Roku debuts new Streaming Stick 4K bundles, software update with voice and mobile features

Weeks after Amazon introduced an updated Fire TV lineup that included, for the first time, its own TVs, Roku today is announcing its own competitive products in a race to capture consumers’ attention before the holiday shopping season. Its updates include a new Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick 4K+ — the latter which ships with Roku’s newer hands-free voice remote. The company is also refreshing the Roku Ultra LT, a Walmart-exclusive version of its high-end player. And it announced the latest software update, Roku OS 10.5, which adds updated voice features, a new Live TV channel for home screens, and other minor changes.

The new Streaming Stick 4K builds on Roku’s four-year-old product, the Streaming Stick+, as it offers the same type of stick form factor designed to be hidden behind the TV set. This version, however, has a faster processor which allows the device to boot up to 30% faster and load channels more quickly, Roku claims. The Wi-Fi is also improved, offering faster speeds and smart algorithms that help make sure users get on the right band for the best performance in their homes where network congestion is an increasingly common problem  — especially with the pandemic-induced remote work lifestyle. The new Stick adds support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10+, giving it the “4K” moniker.

This version ships with Roku’s standard voice remote for the same price of $49.99. For comparison, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick Max with a faster processor and speedier Wi-Fi is $54.99. However, Amazon is touting the addition of Wi-Fi 6 and support for its game streaming service, Luna, as reasons to upgrade.

Roku’s new Streaming Stick 4K+ adds the Roku Voice Remote Pro to the bundle instead. This is Roku’s new remote, launched in the spring, that offers rechargeability, a lost remote finder, and hands-free voice support via its mid-field microphone, so you can just say things like “hey Roku, turn on the TV,” or “launch Netflix,” instead of pressing buttons. Bought separately, this remote is $29.99. The bundle sells for $69.99, which translates to a $10 discount over buying the stick and remote by themselves.

Image Credits: Roku

Both versions of the Streaming Stick will be sold online and in stores starting in October.

The Roku Ultra LT ($79.99), built for Walmart exclusively, has also been refreshed with a faster processor, more storage, a new Wi-Fi radio with up to 50% longer range, support for Dolby Vision, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a built-in ethernet port.

Plus, Roku notes that TCL will become the first device partner to use the reference designs it introduced at CES for wireless soundbars, with its upcoming Roku TV wireless soundbar. This device connects over Wi-Fi to the TV and works with the Roku remote, and will arrive at major retailers in October where it will sell for $179.99.

The other big news is Roku’s OS 10.5 software release. The update isn’t making any dramatic changes this time around, but is instead focused largely on voice and mobile improvements.

The most noticeable consumer-facing change is the ability to add a new Live TV channel to your home screen which lets you more easily launch The Roku Channel’s 200+ free live TV channels, instead of having to first visit Roku’s free streaming hub directly, then navigate to the Live TV section. This could make the Roku feel more like traditional TV for cord-cutters abandoning their TV guide for the first time.

Other tweaks include expanded support for launching channels using voice commands, with most now supported; new voice search and podcast playback with a more visual “music and podcast” row and Spotify as a launch partner; the ability to control sound settings in the mobile app; an added Voice Help guide in settings; and additional sound configuration options for Roku speakers and soundbars (e.g. using the speaker pairs and soundbar in a left/center/right) or in full 5.1 surround sound system).

A handy feature for entering in email and passwords in set-up screens using voice commands is new, too. Roku says it sends the voice data off-device to its speech-to-text partner, and the audio is anonymized. Roku doesn’t get the password or store it, as it goes directly to the channel partner. While there are always privacy concerns with voice data, the addition is a big perk from an accessibility standpoint.

Image Credits: Roku

One of the more under-the-radar, but potentially useful changes coming in OS 10.5 is an advanced A/V sync feature that lets you use the smartphone camera to help Roku make further refinements to the audio delay when using wireless headphones to listen to the TV. This feature is offered through the mobile app.

The Roku mobile app in the U.S. is also gaining another feature with the OS 10.5 update with the addition of a new Home tab for browsing collections of movies and shows across genres, and a “Save List, which functions as a way to bookmark shows or movies you might hear about — like when chatting with friends — and want to remember to watch later when you’re back home in front of the TV.

The software update will roll out to Roku devices over the weeks ahead. It typically comes to Roku players first, then rolls out to TVs.

Gig workers with smartphones can help set infrastructure priorities

With all the focus on whether Congress will enact a major infrastructure law to rebuild the United States’ roads, bridges, railways, etc., nobody seems to be paying attention to the elephant in the room: Even if the legislation is passed, where do we begin? You might be surprised to learn that the gig economy has an app for that.

We can and should hire professional consultants and other experts to review our infrastructure systems to see what needs the most immediate attention, but the sheer number of roads, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure in the U.S. makes the job of prioritizing daunting.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there are over 4 million miles of public roads, 617,000 bridges, 91,000 dams and 140,000 rail miles in the U.S. These are massive statistics.

So as soon as an infrastructure bill passes, the big questions will be: Where do we begin, and how do we set priorities — expeditiously and at minimum cost, at least for the first step? The next step would be to bring in professional engineers and experts to begin the rebuilding process.

There are some obvious examples of infrastructure systems needing immediate, prioritized attention (see the Sidney Sherman Bridge in Houston, which had to be shut down a few years ago for a corroded bridge bearing and was recently classified as “structurally deficient”).

Fortunately, there is another massive statistic out there that can help: 216 million. That is the approximate number of U.S. adults that own a smartphone. Pew Research Center recently found that 85% of all U.S. adults own a smartphone, which, needless to say, is the highest it’s ever been. Even enlisting just a small percentage of the 216 million smartphone users out there can help immensely with this task.

Federal, state and local governments can and should consider the awesome (and relatively inexpensive) power of our smartphones and the gig economy. Gig workers can be enlisted to use the smartphones that they already own to provide inspection data and photographs of the key identified roads, bridges, dams and rails in the 50 states. The data and photos they collect can then be instantly transmitted to a national database for review and evaluation by professional engineers and consultants.

I know this can be done because my colleagues and I have done this before. We tap into a worldwide network of gig workers (data collectors or data contributors) operating from an open source app and with full transparency.

Our projects have involved contributors photographing and documenting sewer access points, bridges, water access points and other infrastructure systems. We even partnered with a major nonprofit on behalf of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance to bolster its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program by providing rapid WASH needs assessments wherein our contributors can be mobilized on an emergency basis to provide photographs and other data on water access, sanitation and hygiene in Colombia.

Why can’t we do the same for bridges, roads, tunnels and other infrastructure here in the U.S.? This technology needs to be scaled, and we know it can be done.

It’s simple — and the solution is in plain sight. Our smartphones and gig workers allow us to set priorities using their photos and input from what their eyes are seeing, and then professional experts can follow up to begin implementation. There are already provisions in the Senate bill that could provide funding for this type of advanced technology research. And there is an ongoing need, even after repairs are done, to monitor the condition of our highways, bridges and tunnels.

Using this gig-worker-enabled smartphone technology will not only help our federal, state and local governments set priorities quickly; it will also allow thousands of everyday Americans to be part of the rebuilding process. This has the added benefit of democratizing the job of fixing our infrastructure and creating a grassroots movement of people using their own smartphones to help rebuild and repair U.S. infrastructure for the current and future generations.

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

Facebook finally made a good virtual reality app

Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.

The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.

This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.

The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.

Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.

It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”

Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.

Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.

The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.

Contact, a platform for creatives backed by Maisie Williams, raises $1.9M Seed led by Founders Fund

With the pandemic digitizing every aspect of our lives, the Creator Economy has taken off like never before, with some estimates saying it’s now a $100Bn+ market. And yet, managing your professional life as a model, actor, writer or designer remains a mish-mash of emails, manual booking processes, and dreaded PDFs. Creatives face late payments, often opaque industry practices, even as top talent agencies have collectively achieved a valuation of $20Bn in value. But while modeling talent can be charged as much as a 20-40% commission fee, social media has been gradually displacing traditional agencies by reducing the barriers to entry and making talent more accessible. However, as everyone knows, social media is nowhere near a place anyone can manage their career.

Late last year the Contact platform launched, initially offering models a way to take bookings and manage some aspects of their work. It’s now looking to address the wider problems referred to above, with a new round of funding involving some key players in the creative industries.

It’s backed and supported by Maisie Williams, best known for her work on Game of Thrones, who has become Creative Strategist and Advisor to the startup after becoming a passionate advocate for better conditions for creatives in the industry.

Contact has now raised a $1.9 million (£1.4 million) Seed round of funding led by Founders Fund. Also participating is LAUNCH (the fund led by investors Jason Calacanis), Sweet Capital (via Pippa Lamb), Rogue VC (via Alice Lloyd George) and Angel investors Simon Beckerman (co-founder of Depop), Eric Wahlforss (co-founder of SoundCloud and now Dance), Abe Burns and Joe White.

Although Contact’s initial incarnation is addressing the modeling world, its vision is far bigger. Contact co-founder and CEO Reuben Selby — a fashion designer who was formerly of William’s founding team, when she started her career — has worked with Nike, Thom Browne, and JW Anderson. He says the platform aims to become a scalable back-end solution across the $104.2 Billion Creator Economy, “democratizing” access to the world’s best creative talent.

Reuben Selby

Reuben Selby

Selby, who recently spoke about being a founder with autism is also the founder and creative director of his own label Reuben Selby, and co-founder of Cortex a creative agency and community. Selby is joined by CTO Josh McMillan previously of Deliveroo, Daisie, the Government Digital Service, and among others.

While its competitors might, broadly speaking, include Patreon, Creatively, and The Dots, it’s fair to say that Contact’s vision to bring many aspects of these platforms under one roof could be described as ambitious, it is also tantalising.

In a radical move for what is an industry dominated by agencies, individuals and businesses can discover and book creators and creative services directly, without going through an agency.

Contact initially launched its platform in October 2020 with the ability to discover and book fashion models, but post-fundraising plans to roll out other creative verticals such as photographers, stylists, videographers, and more.

Selby says the idea for Contact has been informed by his own personal experiences trying to break into the creative industry as a model, photographer, and creative director. After finding scant methods for secure and safe ways to get paid – while booking companies lacked basic technological tools – he realized that ‘middle-men’ and agencies were there main ones that benefitted, taking cuts on both sides and often still delivering a sub-par-product.

So how does Contact work?

When a Creator joins, they are able to showcase their portfolio across different creative services and take direct bookings.

A business can then browse and discover talent using filters, shortlist creative talent, providing details about the job, and book creators directly. Creatives can accept or reject jobs via the web platform or, soon, via a smartphone app. Once the job has been completed, the talent gets paid out via Contact.

Since soft-launching within the modeling vertical, Contact says it has onboarded almost 600 creatives and over 1,400 clients including Depop, Farfetch, Nike, Vivienne Westwood, and Vogue. Users of the platform have increased 100% YoY, says the startup.

Selby says Contact intends to remain in the background and allow the talent to brand itself independently across different verticals. Crucially, Contact does not take money from creators, only booking companies, from which it will levy a 20% fee on transactions.

Commenting, Trae Stephens, Partner at Founders Fund, said: “We are always excited when we find founders who seem to have been born to build a specific company. Reuben definitely seems like one of those founders. We are really excited to watch the company scale and expand into new creative verticals.”

Pippa Lamb, Partner at Sweet Capital, added: “The team at Contact have been pushing frontiers in the creator economy long before ‘the creator economy’ became a buzzword. Contact possesses a rare combination of world-class technical talent with the raw innovation of today’s most creative minds. We are excited about this next chapter.”

Williams, best known for playing Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, is no stranger to working on startups. She previously contributed to the Daisie platform, which continues to connect creators with one another to work on each others’ projects, helping creators find collaborators for their art.

But clearly her desire to disrupt the creative world largely controlled by ‘middle men’ was not sated by the experience.

Speaking to me in an exclusive interview, Williams and Selby outlined their vision:

Selby said the existing marketplace for models is just the start: “The vision has always been about creatives, and getting creatives paid for their work. We basically started out in one vertical, the modeling industry… and we’re in the process of rolling out new verticals so bringing on photographers, makeup artists, stylists, etc. But that’s a very very small part of the overall vision.”

He said the focus now is “on the distribution of work, how that relationship works with that audience, how they can monetize it. So it’s basically giving them a toolkit to monetize their creativity rather than just the physical constraints. That’s what we’re exploring right now. We have this marketplace but we see that as being a very small part, but the larger piece.”

He said the marketplace model can connect brands directly to creators or creatives, but, he said, brands continue to have a great deal of power: “The creators are just sitting there waiting for somebody to give them something. So we’re now working out how they can just distribute by their own work and monetize it in their own ways, with the back end of how all of the logistics work, and the operational side handled by the product that we’ve built, handling the payments and the licensing and insurance.”

Despite being a major Hollywood star, Williams told me the creative and entertainment industry she’s familiar with and works in remains stuck in an old world of emails and links, rather than the kinds of platforms the tech industry is used to building and using: “Being someone who has been represented by talent agencies for my career, that whole interaction online is emails. At no point are any of the assets digitised. There’s no ‘vault’ where all of my scripts go. There’s no place where I can upload all of my audition tapes. It’s always just a link in an email. There’s not really an industry standard. From an agency perspective, none of the work that they is very streamlined or directional.”

She says that need to change: “There’s a casting process and at the moment, and it’s a hugely dated way of doing things between the casting directors and the actors, the writers etc. We want to build a very streamlined process.”

Speaking about the investors he’s assembled to back Contact, Selby said the team chose Founders Fund to be their lead investor because of their approach: “The way that they work with founders… I found that personally very empowering. [They] give you a lot of freedom and space to think creatively. So there was a clear alignment.”

Talking about the other Angel investors in the round he said: “People like Eric and Simon are majorly connected in fashion and music culture in general.”

Speaking about how the entertainment industry might react to Contact, Williams said: “Actors have many other things that they do. Being able to have a platform that they can monetize all those other things is really important, especially because, as an actor you spend a lot of time unemployed.” But said the system is constructed in such as a way that “you’re only valuable as the auditions your agent puts you up for. It’s not very inspiring or rewarding. So a lot of actors make their own shows on streaming platforms or create their own documentaries or sell their work in other ways.”

She said Contact wants to be able to facilitate that through the platform, and for creatives to have more independence: “The film industry and the music industry is full of incredibly talented people who are multi-talented across many different industries. But they are still, kind of held by representatives and agencies and record labels or managers who have a lot of power in, sort of, keeping them ‘small’. Being able to introduce something which can offer so many other tools, I think, is really important.”

It’s clear that the vision Selby, his co-founders, and Williams have, is very big. The question is, will they be able to pull it off?

It has to be said, however, that the combination of a passionate Gen-Z-influential team (with added star power), a full-blown technology platform, heavyweight US investors, and Angels pulled from creative industries certainly points to the potential for success.

Privacy-oriented search app Xayn raises $12M from Japanese backers to go into devices

Back in December 2020 we covered the launch of a new kind of smartphone app-based search engine, Xayn.

“A search engine?!” I hear you say? Well, yes, because despite the convenience of modern search engines’ ability to tailor their search results to the individual, this user-tracking comes at the expense of privacy. This mass surveillance might be what improves Google’s search engine and Facebook’s ad targeting, to name just two examples, but it’s not very good for our privacy.

Internet users are admittedly able to switch to the U.S.-based DuckDuckGo, or perhaps France’s Qwant, but what they gain in privacy, they often lose in user experience and the relevance of search results, through this lack of tailoring.

What Berlin-based Xayn has come up with is personalized, but a privacy-safe web search on smartphones, which replaces the cloud-based AI employed by Google et al. with the innate AI in-built into modern smartphones. The result is that no data about you is uploaded to Xayn’s servers.

And this approach is not just for “privacy freaks”. Businesses that need search but don’t need Google’s dominant market position are increasingly attracted by this model.

And the evidence comes today with the news that Xayn has now raised almost $12 million in Series A funding led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and KDDI (a Japanese telecommunications operator), with participation from previous backers, including the Earlybird VC in Berlin. Xayn’s total financing now comes to more than $23 million.

It would appear that Xayn’s fusion of a search engine, a discovery feed and a mobile browser has appealed to these Asian market players, particularly because Xayn can be built into OEM devices.

The result of the investment is that Xayn will now also focus on the Asian market, starting with Japan, as well as Europe.

Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-founder and CEO of Xayn said: “We proved with Xayn that you can have it all: great results through personalization, privacy by design through advanced technology and a convenient user experience through clean design.”

He added: “In an industry in which selling data and delivering ads en masse are the norm, we choose to lead with privacy instead and put user satisfaction front and center.”

The funding comes as legislation such as the EU’s GDPR or California’s CCPA have both raised public awareness about personal data online.

Since its launch, Xayn says its app has been downloaded around 215,000 times worldwide, and a web version of its app is expected soon.

Over a call, Lundbæk expanded on the KDDI aspect of the fund-raising: “The partnership with KDDI means we will give users access to Xayn for free, while the corporate — such as KDDI — is the actual customer but gives our search engine away for free.”

The core features of Xayn include personalized search results; a personalized feed of the entire internet, which learns from their Tinder-like swipes, without collecting or sharing personal data; and an ad-free experience.

Naoki Kamimeada, partner at Global Brain Corporation said: “The market for private online search is growing, but Xayn is head and shoulders above everyone else because of the way they’re re-thinking how finding information online should be.”

Kazuhiko Chuman, head of KDDI Open Innovation Fund, said: “This European discovery engine uniquely combines efficient AI with a privacy-protecting focus and a smooth user experience. At KDDI, we’re constantly on the lookout for companies that can shape the future with their expertise and technology. That’s why it was a perfect match for us.”

In addition to the three co-founders (Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, chief executive officer, Professor Michael Huth, chief research officer, and Felix Hahmann, chief operations officer), Dr Daniel von Heyl will come on board as chief financial officer. Frank Pepermans will take on the role of chief technology officer and Michael Briggs will join as chief growth officer.

This Week in Apps: In-app events hit the App Store, TikTok tries Stories, Apple reveals new child safety plan

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple to scan for CSAM imagery

Apple announced a major initiative to scan devices for CSAM imagery. The company on Thursday announced a new set of features, arriving later this year, that will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in its cloud and report it to law enforcement. Companies like Dropbox, Google and Microsoft already scan for CSAM in their cloud services, but Apple had allowed users to encrypt their data before it reached iCloud. Now, Apple’s new technology, NeuralHash, will run on users’ devices, tatformso detect when a users upload known CSAM imagery — without having to first decrypt the images. It even can detect the imagery if it’s been cropped or edited in an attempt to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, on iPhone and iPad, the company will roll out protections to Messages app users that will filter images and alert children and parents if sexually explicit photos are sent to or from a child’s account. Children will not be shown the images but will instead see a grayed-out image instead. If they try to view the image anyway through the link, they’ll be shown interruptive screens that explain why the material may be harmful and are warned that their parents will be notified.

Some privacy advocates pushed back at the idea of such a system, believing it could expand to end-to-end encrypted photos, lead to false positives, or set the stage for more on-device government surveillance in the future. But many cryptology experts believe the system Apple developed provides a good balance between privacy and utility, and have offered their endorsement of the technology. In addition, Apple said reports are manually reviewed before being sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The changes may also benefit iOS developers who deal in user photos and uploads, as predators will no longer store CSAM imagery on iOS devices in the first place, given the new risk of detection.

In-App Events appear on the App Store

Image Credits: Apple

Though not yet publicly available to all users, those testing the new iOS 15 mobile operating system got their first glimpse of a new App Store discovery feature this week: “in-app events.” First announced at this year’s WWDC, the feature will allow developers and Apple editors alike to showcase directly on the App Store upcoming events taking place inside apps.

The events can appear on the App Store homepage, on the app’s product pages or can be discovered through personalized recommendations and search. In some cases, editors will curate events to feature on the App Store. But developers will also be provided tools to submit their own in-app events. TikTok’s “Summer Camp” for creators was one of the first in-app events to be featured, where it received a top spot on the iPadOS 15 App Store.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands support for student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch ahead of the fall semester. Tens of thousands more U.S. and Canadian colleges will now support mobile student IDs in the Apple Wallet app, including Auburn University, Northern Arizona University, University of Maine, New Mexico State University and others.

Apple was accused of promoting scam apps in the App Store’s featured section. The company’s failure to properly police its store is one thing, but to curate an editorial list that actually includes the scams is quite another. One of the games rounded up under “Slime Relaxations,” an already iffy category to say the least, was a subscription-based slime simulator that locked users into a $13 AUD per week subscription for its slime simulator. One of the apps on the curated list didn’t even function, implying that Apple’s editors hadn’t even tested the apps they recommend.

Tax changes hit the App Store. Apple announced tax and price changes for apps and IAPs in South Africa, the U.K. and all territories using the Euro currency, all of which will see decreases. Increases will occur in Georgia and Tajikistan, due to new tax changes. Proceeds on the App Store in Italy will be increased to reflect a change to the Digital Services Tax effective rate.

Game Center changes, too. Apple said that on August 4, a new certificate for server-based Game Center verification will be available via the publicKeyUrl.

Fintech

Robinhood stock jumped more than 24% to $46.80 on Tuesday after initially falling 8% on its first day of trading last week, after which it had continued to trade below its opening price of $38.

Square’s Cash app nearly doubled its gross profit to $546 million in Q2, but also reported a $45 million impairment loss on its bitcoin holdings.

Coinbase’s app now lets you buy your cryptocurrency using Apple Pay. The company previously made its Coinbase Card compatible with Apple Pay in June.

Social

An anonymous app called Sendit, which relies on Snap Kit to function, is climbing the charts of the U.S. App Store after Snap suspended similar apps, YOLO and LMK. Snap was sued by the parent of child who was bullied through those apps, which led to his suicide. Sendit also allows for anonymity, and reviews compare it to YOLO. But some reviews also complained about bullying. This isn’t the first time Snap has been involved in a lawsuit related to a young person’s death related to its app. The company was also sued for its irresponsible “speed filter” that critics said encouraged unsafe driving. Three young men died using the filter, which captured them doing 123 mph.

TikTok is testing Stories. As Twitter’s own Stories integrations, Fleets, shuts down, TikTok confirmed it’s testing its own Stories product. The TikTok Stories appear in a left-hand sidebar and allow users to post ephemeral images or video that disappear in 24 hours. Users can also comment on Stories, which are public to their mutual friends and the creator. Stories on TikTok may make more sense than they did on Twitter, as TikTok is already known as a creative platform and it gives the app a more familiar place to integrate its effects toolset and, eventually, advertisements.

Facebook has again re-arranged its privacy settings. The company continually moves around where its privacy features are located, ostensibly to make them easier to find. But users then have to re-learn where to go to find the tools they need, after they had finally memorized the location. This time, the settings have been grouped into six top-level categories, but “privacy” settings have been unbundled from one location to be scattered among the other categories.

A VICE report details ban-as-a-service operations that allow anyone to harass or censor online creators on Instagram. Assuming you can find it, one operation charged $60 per ban, the listing says.

TikTok merged personal accounts with creator accounts. The change means now all non-business accounts on TikTok will have access to the creator tools under Settings, including Analytics, Creator Portal, Promote and Q&A. TikTok shared the news directly with subscribers of its TikTok Creators newsletter in August, and all users will get a push notification alerting them to the change, the company told us.

Discord now lets users customize their profile on its apps. The company added new features to its iOS and Android apps that let you add a description, links and emojis and select a profile color. Paid subscribers can also choose an image or GIF as their banner.

Twitter Spaces added a co-hosting option that allows up to two co-hosts to be added to the live audio chat rooms. Now Spaces can have one main host, two co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Co-hosts have all the moderation abilities as hosts, but can’t add or remove others as co-hosts.

Messaging

Tencent reopened new user sign-ups for its WeChat messaging app, after having suspended registrations last week for unspecified “technical upgrades.” The company, like many other Chinese tech giants, had to address new regulations from Beijing impacting the tech industry. New rules address how companies handle user data collection and storage, antitrust behavior and other checks on capitalist “excess.” The gaming industry is now worried it’s next to be impacted, with regulations that would restrict gaming for minors to fight addiction.

WhatsApp is adding a new feature that will allow users to send photos and videos that disappear after a single viewing. The Snapchat-inspired feature, however, doesn’t alert you if the other person takes a screenshot — as Snap’s app does. So it may not be ideal for sharing your most sensitive content.

Telegram’s update expands group video calls to support up to 1,000 viewers. It also announced video messages can be recorded in higher quality and can be expanded, regular videos can be watched at 0.5 or 2x speed, screen sharing with sound is available for all video calls, including 1-on-1 calls, and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

American Airlines added free access to TikTok aboard its Viasat-equipped aircraft. Passengers will be able to watch the app’s videos for up to 30 minutes for free and can even download the app if it’s not already installed. After the free time, they can opt to pay for Wi-Fi to keep watching. Considering how easy it is to fall into multi-hour TikTok viewing sessions without knowing it, the addition of the addictive app could make long plane rides feel shorter. Or at least less painful.

Chinese TikTok rival Kuaishou saw stocks fall by more than 15% in Hong Kong, the most since its February IPO. The company is another victim of an ongoing market selloff triggered by increasing investor uncertainty related to China’s recent crackdown on tech companies. Beijing’s campaign to rein in tech has also impacted Tencent, Alibaba, Jack Ma’s Ant Group, food delivery company Meituan and ride-hailing company Didi. Also related, Kuaishou shut down its controversial app Zynn, which had been paying users to watch its short-form videos, including those stolen from other apps.

Twitch overtook YouTube in consumer spending per user in April 2021, and now sees $6.20 per download as of June compared with YouTube’s $5.60, Sensor Tower found.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Spotify confirmed tests of a new ad-supported tier called Spotify Plus, which is only $0.99 per month and offers unlimited skips (like free users get on the desktop) and the ability to play the songs you want, instead of only being forced to use shuffle mode.

The company also noted in a forum posting that it’s no longer working on AirPlay2 support, due to “audio driver compatibility” issues.

Mark Cuban-backed audio app Fireside asked its users to invest in the company via an email sent to creators which didn’t share deal terms. The app has yet to launch.

YouTube kicks off its $100 million Shorts Fund aimed at taking on TikTok by providing creators with cash incentives for top videos. Creators will get bonuses of $100 to $10,000 based on their videos’ performance.

Dating

Match Group announced during its Q2 earnings it plans to add to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. Since then, Match was spotted testing group live video on Tinder, but says that particular product is not launching in the near-term. At least two brands will see Hyperconnect-powered integrations in 2021.

Photos

The Photo & Video category on U.S. app stores saw strong growth in the first half of the year, a Sensor Tower report found. Consumer spend among the top 100 apps grew 34% YoY to $457 million in Q2 2021, with the majority of the revenue (83%) taking place on iOS.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Gaming

Epic Games revealed the host of its in-app Rift Tour event is Ariana Grande, in the event that runs August 6-8.

Pokémon GO influencers threatened to boycott the game after Niantic removed the COVID safety measures that had allowed people to more easily play while social distancing. Niantic’s move seemed ill-timed, given the Delta variant is causing a new wave of COVID cases globally.

Health & Fitness

Apple kicked out an app called Unjected from the App Store. The new social app billed itself as a community for the unvaccinated, allowing like-minded users to connect for dating and friendships. Apple said the app violated its policies for COVID-19 content.

Google Pay expanded support for vaccine cards. In Australia, Google’s payments app now allows users to add their COVID-19 digital certification to their device for easy access. The option is available through Google’s newly updated Passes API which lets government agencies distribute digital versions of vaccine cards.

COVID Tech Connect, a U.S. nonprofit initially dedicated to collecting devices like phones and tablets for COVID ICU patients, has now launched its own app. The app, TeleHome, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way for patients to place a video call for free at a time when the Delta variant is again filling ICU wards, this time with the unvaccinated — a condition that sometimes overlaps with being low-income. Some among the working poor have been hesitant to get the shot because they can’t miss a day of work, and are worried about side effects. Which is why the Biden administration offered a tax credit to SMBs who offered paid time off to staff to get vaccinated and recover.

Popular journaling app Day One, which was recently acquired by WordPress.com owner Automattic, rolled out a new “Concealed Journals” feature that lets users hide content from others’ viewing. By tapping the eye icon, the content can be easily concealed on a journal by journal basis, which can be useful for those who write to their journal in public, like coffee shops or public transportation.

Edtech

Recently IPO’d language learning app Duolingo is developing a math app for kids. The company says it’s still “very early” in the development process, but will announce more details at its annual conference, Duocon, later this month.

Educational publisher Pearson launched an app that offers U.S. students access to its 1,500 titles for a monthly subscription of $14.99. the Pearson+ mobile app (ack, another +), also offers the option of paying $9.99 per month for access to a single textbook for a minimum of four months.

News & Reading

Quora jumps into the subscription economy. Still not profitable from ads alone, Quora announced two new products that allow its expert creators to monetize their content on its service. With Quora+ ($5/mo or $50/yr), subscribers can pay for any content that a creator paywalls. Creators can choose to enable a adaptive paywall that will use an algorithm to determine when to show the paywall. Another product, Spaces, lets creators write paywalled publications on Quora, similar to Substack. But only a 5% cut goes to Quora, instead of 10% on Substack.

Utilities

Google Maps on iOS added a new live location-sharing feature for iMessage users, allowing them to more easily show your ETA with friends and even how much battery life you have left. The feature competes with iMessage’s built-in location-sharing feature, and offers location sharing of 1 hour up to 3 days. The app also gained a dark mode.

Security & Privacy

Controversial crime app Citizen launched a $20 per month “Protect” service that includes live agent support (who can refer calls to 911 if need be). The agents can gather your precise location, alert your designated emergency contacts, help you navigate to a safe location and monitor the situation until you feel safe. The system of live agent support is similar to in-car or in-home security and safety systems, like those from ADT or OnStar, but works with users out in the real world. The controversial part, however, is the company behind the product: Citizen has been making headlines for launching private security fleets outside law enforcement, and recently offered a reward in a manhunt for an innocent person based on unsubstantiated tips.

Funding and M&A

🤝 Square announced its acquisition of the “buy now, pay later” giant AfterPay in a $29 billion deal that values the Australian firm at more than 30% higher than the stock’s last closing price of AUS$96.66. AfterPay has served over 16 million customers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, to date, and comes at a time when the BNPL space is heating up. Apple has also gotten into the market recently with an Affirm partnership in Canada.

🤝 Gaming giant Zynga acquired Chinese game developer StarLark, the team behind the mobile golf game Golf Rival, from Betta Games for $525 million in both cash and stock. Golf Rival is the second-largest mobile golf game behind Playdemic’s Golf Clash, and EA is in the process of buying that studio for $1.4 billion.

💰  U.K.-based Humanity raised an additional $2.5 million for its app that claims to help slow down aging, bringing the total raise to date to $5 million. Backers include Calm’s co-founders, MyFitness Pal’s co-founder and others in the health space. The app works by benchmarking health advice against real-world data, to help users put better health practices into action.

💰 YELA, a Cameo-like app for the Middle East and South Asia, raised $2 million led by U.S. investors that include Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, general partner of RAD Fund. The app is focusing on signing celebrities in the regions it serves, where smartphone penetration is high and over 6% of the population is under 35.

💰 London-based health and wellness app maker Palta raised a $100 million Series B led by VNV Global. The company’s products include Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, Zing Fitness Coach and others, which reach a combined 2.4 million active, paid subscribers. The funds will be used to create more mobile subscription products.

🤝 Emoji database and Wikipedia-like site Emojipedia was acquired by Zedge, the makers of a phone personalization app offering wallpapers, ringtones and more to 35 million MAUs. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. Emojipedia says the deal provides it with more stability and the opportunity for future growth. For Zedge, the deal provides🤨….um, a popular web resource it thinks it can better monetize, we suspect.

💰 Mental health app Revery raised $2 million led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for its app that combines cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with mobile gaming concepts. The company will focus on other mental health issues in the future.

💰 London-based Nigerian-operating fintech startup Kuda raised a $55 million Series B, valuing its mobile-first challenger bank at $500 million. The inside round was co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global.

💰 Vietnamese payments provider VNLife raised $250 million in a round led by U.S.-based General Atlantic and Dragoneer Investment Group. PayPal Ventures and others also participated. The round values the business at over $1 billion.

Downloads

Mastodon for iPhone

Fans of decentralized social media efforts now have a new app. The nonprofit behind the open source decentralized social network Mastodon released an official iPhone app, aimed at making the network more accessible to newcomers. The app allows you to find and follow people and topics; post text, images, GIFs, polls, and videos; and get notified of new replies and reblogs, much like Twitter.

Xingtu

@_666eveITS SO COOL FRFR do u guys want a tutorial? #fypシ #醒图 #醒图app♬ original sound – Ian Asher

TikTok users are teaching each other how to switch over to the Chinese App Store in order to get ahold of the Xingtu app for iOS. (An Android version is also available.) The app offers advanced editing tools that let users edit their face and body, like FaceTune, apply makeup, add filters and more. While image-editing apps can be controversial for how they can impact body acceptance, Xingtu offers a variety of artistic filters which is what’s primarily driving the demand. It’s interesting to see the lengths people will go to just to get a few new filters for their photos — perhaps making a case for Instagram to finally update its Post filters instead of pretending no one cares about their static photos anymore.

Tweets

Facebook still dominating top charts, but not the No. 1 spot:  

Not cool, Apple: 

This user acquisition strategy: 

Maybe Stories don’t work everywhere: 

YELA secures $2M to reproduce Cameo’s celebrity success with an app for the Middle East

The Cameo app, where celebrities send video messages to paying fans, has taken off globally. But now the concept is set to come to the Middle East and South Asia.

Tech startup YELA has secured $2 million in investment to support its launch, and will — similar to Cameo — offer users the opportunity to get close to their idols via voice, video and direct text messages.

The investment is led by U.S investors Justin Mateen (co-founder of Tinder) and general partner of JAM Fund, joined by Sean Rad (co-founder Tinder) and general partner of RAD Fund. Participation from the U.S. also includes Graph Ventures, championed by Razmig Hovaghimian (board member at Rakuten). In addition, U.K investment comes from Samos Fund, Ascension Ventures, and from MENA-based Hambro Perks Oryx Fund, who joined the round.

The twist is that YELA plans to sign some big celebrities known in the region, but less so in the Western world. That doesn’t mean the market is small. There are over 365 million Arabic speakers online and over 65% of the population is under 35. Meanwhile, smartphone penetration is very high.

Alex Eid, CEO and co-founder of YELA said: “There is a huge appetite in the MENA market for a premium offering in the creator space.”

He said YELA has onboarded high-profile celebrities, confirming A-list signees including Amr Diab, the multiaward-winning Egyptian singer, and Haifa Wehbe, three-time Big Apple Music Award winner, amongst others.

YELA will launch in August 2021 with prices starting from $100.

The RapidSOS EC-1

Three digits, so little time.

Numbers can take on profound cultural significance, but few numbers have quite the resonance as 911, the emergency number for the United States. Few want to dial it, but when they must, it works — every single time. One industry trade association estimates that 240 million 911 phone calls are made every year, ranging from the quotidian loud dog to the exceptional terrorist attack.

While it may be a singular number, 911 calls are directed to roughly 5,700 public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country, all with independent operations, variegated equipment, disparate software, multifarious organizational structures, and vast inequalities of staffing and resources.

“Every 911 center is very different and they are as diverse and unique as the communities that they serve,” Karin Marquez, who we will meet later, put it. You have massive urban centers with dozens of staffers and the best equipment, and “you have agencies in rural America that have one person working 24/7 and they’re there to answer three calls a day.”

These organizations face a tough challenge: Transitioning their systems to incorporate information from billions of new consumer devices into the heart of 911 response. Location from mobile GPS, medical information from health profiles, video footage from cameras — all of this could be useful when police, firefighters and paramedics arrive on a scene. But how do you connect hundreds of tech companies to a myriad of 911 technology providers?

Over the last eight years, RapidSOS has become the go-to solution for addressing this problem. With more than $190 million raised, including an $85 million round this past February, RapidSOS now covers nearly 5,000 PSAPs and processes more than 150 million emergencies every year, and it’s technology is almost certainly integrated into the smartphone you’re carrying and many of the devices you have lying around (the company counts about 350 million connected devices with its software).

Yet, like many emergencies, the company’s story is one of reverses, misdirections and urgency as its founders worked to find a model to jump-start 911 response. RapidSOS may well be the only startup to pivot from a consumer app to a govtech/enterprise hybrid, and it has the most extensive directory of partnerships and integration relationships of any startup I have ever seen. Now, as it expands to Mexico, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, this startup with its roots in a rural farm in Indiana, is redefining emergency response globally for the 21st Century.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Danny Crichton. In addition to being the EC-1 series editor, managing editor at TechCrunch, and regularly talking about himself in the third person, Danny has been writing about disaster tech and first covered RapidSOS back in 2015 prior to its public launch. The lead editor for this story was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

RapidSOS had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Crichton has no financial ties to RapidSOS, and his ethics disclosure statement is available here.

The RapidSOS EC-1 comprises four articles numbering 12,400 words and a reading time of 50 minutes. Here are the topics we’ll be dialing into:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].

China Roundup: Kai-Fu Lee’s first Europe bet, WeRide buys a truck startup

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

Despite the geopolitical headwinds for foreign tech firms to enter China, many companies, especially those that find a dependable partner, are still forging ahead. For this week’s roundup, I’m including a conversation I had with Prophesee, a French vision technology startup, which recently got funding from Kai-Fu Lee and Xiaomi, along with the usual news digest.

Spotting opportunities in China

Like many companies working on futuristic, cutting-edge tech in Europe, Prophesee was a spinout from university research labs. Previously, I covered two such companies from Sweden: Imint, which improves smartphone video production through deep learning, and Dirac, an expert in sound optimization.

The three companies have two things in common: They are all in niche fields, and they have all found eager customers in China.

For Prophesee, they are production lines, automakers and smartphone companies in China looking for breakthroughs in perception technology, which will in turn improve how their robots respond to the environment. So it’s unsurprising that Xiaomi and Chinese chip-focused investment firm Inno-Chip backed Prophesee in its latest funding round, which was led by Sinovation Venture.

The funding size was undisclosed but TechCrunch learned it was in the range of “tens of million USD.” It was also the first investment that Kai-Fu Lee has made through Sinovation in Europe. As Prophesee CEO Luca Verre recalled:

I met Dr. Kai-Fu Lee three years ago during the World Economic Forum … and when I pitched to him about Prophesee, he got very intrigued. And then over the past three years, actually, we kept in touch and last year, given the growing traction we were having in China, particularly in the mobile and IoT industry, he decided to jump in. He said okay, it is now the right timing Prophesee becomes big.

The Paris-based company wasn’t actively seeking funding, but it believed having Chinese strategic investors could help it gain greater access to the complex market.

Rather than sending information collected by sensors and cameras to computing platforms, Prophesee fits that process inside a chip (fabricated by Sony) that mimics the human eyes, a technology that is built upon neuromorphic engineering.

The old method snaps a collection of fixed images so when information grows in volume, a tremendous amount of computing power is needed. In contrast, Prophesee’s sensors, which it describes as “event-based,” only pick up changes in the environment just as the photoreceptors in our eyes and can process information continuously and quickly.

Europe has been pioneering neuromorphic computing, but in recent years, Verre saw a surge in research coming from Chinese universities and tech firms, which reaffirmed his confidence in the market’s appetite.

We see Chinese OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo pushing the standard of quality of image quality to very, very high … They are very eager to adopt new technology to further differentiate in a way which is faster and more aggressive than Apple. Apple is a company with an attitude which to me looks more similar to Huawei. So maybe for some technology, it takes more time to see the technology mature and adopt, which is right very often but later. So I’m sure that Apple will come at certain point with some products integrating event-based technology. In fact, we see them moving. We see them filing patents in the space. I’m sure that will come, but maybe not the first.

Though China is striving for technological independence, Verre believed Prophesee’s addressable market is large enough — $20 billion by his estimate. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d be “naive to believe Prophesee will be the only one to capture” this opportunity.

WeRide bought a truck company

One of China’s most valuable robotaxi startups has just acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX. The size of the deal is undisclosed, but we know that MoonX raised “tens of millions RMB” 15 months ago in a Series A round.

While WeRide is focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, it is also finding new monetization avenues before its robotaxis can chauffeur people at scale. It’s done so by developing minibusses, and the MoonX acqui-hire, which brings the company’s founder and over 50 engineers to WeRide, will likely help diversify its revenue pool.

WeRide and MoonX have deep-rooted relationships. Their respective founders, Tony Han and Yang Qingxiong, worked side by side at Jingchi, which was later rebranded to WeRide. Han co-founded Jingchi and took the helm as CEO in March 2018 while Yang was assigned vice president of engineering. But Yang soon quit and started MoonX.

Han, a Baidu veteran, gave Yang a warm homecoming and put him in charge of the firm’s research institute and its new office in Shenzhen, home to MoonX. WeRide’s sprawling headquarters is just about an hour’s drive away in the adjacent city of Guangzhou.

AI surveillance giant Cloudwalk nears IPO

Cloudwalk belongs to a cohort of Chinese unicorns that flourished through the second half of the 2010s by selling computer vision technology to government agencies across China. Together, Cloudwalk and its rivals SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu were dubbed the “four AI dragons” for their fast ascending valuations and handsome funding rounds.

Of course, the term “AI dragon” is now a misnomer as AI application becomes so pervasive across industries. Investors soon realized these upstarts need to diversify revenue streams beyond smart city contracts, and they’ve been waiting anxiously for exits. Finally, here comes Cloudwalk, which will likely be the first in its cohort to go public.

Cloudwalk’s application to raise 3.75 billion yuan ($580 million) from an IPO on the Shanghai STAR board was approved this week, though it can still be months before it starts trading. The firm’s financials don’t look particularly rosy for investors, with net loss amounting to 720 million yuan in 2020.

Also in the news

  • Speaking of the torrent of news in autonomous driving, vehicle vision provider CalmCar said this week that it has raised $150 million in a Series C round. Founded by several overseas Chinese returnees in 2016, CalmCar uses deep learning to develop ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) used in automotive, industrial and surveillance scenarios. German auto parts maker ZF led the round.
  • Baby clothes direct-to-consumer brand PatPat said it has raised $510 million from Series C and D rounds. The D2C ecosystem leveraging China’s robust supply chains is increasingly gaining interest from venture capitalists. Brands like Shein, PatPat, Cider and Outer have all secured fundings from established VCs. Founded by three Carnegie Mellon grads, PatPat counts IDG Capital, General Atlantic, DST Global, GGV Capital, SIG China and Sequoia China among its investors.