You’ve heard of CRISPR, now meet its newer, savvier cousin CRISPR Prime

CRISPR, the revolutionary ability to snip out and alter genes with scissor-like precision, has exploded in popularity over the last few years and is generally seen as the standalone wizard of modern gene-editing. However, it’s not a perfect system, sometimes cutting at the wrong place, not working as intended and leaving scientists scratching their heads. Well, now there’s a new, more exacting upgrade to CRISPR called Prime, with the ability to, in theory, snip out more than 90% of all genetic diseases.

Just what is this new method and how does it work? We turned to IEEE fellow, biomedical researcher and dean of graduate education at Tuft University’s school of engineering Karen Panetta for an explanation.

How does CRISPR Prime editing work?

CRISPR is a powerful genome editor. It utilizes an enzyme called Cas9 that uses an RNA molecule as a guide to navigate to its target DNA. It then edits or modifies the DNA, which can deactivate genes or insert a desired sequence to achieve a behavior. Currently, we are most familiar with the application of genetically modified crops that are resistant to disease.

However, its most promising application is to genetically modify cells to overcome genetic defects or its potential to conquer diseases like cancer.

Some applications of genome editing technology include:

  • Genetically modified mosquitos that can’t carry malaria.
  • In humans, “turning on” a gene that can create fetal type behaving cells that can overcome sickle-cell anemia.

Of course, as with every technology, CRISPR isn’t perfect. It works by cutting the double-stranded DNA at precise locations in the genome. When the cell’s natural repair process takes over, it can cause damage or, in the case where the modified DNA is inserted at the cut site, it can create unwanted off-target mutations.

Some genetic disorders are known to mutate specific DNA bases, so having the ability to edit these bases would be enormously beneficial in terms of overcoming many genetic disorders. However, CRISPR is not well suited for intentionally introducing specific DNA bases, the As, Cs, Ts and Gs that make up the double helix.

Prime editing was intended to overcome this disadvantage, as well as other limitations of CRISPR.

Prime editing can do multi-letter base-editing, which could tackle fatal genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs, which is caused by a mutation of four DNA letters.

It’s also more precise. I view this as analogous to the precision lasers brought to surgery versus using a hand-held scalpel. It minimized damage, so the healing process was more efficient.

Prime editing can insert, modify or delete individual DNA letters; it also can insert a sequence of multiple letters into a genome with minimal damage to DNA strands.

How effective might Prime editing be?

Imagine being able to prevent cancer and/or hereditary diseases, like breast cancer, from ever occurring by editing out the genes that are makers for cancer. Cancer treatments are usually long, debilitating processes that physically and emotionally drain patients. It also devastates patients’ loved ones who must endure watching helpless on the sidelines as the patient battles to survive.

“Editing out” genetic disorders and/or hereditary diseases to prevent them from ever coming to fruition could also have an enormous impact on reducing the costs of healthcare, effectively helping redefine methods of medical treatment.

It could change lives so that long-term disability care for diseases like Alzheimer’s and special needs education costs could be significantly reduced or never needed.

How did the scientific community get to this point — where did CRISPR/prime editing “come from?”

Scientists recognized CRISPR’s ability to prevent bacteria from infecting more cells and the natural repair mechanism that it initiates after damage occurs, thus having the capacity to halt bacterial infections via genome editing. Essentially, it showed adaptive immunity capabilities.

When might we see CRISPR Prime editing “out in the wild?”

It’s already out there! It has been used for treating sickle-cell anemia and in human embryos to prevent HIV infections from being transmitted to offspring of HIV parents.

So, what’s next?

IEEE engineers, like myself, are always seeking to take the fundamental science and expand it beyond the petri dish to benefit humanity.

In the short term, I think that Prime editing will help generate the type of fetal like cells that are needed to help patients recover and heal as well as developing new vaccines against deadly diseases. It will also allow researchers new, lower cost alternatives and access to Alzheimer’s like cells without obtaining them post-mortem.

Also, AI and deep learning is modeled after human neural networks, so the process of genome editing could potentially help inform and influence new computer algorithms for self-diagnosis and repair, which will become an important aspect of future autonomous systems.

Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company, Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms which were created using flawed datasets mean that there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos, co-founder and CEO of Elektra Labs, in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop-shop for all of their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for FitBit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel, and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was . one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment.  Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

Alexa, where are the legal limits on what Amazon can do with my health data?

The contract between the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and ecommerce giant Amazon — for a health information licensing partnership involving its Alexa voice AI — has been released following a Freedom of Information request.

The government announced the partnership this summer. But the date on the contract, which was published on the gov.uk contracts finder site months after the FOI was filed, shows the open-ended arrangement to funnel nipped-and-tucked health advice from the NHS’ website to Alexa users in audio form was inked back in December 2018.

The contract is between the UK government and Amazon US (Amazon Digital Services, Delaware) — rather than Amazon UK. 

Nor is it a standard NHS Choices content syndication contract. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed the legal agreement uses an Amazon contract template. She told us the department had worked jointly with Amazon to adapt the template to fit the intended use — i.e. access to publicly funded healthcare information from the NHS’ website.

The NHS does make the same information freely available on its website, of course. As well as via API — to some 1,500 organizations. But Amazon is not just any organization; It’s a powerful US platform giant with a massive ecommerce business.

The contract reflects that power imbalance; not being a standard NHS content syndication agreement — but rather DHSC tweaking Amazon’s standard terms.

“It was drawn up between both Amazon UK and the Department for Health and Social Care,” a department spokeswoman told us. “Given that Amazon is in the business of holding standard agreements with content providers they provided the template that was used as the starting point for the discussions but it was drawn up in negotiation with the Department for Health and Social Care, and obviously it was altered to apply to UK law rather than US law.”

In July, when the government officially announced the Alexa-NHS partnership, its PR provided a few sample queries of how Amazon’s voice AI might respond to what it dubbed “NHS-verified” information — such as: “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?”.

But of course as anyone who’s ever googled a health symptom could tell you, the types of stuff people are actually likely to ask Alexa — once they realize they can treat it as an NHS-verified info-dispensing robot, and go down the symptom-querying rabbit hole — is likely to range very far beyond the common cold.

At the official launch of what the government couched as a ‘collaboration’ with Amazon, it explained its decision to allow NHS content to be freely piped through Alexa by suggesting that voice technology has “the potential to reduce the pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses”.

Its PR cited an unattributed claim that “by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be made through voice-assisted technology”.

This prediction is frequently attributed to ComScore, a media measurement firm that was last month charged with fraud by the SEC. However it actually appears to originate with computer scientist Andrew Ng, from when he was chief scientist at Chinese tech giant Baidu.

Econsultancy noted last year that Mary Meeker included Ng’s claim on a slide in her 2016 Internet Trends report — which is likely how the prediction got so widely amplified.

But on Meeker’s slide you can see that the prediction is in fact “images or speech”, not voice alone…

Screenshot 2019 10 24 at 10.04.40

So it turns out the UK government incorrectly cited a tech giant prediction to push a claim that “voice search has been increasing rapidly” — in turn its justification for funnelling NHS users towards Amazon.

“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists,” said health secretary Matt Hancock in a July statement.

Since landing at the health department, the app-loving former digital minister has been pushing a tech-first agenda for transforming the NHS — promising to plug in “healthtech” apps and services, and touting “preventative, predictive and personalised care”. He’s also announced an AI lab housed within a new unit that’s intended to oversee the digitization of the NHS.

Compared with all that, plugging the NHS’ website into Alexa probably seems like an easy ‘on-message’ win. But immediately the collaboration was announced concerns were raised that the government is recklessly mixing the streams of critical (and sensitive) national healthcare infrastructure with the rapacious data-appetite of a foreign tech giant with both an advertising and ecommerce business, plus major ambitions of its own in the healthcare space.

On the latter front, just yesterday news broke of Amazon’s second health-related acquisition: Health Navigator, a startup with an API platform for integrating with health services, such as telemedicine and medical call centers, which offers natural language processing tools for documenting health complaints and care recommendations.

Last year Amazon also picked up online pharmacy PillPack — for just under $1BN. While last month it launched a pilot of a healthcare service offering to its own employees in and around Seattle, called Amazon Care. That looks intended to be a road-test for addressing the broader U.S. market down the line. So the company’s commercial designs on healthcare are becoming increasingly clear.

Returning to the UK, in response to early critical feedback on the Alexa-NHS arrangement, the IT delivery arm of the service, NHS Digital, published a blog post going into more detail about the arrangement — following what it couched as “interesting discussion about the challenges for the NHS of working with large commercial organisations like Amazon”.

A core critical “discussion” point is the question of what Amazon will do with people’s medical voice query data, given the partnership is clearly encouraging people to get used to asking Alexa for health advice.

“We have stuck to the fundamental principle of not agreeing a way of working with Amazon that we would not be willing to consider with any single partner – large or small. We have been careful about data, commercialisation, privacy and liability, and we have spent months working with knowledgeable colleagues to get it right,” NHS Digital claimed in July.

In another section of the blog post, responding to questions about what Amazon will do with the data and “what about privacy”, it further asserted there would be no health profiling of customers — writing:

We have worked with the Amazon team to ensure that we can be totally confident that Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties. Amazon has been very clear that it is not selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers. All information is treated with high confidentiality. Amazon restrict access through multi-factor authentication, services are all encrypted, and regular audits run on their control environment to protect it.

Yet it turns out the contract DHSC signed with Amazon is just a content licensing agreement. There are no terms contained in it concerning what can or can’t be done with the medical voice query data Alexa is collecting with the help of “NHS-verified” information.

Per the contract terms, Amazon is required to attribute content to the NHS when Alexa responds to a query with information from the service’s website. (Though the company says Alexa also makes use of medical content from the Mayo Clinic and Wikipedia.) So, from the user’s point of view, they will at times feel like they’re talking to an NHS-branded service.

But without any legally binding confidentiality clauses around what can be done with their medical voice queries it’s not clear how NHS Digital can confidently assert that Amazon isn’t creating health profiles.

The situation seems to sum to, er, trust Amazon. (NHS Digital wouldn’t comment; saying it’s only responsible for delivery not policy setting, and referring us to the DHSC.)

Asked what it does with medical voice query data generated as a result of the NHS collaboration an Amazon spokesperson told us: “We do not build customer health profiles based on interactions with nhs.uk content or use such requests for marketing purposes.”

But the spokesperson could not point to any legally binding contract clauses in the licensing agreement that restrict what Amazon can do with people’s medical queries.

We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether medical voice queries that return NHS content are being processed in the US.

“This collaboration only provides content already available on the NHS.UK website, and absolutely no personal data is being shared by NHS to Amazon or vice versa,” Amazon also told us, eliding the key point that it’s not NHS data being shared with Amazon but NHS users, reassured by the presence of a trusted public brand, being encouraged to feed Alexa sensitive personal data by asking about their ailments and health concerns.

Bizarrely, the Department of Health and Social Care went further. Its spokeswoman claimed in an email that “there will be no data shared, collected or processed by Amazon and this is just an alternative way of providing readily available information from NHS.UK.”

When we spoke to DHSC on the phone prior to this, to raise the issue of medical voice query data generated via the partnership and fed to Amazon — also asking where in the contract are clauses to protect people’s data — the spokeswoman said she would have to get back to us.

All of which suggests the government has a very vague idea (to put it generously) of how cloud-powered voice AIs function.

Presumably no one at DHSC bothered to read the information on Amazon’s own Alexa privacy page — although the department spokeswomen was at least aware this page existed (because she knew Amazon had pointed us to what she called its “privacy notice”, which she said “sets out how customers are in control of their data and utterances”).

If you do read the page you’ll find Amazon offers some broad-brush explanation there which tells you that after an Alexa device has been woken by its wake word, the AI will “begin recording and sending your request to Amazon’s secure cloud”.

Ergo data is collected and processed. And indeed stored on Amazon’s servers. So, yes, data is ‘shared’.

The more detailed Alexa Internet Privacy Notice, meanwhile, sets out broad-brush parameters to enable Amazon’s reuse of Alexa user data — stating that “the information we learn from users helps us personalize and continually improve your Alexa experience and provide information about Internet trends, website popularity and traffic, and related content”. [emphasis ours]

The DHSC sees the matter very differently, though.

With no contractual binds covering health-related queries UK users of Alexa are being encouraged to whisper into Amazon’s robotic ears — data that’s naturally linked to Alexa and Amazon account IDs (and which the Alexa Internet Privacy Notice also specifies can be accessed by “a limited number of employees”) — the government is accepting the tech giant’s standard data processing terms for a commercial, consumer product which is deeply integrated into its increasingly sprawling business empire.

Terms such as indefinite retention of audio recordings — unless users pro-actively request that they are deleted. And even then Amazon admitted this summer it doesn’t always delete the text transcripts of recordings. So even if you keep deleting all your audio snippets, traces of medical queries may well remain on Amazon’s servers.

Earlier this year it also emerged the company employs contractors around the world to listen in to Alexa recordings as part of internal efforts to improve the performance of the AI.

A number of tech giants recently admitted to the presence of such ‘speech grading’ programs, as they’re sometimes called — though none had been up front and transparent about the fact their shiny AIs needed an army of external human eavesdroppers to pull off a show of faux intelligence.

It’s been journalists highlighting the privacy risks for users of AI assistants; and media exposure leading to public pressure on tech giants to force changes to concealed internal processes that have, by default, treated people’s information as an owned commodity that exists to serve and reserve their own corporate interests.

Data protection? Only if you interpret the term as meaning your personal data is theirs to capture and that they’ll aggressively defend the IP they generate from it.

So, in other words, actual humans — both employed by Amazon directly and not — may be listening to the medical stuff you’re telling Alexa. Unless the user finds and activates a recently added ‘no human review’ option buried in Alexa settings.

Many of these arrangements remain under regulatory scrutiny in Europe. Amazon’s lead data protection regulator in Europe confirmed in August it’s in discussions with it over concerns related to its manual reviews of Alexa recordings. So UK citizens — whose taxes fund the NHS — might be forgiven for expecting more care from their own government around such a ‘collaboration’.

Rather than a wholesale swallowing of tech giant T&Cs in exchange for free access to the NHS brand and  “NHS-verified” information which helps Amazon burnish Alexa’s utility and credibility, allowing it to gather valuable insights for its commercial healthcare ambitions.

To date there has been no recognition from DHSC the government has a duty of care towards NHS users as regards potential risks its content partnership might generate as Alexa harvests their voice queries via a commercial conduit that only affords users very partial controls over what happens to their personal data.

Nor is DHSC considering the value being generously gifted by the state to Amazon — in exchange for a vague supposition that a few citizens might go to the doctor a bit less if a robot tells them what flu symptoms look like.

“The NHS logo is supposed to mean something,” says Sam Smith, coordinator at patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — one of the organizations that makes use of the NHS’ free APIs for health content (but which he points out did not write its own contract for the government to sign).

“When DHSC signed Amazon’s template contract to put the NHS logo on anything Amazon chooses to do, it left patients to fend for themselves against the business model of Amazon in America.”

In a related development this week, Europe’s data protection supervisor has warned of serious data protection concerns related to standard contracts EU institutions have inked with another tech giant, Microsoft, to use its software and services.

The watchdog recently created a strategic forum that’s intended to bring together the region’s public administrations to work on drawing up standard contracts with fairer terms for the public sector — to shrink the risk of institutions feeling outgunned and pressured into accepting T&Cs written by the same few powerful tech providers.

Such an effort is sorely needed — though it comes too late to hand-hold the UK government into striking more patient-sensitive terms with Amazon US.

Foursquare CEO calls on Congress to regulate the location data industry

The chief executive of Foursquare, one of the largest location data platforms on the internet, is calling on lawmakers to pass legislation to better regulate the wider location data industry amid abuses and misuses of consumers’ personal data.

It comes in the aftermath of the recent location sharing scandal, which revealed how bounty hunters were able to get a hold of any cell subscriber’s real-time location data by obtaining the records from the cell networks. Vice was first to report the story. Since then there have been numerous cases of abuse — including the mass collection of vehicle locations in a single database, and popular iPhone apps that were caught collecting user locations without explicit permission.

The cell giants have since promised to stop selling location data but have been slow to act on their pledges.

“It’s time for Congress to regulate the industry,” said Foursquare’s chief executive Jeff Glueck (shown on the left in the photo above) in an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday.

In his opinion piece, Glueck called on Congress to push for a federal regulation that enforces three points.

Firstly, phone apps should not be allowed to access location data without explicitly stating how it will be used. Apple has already introduced a new location tracking privacy feature that tells users where their apps track them, and is giving them options to restrict that access — but all too often apps are not clear about how they use data beyond their intended use case.

“Why, for example, should a flashlight app have your location data?,” he said, referring to scammy apps that push for device permissions they should not need.

Second, the Foursquare chief said any new law should provide greater transparency around what app makers do with location data, and give consumers the ability to opt-out. “Consumers, not companies, should control the process,” he added. Europe’s GDPR already allows this to some extent, as will California’s incoming privacy law. But the rest of the U.S. is out of luck unless the measures are pushed out federally.

And, lastly, Glueck said anyone collecting location data should promise to “do no harm.” By that, he said companies should apply privacy-protecting measures to all data uses by not discriminating against individuals based on their religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. That would make it illegal for family tracking apps, for example, to secretly pass on location data to healthcare or insurance providers who might use that data to hike up a person’s premiums above normal rates by monitoring their driving speeds, he said.

For a business that relies on location data, it’s a gutsy move.

But Glueck hinted that businesses like Foursquare would be less directly affected as they already take a more measured and mindful approach to privacy, whereas the fast and loose players in the location data industry would face greater scrutiny and more enforcement action.

“These steps are necessary, but they’re not sufficient,” said Glueck. But he warned that Congress could do “great damage” if lawmakers fail to sufficiently push overly burdensome regulations on smaller companies, which could increase overheads, put companies out of business and have a negative effect on competition.

“There’s no good reason that companies won’t be able to comply with reasonable regulation,” said Glueck.

“Comprehensive regulation will support future innovation, weed out the bad companies and earn the public trust,” he said.

Europe’s recharged antitrust chief makes her five-year pitch to be digital EVP

Europe’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, set for a dual role in the next Commission, faced three hours of questions from members of four committees in the European Parliament this afternoon, as MEPs got their chance to interrogate her priorities for a broader legislative role that will shape pan-EU digital strategy for the next five years.

As we reported last month, Vestager is headed for an expanded role in the incoming European Commission with president-elect Ursula von der Leyen picking her as an executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called “Europe fit for the digital age.”

She is also set to retain her current job as competition commissioner. And a question she faced more than once during today’s hearing in front of MEPs, who have a confirming vote on her appointment, was whether the combined portfolio wasn’t at risk of a conflict of interest?

Or whether she “recognized the tension between objective competition enforcement and industrial policy interests in your portfolio,” as one MEP put it, before asking whether she would “build Chinese walls” within it to avoid crossing the streams of enforcement and policymaking.

Vestager responded by saying it was the first question she’d asked herself on being offered the role — before laying out flat reasoning that “the independence in law enforcement is non-negotiable.”

“It has always been true that the commissioner for competition has been part of the College. And every decision we take also in competition is a collegial decision,” she said. “What justifies that is of course that every decision is subject to not one but 2x legal scrutiny if need be. And the latest confirmation of this set up was two judgments in 2011 — where it was looked into whether this set up… is in accordance with our human rights and that has been found to be so. So the set up, as such, is as it should be.”

The commissioner and commissioner-designate responded capably to a wide range of questions reflecting the broad span of her new responsibilities — fielding questions on areas including digital taxation; platform power and regulation; a green new deal; AI and data ethics; digital skills and research; and small business regulation and funding, as well as queries around specific pieces of legislation (such as ePrivacy and Copyright Reform). 

Climate change and digital transformation were singled out in her opening remarks as two of Europe’s biggest challenges — ones she said will require both joint working and a focus on fairness.

Europe is filled with highly skilled people, we have excellent infrastructure, fair and effective laws. Our Single Market gives European businesses the room to grow and innovate, and be the best in the world at what they do,” she said at the top of her pitch to MEPs. “So my pledge is not to make Europe more like China, or America. My pledge is to help make Europe more like herself. To build on our own strengths and values, so our society is both strong and fair. For all Europeans.”

Building trust in digital services

In her opening remarks Vestager said that if confirmed she will work to build trust in digital services — suggesting regulation on how companies collect, use and share data might be necessary to ensure people’s data is used for public good, rather than to concentrate market power.

It’s a suggestion that won’t have gone unnoticed in Silicon Valley.

“I will work on a Digital Services Act that includes upgrading our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products,” she pledged. “We may also need to regulate the way that companies collect and use and share data — so it benefits the whole of our society.”

“As global competition gets tougher we’ll need to work harder to preserve a level playing field,” she also warned.

But asked directly during the hearing whether Europe’s response to platform power might include breaking up overbearing tech giants, Vestager signaled caution — saying such an intrusive intervention should only be used as a last resort, and that she has an obligation to try less drastic measures first. (It’s a position she’s set out before in public.)

“You’re right to say fines are not doing the trick and fines are not enough,” she said in response to one questioner on the topic. Another MEP complained fines on tech giants are essentially just seen as an “operating expense.”

Vestager went on to cite the Google AdSense antitrust case as an example of enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition. “Some of the things that we will of course look into is do we need even stronger remedies for competition to pick up in these markets,” she said. “They stopped their behavior. That’s now two years ago. The market hasn’t picked up. So what do we do in those kind of cases? We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching.

“Also before we reach for the very, very far reaching remedy to break up a company — we have that tool in our toolbox but obviously it is very far reaching… My obligation is to ensure that we do the least intrusive thing in order to make competition come back. And in that respect, obviously, I am willing to explore what do we need more, in competition cases, for competition to come back.”

Competition law enforcers in Europe will have to consider how to make sure rules enforce fair competition in what Vestager described as a “new phenomenon” of “competition for a market, not just in a market” — meaning that whoever wins the competition becomes “the de facto rule setter in this market.”

Regulating platforms on transparency and fairness is something on which European legislators have already agreed — earlier this year. Though that platform to business regulation has yet to come into force. “But it will also be a question for us as competition law enforcers,” Vestager told MEPs.

Making use of existing antitrust laws but doing so with greater speed and agility, rather than a drastic change of competition approach, appeared to be her main message — with the commissioner noting she’d recently dusted off interim measures in an ongoing case against chipmaker Broadcom; the first time such an application has been made for 20 years.

“It’s a good reflection of the fact that we find it a very high priority to speed up what we do,” she said, adding: “There’s a limit as to how fast law enforcement can work, because we will never compromise on due process — on the other hand we should be able to work as fast as possible.”

Her responses to MEPs on platform power favored greater regulation of digital markets (potentially including data), markets which have become dominated by data-gobbling platforms — rather than an abrupt smashing of the platforms themselves. So not an Elizabeth Warren “existential” threat to big tech, then, but from a platform point of view Vestager’s preferred approach might just sum to death by a thousand legal cuts.

“One of course could consider what kind of tools do we need?,” she opined, talking about market reorganization as a means of regulating platform power. “[There are] different ways of trying to re-organize a marketplace if the competition authority finds that the way it’s working is not beneficial for fair competition. And those are tools that can be considered in order to sort of re-organize before harm is done. Then you don’t punish because no infringement is found but you can give very direct almost orders… as to how a market should be organized.”

Artificial intelligence with a purpose

On artificial intelligence — which the current Commission has been working on developing a framework for ethical design and application — Vestager’s opening remarks contained a pledge to publish proposals for this framework — to “make sure artificial intelligence is used ethically, to support human decisions and not undermine them” — and to do so within her first 100 days in office.

That led one MEP to question whether it wasn’t too ambitious and hasty to rush to control a still emerging technology. “It is very ambitious,” she responded. “And one of the things that I think about a lot is of course if we want to build trust then you have to listen.

“You cannot just say I have a brilliant idea, I make it happen all over. You have to listen to people to figure out what would be the right approach here. Also because there is a balance. Because if you’re developing something new then — exactly as you say — you should be very careful not to over-regulate.

“For me, to fulfill these ambitions, obviously we need the feedback from the many, many businesses who have taken upon them to use the assessment list and the principles [recommended by the Commission’s HLEG on AI] of how to create AI you can trust. But I also think, to some degree, we have to listen fast. Because we have to talk with a lot of different people in order to get it right. But it is a reflection of the fact that we are in hurry. We really need to get our AI strategy off the ground and these proposals will be part of that.”

Europe could differentiate itself — and be “a world leader” — by developing “AI with a purpose,” Vestager suggested, pointing to potential applications for the tech such as in healthcare, transportation and combating climate change, which she said would also work to further European values.

“I don’t think that we can be world leaders without ethical guidelines,” she said of AI. “I think we will lose it if we just say no let’s do as they do in the rest of the world — let’s pool all the data from everyone, no matter where it comes from, and let’s just invest all our money. I think we will lose out because the AI you create because you want to serve humans. That’s a different sort of AI. This is AI with a purpose.”

On digital taxation — where Vestager will play a strategic role, working with other commissioners — she said her intention is to work toward trying to achieve global agreement on reforming rules to take account of how data and profits flow across borders. But if that’s not possible she said Europe is prepared to act alone — and quickly — by the end of 2020.

“Surprising things can happen,” she said, discussing the challenge of achieving even an EU-wide consensus on tax reform, and noting how many pieces of tax legislation have already been passed in the European Council by unanimity. “So it’s not undoable. The problem is we have a couple of very important pieces of legislation that have not been passed.

“I’m still kind of hopeful in the working way that we can get a global agreement on digital taxation. If that is not the case, obviously we will table and push for a European solution. And I admire the Member States who’ve said we want a European or global solution, but if that isn’t to be we’re willing to do that by ourselves in order to be able to answer to all the businesses who pay their taxes.”

Vestager also signaled support for exploring the possibility of amending Article 116 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which relates to competition-based distortion of the internal market, in order to enable tax reform to be passed by a qualified majority, instead of unanimously — as a potential strategy for getting past the EU’s own current blocks to tax reform.

“I think definitely we should start exploring what would that entail,” she said in response to a follow-up question. “I don’t think it’s a given that it would be successful, but it’s important that we take the different tools that the treaty gives us and use these tools if need be.”

During the hearing she also advocated for a more strategic use of public procurement by the EU and Member States — to push for more funding to go into digital research and business innovation that benefits common interests and priorities.

“It means working together with Member States on important projects of common European interest. We will bring together entire value chains, from universities, suppliers, manufacturers all the way to those who recycle the raw material that is used in manufacturing,” she said.

“Public procurement in Europe is… a lot of money,” she added. “And if we also use that to ask for solutions well then we can have also maybe smaller businesses to say I can actually do that. So we can make an artificial intelligence strategy that will push in all different sectors of society.”

She also argued that Europe’s industrial strategy needs to reach beyond its own Single Market — signaling a tougher approach to market access to those outside the bloc.

And implying she might favor less of a free-for-all when it comes to access to publicly funded data — if the value it contains risks further entrenching already data-rich, market-dominating giants at the expense of smaller local players.

“As we get more and more interconnected, we are more dependent and affected by decisions made by others. Europe is the biggest trading partner of some 80 countries, including China and the U.S. So we are in a strong position to work for a level global playing field. This includes pursuing our proposal to reform the World Trade Organization. It includes giving ourselves the right tools to make sure that foreign state ownership and subsidies do not undermine fair competition in Europe,” she said.

“We have to figure out what constitutes market power,” she went on, discussing how capacity to collect data can influence market position, regardless of whether it’s directly linked to revenue. “We will expand our insights as to how this works. We have learned a lot from some of the merger cases that we have been doing to see how data can work as an asset for innovation but also as a barrier to entry. Because if you don’t have the right data it’s very difficult to produce the services that people are actually asking for. And that becomes increasingly critical when it comes to AI. Because once you have it then you can do even more.

“I think we have to discuss what we do with all the amazing publicly funded data that we make available. It’s not to be overly biblical but we shouldn’t end up in a situation where ‘those who have shall more be given.’ If you have a lot already then you also have the capabilities and the technical insight to make very good use of it. And we do have amazing data in Europe. Just think about what can be assessed in our supercomputers… they are world-class… And second when it comes to both [EU sat-nav] Galileo and [earth observation program] Copernicus. Also here data is available. Which is an excellent thing for the farmer doing precision farming and saving in pesticides and seeds and all of that. But are really happy that we also make it available for those who could actually pay for it themselves?

“I think that is a discussion that we will have to have — to make sure that not just the big ones keep taking for themselves but the smaller ones having a fair chance.”

Rights and wrongs

During the hearing Vestager was also asked whether she supported the controversial EU copyright reform.

She said she supports the “compromise” achieved — arguing that the legislation is important to ensure artists are rewarded for the work they do — but stressed that it will be important for the incoming Commission to ensure Member States’ implementations are “coherent” and that fragmentation is avoided.

She also warned against the risk of the same “divisive” debates being reopened afresh, via other pieces of legislation.

“I think now that the copyright issue has been settled it shouldn’t be reopened in the area of the Digital Services Act,” she said. “I think it’s important to be very careful not to do that because then we would lose speed again when it comes to actually making sure there is remuneration for those who hold copyright.”

Asked in a follow-up question how, as the directive gets implemented by EU Member States, she will ensure freedom of speech is protected from upload filter technologies — which is what critics of the copyright reform argue the law effectively demands that platforms deploy — Vestager hedged, saying: “[It] will take a lot of discussions and back and forth between Member States and Commission, probably. Also this parliament will follow this very closely. To make sure that we get an implementation in Member States that are similar.”

“One has to be very careful,” she added. “Some of the discussions that we had during the adoption of the copyright directive will come back. Because these are crucial debates. Because it’s a debate between the freedom of speech and actually protecting people who have rights. Which is completely justified… Just as we have fundamental values we also have fundamental discussions because it’s always a balancing act how to get this right.”

The commissioner also voiced support for passing the ePrivacy Regulation. “It will be high priority to make sure that we’re able to pass that,” she told MEPs, dubbing the reform an important building block.

“One of the things I hope is that we don’t just always decentralize to the individual citizens,” she added.  “Now you have rights, now you just go and force them. Because I know I have rights but one of my frustrations is how to enforce them? Because I am to read page after page after page and if I’m not tired and just forget about it then I sign up anyway. And that doesn’t really make sense. We still have to do more for people to feel empowered to protect themselves.”

She was also asked for her views on adtech-driven microtargeting — as a conduit for disinformation campaigns and political interference — and more broadly as so-called “surveillance capitalism.” “Are you willing to tackle adtech-driven business models as a whole?,” she was asked by one MEP. “Are you willing to take certain data exploitation practices like microtargeting completely off the table?”

Hesitating slightly before answering, Vestager said: “One of the things I have learned from surveillance capitalism and these ideas is it’s not you searching Google it is Google searching you. And that gives a very good idea about not only what you want to buy but also what you think. So we have indeed a lot to do. I am in complete agreement with what has been done so far — because we needed to do something fast. So the Code of Practice [on disinformation] is a very good start to make sure that we get things right… So I think we have a lot to build on.

“I don’t know yet what should be the details of the Digital Services Act. And I think it’s very important that we make the most of what we have since we’re in a hurry. Also to take stock of what I would call digital citizens’ rights — the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] — that we can have national authorities enforce that in full, and hopefully also to have a market response so that we have privacy by design and being able to choose that. Because I think it’s very important that we also get a market response to say, well, you can actually do things in a very different way than just to allow yourself to feel forced to sign up to whatever terms and conditions that are put in front of you.

“I myself find it very thought-provoking if you have the time just once in a while to read the T&Cs now when they are obliged, thanks to this parliament, to write in a way that you can actually understand that makes it even more scary. And very often it just makes me think, thanks but no thanks. And that of course is the other side of that coin. Yes, regulation. But also us as citizens to be much more aware of what kind of life we want to live and what kind of democracy we want to have. Because it cannot just be digital. Then I think we will lose it.”

In her own plea to MEPs, Vestager urged them to pass the budget so that the Commission can get on with all the pressing tasks in front of it. “We have proposed that we increase our investments quite a lot in order to be able to do all this kind of stuff,” she said.

“First things first, I’m sorry to say this, we need the money. We need funding. We need the programs. We need to be able to do something so that people can see that businesses can use funds to invest in innovation, so that researchers can make their networks work all over Europe. That they get the funding actually to get there. And in that respect I hope that you will help push for the multi-annual financial framework to be in place. I don’t think that Europeans have any patience for us when it comes to these different things that we would like to be real. That is now, that is here.”

Laurel Bowden of VC firm 83North on the European deep tech and startup ecosystems

London and Tel Aviv based VC firm 83North has closed out its fifth fund at $300 million, as we reported earlier. It last raised a $250 million fund in 2017 and expects to continue the same investment mix, while tracking developments in emerging areas like healthcare AI and autonomous vehicles.

In a conversation with general partner Laurel Bowden, the veteran investor shared a few further thoughts with Extra Crunch — talking about the tech scene in Europe vs Israel, what the firm looks for in a team and tips on scaling globally.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

TechCrunch: Is Europe starting to catch up to Israel when it comes to deep tech startups?

Laurel Bowden: We clearly think we have in our portfolio some deep tech. And in other VC portfolios too — there’s clearly some deep tech [coming out of Europe]. And then on the reverse side you’ve seen more consumer-related stuff coming out of Israel. But still if you take a blanket look, we see more data infrastructure, security, storage coming out of Israel than we see in Europe — that’s for sure.

Africa Roundup: CcHub’s iHub acquisition, Andela’s $50M run-rate and layoffs, Transsion’s IPO

Two of Africa’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September. Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub.

The purchase amount was undisclosed, but CcHub will finance the deal out of its real-estate project to build a new 10-story HQ in Lagos, CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani told TechCrunch.

Details are emerging on how the two entities will operate together, but Tijani noted some degree of autonomy. The names — CcHub and iHub — will remain the same. Tijani is now co-CEO of both organizations.

Nekesa Were continues as iHub managing director. And iHub’s existing programs will remain, with CcHub extending to Kenya some of its existing activities in education, healthcare and governance.

CcHub will also use the iHub addition to expand the investment scope of its Growth Capital Fund.

The acquisition brings together two of Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated, and global visibility. CcHub and iHub visitors and partnerships span Zuckerberg, Mayer, Facebook, Google, and several African governments.

There’ll be a lot to cover on how this merger shapes up. At a high level, for now, the CcHub-iHub union creates a direct innovation link between two of Africa’s most active markets for VC and startup formation — Nigeria and Kenya .

Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela  announced cuts of 400 junior engineers across Kenya,  Uganda and Nigeria just as the startup released first-time earnings figures indicating it will surpass $50 million in revenues for 2019.

On the disjointed news, Andela CEO told TechCrunch the layoffs were due to a shift in market demand for the startup’s more senior developers.

Andela’s client base is comprised of more than 200 companies around the world that pay for the African developers Andela selects and trains to work on projects.

The Series D tech-venture is one of Africa’s most visible (by press volume) and best funded ― backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Johnson said the layoffs were not due to a lack of demand or financial woes. That’s probably why Andela released first-time figures of a $50 million run-rate for 2019, something of a rarity for a startup to reach in less than five years. That’s even more rare for ventures in Africa. Only one VC-backed digital company has revealed annual revenues between $50 and $100 million. That’s Jumia, the e-commerce startup that listed in an NYSE IPO earlier this year.

The departing Andela software engineers gained severance packages and are receiving placement assistance from partners including incubators CcHub and iHub.

Chinese mobile phone and device maker Transsion listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new NASDAQ-like STAR Market, a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand. The company has also started to support venture funding of African startups.

Transsion issued 80 million A shares at an opening price of 35.15 yuan (≈ $5.00) to raise 2.8 billion yuan (or ≈ $394 million).

Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs, and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai.

Transsion has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and announced plans to build an R&D facility in India.

There are a couple things to watch with Transsion’s IPO. First, the public listing, and accompanying capital could mean more venture funding for African startups.

Transsion-funded Future Hub already teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital in August to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Transsion’s IPO and growing presence in Africa also accompanies TechCrunch coverage over the last year that signals China’s growing digital influence in Africa (see Extra Crunch analysis).

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Bongo, the ‘Netflix of Bangladesh’, won the local video streaming market with just $10M

Thousands of miles away from the U.S., where technology giants, cable networks, and studios are locked in an intense multi-billion dollar battle to court users to their video streaming services, a startup in Bangladesh has already won the local video streaming market.

And it did all of this in six years with just $10 million. And it’s also profitable.

Ahad Mohammad started Bongo in 2013. The on-demand video service began life as a channel on YouTube in 2014 before expanding as a standalone app to users a year later.

Of the 96 million people in Bangladesh who are online today, 75 million of them are subscribed to either Bongo’s YouTube channel or to its app, Mohammed said.

Bongo’s domination in Bangladesh is second to none in the nation. iFlix, which raised $50 million a few months ago to expand its presence in several Asian markets, and India’s Zee5 are among the players that Bongo competes with, though their market share remains tiny in comparison.

TechCrunch caught up with Mohammed to get an insight into the early days of building Bongo and what holds next for the “Netflix of Bangladesh” as it increasingly expands to international markets.

Nigeria’s CcHub acquires Kenya’s iHub to create mega Africa incubator

Two of Africa’s powerhouse tech incubators will join forces. Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub has acquired Nairobi based iHub — CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani confirmed to TechCrunch.

The purchase amount is undisclosed, but Tijani said CcHub will finance the deal out of its real-estate project to build a new 10 story innovation center to replace its Herbert Macaulay Way building in Lagos.

Details are emerging on how the two entities will operate together, but Tijani noted some degree of autonomy.

“The names will stay the same…iHub will remain iHub…it is a strong brand…but iHub will be supported from the central CcHub, which will help them strengthen what they do,” he said.

Per the acquisition, Tijani becomes CEO of both organizations, while Nekesa Were continues as iHub Managing Director. iHub’s existing programs will remain, according to Tijani, but CcHub will extend some of its existing activities in education, healthcare, and governance to Kenya.

CcHub will also use the iHub addition to expand its investment scope. “We’ll now have access to pipeline in Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda,” he said.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani

Tijani views the arrangement as a boost to the continent’s tech ecosystem. “It strengthens our ability to support innovation. iHub and CcHub…coming together makes us stronger; it gives us a chance to attract greater resources and talent,” he said.

The acquisition joins two of the Africa’s most recognized tech hubs. These innovation spaces, accelerators, and incubators—which tally 618 per GSMA stats—have become focal points for startup formation, training, and IT activity on the continent.

TechHubsinAfricain2019 Briter Bridges

There aren’t official rankings for Africa’s most powerful tech hubs, but if there were, CcHub and iHub would arguably be up top. This would be based on the size of their membership networks, volume of tech related programs, startups incubated, partnerships, and global visibility.

Founded in 2011 in Lagos’ tech-synonymous Yaba suburb, the Co-Creation Hub has grown into a multi-faceted innovation center. The organization manages digital skills programs for entrepreneurs and school kids, startup incubation, and a portfolio of investments through its Growth Capital Fund.

CcHub is considered a go-to spot for any tech related visit to Nigeria. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s first public stop on his 2016 Africa trip. While leaving a CcHub event in 2018, I noticed the Vice President of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, and his entourage packing into the elevator.

CcHub ZuckerbergTijani and team have mastered gaining partnerships with big global tech names. When Facebook launched its tech space in Nigeria—NG_Hub—CcHub was named lead partner. Google for Startups sponsored CcHub’s Pitch Drive, an African startup tour to Europe and Asia. CcHub also collaborated with the Government of Rwanda this year to open its Design Lab in Kigali, focused on innovating impact solutions in health, education, and governance.

The Design Lab launch extended CcHub’s West Africa reach further east and closer to iHub. The innovation center was co-founded by Erik Hersman in 2010 out of what he saw as a need in Africa’s emerging tech scene “for…creating community spaces…in major cities [for] young entrepreneurs. The nexus point for technologists, investors, [and] tech companies.”

iHub became that central spot in East Africa. Along with M-Pesa mobile-money and a vibrant startup scene, it is one of the pillars that inspired Kenya’s Silicon Savannah moniker.

iHub is also widely seen as giving rise to the Africa’s innovation center movement that inspired the upsurge in tech hubs across the continent.

IHub Kenya PeopleSince 2010, 170  companies have formed out of iHub. It has 16,000 members and has played host to most major visitors to Kenya’s tech scene. After seeing CcHub in Nigeria in 2016, Zuck then headed to Kenya and toured iHub.

There’ll be plenty for continuing coverage on how these two prominent African incubators settle into becoming one big Africa mega-hub. That includes the sustainability question and what this all means to the continent’s tech scene.

At a high level, for now, the CcHub-iHub union creates a direct innovation link between two of Africa’s most active markets for VC and startup formation—Nigeria and Kenya.

In the past, both countries’ techies have shared a healthy rivalry. That could now turn to more  collaborations, as CcHub’s acquisition connects East and West in African tech.