Instacart to eliminate about 2,000 jobs and GitHub head of HR resigns

Hey y’all. You’ve just landed on Human Capital, the weekly newsletter that details the latest in labor, and diversity and inclusion in tech. The week kicked off with GitHub making a public apology to the person the company terminated for cautioning his employees about Nazis in D.C. on the day of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Later in the week, Google revoked corporate access from AI ethicist Margaret Mitchell in what some are saying is reminiscent of the company’s treatment of Dr. Timnit Gebru. Meanwhile, Instacart is making some changes to its platform that will result in job loss. 

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GitHub’s head of HR resigns; company offers fired Jewish employee his job back

A GitHub internal investigation revealed the company made “significant errors of judgment and procedure” in the firing of the Jewish employee who cautioned his coworkers about the presence of Nazis in the D.C. area on the day of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In a blog post, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said the company’s head of HR took full responsibility for what happened and resigned from the company yesterday. GitHub did not disclose the name of the person who resigned, but it’s widely known that Carrie Olesen was the chief human resources officer at GitHub.

GitHub said it has “reversed the decision to separate with the employee” and is talking to his representative.

“To the employee we wish to say publicly: We sincerely apologize,” Brescia said in the blog post. However, the terminated employee previously told me that he did not want his job back but instead some other form of reconciliation.

Google AI ethicist under investigation 

Google is investigating AI ethicist Margaret Mitchell for reportedly using automated scripts to find examples of mistreatment of Dr. Timnit Gebru, according to Axios. Gebru says she was fired from Google while Google has maintained that she resigned. In a statement to Axios, Google said the company had locked Mitchell’s account:

Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.

The recently-formed Alphabet Workers Union made a statement saying it was concerned by Mitchell’s suspension of corporate access:

“Regardless of the outcome of the company’s investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google’s commitment to ethics—in AI and in their business practices. Many members of the Ethical AI team are AWU members and the membership of our union recognizes the crucial work that they do and stands in solidarity with them in this moment.”

Google’s Sundar Pichai to meet with HBCU leaders

At least five HBCU presidents are scheduled to meet with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Chief Diversity Officer Melonie Parker later this month to discuss recent allegations of racism and discrimination at the company, according to CNN. Additionally, the goal of the meeting is to ensure HBCUs have a good relationship with Google and that the company offers a good environment for its students and graduates.

Context:

Amazon launches anti-union website

Ahead of Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama gearing up to vote on whether to form a union, Amazon launched an anti-union website. Called Do It Without Dues, the site aims to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

Instacart plans to terminate nearly 2,000 jobs 

Instacart plans to lay off nearly 2,000 of its workers, including the 10 workers from the Kroger-owned Mariano’s who unionized early last year, Vice reports. These workers are responsible for in-store shopping and packing of groceries.

According to Vice, 10 of the workers affected unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 in Skokie, Illinois. However, they have yet to negotiate a contract with Instacart, according to Vice. Instacart notified the union of the planned changes earlier this week. In the letter, Instacart said it planned to stop using in-store shoppers at Kroger-owned stores, which includes the Mariano’s store in Skokie, in Q1 and Q2 of this year, but no earlier than mid-March.

How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Click here if you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.


We’re shaking things up this weekend in the newsletter, focusing on a series of larger themes and news items instead of having a few discrete sections. Why? Because there was too much to fit into our usual format. If you were a fan of the original layout, we’ll be back to it next week.

Today we’re talking Coinbase’s growth, how Juked.gg tapped the equity crowdfunding market, a noodle or two on the a16z media game, Talkspace’s SPAC, VC and founder predictions for 2021, and where’s the right place to found a company.

Sound good? Let’s get into it!

Coinbase’s deposits scale ahead of IPO

Thanks to Kazim Rizvi of Drop, parent company to Cardify which provides data on consumer spending, we have a look into how quickly deposits have scaled at American cryptocurrency platform Coinbase. As Coinbase has filed to go public, and we’re eagerly anticipating its eventual S-1 filing, we were stoked to get a directional look at how quickly consumer interest was growing for the assets it helps folks buy.

They are scaling rapidly. Using the first week of January 2019 as a baseline, by the last week of December 2020 deposits and withdrawals from Coinbase had grown by more than 12x apiece. That’s staggering growth, and while the data is somewhat volatile — and we’d treat it as directional instead of exact — on a week-to-week basis, it underscores how well companies like Coinbase may be performing as Bitcoin booms once again, bringing in more trading interest and consumer demand.

Via Cardify, Cardify data.

The Cardify data also indicates a multiplying of new customer acquisition at Coinbase over the same time period, and deposits scaling alongside the price of Bitcoin. As Bitcoin has topped the $30,000 mark recently, sharply higher than in recent quarters, the price gains may have helped Coinbase not only a solid Q4 2020, but perhaps put it on a path for a bonkers Q1 2021 as well.

If we were 10/10 excited about the Coinbase S-1 before this dataset, we’re now a heckin’ 12/10.

Equity crowdfunding seven-figures for esports content

Esports is super cool and if you don’t agree, you are incorrect. But it doesn’t matter if you or I are right or not on the question, as the market has largely decided that competitive gaming is worth time, attention and investors’ money.

The proliferation of esports leagues and games and the like has led to a decidedly fragmented universe, however, lacking a central hub akin to what ESPN provides the world of traditional sports.

But not to worry, Juked.gg just raised capital to build a content hub for esports. This means that old folks like myself can still find out when tournaments are happening, and enjoy a dabble of League of Legends or Starcraft 2 pro play when we can, sans hunting around the internet for dates and times.

Juked.gg went through 500 Startups (more on its class here), catching our eye at the time as a neat nexus for esports-related content. Now flush with a little over $1 million that it raised on the Republic platform, it has big plans.

The Exchange spoke with Juked.gg’s co-founder and CEO Ben Goldhaber about his company’s performance to date. Per Goldhaber, Juked has scaled from 500 users when it launched in late 2019, to 50,000 in December of 2020. Ahead, Juked may invest more in journalism, more into social features, and more into user-generated content. We’ll have more on Juked as it gets its vision built, now powered by over a million dollars from 2,524 investors, each betting that the startup is building the right product to help unify a growing, if distributed, entertainment category.

The a16z media push

To preserve our collective sanity, I’m not going to bang on at length here, but building out content at a VC firm is not new. Hell, how long ago did the First Round Review launch? What a16z appears to have in mind is different in scale, not substance. We chatted about it on Equity this week, in case you need more on the matter.

Talkspace’s maybe-not-stupid SPAC

While it is enjoyable to mock SPACs, featuring as many do companies that are nascent to say the least, not all SPAC-led debuts are as silly as the rest. This is the case with the impending Talkspace deal, the deck for which you can read here.

What matters is this set of charts:

Look at that! Historical revenue growth! Improving gross margins! Rising gross profit!

You may argue that the company is not really worth an enterprise value of $1.4 billion that it will sport after its combination with Hudson Executive Investment Corp., but, hey, at least it’s a real business.

How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

Seed VC NFX dropped a VC and founder survey the other day that I’ve been meaning to share with you. You can read the whole thing here, if you’d like.

I have two pull-outs for you this morning:

  1. VCs are more bullish on the economy than founders, with around 30% of founders expecting consumer spending to stay flat or decline, positions that only around 17% of VCs agreed with.
  2. And when it comes to leaving the Bay Area — yes, that chestnut again — 35% of founders have itchy feet, while just 20% of investors are similarly inclined. I think this is because the latter have houses in the Bay Area while most founders do not. But it should temper the view that all the money and talent are leaving. They aren’t.

There’s no place like no place

Initialized Capital put together some data on where founders think it is best to found a company. In 2020, nearly 42% of surveyed founders said the Bay Area. By 2021 that number had slipped to a little over 28%, with a plurality of 42% indicating that a distributed company is the best way to go.

I hear about this a lot from early-stage founders. They are often building what I call micro-multinationals, small companies that have a few employees in one country, and then a handful in others. Making that setup work is going to be a hotspot for HR software I reckon.

Regardless, the requirement of founding companies in the Bay Area is kaput. The advantages of founding there will linger much longer.

Coming up!

Coming up on The Exchange next week: The first entries of our new $50 million ARR series, featuring interviews with Assembly, SimpleNexus, Picsart, OwnBackup and others. And we have some $100 million ARR interviews in the can, as well.

Finally, to keep the The Powers That Be happy, The Exchange covered some neat stuff this week, including American VC results, fintech and unicorn venture capital, European and Asian venture capital results, how the IPO market is even more bonkers than you thought, and notes on what Qualtrics may be worth when it goes public.

Hugs, and let’s all get a nap in,

Alex

Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

Work trips are making a $5 billion comeback

Would you bet millions of dollars on a corporate travel comeback? Doesn’t matter. Andreessen Horowitz, Addition and Elad Gil are anyways.

This week, the trio led a nine-figure financing round in TripActions, a software company that helps other companies book and manage corporate travel. But the news is (always) more than the number. I see TripActions’ growth as a signal to travel sector startups, which faced the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. We’ve heard the market is emerging again, but the fact that investors poured money into an up-round valued at $5 billion adds an extra layer of conviction.

TripActions, like many travel startups, laid off hundreds of employees in the beginning of the pandemic as the coronavirus froze business travel. It still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but a spokesperson for the company said that a more distributed working class could boost corporate travels. If you don’t have to commute every day, maybe you don’t mind hopping on a flight once a month instead.

Here’s why this could be good news: Distributed work and corporate travel aren’t mutually exclusive categories. For founders in the remote work space, this is key wiggle room to consider as we wait for post-pandemic consumer behavior to be colored in. So often, founders pitch that their startup is remote-or-bust, and while that might make a good headline, it’s clear that everyone will come out of this time with a different mindset.

Read on, as we discuss Plaid’s new investment in early-stage founders, Israel’s startup ecosystem, and telehealth in two different ways. Also, here’s your weekly reminder that you can find me @nmasc_and send me tips on early-stage startup financings to [email protected]

Plaid takes notes from Y Combinator

Last week, I joked that ‘Plaid for X’ startups will live on, even though the business ended its plans to merge with Visa for $5.3 billion. This week, Plaid announced an accelerator to boost Plaid for X startups. You can’t make this stuff up.

What you need to know: Finrise, which began as an idea in an internal hackathon last summer, will help three to five entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds navigate starting a fintech business. There’s no capital involved, but there is Plaid mentorship, a bootcamp, and access to a network of investors.

Etc: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Plaid is building out its own incubator program. Fintech as a sector has been booming. The latest fintech data dive shows un-exited fintech unicorns are now worth an all-time high. The “unicorn effect” is impacting average valuations and deal-size.

And in case other sectors are feeling left out, VCs invested $428 million into U.S.-based startups everyday in 2020.

unicorn

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Telehealth enters a ‘unique, high-growth period’

In our latest investor survey, eight healthcare-focused venture capitalists talked about the future of digital health.

What you need to know: Telehealth isn’t just growing in demand, it’s growing in definition. Investors examined the future of digital health financing, how the Biden administration will impact their portfolio companies, and how to balance opportunity with incentives in a sector as emotional as this. Here’s how Nan Li, managing director at Obvious Ventures, puts the opportunity ahead:

[This is] absolutely not a blip! We are headed into a unique, high-growth period in healthcare where many aspects of the healthcare ecosystem are being rebuilt. From insurance underwriting, the disease-specific standard of care protocols, clinical staffing models, to patient coordination and triage … every aspect of healthcare is fair game for innovative companies to address. This is a drastic expansion from the days where health tech was confined to “healthcare IT,” selling software to hospitals and the rise in investing attention reflects this generational opportunity.

Etc: Another investor survey for you this week: 6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities.

Isometric Healthcare and technology concept banner. Medical exams and online consultation concept. Medicine. Vector illustration

Speaking of the public markets

Up, up and away is the only way to phrase the performance of recent IPOs.

Here’s what you need to know:

Etc: Subscribe to The Exchange, a weekly newsletter penned by our IPO and public markets reporter Alex Wilhelm.

Image Credits: Hims & Hers

Around TechCrunch

The inimitable Drew Olanoff, an early writer for TechCrunch, has rejoined the team to build out our community offering for our Extra Crunch subscribers. He’s cooking up some exciting ways to help connect y’all to the TC team, the best founders in the business, and decision-makers in startups. If you have thoughts, bug him!

Extra Crunch Live is returning in a big way in 2021. We’ll be interviewing VC/founder duos about how their Series A deals went down, and Extra Crunch members will have the chance to get live feedback on their pitch deck. You can check out our plans for ECL in 2021 right here, or hit up this form to submit your pitch deck. Episodes air every Wednesday at 3pm ET/12pm PT starting in February.

Across the week

On TechCrunch 

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

Instacart is eliminating the jobs of unionized workers

Eight Roads Ventures Europe promotes Lucile Cornet to Partner

Alphabet shuts down Loon internet balloon company

On Extra Crunch

15 steps to fundraising a new VC or private equity fund

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

@EquityPod: The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

After a slew of media and VC stories this week, the Equity team had to weigh in on the future of journalism now that A16z is launching its own publication. I won’t give away our takes, but the title should give you a hint.

Other topics we got into included a barrage of mobility news, a Nigerian edtech startup, and a GPS story that is much more fascinating than the 400 pages it took to get to the end product.

Listen here, and remember that we also have a popular Monday morning show to prepare you for the week.

Okay, until next week!

Natasha

Original Content podcast: ‘Bridgerton’ is an addictive reimagining of Jane Austen-style romance

“Bridgerton,” the Shondaland drama that launched last month on Netflix, offers a few key updates to the standard formula of Regency-era  romance.

For one thing, there’s a racially diverse cast, with Black actors taking on the role of early 19th-century English nobility and royalty. (At one point, one of the characters offers an unconvincing explanation for why this is the case, but we — and the show — mostly ignored it.) For another, there’s a healthy dose of sex; “Bridgerton” emphatically does not shy away from showing viewers what its unbelievably attractive cast gets up to in the bedroom.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we have our quibbles — some of the character motivations can be a bit frustrating, and while we enjoyed the whole season, the first few episodes were by far the most addictive and compelling.

Overall, though, we loved it, comparing “Bridgerton” to seemingly dissimilar shows like “Emily in Paris” and “You” — all offering clever revamps of familiar soap opera and romance formulas. The show also benefits from breathless plotting, with each of its eight episodes packed with twists. And did we mention that the cast is insanely good-looking?

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:20 “Bridgerton” review
22:49 “Bridgerton” spoiler discussion

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

Watch SpaceX launch its first dedicated rideshare mission live, carrying a record-breaking number of satellites

[UPDATE: Today’s attempt was scrubbed due to weather conditions. Another launch window is available tomorrow at 10 AM ET]

SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 133 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 9:40 AM EST (6:40 AM PST) today.

How fintech and serial founders drove African pre-seed investing to new heights in 2020

When Stripe-subsidiary Paystack raised its seed round of $1.3 million in 2016, it was one of the largest disclosed rounds at that stage in Nigeria. 

At the time, seven-figure seed investments in African startups were a rarity. But over the years, those same seed-stage rounds have become more common, with some very early-stage startups even raising eight-figure sums. Nigerian fintech startup, Kuda, which bagged $10 million last year, comes to mind, for example.

Also notable amidst the growth in seven and eight-figure African seed deals have been gains in pre-seed fundraising. Typically, pre-seed rounds are raised when the startup is still in the product development phase, yet to make revenue or discover product-market fit. These investments are usually made by third-party investors (friends and family), and range between $25,000-$150,000.

But the narrative as to how much an early-stage African startup can raise as pre-seed has changed. 

Last year, African VCs who usually fund seed and Series A rounds began partaking in pre-seed rounds, and they don’t seem to be slowing down. Just a month into 2021,  Egyptian fintech startup Cassbana raised a $1 million pre-seed investment led by VC firm Disruptech in a bid to drive expansion within the country.

So why the sudden change in appetite from investors?

Andreata Muforo is a partner at TLcom Capital, a pan-African early-stage VC firm. She told TechCrunch that last year’s run of 23 pre-seed rounds (10 of which were $150,000+ deals) per Briter Bridges data, was due to the confidence investors had in the market, especially fintech.

Startups building financial infrastructure got noticed

While most African pre-seed investments in 2020 went to fintech, there were exceptions, including Egyptian edtech startup Zedny, which raised $1.2 million; Nigerian automotive tech startup Autochek Africa, which raised $3.4 million; and Nigerian talent startup TalentQL, which raised $300,000. 

Just as Paystack and Flutterwave built payment infrastructure for thousands of African businesses, these fintech startups are trying to make their mark in the sweet spots of credit and banking. 

“Fintech is compelling. But while most fintech startups play around the commodities side of fintech, it’s the companies building infrastructure around the market that got most of the pre-seed validation last year,” Muforo said. Her firm, TLcom, led the $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra.

Okra is an API fintech startup. So are Mono, OnePipe and Pngme. They are building Africa’s API infrastructure that connects bank accounts with financial institutions and third-party companies for different purposes. Within the past 18 months, Mono and Pngme raised $500,000, while OnePipe raised $950,000 in pre-seed.

It is noteworthy that while these startups are clamoring to solve Africa’s open API banking issues, three of the four deals came after Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid last year in January.

Although the Visa-Plaid acquisition has now been called off, it is safe to say some African investors developed FOMO, handing out sizable checks to fund “Africa’s Plaid” in the process.

Digital lenders remain one of their most important customers for fintech API startups. They can access customers’ financial accounts to understand their spending patterns and know who to loan to.

Egypt’s Shahry and Nigeria’s Evolve Credit are fintech startups building credit infrastructure for their markets. Evolve Credit connects digital lenders to those who need loan services in Nigeria via its online loan marketplace. Shahry, on the other hand, employs an AI-based credit scoring engine so users in Egypt can apply for credit. The pair also secured impressive pre-seed funding — Evolve Credit, $325,000, and Shahry, $650,000.

A recurring theme: Serial founders

Muforo points out that aside from startups building fintech infrastructure, the caliber of founders was another reason pre-seed funding peaked last year.

Adewale Yusuf, co-founder and CEO of TalentQL, a startup that hires, manages and outsources talent for Nigerian and global companies, seemed to agree. He told TechCrunch that trust between the VCs and founders involved played a major role in most pre-seed rounds last year. 

“It wasn’t surprising that a lot of investors put money in pre-seed rounds. I say this because we also saw existing founders and serial entrepreneurs coming back to the market. To me, these founders’ credibility was a major part of why those rounds were large,” he said.

A second-time founder himself, Yusuf is the co-founder of Nigerian tech media publication Techpoint Africa. His partner at TalentQL, Opeyemi Awoyemi, is also a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Ringier One Africa Media-owned Jobberman, one of Africa’s most popular recruitment platforms.

According to Adedayo Amzat, founder of Zedcrest Capital, which is the lead investor in TalentQL’s round, the founders’ experience proved vital in closing the deal. 

He says investors are more comfortable backing experienced founders in pre-seed rounds because they have a more mature understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. So, in essence, they tend to raise more capital.

“If you look at pre-seed sizes, experienced founders can demand a significant premium over first-time founders,” Amzat said. “Pre-seed valuation cap for first-time founders will typically be between 400K to $1 million while we frequently see up to $5 million for experienced founders.” 

It was a recurring theme last year. Yele Bademosi, who runs Microtraction, a West African early-stage VC firm, is the CEO of Bundle Africa, a Nigerian-based crypto-exchange startup that raised $450,000 in April 2020. 

Shahry co-founders Sherif ElRakabawy and Mohamed Ewis also run Egypt’s largest shopping engine and price comparison website, Yaoota.

Mono co-founder and CEO Abdulhamid Hassan was the co-founder of Nigerian fintech startup OyaPay and data science startup Voyance. Also, Etop Ikpe, the co-founder and CEO of Autochek Africa, was CEO of DealDey and Cars45.

That said, Fara Ashiru Jituboh of Okra and Akan Nelson of Evolve Credit as first-time founders got investments that most of their counterparts would only dream of. For Jituboh, her solid tech background spoke for her — boasting a senior software engineering job at Pexels and engineering consultant role at Canva before founding Okra.

“We backed Fara because she’s a strong tech founder. When you look at the core of what Okra does as a tech-heavy company, you see how important it was to make the decision,” Muforo said about backing Okra’s CEO and CTO.

Nelson also told TechCrunch that his finance background helped Evolve Credit raise its six-figure sum. The team’s bullishness on finding product-market fit and the potential of Africa’s loan marketplace was also enough to bring foreign and local VCs like Samurai Incubate, Future Africa, Ingressive Capital and Microtraction on board.

While early-stage investments in African startups haven’t reached full speed, the explosion in the number of angel investors has lowered entry barriers into early-stage investing. 

Now investors are beginning to show readiness toward African startups that have promise as they continue to search for the next Paystack. 

“More people are willing to take risks now in the market, especially angel investors. They can easily let go of $10K-$50K because of success stories like Paystack,” Yusuf said about the $200 million acquisition by U.S. payments startup Stripe

For all of its significance to the African tech ecosystem, what particularly stands out about Paystack’s exit is the return on investment made for early investors.

By the time it exited in October 2020, some angel investors had an ROI of more than 1,400% according to Jason Njoku in his blog post. Njoku, who took part in the round as an angel investor, is the CEO of IROKO, a Nigerian VOD internet company.

For Muforo, witnessing more early-stage investments is a big deal, one the African tech ecosystem should savor regardless of the round in question.

“Pre-seed or seed are just names investors and founders give. They can basically mean the same thing, in my opinion,” she said. “What I think is most important is the fact that we’re getting more early-stage capital into Africa, and startups are getting more attention from investors, which is fantastic.”

Is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

While many deemed 2020 the year of SPAC, short for special purpose acquisition company, 2021 may well make last year look quaint in comparison.

It’s probably not premature to be asking: is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

Just today, we saw the trading debut of the most valuable company to date go public through a merger with one of these SPACs: 35-five-year-old, Pontiac, Michigan-based United Wholesale Mortgage, which is among the biggest mortgage companies in the U.S.

Its shares slipped a bit by the end of trading, closing at $11.35 down from their starting price of $11.54, but it’s doubtful anyone involved is crying into their cocktails tonight. The outfit was valued at a whopping $16 billion when its merger with the blank-check outfit Gores Holdings IV was approved earlier this week.

Why is this interesting? Well, first, despite UWM’s size, unlike with a traditional IPO that can require 12 to 18 months of preparation, UWM’s path to going public took less than a year, beginning with Gores Holdings IV completing its IPO in late January 2020 and raising approximately $425 million in cash.

Alec Gores, the billionaire founder of of the private equity firm Gores Group, led the deal. It isn’t clear when Gores approached UWM, but the tie-up was announced back in September and ultimately included a $500 million private placement. (It’s typical to tack-on these transactions once a target company has been identified and accepts the terms of the proposed merger. Most targets are many times larger than the SPACs. In fact, according to law firm Vinson & Elkins, there’s no maximum size of a target company.)

Also notable is that UWM is a mature company, one that says it generated $1.3 billion in revenue in the third quarter of last year alone. UWM CEO Mat Ishbia, whose father started the company in 1986, said last fall that the company is “massively profitable.”

It’s a story unlike that of many other outfits to go public recently through the SPAC process. Many — Opendoor, Luminar Technologies, Virgin Galactic — are still developing businesses that need capital to keep going and which might not have found much more from private market investors. Indeed, today’s deal would seem to open up a new world of possibilities, and for companies of all sizes.

Either way, it isn’t likely to hold the record for ‘biggest SPAC deal ever’ for long. Not only is interest in SPACs as feverish as ever, billionaire investor William Ackman is still sitting on a $4 billion SPAC to which he has said he’ll throw in an additional $1 billion in cash from his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital.

You can bet the deal will be a doozy. Reportedly, Ackerman was at one point looking to take public Airbnb with his SPAC, which began trading in July. When Airbnb passed on the proposed merger, he reportedly reached out to the privately held media conglomerate Bloomberg (which Bloomberg has said is untrue).

Because SPACs typically complete a merger with a private company in two years or less, speculation continues to run rampant about what Ackman will put together. In the meantime, there have already been 59 new SPAC offerings this year — as many as in all of 2019 — that have raised $16.8 billion, and there’s seemingly no end in sight.

Just this week, Fifth Wall Ventures, the four-year-old, L.A.-based proptech focused venture firm, registered plans to raise $250 million for a new blank-check company.

Intel Chairman Omar Ishrak, who previously ran medical device giant Medtronic, is planning to raise between $750 million and $1 billion for a blank-check firm targeting deals in the health tech sector, Bloomberg reported on Sunday.

Gores Group isn’t done, either. On Wednesday, it registered plans to raise $400 million in an IPO for its newest blank check company. It will be the outfit’s seventh to date.

There are now so many companies to go public through a SPAC exchange-traded funds are beginning to pop up, putting together baskets of SPAC deals for investors who want to hedge their bets.

The very newest fund, reported on earlier this week by the WSJ and overseen by hedge fund Morgan Creek Capital Management and  fintech company Exos Financial, will be actively managed and snap up stakes in firms that recently went public by merging with a SPAC, as well as shell companies that are still on the prowl.

It will be joining the world’s first actively managed exchange-traded fund focused on SPACs, the Calgary-based Accelerate Arbitrage Fund, which launched in April of last year.

A second ETF, the Defiance NextGen Derived SPAC ETF, emerged in October.

Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.