Jun
12
2019
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Helium launches $51M-funded ‘LongFi’ IoT alternative to cellular

With 200X the range of Wi-Fi at 1/1000th of the cost of a cellular modem, Helium’s “LongFi” wireless network debuts today. Its transmitters can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars and collect data from infrastructure sensors. The catch is that Helium’s tiny, extremely low-power, low-data transmission chips rely on connecting to P2P Helium Hotspots people can now buy for $495. Operating those hotspots earns owners a cryptocurrency token Helium promises will be valuable in the future…

The potential of a new wireless standard has allowed Helium to raise $51 million over the past few years from GV, Khosla Ventures and Marc Benioff, including a new $15 million Series C round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Multicoin Capital. That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventor Shawn Fanning. Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.

Helium already has some big partners lined up, including Lime, which will test it for tracking its lost and stolen scooters and bikes when they’re brought indoors, obscuring other connectivity, or their battery is pulled, out deactivating GPS. “It’s an ultra low-cost version of a LoJack” Helium CEO Amir Haleem says.

InvisiLeash will partner with it to build more trackable pet collars. Agulus will pull data from irrigation valves and pumps for its agriculture tech business. Nestle will track when it’s time to refill water in its ReadyRefresh coolers at offices, and Stay Alfred will use it to track occupancy status and air quality in buildings. Haleem also imagines the tech being useful for tracking wildfires or radiation.

Haleem met Fanning playing video games in the 2000s. They teamed up with Fanning and Sproutling baby monitor (sold to Mattel) founder Chris Bruce in 2013 to start work on Helium. They foresaw a version of Tile’s trackers that could function anywhere while replacing expensive cell connections for devices that don’t need high bandwith. Helium’s 5 kilobit per second connections will compete with SigFox, another lower-power IoT protocol, though Haleem claims its more centralized infrastructure costs are prohibitive. It’s also facing off against Nodle, which piggybacks on devices’ Bluetooth hardware. Lucky for Helium, on-demand rental bikes and scooters that are perfect for its network have reached mainstream popularity just as Helium launches six years after its start.

Helium says it already pre-sold 80% of its Helium Hotspots for its first market in Austin, Texas. People connect them to their Wi-Fi and put it in their window so the devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices. The Helium Hotspots only require as much energy as a 12-watt LED light bulb to run, but that $495 price tag is steep. The lack of a concrete return on investment could deter later adopters from buying the expensive device.

Only 150-200 hotspots are necessary to blanket a city in connectivity, Haleem tells me. But because they need to be distributed across the landscape, so a client can’t just fill their warehouse with the hotspots, and the upfront price is expensive for individuals, Helium might need to sign up some retail chains as partners for deployment. As Haleem admits, “The hard part is the education.” Making hotspot buyers understand the potential (and risks) while demonstrating the opportunities for clients will require a ton of outreach and slick marketing.

Without enough Helium Hotspots, the Helium network won’t function. That means this startup will have to simultaneously win at telecom technology, enterprise sales and cryptocurrency for the network to pan out. As if one of those wasn’t hard enough.

Jun
11
2019
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Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace

Dropbox is evolving from a file-storage system to an enterprise software portal, where you can coordinate work with your team. Today the company launches a new version of Dropbox that allows you to launch apps with shortcuts for G Suite and more, plus use built-in Slack message-sending and Zoom video calls. It lets you search across all your files on your device and inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. Dropbox is also becoming a task manager, with the ability to add notes and tag co-workers in to-do lists attached to files.

The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across 400,000 teams plus its consumer tiers. Users can opt-in here for early access and businesses can turn on early access in their admin panel. “The way we work is broken,” CEO Drew Houston said to cue up the company’s mission statement: “to design a more enlightened way of working.”

Dropbox seems to have realized that file storage by itself is a dying business. With storage prices dropping and any app being able to add their own storage system, it needed to move up the enterprise stack and become a portal that opens and organizes your other tools. Becoming the enterprise coordination layer is a smart strategy, and one that it seems Slack was happy to partner into rather than building itself.

As part of the update, Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users so it won’t have to live inside your Mac or Windows file system. When you click a file, you can see a preview and presence data about who has viewed it, who is currently and who has access.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack, so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom, so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs. Dropbox’s revamped search tool lets you crawl across your computer’s file system and all your cloud storage across other productivity apps.

But what’s most important about today’s changes is that Dropbox is becoming a task-management app. Each file lets you type out descriptions, to-do lists and tag co-workers to assign them tasks. An Activity Feed per file shows comments and actions from co-workers so you don’t have to collaborate in a separate Google Doc or Slack channel.

When asked about how Dropbox decided who to partner with (Slack, Zoom) versus who to copy (Asana), VP of biz dev Billy Blau essentially dodged the question while citing the “shared ethos” of Dropbox’s partners.

Houston kicked off the San Francisco launch event by pointing out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era. He described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work, like organization and communication, instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task-management startup Asana that Dropbox is now competing with more directly. “We’re going to help you get a handle on all this ‘work about work,’ ” Dropbox writes. Yet Asana has been using that phrase as a core of its messaging since 2013.

Now Dropbox wants to be your file tree, your finder and your desktop for the cloud. The question is whether files are always the central unit of work that comments and tasks should be pegged to, or whether it should be the task and project at the center of attention with files attached.

It will take some savvy onboarding and persistence to retrain teams to see Dropbox as their workspace instead of their computer’s desktop or their browser. But if it can become the identity and collaboration layer that connects the fragmented enterprise software, it could outlive file storage and stay relevant as new office tools emerge.

Jun
10
2019
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Apple is making corporate ‘BYOD’ programs less invasive to user privacy

When people bring their own devices to work or school, they don’t want IT administrators to manage the entire device. But until now, Apple only offered two ways for IT to manage its iOS devices: either device enrollments, which offered device-wide management capabilities to admins or those same device management capabilities combined with an automated setup process. At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference last week, the company announced plans to introduce a third method: user enrollments.

This new MDM (mobile device management) enrollment option is meant to better balance the needs of IT to protect sensitive corporate data and manage the software and settings available to users, while at the same time allowing users’ private personal data to remain separate from IT oversight.

According to Apple, when both users’ and IT’s needs are in balance, users are more likely to accept a corporate “bring your own device” (BYOD) program — something that can ultimately save the business money that doesn’t have to be invested in hardware purchases.

The new user enrollments option for MDM has three components: a managed Apple ID that sits alongside the personal ID; cryptographic separation of personal and work data; and a limited set of device-wide management capabilities for IT.

The managed Apple ID will be the user’s work identity on the device, and is created by the admin in either Apple School Manager or Apple Business Manager — depending on whether this is for a school or a business. The user signs into the managed Apple ID during the enrollment process.

From that point forward until the enrollment ends, the company’s managed apps and accounts will use the managed Apple ID’s iCloud account.

Meanwhile, the user’s personal apps and accounts will use the personal Apple ID’s iCloud account, if one is signed into the device.

Third-party apps are then either used in managed or unmanaged modes.

That means users won’t be able to change modes or run the apps in both modes at the same time. However, some of the built-in apps like Notes will be account-based, meaning the app will use the appropriate Apple ID — either the managed one or personal — depending on which account they’re operating on at the time.

To separate work data from personal, iOS will create a managed APFS volume at the time of the enrollment. The volume uses separate cryptographic keys which are destroyed along with the volume itself when the enrollment period ends. (iOS had always removed the managed data when the enrollment ends, but this is a cryptographic backstop just in case anything were to go wrong during unenrollment, the company explained.)

The managed volume will host the local data stored by any managed third-party apps along with the managed data from the Notes app. It also will house a managed keychain that stores secure items like passwords and certificates; the authentication credentials for managed accounts; and mail attachments and full email bodies.

The system volume does host a central database for mail, including some metadata and five line previews, but this is removed as well when the enrollment ends.

Users’ personal apps and their data can’t be managed by the IT admin, so they’re never at risk of having their data read or erased.

And unlike device enrollments, user enrollments don’t provide a UDID or any other persistent identifier to the admin. Instead, it creates a new identifier called the “enrollment ID.” This identifier is used in communication with the MDM server for all communications and is destroyed when enrollment ends.

Apple also noted that one of the big reasons users fear corporate BYOD programs is because they think the IT admin will erase their entire device when the enrollment ends — including their personal apps and data.

To address this concern, the MDM queries can only return the managed results.

In practice, that means IT can’t even find out what personal apps are installed on the device — something that can feel like an invasion of privacy to end users. (This feature will be offered for device enrollments, too.) And because IT doesn’t know which personal apps are installed, it also can’t restrict certain apps’ use.

User enrollments will also not support the “erase device” command — and they don’t have to, because IT will know the sensitive data and emails are gone. There’s no need for a full device wipe.

Similarly, the Exchange Server can’t send its remote wipe command — just the account-only remote wipe to remove the managed data.

Another new feature related to user enrollments is how traffic for managed accounts is guided through the corporate VPN. Using the per-app VPN feature, traffic from the Mail, Contacts and Calendars built-in apps will only go through the VPN if the domains match that of the business. For example, mail.acme.com can pass through the VPN, but not mail.aol.com. In other words, the user’s personal mail remains private.

This addresses what has been an ongoing concern about how some MDM solutions operate — routing traffic through a corporate proxy meant the business could see the employees’ personal emails, social networking accounts and other private information.

User enrollments also only enforces a six-digit non-simple passcode, as the MDM server can’t help users by clearing the past code if the user forgets it.

Some today advise users to not accept BYOD MDM policies because of the impact to personal privacy. While a business has every right to manage and wipe its own apps and data, IT has overstepped with some of its remote management capabilities — including its ability to erase entire devices, access personal data, track a phone’s location, restrict personal use of apps and more.

Apple’s MDM policies haven’t included GPS tracking, however, nor does this new option.

Apple’s new policy is a step toward a better balance of concerns, but will require that users understand the nuances of these more technical details — which they may not.

That user education will come down to the businesses that insist on these MDM policies to begin with — they will need to establish their own documentation, explainers, and establish new privacy policies with their employees that detail what sort of data they can and cannot access, as well as what sort of control they have over corporate devices.

Jun
06
2019
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The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”

Jun
05
2019
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AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin co-founder and CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

Apr
30
2019
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Facebook Messenger will get desktop apps, co-watching, emoji status

To win chat, Facebook Messenger must be as accessible as SMS, yet more entertaining than Snapchat. Today, Messenger pushes on both fronts with a series of announcements at Facebook’s F8 conference. Those include that it will launch Mac and PC desktop apps, a faster and smaller mobile app, simultaneous video co-watching and a revamped Friends tab, where friends can use an emoji to tell you what they’re up to or down for.

Facebook is also beefing up its tools for the 40 million active businesses and 300,000 businesses on Messenger, up from 200,000 businesses a year ago. Merchants will be able to let users book appointments at salons and masseuses, collect information with new lead generation chatbot templates and provide customer service to verified customers through authenticated m.me links. Facebook hopes this will boost the app beyond the 20 billion messages sent between people and businesses each month, which is up 10X from December 2017.

“We believe you can build practically any utility on top of messaging,” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. But he stresses that “All of the engineering behind it is has been redone” to make it more reliable, and to comply with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to unite the backends of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct. “Of course, if we didn’t have to do all that, we’d be able to invest more in utilities. But we feel that utilities will be less functional if we don’t do that work. They need to go hand-in-hand together. Utilities will be more powerful, more functional and more desired if built on top of a system that’s interoperable and end-to-end encrypted.”

Here’s a look at the major Messenger announcements and why they’re important:

Messenger Desktop – A stripped-down version of Messenger focused on chat, audio and video calls will debut later this year. Chudnovsky says it will remove the need to juggle and resize browser tabs by giving you an always-accessible version of Messenger that can replace some of the unofficial knock-offs. Especially as Messenger focuses more on businesses, giving them a dedicated desktop interface could convince them to invest more in lead generation and customer service through Messenger.

Facebook Messenger’s upcoming desktop app

Project Lightspeed – Messenger is reengineering its app to cut 70 mb off its download size so people with low-storage phones don’t have to delete as many photos to install it. In testing, the app can cold start in merely 1.3 seconds, which Chudnovsky says is just 25 percent of where Messenger and many other apps are today. While Facebook already offers Messenger Light for the developing world, making the main app faster for everyone else could help Messenger swoop in and steal users from the status quo of SMS. The Lightspeed update will roll out later this year.

Video Co-Watching – TechCrunch reported in November that Messenger was building a Facebook Watch Party-style experience that would let users pick videos to watch at the same time as a friend, with reaction cams of their faces shown below the video. Now in testing before rolling out later this year, users can pick any Facebook video, invite one or multiple friends and laugh together. Unique capabilities like this could make Messenger more entertaining between utilitarian chat threads and appeal to a younger audience Facebook is at risk of losing.

Watch Videos Together on Messenger

Business Tools – After a rough start to its chatbot program a few years ago, where bots couldn’t figure out users’ open-ended responses, Chudnovsky says the platform is now picking up steam with 300,000 developers on board. One option that’s worked especially well is lead-generation templates, which teach bots to ask people standardized questions to collect contact info or business intent, so Messenger is adding more of those templates with completion reminders and seamless hand-off to a live agent.

To let users interact with appointment-based businesses through a platform they’re already familiar with, Messenger launched a beta program for barbers, dentists and more that will soon open to let any business handle appointment booking through the app. And with new authenticated m.me links, a business can take a logged-in user on their website and pass them to Messenger while still knowing their order history and other info. Getting more businesses hooked on Messenger customer service could be very lucrative down the line.

Appointment booking on Messenger

Close Friends and Emoji Status – Perhaps the most interesting update to Messenger, though, is its upcoming effort to help you make offline plans. Messenger is in the early stages of rebuilding its Friends tab into “Close Friends,” which will host big previews of friends’ Stories, photos shared in your chats, and let people overlay an emoji on their profile pic to show friends what they’re doing. We first reported this “Your Emoji” status update feature was being built a year ago, but it quietly cropped up in the video for Messenger Close Friends. This iteration lets you add an emoji like a home, barbell, low battery or beer mug, plus a short text description, to let friends know you’re back from work, at the gym, might not respond or are interested in getting a drink. These will show up atop the Close Friends tab as well as on location-sharing maps and more once this eventually rolls out.

Messenger’s upcoming Close Friends tab with Your Emoji status

Facebook Messenger is the best poised app to solve the loneliness problem. We often end up by ourselves because we’re not sure which of our friends are free to hang out, and we’re embarrassed to look desperate by constantly reaching out. But with emoji status, Messenger users could quietly signal their intentions without seeming needy. This “what are you doing offline” feature could be a whole social network of its own, as apps like Down To Lunch have tried. But with 1.3 billion users and built-in chat, Messenger has the ubiquity and utility to turn a hope into a hangout.

Click below to check out all of TechCrunch’s Facebook conference coverage from today:

Apr
17
2019
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Meet the first judges for The Europas Awards (27 June) and enter your startup now!

I’m excited to announce that The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is really shaping up! The awards will be held on 27 June 2019, in London, U.K. on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun garden party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.

TechCrunch is once more the exclusive media sponsor of the awards and conference, alongside new “tech, culture & society” event creator The Pathfounder.

Here’s how to enter and be considered for the awards.

You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor that you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.

*** The deadline for nominations is 1 May 2019 ***

For the 2019 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. There are now 20 categories, including new additions to cover AgTech / FoodTech, SpaceTech, GovTech and Mobility Tech.

Attendees, nominees and winners will get discounts to TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin, later this year.

The Europas “Diversity Pass”

We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why, for the upcoming invitation-only “Pathfounder” event held on the afternoon before The Europas Awards, we’ve reserved a tranche of free tickets to ensure that we include more women and people of colour who are “pre-seed” or “seed-stage” tech startup founders. If you are a women founder or person of colour founder, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.

The Pathfounder event will feature premium content and invitees, designed be a “fast download” into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London.

The Europas Awards

The Europas Awards results are based on voting by expert judges and the industry itself.

But key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.

The complete list of categories is here:

  1. AgTech / FoodTech
  2. CleanTech
  3. Cyber
  4. EdTech
  5. FashTech
  6. FinTech
  7. Public, Civic and GovTech
  8. HealthTech
  9. MadTech (AdTech / MarTech)
  10. Mobility Tech
  11. PropTech
  12. RetailTech
  13. Saas/Enterprise or B2B
  14. SpaceTech
  15. Tech for Good
  16. Hottest Blockchain Project
  17. Hottest Blockchain Investor
  18. Hottest VC Fund
  19. Hottest Seed Fund
  20. Grand Prix

Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:
* 6 March 2019 – Submissions open
* 1 May 2019 – Submissions close
* 10 May 2019 – Public voting begins
* 18 June 2019 – Public voting ends
* 27 June 2019 – Awards Bash

Amazing networking

We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. Instead of a sit-down gala dinner, we’ve taken feedback for more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden lawn party, where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily, with free-flowing drinks and a wide-selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last approximately 75 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact dianne@thepathfounder.com

Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.

The Europas Awards have been going for the last 10 years, and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes, Tech.eu, The Memo, Smart Company, CNET, many others — and of course, TechCrunch.

• No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the speakers

• Key founders and investors attending

• Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters

Meet the first set of our 20 judges:


Brent Hoberman
Executive Chairman and Co-Founder
Founders Factory


Videesha Böckle
Founding Partner
signals Venture Capital


Bindi Karia
Innovation Expert + Advisor, Investor
Bindi Ventures


Christian Hernandez Gallardo
Co-Founder and Venture Partner at White Star Capital

Apr
09
2019
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PubNub nabs $23M as its IaaS network hits 1.3T messages sent each month

There’s been a huge increase in the last decade of applications and services that rely on real-time notifications and other alerts as a core part of how they operate, and today one of the companies that powers those notifications is announcing a growth round. PubNub — an infrastructure-as-a-service provider that provides a real-time network to send and manage messaging traffic between companies, between companies and apps and between internet-of-things devices — has raised $23 million in a Series D round of funding to ramp up its business internationally, with an emphasis on emerging markets.

The round adds another strategic investor to PubNub’s cap table: Hewlett Packard Enterprise is coming on as an investor, joining in this round previous backers Sapphire Ventures (backed by SAP), Relay Ventures, Scale Venture Partners, Cisco Investments, Bosch and Ericsson.

Todd Greene, the CEO of PubNub (who co-founded it with Stephen Blum), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round except to say that “we are happy with it, and it’s a solid increase on where we were the last time.” That, according to PitchBook, was just under $155 million back in 2016 in a small extension to its Series C round. The company has raised around $70 million to date.

PubNub’s growth — along with that of competing companies and technologies, which includes the likes of Pusher, RabbitMQ, Google’s Firebase and others — has come alongside the emergence of a number of use cases built on the premise of real-time notifications. These include a multitude of apps; for example, for on-demand commerce (e.g. ride hailing and online food ordering), medical services, entertainment services, IoT systems and more.

That’s pushed PubNub to a new milestone of enabling some 1.3 trillion messages per month for customers that include the likes of Peloton, Atlassian, athenahealth, JustEat, Swiggy, Yelp, the Sacramento Kings and Gett, who choose from some 70 SDKs to tailor what kinds of notifications and actions are triggered around their specific services.

Greene said that while some of the bigger services in the world have largely built their own messaging platforms to manage their notifications — Uber, for example, has taken this route — that process can result in “death by 1,000 paper cuts,” in Greene’s words. Others will opt for a PubNub-style alternative from the start.

“About 50 percent of our customers started by building themselves and then got to scale, and then decided to turn to PubNub,” Greene said.

It’s analogous to the same kind of decision businesses make regarding public cloud infrastructure: whether it makes sense to build and operate their own servers, or turn to a third-party provider — a decision that PubNub itself ironically is also in the process of contemplating.

Today the company runs its own business as an overlay on the public cloud, using a mixture of AWS and others, Greene said — the company has partnerships with Microsoft Azure, AWS, and IBM Watson — but “every year we evaluate the benefits of going into different kinds of data centres and interesting opportunities there. We are evaluating a cost and performance calculation,” he added.

And while he didn’t add it, that could potentially become an exit opportunity for PubNub down the line, too, aligning with a cloud provider that wanted to offer messaging infrastructure-as-a-service as an additional feature to customers.

The strategic relationship with its partners, in fact, is one of the engines for this latest investment. “Edge computing and realtime technologies will be at the heart of the next wave of technology innovation,” commented Vishal Lall, COO of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, said in a statement. “PubNub’s global Data Stream Network has demonstrated extensive accomplishments powering both enterprise and consumer solutions. HPE is thrilled to be investing in PubNub’s fast-growing success, and to accelerate the commercial and industrial applications of PubNub’s real time platform.”

Apr
03
2019
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Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

When everyone always tells you “yes,” you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps,” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360-degree interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace,” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of “hustle porn,” where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly “crushing it.” That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised a  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Ventures, along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients, including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites and other senior executives how to care… or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself,” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area, while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing I know I was working with high-profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. As Yarbrough explains, “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with five different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each others’ toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360-degree interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews with the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video,” Yarbrough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1,500 per month for a senior coach in the U.S., Europe, APAC or EMEA, with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct,’ ” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and to be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super-direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super-sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists,” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side, BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff-upper-lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet,” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.

Mar
27
2019
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Proxy raises $13.6M to unlock anything with Bluetooth identity

You know how kings used to have trumpeters heralding their arrival wherever they went? Proxy wants to do that with Bluetooth. The startup lets you instantly unlock office doors and reserve meeting rooms using Bluetooth Low Energy signal. You never even have to pull out your phone or open an app. But Proxy is gearing up to build an entire Bluetooth identity layer for the world that could invisibly hover around its users. That could allow devices around the workplace and beyond to instantly recognize your credentials and preferences to sign you into teleconferences, pay for public transit or ask the barista for your usual.

Today, Proxy emerges from stealth after piloting its keyless, badgeless office entry tech with 50 companies. It’s raised a $13.6 million Series A round led by Kleiner Perkins to turn your phone into your skeleton key. “The door is a forcing function to solve all the hard problems — everything from safety to reliability to the experience to privacy,” says Proxy co-founder and CEO Denis Mars. “If you’re gonna do this, it’s gonna have to work right, and especially if you’re going to do this in the workplace with enterprises where there’s no room to fix it.”

But rather than creepily trying to capitalize on your data, Proxy believes you should own and control it. Each interaction is powered by an encrypted one-time token so you’re not just beaming your unprotected information out into the universe. “I’ve been really worried about how the internet world spills over to the physical world. Cookies are everywhere with no control. What’s the future going to be like? Are we going to be tracked everywhere or is there a better way?” He figured the best path to the destiny he wanted was to build it himself.

Mars and his co-founder Simon Ratner, both Australian, have been best buddies for 10 years. Ratner co-founded a video annotation startup called Omnisio that was acquired by YouTube, while Mars co-founded teleconferencing company Bitplay, which was bought by Jive Software. Ratner ended up joining Jive where the pair began plotting a new startup. “We asked ourselves what we wanted to do with the next 10 or 20 years of our lives. We both had kids and it changed our perspective. What’s meaningful that’s worth working on for a long time?”

They decided to fix a real problem while also addressing their privacy concerns. As he experimented with Internet of Things devices, Mars found every fridge and light bulb wanted you to download an app, set up a profile, enter your password and then hit a button to make something happen. He became convinced this couldn’t scale and we’d need a hands-free way to tell computers who we are. The idea for Proxy emerged. Mars wanted to know, “Can we create this universal signal that anything can pick up?”

Most offices already have infrastructure for badge-based RFID entry. The problem is that employees often forget their badges, waste time fumbling to scan them and don’t get additional value from the system elsewhere.

So rather than re-invent the wheel, Proxy integrates with existing access control systems at offices. It just replaces your cards with an app authorized to constantly emit a Bluetooth Low Energy signal with an encrypted identifier of your identity. The signal is picked up by readers that fit onto the existing fixtures. Employees can then just walk up to a door with their phone within about six feet of the sensor and the door pops open. Meanwhile, their bosses can define who can go where using the same software as before, but the user still owns their credentials.

“Data is valuable, but how does the end user benefit? How do we change all that value being stuck with these big tech companies and instead give it to the user?” Mars asks. “We need to make privacy a thing that’s not exploited.”

Mars believes now’s the time for Proxy because phone battery life is finally getting good enough that people aren’t constantly worried about running out of juice. Proxy’s Bluetooth Low Energy signal doesn’t suck up much, and geofencing can wake up the app in case it shuts down while on a long stint away from the office. Proxy has even considered putting inductive charging into its sensors so you could top up until your phone turns back on and you can unlock the door.

Opening office doors isn’t super exciting, though. What comes next is. Proxy is polishing its features that auto-reserve conference rooms when you walk inside, that sign you into your teleconferencing system when you approach the screen and that personalize workstations when you arrive. It’s also working on better office guest check-in to eliminate the annoying iPad sign-in process in the lobby. Next, Mars is eyeing “Your car, your home, all your devices. All these things are going to ask ‘can I sense you and do something useful for you?’ ”

After demoing at Y Combinator, thousands of companies reached out to Proxy, from hotel chains to corporate conglomerates to theme parks. Proxy charges for its hardware, plus a monthly subscription fee per reader. Employees are eager to ditch their keycards, so Proxy sees 90 percent adoption across all its deployments. Customers only churn if something breaks, and it hasn’t lost a customer in two years, Mars claims.

The status quo of keycards, competitors like Openpath and long-standing incumbents all typically only handle doors, while Proxy wants to build an omni-device identity system. Now Proxy has the cash to challenge them, thanks to the $13.6 million from Kleiner, Y Combinator, Coatue Management and strategic investor WeWork. In fact, Proxy now counts WeWork’s headquarters and Dropbox as clients. “With Proxywe can give our employees, contractors and visitors a seamless smartphone-enabled access experience they love, while actually bolstering security,” says Christopher Bauer, Dropbox’s physical security systems architect.

The cash will help answer the question of “How do we turn this into a protocol so we don’t have to build the other side for everyone?,” Mars explains. Proxy will build out SDKs that can be integrated into any device, like a smoke detector that could recognize which people are in the vicinity and report that to first responders. Mars thinks hotel rooms that learn your climate, wake-up call and housekeeping preferences would be a no-brainer. Amazon Go-style autonomous retail could also benefit from the tech.

When asked what keeps him up at night, Mars concludes that “the biggest thing that scares me is that this requires us to be the most trustworthy company on the planet. There is no ‘move fast, break things’ here. It’s ‘move fast, do it right, don’t screw it up.’ “

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