Plans to open a new spaceport in Sutherland in Scotland have moved closer to final approval: The real estate companies working on the deal have signed a 75-year lease for the land to be used for , which will look to launch small satellites via private launch services from companies including startup Orbex, a micro-launch startup founded in 2015, and Lockheed Martin. The land lease is still dependent on final approval being given for the spaceport to be built, which is in process as the groups behind its development, including the are in process of working out the designs, funding and environmental impact studies. All of this will contribute to an overall planning application, which the partners are hoping will pave the way for construction to begin in 2020. Sutherland isn’t the only spaceport the UK is looking to open in an effort to open up its commercial launch capabilities: There are also plans in the works to open one in Cornwall, with support and funding from both the UKSA and .
A German privacy watchdog has ordered to cease manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI. This follows a leak of scores of audio snippets from the Google Assistant service. A contractor working as a Dutch language reviewer handed more than 1,000 recordings to the Belgian news site which was then able to identify some of the people in the clips. It reported being able to hear people’s addresses, discussion of medical conditions, and recordings of a woman in distress. The Hamburg data protection authority used Article 66 powers of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to make the order — which allows a DPA to order data processing to stop if it believes there is “an urgent need to act in order to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects”. The Article 66 order to Google appears to be the first use of the power since GDPR came into force across the bloc in May last year. Google says it received the order on July 26 — which requires it to stop manually reviewing audio snippets in Germany for a period of three months. Although the company had already taken the decision to manually suspend audio reviews of Google Assistant across the whole of Europe — doing so on July 10, after learning of the data leak. Last month it also informed its lead privacy regulator in Europe, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), of the breach — which also told us it is now “examining” the issue that’s been highlighted by Hamburg’s order. The Irish DPC’s head of communications, Graham Doyle, said Google Ireland filed an Article 33 breach notification for the Google Assistant data “a couple of weeks ago”, adding: “We note that as of 10 July Google Ireland ceased the processing in question and that they have committed to the continued suspension of processing for a period of at least three months starting today (1 August). In the meantime we are currently examining the matter.” It’s not clear whether Google will be able to reinstate manual reviews in Europe in a way that’s compliant with the bloc’s privacy rules. The Hamburg DPA writes in a [in German] on its website that it has “significant doubts” about whether Google Assistant complies with EU data-protection law. “We are in touch with the Hamburg data protection authority and are assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used,” Google’s spokesperson also told us. In a published last month after the leak, Google product manager for search, David Monsees, claimed manual reviews of Google Assistant queries are “a critical part of the process of building speech technology”, couching them as “necessary” to creating such products. “These reviews help make voice recognition systems more inclusive of different accents and dialects across languages. We don’t associate audio clips with user accounts during the review process, and only perform reviews for around 0.2% of all clips,” Google’s spokesperson added now. But it’s far from clear whether human review of audio recordings captured by any of the myriad always-on voice AI products and services now on the market will be able to be compatible with European’s fundamental privacy rights. These AIs typically have trigger words for activating the recording function that streams audio data to the cloud but the technology can easily be accidentally triggered — and leaks have shown they are able to hoover up sensitive and intimate personal data of anyone in their vicinity (which can include people who never got within sniffing distance of any T&Cs). In its the Hamburg DPA says the order against Google is intended to protect the privacy rights of affected users in the immediate term, noting that GDPR allows for concerned authorities in EU Member States to issue orders of up to three months. In a statement Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection, added: “The use of language assistance systems in the EU must comply with the data protection requirements of the GDPR. In the case of the Google Assistant, there are currently significant doubts. The use of language assistance systems must be done in a transparent way, so that an informed consent of the users is possible. In particular, this involves providing sufficient information and transparently informing those concerned about the processing of voice commands, but also about the frequency and risks of mal-activation. Finally, due regard must be given to the need to protect third parties affected by the recordings. First of all, further questions about the functioning of the speech analysis system have to be clarified. The data protection authorities will then have to decide on definitive measures that are necessary for a privacy-compliant operation. ” The DPA also urges other regional privacy watchdogs to prioritize checking on other providers of language assistance systems — and “implement appropriate measures” — name-checking providers of voice AIs, such as and . This suggests there could be wider ramifications for other tech giants operating voice AIs in Europe, flowing from this single Article 66 order. As we’ve said before, the real enforcement punch packed by GDPR is not the headline-grabbing fines, which can scale as high as 4% of a company’s global annual turnover — it’s the power that Europe’s DPAs now have in their regulatory toolbox to order that data stops flowing. “This is just the beginning,” one expert on European data protection legislation told us, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Article 66 chest is open and it has a lot on offer.” In a sign of the potential scale of the looming privacy problems for voice AIs Apple also said that it’s suspending a quality control program for its Siri voice assistant. The move, which does not appear to be linked to any regulatory order, follows a Guardian detailing claims by a whistleblower that contractors working for Apple ‘regularly hear confidential details’ on Siri recordings, such as audio of people having sex and identifiable financial details, regardless of the processes Apple uses to anonymize the records. Apple’s suspension of manual reviews of Siri snippets applies worldwide.
The agriculture industry faces huge problems of sustainability. The world’s population is increasing, leading to higher food demand, but this then threatens increasing deforestation, pesticide use, and some fertilizers that are responsible for greenhouse emissions. Farming can also be a source of carbon sequestration, but how to preserve that? Plus, land quality is being decreased due to over-framing. All this while agriculture has been an underserved industry in terms of technology development compared to others. So it’s the right time to look at the importance of the “microbiome” in agriculture processes to understand what’s really happening in our crops. The microbiome comprises all of the genetic material within a microbiota (the entire collection of microorganisms in a specific niche, such as in farming ). It’s like looking at your gut bacteria, but for a farm. Soil contains millions of microbes that all play a crucial role in the health of the crop, and this is why microbes in the soil are an important “biomarker”. Thus, understanding the microbes in the soil can lead to important actionable data. Today , a technology company that uses advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence to analyze a soil’s ecosystem and provide actionable data-driven insights to farmers, has closed a $4M financing round led by Seaya Ventures and JME Ventures, with participation by London VC LocalGlobe. The financing will be used to keep expanding the company’s footprint across different geographies (U.S., Europe, Latam) and crop types, as well as an assessment system for agricultural products. The company was founded by Adrián Ferrero (CEO) and Alberto Acedo (CSO), who have previously co-founded a successful startup in digital healthcare and have a strong scientific background. This is the second financing round for the company as it has previously raised $2M from a group of international investors, including Illumina, the global leading manufacturer of sequencing instruments, through the Illumina Accelerator, Viking Global Investors, a leading US-based investment management firm. Although other companies as Indigo Ag, Concentric, Pivot Bio or Marrone BioInnovations use similar techniques for biome identification, they claim to be the only company providing an open digital service and portal aimed at farmers, in order to democratize the microbiological information that will help them make informed decisions about their agricultural practices. Biome Makers takes a different approach and looks below the surface. Currently, there are many companies that carry out physical-chemical analysis of the soil, but until now the microbiome dimension has not been taken into account. They say it is a new way of looking at the soil that provides information that had not been taken into account when making decisions in the field.
Early-stage startuppers around the world are getting ready for , which takes place on 11-12 December. Our premier tech conference attracts an international startup community from more than 50 countries. It’s the intersection of current and future tech and an incomparable networking opportunity. You reap big savings with our (up to €600), but you can save even more when you buy in bulk. We want to make Disrupt Berlin a team-friendly event, because nobody wants to play to see who stays home. Take advantage of our group discounts and bring your whole squad to Berlin. Buy five or more Innovator passes at once and enjoy a 20% discount Buy two or more Founder or Investor passes at once and enjoy a 10% savings Bring the team and multiply your ROI. Split up and experience more of what Disrupt Berlin offers in two short days — world-class speakers, workshops, fireside chats, , the and Startup Alley for starters. Let’s look a little closer, shall we? You’ll hear advice and insight from leading founders and investors, like PicsArt founder and CEO , UiPath founder and CEO and SoftBank Vision Fund partner — to name just a few. We’re still adding speakers, and if you have someone you’d like to nominate, Don’t miss out on . Our legendary pitch competition features the best early-stage startups launching their companies on a global stage in a bid for glory, the Disrupt Cup, investor love, media coverage and $50,000 cash. Keep your eyes peeled for the chance to enter this epic competition — . We expect more than 3,000 attendees, and just about all of them will head to to explore our exhibition floor. They’ll find hundreds of creative early-stage startups displaying their latest innovations across the tech spectrum. It’s a networking opportunity like no other. Turn your team loose and let the startup magic begin. Startup Alley is also home to the TC Top Picks. That’s our curated cadre of startups representing the very best in their tech categories. Check out our . Think your startup can make the cut? You’ll have the opportunity to apply soon — another great reason to keep tabs on Disrupt Berlin news. Join us at on 11-12 December. So many excellent reasons to go and a limited amount of time to experience it all. Take advantage of our and bring your whole team to amplify your presence and your ROI. We’ll see you in Berlin! Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by .
, the UK-based startup that has developed a number of AI-based health services, including a chatbot used by the UK’s National Health Service to help diagnose ailments, has confirmed a massive investment that it plans to use to expand its business to the US and Asia, and expand its R&D to diagnose more serious, chronic conditions. It has closed a $550 million round of funding, valuing Babylon Health at over $2 billion, it announced today. This is the largest-ever fundraise in Europe or US for digital health delivery, Babylon said. “Our mission at Babylon is to put accessible and affordable healthcare into the hands of everyone on earth,” said Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon, in a statement. “This investment will allow us to maximise the number of lives we touch across the world. We have a long way to go and a lot still to deliver. We are grateful to our investors, our partners and 1,500 brilliant Babylonians for allowing us to forge ahead with our mission. Chronic conditions are an increasing burden to affordability of healthcare across the globe. Our technology provides a solid base for a comprehensive solution and our scientists, engineers, and clinicians are excited to work on it. We have seen significant demand from partners across the US and Asia. While the burden of healthcare is global, the solutions have to be localised to meet the specific needs and culture of each country.” Before today’s announcement, the investment — a Series C — had been the subject of a lot of leaks, with over recent days suggesting the investment was anywhere $100 million and $500 million. The round brings together a number of strategic and financial investors including PIF (Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund); a large US-based health insurance company (which reports suggest to be Centene Corporation, although Babylon is not disclosing the name); Munich Re’s ERGO Fund; and returning investors Kinnevik and Vostok New Ventures. This is a big leap for the company, which had raised more modest rounds in the past such as . Babylon said that $450 million has been secured already, with another $50 million agreed to be exercised at a later date, and the remainder getting closed “shortly.” (The PIF has been a prolific, if , investor in a number of huge startups such as Uber and wider investment vehicles like SoftBank’s Vision Fund.) We’re at a moment right now when it seems like a daily occurrence that a new company or service launches using AI to advance health. But even within that bigger trend, Babylon has emerged as one of the key players. In addition to its work in the UK — which includes an NHS service that it offers to “take over” a user’s local GP relationship to diagnose minor ailments remotely, as well as a second-track Babylon Private paid tier that it’s built in partnership with private insurer Bupa — it says other partners include Prudential, Samsung and Telus. The NHS deal is an interesting one: the state’s health service is thought of by many as a national treasure, but it’s been very hard hit by budget problems, the strain of an ageing and growing population, and what seems sometimes like a slow-release effort to remove some of its most important and reliable services and bring more privitisation into the mix. Bringing in AI-based services that remove some of the overhead of people managing problems that machines can do just as well is one way of taking some of that pressure off the system — or so the logic goes, at least. The idea is that by handling some of the smaller issues, it helps prioritise the more urgent and difficult problems for people and face-to-face meetings. That additionally gives Babylon (and others in digital health) a big opportunity to break down some of the more persistent problems in healthcare, such as providing services in developing economies and remote regions: one of its big efforts alongside rollouts in mature markets like the UK and Canada has been a service in Rwanda to bring health services to digital platforms for the first time. Babylon has been growing and says it delivers 4,000 clinical consultations each day, or one patient interaction every 10 seconds. It says that it now covers 4.3 million people worldwide, with more than 1.2 million digital consultations completed to date, with more than 160,000 five-star ratings for our appointments. That is the kind of size and potential that has interested investors.
, the London startup offering a digital identity platform and app that lets you prove who you say you are when accessing services or making age verified purchases, has raised £8 million in additional funding. Backing the round is unnamed private investors, Yoti employees, and Robin Tombs, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, who previously founded and exited online gambling company Gamesys. I’m told that the startup has had around £65 million in investment in total since being founded in 2014, the majority of which has been made by Tombs and another Yoti co-founder, Noel Hayden. Noteworthy, Yoti says the injection of capital comes with a new valuation of £82 million, up from £40 million when Yoti raised £8 million about a year and a half ago. The caveat being, of course, that Tombs and Hayden have effectively helped to set that valuation from both sides of the table. “The current identity system is broken, outdated and insecure; we still have to show physical identity documents simply to prove who we are,” says Tombs, explaining the problem Yoti has set out to solve. “But this results in us sharing an excessive amount of personal information, putting us at risk of identity fraud. Additionally, millions of ID documents are lost and stolen every year, and our online accounts are vulnerable to data hacks”. Launched in November 2017, Yoti’s solution includes the Yoti digital identity app, which claims over 4.7 million installs. It essentially replaces a traditional ID card or other paper proof of identity. Yoti also has various partnerships that sees organisations use its ID verification technology within their own apps and websites. The idea is that Yoti can be used to prove your age on nights out, to check out faster when buying age restricted items at a store, for safer online dating and other social interactions online, or for accessing various business or government services. The underlying system is granular, too: a company or organisation can ask to verify only certain aspects of your identity that you choose to share on a need-to-know basis. “At Yoti we believe in putting people in control to share less personal information and enabling businesses to know who they are dealing with using less, higher quality verified data,” says Tombs. “For instance, someone could use Yoti to prove their age to buy age-restricted goods, but only share that they are 18+ to the business. This helps protect the individual’s personal data and privacy, whilst giving the company the details they need to be compliant. Everyone wins”. Yoti can also potentially be used to help children be safer online by reducing the number of fake accounts and ensuring age guidelines are more strictly adhered to. “As a parent, it’s very concerning just how easy it is for young kids to create social media accounts and access explicit age-restricted content online unchecked,” he says. “It’s too easy to create a fake profile online and give false details, so we can’t be confident about who we are meeting online”. More broadly, Tombs argues that a digital identity platform can also support social inclusion for people who otherwise have no form of identity at all. “Over 1.1 billion people around the world don’t have any form of identification; leaving them socially excluded, left behind and unable to access essential services. We want to help fix these issues. We believe everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from, deserves a safe way of proving their identity,” he says. To that end, Yoti has formed a variety of partnerships spanning retail, government, travel and social media. These include Heathrow Airport, which is working with Yoti to explore biometric travel for passengers; NCR, which is using Yoti to improve age-verification at self-checkouts, and Yubo, which is deploying Yoti to verify the age of users and to “safeguard” young people online. Last year, Yoti was selected by the Government of Jersey as its digital identity provider. This, we are told, has seen 10% of the Jersey adult population use Yoti. Meanwhile, Yoti says it has developed a “private and secure” browser-based age verification solution called ProveMyAge, as it looks to cash in on the U.K.’s upcoming new Digital Economy Act. The product is designed to help adult websites comply with the age verification requirements of the legislation, which is set to come into force later this year.
While you’d be hard pressed to find any startup not brimming with confidence over the disruptive idea they’re chasing, it’s not often you come across a young company as calmly convinced it’s engineering the future as . The team is building a platform for designing human-like voice interactions to automate business processes. Put simply, it’s using AI to make machine voices a whole lot less robotic. “What we definitely know is this will definitely happen,” says CEO and co-founder Vladislav Chernyshov. “Sooner or later the conversational AI/voice AI will replace people everywhere where the technology will allow. And it’s better for us to be the first mover than the last in this field.” “In 2018 in the US alone there were 30 million people doing some kind of repetitive tasks over the phone. We can automate these jobs now or we are going to be able to automate it in two years,” he goes on. “If you multiple it with Europe and the massive call centers in India, Pakistan and the Philippines you will probably have something like close to 120M people worldwide… and they are all subject for disruption, potentially.” The New York based startup has been operating in relative stealth up to now. But it’s breaking cover to talk to TechCrunch — announcing a $2M seed round, led by RTP Ventures and RTP Global: An early stage investor that’s backed the likes of and . RTP’s venture arm, also based in NY, writes on its website that it prefers engineer-founded companies — that “solve big problems with technology”. “We like technology, not gimmicks,” the fund warns with . Dasha’s core tech right now includes what Chernyshov describes as “a human-level, voice-first conversation modelling engine”; a hybrid text-to-speech engine which he says enables it to model speech disfluencies (aka, the ums and ahs, pitch changes etc that characterize human chatter); plus “a fast and accurate” real-time voice activity detection algorithm which detects speech in under 100 milliseconds, meaning the AI can turn-take and handle interruptions in the conversation flow. The platform can also detect a caller’s gender — a feature that can be useful for healthcare use-cases, for example. Another component Chernyshov flags is “an end-to-end pipeline for semi-supervised learning” — so it can retrain the models in real time “and fix mistakes as they go” — until Dasha hits the claimed “human-level” conversational capability for each business process niche. (To be clear, the AI cannot adapt its speech to an interlocutor in real-time — as human speakers naturally shift their accents closer to bridge any dialect gap — but Chernyshov suggests it’s on the roadmap.) “For instance, we can start with 70% correct conversations and then gradually improve the model up to say 95% of correct conversations,” he says of the learning element, though he admits there are a lot of variables that can impact error rates — not least the call environment itself. Even cutting edge AI is going to struggle with a bad line. The platform also has an open API so customers can plug the conversation AI into their existing systems — be it telephony, Salesforce software or a developer environment, such as Microsoft Visual Studio. Currently they’re focused on English, though Chernyshov says the architecture is “basically language agnostic” — but does requires “a big amount of data”. The next step will be to open up the dev platform to enterprise customers, beyond the initial 20 beta testers, which include companies in the banking, healthcare and insurance sectors — with a release slated for later this year or Q1 2020. Test use-cases so far include banks using the conversation engine for brand loyalty management to run customer satisfaction surveys that can turnaround negative feedback by fast-tracking a response to a bad rating — by providing (human) customer support agents with an automated categorization of the complaint so they can follow up more quickly. “This usually leads to a wow effect,” says Chernyshov. Ultimately, he believes there will be two or three major AI platforms globally providing businesses with an automated, customizable conversational layer — sweeping away the patchwork of chatbots currently filling in the gap. And of course Dasha intends their ‘Digital Assistant Super Human Alike’ to be one of those few. “There is clearly no platform [yet],” he says. “Five years from now this will sound very weird that all companies now are trying to build something. Because in five years it will be obvious — why do you need all this stuff? Just take Dasha and build what you want.” “This reminds me of the situation in the 1980s when it was obvious that the personal computers are here to stay because they give you an unfair competitive advantage,” he continues. “All large enterprise customers all over the world… were building their own operating systems, they were writing software from scratch, constantly reinventing the wheel just in order to be able to create this spreadsheet for their accountants. “And then Microsoft with MS-DOS came in… and everything else is history.” That’s not all they’re building, either. Dasha’s seed financing will be put towards launching a consumer-facing product atop its b2b platform to automate the screening of recorded message robocalls. So, basically, they’re building a robot assistant that can talk to — and put off — other machines on humans’ behalf. Which does kind of suggest the AI-fuelled future will entail an awful lot of robots talking to each other… Chernyshov says this b2c call screening app will most likely be free. But then if your core tech looks set to massively accelerate a non-human caller phenomenon that many consumers already see as a terrible plague on their time and mind then providing free relief — in the form of a counter AI — seems the very least you should do. Not that Dasha can be accused of causing the robocaller plague, of course. Recorded messages hooked up to call systems have been spamming people with unsolicited calls for far longer than the startup has existed. Dasha’s PR notes Americans were hit with 26.3BN robocalls in 2018 alone — up “a whopping” 46% on 2017. Its conversation engine, meanwhile, has only made some 3M calls to date, clocking its first call with a human in January 2017. But the goal from here on in is to scale fast. “We plan to aggressively grow the company and the technology so we can continue to provide the best voice conversational AI to a market which we estimate to exceed $30BN worldwide,” runs a line from its PR. After the developer platform launch, Chernyshov says the next step will be to open up access to business process owners by letting them automate existing call workflows without needing to be able to code (they’ll just need an analytic grasp of the process, he says). Later — pegged for 2022 on the current roadmap — will be the launch of “the platform with zero learning curve”, as he puts it. “You will teach Dasha new models just like typing in a natural language and teaching it like you can teach any new team member on your team,” he explains. “Adding a new case will actually look like a word editor — when you’re just describing how you want this AI to work.” His prediction is that a majority — circa 60% — of all major cases that business face — “like dispatching, like probably upsales, cross sales, some kind of support etc, all those cases” — will be able to be automated “just like typing in a natural language”. So if Dasha’s AI-fuelled vision of voice-based business process automation come to fruition then humans getting orders of magnitude more calls from machines looks inevitable — as machine learning supercharges artificial speech by making it sound slicker, act smarter and seem, well, almost human. But perhaps a savvier generation of voice AIs will also help manage the ‘robocaller’ plague by offering advanced call screening? And as non-human voice tech marches on from dumb recorded messages to chatbot-style AIs running on scripted rails to — as Dasha pitches it — fully responsive, emoting, even emotion-sensitive conversation engines that can slip right under the human radar maybe the robocaller problem will eat itself? I mean, if you didn’t even realize you were talking to a robot how are you going to get annoyed about it? Dasha claims 96.3% of the people who talk to its AI “think it’s human”, though it’s not clear what sample size the claim is based on. (To my ear there are definite ‘tells’ in the current demos on its . But in a cold-call scenario it’s not hard to imagine the AI passing, if someone’s not paying much attention.) The alternative scenario, in a future infested with unsolicited machine calls, is that all smartphone OSes add kill switches, such as the one in — which lets people silence calls from unknown numbers. And/or more humans simply never pick up phone calls unless they know who’s on the end of the line. So it’s really doubly savvy of Dasha to create an AI capable of managing robot calls — meaning it’s building its own fallback — a piece of softwarewilling to chat to its AI in future, even if actual humans refuse. Dasha’s robocall screener app, which is slated for release in early 2020, will also be spammer-agnostic — in that it’ll be able to handle and divert human salespeople too, as well as robots. After all, a spammer is a spammer. “Probably it is the time for somebody to step in and ‘don’t be evil’,” says Chernyshov, echoing Google’s old motto, albeit perhaps not entirely reassuringly given the phrase’s lapsed history — as we talk about the team’s approach to ecosystem development and how machine-to-machine chat might overtake human voice calls. “At some point in the future we will be talking to various robots much more than we probably talk to each other — because you will have some kind of human-like robots at your house,” he predicts. “Your doctor, gardener, warehouse worker, they all will be robots at some point.” The logic at work here is that if resistance to an AI-powered Cambrian Explosion of machine speech is futile, it’s better to be at the cutting edge, building the most human-like robots — and making the robots at least sound like they care. Dasha’s conversational quirks certainly can’t be called a gimmick. Even if the team’s close attention to mimicking the vocal flourishes of human speech — the disfluencies, the ums and ahs, the pitch and tonal changes for emphasis and emotion — might seem so at first airing. In one of the demos on its you can hear a clip of a very chipper-sounding male voice, who identifies himself as “John from Acme Dental”, taking an appointment call from a female (human), and smoothly dealing with multiple interruptions and time/date changes as she changes her mind. Before, finally, dealing with a flat cancelation. A human receptionist might well have got mad that the caller essentially just wasted their time. Not John, though. Oh no. He ends the call as cheerily as he began, signing off with an emphatic: “Thank you! And have a really nice day. Bye!” If the ultimate goal is Turing Test levels of realism in artificial speech — i.e. a conversation engine so human-like it can pass as human to a human ear — you do have to be able to reproduce, with precision timing, the verbal baggage that’s wrapped around everything humans say to each other. This tonal layer does essential emotional labor in the business of communication, shading and highlighting words in a way that can adapt or even entirely transform their meaning. It’s an integral part of how we communicate. And thus a common stumbling block for robots. So if the mission is to power a revolution in artificial speech that humans won’t hate and reject then engineering full spectrum nuance is just as important a piece of work as having an amazing speech recognition engine. A chatbot that can’t do all that is really the gimmick. Chernyshov claims Dasha’s conversation engine is “at least several times better and more complex than [Google] Dialogflow, [Amazon] Lex, [Microsoft] Luis or [IBM] Watson”, dropping a laundry list of rival speech engines into the conversation. He argues none are on a par with what Dasha is being designed to do. The difference is the “voice-first modelling engine”. “All those [rival engines] were built from scratch with a focus on chatbots — on text,” he says, couching modelling voice conversation “on a human level” as much more complex than the more limited chatbot-approach — and hence what makes Dasha special and superior. “Imagination is the limit. What we are trying to build is an ultimate voice conversation AI platform so you can model any kind of voice interaction between two or more human beings.” Google did demo its own stuttering voice AI — — last year, when it also in which it appeared not to have told restaurant staff up front they were going to be talking to a robot. Chernyshov isn’t worried about Duplex, though, saying it’s , not a platform. “Google recently tried to headhunt one of our developers,” he adds, pausing for effect. “But they failed.” He says Dasha’s engineering staff make up more than half (28) its total headcount (48), and include two doctorates of science; three PhDs; five PhD students; and ten masters of science in computer science. It has an R&D office in Russian which Chernyshov says helps makes the funding go further. “More than 16 people, including myself, are finalists or semi finalists,” he adds — likening the competition to “an Olympic game but for programmers”. A recent hire — chief research scientist, Dr Alexander Dyakonov — is both a doctor of science professor and former Kaggle No.1 GrandMaster in machine learning. So with in-house AI talent like that you can see why Google, uh, came calling… But why not have Dasha ID itself as a robot by default? On that Chernyshov says the platform is flexible — which means disclosure can be added. But in markets where it isn’t a legal requirement the door is being left open for ‘John’ to slip cheerily by. Bladerunner here we come. The team’s driving conviction is that emphasis on modelling human-like speech will, down the line, allow their AI to deliver universally fluid and natural machine-human speech interactions which in turn open up all sorts of expansive and powerful possibilities for embeddable next-gen voice interfaces. Ones that are much more interesting than the current crop of gadget talkies. This is where you could raid sci-fi/pop culture for inspiration. Such as Kitt, the dryly witty talking car from the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. Or, to throw in a British TV reference, Holly the self-depreciating yet sardonic human-faced computer in Red Dwarf. (Or indeed Kryten the guilt-ridden android butler.) Chernyshov’s suggestion is to imagine Dasha embedded in a robot. But surely no one wants to hear those crawling nightmares scream… Dasha’s five-year+ roadmap includes the eyebrow-raising ambition to evolve the technology to achieve “a general conversational AI”. “This is a science fiction at this point. It’s a general conversational AI, and only at this point you will be able to pass the whole Turing Test,” he says of that aim. “Because we have a human level speech recognition, we have human level speech synthesis, we have generative non-rule based behavior, and this is all the parts of this general conversational AI. And I think that we can we can — and scientific society — we can achieve this together in like 2024 or something like that. “Then the next step, in 2025, this is like autonomous AI — embeddable in any device or a robot. And hopefully by 2025 these devices will be available on the market.” Of course the team is still dreaming distance away from that AI wonderland/dystopia (depending on your perspective) — even if it’s date-stamped on the roadmap. But if a conversational engine ends up in command of the full range of human speech — quirks, quibbles and all — then designing a voice AI may come to be thought of as akin to designing a TV character or cartoon personality. So very far from what we currently associate with the word ‘robotic’. (And wouldn’t it be funny if the term ‘robotic’ came to mean ‘hyper entertaining’ or even ‘especially empathetic’ thanks to advances in AI.) Let’s not get carried away though. In the meanwhile, there are ‘uncanny valley’ pitfalls of speech disconnect to navigate if the tone being (artificially) struck hits a false note. (And, on that front, if you didn’t know ‘John from Acme Dental’ was a robot you’d be forgiven for misreading his chipper sign off to a total time waster as pure sarcasm. But an AI can’t appreciate irony. Not yet anyway.) Nor can robots appreciate the difference between ethical and unethical verbal communication they’re being instructed to carry out. Sales calls can easily cross the line into spam. And what about even more dystopic uses for a conversation engine that’s so slick it can convince the vast majority of people it’s human — like fraud, identity theft, even election interference… the potential misuses could be terrible and scale endlessly. Although if you straight out ask Dasha whether it’s a robot Chernyshov says it has been programmed to confess to being artificial. So it won’t tell you a barefaced lie. How will the team prevent problematic uses of such a powerful technology? “We have an ethics framework and when we will be releasing the platform we will implement a real-time monitoring system that will monitor potential abuse or scams, and also it will ensure people are not being called too often,” he says. “This is very important. That we understand that this kind of technology can be potentially probably dangerous.” “At the first stage we are not going to release it to all the public. We are going to release it in a closed alpha or beta. And we will be curating the companies that are going in to explore all the possible problems and prevent them from being massive problems,” he adds. “Our machine learning team are developing those algorithms for detecting abuse, spam and other use cases that we would like to prevent.” There’s also the issue of verbal ‘deepfakes’ to consider. Especially as Chernyshov suggests the platform will, in time, support cloning a voiceprint for use in the conversation — opening the door to making fake calls in someone else’s voice. Which sounds like a dream come true for scammers of all stripes. Or a way to really supercharge your top performing salesperson. Safe to say, the counter technologies — and thoughtful regulation — are going to be very important. There’s little doubt that AI will be regulated. In Europe policymakers have tasked themselves with coming up with a framework for ethical AI. And in the coming years policymakers in many countries will be trying to figure out how to put guardrails on a technology class that, in the consumer sphere, has already demonstrated its wrecking-ball potential — with the automated acceleration of spam, misinformation and political disinformation on social media platforms. “We have to understand that at some point this kind of technologies will be definitely regulated by the state all over the world. And we as a platform we must comply with all of these requirements,” agrees Chernyshov, suggesting machine learning will also be able to identify whether a speaker is human or not — and that an official caller status could be baked into a telephony protocol so people aren’t left in the dark on the ‘bot or not’ question. “It should be human-friendly. Don’t be evil, right?” Asked whether he considers what will happen to the people working in call centers whose jobs will be disrupted by AI, Chernyshov is quick with the stock answer — that new technologies create jobs too, saying that’s been true right throughout human history. Though he concedes there may be a lag — while the old world catches up to the new. Time and tide wait for no human, even when the change sounds increasingly like we do.
a marketplace for freelance labor in India and UAE, has raised $75 million to expand its business. The Series E round for the four-and-half-year-old India-based startup was led Tiger Global. Existing investors , and Vy Capital also participated in the round. The startup has raised about $185 million to date, according to Crunchbase. The financing round was split into two parts — a primary round which resulted in a share subscription by the aforementioned investors and a secondary share sale by some of its early backers, the startup said in a brief statement. Through its platform, UrbanClap matches service people such as cleaners, repair staff and beauticians with customers across 10 cities in India and Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The startup supports 20,000 “micro-franchisees” (service professionals) with around 450,000 transactions taking place each month, cofounder and CEO Abhiraj Bhal told TechCrunch. Bhal said that UrbanClap helps offline service workers in India, who have traditionally relied on getting work through middleman such as some store or word of mouth networks, to find more work. And they earn more, too. UrbanClap offers a more direct model, with workers keeping 80% of the cost of their jobs. That, Bhal said, means workers can earn multiples more and manage their own working hours. “The UrbanClap model really allows them to become service entrepreneurs. Their earnings will shoot up two or three-fold, and it isn’t uncommon to see it rise as much as 8X — it’s a life-changing experience,” he said. Average value of a service is between $17 to $22, according to the company. In recent years, UrbanClap has also began offering training, credit, and basic banking services to better support the service workers on its platform. On its website, UrbanClap claims to offer 73 services — including kitchen cleaning, hairdressing, and yoga training. It says it has served 3 million customers. Bhal said that around 20-25% of applicants are accepted into the platform, that’s a decision based on in-person meetings, background and criminal checks, as well as a “skills” test. Workers are encouraged to work exclusively — though it isn’t a requirement — and they wear UrbanClap outfits and represent the brand with customers.
The Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets are lined up in the parking lot of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) The sights and sounds of the Blue Angels flying their aerobatic fighter jets through August skies are a Seattle tradition – but this weekend, there are a few new twists.. The biggest twist in the takes place on the ground rather than in the air: The I-90 floating bridge is no longer being closed for the Blue Angels’ hour-long demonstrations on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To minimize disruption to light-rail construction work on the bridge, the flight path for the air show over Lake Washington has been moved slightly south. That means the bridge is now outside the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety zone, known as “the box,” and traffic no longer needs to be halted. That also means spectators will no longer be allowed to stop and gawk from the bridge. “Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to access the bridge’s pathway for the duration of the flights. However, it may not be used for stopping and viewing the Blue Angels. The path is a heavily used route for commuters and should be viewed similarly to a roadway,” the . State patrol officers will be monitoring traffic to make sure motorists don’t stop to watch the show. And it goes without saying that drivers should keep their eyes on the road rather than trying to snap a smartphone picture while they’re at the wheel. That’s what passengers are for: Here's the view from the passenger seat of a car on I-90 of the Blue Angels flying overhead. New this year, I-90 is remaining open to traffic. The story on KIRO 7 News At 6. — Graham Johnson (@GrahamKIRO7) One thing’s for sure: The pilots doing the flying for the Blue Angels are unfazed by the change. “It’s just part of the routine,” Navy Lt. Jim Cox, who’s flying the No. 3 jet, told GeekWire today. “This is my first time here to Seattle, so I have really nothing to compare it against from last year,” he said. “With our show center being a little bit different, all of our pilots are going to use different checkpoints on the ground for our individual maneuvers and whatnot. But it’s pretty much transparent to us, because we just take what we’re given at each show site each year, and we can fly from there.” The Blue Angels change up their show depending on the flying conditions. If there’s limited visibility, they might go with a “flat” show that stays closer to the ground. But if the skies are clear – as they’re expected to be for the 3 p.m. shows – there’ll be more of the high-arcing, smoke-trailing loops that are visible from miles away. “We will do as much as we possibly can with the weather that we’re given,” Cox said. There’s one traditional plane that won’t be making an appearance this weekend: “Fat Albert,” the C-130T Hercules plane that traditionally transports the Blue Angels’ gear and personnel. After 17 years of service,. In its stead, the Blue crew is relying on the Navy’s fleet of C-40s and C-130s to carry their stuff. By next year, a e should be ready to take its place as Fat Albert’s faster and more efficient successor. The Blue Angels are also getting ready to phase in . Another of this weekend’s twists has to do with where the Blue Angels’ jets will hang out when they’re not flying. Boeing needs to use the tarmac that’s traditionally set aside for the jets next to the Museum of Flight, so this year, the jets will be lined up in the museum’s main parking lot. That means museumgoers will (just follow the signs). But on the bright side, they’ll get a great view of the flying machines as they walk into the museum. “This is almost making lemonade out of lemons,” Trip Switzer, the Museum of Flight’s vice president of development, told GeekWire. As an added sweetener, the museum is planning a . The Blue Angels aren’t the only aerial attraction, of course. The Boeing Seafair Air Show features an , starting at 1:25 p.m. on Friday, 11:55 p.m. on Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. There’s even a mystery guest: Boeing plans to send an “X” plane flying overhead at 1:15 p.m. Sunday. “We’ll fill in the name on Sunday when it flies,” said Patrick Harrison, Seafair’s director of marketing and communications. Then there’s the hydroplane races: Genesee Park serves as the epicenter for Seafair activities, including the HomeStreet Bank Cup competition. The provides the full rundown on ticket prices, events and tips for getting around amid the congestion. If you can’t make it to the park, the or the shores of Lake Washington, you can watch coverage of the thunderboat races from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday on KONG-TV and via , or listen to all weekend long. And if you’re not a fan of , there’s lots more to do this weekend – ranging from the to the at Volunteer Park to and the at Seattle Center.
The $10 billion, decade-long drama continues. It’s a process that has been dogged by complaints, and . Throughout the months-long selection process, the Pentagon has repeatedly denied accusations that the contract was somehow written to make Amazon a favored vendor, but today President Trump has asked the newly appointed Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, to examine the process because of concerns over that very matter. The Defense Department called for bids last year for a $10 billion, decade-long contract. From the beginning, that the process favored Amazon. Even before the RFP process began Oracle executive Safra Catz , but at that time he did not intervene. Later, the company filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office, which . Finally, the company took the case to court, alleging that a person involved in defining the selection process had a conflict of interest, due to being an employee at before joining the DoD. That last month. In April, the DoD as the two finalists, and the winner was finally expected to be named some time this month. It appeared that we were close to the finish line, but now that the president has intervened at the 11th hour, it’s impossible to know what the outcome will be. What we do know is that this is a pivotal project for the DoD, which is aimed at modernizing the U.S. military for the next decade and beyond. The fact is that the two finalists made perfect sense. They are the two market leaders, and each has tools, technologies and experience working with sensitive government contracts. Amazon is the market leader, with 33% market share. is No. 2, with 16%. The No. 3 vendor, before the RFP process began. It is unclear at this point whether the president’s intervention will have any influence on the final decision, but it is an unusual departure from government procurement procedures.
a popular site for buying and selling sneakers and other apparel, has admitted it reset customer passwords after it was “alerted to suspicious activity” on its site, despite telling users it was a result of “system updates.” “We recently completed system updates on the StockX platform,” said the email to customers sent to TechCrunch on Thursday. The email provided a link to a password reset page but said nothing more. The company was only last month valued after a $110 million fundraise. Companies reset passwords all the time for various reasons. Some security teams obtain lists of previously breached passwords that make their way online, scramble them in the same format that the company stores passwords, and find matches. By triggering the reset, it prevents passwords stolen from other sites from being used against one of a company’s own customers. In less than desirable circumstances, passwords are reset following . But the company admitted it was not “system updates” as it had told its customers. “StockX was recently alerted to suspicious activity potentially involving our platform,” said StockX spokesperson Katy Cockrel. “Out of an abundance of caution, we implemented a security update and proactively asked our community to update their account passwords.” “We are continuing to investigate,” said the spokesperson. The password reset email sent by StockX on Thursday (Image: supplied) We asked several follow-up questions — including who alerted StockX to the suspicious activity, if any customer data was compromised and why it misrepresented the reason for the password reset — but the spokesperson declined to comment further. Throughout the day customers were tweeting screenshots of the email, worried that their accounts had been compromised. Others questioned whether the email was genuine or if it was part of a phishing attack. “Did they get hacked, find out somehow, and then to cover it up send out that email and ask for a password change?,” one of the affected customers told TechCrunch. Customers were given no prior warning of the password reset. StockX founder Josh Luber kept with the company’s line, telling a customer in that the password reset was “legit” but did not respond to users asking why. StockX tweeted back to several customers with a boilerplate response: “The password reset email you received is legitimate and came from our team,” and to contact the support email with any questions. We did just that — from our TechCrunch email address — and heard nothing back hours later. Security experts expressed doubt that a company would reset passwords over a “systems update” as StockX had claimed. Security researcher John Wethington said it is “rare” to see security overhauls that require password resets. “You wouldn’t just send out a random email about it,” he said. Jake Williams, founder of Rendition Infosec, said it was “bad communication” in any case. Several took to Twitter to criticize StockX for its handling of the password reset. One customer the email “fishy,” another it “suspicious” and another called on the company why they had to reset passwords in this unorthodox way. Another said that he asked StockX twice but they “refused to provide an answer.” “Guess I’m closing my account,” he . Read more:
cars can now take on human players in a game of chess, thanks to a . Its programmers likely didn’t imagine they were designing a chess program to take on the best players in the world, however: U.S. No. 1 ranked chess player Fabiano Caruana (also currently ranked No. 2 in the world) played a Tesla Model 3 in a recent match… but Deep Blue versus Kasparov, this was not. Caruana bests the vehicle in just under five minutes of playing time, and he’s not particularly stressing the time, plus he’s offering a running commentary. The car makes some questionable moves, but to be fair, it’s not a super computer with deep artificial intelligence, and Caruana is one of the world’s best. He also gives it credit at the end, calling the game “challenging” and you can hear it’s probably more than he was expecting from a car’s infotainment system. The car would probably beat me, but I’m unranked and haven’t played a game of chess in probably 15 years, so there’s that.
Forget the village, people. It takes an army to make TechCrunch Disrupt the well-oiled experience that savvy start-uppers have come to know and love. And we couldn’t do it nearly as well without our incredible volunteers. If you’re looking for a no-budget way to experience up-close-and-personal, for work exchange, and not only will you get a behind the scenes look at how events are produced, you’ll also earn a free Innovator pass to experience the event. You’ll work hard, play hard and get free access to all three days of . Whether you dream of becoming a startup founder, marketer or event coordinator, this is a great way to see what it takes to produce a world-renowned startup conference. Plus, your free Innovator pass gives you access to the full Disrupt experience and all four stages — including the competition. We expect more than 10,000 people at , and volunteers will handle a variety of tasks to help make this startup conference an epic experience for everyone. At any given time, you might help with registration, wrangle speakers, direct attendees, stuff goodie bags, place signage, scan tickets or help with pre-marketing activities. We need volunteers on October 1-4. If you can meet the following criteria, we want to hear from you: Attend a mandatory orientation on Tuesday, October 1 at Moscone Center. Work a minimum of 16 hours during the entire conference starting from October 1 (the day before the conference starts) to October 4. You’ll find volunteer shift availability in the application. We might select you for some pre-event opportunities, which would count toward your hours. We will assign volunteer schedules. Shifts run between 2.5 to 6 hours and can start as early as 6 a.m. or end as late as 11:30 p.m. You must provide your own housing and transportation. Due to the high volume of applications, we will notify only the selected applicants. Lend us a helping hand, and we’ll hand you a free Innovator pass. Save money, gain valuable experience and still have plenty of time to take in all the startup goodness Disrupt SF 2019 has to offer. before September 20 to get your free Innovator pass, and we’ll see you in October! Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt SF 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by .
today the preview launch of , a new cloud service that will allow you to run your virtual machines on single-tenant physical services. That means you’re not sharing any resources on that server with anybody else and you’ll get full control over everything that’s running on that machine. Previously, Azure already offered sizes for two very large virtual machine types. Those are still available, but their use cases are comparably limited to these new hosts, which offer far more flexibility. With this move, Microsoft is following in the footsteps of AWS, which also offers with very . Google Cloud, too, offers what it calls “.” will support Windows, Linux and SQL Server virtual machines and pricing is per host, independent of the number of virtual machines you end up running on them. You can currently opt for machines with up to 144 physical cores and prices start at $4.039 per hour. To do this, Microsoft is offering two different processors to power these machines. Type 1 is based on the 2.3 GHz Intel Xeon E5-2673 v4 with up to 3.5 gigahertz of clock speed, while Type 2 features the Intel Xeon® Platinum 8168 with single-core clock speeds of up to 3.7 gigahertz. The available memory ranges from 32GiB to 448GiB. You can find more details . As Microsoft notes, these new dedicated hosts can help companies reach their compliance requirements for physical security, data integrity and monitoring. The dedicated hosts still share the same underlying infrastructure as any other host in the Azure data centers, but users have full control over any maintenance window that could impact their servers. These dedicated hosts can also be grouped into larger host groups in a given Azure region, allowing you to build clusters of your own physical servers inside the Azure data center. Because you’re actually renting a physical machine, any hardware issue on that machine will impact the virtual machines you are running on them, so chances are you’ll want to have multiple dedicated hosts for your failover strategy anyway.
cars can now take on human players in a game of chess, thanks to a . Its programmers likely didn’t imagine they were designing a chess program to take on the best players in the world, however: U.S. no. 1 ranked chess player Fabiano Caruana (also currently ranked no. 2 in the world) played a Tesla Model 3 in a recent match… but Deep Blue vs. Kasparov, this was not. Caruana bests the vehicle in just under five minutes of playing time, and he’s not particularly stressing the time, plus he’s offering a running commentary. The car makes some questionable moves, but to be fair, it’s not a super computer with deep artificial intelligence, and Caruana is one of the world’s best. He also gives it credit at the end, calling the game “challenging” and you can hear it’s probably more than he was expecting from a car’s infotainment system. The car would probably beat me, but I’m unranked and haven’t played a game of chess in probably 15 years so there’s that.
Xiao Wang Contributor Xiao Wang is CEO at , a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys. More posts by this contributor Newsflash! President Donald Trump is planning to, , of lawful permanent residents. He also wants to and from the country. Or wait — maybe he’s planning to,,, and — for an encore —. Feel like you’ve got whiplash yet? Welcome to the — a strange place at the best of times but one made all the more confusing by the weaponization of immigration issues for political gain and the media’s continuing failure to cut through the spin. Tech workers are better prepared than most to cope with a torrent of torrid immigration headlines, continuously amplified and distorted by Twitter rumors, Slack chatter, and credulous Facebook reposts. Still, the sheer volume of makes it hard to know what to pay attention to — and with born outside the United States, this isn’t simply a theoretical problem. If you, your loved ones, colleagues, or staff are immigrants, then you need to learn to separate the signal from the noise. So how can you tell the real deal from the real fake news? There’s no simple answer, but to keep you safe — and keep your heart rate in check — here are a few ground rules to help you figure out which headlines are worth taking seriously: Whose headline is it anyway?
Electric-vehicle chargers today are designed for human drivers. and San Francisco-based startup Stable are preparing for the day when humans are no longer behind the wheel. Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over the diesel emissions cheating scandal, is partnering with Stable to test a system that can charge electric vehicles without human intervention. The autonomous electric-vehicle charging system will combine Electrify America’s 150 kilowatt DC fast charger with Stable’s software and robotics. A robotic arm, which is equipped with computer vision to see the electric vehicle’s charging port, is attached to the EV charger. The two companies plan to open the autonomous charging site in San Francisco by early 2020. A rendering of an autonomous electric vehicle charging station. There’s more to this system than a nifty robotic arm. Stable’s software and modeling algorithms are critical components that have applications today, not just the yet-to-be-determined era of ubiquitous robotaxis. While streets today aren’t flooded with autonomous vehicles, they are filled with thousands of vehicles used by corporate and government fleets, as well as ride-hailing platforms like and . Those commercial-focused vehicles are increasingly electric, a shift driven by economics and regulations. “For the first time these fleets are having to think about, ‘how are we going to charge these massive fleets of electric vehicles, whether they are autonomous or not?’ ” Stable co-founder and CEO Rohan Puri told TechCrunch in a recent interview. Stable, a 10-person company with employees from Tesla, EVgo, Faraday Future, Stanford and MIT universities, has developed data science algorithms to determine the best location for chargers and scheduling software for once the EV stations are deployed. Its data science algorithms take into account installation costs, available power, real estate costs as well as travel time for the given vehicle to go to the site and then get back on the road to service customers. Stable has figured out that when it comes to commercial fleets, chargers in a distributed network within cities are used more and have a lower cost of operation than one giant centralized charging hub. Once a site is deployed, Stable’s software directs when, how long and at what speed the electric vehicle should charge. Stable, which launched in 2017, is backed by Trucks VC, Upside Partnership, MIT’s E14 Fund and a number of angel investors, including NerdWallet co-founder and Sidecar co-founder and CEO . The pilot project in San Francisco is the start of what Puri hopes will lead to more fleet-focused sites with Electrify America, which has largely focused on consumer charging stations. Electrify America has said it will invest $2 billion over 10 years in clean energy infrastructure and education. The VW unit has more than 486 electric vehicle charging stations installed or under development. Of those, 262 charging stations have been commissioned and are now open to the public. Meanwhile, Stable is keen to demonstrate its autonomous electric-vehicle chargers and lock in additional fleet customers. “What we set out to do was to reinvent the gas station for this new era of transportation, which will be fleet-dominant and electric,” Puri said. “What’s clear is there just isn’t nearly enough of the right infrastructure installed in the right place.”
the startup looking to put design tools in the cloud, has today announced new plugins for the platform that will help users clean up their workflows. Figma cofounder and CEO says that plug-ins have been the most requested feature from users since the company’s launch. So, for the last year, the team has been working to build plug-in functionality on the back of Figma’s API (launched in March 2018) with three main priorities: stability, speed, and security. The company has been testing plug-ins in beta for a while now, with 40 plug-ins approved at launch today. Here are some of the standouts from launch today: On the utility side, is a plug-in that allows designers to automatically rename and organize their layers as they work. , on the other hand, gives users the ability to add placeholder text (for things like phone numbers, names, etc.) that they can automatically find and replace later. and are both accessibility plug-ins that help designers make sure their work meets the WCAG 2.0 contrast accessibility guidelines, and actually see their designs through the lens of eight different types of color vision deficiencies, respectively. Other plug-ins allow for adding animation , changing themes , adding a Map to a design , and more. Anyone can create plug-ins for public use on the Figma platform, but folks can also make private plug-ins for enterprise use, as well. For example, a Microsoft employee built a plug-in that automatically changes the theme of the design based on the various Microsoft products, such as Word, Outlook, etc. Field says that the company currently has no plans to monetize plug-ins. Rather, the addition of plug-ins to the platform is a move based on customer happiness and satisfaction. Moreover, Figma’s home on the web allows for the product to evolve more rapidly and in tune with customers. Rather than having to build each individual feature on its own, Figma can now open up the platform to its power users to build what they’d like into the web app. Figma has raised a total of nearly $83 million since launch, according to Crunchbase. As of the company’s latest funding round ($40 million led by Sequoia six months ago), Figma was valued at $440 million post-funding.
Ridesharing and transportation platform announced today that it has formed a joint venture with BP, the British gas, oil and energy company, to build electric-vehicle charging infrastructure in China. The charging stations will be available to Didi and non-Didi drivers. The news of Didi and joint venture comes one week after Didi . As part of that deal, Didi and Toyota Motor set up a joint venture with GAC Toyota Motor to provide vehicle-related services to Didi drivers. BP’s first charging site in Guangzhou has already been connected to XAS (Xiaoju Automobile Solutions), which Didi spun out in April 2018 to put all its vehicle-related services into one platform. XAS is part of evolution from a ridesharing company to a mobility services platform, with its services available to other car, transportation and logistics companies. In June, Didi also , enabling its users to request rides from third-party providers in a bid to better compete with apps like Meituan Dianping and AutoNavi, which aggregate several ride-hailing services on their platforms. Didi says it now offers ridesharing, vehicle rental and delivery services to 550 million users and covers 1,000 cities through partnerships with Grab, Lyft, Ola, 99 and Bolt (Taxify). The company also claims to be the world’s largest electric vehicle operator with more than 600,000 EVs on its platform. It also has partnerships with automakers and other car-related companies, like Toyota, FAW, Dongfeng, GAC, Volkswagen and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, to collaborate on a platform that uses new energy and AI-based and mobility technologies. In a press statement, Tufan Erginbilgic, the CEO of BP’s Downstream business, said “As the world’s largest EV market, China offers extraordinary opportunities to develop innovative new businesses at scale and we see this as the perfect partnership for such a fast-evolving environment. The lessons we learn here will help us further expand BP’s advanced mobility business worldwide, helping drive the energy transition and develop solutions for a low carbon world.”
When first started in 2015 the concept of an agency specifically geared to the strategic branding and culture of startups was definitely not new, but the fact that it was starting in Europe definitely was. At the time, I remember startups in Silicon Valley having access to, literally, multiple ways of scaling up their concept, from growth hacking partners to branding agencies, to many different types of assistance. Plenty of those mountains of VC cash wasn’t employed by the startups only internally, but also externally, on helpful agencies. In London and Europe the attitude was different: “Don’t spend it on agencies, spend it on building the product”! But as soon as Multiple appeared, I realized this was a sign that the European ecosystem was in fact maturing to be able to support this more sophisticated approach. Part of the reason Silicon Valley has become so powerful is that it supports a wide variety of these wider ecosystem players, and doesn’t just dole out cash to raw entrepreneurs who often are pretty experienced in company and brand building. Europe, it seemed, was finally growing up. Four years on and, I decided it was time to find out from Multiple co-founder , as a former entrepreneur and VC herself, to discuss what she and her cofounder have learned form dealing day in and day out with high-growth startups. After all, here at least it an organization that has seen it all in terms of company building… The timing is opportune. After several years in the market it’s also launching it’s “Scale Partners network”: A crack team of experienced players from the UK and European tech ecosystem to extend its capabilities and help their client companies grow faster. The network includes names such as Laurence Bret-Stern (former CRO at Pipedrive); Tracy Doree (founder at Kindred Capital); Dhiraj Mukerjee (co-founder, Shazam); Alicia Navarro (President, former CEO and founder at Skimlinks); and Rabin Yaghoubi (former CCO at Babylon Health, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Google EMEA, Doubleclick); among others. Mike Butcher: How did Multiple start? Katy Turner: Gabbi and I originally met each other through the network of Seedcamp mentors. We had a lot in common, having been investors, operators and (in Gabbi’s case) founders, and we recognized that having access to experienced external expertise is really valuable. We’d also been non-technical people working in and around tech companies and understood the power of brand, culture and growth when it comes to company building. Multiple originated from these conversations and we founded the business in 2015. MB: Multiple isn’t just an agency is it? You look at a startup pretty holistically. Can you explain that? KT: We try to supercharge a startup’s progress through both brand and culture. We support progressive companies to build the capabilities, culture and communications that will enable them to take out the competition, take a big exit or, in the classic phrase, take over the world. We’ve worked alongside the founders of companies such as Pipedrive, WeTransfer, Unbabel, Kalo, Aire, beryl (formerly Blaze), Verve, Drover, Favro and Trouva; and the Partners of funds such as Kindred, Connect, Whitestar and Albion. Often founders need help with clarifying their purpose, shaping their vision, positioning, strategy, you name it. That’s what we’re good at. MB: What are the biggest lessons you’re learned from advising startups? KT: We’ve found there’s huge value in being fully aligned around a clear purpose, mission and vision. These are the strategic foundations which provide the platform for success. Purpose is ‘the why’, the mission is ‘the what’ and vision is ‘the where’. Codifying these drives the fundamental alignment of the startup which then goes on to supercharge their progress. MB: Is there such a thing as a founder who is beyond help? Do they personally need something special? KT: It’s hard to help a founder if they don’t want help. Ideally, founders are coachable and willing to learn, versus having a fixed mindset. In our team, we’ve been founders, operators and investors —so we always remember how it feels in those everyday scenarios, stresses and situations that founders may face. It’s easier to empathize when you’ve done it yourself! MB: When should startup founders bring inexperienced “operators”, if they don’t have any, or can they grow into the role? When do find that you guys get asked into the picture? KT: We find we get asked to come in at the point at which real scale is needed with experienced heads – either inside or outside the business. This can, obviously, be extremely valuable. However we absolutely believe that founders can grow into the role of CEO, and we often see it as part of our job to help them do that. We typically get involved at key inflection points in the lifecycle of the business. For example, when you need to lift your head up from building the product and start to build the company. Or perhaps it might be during a significant fundraise; international expansion; a rebrand; a desire to codify and refine the culture ahead of a key hiring spree etc. It’s about achieving the next stage of progress as effectively as possible. Everyone goes through that, as I guess we have the advantage of having been on that journey many times with many different kinds of founders at all sorts of stages. MB: Everyone always says ‘leadership is key’ but what have you found are the best kinds of leadership? KT: Obviously, different leadership styles are appropriate for different companies depending on the culture you want build and steer. But we’ve found there’s no singular leadership style that is ‘right’, really. Leaders can have styles that are charismatic, transactional, situational or participative. They can all work, depending on the context. In a startup and scaleup context, we’ve experienced that ‘transformational leadership’ and ‘servant leadership’ styles can produce highly-effective organizations. MB: What do you mean by those terms? KT: A transformational leader is the visionary who leads their team with enthusiasm and energy, whereas a servant leader is driven by the need to have a deep impact and to help others. In both cases, these leaders create highly collaborative, innovative and autonomous cultures, through their ultimate desire to facilitate the success of others. MB: What have been the worst kinds of leadership? KT: We’ve seen a few examples in our time, given we deal so closely with entrepreneurs, but for the worst I’d say “transactional”. It’s just very non-motivating to feel that someone who is in charge is only ever dealing with their team on a transactional basis, as in “did you do this?” Or “you must do this in order for this to happen” etc. The other one is “situational”. Dealing with things on a situation-by-situation basis, where there’s just no obvious, overall strategy, shows a lack of consistency and will ultimately undermine the confidence of the team in their leadership. MB: How much can you plan ahead in high growth companies? This is highly stage-dependent. The earlier the company, the shorter the time horizon for forward planning. Having clarity over your mission is critical to the planning process. The mission is the master ‘OKR’ (Objectives and Key Results) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OKR in the business. It has to be trackable and measurable. For a high growth company, a 3-5 year mission makes sense. Then you can build shorter-term plans which act as staging posts along the way – so for example what’s the plan for the next 12 months if our 5 year mission is to become the market leader in our category or enable a billion people to access education? MB: What are the organizational structures you’ve seen which work best with tech startups? KT: To paraphrase Ben Horowitz, “the first rule of organizational design is that all organizational design is imperfect”. Structures that allow for small, multidisciplinary, cross-functional teams delivering against clearly defined objectives work extremely well. The use of DRIs (directly responsible individuals) and OKRs help to keep the team on track, enabling clear ownership and priorities so that individuals can do their best work. MB: Is there such as thing as transitioning from startup to “scaleup” or is that just another funding round? KT: In our experience, the moment of transition comes when a product has established validation and traction in its market. And when the organization requires the systems and processes to enable it to retain and grow its customer base. In essence, it comes after product-market fit, where you need to deliver the product and revenue in a measurable and repeatable manner. We’ve found that from a funding round perspective, Series B is when the journey towards real scale is being tackled. MB: What are the best ways to establish Product/Market Fit? KT: The route to product-market fit is highly dependent on the kind of product you are building for the market you are serving. Product market fit needs to happen repeatedly at every stage. At early stage, people are willing to pay for your product even when its imperfect, because it’s the best or only way to address the problem they have. And what constitutes product-market fit at Series A might change as you scale beyond Series B. Product market fit = solid and sustainable unit economics and a product that your customers can’t live without. At every stage, ongoing customer development, obsession and experimentation are critical. MB: Have you assisted in fund-raising? What are the lessons learned? Especially in the UK. KT: The short answer answer is yes. We’ve contributed to our companies’ fundraising at every key investment stage from seed to Series C. What we’ve learned is that like all human beings, investors respond positively to powerful stories that illustrate the ambition of the organization and the ‘ ent’ it wants to make in the universe. The fundraising narrative must also be shot through with the personality of the organization. Investment decks that don’t reflect the brand will not cut the mustard. Investors in the UK are like investors anywhere else – they want to believe in a team with a strong sense of purpose and a big vision. MB: What is some of the hiring advice you give? KT: We find it’s best to ensure you have enshrined values and practices that are imperative or directive, that can be used as a guide to hire against. Then build out a hiring process that tests whether the individual’s personal goals and ambitions marry with those of the organization. MB: When should startups think about branding? KT: Branding is often thought of far too narrowly. We believe that brand is everything you make, say, do and provide. Your tech, your code, your pricing, and of course your positioning and personality are all elements of your brand. So even if an organisation hasn’t been intentional about building out their brand, they will have one anyway. The earlier you can be intentional, the greater chance you have of being consistent and coherent in your execution. MB: Can you fix a bad tech brand? KT: Yes. However, it takes an investment of time, resource, capital and desire to ensure that it’s fit for purpose. We always go back to the foundation stones of purpose, mission and vision as the starting point for this work. Everything builds from these strategic assets that direct the why, what and where. MB: Is a relaunch the kiss of death? KT: If it’s done badly and built on weak foundations then yes. However, if you are thoughtful and intentional about why you are doing it, then it can be successful. Are you simply painting the hallways, or are you rebuilding the house from the ground up i.e. infusing the brand with clarity around its positioning and personality that expresses genuine meaning and benefits which add value to the team, the business and your customers? MB: Should you build a company culture or a cult? KT: You should build a culture. Cultures adapt and evolve, survive and thrive. Cults ultimately self-immolate, let’s face it… MB: Here’s from legendary startup guru and investor Paul Graham.What would be your 19th? KT: Number 19: The inability to sell. Selling is existential – in the broadest sense. You always need to be selling whether bringing on board a co-founder, selling a story to the market, convincing a customer or raising funding. We sometimes joke: “I sell, therefore I am…”