Augmented reality and the next century of the web

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

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

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


The Big Thing

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

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

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The AR/VR content problem 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What comes next

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

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

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

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


Other things

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

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

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

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

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

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


Extra Things

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

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

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

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


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

Xbox Live Gold is getting a big price hike

In what feels like an attempt at kicking some bad news under the rug on a Friday, Microsoft announced this morning that the price of Xbox Live Gold is going up.

Here’s how the price changes break down:

  • The one-month plan is going from $10 per month to $11.
  • The three-month plan is going from $25 to $30.
  • The six-month plan is going from $40 to $60 — but only for new customers, says Microsoft.

“But what about the twelve-month plan? Didn’t they used to offer those?”

They did! It was $60 — or the price that a six-month subscription will go for now. They stopped selling twelve-month plans back in July of last year, presumably because this change was on the horizon and they would’ve had to acknowledge on the price tag that 12 months of Live Gold would cost $120.

The good news: the price hike on the six-month plan only impacts new customers. If you’ve already got a six-month subscription (or are grandfathered into an auto-renewing twelve-month subscription), Xbox Support confirmed in a tweet that the price won’t increase:

If you’re on the one-month or three-month plans, though, it sounds like you’ll be paying the new price.

So why bump the cost? Microsoft doesn’t officially outline their reasoning (beyond pointing out that they haven’t increased the price in years, or as long as a decade in some regions), but one can assume it’s at least partially to make the $15 a month Xbox Game Pass (which bundles Xbox Live Gold with a library of all-you-can-eat, on-demand titles) that much more alluring.

The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we — Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace — had more than a little to noodle over, but not so much that we blocked out a second episode. We try to stick to our current format, but, may do more shows in the future. Have a thought about that? [email protected] is your friend and we are listening.

Now! We took a broad approach this week, so there is a little of something for everything down below. Enjoy!

Like we said, it’s a lot, but all of it worth getting into before the weekend. Hugs from the team, we are back early Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Daily Crunch: Microsoft backs Cruise

Autonomous vehicle company Cruise raises a $2 billion new round, Netflix keeps growing and WhatsApp faces more privacy concerns. This is your Daily Crunch for January 19, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft backs Cruise

Cruise announced today that it has raised $2 billion in new funding at a $30 billion valuation, with Microsoft joining as a new investor. (Previous backers GM and Honda also participated.)

This includes a long-term strategic partnership between the two companies, with Cruise using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform for its yet-to-launch autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service. Microsoft is also becoming the preferred cloud provider for GM as part of the deal.

“As Cruise and GM’s preferred cloud, we will apply the power of Azure to help them scale and make autonomous transportation mainstream,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a statement.

The tech giants

Netflix shares soar as it passes 200M paying subscribers — Netflix capped off a year of impressive streaming growth by adding 8.5 million net new paying subscribers during the fourth quarter.

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy over ‘grave concerns’ — India’s IT ministry said the upcoming update to the app’s data-sharing policy has raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens.”

Apple’s new editorial franchise, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, to highlight interesting creators — The editorial team at Apple will select new podcast creators to feature every month.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Rivian raises $2.65B as it pushes toward production of its electric pickup — Rivian is now valued at $27.6 billion.

PPRO nabs $180M at a $1B+ valuation to bring together the fragmented world of payments — The London startup has built a platform to make it easier for marketplaces, payment providers and other e-commerce players to enable localized payments.

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40M funding round — Last year, Google unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In 2020, VCs invested $428M into US-based startups every day
That’s according to data shared by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association.

Six investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities — “We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” said Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public — Bustle could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via SPAC.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’ —  A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance,” the European Commission said today.

Paramount+, the successor to CBS All Access, launches March 4 in the US, Canada and Latin America — The company had been touting its plans for the rebranded service since earlier last year.

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

The pandemic was top of mind in the tech of CES 2021

Of course COVID-19 was bound to be an unavoidable topic during the first-ever all-virtual CES. After all, the topic is at front of mind regardless of the topic these days. Close to a year into the pandemic, presenters still understandably feel obligated to address the always-present elephant in the room. Sometimes it was as simple as acknowledging the strangeness of moving from the Las Vegas Convention Center to a Microsoft-powered virtual venue. Other times it felt far more forced.

When it comes to the technology itself, there’s no doubt that the pandemic is going to have a profound effect on the industry for years to come, from health measures to remote work setups. Sometimes it’s a genuinely organic evolution aimed at adapting technology to an ever-changing world. In other cases, it can feel far more exploitative — like the consumer electronics equivalent to a beer commercial discussing “these uncertain times.”

I’ve written a lot about how the pandemic will impact robotics and AI going forward. The short version is that companies will no doubt be more enthusiastic about embracing these technologies, after bumping up against the limitations of a human workforce with a deadly and highly contagious virus spreading across the world.

We saw some glimpses of robotics’ response. Though there tends to be a far longer lead time than in the consumer category. The clearest and most immediate example had to be the prevalence of UV outfitted robotics. LG, Ubtech and Ava Robotics all bombarded my inbox with their take on the category. The desire for disinfecting technology should be clear during a pandemic, and robotics offer both a way to automate a dull and repetitious process like this, while removing a potential human viral vector from the equation.

Image Credits: Razer

UV disinfecting made appearances in a number of other form factors. Phones have been a target for the tech for a few years now. After all, it didn’t take COVID-19 to teach us that smartphones are mobile petri dishes we watch TikToks on. Products like CleanPhone from Canadian startup Glissner are looking to enter a space that’s been thus far dominated by PhoneSoap, which was genuinely ahead of the curve on the phenomenon.

Targus’s keyboard may well have been the most widely reported-on UV solution of the show, because, well, it’s a bit wacky, with an ultraviolet lamp that sits above it.

Masks are another piece of the puzzle that have slowly been infiltrating the show, but really hit a fever pitch this year. Obviously wearing a face mask in public is only a new phenomenon in some countries — in other parts of the world like East Asia it’s long been a normal part of life. Last year, Portland-based Ao Air grabbed some headlines with its own take on the category.

Razer’s Project Hazel was undoubtedly the most prominent mask to debut at the show. It’s big and flashy and a bit of a diversion for a company that primarily trades in gaming peripherals. The N95 mask sports LEDs to indicate charging status and make the wearer’s face visible in dark surroundings. There’s also technology built in to make the wearer’s voice clearer. For the moment, however, it’s hard to see them as much beyond a headline grabber.

One piece I genuinely expected to see more of was remote work. We caught glimpses, like the Dell monitor with Microsoft Teams conferencing built in. Microsoft pitched its new Surface as a remote work machine, but frankly, it didn’t feel any more targeted at that vertical than any other portable Surface.

No doubt many of the innovations companies are working on will have to wait until CES 2022. Fingers crossed, we’ll see them next year in Vegas.

Want a job in tech? Flockjay pitches its sales training service as an on-ramp to tech careers

“Most people don’t even know that a job in tech sales is even a possibility,” says Shaan Hathiramani, the founder and chief executive of Flockjay, a company offering a tech sales training curriculum to the masses.

Hathiramani sees his startup as an onramp to the tech industry for legions of workers who have the skillsets to work in tech, but lack the network to see themselves in the business. Just like coding bootcamps have enabled thousands to get jobs as programmers in the tech business, Flockjay can get talented people who had never considered a job in tech into the industry.

The company, which had previously raised $3 million from investors including Serena Williams and Will Smith, along with tech industry luminaries like Microsoft chairman John Thompson; Airtable head of sales Liat Bycel; Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit; and former Netflix CPO Tom Willerer, has just raised new capital to expand its business in a time when accelerated onramps to new jobs have never been more important.

The healthcare response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, which has closed businesses and torn through the American economy. The unemployment rate in the country sits at 6.4% and the nation lost 140,000 jobs again in December — with all of those job losses coming from women.

A former financier with the multi-billion dollar investment firm, Citadel, Hathiramani sees Flockjay, and the business of tech sales as a way for a number of people to transform their lives.

“We provide a premier sales academy,” Hathiramani said. “It costs zero dollars if you take the course and don’t get a job and costs 10% of your income for the first year if you do get a job. That nets out to 6 or 7K.”

A few hundred students have gone through the program so far, Hathiramani said, and the goal is to train 1,000 people over the course of 2021. The average income of a student before they go through Flockjay’s training program is $30,000 to $35,000 typically, Hathiramani said.

Upon graduation, those students can expect to make between $75,000 and $85,000, he said.

Increasing access among those students who have not necessarily been exposed to the tech world is critical for what Hathiramani wants to do with his sales bootcamp.

Flockjay founder Shaan Hathiramani. Image Credit: Flockjay

The entrepreneur said roughly 40% of students don’t have a four-year college degree; half of the students identify as female or non-binary, and half of the company’s students identify as Black or hispanic. About 80% of the company’s students find a job within the first six months of graduation.

These are students like Elise Cox, a former Bojangles’ manager and Flockjay graduate, who moved from Georgia to Denver to be a sales tech representative for Gusto. Tripling her salary from $13 an hour in the food service industry to a salaried position with wages and benefits.

“I enjoy being able to generate revenue for the company,” Cox, a 41-year-old grandmother, whose five-year plans include a sales leadership role, told Fast Company two years ago. “The revenue is the lifeblood of the company and being part of the team gives me sense of fulfillment.”

Partnerships with [email protected], Hidden Genius Project, Peninsula Bridge, and TechHire Oakland, help to ensure a diverse pool of applicants and a more diverse workforce for the tech industry — where diversity is still a huge problem.

As Hathiramani looks to take his company from training a couple of hundred students to over a thousand, the founder has raised new cash from previous investors including Lightspeed, Coatue, and Y Combinator, and new investors like eVentures, Salesforce Ventures, along with the Impact America Fund, Cleo Capital and Gabrielle Union.

For the New Jersey-born entrepreneur, Flockjay was a way to give back to a community that he knew intimately. After his family settled in New Jersey after immigrating to the United States, Hathiramani went first to Horace Mann on a scholarship and then attended Harvard before getting his job at Citadel.

Even while he was working at the pinnacle of the financial services world he started non-profits like the Big Shoulders Fund and taught financial literacy.

After a while, he moved to the Bay Area to begin plotting a way to merge his twin interests in education and financial inclusion.

“That led to me spending a year helping startups for free and trying to understand their problems with hiring and training” said Hathiramani. “It helped me surface this economic waste in plain sight. There were all these people talking to customers and they were spending three months on the job learning the job and they didn’t want to do the job or they weren’t very good at it.”

Tech salesforces were a point of entry in the system that almost anyone could access, if they could get in through the door, Hathiramani said. Flockjay wants to be the key to opening the door.

So, the company now has $11 million in new funding to bring its sales training bootcamp to a larger audience. Hathiramani also wants to make the bootcamp model more of a community with continuous development after a student completes the program. “I view education as a membership and not a transaction,” he said. “We focus on continuous learning and continuous up-skilling.”

Part of that is the flywheel of building up networks in a manner similar to YCombinator, the accelerator program from which Flockjay graduated in 2019.

“We went through YC to learn… how they manufacture the privilege in the world that they have afforded,” said Hathiramani. “How do you take some of that and provide it to someone who is starting their careers in tech. You get better at your job the more connections you have. As we accelerate the alumni piece… they can draw on other alums that they’re selling into.”

 

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records

A new cross-industry initiative is seeking to establish a standard for digital vaccination records that can be used universally to identify COVID-19 vaccination status for individuals, in a way that can be both secure via encryption and traceable and verifiable for trustworthiness regarding their contents. The so-called ‘Vaccination Credential Initiative’ includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and the tech industry, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and Epic, as well as the Mayo Clinic, Safe Health, Change Healthcare and the CARIN Alliance to name a few.

The effort is beginning with existing, recognized standards already in use in digital healthcare programs, like the SMART Health Cards specification, which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) which is a standard created for use in digital health records to make them interoperable between providers. The final product that the initiative aims to establish is an “encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for individuals who don’t own or prefer not to use smartphones.

Vaccination credentials aren’t a new thing – they’ve existed in some form or another since the 1700s. But their use and history is also mired in controversy and accusations of inequity, since this is human beings we’re dealing with. And already with COVID-19, there efforts underway to make access to certain geographies dependent upon negative COVID-19 test results (though such results don’t actually guarantee that an individual doesn’t actually have COVID-19 or won’t transfer it to others).

A recent initiative by LA County specifically also is already providing digital immunization records to individuals via a partnership with Healthvana, facilitated by Apple’s Wallet technology. But Healthvana’s CEO and founder was explicit in telling me that that isn’t about providing a proof of immunity for use in deterring an individual’s social or geographic access. Instead, it’s about informing and supporting patients for optimal care outcomes.

It sounds like this initiative is much more about using a COVID-19 immunization record as a literal passport of sorts. It’s right in the name of the initiative, for once (‘Credential’ is pretty explicit). The companies involved also at least seem cognizant of the potential pitfalls of such a program, as MITRE’s chief digital health physician Dr. Brian Anderson said that “we are working to ensure that underserved populations have access to this verification,” and added that “just as COVID-19 does not discriminate based on socio-economic status, we must ensure that convenient access to records crosses the digital divide.”

Other quotes from Oracle and Salesforce, and additional member leaders confirm that the effort is focused on fostering a reopening of social and ecomicn activity, including “resuming travel,” get[ting] back to public life,” and “get[ting] concerts and sporting events going again.” Safe Health also says that they’ll help facility a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Given the urgency of solutions that can lead to a safe re-opening, and a way to keep tabs on the massive, global vaccination program that’s already underway, it makes sense that a modern approach would include a digital version of historic vaccination record systems. But such an approach, while it leverages new conveniences and modes made possible by smartphones and the internet, also opens itself up to new potential pitfalls and risks that will no doubt be highly scrutinized, particularly by public interest groups focused on privacy and equitable treatment.

SilviaTerra wants to bring the benefits of carbon offsets to every landowner everywhere

Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilviaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue generating carbon offsets.

As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multi-billion dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated ten years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.

That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the 1 trillion trees initiative, Marc Benioff .

“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”

For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.

After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SiliviaTerra.

SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.

While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S. the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the US each year.

The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for moset landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.

There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.

To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SilviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.

That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.

Working with AI for Earth, SilviaTierra created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes ofsatellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the US Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.

With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.

Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and try to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”

The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.

Landowners involved in SilviaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”

Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.

It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”

The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways its an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.

Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.

“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.” 

Minecraft Earth will shut down in June

Throughout 2019, Microsoft experimented with building a real world, augmented reality Minecraft game designed in the same vein as Pokémon GO. Called Minecraft Earth, they finally opened it up to everyone in November of 2019.

In just a few months, it’ll shut down and all player data will be deleted.

So what happened? Writes the Minecraft Earth team:

Minecraft Earth was designed around free movement and collaborative play – two things that have become near impossible in the current global situation. As a result, we have made the difficult decision to re-allocate our resources to other areas that provide value to the Minecraft community and to end support for Minecraft Earth in June 2021.

In other words: this game just isn’t going to work in a pandemic. Pokémon GO might be doing just fine thanks to a strong foundation of super dedicated players and a steady stream of curious newcomers, but it’d be pretty damned hard to go from zero to sixty with a real world game when everyone is supposed to be staying at home.

What happens next:

  • The team is releasing one final patch that removes all in-app purchases and makes all in-game mechanics easier/faster
  • On June 30th, the game shuts down. Even if you’ve got it installed already, it’ll stop working.
  • On July 1st, they’re deleting all player data.
  • Anyone who has spent any money in Minecraft Earth is getting a free copy of Minecraft Bedrock version, and players who have unused Minecraft Earth rubies will get an unspecified amount of Minecoins that’ll work in Minecraft-proper’s marketplace

It’s a disappointing end to what was really a pretty cool concept — but if they’re announcing its shutdown barely a year after launch, the data probably suggest there’s not much else they can do.