funding

Niantic finalizes its Series C at $245M with a valuation of nearly $4B

Posted by | funding, Gaming, niantic, pokemon, TC | No Comments

We’ve known since around December that Niantic (the company behind Pokémon GO and the soon to be released Harry Potter Wizards Unite) was in the middle of raising a ton of money for its Series C round. At the time, it looked like it’d come in around $200 million.

The company has just officially announced the round, disclosing the final amount: $245 million.

Niantic says that the round was led by IVP, and backed by aXiomatic Gaming, Battery Ventures, Causeway Media Partners, CRV and Samsung Ventures. They also confirmed that the company’s current valuation is “nearly” $4 billion, as rumored when word of the round was first floating around.

This raise comes just as Niantic is plotting its next steps, post overwhelming Pokémon success. It’s just about to launch another game based on massively nostalgic IP with Wizards Unite, all while working on slowly opening up its armory of AR frameworks (and its massive database of locational points of interest) for third-party developers to build upon.

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Iota Biosciences raises $15M to produce in-body sensors smaller than a grain of rice

Posted by | funding, Gadgets, hardware, Health, implants, iota biosciences, science, TC, ultrasound | No Comments

Fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors are all well and good, but if you want to track activity inside the body, the solutions aren’t nearly as convenient. Iota Biosciences wants to change that with millimeter-wide sensors that can live more or less permanently in your body and transmit wirelessly what they detect, and a $15 million Series A should put them well on their way.

The team emerged from research at UC Berkeley, where co-founders Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz were working on improving the state of microelectrodes. These devices are used all over medical and experimental science to monitor and stimulate nerves and muscle tissues. For instance, a microelectrode array in the brain might be able to help detect early signs of a seizure, and around the heart one could precisely test the rhythms of cardiac tissues.

But despite their name, microelectrodes aren’t really small. The tips, sure, but they’re often connected to larger machines, or battery-powered packs, and they can rarely stay in the body for more than a few weeks or months due to various complications associated with them.

Considering how far we’ve come in other sectors when it comes to miniaturization, manufacturing techniques and power efficiency, Carmena and Maharbiz thought, why don’t we have something better?

“The idea at first was to have free-floating motes in the brain with RF [radio frequency] powering them,” Carmena said. But they ran into a fundamental problem: RF radiation, because of its long wavelength, requires rather a large antenna to receive them. Much larger than was practical for devices meant to swim in the bloodstream.

“There was a meeting at which everything died, because we were like two orders of magnitude away from what we needed. The physics just weren’t there,” he recalled. “So were like, ‘I guess that’s it!’ ”

But some time after, Maharbiz had a “eureka” moment — “as weird as it sounds, it occurred to me in a parking lot. You just think about it and all these things align.”

His revelation: ultrasound.

Power at the speed of sound

You’re probably familiar with ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, for imaging inside the body during pregnancy and the like — or possibly as a range-finding tool that “pings” nearby objects. There’s been a lot of focus on the venerable technology recently as technologists have found new applications for it.

In fact, a portable ultrasound company just won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in Lagos:

Iota’s approach, however, has little to do with these traditional uses of the technology. Remember the principle that you have to have an antenna that’s a reasonable fraction of an emission’s wavelength in order to capture it? Well, ultrasound has a wavelength measured in microns — millionths of a meter.

So it can be captured — and captured very efficiently. That means an ultrasound antenna can easily catch enough waves to power a connected device.

Not only that, but as you might guess from its use in imaging, ultrasound goes right through us. Lots of radiation, including RF, gets absorbed by the charged, salty water that makes up much of the human body.

“Ultrasound doesn’t do that,” Maharbiz said. “You’re just Jell-O — it goes right through you.”

The device they put together to take advantage of this is remarkably simple, and incredibly tiny. On one side is what’s called a piezoelectric crystal, something that transforms force — in this case, ultrasound — into electricity. In the middle is a tiny chip, and around the edge runs a set of electrodes.

It’s so small that it can be attached to a single nerve or muscle fiber. When the device is activated by a beam of ultrasound, voltage runs between the electrodes, and this minute current is affected by the electrical activity of the tissue. These slight changes are literally reflected in how the ultrasonic pulses bounce back, and the reader can derive electrophysiological voltage from those changes.

Basically the waves they send power the device and bounce back slightly changed, depending on what the nerve or muscle is doing. By sending a steady stream of pulses, the system collects a constant stream of precise monitoring data simply and non-invasively. (And yes, this has been demonstrated in vivo.)

Contained inside non-reactive, implant-safe containers, these microscopic “motes” could be installed singly or by the dozen, doing everything from monitoring heart tissue to controlling a prosthesis. And because they can also deliver a voltage, they could conceivably be used for therapeutic purposes, as well.

And to be clear, those purposes won’t be inside the brain. Although there’s no particular reason this tech wouldn’t work in the central nervous system, it would have to be smaller and testing would be much more complicated. The initial applications will all be in the peripheral nervous system.

At any rate, before any of that happens, they have to be approved by the FDA.

The long medtech road

As you might guess, this isn’t the kind of thing you can just invent and then start implanting all over the place. Implants, especially electronic ones, must undergo extreme scrutiny before being allowed to be used in even experimental treatment.

Fortunately for Iota, their devices have a lot of advantages over, say, a pacemaker with a radio-based data connection and five-year battery. The only transmission involved is ultrasound, for one thing, and there are decades of studies showing the safety of using it.

“The FDA has well-defined limits for average and peak powers for the human body with ultrasound, and we’re nowhere near those frequencies or powers. This is very different,” explained Maharbiz. “There’s no exotic materials or techniques. As far as constant low-level ultrasound goes, the notion really is that it does nothing.”

And unlike a major device like a medication port, pump, stint, pacemaker or even a long-term electrode, “installation” is straightforward and easily reversible.

It would be done laparoscopically, or through a tiny incision. said Carmena. “If it has to be taken out, it can be taken out, but it’s so minimally invasive and small and safe that we keep it,” he said.

These are all marks in Iota’s favor, but testing can’t be rushed. Although the groundwork for their devices was laid in 2013, the team has taken a great deal of time to advance the science to the point where it can be taken out of the lab to begin with.

In order to get it now to the point where they can propose human trials, Iota has raised $15 million in funding; the round was led by Horizons Ventures, Astellas, Bold Capital Partners, Ironfire and Shanda. (The round was in May but only just announced.)

The A round should get the company from its current prototype phase to a point, perhaps some 18 months distant, when they have a production-ready version ready to present to the FDA — at which point more funding will probably be required to get through the subsequent years of testing.

But that’s the game in medtech, and all the investors know it. This could be a hugely disruptive technology in a number of fields, although at first the devices need to be approved for a single medical purpose (one Iota has decided on but can’t disclose yet).

It’s a long road, all right, but at the end of it is the fulfillment of a promise straight out of sci-fi. It may be years before you have microscopic, ultrasound-powered doodads swimming around inside you, but that future is well on its way.

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How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

Posted by | e-cigarettes, eCommerce, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Health, juul, nicotine, Opinion, Policy, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, tobacco, vaporizers | No Comments

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching enough to trigger the questions, “What’s that? Can I try?” There’s a whole other article to be written about how Juul memes and Instagram Stories that glamorized the nicotine dispensers contributed to the device’s spread.

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

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Crowdfunded developer of space sim Star Citizen takes on $46M in funding at nearly $500M valuation

Posted by | cloud imperium, Crowdfunding, funding, Gaming, squadron 42, star citizen, Startups, TC | No Comments

The story of the game Star Citizen and Cloud Imperium, the company developing it, is almost too ludicrous to believe: a crowdfunding effort to create a space sim of unparalleled size and realism, raising hundreds of millions, with backers paying thousands for ships and gear in a game that’s years from release. Yet it’s real enough that it just pulled in $42 million in private funding to help bring it closer to release.

Star Citizen began as the brainchild of Chris Roberts, architect of the Wing Commander series and other well-received space games. His idea was to crowdfund the team’s next game, and did so in 2012; the money started rolling in, and it never really stopped. Nor has the game ceased to grow in its ambitions, adding things like entire planets to the lineup that seem, on their face, somewhat insane.

There’s no shortage of histories of the game and its developers out there, so for our purposes let it suffice to say that over the last six years the company has raised $211 million, the vast majority of which comes from gamers “pledging” anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars for all manner of things related to the title. Early access to builds, exclusive ships, testing new content, etc.

A huge amount of work has been done on the game, so this isn’t just a colossal con, though there are plenty who think the game, and its first-person shooter counterpart Squadron 42, can’t possibly ever fulfill its ambitions and justify the money people have put into it.

That doesn’t seem to be the opinion of Clive Calder, founder of Zomba and producer in a variety of entertainment formats, whom Roberts met during a clandestine campaign to solicit funding.

Roberts, who writes the story in one of his candid messages to the project’s fanbase, had decided a while back that he didn’t want to use pledged funds for marketing purposes — at least not the kind of marketing blitz AAA games tend to require for a successful global release. So he went looking for investment, and found Calder, with whom he “got on like a house on fire.”

Calder’s family office agreed to invest $46 million for a 10 percent stake in Cloud Imperium, which all told puts it near a half-billion valuation. One may very well question the sanity of such a valuation for a company that has not yet shipped an actual product — working prototypes, sure, but not a completed game — but hell, at least they’re making something people are excited about. That’s got to be worth a couple bucks.

Cloud Imperium gains two new board members from outside, though Roberts, who commands the kind of loyalty that only decades in an industry can create, was quick to point out that “control of the company and the board still firmly stays with myself as chairman, CEO and majority shareholder.”

In another act of not exactly radical but not legally required transparency, the company also posted an outline of the company’s financials over the last six years. Unsurprisingly, the company has been investing most of its cash into game development in the form of salaries, contracts and overhead; a non-trivial amount has gone toward “publishing operations, community, events and marketing,” which with a game as community-focused as Star Citizen is not surprising.

The company has grown steadily, adding a hundred people a year or so to a present size of 464 — which is the kind of size you’d expect on a AAA game like Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption. Even more would be added on as temporary artists, actors and so on.

I’m sure it has escaped no one that pledges appear to have peaked, though if they remain steady the company clearly will have enough to continue operations if it doesn’t expand. But one does also see perhaps a secondary motive in seeking investment from outside the community. At some point people are going to want a game.

To that end, Squadron 42, at least, is scheduled for release in Q2 2020 — though backers and critics will both chuckle a little at the idea that Cloud Imperium will be able to hit those goals. The games, infamously, were originally slated for release long ago. But the scope of the project has grown since its conception and although some no doubt would rather be playing the completed game today, they may very well find that good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait…

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Juul Labs gets $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro maker Altria Group

Posted by | funding, Gadgets, Health, juul, juul labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

After a long year fighting underage use of its products, Juul Labs has today struck a deal with Altria Group, the owners of Philip Morris USA and makers of Marlboro cigarettes.

The deal values Juul at $38 billion, according to Bloomberg, and injects the company with a fresh $12.8 billion in exchange for a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs.

Here’s what Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns had to say in a prepared statement:

We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the US. We were skeptical as well. But over the course of the last several months we were convinced by actions, not words, that in fact this partnership could help accelerate our success switching adult smokers. We understand the doubt. We doubted as well.

He goes on to explain the strict criteria Juul Labs had for a potential investor, particularly one from the Big Tobacco space. For one, Altria entered into a standstill agreement that limits to 35 percent the company’s ownership in Juul. Altria also must use its database and its distribution network to get out to current smokers the message of Juul.

For the past year, many have seen Juul as a dangerous toy for teenagers. In November, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new measures for the e-cig industry meant to keep the products out of the hands of teens. One of those measures includes restricting the sale of flavored non-combustible tobacco products beyond the usual cigarette flavors of tobacco and menthol.

But after nearly a year of playing defense, this new deal marks a bit of an offensive push from Juul Labs. The company has always stressed that its main goal is to give smokers a meaningful alternative to combustible cigarettes. Partnering with Big Tobacco may not seem like the best way to do that, optically speaking. But Altria has agreed to a few measures that would get into the hands of actual smokers information about Juul, including:

  • providing Juul with access to its retail shelf space, meaning that Juul’s tobacco and menthol products will be merchandized right alongside Altria combustible cigarettes
  • Altria will include direct communications about Juul to adult smokers through cigarette pack inserts and mailings via Altria companies’ databases
  • Altria will support Juul via its logistics and distribution networks, as well as its sales team, which works with more than 230,000 retail locations

In the release, Altria said that part of the reason for the investment is simply that the organization understands change is coming to the tobacco industry.

Howard Willard, Altria’s chairman and chief executive officer, had this to say in a prepared statement:

We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes by investing $12.8 billion in JUUL, a world leader in switching adult smokers. We have long said that providing adult smokers with superior, satisfying products with the potential to reduce harm is the best way to achieve tobacco harm reduction. Through JUUL, we are making the biggest investment in our history to achieve that goal. We strongly believe that working with JUUL to accelerate its mission will have long-term benefits for adult smokers and our shareholders.

Altria has made a few big moves lately, including acquiring a 45 percent stake in cannabis company Cronos earlier this month. The company also announced this month that it would discontinue its own e-cig products, including all MarkTen and Green Smoke e-vapor products, and VERVE oral nicotine products.

“This decision is based upon the current and expected financial performance of these products, coupled with regulatory restrictions that burden Altria’s ability to quickly improve these products,” read the press release. “The company will refocus its resources on more compelling reduced-risk tobacco product opportunities.”

Now we know that those opportunities look like an extra-long thumb drive called Juul.

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K Health raises $25M for its AI-powered primary care platform

Posted by | 14w, a.i., AI, Apps, artificial intelligence, Bessemer Venture Partners, boxgroup, Comcast Ventures, Community, consumer, Crowdfunding, doctors, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, health app, health apps, healthcare, K Health, lerer hippeau, machine learning, Mangrove Capital Partners, Mobile, primary ventures, Recent Funding, series B, Series B funding, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

K Health, the startup providing consumers with an AI-powered primary care platform, has raised $25 million in Series B funding. The round was led by 14W, Comcast Ventures and Mangrove Capital Partners, with participation from Lerer HippeauBoxGroup and Max Ventures — all previous investors from the company’s seed or Series A rounds. Other previous investors include Primary Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Co-founded and led by former Vroom CEO and Wix co-CEO Allon Bloch, K Health (previously Kang Health) looks to equip consumers with a free and easy-to-use application that can provide accurate, personalized, data-driven information about their symptoms and health.

“When your child says their head hurts, you can play doctor for the first two questions or so — where does it hurt? How does it hurt?” Bloch explained in a conversation with TechCrunch. “Then it gets complex really quickly. Are they nauseous or vomiting? Did anything unusual happen? Did you come back from a trip somewhere? Doctors then use differential diagnosis to prove that it’s a tension headache versus other things by ruling out a whole list of chronic or unusual conditions based on their deep knowledge sets.”

K Health’s platform, which currently focuses on primary care, effectively looks to perform a simulation and data-driven version of the differential diagnosis process. On the company’s free mobile app, users spend three-to-four minutes answering an average of 21 questions about their background and the symptoms they’re experiencing.

Using a data set of two billion historical health events over the past 20 years — compiled from doctors’ notes, lab results, hospitalizations, drug statistics and outcome data — K Health is able to compare users to those with similar symptoms and medical histories before zeroing in on a diagnosis. 

With its expansive comparative approach, the platform hopes to offer vastly more thorough, precise and user-specific diagnostic information relative to existing consumer alternatives, like WebMD or, what Bloch calls “Dr. Google,” which often produce broad, downright frightening and inaccurate diagnoses. 

Ease and efficiency for both consumers and physicians

Users are able to see cases and diagnoses that had symptoms similar to their own, with K Health notifying users with serious conditions when to consider seeking immediate care. (K Health Press Image / K Health / https://www.khealth.ai)

In addition to pure peace of mind, the utility provided to consumers is clear. With more accurate at-home diagnostic information, users are able to make better preventative health decisions, avoid costly and unnecessary trips to in-person care centers or appointments with telehealth providers and engage in constructive conversations with physicians when they do opt for in-person consultations.

K Health isn’t looking to replace doctors, and, in fact, believes its platform can unlock tremendous value for physicians and the broader healthcare system by enabling better resource allocation. 

Without access to quality, personalized medical information at home, many defer to in-person doctor visits even when it may not be necessary. And with around one primary care physician per 1,000 people in the U.S., primary care practitioners are subsequently faced with an overwhelming number of patients and are unable to focus on more complex cases that may require more time and resources. The high volume of patients also forces physicians to allocate budgets for support staff to help interact with patients, collect initial background information and perform less-demanding tasks.

K Health believes that by providing an accurate alternative for those with lighter or more trivial symptoms, it can help lower unnecessary in-person visits, reduce costs for practices and allow physicians to focus on complicated, rare or resource-intensive cases, where their expertise can be most useful and where brute machine processing power is less valuable.

The startup is looking to enhance the platform’s symbiotic patient-doctor benefits further in early-2019, when it plans to launch in-app capabilities that allow users to share their AI-driven health conversations directly with physicians, hopefully reducing time spent on information gathering and enabling more-informed treatment.

With K Health’s AI and machine learning capabilities, the platform also gets smarter with every conversation as it captures more outcomes, hopefully enriching the system and becoming more valuable to all parties over time. Initial results seem promising, with K Health currently boasting around 500,000 users, most having joined since this past July.

Using access and affordability to improve global health outcomes

With the latest round, the company has raised a total of $37.5 million since its late-2016 founding. K Health plans to use the capital to ramp up marketing efforts, further refine its product and technology and perform additional research to identify methods for earlier detection and areas outside of primary care where the platform may be valuable.

Longer term, the platform has much broader aspirations of driving better health outcomes, normalizing better preventative health behavior and creating more efficient and affordable global healthcare systems.

The high costs of the American healthcare system and the impacts they have on health behavior has been well-documented. With heavy co-pays, premiums and treatment cost, many avoid primary care altogether or opt for more reactionary treatment, leading to worse health outcomes overall.

Issues seen in the American healthcare system are also observable in many emerging market countries with less medical infrastructure. According to the World Health Organization, the international standard for the number of citizens per primary care physician is one for every 1,500 to 2,000 people, with some countries facing much steeper gaps — such as China, where there is only one primary care doctor for every 6,666.

The startup hopes it can help limit the immense costs associated with emerging countries educating millions of doctors for eight-to-10 years and help provide more efficient and accessible healthcare systems much more quickly.

By reducing primary care costs for consumers and operating costs for medical practices, while creating a more convenient diagnostic experience, K Health believes it can improve access to information, ultimately driving earlier detection and better health outcomes for consumers everywhere.

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Propel raises $12.8M for its free app to manage government benefits

Posted by | Apps, funding, Mobile, nyca partners, propel, Startups | No Comments

Propel, maker of the Fresh EBT app for managing food stamps and other benefits, announced today that it has raised $12.8 million in Series A funding.

Fresh EBT (the EBT stands for the Electronics Transfer Benefit card, which is how food stamp participants receive their benefits) allows users to check their food stamp/SNAP balance and find stores that accept food stamps. Users can also track their spending. The app is free for consumers and government agencies — the company makes money through digital coupons and a job board.

Propel says Fresh EBT is now used by more than 1.5 million Americans each month, and that more than 30,000 people have applied for jobs this year that they discovered through the app. For example, the announcement quotes one user, Tracy B. from Fairland, Virginia — she described Fresh EBT as her “personal financial adviser,” and also said she used it to find discount zoo tickets, and even her current job.

When Propel raised its $4 million seed round last year, founder and CEO Jimmy Chen described his mission as building “a more user-friendly safety net.” He argued that there’s no conflict between Propel’s social mission and its structure as a for-profit business, a position he reiterated in today’s announcement.

“Our investors are world-class experts in their respective fields,” he said. “They share an understanding of the challenges of low-income Americans and a belief that Propel can build a massive business by fighting poverty.”

Those investors include Nyca Partners, which led the round. Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Omidyar Network, Alexa von Tobel and Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures also participated.

“It’s not hard to see the huge opportunity in building better financial services for low-income people,” said Nyca Managing Partner Hans Morris in a statement. “We just haven’t seen many companies in this space that have an opportunity to have such a large impact at massive scale. That’s why we’re so excited to invest in Propel.”

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Krisp reduces noise on calls using machine learning, and it’s coming to Windows soon

Posted by | artificial intelligence, audio, funding, Gadgets, noise reduction, TC | No Comments

If your luck is anything like mine, as soon as you jump on an important call, someone decides it’s a great time to blow some leaves off the sidewalk outside your window. 2Hz’s Krisp is a new desktop app that uses machine learning to subtract background noise like that, or crowds, or even crying kids — while keeping your voice intact. It’s already out for Macs and it’s coming to Windows soon.

I met the creators of Krisp, including 2Hz co-founder Davit Baghdasaryan, earlier this year at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, where they demonstrated their then-prototype tech.

The tech involved is complex, but the idea is simple: If you create a machine learning system that understands what the human voice sounds like, on average, then it can listen to an audio signal and select only that part of it, cutting out a great deal of background noise.

Baghdasaryan, formerly of Twilio, originally wanted to create something that would run on mobile networks, so T-Mobile or whoever could tout built-in noise cancellation. This platform approach proved too slow, however, so they decided to go straight to consumers.

“Traction with customers was slow, and this was a problem for a young startup,” Baghdasaryan said in an email later. However, people were loving the idea of ‘muting noise,’ so we decided to switch all our focus and build a user-facing product.”

That was around the time I talked with them in person, incidentally, and just six months later they had released on Mac.

It’s simple: You run the app, and it modifies both the outgoing and incoming audio signals, with the normal noisy signal going in one end and a clean, voice-focused one coming out the other. Everything happens on-device and with very short latency (around 15 milliseconds), so there’s no cloud involved and nothing is ever sent to any server or even stored locally. The team is working on having the software adapt and learn on the fly, but it’s not implemented yet.

Another benefit of this approach is it doesn’t need any special tweaking to work with, say, Skype instead of Webex. Because it works at the level of the OS’s sound processing, whatever app you use just hears the Krisp-modified signal as if it were clean out of your mic.

They launched on Mac because they felt the early-adopter type was more likely to be on Apple’s platform, and the bet seems to have paid off. But a Windows version is coming soon — the exact date isn’t set, but expect it either late this month or early January. (We’ll let you know when it’s live.)

It should be more or less identical to the Mac version, but there will be a special gaming-focused one. Gamers, Baghdasaryan pointed out, are much more likely to have GPUs to run Krisp on, and also have a real need for clear communication (as a PUBG player I can speak to the annoyance of an open mic and clacky keys). So there will likely be a few power-user features specific to gamers, but it’s not set in stone yet.

You may wonder, as I did, why they weren’t going after chip manufacturers, perhaps to include Krisp as a tech built into a phone or computer’s audio processor.

In person, they suggested that this ultimately was also too slow and restrictive. Meanwhile, they saw that there was no real competition in the software space, which is massively easier to enter.

“All current noise cancellation solutions require multiple microphones and a special form factor where the mouth must be close to one of the mics. We have no such requirement,” Baghdasaryan explained. “We can do it with single-mic or operate on an audio stream coming from the network. This makes it possible to run the software in any environment you want (edge or network) and any direction (inbound or outbound).”

If you’re curious about the technical side of things — how it was done with one mic, or at low latency, and so on — there’s a nice explanation Baghdasaryan wrote for the Nvidia blog a little while back.

Furthermore, a proliferation of AI-focused chips that Krisp can run on easily means easy entry to the mobile and embedded space. “We have already successfully ported our DNN to NVIDIA GPUs, Intel CPU/GNA, and ARM. Qualcomm is in the pipeline,” noted Baghdasaryan.

To pursue this work the company has raised a total of $2 million so far: $500K from Skydeck as well as friends and family for a pre-seed round, then a $1.5 M round led by Sierra Ventures and Shanda Group.

Expect the Windows release later this winter, and if you’re already a user, expect a few new features to come your way in the same time scale. You can download Krisp for free here.

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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Meet ‘Bitski’, the single sign-on wallet crypto desperately needs

Posted by | Apps, Bitski, blockchain, crypto wallet, cryptocurrency, Developer, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, OAuth, payments, Recent Funding, single sign-on, Startups, TC | No Comments

The mainstream will never adopt blockchain-powered decentralized apps (dApps) if it’s a struggle to log in. They’re either forced to manage complex security keys themselves, or rely on a clunky wallet-equipped browser like MetaMask. What users need is for signing in to blockchain apps to be as easy as Login with Facebook. So that’s what Bitski built. The startup emerges from stealth today with an exclusive on TechCrunch about the release of the developer beta of its single sign-on cryptocurrency wallet platform.

Ten projects, including 7 game developers, are lined up to pay a fee to integrate Bitski’s SDK. Then, whenever they need a user’s identity or to transact a payment, their app pops open a Bitski authorization screen, where users can grant permissions to access their ID, send money or receive items. Users sign up just once with Bitski, and then there’s no more punching in long private keys or other friction. Using blockchain apps becomes simple enough for novices. Given the recent price plunge, the mainstream has been spooked about speculating on cryptocurrencies. But Bitski could unlock the utility of dApps that blockchain developers have been promising but haven’t delivered.

“One of the great challenges for protocol teams and product companies in crypto today is the poor UX in dApps, specifically onboarding, transactions, and sign-in/password recovery,” says co-founder and CEO Donnie Dinch. “We interviewed a ton of dApp developers. The minute they used a wallet, there was a huge drop-off of folks. Bitski’s vision is to solve user onboarding and wallet usability for developers, so that they can in-turn focus on creating unique and useful dapps.”

The scrappy Bitski team raised $1.5 million in pre-seed capital from Steve Jang’s Kindred Ventures, Signia, Founders Fund, Village Global and Social Capital. They were betting on Dinch, a designer-as-CEO who’d built concert discovery app WillCall that he sold to Ticketfly, which was eventually bought by Pandora. After 18 months of rebranding Ticketfly and overhauling its consumer experience, Dinch left and eventually recruited engineer Julian Tescher to come with him to found Bitski.

Bitski co-founder and CEO Donnie Dinch

After Riff failed to hit scale, the team hung up its social ambitions in late 2017 and “started kicking around ideas for dApps. We mocked up a Venmo one, a remittance app…but found the hurdle to get someone to use one of these products is enormous,” Dinch recalls. “Onboarding was a dealbreaker for anyone building dApps. Even if we made the best crypto Venmo, to get normal people on it would be extremely difficult. It’s already hard enough to get people to install apps from the App Store.” They came up with Bitski to let any developer ski jump over that hurdle.

Looking across the crypto industry, the companies like Coinbase and Binance with their own hosted wallets that permitted smooth UX were the ones winning. Bitski would bring that same experience to any app. “Our hosted wallet SDK lets developers drop the Bitski wallet into their apps and onboard users with standards web 2.0 users have grown to know and love,” Dinch explains.

Imagine an iOS game wants to reward users with a digital sword or token. Users would have to set up a whole new wallet, struggle with their credentials or use another clumsy solution. They’d have to own Ethereum already to pay the Ethereum “gas” price to power the transaction, and the developer would have to manually approve sending the gift. With Bitski, users can approve receiving tokens from a developer from then on, and developers can pay the gas on users’ behalf while triggering transactions programmatically.

Magik is an AR content platform that’s one of Bitski’s first developers. Magik’s founders tell me, “We’re building towards reaching millions of mainstream consumers, and Bitski is the only wallet solution that understands what we need to reach users at that scale. They provide a dead-simple, secure and familiar interface that addresses every pain point along the user-onboarding journey.”

Bitski will offer a free tier, priced tiers based on transaction volume or a monthly fee and an enterprise version. In the future, the company is considering doubling-down on premium developer services to help them build more on top of the blockchain. “We will never, ever monetize user data. We’ve never had any intent at looking at it,” Dinch vows. The startup hopes developers will seize on the network effects of a cross-app wallet, as once someone sets up Bitski to use one product, all future sign-ins just require a few clicks.

In August, Coinbase acquired a startup called Distributed Systems that was building a similar crypto identity platform called the Clear Protocol. A “login with Coinbase” feature could be popular if launched, but the company’s focus is to spread a ton of blockchain projects. “If [login with Coinbase] launched tomorrow, they wouldn’t be able to support games or anything with a unique token. We’re a lockbox, they’re a bank,” Dinch claims.

The spectre of single sign-on’s biggest player, Facebook, looms, as well. In May it announced the formation of a blockchain team we suspect might be working on a crypto login platform or other ways to make the decentralized world more accessible for mom and pop. Dinch suspects that fears about how Facebook uses data would dissuade developers and users from adopting such a product. Still, Bitski’s haste in getting its developer platform into beta just a year after forming shows it’s eager to beat them to market.

Building a centralized wallet in a decentralized ecosystem comes with its own security risks. But Dinch assures me Bitski is using all its own hardware with air-gapped computers that have been stripped of their Wi-Fi cards, and it’s taking other secret precautions to prevent anyone from snatching its wallets. He believes cross-app wallets will also deliver a future where users actually own their virtual goods instead of just relying on the good will of developers not to pull them away or shut them down.” The idea of we’ve never been able to provably own unique digital assets is crazy to me,” Dinch notes. “Whether it’s a skin in Fortnite or a movie on iTunes that you purchase, you don’t have liquidity to resell those things. We think we’ll look back in 5 to 10 years and think it’s nuts that no one owned their digital items.”

While the crypto prices might be cratering and dApps like Cryptokitties have cooled off, Dinch is convinced the blockchain startups won’t fade away. “There is a thriving developer ecosystem hellbent on bringing the decentralized web to reality; regardless of token price. It’s a safe assumption that prices will dip a bit more, but will eventually rise whenever we see real use cases for a lot of these tokens. Most will die. The ones that succeed will be outcome-oriented, building useful products that people want.” Bitski’s a big step in that direction.

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