Seeqc raises $5M to help make quantum computing commercially viable

Seeqc, a startup that is part of a relatively new class of quantum computing companies that is looking at how to best use classical computing to manage quantum processors, today announced that it has raised $5 million from M Ventures, the strategic corporate venture capital arm of Merck, the German pharmaceutical giant. Merck will be a strategic partner for Seeqc and will help it to develop its R&D efforts to develop useful application-specific quantum computers.

With this, New York state-based Seeqc has now raised a total of $11 million, including a recent $6.8 million seed round that included BlueYard Capital, Cambium, NewLab and the Partnership Fund for New York City.

Since developing new pharmaceuticals is an obvious use case for quantum computing, it makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are trying to get ahead of their competitors by making strategic investments in companies like Seeqc.

The company is a spin-out of Hypres, a company that specializes in building superconductor-integrated circuits. Hypres itself had raised about $100 million in total and notes that much of the work it did on building its solutions are now part of Seeqc.

As a company spokesperson told me, the idea behind Seeqc is to bring today’s room-sized quantum computers down to a more manageable scale. It’s doing so by combining its (and Hypres’) expertise in building superconductors with a hybrid approach to combine analog and digital. This includes digital qubit control and readout, together with the company’s own proprietary chip technology that integrates classical and quantum circuits into a hybrid system (and by default, quantum computers are hybrid systems that need a classical computer to control them).

The company argues that co-locating the classical compute with the quantum processor is critical to achieving the best performance. And since it owns and operates its own fab to build these chips, Seeqc also believes that it is one of the few companies that has the right infrastructure and expertise in place to design, test and build these superconductors.

“The ‘brute force’ or labware approach to quantum computing contemplates building machines with thousands or even millions of qubits requiring multiple analog cables and, in some cases, complex CMOS readout/control for each qubit, but that doesn’t scale effectively as the industry strives to deliver business-applicable solutions,” said John Levy, co-chief executive officer at Seeqc. “With Seeqc’s hybrid approach, we utilize the power of quantum computers in a digital system-on-a-chip environment, offering greater control, cost reduction and with a massive reduction in energy, introducing a more viable path to commercial scalability.”

The company believes that its approach can cut the cost of today’s large-scale quantum computers to 1/400th. All of this, of course, is still a while out and, for now, the company will use the new funding to build a small-scale version of its system.

“We’re excited to be working with a world-leading team and fab on one of the most pressing issues in modern quantum computing,” says Owen Lozman, vice president at M Ventures . “We recognize that scaling the current generations of superconducting quantum computers beyond the noisy intermediate-scale quantum era will require fundamental changes in qubit control and wiring. Building on deep expertise in single flux quantum technologies, Seeqc has a clear, and importantly cost-efficient, pathway towards addressing existing challenges and disrupting analog, microwave-controlled architectures.”

Seeqc is, of course, not the only startup working on more efficient quantum control schemes. Quantum Machines, for example, also recently raised quite a bit of venture capital for its hardware/software quantum orchestration platform that also includes a custom processor, though that company’s overall approach is quite different from Seeqc’s.

Double emerges from stealth with $6M to pair CEOs with remote assistants

CEOs often rely on executive assistants to handle the less glamorous logistics of their day so they can focus on managing a company, but hiring a full-time assistant isn’t always easy to justify, especially at a budding startup.

Double is aiming to cater to busy C-suite execs who probably don’t need a full-time assistant but could still use some help managing their email, arranging travel, scheduling meetings and balancing their endless work with a personal life. They’re pitching a service to startup CEOs and investors that matches them up with contracted remote assistants to help free up their schedules.

“At the end of the day, these people are spending hours a day doing the things they aren’t best at,” CEO Alice Default told TechCrunch in an interview.

Double’s contracted assistants are all based in the US and have years of previous experiences as EAs, Double says. When an exec signs up for the service, they are guided through an onboarding call where they can share some of their needs before being paired up with a dedicated assistant. Double says its assistants are generally working with about 4-5 clients at a time and in some cases are assisting multiple execs at the same company.

The New York startup has been building their product under wraps and has raised some $6 million in funding from VCs including Index Ventures and Paris-based Daphni. The team previously helped build the popular Sunrise calendar app, which Microsoft bought in 2015 only to later discontinue.

One of Double’s big initiatives is honing the effectiveness of combining human efforts and software automation. The team hasn’t pushed too heavily on the latter, but Default says that they see plenty of room to augment how assistants handle tasks by letting automation get the ball rolling.

“We are thinking about automation quite a bit, for us this relationship with [human labor] can be much better,” Default says.

Double has spent the last couple years developing software to facilitate the connection between assistants and executives. The team now offers desktop and mobile apps as well as a Chrome extension that can allow execs to push updates to their assistants with ease. At this point, the service is iOS-only and requires a G Suite account so no dice at the moment for Outlook or Android users.

“What we realized pretty early on is that one of the things that’s hard about delegating is giving the proper context,” Default says.

The service charges hourly rates with a minimum rate of $250 per month for 5 hours of assistant work. Default says early CEOs that have been onboarded to the service in beta pay on average about $800 month for a bit less than an hour of assistance per day.

Launching a premium service for executives in the midst of a pandemic crisis where a good deal of startups are thinking about layoffs is far from perfect launch timing for Double, but Default believes the service can provide a lot of value to busy executives scrambling to adapt their businesses. Default says the service has already seen some early users pause their subscriptions but notes that the month-to-month structure is flexible by design and makes it easy for users to pick things back up when their firms (hopefully) emerge from crisis mode.

Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns expected to last until May 4

Tesla will suspend production at its U.S. factories until at least May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night and viewed by TechCrunch.

Pay cuts for salaried employees — which ranges from 30% for vice presidents, 20% for director-level executives and 10% for the remaining workforce — is expected to be in place until the end of the second quarter, according to the email. The salary cuts and furloughs will begin April 13. Employees who cannot work from home and have not been assigned critical onsite positions will be furloughed until May 4, according to the email.

“While we are continuing to keep only minimum critical operations running, we expect to resume normal production at our U.S. facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes,” the email from Tesla’s human resources department head Valerie Workman. “Until that time, it is important we take action to ensure we remain on track to achieve our long-term plans.”

“This is a shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times,” the email read.

Furloughed employees will remain employees of Tesla without pay. They will their healthcare benefit. The email directs furloughed employees to apply for unemployment benefits.

Tesla said in the email to employees that it will also put any merit-based actions such as equity grants on hold.

Tesla operates a number of factories and facilities throughout the U.S., namely its main assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., its Nevada gigafactory that produces battery packs and electric motors for the Model 3 and its factory in Buffalo, New York, which makes solar products.

Tesla announced March 19 plans to suspend production at its Fremont and Buffalo factories. At the time, the company didn’t say when it expected to restart production. The production suspension at its Fremont factory was set to begin March 23, a week after a shelter in place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” has continued at the Fremont factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. About 2,500 workers are still working at the plant.

Tesla said in March that it had enough liquidity to weather the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cash position at the end of the fourth quarter was $6.3 billion before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise.

“We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty,” Tesla said.

The company had available credit lines worth about  $3 billion, including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of its Shanghai factory at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019.

The Station: Bird and Lime layoffs, pivots in a COVID-19 era and a $2.2 trillion deal

Hello folks, welcome back (or hi for the first time) to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the all the ways people and packages move around this world. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

I also have started to publish a shorter version of the newsletter on TechCrunch . That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole enchilada — which comes out every Saturday — you can subscribe to the newsletter by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!

Before I get into the thick of things, how is everyone doing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m being earnest. I want to hear from you (note my email below). Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you are doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.

Please reach out and email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bird laid off about 30% of its employees due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

In a memo obtained by TechCrunch, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said:

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

The fallout from COVID-19 isn’t limited to Bird. Lime is also reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meanwhile, Wheels deployed e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus. NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.

The upshot to all of this: COVID-19 is turning shared mobility on its head. That means lay offs will continue. It also means companies like Wheels will try to innovate or pivot in hopes of staying alive.

While some companies pulled scooters off city streets, others changed how they marketed services. Some turned efforts to gig economy workers delivering food. Others, like shared electric moped service Revel, are focusing on healthcare workers.

Revel is now letting healthcare workers in New York rent its mopeds for free. To qualify, they just need to upload their employee ID. For now, the free rides for healthcare workers is limited to Brooklyn, Queens and a new service area from upper Manhattan down to 65th street. Revel expanded the area to include hospitals in one of the epicenters of the disease.

Revel is still renting its mopeds to the rest of us out there, although they encourage people to only use them for essential trips. As you might guess, ridership is down significantly. The company says it has stepped up efforts of disinfecting and cleaning the mopeds and helmets. Revel also operates in Austin, New York City, Oakland, and Washington. It has suspended service in Miami per local regulations.

Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, I would highlight a large funding round for a startup in the “deal of the week” section. This week, I have broadened my definition.

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act. President Donald Trump signed it hours later. The CARES act contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TechCrunch has just started what will be a multi-day dive into the 880-page document. And in the coming weeks, I will highlight anything related or relevant to the transportation industry or startups here.

I’ll focus today on three items: airlines, public transit and small business loans.

U.S. airlines are receiving $58 billion. It breaks down to about $25 billion in loans for commercial carriers, $25 billion in payroll grants to cover the 750,000 employees who work in the industry.  Cargo carriers will receive $4 billion in loans and $4 billion in grants. These loans come with some strings attached. Airlines will have to agree not to lay off workers through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.

Public transit has been allocated $24.9 billion. The CARES Act provides almost three times the FY 2020 appropriations for this category, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The funds are distributed through a formula that puts $13.79 billion to urban, $2 billion to rural, $7.51 billion towards state of good repair and $1.71 billion for high-density state transit. APTA notes that these funds are for operating expenses to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 beginning on January 20, 2020.

Amtrak received an additional $1 billion in grants, that directs $492 million of those funds towards the northeast corridor. The remaining goes to the national network.

Small business loans are a critical piece of the bill, and an area where many startups may be focused. There is a lot to unpack here, but in basic terms the act provides $350 billion in loans that will be administered by the Small Business Administration to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. These loans are meant to cover an eligible borrower’s payroll, rent, utilities expenses and mortgage interest for up to eight weeks. If the borrower maintains its workforce, some of the loan may be forgiven.

Venture-backed startups seeking relief may run into problems qualifying. It all comes down to how employees are counted. Normally, SBA looks at a company’s affiliates to determine if they qualify. So, a startup owned by a private equity firm is considered affiliated with the other companies in that firm’s portfolio, which could push employment numbers far beyond 500. That rule also seems to apply to venture-backed startups, in which more than 50% of voting stock is held by the VC.

The guidance on this is still spotty. But Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, said in recent explainer that the rule has the “potential to be problematic for startups because the SBA affiliation rules are highly complex and could cause lenders to group together several otherwise unaffiliated portfolio companies of a single venture capital firm in determining whether a borrower has no more than 500 employees.”

One final note: The SBA has waived these affiliation rules for borrowers in the food services and food supply chain industry. It’s unclear what that might mean for those food automation startups or companies building autonomous vehicles for food delivery.

More deal$

COVID-19 has taken over, but deals are still happening. Here’s a rundown of some of partnerships, acquisitions and fundraising round that got our attention.

  • Lilium, the Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and aspires to run in its own taxi fleet, has raised $240 million in a funding round led by Tencent. This is being couched as an inside round with only existing investors, a list that included participation from previous backers such as Atomico, Freigeist and LGT. The valuation is not being disclosed. But sources tell us that it’s between $750 million and $1 billion.
  • Wunder Mobility acquired Australia-based car rental technology provider KEAZ. (Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but as part of the deal KEAZ founder and CTO Tim Bos is joining Wunder Mobility) KEAZ developed a mobile app and back-end management tool that lets rental agencies, car dealerships, and corporations provide shared access to vehicles.
  • Cazoo, a startup that buys used cars and then sells them online and delivers to them your door, raised $116 million funding. The round was led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
  • Helm.ai came out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. Helm.ai says it developed software for autonomous vehicles that can skip traditional steps of simulation, on-road testing and annotated data set — all tools that are used to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
  • RoadSync, a digital payment platform for the transportation industry, raised a $5.7 million in a Series A led by Base10 Partners with participation from repeat investor Hyde Park Venture Partners and Companyon Ventures. The company developed cloud-based software that lets businesses invoice and accept payments from truck drivers, carriers and brokers. Their platform is in use at over 400 locations nationwide with over 50,000 unique transactions monthly, according to RoadSync.
  • Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale. The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America.

A final word

Remember, the weekly newsletter features even more mobility news and insights. I’ll leave ya’ll with this one chart from Inrix. The company has launched a U.S. traffic synopsis that it plans to publish every Monday. The chart shows traffic from the week of March 14 to March 20. The upshot: COVID-19 reduced traffic by 30% nationwide.

inrix traffic drop from covid

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

88 out of top 200 US cities have seen internet speeds decline this past week, 3 cities by more than 40%

The impacts of telecommuting, shelter-in-place laws and home quarantines resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak are starting to impact broadband speeds across a number of U.S. cities, a new report has found. According to broadband analysis site BroadbandNow, 88 out of the top 200 most populous U.S. cities analyzed have now experienced some form of network degradation over the past week, compared with the 10 weeks prior, as more people are going online to work from home, video chat and stream movies and TV to keep themselves entertained. In a small handful of cities over the past week, there have even been significant degradations with download speeds dropping more than 40%, compared with the 10 weeks prior.

It’s not necessarily the areas hit hardest by the spread of the novel coronavirus that are experiencing the worst problems.

Cities including LA, Chicago, Brooklyn and San Francisco have seen little or no disruption in download speeds, the report claims. Seattle is also holding up well.

But New York City, now considered the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., saw download speeds drop by 24% last week, compared to the previous 10-week range. That said, NYC home network connections, which have a median speed of nearly 52 Mbps, are managing.

The good news is that in the majority of markets, network speeds are holding up.

But of the 88 out of 200 cities that saw declines, more than two dozen saw dips of either 20% below range or more, the data indicates.

These include:

Austin, TX (-44%); Charlotte, NC (-24%); Fayetteville, NC (-22%); Fort Lauderdale, FL (-29%); Hialeah, FL (-21%); Houston, TX (-24%); Irvine, CA (-20%); Jersey City, NJ (-25%); Kansas City, MO (-25%); Lawrenceville, GA (-24%); Littleton, CO (-22%); Marietta, GA (-29%); Miami, FL (-27%); Nashville, TN (-20%); New York, NY (-24%); Omaha, NE (-24%); Overland Park, KS (-33%); Oxnard, CA (-42%); Plano, TX (-31%); Raleigh, NC (-20%); Rochester, NY (-33%); St. Louis, MO (-21%) St. Paul, MN (-29%); San Jose, CA (-38%); Scottsdale, AZ (-32%); Washington, DC (-30%); and Winston-Salem, NC (-41%).

Three cities, in particular, were seeing serious network degradations of over 40%: Austin, TX (-44%), Winston Salem, NC (-41%), and Oxnard, CA (-42%). San Jose, CA was nearing this range, with a drop of 38%.

Internet service providers have been responding to the health crisis by suspending data caps, increasing base-level speeds and extending free access to low-income families during this time. But their ability to keep up with this level of high demand is being tested.

Streaming services, being one of the larger draws on bandwidth, have been lowering the quality of their streams to use less network capacity, as U.S. connectivity needs have grown. Yesterday, for example, YouTube announced it would default to SD connections to tame bandwidth demands. Amazon and Netflix have reduced stream quality in Europe. But despite record levels of network traffic in the U.S., Netflix hasn’t made any commitments to do the same in the U.S. Today, Netflix had an hour-long service interruption impacting some U.S. and European users.

Another area of concern is how well more rural areas will hold up with new stay-at-home and work-from-home orders in place. Often, these markets are only served by legacy technologies like DSL . So far, they’ve held up, BroadbandNow reports, but this could still change.

FDA now allows treatment of life-threatening COVID-19 cases using blood from patients who have recovered

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has updated its rules around use of experimental treatments for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to include use of “convalescent plasma,” in cases where the patient’s life is seriously or immediately threatened. This isn’t an approval of the procedure as a certified treatment, but rather an emergency clearance that applies only on a case-by-case basis, and only in extreme cases, as a means of helping further research being done into the possible efficacy of plasma collected from patients who have already contracted, and subsequently recovered from, a case of COVID-19.

Plasma is a component of human blood — specifically the liquid part — which contains, among other things, antibodies that contribute to a body’s immune response. Use of plasma, through direct transfusion into a patient, like every other proposed treatment for COVID-19 (and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it), has not undergone the clinical studies needed to show that it’s actually safe and effective in combating the disease.

Despite a lack of completed clinical trials, the FDA has granted this temporary authorization under its Investigational New Drug Applicants (eINDS) exemption, in light of the extent and nature of the current public health threat that COVID-19 represents. A number of pre-clinical and clinical trials around use of plasma from patients who have recovered are underway, however, and there are some promising signs that convalescent plasma could indeed be effective against SARS-CoV-2.

This is hardly the first time that convalescent plasma has been proposed or attempted to fight off a disease. People who have had a virus and subsequently recovered from it typically build up an immunity to it — either long-term, as with chicken pox, or short-term, as with the seasonal flu. Logically, it stands to reason that it should be possible, at least in theory, to take the antibodies from one individual who has already developed them, and transfuse them into a patient whose immune system is not doing a good enough job producing its own.

Convalescent plasma transfusions have been used in previous outbreaks, including against the H1N1 flu, as well as the original SARS and MERS epidemics, with varying results.

A number of research projects are underway regarding use of plasma against COVID-19, including a study by a team of Chinese medical professionals published in pre-print format (prior to any peer review) that studied 10 severe patients who received donations from recently recovered patients. That study found that in five of the 10 cases, the level of antibodies “increased rapidly” immediately post-transfusion (four other patients already had a high level of antibodies, and that persisted), and that within a week, the presence of the virus was undetectable in seven patients.

That still isn’t a formal clinical study, but other small-scale investigations from clinical practice have shown similar results. A group of doctors and researchers have also put together a set of protocols for use by doctors working with both donors and recipients to help align efforts across investigations and ensure that everyone working on this problem in the medical science community is working from the same playbook.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that state health agencies would be beginning a convalescent plasma trial this week, and it was cited by FDA Director Dr. Stephen Hahn as an area of early promise last week during a White House coronavirus task force briefing.

All donor patients would have to be tested to confirm that they are not at risk of transmitting the virus, and they must also qualify as a blood donor under the existing rules in place by state and federal agencies. While some early studies have shown that plasma transfusions could be effective in prophylactic use (meaning treating healthy people before they encounter the virus), this FDA specifically prohibits any prophylactic use.

As with all the treatments currently under development, this will take a lot of testing and research both to validate, and then to certify for general use — though there are a lot of researchers working on those challenges, because work to date shows this is likely to be more effective as a strategy in cases that haven’t yet progressed to the severe symptom stage. Convalescent plasma treatment isn’t new, or even all that sophisticated, but it does have the advantage of being relatively safe (in line with standard blood transfusions, once a person is confirmed to no longer be carrying any active virus), so this could be something to watch for more active updates versus some of the longer-lead treatment technologies in development.

With the real estate industry facing headwinds, SoftBank-backed Compass lays off 15% of staff

Compass, the real estate brokerage startup backed by roughly $1.6 billion in venture funding, has laid off 15% of its staff as a result of the shifting economic fortunes created by the global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal email seen by TechCrunch.

Citing economic fallout that has seen stock markets plummet 30 percent in just 22 days Compass chief executive Robert Reffkin wrote that the company has seen an over 60 percent decline in real estate showings and is modeling a 6-month decline in revenue of 50 percent.

“We aren’t just facing an economic recession, we are facing an economic standstill,” Reffkin wrote. As the country’s unemployment rate soars to a projected 10 percent, Reffkin wrote that the company had no choice but to cut its workforce.

The 15 percent reduction in staffing is being accompanied by an 80% reduction in its concierge business and a shift to entirely virtual delivery. As part of the reductions in corporate spending, Reffkin cut his own salary to nothing and reduced the entire executive team’s salary by 25 percent.

For the employees that are laid off, the company said it would provide an “enhanced severance and COBRA health insurance” along with letting employees hang on to their company laptops and providing tools, training, and networking help so that they can try to get a new job.

The news from Compass is just one indicator of a potential reckoning coming for the booming property tech investment category.

Earlier today, TechCrunch reported that Zillow was suspending its homebuying activities as a result of the new economic reality.

Zillow said it decided to halt its offers to sellers after several states, including California, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, New York and Nevada, implemented emergency orders requiring people to stay home and all non-essential business activities, including some real estate-related activities, to stop.

Opendoor and Redfin made similar decisions to pause homebuying. Meanwhile other real estate companies are also laying off staff. The co-working startup Convene laid off staff as well, citing current market conditions.

Reffkin is hopeful that the economy will turn around and predicted that the economy could turn around in the next 100 days. And he ends his email looking forward to a return to normalcy for Compass and the broader market.

“I feel hopeful that China’s apparent success at reducing the spread of the Coronavirus and restarting their enormous economy may provide a blueprint for our future, as well,” Reffkin wrote. “And I feel hopeful because of the ways I see people throughout our company and throughout our society stepping up during this challenging time.”

To date, Compass has raised $1.6 billion in financing from investors including the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity, Wellington Management, Softbank Vision Fund, and the Qatar Investment Authority, according to Crunchbase.

 

Justice Dept. files its first coronavirus takedown: a bogus vaccine website

U.S. federal prosecutors have filed and won a temporary restraining order against a website offering a fraudulent coronavirus vaccine, which the Justice Department said is its first enforcement action related to the pandemic.

In a statement, the Justice Dept. said the action was taken against a website, said to be engaging in a wire fraud scheme, seeking “to profit from the confusion and widespread fear” surrounding COVID-19.

The website, seen by TechCrunch, claims the World Health Organization is “giving away vaccine kits” to unsuspecting victims who pay a small fee for shipping. The website asks for a victim’s credit card information.

“In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine,” the Justice Department’s statement said.

A federal judge issued the temporary restraining order against the website’s owners, whose names are not known. The order also demanded that Namecheap, the site’s domain host, pull the site offline.

Although the Justice Dept. names the website, we are not. The website remains accessible at the time of writing.

A spokesperson for Namecheap did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Assistant attorney general Jody Hunt said: “The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain. We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”

As it stands, there are more than 300,000 confirmed cases around the world. But as government authorities continue to lack testing equipment, the global number of infections is said to be far higher.

As of Friday, wome 80 million Americans are under lockdown, including in California, New York, and Illinois, in an effort to limit the spread of the respiratory illness.

The spread of the virus also prompted the U.S. and Canada to mutually agree to close the northern border, and the U.S. to close its southern border with Mexico to all but essential travel.

On Thursday, the U.S. ordered an unprecedented “do not travel” warning to all Americans.

Scanwell aims to launch at-home 15-minute coronavirus test, but it still needs FDA approval

At-home diagnostics startup Scanwell, which produces smartphone-based testing for UTIs, is working on getting at-home testing for the novel coronavirus into the hands of U.S. residents. The technology, which was developed by Chinese diagnostic technology company INNOVITA and has already been approved by China’s equivalent of the FDA and used by “millions” in China, can be taken at home in 15 minutes with the guidance of a medical professional via telehealth, and produces results in just hours.

Scanwell’s test will require FDA clearance, but the company tells me that it’s in the process of securing approval through the FDA’s accelerated emergency certification program. The FDA guidance says that this approval process should take 6-8 weeks (though that “could be faster,” Scanwell says), and Scanwell is aiming to be ready to go with shipping these as soon as it receives that approval. While the U.S. drug regulatory agency previously had only included PCR tests in its protocols, it updated that guidance to include serological tests earlier this week. Scanwell further says they “don’t anticipate any issues with FDA approval.”

The test that Scanwell is aiming to launch uses what’s called a ‘serological’ technique, which looks for antibodies in a patient’s blood. These are only present if someone has been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, since as of right now researchers haven’t found any evidence that natural antibodies to this particular virus exist without exposure. By contrast, the types of tests that are currently in use in the U.S. are “PCR” tests, which use a molecular-based approach to determine if the virus is present genetically in a mucus sample.

The PCR type of test is technically more accurate than the serological variety, but the serological version is much easier to administer, and produces results more quickly. It’s also still very accurate on the whole, and is much cheaper to produce than the PCR version. Plus, it could help expand efforts beyond testing only the most severe cases with symptoms present, and do a much better job of illuminating the full extent of the presence of the virus, including among people with mild cases who have already recovered at home, and those who are asymptomatic but carrying the virus with the possibility of infecting others.

Also, while other, PCR-based at-home testing options already exist, like one from Everlywell that will start going out on Monday, require round-tripping test samples, adding time, complexity and cost and relying on testing materials like swabs that are in short supply globally.

Once the test is available, people deemed eligible via Scanwell’s screening process in their Scanwell Health app will be sent the test via next-day delivery. They’ll be guided by telehealth partner Lemonade’s licensed doctors and nurse practitioners, and they’ll then receive results and further guidance about those results via the app within a few hours. The whole testing process will cost $70, which Scanwell says just covers its costs (it’s also looking at ways to provide free service to those who need it), and will be deployed first in Washington, California and New York, as well as other areas depending on the severity of their coronavirus situation.

That the tests will take potentially 6-8 weeks to come to market seems like a long time, given the current state of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation and testing. But we’ll likely still be very much in need of testing options at that time, especially ones that can serve people who aren’t necessarily meeting the criteria for other available testing resources.