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Main article: Startups

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Three of Apple and Google’s former star chip designers launch NUVIA with $53M in series A funding

23:08 | 15 November

Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.

What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).

Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.

Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.

What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.

Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder

There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.

Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.

Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”

Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.

The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.

Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”

The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company isn’t building on top of ARM or other existing chip architectures.

Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in

Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.

Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.

Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.

I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.

He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.

He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”

Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.

DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.

That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:

They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.

It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.

 


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More layoffs at pivoting London edtech startup pi-top

21:28 | 15 November

London edtech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from a “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market”.

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract. pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the UK office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region”.

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. edtech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary edtech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200k to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community”, as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4M in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability”, as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

 


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Despite bans, Giphy still hosts self-harm, hate speech, and child sex abuse content

17:00 | 15 November

Image search engine Giphy bills itself as providing “fun and safe way” to search and create animated GIFs. But despite its ban on illicit content, the site is littered with self-harm and child sex abuse imagery, TechCrunch has learned.

A new report from Israeli online child protection startup L1ght — previously AntiToxin Technologies — has uncovered a host of toxic content hiding within the popular GIF-sharing community, including illegal child abuse content, depictions of rape, and other toxic imagery associated with topics like white supremacy and hate speech. The report, shared exclusively with TechCrunch, also showed content encouraging viewers into unhealthy weight loss and glamorizing eating disorders.

TechCrunch verified some of the company’s findings by searching the site using certain keywords. (We did not search for terms that may have returned child sex abuse content as doing so would be illegal.) Although Giphy blocks many hashtags and search terms from returning results, search engines like Google and Bing still cache images with certain keywords.

When we tested using several words associated with illicit content, Giphy sometimes showed content from its own results. When it didn’t return any banned materials, search engines often returned a stream of would-be banned results.

L1ght develops advanced solutions to combat online toxicity. Through its tests, one search of illicit material returned 195 pictures on the first search page alone. L1ght’s team then followed tags from one item to the next, uncovering networks of illegal or toxic content along the way. The tags themselves were often innocuous in order help users escape detection, but they served as a gateway to the toxic material.

Despite a ban on self-harm content, researchers found numerous keywords and search terms to find the banned content. We have blurred this graphic image. (Image: TechCrunch)

Many of the more extreme content — including images of child sex abuse — are said to have been tagged using keywords associated with known child exploitation sites.

We are not publishing the hashtags, search terms, or sites used to access the content, but we passed on the information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a national non-profit established by Congress to fight child exploitation.

Simon Gibson, Giphy’s head of audience, told TechCrunch that content safety was of the “utmost importance” to the company and that it employs “extensive moderation protocols.” He said that when illegal content is identified, the company works with the authorities to report and remove it.

He also expressed frustration that L1ght had not contacted Giphy with the allegations first. L1ght said that Giphy is already aware of its content moderation problems.

Gibson said Giphy’s moderation system “leverages a combination of imaging technologies and human validation,” which involves users having to “apply for verification in order for their content to appear in our searchable index.” Content is “then reviewed by a crowdsourced group of human moderators,” he said. “If a consensus for rating among moderators is not met, or if there is low confidence in the moderator’s decision, the content is escalated to Giphy’s internal trust and safety team for additional review,” he said.

“Giphy also conducts proactive keyword searches, within and outside of our search index, in order to find and remove content that is against our policies,” said Gibson.

L1ght researchers used their proprietary artificial intelligence engine to uncover illegal and other offensive content. Using that platform, the researchers can find other related content, allowing them to find vast caches of illegal or banned content that would otherwise and for the most part go unseen.

This sort of toxic content plagues online platforms but algorithms only play a part. More tech companies are finding human moderation is critical to keeping their sites clean. But much of the focus to date has been on the larger players in the space, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.

Facebook, for example, has been routinely criticized for outsourcing moderation to teams of lowly paid contractors who often struggle to cope with the sorts of things they have to watch, even experiencing post-traumatic-like symptoms as a result of their work. Meanwhile, Google’s YouTube this year was found to have become a haven for online sex abuse rings, where criminals had used the comments section to guide one another to other videos to watch while making predatory remarks.

Giphy and other smaller platforms have largely stayed out of the limelight, during the past several years. But L1ght’s new findings indicate that no platform is immune to these sorts of problems.

L1ght says the Giphy users sharing this sort of content would make their accounts private so they wouldn’t be easily searchable by outsiders or the company itself. But even in the case of private accounts, the abusive content was being indexed by some search engines, like Google, Bing and Yandex, which made it easy to find. The firm also discovered that pedophiles were using Giphy as the means of spreading their materials online, including communicating with each other and exchanging materials. And they weren’t just using Giphy’s tagging system to communicate — they were also using more advanced techniques like tags placed on images through text overlays.

This same process was utilized in other communities, including those associated with white supremacy, bullying, child abuse and more.

This isn’t the first time Giphy has faced criticism for content on its site. Last year a report by The Verge described the company’s struggles to fend off illegal and banned content. Last year the company was booted from Instagram for letting through racist content.

Giphy is far from alone, but it is the latest example of companies not getting it right. Earlier this year and following a tip, TechCrunch commissioned then-AntiToxin to investigate the child sex abuse imagery problem on Microsoft’s search engine Bing. Under close supervision by the Israeli authorities, the company found dozens of illegal images in the results from searching certain keywords. When The New York Times followed up on TechCrunch’s report last week, its reporters found Bing had done little in the months that had passed to prevent child sex abuse content appearing in its search results.

It was a damning rebuke on the company’s efforts to combat child abuse in its search results, despite pioneering its PhotoDNA photo detection tool, which the software giant built a decade ago to identify illegal images based off a huge database of hashes of known child abuse content.

Giphy’s Gibson said the company was “recently approved” to use Microsoft’s PhotoDNA but did not say if it was currently in use.

Where some of the richest, largest and most-resourced tech companies are failing to preemptively limit their platforms’ exposure to illegal content, startups are filling in the content moderation gaps.

L1ght, which has a commercial interest in this space, was founded a year ago to help combat online predators, bullying, hate speech, scams, and more.

The company was started by former Amobee chief executive Zohar Levkovitz and cybersecurity expert Ron Porat, previously the founder of ad-blocker Shine, after Porat’s own son experienced online abuse in online game Minecraft. The company realized the problem with these platforms was something that had outgrown users’ own ability to protect themselves, and that technology needed to come to their aid.

L1ght’s business involves deploying its technology in similar ways as it has done here with Giphy— in order to identify, analyze, and predict online toxicity with near real-time accuracy.

 


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Last chance for early-bird pricing on passes to Disrupt Berlin 2019

13:28 | 15 November

Trite as it may sound, all good things must come to an end. And the good thing that’s about to come to a grinding halt is early-bird pricing on passes to Disrupt Berlin 2019. You have mere hours to save — the deadline strikes tonight at 11:59 p.m. (CEST).

You can save up to €500, but only if you beat the clock. Buy your early bird pass right now, otherwise you’ll pay more than necessary — how sad.

Need more inspiration than saving significant euros? Okay, let’s talk speakers. Disrupt conferences always offers an awesome lineup of speakers, and this year Disrupt Berlin is no exception. We’re going to mix it up a bit in this post and feature just some of the impressive women who will hold forth on the various Disrupt stages.

Unnatural Language Processing with Emily Foges (CEO at Luminance) and Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss (founder & CEO at omni:us). Legal contracts and insurance policies can be difficult even for experts to decipher. Hear from the founders how Luminance and omni:us use AI to take on jargon and save everyone time.

The New New Shop with Maria Raga (CEO of Depop). As shopping has moved from the web to apps, Depop has caught the Gen-Z wave. We’ll hear from Raga, the CEO nurturing this “eBay for the 21st Century.”

What does it take to raise a Series A? with Jessica Holzbach (co-founder & CCO at Penta), Louise Dahlborn Samet (partner at Blossom Capital) and Hannah Seal (principal at Index Ventures). Venture capital funds have boomed this decade, but raising money is still hard for young companies. What are investors today looking for in teams, metrics and products?

Up, Up and Away with Jen Rubio (co-founder & chief brand officer at Away). The D2C space is awfully crowded, but luggage brand Away has managed to rise above the noise to build one of the most successful consumer brands of this decade with a valuation of $1.4 billion as of earlier this year. Hear from CEO Jen Rubio about how the company got its start, grew, and became the household name it is today.

Like we said, those are but a few of the amazing women you’ll hear at Disrupt Berlin. And the guys aren’t half bad either. Check out the full agenda here.

There’s more to explore at Disrupt Berlin — Q&A Sessions, the Startup Battlefield, the Hackathon finalists pitching on the Extra Crunch Stage and hundreds of startups in Startup Alley, including our recently announced TC Top Picks.

See and do it all at Disrupt Berlin 2019 on 11-12 December. You’ll see and do it all for less if you act now and buy an early-bird pass to Disrupt Berlin before early-bird pricing disappears tonight at 11:59 p.m. (CEST).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 


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SoftBank Vision Fund’s Carolina Brochado is coming to Disrupt Berlin

12:00 | 15 November

SoftBank’s Vision Fund has single-handedly changed the game when it comes to tech startup investment. And that’s why I’m excited to announce that SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Carolina Brochado isn’t a newcomer when it comes to VC investment. She’s worked for years at Atomico in London. Originally from Brazil, she first joined Atomico as an intern in 2012 while studying her MBA at Columbia Business School.

After her MBA, she joined an e-commerce startup as head of operations. Unfortunately, that startup is now defunct. But she used that opportunity to join Atomico once again, as a principle. She became a partner at Atomico in 2016 and left the firm late last year.

At SoftBank’s Vision Fund, she focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplace startups. Just to give you an idea, some of her past investments with both Atomico and SoftBank include LendInvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.

More generally, given the size of SoftBank’s Vision Fund ($100 billion), it has had a huge impact on the growth trajectory of some companies. I’m personally curious to know SoftBank’s approach as board members, whether they get involved in the strategy of those companies or let the executive teams make decisions on their own.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.


Carolina focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplaces. Prior to joining Softbank, Carolina was a Partner at Atomico, where she sourced and collaborated with portfolio companies for almost five years. Some of her investments included Lendinvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.

Previously Carolina has worked as Head of Ops to a now defunct gifting e-commerce start-up, as an investor at Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners and within Consumer/Retail Investment Banking at Merrill Lynch in New York.

Carolina has a Bachelor of Science degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. She is originally from Brazil.

 


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Investment bank Lazard has quietly recruited a ‘Venture and Growth’ team to focus on European scale-ups

11:00 | 15 November

Lazard, the global investment bank, has been quietly recruiting a ten-person team in London to head up its newly created “Venture and Growth Banking” division to match investors with European scale-ups.

Unlike some investment banks, the focus of Lazard Venture and Growth Banking will include Series B and C. That’s earlier than many startups typically engage the help of an investment bank when raising capital and speaks to the sheer number of European startups currently chasing a pool of venture capital that is increasingly global and fragmented.

The Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team will be headed up by ex-Numis employees Garri Jones and Nick James, with both serving as Managing Directors.

Noteworthy, according to his LinkedIn profile, Jones was previously Venture and Broking Lead at Numis. He was also a founding partner at Circle Health, helping to grow the company from seed to IPO. Jones is also a board member of stock photo startup Picfair.

James, who will take up the role of COO at Lazard Venture and Growth Banking, is a well-respected equity research analyst and also recently left Numis (his LinkenIn says he is on gardening leave). He was previously an investment manager at Nomura in its technology VC team.

The other eight members of the team are said to be a mix of experienced entrepreneurs, bankers, engineers and data scientists.

In particular, I understand the Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team see untapped growth-stage opportunities beyond more “classic” VC sectors, such as consumer, SaaS and fintech, to also include AI, life sciences and clean tech — areas that requite deep tech and engineering expertise to evaluate and understand properly.

In other words, Lazard believes that intermediation in the form of an investment bank with the right team and connections can make the difference at Series B, C and beyond — both for investors and companies seeking capital.

Specifically, Lazard Venture and Growth Banking will look to identify the top 100 fastest-growing startups in Europe and connect them to 400 or so investors. These investors will be a mix of institutional funding, including venture capital and private equity, along with sovereign wealth funds, and high net worth individuals.

A large proportion of investors will be made up of corporates, too. I understand the thinking within the new Lazard division is that there in an abundance of corporate venture that remains untapped, with some of Europe’s largest corporates hoping to play catch up after historically underinvesting in R&D.

However, it isn’t simply a case of matching corporates (or their venture arms) with fast-growing startups. It is equally important to match the right corporates to the right startups — and again this is where the Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team believe it can add value.

Meanwhile, Lazard is also planning to host a three-day conference in April 2020 where it will bring leading companies and global investors together through a series of panel discussions and “bespoke investor and company meetings”.

 


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Homeis adds community tools for Mexican immigrants

03:06 | 15 November

Homeis, a startup building networking tools for immigrant communities, officially launched its community for Mexican immigrants this week.

Co-founder and CEO Ran Harnevo (pictured above) previously founded video syndication company 5min, which was acquired by AOL, where he served as the global president of the company’s video division. (AOL also bought TechCrunch and then was acquired, in turn, by Verizon.)

The company’s goal is to create networks that are focused on the needs of specific immigrant communities — starting with Israeli, French and Indian Communities — helping them find things like new friends and job opportunities.

In the launch announcement, the startup says that its Mexican community will “address specific pain points for Mexican immigrants,” for example by helping them find trusted immigration lawyers.

And if building tools for immigrants seems like a political act in 2019, that’s something Harnevo (an Israeli immigrant himself) seems to be embracing.

“It’s our personal mission to empower immigrants, and that has never been more critical,” he said in a statement. “The increased tension and hostility towards immigration has made it clear that tech companies must step up. With the launch of our Mexican community, we are able to share our technology and resources with the largest immigrant community in the U.S. As immigrants ourselves, that means a lot to us.”

Homeis raised a $12 million Series A led by Canaan Partners and Spark Capital earlier this year.

 


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Recycling robots raise millions from top venture firms to rescue an industry in turmoil

02:33 | 15 November

The problem of how to find the potential treasure trove hidden in millions of pounds of trash is getting a high-tech answer as investors funnel $16 million into the recycling robots built by Denver-based AMP Robotics.

For recyclers, the commercialization of robots tackling industry problems couldn’t come at a better time. Their once-stable business has been turned on its head by trade wars and low unemployment.

Recycling businesses used to be able to rely on China to buy up any waste stream (no matter the quality of the material). However, about two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries. The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively.

At the same time, low unemployment rates are putting the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where humans are basically required to hand-sort garbage into recyclable materials and trash.

Given the economic reality, recyclers are turning to AMP’s technology — a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotic automation to improve efficiencies at their facilities.

trash cans

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Abulla Al Muhairi

That’s what attracted Sequoia Capital to lead the company’s latest investment round — a $16 million Series A investment the company will use to expand its manufacturing capacity and boost growth as it looks to expand into international markets.

“We are excited to partner with AMP because their technology is changing the economics of the recycling
industry,” said Shaun Maguire, partner at Sequoia, in a statement. “Over the last few years, the industry has had their margins squeezed by labor shortages and low commodity prices. The end result is an industry proactively searching for cost-saving alternatives and added opportunities to increase revenue by capturing more high-value recyclables, and AMP is emerging as the leading solution.”

The funding will be used to “broaden the scope of what we’re going after,” says chief executive Matanya Horowitz. Beyond reducing sorting costs and improving the quality of the materials that recycling facilities can ship to buyers, the company’s computer vision technologies can actually help identify branded packaging and be used by companies to improve their own product life cycle management.

“We can identify… whether it’s a Coke or Pepsi can or a Starbucks cup,” says Horowitz. “So that people can help design their product for circularity… we’re building out our reporting capabilities and that, to them, is something that is of high interest.”

That combination of robotics, computer vision and machine learning has potential applications beyond the recycling industry as well, according to Horowitz. Automotive scrap and construction waste are other areas where the company has seen interest for its combination of software and hardware.

Meanwhile, the core business of recycling is picking up. In October, the company completed the installation of 14 robots at Single Stream Recyclers in Florida. It’s the largest single deployment of robots in the recycling industry and the robots, which can sort and pick twice as fast as people with higher degrees of accuracy, are installed at sorting lines for plastics, cartons, fiber and metals, the company said.

AMP’s business has two separate revenue streams — a robotics as a service offering and a direct sales option — and the company has made other installations at sites in California, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The traction the company is seeing in its core business was validating for early investors like BV, Closed Loop Partners, Congruent Ventures and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, the Alphabet subsidiary’s new spin-out that invests in technologies to support new infrastructure projects.

For Mike DeLucia, the Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners principal who led the company’s investment into AMP Robotics, the deal is indicative of where his firm will look to commit capital going forward.

“It’s a technology that enables physical assets to operate more efficiently,” he says. “Our goal is to find the technologies that enable really exciting infrastructure projects, back them and work with them to deliver projects in the physical world.”

Investors like DeLucia and Abe Yokell, from the investment firm Congruent Ventures, think that recycling is just the beginning. Applications abound for AMP Robotic’s machine learning and computer vision technologies in areas far beyond the recycling center.

“When you think about how technology is able to impact the built environment, one area is machine vision,” says Yokell. “[Machine learning] neural nets can apply to real-world environments, and that stuff has gotten cheaper and easier to deploy.”

 


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This ride-hailing PR pitch shows platforms and digital campaign ‘dark arts’ want democracy to be pay to play

02:10 | 15 November

A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.

The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.

In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).

In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.

The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.

The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.

Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.

The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.

Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.

Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.

The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.

“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.

Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”

“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.

A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.

“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.

We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.

It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.

Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.

It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.

The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.

The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.

Propaganda as a service

The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.

In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.

Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.

At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.

Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)

Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.

Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.

“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”

Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.

“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.

“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”

Platform power without responsibility

Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.

Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.

The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.

The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)

Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)

While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.

Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.

Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.

However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.

Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.

And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.

Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.

 


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Where top VCs are investing in real estate and proptech (Part 2 of 2)

20:26 | 14 November

In part two of our survey that asked top VCs about the most exciting investment areas in real estate, we dig into responses from 10 leading real estate-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stages across real estate specific firms, corporate venture arms, and prominent generalist firms to share where they see opportunity in this sector. (See part one of our survey.)

In part two of our survey, we hear from:

Connie Chan, Andreessen Horowitz

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

While most people think about real estate tech from the transaction perspective, I believe that every single part of the real estate value chain is ripe for disruption. On the construction and home maintenance side, we are facing an aging population of contractors, electricians and plumbers. As fewer people enter the trade, this is a great opportunity for a startup. Rentals are offline and fragmented, with the majority of renters still paying their rent with cash or check.

As low-interest rates hold, many homeowners could be refinancing their homes, but aren’t simply because of the lack of financial education. People want to live in beautiful spaces, but everyone needs help with the design and remodeling process. Younger generations in particular are shocked and lost when they learn how many vendors and contractors they need to interface with for a simple bathroom or kitchen remodel. At the end of the day, we end up having to go back and forth with service providers in person because there are major information gaps online, just like in medicine. It’s hard for homeowners to know who to listen to and who to trust.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right? 

A third of my time is spent thinking about startups tackling real estate — this includes everything from construction to financing to rentals and home improvement. The amount of money spent in real estate is enormous, and the data and tools we use today are still based on insights from a decade ago.

When I polled colleagues on what they would do if a toilet broke, the answers ranged from: Google, YouTube, Yelp and “calling my mom.” We spend so much money on the way and place we live, and it’s nuts that there isn’t more technology to support it. Yes, we turn to Zillow or Redfin when searching for a home to buy or rent, but what about everything that happens before and after that?

The market is not over-heated in the least. However, I do believe investors are starting to treat real estate tech companies differently than tech-enabled real estate companies. In the past few years, that nuance was less clear, but recent market events have forced investors to focus more on gross margins and software’s ability to scale.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

I’d love to see more companies foster community. Decades ago we hung out with our neighbors, but today, many of us can’t even recall their names. Technology can help connect residents in a building, or neighbors down the street — mapping out our geography-based social networks. I’d also love to find more companies that are using different kinds of signals to assess risk, whether it’s to replace the credit score for a rental screening or to help someone qualify for a mortgage. Chinese fintech companies in particular have been experimenting with using other signals besides a credit score to evaluate how responsible someone might be.

Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers

If we think that the transportation industry is big, just wait until we realize the size of the real estate market!

Brendan Wallace, Fifth Wall

How has the real estate technology ecosystem changed in the last 3 years? 

When we started Fifth Wall three years ago, VCs and even prospective LPs would frequently ask us ‘What does real estate technology mean? Isn’t that very niche? How are you going to invest $212 million into real estate technology? ” At the time those felt like legitimate questions; in retrospect, they reflected that the venture ecosystem hadn’t truly appreciated the enormity of the opportunity in real estate technology. The fact that those questions felt valid only a few years ago tells the story of how the real estate technology ecosystem has evolved, expanded, and institutionalized.

In the last three years, real estate technology has arguably created more enterprise value and spawned more unicorns than any other single industry sector in venture capital. Fifth Wall was fortunate to make early investments in many of those transformative businesses, such as Blend, Hippo, Loggi, Lime, Opendoor and VTS. In the first half of 2019, $14 billion was invested into real estate technology from the VC community. Even though Fifth Wall’s newest $503M fund is the largest in the category, it nonetheless represents a very small percentage of total venture capital invested into real estate technology.

What spawned this growth in real estate tech over the last 3 years? 

It’s not surprising that technology for the real estate industry would become one of the largest and most attractive categories of venture capital. Real estate is the single largest industry in the U.S., yet historically has been one of the lowest spenders on IT. The industry was (and to a great extent still is) known as being a late adopter of technology solutions. I would characterize the last five years as being an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ for major real estate owners, operators, and developers: CIOs were hired for the first time, large IT budgets have been allocated and are growing, and almost every major real estate owner now recognizes that adoption of new technology is existentially critical to their future strategy.

In part, this realization explains the dramatic growth in the number of corporate investors in Fifth Wall: just two years ago Fifth Wall managed $212M from nine North American real estate corporates, today we manage over $1 billion invested by more than 50 corporate strategic partners from eleven countries. To put it simply, when the world’s largest industry suddenly decides to adopt technology, you can expect a lot of value to be created. And it’s only just begun.

Are generalist VCs investing more in real estate technology? 

Generalist VCs have been pouring capital into real estate technology companies, especially in the last few years. However, not all of those investments have performed well, and there’s usually one simple reason for that: distribution is absolutely everything for real estate technology startups. Getting large real estate corporates to adopt a new technology is often deterministic. In addition, generalist VC firms typically lack the deep real estate relationships and domain expertise to drive distribution and adoption of emerging technologies.

This is why Fifth Wall raised its capital from the largest partners and customers of the very technologies in which we’re investing. Fifth Wall wanted to be the connective platform to link new, emerging real estate technologies with the corporate partners that could serve as the commercial distribution lanes for them globally. A perfect example of this would be the strategic partnership and investment Fifth Wall orchestrated between homebuilder Lennar, one of Fifth Wall’s strategic investors, and Opendoor.

Are more real estate corporates forming their own venture capital arms?

There are more CVC (corporate venture capital) arms at real estate companies than there were three years ago, but they haven’t generally performed well, strategically or financially. Real estate organizations can be especially slow-moving and bureaucratic, making it difficult to attract great venture investment talent. CVC is inherently hard to execute well — in any industry — and for an ‘Old World’ industry such as real estate, CVC arms seem especially challenged.

Fifth Wall is increasingly finding that real estate owners are electing to become a part of the Fifth Wall consortium as we can now offer more distribution to any startup that any single corporate investor can offer investing on their own. Similarly, public market investors also have become critical of publicly-traded real estate corporates starting their own venture arms and have instead favored large real estate investment trusts (REITs) investing in consortium-based funds like Fifth Wall and others. I would expect this trend to continue as more real estate corporates are looking to partner with dedicated consortium-based real estate technology funds as opposed to maintaining their own CVC arm.

What trends are you most excited in Real Estate tech from an investing perspective?

We think there is a profound and exciting opportunity right now at the intersection of real estate technology and sustainability. Real estate owners are incredibly exposed to sustainability risks: the industry consumes 40% of all energy globally, emits 30% of total carbon dioxide, and uses 40% of all raw materials.

There is significant and growing regulatory pressure at both the local and federal levels to make all buildings net-zero carbon: look to Los Angeles and NYC’s recent legislation for two salient examples. Consumers and tenants of buildings are increasingly demanding heightened environmental standards for real estate assets. And finally, institutional investors are increasingly imposing sustainability requirements around their capital deployments.

Meeting the demands of stakeholders (regulators, tenants, and investors) is going to be an extraordinarily heavy lift for the real estate industry over the next decade, and effectively leveraging technology and innovation to drive solutions at scale is going to be crucial in order to meet these goals. Taken together, I believe the technologies to create more sustainable real estate assets represent a $1 trillion opportunity over the next decade.

 


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