Spotify acquires Podz, a podcast discovery platform

Podcasts are all the rage, but podcast discovery is a challenge. Today, Spotify announced its acquisition of Podz, a startup that’s trying to solve the problem of podcast discovery.

“At Spotify, we are investing to build and scale the world’s best (and most personalized) podcast discovery experience,” the company said. “We believe that Podz’ technology will complement and accelerate Spotify’s focused efforts to drive discovery, deliver listeners the right content at the right time, and accelerate growth of the category worldwide.”

Since podcasts are usually upwards of 30 minutes long, it’s hard for listeners to browse new shows – listening to an episode of a podcast isn’t as easy as trying out a song by a new artist. So, Podz developed what it called “the first audio newsfeed,” presenting users with 60-second clips from various shows. Podcasters often use apps like Headliner to create clips to promote on their social media accounts, and Podz follows the same idea. But instead of podcasters manually choosing how to promote their show, Podz chooses a clip using its machine learning model, which was trained on more than 100,000 hours of audio in consultation with journalists and audio editors.

Podz demo

Image Credits: Podz

Before its acquisition by Spotify, Podz raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding from M13, Canaan Partners, Charge Ventures, and Humbition. Celebrities like Katie Couric and Paris Hilton also invested.

“Already, the average podcast listener subscribes to seven podcasts but follows almost 30 on Podz,” M13 General Partner Latif Peracha told TechCrunch via email in February. “Early signals make us optimistic the team can build a transformative product in the category.”

This acquisition marks yet another sign of Spotify’s ambition to corner the podcasting market, and audio entertainment in general – just yesterday, Spotify debuted Greenroom, its live audio Clubhouse rival. And when it comes to driving revenue from podcast subscriptions, Spotify and Apple are neck and neck. In April, Apple announced its expansion into podcast subscriptions, and the following week, Spotify began rolling out its subscription platform after teasing it in February. Apple said it will take 30% of podcast revenue in the first year, which will drop to 15% in the second. On the other hand, Spotify’s program won’t take any cut from creators until 2023, when it will take 5%.

Though podcast creators can quickly determine that it might prove more beneficial to surrender 5% of their subscription earnings than 30%, listeners will likely just flock to whatever app provides the best user experience – and if Spotify’s investment in discovery pays off, it could pose trouble for Apple’s longstanding dominance in the podcasting medium.

US lawmakers want to restrict police use of ‘Stingray’ cell tower simulators

According to BuzzFeed News, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Ted Lieu will introduce legislation later today that seeks to restrict police use of international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers. More commonly known as Stingrays, police frequently use IMSI catchers and cell-site simulators to collect information on suspects and intercept calls, SMS messages and other forms of communication. Law enforcement agencies in the US currently do not require a warrant to use the technology. The Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2021 seeks to change that.

IMSI catchers mimic cell towers to trick mobile phones into connecting with them. Once connected, they can collect data a device sends out, including its location and subscriber identity key. Cell-site simulators pose a two-fold problem.

The first is that they’re surveillance blunt instruments. When used in a populated area, IMSI catchers can collect data from bystanders. The second is that they can also pose a safety risk to the public. The reason for this is that while IMSI catchers act like a cell tower, they don’t function as one, and they can’t transfer calls to a public wireless network. They can therefore prevent a phone from connecting to 9-1-1. Despite the dangers they pose, their use is widespread. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union found at least 75 agencies in 27 states and the District of Columbia owned IMSI catchers.

In trying to address those concerns, the proposed legislation would make it so that law enforcement agencies would need to make a case before a judge on why they should be allowed to use the technology. They would also need to explain why other surveillance methods wouldn’t be as effective. Moreover, it seeks to ensure those agencies delete any data they collect from those not listed on a warrant.

Although the bill reportedly doesn’t lay out a time limit on IMSI catcher use, it does push agencies to use the devices for the least amount of time possible. It also details exceptions where police could use the technology without a warrant. For instance, it would leave the door open for law enforcement to use the devices in contexts like bomb threats where an IMSI catcher can prevent a remote detonation.

“Our bipartisan bill ends the secrecy and uncertainty around Stingrays and other cell-site simulators and replaces it with clear, transparent rules for when the government can use these invasive surveillance devices,” Senator Ron Wyden told BuzzFeed News.

The bill has support from some Republicans. Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Representative Tom McClintock of California are co-sponsoring the proposed legislation. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have also endorsed the bill.

This article was originally published on Engadget.

 

Following lawsuits, Snapchat pulls its controversial speed filter

Lately, Snapchat’s 3D Cartoon lens has been all the buzz, making all of our friends look like Pixar characters. But since 2013, a staple filter on the ephemeral photo-sharing app has been the speed filter, which shows how fast a phone is moving when it takes a photo or video. Today, Snapchat confirmed that it will pull the filter from the app.

NPR first reported this today, calling it a “dramatic reversal” of Snap’s earlier defense of the feature. Over the years, there have been multiple car accidents, injuries and deaths that were related to the use of the filter. In 2016, for instance, an 18-year-old took a Snapchat selfie while driving, then struck another driver’s car at 107 miles per hour. The other driver, Maynard Wentworth, suffered traumatic brain injuries and sued Snap. His lawyer said that the 18-year-old “was just trying to get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat.”

Snapchat’s filter-related offenses don’t begin and end here. Last year on Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery, Snapchat released a filter that prompted users to “smile to break the chains.” On 4/20 in 2016, Snapchat partnered with Bob Marley’s estate to release a feature that gave users dreadlocks and darker skin, committing blackface. And even after Snapchat’s speed filter was linked to fatal car accidents, it remained available in the app with a simple “don’t snap and drive” warning.

“Today the sticker is barely used by Snapchatters, and in light of that, we are removing it altogether,” a spokesperson from Snap said, adding that the feature had previously been disabled at driving speeds. The company has begun removing the filter, but it might take several weeks to take full effect.

This new stance from Snap comes after the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court found in May that the company can be sued for its role in a fatal car accident.

Generally, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites, or “interactive computer services,” from lawsuits like this, providing immunity for these platforms from third-party content posted on them. But in 2019, the parents of two children killed in crashes — Landen Brown and Hunter Morby — filed another lawsuit. They argued that the app’s “negligent design” (including a speed filter to begin with) contributed to the crash. A California judge dismissed the case, citing Section 230, but in May of this year, three judges on the federal Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruled that Section 230 actually doesn’t apply here. The conflict isn’t with Snapchat’s role as a social media platform, but rather, the app’s design, which includes a demonstrably dangerous speed filter.

So, the sudden removal of the speed filter isn’t as random as it may seem. Now that their Section 230 defense is no longer, it makes sense that keeping the filter isn’t worth the legal risk. You’d think that the filter-related accidents would have been enough for Snapchat to take down the filter years ago, but better late than never.

Anduril raises $450M as the defense tech company’s valuation soars to $4.6B

The AI-powered defense company founded by tech iconoclast Palmer Luckey has landed a $450 million round of investment that values the startup at $4.6 billion just four years in.

In April, reports suggested that the company was on the hunt for fresh investment and headed for a valuation between four and five billion, up from $1.9 billion in July 2020.

The new Series D round was led by angel investor and serial entrepreneur Elad Gil, a former Twitter VP and Googler with a track record of investments in companies with exponential growth. Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, 8VC, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, Valor Equity Partners and D1 Capital Partners also participated in the round.

“Just as old incumbent institutions with little to no organizational renewal impacted our ability to respond to COVID, the defense industry has undergone significant consolidation over the last 30 years,” Gil wrote in a blog post on the investment. “There has not been a new defense technology company of any scale to directly challenge these incumbents in many decades…”

Anduril launched quietly in 2017 but grew quickly, picking up contracts with Customs and Border Protection and the Marine Corps during the Trump administration. Luckey, the young high-flying founder who sold Oculus to Facebook before being booted from the company, emerged as one of President Trump’s most prominent boosters in the generally Trump-averse tech industry.

The company makes defense hardware, including long-flying drones and surveillance towers that connect to a shared software platform it calls Lattice. The technology can be used to secure military bases, monitor borders and even knock enemy drones out of the sky, in the case of Anduril’s counter-UAS tech known as “Anvil.”

Anduril co-founder and CEO Brian Schimpf describes the company’s mission as one of “transformation,” pairing relatively affordable hardware with sensor fusion and machine learning technologies through a contract partner more nimble than established giants in the defense sector.

“This new round of funding reflects our confidence that the Department of Defense sees the same problems we do, and is serious about deploying emerging technologies at scale across land, sea, air, and space domains,” Schimpf said.

The company set its sights on work with the Department of Defense from its earliest days and last year was one of 50 vendors tapped by the DoD to test tech for the Air Force’s own piece of the Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2) project, which seeks to build a smart warfare platform to connect all service members, devices and vehicles that power the U.S. military.

The company’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also matured from a pilot into a program of record last year. Anduril supplies the agency with connected surveillance towers capable of autonomously monitoring stretches of the U.S. border.

In April, Anduril acquired Area-I, a company known for small drones that can be launched from a larger aircraft. Area-I counted the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and NASA among its customers, relationships that likely sweetened the deal.

Industrial cybersecurity startup Claroty raises $140M in pre-IPO funding round

Claroty, an industrial cybersecurity company that helps customers protect and manage their Internet of Things (IoT) and operational technology (OT) assets, has raised $140 million in its latest, and potentially last round of funding. 

With the new round of Series D funding, co-led by Bessemer Venture and 40 North, the company has now amassed a total of $235 million. Additional strategic investors include LG and I Squared Capital’s ISQ Global InfraTech Fund, with all previous investors — Team8, Rockwell Automation, Siemens, and Schneider Electric — also participating. 

Founded in 2015, the late-stage startup focuses on the industrial side of cybersecurity. Its customers include General Motors, Coca-Cola EuroPacific Partners, and Pfizer, with Claroty helping the pharmaceutical firm to secure its COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. Claroty tells TechCrunch it has seen “significant” customer growth over the past 18 months, largely fueled by the pandemic, with 110% year-over-year net new logo growth and 100% customer retention. 

It will use the newly raised funds to meet this rapidly accelerating global demand for The Claroty Platform, an end-to-end solution that provides visibility into industrial networks and combines secure remote access with continuous monitoring for threats and vulnerabilities. 

“Our mission is to drive visibility, continuity, and resiliency in the industrial economy by delivering the most comprehensive solutions that secure all connected devices within the four walls of an industrial site, including all operational technology (OT), Internet of Things (IoT), and industrial IoT (IIoT) assets,” said Claroty CEO Yaniv Vardi.

To meet this growing demand, the startup is planning to expand into new regions and verticals, including transportation government-owned industries, as well as increase its global headcount. The company, which is based in New York, currently has around 240 employees. 

Claroty hasn’t yet made any acquisitions, though CEO Yaniv Vardi tells TechCrunch that this could be part of the startup’s roadmap going forward.

“We’re waiting for the right opportunity at the right time, but it’s definitely part of the plan as part of the financial runway we just secured,” he said, adding that this latest funding round will likely be the company’s last before it explores a potential IPO.

“We are thinking that this is a pre-IPO funding round,” he said. “The end goal here is to be the market leader for industrial cybersecurity. One of the mascots can be going public with an IPO, but there are different options too, such as SPAC.”

The funding round comes amid a sharp increase in cyber targeting organizations that underpin the world’s critical infrastructure and supply chains. According to a recent survey carried out by Claroty, the majority (53%) of US industrial enterprises have seen an increase in cybersecurity threats since the start of 2020. The survey of 1,110 IT and OT security professionals also found that over half believed their organization is now more of a target for cybercriminals, with 67% having seen cybercriminals use new tactics amid the pandemic. 

“The number of attacks, and impact of these attacks, is increasing significantly, especially in verticals like food, automotive, and critical infrastructure. Vardi said. “That creates a lot of risk assessments public companies had to do, and these risks needed to be addressed with a security solution on the industrial side.”

Google’s AirTable rival, Tables, graduates from beta test to become a Google Cloud product

Last fall, Google’s in-house incubator Area 120 introduced a new work-tracking tool called Tables, an AirTable rival that allows for tracking projects more efficiently using automation. Today, Google says Tables will officially “graduate” from Area 120 to become an official Google product by joining Google Cloud, which it expects to complete in the next year.

The Tables project was started by long-time Google employee, now Tables’ GM Tim Gleason, who spent 10 years at the company and many more before that in the tech industry. He said he was inspired to work on Tables because he always had a difficult time tracking projects, as teams shared notes and tasks across different documents, which quickly got out of date.

Instead of tracking those sorts of notes and tasks associated with a project across various documents that have to be manually updated by team members, Tables uses bots to help take on some of the administrative duties involved in guiding team members through a project — like scheduling recurring email reminders when tasks are overdue, messaging a chat room when new forms are received, moving tasks to other people’s work queues, or updating tasks when schedules are changed.

The team saw Tables as a potential solution for a variety of use cases, including of course project management, as well as I.T. operations, customer service tracking, CRM, recruiting, product development and more.

Image Credits: Google

The service was launched last September to test product market fit, Google says, and quickly found traction.

According to VP/GM and Head of Platform for Google Cloud, Amit Zavery, early customer feedback was positive and the team saw customers adopting the service for multiple projects — another strong signal for its potential growth. He declined to say how many customers were already using the service, however.

The pandemic also likely played a role in Tables’ adoption, Zavery noted.

“If you saw what happened COVID, I think work-tracking became a pretty big area of interest for many customers who we’re speaking to,” he says, explaining that everyone was trying to quickly digitize.

Popular use cases included inventory management, healthcare supply tracking, and use in mortgage lending workflows. However, the team found Tables was adopted across a variety of industries beyond these, as hoped. On average, customers would use Tables in a department with around 30 to 40 people, they found.

Most customers were abandoning more manual processes to use Tables instead, not coming from a rival service.

“Things were very fragmented in different documents or with different people, so using technologies like this really seems to have resonated very well,” Zavery says. “Now you had one central place for structured information you can access and do things on top of it versus trying to have 15 different sheets and figuring out how they are related because there’s no structure behind each of them.”

Another factor that prompted Tables’ adoption was how quickly people could be productive, thanks in part to its ability to integrate with existing data warehouses and other services. Currently, Tables supports Office 365, Microsoft Access, Google Sheets, Slack, Salesforce, Box and Dropbox, for example.

Tables was one of only a few Area 120 projects to launch with a paid business model, along with ticket seller Fundo, conversational ads platform AdLingo and Google’s recently launched Orion WiFi. During its beta, an individual could use Tables for free, with support for up to 100 tables and 1,000 rows. The paid plan was supposed to cost $10 per user per month, with support for up to 1,000 tables and 10,000 rows. This plan also included support for larger attachments, more actions and advanced history, sharing, forms, automation and views.

However, Google never began charging for its Paid tier during the beta, it says.

As Tables graduates into Google Cloud’s lineup, it will be integrated with Google’s no-code app building platform, AppSheet, which has a free tier, allowing the freemium model to continue. Users who want additional features will be able to upgrade to a premium plan. It will also be offered as a standalone product, for those who want that experience.

Google will leverage Workspace to get Tables in front of more users, as well.

“it’s going to be delivered through Workspace integration, because that’s a very large community of users who expect some similar kind of functionality,” Zavery says. “That will be a big differentiator, when you talk about the breadth of things we can do — because of having that community of users on Sheets, the things they do with Drive, and the data they collect — we can automatically add this and augment their experience.”

Image Credits: Google

The project taps into the growing interest in no-code, spreadsheet-powered database platforms — like AirTable, for example, which had closed on $185 million in Series D funding in the days before Tables’ release, valuing its business at $2.585 billion, post-money.

As Tables transitions to Google Cloud, the Tables beta version will remain free until a fully-supported Cloud product becomes available in the next year. At that point, users will migrate to the new service.

Over time, Tables plans to add more functionality as it ties in with AppSheet, to make using the service more seamless — so people don’t have to hop around from one product to another to accomplish tasks. It will also work to provide better ease of use, mobile support, and connectivity with more backend systems.

Official pricing hasn’t been finalized but shouldn’t be very different from the beta version.

The US should welcome refugees on humanitarian terms, not just economic ones

In December 1991, about 20 days before the Soviet Union formally disintegrated, my family landed in San Francisco as religious refugees fleeing persecution. I was a 9-year-old kid who had just experienced his first airplane trip and was utterly mesmerized by the skyscrapers of the city’s skyline as we drove past. It felt like arriving into the future.

My parents had almost nothing to their names. No degrees or specialized skills. Not a word of English. Only a few hundred dollars in cash from selling most of our possessions in Russia. They had just learned that half of our “luggage” — makeshift bags that were hand-sewn by my mother out of used floor rugs — was lost in transit.

Our journey wasn’t made possible by some employer seeking specialized labor, nor by a merit assessment that deemed our family as economically valuable immigrants. Instead, it was made possible by many Americans seeing inherent value in human beings seeking a better life. From people who wrote letters to Congress to increase refugee quotas, to sponsoring families who shared their homes and paychecks and lives to support arriving families, to organizations like World Relief, which funded unsecured loans to pay for airline tickets for those who couldn’t afford them — all did their part with no expectation of economic gain.

I worry that outlier success stories — especially those that are filled with considerable luck and privilege like mine — can send the wrong message.

Integration into life in the United States wasn’t easy. Our family had to rely on welfare for several years as our parents learned English in night classes and attempted many different ways to make a living for our family of eight. Not being able to find a full-time job, my father tried every mail-order contract gig he could learn about — from cutting out thousands of leather pieces for shoes to soldering electronic boards to order to translation of documents from English to Russian. Eventually, he started his own business repairing and maintaining computers.

In every moment, I saw my parents seeking to pay back what others had selflessly done for us. They taught me there’s dignity to doing good work, even if it’s work that others don’t find glamorous. Even a decade later, our family was still barely scraping by financially. As I was applying to colleges as a senior in high school, our entire family would pack up our minivan on most evenings after dinner to clean dental clinics to make ends meet.

This is the point in my tale where it might make the most sense to insert my own story of living out a wildly unbelievable version of the American dream — especially for a refugee.

I could tell you how after college I co-founded Webflow, a no-code software development company that employs nearly 300 people and is now valued at over $2 billion. And how stories like mine are the reason why we should open our doors to more refugees to come to the United States.

However, I worry that outlier success stories — especially those that are filled with considerable luck and privilege like mine — can send the wrong message. These tales can imply that the value and worth of immigrants and refugees are primarily economic. I worry that especially now, at a time when immigration has become a politically polarizing issue in this country, the conversation about the value of immigrants will continue shifting toward being purely merit-based.

Too often, if “merit” is the criterion, human beings are seen as worthy of joining our country if and only if they’re the “best of the best” or the “cream of the crop” in some skill or industry. In such cases, people are judged solely by how much economic value they can create in the short term.

Yes, merit-based immigration has an important place in our economy to solve shorter-term skill gaps in various industries. But if we only focus on that, I believe that our nation will have lost an important part of its character and heritage. We shouldn’t reduce our efforts to offer a safe haven to people whose lives are threatened back home. Turning our backs on the most vulnerable only to focus on the most economically advantageous would betray the spirit of what I believe makes the United States a beacon of hope and opportunity for so many people.

The good news is that you can get outsized economic benefits in the longer term by accepting more refugees. I know this because for every startup founder story like mine, there are hundreds of thousands of hard-working refugees who needed some help at first but are now contributing massively to our tax base as nurses, doctors, lawyers, firefighters and business owners. In fact, refugees have the highest rate of entrepreneurship.

After experiencing hardship and oppression in their originating countries, refugees have unparalleled drive to make a better living for themselves, their families and their communities — which helps lift our entire economy.

My hope is that more people are given this kind of opportunity and that more industry leaders will start to advocate for immigration on humanitarian terms — not just economic ones. It will make our economy stronger in the end.

When given the chance to live freely without fearing for our lives, my family and so many others like us will work harder than most to contribute to society. Why? Because we feel a deep sense of gratitude to a nation that welcomed and accepted us because of, first and foremost, who we are as human beings.

Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

Could Claap, an asynchronous video meetings platform, end the tyranny of Zoom calls?

Because of the pandemic, we’re all a lot more familiar with remote working than we used to be, whether we like it or not. But the remote tools of the pre-pandemic era – Slack, Trello, Zoom, Asana, etc, etc, etc – are, if we admit it to ourselves, barely scratching the surface of what we really need to be productive. Luckily a new era of remote-working tools is fast emerging. As I recently tweeted, we need to think far more in asynchronous terms if remote working is to be productive (and healthy!), long term.

Older tools can offer asynchronous collaboration, but a new wave of tools is coming. Loom, for instance, is one-way video for ’show and tell’. It’s raised $203.6M – however, it has a drawback: it doesn’t have many collaboration features.

Now a new European startup hopes to address this.

Claap, an asynchronous meeting platform with video and collaboration, thinks it might have part of the solution and a private beta launch is planned for this month.

It’s now raised $3 million in pre-seed funding from LocalGlobe, Headline, E.Ventures, Kima Ventures and angels including Front co-founder Mathilde Collin, Oyster co-founder Tony Jamous, Nest and GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and Automattic’s head of product Aadil Mamujee. It also includes a group of 30 angels such as Ian Hogarth (Songkick), Olivier Godement (Stripe), Roxanne Varza (Station F), Chris Herd (FirstBase), and Xavier Niel (Kima), Shane Mac (investor in Remote).

We all now know that what were previously small catch-ups are now 30-minute Zoom calls, which are pointless. ‘Asynchronous meetings’ could be the way forward.

Claap says its product allows employees to record a short video update on a topic, allow others to comment on the relevant part, and set a due date for team members to respond. Colleagues then view the video and respond in their own time. Claap bulls itself as the remote working equivalent of the ‘quick hallway catch-up’. It integrates with other workplace tools such as Trello or Jira so that when a decision is made on a project, it’s recorded for everyone on the team to see and refer back to. A subscription model is planned which will have a sliding scale depending on team size.

Because it doesn’t require real-time interaction, you don’t need t find a time that suits everyone for a meeting, so in fact the ‘meeting’ sort of disappears. . Instead, the platform creates a space for feedback and iterations.

Founders Robin Bonduelle and Pierre Touzeau looked at solutions already adopted by companies such as Automattic, and GitLab. Touzeau was previously at 360Learning which employed a strict limiting policy for meetings. Bonduelle has 10 years of product management experience, working at various startups and scaleups including Ogury where he was VP of Product, and Rocket Internet. He developed asynchronous communication habits while managing 50 people across 4 different countries and time zones. Touzeau has worked for businesses including L’Oreal and 360Learning, where he was most recently VP of Marketing.

However, asynchronous communication is not always perfect. As we know, Emails and Slack messages can go unread. Video MIGHT be the solution.

Robin Bonduelle, co-founder and CEO at Claap, said: “After a year of working remotely, people are realizing the benefits of not working in an office but at the same time grappling with one of its worst consequences: back-to-back video meetings. A query that in the office would take five minutes to solve now takes at least 30, leaving everyone more exhausted in the process. Claap is designed to solve this issue, allowing colleagues the tools to keep them engaged and connected but without taking up all their time. It’s a new meeting format that allows people to make quick decisions.”

Touzeau said: “Meetings are a necessary part of working, but it doesn’t need to be your entire day. Asynchronous meetings are the key to freeing up our calendars but making sure work still gets done and deadlines are met. We’re excited by the potential Claap has to empower people to work from anywhere.”

George Henry, General Partner at LocalGlobe, said: “We were impressed with Robin and Pierre’s vision and the potential for Claap to allow employees to connect on a project when they need to and facilitate the ability to work from anywhere.”

Jonathan Userovici, Partner at Headline, said: “Zoom may have been the go-to enterprise app over the past 12 months but for the thousands of businesses that are now going to be remote-first, video conferencing alone won’t be enough to keep teams connected and get work done. Claap is the challenger tool to end video-calling fatigue.”

Shopify brings on team from augmented reality home design app Primer

In Friday acquisition news, Shopify shared today that they’ve acquired the team from augmented reality startup Primer, which makes an app that lets users visualize what tile, wallpaper or paint will look like on surfaces inside their home.

In a blog post, co-founders Adam Debreczeni and Russ Maschmeyer write that Primer’s app and services will be shutting down next month as part of the deal. Primer’s team of eight employees will all be joining Shopify following the acquisition.

Primer had partnered with dozens of tile and textile design brands to allow users to directly visualize what their designs would look like using their iPhone and iPad and Apple’s augmented reality platform ARKit. The app has been highlighted by Apple several times including this nice write-up by the App Store’s internal editorial team.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Primer’s backers included Slow Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Foundation Capital and Expa.

There’s been a lot of big talk about how augmented reality will impact online shopping, but aside from some of the integrations made in home design, there hasn’t been an awful lot that’s found its way into real consumer use. Shopify has worked on some of their own integrations — allowing sellers to embed 3D models into their storefronts that users can drop into physical space — but it’s clear that there’s much more room left to experiment.