How will Europe’s coronavirus contacts tracing apps work across borders?

A major question mark attached to national coronavirus contacts tracing apps is whether they will function when citizens of one country travel to another. Or will people be asked to download and use multiple apps if they’re traveling across borders?

Having to use multiple apps when travelling would further complicate an unproven technology which seeks to repurpose standard smartphone components for estimating viral exposure — a task for which our mobile devices were never intended.

In Europe, where a number of countries are working on smartphone apps that use Bluetooth radios to try to automate some contacts tracing by detecting device proximity, the interoperability challenge is particularly pressing, given the region is criss-crossed with borders. Although, in normal times, European Union citizens can all but forget they exist thanks to agreements intended to facilitate the free movement of EU people in the Schengen Area.

Currently, with many EU countries still in degrees of lockdown, there’s relatively little cross border travel going on. But the European Commission has been focusing attention on supporting the tourism sector during the coronavirus crisis — proposing a tourism & transport package this week which sets out recommendations for a gradual and phased lifting of restrictions.

Once Europeans start traveling again, the effectiveness of any national contacts tracing apps could be undermined if systems aren’t able to talk to each other. In the EU, this could mean, for example, a French citizen who travels to Germany for a business trip — where they spend time with a person who subsequently tests positive for COVID — may not be warned of the exposure risk. Or indeed, vice versa.

In the UK, which remains an EU member until the end of this year (during the Brexit transition period), the issue is even more pressing — given Ireland’s decision to opt for a decentralized app architecture for its national app. Over the land border in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the national app would presumably be the centralized system that’s being devised by the UK’s NHSX. And the NHSX’s CEO has admitted this technical division presents a specific challenge for the NHS COVID-19 app.

There are much broader questions over how useful (or useless) digital contacts tracing will prove to be in the fight against the coronavirus. But it’s clear that if such apps don’t interoperate smoothly in a multi-country region such as Europe there will be additional, unhelpful gaps opening up in the data.

Any lack of cross-border interoperability will, inexorably, undermine functionality — unless people given up travelling outside their own countries for good.

EU interoperability as agreed goal

EU Member States recognize this, and this week agreed to a set of interoperability guidelines for national apps — writing that: “Users should be able to rely on a single app independently of the region or Member State they are in at a certain moment.”

The full technical detail of interoperability is yet to be figured out — “to ensure the operationalisation of interoperability as soon as possible”, as they put it.

But the intent is to work together so that different apps can share a minimum of data to enable exposure notifications to keep flowing as Europeans travel around the region, as (or once) restrictions are lifted. 

Whatever the approach taken with approved apps, all Member States and the Commission consider that interoperability between these apps and between backend systems is essential for these tools to enable the tracing of cross-border infection chains,” they write. “This is particularly important for cross-border workers and neighbouring countries. Ultimately, this effort will support the gradual lifting of border controls within the EU and the restoration of freedom of movement. These tools should be integrated with other tools contemplated in the COVID-19 contact tracing strategy of each Member State.”

European users should be able to expect interoperability. But whether smooth cross-border working will happen in practice remains a major question mark. Getting multiple different health systems and apps that might be calculating risk exposure in slightly different ways to interface and share the relevant bits of data in a secure way is itself a major operational and technical challenge.

However this is made even more of a headache given ongoing differences between countries over the core choice of app architecture for their national coronavirus contacts tracing.

This boils down to a choice of either a decentralized or centralized approach — with decentralized protocols storing and processing data locally on smartphones (i.e. the matching is done on device); and centralized protocols that upload exposure data and perform matching on a central server which is controlled by a national authority, such as a health service.

While there looks to be clear paths for interoperability between different decentralized protocols — here, for example, is a detailed discussion document written by backers of different decentralized protocols on how proximity tracing systems might interoperate across regions — interoperability between decentralized and centralized protocols, which are really polar opposite approaches, looks difficult and messy to say the least.

And that’s a big problem if we want digital contacts tracing to smoothly take place across borders.

(Additionally, some might say that if Europe can’t agree on a common way forward vis-a-vis a threat that affects all the region’s citizens it does not reflect well on the wider ‘European project’; aka the Union to which many of the region’s countries belong. But health is a Member State competence, meaning the Commission has limited powers in this area.)

In the eHealth Network ‘Interoperability guidelines’ document Member States agree that interoperability should happen regardless of which app architecture a European country has chosen.

But a section on cross-border transmission chains can’t see a way forward on how exactly to do that yet [emphasis ours] — i.e. beyond general talk of the need for “trusted and secure” mechanisms:

Solutions should allow Member States’ servers to communicate and receive relevant keys between themselves using a trusted and secure mechanism.

Roaming users should upload their relevant proximity encounter information to the home country backend. The other Member State(s) should be informed about possible infected or exposed users*.

*For roaming users, the question of to which servers the relevant proximity contacts details should be sent will be further explored during technical discussions. Interoperability questions will also be explored in relation to how a users’ app should behave after confirmed as COVID-19 positive and the possible need for a confirmation of infection free.

Conversely, the 19 academics behind the proposal for interoperability of different decentralized contacts tracing protocols, do include a section at the end of the document discussing how, in theory, such systems could plug into ‘alternatives’: aka centralized systems.

But it’s thick with privacy caveats.

Privacy risks of crossing system streams

The academics warn that while interoperability between decentralized and centralized systems “is possible in principle, it introduces substantial privacy concerns” — writing that, on the one hand, decentralized systems have been designed specifically to avoid the ability of an central authority being able to recover the identity of users; and “consequently, centralized risk calculation cannot be used without severely weakening the privacy of users of the decentralized system”.

While, on the other, if decentralized risk calculation is used as the ‘bridge’ to achieve interoperability between the two philosophically opposed approaches — by having centralized systems “publish a list of all decentralized ephemeral identifiers it believes to be at risk of infection due to close proximity with positive-tested users of the centralized system” — then it would make it easier for attackers to target centralized systems with reidentification attacks of any positive-tested users. So, again, you get additional privacy risks.

“In particular, each user of the decentralized system would be able to recover the exact time and place they were exposed to the positive-tested individual by comparing their list of recorded ephemeral identifiers which they emitted with the list of ephemeral identifiers published by the server,” they write, specifying that the attack would reveal in which “15 minute” an app user was exposed to a COVID-positive person.

And while they concede there’s a similar risk of reidentification attacks against all forms of decentralized systems, they contend this is more limited — given that decentralized protocol design is being used to mitigate this risk “by only recording coarse timing information”, such as six-hour intervals.

So, basically, the argument is there’s a greater chance that you might only encounter one other person in a 15 minute interval (and therefore could easily guess who might have given you COVID) vs a six-hour window. Albeit, with populations likely to continue to be encouraged to stay at home as much as possible for the foreseeable future, there is still a chance a user of a decentralized system might only pass one other person over a larger time interval too.

As trade offs go, the argument made by backers of decentralized systems is they’re inherently focused on the risks of reidentification — and actively working on ways to mitigate and limit those risks by system design — whereas centralized systems gloss over that risk entirely by assuming trust in a central authority to properly handle and process device-linked personal data. Which is of course a very big assumption.

While such fine-grained details may seem incredibly technical for the average user to need to digest, the core associated concern for coronavirus apps generally — and interoperability specifically — is that users need to be able to trust apps to use them.

So even if a person trusts their own government to handle their sensitive health data, they may be less inclined to trust another country’s government. Which means there could be some risk that centralized systems operating within a mutli-country region such as Europe might end up polluting the ‘trust well’ for these apps more generally — depending on exactly how they’re made to interoperate with decentralized systems.

The latter are designed so users don’t have to trust an authority to oversee their personal data. The former are absolutely not. So it’s really chalk and cheese.

Ce n’est pas un problème?

At this point, momentum among EU nations has largely shifted behind decentralized protocols for coronavirus contacts tracing apps. As previously reported, there has been a major battle between different EU groups supporting opposing approaches. And — in a key shift — privacy concerns over centralized systems being associated with governmental ‘mission creep’ and/or a lack of citizen trust appear to have encouraged Germany to flip to a decentralized model.

Apple and Google’s decision to support decentralized systems for the contacts tracing API they’re jointly developing, and due to release later this month (sample code is out already), has also undoubtedly weighted the debate in favor of decentralized protocols. 

Not all EU countries are aligned at this stage, though. Most notably France remains determined to pursue a centralized system for coronavirus contacts tracing.

As noted above, the UK has also been building an app that’s designed to upload data to a central server. Although it’s reportedly investigating switching to a decentralized model in order to be able to plug into the Apple and Google API — given technical challenges on iOS associated with background Bluetooth access.

Another outlier is Norway — which has already launched a centralized app (which also collects GPS data — against Commission and Member States’ own recommendations that tracing apps should not harvest location data).

High level pressure is clearly being applied, behind the scenes and in public, for EU Member States to agree on a common approach for coronavirus contacts tracing apps. The Commission has been urging this for weeks. Even as French government ministers have preferred to talk in public about the issue as a matter of technological sovereignty — arguing national governments should not have their health policy decisions dictated to them by U.S. tech giants.

“It is for States to chose their architecture and requests were made to Apple to enable both [centralized and decentralized systems],” a French government spokesperson told us late last month.

While there may well be considerable sympathy with that point of view in Europe, there’s also plenty of pragmatism on display. And, sure, some irony — given the region markets itself regionally and globally as a champion of privacy standards. (No shortage of op-eds have been penned in recent weeks on the strange sight of tech giants seemingly schooling EU governments over privacy; while veteran EU privacy advocates have laughed nervously to find themselves fighting in the same camp as data-mining giant Google.)

Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager could also be heard on BBC radio this week suggesting she wouldn’t personally use a coronavirus contacts tracing app that wasn’t built atop a decentralized app architecture. Though the Brexit-focused UK government is unlikely to have an open ear for the views of Commission officials, even piped through establishment radio news channels.

The UK may be forced to listen to technological reality though, if it’s workaround for iOS Bluetooth background access proves as flakey as analysis suggests. And it’s telling that the NHSX is funding parallel work on an app that could plug into the Apple-Google API, per reports in the FT, which would mean abandoning the centralized architecture.

Which leaves France as the highest profile hold-out.

In recent weeks a team at Inria, the government research agency that’s been working on its centralized ROBERT coronavirus contacts tracing protocol, proposed a third way for exposure notifications — called DESIRE — which was billed as an evolution of the approach “leveraging the best of centralized and decentralized systems”.

The new idea is to add a new secret cryptographically generated key to the protocol, called Private Encounter Tokens (PETs), which would encode encounters between users — as a way to provide users with more control over which identifiers they disclose to a central server, and thereby avoid the system harvesting social graph data.

“The role of the server is merely to match PETs generated by diagnosed users with the PETs provided by requesting users. It stores minimal pseudonymous data. Finally, all data that are stored on the server are encrypted using keys that are stored on the mobile devices, protecting against data breach on the server. All these modifications improve the privacy of the scheme against malicious users and authority. However, as in the first version of ROBERT, risk scores and notifications are still managed and controlled by the server of the health authority, which provides high robustness, flexibility, and efficacy,” the Inria team wrote in the proposal. 

The DP-3T consortium, backers of an eponymous decentralized protocol that’s gained widespread backing from governments in Europe — including Germany’s, followed up with a “practical assessment” of Inria’s proposal — in which they suggest the concept makes for “a very interesting academic proposal, but not a practical solution”; given limitations in current mobile phone Bluetooth radios and, more generally, questions around scalability and feasibility. (tl;dr this sort of idea could take years to properly implement and the coronavirus crisis hardly involves the luxury of time.)

The DP-3T analysis is also heavily skeptical that DESIRE could be made to interoperate with either existing centralized or decentralized proposals — suggesting a sort of ‘worst of both words’ scenario on the cross-border functionality front. So, er…

One person familiar with EU Member States’ discussions about coronavirus tracing apps and interoperability, who briefed TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, also suggested the DESIRE proposal would not fly given its relative complexity (vs the pressing need to get apps launched soon if they are to be of any use in the current pandemic). This person also pointed to question marks over required bandwidth and impact on device battery life. For DESIRE to work they suggested it would need universal uptake by all Europe’s governments — and every EU nation agreeing to adopt a French proposal would hardly carry the torch for nation state sovereignty.

What France does with its tracing app remains a key unanswered question. (An earlier planned debate on the issue in its parliament was shelved.) It is a major EU economy and, where interoperability is concerned, simple geography makes it a vital piece of the Western European digital puzzle, given it has land borders (and train links into) a large number of other countries.

We reached out to the French government with questions about how it proposes to make its national coronavirus contacts tracing app interoperable with decentralized apps that are being developed elsewhere across the EU — but at the time of writing it had not responded to our email.

This week in a video interview with BFM Business, the president of Inria, Bruno Sportisse, was reported to have expressed hope that the app will be able to interoperate by June — but also said in an interview that if the project is unsuccessful “we will stop it”.

“We’re working on making those protocols interoperable. So it’s not something that is going to be done in a week or two,” Sportisse also told BFM (translated from French by TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet). “First, every country has to develop its own application. That’s what every country is doing with its own set of challenges to solve. But at the same time we’re working on it, and in particular as part of an initiative coordinated by the European Commission to make those protocols interoperable or to define new ones.”

One thing looks clear: Adding more complexity further raises the bar for interoperability. And development timeframes are necessarily tight.

The pressing imperatives of a pandemic crisis also makes talk of technological sovereignty sound a bit of, well, a bourgeois indulgence. So France’s ambition to single-handedly define a whole new protocol for every nation in Europe comes across as simultaneously tone-deaf and flat-footed — perhaps especially in light if Germany’s swift U-turn the other way.

In a pinch and a poke, European governments agreeing to coalesce around a common approach — and accepting a quick, universal API fix which is being made available at the smartphone platform level — would also offer a far clearer message to citizens. Which would likely help engender citizen trust in and adoption of national apps — that would, in turn, given the apps a greater chance of utility. A pan-EU common approach might also feed tracing apps’ utility by yielding fewer gaps in the data. The benefits could be big.

However, for now, Europe’s digital response to the coronavirus crisis looks messier than that — with ongoing wrinkles and questions over how smoothly different nationals apps will be able to work together as countries opt to go their own way.

Microsoft says video calls in Teams grew 1,000% in March

With the COVID-19 pandemic making work from home the default for those companies that are able to do so, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a massive rise in the usage of video chat tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Teams . We’d already heard some updates from Zoom and Google, but today Microsoft joined the parade with a new report on how its Teams users have adapted to the rise of remote work.

Back on March 16, the company reported 900 million meeting minutes in Teams . Now, less than a month later, it says that it saw a new daily record of 2.7 billion meetings in one on March 31. During those meetings, more users than ever also turn on their video cameras. Overall, the number of users who go on camera has doubled since before this crisis began and the overall number of video calls in Teams grew by over 1,000 percent in March.

That’s a lot of time spent in meetings that could’ve probably been used in more productive ways, but it sure is a lot of Teams meetings.

The Microsoft team also looked at where people use video most, with Norway and the Netherlands leading the pack. There, 60 percent of calls include video. In the U.S., that number is 38 percent. Microsoft says this may be due to the availability of fast broadband.

Microsoft also found that its users are also spending more time of the day with Teams. In March, the average time between when somebody first used teams and the last use of the service increased by over an hour. The company argues that this doesn’t mean that people are working longer hours, “rather that they are breaking up the day in a way that works for their personal productivity or makes space for obligations outside of work.”

No matter the service a company uses for remote work, it’ll be interesting to see how many of these new habits will stick once this crisis is over. In China, where some employees are now returning to work, the number of daily active Teams users continues to grow according to Microsoft but there will surely also be regions where usage will decline quickly once things get back to something resembling normal.

Opera and the firm short-selling its stock (alleging Africa fintech abuses) weigh in

Internet services company Opera has come under a short-sell assault based on allegations of predatory lending practices by its fintech products in Africa.

Hindenburg Research issued a report claiming (among other things) that Opera’s finance products in Nigeria and Kenya have run afoul of prudent consumer practices and Google Play Store rules for lending apps.

Hindenburg — which is based in NYC and managed by financial analyst Nate Anderson — went on to suggest Opera’s U.S. listed stock was grossly overvalued.

That’s a primer on the key info, though there are several additional shades of the who, why, and where of this story to break down, before getting to what Opera and Hindenburg had to say.

A good start is Opera’s ownership and scope. Founded in Norway, the company is an internet services provider, largely centered around its Opera browser.

Opera was acquired in 2016 for $600 million by a consortium of Chinese investors, led by current Opera CEO Yahui Zhou.

Two years later, Opera went public in an IPO on NASDAQ, where its shares currently trade.

Web Broswers Africa 2019 Opera

Though Opera’s web platform isn’t widely used in the U.S. — where it has less than 1% of the browser market — it has been number-one in Africa, and more recently a distant second to Chrome, according to StatCounter.

On the back of its browser popularity, Opera went on an African venture-spree in 2019, introducing a suite of products and startup verticals in Nigeria and Kenya, with intent to scale more broadly across the continent.

In Nigeria these include motorcycle ride-hail service ORide and delivery app OFood.

Central to these services are Opera’s fintech apps: OPay in Nigeria and OKash and Opesa in Kenya — which offer payment and lending options.

Fintech focused VC and startups have been at the center of a decade long tech-boom in several core economies in Africa, namely Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2019 Opera led a wave of Chinese VC in African fintech, including $170 million in two rounds to its OPay payments service in Nigeria.

Opera’s fintech products in Africa (as well as Opera’s Cashbean in India) are at the core of Hindenburg Research’s brief and short-sell position. 

The crux of the Hindenburg report is that due to the declining market-share of its browser business, Opera has pivoted to products generating revenue from predatory short-term loans in Africa and India at interest rates of 365 to 876%, so Hindenburg claims.

The firm’s reporting goes on to claim Opera’s payment products in Nigeria and Kenya are afoul of Google rules.

“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be…in violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps…we think this entire line of business is at risk of…being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action,” the report says.

Based on this, Hindenburg suggested Opera’s stock should trade at around $2.50, around a 70% discount to Opera’s $9 share-price before the report was released on January 16.

Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.

Founder Nate Anderson confirmed to TechCrunch Hindenburg continues to hold short positions in Opera’s stock — which means the firm could benefit financially from declines in Opera’s share value. The company’s stock dropped some 18% the day the report was published.

On motivations for the brief, “Technology has catalyzed numerous positive changes in Africa, but we do not think this is one of them,” he said.

“This report identified issues relating to one company, but what we think will soon become apparent is that in the absence of effective local regulation, predatory lending is becoming pervasive across Africa and Asia…proliferated via mobile apps,” Anderson added.

While the bulk of Hindenburg’s critique was centered on Opera, Anderson also took aim at Google.

“Google has become the primary facilitator of these predatory lending apps by virtue of Android’s dominance in these markets. Ultimately, our hope is that Google steps up and addresses the bigger issue here,” he said.

TechCrunch has an open inquiry into Google on the matter. In the meantime, Opera’s apps in Nigeria and Kenya are still available on GooglePlay, according to Opera and a cursory browse of the site.

For its part, Opera issued a rebuttal to Hindenburg and offered some input to TechCrunch through a spokesperson.

In a company statement opera said, “We have carefully reviewed the report published by the short seller and the accusations it put forward, and our conclusion is very clear: the report contains unsubstantiated statements, numerous errors, and misleading conclusions regarding our business and events related to Opera.”

Opera added it had proper banking licenses in Kenyan or Nigeria. “We believe we are in compliance with all local regulations,” said a spokesperson.

TechCrunch asked Hindenburg’s Nate Anderson if the firm had contacted local regulators related to its allegations. “We reached out to the Kenyan DCI three times before publication and have not heard back,” he said.

As it pertains to Africa’s startup scene, there’ll be several things to follow surrounding the Opera, Hindenburg affair.

The first is how it may impact Opera’s business moves in Africa. The company is engaged in competition with other startups across payments, ride-hail, and several other verticals in Nigeria and Kenya. Being accused of predatory lending, depending on where things go (or don’t) with the Hindenburg allegations, could put a dent in brand-equity.

There’s also the open question of if/how Google and regulators in Kenya and Nigeria could respond. Contrary to some perceptions, fintech regulation isn’t non-existent in both countries, neither are regulators totally ineffective.

Kenya passed a new data-privacy law in November and Nigeria recently established guidelines for mobile-money banking licenses in the country, after a lengthy Central Bank review of best digital finance practices.

Nigerian regulators demonstrated they are no pushovers with foreign entities, when they slapped a $3.9 billion fine on MTN over a regulatory breach in 2015 and threatened to eject the South African mobile-operator from the country.

As for short-sellers in African tech, they are a relatively new thing, largely because there are so few startups that have gone on to IPO.

In 2019, Citron Research head and activist short-seller Andrew Left — notable for shorting Lyft and Tesla — took short positions in African e-commerce company Jumia, after dropping a report accusing the company of securities fraud. Jumia’s share-price plummeted over 50% and has only recently begun to recover.

As of Wednesday, there were signs Opera may be shaking off Hindenburg’s report — at least in the market — as the company’s shares had rebounded to $7.35.

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

Africa focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June.

It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway based, Chinese (majority) owned company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service, and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“Opay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do ever day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services, and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay, and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance, and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

 

 

 

 

Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GetAccept’s workflow and e-signature platform for sales secures $7M Series A funding

Many years ago every sales deal was sealed with a handshake between two people. Today, digitization has moved into the sales process, but it hasn’t necessarily improved the experience. In fact, it’s often become a more time-consuming affair because information and communications are scattered across multiple channels and the number of people involved in a deal has increased. That means lots of offers and quotes are get lost in the mix.
GetAccept a startup which provides an all-in-one sales platform where video, live chat, proposal design, document tracking and e-signatures come together to simplify the life of a sales team.

It’s now convinced investors there is such a need, raising a $7 million Series A funding round led by DN Capital, with participation from BootstrapLabs, Y Combinator and a number of Spotify’s early investors including ex-CFO of Spotify, Peter Sterky. The former CMO of Slack and Zendesk, Bill Macaitis, will also join the company’s Board of Directors.

The new capital will be used to scale sales and marketing, and accelerate product innovation for GetAccept’s industry leading document workflow solution for sales.
This round brings GetAccept’s total financing raised to $9M after then won their first seed round in 2017.
Samir Smajic, CEO, GetAccept says while CRM systems have made it easier for sales teams to manage pipeline and broker deals, “60 percent of all contracts are lost to indecision or simply go unanswered… Prospects no longer have to interact with reps to get basic information about a product or service, making the sales process highly impersonal. But prospects still need a rep to guide them through an increasingly complex B2B sales process in order to make better-informed buying decisions.” He believes GetAccept bridges this growing “engagement gap”.
GetAccept integrates into a company’s sales pipeline through technology partnerships with CRM and sales automation platforms including Salesforce, HubSpot, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and others.
It’s pitched as an all-in-one sales platform which compete with several separate tools including well-financed solutions likeDocsend, Pandadoc, Showpad, Highspot, Docusign, and Adobe Sign. Their ‘sales pitch’ is that companies can do all of the things in those products but the single GetAccept platform is actually geared toward to sales reps and includes the important features that help sales reps to actually move deals forward.
“Getting a deal to the point of contract has become increasingly difficult because buyers now get most of their information online,” said Thomas Rubens, Partner at DN Capital. “GetAccept honed in on this growing issue early on and built a best-in-class platform for managing document workflow and engagement across the entire sales cycle.”
GetAccept has so far signed customers including Samsung, Stanley and Siemens . It’s also expanded to the US and EMEA including Norway, Denmark and France.

Revolut adds Apple Pay support in 16 markets

Fintech startup Revolut has expanded its support for Apple Pay, confirming that from today the payment option is available for users in 16 European markets.

The list of supported markets is: UK, France, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Press reports last month suggested the UK challenger bank had inked Apple Pay agreements in markets including the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland.

It’s not clear what took Revolut so long to join the Apple Pay party.

Customers in the supported markets can add their Revolut card to Apple Pay via the Revolut app or via Apple’s Wallet app. Those without a plastic card can add a virtual card to Apple Wallet via the Revolut app and are able to start spending immediately, without having to wait for the physical card to arrive in the post.

Commenting in statement, Arthur Johanet, product owner for card payments at Revolut, said: “Revolut’s ultimate goal is to give our customers a useful tool to manage every aspect of their financial lives, and the ability to make payments quickly, conveniently and securely is vital to achieving this. Our customers have been requesting Apple Pay for a long time, so we are delighted to kick off our rollout, starting with our customers in 16 markets. This is a very positive step forward in enabling our customers to use their money in the way that they want to.”

Africa Roundup: Jumia’s IPO, DHL launches Africa e-Shop, Cathay’s $168M VC fund, ConnectMed acquired

The biggest news in a month of weighty African headlines was Jumia listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

After filing SEC IPO docs in March, the Pan-African e-commerce company’s shares began trading on the NYSE April 12, opening at $14.50 under ticker symbol JMIA. Jumia stock rose north of 70 percent on its first day of trading and started this week at $46.

With the public listing, Jumia became the first startup from Africa to list on a major global exchange. The IPO raised nearly $200 million for the internet venture.

The listing created another milestone for Jumia.  In 2016 the company became the first African startup unicorn, achieving a $1 billion valuation after a funding round that included Goldman Sachs and MTN.

Founded in Lagos in 2012 with Rocket Internet backing, Jumia now operates multiple online verticals in 14 African countries—from consumer retail to travel bookings.

Jumia has also opened itself up to Africa’s traders with more than 80,000 active sellers on the platform.

Like Amazon, Jumia brings its own mix of supporters and critics. On the critical side, there are questions of whether it’s actually an African startup. The parent for Jumia Group is incorporated in Germany and current CEOs Jeremy Hodara and Sacha Poignonnec are French.

On the flipside, original Jumia co-founders (Tunde Kehinde and Raphael Afaedor) are Nigerian. The company is headquartered in Africa (Lagos) and incorporated in each country in which it operates (under ECART Internet Services in Nigeria). Jumia pays taxes on the continent, employs 5,128 people in Africa (page 125 of K-1) and the CEO of its largest country operation Juliet Anammah is Nigerian.

The Jumia authenticity and diversity debates will no doubt continue. But the biggest question — the driver behind the VC, the IPO, and demand for Jumia’s shares — is whether the startup can produce profits. The company has generated years of losses, including negative EBITDA of €172 million in 2018 compared to revenues of €139 that same year.

DHL Africa e-Shop

Call it coincidence or competition, but the day before Jumia’s IPO, DHL partnered with another e-commerce startup—MallforAfrica.com—to launch its DHL Africa eShop app for global retailers to sell goods to Africa’s consumers markets.

The platform brings more than 200 U.S. and U.K. retailers — from Neiman Marcus to Carters — online in 11 African countries.

DHL Africa eShop operates using startup MallforAfrica.com’s white label service, Link Commerce.

The new online platform takes advantage of the shipping giant’s existing delivery structure on the continent to get goods to doorsteps near and far.

DHL’s partner for the new app, MallforAfrica, was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

On a B2C level, DHL Africa eShop brings distinct advantages on a transaction cost basis (i.e. the cost of delivery) given it is connected to one of the world’s logistics masters, DHL.

Another component of DHL and MallforAfrica’s partnership is the market for offering e-commerce fulfillment services through MallforAfrica’s white label Link Commerce service.

This could put the duo on a footing to compete with (or work with) big e-commerce names entering Africa and adds another layer of competition with Jumia, which offers its own fulfillment services vertical in Africa.

Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund

There’s a new $100 million plus African VC fund in the works. Tunisia-based private equity firm Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, with a target raise of $168 million.

Details are still forthcoming, but the fund will focus primarily on Series A to C-stage investments in startups across several countries in the areas of fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech. Investments could begin as early as 2019, fund co-founder Denis Barrier told TechCrunch.

He expects to see strong local showing for startups from across Africinvest’s 10 country offices in North and Sub-Saharan African. The firm will open an office in Johannesburg in the near future, according to a company release.

Zipline expands in Ghana

Zipline, the San Francisco-based UAV manufacturer and logistics services provider, launched a program in Ghana for drone delivery of medical supplies.

Working with the Ghanaian government, Zipline will operate 30 drones out of four distribution centers to distribute vaccines, blood and life-saving medications to 2,000 health facilities across the West African nation daily. Speaking to TechCrunch, the company’s CEO Keller Rinaudo described the Ghana operation as “the largest drone delivery network on the planet,”

The Ghana program adds a second country to Zipline’s live operations. Zipline got off the ground in Rwanda and has leveraged its experience in East Africa to begin testing medical delivery services in the United States. Zipline plans to move from pilot-phase to live-delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. sometime this summer.

ConnectMed acquired by Merck

And finally, German pharmaceutical company Merck KGaa acquired the technology of Kenya based online healthtech company ConnectMed. A 2017 Startup Battlefield Africa competitor, ConnectMed paired up telehealth kiosks to local pharmacies—turning them into online clinics where patients use the startup’s tablet based app to connect live to doctors for evaluation and prescriptions. The startup had received grant and seed funds from UK based Entrepreneur First and Norway’s Katapult Accelerator.

Merck KGaa (not be confused with U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck) took over ConnectMed’s telehealth applications. “Following the handover of the company’s telehealth solutions to Merck…ConnectMed will cease operations,” said a company release on the deal. Merck will integrate ConnectMed’s platform into its own CURAFA clinic network in Kenya.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around The Net

Volvo cars in Europe will be able to warn to each other about hazardous road conditions

Volvo is taking technology that allowed some of its vehicles to communicate with each other about hazardous road conditions and expanding it across Europe in an effort to increase safety, the automaker announced Monday.

Volvo first introduced its Hazard Light Alert and Slippery Road Alert system in 2016 on Volvo’s 90 Series cars. But it was limited to drivers in Sweden and Norway. Next week, Volvo will make the system available to drivers across Europe.

The system will be a standard feature on all 2020 model-year vehicles in Europe. The system can be retrofitted on select earlier models as well, Volvo said.

The vehicle-to-vehicle communication tech that enables the Hazard Light Alert and Slippery Road Alert system uses a cloud-based network to communicate between vehicles. For instance, when an equipped Volvo vehicle switches on the hazard light a signal is sent to all nearby Volvo cars connected to the cloud service.

The slippery road alert works by anonymously collecting road surface information from cars farther ahead on the road and warning drivers approaching a slippery road section in advance.

“Sharing real-time safety data between cars can help avoid accidents,” Malin Ekholm, head of Volvo Cars Safety Centre said in a statement. “Volvo owners directly contribute to making roads safer for other drivers that enable the feature, while they also benefit from early warnings to potentially dangerous conditions ahead.”

The expansion of the system is the latest in a series of efforts by Volvo to improve safety within its portfolio and across the industry. Volvo said, as part of its announcement, that it has opened a central digital library of all of its past safety research, dating back to the 1970s.

Volvo Cars reiterated its call to the rest of the car industry to join it in sharing anonymized data related to traffic safety across car brands.

Earlier this year, Volvo said it would limit speeds on all new vehicles, beginning with its 2020 models, to about 111 miles per hour.

It also plans to integrate driver monitoring systems into its next-gen, SPA2-based vehicles beginning in the early 2020s. That system will be able to take action if the driver is distracted or intoxicated. The camera and other sensors will monitor the driver and will intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death. Under this scenario, Volvo could limit the car’s speed, call the Volvo on Call service on behalf of the driver or cause the vehicle to slow down and park itself on the roadside.