Fundings & Exits

Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Posted by | abe shafi, Apps, calendar, event discovery, evite, Facebook, funding, Fundings & Exits, gettalent, irl, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates,’ there’s SoundCloud for ‘follow my music,’ but there’s no ‘follow my events’ ” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing, but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors, including Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate Films president Joe Drake and ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling your social calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consummate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice, where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekindled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempt Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL, with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states, with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “Fifty percent of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley,” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook, where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now, IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately, without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far,” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s a problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

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Target Circle and TapHeaven team up in a mobile marketing merger

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Fundings & Exits, M&A, Mobile, Startups, tapheaven, Target Circle, TC | No Comments

Target Circle and TapHeaven announced they’re merging into a single company under the Target Circle brand.

TapHeaven co-founder and CEO Chris Hoyt, who is becoming chief growth officer at the combined organization, said the two companies have been “trying to solve the same problem” — namely, eliminating many of the inefficiencies in the mobile advertising business.

Hoyt said that for Target Circle, that meant trying to “unify this fragmented ecosystem into a single dashboard for contracts, invoices and offers.” And for TapHeaven, that meant a focus on automation, resulting in the launch of what the company calls a “command center” for user acquisition, where advertisers can optimize their ad campaigns “at the source level, by country” while getting high-quality traffic without fraud.

The companies also complement each other geographically — Target Circle is headquartered in Oslo, Norway, while TapHeaven is headquartered in San Francisco.

According to Hoyt, they first came across each other because they were talking to the same mobile studio about supporting the launch of a new game, and it became clear they “both had the same vision for our businesses, the same future with a unified dashboard wrapped in automation and machine learning to simplify and help the ecosystem perform for these advertisers.”

Target Circle founder and CEO Heiko Hildebrandt will continue to serve as chief executive for the combined companies — in the announcement, he said TapHeaven allows the company to “strengthen and expand its technology in the automation of advertising and fraud prevention and resolution.” Meanwhile, TapHeaven executives Brian Krebs and Jeremy Jones will become CIO and chief of user experience, respectively.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Moving forward, Hoyt said Target Circle will continue to support its existing products while focusing on the new UA Command Center as “the future of our business.” He also suggested that the platform could help advertisers move away from Facebook and Google, allowing them to get the performance they need from other ad networks.

“What impact this is going to have on the market is really lifting up the rest of the ecosystem,” he said. “I feel like Facebook and Google have had their day, a little bit … With the serious things that are going on with these companies, advertisers are desperate for the answers to where [else] can they spend their money and diversify their portfolio.”

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

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Bluetooth, cryptocurrency, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, Helium, IoT, Mobile, Recent Funding, Shawn Fanning, Startups, TC, Transportation, Union Square Ventures, wifi | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

Posted by | Education, Entertainment, Exit, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Hack, hardware, layoffs, MAKE, maker faire, Maker Media, Media, Personnel, robotics, Startups, Talent, TC | No Comments

Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

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The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Posted by | concerts, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, eventbrite, funding, Fundings & Exits, live music, Mobile, payments, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, The Ticket Fairy, ticketing, TicketMaster | No Comments

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

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

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

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy, adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.

The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner (and Mark’s sister) Arielle Zuckerberg and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawyer Ken Hertz, who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

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

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

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

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

  • Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. Indeed, 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners and street teamers get a referral code.
  • Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.
  • Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold-out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company, which then redistributes them to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist at face value with a new QR code. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.
  • Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can create multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics, like rock versus dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real time and relay instant stats about check-ins at the door. Integration of email managers like Mailchimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

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

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

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

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

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AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

Posted by | AntiToxin, bullying, content moderation, cyberbullying, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, online harassment, Recent Funding, Safety, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

Posted by | accelerator, Alexis Ohanian, Amazon, Apps, Brian Wong, Canada, coach, delane parnell, detroit, esports, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, league of legends, Los Angeles, Ludlow Ventures, Matt Mazzeo, Media, national basketball association, north america, Personnel, Peter Pham, playvs, Riot Games, rocket fiber, Rocket League, science, serial entrepreneur, Sports, Spotify, Startups, Talent, TC, Twitch, United States, Venture Capital, video game | No Comments

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

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Future launches $150/mo exercise app where real coaches nag you

Posted by | Apps, Exercise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Future, Health, Kleiner Perkins, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

The only way to beat laziness is with guilt, so that’s what Future sells. It assigns you an actual human trainer who builds personalized workout plans and messages you throughout the day to make sure you’re doing them. It even gives you an Apple Watch to track your activity and ensure you’re not lying. Future actually got me to the gym where my coach kicked my ass remotely with a 30-minute lifting routine I’d never have stuck to by myself.

The catch? It’s probably the most expensive app you’ve ever seen, charging $150 per month.

Future officially launches today. Luckily it comes with a one-month money-back guarantee that CEO Rishi Mandal says has only been redeemed once. It’s produced some stunning stats from its beta tests: 95% of users stuck with it for three months, and 85% kept training for six months. That’s unheard of in fitness tech.

Future’s welcome kit includes a water bottle and Apple Watch

The remarkable retention and Future’s potential to become a gateway for your exercise and nutrition spending have roped in some big-name investors. Today it’s announcing an $8.5 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins with partner Mamoon Hamid joining the board, building on its $3 million seed. Other backers include Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund and Caffeinated Capital. Athletes are betting on Future’s promise of democratizing the personal training they get, including Golden State Warrior Sean Livingston, and NFL stars Ndamukong Suh and Kelvin Beachum.

“Future manages to be both deeply personalized (and personable!) while being super convenient,” says Krieger of one of his first investments since leaving Instagram. Future’s Mandal built his old startup Sosh while sitting next to Krieger at incubator Dogpatch Labs, where Instagram was getting its start. “The always-available nature of it means travel or a shifting schedule is no longer an excuse to not work out.”

How Future works (out)

Throughout the onboarding, Future flexes the money you spend to offer what feels like a luxury app experience.

Upon signup, you’ll answer some questions about your goals like slimming down or beefing up, and pick from a few expert trainers matched to your needs. You’ll do a 15-minute video chat with your trainer to get friendly, describe your schedule and hammer out details of your workout plan. After you get your welcome kit with some swag and an Apple Watch, your trainer delivers your week’s worth of personalized daily routines that come with video instructions for each exercise. The Future app provides audio cues (and optional music) to guide you through the workouts while your trainer chimes in with personalized pointers and motivation via pre-recorded voice clips.

Future’s app guides you through workouts with instructional video clips and audio cues

But what’s unique about Future is that your trainer proactively checks in with you throughout your day to make sure you’re actually going to the gym or doing those pushups. Because you don’t switch between trainers with each workout like some apps, and because they have your activity and heart-rate data from the Apple Watch, they can spot patterns of procrastination or flaking out. You’re prompted to give feedback after each sweat session that the trainer uses to tweak your plan. That personalization and prodding go a long way to making sure Future always fits your day and actually stays part of it.

For example, I wanted to burn a few pounds without burning too much time by adding a gym day or two plus some warmup strength training before my home Peloton rides. My trainer Renee Zernicke, a former University of Wisconsin director of Sports Performance for basketball, designed a 30-minute weight-lifting circuit and some 10-minute bodyweight exercise plans for me. When I messaged her that I was doing a more intense spin class today, she remixed my warmup exercises to avoid legs so I wouldn’t be tired during my ride. So far she’s always responded within a few minutes, and been cheerful yet forceful. “I know your days are slammed, just wanted to check in and see if you were able to get to that spin class?” she messaged me at 6:30pm. That’s something even most in-person trainers don’t do.

Future matches you with several trainer options

I found most of the workout instructions easy to understand, and the audio cues make it easy to do routines without constantly staring at your phone. But the one thing you really lose with a text message trainer instead of an in-person coach is warnings when you’re doing something wrong. Bad posture or jerky motions could get you injured. It’s all a lot smoother if you know your way around a gym. Future could do more to gauge your familiarity with proper form for riskier exercises, and then either teach you or steer you away from them. I hope I’m so sore today because I’m getting built, not getting hurt.

Your pocket motivational speaker

My trainer Renee encouraging me to get to the gym

Future was inspired by some scary facts. “Seventy percent of Americans are obese and overweight,” Mandal tells me. “We spend $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, yet we have pretty mediocre outcomes.” Mandal had gone through Stanford, worked at NASA and been at Slide when it was acquired by Google. After selling his local experience app Sosh to Postmates, he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Khosla Ventures, which does many medtech investments. There, Mandal realized health is largely determined by how you eat, sleep, deal with stress, take your medicine and exercise.

Thanks to smart watches, that last one had become the easiest to measure while remaining the toughest to do right on your own. Mandal set out to learn what the fittest people, professional athletes, do for exercise. They all said they relied on personal trainers to make all the workout plans and force them to do them. Home gyms or apps full of pre-made exercises weren’t enough. They needed someone to keep them accountable.

The trouble is that’s pretty expensive one-on-one. So Mandal teamed up with Justin Santamaria, a 10-year Apple veteran from the first iOS team who’d been working on iMessage and FaceTime. Together they designed Future in 2017 to make personal trainers cheap enough to be more accessible while retaining the personal connection that keeps trainees on track.

If you won’t shell out $150 per month to be nagged, there are plenty of apps like Sweat that let you choose between guided workouts. Hell, if you’ve got that much will power you could get any gym membership or just go running. But the closest thing to Future, called Fit.net, folded. AI trainers like Freeletics can’t make you feel guilty or inspired the same way. Lose It and MyFitnessPal can get fellow trainees to badger you, but Mandal found people don’t obey peers like a respected trainer.

The constant communication and sense of trust users develop with their coaches could give Future potential beyond subscription fitness. The app becomes a hub for your healthy behavior. Future already offers an in-app Shop where it recommends workout clothes, headphones and water bottles. It’s easy to imagine it partnering with fitness equipment makers, health food lines or other brands to score a cut of referred sales. “We become your most important relationship regarding your health. You only talk to your doctor two times to three times per year,” says Mandal. But you might tell your trainer you’re looking for ways to eat healthier or sleep better. “Over time, that’s the opportunity.”

Still, the biggest hurdle is convincing people to pay more than 10X their Netflix fee for a personal trainer they don’t see in person. Compared to the $1 apps we’re used to, Future can induce sticker shock. But compared to unused gym memberships, pricey private coaching and potential health problems, Future could look affordable if well-to-do professionals squint right. Humans are sluggish. Most healthy habits lapse. But Future is building the closest thing to “press button, pay money, get fitter” — which in the end looks like getting someone to enthusiastically shame/support us from afar.

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Nectar’s sonar bottle caps could save $50B in stolen booze

Posted by | alcohol, Apps, Bars, bartender, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, hardware, Mobile, nectar, TC, ultrasound | No Comments

Bars lose 20% of their alcohol to overpours and “free” drinks for friends. That amounts to $50 billion per year in booze that mysteriously disappears, making life tough for every pub and restaurant. Nectar wants to solve that mystery with its ultrasound depth-sensing bottle caps that measure how much liquid is left in a bottle by measuring how long it takes a sonar pulse to bounce back. And now it’s bringing real-time pour tracking to beer with its gyroscopic taps. The result is that bar managers can determine who’s pouring too much or giving away drink, which promotions are working and when to reorder bottles without keeping too much stock on hand — and avoid wasting hours weighing or eyeballing the liquor level of their inventory.

Nectar’s solution to alcohol shrinkage has now attracted a $10 million Series A led by DragonCapital.vc and joined by former Campari chairman Gerry Ruvo, who will join the board. “Not a lot of technology has come to the bottle,” Nectar CEO Aayush Phumbhra says of ill-equipped bars and restaurants. “Liquor is their highest margin and highest cost item. If you don’t manage it efficiently, you go out of business.” Other solutions can look ugly to customers, forcibly restrict bartenders or take time and money to install and maintain. In contrast, Phumbhra tells me, “I care about solving deep problems by building a solution that doesn’t change behavior.”

Investors were eager to back the CEO, since he previously co-founded text book rental giant Chegg — another startup disrupting an aged market with tech. “I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family. No one in my family has ever worked for anyone else before,” Phumbhra says with a laugh. He saw an opportunity in the stunning revelation that the half-trillion-dollar on-premises alcohol business was plagued by missing booze and inconsistent ways to track it.

Typically at the end of a week or month, a bar manager will have staff painstakingly look at each bottle, try to guess what percent remains and mark it on a clipboard to be loaded into a spreadsheet later. While a little quicker, that’s very subjective and inaccurate. More advanced systems see every bottled weighed to see exactly how much is left. If they’re lucky, the scale connects to a computer, but they still have to punch in what brand of booze they’re sizing up. But the process can take many hours, which amounts to costly labor and infrequent data. None of these methods eliminate the manual measurement process or give real-time pour info.

So with $6 million in funding, Nectar launched in 2017 with its sonar bottle caps that look and operate like old-school pourers. When bars order them, they come pre-synced and labeled for certain bottle shapes like Patron or Jack Daniels. Their Bluetooth devices stay charged for a year and connect wirelessly to a base hub in the bar. With each pour, the sonar pulse determines how much is in the bottle and subtracts it from the previous measurement to record how much was doled out. And the startup’s new gyroscopic beer system is calibrated to deduce pour volume from the angle and time the tap is depressed without the need for a sensor to be installed (and repaired) inside the beer hose.

Bar managers can keep any eye on everything throughout the night with desktop, iOS and Android apps. They could instantly tell if a martini special is working based on how much gin across brands is being poured, ask bartenders to slow their pours if they’re creeping upwards in volume or give the green light to strong pours on weeknights to reward regular customers. “Some bars encourage overpours to get people to keep coming back,” says local San Francisco celebrity bartender Broke-Ass Stuart, who tells me pre-measured pourers can save owners money but cost servers tips.

Nectar now sells self-serve subscriptions to its hardware and software, with a 20-cap package costing $99 per month billed annually with free yearly replacements. It’s also got a free two-tap trial package, or a $399 per month enterprise subscription for 100 taps. Nectar is designed to complement bar point of sale systems. And if a bar just wants the software, Nectar just launched its PrecisionAudit app, where staff tap the current liquid level on a photo of each different bottle for more accurate eyeballing. It’s giving a discount rate of $29.99 per month on the first 1,000 orders.

After 2 million pours measured, the business is growing 200% quarter-over-quarter as bowling alley chains and stadiums sign up for pilots. The potential to change the booze business seduced investors like Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale and the founding family of the Modelo beer company. Next, Nectar is trying to invent a system for wine. That’s trickier, as its taps would need to be able to suck the air out of the bottles each night.

The big challenge will be convincing bars to change after tracking inventory the same way for decades. No one wants to deal with technical difficulties in a jam-packed bar. That’s partly why Nectar’s subscription doesn’t force owners to buy its hardware up front.

If Nectar can nail not only the tech but the bartender experience, it could pave a smoother path to hospitality entrepreneurship. Alcohol shrinkage is one factor leading to the rapid demise of many bars and restaurants. Plus, it could liberate bartenders from measuring bottles into the wee hours. As Phumbhra noted, “They’re coming in on weekends and working late. We want them to spend that time with their families and on customer service.”

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KaiOS raises $50M, hits 100M handsets powered by its feature phone OS

Posted by | cathay innovation, feature phones, funding, Fundings & Exits, Google, kaios, Mobile, TCL | No Comments

While Android and iOS have locked up the market for smartphone operating systems, a feature phone platform that has the distinction of being the world’s third biggest mobile OS is announcing a hefty round of funding to continue its expansion. KaiOS, which makes the OS that powers devices like Nokia’s feature phones and Jio’s devices out of India, has raised $50 million from Cathay Innovation (which led the round) and previous investors Google and TCL Holdings.

The funding takes the total raised by KaiOS — which has now shipped 100 million devices across 100 countries — to $72 million. It comes less than a year after Google invested $22 million in the business — a strategic round that also marked KaiOS beginning the process of creating native integrations of different Google services like Maps and (more recently) Assistant into the platform.

KaiOS is not disclosing its valuation, but Sebastien Codeville, its CEO, confirmed it is “definitely up.” (PitchBook put it at a very modest $43.75 million last year on the back of Google’s earlier round.)

We actually knew a little about this round back in February, at MWC in Barcelona, when KaiOS announced new handset partners and a raft of new features. A spokesperson for KaiOS told TechCrunch the delay in closing the deal and making it public was due to a need to coordinate with different stakeholders.

As it turned out, KaiOS’s timing for this announcement turned out to be pretty interesting. The big news this week in mobile is what kind of an impact Huawei will face in the wake of a U.S. regulation barring it from doing business in the U.S. One development in that story has been just how serious Huawei is about building its own operating system to replace Google’s Android and its related services.

This is big news because while Huawei is currently the world’s second-biggest mobile phone maker, we haven’t seen any platform gain reasonable mobile phone traction against the hegemony of iOS and Android outside of China — including the failure of Firefox OS, which retreated from the market only to reemerge, phoenix-like, as KaiOS two years ago — in part because of the extensive ecosystems that have coalesced around these two.

But while all eyes are on smartphones, KaiOS’s funding and general growth represents an interesting alternative for markets, carriers and consumers that might be in the market for what KaiOS refers to as “smart feature phones.”

Today, the company counts companies like Reliance Jio, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Orange, MTN and Qualcomm among its partners, and it’s been building an interesting, two-pronged strategy for targeting people both in developed and developing markets.

As Codeville describes it, in emerging markets (which are KaiOS’s primary target), its devices are being purchased by first-time phone users, or those that have had very basic, non-data mobile phones and are upgrading without the big step and expense of smartphones. “We are bringing people to internet usage with a device they are familiar with,” he said of the form factor. “Other key characteristics are a long battery life, a keyboard and a more resistant touch panel.”

The developed market, he added, was an interesting opportunity because of the amount of professionals and others who want pared-down devices for weekend use to unplug from their daily grind.

Many had left feature phones for dead with the growth in popularity of devices like the iPhone, app stores and, of course, apps themselves. But research from Counterpoint found that feature phones still accounted for almost 25% of all handset shipments in Q3 of last year, working out to a $28 billion market opportunity in the years ahead. Today there are some 1.5 billion feature phone users, an interesting number to consider as smartphone sales continue to feel the crunch. 

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