General News

Vision system for autonomous vehicles watches not just where pedestrians walk, but how

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 17:28

The University of Michigan, well known for its efforts in self-driving car tech, has been working on an improved algorithm for predicting the movements of pedestrians that takes into account not just what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. This body language could be critical to predicting what a person does next.

Keeping an eye on pedestrians and predicting what they’re going to do is a major part of any autonomous vehicle’s vision system. Understanding that a person is present and where makes a huge difference to how the vehicle can operate — but while some companies advertise that they can see and label people at such and such a range, or under these or those conditions, few if any can or say they can see gestures and posture.

WTF is computer vision?

Such vision algorithms can (though nowadays are unlikely to) be as simple as identifying a human and seeing how many pixels it moves over a few frames, then extrapolating from there. But naturally human movement is a bit more complex than that.

UM’s new system uses the lidar and stereo camera systems to estimate not just a person’s trajectory, but their pose and gait. Pose can indicate whether a person is looking towards or away from the car, or using a cane, or stooped over a phone; gait indicates not just speed but also intention.

Is someone glancing over their shoulder? Maybe they’re going to turn around, or walk into traffic. Are they putting their arms out? Maybe they’re signaling someone (or perhaps the car) to stop. This additional data helps a system predict motion and makes for a more complete set of navigation plans and contingencies.

Importantly, it performs well with only a handful of frames to work with — perhaps comprising a single step and swing of the arm. That’s enough to make a prediction that beats simpler models handily, a critical measure of performance as one cannot assume that a pedestrian will be visible for any more than a few frames between obstructions.

Not too much can be done with this noisy, little-studied data right now but perceiving and cataloguing it is the first step to making it an integral part of an AV’s vision system. You can read the full paper describing the new system in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters or at Arxiv (PDF).

Categories: General News

How to read fiction to build a startup

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 14:33

“The book itself is a curious artefact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were 15, it will tell it to you again when you’re 50, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.”—Ursula K. Le Guin

Every year, Bill Gates goes off-grid, leaves friends and family behind, and spends two weeks holed up in a cabin reading books. His annual reading list rivals Oprah’s Book Club as a publishing kingmaker. Not to be outdone, Mark Zuckerberg shared a reading recommendation every two weeks for a year, dubbing 2015 his “Year of Books.” Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, joined the board of Room to Read when she realized how books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate were inspiring girls to pursue careers in science and technology. Many a biotech entrepreneur treasures a dog-eared copy of Daniel Suarez’s Change Agent, which extrapolates the future of CRISPR. Noah Yuval Harari’s sweeping account of world history, Sapiens, is de rigueur for Silicon Valley nightstands.

This obsession with literature isn’t limited to founders. Investors are just as avid bookworms. “Reading was my first love,” says AngelList’s Naval Ravikant. “There is always a book to capture the imagination.” Ravikant reads dozens of books at a time, dipping in and out of each one nonlinearly. When asked about his preternatural instincts, Lux Capital’s Josh Wolfe advised investors to “read voraciously and connect dots.” Foundry Group’s Brad Feld has reviewed 1,197 books on Goodreads and especially loves science fiction novels that “make the step function leaps in imagination that represent the coming dislocation from our current reality.”

This begs a fascinating question: Why do the people building the future spend so much of their scarcest resource — time — reading books?

Image by NiseriN via Getty Images. Reading time approximately 14 minutes.

Don’t Predict, Reframe

Do innovators read in order to mine literature for ideas? The Kindle was built to the specs of a science fictional children’s storybook featured in Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, in fact, the Kindle project team was originally codenamed “Fiona” after the novel’s protagonist. Jeff Bezos later hired Stephenson as the first employee at his space startup Blue Origin. But this literary prototyping is the exception that proves the rule. To understand the extent of the feedback loop between books and technology, it’s necessary to attack the subject from a less direct angle.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is full of indirect angles that all manage to reveal deeper truths. It’s a mind-bending novel that follows six different characters through an intricate web of interconnected stories spanning three centuries. The book is a feat of pure M.C. Escher-esque imagination, featuring a structure as creative and compelling as its content. Mitchell takes the reader on a journey ranging from the 19th century South Pacific to a far-future Korean corpocracy and challenges the reader to rethink the very idea of civilization along the way. “Power, time, gravity, love,” writes Mitchell. “The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”

The technological incarnations of these invisible forces are precisely what Kevin Kelly seeks to catalog in The Inevitable. Kelly is an enthusiastic observer of the impact of technology on the human condition. He was a co-founder of Wired, and the insights explored in his book are deep, provocative, and wide-ranging. In his own words, “When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable.” The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades, not least of which concern the impacts of AI:

“Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI, we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans. Each step of surrender—we are not the only mind that can play chess, fly a plane, make music, or invent a mathematical law—will be painful and sad. We’ll spend the next three decades—indeed, perhaps the next century—in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special? In the grandest irony of all, the greatest benefit of an everyday, utilitarian AI will not be increased productivity or an economics of abundance or a new way of doing science—although all those will happen. The greatest benefit of the arrival of artificial intelligence is that AIs will help define humanity. We need AIs to tell us who we are.”

It is precisely this kind of an AI-influenced world that Richard Powers describes so powerfully in his extraordinary novel The Overstory:

“Signals swarm through Mimi’s phone. Suppressed updates and smart alerts chime at her. Notifications to flick away. Viral memes and clickable comment wars, millions of unread posts demanding to be ranked. Everyone around her in the park is likewise busy, tapping and swiping, each with a universe in his palm. A massive, crowd-sourced urgency unfolds in Like-Land, and the learners, watching over these humans’ shoulders, noting each time a person clicks, begin to see what it might be: people, vanishing en masse into a replicated paradise.”

Taking this a step further, Virginia Heffernan points out in Magic and Loss that living in a digitally mediated reality impacts our inner lives at least as much as the world we inhabit:

“The Internet suggests immortality—comes just shy of promising it—with its magic. With its readability and persistence of data. With its suggestion of universal connectedness. With its disembodied imagines and sounds. And then, just as suddenly, it stirs grief: the deep feeling that digitization has cost us something very profound. That connectedness is illusory; that we’re all more alone than ever.”

And it is the questionable assumptions underlying such a future that Nick Harkaway enumerates in his existential speculative thriller Gnomon:

“Imagine how safe it would feel to know that no one could ever commit a crime of violence and go unnoticed, ever again. Imagine what it would mean to us to know—know for certain—that the plane or the bus we’re travelling on is properly maintained, that the teacher who looks after our children doesn’t have ugly secrets. All it would cost is our privacy, and to be honest who really cares about that? What secrets would you need to keep from a mathematical construct without a heart? From a card index? Why would it matter? And there couldn’t be any abuse of the system, because the system would be built not to allow it. It’s the pathway we’re taking now, that we’ve been on for a while.” 

Machine learning pioneer, former President of Google China, and leading Chinese venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee loves reading science fiction in this vein — books that extrapolate AI futures — like Hao Jingfang’s Hugo Award-winning Folding Beijing. Lee’s own book, AI Superpowers, provides a thought-provoking overview of the burgeoning feedback loop between machine learning and geopolitics. As AI becomes more and more powerful, it becomes an instrument of power, and this book outlines what that means for the 21st century world stage:

“Many techno-optimists and historians would argue that productivity gains from new technology almost always produce benefits throughout the economy, creating more jobs and prosperity than before. But not all inventions are created equal. Some changes replace one kind of labor (the calculator), and some disrupt a whole industry (the cotton gin). Then there are technological changes on a grander scale. These don’t merely affect one task or one industry but drive changes across hundreds of them. In the past three centuries, we’ve only really seen three such inventions: the steam engine, electrification, and information technology.”

So what’s different this time? Lee points out that “AI is inherently monopolistic: A company with more data and better algorithms will gain ever more users and data. This self-reinforcing cycle will lead to winner-take-all markets, with one company making massive profits while its rivals languish.” This tendency toward centralization has profound implications for the restructuring of world order:

“The AI revolution will be of the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution—but probably larger and definitely faster. Where the steam engine only took over physical labor, AI can perform both intellectual and physical labor. And where the Industrial Revolution took centuries to spread beyond Europe and the U.S., AI applications are already being adopted simultaneously all across the world.”

Cloud Atlas, The Inevitable, The Overstory, Gnomon, Folding Beijing, and AI Superpowers might appear to predict the future, but in fact they do something far more interesting and useful: reframe the present. They invite us to look at the world from new angles and through fresh eyes. And cultivating “beginner’s mind” is the problem for anyone hoping to build or bet on the future.

Categories: General News

ClassPass, Gfycat, StreetEasy hit in latest round of mass site hacks

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 14:02

In just a week, a single seller put close to 750 million records from 24 hacked sites up for sale. Now, the hacker has struck again.

The hacker, whose identity isn’t known, began listing user data from several major websites — including MyFitnessPal, 500px and Coffee Meets Bagel, and more recently Houzz and Roll20 — earlier this week. This weekend, the hacker added a third round of data breaches — another eight sites, amounting to another 91 million user records — to their dark web marketplace.

To date, the hacker has revealed breaches at 30 companies, totaling about 841 million records.

According to the latest listings, the sites include 20 million accounts from Legendas.tv, OneBip, Storybird, and Jobandtalent, as well as eight million accounts at Gfycat, 1.5 million ClassPass accounts, 60 million Pizap accounts, and another one million StreetEasy property searching accounts.

The hacker is selling the eight additional hacked sites for 2.6 bitcoin, or about $9,350.

From the samples that TechCrunch has seen, the accounts include some variations of usernames and email addresses, names, locations by country and region, account creation dates, passwords hashed in various formats, and other account information.

We haven’t found any financial data in the samples.

Little is known about the hacker, and it remains unclear exactly how these sites were hacked.

Ariel Ainhoren, research team leader at Israeli security firm IntSights, told TechCrunch this week that the hacker was likely using the same exploit to target each of the sites and dump the backend databases.

“As most of these sites were not known breaches, it seems we’re dealing here with a hacker that did the hacks by himself, and not just someone who obtained it from somewhere else and now just resold it,” said Ainhoren. The software in question, PostgreSQL, an open-source database project, said it was “currently unaware of any patched or unpatched vulnerabilities” that could have caused the breaches.

We contacted several of the companies prior to publication. Gfycat responded, saying it was looking into the breach, and Pizap said it was “not aware of any hack and will investigate immediately.” We’ll update once it comes in.

Hacker who stole 620 million records strikes again, stealing 127 million more

Categories: General News

Investor momentum builds for construction tech

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 13:10
Mary Ann Azevedo Contributor Share on Twitter Mary Ann Azevedo covers startups and tech at Crunchbase News. More posts by this contributor

Although it’s not the sexiest of industries, the hefty construction sector in 2018 attracted not only the attention but, more importantly, the dollars of investors.

Historically, the multi-trillion-dollar sector has been slow to adopt new technologies, as builders rely on a variety of disparate systems to manage projects, traditional building methods to construct homes and non-smart materials.

But a wave of startups is looking to capitalize on opportunities within the sector. Companies that have developed software solutions aimed at streamlining processes and increasing efficiencies are increasingly common. Prefab construction has evolved thanks to innovation in that space, and 3D printing technology can create homes in a matter of days.

Investors are taking notice. Funding in U.S.-based construction technology startups surged by 324 percent, to nearly $3.1 billion in 2018 compared with $731 million in 2017, according to Crunchbase data. While the 2018 numbers are impressive, it’s important to note that a few large rounds did take place last year and thus skewed the results. One startup alone, Menlo Park-based Katerra, brought in $865 million from SoftBank Vision FundRiverPark Ventures and Four Score Capital in a Series D round last January. And, smart glass company View closed a $1.1 billion Series H in November. Also, Procore, a (unicorn) provider of cloud-based construction management applications, in December raised a $75 million Series H round from Tiger Global Management.

Without those two rounds, the construction tech sector saw just $1.135 billion in funding in 2018, up a more modest 55 percent over 2017’s totals.

The industry continues to see M&A activity. Larger software companies are recognizing that it makes more sense to acquire companies in this space rather than try to reinvent the wheel from within. For example, in the fourth quarter of last year, 3D design software provider Autodesk announced plans to acquire two cloud-based software startups in the space: PlanGrid for $875 million and BuildingConnected for $275 million. Publicly traded software developer Trimble in July acquired construction management software startup Viewpoint for $1.2 billion.

Jerry Chen, partner at Greylock Partners, is bullish on the sector and expects 2019 will only see more funding and acquisitions. His firm invested in San Francisco-based Rhumbix, which has raised $28.6 million to grow its mobile platform designed for the construction craft workforce. That company, he says, had a “record year” in terms of customers and users.

“2018 was an inflection point for the construction tech industry,” Chen told Crunchbase News. “Major venture investing and strategic M&A by incumbent players continued… and I think you will see other major enterprise software companies begin to invest more in construction in 2019.”

One construction tech startup founder, Nick Carter of Chicago-based IngeniousIO, believes that despite the big numbers, the industry has a ways to go in terms of true startup growth. Part of that is simply due to one thing: tech founders and some investors are intimidated by the space.

“A lot of people don’t understand it,” he said. “There’s a massive learning curve. Companies have been building buildings the same way for hundreds of years and not everyone understand its complexities.”

The fact that construction is a largely unregulated industry is also a factor, Carter believes.

“Eventually money will flow into the sector because of the pure size of the market,” he told Crunchbase News. “The money is there. There are VCs at every angle wanting to get into this space, but they’re looking for the right opportunities. There just aren’t a ton of startups in the space.”

Construction is also a very cyclical business, and one has to wonder if a potential economic downturn would give investors pause. But to Carter, a downturn would only create more need for products like the one his company is working to build. IngeniousIO’s platform uses artificial intelligence to redefine the process of construction projects by creating what Carter describes as “a unifying, data-driven approach.”

“Tighter budgets are where a company like ours can do very well,” he said. “Companies wouldn’t have the overhead of outdated apps that take a significant amount of support to manage, scale and implement.”

The construction sector may not have the cache of other more Twitter-friendly markets, but it does have the sheer size and potential to provide ripe soil for investors willing to break ground on new opportunities.

Categories: General News

Visa and Mastercard could raise interchange fees

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 10:46

According to a report from the WSJ, Visa and Mastercard are considering raising interchange fees on card transactions in the U.S. Visa and Mastercard generate most of their revenue from these small processing fees, and it could have implications for merchants and fintech startups.

When you pay with a credit or debit card, merchants pay a small fee to the bank that issued this card. Your bank then pays an even smaller fee to the company that operates the card network.

In most cases, card issuers and card networks are separate companies. For instance, Chase issues a Visa card, Chase gets an interchange fee on every card transaction, and Chase pays a tiny fee to Visa. Some companies also operate a network and issue cards themselves, such as American Express.

The WSJ says that Mastercard and Visa will raise their fees in April — Visa confirmed the change. While fees on each transaction are nearly unnoticeable, they add up quite rapidly. They generate a ton of revenue for Visa and Mastercard, and they represent significant costs for large merchants.

It could become a consumer protection issue as customers often end up paying higher prices because of those fees. While Visa and Mastercard mostly negotiate with financial institutions, those financial institutions still want a cut on interchange fees. That’s why those fees are passed on to the merchants.

Merchants take into account the fact that a large portion of their customers are going to pay with a card. They end up raising prices for everyone, even if you pay using cash, a debit card or a credit card.

Fees on credit cards are generally higher and are the reason why points and rewards exist. Banks attract customers with advantageous reward systems because they want to get your interchange fees. Interchange fees are also much higher in the U.S. than in Europe because there has been more fraudulent activity — the U.S. has switched to chip-and-pin cards years after Europe.

An increase in interchange fees could also affect consumer fintech startups. Many challenger banks have been relying on interchange fees as one of their revenue streams. That’s part of the reason why European fintech startups, such as N26, Monzo and Revolut, have been looking at the U.S. as a potential market. There’s an entire industry built on top of those interchange fees.

Categories: General News

Uber sues NYC to contest cap on drivers

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 10:18

Uber filed a lawsuit against New York City, The Verge reported. The company wants to overturn New York City’s rule that caps the number of new ride-hailing drivers. Last summer, the city approved legislation that halts the issuing of new licenses to drivers for 12 months.

It has been a multi-year fight between Uber and New York City. NYC mayor Bill de Blasio has been in favor of new legislation to regulate ride-hailing companies for years. And the NYC Council finally voted in favor of such a new rule back in August 2018.

Uber has had a strong stance against the new regulatory framework. Before the vote, the company even called loyal customers to ask them to call local council members and support Uber.

There are a few reasons why policymakers have been in favor of the halt. First, taxi medallion holders have been suffering from the sudden market changes caused by Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies. The value of their licenses have dropped significanyly, which created some financial issues for drivers who got a credit to acquire those licenses.

Second, ride-hailing services have fostered congestion across the city. It seems a bit counterintuitive as some Uber users have given up on their personal cars to switch to Uber. But Uber also replaces a lot of other transportation methods, such as subways, buses, bikes, etc.

In addition to that usage pattern switch, many drivers are still driving around New York City, waiting for the next ride. Those idle cars clog the streets.

Third, there are also economical reasons for this change. Uber is a marketplace that matches drivers with riders. The company is leveraging the fact that rules aren’t as strict for ride-hailing drivers as for taxi drivers. This way, Uber can accept a ton of drivers even though demand doesn’t necessarily match. Uber can then leverage this market imbalance to drive down wages.

As part of the vote, New York City has also agreed on a minimum wage for ride-hailing drivers. Eventually, it could lead to an increase in price for customers. But so many customers have turned their back on public transportation that it is now generating too many issues when it comes to infrastructure investments and traffic congesting.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You can’t expect a better subway system if nobody is interested in taking the subway anymore. And you can’t expect customers to rely on the subway if there hasn’t been enough investment to make it reliable.

Categories: General News

Transportation Weekly: Didi woes, how Nuro met Softbank, Amazon’s appetite

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 09:00

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. This is the second edition and seriously people, what happened this week? Too much. Too much!

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming).

Off we go … vroom.

ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

This week, we’ve got some insider info on Didi, China’s largest ride-hailing firm. China-based TechCrunch reporter Rita Liao learned from sources that Didi plans to lay off 15 percent of its employees, or about 2,000 people this year. CEO Cheng Wei made the announcement during an internal meeting Friday morning.

Read about it here.

Didi’s troubles with regulators and its backlash from two high-profile passenger murders last year don’t exist in a vacuum. Their struggles are in line with what is happening in the ride-hailing industry, particularly in more mature markets where the novelty has worn off and cities have woken up.

For companies like Didi, Uber, Lyft and other emerging players, this means more resources (capital and people) spent working with cities as well as looking for ways to diversify their businesses. All the while, they must still plug away at the nagging problems of reducing costs and keeping drivers and riders.

Just look at Uber. As Megan Rose Dickey reports, Uber’s stiff losses continued in the fourth quarter. The upshot: Its losses can be attributed to increased competition and significant investment in bigger bets like micro mobility and Elevate. And apparently legal fees. Uber, The Verge reports, sued NYC on Friday to overturn a law that caps drivers.

Dig In

This week, TechCrunch editor Devin Coldewey digs into the development of a system that can estimate not just where a pedestrian is headed, but their pose and gait too.

The University of Michigan, well known for its efforts in self-driving car tech, has been working on an improved algorithm for predicting the movements of pedestrians.

These algorithms can be as simple as identifying a human and seeing how many pixels move over a few frames, then extrapolating from there. But naturally, human movement is a bit more complex than that. Few companies advertise the exact level of detail with which they resolve human shapes and movement. This level of granularity seems beyond what we’ve seen.

UM’s new system uses LiDar and stereo camera systems to estimate not just the trajectory of a person, but their pose and gait. Pose can indicate whether a person is looking towards or away from the car, or using a cane, or stooped over a phone; gait indicates speed and intention.

Is someone glancing over their shoulder? Maybe they’re going to turn around, or walk into traffic. This additional data helps a system predict motion and makes for a more complete set of navigation plans and contingencies.

Importantly, it performs well with only a handful of frames to work with — perhaps comprising a single step and swing of the arm. That’s enough to make a prediction that beats simpler models handily, a critical measure of performance as one cannot assume that a pedestrian will be visible for any more than a few frames between obstructions.

Not too much can be done with this noisy, little-studied data right now, but perceiving and cataloguing it is the first step to making it an integral part of an AV’s vision system.

— Devin Coldewey

A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

Every big funding round has an origin story — that magic moment when planets align and a capitally-flush investor gazes across a room at just the right time and spots the perfect company in need of funds and guidance.

One of this week’s biggest deals — see below — was the $940 million that Softbank Vision Fund invested in autonomous delivery robot Nuro. How (and when) Nuro met Softbank is almost as big a story as the funding round itself. OK, well maybe not AS BIG. But interesting, nonetheless.

It turns out that Cruise, the self-driving unit of GM, was in early talks with Nuro, but the parties couldn’t quite meet in the middle, people familiar with the deal told me. Sources wouldn’t elaborate whether Cruise was seeking to acquire Nuro or take a minority stake in the company.

It all worked out in the end, though. The folks at Cruise introduced Nuro to Softbank. That means Cruise and Nuro now share the same investor. Softbank agreed in May 2018 to invest $2.25 billion in GM Cruise Holdings LLC.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Deal(s) of the week

We have a tie this week, which began with news that Softbank’s Vision Fund invested in autonomous delivery robot Nuro. The week closed with electric automaker Rivian announcing a $700 million funding round led by Amazon.

First Nuro. Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, and the same person who was a big part of its investment in Cruise, told TechCrunch that the winners in this market will need to address a diverse mix of technological questions. In his view, that’s Nuro.

“Nuro has built a team of brilliant problem solvers whose combined backgrounds in robotics, machine learning, autonomous driving and consumer electronics give them a compelling advantage,” Ronen said.

Amazon’s investment in Rivian is important, particularly when you step back and take a more holistic and historic view. Consider this: The logistics giant stealthily acquired an urban delivery robot startup called Dispatch in 2017 (a discovery Mark Harris made and reported for us last week). Amazon showed off the fruit of that acquisition — its own delivery robot Scout — in January 2018.

Last week, self-driving vehicle startup Aurora raised more than $530 million in a Series B funding round led by Sequoia and with “significant” investments from Amazon and T. Rowe Price. Now, Amazon is backing Rivian.

Based on the deals that we know about, Amazon’s hands are now deep into autonomous delivery, self-driving vehicle software and electric vehicles. Let that sink in.

Other deals that got our attention this week:

Snapshot

Sure, TechCrunch focuses on startups. Why auto loans? Because auto loan data can be one of the canaries in the coal mine that is the automotive industry and on a larger scale, the economy.  And, delinquency rates ripple through the rest of the transportation world, affecting public transit and ride-hailing too.

The New York Federal Reserve this week released a collection of economic data, including auto loans, which have been climbing since 2011. Auto loans increased by $9 billion this year, a figure boosted by historically strong levels of newly originated loans that will put 2018 in the record books. There were $584 billion in new auto loans and leases appearing on credit reports in 2018, the highest level in the 19-year history of the loan origination data.

Why I’m watching this? Because according to the Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit:

  • The flow into 90+ day delinquency for auto loan balances has been slowly trending upward since 2012
  • Serious delinquency of auto loans held by borrowers under 30 years old between 2014 and 2016 rose (see chart)
  • Rising overall delinquency rates remain below 2010 peak levels. However, there were more than 7 million Americans with auto loans that were 90 or more days delinquent at the end of 2018

Tiny but mighty micro mobility

It was a bit quiet on the micro-mobility front this week, but here’s what jumped out. Unsurprisingly, San Francisco denied Lime’s appeal to operate electric scooters in the city. This is the same decision the city landed on pertaining to both Uber’s Jump and Ford’s Spin appeals. On the bright side for these companies, there may be hope for them to deploy scooters during phase two of the city’s pilot program, which starts in April.

Also in the SF Bay Area, Lyft donated $700,000 to TransForm, an organization focused on improving access to transportation in underserved areas throughout California. In partnership with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Lyft and TransForm will invest in a free bike library and community “parklets” in Oakland, Calif.

Meanwhile, over in Tel Aviv, Lime deployed its electric scooters, joining electric scooter startup Bird. Lime also reportedly plans to deploy its scooters throughout the country of Israel. Next up will be cities in the Gush Dan region.

In case you thought e-scooters were a new thing, here's a lady riding one in 1916. Timing is everything.https://t.co/bb6NtmThTC pic.twitter.com/UyzIKapbk3

— David E. Weekly

Categories: General News

Startups Weekly: Is Y Combinator’s latest cohort too big?

TechCrunch - Sat, 02/16/2019 - 08:00

Greetings from Chittorgarh, one of my stops on a two-week excursion through Goa and Rajasthan, India. I’ve been a little too busy exploring, photographing cows and monkeys and eating a lot of delicious food to keep up with *all* the tech news, but I’ve still got the highlights.

For starters, if you haven’t heard yet, TechCrunch launched Extra Crunch, a paid premium subscription offering full of amazing content. As part of Extra Crunch, we’ll be doing deep dives on select businesses, beginning with Patreon. Read Patreon’s founding story here and learn how two college roommates built the world’s leading creator platform. Plus, we’ve got insights on Patreon’s product, business strategy, competitors and more.

Sign up for Extra Crunch membership here.

On to other news…

Y Combinator’s latest batch of startups is huge

So huge the Silicon Valley accelerator had to move locations and set up two stages at its upcoming demo days (March 18-19) to accommodate the more than 200 startups ready to pitch investors (who will have to hop between stages at the event). There will also be a virtual demo day live-streamed for some investors to watch “because there are so few seats.” Here’s what I’m wondering… At what point is a YC cohort too big? If investors aren’t even able to view all the companies at Demo Day, what exactly is the point? Send me your thoughts.

Deal of the week

Another week, another SoftBank deal. The Vision Fund’s latest bet is autonomous delivery. The Japanese telecom giant has invested $940 million in Nuro, the developer of a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. The startup, also backed by Greylock and Gaorong Capital, will use the cash to expand its delivery service, add new partners, hire employees and scale up its fleet of self-driving bots. And while we’re on the subject of autonomous, TuSimple, a self-driving truck startup, has raised a $95 million Series D at a unicorn valuation.

Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman

The future of KPCB

TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos spoke with Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman, who joined Kleiner Perkins from Social Capital and Index Ventures, respectively. The pair talked about Kleiner Perkins, touching on people who’ve left the firm, how its decision-making process now works, why there are no senior women in its ranks and what they make of SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or @KateClarkTweets

Facebook almost bought Unity

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg considered a multi-billion-dollar purchase of Unity, a game development platform. This is according to a new book coming out next week, “The History of the Future,” by Blake Harris, which digs deep into the founding story of Oculus and the drama surrounding the Facebook acquisition, subsequent lawsuits and personal politics of founder Palmer Luckey. Here’s more on the acquisition-that-could-have-been from TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney.

Venture capital funds

Indonesia-focused Intudo Ventures raised a new $50 million fund this week to invest in the world’s fourth most populated country; InReach Ventures, the “AI-powered” European VC, closed a new €53 million early-stage vehicle; and btov Partners closed an €80 million fund aimed at industrial tech startups.

Xiaomi-backed electric toothbrush startup Soocas raises $30M

Startup cash

Jobvite raises $200M+ and acquires three recruitment startups to expand its platform play
Opendoor files to raise another $200M
DriveNets emerges from stealth with $110M for its cloud-based alternative to network routers
Figma gets $40M Series C to put design tools in the cloud
Xiaomi-backed electric toothbrush Soocas raises $30 million Series C
Malt raises $28.6 million for its freelancer platform
Elevate Security announces $8M Series A to alter employee security behavior
Massless raises $2M to build an Apple Pencil for virtual reality

Subscription scooters

Just when you thought the scooter boom and the subscription-boom wouldn’t intersect, Grover arrived to prove you wrong. The startup is launching an e-scooter monthly subscription service in Germany. Their big idea is that instead of purchasing an e-scooter outright, GroverGo customers can enjoy unlimited e-scooter rides without the upfront costs or commitment of owning an e-scooter.

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos chat startups.

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Categories: General News

Steve Jurvetson tells all about his new $200 million fund, his new partner, his new shopping list, and more

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 20:46

Steve Jurvetson is staging a comeback, disclosing today that his new San Francisco-based, early-stage venture firm Future Ventures, has raised $200 million for its debut fund.

“It’s good to be back in the saddle again,” says Jurvetson, whose career was somewhat derailed in the fall of 2017 when a former girlfriend wrote a Facebook post, accusing DFJ — the firm Jurvetson cofounded in 1985 — of “predatory behavior.” DFJ said publicly the next day that it was already investigating “indirect and secondhand allegations” about Jurvetson, and within weeks, the firm and Jurvetson apparently had enough of each other, mutually deciding that it was time to part ways. (Jurvetson, who was recently wed for the second time, has since said he poorly handled his love interests, some of which he acknowledges were extramarital.)

It was surely an embarrassing chapter for Jurvetson, who’d enjoyed a pristine reputation, but notably, he didn’t lose the support of some of his former colleagues. At the time, two founders who worked previously at DJF spoke up on his behalf, crediting both Jurvetson and DFJ with “cultivating an environment where women advance professionally.” And Jurvetson has formed Future Ventures with another former apprentice who he mentored for a year at DFJ: Maryanna Saenko, who Jurvetson says is a “full partner” in the endeavor and who he characterizes as “the most talented investor I’ve ever worked with.”

Certainly, they have much in common in the way of interests. Jurvetson has famously funded companies that seemed dangerously futuristic and capital intensive at the time, including Space X and Tesla. Saenko, who has two degrees from Carnegie Mellon in materials science and engineering, has long been fascinated with deep learning, space exploration, and robotics. She even helped start up Airbus Ventures before joining DFJ, where she worked with Jurvetson on deals like the “clean meat” company Memphis Meats and Orchid, a San Francisco-based startup that’s developing a a surveillance-free layer on top of the internet.

They must work well together. Soon after Jurvetson left the firm, Saenko also split, spending six months at Khosla Ventures before rejoining him in November, when they began putting together a pitch deck in earnest for Future Ventures . Meetings with prospective investors soon followed.

Asked about Future Ventures’s backers, Jurvetson says they are “people who know what I’m doing and want to invest in that — tech CEOs, other VCs, hedge fund [investors] —  people who’ve known me for decades. I figured that was the easiest place to start.” Not that anyone is funding Jurvetson out of blind loyalty, one surmises. Future Ventures is charging 2.5 percent in management fees and 25 percent of any profits earned, above the standard “2 and 20” that many fund managers charge and more in line with the what the best-performing funds are able to secure from their investors.

He seemingly has the track record for it. Future Ventures hasn’t written its first check just yet, but “the vast majority of term sheets I’ve issued [over my career] have been the only term sheet offered to the company,” claims Jurvetson. Pointing this editor to the companies he has funded over time, he adds that: “In almost every case, I was the first VC to offer a term sheet and take a board seat, and there was no one competing with me.”

Among his bets that look prescient in hindsight are SpaceX and Tesla, on whose boards Jurvetson still sits. But he also holds a seat on the board of the quantum computing company D-Wave and was an early investor in Planet, the satellite company.

Whether he still has the magic touch is something he’ll have to prove at Future Ventures, but the firm’s investors are giving it more time than is standard to invest the fund: 15 years instead of 10. Future Ventures will also be able to pull the trigger faster on deals than some firms because of its size, which is small by design, says Jurvetson. Though he and Saenko may eventually bring aboard a “partner-track associate,” for now, two is the right number of partners and “never more than five.”

Team size is “so important,” says Jurvetson. “My favorite time was when i had a three partners” at the outset of DFJ, which he formed with investors Tim Draper and John Fisher. “You can have meetings whenever you want. You can iterate and deliberate. You want your team to be cognitively diverse but also small. Once you have more than seven people, it’s no longer a team.”

As for what Future will back, Jurvetson says the future of food production remains one great area of interest, as is the proliferation of neural networks at “the edge — of your phone, your car, your security camera.” The latter, he notes, can be a “pain in the ass today, [issuing] false alarms all the time. But you can build a sensory cortex so that it becomes more intelligent and recognizes the owners of the house and doesn’t sound the alarm when it shouldn’t.” And it doesn’t need to push that information to the cloud to know it, either.

Jurvetson admits that earlier in his career, he had the propensity to “fund science projects” that were not necessarily businesses that could scale. Longtime industry observers may recall, for example, Jurvetson’s early enthusiasm for nanotech. (Jurvetson was right — just too early — if you put synthetic biology in this bucket. )

But he also says that his reputation for investing early in what may sound crazy has paid off, and he’s counting on it continuing to do so. It’s why he’s a fixture at places like space conferences; they make it easier for him to reach founders who are focused on things he hasn’t necessarily heard of before.

Indeed, if everything goes as planned, he says, “What I’ll be most excited about five years from now” won’t be anything that interests him right now. It will “be an industry sector that I couldn’t name for you today.”

Categories: General News

Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 17:02

Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. TechCrunch has received confirmation of the acquistion from sources with knowledge of the deal. The startup makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available.

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.

Categories: General News

Marriott now lets you check if you’re a victim of the Starwood hack

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 16:54

Hotel chain giant Marriott will now let you check if you’re a victim of the Starwood hack.

The company confirmed to TechCrunch that it has put in place “a mechanism to enable guests to look up individual passport numbers to see if they were included in the set of unencrypted passport numbers.” That follows a statement last month from the company confirming that five million unencrypted passport numbers were stolen in the data breach last year.

The checker, hosted by security firm OneTrust, will ask for some personal information, like your name, email address, as well as the last six-digits of your passport number.

Marriott says data on “fewer than 383 million unique guests” was stolen in the data breach, revealed in September, including guest names, postal addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, genders, email addresses and reservation information. Later it transpired that more than 20 million encrypted passport numbers were also stolen, along with 8.6 million unique payment card numbers. Marriott said only 354,000 cards were active and unexpired at the time of the breach in September.

Opening up the checker to the wider public is a bright spot in what’s been a fairly atrocious incident recovery by Marriott since the breach. The company’s initial response was plagued with hiccups and missteps that many security experts stepped in to fill in the gaps at their own expense.

The checker won’t kick back a result straight away — you’ll have to wait for a response — and Marriott doesn’t say how long that’ll take. There is a certain irony in having to turn over your own data — not least to a third-party — to be told if you’re a victim of a breach. It’s literally the last thing any breach victim wants to do: hand over even their more of their personal information. But that’s the world we’re living in, and everything is terrible.

Use the checker at your own risk.

Marriott’s breach response is so bad, security experts are filling in the gaps — at their own expense

Categories: General News

Deploy the space harpoon

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 15:42

Watch out, starwhales. There’s a new weapon for the interstellar dwellers whom you threaten with your planet-crushing gigaflippers, undergoing testing as we speak. This small-scale version may only be good for removing dangerous orbital debris, but in time it will pierce your hypercarbon hides and irredeemable sun-hearts.

Literally a space harpoon. (Credit: Airbus)

However, it would be irresponsible of me to speculate beyond what is possible today with the technology, so let a summary of the harpoon’s present capabilities suffice.

The space harpoon is part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods of reducing space debris. There are thousands of little pieces of who knows what clogging up our orbital neighborhood, ranging in size from microscopic to potentially catastrophic.

There are as many ways to take down these rogue items as there are sizes and shapes of space junk; perhaps it’s enough to use a laser to edge a small piece down toward orbital decay, but larger items require more hands-on solutions. And seemingly all nautical in origin: RemoveDEBRIS has a net, a sail and a harpoon. No cannon?

You can see how the three items are meant to operate here:

The harpoon is meant for larger targets, for example full-size satellites that have malfunctioned and are drifting from their orbit. A simple mass driver could knock them toward the Earth, but capturing them and controlling descent is a more controlled technique.

While an ordinary harpoon would simply be hurled by the likes of Queequeg or Dagoo, in space it’s a bit different. Sadly it’s impractical to suit up a harpooner for EVA missions. So the whole thing has to be automated. Fortunately the organization is also testing computer vision systems that can identify and track targets. From there it’s just a matter of firing the harpoon at it and reeling it in, which is what the satellite demonstrated today.

This Airbus-designed little item is much like a toggling harpoon, which has a piece that flips out once it pierces the target. Obviously it’s a single-use device, but it’s not particularly large and several could be deployed on different interception orbits at once. Once reeled in, a drag sail (seen in the video above) could be deployed to hasten reentry. The whole thing could be done with little or no propellant, which greatly simplifies operation.

Obviously it’s not yet a threat to the starwhales. But we’ll get there. We’ll get those monsters good one day.

Categories: General News

GoTrendier raises $3.5 million to take on Spanish-language fashion marketplaces

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 15:04

Thanks to environmentally conscious young buyers, throwaway culture is dying not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America — and startups are poised to jump in with services to help people recycle used clothing.

GoTrendier, a peer-to-peer fashion marketplace operative in Mexico and Colombia, has raised $3.5 million USD to do just that. And investors are eyeing the startup as the digital fashion marketplace growth leader in Spanish-speaking countries. 

GoTrendier, founded by Belén Cabido, is a platform that lets users buy and sell secondhand clothing. Cabido tells me that the new capital will enable GoTrendier to expand deeper into Mexico and Colombia, and launch in a new country: Chile. 

GoTrendier enables users to buy and sell used items through the GoTrendier site and app. The platform categorizes users as either salespeople or buyers. Salespeople create their own stores by uploading photos of garments along with a description and sale price. Buyers browse the platform for deals and once a buyer bites, the seller is given a prepaid shipping label. 

Sound familiar? Businesses like Poshmark and GoTrendier have no actual inventory, which allows the companies to take on less of a risk by having smaller overhead costs. In turn, the company acts as more of a social community for fashion exchanges.

In order to make money, Poshmark takes a flat commission of $2.95 for sales under $15. For anything more than that, the seller keeps 80 percent of their sale and Poshmark takes a 20 percent commission. Poshmark also owes its success to the socially connected shopping experience it created and the audience building features available to sellers — as detailed in this Harvard Business School study. GoTrendier has a similar commission pricing strategy, taking 20 percent off plus an additional nine pesos (about 48 cents in U.S. currency) for all purchases. The service also takes advantage of social media and sharing features to help connect and engage its fashion-loving community. 

But these companies are also largely venture-backed. In the case of GoTrendier, the round gave shareholder entry to Ataria, a Peruvian fund that invests in early-stage tech companies with high earning potential. Existing investors Banco Sabadell and IGNIA reinforced their position, along with Barcelona-based investors Antai Venture Builder, Bonsai Venture Capital and Pedralbes Partners.

GoTrendier amassed a user base of 1.3 million buyers and sellers throughout its four years of existence. The service operates in Mexico and Colombia, and will use its newest capital to launch in Chile — another market Cabido says is experiencing high demand for a secondhand fashion buying and selling service.

Online marketplace companies are growing in Latin America as smartphone adoption and digital banking services multiply in the region. But international expansion has proven to be an issue. Enjoei, a similar fashion marketplace that owns the market share in Brazil, had a botched attempt at expanding to Argentina due to Portugese-Spanish language barriers and eventually determined that Brazil was a large enough market in which to build its business — thus carving out an opportunity for companies like GoTrendier that offer the same services to dominate the surrounding Spanish-speaking markets in Latin America.

Many have remarked that Latin America’s tech scene is filled with copycats — or companies that emulate the business models of American or European startups and bring the same service to their home market. In order to secure bigger foreign investment checks, founders from growing tech regions like Latin America certainly must invent proprietary technologies. Yet there’s still value — and capital — in so-called copycat businesses. Why? Because the users are there and in some cases it’s just easier to start up.

According to investor Sergio Pérez of Sabadell Venture Capital, “The volume of the market for buying and selling second-hand clothes in the world was 360 million transactions in 2017 and is expected to reach 400 million in 2022.” A 2018 report from ThredUp also claimed that the size of the global secondhand market is set to hit $41 billion by 2022. The “throwaway” culture is disappearing thanks to environmentally conscious millennial buyers. As designer Stella McCartney famously said, “The future of fashion is circular – it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love never end up as waste.” By buying on GoTrendier, the company claims its users have been able to save USD $12 million and have avoided more than 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

Founders building companies in Latin America aren’t necessarily as capital-hungry as Silicon Valley-based founders, (where a Series A can now equate to $68 million, apparently). Cabido tells me her company is able to fulfill operations and marketing needs with a lean staff of 30, noting that there’s a lot of natural demand for buying and selling used clothing in these regions, thus creating organic growth for her business. She wasn’t looking to raise capital, but investors had their eye on her. “[Investors] saw the tension of the marketplace, and we demonstrated that GoTrendier’s user base could be bigger and bigger,” she says. With sights set on new markets like Chile and Peru, Cabido decided to move forward and close the round.  

Poshmark, which benefits from indirect and same-side network effects, has raised $153 million to date from investors like Temasek Holdings, GGV and Menlo Ventures. Just like GoTrendier, Poshmark’s Series A was also a $3.5 million round.

Who’s to say that that amount of capital can’t boost a network effects growth model in Latin America too? The users are certainly waiting. 

Categories: General News

Even years later, Twitter doesn’t delete your direct messages

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 13:57

When does “delete” really mean delete? Not always, or even at all, if you’re Twitter .

Twitter retains direct messages for years, including messages you and others have deleted, but also data sent to and from accounts that have been deactivated and suspended, according to security researcher Karan Saini.

Saini found years-old messages in a file from an archive of his data obtained through the website from accounts that were no longer on Twitter. He also reported a similar bug, found a year earlier but not disclosed until now, that allowed him to use a since-deprecated API to retrieve direct messages even after a message was deleted from both the sender and the recipient — though, the bug wasn’t able to retrieve messages from suspended accounts.

Saini told TechCrunch that he had “concerns” that the data was retained by Twitter for so long.

Direct messages once let users “unsend” messages from someone else’s inbox, simply by deleting it from their own. Twitter changed this years ago, and now only allows a user to delete messages from their account. “Others in the conversation will still be able to see direct messages or conversations that you have deleted,” Twitter says in a help page. Twitter also says in its privacy policy that anyone wanting to leave the service can have their account “deactivated and then deleted.” After a 30-day grace period, the account disappears, along with its data.

But, in our tests, we could recover direct messages from years ago — including old messages that had since been lost to suspended or deleted accounts. By downloading your account’s data, it’s possible to download all of the data Twitter stores on you.

A conversation, dated March 2016, with a suspended Twitter account was still retrievable today (Image: TechCrunch)

Saini says this is a “functional bug” rather than a security flaw, but argued that the bug allows anyone a “clear bypass” of Twitter mechanisms to prevent accessed to suspended or deactivated accounts.

But it’s also a privacy matter, and a reminder that “delete” doesn’t mean delete — especially with your direct messages. That can open up users, particularly high-risk accounts like journalist and activists, to government data demands that call for data from years earlier.

That’s despite Twitter’s claim that once an account has been deactivated, there is “a very brief period in which we may be able to access account information, including tweets,” to law enforcement.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company was “looking into this further to ensure we have considered the entire scope of the issue.”

Retaining direct messages for years may put the company in a legal grey area ground amid Europe’s new data protection laws, which allows users to demand that a company deletes their data.

Neil Brown, a telecoms, tech and internet lawyer at U.K. law firm Decoded Legal, said there’s “no formality at all” to how a user can ask for their data to be deleted. Any request from a user to delete their data that’s directly communicated to the company “is a valid exercise” of a user’s rights, he said.

Companies can be fined up to four percent of their annual turnover for violating GDPR rules.

“A delete button is perhaps a different matter, as it is not obvious that ‘delete’ means the same as ‘exercise my right of erasure’,” said Brown. Given that there’s no case law yet under the new General Data Protection Regulation regime, it will be up to the courts to decide, he said.

When asked if Twitter thinks that consent to retain direct messages is withdrawn when a message or account is deleted, Twitter’s spokesperson had “nothing further” to add.

Twitter says bug may have exposed some direct messages to third-party developers

Categories: General News

Opendoor files to raise another $200M at a $3.7B valuation, documents show

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 13:30

The housing market is predicted to cool this year, but the market for startups selling houses? It seems to be heating up. Opendoor, the company that aims to bypass real estate agents and brokers by providing an online platform — by way of a mobile app — for people to buy and sell properties direct, has filed papers in Delaware indicating that it would like to raise around $200 million more, at a valuation of about $3.7 billion.

The Delaware documents (embedded below, and provided to us by Prime Unicorn Index) do not make it clear if this would come in the form of an outside round, or a conversion — secondary transactions would not be disclosed in public domain documents, or a combination of the two; nor is it clear if the funding has closed already. The documents are dated February 8th of this year.

The raise comes just one month after Knock, an Opendoor competitor, raised $400 million.

Eric Wu, Opendoor’s CEO and co-founder, did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for Opendoor declined to comment.

The shares are described as a “Series E-2”, which Justin Byers, an analyst with Lagnaippe Labs, noted likely means this is an extension on Opendoor’s last round, from September 2018, of $400 million.

That itself was an expansion of a previous E round, which Opendoor had raised in June 2018, of $325 million. Opendoor had been valued at around $2.47 billion post-money in September, according to PitchBook, and the shares in the document are around 37 percent higher — hence the $3.7 billion estimation here.

Backers of the company include SoftBank, along with some 36 others that include some of the biggest names in VC, such as Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, General Atlantic, GV, Initialized, Khosla, NEA, Norwest and many more.

The premise of Opendoor — co-founded by Wu, Ian Wong, Justin Ross and Keith Rabois on the back of an idea that Rabois had many years before — is to cut out some of the steps, and subsequent money and time spent, that come with buying or selling a property. (For those who have been through it, you know that the extra fees and rigmarole can be a killer and sometimes feels like it could be done better; that’s what Opendoor is addressing, in part with a very transparent pricing structure.)

Opendoor does this by becoming the virtual middle man. As Opendoor describes it, “If you’re selling, sell your home to us to eliminate the hassles of showings and months of uncertainty. If you’re buying, we make it incredibly easy to tour hundreds of Opendoor homes so you can find the perfect one.” It also has created a streamlined process to cut down the paperwork and work that agents do around transactions.

As of September last year, Opendoor had raised $2 billion in debt to finance these purchases — although the company today said that it is now “buying homes at a run rate of almost $4 billion a year” and that its transaction rate is currently at over 2,000 customers per month, including both buyers and sellers, and it has served some 30,000 customers to date across 19 metro regions covering more than 20 cities:

It’s proving to be a popular proposition. In 2018, more than 800,000 people toured Opendoor homes.

While housing prices had largely recovered in a lot of U.S. cities hurt by the previous crash, experts have said that a rise in inventory, coupled with rising mortgage rates and tax uncertainly, are set to cool the overall market in 2019.

But with the housing industry regularly rebounding and growing over the longer term — the saying “safe as houses” doesn’t come from thin air — it may be that investors are still prepared to make further-reaching bets on platforms that could prove to be strong players when the market is on a high.

Interestingly, Wu has hinted that the company will be making some moves in the area of mortgages and home improvement loans, which could free up and encourage more transactions at a time when traditional mortgage rates are rising.

“We’re doing some things around mortgages that will be integrated into the shopping experience,” Wu said in September, adding that the company “also wants to enable home buyers to personalize their experience.”

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Updated to credit Prime Unicorn Labs and also clarify what kind of funding this might be.

View this document on Scribd

Categories: General News

Daily Crunch: Amazon scraps HQ2 plans in NYC

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 13:30

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Did New York lose anything with Amazon’s rejection? It’s complicated.

Amazon announced yesterday that it’s taking its ball and going home, rather than dealing with mean, pushy New Yorkers (warning: not an exact quote). As a result, some outside observers are painting a picture of a city and its politicians losing out for their recalcitrance.

Jon Shieber acknowledges that there’s plenty to criticize on both sides. But for those who think New Yorkers are idiots for not giving Amazon billions in tax incentives, he has a simple message: You’re wrong.

2. Netflix office goes on lockdown over report of a potential shooter, suspect now in custody

According to the LAPD, there were no shots fired, no reports of injuries and the suspect in question has been taken into custody.

3. Samsung is preparing to launch a sports smartwatch and AirPods-like earbuds

Samsung’s newest product launch happens next week, but the Korean tech giant has already revealed the lineup of wearable devices that will be unveiled alongside the Galaxy S10.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 08: Gimlet Media President Matt Lieber, Gimlet Media CEO Alex Blumberg (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Spotify)

4. Spotify says it paid $340M to buy Gimlet and Anchor

Spotify doubled down on podcasts last week with a deal to buy podcast companies Gimlet and Anchor. The acquisition price was initially undisclosed, but Spotify has quietly confirmed that it spent €300 million — just shy of $340 million — to capture the companies.

5. Everything you need to know about GM’s new electric bikes

General Motors announced last year it was getting into the electric bike business. Now, GM has given this new brand a name — ARĪV — and revealed some of the details about its go-to-market plan.

6. China’s Didi is laying off 15 percent of its staff

The cut comes as China’s largest ride-hailing company copes with a stricter regulatory environment that puts a squeeze on driver supply, as well as backlash from two high-profile passenger murders last year.

7. Dubai airport briefly halts flights after drone spotted

It’s the latest in a recent string of scares involving personal drones flying too close to a commercial airport. At the height of the holiday season, London’s Gatwick airport was closed for a day and a half over similar concerns.

Categories: General News

As GE and Amazon move on, Google expands presence in Boston and NYC

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 13:06

NYC and Boston were handed huge setbacks this week when Amazon and GE decided to bail on their commitments to build headquarters in the respective cities on the same day. But it’s worth pointing out that while these large tech organizations were pulling out, Google was expanding in both locations.

Yesterday, upon hearing about Amazon’s decision to scrap its HQ2 plans in Long Island City, New York City Mayor de Blasio had this to say: “Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity. We have the best talent in the world and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone. If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.” One of them already has. Google had already announced a billion-dollar expansion in Hudson Square at the end of last year.

Google is spending $1 billion to build a massive new campus in New York

In fact, the company is pouring billions into NYC real estate, with plans to double its 7,000-person workforce over the next 10 years. As TechCrunch’s Jon Russell reported, “Our investment in New York is a huge part of our commitment to grow and invest in U.S. facilities, offices and jobs. In fact, we’re growing faster outside the Bay Area than within it, and this year opened new offices and data centers in locations like Detroit, Boulder, Los Angeles, Tennessee and Alabama, wrote Google CFO Ruth Porat.”

Just this week, as GE was making its announcement, Google was announcing a major expansion in Cambridge, the city across the river from Boston that is home to Harvard and MIT. Kendall Square is also home to offices from Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Akamai, DigitalOcean and a plethora of startups.

Google will be moving into a brand new building that currently is home to the MIT Coop bookstore. It plans to grab 365,000 square feet of the new building when it’s completed, and, as in NYC, will be adding hundreds of new jobs to the 1,500 already in place. Brian Cusack, Google Cambridge Site lead points out the company began operations in Cambridge back in 2003 and has been working on Search, Android, Cloud, YouTube, Google Play, Research, Ads and more.

“This new space will provide room for future growth and further cements our commitment to the Cambridge community. We’re proud to call this city home and will continue to support its vibrant nonprofit and growing business community,” he said in a statement.

As we learned this week, big company commitments can vanish just as quickly as they are announced, but for now at least, it appears that Google is serious about its commitment to New York and Boston and will be expanding office space and employment to the tune of thousands of jobs over the next decade.

Boston and NY share high-tech losses as GE and Amazon bail on same day

Categories: General News

Uber reports $3B in Q4 revenue, rising operating losses

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 13:00

Ahead of its anticipated initial public offering this year, Uber reported a net loss of $865 million in the fourth quarter. That figure, however, was aided by a tax benefit that saved the company from reporting a $1.2 billion net loss in the period. On an adjusted, pro-forma basis, Uber’s net loss in the final quarter of 2018 was a slimmer $768 million.

The figures are an improvement of sorts. The firm reported a pro-forma net loss of $939 million in the preceding, third quarter of 2018, but also reported a smaller pre-tax net loss of $971 million. Regardless, Uber’s stiff losses continued in the quarter.

Meanwhile, Uber’s adjusted EBIDTA losses came in at $842 million, an increase of 88 percent year over year, and an increase of 60 percent from the third quarter. In that preceding quarter, Uber’s adjusted EBIDTA losses came in at $527 million. These increased losses can be attributed to increased competition and significant investment in bigger bets like micromobility and Elevate, for example.

In Q4 2018, Gross bookings (the amount collected before it pays drivers) went up 11 percent quarter over quarter, to $14.2 billion, while revenue increased 2 percent quarter over quarter to $3 billion.

Year over year, Uber’s gross bookings increased 37 percent and revenue increased 24 percent. But as a percentage of gross bookings, revenue declined to 21.3 percent. These numbers exclude the impact of SEA and Russia.

  • GAAP Revenue: $3.0 billion
  • Up 24 percent YOY
  • Up 2 percent QOQ
  • Revenue as a percentage of gross bookings declined 190 basis points to 21.3 percent

Compared to the entire fiscal year of 2017, Uber’s gross bookings increased 45 percent, to $50 billion in 2018. That resulted in a GAAP revenue increase of 43 percent, from 2017 to $11.3 billion. Losses also improved (decreased) from $2.2 billion in adjusted EBITDA losses in 2017 to $1.8 billion in 2018. That’s still a lot of money, but it does show overall positive signs that Uber is moving in the right direction.

“Last year was our strongest yet, and Q4 set another record for engagement on our platform,” Uber CFO Nelson Chai said in a statement. “In 2018, our ridesharing business maintained category leadership in all regions we serve, Uber Freight gained exciting traction in the US, JUMP e-bikes and e-scooters are on the road in over a dozen cities, and we believe Uber Eats became the largest online food delivery business outside of China, based on gross bookings.”

Other key stats for Uber’s Q4 2018:

  • Gross cash: $6.4 billion in unrestricted cash($4.8 billion at end of Q3 2018, $4.4 billon in Q4 2017)
  • Adjusted EBITDA margin: -5.9 percent of gross bookings (Q3 2018 was -4.1 percent)
Categories: General News

Twitter considering a tweet ‘clarifying’ function

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 11:19

Clarification hasn’t always been Twitter’s strong suit. Fittingly, there’s a bit of confusion around the longstanding suggestion that the service could add an “edit” button in order to save users from silly typos and, well, much, much worse.

At a Goldman Sachs event this week, Jack Dorsey clarified that, rather than adding a controversial edit function, Twitter might just let people “clarify” earlier statements. The feature, it seems, is less aimed at the typo part of the equation than the whole ongoing thing with people living to regret some horrible thing they said to the world years prior.

“The other thing that we’re seeing more broadly within the culture right now in this particular moment is people quote-unquote ‘being cancelled’ because of past things that they’ve said on Twitter or various other places in social media,” the executive said in quote reported by Recode. “There’s no credible way to kind of go back and clarify or even have a conversation to show the learning and the transition since.”

To clarify the clarification (which, one imagines, would get a slightly punchier name ahead of launch), the feature would essentially add a permanent addition to the original problematic tweet. The idea is to add context that would be lost in all of the retweeted screencaps that went out after the original was deleted.

Users then would only be able to retweet the clarification. Think of it like a quote retweet, albeit one that’s permanently attached. It could be an interesting feature for news outlets, not to mention all of the now-famous folk who might have tweeted something questionable back in the day. More so, certainly, than telling the world that you use the wrong “their” there.

As Dorsey notes, however, “Not saying that we are going to launch that but those are the sorts of questions we are going to ask.”

Thanks for the clarification.

Categories: General News

Amazon leads $700M round in electric automaker Rivian

TechCrunch - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 11:08

Rivian, the electric automaker that debuted its first two vehicles just three months ago, has raised $700 million in a round led by Amazon .

The news follows a report earlier this week by Reuters that GM and Amazon were in talks to invest in the electric vehicle company.

“We’re inspired by Rivian’s vision for the future of electric transportation,” Amazon CEO Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke said in a statement. “RJ has built an impressive organization, with a product portfolio and technology to match. We’re thrilled to invest in such an innovative company.”

Rivian says it will remain an independent company. The equity round also includes participation from existing shareholders. ALJ is the company’s primary investor. Rivian and Amazon are not disclosing additional details about this investment.

Rivian is a curious company that has spent the majority of its life in the shadows. Founder and CEO RJ Scaringe launched it as Mainstream Motors in 2009. By 2011, the name changed to Rivian and moved out of Florida. Today, the company has more than 750 employees split between four development locations in the U.S. and an office in the U.K. The bulk of its employees are in Michigan to be close to an expansive automotive supply chain.

The company also has operations in San Jose and Irvine, Calif., where engineers are working on autonomous vehicle technology. Rivian purchased in 2017 the Normal, Ill. factory where Mitsubishi in a joint venture with Chrysler Corporation called Diamond-Star Motors produced the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Plymouth Laser and Dodge Avenger, among others.

While Rivian had been active the past several years, its big public reveal came at the LA Auto Show in November when it revealed its all-electric R1T pickup and R1S SUV. Deliveries of these vehicles to customers in the U.S., which use a flexible skateboard platform, are expected to begin in late 2020.

Categories: General News