Fictiv raises $33M to be the ‘AWS of hardware manufacturing’

Hardware, as the saying goes, is hard, but today a startup has raised some money for a manufacturing service that it believes can make the prospect of starting and running hardware businesses a little easier. Fictiv, which positions itself as a kind of AWS for manufacturing — providing a platform both to design components and help get them produced — has raised $33 million, money that it will use to continue expanding its production ecosystem, the range of components that it can make, and to grow its customer base.

The company is not disclosing its valuation, but, according to PitchBook, the company was valued at around $65 million post-money in its last fundraise, which could put the company at around $100 million with this latest injection. This Series C was led by G2VP, with new strategic investor Mitsui & Co. and previous backers  Accel, Bill Gates, Intel Capital, Sinovation and Tandon Group, also participating. Fictiv has raised $58 million to date.

Injection may be the operative word here — or at least one of them. Fictiv today works across manufacturing plants in China and the Bay Area, covering a range of processes, including injection molding, CNC machining, 3D printing and urethane casting, covering a variety of materials. Customers use the company’s cloud-based software to design and order parts which are routed by Fictiv to the plants best suited to make them. Current customers include the likes of Sphero and Facebook, which use Fictiv’s services for prototyping,

The problem that Fictiv is solving has been a persistent one in the world of hardware: making prototypes can cost a lot and be very inefficient, and that’s before you move into full-scale manufacturing, which can be challenging even with economies of scale. It’s also a very crowded field, with a number of different companies all vying to help fill the role of manufacturing enabler (and it is a field also littered with failures). But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of advances in manufacturing tech, with the tradeoff that some of the work that it takes on freeing up staff to work on other challenges.

“Fictiv is developing the software infrastructure required to connect the manufacturing workforce and trillions of dollars of capital equipment,” said CEO Dave Evans, who co-founded the company with Nate Evans, in a statement. “In doing so, both product developers and manufacturers will benefit from the efficiencies gained by eliminating unnecessary, repetitive tasks and unlocking employees to focus on creative problem solving.”

“We are excited to be part of the digital transformation of the status quo in manufacturing,” said ​Daniel Oros​, Partner at G2VP, in a statement. “Fictiv’s innovative tools and services address the critical gap in contract manufacturing that will lead to a massive shift in how consumer and industrial products are manufactured.”

Samsung Galaxy S10+ review

Launching around the globe a few days ahead of the world’s largest mobile show was the ultimate big-dog move. Samsung celebrated the 10th anniversary of its flagship phone line by launching its latest device on Apple’s sometimes-stomping grounds at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Center.

The timing was less than ideal for all of us jet-lagged gadget reviewers, but the effect clearly paid off. Dozens of the world’s highest-profile reviewers have been roaming the streets of Barcelona with the S10 in hand and Galaxy Buds in ears. You couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity.

And, naturally, none of us minded testing those new photo features in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

But the 10th anniversary Galaxy arrives at a transitional time for Samsung — and the industry at large. The last couple of years have seen smartphone sales plateau for the first time since anyone started keeping track of those sorts of numbers, and big companies like Samsung and Apple are not immune.

That manner of existential crisis has led to one of the most eventful Mobile World Congresses in memory, as companies look to shake the doldrums of a stagnant market. It also led Samsung to open last week’s Unpacked event with the Galaxy Fold — first the cryptic product video and then the product unveil.

It’s a heck of a lead in, and, quite frankly, a recipe for disappointment. Here’s a look at the future, and now let’s talk about the present. Several people saw that I was carrying around a new Samsung device, got excited and were ultimately disappointed with the fact that I couldn’t unfold the thing.

None of this is any reflection on the quality of the S10 as a device, which I will happily state is quite high. But unlike the iPhone X, Apple’s 10th anniversary handset, the new Galaxy isn’t an attempt at a radical departure. Instead, it’s a culmination of 10 years of phone development, with new tricks throughout.

The Galaxy S10 doesn’t offer the same glimpse into the future as the Fold. But it does make a strong claim for the best Android smartphone of the moment. Starting at $1,000, it’s going to cost you — but if Samsung’s $1,900 foldable is any indication, smartphones of the future could make it look like a downright bargain.

Screen time

The Samsung Galaxy S10+ has been my daily driver for a week now. It joined me on an international road trip, through several product unveils from the competition and is responsible for all of the images in this post. Sometimes the best camera is the one in your pocket, as the saying goes.

Like other recent Samsung flagships, it’s going to be a tough device to give up when review time comes to a close. It’s a product that does a lot of things well. Tending, as Samsung often does, toward jamming as much into a product as possible — the polar opposite of chief competitor Apple’s approach.

But in the case of the Galaxy line, it all comes together very nicely. The S10 doesn’t represent a radical stylistic departure from its predecessor, maintaining the same manner of curved design language that helps the company cram a lot of phone into a relatively limited footprint, including a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio in the case of the S10+.

That means you can hold the handset in one hand, in spite of the ginormous 6.4-inch screen size. This is accomplished, in part, by the curved edges of the display that have been something of a Samsung trademark for a few generations now. It has also helped the Infinity-O design display, a laser cutout in the top-right of the screen, to fit the front-facing camera in as small a space as possible. In the case of the S10+, it’s more like an Infinity-OOO display.

Samsung was going to have to give in to the cutout trend sooner or later, opting to go ahead and skip the whole notch situation. The result is a largely unobtrusive break in the screen. Just for good measure, the phone’s default wallpapers have gradually darkening gradients that do a good job obscuring the cut out while not in use.

But while the whole more-screen-less-body deal is generally a good thing, there is a marked downside. I found myself accidentally triggering touch on the sides of the display with the edge of my palms, particularly when using the device with one hand. This has been a known issue for some time, of course.

Oh, and there’s one more key aspect in helping the S10+ go full screen.

Putting your finger on it

As with many of the features here, Samsung can’t claim to be the first to have the under-display fingerprint sensor. OnePlus, in a rare push to be first to market, added a similar technology to the 6T, which arrived last fall. But Samsung’s application takes things a step further.

The S10 and all of its variants are among the first to implant the fingerprint technology that Qualcomm announced at its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii last year. The key differentiator here is an extra level of security. If the OnePlus’ fingerprint sensor is akin to your standard face unlock, this is more in line with what you get on the iPhone or LG’s latest handset.

The ability to sense depth brings another layer of security to the product — quite literally. Here’s how Qualcomm describes it:

Combining a smartphone’s display and fingerprint reader for a seamless and sleek look, 3D Sonic uses technological advances and acoustics (sonic waves) to scan the pores of a user’s finger for a deeply accurate 3D image. An ultra-thin (0.2 mm) sensor enables cutting-edge form factors such as full glass edge-to-edge displays, and can be widely used with flexible OLED displays.

Setup proved a bit fussier than the standard physical fingerprint button. Once everything is squared away, the reader is actually fairly responsive, registering a rippled water animation and unlocking the phone in about a second.

Getting your finger/thumb in the right spot might take a couple of tries on the first go, but after that, it’s muscle memory. There’s also a small fingerprint shaped guide that pops up on the lock screen for help. It can still be a bit tricky for those times you’re not looking directly at the display, or if you switch between hands.

It’s also worth noting that the unlock can be tricky with some screen protectors. Samsung will be working with accessory manufacturers to design compatible ones, but picking the wrong company could severely hamper the unlock function.

In some ways, though, the in-display fingerprint reader beats face unlock. I tend to lay my device down next to my keyboard when I work. Lifting the phone up to my eyes in order to read notifications is a bit of a pain. Same goes for when I need to check messages in bed. Here you can simply touch, check the notifications and go on with your life.

Ports in a storm

Around the edge is a mirrored metal band that houses the power button on one side and volume rocker and devoted Bixby button on the other. Yes, the Bixby button is back. And no, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Samsung is wholly devoted to the smart assistant, and the company’s mobile devices are the one foothold Bixby currently commands.

The complaint about the Bixby button mostly stems from the fact that the assistant was, quite honestly, pretty useless at launch — particularly when compared to Android’s default assistant. In fact, when Google announced this week at Mobile World Congress the upcoming arrival of Assistant buttons on third-party devices, the news was generally welcomed by the Android crowd.

Samsung, meanwhile, gets hounded about the Bixby button, as though its inclusion is a way of forcing its assistant on users. Once again, Samsung relented, giving users the ability to remap the button in order to launch specific apps instead. This has played out time and again with the last several Galaxy devices.

The fact is, after an admittedly rocky start, Bixby has slowly been getting better, feature by feature. But the assistant still has catching up to do with Google’s headset, and frankly doesn’t offer a ton of reasons to opt into it over Android’s built-in option. Samsung has certainly made big promises of late, coupled with the imminent arrival of the Galaxy Home Hub.

Of course, that device was announced more than half a year ago, and when it does finally arrive, it will likely be carrying a prohibitive price tag. Beyond that, Bixby is currently the realm of things like Samsung refrigerators and washing machines. None of this adds up to a particularly compelling strategy for a multi-million-dollar AI offering that has become something of an inside joke in the industry.

But Samsung sticks to its guns, for better or worse. Sometimes that means Bixby, and sometimes that means defiantly clinging to the headphone jack. Turns out if you avoid a trend for long enough, you can become a trendsetter in your own right — or at least a respite from the maddening crowd.

It’s been a few years since the beginning of the end came for the jack, and the whole thing still leaves plenty of users with a sour taste. Even the once-defiant Google quickly gave in and dropped the jack. Samsung, however, has stood its ground and the decision has paid off. What was ubiquitous is now a differentiator, and even as the company hawks another pair of Bluetooth earbuds, it’s standing its ground here.

All charged up

The back of the device, like the front, is covered in Gorilla Glass 6. The latest from Corning, which debuted over the summer, promises to survive “up to 15 drops.” But don’t try this at home with your shiny new $1,000 smartphone, as your results may vary.

The material also helps facilitate what is arguably the device’s most compelling new feature: Wireless PowerShare. Samsung’s not the first company to roll out the feature — Huawei introduced the feature on the Mate 20 Pro last year. Still, it’s a cool feature and, perhaps most importantly, it beat Apple to the punch.

The feature needs to be activated manually, by swiping down into notifications (it will also automatically shut off when not in use). From there, tapping Wireless PowerShare will pop up a dialog box, letting you know the feature is ready to us. Turn the phone face down on a table and place a compatible phone on top, face up, and the S10 will go to work charging it.

Placement can be a bit tough to get right the first couple of times. The trick is making sure both devices are centered. Once everything is where it should be, you’ll hear a quick notification sound and the phone will register as charging. In the case of the new Galaxy Buds, the sound is accompanied by the appearance of the case’s charging light.

It’s a neat feature, for sure. I can certainly imagine lending some ill-prepared friend a little juice at the bar one night. I wouldn’t go throwing out my power bank just yet. For one thing, one of the phones needs to be face-down the whole time. For another, wireless charging isn’t nearly as fast as its wired counterpart, so beyond the initial novelty of the feature, it may not ultimately be one you end up using a lot.

And, of course, you’re actively draining the battery of the phone sharing power. It’s a little like a Giving Tree scenario, albeit with the lowest stakes humanly possible. Thankfully, the handsets all sport pretty beefy batteries. In the case of the S10+, it’s a massive 4,100 mAh (with the 5G model getting an even nuttier 4,500 mAh).

It’s clear the days of Samsung’s Note 7-induced battery cautions are well behind it, thanks in no small part to the extensive battery testing the company implemented in the wake of a seemingly endless PR nightmare. As it stands, I was able to get around a full day plus two hours with standard usage while roaming the streets and convention center halls of Barcelona. That means you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of energy by day’s end — and you may even have a bit to spare before it’s all over.

Camera ready

You know the drill by now, Samsung and Apple come out with a new flagship smartphone, which quickly shoots to the top of DxOMark’s camera ratings. The cycle repeats itself yet again — with one key difference: It’s a three-way tie.

[Left: Standard, Right: Full zoom]

Really, there’s no better distillation of the state of the smartphone industry in 2019 than this. The latest iPhone, which is now half-a-year-old, is now a few spots down the list, with Samsung in a three-way tie for first. The other two top devices are, get this, both Huawei handsets. It’s been a banner year for the Chinese handset maker on a number of fronts, and that’s got to leave the Apples and Samsungs of the world a bit nervous, all told.

For now, though, there’s a lot to like here… 109 points’ worth, in fact. The last several generations of camera races have resulted in some really well-rounded camera gear. It’s a setup that makes it difficult to take bad shots (difficult, but hardly impossible, mind), with the combination of hardware and software/AI improvements we’ve seen over the course of the last few devices.

The camera setup varies from device to device, so we’re going to focus on the S10+ — the device we’ve spent the past week with (though, granted, the 5G model’s camera warrants its own write-up). The plus model features a three-camera array, oriented horizontally in a configuration that brings nothing to mind so much as the original Microsoft Kinect.

[Left: Samsung S10+, Right: Pixel 2]

It’s been fascinating watching companies determine the best use for a multi-camera array. Take Nokia’s new five-camera system, which essentially compiles everything into one super-high-res shot. Here, however, the three lenses capture three different images. They are as follows:

Wide (Standard): 12 MP, 26mm
Telephoto: 12 MP, 52mm
Ultrawide: 16 MP, 12mm

The system is configured to let you seamlessly switch between lenses in order to capture a shot in a given situation. The telephoto can do 2x shots, while the ultrawide captures 123-degree shots. The 5G model, meanwhile, adds 3D-depth cameras to the front and rear, which is a pretty clear indication of where Samsung plans to go from here.

That said, the current setup is still quite capable of pulling off some cool depth tricks. This is no better exemplified than with the Live Focus feature, which applies a Portrait Mode-style bokeh effect around the objects you choose. The effect isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty convincing. Above is a shot I took on the MWC show floor and used in the led for a story about the HTC Vive.

There are some fun tricks as well, like the above Color Point effect. I’m not sure how often I’d end up using it, but damn if it doesn’t look cool.

All of that, coupled with new touches like wide-image panorama and recent advances like super-slow-motion and low-light shooting make for an extremely well-rounded camera experience. Ditto for scene identification, which does a solid job determining the differences between, say, a salad and a tree and adjusting the shooting settings accordingly.

Oh, and a low-key solid upgrade here are the improved AR Emojis, as seen above. They’re 1,000 times less creepy than the originals. I mean, I’m still not going to be sharing them with people unironically or anything, but definitely a step in the right direction.

Today’s Galaxy

The present moment is an exciting one for the mobile industry. There were glimmers of promise all over the MWC show floor and a week prior at Samsung’s own event. A stagnant industry has caused the big players to get creative, and some long-promised technologies are about to finally get real.

The Samsung Fold feels like a clear peek into the future of one of the industry’s biggest players, so it’s only natural that such an announcement would take some of the wind out of its flagship’s sails.

The S10 isn’t the smartphone of the future. Instead, it’s the culmination of 10 solid years of cutting-edge smartphone work that’s resulted into one of today’s most solid mobile devices.

Daily Crunch: Pinterest files to go public

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Pinterest files confidentially to go public

The business has confidentially submitted paperwork to the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering slated for later this year, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Earlier reports indicated the company was planning to debut on the stock market in April. In late January, Pinterest took its first official step toward a 2019 IPO, hiring Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase as lead underwriters for its offering.

2. Google ends forced arbitration for employees

This is a direct response to a group of outspoken Google employees protesting the company’s arbitration practices. Forced arbitration ensures that workplace disputes are settled behind closed doors and without any right to an appeal, effectively preventing employees from suing companies.

3. Facebook will shut down its spyware VPN app Onavo

Facebook will end its unpaid market research programs and proactively take its Onavo VPN app off the Google Play store in the wake of backlash following TechCrunch’s investigation about Onavo code being used in a Facebook Research app that sucked up data about teens.

In this photo taken on February 6, 2019, Indian delivery men working with the food delivery apps Uber Eats and Swiggy wait to pick up an order outside a restaurant in Mumbai.

4. Uber is reportedly close to making a tactical exit from India’s food delivery industry

India’s Economic Times is reporting that Uber is in the final stages of a deal that would see Swiggy eat up Uber Eats in India in exchange for giving the U.S. ride-hailing firm a 10 percent share of its business.

5. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ features hit more devices, including Samsung Galaxy S10

Initially available exclusively to Pixel and Android One device owners, Digital Wellbeing’s feature set is now rolling out to Nokia 6 and Nokia 8 devices with Android Pie, as well as on the new Samsung Galaxy S10.

6. DoorDash raises $400M round, now valued at $7.1B

Recent data from Second Measure shows that DoorDash has overtaken Uber Eats in U.S. market share — for online food delivery, it now comes in second to Grubhub.

7. Venmo launches a ‘limited edition’ rainbow debit card for its payment app users

The new rainbow card will be offered until supplies last, Venmo says. And existing card holders can request this card as a replacement for their current card, if they choose.

Startups Weekly: Is Y Combinator’s latest cohort too big?

Greetings from Chittorgarh, one of my stops on a two-week excursion through Goa and Rajasthan, India. I’ve been a little too busy exploring, photographing cows and monkeys and eating a lot of delicious food to keep up with *all* the tech news, but I’ve still got the highlights.

For starters, if you haven’t heard yet, TechCrunch launched Extra Crunch, a paid premium subscription offering full of amazing content. As part of Extra Crunch, we’ll be doing deep dives on select businesses, beginning with Patreon. Read Patreon’s founding story here and learn how two college roommates built the world’s leading creator platform. Plus, we’ve got insights on Patreon’s product, business strategy, competitors and more.

Sign up for Extra Crunch membership here.

On to other news…

Y Combinator’s latest batch of startups is huge

So huge the Silicon Valley accelerator had to move locations and set up two stages at its upcoming demo days (March 18-19) to accommodate the more than 200 startups ready to pitch investors (who will have to hop between stages at the event). There will also be a virtual demo day live-streamed for some investors to watch “because there are so few seats.” Here’s what I’m wondering… At what point is a YC cohort too big? If investors aren’t even able to view all the companies at Demo Day, what exactly is the point? Send me your thoughts.

Deal of the week

Another week, another SoftBank deal. The Vision Fund’s latest bet is autonomous delivery. The Japanese telecom giant has invested $940 million in Nuro, the developer of a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. The startup, also backed by Greylock and Gaorong Capital, will use the cash to expand its delivery service, add new partners, hire employees and scale up its fleet of self-driving bots. And while we’re on the subject of autonomous, TuSimple, a self-driving truck startup, has raised a $95 million Series D at a unicorn valuation.

Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman

The future of KPCB

TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos spoke with Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman, who joined Kleiner Perkins from Social Capital and Index Ventures, respectively. The pair talked about Kleiner Perkins, touching on people who’ve left the firm, how its decision-making process now works, why there are no senior women in its ranks and what they make of SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

Facebook almost bought Unity

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg considered a multi-billion-dollar purchase of Unity, a game development platform. This is according to a new book coming out next week, “The History of the Future,” by Blake Harris, which digs deep into the founding story of Oculus and the drama surrounding the Facebook acquisition, subsequent lawsuits and personal politics of founder Palmer Luckey. Here’s more on the acquisition-that-could-have-been from TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney.

Venture capital funds

Indonesia-focused Intudo Ventures raised a new $50 million fund this week to invest in the world’s fourth most populated country; InReach Ventures, the “AI-powered” European VC, closed a new €53 million early-stage vehicle; and btov Partners closed an €80 million fund aimed at industrial tech startups.

Xiaomi-backed electric toothbrush startup Soocas raises $30M

Startup cash

Jobvite raises $200M+ and acquires three recruitment startups to expand its platform play
Opendoor files to raise another $200M
DriveNets emerges from stealth with $110M for its cloud-based alternative to network routers
Figma gets $40M Series C to put design tools in the cloud
Xiaomi-backed electric toothbrush Soocas raises $30 million Series C
Malt raises $28.6 million for its freelancer platform
Elevate Security announces $8M Series A to alter employee security behavior
Massless raises $2M to build an Apple Pencil for virtual reality

Subscription scooters

Just when you thought the scooter boom and the subscription-boom wouldn’t intersect, Grover arrived to prove you wrong. The startup is launching an e-scooter monthly subscription service in Germany. Their big idea is that instead of purchasing an e-scooter outright, GroverGo customers can enjoy unlimited e-scooter rides without the upfront costs or commitment of owning an e-scooter.

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos chat startups.

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Meet the little-known Chinese WiFi startup that rubs shoulders with WeChat and Alipay

A service that connects people to WiFi hotspots for free turned out to be one of China’s most popular apps, nestling in the top ranks with Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s digital wallet affiliate Alipay. According to a report from app tracking service App Annie, WiFi Master Key was China’s fifth-largest app and the world’s ninth largest by monthly active users in 2018, titles it also held in 2017.

app annie china 2018

Report: The State of Mobile 2019, App Annie

The aptly-named WiFi Master Key, which owns the enviable domain wifi.com, is the product of a little-known startup called LinkSure in Shanghai that gets people onto the nearest wireless networks without the need for passwords. In addition, the app also recommends news and video content based on users’ past habits to lock them in, a feature similar to that of ByteDance’s algorithm-driven Jinri Toutiao news app.

Like many consumer-facing services in China, the app is free to use and monetizes traffic through advertising. It claims 700 million MAUs in China and another 100 million around the world. WeChat and Alipay, by comparison, each has around 1 billion MAUs worldwide.

The internet connectivity service helped LinkSure secure $52 million from a Series A round and value the parent at $1 billion back in 2015, only two years after the firm had launched. LinkSure has not announced further fundings since then and has kept a relatively low profile, though its founder Chen Danian was a household name from China’s early internet days. Along with his brother Chen Tianqiao, Chen founded Shanda Games, once China’s largest operator of online games before the rise of Tencent.

In November, Chen resigned as LinkSure’s chief operating officer as former Shanda executive Wang Jingying took over the reins to become one of the few prominent female CEOs in China’s tech sector.

Sharing passwords

The idea of freeloading on strangers’ networks strikes one as dodgy (or too good to be true), but the reality is more nuanced. WiFi Master Key keeps a database of passwords while encrypts and hides them from users, the company explains on its site. How does it collect all the credentials in the first place? Well, every time someone uses it to key in a login, the internet access app transmits that piece of information to the cloud. When people use it to, say, enter the WiFi passcode a barista just gave them, the data gets stored and shared to whoever at the cafe that uses the app.

wifi master key

Aside from bringing connectivity, WiFi Master Key also provides news, e-book and video content to lock users in. Screenshot: TechCrunch

Those inner workings enable the app to bill itself as a WiFi “sharing” service and distance itself from anything that’s remotely a hack. But its data practice still draws concerns over user privacy. Last April, the Chinese state television broadcaster ran a 25-minute feature lambasting the app for “stealing passwords.” That was followed by an industry-wide crackdown from the state’s cybersecurity watchdog on all WiFi crowdsourcing services with lacklustre security practices.

LinkSure rebuked the state report and said it always asked for user consent before gleaning their data. Chances are few people read the lengthy terms of use on any kind of apps in real life, and the less digital savvy may fail to grasp how the app actually works. A major source of debate is when users inadvertently make their house WiFi publicly available after giving the credentials away to a guest who happens to use the data ravenous app to access the host’s network. WiFi Master Key has not responded to emailed questions about its security practices.

Aside from enabling strangers to crowdsource WiFi, LinkSure has also joined hands with two major Chinese telecommunication companies to offer a separate broadband card with appealing data plans. That puts it in competition with Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and other tech firms that are working with big telcos to provide cheap or unlimited data enticing people to use their in-house apps.

Meanwhile, LinkSure is eying to beam down its own internet connection from the space as SpaceX and OneWeb do. The plan is to target the next few billion rural users who are just coming online and live in areas currently uncovered by terrestrial networks. LinkSure says it’s aiming to provide free satellite network around the world by 2026, with the first out of a constellation of 272 satellites bound to launch later this year.

A government-backed report put the number of people with internet access in China at 802 million in June, leaving nearly 600 million who are still unconnected. 30 million people came online for the first time last year, including an expanding base of elderly users who are increasingly embracing Alipay and WeChat to go about daily lives.

TaxScouts, the UK startup that helps prepare your taxes, picks up £1.2M led by SpeedInvest

TaxScouts, the U.K. “tax preparation” startup founded by TransferWise and Marketinvoice alumni, has created some new paperwork of its own. The London-based company has raised £1.2 million in seed funding.

Leading the new round is SpeedInvest, with participation from Finch Capital and SeedCamp. It adds to £300,000 in pre-seed investment that TaxScouts announced six months ago.

Combining “automation” with a network of human accountants, TaxScouts’ service is designed to support you through your annual tax filing preparation and submission. However, the headline draw is that the company charges a flat fee of £99 if you pay in advance, and promises a turn-around of 1-2 days.

To achieve this, the web app walks you through your tax status, income and expenses without assuming too much prior knowledge. This includes asking you to upload or take a photo of any required documents, such as invoices or dividend certificates. The idea is that all of the admin is captured digitally and packaged up ready for an assigned accountant to check.

Last year, I took the service for a spin, the first time in years that I haven’t left my tax return to the last minute. The accountant assigned to me was helpful and his advice seemed quite good. Most importantly, the communication was speedy, both over text and in a call we needed to have to talk through the pros and cons of two alternative ways to expense a car for work.

Meanwhile, I’m told accountants like the service, too, as it potentially enables small practices to scale and therefore take on more clients. Powering this is TaxScouts’ client management system for accountants, which the startup claims is saving 3-5 days of work per month for its accounting partners.

To that end, TaxScouts says it hopes to quadruple its network of accountant partners by the end of 2019. Its longer term aim is reduce the workload of accountants by 80 percent through further “process automation and digital data processing”.

“With an ever increasing amount of people in the UK experiencing non-standard income and with late fines amounting to billions last tax season alone, the time is better than ever to fundamentally redefine the experience,” says Anthony Danon, Principal at SpeedInvest.

“TaxScouts has built automation that brings simplicity, speed and convenience through a unique approach that creates shared value across taxpayers and accountants. We are excited to be backing such a product-minded team that has led product and engineering in some of U.K.’s best fintech startup stories”.

Reports raise video privacy concerns for Amazon-owned Ring

Amazon -owned smart doorbell maker Ring is facing claims that might give some smart home enthusiasts pause. Recent reports from The Intercept and The Information have accused the company of mishandling videos collected by its line of smart home devices, failing to inform users that their videos would be reviewed by humans and failing to protect the sensitive video footage itself with encryption.

In 2016, Ring moved some of its R&D operations to Ukraine as a cost saving move. According to the Intercept’s sources, that team had “unfettered access to a folder on Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service that contained every video created by every Ring camera around the world.” That group was also privy to a database that would allow anyone with access the ability to conduct a simple search to find videos linked to any Ring owner. At this time, the video files were unencrypted due to the “sense that encryption would make the company less valuable” expressed by leadership at the company.

At the same time the Ukraine team was allowed this access, Ring “executives and engineers” in the U.S. were allowed “unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras” even if that access was completely unnecessary for their work.

Ring reportedly leaned on its team in Ukraine, known as Ring Labs, to fill in the gaps for its troubled AI efforts. Those employees would comb through videos and manually tag objects in order to train software to one day be able to perform the recognition tasks. The videos included video from outside houses as well as video inside of them.

The company objected to the Intercept’s characterization of the situation, claiming that the training material was culled from public videos via a Ring app called Neighbors, a neighborhood watch app. It’s not clear that participants in the Neighbors app are aware that their videos are being reviewed manually by Ring’s “data operators” in Ukraine.

Ring provided the following statement to TechCrunch:

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring video recordings. These recordings are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes. Ring employees do not have access to livestreams from Ring products.

We have strict policies in place for all our team members. We implement systems to restrict and audit access to information. We hold our team members to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our policies faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties. In addition, we have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them.”

While it sounds like Ring may not have taken user privacy very seriously in the past, that attitude appears to have shifted upon the company’s acquisition by Amazon last year. The Information describes that scenario in reporting from December:

“After a visit by Amazon representatives to the Ukraine office in May, Amazon moved to restrict access to sensitive customer information, former employees said, requiring a digital key that could only be used from within the Kiev office.

But employees quickly found ways around the restriction. “We had to apply and get access. The Ukraine office wasn’t comfortable with this, so we found a workaround,” a former Kiev employee said. “Workers could then access the system from any computer, at home or anywhere.”

It’s impossible to know if Amazon is running a tight ship with Ring’s sensitive user data now, but it’s yet another reason to consider the privacy risks posed by smart home devices, particularly surveillance ones. Setting up an at-home panopticon might feel more secure, but know you might not be the only one keeping a watchful eye on your home.

DiscountMugs.com says four months of customer credit cards stolen by hackers

DiscountMugs.com, a large online custom mug and apparel store, had a four-month-long data breach just before the busy Christmas holiday season.

The company said in a letter to state attorneys general that hackers siphoned off credit card numbers from customers who made orders through its site between August 5 and November 16, 2018 using code injected on the company’s payments page.

The malicious card skimming code was removed from the site after it was discovered.

According to the letter, the hackers stole credit card numbers, the security code and expiration date, as well as names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and ZIP codes — everything that someone might need to make fraudulent payments.

But the company didn’t say how many people were affected by the breach. It’s believed to be thousands of customers who made purchases through the site during the four-month period.

TechCrunch reached out to Sai Koppaka, chief executive of parent company Bel USA, who did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the company’s spokesperson. Emails sent to Comvest, a private equity firm and an investor in Bel USA, also went unreturned.

DiscountMugs.com might not be a household name, but it ranks in the top 10,000 sites in the U.S., according to Alexa, bringing in thousands of customers every day.

The company becomes the latest in a line of websites affected by credit card skimming code. The so-called Magecart group of hackers have targeted thousands of sites in the past few years, scraping credit card data when a customer enters their information at the checkout and silently sending it on to the hackers’ servers.

Other big-name companies were hit, including British Airways, Newegg and Ticketmaster.

MIT researchers are now 3D printing glass

While the thought of a machine that can squirt out endless ropes of molten glass is a bit frightening, the folks at MIT have just about perfected the process. In a paper published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, researchers Chikara Inamura, Michael Stern, Daniel Lizardo, Peter Houk, and Neri Oxman describe a system for 3D printing glass that offers far more control over the hot material and the final product.

Their system, called G3DP2, “is a new AM platform for molten glass that combines digitally integrated three-zone thermal control system with four-axis motion control system, introducing industrial-scale production capabilities with enhanced production rate and reliability while ensuring product accuracy and repeatability, all previously unattainable for glass.”

The system uses a closed, heated box that holds the melted glass and another thermally controlled box where it prints the object. A moveable plate drops the object lower and lower as it is being printed and the print head moves above it. The system is interesting because it actually produces clear glass structures that can be used for decoration or building. The researchers take special care to control the glass extrusion system to ensure that it cools down and crystallizes without injecting impurities or structural problems.

“In the future, combining the advantages of this AM technology with the multitude of unique material properties of glass such as transparency, strength, and chemical stability, we may start to see new archetypes of multifunctional building blocks,” wrote the creators.

Looker snags $103 million investment on $1.6 billion valuation

Looker has been helping customers visualize and understand their data for seven years now and today it got a big reward, a $103 million Series E investment on a $1.6 billion valuation.

The round was led by Premji Invest with new investment from Cross Creek Advisors and participation from the company’s existing investors. With today’s investment Looker has raised $280.5 million, according the company.

In spite of the large valuation, Looker CEO Frank Bien really wasn’t in the mood to focus on that particular number, which he said was arbitrary, based on the economic conditions at the time of the funding round. He said having an executive team old enough to remember the dot-com bubble from the late 1990s and the crash of 2008, keeps them grounded when it comes to those kinds of figures

Instead, he preferred to concentrate on other numbers. He reported that the company has 1600 customers now and just crossed the $100 million revenue run rate, a significant milestone for any enterprise SaaS company. What’s more, Bien reports revenue is still growing 70 percent year over year, so there’s plenty of room to keep this going.

He said he took such a large round because there was interest and he believed that it was prudent to take the investment as they move deeper into enterprise markets. “To grow effectively into enterprise customers, you have to build more product, and you have to hire sales teams that take longer to activate. So you look to grow into that, and that’s what we’re going to use this financing for,” Bien told TechCrunch.

He said it’s highly likely that this is the last private fund-raising the company will undertake as it heads toward an IPO at some point in the future. “We would absolutely view this as our last round unless something drastic changed,” Bien told TechCrunch.

For now, he’s looking to build a mature company that is ready for the public markets whenever the time is right. That involves building internal processes of a public company even if they’re not there yet. “You create that maturity either way, and I think that’s what we’re doing. So when those markets look okay, you could look at that as another funding source,” he explained.

The company currently has around 600 employees. Bien indicated that they added 200 this year alone and expect to add additional headcount in 2019 as the business continues to grow and they can take advantage of this substantial cash infusion.