UK-based women’s networking and private club, Allbright, raises $18.8 million as it expands into the U.S.

AllBright, the London-based women’s membership club backed by private real estate investment firm Cain International, has raised $18.8 million to expand into the U.S.

The company’s new round was led by Cain International and was designed to take AllBright into three U.S. locations — Los Angeles, New York, and Washington.

The company said that the new facilities would be opening in the coming months.

Coupled with the launch of a new networking application called AllBright Connect and the company’s AllBright Magazine, the women’s networking organization is on a full-on media blitz.

Other investors in the round include Allan Leighton, who serves as the company’s non-executive chairman; Gail Mandel, who acquired Love Home Swap (a company founded by AllBright’s co-founder Debbie Wosskow); Stephanie Daily Smith, a former finance director to Hillary Clinton; and Darren Throop the founder, president and chief executive of Entertainment One.

A spokesperson for the company said that the new financing would value the company at roughly $100 million.

The club’s current members include actors, members of the House of Lords, and other fancy pants, high-falutin folks from the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment.

The club’s first American location will be in West Hollywood, and is slated to open in September 2019. The largest club, in Mayfair has five floors boasts over 12,000 square feet and features rooftop terraces, a dedicated space for coaching and mentoring a small restaurant and bar.

ICE mined driver’s license photos for facial recognition

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are using facial recognition software to trawl through millions of driver’s license photos provided by 21 states to search and find suspects.

News broke over the weekend that the FBI and immigration officials access images — often without obtaining a search warrant or court order — in order to identify criminal suspects but also witnesses, victims and innocent bystanders. In some cases agents would simply email the state department of motor vehicles for assistance.

But Congress nor state lawmakers ever authorized the access or the searches. A bipartisan group of congresspeople have criticized the use of facial recognition as dangerous to citizens’ right to privacy.

Several states, like New York, and the District of Columbia, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, with other states — like Florida and Texas — working to introduce similar laws.

Documents obtained by a public records request and seen by both The Washington Post and The New York Times reveal the scope of the privacy infraction. Utah alone saw close to 2,000 facial recognition searches from law enforcement agencies in the two years between 2015 and 2017.

Facial recognition remains controversial, not least because it’s been accused of racial bias and plagued with inaccuracies. The FBI’s facial recognition database contains more than 640 million images but a government watchdog reported that the agency has “not taken sufficient action to help ensure accuracy” of its system.

Earlier this year documents revealed 9,000 ICE agents have access to a massive license plate database, containing six billion vehicle detections. The database also includes a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of subjects of interest, which triggers an alert every time the plates are picked up by a license plate reader.

The U.S. has thousands of automatic license plate readers (ALPR) across the country.

Africa Roundup: Yamaha backs MAX, Founders Factory and Norrsken support startups, inside Ethiopia’s tech scene

Competition in Africa’s two-wheel ride-hail market is accelerating. Nigerian motorcycle transit startup MAX.ng was the latest startup to add funding, raising a $7 million funding round in June with participation of Japanese manufacturer Yamaha.

Based in Lagos, the company’s app-based platform coordinates motorcycle taxi and delivery services for individuals and businesses.

With the Series A funding MAX intends to invest in its tech infrastructure, expand to 10 cities and add new vehicle classes — including watercraft and three-wheeled tuk tuk taxis. The company will also use its new funding to pilot e-motorcycles in Africa powered by renewable energy, CFO Guy-Bertrand Njoya told TechCrunch.

MAX.ng’s moves come after competitor Gokada (also based in Lagos) raised a $5.3 million round in May and announced it would expand in East Africa. Uganda-based motorcycle ride-hail company SafeBoda expanded into Kenya in 2018 and recently raised a Series B round. 

Uber’s also gotten into the motorcycle taxi market. It started offering a two-wheel transit option in East Africa in 2018, around the same time Bolt (previously Taxify) launched motorcycle taxi service in Kenya.

The on-demand motorcycle race could make Africa a reference point in the transformation of mobility. If successful, MAX.ng’s pilot to produce electric taxis powered by renewable energy could also become a global use-case.

June also brought announcements of new resources and funding for Africa’s startups. Sweden’s Norrsken Foundation — a co-working space and investment fund based in Stockholm — opened its tech fund and entrepreneurship hub in Rwanda to support ventures across the region.

Operating from a new Kigali campus, Norrsken will offer seed investments of $25,000 to $100,000 for early-stage startups in all sectors starting this year, CEO Erik Engellau-Nilsson told TechCrunch.

The fund size is still being determined, and Norrsken Kigali will extend the fund to larger series-stage investments from $100,000 to $1 million in the future.

Founders Factory Africa and South African healthcare company Netcare launched a new initiative to select 35 African health-tech startups for an acceleration and incubation program.

The partnership includes an investment (of an undisclosed amount) by Netcare in Founder’s Factory Africa, or FFA. The Johannesburg located organization was formed in 2018 as an extension of Founders Factory in London—an accelerator that has graduated 122 startups.

The application process is now open for FFA’s new Africa health-tech program, which will accelerate 5 startups a year and incubate 2, FFA CEO Roo Rogers told TechCrunch.

Criteria for the accelerator startups include that they have a healthcare focus, be post-revenue, and have a Pan-African scope.

Accelerated startups will receive a £30,000 cash investment (≈$38,000) and £220,000 in support services from Founders Factory Africa. Incubator health-tech ventures will receive £60K cash and £100K toward support.

Founders Factory Africa and Netcare will share a 5 to 10 percent equity stake in each startup accepted into the program.

Africa focused fintech startups made up the 75 percent of JP Morgan Backed Catalyst Fund’s 2019 cohort, announced in June.  The organization plans to extend 30 additional slots (open to African startup applicants) for its accelerator program that provides up to $60,000 in non-equity venture support.

IBM launched its Quantum computer program in Africa in June in a partnership with South Africa’s Wits University that will extend to 15 universities across nine countries.

Quantum — or IBM Q, as the U.S.-based company calls it — is a computer that uses quantum bits (or qubits) to top the capabilities of even the most advanced supercomputers and “tackle problems…seen as too complex and exponential in nature for classical systems to handle,” according to an IBM release.

IBM Africa will roll-out Q to Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

IBM Q, which operates out of IBM’s Yorktown Heights research center in New York, will be accessed from African universities via the cloud. Researchers in Africa interested in working with IBM Q  can apply online.

TechCrunch was on location in Addis Ababa to attend Startup Ethiopia and meet with entrepreneurs and hubs in the East African nation. The country of 105 million with the continent’s seventh largest economy has the workings of a budding tech scene. The biggest hurdle for Ethiopia’s startup community is the local internet situation, with mobile and IP connectivity managed by a state-owned telecom — which occasionally shuts down the net for the entire country, including last month. The government is taking steps to break up the state mobile and IP monopoly and issue teleco licenses by the end of 2019.

The digital ventures, techies, and angel investors I talked to at Startup Ethiopia were in unison on the need for better internet options. Most agreed this was step one for the country to have any chance of joining the continent’s tech standouts — such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa — who lead on startup formation, VC, and exits in Africa.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

 

 

 

With a portfolio including Acorns, Sweetgreen and Ro Health, Torch Capital raises $60M for its first fund

Jonathan Keidan, the founder of Torch Capital, had already built a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen, before he raised single dollar for his inaugural venture capital fund, which just closed with $60 million.

Keidan, a consummate networker who began his professional career as a manager working with acts like The Nappy Roots, The Getaway People and a young John Legend, just managed to be in the right place at the right time, he says (thanks, in part, to his gift for gab).

The final close for Torch Capital’s first fund is just the beginning for Torch, which is angling to be one of the premiere firms for early stage consumer internet and consumer facing enterprise software.

The firm began raising its first fund in October 2017 and held a $40 million first close just about one year ago. Keidan and his partners had targeted $50 million for his first investment vehicle, but wound up hitting the hard cap of $60 million, in part due to high demand from the New York-based entrepreneurs that Keidan considers his peers.

In addition to backers like the George Kaiser Family Foundation and billionaire Hong Kong fashion mogul Silas Chou, Keidan was able to tap startup founders like Jennifer Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent the Runway; Casper co-founders Philip Krim and Neil Parikh; and Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bleacher Report and owner of Bustle Media Group (which includes Gawker, Bustle, Elite Daily, Mic, The Outline, and The Zoe Report, which collectively form Bustle Digital Group).

“Because I’ve taken a more startup approach i was recruiting raising money and doing deals at the same time,” says Keidan. 

Screen Shot 2019 06 24 at 7.08.10 AM

A sampling of Torch Capital’s portfolio investments

Along with partners Sam Jones, a former London-based investment banker; Katie Reiner, an investor at the data-driven growth fund, Lead Edge Capital; Curtis Chang, a technology-focused investment banker from HSBC’ and Chantal Haldorsen, a serial startup executive; Keidan has certainly done deals.

He started investing as an angel while still working at his own media company InsideHook, and began forming special purpose vehicles for larger investments as soon as he departed, about three years ago.

For the first year-and-a-half, Jones and Keidan worked on the SPVS, which allowed them to put together a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen — as well as startups like ZocDoc and the ketchup brand, Sir Kensington’s.

Since launching the fund, Keidan and his partners did 15 investments in the first year — including investments into . the consumer-focused Ro Health, which sells erectile dysfunction medication, supplements for hair growth, and more recently menopausal products for women.

Torch Capital has also backed the fintech company, Harness Wealth, sustainable cashmere manufacturer and retailer, Naadam; and Splendid Spoon, a vegan breakfast and lunch prepared food provider akin to Daily Harvest.

Keidan’s interest in investment stems from his experience in the music industry. It was a time when Spotify was just beginning to emerge and Napster had already shaken up the market. The creation of digital platforms enabled artists to connect more directly with the consumer in a way that traditional companies couldn’t understand.

Instead of embracing the technology labels and artists fought it, and the writing on the wall (that the labels and artists would lose) became clear… at least for Keidan. 

Following some advice from mentors including the super-producer and music mogul, Quincy Jones, Keidan went to business school. He graduated from Columbia in 2007 with an MBA and then did what all former music managers do after their MBA training — he joined McKinsey as a consultant. The stint at McKinsey led Keidan to Jack Welch’s online education venture and from there, Keidan started InsideHook.

Keidan grew the company to over 2 million subscribers in the five years since he helped launch the business in 2012. From that perch he saw the rise of direct to consumer startups and began making angel investments. His first was ZocDoc, his second, Sir Kensingtons (which sold to Unilever) and his third was the real estate investment platform, Compass.

That track record was enough to convince Chou, the Hong Kong billionaire that turned around Tommy Hilfiger and built Michael Kors into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse in the world of ready to wear fashion.

Like the rest of the venture industry, Keidan sees the technology tools that have transformed much of business are now remaking the ease and reach of building direct to consumer brands. Unlike most, Keidan has spent time working on the ground up to develop brands (artists and songwriting talent in the music business).

Everything that Torch Capital invests in has at least one eye on an end consumer, whether that’s direct consumer investments like Ro, Sweetgreen or the business surveying startup, Perksy.

Torch invests between $500,000 and $1 million in seed deals and will invest anywhere between $1 million to $3 million in Series A deals, according to Keidan.

“What makes a consumer company successful at scale is very different than enterprise software or consumer internet deals,” said Keidan. “VCs were having trouble getting their heads around this… [their companies] were overvalued too early… and when they couldn’t meet those goals they were doing things that were detrimental to the brand.”

Keidan thinks he has a better approach.

“Between InsideHook and watching companies grow and my own investments i’d seen the nuances of what it takes to get to scale,” he said.

Reminder: Meet TechCrunch in NYC tomorrow

And we’re back! TechCrunch is returning to NYC for a Meet and Greet tomorrow at The Yard in Herald Square. It’s been a couple years since we’ve held an event in NYC and we’ve missed it.

Join Managing Editor Jordan Crook, Battlefield Host and Senior Writer Anthony Ha, Head of Startup Battlefield Neesha Tambe, and Hardware Editor Brian Heater on Tuesday, June 25th from 5:00pm – 6:15pm. From ExtraCrunch, our new subscription tier, to Startup Battlefield, TC’s world renowned startup launch competition, learn more about the new things at TechCrunch. You’ll have an opportunity to meet investors, startup founders and other folks in the startup community as well.

TechCrunch is actively searching for the next best startups to feature in Startup Battlefield this fall at Disrupt San Francisco and Hardware Battlefield in Shenzhen, China. If you are an investor or community manager for early stage startups, join us tomorrow evening to refer your companies. Early stage founders are invited to attend and learn more about Startup Battlefield. Founders of later stage startups are encouraged to come and network with TechCrunch Editorial at the event.

TechCrunch New York Meet and Greet

Host: The Yard – Herald Square

Time: 5:00pm – 6:15pm

Location: 106 W 32nd St, New York, NY 10001

RSVPThe event is free, but you will need a ticket to attend

Climate justice and environmental ethics in tech, with Amazon engineer Rajit Iftikhar

Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees, many in prestigious engineering and design roles, have recently signed a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors to dramatically shift the giant company’s approach to climate change.

By deploying a kind of corporate social disobedience such as speaking out dramatically at shareholders meetings, and by engaging in a variety of community organizing tactics, the “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice” group has quickly become a leading example of a growing trend in the tech world: tech employees banding together to take strong ethical stances in defiance of their powerful employers.

The public actions taken by these employees and groups have been covered widely by the news media. For my TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology, however, I wanted to better understand what participating actively in this campaign has been like some of the individuals involved.

How are employees in high-pressure jobs balancing their professional roles and responsibilities with being actively, publicly in defiance of their employers on a high-profile issue? How do leaders in these efforts explain the philosophy underlying their ethical stance? And how likely are their ideas to spread throughout Amazon and beyond – perhaps particularly among younger tech workers?

I recently spoke with a handful of the Amazon employees most actively involved in the Employees for Climate Justice campaign, all of whom inspired me– in similar and different ways. Below is the first of two interviews I’ll publish here. This one is with Rajit Iftikhar, a young software engineer from New York who moved to Seattle to work for Amazon after earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering in Computer Science from Cornell in 2016.

Rajit Iftikhar

Rajit struck me as a humble and precociously wise young man who could be a role model — though he seems to have little interest in singling himself out that way — for thousands of other software engineers and technologists at Amazon and beyond.

Greg Epstein: Your personal story has been key to your organizing with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Can you start by saying a bit about why?

Rajit Iftikhar: A lot of why I care about climate justice is informed by me having parents from another country that is going to be very adversely affected by [climate change]. Countries like Bangladesh are going to suffer some of the worst consequences from climate change, because of where the country’s located, and the fact that it doesn’t have the resources to adapt.

Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of climate crisis; it is much harder for people to live in the rural areas, [people are] being forced into the cities. Then you have the cyclones that the climate crisis is going to bring, and rising sea levels and flooding.

So, my background [emphasizes, for me] how unjust our emissions are in causing all these problems for people in other countries. And even for communities of color within our country who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the emissions that largely richer people [cause].

As payment and surveillance technologies collide, free speech could be a victim

Anyone who has traveled to Hong Kong knows how ubiquitous the Octopus Card is. Distributed by a company which is majority owned by the Hong Kong government, the cards are used to pay for everything from public transit to groceries, to Starbucks coffee. It’s an incredible payment solution that’s used by almost everyone in the city.

But as hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city center to protest against proposed regulations that residents view as tearing down the last protections against the authoritarian control of mainland China, those same citizens are viewing their Octopus cards in a different light.

Protestors in Hong Kong are waiting in line to pay cash for a single-use card rather then use an Octopus card that’s tied to their bank accounts and identity. Their fear, as QZ journalist Mary Hui notes, is that the government will track their data and location.

Already, China’s security apparatus are leaning on citizens. In one instance they allegedly requested that the organizer of a large Telegram group open their phone and reveal their contacts.

Potential privacy concerns are a huge downside for cashless technology. While electronic payments can make things more convenient for the people that can afford it, it opens up new avenues for government or corporate surveillance and monitoring.

On the mainland, the Chinese government is already experimenting with social credit scoring that can affect a citizen’s access to everything from home and personal loans to public transportation.

Examples like this are another argument against the push for cashless systems.

Indeed, as some cities in the U.S. consider — or enact — bans on cashless stores, companies are shifting their policies on how to develop the technology. Philadelphia became the first city to ban cashless stores in March and the state of New Jersey quickly followed suit. Other cities considering the bans include New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

As nations like China and India push to go cashless, it’s worth noting that the ease of use promised by integrated electronic payment systems can be coupled with increasingly sophisticated forms of surveillance. Locking citizens in to a model where all financial transactions can be tracked — or are intrinsically linked — to a smartphone, may be great for governments, but it’s potentially terrible for democracy and its support for free speech and assembly.

 

Uber and AT&T team up for always-on connectivity for Uber Copter and Uber Air

Uber is partnering with mobile network operator AT&T on the always-on connectivity it’ll require for its aerial transportation service network. The on-demand mobility company announced the team-up at its annual ‘Elevate’ summit, which brings together a number of key players working towards making affordable, accessible in-city aerial transit a reality.

Uber said that it’s already working with AT&T on the network it’ll use for Uber Copter, the Manhattan-to-JFK helicopter-based service that it’s launching in New York in July. The service is promising connection with ground transportation at both ends, and it’s also anticipating travel times and working backwards to provide transportation on-demand as needed to get passengers to their destination at the time they request. So, for instance, Uber Copter customers could say they need to be at JFK by 5 PM and the app will figure out when they need to get a car to get to the heliport to make that work.

This is just the first step in a broader-ranging partnership Uber Elevate Head of Product Nikhil Goel described that will eventually scale to cover all of its needs for Uber Air, the service it aims to provide that will provide on-demand short-distance air travel within cities, with a targeted launch timeframe of 2023. Goal noted that this will also include leveraging AT&T’s 5G network as it rolls out, which should provide exactly the kind of high-bandwidth, always-on reliability needed for this kind of aerial and ground-based integrated transportation network.

NASA details Deep Space Atomic Clock and other tests launching on SpaceX Falcon Heavy

SpaceX’s next mission for its Falcon Heavy high-capacity rocket is set for June 24, when it’ll take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 20 satellites on board that comprise the Depart of Defense’s Space Test Program-2. That’s not all it’ll carry however: There will also be cargo pertaining to four NASA missions aboard the private launch vehicle, including materials that will support the Deep Space Atomic Clock, the Green Propellant Infusion Mission, and two payloads that will serve scientific missions.

NASA detailed all of these missions in a press conference today, going into more detail about what each will involve and why NASA is even pursuing this research to begin with.

Deep Space Atomic Clock

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock mission, run from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will see a demonstration super-precise atomic clock into low-Earth orbit, where it will act as a proof-of-concept for using this to deliver much more (like, orders of magnitude better) accuracy and precision when compared to ground-based atomic clocks. This is a key ingredient for future deep space exploration, including crewed missions to both the Moon and Mars, since space-based atomic clocks should help greatly improve outer space navigation.

Jill Seubert, Deep Space Navigator for NASA, explained that this is the world’s first ion-based atomic space clock. “It’s about 50 times more stable than the GPS atomic clocks we use,” adding that we currently have to navigate from Earth because the clocks on board spacecraft are really not very good at maintaining time accuracy.

Seubert noted that her job – Deep Space Navigator – is essentially a spacecraft pilot. “To put my job in context,” she said, “It’s like me standing here in LA today and shooting an arrow, and hitting a target the size of a quarter, and that quarter is sitting in Times Square in New York.”

The problem with piloting today, she noted, is fundamentally one of time – we currently need to measure the echo of a signal back from spacecraft in flight. To navigate space safely, Seubert and her peers effectively listen for the echo using instrumentation here, and measure to within 1 billionth of a second. The clocks we need to measure that accurately have been the size of a refrigerator, she noted. The new Deep Space Atomic Clock shrinks that to size of a gallon of milk, making it feasible to include it on board spacecraft.

That will enable one-way tracking, when paired with data gathered by an onboard camera, using a signal from Earth to spacecraft, or from spacecraft to Earth, but with no round-trip needed. This allows for more efficient tracking across all flights, because you do less time sharing with existing deep space network. It also enables “self-driving spacecraft,” as Seubert put it, which requires no direction at all from navigators on earth.

That could even enable astronauts working on other planets to take advantage of something like a “Google Maps, Mars edition,” Seubert said, with the confidence to rely on the accuracy of the information and automated navigation systems that make use of this tech.

Use of Deep Space Atomic Clock-based navigation can also enable travel to locations so far away that two way communication just isn’t feasible or possible.

This research mission is the first space test of this technology, and will involve testing in low-earth orbit and a key ingredient for proving its viability.

Green Propellant Infusion Mission

The Green Propellant Infusion Mission, or GPIM for short, will demonstrate a ‘green’ alternative to the usual rocket fuel used in launch- and spacecraft. It’s being run in tandem with Ball Aerospace, and will see a small satellite loaded with this alternative fuel (which is a Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate blend, for the chemists in the crowd) make use of it to demonstrate its viability as a space-based propellant. This is the first time the green fuel alternative will have been tested in space.

“Most people that work on spacecraft systems these days realize that when you’re flying spacecraft these days we’re relying heavily on heritage [technologies],” explained Christopher McClean, Principal Investigator for NASA’s GPIM at Ball Aersopace. The goal here is to help overcome industry biases that tend to favor these methods with proof of the viability of alternatives. This fuel is also non-toxic, as opposed to the highly-toxic typical spacecraft propellants like hydrazine.

This is the third flight of this specific design of spacecraft (called the BCP-100), which is roughly the size of a refrigerator and has room for an experimental payload – this time around it’s going to be driven by the new green propulsion subsystem. This spacecraft will have five thrusters on board that will help test this propellant through various maneuvers to be performed. The combined capabilities of the propellant can also return the craft to Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission.

“We’re not leaving any orbital debris up there, which is part of the ‘green’ of this experiment, in my opinion” noted McClean. Debate has renewed of late about the responsibilities of launch and spacecraft companies regarding orbital debris, sparked in part by SpaceX’s recent launch of part of its Starlink satellite constellation.

This new fuel is not only better performing, but is actually easier to work with because of its non-toxic nature, and it can be transported in spacecraft, so that open up the possibility of shipping fueled craft and also using it safely in research and academic environments, which is huge for unlocking work and study potential.

Space Environment Testbed

The Space Environment Testbed (SET – NASA loves acronyms) project that will fly through medium Earth orbit to help determine whether this region of space (called the ‘slot’ because it slots between two radiation belts) has less radiation than lower orbit space, which could make it a prime locale for navigation and communication satellites that are negatively affected by the radiation present in low-Earth orbit.

NASA Heliophysics Division Director Nicky Fox explained how the SET payloads will be hosted on the Air Force Defence Science and Technology Group mission also going up aboard Falcon Heavy. She said that there will be four different kinds of hardware, designed to demonstrate how they perform under exposure to radiation.

It’s “very important for us to demonstrate how we can harden these,” and work with problems they encounter under these conditions, Fox explained. “We don’t want to be launching a battleship when a dinghy will do – these will help us look at the right kind of materials” and how best to configure them when designing tools and instruments for space-based use.

The experiment will also help with more research into the medium-orbit space itself, and why it behaves the way that it does. “Why is there a slot region, why does it behave like it does, and why does it occasionally get completely filled with particle activity,” Fox offered as the kinds of questions it’ll help provide answers for.

A render of a Space Environment Testbest.

Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiments

The fourth and final experiment aboard the upcoming Falcon Heavy launch is the Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment, including two dedicated CubeSats operated by NASA that make up the Tandem Beacon Experiment. The ‘enhanced part comes from work being done jointly with the COSMIC-2 (Constellation Observing System for Meterology, Ionosphere and Climate-2) – six micro satellites that will act in constellation and monitor Earth continually to gather atmospheric data that can be used to forecast weather, monitor the climate, and observe and research space weather – yes, space has weather.

Rick Doe, a Senior Research Physicist at SRI International explained that you can corrupt radio signals when you cross the ionosphere, and “radio waves are particularly susceptible to distortions” when they encounter disruptions to ions. We depend on these distorted radio signals for navigation on Earth, including commercial aircraft, so this distortion can be a key determinate when doing likes like autonomously navigating aircraft. Being able to determine when signals are particularly distorted by concentrated distorting activity in the ionosphere can help make sure that autonomous navigation takes into account and forecasts for these things in order to help mitigate their impact.

It’s not about countering the effect of this activity – Doe notes that it’s like a tornado in terms of terrestrial weather: You don’t try to counter the tornado, you plan around it and its impact when you’re able to predict is occurrence. The TBECs program will provide similar prediction and mitigation abilities for solar weather.

SpaceX’s mission is currently set for launch on June 24 at 11:30 PM ET, and it’ll carry all of the above on behalf of client NASA. We’ll have coverage of the launch so check back later this month for more.

VCs bet $12M on Troops, a Slackbot for sales teams

Slack wants to be the new operating system for teams, something it has made clear on more than one occasion, including in its recent S-1 filing. To accomplish that goal, it put together an in-house $80 million venture fund in 2015 to invest in third-party developers building on top of its platform.

Weeks ahead of its direct listing on The New York Stock Exchange, it continues to put that money to work.

Troops is the latest to land additional capital from the enterprise giant. The New York-based startup helps sales teams communicate with a customer relationship management tool plugged directly into Slack. In short, it automates routine sales management activities and creates visibility into important deals through integrations with employee emails and Salesforce.

Troops founder and chief executive officer Dan Reich, who previously co-founded TULA Skincare, told TechCrunch he opted to build a Slackbot rather than create an independent platform because Slack is a rocket ship and he wanted a seat on board: “When you think about where Slack will go in the future, it’s obvious to us that companies all over the world will be using it,” he said.

Troops has raised $12 million in Series B funding in a round led by Aspect Ventures, with participation from the Slack Fund, First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, Susa Ventures, Chicago Ventures, Hone Capital, InVision founder Clark Valberg and others. The round brings Troops’ total raised to $22 million.

Launched in 2015 by New York tech veterans Reich, Scott Britton and Greg Ratner, the trio weren’t initially sure of Slack’s growth trajectory. It wasn’t until Slack confirmed its intent to support the developer ecosystem with a suite of developer tools and a fund that the team focused its efforts on building a Slackbot.

“People sometimes thought of us, at least in the early days, as a little bit crazy,” Reich said. “But now Slack is the fastest-growing SaaS company ever.”

“We think the biggest opportunity in the [enterprise SaaS] category is going to be tools oriented around the customer-facing employee (CRM), and that’s where we are innovating,” he added.

Troops’ tools are helpful for any customer-facing team, Reich explains. Envoy, WeWork, HubSpot and a few hundred others are monthly paying subscribers of the tool, using it to interact with their CRM in a messaging interface and to receive notifications when a deal has closed. Troops integrates with Salesforce, so employees can use it to search records, schedule automatic reports and celebrate company wins.

Slack, in partnership with a number of venture capital funds, including Accel, Kleiner Perkins and Index, has also deployed capital to a number of other startups, like Lattice, Drafted and Loom.

With Slack’s direct listing afoot, the Troops team is counting on the imminent and long-term growth of the company’s platform.

“We think it’s still early days,” Reich said. “In the future, we see every company using something like Troops to manage their day-to-day.”