Smile! You’re on camera. At least, your license plate is.
You might have heard of automatic license plate recognition — known as ALPR (or ANPR in the U.K. for number plates). These cameras are dotted across the U.S., and are controlled mostly by police departments and government agencies to track license plates — and people — from place to place. In doing so, they can reveal where you live, where you go and who you see. Considered a massive invasion of privacy by many and legally questionable by some, there are tens of thousands of ALPR readers across the U.S. collectively reading and recording thousand of license plates — and locations — every minute, the ACLU says, becoming one of the new and emerging forms of mass surveillance in the U.S.
But some cameras are connected to the internet, and are easily identifiable. Worse, some are leaking sensitive data about vehicles and their drivers — and many have weak security protections that make them easily accessible.
Security researchers have been warning for years that ALPR devices are exposed and all too often accessible from the internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation found in 2015 dozens of exposed devices in its own investigation not long after Boston’s entire ALPR network was found exposed, thanks to a server security lapse.
But in the three years past, little has changed.
In the course of a week, TechCrunch found more than 150 ALPR devices from several manufacturers connected to and searchable on the internet. Many ALPR cameras were entirely exposed or would have been easily accessible with little effort. Of the ALPR cameras we identified, the majority had a default password documented in its support guides. (We didn’t use any of the passwords, as that would be unlawful.)
“It doesn’t surprise us to hear that the problems are still ongoing,” said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “What we tend to find is that law enforcement will get sold this technology and see it as a one-time investment, but don’t invest in cybersecurity to protect the information or the devices themselves.”
Darius Freamon, a security researcher, was one of the first to find police ALPR cameras in 2014 on Shodan, a search engine for exposed databases and devices.
Freamon found one then-popular model of ALPR cameras, the P372, a license plate reader built and released by PIPS Technology in 2004. Back then, its default password wasn’t a major hazard. But today, a dozen devices are still viewable on Shodan. Although the web interfaces are locked down in most cases, many of these devices allow unauthenticated access through its telnet port — allowing to run commands on the device without a password at all, giving access to each device’s database of collected license plates.
We also found more than a dozen ALPR cameras in use by police in California, given away by their hidden Wi-Fi network name but still cached by Shodan. Two ALPR servers by Texas-based firm MissionALPR were found online at the time of writing. And, we also found more than 80 separate Genetec-built AutoVu SharpV devices — including two previously discovered license plate readers “as-a-service” device each in Washington and California. (Genetec said that only its setup process has a default password, and users are required to change the password on setup.) And, many of the ALPR cameras found independently years ago — even as far back as 2012 — are still online.
The list goes on and on.
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It’s not just police using ALPR services. Private companies, like large campuses and universities, also invest heavily in ALPR, but are unaware of the risks associated with storing massive amounts of data.
“In California, you’re responsible under state law to maintain reasonable security practices to protect against unauthorized access,” said Maass. “If it turns out that somebody is harmed because they put a license plate reader up and it didn’t have basic security like password protections, that person can be on the hook for punitive damages.”
We asked several ALPR device makers, including PIPS and MissionALPR, if they still produce devices with default passwords and if they offer advice to their customers with legacy equipment, but besides Genetec, no other ALPR device manufacturer commented or answered our questions prior to publication.
“Genetec has no access to the user-defined passwords and the only way to access the camera in case of a lost password is to do a factory reset,” said a spokesperson.
While many ALPR cameras — like the devices built and sold by PIPS and Genetec — are hardware-based, many cheaper or homebrew systems rely on an internet-connected webcam and cheap or free license plate recognition software, like OpenALPR, that runs separately on top. OpenALPR doesn’t have a default password (though many are still searchable online), but it is open source, making it free to download and cheap to operate.
But it means that now any camera can be an ALPR camera.
Case in point: When police in the city of Orinda, near San Francisco, began installing non-ALPR motion-activated cameras by Reconyx, investigative reporters at NBC’s Bay Area team were able to obtain with a single public records request more than five million photos in a three-month period from the city’s 13 cameras. A local resident then used free ALPR software to turn the images into a searchable database of license plates.
There’s a fine line between using technology to fight crime and creepily surveilling your neighbors. But device makers can — and will soon have to — do more to protect their devices from hacking — or simply leaking data.
Starting next year, California law will ban internet-connected devices manufactured or sold in the state if they contain a weak or default password that isn’t unique to each device. Not only does that protect against hacking, it prevents easy hijacking from powerful, network crippling botnets.
Until then, assume that if it’s connected to the internet, it’s not as secure as it could be.
Shodan Safari, where hackers heckle the worst devices put on the internet
Hollywood’s highest-profile lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America, has announced the addition of a new member: Netflix.
The trade group’s membership includes the major Hollywood studios, including Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. Netflix is the first internet streaming service to join.
To regular moviegoers, the MPAA is probably best-known (to the extent it’s known at all) for its occasionally mystifying ratings system, but the group actively lobbies for the studios on a range of issues.
The news underlines the ways in which Netflix is increasingly becoming a part of the Hollywood establishment — or at least, finds its interests aligned with that establishment. (The company recently departed another trade group, the Internet Association.) This comes just a few hours after Netflix scored a record 15 Oscar nominations, including its first for Best Picture.
In fact, Politico (which first broke the news) notes that Netflix and Amazon have already been pushing alongside MPAA members for anti-piracy measures, as part of the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment.
One Netflix practice that remains controversial is its resistance to windowing — in other words, giving its films an exclusive theatrical release before making them available for streaming. While the company has softened its stance somewhat, allowing “Roma” and other titles to have a brief period of theatrical exclusivity, this wasn’t enough for the major theater chains, which refused to show the films. However, the MPAA mostly stays out of those discussions.
“On behalf of the MPAA and its member companies, I am delighted to welcome Netflix as a partner,” said MPAA chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin in a statement. “All of our members are committed to pushing the film and television industry forward, in both how we tell stories and how we reach audiences. Adding Netflix will allow us to even more effectively advocate for the global community of creative storytellers, and I look forward to seeing what we can all achieve together.”
Netflix’s ‘Roma’ nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and director
Video game revenue in 2018 reached a new peak of $43.8 billion, up 18 percent from the previous years, surpassing the projected total global box office for the film industry, according to new data released by the Entertainment Software Association and The NPD Group.
Preliminary indicators for global box office revenues published at the end of last year indicated that revenue from ticket sales at box offices around the world would hit $41.7 billion, according to comScore data reported by Deadline Hollywood.
The $43.8 billion tally also surpasses numbers for streaming services, which are estimated to rake in somewhere around $28.8 billion for the year, according to a report in Multichannel News.
Video games and related content have become the new source of entertainment for a generation — and it’s something that has new media moguls like Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings concerned. In the company’s most recent shareholder letter, Netflix said that Fortnite was more of a threat to its business than TimeWarner’s HBO.
“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”
Netflix thinks ‘Fortnite’ is a bigger threat than HBO
“The impressive economic growth of the industry announced today parallels the growth of the industry in mainstream American culture,” said acting ESA president and CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis, in a statement. “Across the nation, we count people of all backgrounds and stages of life among our most passionate video game players and fans. Interactive entertainment stands today as the most influential form of entertainment in America.”
Gains came from across the spectrum of the gaming industry. Console and personal computing, mobile gaming, all saw significant growth, according to Mat Piscatella, a video games industry analyst for The NPD Group.
According to the report, hardware and peripherals and software revenue increased from physical and digital sales, in-game purchases and subscriptions.
U.S. Video Game Industry Revenue
Hardware, including peripherals
Software, including in-game purchases and subscriptions
Source: The NPD Group, Sensor Tower
Oracle has allegedly withheld $400 million in wages from racially underrepresented workers (black, Latinx and Asian) as well as women, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs said in a filing today. The OFCCP is the office within the DOL that enforces equal pay and ensures government contractors comply with anti-discrimination regulation.
In the OFCCP’s second amended complaint today, the office alleges Oracle “impermissibly denies equal employment opportunity to non-Asian applicants for employment, strongly preferring a workforce that it can later underpay. Once employed, women, Blacks and Asians are systematically underpaid relative to their peers,” the complaint alleges.
Allegedly, Oracle’s underpayment of certain employees is driven by the company’s reliance on prior salary information and funneling non-white, non-male employees into lower-paid roles.
The department argues that Oracle’s “stark patterns of discrimination” started back in 2013 and continues into the present day. More specifically, the OFCCP alleges Oracle discriminated against black, Asian and female employees. This has all ultimately resulted in the collective loss of more than $400 million for this group of employees, the suit alleges.
The office also alleges Oracle discriminates against those who have visas, often putting them in low-level jobs. The vast majority of hires from Oracle’s college recruiting program, the suit alleges, were international students with student visas.
“These students required work authorization to remain in the United States after graduation,” the suit alleges. “In other words, Oracle overwhelmingly hires workers dependent upon Oracle for sponsorship to remain in the United States.”
The OFCCP filed the suit against Oracle last January, following the Labor Department’s 2014 audit of the company. That suit was followed by an employee-led class-action lawsuit last September alleging Oracle pays women less than men in similar jobs.
Oracle is subject to auditing as a result of its contracts with the federal government. Given Oracle’s agreement to provide equal employment opportunity, the OFCCP is asking the Court to require Oracle to pay those affected and correct its “discriminatory compensation and hiring practices.” The office is also demanding that Oracle lose its $100 million worth of annual contracts with the government.
Oracle, which declined to comment for this story, is not the only company the OFCCP has gone after. A couple of years ago, the office went after Google in an attempt to obtain compensation data, followed by a claim that Google has systemic gender-based pay inequities. That same year, the office sued Palantir for racial discrimination. Palantir, several months later, settled with the DOL, agreeing to pay $1.7 million in back wages and other types of monetary relief to those affected.
Okta, the Nasdaq-listed cloud identity management company, has recruited former Charles Schwab chief marketing officer Becky Saeger to its board of directors. The latest appointment comes one month after the company named Shellye Archambeau, former chief executive officer of MetricStream, to its board.
Saeger becomes Okta’s third female board member. Michelle Wilson, a former senior vice president and general counsel at Amazon, joined the company’s board in 2015. According to data collected by Women on Boards, women hold just over 17 percent of corporate board seats, up from 16.0 percent in 2017.
“A board is there for a few reasons,” Okta co-founder and CEO Todd McKinnon told TechCrunch. “One is to oversee a company’s management and strategy. A company like Okta is in a fast-growing industry and there is too much of a tendency for groupthink. You need someone around you to question the basis of what you’re thinking about.”
McKinnon has spoken openly about his commitment to diversity. In a letter to employees in early 2017, for example, he denounced President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on refugee admissions to the U.S. “Diversity of thought and experience are fundamental values at Okta, that includes religious beliefs, gender diversity, sexual orientation and political views,” he wrote. “No matter who you voted for, our opposition to this policy is not just about our business — it is also about our belief in the American freedoms and protections that have made our country so innovative and accepting of those most in need.”
Okta’s C-suite, though majority male, includes chief customer officer Krista Anderson-Copperman, executive vice president and chief of staff Angela Grady, and chief people officer Kristina Johnson.
Saeger, who McKinnon chose for her marketing and financial services acumen, also sits on the board of E*TRADE, an online broker.
“I am excited about the notion that as this company grows and evolves, the brand can become more visible and more meaningful,” Saeger told TechCrunch.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Okta debuted on the stock exchange in April 2017, closing up 38 percent on its first day of trading.
M. Umair Siddiqui
M. Umair Siddiqui, PhD is the chief scientist of Phase Four.
In case you missed it, space is being democratized — and quickly.
Last November, from a sheep farm in New Zealand, California-based Rocket Lab launched six payloads via their “It’s Business Time” small Electron rocket.
The successful launch brings Rocket Lab one step closer to their goal of “super-frequent small payload deliveries.”
Indeed, one of the satellites on board was built by high school students from Irvine, Calif.’s CubeSat STEM program.
But it’s not just students and hobbyists in their garages toying with Estes model rockets anymore. The new space economy is here, and it’s here because of very recent advances in launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite technologies. This renewed “Right Stuff” dynamism has startups chasing the next Cream Soda computer, which just might become an Apple Inc. space equivalent.
The visionary future for the space economy will be driven by new mass-market technologies and manufactured on a large scale.
Most people would agree that it was largely SpaceX that paved the way for this new era. But what did SpaceX get right, and what are some of the unmet opportunities other ventures are beginning to address?
SpaceX and the blueprint
As one would imagine, there are substantial expenses and manufacturing constraints behind the scenes of large rocket launches.
According to Forbes, each SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs $50 million. Compare that now to the Electron that Rocket Lab just launched, which costs $5.7 million.
For a short time with the Falcon 1, the company delved into developing smaller rockets that could lift up to 1,500 pounds. The opportunity to corner the market was there a decade ago, but SpaceX abandoned that program in favor of rockets with heavier payloads.
One of the companies picking up where SpaceX leaves off is Vector, whose CEO Jim Cantrell worked with Musk in the early days of the company. However, Cantrell acknowledges that “Elon and SpaceX have lowered the cost of building these rockets by at least 50 times what the government’s done.”
In SpaceX’s current state, the sheer number of different components and extensive design iterations make their large rocket development much too complex to be mass manufactured.
Additionally, there is an extremely large footprint required. For example, this year, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a 19-acre facility for SpaceX to develop its BFR rocket and spaceship system on a large parcel at the Port of Los Angeles. But don’t knock the hustle — after all, the goal of the BFR rocket is to literally colonize Mars.
The challenge is that SpaceX’s facility size, operational requirements and lack of portability don’t address the automation needed for the emerging smallsat and renewable propulsion market, whose leaders envision the equivalent of a food truck being stationed at a customer’s headquarters, cranking out spacetech products in real time.
NASA defines smallsats as satellites of low mass that can vary in shape and size and are less than 180 kilograms, which is about the size of a large refrigerator. By comparison, the satellites designed for megaconstellations and currently being used by constellation explorers OneWeb and SpaceX have been reported to vary from 110 kilograms up to 6 metric tons, the size of a city bus.
Automation is mainly about improving process [repetition], avoiding human error and making manufacturing easy and fast, so you have the right take time. — Eric de Saintignon, COO, OneWeb, in reference to time between production starts.
In order to achieve their larger goal of making interplanetary space travel more affordable, SpaceX had to embark upon the design, manufacturing and assembly of a next-gen rocket. With decades-old Space Shuttle technologies still in use by NASA, this required an inordinate amount of R&D — in both engineering and manufacturing.
Beginning in 2002, SpaceX would go on to streamline the rocket manufacturing efficiency process, identify cost-saving strategies and trim the timeline for delivery. It got better every time, and that was the goal, as Elon Musk opined in 2014: “you’re really left with one key parameter against which technology improvements must be judged, and that’s cost.”
SpaceX also established component sourcing not reliant on third-party manufacturers. Between 80-90 percent of SpaceX rocket materials are manufactured in-house, a key move to reduce lead time. The use of a Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in the hangar of Cape Canaveral’s 39A launch pad assembles components manufactured at their Hawthorne, Calif. factory, minimizing unnecessary travel and ensuring quality control.
With their first re-flight occurring in 2017, another important area SpaceX innovated within was developing the first reusable launch system. The science behind these technologies is being simplified by smaller reusable and electric propulsion companies.
What’s in store next for satellite propulsion: the engine of the space economy
The latest figure circulated by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation was that the global space economy (both private industry revenues and government budgets) is upwards of $345 billion, and growing rapidly. Of this aggregation, more than 76 percent of the capital was the revenue generated by public and private companies.
The FCC also estimates that in the next five years, 8,811 satellites will be launched, of which 60 percent will be from the smallsat category.
Lowering the costs and manufacturing process of both constellations and propulsion technologies will bring a handful of new entrants into the fold. Their goals are concrete: simple, scalable and affordable new products, but high-performance nonetheless.
And yes, utilizing these Toyota Camry-type efficiencies will mean significant ROI for launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite manufacturing companies and investors.
By continually resourcing best practices from wholesale industries like automotive, medical and consumer electronics, these new private entrants will create low-cost and scalable technologies that will be the catalysts for humanity’s future in space.
Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.
Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.
“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”
Of course, dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?
There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.
Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.
He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.
But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack has already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.
“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion-dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the U.S.
Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled Ventures led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told, the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place, it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.
“Ubiquitilink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”
I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.
Google, as well as many other companies, has long relied on Wikipedia for its content. Now, Google and Google.org are giving back.
Google.org President Jacquelline Fuller today announced a $2 million contribution to the Wikimedia Endowment. An additional $1.1 million donation went to the Wikimedia Foundation, courtesy of a campaign where Google employees decided where to direct Google’s donation dollars. The Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia, while the Endowment is the fund.
“Google and Wikimedia each play a unique role in an internet that works for and reflects the diversity of its users,” the Wikimedia Foundation wrote in a blog post. “We look forward to continuing our work with Google in close collaboration with our communities around the world.”
In addition to the donation, Google and Wikipedia are expanding Project Tiger, an initiative to expand the content on Wikipedia into additional languages. The pilot program has already increased the amount of locally relevant content in 12 Indic languages. With the expansion, the goal is to include 10 more languages.
“While efforts to empower editors will help them continue to add more information and knowledge to the web, we also aim to support the long-term health of the Wikimedia projects so they are available for generations to come,” Fuller wrote in a blog post.
In March, Google’s YouTube decided to try to combat conspiracy videos with information sourced from Wikipedia. At the time, Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher noted it’d be nice if the corporations that use Wikipedia would give back.
“We want people all over the world to use, share, add to, and remix Wikipedia,” Maher said at the time. “At the same time, we encourage companies who use Wikimedia’s content to give back in the spirit of sustainability.”
Google has made contributions to Wikimedia before — to the sum of more than $7.5 million in total. In 2010, for example, Google gave a $2 million grant to the Wikimedia Foundation. But this is the first time Google has donated to the Wikimedia Endowment, which supports Wikimedia’s long-term success.
It’s worth noting that Google is not the only corporation that has given back to the Wikimedia Foundation. Late last year, Amazon, acknowledging how its Alexa voice assistants rely heavily on information from Wikipedia, donated $1 million to the Wikimedia Endowment.
As we get ready for TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI on April 18 at UC Berkeley, we can’t help but look back at last year’s robotics event. With more than 1,000 attendees, thought-provoking panels and cutting-edge demos, 2018’s TC Sessions: Robotics was pretty great.
We’ve compiled some highlights of some of our favorite moments from last year to whet your appetite for 2019’s current speaker lineup. Check out the highlights below and be sure to grab your Early-Bird ticket for this April’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.
The Best Robots on Four Legs
Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced onstage that the company’s 66-pound SpotMini robot will be available for purchase by the normals in 2019. Yes, one day you, too, will be able to have a dog robot perform services for you at the office or home.
Getting a Grip on Reality: Deep Learning and Robot Grasping
It turns out grasping objects is really hard for a robot. According to Ken Goldberg, professor and chair of the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department, it’s about forces and torques. He and TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino also discussed what Goldberg calls “fog robotics.” Goldberg differentiates it from “cloud robotics” in that “you don’t want to do everything in the cloud because of latency issues and bandwidth limitations, quality of service — and there are also very interesting issues about privacy and security with robotics.”
Teaching Intelligent Machines
Nvidia is working to help developers create robots and artificial intelligent systems. Vice president of Engineering Claire Delaunay discussed how the company is creating the tools to help democratize the creation of future robotics.
The Future of the Robot Operating System
Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise joined fellow Willow Garage ex-pats Brian Gerkey and Morgan Quigley to discuss Open Robotics’ Robot Operating System (ROS) efforts. The team is working to design and maintain an open and consistent framework for a broad range of different robotic systems.
Eyes, Ears and Data: Robot Sensors and GPUs
Nvidia vice president Deepu Talla discussed how the chipmaker is making a central play in the AI and deep learning technologies that will drive robots, drones and autonomous vehicles of the future.
Teaching Robots New Tricks with AI
Pieter Abbeel is the director of the UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab and co-founder of AI software company, covariant.ai. In a broad ranging discussion, Abbeel described the techniques his lab is using to teach robots how to better interact in human settings through repetition, simulation and learning from their own trial and error.
Venture Investing in Robotics
Renata Quintini of Lux Capital, Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures and Chris Evdemon of Sinovation Ventures all discussed the excitement around startups venturing into the robotics industry, but were also quite candid about the difficulty faced by robotics founders who are unfamiliar with a particular industry that they hope could reshape their innovation.
Agility Robotics demonstration of Cassie
Agility Robotics’ bipedal humanoid robot was designed with bird legs in mind. But it wasn’t yet designed with arms. The company’s CTO Jonathan Hurst says those are to come. It’ll cost you $35,000 when it’s in full production mode. Custom deliveries started in August 2017 to a select few universities — University of Michigan, Harvard, Caltech and Berkeley. Although we didn’t see an example of this application, Cassie can apparently hold the body weight of a reasonably sized human.
The Future of Transportation
Chris Urmson has been in the self-driving car game for a long time. He joined Google’s self-driving car team in 2009, becoming head of the project four years later. These days, he’s the CEO of Aurora, a startup that has logged a lot of hours testing its own self-driving tech on the roads. Urmson discussed the safety concerns around the technology and how far out we are from self-driving ubiquity.
Building Stronger Humans
The BackX, LegX and ShoulderX from SuitX serve to minimize the stress we humans tend to place on our joints. We saw the application of these modules onstage. But infinitely more impressive during the conversation with company co-founder Homayoon Kazerooni was the application the audience saw of the company’s exoskeleton. Arash Bayatmakou fell from a balcony in 2012, which resulted in paralysis. He was told he would never walk again. Five years later, Arash connected with SuitX, and he has been working with a physical therapist to use the device to perform four functions: stand, sit and walk forward and backward. You can follow his recovery here.
Grab your Early-Bird Tickets to TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI today before prices increase, and check out the latest news about this year’s event here.
This is not earth-shattering news by any means, but Google today announced that Gmail is getting a strikethrough button in its formatting bar. In addition, it’s also getting Undo/Redo options and the ability to download emails as .EML files.
There really isn’t much more to be said about this, but if you ever wanted to use strikethrough in an email to show that you edited something out, then your time has come. Same for those of you who always wanted to see undo and redo buttons in Gmail because you keep forgetting the keyboard shortcuts for those.
The new features are now rolling out to all G Suite users and should be available to all of them within the next three days. Chances are users of the free version of Gmail will see them very soon, too.
Latin America is getting another fintech unicorn thanks to Advent International’s acquisition of a 51 percent stake of Prisma Medios de Pago, an Argentine payments company formed as a joint venture between Visa International and local banks.
The deal, which values Prisma at $1.42 billion, is yet another sign of Latin America’s growing prominence for global investment and the central role that fintech plays in the development of an innovation economy in the region.
Prisma Medios de Pago is the leading payments company in Argentina, and one of the largest in Latin America, with a full suite of services including point-of-sale hardware rental, e-commerce gateways, transaction processing, payments processing and electronic bill pay.
Its newest business line, TodoPago, offers peer-to-peer payments, mobile wallets, point of sale offerings, QR code payments and e-commerce payments to merchants.
Across Latin America, fintech startups have hit billion-dollar valuations and raised hundreds of millions as investors vie for a piece of the region’s growing e-commerce and financial services markets.
Brazil’s StoneCo Ltd., a provider of payment technology and services, is worth more than $6 billion after its October 2019 initial public offering. It’s a decline from the $9 billion pop the company had back when it debuted on the Nasdaq, but still represents a healthy valuation for the Latin American technology company.
Waiting in the wings are companies like Brazil’s NuBank, which reached a $4 billion valuation last year on the strength of a significant investment from the Chinese technology giant, Tencent.
Nubank is now worth $4 billion after Tencent’s $180 million investment
At the time, company co-founders Cristina Junqueira and David Velez said the opportunity for financial services startups to achieve significant scale was far higher in emerging markets like Brazil than in developed markets, because the barriers to banking are so much higher.
Financial services, Velez said, has been controlled by massive oligopolies that have erected unfair obstacles to wealth creation for the masses. Nubank and other companies like it are working to change that.
An article from Fintech Futures last year outlined just how large the opportunity was for Latin America. In 2018, roughly half the population of Latin America was unbanked. In Brazil, about 40 percent of the country have no access to traditional banking services and its small businesses face a credit gap of $237 billion, according to a McKinsey study cited by Fintech Futures.
Investment in fintech has soared alongside the opportunity. Two years ago, fintech investment on the continent nearly hit $600 million, and public offerings like Stone and PagSeguro point to public market appetite for the sector.
Zynga founder Mark Pincus is raising up to $700 million for a new investment fund that will focus on publicly traded tech companies in need of strategic restructuring, according to a new report in Axios. It says his new firm is called Reinvent Capital and that Pincus is founding the outfit with hedge fund manager Michael Thompson, who has been steering his own New York-based firm, BHR Capital, for the last nine years.
Reinvest’s plans, says Axios, involve investing in up to 15 internet, software and media companies, adding that the firm will be “size agnostic,” working with small, medium and large-cap companies.
Pincus has been a founder and operator since graduating from Harvard Business School in the early 1990s, co-founding an early internet company called FreeLoader, a web-based push technology service that sold a couple of years later to a now-defunct public company. Pincus went on to co-found SupportSoft, a pioneer in tech support and cloud services, then to create an early social network called Tribe.net, before founding the social gaming company Zynga in the spring of 2007.
The company went public in 2011 at a $7 billion valuation. Seen as vulnerable to competition and to the whims of Facebook, whose rules had already changed in ways that hurt Zynga leading into its IPO, its shares began slipping almost immediately. Today, the market cap of the company — where Pincus remains non-executive chairman after twice stepping into and out of top management roles — is $3.7 billion.
That Pincus would become a full-time investor is less surprising than the stage of companies he will reportedly be targeting. Pincus has long been an active investor, though typically (as far as we know) taking very early stakes in companies. Among his most recent seed-stage bets, for example, is Spatial, a roughly year-old, Emeryville, Calif.-based cross-reality collaboration platform that turns rooms into 3D workspaces and which raised $8 million in seed funding last fall, including from Pincus, along with numerous other individual investors and early-stage venture firms.
Another is Invisible, a New York-based company that says it can help customers outsource their work (professional and personal) to real humans via AI, and which raised $2.6 million in seed funding last fall.
A third recent and slightly later-stage bet centers on Cargo Systems, a 2.5-year-old, New York-based startup that helps ridesharing drivers earn money by bringing the convenience store into their vehicles and that raised $22 million in Series A funding led by Founders Fund back in September.
In fact, Pincus appears to have generated much of his wealth via one very early bet on Facebook. According to tech journalist David Kirkpatrick’s book, “The Facebook Effect,” Pincus, alongside his longtime friend Reid Hoffman, had written an early $40,000 check to the company. When Facebook went public, Pincus reportedly sold roughly one million shares, about a fifth of his stake at the time, for what was expected to be $35 million in pre-tax dollars.
Hoffman, who famously co-founded LinkedIn and is today a partner with the venture firm Greylock Partners, is reportedly advising Reinvent Capital. It’s just the latest effort on which the two are teaming up.
In the summer of 2017, Pincus and Hoffman announced an effort called Win the Future, or WTF, that aimed to be a “new movement and force within the Democratic Party,” Pincus told the outlet Recode at the time. Designed to be equal parts platform and movement, it began life by allowing site visitors to vote on topics like whether or not engineering degrees should be free to all Americans. The site no longer features much at all, other than a descriptor as a “non partisan project lab.”
Hoffman more recently landed in hot water after it was learned that he had indirectly contributed funding to a deceptive social media campaign aimed at helping Democratic candidate Doug Jones win Alabama’s state senate race in 2017. Jones won narrowly; Hoffman said he had no knowledge of the project, did not endorse its tactics, and that he “categorically” disavows the use of misinformation to sway a campaign.
We reached out to Pincus earlier today to learn more. We hope to have more information for you soon.