Startups

Ghostery revamps its privacy-focused mobile browsers

Posted by | Apps, ghostery, Mobile, Startups | No Comments

Ghostery is launching new versions of its browsers for iOS and Android. In fact, Director of Product Jeremy Tillman said this is the first big update to Ghostery’s mobile browsers in several years.

It’s not that mobile wasn’t a priority for the team before this, but Tillman said, “In our previous company, we didn’t have a ton of resources — we always had to choose which thing to work on.” Apparently that changed last year with Ghostery’s acquisition by German browser company Cliqz.

The first big launch after the acquisition was Ghostery 8, the latest version of the team’s privacy-focused extension for desktop browsers. Next up: Bringing those features over to mobile.

Tillman said the goal was to create “a browser that can go toe-to-toe with Chrome” while also incorporating Ghostery’s privacy protection capabilities. Those capabilities include the ability to block different kinds of ad tracking by category (tracking for advertising, adult advertising and site analytics are turned on by default).

There’s also a built-in ad blocker, and Ghost Search, a privacy-focused search engine based on Cliqz technology that does not store any personally identifiable information. (If you’re not satisfied with the Ghost Search results, you can also see results from other search engines.) The presentation is different from a standard search engine, with three “dynamic result cards” that surface content as soon as you start entering search terms. And there’s Ghostery Tab, a home screen that highlights your favorite or most visited sites, as well as the latest news stories.

The Android version includes additional features, including AI-powered anti-tracking and “smart blocking” that’s supposed to improve page performance.

Tillman described the result as “a cleaner, faster, safer mobile browsing experience.” He also said that moving forward, Ghostery will be working to provide “an ecosystem of products” that “protect our users wherever they’re interacting with the Internet.”

The launch comes as the big Internet platforms face growing scrutiny over how they handle user data. Tillman argued that by simply giving consumers a more privacy-friendly alternative, “We’re sort of collectively negotiating a better Internet for them” — and he’s hoping Ghostery can be more involved as publishers try to find alternatives to advertising.

“Our goal isn’t to, say, topple Google and Facebook, but to provide that alternative to those that want it — both for content creators but also for users themselves,” he said.

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Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, blockchain, cryptocurrency, Developer, Europe, Gadgets, Google, siri, Snips, Startups, TC | No Comments

Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.

The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.

The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.

Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.

It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.

“Сonsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”

Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.

As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.

In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.

By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.

And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.

“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.

“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”

“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.

“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”

It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.

It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.

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WHILL raises $45M to help people with disabilities get around airports and other large venues

Posted by | accessibility, electric vehicles, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Last mile, personal mobility, Startups, TC, Transportation, wheelchair, Whill | No Comments

WHILL, the startup known for creating sleek, high-tech personal mobility devices, announced today that it has closed a $45 million Series C. The funding will be used for expanding into new international markets, as well as developing new products for large venues, including airports and “last-mile” sidewalk transportation. The round’s lead investors were SBI Investment, Daiwa Securities Group and WHIZ Partners, with participation from returning investors INCJ, Eight Road Ventures, MSIVC, Nippon Venture Capital, DG Incubation and Mizuho Capital.

This brings WHILL’s total funding so far to about $80 million. Founded in Tokyo in 2012, WHILL plans to open a branch in the European Union and enter 10 new European countries. It also plans to start working with partners on developing autonomous capabilities for its mobility devices, senior marketing manager Jeff Yoshioka told TechCrunch. The company will build its own sensors and cameras to use in its “mobility as a service” program, which allows users to control vehicles and call customer service through a mobile app.

One of WHILL’s biggest projects is developing an autonomous personal mobility device system for airports. Yoshioka says that an estimated 20 million people request wheelchairs in U.S. airports each year. This means they need to wait for an airline employee to bring a wheelchair to them and then push them from check-in to their gates. At the same time, it doesn’t give users a lot of flexibility.

The system that WHILL has in mind, on the other hand, would allow individuals to use an app to summon a mobility device over to them. Then they can go wherever they want — coffee shops, restrooms, shops — before heading to the gate without an assistant. Once they are done with the device, it will return to a docking station on its own. WHILL has already begun testing a similar program at Tokyo International Airport in partnership with Panasonic.

Yoshioka says WHILL will most likely pursue distribution partnerships with U.S. airlines, which are responsible for supplying and maintaining the wheelchair systems in American airports, and airports to build the necessary infrastructure.

Along with airports, WHILL wants to bring its technology to other large venues, including shopping malls and sports arenas, as well as create a system for last-mile transportation. Yoshioka notes that “there are already a lot of companies out there like LimeBike and MoBike that offer bikes and electric scooters, but there’s nothing out there for people with disabilities who can’t use those devices.”

Instead, many rely on Ubers or public transportation even for short distances. Like the airport system, WHILL’s last-mile sidewalk system will use autonomous electric vehicles that can be called to users with an app. It faces unique challenges, however, because WHILL’s devices are larger and more expensive than bikes or electric scooters, so the company needs to find safe places to dock them that are still accessible to people with limited mobility. Yoshioka says WHILL likely will focus on partnering with commercial properties to create indoor docking stations.

WHILL’s largest market is still Japan, where it has between 4,000 to 5,000 resellers. In its home market, WHILL’s devices are subsidized by the government and also available for rent. In the U.S., however, many customers need to purchase devices out-of-pocket. To make their products more accessible, WHILL launched the less expensive Model Ci (called the Model C in Europe and Japan) earlier this year. While there is still plenty of room for innovation in the wheelchair market, the Model Ci and other WHILL products compete with devices like the iBot, which can climb stairs, and the Trackchair, designed for off-road use. WHILL’s current products can’t climb stairs, but they do have the advantage of being designed for both indoor and outdoor use, giving users more flexibility, says Yoshioka.

The company also expects demand for its products to grow thanks to a rapidly aging world population, citing statistics that show there are expected to be more than 2.1 billion people over the age of 60 by 2050, up from about 900 million last year.

“We don’t necessarily see [the other companies] as direct competitors. They definitely do impact sales, because people might want something that climbs stairs instead of having better outdoor capabilities, but I think overall it’s very beneficial for the industry,” Yoshioka adds. “As a company that’s trying to disrupt the industry, it’s nice to have them around because it pushes the industry forward and opens eyes for other manufacturers.”

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Uber fires up its own traffic estimates to fuel demand beyond cars

Posted by | Apps, Collaborative Consumption, GreenTech, JUMP, Logistics, Mobile, Social, Startups, TC, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

If the whole map is red and it’s a short ride, maybe you’d prefer taking an Uber JUMP Bike instead of an UberX. Or at least if you do end up stuck bumper-to-bumper, the warning could make you less likely to get mad mid-ride and take it out on the driver’s rating.

This week TechCrunch spotted Uber overlaying blue, yellow, and red traffic condition bars on your route map before you hail. Responding to TechCrunch’s inquiry, Uber confirmed that traffic estimates have been quietly testing for riders on Android over the past few months and the pilot program recently expanded to a subset of iOS users. It’s already live for all drivers.

The congestion indicators are based on Uber’s own traffic information pulled from its historic trip data about 10 billion rides plus real-time data from its drivers’ phones, rather than estimates from Google that already power Uber’s maps.

If traffic estimates do roll out, they could make users more tolerant of longer ETAs and less likely to check a competing app since they’ll know their driver might take longer to pick them up because congestion is to blame rather than Uber’s algorithm. During the ride they might be more patient amidst the clogged streets.

Uber’s research into traffic in India

But most interestingly, seeing traffic conditions could help users choose when it’s time to take one of Uber’s non-car choices. They could sail past traffic in one of Uber’s new electric JUMP Bikes, or buy a public transportation ticket from inside Uber thanks to its new partnership with Masabi for access to New York’s MTA plus buses and trains in other cities. Cheaper and less labor intensive for Uber, these options make more sense to riders the more traffic there is. It’s to the company’s advantage to steer users towards the most satisfying mode of transportation, and traffic info could point them in the right direction.

Through a program called Uber Movement, the company began sharing its traffic data with city governments early last year. The goal was to give urban planners the proof they need to make their streets more efficient. Uber has long claimed that it can help reduce traffic by getting people into shared rides and eliminating circling in search of parking. But a new study showed that for each mile of personal driving Uber and Lyft eliminated, they added 2.8 miles of professional driving for an 180 percent increase in total traffic.

Uber is still learning whether users find traffic estimates helpful before it considers rolling them out permanently to everyone. Right now they only appear on unshared UberX, Black, XL, SUV, and Taxi routes before you hail to a small percentage of users. But Uber’s spokesperson verified that the company’s long-term goal is to be able to tell users that the cheapest way to get there is option X, the quickest is option Y, and the most comfortable is option Z. Traffic estimates are key to that. And now that it’s had so many cars on the road for so long, it has the signals necessary to predict which streets will be smooth and which will be jammed at a given hour.

For years, Uber called itself a logistics company, not a ride sharing company. Most people gave it a knowing wink. Every Silicon Valley company tries to trump up its importance by claiming to conquer a higher level of abstraction. But with advent of personal transportation modes like on-demand bikes and scooters, Uber is poised to earn the title by getting us from point A to point B however we prefer.

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PlayVS taps League of Legends in launch of high school esports platform

Posted by | delane parnell, Gaming, playvs, Startups, TC | No Comments

PlayVS, the startup bringing an e-sports infrastructure to the high school level, has today announced that it will partner with Riot’s League of Legends for its early-access season.

High school students across five states, including Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, will be able to sign up to play for their school in Season Zero, which begins in October 2018.

Around 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are offering esports scholarships, but without any infrastructure around high school esports, those recruiters are left at the mercy of the publishers and a grueling tournament schedule.

Meanwhile, young gamers who want to go pro are forced to gain a following via Twitch, or hit up all those tournaments and find a way to shine.

PlayVS offers access to recruiters while giving high school students the chance to play competitive esports at the high school level. The startup, backed by Science with $15.5 million in funding, has partnered with the NFHS (essentially the NCAA of high school) to offer turnkey competition through its dashboard.

PlayVS partners with publishers, and lets players sign up, receive team and league schedules, check standings and stats, and actually play the game all within the PlayVS online portal.

PlayVS has a no-cut policy, letting high schools submit as many unique teams as they like. Given that the company makes money from players themselves ($64/season/player), it makes sense that the company would take a ‘the more the merrier’ approach.

The company then divides up those teams into conferences, and the teams play to be conference champions, advance to semi-finals, and eventually head to the state championship. All the games will be played from the students’ own school through the online portal, except for the State Championship tournament which will have a live spectator audience.

This season, which includes five states, gives PlayVS a chance to roll out the platform to a smaller pool of players and work out any issues ahead of the inaugural season, which starts February 2019.

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HQ Trivia nabs Target to sponsor game with biggest ever single winner prize of $100K

Posted by | Apps, games, Gaming, HQ Trivia, Mobile, mobile games, Social, Startups, Target | No Comments

HQ Trivia is aiming to attract more players following a slight decline in downloads with a new, large prize. The company announced today it has bagged Target to sponsor to sponsor a special Emmy-themed game featuring its biggest-ever single winner prize of $100,000. The game will air on Monday, September 17 at 9 PM ET, but will be played in a different fashion than usual.

Typically, HQ Trivia players compete to win or split a cash prize, which often doesn’t amount to much more than enough for a cup of coffee. But this time around, HQ Trivia will run in a “one winner takes all” format, meaning only one individual will earn the winnings from the game.

Instead of a normal 12-question round with 10 second to answer, the game will continue until only one winner remains. Players can still use their extra lives, but only until question number 15. After that, they won’t work.

The game’s content will be Emmy Awards-themed, featuring questions about shows, actors, the Emmy telecast, and other historical facts.

Target is stepping up as the game’s sponsor for this winner-takes-all milestone game. The game itself will also be branded, but the exact nature of the creative is something Target is keeping under wraps for the time being as it’s a first for the retailer.

HQ Trivia has worked with a number of other big-name brands in the past through its game, including Warner Bros, Nike, MillerCoors, National Geographic, Chase, Viacom, and NBCUniversal.

The news of the milestone game comes at a time when HQ Trivia’s downloads have been trending slightly downwards. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reported last month for the app’s Apple TV launch, the iOS version of HQ Trivia had fallen from being the No. 1 U.S. trivia game to No. 10, and the No. 44 game to No. 196.

Today, it’s the No. 135 game and No. 467 Overall app.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the app has 12.8 million downloads across platforms, the majority of which (11M) were this year.

HQ Trivia claims the app continues to have the “largest live audience on mobile daily.”

The company responded at the time that games are a “hits business” and “don’t grow exponentially forever.” Rus Yusupov, CEO of HQ Trivia parent company Intermedia Labs, also noted that HQ was working on new game formats as a result.

Despite the fickle nature of mobile gamers, HQ Trivia has spawned a number of clones and other live games, including Fox’s FN Genius, ProveIt, FameGame, Gravy, MajorityRules, Cash Show, and many others. Even Facebook caught onto the trend, launching its own gameshows platform to support interactive video.

However, it remains to be seen if live game-playing is a lasting interest for mobile gamers, or just a flash in the pan.

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Vtrus launches drones to inspect and protect your warehouses and factories

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Battlefield, Disrupt, disrupt sf 2018, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, Startups, TC | No Comments

Knowing what’s going on in your warehouses and facilities is of course critical to many industries, but regular inspections take time, money, and personnel. Why not use drones? Vtrus uses computer vision to let a compact drone not just safely navigate indoor environments but create detailed 3D maps of them for inspectors and workers to consult, autonomously and in real time.

Vtrus showed off its hardware platform — currently a prototype — and its proprietary SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) software at TechCrunch Disrupt SF as a Startup Battlefield Wildcard company.

There are already some drone-based services for the likes of security and exterior imaging, but Vtrus CTO Jonathan Lenoff told me that those are only practical because they operate with a large margin for error. If you’re searching for open doors or intruders beyond the fence, it doesn’t matter if you’re at 25 feet up or 26. But inside a warehouse or production line every inch counts and imaging has to be carried out at a much finer scale.

As a result, dangerous and tedious inspections, such as checking the wiring on lighting or looking for rust under an elevated walkway, have to be done by people. Vtrus wouldn’t put those people out of work, but it might take them out of danger.

The drone, called the ABI Zero for now, is equipped with a suite of sensors, from ordinary RGB cameras to 360 ones and a structured-light depth sensor. As soon as it takes off, it begins mapping its environment in great detail: it takes in 300,000 depth points 30 times per second, combining that with its other cameras to produce a detailed map of its surroundings.

It uses this information to get around, of course, but the data is also streamed over wi-fi in real time to the base station and Vtrus’s own cloud service, through which operators and inspectors can access it.

The SLAM technique they use was developed in-house; CEO Renato Moreno built and sold a company (to Facebook/Oculus) using some of the principles, but improvements to imaging and processing power have made it possible to do it faster and in greater detail than before. Not to mention on a drone that’s flying around an indoor space full of people and valuable inventory.

On a full charge, ABI can fly for about 10 minutes. That doesn’t sound very impressive, but the important thing isn’t staying aloft for a long time — few drones can do that to begin with — but how quickly it can get back up there. That’s where the special docking and charging mechanism comes in.

The Vtrus drone lives on and returns to a little box, which when a tapped-out craft touches down, sets off a patented high-speed charging process. It’s contact-based, not wireless, and happens automatically. The drone can then get back in the air perhaps half an hour or so later, meaning the craft can actually be in the air for as much as six hours a day total.

Probably anyone who has had to inspect or maintain any kind of building or space bigger than a studio apartment can see the value in getting frequent, high-precision updates on everything in that space, from storage shelving to heavy machinery. You’d put in an ABI for every X square feet depending on what you need it to do; they can access each other’s data and combine it as well.

This frequency and the detail which which the drone can inspect and navigate means maintenance can become proactive rather than reactive — you see rust on a pipe or a hot spot on a machine during the drone’s hourly pass rather than days later when the part fails. And if you don’t have an expert on site, the full 3D map and even manual drone control can be handed over to your HVAC guy or union rep.

You can see lots more examples of ABI in action at the Vtrus website. Way too many to embed here.

Lenoff, Moreno, and third co-founder Carlos Sanchez, who brings the industrial expertise to the mix, explained that their secret sauce is really the software — the drone itself is pretty much off the shelf stuff right now, tweaked to their requirements. (The base is an original creation, of course.)

But the software is all custom built to handle not just high-resolution 3D mapping in real time but the means to stream and record it as well. They’ve hired experts to build those systems as well — the 6-person team already sounds like a powerhouse.

The whole operation is self-funded right now, and the team is seeking investment. But that doesn’t mean they’re idle: they’re working with major companies already and operating a “pilotless” program (get it?). The team has been traveling the country visiting facilities, showing how the system works, and collecting feedback and requests. It’s hard to imagine they won’t have big clients soon.

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Robinhood aims at IPO as the fintech startup seeks CFO

Posted by | Apps, baiju bhatt, cryptocurrency, disrupt sf 2018, Exit, Fundings & Exits, initial public offering, IPO, Mobile, Robinhood, Startups, TC | No Comments

Now valued at $5.6 billion, zero-fee stock trading app and cryptocurrency exchange Robinhood is starting preparations to go public. Just a year and a half ago, it was still largely under the radar. But then it raised a $110 million Series C at a $1.3 billion valuation in April 2017 and then just a year later scored a $363 million Series D, both led by Russian firm DST Global. Combined with the growth of its premium subscription for trading on margin called Robinhood Gold, the startup now has the firepower and revenue to make a viable Wall Street debut.

Today during Robinhood CEO Baiju Bhatt’s talk at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, he revealed that his company is on the path to an IPO and has begun its search for a chief financial officer. It’s also undergoing constant audits from the SEC, FINRA and its security team to make sure everything is kosher and locked up tight.

The CFO hire could help the five-year-old Silicon Valley startup pitch itself as the cheaper youthful alternative to E*Trade and traditional stock brokers. They’d also have to convince potential investors that even though cryptocurrency prices are in a downturn, allowing people to trade them for cheaper than competitors like Coinbase is a powerful user acquisition funnel.

Robinhood now has 5 million customers tracking, buying and selling stocks, options, ETFs, American depositary slips receipts of international companies and cryptos like Bitcoin and Ethereum. That’s twice as many customers as its incumbent competitor E*Trade despite it having 4,000 employees compared to Robinhood’s 250.

The startup has raised a total of $539 million to date from prestigious investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia and Google’s Capital G, allowing it to rapidly roll out products before its rivals can react. This rapid rise in valuation can go to some founders’ heads, or crush them under the pressure, but Bhatt cited “friendship” with his co-CEO Vlad Tenev as what keeps him sane.

The startup has three main monetization streams. First, it earns interest on money users keep in their Robinhood account. Second, it sells order flow to stock exchanges that want more liquidity for their traders. And it sells Robinhood Gold subscriptions which range from $10 per month for $2,000 in extra buying power to $200 per month for $50,000 in margin trading, with a 5 percent APR charged for borrowing over that. Gold was growing its subscriber count at 17 percent per month earlier this year, showing the potential of giving trades away for free and then charging for extra services.

But Robinhood is also encountering renewed competition as both startups and incumbents wise up. European banking app Revolut is building a commission-free stock trading, and Y Combinator startup Titan just launched its app that lets you buy into a  managed portfolio of top stocks. Finance giant JP Morgan now gives customers 100 free trades in hopes of not being undercut by Robinhood.

Over on the crypto side, Coinbase continues to grow in popularity despite its 1.4 percent to 4 percent fees on trades. It’s rapidly expanding its product offering and the two fintech startups are destined to keep clashing. Robinhood may also be suffering from the crypto downturn, which is likely dissuading the mainstream public from dumping cash into tokens after seeing people lose fortunes as Bitcoin and Ethereum’s prices tumbled this year.

There’s also the persistent risk of a security breach that could tank Robinhood’s brand. Meanwhile, the startup uses both human and third-party software-based systems to moderate its crypto chat rooms to make sure pump and dump schemes aren’t running rampant. Bhatt says he’s proud of making cryptocurrency more accessible, though he didn’t say he felt responsible for prices plummeting, which could mean many of Robinhood Crypto’s users have lost money.

Fundamentally, Robinhood is using software to make the common but expensive behavior of stock trading much cheaper and more accessible to a wider audience. Traditional banks and brokers have big costs for offices and branches, trading execs and TV commercials. Robinhood has managed to replace much of that with a lean engineering team and viral app that grows itself. Once it finds its CFO, that could give it an efficiency and growth rate that has Wall Street seeing green.

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PoLTE lets you track devices using LTE signal

Posted by | Battlefield, Developer, Disrupt, disrupt sf, disrupt sf 2018, Enterprise, Gadgets, PoLTE, Startups | No Comments

Meet PoLTE, a Dallas-based startup that wants to make location-tracking more efficient. Thanks to PoLTE’s software solution, logistics and shipment companies can much more easily track packages and goods. The startup is participating in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF.

If you want to use a connected device to track a package, you currently need a couple of things — a way to determine the location of the package, and a way to transmit this information over the air. The most straightforward way of doing it is by using a GPS chipset combined with a cellular chipset.

Systems-on-chip have made this easier as they usually integrate multiple modules. You can get a GPS signal and wireless capabilities in the same chip. While GPS is insanely accurate, it also requires a ton of battery just to position a device on a map. That’s why devices often triangulate your position using Wi-Fi combined with a database of Wi-Fi networks and their positions.

And yet, using GPS or Wi-Fi as well as an LTE modem doesn’t work if you want to track a container over multiple weeks or months. At some point, your device will run out of battery. Or you’ll have to spend a small fortune to buy a ton of trackers with big batteries.

PoLTE has developed a software solution that lets you turn data from the cell modem into location information. It works with existing modems and only requires a software update. The company has been working with Riot Micro for instance.

Behind the scene PoLTE’s magic happens on their servers. IoT devices don’t need to do any of the computing. They just need to send a tiny sample of LTE signals and PoLTE can figure out the location from their servers. Customers can then get this data using an API.

It only takes 300 bytes of data to get location information with precision of less than a few meters. You don’t need a powerful CPU, Wi-Fi, GPS or Bluetooth.

“We offer 80 percent cost reduction on IoT devices together with longer battery life,” CEO Ed Chao told me.

On the business side, PoLTE is using a software-as-a-service model. You can get started for free if you don’t need a lot of API calls. You then start paying depending on the size of your fleet of devices and the number of location requests.

It doesn’t really matter if the company finds a good business opportunity. PoLTE is a low-level technology company at heart. Its solution is interesting by itself and could help bigger companies that are looking for an efficient location-tracking solution.


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Stealthy wants to become the WeChat of blockchain apps

Posted by | Apps, Battlefield, blockchain, disrupt sf 2018, messaging, Mobile, Social, Startups, Stealthy | No Comments

Meet Stealthy a new messaging app that leverages Blockstack’s decentralized application platform to build a messaging app. The company is participating in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF and launching its app on iOS and Android today.

On the surface, Stealthy works like many messaging apps out there. But it gets interesting once you start digging to understand the protocol behind it. Stealthy is a decentralized platform with privacy in mind. It could become the glue that makes various decentralized applications stick together.

“We started Stealthy because Blockstack had a global hackathon in December of last year,” co-founder Prabhaav Bhardwaj told me. “We won that hackathon in February.” After that, the #deletefacebook movement combined with the overall decentralization trend motivated Bhardwaj and Alex Carreira to ship the app.

Blockstack manages your identity. You get an ID and a 12-word passphrase to recover your account. Blockstack creates a blockchain record for each new user. You use your Blockstack ID to connect to Stealthy.

Stealthy users then choose how they want to store their messages. You can connect your account with Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc.

Every time you message someone, the message is first encrypted on your device and sent to your recipient’s cloud provider. Your recipient can then open the Stealthy app and decrypt the message from their storage system.

All of this is seamless for the end user. It works like an iMessage conversation, which means that Microsoft or Amazon can’t open and read your messages without your private key. You remain in control of your data. Stealthy plans to open source their protocol and mobile product so that anybody can audit their code.

Some features require a certain level of centralization. For instance, Stealthy relies on Firebase for push notifications. If you’re uncomfortable with that, you can disable that feature.

The company also wants to become your central hub for all sorts of decentralized apps (or dapps for short). For instance, you can launch Graphite Docs or Blockusign from Stealty. Those dapps are built on top of Blockstack as well, but Stealthy plans to integrate with other dapps that don’t work on Blockstack.

“We have dapp integrations in place right now and we want to make it easier to add dapp integrations. If somebody wants to come in and start selling messaging stickers, you could do that. If you want to come in and implement a payment system to pay bloggers, you could do that,” Bhardwaj said. “Eventually, what we want to be is to make it as easy as submitting an app in the App Store.”

When you build a digital product, chances are you’ll end up adding a messaging feature at some point. You can chat in Google Docs, Airbnb, Venmo, YouTube… And the same is likely to be true with dapps. Stealthy believes that many developers could benefit from a solid communication infrastructure — this way, other companies can focus on their core products and let Stealthy handle the communication layer.

Stealthy is an ambitious company. In many ways, the startup is trying to build a decentralized WeChat with the encryption features of Signal. It’s a messaging app, but it’s also a platform for many other use cases.

A handful of messaging apps have become so powerful that they’ve become a weakness. Governments can block them or leverage them to create a social ranking. Authorities can get a warrant to ask tech companies to hand them data. And of course, the top tech companies have become too powerful. More decentralization is always a good thing.


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