Innovaccer nabs $11 million from Microsoft’s VC arm to give doctors a better window into patient heatlh

Cracking the silos of digital health records promises to bring better care to patients by better informing doctors, according to Abhinav Shashank, the chief executive officer of San Francisco-based startup Innovaccer .

Shashank’s company is just wrapping up a $35 million round of financing with a new $11 million commitment from Microsoft’s investment arm M12 (formerly known as Microsoft Ventures).

The corporate investor joins Westbridge, and Lightspeed Partners, who previously committed to the Series B round last year.

Founded in 2014, Innovaccer has been working to roll up data from a number of different healthcare providers including Hartford Healthcare, University of California, Mercy ACO Iowa, UniNet Healthcare Network of Nebraska, Inmediata Health Integrated Solutions of Puerto Rico, and StratiFi Health Network.

Innovaccer estimates that it has saved its customers $400 million in expenses and the company said it will use the funds to build out its software services that connect to lab systems, electronic health records, claims management software and health information exchanges.

“Innovaccer’s approach to data aggregation and analytics fundamentally helps healthcare organizations implement value-based care models and improve care delivery,” said Rashmi Gopinath, partner at M12, in a statement. “We look to invest in startups addressing huge markets with best-in-class deep technology. We are excited to support Innovaccer as they continue to scale and grow in the global healthcare market.”

In addition to providing a unified view into all of the different records that a care provider touches, the company is also looking to layer in prompts to encourage treatment options for future care, according to Shashank.

According to the company’s chief executive, care providers are already incorporating suggestions from the company’s algorithmically based predictive tools in their treatment plans to ensure that patients are getting the best possible outcomes.

“It is rare to see this type of growth in the healthcare industry. Normally, this is only seen in the fastest of enterprise SaaS companies. We think there is tremendous potential to bring the speed and innovation normally associated with enterprise software to the world of healthcare IT,” says Sumir Chadha, Managing Director at Westbridge Capital.

Facebook finds and kills another 512 Kremlin-linked fake accounts

Two years on from the U.S. presidential election, Facebook continues to have a major problem with Russian disinformation being megaphoned via its social tools.

In a blog post today the company reveals another tranche of Kremlin-linked fake activity — saying it’s removed a total of 471 Facebook pages and accounts, as well as 41 Instagram accounts, which were being used to spread propaganda in regions where Putin’s regime has sharp geopolitical interests.

In its latest reveal of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — aka the euphemism Facebook uses for disinformation campaigns that rely on its tools to generate a veneer of authenticity and plausibility in order to pump out masses of sharable political propaganda — the company says it identified two operations, both originating in Russia, and both using similar tactics without any apparent direct links between the two networks.

One operation was targeting Ukraine specifically, while the other was active in a number of countries in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern Europe.

“We’re taking down these Pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post,” writes Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy. “In these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

Sputnik link

Discussing the Russian disinformation op targeting multiple countries, Gleicher says Facebook found what looked like innocuous or general interest pages to be linked to employees of Kremlin propaganda outlet Sputnik, with some of the pages encouraging protest movements and pushing other Putin lines.

“The Page administrators and account owners primarily represented themselves as independent news Pages or general interest Pages on topics like weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan,” he writes. “Despite their misrepresentations of their identities, we found that these Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow, and that some of the Pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption.”

Facebook has included some sample posts from the removed accounts in the blog which show a mixture of imagery being deployed — from a photo of a rock concert, to shots of historic buildings and a snowy scene, to obviously militaristic and political protest imagery.

In all Facebook says it removed 289 Pages and 75 Facebook accounts associated with this Russian disop; adding that around 790,000 accounts followed one or more of the removed Pages.

It also reveals that it received around $135,000 for ads run by the Russian operators (specifying this was paid for in euros, rubles, and U.S. dollars).

“The first ad ran in October 2013, and the most recent ad ran in January 2019,” it notes, adding: “We have not completed a review of the organic content coming from these accounts.”

These Kremlin-linked Pages also hosted around 190 events — with the first scheduled for August 2015, according to Facebook, and the most recent scheduled for January 2019. “Up to 1,200 people expressed interest in at least one of these events. We cannot confirm whether any of these events actually occurred,” it further notes.

Facebook adds that open source reporting and work by partners which investigate disinformation helped identify the network.

It also says it has shared information about the investigation with U.S. law enforcement, the U.S. Congress, other technology companies, and policymakers in impacted countries.

Ukraine tip-off

In the case of the Ukraine-targeted Russian disop, Facebook says it removed a total of 107 Facebook Pages, Groups, and accounts, and 41 Instagram accounts, specifying that it was acting on an initial tip off from U.S. law enforcement.

In all it says around 180,000 Facebook accounts were following one or more of the removed pages. While the fake Instagram accounts were being followed by more than 55,000 accounts.  

Again Facebook received money from the disinformation purveyors, saying it took in around $25,000 in ad spending on Facebook and Instagram in this case — all paid for in rubles this time — with the first ad running in January 2018, and the most recent in December 2018. (Again it says it has not completed a review of content the accounts were generating.)

“The individuals behind these accounts primarily represented themselves as Ukrainian, and they operated a variety of fake accounts while sharing local Ukrainian news stories on a variety of topics, such as weather, protests, NATO, and health conditions at schools,” writes Gleicher. “We identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the US midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency (IRA) activity.”

In the Ukraine case it says it found no Events being hosted by the pages.

“Our security efforts are ongoing to help us stay a step ahead and uncover this kind of abuse, particularly in light of important political moments and elections in Europe this year,” adds Gleicher. “We are committed to making improvements and building stronger partnerships around the world to more effectively detect and stop this activity.”

A month ago Facebook also revealed it had removed another batch of politically motivated fake accounts. In that case the network behind the pages had been working to spread misinformation in Bangladesh 10 days before the country’s general elections.

This week it also emerged the company is extending some of its nascent election security measures by bringing in requirements for political advertisers to more international markets ahead of major elections in the coming months, such as checks that a political advertiser is located in the country.

However in other countries which also have big votes looming this year Facebook has yet to announced any measures to combat politically charged fakes.

Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

Flutterwave and Visa launch African consumer payment service GetBarter

Fintech startup Flutterwave has partnered with Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa called GetBarter.

The app based offering is aimed at facilitating personal and small merchant payments within countries and across Africa’s national borders. Existing Visa card holders can send and receive funds at home or internationally on GetBarter.

The product also lets non card-holders (those with accounts or mobile wallets on other platforms) create a virtual Visa card to link to the app.  A Visa spokesperson confirmed the product partnership.

GetBarter allows Flutterwave—which has scaled as a payment gateway for big companies through its Rave product—to pivot to African consumers and traders.

Rave is B2B, this is more B2B2C since we’re reaching the consumers of our customers,” Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola—aka GB—told TechCrunch.

The app also creates a network for clients on multiple financial platforms, such as Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, to make transfers across payment products, national borders, and to shop online.

“The target market is pretty much everyone who has a payment need in Africa. That includes the entire customer base of M-Pesa, the entire bank customer base in Nigeria, mobile money and bank customers in Ghana—pretty much the entire continent,” Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will focus on building a GetBarter user base across mobile money and bank clients in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, with plans to grow across the continent and reach those off the financial grid.

“In phase one we’ll pursue those who are banked. In phase-two we’ll continue toward those who are unbanked who will be able to use agents to work with GetBarter,” Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will generate revenue through fees from financial institutions on cards created and on fees per transaction. A GetBarter charge for a payment in Nigeria is roughly 40 Naira, or 11 cents, according to Agboola.

With this week’s launch users can download the app for Apple and Android devices and for use on WhatsApp and USSD.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. It allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Facebook, Booking.com, and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

Flutterwave has processed 100 million transactions worth $2.6 billion since inception, according to company data.

The company has raised $20 million from investors including Greycroft, Green Visor Capital, Mastercard, and Visa.

In 2018, Flutterwave was one of several African fintech companies to announce significant VC investment and cross-border expansion—see Paga, Yoco, Cellulant, Mines.ie, and  Jumo.

Flutterwave added operations in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October that saw former Visa CEO Joe Saunders join its board of directors.

The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Flutterwave hasn’t yet released revenue or profitability info, according to CEO Olugbenga Agboola.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with its largest operations center in Nigeria, the startup plans to add operations centers to South Africa and Cameroon, which will also become new markets for GetBarter.

Microsoft pledges $500M to create affordable housing around Seattle

At a time when tech companies are being blamed for creating housing shortages in cities across the country, Microsoft told the Seattle Times it will make a $500 million pledge, its largest ever, to create affordable housing around Seattle. The company is currently in the middle of a multi-billion dollar expansion of its Redmond, Washington campus.

Microsoft’s pledge comes half a year after Seattle City Council failed to pass a “head tax” that would have required companies making more than $200 million a year to pay $275 per employee in taxes. The money would have been used to address housing issues and homelessness, but council members blamed the repeal of the new tax ordinance on Amazon, which said it would stop construction on a new building if it passed. Amazon is based in Seattle, but also planning new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and Long Island City, New York.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said the housing pledge grew out of conversations the company began having with Challenge Seattle, an alliance formed by 18 businesses to address civic issues in the area, last summer. Most of the funds will be used to increase housing for low- to middle-income workers across the Puget Sound region.

“At some level we as a region are going to need to either say there are certain areas where we’re comfortable having more people live, or we just want to permanently force the people who are going to teach our kids in schools, and put out the fires in our houses, and keep us alive in the hospital, to spend four hours every day getting to and from work,” Smith told the newspaper. “That is not, in our view, the best outcome for the community.”

Smith added that he hopes the pledge will help create “tens of thousands of units.” In addition to being the largest pledge ever made by Microsoft, which holds $135 billion in cash reserves and short-term investments, the company says it is one of the largest housing contributions ever by a private corporation.

The money will be used in three ways: $225 million will be loaned at below-market interest rates to developers building units for households making between $62,000 to $124,000 a year; $250 million will be used for market-rate loans to support the construction of affordable housing for people making up to 60 percent of the local median income, or about $48,150 for a two-person household; and the rest of the money, $25 million, will be donated to services for low-income and homeless people. Loans will be made over a period of three years and any profit will be put back in the fund.

Microsoft’s affordable housing initiative is partially modeled after Housing Trust Silicon Valley, which provides loans for affordable housing and services for the homeless in the Bay Area.

New pre-seed fund powered by First Round Capital will target recent graduates

In 2012, early Uber investor First Round Capital decided it needed an avenue to access the best companies brewing inside dormitories across the U.S. So the seed-stage venture capital firm launched Dorm Room Fund, a pool of capital managed by students for students. The project has brought 250 startups, including Harper Wilde and Brooklinen, and more than 400 entrepreneurs into the First Round network to date.

“But there’s an even bigger community of founders just on the other side of that graduation threshold; and if students can make great founders, then recent graduates make great founders as well,” wrote Bruno Faviero, a former managing partner of Dorm Room Fund and current co-founder and chief executive officer of Synapse Technology, in a recent blog post. “Yet the level of resources and support drops off when you’re no longer in school.”

Faviero, in partnership with Segment.com product manager Lauren Reeder, Totemic co-founder Neal Khosla and former Google project manager Parthi Loganathan, has formed Graduate Fund, a pre-seed fund targeting recent graduates of undergraduate or master’s programs. Just like Dorm Room Fund, Graduate Fund is supported by First Round Capital, leveraging the firm’s financial and managerial expertise but operating independently.

The Graduate Fund will write “angel-sized investments” or roughly $100,000 checks — larger than Dorm Room Fund’s $20,000 investments — to startups that lack a network of angel investors and that are not ready for big-name investor support. The idea is to not only fill First Round’s pipeline of viable investments but to protect projects from turning to startup accelerators that ask for a large stake in return for a small investment.

The Graduate Fund has backed five companies so far: And Comfort, a direct-to-consumer plus-sized clothing brand; Floating Point Group, a cryptocurrency trading platform; Ally Shoes, which makes high-performance high-heeled shoes for women; Spellbrush, an AI assistant for artists; and probiotics maker Zbiotics.

Pre-seed investing emerged a couple of years ago as a result of the growing size of seed and Series A deals. A pre-seed check is typically under $1 million, or, in other words, the size a seed deal was a decade ago. The median U.S. seed deal hit a new high of $2.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 and the median Series A funding grew to $8 million.

Many in the venture capital community still scoff at the notion of pre-seed investing but multiple funds, The Graduate Fund being the latest, have cropped up with pre-seed at the center of their theses. Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn partnered to launch Hustle Fund in 2017. The pre-seed firm closed on $11.5 million late last year. Afore Capital, led by Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain, pulled in $47 million for their debut pre-seed vehicle in 2017. Bee Partners, K9, Pear, Precursor, Notation and Wonder have similarly startup pre-seed-focused outfits.

Facebook urged to give users greater control over what they see

Academics at the universities of Oxford and Stanford think Facebook should give users greater transparency and control over the content they see on its platform.

They also believe the social networking giant should radically reform its governance structures and processes to throw more light on content decisions, including by looping in more external experts to steer policy.

Such changes are needed to address widespread concerns about Facebook’s impact on democracy and on free speech, they argue in a report published today, which includes a series of recommendations for reforming Facebook (entitled: Glasnost! Nine Ways Facebook Can Make Itself a Better Forum for Free Speech and Democracy.)

“There is a great deal that a platform like Facebook can do right now to address widespread public concerns, and to do more to honour its public interest responsibilities as well as international human rights norms,” writes lead author Timothy Garton Ash.

“Executive decisions made by Facebook have major political, social, and cultural consequences around the world. A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national (or even EU-wide) legislation.”

Here’s a rundown of the report’s nine recommendations:

  1. Tighten Community Standards wording on hate speech — the academics argue that Facebook’s current wording on key areas is “overbroad, leading to erratic, inconsistent and often context-insensitive takedowns;” and also generating “a high proportion of contested cases.” Clear and tighter wording could make consistent implementation easier, they believe.
  2. Hire more and contextually expert content reviewers — “the issue is quality as well as quantity,” the report points out, pressing Facebook to hire more human content reviewers plus a layer of senior reviewers with “relevant cultural and political expertise;” and also to engage more with trusted external sources such as NGOs. “It remains clear that AI will not resolve the issues with the deeply context-dependent judgements that need to be made in determining when, for example, hate speech becomes dangerous speech,” they write.
  3. Increase “decisional transparency” — Facebook still does not offer adequate transparency around content moderation policies and practices, they suggest, arguing it needs to publish more detail on its procedures, including specifically calling for the company to “post and widely publicize case studies” to provide users with more guidance and to provide potential grounds for appeals.
  4. Expand and improve the appeals process — also on appeals, the report recommends Facebook gives reviewers much more context around disputed pieces of content, and also provide appeals statistics data to analysts and users. “Under the current regime, the initial internal reviewer has very limited information about the individual who posted a piece of content, despite the importance of context for adjudicating appeals,” they write. “A Holocaust image has a very different significance when posted by a Holocaust survivor or by a Neo-Nazi.” They also suggest Facebook should work on developing “a more functional and usable for the average user” appeals due process, in dialogue with users — such as with the help of a content policy advisory group.
  5. Provide meaningful News Feed controls for users — the report suggests Facebook users should have more meaningful controls over what they see in the News Feed, with the authors dubbing current controls as “altogether inadequate,” and advocating for far more. Such as the ability to switch off the algorithmic feed entirely (without the chronological view being defaulted back to algorithm when the user reloads, as is the case now for anyone who switches away from the AI-controlled view). The report also suggests adding a News Feed analytics feature, to give users a breakdown of sources they’re seeing and how that compares with control groups of other users. Facebook could also offer a button to let users adopt a different perspective by exposing them to content they don’t usually see, they suggest.
  6. Expand context and fact-checking facilities — the report pushes for “significant” resources to be ploughed into identifying “the best, most authoritative, and trusted sources” of contextual information for each country, region and culture — to help feed Facebook’s existing (but still inadequate and not universally distributed) fact-checking efforts.
  7. Establish regular auditing mechanisms — there have been some civil rights audits of Facebook’s processes (such as this one, which suggested Facebook formalizes a human rights strategy), but the report urges the company to open itself up to more of these, suggesting the model of meaningful audits should be replicated and extended to other areas of public concern, including privacy, algorithmic fairness and bias, diversity and more.
  8. Create an external content policy advisory group — key content stakeholders from civil society, academia and journalism should be enlisted by Facebook for an expert policy advisory group to provide ongoing feedback on its content standards and implementation; as well as also to review its appeals record. “Creating a body that has credibility with the extraordinarily wide geographical, cultural, and political range of Facebook users would be a major challenge, but a carefully chosen, formalized, expert advisory group would be a first step,” they write, noting that Facebook has begun moving in this direction but adding: “These efforts should be formalized and expanded in a transparent manner.”
  9. Establish an external appeals body — the report also urges “independent, external” ultimate control of Facebook’s content policy, via an appeals body that sits outside the mothership and includes representation from civil society and digital rights advocacy groups. The authors note Facebook is already flirting with this idea, citing comments made by Mark Zuckerberg last November, but also warn this needs to be done properly if power is to be “meaningfully” devolved. “Facebook should strive to make this appeals body as transparent as possible… and allow it to influence broad areas of content policy… not just rule on specific content takedowns,” they warn.

In conclusion, the report notes that the content issues it’s focused on are not only attached to Facebook’s business but apply widely across various internet platforms — hence growing interest in some form of “industry-wide self-regulatory body.” Though it suggests that achieving that kind of overarching regulation will be “a long and complex task.”

In the meanwhile, the academics remain convinced there is “a great deal that a platform like Facebook can do right now to address widespread public concerns, and to do more to honour its public interest responsibilities, as well as international human rights norms” — with the company front and center of the frame given its massive size (2.2 billion+ active users).

“We recognize that Facebook employees are making difficult, complex, contextual judgements every day, balancing competing interests, and not all those decisions will benefit from full transparency. But all would be better for more regular, active interchange with the worlds of academic research, investigative journalism, and civil society advocacy,” they add.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on their recommendations.

The report was prepared by the Free Speech Debate project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, in partnership with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, the Project on Democracy and the Internet, Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Last year we offered a few of our own ideas for fixing Facebook — including suggesting the company hire orders of magnitude more expert content reviewers, as well as providing greater transparency into key decisions and processes.

Google raises its G Suite prices

Google today announced that it is raising the price of its G Suite subscriptions for the first time. In the U.S., the prices of G Suite Basic and G Suite Business editions will increase by $1 and $2 per user/month, respectively, while increases in other regions will be adjusted according to the local currency and market. G Suite Enterprise pricing will remain the same.

The new pricing will go into effect on April 2; those on annual plans will pay the new price when their contract renews after that date.

Usually, a $1 or $2 price increase wouldn’t be a big deal, but this is the first time Google has raised the price of its G Suite subscriptions. The company argues that it has added plenty of new services — like video conferencing with Hangouts Meet, team messaging with Hangouts Chat, increased storage quotas and other security and productivity tools and services — to the platform since it first launched its paid service with its core productivity tools back in 2006.

That seems like a fair argument to me, though a 20 percent price increase may be hard to swallow for some small businesses. It’s also worth remembering that G Suite is now big business for Google. There are now more than 4 million businesses on G Suite, after all, and while some of them are surely on enterprise plans with a price point their teams negotiated privately, the vast majority of them are surely on the standard monthly or annual plans.

Ford’s iconic F-Series trucks are going electric

Ford’s legendary and popular F-Series pickup line will soon have electric options, the company announced today. The move is intended to “future-proof” the enormous truck business against rising gas prices and regulations favoring electric vehicles over internal combustion.

Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, announced the news at a press conference in Detroit. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, he specified that there will be both pure/battery electric and hybrid options — they aren’t dipping their toe but jumping in at the deep end.

Ford has been leaning into electric harder than ever over the last year, detailing an ambitious $11 billion plan to offer 40 electrified vehicles by 2022; some of those are entirely new cars, like the “Mustang-inspired electric crossover” coming next year, while others will be electric versions of classic lines like the F-Series.

Tesla is also planning an electric pickup, but that company’s success in the luxury sedan market is unlikely to translate directly to the much different truck market. Rivian has one entering production, but it’s hard to imagine the brand breaking out of a rather small niche with its first model.

Ford knows that trucks and utility vehicles are its stronghold: it dedicates 90 percent of its capital to that side of the business. A million F-Series trucks sold last year, and even if a tiny percentage of those were to be electric it would be a huge barrier to entry for companies with less reputation.

As more evidence of the company leaning into the renewable future, Ford announced last year that it would stop selling all but two cars in the U.S.: the Mustang and Focus Active. That doesn’t include SUVs and trucks, of course, but one senses there will be a similar shift once those product categories are ready to be similarly phased out.

Ford detailed more general plans for its various regions and businesses in a press release.

“Over the last 19 months, we have worked to reshape and transform our company – sharpening our competitiveness, taking actions to improve our profitability and returns, and investing in our future,” said president and CEO Jim Hackett in the release.