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Gaming-focused investment firm Bitkraft closes in on at least $140 million for its second fund

04:14 | 21 February

Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.

For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.

Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.

The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.

Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.

While at Goldman, Baier-Lentz worked on the $67 billion Dell acquisition of EMC and the $34 billion acquisition of RedHat by IBM.

The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.

As Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners told TechCrunch last year:

“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”

Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.

For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”

Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz

Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them. 

“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”

It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.

Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.

In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.

“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”

 


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Tesla Model 3 makes Consumer Reports ‘Top Picks’ list for 2020

21:25 | 20 February

Tesla’s Model 3 is among the top 10 choices for car buyers in 2020, according to Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization released its “Top Picks” of the year on Thursday, and it included Tesla’s most affordable vehicle alongside cars from automakers including Toyota, Subaru, Honda, Kia and Lexus.

The Model 3 was chosen as one of three vehicles in the $45K -$55K category, alongside the Lexus RX and the Toyota Supra. CR lauded its “thrilling driving experience,” including “impressive handling and quick precise steering [that] help it feel like a sports car.” They did ding it slightly for having a “stiff ride” overall, but said that that’s more than made up for by its long EV battery range emission free eco-friendly qualities.

Consumer Reports also specifically called out a worry about the Model 3 that “Autopilot, an optional system on the vehicle, does not require the driver to stay engaged, creating safety concerns.” Tesla has always positioned Autopilot as a driver assist feature, that still requires a driver to be ready to take over control at a moment’s notice, but critics have suggested its implementation can lead to misuse resulting in inattentiveness.

Clearly. that concern wasn’t enough to prevent CR from counting the Model 3 among its top recommendations for vehicles in 2020. Tesla also ended up ranking 11th overall out of 33 automakers in Consumer Reports’ 2020 automative brand report card, climbing eight positions from last year. The Model 3, and the rapid improvements that Tesla was able to make in its production as it scaled assembly of the vehicle, clearly helped it in the eyes the consumer-focused non-profit.

 


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The Station: Lucid Motors spy shot and the birth of an AV startup

01:27 | 18 February

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hello again — or perhaps for the first time. This is Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch and your host here at The Station. This weekly newsletter will also be posted as an article after the weekend — that’s what you’re reading now. To get it first, subscribe for free. Please note that there will be not be a newsletter Feb. 22.

It was a drama-filled week with a hearing on the hill in D.C. about autonomous vehicle legislation that got a bit tense at times. Meanwhile, Uber tipped its hat to the past, EV startup Lucid started to lift the veil on its Air vehicle (scroll down for a spy shot!) and micromobility prepared for headwinds in Germany.

Before I ride off into the sunset for my vacation, one reminder for y’all. Don’t forget to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome back to micromobbin’, a regular feature in The Station by reporter Megan Rose Dickey . Before we get into her micromobility insights, a quick note that shared scooters are facing a fight in Germany that has prompted companies to unite over their “shared” cause. (Get it?)

Micromobility vehicles, first legalized in Germany last June, have flooded the marketplace and caused a backlash in cities like Berlin, where at least six apps, including Bird, Circ (now owned by Bird), Lime, Tier, Uber Jump and Voi operate. As the Financial Times first reported, amendments to the country’s Road Traffic Act would give individual cities the power to heavily restrict the areas in which e-scooters can be parked or ban them altogether.

Now back to Dickey’s micromobbin’.

Swiftmile, the startup that wants to become the gas station for electric micromobility vehicles, announced its move into advertising this week. Swiftmile already supplies cities and private operators with docks equipped to park and charge both scooters and e-bikes. Now, the company is starting to integrate digital displays that attach to its charging stations to provide public transit info, traffic alerts and, of course, ads.

“It adds tremendous value because it’s a massive market,” Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “Tons of these corporations want to market to that group but you cannot do that on a scooter, nor should you. So there’s a massive audience that wants to market to that group but also cities like us because we’re bringing order to the chaos.”

Meanwhile, Bird unveiled more details about its loyalty program, called Frequent Flyer. It’s currently in the pilot phase, which means it’s only available in select markets. But the benefits for riding five times in 28 days, include no start fees for rides between 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday and the ability to reserve your Bird in advance for up to 30 minutes at no cost.

— Megan Rose Dickey

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We don’t just hear things. We see things too. This week in a little bird — the place where we shared insider news not gossip — I’m going to share two spy shots of a production version of Lucid Motors’ upcoming Air electric vehicle. See below.

The photos of the production version of the Lucid Air was taken during an event hosted for some of the vehicle’s first reservation holders. (I wasn’t there, but luckily some readers of The Station were.) By the way, we also hear that reservations are in the “low four figures.”

Lucid Air production reveal

You’ll notice that the production version of the Air is nearly identical to the beta version. Unfortunately, we don’t see the interior. But reports suggest it falls in the understated luxury category and without giant screens.

Lucid is preparing for the one more important moments in its history as a company. The production version of Air will be unveiled in April at the New York Auto Show. In the run up to the auto show, Lucid is revealing more information about the vehicle, including a recent video that suggested the vehicle had a real-world range of more than 400 miles. Lucid has hit that 400-mile range in simulated testing, but how it operates on the roads is what really matters.

What’s impressive, if those numbers bear out, is that it was accomplished with a 110-kWh battery pack. That’s an improvement from back in 2016 when Lucid said it would need a 130-kWh battery pack to achieve that range. In my past conversations with CEO Peter Rawlinson — and one wild ride with him behind the wheel of an early Air prototype in Vegas — it’s clear he is obsessed with battery efficiency. That apparently hasn’t waned.

Car and Driver, which was at this special event, noted in its report that Rawlinson has a goal to get to five miles per kilowatt-hour. Right now, Tesla can lay claim to the most efficient electric vehicle with the upcoming Model Y at a claimed 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour.

And late Friday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the Tesla Model S now has an estimated EPA range is now above 390 miles or ~630 km.

Inside the beltway

It got a little prickly on Capitol Hill during a House panel hearing this week that aimed to tackle how best to regulate autonomous vehicles. Watch the hearing to see it all unfold. Here’s a handy link to it.

A quick history lesson: The SELF DRIVE ACT was unanimously passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. AV START, a complementary bill introduced in the Senate, failed to pass because Democrats said it didn’t go far enough to address safety and liability issues.

A bipartisan group revived efforts to come up with legislation that would address Democrat concerns and give auto manufacturers and AV developers greater freedom to deploy vehicles that lack controls like a steering wheel or pedals, which are currently required by federal law.

There was some level of public agreement between the traditional auto manufacturers and AAJ over the issue of accountability. But there is still a huge divide between organizations like the Consumer Technology Association and safety advocates and trial lawyers over the issue of forced arbitration.

Groups like the American Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, want to ban forced arbitration in any autonomous vehicle bill.

Meanwhile, CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro submitted testimony that was clearly opposed to limiting the use of arbitration. The CTA argues that arbitration reduces the cost of litigation and provides more timely remedies.

People who were in the room told me they were surprised by how unwavering Shapiro’s comments were, and suggested that it wasn’t in step with how some auto manufacturers view the issue.

Following the hearing, the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committees circulated seven sections to industry groups covering issues such as crash-data sharing and cybersecurity, according to reporting by Bloomberg Government. There was one missing provision. Any guesses? Yup, the provision dealing with forced arbitration. That has caused some Democrats to abandon the bill.

There are two ways for this bill to survive in this congressional session — by unanimous consent, meaning everyone agrees to it, or by being attached to another bill. The first option is highly unlikely. And the second is just as slim since there are limited opportunities in the Senate to attach self-driving legislation to another bill.

Adventures in ride hailing

Two items to mention that illustrate how the world of ride-hailing continues to evolve.

First up is Uber. The company is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The pilot is launching in Arizona, followed by other yet unnamed states. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s not quite like calling a taxi dispatcher though. You’ll still need a phone that can receive SMS or test messages to get information on the driver and their ETA.

Now let’s jump over to Nigeria where new regulations in the country’s commercial center of Lagos is creating some chaos.

Lagos has started to restrict where shared motorcycles, called okadas, can operate. That is affecting motorcycle-taxi businesses like ORide, Max .ng and Gokada.

In a statement via email, ORide’s Senior Director of Operations, Olalere Ridwan, said the rules entail “a ban on commercial motorcycles…in the city’s core commercial and residential areas, including Victoria Island and Lagos Island.”

The motorcycle taxi limitations have also thrown off Lagos’s disorderly transit grid — overloading other mobility modes (such as mini-buses) and forcing more people to pound pavement and red-dirt to get to work, according to reporter Jake Bright.

Google’s axe sparks a spinoff

Google bookbot-cartken

I wanted to highlight one of our ONMs, otherwise known as original news manufacturers. Ba dum bump.

Freelancer Mark Harris is back with a scoop on Google’s short-lived Bookbot program and how its death sparked a new and still-in-stealth startup called Cartken.

Bookbot was a robot created within the Google’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products. The plan was to pilot an autonomous robot in Mountain View that would pickup library books from users and bring them back to the library. Apparently, it was well received. But it was killed off far before its nine-month pilot was slated to end. Bookbot’s demise followed Google’s decision to scale back efforts to compete with Amazon in shopping.

But Bookbot appears to be back, albeit in a slicker form and with a broader use case than a library book shuttle. Engineers working on Bookbot as well as a logistics expert who was once in charge of operations at Google Express left the company to form Cartken in fall 2019.

Check out Harris’ deep dive into Bookbot, Google’s shift away from shopping and Cartken.

TC Sessions: Mobility savings

You might have heard or read here in this newsletter that TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Now here’s my discount deal for you. To get 10% off tickets, including early bird, use code AUTO. Early Bird sale ends April 9. Early-bird tickets are available now for $250 — that’s $100 savings before prices go up. Students can book a ticket for just $50. Book your tickets today.

So far, we’ve announced:

  • Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber
  • Boris Sofman, who is leading Waymo’s autonomous trucking efforts
  • Nancy Sun, Ike Robotics chief engineer and co-founder
  • Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan
  • Porsche North America CEO Klaus Zellmer
  • Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility

Expect more announcements each week leading up to the May 14th event.

 


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Dial-an-Uber lets users talk to an actual human to hail a ride

17:36 | 13 February

Uber is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The move isn’t just a departure from its app roots. It’s another sign that Uber is trying to transform into a transportation company that serves a larger customer base.

The dial-an-Uber feature was “designed with older adults in mind” though anyone preferring conversational support will benefit from this pilot, the company said. The feature was built based on feedback from older adults who told the company that “live conversations, and simplicity of experience can make a difference for their transportation needs,” according to the ride-hailing company.

After dialing 1-833-USE-UBER, the customer will be paired with a live team member that confirms their trip request, provides an upfront price quote.

There are some important caveats to this feature that could shut out folks who don’t own a cellular phone.

Customers still must have a phone that can receive SMS or text-based mobile phone to receive important messages about the ETA of the ride, driver’s license plate details, and the driver’s name. Users will continue to receive messages before and during your trip, and once it concludes, they’ll receive a trip receipt.

The company will initially launch the phone number 1-833-USE-UBER in Arizona. There is no extra charge for using this service, though Uber noted that carrier message and data rates may apply. Anyone in the state can call the phone number to hail an Uber in the cities where the service is currently available. Users can also ask for specific Uber options such as UberX, Uber Comfort, Uber Black, Black SUV, as well as Uber Assist and WAV, where available.

Uber said it will expand the dial-an-Uber to more states in the coming months.

Uber was also explicit that the 1-800 number is not meant for general customer support inquiries, although certainly it will be used for that purpose.

 


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Intuition Robotics raises $36M for its empathetic digital companion

15:00 | 13 February

Intuition Robotics, the company best known for its ElliQ robot, a digital home companion for the elderly, today announced that it has raised a $36 million Series B round co-led by SPARX Group and OurCrowd. Toyota AI Ventures, Sompo Holdings, iRobot, Union Tech Ventures, Happiness Capital, Samsung Next, Capital Point and Bloomberg Beta also participated in this round. This brings the total funding for the company, which was founded in 2016, to $58 million.

As the company, which sees it as its mission to build digital assistants that can create emotional bonds between humans and machines, also disclosed today, it is working with the Toyota Research Institute to bring its technology to the automaker’s LQ concept. Toyota previously said that it wanted to bring an empathetic AI assistant to the LQ that could create a bond between driver and car. Intuition Robotics’s Q platform helps power this  assistant, which Toyota calls “Yui.”

Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler

Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler tells me that the company spent the last two years gathering data through ElliQ. In the process, the company spent more than 10,000 days in the homes of early users to gather data. The youngest of those users were 78 and the oldest 97.

On average, users interacted with ElliQ eight times per day and spent about six minutes on those interactions. When ElliQ made proactive suggestions, users accepted those about half the time.

“We believe that we have been able to prove that she can create an enduring relationship between humans and machines that actually influences people’s feelings and behaviors,” Skuler told me. “That she’s able to create empathy and trust — and anticipate the needs of the users. And that, to us, is the real vision behind the company.”

While Intuition Robotics is most closely identified with ElliQ, though, that’s only one area the company is focusing on. The other is automotive — and as Skuler stressed, as a small startup, focus is key, even as there are some other obvious verticals it could try to get into.

In the car, the empathetic AI assistant will adapt to the individual user and, for example, provide personalized suggestions for trying out new features in the car, or suggest that you open the window and get some fresh air into the car when it senses you are getting tired. As Skuler stressed, the car is actually a great environment for a digital assistant, as it already has plenty of built-in sensors.

“The agent gets the data feed, builds context, looks at the goals and answers three questions: Should I be proactive? Which activity should I promote? And which version to be most effective? And then it controls the outcomes,” Skuler explained. That’s the same process in the car as it would be in ElliQ — and indeed, the same code runs in both.

The Intuition team decided that in order to allow third-parties to build these interactions, it needed to develop specialized tools and a new language that would help designers — not programmers — create the outlines of these interactions for the platform.

Unlike ElliQ, though, the assistant in the car doesn’t move, of course. In Toyota’s example, the car uses lights and a small screen to provide additional interactions with the driver. As Skuler also told me, the company is already working with another automotive company to bring its Q platform to more cars, though he wasn’t ready to disclose this second automotive partner.

“Intuition Robotics is creating disruptive technology that will inspire companies to re-imagine how machines might amplify the human experience,” said Jim Adler, founding managing partner at Toyota AI Ventures, who will also join the company’s board of directors.

Intuition Robotics’ team doubled over the course of the last year and the company now has 85 employees, most of whom are engineers. The company has offices in Israel and San Francisco.

Unsurprisingly, the plans for the new funding focus on building out its assistant’s capabilities. “We’re the only company in the world that can create these context-based, nonlinear personalized interactions that we call a digital companion,” Skuler told me. “We assume people will start doing similar things. There’s a lot more work to do. […] A big part of the work is to increase our research activities and increase the tools and the performance of the runtime engine for the agent.” He also told me that the team continues to gather data about ElliQ so it can prove that it improves the quality of life of its users. And in addition to this, the company obviously also will continue to build out its work around cars.

“We cracked something nobody’s cracked before,” Skuler said. “And now we’re on the verge of getting value out of it. And it will be hard work because this is not an app. It’s really hard work but we want to capture that value.”

 


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After VCs spend millions Nigeria restricts ride-hail motorbike taxis

08:39 | 12 February

Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos has shaken up its transportation order.

At the center are the West African country’s motorcycle taxis — referred to locally as okadas — which face newly enforced regulatory restrictions on their movement.

That’s creating speedbumps for Nigeria’s two-wheel ride-hail startups, operating in Africa’s most populous nation with the continent’s largest economy.

Ventures Max .ng, ORide, and Gokada have received millions from American, Japanese, and Chinese investors to shift the continent’s motorcycle-taxi markets to on-demand mobility.

The three startups have been in a race for capital and market share — with the streets of Lagos serving as a competition course for developing platforms that can scale in Africa.

Gokada raised $5.3 million in May. Max.ng raised a $7 million Series A round in June 2019, with Yamaha on board, to pilot renewable energy powered e-motos in Africa.

Motorcycle-taxi business ORide rattled competitors in Nigeria in 2019 when its Chinese owned parent — Opera — rallied $170 million in VC for Opera’s digital service verticals in Nigeria, including ORide.

Fueled by fresh capital, the bright colored helmets of these ride-hail startups buzzing through Lagos traffic have become a backdrop in the city of 21 million.

That flow of motorcycle taxis (and traffic at large) slowed on February 1, when the municipality that governs Lagos — Lagos State — began enforcement of its 2018 Transit Sector Reform Law.

Source: Google Maps

The legislation is actually meant to improve multiple facets of transportation in Lagos, which is notorious for gridlock, but may have done the inverse — particularly around okadas.

TechCrunch reached out to Lagos State Government for clarification on the Transit Sector Reform Law, but hasn’t heard back.

The Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, invoked safety and security concerns as a reason for the okada restrictions at an event to launch more water-boat taxis in Lagos on February 5.

In a statement via email, ORide’s Senior Director of Operations, Olalere Ridwan, said the rules entail “a ban on commercial motorcycles…in the city’s core commercial and residential areas, including Victoria Island and Lagos Island.”

ORide posted a map of the restrictions

with an explanation the company was complying with the rules and would cease operations in the designated areas. Reps from Max.ng and Gokada also confirmed they had followed suit.

Per local news, and Nigerian

, the motorcycle taxi limitations have thrown off some inherent order in Lagos’s disorderly transit grid — overloading other mobility modes(such as mini-buses) and forcing more people to pound pavement and red-dirt to get to work.

For the country’s ride-hail startups, the regulatory constraints are weighing on operations and revenues, according to Max.ng CTO Guy-Bertrand Njoya.

“Are we highly concerned? Yes, we are,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

“We haven’t shut down operations, but because the drivers can’t operate in the main commercial areas, their income generation ability is significantly reduced…and our business depends on the success of our drivers,” said Bertrand.

Gokada CEO Fahim Saleh confirmed the company is still operating passenger services, but may transition its business away from ride-hailing, depending on the outcome of the regulatory process.

“If the transport option is no longer available to our drivers, we’ll go full on to logistics,” he said, noting shifting to more goods delivery has always been a part of Gokada’s long-term strategy.

Saleh recognized the concerns Lagos State regulators have for motorbike-taxi safety. “To the government’s credit, the informal sector is pretty risky with their habits and there’s no oversight,” he said.

But Gokada’s CEO underscored ride-hail startups — with mandatory driver training, new motorcycles, helmet requirements and an ability to track data — are making motorcycle passenger taxis safer in Nigeria.

“The government has good intentions, but they need the private sector to really bring in innovative ideas and technology to this market,” Saleh said.

The sudden regulatory enforcement and downturn in business has forced some unity among the Nigeria’s ride-hail competitors. Max .NG, ORide, and Gokada have formed an industry association to engage Lagos State on motorcycle-taxi regulations.

“We are hopeful that government remains supportive of companies like ours in a manner that addresses their key policy focus, while supporting entrepreneurs,” said Max.ng CFO Guy-Bertrand Njoya.

The situation between the Lagos State Government and motorcycle-taxis could have ramifications for Nigeria’s tech sector beyond Lagos’s ride-hail sector and transit grid.

The affair could serve as a test for startups in the country on engaging government effectively toward their interests. It could also demonstrate the ability (or inability) of regulators in Nigeria to support fledgling digital markets.

It’s worth noting that Lagos State is Nigeria’s largest commercial region, responsible for roughly a third of the country’s GDP. A greater share of Nigeria’s economy is being driven by tech-related industries — with much of the country’s startup activity occurring in Lagos — and Nigeria becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital.

Even with the recent upswing in VC to Nigeria’s startups, founders still speak of the tough sell they face convincing global investors to back them.

If Lagos State — viewed as the most tech friendly region in Nigeria — squashes the country’s well-funded okada ride-hail sector, VC pitches for the country’s founders could become more difficult.

 


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Co-op helps Uber, Lyft drivers use data to maximize earnings

17:25 | 6 February

As we have previously reported, an increasing number of startups are exploring cooperative business models where workers (and sometimes users) are owners in the company. Driver’s Seat, which participated in the first batch of the Start.coop accelerator, is one such example. 

Driver’s Seat is designed to help gig workers own and use their data so they can maximize their income. It works by first requiring ride-hail drivers to install an app that educates them about how the co-op collects and uses their data. In exchange, the app gives them insights about their real hourly wages after expenses and how those wages relate to different driving strategies.

For example, Driver’s Seat helps drivers determine when and where they should drive when it’s slow and can calculate the odds of making driver bonuses via Uber, Lyft and other ride-hail platforms. Driver’s Seat then aggregates all of the data to market it to cities, municipalities and state governments that require this information for planning purposes. 

“These folks are hungry to support ride-hail drivers and make ride-hailing work better in their cities,” Driver’s Seat founder and CEO Hays Witt tells TechCrunch.

City agencies can use this data to make better decisions about transportation planning as it relates to congestion, pollution, curb allocation and affordable transit. The proceeds from those contracts then go back to the drivers via dividends.

 


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A Christian-friendly payments processor spilled 6 million transaction records online

00:00 | 29 January

A little-known payments processor, which bills itself as a Christian-friendly company that does “not process credit card transactions for morally objectionable businesses,” left a database containing years’ worth of customer payment transactions online.

The database contained 6.7 million records since 2013, and was updating by the day. But the database was not protected with a password, allowing anyone to look inside.

Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database. TechCrunch identified its owner as Cornerstone Payment Systems, which provides payment processing to ministries, non-profits, and other morally aligned businesses across the U.S., including churches, religious radio personalities, and pro-life groups.

Payment processors handle credit and debit card transactions on behalf of a business.

A review of a portion of the database showed each record contained payee names, email addresses, and in many but not all cases postal addresses. Each record also had the name of the merchant who is being paid, the card type, the last four-digits of the card number, and its expiry date.

The data also contained specific dates and times of the transaction. Each record also indicated if a payment was successful or if it was declined. Some of the records also contained notes from the customer, often describing what the payment was for — such as a donation or a commemoration.

Although there was some evidence of tokenization — a way of replacing sensitive information with a unique string of letters and numbers — the database itself was not encrypted.

We used some of the email addresses to contact a number of affected customers. Two people whose names and transactions were found in the database confirmed their information was accurate.

After TechCrunch contacted Cornerstone, the company pulled the database offline.

“Cornerstone Payment Systems has secured all server access,” said spokesperson Tony Adamo.

“It is vital to note that Cornerstone Payment Systems does not store complete credit card data or check data. We have put in place enhanced security measures locking down all URLs. We are currently reviewing all logs for any potential access,” he added.

Cornerstone did not say if it will inform state regulators of the security lapse, which it’s required to do under California state’s data breach notification laws.

Read more:

 


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GM adds automated lane changes to its hands-free Super Cruise driving system

20:56 | 28 January

GM has improved its hands-free driving assistance system Super Cruise, adding a feature that will automatically change lanes for drivers of certain Cadillac models, including the upcoming 2021 Escalade.

This enhanced version of Super Cruise, which will include better steering and speed control, puts it back in competition with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system (specifically the Navigate on Autopilot feature), which is considered the most capable on the market today.

The improved version will be introduced starting with the 2021 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 sedans followed by the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicles are expected to become available in the second half of 2020. 

Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

The automatic lane change feature in Super Cruise will still require the driver to keep their eyes on the road. When the system is engaged, the driver can engage the turn signal to indicate a desire to change lanes. Once the system has determined that the lane is open, the vehicle will merge. Meanwhile, the gauge cluster will display messages to the driver such as “looking for an opening” or “changing lanes.”

GM’s new digital vehicle platform, which provides more electrical bandwidth and data processing power, enabled engineers to add to Super Cruise’s capabilities. The company also improved its rear-facing sensors and software to be able to better track vehicles approaching from the rear, Super Cruise chief engineer Mario Maiorana said.

The new version Super Cruise will change lanes for the driver on highways where the feature is allowed. The user interface and hands-free driving dynamics have also been improved, according to Maiorana.

Super Cruise, which launched in 2017, was limited to just one model — the full-size CT6 sedan — and restricted to divided highways. That began to change last year when GM announced plans to expand where Super Cruise would be available. A software update expanded the thousands of miles of compatible divided highways in the United States and Canada . Super Cruise is now available on more than 200,000 miles of highways.

The automaker has also started to make the system available in more models. GM is expanding Super Cruise as an option on all Cadillac models this year. GM has said the Super Cruise system will start hitting its other brands such as Chevrolet, GMC, and Buick after 2020.

 


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Pantheon bets on WebOps as it charts a course to an IPO

22:24 | 27 January

It has been 10 years since Pantheon launched. At the time, it was mostly a hosting service for Drupal sites, but about six years ago, it added WordPress hosting to its lineup and raised more VC money as some of its competitors did the same. After its 2016 Series C round, things started quieting down, though the company has clear ambitions to become a public company in the next few years. To chat about those plans and the overall state of the business, I sat down with Pantheon co-founder and CEO Zack Rosen and new Pantheon board member Elissa Fink, former CMO of Tableau.

Maybe the biggest change at Pantheon is that when it launched, its team was almost solely focused on the developer experience. And while Pantheon was essentially a hosting service and offers personal plans, its focus was never on individuals who wanted a WordPress blog (which a lot of companies focused on, especially in the pre-Twitter days). Its efforts always revolved around businesses, large enterprises and the agencies that serve them.

“Back then, our overriding focus was really around the developer experience — the practitioner experience — of using our product,” Rosen explained. “And frankly, at the time, we actually really didn’t know what to call it. It really didn’t have a category, but we always felt it was something new.” He noted that over the last few years, Pantheon started talking to a lot of marketers and realized that the needs of these marketing leaders are driving this space.

 


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