de Moal said. “It’s just the beginning for us as PayU and Naspers in the region.”

 


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Skype publicly launches screen sharing on iOS and Android

17:47 | 5 June

Skype is taking one of its most popular desktop features to mobile devices: screen sharing. The company announced on Tuesday that its mobile screen sharing feature is now out of beta testing, allowing both iOS and Android users to share their phone’s screen while on a call.

The feature could be used for work-related purposes, as Microsoft has suggested in the past — like sharing a PowerPoint presentation. But it could also be used for fun — like swiping through a dating app while a friend gives their feedback, or for online shopping alongside a friend. More practically, it could be used to give remote tech help, like when your dad can’t find a setting on his iPhone. (True story).

Mobile screen sharing was first introduced into beta in April for testers, but is now available to all mobile users.

To access the option, Skype users will tap the newly added “…” (more) menu in the app. This is where you’ll find other recently launched features, as well, including call recording and subtitles.

Also new in this release of Skype for mobile, is a redesigned calling screen that now lets you dismiss the call controls with one tap. A second tap dismisses all the controls to make the video call itself the focus. And another tap brings all the controls back.

Despite Skype’s advanced age, the mobile communications app still has some 300 million monthly users. It hasn’t stopped the rollout of new features that allow it to remain relevant in an age where so much messaging is done through chat apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat or through built-in communication services like iMessage and FaceTime.

While not all its changes have been a success — last year Skype had to roll back its overly colorful Snapchat-inspired makeover, for example — it still often adds useful features like HD video, encryption by way of the Signal Protocol, and call recording, to name a few.

Mobile screen sharing works on Android 6.0 and higher, and on iOS (iPhone and iPad) with iOS 12 and up. You will only see the option if you’ve updated to the latest release.

Other platforms that support screen sharing include Linux, Mac, Windows, and Skype for Windows 10 (version 14).

 


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Skype now supports up to 50 group call participants, topping rivals

18:09 | 5 April

Skype is capitalizing on Apple’s struggles with Group FaceTime to attract attention to its own group calling features. Today, the company announced it’s doubling the number of people who can simultaneously participate in a group audio or video call. It now supports as many as 50 people at once, up from 25, previously.

With the expanded support for more participants, Skype tops the abilities of other popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and Instagram, and instead competes more directly with enterprise-grade calling solutions like Zoom, for example, which supports up to 100 or even 1,000 participants, depending on the plan

Skype also one-ups Facebook Messenger, which allows 50 people to join a chat but limits the screen to show  only the speaker after more than a half-dozen people join in. On Skype, however, the participants are shown in bubbles across the top of the screen and the end-user can choose whose feed they want to focus on in a multi-paned main window.

Notably, Skype’s update also puts it ahead of Apple’s FaceTime which now supports up to 32 people on group calls as of iOS 12.1.

But Group FaceTime has experienced some issues in recent months. A teenager found a security bug that allowed users to eavesdrop before calls were picked up. Apple disabled the feature, fixed the bug, then re-enabled Group FaceTime with February’s release of iOS 12.1.4. But the update also introduced a change to how the app works, as it

users have to have at least 3 people on a FaceTime call to begin with before they could use the “Add Person” button.

Skype, on the other hand, is simplifying how video calls start with the new release.

For groups under 25 participants, you can just ring the entire group at once, the company says.

And for larger calls, Skype added a notification option to replace ringing as the default. That means participants get a less obstructive, ping-style alert to join the call.

To use these new features, you’ll need to download the latest version of Skype.

 


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