A pledge to unite international students and tech

I count myself blessed to have been contributing my weekly Dear Sophie articles to Extra Crunch since the beginning of 2020. The inspiration for the column struck last December after I returned to the Bay Area from speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt. I was doing my hair, and I remember feeling the spark of the idea begin to take shape in my mind. Before I fully understood the shape of the thought, I knew it was already resonating in my heart.

The last three-and-a-half years have been hell for immigrants and hell for immigration lawyers. Probably a lot of caring government immigration adjudicators have felt it, too. But it’s like an abusive relationship: The people who keep getting knocked around by the administration are completely powerless and literally have no voice, as they are not entitled to the right to vote. Many immigrants live in fear that the cost of opening their mouths would be retaliation and deportation. So we need a new paradigm.

The latest insult to injury affecting high-skilled immigration, in the wake of consular closures and the the H-1B ban, is last week’s announcement that raises the possibility of the potential deportation of hundreds of thousands of international students currently enrolled in U.S. higher ed for taking online-only classes during COVID-19.

Even with litigation by Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins, and some programs offering qualifying courses for students to maintain enrollment, the clock is ticking. My firm is inundated by requests from students both local and even abroad, struggling to find a way to continue to simply “be” in the U.S. legally.

Many others are desperate to find employment to remain in status in the U.S. on OPT and STEM OPT work permits. Working visas such as the H-1B, a common option for many recent graduates, are also disintegrating. So many are scared that they could be forced to leave, as they have been now, for years.

Why is it hard to leave? Well, think about it. Immigrants are people. Your friends, your neighbors. Like you. Some international grad students who have been here for almost a decade completing cutting-edge research put down roots and might be pregnant now or have U.S. citizen children, not to mention, potentially have been working for decades for lucrative job opportunities ahead.

And then, beyond the obvious COVID-19 health concerns about departing the U.S. on international flights in the midst of a pandemic, some home countries aren’t even accepting citizens immediately and returning students may face long waits for flights with potentially exorbitant fees. Many students, families and university administrators around the country and around the world are scared.

So many immigrants are trying their best, but under this administration it feels like a Sisyphean task — never enough — as the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

All last week I found myself fielding The Zoom Calls of Panic: the brilliant UX designer who tells me he’s in purgatory; the accomplished Ph.D. who laments that “the U.S. is the only country that won’t take me after I get my U.S. Ph.D.”; the amazing business woman crying that she needs an extraordinary ability visa not for herself but so that she doesn’t disappoint all the families of all the people for whom she has created jobs in the United States.

Yet also, last week, there were so many glimmers of hope, opportunities for my clients to make decisions, and chances I got to take to show somebody that they can have choices, routes, strategies and hope.

One of the most inspiring things was all of the employers who have been coming out of the woodwork to support international students and grads to sponsor them for visas. Five years ago, that was simply a matter of routine business necessity in a system that was predictable, secure, navigable and easily accomplished in volume. Now, meeting a U.S. employer excited to sponsor international students as an act of solidarity gives me chills as an act of courageous heroism.

One of the events that almost moved me to tears last week was when I stayed up late one night and dragged myself to put on makeup after I finally got my elementary school kids to bed. Bleary, I provided a rambling 40-minute YouTube live stream interpreting the F-1 visa ban for international students after they had requested this from me on LinkedIn saying “In Sophie We Trust” (no pressure!). During the live stream, I received a comment from David Valverde, founder of Pranos.ai. He said that he had been an international student and that he would pledge to consider international students for job openings at his rapidly scaling startup.

We stayed in touch throughout the week on LinkedIn, and every time a stranded international student with a tech background who needed a job contacted me, I sent them David’s way. We finally connected on Friday, and somehow egged each other on to commit to volunteering in a self-imposed 2.5-day “hackathon for social good.”

This weekend’s result? We proudly announce the Community for Global Innovation (CFGI), a movement centralizing how companies and individuals around the world can stand in solidarity with international students and the belief that everybody deserves a chance to succeed.

CFGI is a constellation of top startups, VCs, professionals, nonprofits, international students and grads. We pledge to support international students, create awareness and effect change.

Through the platform, companies take the CFGI Pledge to support international students: “If you’re international, no problem. In our team, everybody has a chance.”

We also teamed up with Welcoming America, a leading U.S. nonprofit, accepting donations to make the U.S. more inclusive toward immigrants and all residents.

We’re actively seeking the support of volunteers, corporate donors and community members such as international startup founders who know it’s time to share their stories.

Growing up as the daughter of an immigration attorney and an immigrant, I know that innovation can truly come from anywhere. Diversity is critical for innovation.

The technology we rely on every day was often invented and created by people who had the courage to leave their homeland and start a new life. We all benefit as they continually create more jobs in the world as we move to a new global interconnected economy.

Life is not a zero-sum game: When we can come together to support one person to succeed, it benefits us all.

Everybody deserves a chance.

As a result of CFGI, I’m blown away by what David is doing, and I’m so excited to see how others contribute. David’s company Pranos.ai is a revolutionary mass media platform that converts any window into a transparent digital HD display. David told me:

“Especially in an early-stage technology company, every new hire has an incredible effect on the company’s destiny. Hiring highly skilled top-talent at the beginning is critical to how Pranos.ai will create many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs globally through the growth of the gig economy.”

Pranos.ai was the first company to take the CFGI Pledge. They are open to considering any candidate based on merit, regardless of immigration status. David is proud to recruit a diverse team and stand in solidarity with international students.

pranos.ai

Image Credits: pranos.ai

And why do I care about all of this so much?

I know what it’s like to be on the outside. Even though I practiced as an immigration attorney right out of law school, I gave up my career for many years to take care of my two small children.

I experienced postpartum depression and things snowballed as my dad, who was my dear mentor and friend, passed away unexpectedly and then my marriage came to an end. I wondered how I could survive in Silicon Valley as a single mom without a professional network.

Imposter syndrome shook me to my core. I longed to be an entrepreneur but I found reasons that it seemed impossible, like that I didn’t know the slightest bit about coding.

So, I decided to serve others. I began my immigration law firm out of my kitchen and met clients at a Peet’s on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View that has since turned into apartments.

I offered pro bono immigration services to people facing deportation who had experienced persecution based on their sexuality and individuals who had experienced domestic violence. I thought, “Well, at least I can support others.”

Little did I know that my clients were actually the ones supporting me: to believe in myself and create a new life. I’m inspired by the amazing courage of immigrants and the grit and tenacity of everybody who has the courage to follow their dreams.

I’m delighted by the access to information and spread of knowledge that we’ve all been able to pull off so far with “Dear Sophie.”

And now CFGI is here, where companies can take the pledge so they can be attractive to the world’s best and brightest who will know that hiring decisions are based on merit.

I’m also thrilled to see what will come next.

I stand here in deep appreciation of everybody who comes together in love and support of one’s neighbors. Because we all know, this is actually a very small, lovely blue dot in the universe, and we are all neighbors. The lines on the map that divide us that we call “walls” don’t actually separate the human spirit, or love, or ideas, or even germs, as we’ve all so keenly learned.

With so many global challenges and opportunities, I understand that our immigration struggles are simply a microcosm of so many things, and we can’t and won’t go back to the way things were.

We here who are privileged enough to live in Silicon Valley know how fortunate we are. This is where the future is being created, where the veil is thin between thoughts and things. Here, ideas rapidly come into creation and reality.

Here, we see each other on eye-level. We seek out challenge as opportunity. And we know that one focused person is more powerful than a million who are not, so innovation can come from anywhere, and one person can change the world.

So maybe here, on this leading-edge outpost, between the San Andreas fault and the crashing waves of the Pacific, we have an opportunity to take a stand:

We believe that everybody should have a chance to do well. Let’s start by standing in solidarity with international students and graduates through CFGI. And since what benefits one of us benefits us all, perhaps with the growing momentum, we can support others, such as children in immigration jail, asylum seekers, Dreamers and everybody else who deserves a chance.

Because, but for the grace of God, there could have been born I.

I am thrilled to announce CFGI. Remember, life is not a zero-sum game. If we can come together in love to support just one person, that ripples out and benefits us all.

I hope you’ll join me.


Learn how to make immigration work for you at Early Stage where immigration expert Sophie Alcorn will troubleshoot the many snags that can affect early-stage startups that are trying to bring talent into the country. Buy your tickets now. 

Read “Dear Sophie” on Extra Crunch; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.

Crypto Startup School: The legal and fundraising implications of crypto tokens

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a six-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz partnered with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course. 

The final week of a16z’s Crypto Startup School kicks off with former Coinbase Chief Legal Officer Brian Brooks discussing “Token Securities Frameworks and Launching a Network.” Brooks starts off calling crypto the “most perfect intersection of tech and finance,” but he cautions that crypto builders must navigate traditional financial-services regulatory structures.

This takes on special importance because tokens, the native assets of crypto networks, can be deemed securities by regulators, making them illegal to list on exchanges and subject to disclosures and other legal requirements.

Brooks explains the four-part Howey test, the Supreme Court ruling that has come to define when a given transaction is a securities transaction. Because crypto is still relatively new, however, the path to legality is still developing.

In the meantime, the crypto industry has created the Crypto Rating Council, a new tool to objectively rate tokens and gauge their risk of being deemed securities. Broadly, the tokens that carry the most risk of being labeled securities are those issued before a crypto network is fully decentralized, and while the actions of the management team remain critical to a network’s success. (Bitcoin, for example, is not a security, because it is completely decentralized and there is no core management team.)

Brooks introduces some promising new regulatory paths for crypto including membership models — similar to cooperatives or mutuals — in which token holders agree to only sell the token to other members of the network, avoiding a secondary sales market and thus steering clear of securities issues. While this model hasn’t been tested with the SEC, it has a long track record in other industries and bears further study.

In the final video of the program, former a16z partner and Mediachain co-founder Jesse Walden discusses “Fundraising and Deal Structure” for crypto startups. During early product development, crypto startups can raise traditional venture capital through equity, which allows for the most alignment between founders and investors.

Then, unlike a traditional startup, a crypto startup can invite its user base to participate in ownership and operation via the disbursement of tokens, once the core founding team has found product-market fit and established a viable network. This aligns incentives among the network, its users, the core team, and venture investors. Issuing tokens dilutes the stakes of the core team and early investors, but this is a desirable outcome because incentivizing more participants increases the chances that a network will grow. This leads to a larger pie overall for investors to share.

Walden also discusses Network Monetary Policy, citing Bitcoin, with its guaranteed limit of 21 million tokens, as having a fixed, deflationary supply policy. Other networks may be inflationary, with no ceiling on token amount, thereby perpetually diluting founders and early investors.

A perpetually dilutive system can nonetheless be productive for token holders due to staking, or the process of holders contributing to the operation of the network, which pays off in newly minted tokens for stakers and the retention of their ownership stakes.

See the videos from all six weeks of Crypto Startup School.

Crypto Startup School: How to build projects and keep them safe    

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

Week five of a16z’s Crypto Startup School gets into the inner workings of crypto projects, with a focus on security and project development from the front lines.

In the first video, Jutta Steiner, the CEO and co-founder of Parity Technologies, discusses “The Evolution of Blockchain Security.”

Steiner, who joined the Ethereum team in 2014 as chief of security, says the advent of that open ecosystem of interdependent “smart contracts,” or self-executing design programs, opened a whole new attack surface that requires successful organizations to prioritize a security-minded culture.

Potential coding risks include memory safety, input validation, privilege escalation flaws, fundamental design flaws, side channel attacks and cryptographic vulnerabilities such as insecure key storage. Security is not just code, however — it’s also people, operational procedures, and life cycle management of applications.

There is no single answer to any of these vulnerabilities, Steiner says. Instead, mitigation relies on a range of measures that are not perfect but can be used to create an overall system that is very difficult to penetrate. The key is to understand that crypto development is not like agile software development — once deployed, code is difficult to recall, and security must always be at the forefront.

She closes by noting that crypto developers can learn from security approaches used in other industries, such as aerospace, medicine, and hardware.

In the second video, Nitya Subramanian, product manager at Celo, discusses “Protocols and Products,” focusing on how building products is different in blockchain versus more traditional centralized products. The key question for builders: What is the need I’m meeting, and who are the users?

For projects seeking control over the end-user experience, such as with cryptocurrency wallets, typically the goal is to build the full stack, so that every layer can be changed to meet new use cases and find product-market fit.

For products built for developers, such as decentralized lending protocols, the focus should be on identifying a range of objectives that will bring developers to your platform while giving them the flexibility to customize and innovate.

No matter the end user, the rigorous focus at all times should be on what will bring people to your product and avoiding a “build it and they will come” mentality.

As an example of the full stack approach, she closes with a case study of the digital payments system Celo, which includes a blockchain forked from Ethereum that includes a native asset, topped by a layer of native smart contracts encoding a stablecoin, with a wallet and a developer SDK at the top of the stack.

While each layer of the project has separate development roadmaps, having the application layer allows Celo to identify issues with user experience and informs the development of lower layers of the stack.

Crypto Startup School: How to build companies by building communities    

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

In week four of a16z’s Crypto Startup School, the spotlight shifts to building companies by growing communities of users, developers and employees in a decentralized context.

In a virtual fireside chat, 16z General Partner Chris Dixon and GitHub and Chatterbug Co-founder Tom Preston-Werner discuss “Building Companies and Developer Communities.”

Preston-Werner explains how the open-source ethos is a great way to build social virality among developers, and how the clean, developer-focused interface of GitHub led to its wide adoption and caused developers to demand it within their own organizations.

He also offers marketing lessons from the early days of GitHub, when the company used informal methods of building community in a bid to create “superfans.”

He urges founders to view a company’s brand as an expression of its core beliefs, with a focus on how it helps its users succeed. The reason people would put a sticker on their laptop or wear a company tee-shirt is because of “what they believe they are communicating to others with that sticker or shirt … it’s a shortcut for communicating values.”

In the second video, Jesse Walden, a former a16z investment partner and Mediachain co-founder, and Robert Leshner, founder and CEO of Compound, do a “Deep Dive on Decentralization.”

Walden starts with a playbook for progressive decentralization — the process by which crypto project creators build a useful product, create a community around that product, and then gradually hand over control of the maturing network to the community. This process is in keeping with the cooperative model of crypto networks, which drives rapid, compounding innovation through better alignment of incentives and open participation.

Leshner follows with a case study of his experiences at Compound, an automated money market for crypto assets in which lenders and borrowers can come together to transact without the involvement of third parties. Compound, one of the first crypto projects to move through the full progressive decentralization model, built a thriving community of third-party application developers, who have set up shop on top of Compound’s smart-contract protocol.

The Compound team has gradually brought this community further into the protocol’s inner workings; in the final stages before handoff to the community, the founding team made changes transparently, with greater reliance on the community’s input, and created a sandbox for experimentation to test governance mechanisms. Decentralizing “allows the protocol to live forever,” Leshner says, which fosters innovation because developers can trust the protocol with their businesses and livelihood.

In the final video of week four, Tina Ferguson of a16z’s Tech Talent and People Practices team offers guidance on “Managing a Distributed Workforce.” Because of the decentralized mindset and evolving business models at the heart of crypto, founders and managers face unique challenges. In such a fast-moving space, for example, it’s important to hire someone who has the right skills now and will also adapt to what’s required in 12-18 months.

Compensation, which could include the allocation of tokens rather than more-traditional shares, also requires close attention. When hiring in other countries, teams must consider employment laws, as well as whether to use Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs) to move quickly via local contacts on important hires. Finally, real-time feedback is especially crucial in a distributed workforce, as is clear and timely dissemination of information.

Crypto Startup School: Capturing value in crypto through network effects and mechanism design

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

Week three of a16z’s Crypto Startup School focuses on understanding how to capture value and design proper incentives within the decentralized framework. We learn how familiar ideas like network effects and mechanism design can hold unique power for crypto networks.

In the first presentation, Andreessen Horowitz crypto partner Ali Yahya discusses “Crypto Business Models.” Yahya explains that the consensus mechanisms of blockchains create trust among independent participants in decentralized networks.

At first glance, this may seem at odds with the idea of capturing value, since none of the factors that allow companies to build moats in traditional industries — trade secrets, intellectual property, or control of a scarce resource — apply in crypto.

This leads to the “value-capture paradox” — how can easy-to-replicate, open-source code be defensible in a competitive landscape?

The answer is that network effects are just as powerful, if not more so, in crypto than in traditional industries. This is due to the economic flywheel enabled by tokens, which incentivize participants and coordinate all economic activities in crypto networks. Combined with the ability of developers to build on each others’ networks using autonomously executing smart contracts, this should result in winner-take-all dynamics, contrary to what might seem intuitive in open source, Yahya says.

In the next lecture, Sam Williams, founder and CEO of decentralized storage system Arweave, gives an overview of “Mechanism Design,” a field of study that has become newly relevant with the development of Bitcoin and subsequent blockchains that require carefully designed incentives for network participants.

Williams uses examples to show that economic incentives, when designed properly, can persuade self-interested people to exhibit useful behaviors at fair market value with minimal central planning. This provides a new tool to bootstrap decentralized networks.

He cautions, however, that poorly conceived incentive systems can overpower moral frameworks in ways that can be dangerous. This could be harmful, he says, in decentralized protocols, since self-executing code may not be easily altered to curtail unintended consequences.

Williams closes with a case study of his company, Arweave, and the way it created an endowment-style financial incentive system to build a platform where data can be secured forever. This kind of model opens the door to new kinds of community-owned networks that can’t be manipulated by central owners.

Crypto Startup School: How to scale companies using crypto

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

In week two of a16z’s Crypto Startup School, three company-builders provide real-world advice on using the qualities of crypto to create new business models and networks.

Coinbase founder and CEO Brian Armstrong walks us through “Setting Up and Scaling a Crypto Company,” explaining how crypto can help startups raise money, acquire customers and build a global profile. The issuing of tokens, for example, can align the incentives of early users and reinforce network effects, helping solve the “cold-start” problem that can derail many startups.

Armstrong also outlines the disadvantages of crypto that entrepreneurs must watch out for, including regulatory uncertainty. On balance, he thinks crypto is where the internet was in the early days.

“In five or 10 years, pretty much every startup that gets created, it’s going to use the internet, it’s going to use AI and it’s also going to use some form of cryptocurrency somewhere in that product.”

In the next lecture, Balaji Srinivasan, an angel investor and co-founder of multiple companies, including Earn.com and Counsyl, gives an overview of “Applications: Today & 2025.”

Srinivasan starts off by tracing the history of crypto from Bitcoin and Ethereum to the present. He highlights the crypto applications that have already gotten traction — infrastructure providers such as exchanges, wallets and miners; decentralized finance (DeFi) apps; and stablecoins that eliminate the volatility of early cryptocurrencies — and looks ahead to the ones that are likely to emerge in the next five years. These include personal tokenization, new financial instruments, decentralized autonomous organizations and gaming.

Finally, Forte co-founder and CEO Josh Williams does a deep dive on “Opportunities for Crypto and Gaming.” Williams explains that blockchain technology could have an even bigger impact on gaming than the internet because it’s not just connecting people, but potentially changing business models by aligning the incentives of developers and players. It can do this by allowing players to truly own the assets in games and verify their provenance, and by enabling developers to code rich incentive systems and rewards into games.

By incorporating these mechanisms, Williams believes, an already exploding gaming industry will grow and create multi-billion-dollar marketplaces within games that will truly benefit players and developers.

Crypto Startup School: A new type of computer drives waves of innovation

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

In week one of a16z’s Crypto Startup School, a16z general partner Chris Dixon discusses “Crypto Networks and Why They Matter,” giving an overview of the crypto space, the transformative implications of its technology, and the potential for crypto networks to lead a new wave of innovation. And in his talk on “Blockchain Primitives: Cryptography and Consensus,” Dan Boneh, a professor in applied cryptography and computer security at Stanford, provides an introduction to the cryptographic foundation of blockchains and how developers can use them to build new types of applications.

Dixon says that crypto is poised to become the next major computing platform. Like mobile phones and the web before it, crypto offers opportunities for entrepreneurs and developers to build new networks and applications, due to the decentralized blockchain technology that underpins it. He describes blockchains as a new type of computer — a virtual computer that runs on a network of physical computers, with encoded guarantees that it will continue to operate as designed. Just as the rise of mobile phones enabled an explosion of innovation on top of that new computing platform, crypto presents an opportunity for the next such “idea maze,” he says. “Our feeling is this is an incredibly rich design space.”

The architecture of crypto enables new possibilities, Dixon says, starting with digital currency but expanding to general computing and community owned and operated networks. In combination with the digital primitive of tokens, which align incentives among network creators and users, this sets the stage for exponential innovation over the next decade that should echo previous eras of tech growth. “When a lot of really smart people who know computer science start thinking about computer science problems and have an economic incentive to do so, those computers tend to get a lot better.”

In the second presentation in week one, Dan Boneh explains the layers of crypto, including the consensus layer, and how Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin whitepaper proposed a system that enables an unlimited number of participants to contribute to a blockchain without authorization and still come to verifiable consensus. He also talks about cryptographic primitives, how mining works, how blocks are added to the blockchain, public and private keys, and zero-knowledge proofs. These unique features provide a fertile ground for open-source developers.

The application layer, Boneh says, is where a lot of the excitement is, with a “thriving ecosystem” of applications running on the blockchain in the area of decentralized finance (DeFi). While technical, Boneh’s presentation is accessible to those who don’t have a background in cryptography or consensus mechanisms.

Crypto Startup School: A new type of computer drives waves of innovation

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

In week one of a16z’s Crypto Startup School, a16z general partner Chris Dixon discusses “Crypto Networks and Why They Matter,” giving an overview of the crypto space, the transformative implications of its technology, and the potential for crypto networks to lead a new wave of innovation. And in his talk on “Blockchain Primitives: Cryptography and Consensus,” Dan Boneh, a professor in applied cryptography and computer security at Stanford, provides an introduction to the cryptographic foundation of blockchains and how developers can use them to build new types of applications.

Dixon says that crypto is poised to become the next major computing platform. Like mobile phones and the web before it, crypto offers opportunities for entrepreneurs and developers to build new networks and applications, due to the decentralized blockchain technology that underpins it. He describes blockchains as a new type of computer — a virtual computer that runs on a network of physical computers, with encoded guarantees that it will continue to operate as designed. Just as the rise of mobile phones enabled an explosion of innovation on top of that new computing platform, crypto presents an opportunity for the next such “idea maze,” he says. “Our feeling is this is an incredibly rich design space.”

The architecture of crypto enables new possibilities, Dixon says, starting with digital currency but expanding to general computing and community owned and operated networks. In combination with the digital primitive of tokens, which align incentives among network creators and users, this sets the stage for exponential innovation over the next decade that should echo previous eras of tech growth. “When a lot of really smart people who know computer science start thinking about computer science problems and have an economic incentive to do so, those computers tend to get a lot better.”

In the second presentation in week one, Dan Boneh explains the layers of crypto, including the consensus layer, and how Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin whitepaper proposed a system that enables an unlimited number of participants to contribute to a blockchain without authorization and still come to verifiable consensus. He also talks about cryptographic primitives, how mining works, how blocks are added to the blockchain, public and private keys, and zero-knowledge proofs. These unique features provide a fertile ground for open-source developers.

The application layer, Boneh says, is where a lot of the excitement is, with a “thriving ecosystem” of applications running on the blockchain in the area of decentralized finance (DeFi). While technical, Boneh’s presentation is accessible to those who don’t have a background in cryptography or consensus mechanisms.

SeeHow helps cricketers train smarter

Like baseball, cricket relies on grass, dirt, wood, cork, spit, spin, drop and rise en route to either victory or loss. And like baseball — and just about any other sport, really — cricket coaching staffs and their players worldwide are looking for more ways to track every move.

Tracking statistics is nothing new. With each action, a player produces a stat that can be used to track improvement or struggle over a given period of time. But as players get stronger and stakes — financial and otherwise — get higher, a need for more specific data is proving necessary.

India-based SeeHow transforms sports equipment into sensors to do just that, and it does so without having to alter anything on the athlete’s body. Its sensors are baked into cricket balls and bat handles to track very specific types of data that batsmen and bowlers generate. And tracking the behavior of a bowled ball and where and how it lands on a bat all play a role in the story of cricket.

“Putting the sensor inside the ball or bat handle where the action is happening is when you can capture data fundamentally at a higher accuracy,” says Dev Chandan Behera, founder and CEO of SeeHow . “Most MEMS [micro-electro-mechanical systems] can measure up to 2,000 degrees per second, i.e about 300+ RPMs. International spinners like Shane Warne can spin the ball up to 3,000 RPMs. This is something we are able to capture.”

To obtain data, a trainer first assigns a bowler and/or a batsman in the accompanying Android app before a session. (Behera says an iOS app is due this year.) During play, each action is captured in near real time for each corresponding player.

For bowlers, the sensor tracks speed, spin, seam position or orientation, and length — where the ball lands on the pitch. For batsmen, the sensor tracks swing speed and angle, where it hits on the bat, what kind of deliveries they played, what their responses were to a particular delivery and the velocity of the ball off the bat.

This data is then streamed in real time and can be read by players and coaches alike on the app. The app retains a history of a player’s progress in order to make any necessary adjustments and to track improvements.

“In bat on ball sport or racquetball sport, you’re doing something in response to the pitcher or your opponent, and that’s something we’re able to capture into a single system,” Behera says. Because both the data from the batter and the bowler are streaming to a single system, he adds, the app is able to tell users what the reaction time is.

Behera grew up playing cricket with the intention of improving enough to ensure his rise through the ranks.

“Growing up we would use chalk, cones or a sheet of A4 paper as markers during play to assess how we bowled,” Behera says of his early years. “A coach would use a slate to mark the number of balls bowled and selection would be based on whether you had his attention in that particular window when he happened to look at you playing. You might just have a bad day and not get selected to the next level.”

After moving to Singapore, Behera continued competing in the sport, and says he was exposed to more tools and more methodical training approaches.

“We used to record videos through mobile phone cameras and compare them to videos on YouTube or show it to our seniors or coaches for tips,” he says. “However, the process was very ad hoc, and without any data and science to it, it was subjective. We never improved and made it as cricketers.”

His experience building robots, combined with his cricket playing, prompted him to consider using a ball as a way to glean data to help improve cricketers’ performances.

“It occurred to me that we could address this issue by bringing in a new perspective to the ball itself. The experience of building such complex hardware helped me gauge the challenges we needed to build a sports operating system that will enable sensors in the field of play to provide this holistic learning experience in cricket.”

Behera says SeeHow’s sensors are being used at 12 cricket academies in nine countries. First-class cricketer Abhishek Bhat is a fast bowler whose speed topped at 120km. He writes that after two weeks, he was able to push his pace into the mid 130s:

However, it wasn’t until SeeHow came into the picture that I was able to get a consistent measurement of my bowling speed, session after session and day after day. I cannot overstate the impact bowling with the smart ball has had on my bowling speed.

I had my first bowling session with the smart ball in early November and I was bowling in the mid-120s, barely getting above 130kmph. Then with some technical adjustments in a couple of weeks time, I was consistently bowling close to the 130 kmph mark. It was then that I realized that bowling fast is more than just about technique, it’s about the mindset.

SeeHow isn’t the only company trying to improve the way cricketers train.

A company called StanceBeam has developed a system that, among other things, provides session insights, the power generated from a swing, angles and directions of a swing and a 3D analysis of a batsman’s swing. It does so through a hardware extension that players attach to the ends of their bats and that relays data via an app.

Microsoft is also in the game of cricket analysis. The company partnered with star India cricketer Anil Kumble and his company Spektacom to enhance the reach of its sensor, which is designed to help better engage fans and broadcasters through the use of embedded sensors, artificial intelligence, video modeling and augmented reality. The company’s first offering is a smart sticker for bats that contains sensor tech designed to track batting behavior that is readable via an app.

As cricket starts to find an audience beyond the Commonwealth countries and continues to draw big dollars, look for tech to play a bigger role in attracting and maintaining audiences and players.

For SeeHow, cricket is just the beginning.

“Baseball is a very natural extension to cricket if you look at how the sport is played and the equipment,” Behera says. “And we have also done mixed martial arts with sensors in the gloves.”

The company has filed for five patents, one of which, Behera says, is around the construction of the ball, specifically in order to be able to hold the vibrations.

“We have mounted the sensor in the sports equipment at the core and introduced a protective material to cushion the sensor from impact and vibration,” he says. “The patent captures the construction of the ball that mounts the sensor and introduces the protective material in a novel manner to be able to capture the motion data at the core.”

As it scales, SeeHow will look to license the hardware to equipment manufacturers and become a platform company. SeeHow is funded through a friends and family round and is currently in search of seed funding.

Startups Weekly: In a crowded field of unicorns, ClassPass becomes another unicorn

I hope you’ve all had a good week. Normally I’m behind the scenes (where I’m most comfortable), but I’ll be managing the Startups Weekly newsletter until I assign it to someone else. More on that in a few weeks. Want it in your inbox? Sign up here for this and other great newsletters we have to offer, including ones on space and transportation. For now, let’s get on with it, shall we?

A unicorn workout

Working out never did a body so good as it did for ClassPass this week. The popular startup that created a way to help people exercise more easily just became a unicorn with an influx of Series E cash. 

The latest funding, in the amount of $285 million, was led by L Catterton and Apax Digital, with participation from existing investor Temasek. It brings ClassPass’s total known raise to about $550 million.

We reported a couple of weeks ago that ClassPass, then at a $536.4 million valuation, was sniffing around for the round, which would promote it to the unicorn club.

We are motivated by the impact we’ve had on members and partners, including 100 million hours of workouts that have already been booked,” said ClassPass Founder and Chairman Payal Kadakia in a statement about the raise. “This investment is a significant milestone that will further our mission to help people stay active and spend their time meaningfully.

Photo: ClassPass

Funding real estate

A couple of real estate-ish startups got some attention this week. Los Angeles-based Luxury Presence raised $5.4 million to help it help agents round out their digital marketing arsenals.

In other real estate funding this week, Orchard, previously known as Perch, announced that it has raised $36 million. The company solves the problem that so-called “dual-trackers” face: selling their home while trying to buy one. It’s stressful and costs a lot of money.

As Jordan Crook wrote in her story on the raise: “Orchard solves this by making an offer on buyers’ old houses that is guaranteed for 90 days. Orchard co-founder Court Cunningham says that more than 85% of those homes sell at a market price before the 90-day period.”

GettyImages 979844616

Image via Getty Images / Feng Yu

Brian Heater had a chat with Lora DiCarlo CEO Lora Haddock about the sex tech company’s return to CES. But the interview wasn’t conducted at a table in a crowded press room in some random hotel. It was in a truck with a big, glass trailer. It’s Vegas, obviously, so why not?

As Brian put it:

Driving down the Las Vegas Strip in a transparent box is a curious, extremely Vegas experience: puzzled tourists and confused CES attendees gawk from the sidewalks. Four of us are sitting in a makeshift living room with fuzzy white carpet: CEO Lora Haddock, Enzo Ferrari Drift DiCarlo (her fuzzy black-and-white Pomeranian), and a colleague, who holds Enzo in their lap. A four-foot-tall faux sex toy sits in a corner, swaying occasionally.

Last year, you might recall, the consumer tech show awarded Lora DiCarlo with an innovation award, but then took it back. They also banned the company from the show floor, stating it didn’t fit into a product category. Months later, they scored some funding and got an apology from the CES show runners.

Read the interview on Extra Crunch.

48838615618 56fd7e6444 c

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 03: Lora DiCarlo Founder & CEO Lora Haddock speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 03, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Around the horn

Extra Crunch

Over on Extra Crunch we published a bunch of great stuff this week, including stories about Ring and its evolving stance on security and privacy, how gig economy companies are trying to keep workers classified as independent contractors, and whether online privacy will make a comeback this year.

Here are a few more:

Head here if you aren’t a subscriber yet for a super-discounted first month.

#EquityPod

Alex Wilhelm was back on the mic this week with Danny Crichton, TechCrunch’s managing editor. Their docket included news of Lily AI’s $12.5 million Series A, Insight’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Armis Security, a round for a self-driving forklift startup called Vecna and SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

Listen to the episode here, and if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that here.

But that’s not the only Equity news I have for you. Alex wants to help you all get started each week with Equity Mondays. In his own words:

The Equity crew will put together a short, zero-bullshit episode designed to get your week started. What news did you miss over the weekend? What recent venture rounds do you need to know about? What’s ahead in the coming week? And what’s on our minds? That’s what Equity Monday will bring you each and every morning in about seven minutes.

The good news is it’ll show up in the Equity feed you already know and love. Have a listen to the first Monday edition here.