Facebook launches Collab, a mix-and-match app for making collaborative music videos

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is rolling out yet another new app today called Collab after having just launched a new group audio calling app, CatchUp, on Tuesday. With Collab, the focus has now returned to video, and specifically, the concept of watching, mixing, and matching original videos together, beginning with music.

In Collab, creators can either record their own musical arrangement or swipe to discover arrangements to build a composition, or a “collab.” While there are some elements of TikTok’s duets in this idea, the difference is that all videos posted to Collab can be mixed and matched with others. TikTok, meanwhile, allows creators to control who can duet with them.

In addition, Collab is only designed for making original music videos for the time being, which sets it apart from other video apps — including TikTok, Dubsmash, Triller, and more which have users creating content to the music from popular songs available via an in-app catalog.

Though focused on music, you don’t necessarily have to be a gifted musician to publish to Collab. You could participate by doing something simple — like banging on a child’s xylophone, beating a tambourine, pulling on a roll of tape, tapping a glass bottle, or even just tapping their foot. Musicians could then use that video alongside their own content to build their “collab.”

The collabs can only be up to 15 seconds in length, as this is not intended to be a professional music-making platform, but rather one that’s used for fun and experimentation.

Once users have created a collab, they can publish it for others to watch in the app’s feed or to further remix. However, the underlying music itself cannot be remixed — only the videos. The resulting collab can also be published to other social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook Stories, and more.

There are a number of existing apps that allow users to collaborate with others on music, including by mixing sounds, making recordings, and arranging compositions. But these tend to be digital audio workstation (DAW) software programs, or at least those aimed at semi-professional to professional musicians. Spotify’s Soundtrap is one example. BandLab, Endless, Bandpass, Kompoz, are a few others. Vampr, meanwhile, helps musicians discover new collaborators. Collab, meanwhile, is more open to mainstream users — including those who play music for fun or are just fans of music in general.

Facebook says it’s been working on Collab for a few months, but hurried the launch in light of so many people being sheltered in place around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Digital spaces can connect us when we can’t be together in person, and Collab is a new way to create together,” a Facebook company spokesperson said about the launch.

However, the app itself is not ready to rapidly scale, which is why it’s being released today as an invite-only beta.

The company notes there’s still work that needs to be done to polish the app’s experience, but the team will be iterating on the product and responding to user feedback going forward. More people will be able to join Collab as invites roll out in batches. Access to the waitlist is here.

Collab is the latest in a series of releases from Facebook’s R&D group, NPE Team, which so far has launched a small handful of apps, including meme creator Whale, conversational app Bump, music app Aux, video app Hobbi, couples app Tuned, Apple Watch app Kit, and just yesterday, group calling app CatchUp. (Bump has since shut down.)

Prior to CatchUp, apps were launched with little fanfare but now Facebook is publically announcing their debuts and answering questions. That’s a change in strategy for the team, and one that could point Facebook’s desire to capitalize on users’ hunger for new social and entertainment experiences while stuck at home due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Collab is available as an invite-only beta on iOS in the U.S. and Canada.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Initialized’s Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan for a live Q&A on Tuesday at 2pm EDT/11am PDT

Extra Crunch Live is on fire, and the hits keep rolling! Next week, we’ll sit down with Initialized’s Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan. You can catch the chat live on Tuesday, June 2 at 2 p.m. EDT/11 a.m. PDT.

Alexis Ohanian is the founder and former CEO of Reddit, and his investment portfolio includes Flexport, Ro and Papa. Garry Tan has invested in Instacart and Coinbase, to name a couple, and also has a background in entrepreneurship, having founded Posterous and Posthaven. Previously, Tan was a partner at Y Combinator for four years.

For those of you who aren’t caught up, Extra Crunch Live is a virtual speaker series that connects Extra Crunch members with the brightest minds in tech and VC where the audience has a chance to ask direct questions.

We’ll talk to Ohanian and Tan about how they’re advising their portfolio companies through the pandemic. Which startups should hunker and conserve cash, and which ones should sprint and advance? Is there a middle ground, and if so, what does it look like?

We’ll also discuss their outlook on economic recovery and opportunities that allow entrepreneurs to capitalize on the speed at which the world is changing. Which sectors are piquing their interest? Is Initialized going to invest aggressively in this ecosystem or be more risk-averse than usual? What’s it like doing deals over Zoom or Google Meet?

Extra Crunch members are encouraged to drop their questions in the Q&A chat for Ohanian and Tan. We’ll get to as many of them as possible, so please click here to join.

You can find the full details for our discussion below the break.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be chatting with GGV’s Hans Tung, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz, Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra and Plaid’s Zach Perret. You can check out the full schedule here. Members also have access to the complete backlog of Extra Crunch Live episodes, which include chats with Kirsten Green, Roelof Botha, Mark Cuban and Aileen Lee.

See you there!

Toro snags $4M seed investment to monitor data quality

Toro’s founders started at Uber helping monitor the data quality in the company’s vast data catalogs, and they wanted to put that experience to work for a more general audience. Today, the company announced a $4 million seed round.

The round was co-led by Costanoa Ventures and Point72 Ventures with help from a number of individual investors.

Company co-founder and CEO Kyle Kirwin says the startup wanted to bring the kind of automated monitoring we have in applications performance monitoring products to data. Instead of getting an alert when the application is performing poorly, you would get an alert that there is an issue with the data.

“We’re building a monitoring platform that helps data teams find problems in their data content before that gets into dashboards and machine learning models and other places where problems in the data could cause a lot of damage,” Kirwin told TechCrunch.

When it comes to data, there are specific kinds of issues a product like Toro would be looking at. It might be a figure that falls outside of a specific dollar range that could be indicative of fraud, or it could be simply a mistake in how the data was labeled that is different from previous ways that could break a model.

The founders learned the lessons they use to build Toro while working on the data team at Uber. They had helped build tools there to find these kinds of problems, but in a way that was highly specific to Uber. When they started Toro, they needed to build a more general purpose tool.

The product works by understanding what it’s looking at in terms of data, and what the normal thresholds are for a particular type of data. Anything that falls outside of the threshold for a particular data point would trigger an alert, and the data team would need to go to work to fix the problem.

Casey Aylward, vice president at Costanoa Ventures likes the pedigree of this team and the problem it’s trying to solve. “Despite its importance, data quality has remained a challenge for many enterprise companies,” he said in a statement. He added, “[The co-founders] deep experience building several of Uber’s internal data tools makes them uniquely qualified to build the best solution.”

The company has been at this for just over a year and have been keeping it lean with 4 employees including the two co-founders, but they do have plans to add a couple of data scientists in the coming year as they continue to build out the product.

Virgin Orbit provides more details about what went right with its first launch demo

Virgin Orbit performed a demonstration of its full launch system on Monday, and while it didn’t go quite as planned, with the mission cut short just a few seconds after Virgin’s LauncherOne separated from its Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, the company says it still learned a lot – and a lot went right, too.

Spaceflight is tough stuff, and it’s actually pretty common for a new spacecraft to not quite get everything right on its first time out. SpaceX took four tries with its original Falcon 1 rocket to make it to space, for instance. Test flights are tests for a reason, and Virgin Orbit notes that it actually did ace a lot of the aspects of the test, including launch vehicle release, the controlled drop after that release point, igniting the rocket on LauncherOne and even the first couple of seconds of powered flight after that – all of which it says proves out the viability of its launch model.

Virgin also says it was able to collect good data from “hundreds of channels and sensors” during the launch, which is another reason why companies test systems to begin with. That was the main purpose of Monday’s launch, and that should help them go back to work on ensuring that the part of the mission that didn’t go so well doesn’t happen again. So far, Virgin Orbit knows that around 9 seconds into its flight, the booster engine on LauncherOne extinguished due to a malfunction, causing the rocket to fall harmlessly into the ocean. They don’t yet know the cause of that malfunction, but say they are “confident” that they have enough data to eventually figure out the cause.

Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit says that this test did prove a number of important things about its approach to launching spacecraft. First, that its mobile, flexible ground operating system that can launch outside of U.S. federal ranges works as designed. Second, that its autonomous flight safety system works as designed to protect the safety of the general public. Also, this is the first time that CosmicGirl and LauncherOne have flown with liquid oxygen fuel on board, so this is a verification that its fuel containment system works. And, as mentioned, the LauncherOne release and initial flight matched simulations perfectly, so Virgin Orbit knows that part of the system is well-designed.

There’s still a lot of work to be done before the company can make a second orbital launch attempt, but luckily it already has a robust rocket-building pipeline in place. Virgin Orbit isn’t yet saying when exactly we can expect a second launch test to occur, and I wouldn’t expect it to before it determines the root cause of the malfunction it encountered, but it might not take as long as you think.

Watch SpaceX launch people to space for the first time live

SpaceX is set to mark a huge milestone in its own company history, with a first-ever crewed spaceflight set to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida later today. The mission is Commercial Crew Demo-2, the culmination of its Crew Dragon human spacecraft development program, which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station.

The launch is currently set to take off from Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 PM EDT (1:33 PM PDT), though that’ll depend on weather conditions. Those haven’t been looking too favorable over the past few days, but SpaceX and NASA have said they could make the call as late as around 45 minutes prior to the planned launch time about whether or not to delay. If today’s attempt is scrubbed, there are backup opportunities on the schedule for May 30 and May 31.

This will be the first ever crewed spaceflight for SpaceX, and it will also make history as the first U.S.-based human rocket launch since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. NASA undertook the Commercial Crew program in 2010 to seek public-private partnerships to return its launch capabilities, eventually selecting both NASA and Boeing to design and develop spaceraft rated for human flight. SpaceX is the first from this program to make a crewed launch attempt.

The Demo-2 mission is actually essentially the final test phase of Crew Dragon, after which it and Falcon 9, the rocket which carries it to orbit, will be certified for regular operational use by NASA. That means it will begin offering regular transportation services for astronaut crew to and from the International Space Station, joining Russia’s Soyuz as a means to travel to the orbital science platform.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has already begun plans to also offer berths on Crew Dragon to private citizens and potentially commercial scientists and other passengers. That’s part of the reason behind the Commercial Crew program to begin with – NASA was seeking to lower cost of transportation for its astronauts to space by making seats available to other paying customers to offset launch and flight expenses.

Voi hires former Bird UK chief to bring e-scooters to British streets

With the U.K. government set to accelerate trials of e-scooter rentals in a bid to reduce crowding on public transport and support social distancing during the coronavirus crisis, Europe’s e-scooter companies are gearing up to be ready.

The latest move sees Sweden-headquartered Voi Technology recruit Richard Corbett to head up its U.K., Ireland and Benelux operations. Corbett joins from rival Bird, where he spent two years as the U.S. company’s U.K. and Ireland chief, as well as helping to launch e-scooter rentals in Netherlands.

This side of the pond, Corbett was best known for launching e-scooters on private land at Queen Elizabeth Park in East London, which was a major site for the London 2012 Summer Olympics. It has since become home to a ‘tech hub’, housing a number of tech and media-focused businesses and related organisations, along with co-working spaces, a large conference space, and various Olympic-standard sports facilities.

“Richard Corbett joins Voi immediately as head of the Swedish company’s UK, Ireland and Benelux operations, as the UK government prepares to change the law to finally allow e-scooters to be ridden on roads and cyclepaths,” explains Voi, adding that he’ll be responsible for leading Voi’s push into the UK, where it expects to see at least 50,000 rides per day by the end of 2020 in London.

Explains Fredrik Hjelm, CEO and co-founder of Voi Technology, in a statement: “Out of this terrible pandemic, there is an opportunity to reinvent the way that we travel around cities so that we can cut congestion and pollution for good. Now more than ever a collaborative approach to mobility is needed and we need to make sure that there are good non-polluting options available, that suit all abilities and pockets. There is a huge unmet demand for e-scooters in U.K. towns and cities and Voi will work closely with local authorities and other transport operators to provide new mobility choices”.

Out of genuine curiosity, I asked Corbett what he has been doing over the last two years, considering how limited Bird’s U.K. launch was.

“The Olympic Park was the UK’s very first ‘e-scooter showroom’, where stakeholders across no. 10, DfT, DEFRA, DHSC, cities, transport authorities and transport groups could test ride an e-scooter and develop an informed opinion about this new mode of transport,” he told me. “This trial was essential to get us to where we are today”.

To that end, one of Corbett’s first tasks is to continue building out the U.K. team, and working closely with U.K. local authorities and transport operators to bring e-scooter rentals to the U.K. cities that could benefit most.

“I’m really proud to have been part of the team who led the conversations to make e-scooters a priority and I firmly believe that they will be a solution to the U.K.’s pollution and transport issues, not just a fun way to get around,” he says. “I’m also really excited to be getting back to this campaign and in particular with Voi, which is a European company which really understands how people move around older cities like London. We share the same values and are passionate about creating better cities for people to live in.”

Meanwhile, it has been a challenging time for Voi, along with other e-scooter rental companies, including Lime, Bird, Tier and others, as many countries entered lockdown and demand for scooter rides plummeted. This forced Voi to pause operations in the majority of cities it operates in, with only a handful of its largest cities being serviced.

Since then, lockdowns across Europe have started to lift, and Voi says it has been putting more e-scooters back on the streets of various European cities, including in France and Germany. Throughout the pandemic, it also maintained service in key cities in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, in part to help key workers get around and to assist charities supporting people during the on-going crisis.

China’s top short video apps and e-commerce giants pally up

JD.com, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time nemesis, announced Wednesday a strategic partnership with Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s sibling in China, Douyin.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet where short video apps and e-commerce platforms increasingly turn to each other for monetization synergies. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products ranging from cosmetics to electronics. Much of the transaction happens over live broadcasting — a bit misleading as these apps are billed as “short video” apps with live video features — which allows for real-time interaction between merchants and shoppers. COVID-19 has certainly advanced live-streamed shopping in a time when Chinese consumers were confined indoors.

The marriage of live broadcasting and e-commerce is reminiscent of what happened at the start of the social networking boom, which saw microblogging platform Weibo and Alibaba team up for similar motivation: expand content platforms’ revenue streams beyond advertising by turning content consumers into shoppers.

Retail requires such a different set of industry know-how that pure internet companies — social networks and video apps — are compelled to find allies in supply chains and logistics. Douyin has similarly tapped Alibaba for the latter’s retail resources and TikTok started testing social commerce recently.

This isn’t the first time that Kuaishou — which totals more than 300 million daily active users compared to Douyin’s 400 million — has sought out an e-commerce partner. It briefly worked with Alibaba’s Taobao and Pinduoduo, a rising challenger to Alibaba. What’s at stake is the fight for control over user data and traffic. After all, who’s entitled to all the data generated from these live-streamed transactions?

The JD-Kuaishou alliance seems to have settled on a friendly agreement. The online retailer will let Kuaishou users purchase JD products directly within the video app, a big leap from Kuaishou’s previous arrangement with other retail partners, which would redirect shoppers to buy on the e-commerce apps.

The collaboration appears to be a win-win. For Kuaishou, adding e-commerce capabilities will bring new revenues not only to itself but also to its influencers, strengthening their loyalty to the video platform. JD, on the other hand, can lean on Kuaishou’s popularity in small towns and rural villages to advance its goal to “further penetrate into lower-tier cities where hundreds of millions of consumers have a growing but underserved demand for quality products and upgraded services.”

Eli Lilly’s COVID-19 therapy development partner AbCellera raises $105 million

When AbCellera won a $30 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop therapeutic countermeasures against viral outbreaks two years ago, it’s safe to assume that no one thought the technology would be so vitally important so soon.

The work AbCellera was doing was part of a high-priority initiative from DARPA’s Biological Technology Office called the Pandemic Prevention Platform which was designed to finance the development of technologies for pandemic response capable of developing countermeasures within sixty days of the isolation of a viral pathogen.

Now, as the company’s employees work feverishly with partners at one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to develop therapies to treat the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, the necessity of these government-sponsored programs have been thrown into sharp relief.

It’s also clear to a number of investors that the government funding won’t be enough to fully develop AbCellera’s drug discovery platform to meet the challenges of the next potential disease outbreak and pandemic threat. That’s why the company has raised $105 million in a new round of financing.

“Drug development takes too long, fails too often, and costs too much. With the backing of visionary investors, we will double-down on our strategy of making long-term investments in technology and teams that are needed to put drug development on the fast track,” said Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO of AbCellera. “We’re building a modern operating system for drug developers to ensure the best science is translated quickly into new therapies for patients.” 

AbCellera’s technology has already been validated by DARPA, which provided some funding to develop and integrate technologies for viral culture and production, rapid human antibody discovery, protein engineering and delivery of nucleic acid-encoded antibodies as a way to protect against viral infection.

And the pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly, an investor in the company’s latest round of financing, is a believer in AbCellera’s technology as well. The two companies partnered in early March to co-develop antibodies for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19, according to a statement.

Within one week from receiving a blood sample from a U.S. patient infected with COVID-19 who recovered from the disease, AbCellera was able to screen over 5 million immunes cells — looking for ones that produced antibodies to neutralize the virus and help that patient recover.

That sample gave AbCellera the necessary genetic material to screen over 500 unique human antibody sequences, which was the largest panel of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies reported at the time.

Coronavirus structure

3D Rendering,Human coronavirus.coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.Can cause colds as well as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

The invention that AbCellera has leveraged to develop its antibody identification technology is a credit card-sized “lab on a chip”, which uses advanced sensors and machine learning to serially test multiple antibody-producing cells at a time. The hundreds of thousands of cells the company tests provide potential targets that can then be narrowed down to more specific mechanisms that disrupt a virus’ ability to infect a host.

Working with Eli Lilly, AbCellera has winnowed the potential number of targets from 500 to 20. Lilly, which has worked with AbCellera on other drugs as well, is now going to begin human trials on three or four of the antibodies that seem most promising.

“We always hope there’s just one antibody that’s really, really great, and we can devote our full manufacturing resources to that,” Dan Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer, told Bloomberg back in April.

While AbCellera and Lilly are on the hunt for COVID-19 therapies, other investors in the company are already looking ahead to the next challenge. Those investors include new lead investor OrbiMed and previous investor DCVC Bio, along with an investor syndicate of new backers including Peter Thiel and Founders Fund, the University of Minnesota and Presight Capital. Viking Global Investors also particpated in the round.

The company said it would use the funding to invest in technologies that support and extend its antibody discovery technology.

“AbCellera is at the intersection of biology, technology, and AI, allowing it to make new antibody drug discovery advancements, which we previously couldn’t dream of, possible,” said John Hamer, Managing Partner, DCVC Bio, in a statement. “From developing therapeutics for neurological diseases to COVID-19 and everything in-between, AbCellera is transforming the antibody discovery process, delivering more possibilities in less time and with less expense. We continue to be enthusiastic supporters of its progress.” 

CATL explores new EV battery services, to add capacity: chairman

CATL explores new EV battery services, to add capacity: chairmanChina's top electric vehicle (EV) battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) is exploring new battery-related services and will expand manufacturing capacity in the next two years, its chairman told Reuters. Ningde-based CATL, which alongside LG Chem and Panasonic is one of the biggest EV battery makers globally, is developing battery-swapping and battery maintenance services, its chairman Zeng Yuqun said on Wednesday. It will also expand recycling capabilities in China and invest in similar businesses overseas, Zeng added in a written response to Reuters questions.

ChatableApps launches its hearing assistance app

ChatableApps is launching its hearing assistance app on iOS today, with a wider Android release to follow shortly. Backed by Mark Cuban, and based on the work of auditory neural signal processing researcher Dr. Andy Simpson, the app removes background noise in near real-time so that one-to-one conversations can be heard more clearly.

And, unlike other solutions on the market, its makers say it works with any modern smartphone and standard earbuds. Early “pre-clinical” trials of the Chatable app claim to demonstrate that it matches or even surpasses the performance of some traditional hearing aids, with 86% of participants reporting that the ChatableApps’ “universal hearing aid” was better for conversation than their existing hearing aid.

When I covered the startup’s recent funding round, ChatableApps co-founder Brendan O’Driscoll told me the company’s technology and approach is “completely unique” because it doesn’t use noise filtering or other DSP techniques. “It’s actually a deep learning neural net approach to speech and noise separation that doesn’t apply filters to the original audio but rather it listens and re-prints a brand new audio stream in near real-time which is a mimic of just the vocal components of the original audio,” he said.

Or, put simply, unlike traditional approaches to background noise removal — which attempt to label and remove unwanted sounds — ChatableApps’ AI, dubbed “VOXimity”, identifies the voice we want to hear, and creates a new, identical voice track which sounds (more or less) the same as the original but without any other background sounds. The technique is called end-to-end neural speech synthesis.

Meanwhile, ChatableApps CEO Giles Tongue, tells me the team has been racing to get the app released as quickly as possible, after realising it could help plug a gap for people unable to access a hearing clinic during the coronavirus crisis or unable to lipread due to the prevalence of face masks.

“Following successful pre-clinical trials, we have decided to launch immediately due to urgent demand from audiologists to help people struggling because of coronavirus,” he says. “With many unable to lipread due to face masks or unable to visit a hearing clinic in an emergency, our app provides a lifeline that will help people communicate”.

The app may also help manage social distancing. “You can place the phone next to the person talking, put in your Bluetooth buds, walk ten feet away and still be able to hear someone with perfect clarity,” adds Tongue.

Since we last covered the company, the team has also re-visited the ChatableApps pricing model. Previously the startup planned to offer a paid subscription version only, but now has a free, albeit somewhat limited, tier.

“The app is free to access, with the option to subscribe to unlock maximum voice amplification and reduction of background noise,” says the company. The full version is available for £9.99 ($12.99) per month, or £59.99 ($79.99) per year when paid annually.