Facebook launches commerce and connectivity-focused accelerator programs

Facebook launched two 12-week accelerator programs for startups on Monday as the social juggernaut looks for new ideas and solutions to expand its commerce and connectivity efforts.

Facebook’s Commerce Accelerator will select 60 startups from the EMEA and LATAM regions for the program, the company said. The startups that make the cut will explore building shopping solutions to drive commerce inside Facebook’s family of apps.

“Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from an entrepreneur to the largest brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Michael Huang, Head of Startup Programs at Facebook, in a blog post.

The company said a recent global survey it conducted in partnership with the OECD and World Bank found that at least a third of small to medium-sized businesses on Facebook reported 25% or more of their sales being made digitally in the past month.

“With so many sales being made online, the importance of intuitive and positive e-commerce experiences for customers has become even greater,” the company said in a statement.

The other accelerator program, called Connectivity, will feature 30 startups from the LATAM and North America (Americas) regions. These startups will be tasked with developing affordable connectivity solutions that make internet access available in more places and to at least 100,000 additional people.

Facebook said through these accelerator programs it aims to provide local development opportunities for entrepreneurs. The company holds one or two similar accelerator programs each year in some markets. In total, the company has launched accelerator programs in 11 countries to date.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Facebook to conduct the accelerator programs virtually this year, has “exposed the hard truth of the digital divide and the critical need for reliable, affordable internet connectivity,” wrote Huang.

Participating startups will gain access to cost-free training, 1:1 mentorship, and access to Facebook products, its expertise and access to a global network of startup peers and successful founders. But the company is not offering monetary benefits to startups —  something it has in some of its previous accelerator programs — at accelerators announced on Monday.

Startups interested in either of the accelerator programs can submit their application.

“At Facebook, we strongly believe that by connecting, training, and growing entrepreneurs and startups through our programs, we can empower people to solve relevant, meaningful problems. We aim to build products that billions of people can use and benefit from,” Huang wrote.

Facebook has long focused on connectivity efforts, but its interest in commerce is relatively new. In May, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Shops to make it easier for companies to list their products on Facebook and Instagram.

OneKey wants to make it easier to work without a desktop by integrating apps into mobile keyboards

“The app that you use the most on your phone and you don’t realize it is your keyboard,” says Christophe Barre the co-founder and chief executive of OneKey.

A member of Y Combinator’s most recent cohort, OneKey has a plan to make work easier on mobile devices by turning the keyboard into a new way to serve up applications like calendars, to-do lists, and, eventually, even Salesforce functionality.

People have keyboards for emojis, other languages, and gifs, but there have been few ways to integrate business apps into the keyboard functionality, says Barre. And he’s out to change that.

Right now, the company’s first trick will be getting a Calendly-like scheduling app onto the keyboard interface. Over time, the company will look to create modules that they can sell in an app-store style marketplace for the keyboard space on smartphones.

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For Barre, the inspiration behind OneKey was the time spent working in Latin America and primarily conducting business through WhatsApp. The tool was great for messaging, but enterprise functionality broke down across for scheduling or other enterprise app integrations.

“People are doing more and more stuff on mobile and it’s happening right now in business,” said Barre. “When you switch from a computer-based world to a mobile phone, a lot of the productivity features disappear.”

Barre, originally from the outskirts of Paris, traveled to Bogota with his partner. She was living there and he was working on a sales automation startup called DeepLook. Together with his DeepLook co-founder (and high school friend), Ulysses Pryjiel, Barre set out to see if he could bring some of the business tools he needed over to the mobile environment.

The big realization for Barre was the under-utilized space on the phone where the keyboard inputs reside. He thinks of OneKey as a sort of browser extension for mobile phones, centered in the keyboard real estate.

“The marketplace for apps is the longterm vision,” said Barre. “That’s how you bring more and more value to people. We started with those features like calendars and lists that brought more value quickly without being too specialized.”

The idea isn’t entirely novel. SwiftKey had a marketplace for wallpapers, Barre said, but nothing as robust as the kinds of apps and services that he envisions.

“If you can do it in a regular app, it’s very likely that you can do it through a keyboard,” Barre said.

YC-backed Artifact looks to make podcasts more personal

Historically, podcasts have been focused on appealing to as many listeners as possible. But Artifact, a new YC-backed company launching today, has a different idea.

It all started when cofounder and CEO Ross Chanin lost his grandfather. He found himself wishing he’d spent more time asking him about his life. At the same time, he was mulling the audio revolution underway in the tech world after having cofounded Reputation.com and serving as COO at Euclid (acquired by WeWork).

Over a beer with his friend George Quraishi, a journalist, they decided to try out the idea of a more personal podcast for a specific, smaller audience, starting with Ross’s Aunt Cindy. They did audio interviews with three of Aunt Cindy’s closest friends, who shared intimate details about their friendships with Cindy, from how they met to their favorite memories to what they love most about her.

“When Ross’s cousin got out his phone and played the mp3 for Cindy on her birthday, she started crying,” wrote Qurashi. “And laughing. Later, she said, ‘You know, you just go through life, you don’t really think about somebody recalling what’s important to them about you, or what you mean to them.'”

This was the glimmer in the eye of Chanin and Qurashi to build out Artifact. They teamed up with Moncef Biaz (CTO) to handle the technical back end infrastructure.

Using professionally contracted interviewers, Artifact conducts short interviews with a person’s closest friends or family and turns them into a personal podcast. Some of these interviewers are journalists like Qurashi, and others are simply great listeners, such as a bartender, a few actors, and even a comedian.

Interviewees either call a phone number for their interview, or the more tech-savvy among them can dial in via their computer for a higher fidelity audio quality.

After the interview, Artifact handles the editing and polish to offer a higher-quality final product that is delivered to the recipient via the web.

“On the one hand you have your purely user generated content and then you have this high-production content,” said Chanin. “Our general sense is that there is a pretty large missing middle. We’re getting to 80 or 90 percent of what a studio-produced podcast would sound like. And no one cares about that extra 10 or 20 percent.”

One of the things that is most special about Artifact also happens to be a big challenge for the product: It can be used in almost any way. This can make it difficult to define and leave the ball in the court of the user to dream up what they want their Artifact to be.

The Portrait, which focuses on stories from friends and family about a single person, is an obvious use case. But Artifact is also used by couples for their wedding, with annual podcasts for each year of their marriage. Folks can use the service to reflect on huge milestones in their lives, or to catalogue the growth of their child from the kid’s point of view. Businesses are even starting to use Artifact in this COVID-19 world to get to know their colleagues better during remote work.

“Our customers are not the product,” said Chanin. “They are buying a product. We think that Artifact loses a lot if the default assumption is that millions of people are going to hear this. Certainly, Artifacts can be used in that way, but the primary sharing is to close friends and family.”

Chanin added that the average Artifact episode is listened to by about 30 people.

Artifact generates revenue by charging users per episode, with each episode allowing up to two interviewees. One episode costs $175, two episodes costs $325, and four episodes costs $625.

The team is comprised of four full time workers, with 12 interviewers contracted on the project. The full time team is 100 percent male and 50 percent of employees are people of color. Fifty-five percent of contractors are people of color and 35 percent are women.

The company has raised a total of $500,000, which includes $150,000 from Y Combinator, as well as funding from David Lieb (Founder of Bump and Director, Google Photos), Sander Daniels (cofounder of Thumbtack), Eric Kinariwala (founder and CEO of Capsule), and Sean Bratches (Fmr. Managing Director, Formula 1. Fmr. EVP, ESPN).

Y Combinator’s Kuleana is making an animal-free substitute for raw tuna

Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat that are making vegetable-based meat substitutes have captured the imagination and wallets of consumers, but so far, there’s been no real corollary for the seafood industry.

Now, a startup coming from Y Combinator’s summer cohort, Kuleana, is hoping it can swim in those waters.

While new businesses like Wild Type, Finless Foods, and Shiok Meats are all developing cell-based alternatives to using live tuna, salmon, and shrimp and Good Catch and Ocean Hugger are proposing their own tuna replacements, but Kuleana hopes to differentiate itself by replicating sushi-grade raw tuna.

And that’s only the beginning, according to Kuleana co-founder and chief executive, Jacek Prus. Eventually, the company hopes to be making vegetarian alternatives to tuna, salmon, and more fish and shellfish.

“Nobody has really done raw tuna very well yet,” says Jacek Prus. “We’re going to do raw tuna and then probably salmon.”

Prus became interested in the food industry after taking an animal ethics class at the University of Texas at Austin. After five years in the city, Prus moved to Europe and helped set up the ProVeg International incubator.

It was there that Prus got in touch with Ron Shigeta, a longtime researcher, technologist and entrepreneur in the food science space who previously worked as the Chief Science Officer at IndieBio. Shigeta put Prus in touch with the Barcelona-based food science researcher Sonia Hurtado and the three launched Kuleana (Shigeta has since left the company).

The food accelerator experience gave Prus, a lifelong meat eater before college, a grounding in alternative proteins and led to the thinking around how to develop a more flavorful fish alternative.

Sample product from Kuleana. Image Credit: Kuleana

Kuleana’s tuna is made using iron and algae oil and a mix of different proteins, and forming them in a proprietary way, Prus said. Using an initial EUR50,000 in seed funding from Good Seed Ventures, Kuleana is developing a scaffolding that will enable the company to recreate the taste and texture of raw fish, without using 3D printing techniques (which Prus said could make the product look and taste “cooked”).

To get to market Kuleana is reaching out to a number of sushi chefs at restaurants around the country, because the first target is, in fact, restaurants.

“What we found is that 60 percent [of seafood] is eaten out of the home, and with raw seafood that’s significantly higher,” said Prus. “We’re doing it heavier on the food service route.”

Within the year, Kuleana may be appearing in some stores as a tuna alternative in sushi rolls and poke bowls at a price that Prus said is already competitive with higher grade tuna loin.

Kuleana already held two successful taste tests in Barcelona and San Francisco and the company boasted in a recent note to investors that there were letters of intent for orders of over 50,000 pounds of the company’s vegetarian tuna substitute.

“The taste of tuna isn’t the hardest part… It’s the texture,” says Prus. “[Competitors] are formatting their process through extrusion and it will not work. I’m confident that what we’re doing with the biotech might be one of the best approaches out there.”

Facebook fights order to globally block accounts linked to Brazilian election meddling

Facebook has branded a legal order to globally block a number of Brazilian accounts linked to the spread of political disinformation targeting the country’s 2018 election as “extreme”, claiming it poses a threat to freedom of expression outside the country.

The tech giant is simultaneously complying with the block order — beginning Saturday after it was fined by a Supreme Court judge for non-compliance — citing the risk of criminal liability for a local employee were it not to do so.

However it is appealing to the Supreme Court to try to overturn the order.

A spokesperson for the tech giant sent us this statement on the matter:

Facebook complied with the order of blocking these accounts in Brazil by restricting the ability for the target Pages and Profiles to be seen from IP locations in Brazil. People from IP locations in Brazil were not capable of seeing these Pages and Profiles even if the targets had changed their IP location. This new legal order is extreme, posing a threat to freedom of expression outside of Brazil’s jurisdiction and conflicting with laws and jurisdictions worldwide. Given the threat of criminal liability to a local employee, at this point we see no other alternative than complying with the decision by blocking the accounts globally, while we appeal to the Supreme Court.

On Friday a judge ordered Facebook to pay a 1.92 million reais (~$367k) fine for non compliance, per Reuters, which says the company had been facing further daily fines of 100,000 reais (~$19k) had it not applied a global block.

Before the fine was announced Facebook had said it would appeal the global block order, adding that while it respects the laws of countries where it operates “Brazilian law recognizes the limits of its jurisdiction”.

Reuters reports that the accounts in question were controlled by supporters of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and had been implicated in the spread of political disinformation during the country’s 2018 election with the aim of boosting support for the right wing populist.

Last month the news agency reported Facebook had suspended a network of social media accounts used to spread divisive political messages online which the company had linked to employees of Bolsonaro and two of his sons.

In a blog post at the time, Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, wrote: “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Social Liberal Party and some of the employees of the offices of Anderson Moraes, Alana Passos, Eduardo Bolsonaro, Flavio Bolsonaro and Jair Bolsonaro.”

In all Facebook said it removed 33 Facebook accounts, 14 Pages, 1 Group and 37 Instagram accounts that it identified as involved in the “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.

It also disclosed that around 883,000 accounts followed one or more of the offending Pages; while the Group had around 350 accounts signed up; and 918,000 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts.

The political disops effort had spent around $1,500 on Facebook ads, paid for in Brazilian reais, per its account of the investigation.

Facebook said it had identified a network of “clusters” of “connected activity”, with those involved using duplicate and fake accounts to “evade enforcement, create fictitious personas posing as reporters, post content, and manage Pages masquerading as news outlets”.

An example of removed content that was being spread by the disops network identified by Facebook (Image credit: Facebook)

The network posted about “local news and events including domestic politics and elections, political memes, criticism of the political opposition, media organizations and journalists”; and, more recently, about the coronavirus pandemic, it added.

In May a judge in Brazil had ordered Facebook to a block a number of accounts belonging to Bolsonaro supporters who had been implicated in the election meddling. But Facebook only applied the block in Brazil — hence the court order for a global block.

While the tech giant was willing to remove access to the inauthentic content locally, after it had identified a laundry list of policy contraventions, it’s taking a ‘speech’ stance over purging the fake content and associated accounts internationally — arguing such an order risks overreach that could damage freedom of expression online.

The unstated implication is authoritarian states or less progressive regimes could seek to use similar orders to force platforms to apply national laws which prohibit content that’s legal and freely available elsewhere to force it to be taken down in another jurisdiction.

That said, it’s not entirely clear in this specific case why Facebook would not simply bring down its own banhammer on accounts that it has found to have so flagrantly violated its own policies on coordinated authentic behavior. But the company has at times treated political ‘speech’ as somehow exempt from its usual content standards — leading to operating policies that tie themselves in contradictory nots.

Its blog post further notes that some of the content posted by the Brazilian election interference operation had previously been taken down for violating its Community Standards, including hate speech.

The case doesn’t just affect Facebook. In May, Twitter was also ordered to block a number of accounts linked to the probe into political disops. It’s not clear what action Twitter is taking.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment.

Google to invest $450M in smart home security solutions provider ADT

Google said on Monday it will invest $450 million in ADT and work with the Florida-headquartered firm’s technicians to sell and install Google’s Nest family of smart home products.

As part of the long-term investment — which is granting Google a 6.6% stake in ADT — the two companies will first attempt to reach more individual consumers and small businesses, and then work on building and selling next-generation smart home security offerings, they said.

Both companies have also committed $150 million each — provided they reach certain milestones — for co-marketing, product development, and investment in technology and employee training.

“The partnership will combine Nest’s award-winning hardware and services, powered by Google’s machine learning technology, with ADT’s installation, service and professional monitoring network to create a more helpful smart home and integrated experience for customers across the United States,” ADT wrote in a blog post.

ADT’s shares soared 38% in the pre-market trading on the announcement.

“We’re excited to partner with ADT to further our mission of building helpful devices for the home,” said Rishi Chandra, GM and Vice President of Nest, in a statement. “ADT is a leader in smart home security, and I look forward to working with the team to create innovative smart home security solutions that help everyone feel safe and protected.”

More to follow…