The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

Extra Crunch roundup: Digital health VC survey, edtech M&A, deep tech marketing, more

I had my first telehealth consultation last year, and there’s a high probability that you did, too. Since the pandemic began, consumer adoption of remote healthcare has increased 300%.

Speaking as an unvaccinated urban dweller: I’d rather speak to a nurse or doctor via my laptop than try to remain physically distanced on a bus or hailed ride traveling to/from their office.

Even after things return to (rolls eyes) normal, if I thought there was a reliable way to receive high-quality healthcare in my living room, I’d choose it.

Clearly, I’m not alone: a May 2020 McKinsey study pegged yearly domestic telehealth revenue at $3 billion before the coronavirus, but estimated that “up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized” after the pandemic abates.

That’s a staggering number, but in a category that includes startups focused on sexual health, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, data management and testing, it’s clear to see why digital-health funding topped more than $10 billion in the first three quarters of 2020.

Drawing from The TechCrunch List, reporter Sarah Buhr interviewed eight active health tech VCs to learn more about the companies and industry verticals that have captured their interest in 2021:

  • Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher, partners, Venrock
  • Nan Li, managing director, Obvious Ventures
  • Elizabeth Yin, general partner, Hustle Fund
  • Christina Farr, principal investor and health tech lead, OMERS Ventures
  • Ursheet Parikh, partner, Mayfield Ventures
  • Nnamdi Okike, co-founder and managing partner, 645 Ventures
  • Emily Melton, founder and managing partner, Threshold Ventures

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Since COVID-19 has renewed Washington’s focus on healthcare, many investors said they expect a friendly regulatory environment for telehealth in 2021. Additionally, healthcare providers are looking for ways to reduce costs and lower barriers for patients seeking behavioral support.

“Remote really does work,” said Elizabeth Yin, general partner at Hustle Fund.

We’ll cover digital health in more depth this year through additional surveys, vertical reporting, founder interviews and much more.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

Woman having a medicine video conferencing with her doctor using digital tablet. Senior woman on a video call with a doctor using her tablet computer at home.

Image Credits: Luis Alvarez (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

In the last year, edtech startup Top Hat acquired three publishing companies: Fountainhead Press, Bludoor and Nelson HigherEd.

Natasha Mascarenhas interviewed CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to learn more about his content acquisition strategy, but her story also discussed “some rumblings of consolidation and exits in edtech land.”

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

Last year, U.S.-based VCs invested an average of $428 million each day in domestic startups, with much of the benefits flowing to fintech companies.

This morning, Alex Wilhelm examined Q4 VC totals for Europe, which had its lowest deal count since Q1 2019, despite a record $14.3 billion in investments.

Asia’s VC industry, which saw $25.2 billion invested across 1,398 deals is seeing “a muted recovery,” says Alex.

“Falling seed volume, lots of big rounds. That’s 2020 VC around the world in a nutshell.”

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In this week’s Decrypted, security reporter Zack Whittaker covered the latest news in the unfolding SolarWinds espionage campaign, now revealed to have impacted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Malwarebytes.

In other news, the controversy regarding WhatsApp’s privacy policy change appears to be driving users to encrypted messaging app Signal, Zack reported. Facebook has put changes at WhatsApp on hold “until it could figure out how to explain the change without losing millions of users,” apparently.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech

A big IPO debut is a juicy topic for a few news cycles, but because there’s always another unicorn ready to break free from its corral and leap into the public markets, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to reflect.

Alex studied companies like Lemonade, Airbnb and Affirm to see how well these IPO pop stars have retained their value. Not only have most held steady, “many have actually run up the score in the ensuing weeks,” he found.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Hello, Extra Crunch community!

Hello in Different Languages

Image Credits: atakan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I began my career as an avid TechCrunch reader and remained one even when I joined as a writer, when I left to work on other things and now that I’ve returned to focus on better serving our community.

I’ve been chatting with some of the folks in our community and I’d love to talk to you, too. Nothing fancy, just 5-10 minutes of your time to hear more about what you want to see from us and get some feedback on what we’ve been doing so far.

If you would be so kind as to take a minute or two to fill out this form, I’ll drop you a note and hopefully we can have a chat about the future of the Extra Crunch community before we formally roll out some of the ideas we’re cooking up.

Drew Olanoff
@yoda

In 2020, VCs invested $428m into US-based startups every day

Last year was a disaster across the board thanks to a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and widespread social and political upheaval.

But if you were involved in the private markets, however, 2020 had some very clear upside — VCs flowed $156.2 billion into U.S.-based startups, “or around $428 million for each day,” reports Alex Wilhelm.

“The huge sum of money, however, was itself dwarfed by the amount of liquidity that American startups generated, some $290.1 billion.”

Using data sourced from the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, Alex used Monday’s column to recap last year’s seed, early-stage and late-stage rounds.

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Pole lifting rubber duck with hook in its head

Image Credits: Andy Roberts (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Building a marketing team is one of the most opaque parts of spinning up a startup, but for a deep tech company, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

How can technical founders working on bleeding-edge technology find the right people to tell their story?

If you work at a post-revenue, early-stage deep tech startup (or know someone who does), this post explains when to hire a team, whether they’ll need prior industry experience, and how to source and evaluate talent.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg. Image Credits: Bustle Digital Group

Senior Writer Anthony Ha interviewed Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg to get his thoughts on the state of digital media.

Their conversation covered a lot of ground, but the biggest news it contained focuses on Goldberg’s short-term plans.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

It may not be as glamorous as D2C, but beauty tech is big money

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is not a huge fan of personal-care D2C brands merging with traditional consumer product companies.

This month, razor startup Billie and Proctor & Gamble announced they were calling off their planned merger after the FTC filed suit.

For similar reasons, Edgewell Personal Care dropped its plans last year to buy Harry’s for $1.37 billion.

In a harsher regulatory environment, “the path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs,” it seems.

Twilio CEO says wisdom lies with your developers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: Founder and CEO of Twilio Jeff Lawson speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 at Pier 48 on September 12, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Companies that build their own tools “tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” according to Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

In an interview with enterprise reporter Ron Miller for his new book, “Ask Your Developer,” Lawson says founders should use developer teams as a sounding board when making build-versus-buy decisions.

“Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should,” says Ron.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’

We are all pumping out data into the cloud. Some of it we’d like to keep forever. Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your ‘digital legacy’ and protect it from becoming unreadable, otherwise known as ‘bit-rot’. The project has received backing from the legendary Vint Cerf, one of the co-creators and founding fathers of the internet.

Emortal, which has been in engineering R&D for more than 10 years, has raised $5.7 million from ‘friends and family’. It is now raising $2.7 million in a crowdfunding on the UK’s Crowdcube platform, following what it says was a successful BETA test.

The company will use Google architecture to preserve digital memories – photographs, documents, correspondence, videos, interviews and more – indefinitely into the future. The idea is that this will ensure that as, operating systems, devices and tech evolves, your entire digital legacy will remain safe, secure and accessible – to only those you choose.

The platform is now set to be launched in the UK and US in Q3 this year and will be designed for occasional considered use, for example when taking a picture at a christening, rather than saving every photo you take. It will charge a flat, standard subscription fee of £4.99 a month.

Cerf said in a statement: “The cornerstone of the Emortal proposition is to tie data preservation in with digital legacy protection to ensure that our digital memories are safe and accessible for generations to come.”

Colin Culross, founder and CEO of Emortal said: “We are keen to use the Crowdcube platform for this raise because Emortal is a service designed for ALL families. We believe the most powerful way for the business to grow is to have thousands of our customers investing in the business.” 

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit

Twenty years ago Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp. He wanted to put his burgeoning programming skills to work by building a communications tool for his dorm. That simple idea evolved over time into the open-source Drupal web content management system, and eventually a commercial company called Acquia built on top of it.

Buytaert would later raise over $180 million and exit in 2019 when the company was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion, but it took 18 years of hard work to reach that point.

When Drupal came along in the early 2000s, it wasn’t the only open-source option, but it was part of a major movement toward giving companies options by democratizing web content management.

Many startups are built on open source today, but back in the early 2000s, there were only a few trail blazers and none that had taken the path that Acquia took. Buytaert and his co-founders decided to reduce the complexity of configuring a Drupal installation by building a hosted cloud service.

That seems like a no-brainer now, but consider at the time in 2009, AWS was still a fledgling side project at Amazon, not the $45 billion behemoth it is today. In 2021, building a startup on top of an open-source project with a SaaS version is a proven and common strategy. Back then nobody else had done it. As it turned out, taking the path less traveled worked out well for Acquia.

Moving from dorm room to billion-dollar exit is the dream of every startup founder. Buytaert got there by being bold, working hard and thinking big. His story is compelling, but it also offers lessons for startup founders who also want to build something big.

Born in the proverbial dorm room

In the days before everyone had internet access and a phone in their pockets, Buytaert simply wanted to build a way for him and his friends to communicate in a centralized way. “I wanted to build kind of an internal message board really to communicate with the other people in the dorm, and it was literally talking about things like ‘Hey, let’s grab a drink at 8:00,'” Buytaert told me.

He also wanted to hone his programming skills. “At the same time I wanted to learn about PHP and MySQL, which at the time were emerging technologies, and so I figured I would spend a few evenings putting together a basic message board using PHP and MySQL, so that I could learn about these technologies, and then actually have something that we could use.”

The resulting product served its purpose well, but when graduation beckoned, Buytaert realized if he unplugged his PC and moved on, the community he had built would die. At that point, he decided to move the site to the public internet and named it drop.org, which was actually an accident. Originally, he meant to register dorp.org because “dorp” is Dutch for “village or small community,” but he mistakenly inverted the letters during registration.

Buytaert continued adding features to drop.org like diaries (a precursor to blogging) and RSS feeds. Eventually, he came up with the idea of open-sourcing the software that ran the site, calling it Drupal.

The birth of web content management

About the same time Buytaert was developing the basis of what would become Drupal, web content management (WCM) was a fresh market. Early websites had been fairly simple and straightforward, but they were growing more complex in the late 90s and a bunch of startups were trying to solve the problem of managing them. Buytaert likely didn’t know it, but there was an industry waiting for an open-source tool like Drupal.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized

The Boston Globe is starting a new program by which people who feel an article at the newspaper is harmful to their reputation can ask that it be updated or anonymized. It’s reminiscent of the E.U.’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial, since it concerns only one editorial outlet and not a content-agnostic search engine.

The “Fresh Start” initiative isn’t for removing bad restaurant reviews or coverage of serious crimes, but rather for more commonplace crime desk reporting: a hundred words saying so-and-so was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, perhaps with a mugshot.

Such stories do serve a purpose, of course, in informing readers of crime in their area. But as the Globe’s editor, Brian McGrory points out:

It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects. Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.

Evidence of bias in policing, which is turned into inherited bias in reporting, is a serious problem and one the country has been grappling with for decades. But it is exacerbated by the nature of the digital record.

An employer looking at an application has only to search for the name or a few other details to find any standout information, such as a crime sheet entry with a mugshot. And while outlets often cover low-level arrests, they rarely cover low-level acquittals or dropped charges. No one clicks on those, after all. So for many the result incomplete and therefore potentially damaging information.

The attempt in Europe to fix this at the search engine level has been met with opposition and difficulty, since search engines are not in charge of the information they index and felt they should not be put in the position of deciding what should or shouldn’t be removed. Furthermore the task may be complex, as a single article may be replicated or referenced dozens or thousands of times, or backed up on a site like the Internet Archive. What then?

At the same time, it’s certainly less of a threat to free speech to ask a search engine to limit discoverability than to ask a publication to remove or change its content. The debate is ongoing.

The Globe’s approach is nowhere near as comprehensive as making Google “forget” a person’s record, but it is considerably simpler and less open to opposition. The paper exerts editorial control over itself, of course, and the question is not one of putting a piece of information down the memory hole, but revisiting whether it was newsworthy to begin with.

“It’s changing how we look at our coverage,” said managing editor for digital Jason Tuohey in the Globe announcement of its new endeavor. “If we change a story like this with the Fresh Start committee, why would we assign one like it next week?”

The newspaper has established a 10-person committee to examine petitions from people asking to have articles updated — never removed, it’s important to add. While an earlier effort like this at the Cleveland Plain Dealer required people to show a court record expungement order, there is no legal bar to meet here.

The team admits off the bat that this will be complicated. Automated or fraudulent requests will surely pour in, public figures will take a shot, there will be conflicting opinions on what evidence, if any, is required to confirm an event or identity, and so on. And at the end, all that will be accomplished is one article, perhaps even just one line, will be altered — long after it has been replicated across the web and archival infrastructure. But it’s a start.

One paper doing this may not have a large effect, but if the program is successful other outlets may take notice. And as Tuohey noted, the wisdom of publishing the information in the first place starts to look shaky when one learns how ramshackle the justice system really is. Perhaps it’s only fair that people have a shot at applying that newfound skepticism to events of years past.

Anyone who thinks they could benefit from Fresh Start can apply here.

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.

EVgo to go public via SPAC in bid to power EV charging expansion

EVgo, the wholly owned subsidiary of LS Power that owns and operates public fast chargers for electric vehicles, has reached a deal to become a publicly traded company through a merger with special-purpose acquisition company Climate Change Crisis Real Impact I Acquisition Corporation.

The combined company, which will be listed under the new ticker symbol “EVGO” will have a market valuation of $2.6 billion. LS Power and EVgo management, which today own 100% of the company will be rolling all of its equity into the transaction. Once the transaction closes in the second quarter, LS Power will hold a 74% stake in the newly combined company.

EVgo has raised about $575 million in proceeds through the business combination, including a $400 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE. Investors include Pacific Investment Management Company LLC (PIMCO), funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Wellington Management, Neuberger Berman Funds and Van Eck Associates Corporation, according to the announcement.

EVgo’s leadership will remain intact, with Cathy Zoi continuing as CEO of the combined company.

The deal is the latest in a long string of electric vehicle-related companies to merge with so-called blank check companies, eschewing the traditional path to an IPO. Arrival, Canoo, ChargePoint, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, Proterra and The Lion Electric Company are some of the companies that have merged with SPACs — or announced plans to — in the past eight months.

EVgo is not a new entrant to the electric vehicle industry. The company was founded in 2010 and has spent better part of the decade scaling up its infrastructure. Today, EVgo has chargers in more than 800 locations in 67 major metropolitan markets across 34 states. The company has landed a number of partnerships, including with Albertsons, Kroger and Wawa to locate its chargers at these properties.

EVgo has also struck deals with automakers such as GM and Nissan as well as ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber. In July, GM and EVgo announced plans to add more than 2,700 new fast chargers over the next five years.

While electric vehicles still make up just a fraction of total cars, trucks and SUVs on today’s roads, the industry has forecast that the EV market will increase more than 100-fold between 2019 and 2040, EVgo said. The funds raised through the public market will be used to accelerate its expansion, according to the company.

“Just a few years ago, electric vehicles were considered niche,” EVgo CEO Cathy Zoi said in a statement. “Today, improved technology, lower costs, greater selection and a better appreciation for the performance of EVs is increasingly making them the vehicle technology of choice. With that, the need for fast charging is on the rise.”

Zoi noted that public charging will essential to meet the needs of the estimated 30% of Americans who do not have access to at-home charging as well as the growing number of fleets that are switching to electric vehicles.

Pinterest launches an AR-powered Try-on experience for eyeshadow

Pinterest is expanding its virtual makeup try-on capabilities with today’s launch of a new augmented reality feature that allows online shoppers to virtually try on new eyeshadow. Initially, Pinterest is allowing try-on with 4,000 shades from brands like Lancome, YSL, Urban Decay, and NYX Cosmetics.

The feature leverages Pinterest’s existing Lens visual search technology, its skin tone ranges feature, and computer-vision powered recommendations, the company says. We also understand Pinterest is incorporating elements from data partner ModiFace, including digitization parameters that ensure the products recognized are mapped to ModiFace’s database for higher-quality rendering.

This not Pinterest’s first virtual makeup feature. The company had previously launched an AR try-on experience for lipstick a year ago, which has now grown to include 10,000 shades, discoverable from 48 million beauty pins from brands like Estée Lauder, bareMinerals, Neutrogena, NARS, Cle de Peau, Thrive Causemetics, NYX Professional Makeup, YSL Beauté, Lancôme, and Urban Decay. Retailers, including Kohl’s, have also used AR try-on to reach consumers.

With the newly launched eyeshadow try-on, users can filter the product search results by factors like color, price range, and brand. if they find something they like, they can then purchase it immediately, save it to a board, or browse a “more like this” section to find more Pins offering similar shades.

video of AR eyeshadow effect

Image Credits: Pinterest

The expansion to eyeshadow means users can now experiment with more of a full makeup look, rather than just try on individual shades. There’s a toggle that lets users switch between lipstick and eyeshadow to try on multiple products at once, Pinterest says.

AR-powered virtual makeup experiences have been growing in popularity over the years, thanks in part to AR beauty apps  like ModiFace’ YouCam MakeupSephora’s Virtual ArtistUlta’s GLAMLab and others. L’Oréal has also offered Live Try-On on its website, and partnered with Facebook to bring virtual makeup to the site. Target’s online Beauty Studio also offers virtual makeup.

More recently, Google entered the AR virtual makeup space, initially with the launch of a more limited feature on YouTube that allowed some beauty influencers to incorporate an AR try-on experience for products in their videos. In December 2020, however, Google more fully embraced AR try-on with the launch of virtual makeup try-on within Google Search, also in partnership with ModiFace.

But Pinterest’s expansion to eyeshadow means it’s once again ahead of Google when it comes to visual search technology and virtual makeup. Not only does it offer more lipstick shades than Google, it now also offers eyeshadow try-on.

Pinterest says the AR try-on feature is being made available for free to brands who want to create visual shopping experiences and reach customers earlier in their decision-making process. The company says it continues to generate revenue through ads, including shopping ads, and not by monetizing its AR features or doing any revenue share on the try-ons that turn into sales.

“As we make Pinterest more shoppable through products like AR Try on, the platform becomes more engaging and actionable to Pinners, which can result in increases in usage and click-through of ads,” a spokesperson explains. “Organic features like Try on and ingestion of catalogs to create Product Pins can oftentimes complement a paid strategy where brands drive traffic across the site,” they noted.

The support for eyeshadow try-on is timely. Some beauty brand sales have been depressed by the pandemic, and particularly lipsticks, since it makes no sense to use lip color when your face is under a mask. Instead, current beauty trends have shifted to highlighting the eyes, with bright and bold colors for eyeshadow shades, the wild floating eyeliner look, large false lashes, and more — trends that are also designed to look good when filmed for social media posts, of course.

Pinterest says it has indications that its AR features are converting undecided shoppers to customers. In 2020, Pinterest found that users would try-on an average of 6 lipstick shades once they began the AR try-on experience, and then were 5 times more likely to show purchase intent on try-on compared with standard Pins.

The new eyeshadow try-on is live starting today using the Lens camera in the Pinterest app for iOS and Android.

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Cheng writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign — we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google