Decrypted: As tech giants rally against Hong Kong security law, Apple holds out

It’s not often Silicon Valley gets behind a single cause. Supporting net neutrality was one, reforming government surveillance another. Last week, Big Tech took up its latest: halting any cooperation with Hong Kong police.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even China-headquartered TikTok said last week they would no longer respond to demands for user data from Hong Kong law enforcement — read: Chinese authorities — citing the new unilaterally imposed Beijing national security law. Critics say the law, ratified on June 30, effectively kills China’s “one country, two systems” policy allowing Hong Kong to maintain its freedoms and some autonomy after the British handed over control of the city-state back to Beijing in 1997.

Noticeably absent from the list of tech giants pulling cooperation was Apple, which said it was still “assessing the new law.” What’s left to assess remains unclear, given the new powers explicitly allow warrantless searches of data, intercept and restrict internet data, and censor information online, things that Apple has historically opposed if not in so many words.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can live without China. They already do — both Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, and Google pulled out after it accused Beijing of cyberattacks. But Apple cannot. China is at the heart of its iPhone and Mac manufacturing pipeline, and accounts for over 16% of its revenue — some $9 billion last quarter alone. Pulling out of China would be catastrophic for Apple’s finances and market position.

The move by Silicon Valley to cut off Hong Kong authorities from their vast pools of data may be a largely symbolic move, given any overseas data demands are first screened by the Justice Department in a laborious and frequently lengthy legal process. But by holding out, Apple is also sending its own message: Its ardent commitment to human rights — privacy and free speech — stops at the border of Hong Kong.

Here’s what else is in this week’s Decrypted.


THE BIG PICTURE

Police used Twitter-backed Dataminr to snoop on protests

Software will reshape our world in the next decade

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

No-code industrial robotics programming startup Wandelbots raises $30 million

Dresden, Germany-based Wandelbots – a startup dedicated to making it easier for non-programmers to ‘teach’ industrial robots how to do specific tasks – has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by 83North, an with participation from Next47 and Microsoft’s M12 venture funding arm.

Wandelbots will use the funding to help it speed the market debut of its TracePen, a hand-held, code-free device that allows human operators to quickly and easily demonstrate desired behavior for industrial robots to mimic. Programming robots to perform specific tasks typically requires massive amounts of code, as well as programmers with very specific, in-demand skillsets to accomplish; Wandelbots wants to make it as easy as simply showing a robot what it is you want it to do – and then showing it a different set of behaviors should you need to reprogram it to accomplish a new task or fill in for a different part of the assembly line.

The software that Wandelbots developed to make this possible originally sprung out of work done at the Faculty of Computer Science at the Technical University of Dresden. The startup was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition in 2017, and raised a $6.8 million Series A round in 2018 led by Paua Ventures, EQT Ventures and others.

Wandelbots already has some big-name clients, including industrial giants like Volkswagen, BMW, Infineon and others, and as of June 17, it’ll be launching its TracePen publicly for the first time. The company’s technology has the potential to save anyone who makes use of industrial robots many months of programming time, and the associated costs – and could ultimately make use of this kind of robotics practical even for smaller companies for whom the budgetary requirements of doing so previously put it out of reach.

I asked Wandelbots CEO and co-founder Christian Piechnick via email whether their platform can overcome some of the challenges companies including Tesla have faced with introducing ever-greater automation to their manufacturing facilities.

“The reversals regarding automation were caused by the inflexibility, complexity and cost introduced by automation with robots,” Piechnick told me via email. “People are usually not aware that 75% of the total cost of ownership of a robot comes from software development. The problems introduced by robots were killing the benefit. This is exactly the problem we are tackling. We enable manufacturers to use robots with an unseen flexibility and we dramatically lower the cost of using robots. Our product enables non-programmers to easily teach a robot new tasks and thus, reduces the involvement of hard-to-find and costly programmers.”

TracePen, the device and companion platform that Wandelbots is launching this week, is actually an evolution of their original vision, which focuses more on using smart clothes to fully model human behavior in real-time in order to translate that to robotic instruction. The company’s pivot to TracePen employs the same underlying software tech, but meets customers much closer to where they already are in terms of processes and operations, while still providing the same cost reduction benefits and flexibility, according to Piechnick.

I asked Piechnick about COVID-19 and how that has impacted Wandelbots’ business, and he replied that in fact it’s driven up demand for automation, and efficiencies that benefit automation, in a number of key ways.

“COVID-19 has impacted the thinking on global manufacturing in various ways,” he wrote. “First there is the massive trend of reshoring to reduce the risk of globally distributed supply chains. In order to scale volume, ensure quality and reduce cost, automation is a natural consequence for developed countries. With a technology that leads to almost immediate ROI and extremely short time-to-market, we hit a trend. Furthermore, the dependency on human workers and the workplace restrictions (e.g., distance between workers) increases the demand for automation tremendously.”

IoT solutions are enabling physical distancing

If you’re a business owner or investor and are wondering about the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business world, you’re not alone.

Today’s business leaders have been plunged into the deep end of telecommuting with little notice, and the way we do business has been impacted at almost every level. Travel is restricted, meetings are virtual and delivery of goods and even raw materials is being delayed. While some industries that depend on large gatherings are seeing extremely difficult challenges due to the pandemic, others such as the tech industry, see the opportunity and responsibility for innovation and growth.

As many states begin phased reopening, companies are trying to determine what the workplace and business environment will look like in a post-quarantine world. The first obvious step is the integration of personal protective equipment (PPE). Sanitization and face masks will become required and nonessential face-to-face meetings will be a thing of the past, along with shaking hands.

Additionally, relationship-driven careers such as sales and recruiting will have to find new ways to connect to be successful. Physical distancing rules will have to be established, which may include employees coming in alternate days while telecommuting the other days of the week to keep offices at reduced capacity. Large offices of 10 or more may implement thermographic camera technology for fever screening or other real-time technology-based health screenings.

One thing is for sure: IoT devices that enable physical distancing will become an integral part of reopening businesses, facilitating sales connections and embracing a different way of living.

Solutions for physical distancing

There are a variety of IoT devices available that can help business leaders successfully implement physical distancing in their offices. Thermographic camera technology coupled with facial recognition can create a baseline for each employee and then assist in determining if an employee has a temperature outside of their norm. Other remote health monitoring may also take place with healthcare providers, helping employees determine on a daily basis if they are well enough to go into work.

T-Mobile hit by phone calling, text message outage

T-Mobile appears to be having problems.

Customers are reporting that they can’t make or receive phone calls, although data appears to be unaffected. Some customers say that text messaging is also affected.

DownDetector, which collects outage reports from users, indicates that a major outage is underway. It’s not clear how widespread the issue is, but at the time of writing T-Mobile was trending across the United States on Twitter.

The outage appears to have started around 10am PT (1pm ET) on Monday.

DownDetector reporting outages across the U.S.

In our own tests in New York and Seattle, we found that making calls from a T-Mobile phone would fail almost immediately after placing the call. We also found that the cell service on our phones were intermittent, with bars occasionally dropping to zero or losing access to high-speed data.

In April, Sprint and T-Mobile completed its merger, valued at $26 billion, making the combined cell network the third largest carrier in the United States behind AT&T and Verizon.

A spokesperson for T-Mobile also did not immediately comment on the outage.

Other networks may also be experiencing downtime, per customer reports. But so far Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and Sprint have not responded to a request for comment. An AT&T spokesperson said that the network is operating normally.

Widespread cell networks are rare but do happen. In 2017, CenturyLink had a network failure that affected all major U.S. carriers and 911 emergency services that rely on the fiber network to route calls. In some U.S. counties, officials sent out emergency alerts to cell phone users to warn that 911 services had been disrupted.

Updated to note that carrier-dependent text messaging also appears to be affected.

MIT’s tiny artificial brain chip could bring supercomputer smarts to mobile devices

Researchers at MIT have published a new paper that describes a new type of artificial brain synapse that offers performance improvements versus other existing versions, and which can be combined in volumes of tens of thousands on a chip that’s smaller physically than a single piece of confetti. The results could help create devices that can handle complex AI computing locally, while remaining small and power-efficient, and without having to connect to a data center.

The research team created what are known as “memristors” — essentially simulated brain synapses created using silicon, but also using alloys of silver and copper in their construction. The result was a chip that could effectively “remember” and recall images in very high detail, repeatedly, with much crisper and more detailed “remembered” images than in other types of simulated brain circuits that have come before.

What the team wants to ultimately do is recreate large, complex artificial neural networks that are currently based in software that require significant GPU computing power to run — but as dedicated hardware, so that it can be localized in small devices, including potentially your phone, or a camera.

Unlike traditional transistors, which can switch between only two states (0 or 1) and which form the basis of modern computers, memsistors offer a gradient of values, much more like your brain, the original analog computer. They also can “remember” these states so they can easily recreate the same signal for the same received current multiple times over.

What the researchers did here was borrow a concept from metallurgy: When metallurgists want to change the properties of a metal, they combine it with another that has that desired property, to create an alloy. Similarly, the researchers here found an element they could combine with the silver they use as the memristor’s positive electrode, in order to make it better able to consistently and reliably transfer ions along even a very thin conduction channel.

That’s what enabled the team to create super small chips that contain tens of thousands of memristors that can nonetheless not only reliably recreate images from “memory,” but also perform inference tasks like improving the detail of, or blurring the original image on command, better than other, previous memristors created by other scientists.

It’s still a long way off, but the team behind this project suggests that eventually, this could lead to portable, artificial brain computers that can perform very complex tasks on the scale of today’s supercomputers — with minimal power requirements and without any network connection required.

OTTO Motors raises $29M to fill factories with autonomous delivery robots

When Clearpath Robotics CEO and co-founder Matthew Rendall looks at the “miles” of roads inside industrial factories, he sees them filled with autonomous vehicles.

And in the past five years, the company has inched toward that goal through its industrial division OTTO Motors. The division, which launched in 2015, has landed a number of customer contracts to bring its autonomous mobile robot platform into factories, including GE, Toyota, Nestlé and Berry Global.

OTTO Motors is preparing to expand with a fresh injection of $29 million in funding. The Series C funding round announced this week was led by led by Kensington Private Equity Fund, with participation from Bank of Montreal Capital Partners, Export Development Canada (EDC) and previous investors iNovia Capital and RRE Ventures . To date, the company has raised $83 million in funding.

OTTO Motors’ autonomous mobile robot platform, or AMRs, are used to handle materials within warehouses and factories. These robots, which were once viewed as a luxury, are now a necessity, according to Rendall, who believes the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for companies to enhance work safety will only accelerate the trend toward robots.

Robots, and more broadly automation, are often viewed as job killers in manufacturing. But Rendall argues that AMRs help fill roles that are currently sitting vacant and allow humans to take on the higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.

“We tend to see more situations where the operation is not at peak output, not operating peak performance because they just can’t find the people,” Rendall said in a recent interview, noting that one of its customer shut down an entire wing of its facility because they just can’t get people.

Factories are often located near smaller towns or sprawling communities with a limited labor pool, a shortfall that can be compounded when Amazon opens up a facility nearby.

“There’s a kind of vacuum that pulls qualified talent out of the established manufacturing or warehouse base,” he said.

A 2018 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute forecast that a skills gap is projected to leave 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028 in the United States. The skills gap has popped up in other countries where OTTO Motors is now focused, including Japan, where the aging population is larger than the younger generation. Even China, which has historically been viewed as a place with an expanding labor pool, now has a national robotics strategy, Rendall said.

The company developed its AMRs to help manufacturers outsource the lower-value tasks to robots. “One of the least valuable things you can pay your people to do is walk from Point A to Point B,” Rendall said. “If you’re strapped for talent you want to have that team focused on what is at Point A or at Point B, like assembling an automobile. Walking to a warehouse with a part is something that can be outsourced to a machine.”

OTTO Motors’ initial customer base grew out of the automotive and transportation industries. It now works with six of the 10 OEMs. But Rendall says it has also seen success in the medical device and healthcare sector, as well.

COVID-19 has spurred demand, Rendall said, as essential businesses in the food, beverage and medical device industries attempt to lessen risks associated with the disease.

Why you should worry about data transparency

In the world of business and finance, the question on everyone’s mind is whether COVID-19 is going to lead to permanent changes in the economy. Will lockdowns become part of everyday life? Will new disruptive consumer behaviors emerge? How will investors react?

First, we’re headed for a period of radical required transparency. For me, this started hitting home two years ago. George Walker, CEO of massive fund of funds Neuberger Berman, told Bloomberg that his pricing power over clients was “zero” because customers had access to competing asset managers, as well as data, research and analysis and other investment options online.

“Clients are tough. Consumers are tough now. Technology is changing,” he said. “The pricing challenges are significant and real.”

One would think Walker would be averse to greater transparency. His self-interest theoretically might dictate that he behave like a wizard behind a curtain. But Walker embraced transparency, saying his clients should use the leverage they gain from shopping around to save money when hiring asset managers like him. Teachers’ unions and others need the cash, he said. He’s too smart to fight the tide.

Transparency, secondly, is going to put a lot of pressure on companies. Walker knows that transparency might put downward pressure on prices but, if deployed properly, it can also cultivate loyalty. It can also attract competitors’ clients who are also navigating the same comparison-shopping environment. The bottom line is that companies will need to work harder as their customers become savvier.

What’s more, that new environment is coming as the tailwinds that fueled the growth of tech companies in the last 15 years are losing steam as the internet, social media and smart devices transition into mature technologies. Technology is still going to let companies scale up in extraordinary and cost-effective ways, but innovation will face a higher bar to wow clients.

This dilemma brings us to the third and most important point to consider moving forward as companies struggle to survive in the post-coronavirus economy. Leaders of firms that thrive in the coming years must be prepared for success in fits and starts, sometimes after failures that in the short term seem like unforced errors but in hindsight might become experiences crucial to progress on the crooked path to success.

Consider Intel’s Operation Crush in the 1970s. As business guru Hamilton Helmer wrote in his must-read “7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy,” microprocessors at the time were not a big portion of Intel’s business. Many in the company didn’t think chips were worth much effort, in part because their competitors were producing perfectly good microprocessors, too. The fact that microprocessors were constituent parts of other companies’ machines and not standalone products bolstered skeptical views among Intel’s sales force.

Intel honchos nonetheless wanted to secure 2,000 contracts for their microprocessors under Operation Crush in part because they saw how Japanese competitors were beating them in the semiconductor space. They needed to pivot. One contract happened to be with IBM, which around that time had a market cap of almost $40 billion compared to Intel’s cap of $1.7 billion. Nobody thought the deal would yield a sea change for either company, but Intel and IBM’s collaboration resulted in a personal computer revolution that made Intel a success.

The 1970s were a heady time that, it turns out, were the transition decade to an entirely new phase of the economy. The Operation Crush lesson is that the avenues to success after the coronavirus subsides are not going to be straightforward, obvious or immediate. We simply don’t know the second and third-order implications of much of what has happened in the last few months to be able to chart a direct path forward.

Instead, we have some truths that can serve as our guiding lights. Companies will need to embrace transparency. They will need to show grace under pressure. And they will need to have the courage to embark on aggressive campaigns that seize the moment even if they don’t fully understand what that moment might be.

Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap an online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the non-profit’s medical center in Huntersville — where frontline healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: the capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo,  Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which has supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya,  South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from min-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

Join us June 3 for a contact-tracing and exposure-notification app development and deployment forum

Exposure notification and contact tracing are two related but distinct measures many public health authorities are either considering or already implementing.

Contact tracing is a practice almost as old as epidemiology itself, but today’s technology means the way that we go about tracking the spread of a contagious illness within and between communities is changing very quickly. This presents an opportunity for learning more about the opportunities and challenges presented in extending contact tracing and exposure notification via digital means.

To that end, we’re happy to be working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host on TC to their live-streamed discussion around contact-tracing and exposure-notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks. The day’s events will include a roundtable discussion followed by a series of product demos, and will take place starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 3.

Below, we’ve included an agenda of the confirmed speakers and demonstrations for the day so far. Note that this is a work in progress, and that more speakers and demos will be added to the day’s slate as we get closer to Wednesday. To RSVP for this free event, check out this link.

11am-1pm EDT: Roundtable Discussion – Hear from researchers, healthcare professionals, and technologists, including:

  • Andrew McLaughlin is helping lead the Task Force’s contact-tracing/exposure-notification initiative. Andrew is the chairman of Access Now, the former Deputy U.S. CTO for the White House and the former director of Global Public Policy at Google.
  • Daniel Burka is heading up the COVID-19 response efforts for New York State through Resolve to Save Lives, the not-for-profit organization led by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
  • Harper Reed is helping lead the Task Force’s contact-tracing/exposure-notification initiative. Harper is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and was the CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
  • Jonathan Jackson is the founder and CEO at Dimagi, a social enterprise that develops innovative technology solutions for front-line workforces and underserved populations. They have an extensive background in global health and are a leader in mobile health data collection.
  • Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science, and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Jonathan’s work focuses on topics including control of digital property, privacy frameworks and the roles of intermediaries in internet architecture.
  • Randall Thomas is assisting Resolve to Save Lives and other stakeholders with the New York State response to COVID-19. Randall is the CTO of Geometer, a technology incubator.
  • Mona Sloane is an NYU-based sociologist working on inequality in the context of AI design and policy. At NYU, she helps form NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, and is co-principal investigator on the COVID-19 Tech Project. Mona also leads the project Terra Incognita: Mapping NYC’s New Digital Public Spaces in the COVID-19 Outbreak.

1pm-2pm EDT: Contact Tracing/Exposure Notification Product Demos – Leading organizations developing applications to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, primarily through contact tracing and exposure notification, will each demo their product. Teams include:

We’ll have a live stream available on June 3 so you can follow along, as mentioned, but you can also RSVP here to register your interest. It should be a day full of interesting, expert discussion of why there’s a need to extend contact tracing and exposure notification through connected and digital means, as well as the privacy, public health and policy implications such extension necessarily carries with it.