Shyp is preparing for a comeback under new management

Fifteen months after shutting down, Shyp is getting ready to launch again. The startup tweeted today that “We are back! We’re hard at work to rebuild an unparalleled shipping experience. Before we begin operations again, we’d love to hear your feedback in this quick survey. We look forward to working with you and can’t wait to change the future of shipping!”

Most of the survey questions focus on online shopping returns, asking how easy or difficult it was to package the product for return, print the prepaid label, purchase postage or ship the product. The last question offers a hint about what direction the rebooted Shyp might take, asking “When returning a product, how likely would you be to use a service that picked up and shipped the product instead of having to ship it yourself?”

Shyp’s website doesn’t say when it will be back or what services it will offer, but it does mention that Shyp restarted in January 2019 under new management and backed by angel investors “with plans to disrupt the industry with what it does best: cutting-edge technology and a superior customer experience.”

Once one of the hottest on-demand startups, Shyp shut down in March 2018 after missing targets to expand to cities outside of San Francisco. When it first launched in 2014, Shyp initially offered on-demand service for almost anything customers wanted shipped, charging $5 plus postage to pick up, package and bring the item to a shipping company. Eventually it introduced a pricing tier in 2016 as it tried to find new approaches to its business model, before closing down two years later.

If the new Shyp does focus on making online returns easier, it will be bringing back one of its most popular services. The company expanded into online returns in 2015 after noticing that many customers used the app to return products they had purchased online.

TechCrunch has emailed Shyp for more information.

Alexa’s voice apps for kids can now offer purchases that parents approve

Amazon will now allow developers to offer premium content for purchase in Alexa skills aimed at children. The company on Friday introduced new tools for building skills with in-app purchases that requires the Amazon account holder — typically mom or dad — to approve or decline the requested purchase via a text or email.

In-skill purchasing was first introduced to all U.S. Alexa developers last year, and more recently became available to international developers. But like any app aimed at children, Alexa skills needed to offer a purchase approval workflow for those in its kids’ category, or it would risk unapproved purchases initiated by younger users.

That’s where these new developer tools come in.

Now, developers can create premium kid skills using either the Alexa Skills Kit Command-Line Interface (ASK CLI) or the Alexa Developer Console. Other tools allow the skills to route purchase requests to the account holder over SMS or email. The account holder then has 24 hours to act on the request, or the request is automatically canceled.

The premium content can come in the form of either one-time purchases or subscriptions, says Amazon.

A group of developers had early access to the tools and already added premium content to their own kid skills. This includes the grand prize winner from one of Amazon’s developer contests, Kids Court; plus You Choose Superman Adventures; Travel Quest; Animal Sounds; and Master Swords.

Parents who don’t want their kids asking to buy anything have two options to opt out of all this.

They can disable the feature in the Alexa app under Settings -> Alexa Account -> Voice Purchasing -> Kid Skills Purchasing. Meanwhile, FreeTime on Alexa customers, which comes with the Echo Dot Kids Edition, won’t receive offers to purchase premium content. And those who upgrade to FreeTime Unlimited will get much of this premium content included with their subscription.

The addition of premium purchases to kid skills comes at a challenging time for Amazon.

Amazon updated its Echo Dot for kids this week with new designs and other under-the-hood features, as new lawsuits over Alexa’s children’s privacy violations were filed. The suits say Amazon recorded children’s voices without consent.

As a part of its updated Echo Dot for kids experience, Amazon said it worked with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and various industry groups to rebuild FreeTime on Alexa so that it adheres U.S. children’s privacy law, COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).

Amazon now restricts Alexa skills from accessing or collecting personal information from children and offers ways for parents to delete children’s voice recordings, it says.

But its changes to the Kids Edition Echo smart speaker and related feature set don’t fully address the plaintiffs’ allegations.

According to Amazon’s announcement this week, parents can now review and delete recordings through the Alexa app or the Alexa Privacy Hub, and they can contact Customer Service to request deletion of their child’s profile. However, the lawsuits said the way Amazon manages recordings — by asking parents to take manual action — is not ideal. They point out that Apple’s Siri only stores recordings for a short period of time and then automatically deletes them.

In addition, CNET found that Amazon may retain the text transcripts even when people delete the recordings themselves.

Privacy regulations take time to catch up to the pace of technology and today’s issues around how smart speakers should operate in family homes where children are present is another example of that problem. While parents are the ones buying and installing these devices, many weren’t aware that Alexa’s intelligence is aided not only by algorithms and AI, but by human beings on the other end who listen to recordings, check them for errors, then use this data to improve how Alexa works.

Of course, there are people who are less concerned about this sort of thing and just enjoy using the device regardless of its potential invasiveness. They may appreciate the ability to upgrade their skills and support favorite developers’ efforts, especially if the family enjoys the skills together or they feel they add value.

Amazon is not offering all developers the ability to sell through their kids skills at present. Instead, interested developers who want to build kid skills with purchases can fill out a form that tells Amazon about their plans and the company will reach out if the application is selected.

TikTok hit $9M in in-app purchases last month, up 500% over last year

Popular short-form video app TikTok has been slowly ramping up its advertising strategy this year as it increases its focus on monetization. However, the company still generates a smaller of its revenue from in-app purchases — and that number hit a high of $9 million in May, according to a report from Sensor Tower. That represents 500% year-over-year growth from the $1.5 million spent in May 2018, and 22% growth from April’s $7.4 million.

Arguably, TikTok’s hasn’t put much emphasis on its in-app purchase strategy. For now, the Beijing-based app owned by ByteDance is more heavily focused on driving user growth. It knows that putting some of its best features behind a paywall could potentially limit user adoption and engagement — especially as TikTok looks for growth in emerging markets like India, where it recently said it has 200 million users, 120 million who are monthly actives.

In India, the app overtook Facebook as the most downloaded social networking app in the first quarter of the year, and is now looking to pull in more advertisers. The Economic Times recently reported brands like Pepsi, Snapdeal, Myntra, Shaadi.com, and Shopclues have signed on to advertise.

Meanwhile, Indian users only accounted for half a percent of in-app purchases — just around $45,000, said Sensor Tower.

The lack of spending points to how little TikTok has focused on virtual goods. Instead of offering its video effects or filters for purchase, TikTok’s coins are used for buying gifts which can be sent to live streamers to show support.

Despite TikTok’s inattention to its virtual goods strategy, iOS users in China spent $5.9 million, of the total $9 million spent on in-app purchases in May, accounting for nearly 65% of purchases. In the U.S., both iOS and Android users spent a combined nearly $2 million, or 22%, of the app’s gross revenue.

TikTok’s installs are continuing to climb, Sensor Tower also noted.

In May, around 56 million users worldwide installed the app for the first time — a 27% increase over April. However, new installs were down by 21% from January’s 70.8 million. To some extent, India’s brief ban on the app impacted these figures — the app likely lost a potential 15 million new users in April, Sensor Tower had earlier estimated.

To date, TikTok has seen 1.2 billion installs, up from a billion at the end of last year. This figure doesn’t equate to active user numbers, however. On that front, TikTok said last summer it has 500 million monthly actives, and hasn’t publicly shared an updated number since. Life-to-date user spending is currently at $97.4 million, with the app expected to pass the $100 million milestone this month, the new report said.

Daily Crunch: Telegram faces new attack in China

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

1. Telegram faces DDoS attack in China… again

The popular encrypted messaging service Telegram is once again being hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in Asia as protestors in Hong Kong take to the streets.

As they look to evade surveillance measures by government officials, Telegram is one of the tools that organizers have turned to. Four years ago, a similar attack struck the company’s service, just as China was initiating a crackdown on human rights lawyers in the country.

2. Bird confirms acquisition of Scoot

This acquisition means Bird may finally get to operate shared electric scooters in San Francisco.

3. LaLiga fined $280K for soccer app’s privacy-violating spy mode

Users of the LaLiga app were outraged to discover the smartphone software does rather more than show minute-by-minute commentary of football matches: It can use the microphone and GPS of fans’ phones to record their surroundings in a bid to identify bars that are unofficially streaming games.

4. Google leaks its own phone

Details of the Pixel 4 have been swirling around this week, so Google decided to just leak the design of its next phone via its official Twitter account, revealing the backplate and new camera module on the smartphone.

5. NFC gets a lot more powerful in iOS 13

This opens up a range of new application possibilities, Apple said, including the ability to create apps that read passports and contactless smart cards and interact with NFC-enabled hardware.

6. Facebook collected device data on 187,000 users using banned snooping app

The social media giant said in a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office — which TechCrunch obtained — that it collected data on 31,000 users in the U.S., including 4,300 teenagers. The rest of the collected data came from users in India.

7. Uber’s annual flying taxi summit reveals Uber Air has a ways to go

We talked to Uber Director of Engineering for Energy Storage Systems Celina Mikolajczak at the company’s third annual Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C. this week. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Apple soups up Logic Pro X ahead of Mac Pro launch

When it announced the long-awaited Mac Pro relaunch onstage at WWDC last week, Apple settled on creative pro software as the best way to illustrate the desktop’s power. Along with Final Cut, Logic was one of the centerpieces of that introduction.

Today the company issued the update to Logic Pro X illustrated onstage. Version 10.4.5 of the pro-level music production software supports up to 56 processing threads, and up to 1,000 audio tracks and software instrument tracks.

That can be augmented with 1,000 auxiliary channel strips and 1,000 external MIDI tracks. The company says the new version is capable of handling five times as many real-time plug-ins on the software as the last version of the Mac Pro.

There a handful of other smaller updates, as well. Per Apple:

  • The loop browser can filter by loop type and allows drag and drop of multiple loops into your project simultaneously.
  • The redesigned DeEsser 2 plug-in provides more options to reduce sibilance on audio tracks.
  • MIDI beat clocks can be sent to individual ports, each with unique settings like timing offset and plug-in delay compensation.

Version 10.4.5 is out today for $200 or as a free update to existing users. The new Mac Pro, meanwhile, isn’t set to be released until the fall.

Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs, or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional, or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners, and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates’, there’s Soundcloud for ‘follow my music’, but there’s no ‘follow my events'” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps, and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors including Warner Bros president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate films president Joe Drake, and Classpass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling Your Social Calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consumate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekinkled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempted Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “50% of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations, and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters, or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights, and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy, or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery, and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

Spotify’s redesign simplifies navigation and highlights podcasts

Spotify is officially rolling out its redesigned experience which puts a greater emphasis on podcasts. The company today announced a new version of its “Your Library” section is being rolled out now to paying subscribers on its Premium plan. Its goal is to make it easier to move between Music and Podcasts and find the podcast shows and episodes you want to hear.

The company in May previewed this news with select press while the redesign was in testing.

With the update, users will be able to swipe or tap to switch between music and podcasts, while the latter also features three sections for podcast management: Episodes, Downloads, and Shows.

The Episodes tab lets you seek out new episodes or resume the podcasts you’re already listening to, picking up where you left off. As you scroll down, you’ll find other newly released episodes from the shows you follow. In other words, the experience prioritizes your in-progress episodes over a strict chronological order.

The Downloads tab is where you can manage the episodes you’ve saved for offline listening and the Shows tab is where you can manage the podcasts you follow and check out their prior episodes. The shows are ranked in this section by whichever ones have the newest episodes.

Meanwhile, the Music tab has been updated to make it easier to get to the content you want to access. Where before users were presented with a list (Playlists, Stations, Songs, Albums, etc.) to dive into, you’ll now be dropped directly into the Playlist section.

To get to the Artists or Albums, you swipe or tap to reach their section. To add an Artist, you still “follow” them as before, and albums you favorite (by tapping the heart) are saved to the Albums section. You can also save all an album’s songs to your “Liked Songs” playlist by tapping the three-dot more menu (…) then choosing “Like all songs.”

The redesign places far less emphasis on video content, an earlier focus for the streaming music provider. This year, Spotify has instead doubled down on podcasts, believing in its ability to shift radio advertising over to its app by offering better targeting.

It’s been selling its own ads on its original podcasts since mid-2018. However, paid subscriptions still account for the bulk of Spotify’s revenue today — €1,385 million versus just €126 million from advertising in Q1, and subscriptions are growing faster than advertising at 34% vs. 24%, respectively.

The company has been ramping up on podcasts across the board, with acquisitions in the market like  GimletParcast, and Anchor as well as investments in original programming and exclusives. Just yesterday, Spotify announced a new personalized playlist that combines music and podcasts, as well.

Beyond its podcast focus, Spotify’s redesigned app is much easier to navigate — addressing a concern that some have had with the overall experience. Spotify’s busy interface is often cited by those who opt for Apple Music as one of the reasons they prefer the competitor’s app. To some extent, this is personal preference. But arguably, Spotify has been overdue for an update given its shifting attention.

Spotify says the updated design is live today for Premium users.

 

 

Facebook backs social commerce startup Meesho in first India investment

As Facebook explores ways to generate revenue from WhatsApp, the company is now turning to a startup that already has a lead. The social juggernaut said today it has invested in social-commerce startup Meesho in what is the first time the firm takes equity in an Indian startup.

Neither Facebook nor Meesho, which prior to this announcement had raised about $65 million from a number of investors including DST Partners, RPS Ventures and Shunwei Capital, shared financial terms of the deal. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch the size of the capital was “very significant.”

Meesho, a Y Combinator alumnus, is an online marketplace that connects sellers with customers on social media platforms such as WhatsApp. The four-year-old startup claims to have a network of more than 2 million resellers who largely deal with apparels and electronics items.

These resellers are mostly homemakers, most of whom have purchased a smartphone for the first time in recent years. 80% of Meesho’s user base is female, startup’s co-founder and CEO Vidit Aatrey told TechCrunch.

Meesho also has most of its customers in smaller cities and towns, popularly dubbed as India 2, where most users are still not online. These are two things that attracted Facebook to Meesho, Ajit Mohan, VP and Managing Director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“A platform that is aimed at India 2 and has such a large user base of women — when most people online in India are predominantly men — is a remarkable achievement,” he said. According to several estimates, males account for more than 80% of India’s internet user base.

Meesho claims that it is helping thousands of resellers earn more than Rs 25,000 ($360) each month. In an interview with TechCrunch last year, Aatrey said the startup, which operates in India currently, planned to enter international markets.

Even as WhatsApp is a crucial play for Meesho, the startup will continue to work with other social media platforms, Facebook’s Mohan said. Last year, Facebook launched its Marketplace, which operates in the same space as Meesho. Mohan said the company does not see Meesho as a vehicle to expand its own family of services.

On the contrary, Facebook is now open to exploring investment in other startups that are building unique solutions for the Indian market. “Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said. There is no particular category that Facebook is necessarily looking at, he added.

Even as Facebook has not made any push to make WhatsApp expand beyond a communications service, users in India, the service’s largest market, are increasingly finding ways to incorporate Facebook’s app into their businesses.

Google, Amazon, and Twitter too have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.

Zava bags $32M to expand its AI-free telehealth service in Europe

More money is being injected into the telehealth space in Europe. Zava, a long-time player that bills its online service as offering a “discreet and convenient” alternative to an in-person doctor visit, has just announced a $32 million Series A round, led by growth equity firm HPE Growth.

Zava relies on patients filling in an online medical questionnaire which is reviewed by a person from its team of in-house doctors/clinicians as part of the remote consultation process. Test kits and/or medicine can follow in the post or be sent to a pharmacy for the patient to collect.

“Zava provides reliable and convenient access to a qualified clinical team, via written communication, which drives an effective patient:doctor relationship,” says co-founder and CEO David Meinertz. “The questions we ask in our written questionnaire are exactly the same questions a GP would ask — but the patient can do this in their own time, meaning their answers are often more thorough.”

“Our patients feel more comfortable not having to discuss medical conditions that they might find embarrassing face to face, so we often find our patient answers are very direct,” he adds. “We’re not replacing doctors with AI and we are not just putting doctors on video. Zava is providing healthcare that enables doctors to treat patients more efficiently and more safely.”

Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Harry Dolman, partner at HPE Growth, added: “Zava offers a unique and highly scalable model to deliver a more convenient healthcare experience to patients while radically improving the efficiency of healthcare professionals, enabling healthcare systems to reduce the overall costs associated with primary care.”

The startup was founded nearly a decade ago, in 2010, and had only previously raised an angel round of $1.4M back in 2012 from an entrepreneur in Hamburg — but was profitable until the end of 2018. “We are now in investment mode,” Meinertz tells TechCrunch.

The growth opportunity its investors are spotting is both to expand to more markets, initially across Europe, but also to supplement over-stretched state healthcare services — with Zava gearing up to make a sales pitch to state healthcare services in the UK, France and Germany.

Its early profits have come from offering paid services either direct to patients, or via working with insurance companies or partnering with pharmacies. The next stage will be to open up a dual track in key markets such as the UK — supplementing direct paid consultations with winning business from the state funded National Health Service so the service is offered to their patients free-at-the-point-of-use.

Although at this stage Zava has not provided any details of state healthcare contracts it has won.

“We’re delighted that our latest investment will help fund the research required to enter this space in the UK, Germany and France,” says Meinertz of the Series A. “We feel passionately about the transformation of primary care and the Zava healthcare platform is primed to support it.”

“As Zava grows and scales in the UK, we are looking to work closely with the NHS to help it become more efficient. This will mean that we will be working with two distinct models in the UK, one where patients pay Zava for the services they receive from us, or, two, access Zava through the NHS and receive healthcare free of charge at the point of care,” he adds.

“Due to the different requirements of the healthcare systems in France and Germany, we are already exploring different routes to enter the statutory healthcare markets in these countries.

“In Germany, we will work with statutory and private insurance companies to provide healthcare to patients free at the point of care.”

Meinertz says the new funding will also go on expanding Zava’s medical and technology capabilities — to offer “many new services for patients across Europe”, with women’s health a near term focus.

“We will be launching dozens of new services in the UK and other markets during Q3 and Q4 of 2019. In particular, we are focussing on women’s health in the coming months, as well as new test-kits and mental health services,” he says, adding: “With our latest investment we are investigating routes to replicate Zava’s success in the current markets to new markets to accelerate growth. Our intention is to launch in two additional European markets by 2021.”

Since 2011, Zava has provided three million paid consultations across the six markets it operates in in Europe — with 1M those taking place in 2018 alone.

Every month it says almost 100,000 patients access its service from the UK, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland and Ireland to seek advice, tests or treatment for a growing range of conditions.

On the surface, Zava’s approach looks considerably ‘lower tech’ than some of the other digital health startups also targeting a younger, tech-savvy generation of patients — such as London-based Babylon Health, which uses an AI chatbot as part of its telehealth mix.

But what it may lose in triaging scale and immediacy, by requiring patients spend time filling in a detailed questionnaire in order to access remote healthcare — vs offering a more dynamic chatbot-style Q&A with a patient — could represent a longer term, sustainable advantage if Zava can show this method reduces the risks of errors and misdiagnosis, especially as usage scales, and does indeed help to foster a stronger link between patient and app, as it claims.

“Patients fill in an online questionnaire giving details on their symptoms, past medical history and personal circumstances. This medical information is reviewed by one of our doctors who then decide the best course of action, whether this is prescribing medication, offering a diagnostic test, giving advice or requesting further information from the patient,” says Meinertz explaining Zava’s approach.

“The medical questionnaires have been developed by the clinical team and passed rigorous testing to ensure safe treatment to our patients.”

Patient dissatisfaction rates do appear to be an early challenge for ‘digital first’ healthcare services.

For example, an Ipsos Mori evaluation of Babylon Health’s rival GP at Hand service, published earlier this year, found high levels of patient churn — with one in four patients found to have left the practice since July 2017 vs an average across London during the same period of one in six.

How well Zava’s questionnaire review process scales will be key. (Trustpilot reviews of its current UK service skew overwhelmingly positive — but a full 3% of reviewers have left the lowest possible rating, with complaints including canceled orders, lost/delayed packages, privacy-related complaints and even the wrong strength medicine being sent.)

Currently the startup has an in-house clinical team comprised of more than 20 doctors, pharmacists and healthcare professionals. Though the plan with the new funding is to grow headcount.

“The majority of this team sits in our London head office but we offer flexibility for our staff, meaning that consultations can be offered by remote doctors. With this in mind, we have doctors based in France, Switzerland and Germany too who treat Zava patients,” adds Meinertz.

The typical Zava patient is a man or a woman aged between 20 and 40 who is resident in a major city.

“They are patients who are dissatisfied with their current healthcare options and they’re willing to try something new,” he says. “They want to avoid a face to face interaction or an inconvenient appointment, accessibility and reliability are the most important factors to them.”

While this tech-savvy target demographic may be willing to try an app over a traditional trip to the GP, they’re unlikely to stick around long if the underlying service doesn’t live up to their expectations. So there are major challenges for telehealth players like Zava — to make sure patients remain satisfied with the quality and reliability of the service as usage scales, and to find ways to foster a genuine sense of connection with remote doctors sitting in the equivalent of a call center. A shiny app wrapper on its own won’t go far.

Every secure messaging app needs a self-destruct button

The growing presence of encrypted communications apps makes a lot of communities safer and stronger. But the possibility of physical device seizure and government coercion is growing as well, which is why every such app should have some kind of self-destruct mode to protect its user and their contacts.

End to end encryption like that you see in Signal and (if you opt into it) WhatsApp is great at preventing governments and other malicious actors from accessing your messages while they are in transit. But as with nearly all cybersecurity matters, physical access to either device or user or both changes things considerably.

For example, take this Hong Kong citizen who was forced to unlock their phone and reveal their followers and other messaging data to police. It’s one thing to do this with a court order to see if, say, a person was secretly cyberstalking someone in violation of a restraining order. It’s quite another to use as a dragnet for political dissidents.

This particular protestor ran a Telegram channel that had a number of followers. But it could just as easily be a Slack room for organizing a protest, or a Facebook group, or anything else. For groups under threat from oppressive government regimes it could be a disaster if the contents or contacts from any of these were revealed to the police.

Just as you should be able to choose exactly what you say to police, you should be able to choose how much your phone can say as well. Secure messaging apps should be the vanguard of this capability.

There are already some dedicated “panic button” type apps, and Apple has thoughtfully developed an “emergency mode” (activated by hitting the power button five times quickly) that locks the phone to biometrics and will wipe it if it is not unlocked within a certain period of time. That’s effective against “Apple pickers” trying to steal a phone or during border or police stops where you don’t want to show ownership by unlocking the phone with your face.

Those are useful and we need more like them — but secure messaging apps are a special case. So what should they do?

The best-case scenario, where you have all the time in the world and internet access, isn’t really an important one. You can always delete your account and data voluntarily. What needs work is deleting your account under pressure.

The next best-case scenario is that you have perhaps a few seconds or at most a minute to delete or otherwise protect your account. Signal is very good about this: The deletion option is front and center in the options screen, and you don’t have to input any data. WhatsApp and Telegram require you to put in your phone number, which is not ideal — fail to do this correctly and your data is retained.

Signal, left, lets you get on with it. You’ll need to enter your number in WhatsApp (right) and Telegram.

Obviously it’s also important that these apps don’t let users accidentally and irreversibly delete their account. But perhaps there’s a middle road whereby you can temporarily lock it for a preset time period, after which it deletes itself if not unlocked manually. Telegram does have self-destructing accounts, but the shortest time you can delete after is a month.

What really needs improvement is emergency deletion when your phone is no longer in your control. This could be a case of device seizure by police, or perhaps being forced to unlock the phone after you have been arrested. Whatever the case, there need to be options for a user to delete their account outside the ordinary means.

Here are a couple options that could work:

  • Trusted remote deletion: Selected contacts are given the ability via a one-time code or other method to wipe each other’s accounts or chats remotely, no questions asked and no notification created. This would let, for instance, a friend who knows you’ve been arrested remotely remove any sensitive data from your device.
  • Self-destruct timer: Like Telegram’s feature, but better. If you’re going to a protest, or have been “randomly” selected for additional screening or questioning, you can just tell the app to delete itself after a certain duration (as little as a minute perhaps) or at a certain time of the day. Deactivate any time you like, or stall for the five required minutes for it to trigger.
  • Poison PIN: In addition to a normal unlock PIN, users can set a poison PIN that when entered has a variety of user-selectable effects. Delete certain apps, clear contacts, send prewritten messages, unlock or temporarily hard-lock the device, etc.
  • Customizable panic button: Apple’s emergency mode is great, but it would be nice to be able to attach conditions like the poison PIN’s. Sometimes all someone can do is smash that button.

Obviously these open new avenues for calamity and abuse as well, which is why they will need to be explained carefully and perhaps initially hidden in “advanced options” and the like. But overall I think we’ll be safer with them available.

Eventually these roles may be filled by dedicated apps or by the developers of the operating systems on which they run, but it makes sense for the most security-forward app class out there to be the first in the field.