Waymo and Renault to explore autonomous mobility route in Paris region

Waymo and Renault are working with the Paris region to explore the possibility of establishing an autonomous transportation route between Charles de Gaulle airport and La Défense, a neighborhood just outside of Paris city limits that plays host to a large number of businesses and skyscrapers, including a large shopping center. This is part of the deal that Renault and Nissan signed with Waymo earlier this year, to work together on potential autonomous vehicle services in both Japan and France.

This route in particular is being explored as a lead-up project to potentially be ready in time for the Paris Olympic Games, which are taking in place in Summer 2024. The goal is to offer a convenient way for people living in the Île-de-France area where Paris is located to get around, while also providing additional transportation options for tourists and international visitors. The region is committing €100 million (around $110 million) to developing autonomous vehicle infrastructure in the area to serve this purpose, across a number of different projects.

“France is a recognized global mobility leader, and we look forward to working with the Ile-de-France Region and our partner Groupe Renault to explore deploying the Waymo Driver on the critical business route stretching from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport to La Défense in Paris,” said Waymo’s Adam Frost, Chief Automotive Programs and Partnerships Officer, in an emailed statement.

Defined routes designed to meet a specific need, especially in time for showcase events like the Olympics, seems to be a likely way that Waymo and others focused on the deployment of autonomous services will work in terms of pilot deployments, since it’s a perfect blend of demand, regulatory exemption and motivation and city/partner support.

Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

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What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

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Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

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Lookiero closes $19M led by MMC Ventures to be the Stitch Fix for Europe

Lookiero, the online personal shopping service for clothes and accessories, has closed a $19 million funding round led by London-based VC MMC Ventures with support from existing investor All Iron Ventures, and new investors Bonsai Partners, 10x and Santander Smart. The company will use the backing to expand in its main markets of Spain, France and the UK. In June last year it closed a funding round of €4 million led by All Iron Ventures.

The startup applies algorithms to a database of personal stylists and customer profiles to thus provide a personalized online shopping experience to its customers. It then delivers a selection of five pieces of clothing or accessories curated by a personal shopper to fit the customer’s individual size, style, and preferences. Customers then decide which items to keep or return (at no additional cost), allowing Lookiero to learn more about the customer’s tase before starting the whole process again.

By generating look-a-like profiles and analyzing previous customer interactions with each item, Lookiero says it can predict how likely a user is going to keep a certain item from a range of more than 150 European brands from a warehousing system that will ship more than 3 million items of clothing this year to seven European countries.

It’s not unlike the well—worn Birchbox model. Lookiero’s main competitor is Stitch Fix (US), which has upwards of $1.5bn in annual revenues and IPO’d November 2017.

Founded in 2015 by Spanish entrepreneur Oier Urrutia, the company says it now has over 1 million registered users and has grown revenue by over 200% from 2017 to 2018.

In a statement Urrutia said: “This investment round provides us with the necessary capital to further increase the accuracy of our technology, which is really exciting. It will allow us to offer the best possible experience for our users and to continue expanding across Europe.”

Simon Menashy, Partner, MMC Ventures, said: “The migration of fashion brands online has improved consumers’ access to clothing, and there is now an almost overwhelming amount of choice. At the same time, it can still be really hard to find exactly what is right for you, especially with high street retail stores in decline. Lookiero provides the best of both worlds, giving every customer a hand-picked selection from their personal stylist.”

Ander Michelena, co-founding partner of All Iron Ventures, said: “Even if what Oier and his team have achieved to date is remarkable, we believe that Lookiero still has great potential to continue expanding internationally and to become a player of reference in a market segment where there is still a lot to do in terms of innovation and user satisfaction”.

Private search engine Qwant’s new CEO is Mozilla Europe veteran Tristan Nitot

French startup Qwant, whose non-tracking search engine has been gaining traction in its home market as a privacy-respecting alternative to Google, has made a change to its senior leadership team as it gears up for the next phase of growth.

Former Mozilla Europe president, Tristan Nitot, who joined Qwant last year as VP of advocacy, has been promoted to chief executive, taking over from François Messager — who also joined in 2018 but is now leaving the business. Qwant co-founder, Eric Leandri, meanwhile, continues in the same role as president.

Nitot, an Internet veteran who worked at Netscape and helped to found Mozilla Europe in 1998, where he later served as president and stayed until 2015 before leaving to write a book on surveillance, brings a wealth of experience in product and comms roles, as well as open source.

Most recently he spent several years working for personal cloud startup, Cozy Cloud.

“I’m basically here to help [Leandri] grow the company and structure the company,” Nitot tells TechCrunch, describing Qwant’s founder as an “amazing entrepreneur, audacious and visionary”.

Market headwinds have been improving for the privacy-focused Google rival in recent years as concern about foreign data-mining tech giants has stepped up in Europe.

Last year the French government announced it would be switching its search default from Google to Qwant. Buying homegrown digital tech now apparently seen as a savvy product choice as well as good politics.

Meanwhile antitrust attention on dominant search giant Google, both at home and abroad, has led to policy shifts that directly benefit search rivals — such as an update of the default lists baked into its chromium engine which was quietly put out earlier this year.

That behind the scenes change saw Qwant added as an option for users in the French market for the first time. (On hearing the news a sardonic Leandri thanked Google — but suggested Qwant users choose Firefox or the Brave browser for a less creepy web browsing experience.)

“A lot of companies and institutions have decided and have realized basically that they’ve been using a search engine which is not European. Which collects data. Massively. And that makes them uncomfortable,” says Nitot. “They haven’t made a conscious decision about that. Because they bring in a computer which has a browser which has a search engine in it set by default — and in the end you just don’t get to choose which search engine your people use, right.

“And so they’re making a conscious decision to switch to Qwant. And we’ve been spending a lot of time and energy on that — and it’s paying off big time.”

As well as the French administration’s circa 3M desktops being switched by default to Qwant (which it expects will be done this quarter), the pro-privacy search engine has been getting traction from other government departments and regional government, as well as large banks and schools, according to Nitot.

He credits a focus on search products for schoolkids with generating momentum, such as Qwant Junior, which is designed for kids aged 6-12, and excludes sex and violence from search results as well as being ad free. (It’s set to get an update in the next few weeks.) It has also just been supplemented by Qwant School: A school search product aimed at 13-17 year olds.

“All of that creates more users — the kids talk to their parents about Qwant Junior, and the parents install Qwant.com for them. So there’s a lot of momentum creating that growth,” Nitot suggests.

Qwant says it handled more than 18 billion search requests in 2018.

A growing business needs money to fuel it of course. So fundraising efforts involving convertible bonds is one area Nitot says he’ll be focused on in the new role. “We are raising money,” he confirms.

Increasing efficiency — especially on the engineering front — is another key focus for the new CEO.

“The rest will be a focus on the organization, per se, how we structure the organization. How we evolve the company culture. To enable or to improve delivery of the engineering team, for example,” he says. “It’s not that it’s bad it’s just that we need to make sure every dollar or every euro we invest gives as much as possible in return.”

Product wise, Nitot’s attention in the near term will be directed towards shipping a new version of Qwant’s search engine that will involve reengineering core tech to improve the quality of results.

“What we want to do [with v2] is to improve the quality of the results,” he says of the core search product. “You won’t be able to notice any difference, in terms of quality, with the other really good search engines that you may use — except that you know that your privacy is respected by Qwant.

“[As we raise more funding] we will be able to have a lot more infrastructure to run better and more powerful algorithms. And so we plan to improve that internationally… Every language will benefit from the new search engine. It’s also a matter of money and infrastructure to make this work on a web scale. Because the web is huge and it’s growing.

“The new version includes NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology… for understanding language, for understanding intentions — for example do you want to buy something or are you looking for a reference… or a place or a thing. That’s the kind of thing we’re putting in place but it’s going to improve a lot for every language involved.”

Western Europe will be the focus for v2 of the search engine, starting with French, German, Italian, Spanish and English — with a plan to “go beyond that later on”.

Nitot also says there will also be staggered rollouts (starting with France), with Qwant planning to run old and new versions in parallel to quality check the new version before finally switching users over.

“Shipping is hard as we used to say at Mozilla,” he remarks, refusing to be fixed to a launch date for v2 (beyond saying it’ll arrive in “less than a year”). “It’s a universal rule; shipping a new product is hard, and that’s what we want to do with version 2… I’ve been writing software since 1980 and so I know how predictions are when it comes to software release dates. So I’m very careful not to make promises.”

Developing more of its own advertising technologies is another focus for Qwant. On this front the aim is to improve margins by leaning less on partners like Microsoft .

“We’ve been working with partners until now, especially on the search engine result pages,” says Nitot. “We put Microsoft advertising on it. And our goal is to ramp up advertising technologies so that we rely on our own technologies — something that we control. And that hopefully will bring a better return.”

Like Google, Qwant monetizes searches by serving ads alongside results. But unlike Google these are contextual ads, meaning they are based on general location plus the substance of the search itself; rather than targeted ads which entail persistent tracking and profiling of Internet users in order to inform the choice of ad (hence feeling like ads are stalking you around the Internet).

Serving contextual ads is a choice that lets Qwant offer a credible privacy pledge that Mountain View simply can’t match.

Yet up until 2006 Google also served contextual ads, as Nitot points out, before its slide into privacy-hostile microtargeting. “It’s a good old idea,” he argues of contextual ads. “We’re using it. We think it really is a valuable idea.” 

Qwant is also working on privacy-sensitive ad tech. One area of current work there is personalization. It’s developing a client-side, browser-based encrypted data store, called Masq, that’s intended to store and retrieve application data through a WebSocket connection. (Here’s the project Masq Github page.)

“Because we do not know the person that’s using the product it’s hard to make personalization of course. So we plan to do personalization of the product on the client side,” he explains. “Which means the server side will have no more details than we currently do, but on the client side we are producing something which is open source, which stores data locally on your device — whether that’s a laptop or smartphone — in the browser, it is encrypted so that nobody can reuse it unless you decide that you want that to happen.

“And it’s open source so that it’s transparent and can be audited and so that people can trust the technology because it runs on their own device, it stores on their device.”

“Right now it’s at alpha stage,” Nitot adds of Masq, declining to specify when exactly it might be ready for a wider launch.

The new CEO’s ultimate goal for Qwant is to become the search engine for Europe — a hugely ambitious target that remains far out of reach for now, with Google still commanding in excess of 90% regional marketshare. (A dominance that has got its business embroiled in antitrust hot water in Europe.)

Yet the Internet of today is not the same as the Internet of yesterday when Netscape was a browsing staple — until Internet Explorer knocked it off its perch after Microsoft bundled its rival upstart as the default browser on Windows. And the rest, as they say, is Internet history.

Much has changed and much is changing. But abuses of market power are an old story. And as regulators act against today’s self-interested defaults there are savvy alternatives like Qwant primed and waiting to offer consumers a different kind of value.

“Qwant is created in Europe for the European citizens with European values,” says Nitot. “Privacy being one of these values that are central to our mission. It is not random that the CNIL — the French data protection authority — was created in France in 1978. It was the first time that something like that was created. And then GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] was created in Europe. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a matter of values and the way people see their life and things around them, politics and all that. We have a very deep concern about privacy in France. It’s written in the European declaration of human rights.

“We build a product that reflects those values — so it’s appealing to European users.”

Macron announces €5 billion late-stage investment pledge from institutional investors

French president Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech ahead of France Digitale Day that the French government has convinced institutional investors to invest more heavily in late-stage VC funds and asset managers in one way or another. Institutional investors have committed to investing $5.5 billion (€5 billion).

“We’ll have €2 billion that will go in so-called late-stage funds and €3 billion for funds managed by asset managers specialized in tech,” Macron said.

In addition to that financial pledge, the French government wants to break down any hurdle that prevents French startups from raising $100 million+ funding round in France, becoming a unicorn and eventually going public.

A couple of years ago, Macron gave a speech at Viva Technology in Paris. It was the first time he addressed the startup community after his election. At the time, I wrote: “Macron wanted to send a message to the startup community — he still cares about technology very much, thank you for asking.”

Since then, the French tech ecosystem has thrived, but without any radical policy change to shake things up. But today marks a departure as it’s all about startups, startups and startups.

“I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow” Emmanuel Macron

It’s clear that Macron believes that startups represent a huge opportunity when it comes to job creation, competitiveness and reshaping the economic landscape in France. In other words, according to him, if you help startups thrive, it’s going to trickle down all the way and have positive impacts on your neighbor who has never used a computer in her life.

Some will applaud such a move, others will say that it divides society.

“When I talk about startup funding, I talk about the ability to help those startups succeed,” Macron said. “I’m talking about the jobs of tomorrow. And I’m saying that for many French citizens who think that those are only financial numbers.”

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(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Financing hypergrowth

So here’s Macron’s plan. First, French VC funds have been good when it comes to funding startups at the seed, Series A and sometimes Series B level. But many startups then look for international investors for late-stage rounds. For instance, just last week, Akeneo raised $46 million in a round led by Summit Partners, a Boston-based VC firm.

“Numbers show that we’re getting there, and I want to start from there,” Macron said. “The goal when it comes to technology is that we should be one of the countries that matter. Fundraising from French startups keep setting new records — we had $3.1 billion in fundraising in 2017, $4 billion in 2018 and $5.5 billion in 2019 probably.”

Following a report from Philippe Tibi, the French government has been working on a way to foster late-stage funds and investments in public tech companies in France. “We managed to rally big insurance companies, asset managers and long-term public investment funds,” a source close to Macron told me.

Private companies, such as Axa, Generali and Allianz, as well as public investors, such as EDF, Caisse des Dépôts, the pension reserve fund, are all going to invest in late-stage VC. Overall, two-thirds of them are private companies, one-third of them are public institutions, according to the source.

They’ll have three ways to invest and take part in the initiative:

  • If they have their own VC fund, they can create a new late-stage fund.
  • If they are limited partners in various VC funds, they can invest in late-stage funds managed by third-party teams.
  • If they don’t know anything about venture capital, they can invest in a special fund of funds managed by Bpifrance. Bpifrance will then select various late-stage funds and invest that money in those funds.

Eventually, the French government hopes that there will be at least 10 French VC firms with a late-stage fund above €1 billion. By pushing them to redirect some of their investments in VC, the French government thinks that they’ll invest more regularly in venture capital in the future.

When it comes to going public, the French government wants to make European stock exchanges more attractive. They're hoping the new influx of late-stage cash will convince banks and other financial institutions that manage huge positions in tech companies to create local teams in Paris.

Attracting foreign VCs too

French startups still want to become global players and the French government is well aware of that. And foreign VCs shouldn’t be at odds with French VC firms.

That’s why the French government also invited around 40 partners of venture capital firms and limited partners for a couple of days in Paris this week. They’ll meet key people in the ecosystem as well as promising startups.

I covered the first edition of this tour last year. The message was clear: Foreign VC firms should think about investing in French startups. Some are already doing it while others never thought about it. And the thing is nobody wants to be the first one to invest in something new, but nobody wants to be the last one, either.

This year, the French government is inviting a new batch of foreign investors from Khosla Ventures, Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, etc. There are more Asian investors in the mix this time round.

But Macron said that France should control its own destiny when it comes to startup funding. “When I talk about sovereignty, I deeply believe in that concept. It’s a politically-charged word, but I think it’s at the heart of your approach. I believe in technological and economical sovereignty,” Macron said.

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(Photo Credit: Aliocha Boi)

Transforming La French Tech

The French Tech Mission, also known as La French Tech, is a government-backed initiative that promotes French startups around the world and provides a few services to help startups.

And the government is going to overhaul the French Tech Mission drastically. This is as significant as the late-stage funding news. In addition to the small core team, every French ministry and administration will have a French Tech correspondent — Urssaf, INPI, AFNOR, Banque de France, customs, etc. Eventually, there will be 150 people spread out across the entire government working in some way or another for French startups.

“We’re not alone, we get to coordinate with everyone,” French Tech Mission director Kat Borlongan told me. “The overarching announcement is that France is going all in.”

La French Tech is going to become a one-stop shop for tech startups to overcome any administrative hurdle. La French Tech is going to pick 40 (and later 120) top-performing startups and give them the label Next40 and French Tech 120 — a play on words with the CAC40 and SBF 120 stock indexes. Those companies will automatically be able to access this fast-track administrative system — every startup will get a representative for their particular needs. This special treatment proves that startups have become a center piece of France’s economic policies.

“The coolest thing is that they can ask us for anything: ‘I’m about to do bizdev in China’, ‘I’m launching a rocket and I need to test it on a space facility’ or ‘I’m hiring 50 people and I need them and all their families here’,” Borlongan told me.

All companies that are unicorns or have raised more than €100 million are automatically in the Next40. Then, the government is looking at growth rate and annual turnover to find the most promising 40 and 120 startups.

“I’ll leave you with a goal: there should be 25 [French] unicorns by 2025,” Macron said at the end of his speech.

Wikipedia blames malicious DDOS attack after site goes down across Europe, Middle East

Wikipedia was forced offline in several countries Friday after a cyber attack hit the global encyclopedia.

Users across Europe and parts of the Middle East experienced outages shortly before 7pm, BST, according to downdetector.com.

Wikimedia’s German Twitter account posted: “The Wikimedia server…is currently being paralysed by a massive and very broad DDOS [distributed denial of service] attack.”

The site issued the following statement:

Today, Wikipedia was hit with a malicious attack that has taken it offline in several countries for intermittent periods. The attack is ongoing and our Site Reliability Engineering team is working hard to stop it and restore access to the site.

As one of the world’s most popular sites, Wikipedia sometimes attracts “bad faith” actors. Along with the rest of the web, we operate in an increasingly sophisticated and complex environment where threats are continuously evolving. Because of this, the Wikimedia communities and Wikimedia Foundation have created dedicated systems and staff to regularly monitor and address risks. If a problem occurs, we learn, we improve, and we prepare to be better for next time.

We condemn these sorts of attacks. They’re not just about taking Wikipedia offline. Takedown attacks threaten everyone’s fundamental rights to freely access and share information. We in the Wikimedia movement and Foundation are committed to protecting these rights for everyone.

Right now, we’re continuing to work to restore access wherever you might be reading Wikipedia in the world. We’ll keep you posted.”

The site was reported to be down in large parts of the UK as well as Poland, France, Germany and Italy.

PrimaryBid closes $8.6M round for its platform aimed to help retail investors

PrimaryBid, a UK-regulated platform connecting publicly listed companies with everyday investors for discounted share issuances has previously raised $3M. It’s now upped those stakes with an $8.6M funding round, led by UK VCs Pentech and Outward VC with participation from new and existing investors. Craig Anderson, a partner at Pentech, will join the PrimaryBidBoard of Directors with Outward VC having a Board Observer seat.

This investment is representative of the trend towards unpacking complex financial investment products for the average person, especially in the UK.

The FCA-regulated platform recently made a long-term commercial agreement with Euronext, the leading pan-European exchange in the Eurozone. The partnership gives the company access to nine new geographies, with the first new site launching in France later this year.

Commenting, Anand Sambasivan, co-founder and CEO of PrimaryBid, said: “Everyday investors are a vital part of the stock market and yet unable to buy discounted share deals – a longstanding imbalance in the public markets. This is true whether it is a government selling down its holding in a large company or a quoted company is raising growth capital. Our platform addresses this challenge, giving small investors the same access as traditionally afforded to large institutional investors.”

Investors can tap into PrimaryBid’s centralizing infrastructure that allows access to everyday investors as part of a share issuance, including block sales. The inclusion of retail investors can improve pricing and liquidity outcomes for their clients. The company’s solution allows private investors to participate, at the same time and the same price, delivering open access regardless of the size of their investment. The service is free of charge for investors, from £100 upwards.

PrimaryBid doesn’t have competitors because Retail investors have not previously had access to discounted equity offerings run by investment banks. This is because the retail investment market is too fragmented, and these deals are highly time-sensitive. As a result, only clients of Investment Banks (i.e. institutional investors) could previously access these attractive deals.

So now, listed companies that want to raise more capital on the stock exchange by issuing new shares can now connect with retail investors and offer these retail investors these shares at the same discounted rates as those offered to institutional investors. “In the past, these retail investors just couldn’t access these attractive deals for these new shares,” explains Sambasivan.

Craig Anderson of Pentech said: “We believe equity capital markets infrastructure is dominated by an institutional focus and is not geared for retail investors, which unfairly restricts consumer access to the primary equity markets. PrimaryBid addresses this problem by using technology to democratize the equity capital markets to provide a new asset class to retail investors.”

Kevin Chong of Outward VC said: “By bringing publicly listed companies directly to ordinary investors, PrimaryBid addresses increasing frustrations felt by equity issuers and potentially expands global equity markets to the benefit of all players – investors, issuers and investment bank advisers.”

Pentech previously invested in Nutmeg (which recently closed a £45m funding round led by Goldman Sachs) . Outward VC has previously backed Monese, Curve and Bud.

SoftBank-backed Getaround is raising $200M at a $1.5B+ valuation

Getaround, a used car marketplace and winner of TechCrunch Disrupt New York Battlefield 2011, will enter the unicorn club with a roughly $200 million equity financing.

The deal values Getaround, founded in 2009, at $1.7 billion, according to an estimate provided by PitchBook. Getaround declined to comment, citing internal policy on “funding speculation.”

“Getaround and our investors work closely together on our growth strategy, and we’ll definitely plan to share more when we’re ready,” a spokesperson said in response to TechCrunch’s inquiry Thursday morning.

The news follows the company’s $300 million acquisition of Drivy, a Paris-headquartered car-sharing startup that operates in 170 European cities.

Getaround closed a Series D funding of $300 million last year, a round led by SoftBank with participation from Toyota Motor Corporation. Existing investors in the business, which allows its some 200,000 members to rent and unlock vehicles from their mobile phones at $5 per hour, include Menlo Ventures and SOSV.

Assuming an upcoming $200 million infusion, Getaround has raised more than $600 million in equity funding to date.

Whether SoftBank has participated in Getaround’s latest financing is unknown. The business is an active investor in the carsharing market, with investments in Chinese ride-hailing business Didi Chuxing, Uber and autonomous driving company Cruise. We’ve reached out to SoftBank for comment.

In conversation with TechCrunch last year, Getaround co-founder Sam Zaid emphasized SoftBank’s capabilities as a mobility investor: “What we really liked about [SoftBank] was they take a really long view on things,” he said. “So they were very good about thinking about the future of mobility, and we have a common kind of vision of every car becoming a shared car.”

Getaround was expected to expand into international markets with its previous fundraise. Indeed, the company has moved into France, Germany, Spain, Austria, Belgium and the U.K. where it operates under the brand “Drivy by Getaround,” and in Norway under the “Nabobil” brand.

The business initially launched its car-sharing service in 2011, relying on gig workers, who can list their car on the Getaround marketplace for $500 to $1,000 a month in payments, depending on how often their car is rented.

Since Getaround entered the market, however, a number of competitors have entered the space with similar business models. Turo and Maven, for example, have both emerged to facilitate car rental with backing from top venture capital funds.

Mental health websites in Europe found sharing user data for ads

Research by a privacy rights advocacy group has found popular mental health websites in the EU are sharing users’ sensitive personal data with advertisers.

Europeans going online to seek support with mental health issues are having sensitive health data tracked and passed to third parties, according to Privacy International’s findings — including depression websites passing answers and results of mental health check tests direct to third parties for ad targeting purposes.

The charity used the open source Webxray tool to analyze the data gathering habits of 136 popular mental health web pages in France, Germany and the UK, as well as looking at a small sub-set of online depression tests (the top three Google search results for the phrase per country).

It has compiled its findings into a report called Your mental health for sale.

“Our findings show that many mental health websites don’t take the privacy of their visitors as seriously as they should,” Privacy International writes. “This research also shows that some mental health websites treat the personal data of their visitors as a commodity, while failing to meet their obligations under European data protection and privacy laws.”

Under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there are strict rules governing the processing of health data — which is classified as special category personal data.

If consent is being used as the legal basis to gather this type of data the standard that must be obtained from the user is “explicit” consent.

In practice that might mean a pop-up before you take a depression test which asks whether you’d like to share your mental health with a laundry list of advertisers so they can use it to sell you stuff when you’re feeling low — also offering a clear ‘hell no’ penalty-free choice not to consent (but still get to take the test).

Safe to say, such unvarnished consent screens are as rare as hen’s teeth on the modern Internet.

But, in Europe, beefed up privacy laws are now being used to challenge the ‘data industrial complex’s systemic abuses and help individuals enforce their rights against a behavior-tracking adtech industry that regulators have warned is out of control.

Among Privacy International’s key findings are that —

  • 76.04% of the mental health web pages contained third-party trackers for marketing purposes
  • Google trackers are almost impossible to avoid, with 87.8% of the web pages in France having a Google tracker, 84.09% in Germany and 92.16% in the UK
  •  Facebook is the second most common third-party tracker after Google, with 48.78% of all French web pages analysed sharing data with Facebook; 22.73% for Germany; and 49.02 % for the UK.
  • Amazon Marketing Services were also used by many of the mental health web pages analysed (24.39% of analyzed web pages in France; 13.64 % in Germany; and 11.76% in the UK)
  • Depression-related web pages used a large number of third-party tracking cookies which were placed before users were able to express (or deny) consent. On average, PI found the mental health web pages placed 44.49 cookies in France; 7.82 for Germany; and 12.24 for the UK

European law around consent as a legal basis for processing (general) personal data — including for dropping tracking cookies — requires it to be informed, specific and freely given. This means websites that wish to gather user data must clearly state what data they intend to collect for what purpose, and do so before doing it, providing visitors with a free choice to accept or decline the tracking.

Dropping tracking cookies without even asking clearly falls foul of that legal standard. And very far foul when you consider the personal data being handled by these mental health websites is highly sensitive special category health data.

It is exceedingly difficult for people to seek mental health information and for example take a depression test without countless of third parties watching,” said Privacy International technologist Eliot Bendinelli in a statement. “All website providers have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their users and comply with existing laws, but this is particularly the case for websites that share unusually granular or sensitive data with third parties. Such is the case for mental health websites.”

Additionally, the group’s analysis found some of the trackers embedded on mental health websites are used to enable a programmatic advertising practice known as Real Time Bidding (RTB). 

This is important because RTB is subject to multiple complaints under GDPR.

These complaints argue that the systematic, high velocity trading of personal data is, by nature, inherently insecure — with no way for people’s information to be secured after it’s shared with hundreds or even thousands of entities involved in the programmatic chain, because there’s no way to control it once it’s been passed. And, therefore, that RTB fails to comply with the GDPR’s requirement that personal data be processed securely.

Complaints are being considered by regulators across multiple Member States. But this summer the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, essentially signalled it is in agreement with the crux of the argument — putting the adtech industry on watch in an update report in which it warns that behavioral advertising is out of control and instructs the industry it must reform.

However the regulator also said it would give players “an appropriate period of time to adjust their practices”, rather than wade in with a decision and banhammers to enforce the law now.

The ICO’s decision to opt for an implied threat of future enforcement to push for reform of non-compliant adtech practices, rather than taking immediate action to end privacy breaches, drew criticism from privacy campaigners.

And it does look problematic now, given Privacy International’s findings suggest sensitive mental health data is being sucked up into bid requests and put about at insecure scale — where it could pose a serious risk to individuals’ rights and freedoms.

Privacy International says it found “numerous” mental health websites including trackers from known data brokers and AdTech companies — some of which engage in programmatic advertising. It also found some depression test websites (namely: netdoktor.de, passeportsante.net and doctissimo.fr, out of those it looked at) are using programmatic advertising with RTB.

“The findings of this study are part of a broader, much more systemic problem: The ways in which companies exploit people’s data to target ads with ever more precision is fundamentally broken,” adds Bendinelli. “We’re hopeful that the UK regulator is currently probing the AdTech industry and the many ways it uses special category data in ways that are neither transparent nor fair and often lack a clear legal basis.”

We’ve reached out to the ICO with questions.

We also asked the Internet Advertising Bureau Europe what steps it is taking to encourage reform of RTB to bring the system into compliance with EU privacy law. At the time of writing the industry association had not responded.

The IAB recently released a new version of what it refers to as a “transparency and consent management framework” intended for websites to embed to collect consent from visitors to processing their data including for ad targeting purposes — legally, the IAB contends.

However critics argue this is just another dose of business as usual ‘compliance theatre’ from the adtech industry — with users offered only phoney choices as there’s no real control over how their personal data gets used or where it ends up.

Earlier this year Google’s lead privacy regulator in Europe, the Irish DPC, opened a formal investigation into the company’s processing of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange — also as a result of a RTB complaint filed in Ireland.

The DPC said it will look at each stage of an ad transaction to establish whether the ad exchange is processing personal data in compliance with GDPR — including looking at the lawful basis for processing; the principles of transparency and data minimisation; and its data retention practices.

The outcome of that investigation remains to be seen. (Fresh fuel has just today been poured on with the complainant submitting new evidence of their personal data being shared in a way they allege infringes the GDPR.)

Increased regulatory attention on adtech practices is certainly highlighting plenty of legally questionable and ethically dubious stuff — like embedded tracking infrastructure that’s taking liberal notes on people’s mental health condition for ad targeting purposes. And it’s clear that EU regulators have a lot more work to do to deliver on the promise of GDPR.

Mobile gaming is a $68.5 billion global business, and investors are buying in

By the end of 2019, the global gaming market is estimated to be worth $152 billion with 45% of that, $68.5 billion, coming directly from mobile games. With this tremendous growth (10.2% YoY to be precise) has come a flurry of investments and acquisitions, everyone wanting a cut of the pie. In fact, over the last 18 months, the global gaming industry has seen $9.6 billion in investments and if investments continue at this current pace, the amount of investment generated in 2018-19 will be higher than the 8 previous years combined.

What’s interesting is why everyone is talking about games and who in the market is responding to this and how.

The gaming phenomenon 

Today, mobile games account for 33% of all app downloads, 74% of consumer spend, and 10% of all time spent in-app. It’s predicted that in 2019, 2.4 billion people will play mobile games around the world – that’s almost one third of the global population. In fact, 50% of mobile app users play games, making this app category as popular as music apps like Spotify and Apple Music and second only to social media and communications apps in terms of time spent.

In the US, time spent on mobile devices has also officially outpaced that of television – with users spending 8 more minutes per day on their mobile devices. By 2021, this number is predicted to increase to over 30 minutes. Apps are the new primetime and games have grabbed the lion’s share.

Accessibility is the highest it’s ever been as barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. From casual games to the recent rise of the wildly popular hyper-casual genre of games which are quick to download, easy to play, and lend themselves to being played in short sessions throughout the day, games are played by almost every demographic stratum of society. Today, the average age of a mobile gamer is 36.3 (compared with 27.7 in 2014), the gender split is 51% female, 49% male, and one-third of all gamers are between the ages of 36-50. A far cry from the traditional stereotype of a ‘gamer’.

With these demographic, geographic, and consumption sea-changes in the mobile ecosystem and entertainment landscape, it’s no surprise that the game space is getting increased attention and investment, not just from within the industry, but more recently from traditional financial markets and even governments. Let’s look at how the markets have responded to the rise of gaming.

Image courtesy of David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Games on Games 

The first substantial investments in mobile gaming came from those who already had a stake in the industry. Tencent invested $90M in Pocket Gems and$126M in Glu Mobile (for a 14.6% stake), gaming powerhouse Supercell invested $5M in mobile game studio Redemption Games, Boom Fantasy raised $2M from ESPN and the MLB and Gamelynx raised $1.2M from several investors – one of which was Riot Games. Most recently, Ubisoft acquired a 70% stake in Green Panda Games to bolster its foot in the hyper-casual gaming market.

Additionally, bigger gaming studios began to acquire smaller ones. Zynga bought Gram Games, Ubisoft acquired Ketchapp, Niantic purchased Seismic Games, and Tencent bought Supercell (as well as a 40% stake in Epic Games). And the list goes on.

Wall Street wakes up

Beyond the flurry of investments and acquisitions from within the game industry, games are also generating huge amounts of revenue. Since launch, Pokemon Go has generated $2.3B in revenue and Fortnite has amassed some 250M players. This is catching the attention of more traditional financial institutions, like private equity firms and VCs, who are now looking at a variety of investment options in gaming – not just of gaming studios, but all those who had a stake in or support the industry.

In May 2018, hyper-casual mobile gaming studio Voodoo announced a $200M investment from Goldman Sachs’ private equity investment arm. For the first time ever, a mobile gaming studio attracted the attention of a venerable old financial institution. The explosion of the hyper-casual genre and the scale its titles are capable of achieving, together with the intensely iterative, data-driven business model afforded by the low production costs of games like this, were catching the attention of investors outside of the gaming world, looking for the next big growth opportunity.

The trend continued. In July 2018, private equity firm KKR bought a $400M minority stake in AppLovin and now, exactly one year later Blackstone announced their plan to acquire mobile ad-network Vungle for a reported $750M. Not only is money going into gaming studios, but investments are being made into companies whose technology supports the mobile gaming space. Traditional investors are finally taking notice of the mobile gaming ecosystem as a whole and the explosive growth it has produced in recent years. This year alone mobile games are expected to generate $55B in revenue so this new wave of investment interest should really come as no surprise.

A woman holds up her cell phone as she plays the Pokemon Go game in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2016. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Government intervention

Most recently, governments are realizing the potential and reach of the gaming industry and making their own investment moves. We’re seeing governments establish funds that support local gaming businesses – providing incentives for gaming studios to develop and retain their creatives, technology, and employees locally – as well as programs that aim to attract foreign talent.

As uncertainty looms in England surrounding Brexit, France has jumped on the opportunity with “Join the Game”. They’re painting France as an international hub that is already home to many successful gaming studios, and they’re offering tax breaks and plenty of funding options – for everything from R&D to the production of community events. Their website even has an entire page dedicated to “getting settled in France”, in English, with a step-by-step guide on how game developers should prepare for their arrival.

The UK Department for International Trade used this year’s Game Developers Conference as a backdrop for the promotion of their games fund – calling the UK “one of the most flourishing game developing ecosystems in the world.” The UK Games Fund allows for both local and foreign-owned gaming companies with a presence in the UK to apply for tax breaks. And ever since France announced their fund, more and more people have begun encouraging the British government to expand their program saying that the UK gaming ecosystem should be “retained and enhanced”. But, not only does the government take gaming seriously, the Queen does as well. In 2008, David Darling the CEO of hyper-casual game studio Kwalee was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the games industry. CBE is the third-highest honor the Queen can bestow on a British citizen.

Over to Germany, and the government has allocated 50M euros of its 2019 budget for the creation of a games fund. In Sweden, the Sweden Game Arena is a public-private partnership that helps students develop games using government-funded offices and equipment. It also links students and startups with established companies and investors. While these numbers dwarf the investment of more commercial or financial players, the sudden uptick in interest governments are paying to the game space indicate just how exciting and lucrative gaming has become.

Support is coming from all levels

The evolution of investment in the gaming space is indicative of the stratospheric growth, massive revenue, strong user engagement, and extensive demographic and geographic reach of mobile gaming. With the global games industry projected to be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars by 2023, it comes as no surprise that the diverse players globally have finally realized its true potential and have embraced the gaming ecosystem as a whole.