NASA injects $17M into four small companies with Artemis ambitions

NASA awards millions of dollars a year to small businesses through the SBIR program, but generally it’s a lot of small awards to hundreds of companies. Breaking with precedent, today the agency announced a new multi-million-dollar funding track and its four first recipients, addressing urgent needs for the Artemis program.

The Small Business Innovation Research program has various forms throughout the federal government, but it generally provides non-dilutive funding on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over a couple years to nudge a nascent technology towards commercialization.

NASA has found, however, that there is a gap between the medium-size Phase II awards and Phase III, which is more like a full-on government contract; There are already “Extended” and “Pilot” programs that can provide up to an additional $1M to promising companies. But the fact is space is expensive and time consuming, and some need larger sums to complete the tech that NASA has already indicated confidence in or a need for.

Therefore the creation of this new tier of Phase II award: less than a full contract would amount to, but up to $5M — nothing to sneeze at, and it comes with relatively few strings attached.

The first four companies to collect a check from this new, as yet unnamed program are all pursuing technologies that will be of particular use during the Artemis lunar missions:

  • Fibertek: Optical communications for small spacecraft that would help relay large amounts of data from lunar landers to Earth
  • Qualtech Systems: Autonomous monitoring, fault-prevention, and health management systems for spacecraft like the proposed Lunar Gateway and possibly other vehicles and habitats
  • Pioneer Astronautics: Hardware to produce oxygen and steel from lunar regolith — if achieved, an incredibly useful form of high-tech alchemy
  • Protoinnovations: Traction control to improve handling of robotic and crewed rovers on lunar terrain

It’s important to note that these companies aren’t new to the game — they have a long and ongoing relationship with NASA, as SBIR grants take place over multiple years. “Each business has a track record of success with NASA, and we believe their technologies will have a direct impact on the Artemis program,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news release.

The total awarded is $17M, but NASA, citing ongoing negotiations, could not be more specific about the breakdown except that the amounts awarded fall between $2.5M and $5M per company.

I asked the agency for a bit more information on the new program and how companies already in the SBIR system can apply to it or otherwise take advantage of the opportunity, and will update this post if I hear back.

Too little, too late: Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t launch until ‘late fall’

Facebook has announced that the limp “Oversight Board” intended to help make difficult content and policy decisions will not launch until “late fall,” which is to say, almost certainly after the election. You know, the election everyone is worried Facebook’s inability to police itself will serious affect.

On Twitter, the board explained that as much as it would like to “officially begin our task of providing independent oversight of Facebook’s content decisions,” it regrets that it will be unable to do so for some time. “Our focus is on building a strong institution that will deliver concrete results over the long term.”

That sounds well enough, but for many, the entire point of creating the oversight board — which has been in the offing since late 2018 — was to equip Facebook for the coming Presidential election, which promises to be something of a hot one.

As my colleague Natasha Lomas described the board when it was officially announced:

The Oversight Board is intended to sit atop the daily grind of Facebook content moderation, which takes place behind closed doors and signed NDAs, where outsourced armies of contractors are paid to eyeball the running sewer of hate, abuse and violence so actual users don’t have to, as a more visible mechanism for resolving and thus (Facebook hopes) quelling speech-related disputes.

But as we soon found out, the board would have nothing to do with what many would call the most dangerous content on Facebook: fast-spreading misinformation. The board will for now primarily concern itself with disputed takedowns of content, not simply disputed content. On many matters its decisions will be merely advisory.

Facebook has taken a relatively laissez-faire attitude towards manipulated media, deliberate misinformation, misleading political ads and other troubling content, and executives including Mark Zuckerberg have regularly reinforced that attitude.

An attempt to hit the company in its wallet has proven unexpectedly successful, with many large companies pledging to at least temporarily advertising from Facebook to protest these policies. Coca-Cola, Ford, REI, and even TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon have signed on to #StopHateforProfit. Facebook met with representatives of the effort today and the latter were, predictably, disappointed.

“Today we saw little and heard just about nothing,” said Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. It seems that Facebook does not consider the present pecuniary punishment heavy enough to warrant a serious response.

The delay of the Oversight Board, even the defanged one being promised, is just one more straw on the camel’s back.

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

Festo’s latest biomimetic robots are a flying feathered bird and ball-bottomed helper arm

You could be excused for thinking that German robotics company Festo does nothing but put together fabulous prototype robots built to resemble kangaroos, jellyfish, and other living things. They do in fact actually make real industrial robots, but it’s hard not to marvel at their biomimetic experiments; Case in point, the feathered BionicSwift and absurd BionicMobileAssistant motile arm.

Festo already has a flying bird robot — I wrote about it almost 10 years ago. They even made a flying bat as a follow-up. But the BionicSwift is more impressive than both because, in an effort to more closely resemble its avian inspiration, it flies using artificial feathers.

Image Credits: Festo

“The individual lamellae [i.e. feathers] are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model,” Festo writes in its description of the robot.

The articulating lamellae allow the wing to work like a bird’s, forming a powerful scoop on the downstroke to push against the air, but separating on the upstroke to produce less resistance. Everything is controlled on-board, including the indoor positioning system that the bird was ostensibly built to demonstrate. Flocks of BionicSwifts can fly in close quarters and avoid each other using an ultra wideband setup.

Festo’s BionicMobileAssistant seems like it would be more practical, and in a way it is, but not by much. The robot is basically an arm emerging from a wheeled base — or rather a balled one. The spherical bottom is driven by three “omniwheels,” letting it move easily in any direction while minimizing its footprint.

The hand is a showcase of modern robotic gripper design, with all kinds of state of the art tech packed in there — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. What makes a robotic hand good these days is less that it has a hundred sensors in the palm and fingers and huge motility for its thumb, but rather intelligence about what it is gripping. An unadorned pincer may be a better “hand” than one that looks like the real thing because of the software that backs it up.

Not to mention the spherical movement strategy makes for something of an unstable base. It’s telling that the robot is transporting scarves and not plates of food or parts.

Of course, it’s silly to criticize such a machine, which is aspirational rather than practical. But it’s important to understand that these fascinating creations from Festo are hints at a possible future more than anything.

Police roll up crime networks in Europe after infiltrating popular encrypted chat app

Hundreds of alleged drug dealers and other criminals are in custody today after police in Europe infiltrated an encrypted chat system reportedly used by thousands to discuss illegal operations. The total failure of this ostensibly secure method of communication will likely have a chilling effect on the shadowy industry of crime-focused tech.

“Operation Venetic” was reported by various police agencies, major local news outlets, and by Motherboard in especially vibrant form, quoting extensively people apparently from within the groups affected.

The operation involved hundreds of officers working across numerous agencies in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other countries. It began in 2017, and culminated two months ago when a service called EncroChat was hacked and the messages of tens of thousands of users exposed to police scrutiny.

EncroChat is a step up in some ways from encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp. Rather like Blackberry once did, EncroChat provided customized hardware, a dedicated OS, and its own servers to users, providing an expensive service costing thousands per year rather than a one-time purchase or download.

Messages on the service were supposedly very secure and had deniability built in by letting conversations be edited later — so theoretically a user could claim after the fact they never said something. Motherboard’s Joseph Cox has been following the company for some time and has far more details on its claims and operations.

Image Credits: EncroChat /

Needless to say those claims were not entirely true, as at some point in early 2020 police managed to introduce malware into the EncroChat system that completely exposed the conversations and images of its users. Because of the trusted nature of the app, people would openly discuss drug deals, murders, and other crimes, making them sitting ducks for law enforcement.

Throughout the spring criminal operations were being cracked open with alarming (to them) regularity, but it wasn’t until May that users and EncroChat managed to put the pieces together. The company attempted to warn its users and issue an update, but the cat was out of the bag. Seeing that its operation was now exposed, the Operation Venetic teams struck.

Arrests across the several countries involved (there were numerous sub-operations but France and the Netherlands were the primary investigators) total near a thousand, but exact numbers are not clear. Dozens of guns, tons (metric, naturally) of drugs and the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in cash were seized. More importantly, the chat logs seem to have provided access to people higher up the food chain than ordinary busts would have.

That the reportedly most popular of encrypted chat companies focused on illegal activities could be so completely subverted by international authorities will likely put a damper on its competition. But like other, more domestic challenges to encryption, such as the perennial complaints by the FBI, this event is more likely to strengthen the tools in the long run.

State-backed COVID-19 disinfo spreads faster and farther than local news outlets in 4 languages

Questionable stories on COVID-19 from state-backed outlets in Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran are being shared more widely than reporting by major news organizations around the world, according to Oxford analysts. French German, Spanish and English news sites see far less social engagement than these foreign-originated ones in their languages.

The study is part of ongoing monitoring of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns by the Computational Propaganda Project. The group found that major outlets like Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais are being outshared four or five to one in some metrics by content from Russia Today, China Radio International, and other state-backed organizations.

Earlier reports focused on English-language sharing of this type of media, which can be generally described as act-adjacent with a strong emphasis on certain narratives. The repeated finding was that although mainstream news outlets have an overall stronger presence, state-backed and junk news is way ahead in engagement per post or article. In the latest report it is shown that on average, mainstream articles collect about 25 engagements per post, while state-backed items get 125. When multiplied by millions of users and followers, that becomes an enormous discrepancy.

There is more nuance to the data than that, of course, but it gives a general idea of what’s happening: disinformation is being spread widely, whether by bots or organic reach, while ordinary news sources only reach a similar amount of people through more output and wider initial reach. It wasn’t, however, clear whether this was the case outside English-language media.

It certainly seems to be, according to data collected over three weeks from a variety of news sources. Mainstream media had a larger overall reach but state-backed media often produced far higher engagement per article. This is perhaps explained by the fact that the state-backed organizations tended to pursue and push controversies and divisive narratives. As the study puts it:

  • Russian outlets working in French and German consistently emphasized weak democratic institutions and civil disorder in Europe, but offered different kinds of conspiracy theories about the pandemic;
  • Chinese and Turkish outlets working in Spanish promoted their own countries’ global leadership in combating the pandemic, while Russian and Iranian outlets generated polarizing content targeted at Latin America and Spanish-speaking social media users in the United States.

That sort of clickbait spreads like wildfire on social media, of course, and few of those who thoughtlessly hit that share button will have the inclination to check whether the source is a government-backed news agency plainly attempting to sow discord.

On the other hand, it seems as if some consider turnabout fair play. For example: a Chinese state-backed news countering the flourishing U.S. conspiracy theory that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon with a counter-theory that it is a U.S. bioweapon released in and blamed on China.

“Many of these state-backed outlets blend reputable, fact-based reporting about the coronavirus with misleading or false information, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Oxford’s Katarian Rebello in a news release.

The countries and state-backed outlets mentioned also have a major presence in Arabic language markets and the researchers are working on a follow-up study inclusive of those.

NASA pays out $51 million to small businesses with big ideas

NASA has announced its latest batch of small business grants, providing more than 300 businesses a total of $51 million in crucial early-stage funding. These “phase I” projects receive up to $125,000 to help bring new technologies to market.

The Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer programs help entrepreneurs and inventors transition their work from lab to commercial availability. The money is like a grant, not an investment, and Phase I recipients are eligible for larger Phase II grants if they’re warranted.

This year’s selections, as always, cover dozens of disciplines and apply to a wide range of industries. Among NASA’s own highlights in a news release are high-power solar arrays, a smart air traffic control system for urban flight, a water purification system for use on the moon and improved lithium-ion batteries.

There’s even one award for a company making “a compact sterilizer for use on spacecraft materials” that could also be employed by health workers.

Perusing the lists I was struck by the number of neuromorphic computing efforts, from radiation-hardened chips to software techniques. I take these to be chips and approaches that utilize and accelerate machine learning methods, rather than attempts at computers that truly employ the spikes and plasticity of actual neuronal networks.

The 2020 Phase II announcements won’t come for a while — NASA just released 2019’s last month.

The SBIR program is one of the federal government’s inadvertently best-kept secrets, with billions allocated to a dozen agencies to distribute to small businesses. You can learn more at SBIR.gov.

Oculus co-founder and games industry vets form Mountaintop Studios

Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is heading up a new game development house called Mountaintop Studios, joined by colleagues from around the gaming industry. The company aims to leave the crunch and toxic culture pervasive in game studios behind and make one that’s “collaborative, anti-crunch, diverse, and inclusive.”

The founding team includes Mitchell’s former colleague Mark Terrano, who was creative director at Oculus, Matt Hansen, former COO of Double Fine, and artist Rich Lyons, who worked at Naughty Dog and Vigil.

According to its webpage, Mountaintop will be creating “multiplayer games for players who crave a challenge,” though when I chatted with Mitchell and Hansen, they cited mostly single-player titles. The theme they came back to was growth and a journey: mystery, but also mastery.

As the company’s initial blog post puts it:

It isn’t just the thrill of victory. It’s looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. How you were forced to grow, adapt, and improve. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re better than you were before. And sometimes, it’s sharing the joy of the climb with your friends.

While it’s too early for the team to reveal details on their first game, “we think we’re onto something,” Mitchell said. Considering the time and effort it takes to create a AAA game these days, and the fact that Mountaintop is currently only five full-timers, we can probably expect the first details no earlier than next year.

But the founders were clear that the company is also about getting away from the culture problems in game development.

“What we really want to do is have a studio that is people first,” Mitchell said. “There are so many folks across the industry who have just been burnt out by endless crunch. And the expectations around hours don’t allow for any sort of work life balance. We want Mountaintop to be a place where people can come and still have that.”

But it isn’t just labor issues of crunch and overtime plaguing gaming. Racism and sexism that are endemic and evident in both the final products and companies themselves. And it must be said that the founders themselves follow one of the most common and unfortunate trends in the industry: All four are white men.

Mitchell and Hansen declined to make any specific commitments as far as diversity and inclusion go, despite those values being central to the new studio. They did, at least, acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of this pursuit.

“There’s no silver bullet for inclusivity, a lot of it is long term work,” Mitchell said. “Because it’s a fresh studio, a fresh culture, we can start from scratch with the right foundation. We never thought when we kicked off the studio that we’d be launching in the middle of not just a pandemic, but a global conversation about institutionalized racism, police violence, and injustice. So talking about that stuff internally, where we stand as individuals and as a company, that informs how we act as a company.”

“One of the earliest conversations we had was around getting the culture right. Our founders are all aligned in this,” added Hansen.

“There’s a bunch of micro things we can do every day,” continued Mitchell. “Setting our cultural values, making sure people understand those, driving towards inclusivity and diversity training, excellent hiring practices, working with community groups and integrating and supporting them, maybe recruiting from there.”

It’s a lot of promises and few concrete commitments, a common theme in tech and gaming these days. Having one’s heart in the right place is nice, but what the industries need is action. Hopefully the promises are preludes to lasting decisions, but only time (plus real and sustained effort on Mountaintop’s part) will tell.

Blackbaud’s cloud for ‘social good’ serves customers that work against human rights

Blackbaud offers enterprise tools ostensibly in a campaign to support social good, but the company also provides services to far-right organizations the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Security Policy, TechCrunch has discovered.

Blackbaud describes itself as “the world’s leading cloud software company powering social good,” and collects revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars from that business. Nothing about that mission is partisan, and good can of course be accomplished by groups all across the current American political spectrum.

But while conservative causes are by no means excluded from the category, the far-right stances of Heritage and especially those of CSP are difficult to square with even the broadest interpretation of social good.

The decades-old Heritage Foundation has been behind lobbying efforts against climate change action, equal rights for LGBTQ Americans and immigration modernization efforts. It has worked on behalf of the oil and tobacco industries, opposed health care reform and recommended the likes of Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt to the administration.

Google recently scuttled an advisory committee on AI that included Heritage’s president after overwhelming criticism that they had essentially endorsed the think tank’s policies.

According to GLAAD, Heritage “has made it a focused mission to stop all laws protecting on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” This alone makes it a poor match for a company that just weeks ago said in celebration of Pride that “we want to underscore that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights.”

Yet according to documents reviewed by TechCrunch, Blackbaud collects about $180,000 in annual revenue from the Heritage Foundation and has worked with them for about 15 years.

The Center for Security Policy is a more extreme case. Designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, CSP has pursued a hardline anti-Muslim stance for years. It publishes reports saying jihadists are infiltrating the U.S. government and was commissioned to perform polling to show support for Trump’s Muslim travel ban. A CSP executive was hired by John Bolton to serve in the administration and later left to rejoin the anti-Muslim organization as its head.

Image Credits: Blackbaud

One recent study warns of a Muslim plot “even more sinister” than the widespread sexual abuse revealed in the #MeToo era: “Sharia-supremacists are insinuating themselves into script-writing, Hollywood ‘consulting,’ film production, and even financial scholarships designed to facilitate young Muslims’ penetration of the entertainment industry.”

The documents show a smaller contract with CSP, amounting to about $11,000 in annual revenue.

Blackbaud records show interactions with both companies within the last month or so; these are current contracts. Neither Heritage nor CSP responded to requests for comment, and Blackbaud would not confirm they are customers as a matter of policy.

“Blackbaud provides cloud software, services, data intelligence and expertise to a wide spectrum of registered 501c3 organizations and companies that are lawfully conducting business. Those organizations are diverse in their missions and belief systems, but we remain committed to building the best software to support all who are truly doing good in achieving their missions,” the company said in a statement. It then referred me to a recent blog post entitled “EQUALITY.”

While doing business with a couple of bad actors doesn’t negate Blackbaud’s work with other organizations actually working for the social good, the discrepancy bears highlighting given the company’s virtue-first brand. If the concept of social good they are working with is mutable enough that it includes hate groups, other organizations might think twice about trusting that message.

At times like the present, companies are being called on to not just say they are dedicated to things like human rights, anti-racism and other causes, but to demonstrate it and respond to criticism. According to Blackbaud:

“Racism and acts of hate strip people of basic human rights and defy the very principles of what ‘good’ stands for. We condemn racism and discrimination and seek solutions to end the suffering in our communities and world.

Equality must be more than a motto. It must be a promise to each other and the world.”

By espousing equality on one hand and making millions from those who oppose it on the other, it may be fairly questioned whether that promise is being kept.

Four perspectives: Will Apple trim App Store fees?

The fact that Apple takes a 30% cut of subscriptions purchased via the App Store isn’t news. But since the company threatened to boot email app Hey from the platform last week unless its developers paid the customary tribute, the tech world and lawmakers are giving Apple’s revenue share a harder look.

Although Apple’s Senior Vice President of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller denied the company was making any changes, a new policy will let developers challenge the very rules by which they were rejected from the platform, which suggests that change is in the air.

According to its own numbers, the App Store facilitated more than $500 billion in e-commerce transactions in 2019. For reference, the federal government has given out about $529 billion in loans to U.S. businesses as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Given its massive reach, is it time for Apple to change its terms? Will it allow its revenue share to go gently into that good night, or does it have enough resources to keep new legislation at bay and mollify an increasingly vocal community of software developers? To examine these questions, four TechCrunch staffers weighed in:

Devin Coldewey: The App Store fee structure “seems positively extortionate”

Apple is starting to see that its simplistic and paternalistic approach to cultivating the app economy may be doing more harm than good. That wasn’t always the case: In earlier days it was worth paying Apple simply for the privilege of taking part in its fast-expanding marketplace.

But the digital economy has moved on from the conditions that drove growth before: Novelty at first, then a burgeoning ad market supercharged by social media. The pendulum is swinging back to more traditional modes of payment: one-time and subscription payments for no-nonsense services. Imagine that!

Combined with the emergence of mobile platforms not just as tools for simple consumption and communication but for serious work and productivity, the stakes have risen. People have started asking, what value is Apple really providing in return for the rent it seeks from anyone who wants to use its platform?

Surely Apple is due something for its troubles, but just over a quarter of a company’s revenue? What seemed merely excessive for a 99-cent app that a pair of developers were just happy to sell a few thousand copies of now seems positively extortionate.

Apple is in a position of strength and could continue shaking down the industry, but it is wary of losing partners in the effort to make its platform truly conducive to productivity. The market is larger and more complicated, with cross-platform and cross-device complications of which the App Store and iOS may only be a small part — but demanding an incredibly outsized share.

It will loosen the grip, but there’s no hurry. It would be a costly indignity to be too permissive and have its new rules be gamed and hastily revised. Allowing developers to push back on rules they don’t like gives Apple a lot to work with but no commitment. Big players will get a big voice, no doubt, and the new normal for the App Store will reflect a detente between moneyed interests, not a generous change of heart by Apple.