If you live in San Francisco, you have probably noticed the plethora of bikes and electric scooters. Now, Motivate is expanding the Ford GoBike program in San Francisco to include pedal-assist bikes. Motivate announced the upcoming launch back in January.
Motivate will start with just 250 e-bikes in the initial launch period. Anyone who has a Ford GoBike membership can unlock the bikes with the public transit Clipper card or via Ford’s GoBike app at no additional cost. With the e-bikes, people can ride at speeds up to 18 mph, which makes it legal to ride in bike lanes.
These bikes work by giving the rider a bit of a power boost while pedaling. Ford’s deployment of pedal assist bikes comes a couple of months after JUMP launched in San Francisco. Uber has since acquired JUMP for about $200 million.
After taking one out for a spin up some hills yesterday, it’s clear that existing Ford GoBike customers are going to like them. But these are not the only pedal-assist bikes on the streets of San Francisco. It’s worth noting that JUMP can haul me up the hill just as easily as Motivate’s bikes.
What makes these bikes a bit different from JUMP bikes is the fact that they’re docked and have removable batteries. The removable batteries enable Motivate to swap in and out batteries when needed, rather than having to take them somewhere to charge. And down the road, Motivate envisions bike charging via its docking stations.
Currently, there are 262 Ford GoBike stations with 2,600+ bikes across the San Francisco Bay Area. By the end of this year, there will be 546 stations featuring 7,000 Ford GoBikes, which will make it the second-largest bike-sharing system in North America.
Given that New York City is working on a framework pertaining to electric bikes, it should only be a matter of time before Motivate launches e-bikes as part of the Citi Bikes program.
The SEC may be firing off subpoenas to crypto investment funds and ICO projects left, right and center — apparently over 80 — but that isn’t stopping Andreessen Horowitz, the influential Silicon Valley firm known as A16z, from starting its own crypto-based fund.
The rumor has been going around for a while — not a huge surprise since the firm has invested in the likes of Coinbase, Earn.com and CryptoKitties and co-founder Marc Andreessen (pic above) is a big crypto advocate — but it now appears there is genuine substance to it. Recode spotted a couple of A16z job vacancies that seem to confirm that the wheels are in motion.
One for a ‘Finance and Operations Manager, Crypto Assets‘ and another for a ‘Legal Counsel, Crypto Assets‘ explicitly detail that the firm is planning “a separately managed fund focusing on crypto assets.” The legal role itself includes “compliance with appropriate SEC regulations,” and in particular “managing the firm’s/fund compliance with all SEC/other regulations,” while the operations manager is tasked with the challenging job of valuing crypto assets among other responsibilities.
Some of the responsibilities A16z has for its legal counsel job role
A number of traditional VC funds have invested in crypto companies and, in a few cases, joined initial coin offerings (ICOs), but there hasn’t been a stampede. The more prolific crypto investors have been dedicated funds like Pantera Capital, Polychain Capital and Sparkchain Capital. Those firms hold crypto assets — most of which is in Ethereum — in order to invest and divest in company tokens and cryptocurrencies as part of ICOs or just generally as retail investors do.
Despite the potential for big gains and the ability to liquidate an investment at any time, crypto is in a legal grey area and that has put many U.S. investors off, even if some have dabbled on the side through personal investments. If it goes ahead, A16z’s fund might blaze a trail for others to follow.
Join Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin at our blockchain event on July 6
Disclosure: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.
ComfortDelGro, Singapore’s largest taxi operator, has held talks with Go-Jek about a potential partnership that could replace its annulled agreement with Uber.
Uber struck a major deal when it tied up with Comfort last December, but that fell apart last month when the U.S. firm agreed to sell its Southeast Asia business to Grab and exit the region entirely. Go-Jek is already looking to step into the void by expanding its Indonesia-based service into Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, but now a source tells TechCrunch that the ambitious startup has held early-stage talks with Comfort that could see it enter Singapore as ride-hailing partner for its 15,000 drivers.
Comfort did not reply to a request for comment. A Go-Jek spokesperson said the company “can’t comment on rumor and speculation.”
Go-Jek is valued at more than $4.5 billion and it has raised over $2 billion from investors that include Google, Tencent, JD.com, Allianz and Meituan Dianping. The company started life as a motorbike taxi-hailing app, but it has since expanded into four-wheeled taxis, services on-demand and payments in Indonesia where it is considered the market leader.
The company has always harbored a desire to expand across Southeast Asia and, after Uber’s exit, it is seizing an opportunity. Moves into Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines — which sources told TechCrunch are underway with local teams already hired — make sense since these are markets where Go-Jek can roll out its flagship bike service and potentially others, but Singapore is trickier since motorbike taxis are outlawed.
Go-Jek opened a Singapore office for business development last year, and it believes that there is demand for its services there. Rather than launching from scratch — which a host of smaller services including Ryde and India’s Jugnoo are planning — it is eying a tie-up with Comfort that would give it access to its fleet.
There may be demand driver-side, too. Comfort told its drivers to delete Uber in the wake of the merger deal with Grab, but many of the fleet are reportedly uneasy about Grab being their only ride-hailing option. That’s an angle that Go-Jek could leverage in its talks with Comfort, which are initially exploratory in nature, we understand.
Brud, the actual company behind one of Instagram’s most popular virtual influencers (it’s a thing), has raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors because this is 2018 and everything is awful.
Last week, the Los Angeles-based startup led by Trevor McFedries, outed itself as the collective consciousness behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela and her less well known contemporaries Blawko22 and BermudaisBae in a choreographed melodrama worthy of Los Angeles’ best reality television.
i am deeply invested in the drama surrounding lil miquela and now you all have to be too. sorry!!! https://t.co/ta1T4rDFGz
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) April 19, 2018
The subject of numerous glowing profiles in online and print fashion and lifestyle magazines (including, most recently, in High Snobiety), Lil Miquela’s stardom (and her fellow avatars) fascinated because the characters’ creators coyly toed the line around “her” self-awareness and their own. In the process, they created a sensation that’s become well-known worldwide.
It’s less well-known that the company is backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital investment — firms like Sequoia Capital. Our sources put the company’s funding somewhere around $6 million in its recent funding round.
There are other notable investors from Silicon Valley and New York rumored to be in the round — like New York’s BoxGroup and the Bay Area’s SV Angel. Sequoia declined to comment for this article and Box Group’s David Tisch did not respond to a request for comment.
All of the virtual drama with Miquela started late last week when news outlets (including TechCrunch) reported that Miquela’s Instagram account (or that of her handlers) was hacked by operators of a social media account belonging to another virtual personality known as “Bermudaisbae” (a more right wing social media persona with fewer followers).
McFedries, brud‘s founder and chief executive, confirmed that the Miquela account had been hacked in a text exchange with me, writing, “some redditor idiots hacked the page we think.”
That was a lie.
The account “hack” was architected by brud as part of an ongoing virtual reality drama playing out on Instagram and other social media platforms between avatars it had developed, all designed to attract media attention, according to people with knowledge of brud and its plans. It worked.
McFedries has not responded to further requests for comment after confirming that the Miquela account was “good”.
One Los Angeles investor familiar with the company said brud was “using conflict to introduce new characters… same as the Kardashians always have.”
The investor added that two years into the development of the Miquela persona, brud‘s founders knew that the fad could lose some of its luster as the is-she-or-Isn’t-she-real tension dissipates under the weight of continuously thwarted expectations — like a post-modern twist on the will-or-won’t-they dramatic tension defining most sitcoms since Cheers.
“People aren’t going to buy that she’s human so they make it seem as if she’s had an existential crisis and now she is the first in a breed of conscious AR characters that they will build a world around,” this investor wrote. “[Manufacturing] social influence.”
Blawko22 and Lil Miquela imposed over a gas station exterior simulating a pit stop on the road to Coachella
For his part, the 33-yar-old McFedries had been manufacturing social influence in Los Angeles through his talents as a dj, producer and director before entering the startup world.
First under the name of DJ Skeet Skeet and then as DJ Skeeter, and, finally, Yung Skeeter, McFedries has worked or performed with a number of the world’s best selling recording artists including Chris Brown, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry (and — interestingly — more obscure acts like Bonde do Role).
Working as an an “artist advocate” for Spotify, a DJ for a radio show on iHeartRadio, and as a spokesman for VitaminWater sustained McFedries along with managing the career of BANKS and executive producing her first album and a single on Azealia Banks’ 2014 record “Broke with Expensive Taste” — at least according to a Wikipedia page on Yung Skeeter.
Around this time McFedries also began investing in companies, according to AngelList.
Roughly two years after the Banks record release, Lil Miquela made her first appearance on Instagram. And the rest is history as written in Internet archives and memes. Ephemeral, but infinite.
The project that brud seems to be pursuing — turning celebrity into a virtual commodity; commenting on the unreality of the “real” entertainment industry by literally creating an unreal celebrity — is fascinating.
There’s certainly a valid criticism to be made about the ways in which celebrity operates, the ways in which our “social” media has corroded society, and the unbridled power of these platforms to transform messengers and their messages into movements.
Perhaps brud wants to make these critiques through its very existence — or at least use its low-brow as high-brow (or is it vice versa?) intellectual appeal as a veneer over the more crass (but potentially honest) mission of selling more shit more effectively through the use of spokespeople whose views only change when their creators want them to (it worked for Hollywood’s star system). That at least gets sponsors and advertisers out of the potentially messy situations that can come from working with spokespeople whose actions can’t be controlled by software — or an ingenious marketing team.
In the High Snobiety profile-as-honors-senior-English-thesis on Lil Miquela published yesterday, the avatar’s own spokesperson was quoted as saying:
“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”
It’s a lofty goal backed by a number of inarguably good works. However, lying to reporters may not be the best way to continue trying to achieve it.
While a lot of travel startups (Airbnb, Ctrip, Kayak, to name a few) have made waves by disrupting how people search for and buy accommodation, flights and other travel services, the ongoing interest in building out strong content plays to attract audiences is also being played out in the travel sector.
In the latest development, Culture Trip, a London-based travel site founded by a psychiatrist and built mainly not on selling travel services, but travel writing, has raised $80 million on the heels of strong traction with its mostly-millennial audience.
In the last four months, traffic to stories has increased 400 percent, founder Dr Kris Naudts said, with the site currently racking up 15 million uniques, the app hitting 850,000 downloads, and video views growing 4,000 percent.
Now, the intention will be to keep building out that audience while also starting to gradually introduce ways of monetising it, mainly through branded content and links through to buying travel services and experiences based on the clear intent signals that Culture Trip is amassing among 20-30-something user base.
The Series B was led by PPF Group out of the Netherlands, which also has stakes in the Mall Group and O2 and led Culture Trip’s previous round of $20 million. The startup has raised around $103 million to date, and it is not disclosing its valuation.
Naudts tells TechCrunch that he founded the company as a second career, after a “solid academic” stint as a psychiatrist. “I’ve always loved storytelling and culture, and I’ve always wanted to build something,” he said.
Culture Trip, which became that something, is a little like a mix between Conde Nast Traveller, and the multitude of sites that have sprung up across the web, built on writing from a wide range of contributors, which publish stories that have strong traction either on social media or search engines and links from other sites — ideally all three.
Not “content farms”, Naudts replied emphatically in an interview when I floated the phrase, and not exactly like the many digital publishers that have built themselves on clickable stories spread through social media — both of which have seen some strong casualties (like this and this) when their main traffic referrers have changed up their algorithms.
In the case of Culture Trip, the startup works with some 300 paid contributors globally, who write light stories, take pictures and make videos on everything under the bigger umbrella of local culture, just no politics and current affairs, Naudts said. There have been some 75,000 articles published since 2011, with the rate currently at 3,000 articles per month.
The anything-goes approach makes for a curious mix of high and low, mainstream and intellectual, which is perhaps how we like things today — or, just as likely, perhaps speaks to how Culture Trip is more about visits from outside than a community inside the site itself. Articles include “The 10 most affordable Michelin restaurants in Paris” and “8 things to know before you go to Thailand,” but also “Brexit literature: a quiet form of dystopian fiction,” (hmm) and actually, despite Naudts’ exception, even a few shots of politics and current affairs: the first story that comes up on Google currently for Culture Trip is a post from yesterday about the latest member of the royal family in England.
If you come in through Google — and Naudts said search engines are currently its biggest traffic referrer — Culture Trip hopes you’ll stay through its own AI-based recommendation algorithm, which presents, Taboola-style, a list of related stories you might like at the bottom of each ad-free post.
Yes, you read that right: in my many looks through the site, I didn’t come across a single advertisement.
Naudts said that this has been intentional. “We’ve focused on audience growth almost exclusively to get our proposition out there, and to see if there is an appetite for what we are publishing.” Now, he added, comes the recruitment of sales teams, which will look at introducing branded content and bookable experiences and travel services.
These, in turn, will come by way of partnerships with third party providers like Airbnb and Hotels.com, and in part through Culture Trip’s own devising: Naudts said that the plan will be to get its global network of contributors involved in helping to devise and run local experiences for people. (Not unlike the local experts that Airbnb has been bringing together on its own platform for its own experiences.)
Alongside the funding, the company is bringing on some new executives to build out these business plans — with a pedigree that seems to speak to where Culture Trip hopes to go next. Mike Fox, who helped build Facebook’s advertising business, is joining as CMO, while ex-YouTube global head of sales Dick Soule is joining as CRO. Before this, Culture Trip had also hired Nick Jakobi as chief product officer, another Google and Facebook alum that has been pushing the company’s use of AI in its recommendation engine. Board members at the startup include Dr. Nelson Mattos, former VP of Engineering for EMEA at Google, and Yariv Adan, product lead on the Google Assistant.
YouTube has released its first quarterly Community Guidelines Enforcement Report and launched a Reporting Dashboard that lets users see the status of videos they’ve flagged for review. The inaugural report, which covers the last quarter of 2017, follows up on a promise YouTube made in December to give users more transparency into how it handles abuse and decides what videos will be removed.
“This regular update will help show the progress we’re making in removing violative content from our platform,” the company said in a post on its official blog. “By the end of the year, we plan to refine our reporting systems and add additional data, including data on comments, speed or removal and policy removal reasons.”
But the report is unlikely to quell complaints from people who believe YouTube’s rules are haphazardly applied in an effort to appease advertisers upset their commercials had played before videos with violent extremist content. The issue came to the forefront last year after a report by The Times, but many content creators say YouTube’s updated policies have made it very difficult to monetize on the platform, even though their videos don’t violate its rules.
YouTube, however, claims that its anti-abuse machine learning algorithm, which it relies on to monitor and handle potential violations at scale, is “paying off across high-risk, low-volume areas (like violent extremism) and in high-volume areas (like spam).”
Its report says that YouTube removed 8.2 million videos during the last quarter of 2017, most of which were spam or contained adult content. Of that number, 6.7 million were automatically flagged by its anti-abuse algorithms first.
Of the videos reported by a person, 1.1 million were flagged by a member of YouTube’s Trusted Flagger program, which includes individuals, government agencies and NGOs that have received training from the platform’s Trust & Safety and Public Policy teams.
YouTube’s report positions views a video received before being removed as a benchmark for the success of its anti-abuse measures. At the beginning of 2017, 8% of videos removed for violent extremist content were taken down before clocking 10 views. After YouTube started using its machine-learning algorithms in June 2017, however, it says that percentage increased to more than 50% (in a footnote, YouTube clarified that this data does not include videos that were automatically and flagged before they could be published and therefore received no views). From October to December, 75.9% of all automatically flagged videos on the platform were removed before they received any views.
During that same period, 9.3 million videos were flagged by people, with nearly 95% coming from YouTube users and the rest from its Trusted Flagger program and government agencies or NGOs. People can select a reason when they flag a video. Most were flagged for sexual content (30.1%) or spam (26.4%).
Last year, YouTube said it wanted to increase the number of people “working to address violative content” to 10,000 across Google by the end of 2018. Now it says it has almost reached that goal and also hired more full-time anti-abuse experts and expanded their regional teams. It also claims that the addition of machine-learning algorithms enables more people to review videos.
In its report, YouTube gave more information about how those algorithms work.
“With respect to the automated systems that detect extremist content, our teams have manually reviewed over two million videos to provide large volumes of training examples, which improve the machine learning flagging technology,” it said, adding that it has started applying that technology to other content violations as well.
FINALLY. @YouTube‘s new transparency report breaks out content flags by category. @ACLU_NorCal has long called for this necessary information. Your move, @Facebook. https://t.co/O0lsjHXwj7
— Jake Snow (@snowjake) April 23, 2018
YouTube’s report may not ameliorate the concerns of content creators who saw their revenue drop during what they refer to as the “Adpocalpyse” or help them figure out how to monetize successfully again. On the other hand, it is a victory for people, including free speech activists, who have called for social media platforms to be more transparent about how they handle flagged content and policy violations, and may put more pressure on Facebook and Twitter.
Hooch, the subscription startup that allows members to claim one free drink per day from hundreds of different bars and restaurants, is adding a new membership level called Hooch Black.
Signing up for Hooch Black will cost you significantly more than the regular subscription — instead of $9.99 per month, it’s $295 per year. And you don’t just get in automatically; you actually need to fill out an application.
But in exchange for that money and work, Hooch Black members get access to a variety of perks (on top of the standard drink-a-day option), including deals at more than 100,000 hotels worldwide — co-founder and CEO Lin Dai said that because they’re are only visible to members, Hooch gets access to lower “unpublished” prices that you won’t find elsewhere online, with discounts as high as 60 percent.
It also offers preferred reservations, discounts and free champagne at select restaurants. And there are other giveaways, too — in New York City, the launch offerings include Hamilton and Governor’s Ball tickets.
Dai suggested that Hooch has always been meant as an antidote to apps that “facilitate a couch economy” — instead of delivering stuff to your home, Hooch convinces you to go out to bars. Dai said Hooch Black “continues the concept” with all additional perks tied to real-world experiences. (There’s some couch-centric stuff too, like a $100 Postmates credit.)
In addition, Hooch Black members will get access to what Dai described as an “concierge who can make travel arrangements and dining reservations for you.” (Those reservations don’t have to be with Hooch partners, by the way.) He compared the experience to an American Express concierge, but with the advantage that the communication is handled in the Hooch app: “No one wants to pick up the phone anymore.”
About that application: Dai said he wants to limit the initial membership to around 295 people in the three launch cities of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He hopes to bring in more people eventually, but at first, having thousands of members would “dilute the experience,” particularly since some of the benefits (like access to celeb-hosted parties) don’t really scale.
At the same time, Dai said the application is “not about income or job title.” Instead, he sees the service as appealing to the same audience of “young professionals or millennial hustlers” as Hooch itself. So the application is focused on your bigger ambitions and “how hard you want to work to get there.”
Dai also noted that Hooch’s current membership is roughly even between men and women, something he’s hoping to continue with Hooch Black.
“We want to build a very inclusive community,” he added. “The primary criteria is, I would say, aspiration. We’re not just catering to a specific income level or race or gender.”
Some people, when they look up at the sky and see a cloud, think “dog” or “fluffy.” And some people think “it’s a waning cumulus with a feathered edge suggesting a pressure system from the north ending in an updraft, which would probably cause turbulence. Also looks a bit like a dog.” Clearly one of those people created these complex, beautiful renderings of weather data.
The idea behind this project at ETH Zürich, led by Markus Gross, is that different visualizations of detailed weather data may be highly useful in different fields. He and his colleagues have been working on a huge set of such data and finding ways of accurately representing it with an eye to empowering meteorologists from the TV station to the research lab.
“The scientific value of our visualisation lies in the fact that we make something visible that was impossible to see with the existing tools,” explained undergraduate researcher Noël Rimensberger in an ETHZ news release. Representing weather “in a relatively simple, comprehensible way” is its own reward, really.
The data in question are all from the evening of April 26, 2013, the date chosen for a large-scale meteorology project in which multiple institutions collaborated. The team created different ways to visualize different bodies of data.
For instance, if you were looking down on a whole county, what’s the use of seeing every little ripple of a cloud system? What you need is larger trends and ways of picking out important data points, such as areas likely to develop precipitation, or where the beginnings of movement suggest a cold front moving in.
On the other hand, such macro data has no place when you’re looking at the formation of clouds over a single locality, or why a storm seems to have struck with unnatural fierceness there.
And again, what if you’re a small aircraft pilot? A little rain and clouds you might not mind, but what if you want to see patterns of turbulence in the country and how they move as the day wears on? Or if you’re investigating what led to a crash at a particular location and time?
These visualizations show how a large set of data can be interpreted and displayed in many ways and to many purposes.
Tobias Günther, Rimensberger’s supervisor on the project, pointed out that the algorithms they used to interpret the reams of data and create these simulations are far too slow at present, but they’re working on improving them. Still, some could be used if time isn’t of the essence.
You can find a link to download the full paper, created for an ETH Zürich visualization contest, at the university’s website.
8VC, the early-stage, San Francisco-based venture firm founded in 2015 by serial entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale and four other general partners, has closed it second early-stage venture fund with $640 million in commitments, says one of its investors.
The fund comes roughly two years after the firm closed its debut fund with $425 million, along with a separate, $50 million seed fund. A couple of years ago, 8VC also quietly raised a late-stage “coinvest” fund that it closed with roughly $400 million in capital commitments, meaning its total assets under management are currently around $1.5 billion.
We’d talked with Lonsdale last year about 8VC, whose mantra is simply “The world is broken; let’s fix it.”
Already at that time, the firm had invested in Synthego, a genetic engineering startup that provides scientists with genetic material used in their CRISPR research, and Color Genomics, a company whose genetics services help its customers understand their risk for the most common hereditary cancers.
It also counts among its founding partners Kimmy Scotti, who has led investments in uBiome, Blink Health and Honor Elder Care on its behalf.
Now the firm appears to be beefing up its focus on biotech. One clue toward this end: It now features a section at its site titled “Tackling the bio-IT wave,” where it lists eight areas of emerging technology that it’s tracking, and highlights seven of its related startup bets, including Mantra Bio. The startup describes itself as a deep data platform for the study of exosomes, which are small lipid vesicles — air- or fluid-filled cavities — that are excreted from cells and which deliver information that Mantra plans to use to come up with new drug therapies.
8VC also brought aboard as an advisor Andrew Witty, the former long-serving CEO of drug giant GlaxoSmithKline. (Witty is also a venture partner with the life sciences investment firm Hatteras Venture Partners.)
In the meantime, 8VC also seems to be focusing more on logistics. For example, another recent addition to its network of advisors is Chris Sultemeier, who’d previously spent 28 years at Walmart, leaving as its executive vice president of logistics in May of last year.
8VC also earlier this month co-invested in a deal with Schneider National, a publicly traded company that sells truckload, intermodal and logistics services. The two had partnered to invest in Platform Science, a company that says it’s creating an IoT system for the transportation industry.
Either way, the young venture firm looks to have built a strong portfolio to date, with other bets that include the highly valued mobile commerce app Wish, and the health insurance company Oscar, which just last month announced $165 million in new funding led by Founders Fund. The round also included Capital G, which is Alphabet’s growth-stage venture arm, and its life sciences business Verily.
Like every venture firm, 8VC also has its more controversial bets. Blink, a company at work on a discount prescription service, has been embroiled in numerous lawsuits in its four-year history. Most recently, the firm filed suit against a pharmacy startup that it views as an “unlawful copycat scheme.”
Lonsdale also invested personally in Hyperloop One, which is trying to develop a high-speed transportation technology. The outfit was notoriously dysfunctional at its start, and it remains unclear if the company can become a sustainable concern with the financial help of billionaire Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group became involved with the company last fall.
8VC’s other founding partners include Alex Kolicich, Jake Medwell, and Drew Oetting.
Axios was first to report that 8VC had closed its newest fund.
Munich-based Lilium, the super-ambitious company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet and accompanying “air taxi” service, continues to hire top talent to make its vision a reality. The latest new recruitment is car design veteran Frank Stephenson, who has previously worked for Ferrari, Maserati and Mini, to name but a few.
Considered one of the world’s most renowned and influential car designers in recent times, 58-year-old Stephenson’s portfolio includes iconic designs such as the BMW X5, New MINI, Ferrari F430, Maserati MC12 and McLaren P1. Now he’s embarking on adding the Lilium jet to that list.
Officially starting next month, he’ll be tasked with recruiting an entirely new design team to shape both the interior and exterior of the jet itself, as well as a design language for the company’s wider infrastructure, including landing pads and departure lounges.
In a call with Stephenson yesterday morning, I got to ask him why he’s ditched Ferraris for flying taxis, what his new role will entail more specifically and to dig a little deeper into how he thinks about design and why good design really matters. A lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A follows.
TC: I don’t know a huge amount about designing cars, let alone designing cars that can fly. Designing a modern-day car involves a heck of a lot of people and designing something like the Lilium jet again involves a whole team of people. As head of design, how does your role fit into the larger machine of building a vehicle or “flying car?”
So if you have a Michelin-rated restaurant and you’ve got to feed 100 people, you’re going to have quite a few cooks in there and the waiters and everybody else to run the machine. But the chef, the guy that’s got the Michelin stars… gets all the credit for it. But it’s all the other guys doing the work for him and he’s basically overseeing it and he’s trying to keep everything moving along the right track. That’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I’m not probably your standard type of design director because I like to get in and cook and mix up the stuff too. I just have never been able to stop getting my hands dirty. I guess in that respect, the design directors come across often as prima donnas almost and sit back and watch the guys work and every now and then say he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But I am more of a hands-on type of director.
I like to build small teams. I don’t like huge teams because it takes a lot longer to get things done and the energy sometimes isn’t as strong with a big team as it is with a smaller team. You’ve got to work faster and much more focused and much more efficiently to get the amount of work done. So that sort of builds the steam up in the pressure cooker, but if you love design it’s absolutely the right temperature to be working at. You want to be under pressure to deliver great design. And typically if you think about a design too long, it gets watered down and loses that character, that pureness that you had at the beginning. So smaller teams tend to come up with better ideas I think, or more dramatic ideas, than huge companies with huge design teams.
I don’t set the brief because that comes from marketing, what product segment or what market segment the product should fit. So if they’re telling us to design a two-seater vehicle or a five-seater vehicle or whatever then that becomes the target of the design team to deliver in a certain time span. What I do is I meet with the marketing guys, I meet with engineering guys.
The engineering guys will lay out what we call a package, where all the critical components are for the vehicle. With a car it is typically “Where does the passenger and the driver sit? Where are the wheels and where is the engine and how much trunk or boot space are we going to have?” Things like that. And then I work around all those components with the aerodynamic engineers, suspension and everything.
What I have to do basically is get the team going with theme ideas and really innovative breakthrough ideas, because that’s what designers do. They don’t repeat stuff, they have to come up with stuff that basically moves the game forward. You’ve got to create within this design team a kind of awesome childlike creativity and emotion feeling. It takes a lot of brainstorming and inspiration. You sort of set the tone of that kind of atmosphere within design to get the designers going and then the mood gains momentum.
I’m very advanced in the way I think — I have to be because of the way design is geared, you do a lot of computer work — but I typically make sure that we all start pen on paper sketching, because that is really the only way to get a design or a spark out of your mind. If you go through a computer it loses the human… So I pretty much try to keep the design team on paper as long as possible.
The moment we come up with great ideas, we work with engineers. Typically I try to get engineers and designers working together in the same studio or very tightly together so there’s no loss of traction, and to make sure that what we’re doing can be made. We typically create scale models out of clay. We maybe do two, maybe three, different designs, and as those designs evolve one will get chosen as the favorite theme. That goes to full-scale. And then when this clay model is finally approved by engineering, and approved by finance, and approved by marketing, and approved by design, we will recommend that to the CEO and he’ll have a look at it if he hasn’t followed throughout the process, and then that product will become the model for prototyping and we’ll take molds off of it and create the real panels for the car and then it goes into production. Pretty much that’s it in a nutshell.
As a design director I have to control everything from the look to the color to the ergonomics to the feasibility of it. And then with Lilium the requirements will probably branch out over into what the Lilium port will look like that you access to get into your jet. So the whole kind of environment from an aesthetic or emotional point of view.
TC: Give me more of a sense of the relationship between design and engineering (or form and function)… Aren’t you somewhat constrained in your imagination by the science of flying?
No, that’s what a bad designer would tell you, “I’m constrained, that’s why the vehicle doesn’t look as good as it should.” But the fact is he’s getting paid the big bucks to make that thing look good and if he can’t make it look good he’s just not good enough. So there’s no excuse in my book for bad design or anything that looks bad. Absolutely no excuse. Anything can be made beautiful and should be made desirable, obviously.
We have to have constraints because safety and engineering require that. If we don’t have constraints then designers aren’t designers they’re just artists and they’re not doing the job. You can make a pretty picture but if it doesn’t work at the end of the day then you haven’t really designed anything, you’ve just drawn a pretty picture.
So in terms of constraints, yeah, but that is what makes the game so fun for a designer, that you’re working within rules and legislation and restrictions which make it a challenge. That’s why you get good-looking cars and other cars that don’t look as good. Like I said, if there is a beautiful small car, why aren’t all small cars beautiful? It’s a taste thing obviously. Some people like some designs, a lot of people like other designs. But good design is absolutely not subjective. There’s good design and bad design, and there are a lot of bad designs out there — not to knock them or criticize — but there are principles for good design that designers typically learn when they’re being educated. If you don’t apply those laws of good design then you’re not going to have a good design.
Inspiration for good design comes from a lot of different sources, but if you’re looking at inspiration from trendy sources like fashion or other types of design that are in one day and out the next then you’re not gonna have a timeless design or an iconic design. Iconic designs are typically timeless designs, they last forever. Anything that was designed iconically 40 years ago will still look great 40 years in the future. The design is so good that it just lasts and lasts and lasts. It is hard to achieve that, but if you use the right type of mental design approach then it’s achievable.
I think designing cars is not harder or easier than designing an aircraft, it’s just making the absolutely best product you can make that works well. Typically if you design something that works very, very well it looks fantastic. If you design something that doesn’t work very well then the design doesn’t matter at the end of the day. One of the interesting things is people always say that form follows function. I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life because for me form equals function. If the product works well, it looks great. There’s nothing in the world that works fantastically well and looks awful, that combination doesn’t exist. Especially in nature. You look at all these beautiful animals and organisms in nature that work incredibly well, and therein lies the beauty of nature. Horses and cheetahs and all these amazing animals, nobody sat down and designed this amazing-looking animal. Evolution caused it to be absolutely fantastic at what it does, and through being fantastic at what it does, the result is the look, and that look is awesome. That same principle is how I feel about design. If you work very good with the engineers and you create optimized solutions, it’s very easy to make them look good, it’s almost inherent in that way.
TC: Regarding the Lilium jet… what is the main challenge in your mind of designing what is a new type of transportation?
My challenge — simply put — is to make the person who gets into the jet not want to get out of it. You know. Although he’s reached his destination he’ll want to do it again and again and again. The reason behind that is because all the new generations coming along after the old farts like us are basically looking for experiences. They’re not so much geared towards buying materialistic things. They love experiences. And that’s what Lilium is going to be offering, an experience and a service. And I see that as the future. For me it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to take something from scratch and develop it into a reality.
It’s always been a sort of science fiction, when you see The Jetsons, the cartoons and things… it’s like, one day, but not in my lifetime. Well, here’s news for the world, it’s coming before they know it and it’s going to be here very, very soon. And these things have to look as amazing as the technology that they’re bringing with them.
What I need to do is not just make it an incredible aesthetic joy to be in, but when you get inside one of these things you don’t want to get out of it. It’s going to be the experiences that you have when you’re inside this transportation device. If you could just take that situation of being inside a capsule, what would you want to occur there? You want to relax, you want to socialize, you want to work, you want to be entertained. All that is now incredibly possible.
I mean all the advances … where everything coming now is digital and so real that you can actually imagine something on the inside being the new wave of entertainment. So basically you’re in your private space, you get to turn it into a virtual world where you’re being transported from A to B or wherever your destination is. And within that space in time you’re in the ideal atmosphere. You’re not really sitting in a plane and just going along for the ride, which is what you do pretty much in a taxi. All the new materials that are coming about at the moment in terms of seats, flooring, lighting, buttons, displays, image projection, sounds and temperature control. You know all the things that we try to shoot into new cars as a next step for luxury, those are just going to become everyday things that are making the whole ride an incredible experience.
Regretfully they’ll be a lot shorter in duration because of the nature of the jet being you know very high-speed and all that. But it’s kind of like if you can imagine somebody who loves roller coasters they’re always at the end thinking “oh my gosh that was too quick, I want to do this thing again.” That is the kind of positive feeling you should have when you get out of the vehicle.
TC: I saw this documentary a while back that made the point that the world we live in is predominately designed by humans and therefore design can make or break our everyday experiences. As a designer, is it really difficult for you living in a world where, let’s face it, a lot of design is awful?
Some designers take it as a job. Other people just live it. And design is all about making the world a better place not a prettier place. That’s [just] a consequence of making it a better place, but making it a better place is what the end goal should be. It’s a shame that there aren’t more designers in the world thinking about making the world a better place.
TC: How did you get this job ? Did they come to you? Were you just like, “I’ve done cars, I want to do something new”?
It was fate, that thing when two separate paths suddenly collide. I think it was more like that. I’d left McLaren in November 2017, not because I was frustrated or anything like that but because I thought there was something bigger than just designing products that nobody really needs, they just desired and want. What was I doing, I was just clogging up the road networks even more and not making the world a better place, probably a more exciting place, but not socially better. And so I left with my ideas of starting my own design studio, which I’ve been sort of kicking off, in terms of how to improve the world, and then I heard about Lilium and Lilium contacted me.
It was just a match made in heaven. It met all my principles of working for an exciting and incredibly innovative company from the very beginning. To be able to establish a design department for them with a design DNA, a design language, the design team, the studio. Doing something for the future of humanity. Staying with transportation, but making it even better than it ever was. Making something science fiction reality.
TC: Are there any particular designers or designs that you can point to and say that designer or product has stood the test of time?
That’s really, really tough. I can tell you specific products for their aesthetic value but I think I have to go deeper than that because you know everybody admires different designers for different reasons. If you could put two guys together that would be da Vinci and Einstein. I mean da Vinci was probably the guy because he not only could paint and draw and all that but he was also an incredible engineer and he figured out how to make these things work and he wanted things to look great too. So if I could say one person for me it would be da Vinci more than anybody else just because the guy could paint, the guy could engineer. Anything he ever touched was absolutely amazing. He was doing flying machines way back too. I like his natural approach. I like people who are really in tune with nature because for me that’s the best inspiration we have. He came up with things that never existed before for the benefit of humanity. Pretty much. If he would have been that kind of guy today he would be the absolutely most awesome human being on earth. I’ve got tons of books on his works and him, and everything like that, just because he’s so inspiring to me.
The Nintendo Switch may soon be a haven for hackers, but not the kind that want your data — the kind that want to run SNES emulators and Linux on their handheld gaming consoles. A flaw in an Nvidia chip used by the Switch, detailed today, lets power users inject code into the system and modify it however they choose.
The exploit, known as Fusée Gelée, was first hinted at by developer Kate Temkin a few months ago. She and others at ReSwitched worked to prove and document the exploit, sending it to Nvidia and Nintendo, among others.
Although responsible disclosure is to be applauded, it won’t make much difference here: this flaw isn’t the kind that can be fixed with a patch. Millions of Switches are vulnerable, permanently, to what amounts to a total jailbreak; only new ones with code tweaked at the factory will be immune.
That’s because the flaw is baked into the read-only memory of the Nvidia Tegra X1 used in the Switch and a few other devices. It’s in the “Boot and Power Management Processor” to be specific, where a misformed packet sent during a routine USB device status check allows the connected device to send up to 64 kibibytes (65,535 bytes) of extra data that will be executed without question. You need to get into recovery mode first, but that’s easy.
As you can imagine, getting arbitrary code to run on a device that deep in its processes is a huge, huge vulnerability. Fortunately it’s only available to someone with direct, physical access to the Switch. But that in itself makes it an extremely powerful tool for anyone who wants to modify their own console.
Modding consoles is done for many reasons, and indeed piracy is among them. But people also want to do things Nintendo won’t let them, like back up their saved games, run custom software like emulators or extend the capabilities of the OS beyond the meager features the company has provided.
Temkin and her colleagues had planned to release the vulnerability publicly on June 15 or when someone releases the vulnerability independent of them — whichever came first. It turned out to be the latter, which apparently came as a surprise to no one in the community. The X1 exploit seems to have been something of an open secret.
The exploit was released anonymously by some hacker and Temkin accordingly published the team’s documentation of it on GitHub. If that’s too technical, there’s also some more plain-language chatter about the flaw in a FAQ posted earlier this month. I’ve asked Temkin for a few more details.
In addition to Temkin, failOverflow announced a small device that will short a pin in the USB connector and put the device into recovery mode, prepping it for exploitation. And Team-Xecuter was advertising a similar hardware attack months ago.
The answer to the most obvious question is no, you can’t just fire this up and start playing Wave Race 64 (or a pirated Zelda) on your Switch 15 minutes from now. The exploit still requires technical ability to implement, though as with many other hacks of this type, someone will likely graft it to a nice GUI that guides ordinary users through the process. (It certainly happened with the NES and SNES Classic Editions.)
Although the exploit can’t be patched away with a software update, Nintendo isn’t powerless. It’s likely that a modified Switch would be barred from the company’s online services (such as they are) and possibly the user’s account, as well. So although the hacking process is, compared with the soldering required for modchips of decades past, low on risk, it isn’t a golden ticket.
That said, Fusée Gelée will almost certainly open the floodgates for developers and hackers who care little for Nintendo’s official ecosystem and would rather see what they can get this great piece of hardware to do on their own.
I’ve asked Nintendo and Nvidia for comment and will update when I hear back.
Amazon has now passed 100 million subscribers for its Prime loyalty shopping program, underscoring its growth as an e-commerce, cloud services and streaming media behemoth. But it’s also looking beyond the internet, at more traditional ways to reach consumers.
An industry source claims that Amazon is interested in making a buy in TV home shopping. Specifically, we’re told there have been acquisition discussions between Amazon and Evine Live, which operates a pay-TV home shopping channel of the same name. Another source also heard Amazon was one of several companies potentially interested in buying Evine.
The stage of these alleged discussions is not clear, nor is the price that Amazon would potentially pay. Evine is traded on Nasdaq, and its current market cap is $53 million, at the lower end of its one-year range.
The TV channel was previously the subject of a more public acquisition offer: a group headed by Segel Vision offered to buy it for an enterprise value of $175 million last year, but it eventually walked away after Evine rebuffed the offer multiple times. When TechCrunch reached out to Segel, co-founders Jim Morris and Marvin Segel wrote, “we do not know of any other interest in EVINE,” noting the company’s lackluster financial performance. “This is not the stock movement of a company being looked at.”
Spokespeople for Amazon and Evine declined to comment on rumors and speculation. Separately, we have received no response to messages sent to the CEO of Evine, Bob Rosenblatt, and COO/CFO Tim Peterman.
Evine is a distant third in the world of home shopping channels after QVC and the Home Shopping Network. Yet it still has broad potential reach, with its channel available in 87 million homes across the U.S., in addition to a website and apps. Its business is based on selling a range of merchandise, sometimes in partnerships with celebrities. The company last quarter reported revenues of $193 million with net income of $6.4 million. The latter may sound like a modestly small figure, but it was the first time Evine had posted a net income since 2007, with a rocky stock price to match. (Yet Evine insiders have remained bullish, making dozens of share purchases in the past 12 months, with limited selling.)
Evine has grown up amid some big shifts in the two worlds in which it operates, commerce and media. Two notable trends are that many consumers have switched off their TVs and moved away from shopping in physical stores, turning their attention online (and to their mobile screens) to be entertained and to buy things.
Amazon is both a big benefactor and pace-setter of that trend: the company has become a formidable presence in all things e-commerce and has, in more recent years, been stepping up its game in content, leveraging its cloud services infrastructure to stream third-party media in areas like video and music, as well as its own original programming, bringing a core audience to it all via its Prime subscription service.
There was once a time (before the internet grabbed hold) when home shopping TV helped define the idea of “shopping from your sofa.” But the $2.1 billion acquisition last year of HSN by QVC, creating North America’s third largest e-commerce retailer, was seen by some as a way for the combined companies to “battle Amazon.” The founder of Evine and its former CEO Mark Bozek (who was the basis of the Bradley Cooper character in the film Joy) also clearly identified the Amazon challenge/threat not just for home shopping but retail overall. (Bozek left Evine in 2016 and is now working on a new startup called Live Rocket.)
Yet Amazon’s might is not the full story. Today, e-commerce still accounts for only around nine percent of all retail sales in the U.S., according to figures from the Census Bureau. It’s on the rise, but that proportion speaks to a strong opportunity for online companies that want to capture customers who are not already regular Amazon shoppers and might be more likely to watch broadcast rather than on-demand TV. (Amazon’s Whole Foods buy, you could argue, also helped it target a more traditional channel, with a big move into physical stores.)
Evine is not the leading player in its space, but it has some key pieces in place — such as deals to broadcast into a multitude of local pay-TV markets, and an audience of TV viewers who are already watching and buying from Evine and channels like it — for a larger player to come in and use that infrastructure to build inroads to audiences that might not otherwise be reaching. It could also give those who sell on Evine a potentially much bigger audience to access through its digital channels.
QVC-style programming is an area that Amazon has tried to break into previously using its existing digital platforms. Back in 2016, Amazon launched “Style Code Live,” where users could watch a show with fashion and beauty tips and instantly buy the products. That effort was shelved in 2017 with no explanation for the cancellation, but it shows that the company does have an interest in the area.
Coincidentally, several months ago, reports surfaced that Amazon was looking at acquisitions of smaller, niche-interest television stations to complement its advances in streamed video surfaces.
Another interesting side note: Earlier this year Amazon took a $600 million investment into a company called StarTek, a call center operator and engagement outsourcing specialist that provides services in the cable TV, telecom and retail industries. The investment was little reported at the time, and when we asked about it, StarTek would only say that the deal was related to “commercial services” provided to Amazon.
Evine has been through several iterations: It was founded back in 1990 as Value Vision, went public in 1991 and at one time counted NBC as an investor, which had a significant enough stake to rebrand the company as ShopNBC. NBC eventually sold its stake and the company rebranded as ShopHQ, and then Evine in 2015 as part of Bozek’s attempted turnaround of the company.