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Main article: Europe

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Volkswagen’s new all-electric concept wagon could be coming to the U.S. by 2022

07:31 | 20 November

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

 


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Here’s the first look inside Orbex’s Scotland rocket factory

20:01 | 19 November

European private launch startup Orbex is getting ready to start actually launching payloads aboard its own rockets, and it’s pulling back the curtains to give a look at the factory it’s using to build its launch vehicles. The UK-based company is building its rockets from a facility in Scotland, and this virtual tour gives an idea of what they’re doing to make the first rocket field by renewable, clean-burning fuel a reality.

Orbex Prime’s Stage 2 vehicle.

The second stage that Orbex will use employs bio-prone for its fuel, which will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 90 percent vs. the kerosene based fuel used on most similar vehicles. Orbex also built reusability into their ‘Prime’ launch vehicle design, and it’s 3D-printing its engines in one single piece, working with partner SLM to make this possible. That will add more structural reliability to the engine, the company says.

Orbex carbon fibre winding machine.

In service of making this unique vehicle, the Orbex site in Scotland features “one of the largest carbon fibre winding machines in Europe,” which measures around 60 feet long and which can produce its rockets with a weight savings of up to 30 percent vs. similarly sized vehicles already on the market. That weight savings means faster acceleration and more fuel efficiency.

Also part of the new facility is a large autoclave that is used to bring the rocket components to the proper temperature for setting and curing. The company says that its equipment can wind its main stage fuel tanks in just a matter of hours using this equipment, which is a big part of ability to achieve launch vehicle construction efficiency, which leads to affordable costs for small satellite launch clients keen to make use of the Prime to deliver their payloads.

Orbex’s 3D-printed rocket engine.

The 3D printer for the engines can fully print one of the Prime’s engines in just five hours – each Prime launcher will make use of six for the vehicle that will power the first stage, and a seventh, vacuum-rated one to power the second stage as it makes the final trip to orbit to delivery its payloads.

Orbex already has a number of commercial contracts in place, and expects to fly Prime for the first time sometime in 2021. It’ll look to launch from the proposed Sutherland spaceport, which is currently in development and will be Europe’s first ever mainland orbital spaceport once complete.

 


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A 10-point plan to reboot the data industrial complex for the common good

12:14 | 19 November

A posthumous manifesto by Giovanni Buttarelli, who until his death this summer was Europe’s chief data protection regulator, seeks to join the dots of surveillance capitalism’s rapacious colonization of human spaces, via increasingly pervasive and intrusive mapping and modelling of our data, with the existential threat posed to life on earth by manmade climate change.

In a dense document rich with insights and ideas around the notion that “data means power” — and therefore that the unequally distributed data-capture capabilities currently enjoyed by a handful of tech platforms sums to power asymmetries and drastic social inequalities — Buttarelli argues there is potential for AI and machine learning to “help monitor degradation and pollution, reduce waste and develop new low-carbon materials”. But only with the right regulatory steerage in place.

“Big data, AI and the internet of things should focus on enabling sustainable development, not on an endless quest to decode and recode the human mind,” he warns. “These technologies should — in a way that can be verified — pursue goals that have a democratic mandate. European champions can be supported to help the EU achieve digital strategic autonomy.”

“The EU’s core values are solidarity, democracy and freedom,” he goes on. “Its conception of data protection has always been the promotion of responsible technological development for the common good. With the growing realisation of the environmental and climatic emergency facing humanity, it is time to focus data processing on pressing social needs. Europe must be at the forefront of this endeavour, just as it has been with regard to individual rights.”

One of his key calls is for regulators to enforce transparency of dominant tech companies — so that “production processes and data flows are traceable and visible for independent scrutiny”.

“Use enforcement powers to prohibit harmful practices, including profiling and behavioural targeting of children and young people and for political purposes,” he also suggests.

Another point in the manifesto urges a moratorium on “dangerous technologies”, citing facial recognition and killer drones as examples, and calling generally for a pivot away from technologies designed for “human manipulation” and toward “European digital champions for sustainable development and the promotion of human rights”.

In an afterword penned by Shoshana Zuboff, the US author and scholar writes in support of the manifesto’s central tenet, warning pithily that: “Global warming is to the planet what surveillance capitalism is to society.”

There’s plenty of overlap between Buttarelli’s ideas and Zuboff’s — who has literally written the book on surveillance capitalism. Data concentration by powerful technology platforms is also resulting in algorithmic control structures that give rise to “a digital underclass… comprising low-wage workers, the unemployed, children, the sick, migrants and refugees who are required to follow the instructions of the machines”, he warns.

“This new instrumentarian power deprives us not only of the right to consent, but also of the right to combat, building a world of no exit in which ignorance is our only alternative to resigned helplessness, rebellion or madness,” she agrees.

There are no less than six afterwords attached to the manifesto — a testament to the store in which Buttarelli’s ideas are held among privacy, digital and human rights campaigners.

The manifesto “goes far beyond data protection”, says writer Maria Farrell in another contribution. “It connects the dots to show how data maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.”

At the core of the document is a 10-point plan for what’s described as “sustainable privacy”, which includes the call for a dovetailing of the EU’s digital priorities with a Green New Deal — to “support a programme for green digital transformation, with explicit common objectives of reducing inequality and safeguarding human rights for all, especially displaced persons in an era of climate emergency”.

Buttarelli also suggests creating a forum for civil liberties advocates, environmental scientists and machine learning experts who can advise on EU funding for R&D to put the focus on technology that “empowers individuals and safeguards the environment”.

Another call is to build a “European digital commons” to support “open-source tools and interoperability between platforms, a right to one’s own identity or identities, unlimited use of digital infrastructure in the EU, encrypted communications, and prohibition of behaviour tracking and censorship by dominant platforms”.

“Digital technology and privacy regulation must become part of a coherent solution for both combating and adapting to climate change,” he suggests in a section dedicated to a digital Green New Deal — even while warning that current applications of powerful AI technologies appear to be contributing to the problem.

“AI’s carbon footprint is growing,” he points out, underlining the environmental wastage of surveillance capitalism. “Industry is investing based on the (flawed) assumption that AI models must be based on mass computation.

“Carbon released into the atmosphere by the accelerating increase in data processing and fossil fuel burning makes climatic events more likely. This will lead to further displacement of peoples and intensification of calls for ‘technological solutions’ of surveillance and border controls, through biometrics and AI systems, thus generating yet more data. Instead, we need to ‘greenjacket’ digital technologies and integrate them into the circular economy.”

Another key call — and one Buttarelli had been making presciently in recent years — is for more joint working between EU regulators towards common sustainable goals.

“All regulators will need to converge in their policy goals — for instance, collusion in safeguarding the environment should be viewed more as an ethical necessity than as a technical breach of cartel rules. In a crisis, we need to double down on our values, not compromise on them,” he argues, going on to voice support for antitrust and privacy regulators to co-operate to effectively tackle data-based power asymmetries.

“Antitrust, democracies’ tool for restraining excessive market power, therefore is becoming again critical. Competition and data protection authorities are realising the need to share information about their investigations and even cooperate in anticipating harmful behaviour and addressing ‘imbalances of power rather than efficiency and consent’.”

On the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifically — Europe’s current framework for data protection — Buttarelli gives a measured assessment, saying “first impressions indicate big investments in legal compliance but little visible change to data practices”.

He says Europe’s data protection authorities will need to use all the tools at their disposal — and find the necessary courage — to take on the dominant tracking and targeting digital business models fuelling so much exploitation and inequality.

He also warns that GDPR alone “will not change the structure of concentrated markets or in itself provide market incentives that will disrupt or overhaul the standard business model”.

“True privacy by design will not happen spontaneously without incentives in the market,” he adds. “The EU still has the chance to entrench the right to confidentiality of communications in the ePrivacy Regulation under negotiation, but more action will be necessary to prevent further concentration of control of the infrastructure of manipulation.”

Looking ahead, the manifesto paints a bleak picture of where market forces could be headed without regulatory intervention focused on defending human rights. “The next frontier is biometric data, DNA and brainwaves — our thoughts,” he suggests. “Data is routinely gathered in excess of what is needed to provide the service; standard tropes, like ‘improving our service’ and ‘enhancing your user  experience’ serve as decoys for the extraction of monopoly rents.”

There is optimism too, though — that technology in service of society can be part of the solution to existential crises like climate change; and that data, lawfully collected, can support public good and individual self-realization.

“Interference with the right to privacy and personal data can be lawful if it serves ‘pressing social needs’,” he suggests. “These objectives should have a clear basis in law, not in the marketing literature of large companies. There is no more pressing social need than combating environmental degradation” — adding that: “The EU should promote existing and future trusted institutions, professional bodies and ethical codes to govern this exercise.”

In instances where platforms are found to have systematically gathered personal data unlawfully Buttarelli trails the interesting idea of an amnesty for those responsible “to hand over their optimisation assets”– as a means of not only resetting power asymmetries and rebalancing the competitive playing field but enabling societies to reclaim these stolen assets and reapply them for a common good.

While his hope for Europe’s Data Protection Board — the body which offers guidance and coordinates interactions between EU Member States’ data watchdogs — is to be “the driving force supporting the Global Privacy Assembly in developing a common vision and agenda for sustainable privacy”.

The manifesto also calls for European regulators to better reflect the diversity of people whose rights they’re being tasked with safeguarding.

The document, which is entitled Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe, has been published on the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals ahead of its annual conference this week.

Buttarelli had intended — but was finally unable — to publish his thoughts on the future of privacy this year, hoping to inspire discussion in Europe and beyond. In the event, the manifesto has been compiled posthumously by Christian D’Cunha, head of his private office, who writes that he has drawn on discussions with the data protection supervisor in his final months — with the aim of plotting “a plausible trajectory of his most passionate convictions”.

 


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Luko raises $22 million to improve home insurance

01:00 | 19 November

French startup Luko has raised a $22 million Series A round led by Accel (€20 million). Founders Fund and Speedinvest are also participating in today’s funding round.

When you rent a place in France, you have to provide a certificate to your landlord saying that you are covered with a home insurance product. And of course, you might want to insure your place if you own it.

While the market is huge, legacy insurance companies still dominate it. That’s why Luko wants to shake things up in three different ways.

First, it’s hard to sign up to home insurance in France. It usually involves a lot of emails, a printer, some signatures, etc. It can quickly add up if you want to change your coverage level or add some options.

As expected, Luko’s signup process is pretty straightforward. You fill up a form on the company’s website and you get an insurance certificate minutes later.

Luko partners with La Parisienne Assurances to issue insurance contracts. So far, 15,000 people have signed up to Luko.

Second, if there’s some water damage or a fire, it can take a lot of time to get it fixed. Worse, if somebody breaks into your place, you’re not going to get your money back that quickly.

Luko wants to speed things up. You can make a claim via chat, over the phone or with a video call using the mobile app. The company tries its best to detect fraud and pay a claim as quickly as possible. Luko also recently announced an integration with Lydia, a popular peer-to-peer payment app in France, so that your payment is instant.

Third, Luko has a bold vision to make home insurance even more effective. The startup wants to detect issues before it’s too late. For instance, you could imagine receiving a water meter from Luko to detect leaks, or a door sensor to detect when somebody is trying to get in. We’ll find out if people actually want to put connected objects everywhere.

Finally, Luko has partnered with a handful of nonprofits to redistribute some of its revenue — it has received the BCorp certification. The startup makes revenue by taking a flat fee on your monthly subscription. If there’s money left at the end of the year, Luko donates it to charities. Investors signed a pledge so that Luko doesn’t trade this model for growth.

 


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Fertility startup Mojo wants to take the trial and error out of IVF

14:00 | 18 November

Fertility tech startup Mojo is coming out of stealth to announce a €1.7 million (~$1.8M) seed round of funding led by Nordic seed fund Inventure. Also participating are Doberman and Privilege Ventures (an investor in Ava), plus a number of angel investors including Josefin Landgard (founder and ex-CEO of Kry) and Hampus Jakobsson (partner at BlueYard, BA in Clue & Kind.app).

Mojo’s mission, says co-founder and CEO Mohamed Taha, is to make access to fertility treatment more affordable and accessible by using AI and robotics technology to assist in sperm and egg quality analysis, selection and fertilization to reduce costs for clinics. Only by reducing clinics’ costs will the price fall for couples, he suggests.

“What the AI does in our technology stack from now until our roadmap is completed, product wise, is to look at sperm, look at eggs, look at data and ensure that the woman or the couple get precise treatment or the precise embryo that yields healthy baby,” he tells TechCrunch. “The role of robotics is to ensure that the manipulations/procedures are done precisely and at reduced time compared to nowadays, and also accurately.”

The idea for the business came to Taha after he was misdiagnosed with a kidney condition while still a student. His doctor suggested freezing his sperm as a precaution against deterioration in case he wanted to father a child in the future, so he started having regular sperm tests. “I was super annoyed with one particular fact,” he says of this. “Every time I do a sperm test I get a different result.”

After speaking to doctors the consensus view of male fertility he heard was “I shouldn’t care about my fertility — worst case scenario all that they need from me is one sperm”. He was told it would be his future partner who would be put on IVF to “take the treatment for me”. Doctors also told him there was little research into male fertility, and therefore into sperm quality — such as which sperm might yield a healthy baby or could result in a miscarriage. And after learning about what IVF entailed, Taha says it struck him as a “tough” deal for the woman.

“It’s completely blackbox,” he says of male fertility. “I also learned that in terms of IVF or ART [assisted reproductive technologies] everything, pretty much, is done manually. And everything, pretty much, also is done at random — you select a random sperm, they fertilize it with a random egg. Hopefully the technician who’s doing it manually knows his or her job. And in the end there’s going to be an embryo that will be implanted.”

He says he was also struck by the fact the ‘trial and error’ process only works 25% of the time in high end laboratories, yet can prospective parents between €40,000-€100,000 for each round of treatment. “This is where the idea of the company came from,” he adds. Mojo’s expectation for their technology is that it will be able to increase IVF success rates to 75% by 2030.

The team started work in 2016 as a weekend project during their PhDs. Taha initially trained as an electrical engineer before going on to do a PhD in nanotechnology, investigating new and affordable materials for use as biosensors. It was the microscopes and robotic arms that he and his co-founders, Fanny Chesa, Tobias Boecker, Daniel Thomas, were using in the labs to examine nanoparticles and select specific particles for insertion into other media that led them to think why not adapt this type of technology for use in fertility clinics — as an alternative to purely manual selection and fertilization.

“We just completely automate everything to ensure that the procedure is done faster, better and at the same time more reliably,” Taha says of the concept for Mojo. “No randomness. Understand the good from the bad.”

That — at least — is the theory. To be clear, they don’t yet have their proposition robustly proved out nor productized at this stage. Their intended first product, called Mojo Pro, is still pending certification as a medical device in the EU, for example. But the plan, should everything go to plan, is to get it to market next summer, starting in the UK.

This product, a combination of microscopy hardware and AI software, will be sold to fertility clinics (under a subscription model) to offer an analysis service consisting of a sperm count and quality check — as a first service for couples to determine whether or not the man has a fertility problem.

Initially, Mojo’s computer vision analysis system is focused on sperm counts, automating what Taha says is currently a manual process, as well as assessing some basic quality signals — such as the speed and morphology of the sperm. For example, a sperm with two heads or two tails would be an easy initial judgement call to weed out as “bad”, he suggests.

“The first product is to look at the sperm and say if this man experiences infertility or not. So we have a smart microscopy — built custom in-house. And this is where the element of the robotics comes in,” he explains. “At the same time we put on it an AI that looks at a moving sperm sample. Then, through looking at this, the system on Mojo Pro will tell us what is the sperm count, what is the sperm mobility (how fast they move) and what is the predominant shape of the sperm.

“The second part is the selection of the sperm [i.e. if the sample is needed for IVF]. Now we ensure that good sperm is being selected. This microscopy will look at the same and visually will guide the embryologist to pick the good sperm — that’s highlighted around, for example, by a green box. Good sperm have green boxes around them, bad sperm have red boxes around them so they can pick up through their current techniques the sperm that are highlighted green.”

Mojo

Based on internal testing of Mojo Pro the system has achieved 97% of the accuracy of a manual sperm count so far, per Taha, who says further optimization is planned.

Though he admits there’s no standardization of sperm counts in the fertility industry — which means such comparative metrics offer limited utility, given the lack of robust benchmarks.

“The way we are going with this is we’re really choosing the best of the best practitioners and we are just comparing our work against them for now,” is the claim. (Mojo’s lab partner for developing the product is TDL.)

“We will try to introduce new standards for ourselves,” he adds.

The current research focus is: “What are the visuals to make sure the sperm is good or bad; how to actually measure the sperm sample, the sperm count; in terms of morphology… how we can incorporate a protocol that can be the gold standard of computer vision or AI looking at sperm?”

The wider goal for the business is to understand much more about the role that individual sperm and eggs play in yielding a healthy (or otherwise) embryo and baby.

Taha says the team’s ultimate goal is “automating the fertilization process”, again with the help of applied AI and robotics (and likely also incorporating genetic testing to screen for diseases).

He points out that in many markets couples are choosing to conceive later in life. The big vision, therefore, is to develop new assisted reproductive technologies that can support older couples to conceive healthy babies.

“Generally speaking we leave our fertility to chance — which is sex… So there’s a little bit of randomness in the process. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad — it’s how the body functions. But when you hit later ages, 30 or 40, we face biological deficiencies which means the quality of the eggs are not good any more, the quality of the sperm might not be good any more, if fertilization happens with old gametes… you are not sure there is a healthy baby. So we need technology to play a role here.

“Imagine a couple at the age of 40 who want to conceive a baby ten, twelve years from now. What happens if this couple have the possibility of the sperm of the man to be shipped somewhere, the egg of the woman to be shipped somewhere and they get fertilized using high end technology, and they get informed once the embryo is ready to be implanted. This is where we believe the consumer game will be in the future,” he says.

“We envisage ourselves going from just working with clinics in the coming ten years… making our AI and our robotics really flawless at manipulation, and then we are envisaging of having as consumer-facing way where we ensure people have healthy babies. Not necessarily this will be a clinic but it will be somehow where fertilization will happen in our facilities.”

“I’m not speaking about super humans or designer babies,” he adds. “I’m speaking about ensuring at a later stage of the conception journey to have a healthy baby. And this is where we see ART can actually be the way to procreate at later stages in order to ensure that the baby is healthy then there should be new technologies that just give you a healthy baby — and not mess up with your body.”

Of course this is pure concept right now. And Taja concedes that Mojo doesn’t even have data to determine “good” sperm from “bad” — beyond some basic signifiers.

But once samples start flowing via customers of the first product they expect to be able to start gathering data (with permission) to support further research into the role played by individual sperm and eggs in reproduction — looking at the whole journey from sperm and egg selection through to embryo and baby.

Though getting permission for all elements of the research they hope to do may be one potential barrier.

“Once the first module is in the market we will be collecting data,” he says. “And this data that we’ll be collecting will go and be associated with the live births or the treatment outcome. And with that we’ll understand more and more what is a good sperm, what is a bad sperm.

“But we need to start from somewhere. And this somewhere right now what we’re relying on is the knowledge that good practitioners have in the field.”

Taha says he and his co-founders actively started building the company in January 2018, taking in some angel investment, along with government grants from France and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research pot.

They’ve been building the startup out of Lyon, France but the commercial team will shortly be moving to the UK ahead of launching Mojo Pro.

In the short term the hope is to attract clinics to adopt the Mojo Pro subscription service as a way for them to serve more customers, while potentially helping couples reduce the number of IVF cycles they have to go. Longer term the bet is that changing lifestyles will only see demand for data-fuelled technology-assisted reproduction grow.

“Now we help streamline laboratory processes in order to help the 180M people who have fertility problems have access to fertility at an affordable price and reliable manner but also we have an eye on the future — what happens when genetic testing… [plays] an important role in the procreation and people will opt for this,” he adds.

 


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MMC Ventures outs new £100M ‘Scale Up’ fund to double-down on its portfolio at the later-stage

11:00 | 18 November

MMC Ventures, the London-based VC that typically invested at Seed and Series A via the various funds it manages, has launched a new £100 million “Scale Up” fund to provide expansion capital to its later-stage portfolio companies.

This is a move we are seeing a number of early-stage European VCs make, such as LocalGlobe with its “Latitude” fund, as they look to double-down on existing investments at Series B and beyond.

The motivation is obvious: as European tech continues to grow, becoming increasingly ambitious and global, investors don’t want to get diluted too much and too early. Meanwhile, although arguably there is an abundance of early-stage capital floating around, there are less European funds as you move to later stage.

MMC Ventures says its Scale Up Fund will provide primary capital to current portfolio companies that have grown beyond the mandate of MMC Ventures’ existing funds. Notably, however, MMC’s Scale Up Fund is also permitted to participate in secondary transactions.

In a call with MMC’s Bruce Macfarlane (Managing Partner) and Simon Menashy (Partner), the pair explained that this means that MMC can offer liquidity to early MMC and third-party investors who wish to exit from one of MMC’s portfolio companies early.

In this way, capital can be recycled within the early-stage funding ecosystem, whereby, for example, angel investors can go again by backing newly formed companies, while MMC maintains a longer-term outlook.

However, despite the launch of a later stage fund, Macfarlane says MMC’s core specialism remains as a Series A investor

Meanwhile, MMC has already made investments from the Scale Up Fund into a number of portfolio companies. They are Safeguard Global (alongside Accel KKR), Masabi (alongside Smedvig Capital), and Interactive Investor.

The Scale Up Fund rounds off a number of new funds managed by MMC. The firm recently outed a new £52 million seed fund in partnership with the Mayor of London. And combined with its annual EIS fundraise, the VC has added £200 million to its coffers in the last 12 months.

Over the last year, MMC has invested more than £85 million across the pre-seed, seed, series A and later stages in amounts ranging from £100,000 to £25 million. The firm also moved into new larger offices in Holborn, in Central London, which Macfarlane tells me is a sign of how bullish MMC remains with regards to U.K. tech and in spite of Brexit.

“2019 has been a big year for our firm, and the launch of our new Scale Up Fund represents a scale up moment for MMC as well as a significant innovation in the U.K. venture market,” adds Macfarlane in a statement. “This Fund allows us to double down on our most successful businesses while enabling our investors, and others, to take full or partial exits from early investments”.

 


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Northzone raises new $500M fund to back startups in Europe (and the East Coast, US)

03:00 | 18 November

Northzone, the European VC firm that’s probably best-known for being an early backer of Spotify, has raised a new $500 million fund, which it claims was oversubscribed and will reach its final close imminently.

Dubbed “Northzone IX,” the new fund pretty much represents business as usual for Northzone and will be used to invest primarily at Series A and B, with “selective” Seed investments (as many Series A firms increasingly do).

Geographically, Northzone is targeting Europe and the East Coast of the U.S., and is eyeing up early-stage consumer and enterprise companies that are addressing “large and established industries saddled with legacy technology”. This includes financial services, healthcare, education, mobility and construction.

The VC firm is also announcing two promotions. Hello Fresh co-founder Jessica Schultz and Dots co-founder Paul Murphy have been promoted to General Partners, in addition to existing GPs Pär-Jörgen Pärson, Jeppe Zink, and Michiel Kotting.

“Tech businesses are becoming giants in new industries like construction, food, and finance,” says Murphy, during a telephone interview alongside Schultz and Kotting. “And these industries are 4 trillion to 10 trillion in size, so quite a bit bigger than media, which is where most of the focus has been in the past few decades. I think it’s exciting, we look at huge addressable markets, both in terms of existing incumbents, and consumers and users and businesses. But it’s also challenging because it means we do sort of become, you know, pretty deep on multiple industries, instead of just one”.

To manage this, Murphy explains that Northzone takes a “thematic approach” to investing, whereby themes cut across sectors. “So it could be a certain theme that leads us to a finTech investment or to a mobility investment,” he says. “We try to let the themes take us where they take us, instead of having to focus in on one particular sector”.

“I think our strategy is still looking for founders with huge ambition and conviction to build transformative businesses,” adds Schultz.

With an avalanche of new European VC funds being announced — I chalk this up as the fourth I’ve covered in the last week, I posit that we could be in a bubble or at least somewhat frothy times.

“I think that there’s always cycles,” says Murphy. “And I think where we are in this cycle, there’s a lot of people that are speculating. I think the broad macro climate indicates that we’re maybe at the high end of that cycle, and tech is core to many, many countries’ economy now. So I don’t want to claim that we’re immune to any sort of downturn that may come.

“That said, as I mentioned before, tech is now going after industries that are exponentially larger than what they’ve gone after in the past. There is a whole lot of opportunity out there. Yes, there’s more funds than ever, but if we want to fully capture all of the opportunities that exist around the world in tech, I think we need many more funds than exists today”.

“I think that’s where we have the benefit of history a little bit, as we’ve been in the business for 23 years now,” says Schultz. “We’ve seen a lot of the downturns from dot com boom to the financial crisis in 2008. And I think that also gives us a little bit of a perspective on the opportunities you get in the downturns and also the important areas to focus on during challenging market conditions. As Paul said, we think there will still be a lot of opportunities regardless of the economic cycles”.

The key to VC investing, regardless of cycle, is to stay disciplined “and look for the fundamentals of the businesses” that fit a long term view of how the world is changing.

Somewhat related to this, although Northzone isn’t able to disclose a list of its LPs — who are said to be a mixture of existing investors and new ones — General Partner Michiel Kotting says the majority are in Europe.

“We have always maintained that as a European product, we want predominantly European investors behind us. So it’s an awful lot of European but we’re not one of these EIF [European Investment Fund] dominated funds at all. And we also have systematically stepped up Asian and U.S. LPs in recent years. But the key thing for us is, we learned that lesson a decade ago, you can’t be a European product and be dominated by U.S. or Asian LPs. Because when a financial crisis comes around, they tend to drop those sort of products first. So we’ve always made sure that we have a natural alignment with our LP base”.

 


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Google finishes the install of its private Curie cable, announces Panama branch

20:30 | 14 November

Google today announced that it has finished the install and test of its private Curie cable. When it was announced, Curie, which connects the U.S. to Chile, was the company’s third private cable. Since then, it has announced two more, Dunant and Equiano, which will connect the U.S. to Europe and Portugal to South Africa. The 10,500 kilometers long cable will offer a total capacity of 72Tbps and will go online in Q2 of 2020. Right now, Google’s teams are working on connecting the cable to its own network.

In addition, Google also today announced that Curie will get a branch to Panama. “Once operational, this branch will enhance connectivity and bandwidth to Central America, and increase our ability to connect to other networks in the region, providing resiliency to our global cloud infrastructure,” the company says in today’s announcement.

For Curie’s Panama branch, Google will once again work with SubCom, the same engineering firm that helped it build the rest of the cable. SubCom is also working with Google on the Dunant, while Google opted to partner with Alcatel Submarine Networks for the Equiano cable to South Africa.

While Google is also partnering with other technology firms to share bandwidth on other cables, these private cables give it full control over all of the resources. The company also argues that owning and operating its own cables adds another layer of security, on top of all the other benefits.

 


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Backed by Serena Williams and Usain Bolt, Let’s Do This raises $15M from EQT

20:02 | 14 November

Back in September, endurance events marketplace Let’s Do This (a YC alumni) raised a $5m seed round from a number of US investors, including Olypmic star Usain Bolt and tennis star Serena Williams. As much as I’d like to get excited, this is slightly par for the course for a lot of sports-oriented startups which catch the eye of a celebrity. Not that they are without merit, of course.

Suffice it to say, their sports stars, plus a strong push to get funding from Silicon Valley has landed the startup with a $15m Series A round led by European/US VC EQT, with participation of the previous investors including Trulia founder Pete Flint, YCombinator, alongside, yes, you guessed it, Usain Bolt and Serena Williams .

The platform lists 30,000 races of all distances and disciplines and claims to be the largest marketplace for endurance events in the world, offering key information about the races and exclusive booking perks for members such as free cancellation protection. It recently agreed a partnership with Hearst to power all race listings across Runner’s World, Men’s Health and Women’s Health in the US and the UK.

The startup is set to expand its team of sport enthusiasts across its San Francisco and London offices. The company was founded by University of Cambridge graduates Alex Rose and Sam Browne – both passionate runners and cyclists who had experienced the arduous process of discovering and entering events firsthand.

The Let’s Do This algorithm uses data points from fitness tracking, race history, social connections and more, to personalize race recommendations. Part of the marketing story is that people are 12.5 times more likely to develop a fitness habit after 12 months from signing up to a race than from joining a gym.

Serena Williams, the 22 time Grand Slam Champion, commented: “I’ve seen first-hand the incredible impact these events can have on making people fitter, healthier and happier. I love that Let’s Do This is not only making events like these more accessible but also helping to support athletes of all different fitness levels. Women are especially less likely to participate in marathons and obstacle races, so it’s really important there’s a platform encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and make a positive difference in their lives.”

Usain Bolt said in a statement: “Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to inspire people to follow their dreams, get off the couch and get exercising… It’s a really natural fit with what I care about and what I believe in, so I am very happy to be supporting their mission to inspire more people to have epic experiences.”

Founder Sam Browne says the quick fundraising has come about in part because “The market’s big, affluent and we’re already the dominant marketplace in it.”

 


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Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

13:27 | 14 November

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

 


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