Tier Mobility acquires Coup’s electric moped scooters

Tier Mobility operates a scooter service, the kick-scooter-with-a-motor kind. And it has acquired assets from Coup, a now defunct scooter service, the moped kind. Coup shut down late last year, and Tier Mobility plans to take over and start its own shared moped service.

To be clear, Coup is over but its mopeds will stick around. As part of the deal, Tier Mobility now has around 5,000 mopeds and a charging infrastructure. It plans to launch its own moped service in Berlin in May. Both the scooter and moped services will be accessible from the main Tier app.

Coup had a partnership with Gogoro, a Taiwanese electric vehicle company. You can expect to be able to access the same mopeds but with a fresh coat of paint.

“We have gained valuable experience with e-scooters and can now use this effectively in the field of e-mopeds. Many customers want a slightly faster vehicle for medium distances of 4 to 10 kilometres. Now we can now offer these people a very good deal with high-quality vehicles,” Tier Mobility co-founder and CEO Lawrence Leuschner said in a statement.

Before shutting down, Coup was operating in Berlin, Paris and Madrid. It’s unclear whether Tier Mobility wants to launch a moped service in those cities as well.

Tier Mobility currently operates in 55 cities across 11 countries. It is currently focused on Europe. The company is based in Berlin.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Tier Mobility charges its customers for the moped service. Unit economics have been the main issue with Coup.

“Even though Coup is a well-known brand in this market with a loyal customer base that regularly uses our services, operating Coup in the long term has become economically unsustainable,” Coup said when it shut down.

B-Social, the UK fintech building a ‘social bank’, raises additional £7.8M ahead of rebrand

B-Social, the London-based fintech building what it calls a “social bank,” is announcing that it has raised a further £7.8 million in seed funding.

Once again the injection of capital comes from “high-net-worth” individuals. They include Rudy Karsan from Karlani Capital, although most of the investors remain undisclosed.

It brings the total capital raised by B-Social to £13.25 million, as the company continues the journey to becoming a fully licensed bank. It also plans to re-brand next month to the new name “Kroo”.

Launched in February last year, B-Social currently exists as a “social finance” app and accompanying debit Mastercard. It enables users to make purchases, share and keep track of expenses with friends and family, and negate the headache of “who owes who”. More broadly, B-Social says it is on a mission to improve the relationship people have with money.

“We recognise that almost all financial transactions are inherently social,” B-Social co-founder and CEO Nazim Valimahomed told me in late 2018. “We want to change the relationship people have with money by helping them overcome the anxiety, awkwardness and wasted time when they engage with their social finances. We are doing that by building a digital bank that truly accommodates the way people live their lives and is dedicated to connecting a person’s finances to their social world”.

To date, B-Social says it has over 8,500 customers who have spent more than £1 million with their B-Social cards and have shared over 36,000 expenses with friends.

Valimahomed tells me the company has also “significantly progressed” the pre-application stage for acquiring a U.K. banking licence. This includes things like submitting a regulatory business plan, capital and liquidity assessments approval, and challenge sessions completed. He expects to submit the full banking application in Q2 2020.

Fifth Wall Ventures’s new $100 million “retail” fund aims to back online brands that need real world space

Fifth Wall Ventures, a four-year-old, the L.A.-based, real-estate focused venture firm, has just closed a $100 million vehicle called that it’s calling its “retail fund.” The vehicle comes hot on the heels of a $212 million debut fund that Fifth Wall closed in 2017, which was itself soon followed by a second, $503 million flagship fund. The firm is also reportedly raising a $200 million carbon impact fund.

So why raise more money via this separate pool? What does the Fifth Wall even mean by “retail”?

We’d talked with firm cofounder Brendan Wallace a couple of weeks ago about the opportunity the firm sees. As Wallace said then, there are growing number of venture-backed e-commerce brands that do — or will — rely heavily on physical real estate at some point. Fifth Wall — which is backed by a long list of real estate heavyweights, including landlord giants like Macerich Co. and Acadia Realty Trust — thinks it can play matchmaker. The idea is to introduce the startups to spaces owned by members of its investor base, while meanwhile enhancing the investors’ properties by ensuring they have the latest and greatest brands as tenants.

Thanks to Fifth Wall, for example, Taft Clothing, a Salt Lake City-based band that makes men’s shoes, opened its first brick-and-mortar store in New York’s SoHo district late last year. The building is owned by Acadia.

Fifth Wall has similarly helped another portfolio company, the men’s apparel brand UNTUCKit, find some of its many locations across the U.S.

Even further afield, Wallace also pointed to Fifth Wall’s investment in the e-scooter company Lime. While the deal raised questions at the time about how Fifth Wall could rationalize the deal, “[W]hen you look at that business, a huge part of it depends on distribution to where consumers are, which is real estate assets and establishing charging and docking stations at those assets,” Wallace said. “There is a huge real estate dependency to the scooter business [because you need a] network of charging stations, you need to structure relationships and deals with landlords and you also need to be able to deliver these devices in an organized way at these consumer endpoints at malls, office buildings and multi-family buildings.”

Meanwhile, by working with Lime and installing docking stations, those same building owners are navigating around sometimes onerous parking requirements.

Kevin Campos, a partner at Fifth Wall, is the head of its retail fund. In addition to Acadia and Macerich, some of its real estate backers include Cushman & Wakefield and Nuveen Real Estate.

Chinese firms rush to bring 5G smartphones to India

India is unlikely to have any substantial coverage of 5G until at least the end of next year, with telecom operators in the country yet to participate in spectrum auction. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese vendors Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi from bringing 5G-enabled smartphones to the world’s second largest handset market.

Xiaomi, Vivo’s sub-brand iQoo, and Oppo’s sub-brand Realme have all moved in tandem to unveil their 5G smartphones in the last one week. While Xiaomi, which has been the top handset vendor in India for more than two years, only showcased its recently unveiled 5G-enabled MiMix Alpha smartphone at several of its physical stores in the country, the other two companies have moved to launch new phones.

Vivo, India’s second largest phone vendor, launched the iQoo 3, which features a 6.44-inch display with screen resolution of 1080 x 2400 pixels, 4,440mAh battery (with support for 55W fast charging ), and runs Android 10. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, coupled with 8GB of RAM, and 128GB storage. It sports four rear-cameras — 48MP main shooter, 13MP telephoto, 13MP ultra-wide, and 2MP depth-sensor — and a 16MP selfie sensor.

The phone’s prices start at 36,990 Indian rupees ($515), which goes up to 44,990 ($627) Indian rupees for variants with additional storage and memory.

Realme, which is giving the top phone makers a run for their money in India, launched the X50 Pro 5G that features a 6.44-inch display of screen resolution 1080 x 2400 pixels with support for 90Hz refresh rate. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 SoC, coupled with 12GB of RAM, and 4,200mAh battery with 65W Super Dart charging support.

On the photography front, it houses a 65MP primary shooter, 8MP ultra-wide sensor, 12MP telephoto shooter, and a 2MP portrait sensor. On the front is a setup of duo-selfie sensors of 32MP and 8MP.

The Realme X50 Pro 5G is priced at 37,999 Indian rupees ($530), which goes as high as 44,999 Indian rupees ($627) for variants with additional storage and memory.

Executives at the companies said that the rationale behind launching a 5G phone so ahead of time was to offer future-proof devices. Additionally, Qualcomm also requires phone vendors to use X55 5G modem if they want to use its flagship Snapdragon 865 SoC.

An executive with Poco, which recently spun out of Xiaomi, also chimed in:

Minute Media raises $40M more for its user-generated, syndication-based sports publishing platform

When it comes to the internet, content may be king, but in many cases, the emperor has no clothes. That is to say, the masses may click on interesting stories, video, music and other media, but building a lucrative business around that content can be a struggle, with advertising-based models often providing little in the way of margins except for the very biggest properties (and even then, it can a tough balancing act managing costs).

A startup called Minute Media believes that it has found a way through that challenge with a platform that brings in user-generated content across a number of its own mostly-sports-based media properties — built organically and by way of acquisition — which it then syndicates to third-party publishing partners.

Today, the startup is announcing a $40 million round to continue its growth — specifically to continue investing in its publishing platform; to invest in properties that it already owns; and to make more acquisitions.

Led by London’s Dawn Capital (Minute Media describes itself as based in New York, but its founding team are out of Israel and it grew initially in London, where its CEO current lives) with participation from other unnamed previous investors (a list that includes Battery Ventures, Goldman Sachs, ProSieben, Qumra Capital, Vintage Investments, Gemini Ventures, North Base Media, La Maison, Remagine Ventures, Hamilton Lane and Maor Investments) the funding brings the total raised by Minute Media to $160 million.

The startup is not disclosing its valuation, but last year we understood from a source very close to the company to be between $200 million and $300 million. Given that it grew around 100% last year, and currently is on track for revenues this year of $200 million, that likely puts the current valuation closer to $400-$500 million.

On the shoulders of giants

Minute Media may not be a name you know very well, but if you are a consumer of sports content online, you may have come across some of its properties or articles. Its holdings currently number seven titles and include names like 90min.com (which focuses on soccer, hence the name: the startup’s founder and CEO Asaf Peled is a football fanatic), as well as FanSided, The Players’ Tribune and Mental Floss. (Others include 12up, DBLTAP and The Big Lead.)

Some of these Minute Media built from scratch, but many have come to it courtesy of the bigger picture of the media industry today: titles are created, gain an audience and brand recognition, and then get passed around in the world of online publishing when the previous owner has not been able to make the business case for the site work.

For example, FanSided came to Minute Media by way of an acquisition just last month: Meredith sold it, reportedly for $15 million, as part of a larger divestment of “non-core” assets it has been making post its Owen acquisition of Time, Inc. in 2018 (FanSided once sat under Sports Illustrated).

The Players Tribune, meanwhile, runs stories written by athletes themselves — some extremely timely, such as this one from Sabrina Ionescu, a rising star in women’s basketball, published just on Monday, in the same week that her name has been making waves because of her speech at the Bryant memorial service, plus her heroic work on the court. The site was founded by baseball legend Derek Jeter, and raised some money from big names, but ultimately couldn’t last as an independent startup. It sold in November last year to Minute Media.

And Mental Floss, something of a cult click-bait title (at one point even Monica thumbed through a printed version at Central Perk), lost its way after Facebook algorithm changes. Now its home is also at Minute Media.

On the surface, this might look mainly like an aggregator media play, or on an M&A level something based on the private equity model of hoovering up a lot of tired or slow growing brands with the aim of optimising them and moving on.

But neither is actually accurate. As Peled describes it (and as VCs apparently believe), there is a technology story, and corresponding interesting business model, underpinning what Minute Media has built that spans, B2C, B2B and C2C publishing and distribution.

For starters, there is the centralised content management system that runs the sites, “an open CMS system that allows any casual fan to create rich content,” Peled told TechCrunch.

While this has had as many as 20,000 contributors on it at one time, contributing articles in a variety of languages beyond English, the number of pieces — selected by human editors — published across all its platforms is less than 1,000 per day. Only the most prolific and longstanding contributors get paid; others contribute for free. This forms the basis of the company’s content engine.

That content brings in traffic and advertising on Minute Media’s owned properties, but this is only one piece of how the company makes money. That same platform is also a licensing-based B2B and B2C play: it links up to about a dozen or more other publishers and media partners, which use it both to syndicate content out and bring in content from other places. The logic here is that bringing in syndicated content from elsewhere can help the other publishers bring down their operating costs while still continuing to expand the content (and thus traffic) on their own sites; hence why they partner with (and pay) Minute Media.

Last summer, Peled told me that the balance between ad and licensing revenues were “around 50/50, but no doubt the B2B open platform is easier to sell and is growing faster.”

Sport wins

Although there is other content beyond sports on Minute Media’s platform, sports is a key focus, and for good reason.

Sports content has shaped up to be an extremely important segment in the world of online media. Done right, it can breed a legion of engaged and very loyal visitors — readers, viewers, listeners — who are willing to do more than just click once and move on. If they like what they see, they will come back again, and again. That has helped some of the more interesting sports properties build paid content models — see The Athletic — and others spin out media empires based on still-evolving mediums like podcasting — see the huge success of The Ringer and its recent sale to Spotify.

Minute Media fits into that bigger picture with its own take on how to build and scale a sports publishing empire. Without some of the overhead that has weighed down other online publishing plays, the startup has built a concept for publishing that appears to have a kind of sustainability to it.

“Minute Media’s best-in-class platform enables publishers to create, distribute and monetize high-quality content,” said Haakon Overli, general partner at Dawn Capital, in a statement. “The company is quickly establishing itself as a major player in the new generation of online publishing, empowering creators and audiences alike. Following explosive revenue growth in 2019, we’re pleased to back the team once again, allowing them to accelerate R&D and commercial efforts further still.”

AI chatbot maker Babylon Health attacks clinician in PR stunt after he goes public with safety concerns

UK startup Babylon Health pulled app data on a critical user in order to create a press release in which it publicly attacks the UK doctor who has spent years raising patient safety concerns about the symptom triage chatbot service.

In the press release released late Monday Babylon refers to Dr David Watkins — via his Twitter handle — as a “troll” and claims he’s “targeted members of our staff, partners, clients, regulators and journalists and tweeted defamatory content about us”.

It also writes that Watkins has clocked up “hundreds of hours” and 2,400 tests of its service in a bid to discredit his safety concerns — saying he’s raised “fewer than 100 test results which he considered concerning”.

Babylon’s PR also claims that only in 20 instances did Watkins find “genuine errors in our AI”, whereas other instances are couched as ‘misrepresentations’ or “mistakes”, per an unnamed “panel of senior clinicians” which the startup’s PR says “investigated and re-validated every single one” — suggesting the error rate Watkins identified was just 0.8%.

Screengrab from Babylon’s press release which refers to to Dr Watkins’ “Twitter troll tests”

Responding to the attack in a telephone interview with TechCrunch Watkins described Babylon’s claims as “absolute nonsense” — saying, for example, he has not carried out anywhere near 2,400 tests of its service. “There are certainly not 2,400 completed triage assessments,” he told us. “Absolutely not.”

Asked how many tests he thinks he did complete Watkins suggested it’s likely to be between 800 and 900 full runs through “complete triages” (some of which, he points out, would have been repeat tests to see if the company had fixed issues he’d previously noticed).

He said he identified issues in about one in two or one in three instances of testing the bot — though in 2018 says he was finding far more problems, claiming it was “one in one” at that stage for an earlier version of the app.

Watkins suggests that to get to the 2,400 figure Babylon is likely counting instances where he was unable to complete a full triage because the service was lagging or glitchy. “They’ve manipulated data to try and discredit someone raising patient safety concerns,” he said.

“I obviously test in a fashion which is [that] I know what I’m looking for — because I’ve done this for the past three years and I’m looking for the same issues which I’ve flagged before to see have they fixed them. So trying to suggest that my testing is actually any indication of the chatbot is absurd in itself,” he added.

In another pointed attack Babylon writes Watkins has “posted over 6,000 misleading attacks” — without specifying exactly what kind of attacks it’s referring to (or where they’ve been posted).

Watkins told us he hasn’t even tweeted 6,000 times in total since joining Twitter four years ago — though he has spent three years using the platform to raise concerns about diagnosis issues with Babylon’s chatbot.

Such as this series of tweets where he shows a triage for a female patient failing to pick up a potential heart attack.

Watkins told us he has no idea what the 6,000 figure refers to, and accuses Babylon of having a culture of “trying to silence criticism” rather than engage with genuine clinician concerns.

“Not once have Babylon actually approached me and said ‘hey Dr Murphy — or Dr Watkins — what you’ve tweeted there is misleading’,” he added. “Not once.”

Instead, he said the startup has consistently taken a “dismissive approach” to the safety concerns he’s raised. “My overall concern with the way that they’ve approached this is that yet again they have taken a dismissive approach to criticism and again tried to smear and discredit the person raising concerns,” he said.

Watkins, a consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust — who has for several years gone by the online (Twitter) moniker of @DrMurphy11, tweeting videos of Babylon’s chatbot triage he says illustrate the bot failing to correctly identify patient presentations — made his identity public on Monday when he attended a debate at the Royal Society of Medicine.

There he gave a presentation calling for less hype and more independent verification of claims being made by Babylon as such digital systems continue elbowing their way into the healthcare space.

In the case of Babylon, the app has a major cheerleader in the current UK Secretary of State for health, Matt Hancock, who has revealed he’s a personal user of the app.

Simultaneously Hancock is pushing the National Health Service to overhaul its infrastructure to enable the plugging in of “healthtech” apps and services. So you can spot the political synergies.

Watkins argues the sector needs more of a focus on robust evidence gathering and independent testing vs mindless ministerial support and partnership ‘endorsements’ as a stand in for due diligence.

He points to the example of Theranos — the disgraced blood testing startup whose co-founder is now facing charges of fraud — saying this should provide a major red flag of the need for independent testing of ‘novel’ health product claims.

“[Over hyping of products] is a tech industry issue which unfortunately seems to have infected healthcare in a couple of situations,” he told us, referring to the startup ‘fake it til you make it’ playbook of hype marketing and scaling without waiting for external verification of heavily marketed claims.

In the case of Babylon, he argues the company has failed to back up puffy marketing with evidence of the sort of extensive clinical testing and validation which he says should be necessary for a health app that’s out in the wild being used by patients. (References to academic studies have not been stood up by providing outsiders with access to data so they can verify its claims, he also says.)

“They’ve got backing from all these people — the founders of Google DeepMind, Bupa, Samsung, Tencent, the Saudis have given them hundreds of millions and they’re a billion dollar company. They’ve got the backing of Matt Hancock. Got a deal with Wolverhampton. It all looks trustworthy,” Watkins went on. “But there is no basis for that trustworthiness. You’re basing the trustworthiness on the ability of a company to partner. And you’re making the assumption that those partners have undertaken due diligence.”

For its part Babylon claims the opposite — saying its app meets existing regulatory standards and pointing to high “patient satisfaction ratings” and a lack of reported harm by users as evidence of safety, writing in the same PR in which it lays into Watkins:

Our track record speaks for itself: our AI has been used millions of times, and not one single patient has reported any harm (a far better safety record than any other health consultation in the world). Our technology meets robust regulatory standards across five different countries, and has been validated as a safe service by the NHS on ten different occasions. In fact, when the NHS reviewed our symptom checker, Healthcheck and clinical portal, they said our method for validating them “has been completed using a robust assessment methodology to a high standard.” Patient satisfaction ratings see over 85% of our patients giving us 5 stars (and 94% giving five and four stars), and the Care Quality Commission recently rated us “Outstanding” for our leadership.

But proposing to judge the efficacy of a health-related service by a patient’s ability to complain if something goes wrong seems, at the very least, an unorthodox approach — flipping the Hippocratic oath principle of ‘first do no harm’ on its head. (Plus, speaking theoretically, someone who’s dead would literally be unable to complain — which could plug a rather large loophole in any ‘safety bar’ being claimed via such an assessment methodology.)

On the regulatory point, Watkins argues that the current UK regime is not set up to respond intelligently to a development like AI chatbots and lacks strong enforcement in this new category.

Complaints he’s filed with the MHRA (Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) have resulted in it asking Babylon to work on issues, with little or no follow up, he says.

While he notes that confidentiality clauses limit what can be disclosed by the regulator.

All of that might look like a plum opportunity for a certain kind of startup ‘disruptor’, of course.

And Babylon’s app is one of several now applying AI type technologies as a diagnostic aid in chatbot form, across several global markets. Users are typically asked to respond to questions about their symptoms and at the end of the triage process get information on what might be a possible cause. Though Babylon’s PR materials are careful to include a footnote where it caveats that its AI tools “do not provide a medical diagnosis, nor are they a substitute for a doctor”.

Yet, says Watkins, if you read certain headlines and claims made for the company’s product in the media you might be forgiven for coming away with a very different impression — and it’s this level of hype that has him worried.

Other less hype-dispensing chatbots are available, he suggests — name-checking Berlin-based Ada Health as taking a more thoughtful approach on that front.

Asked whether there are specific tests he would like to see Babylon do to stand up its hype, Watkins told us: “The starting point is getting a technology which you feel is safe to actually be in the public domain.”

Notably, the European Commission is working on risk-based regulatory framework for AI applications — including for use-cases in sectors such as healthcare — which would require such systems to be “transparent, traceable and guarantee human oversight”, as well as to use unbiased data for training their AI models.

“Because of the hyperbolic claims that have been put out there previously about Babylon that’s where there’s a big issue. How do they now roll back and make this safe? You can do that by putting in certain warnings with regards to what this should be used for,” said Watkins, raising concerns about the wording used in the app. “Because it presents itself as giving patients diagnosis and it suggests what they should do for them to come out with this disclaimer saying this isn’t giving you any healthcare information, it’s just information — it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know what a patient’s meant to think of that.”

“Babylon always present themselves as very patient-facing, very patient-focused, we listen to patients, we hear their feedback. If I was a patient and I’ve got a chatbot telling me what to do and giving me a suggested diagnosis — at the same time it’s telling me ‘ignore this, don’t use it’ — what is it?” he added. “What’s its purpose?

“There are other chatbots which I think have defined that far more clearly — where they are very clear in their intent saying we’re not here to provide you with healthcare advice; we will provide you with information which you can take to your healthcare provider to allow you to have a more informed decision discussion with them. And when you put it in that context, as a patient I think that makes perfect sense. This machine is going to give me information so I can have a more informed discussion with my doctor. Fantastic. So there’s simple things which they just haven’t done. And it drives me nuts. I’m an oncologist — it shouldn’t be me doing this.”

Watkins suggested Babylon’s response to his raising “good faith” patient safety concerns is symptomatic of a deeper malaise within the culture of the company. It has also had a negative impact on him — making him into a target for parts of the rightwing media.

“What they have done, although it may not be users’ health data, they have attempted to utilize data to intimidate an identifiable individual,” he said of the company’s attack him. “As a consequence of them having this threatening approach and attempting to intimidate other parties have though let’s bundle in and attack this guy. So it’s that which is the harm which comes from it. They’ve singled out an individual as someone to attack.”

“I’m concerned that there’s clinicians in that company who, if they see this happening, they’re not going to raise concerns — because you’ll just get discredited in the organization. And that’s really dangerous in healthcare,” Watkins added. “You have to be able to speak up when you see concerns because otherwise patients are at risk of harm and things don’t change. You have to learn from error when you see it. You can’t just carry on doing the same thing again and again and again.”

Others in the medical community have been quick to criticize Babylon for targeting Watkins in such a personal manner and for revealing details about his use of its (medical) service.

As one Twitter user, Sam Gallivan — also a doctor — put it: “Can other high frequency Babylon Health users look forward to having their medical queries broadcast in a press release?”

The act certainly raises questions about Babylon’s approach to sensitive health data, if it’s accessing patient information for the purpose of trying to steamroller informed criticism.

We’ve seen similarly ugly stuff in tech before, of course — such as when Uber kept a ‘god-view’ of its ride-hailing service and used it to keep tabs on critical journalists. In that case the misuse of platform data pointed to a toxic culture problem that Uber has had to spend subsequent years sweating to turn around (including changing its CEO).

Babylon’s selective data dump on Watkins is also an illustrative example of a digital service’s ability to access and shape individual data at will — pointing to the underlining power asymmetries between these data-capturing technology platforms (which are gaining increasing agency over our decisions) and their users who only get highly mediated, hyper controlled access to the databases they help to feed.

Watkins, for example, told us he is no longer able to access his query history in the Babylon app — providing a screenshot of an error screen (below) that he says he now sees when he tries to access chat history in the app. He said he does not know why he is no longer able to access his historical usage information but says he was using it as a reference — to help with further testing (and no longer can).

If it’s a bug it’s a convenient one for Babylon PR…

We contacted Babylon to ask it to respond to criticism of its attack on Watkins. The company defended its use of his app data to generate the press release — arguing that the “volume” of queries he had run means the usual data protection rules don’t apply, and further claiming it had only shared “non-personal statistical data”, even though this was attached in the PR to his Twitter identity (and therefore, since Monday, to his real name).

In a statement the Babylon spokesperson told us:

If safety related claims are made about our technology, our medical professionals are required to look into these matters to ensure the accuracy and safety of our products. In the case of the recent use data that was shared publicly, it is clear given the volume of use that this was theoretical data (forming part of an accuracy test and experiment) rather than a genuine health concern from a patient. Given the use volume and the way data was presented publicly, we felt that we needed to address accuracy and use information to reassure our users.  The data shared by us was non-personal statistical data, and Babylon has complied with its data protection obligations throughout. Babylon does not publish genuine individualised user health data.

We also asked the UK’s data protection watchdog about the episode and Babylon making Watkins’ app usage public. The ICO told us: “People have the right to expect that organisations will handle their personal information responsibly and securely. If anyone is concerned about how their data has been handled, they can contact the ICO and we will look into the details.”

Babylon’s clinical innovation director, Dr Keith Grimes, attended the same Royal Society debate as Watkins this week — which was entitled Recent developments in AI and digital health 2020 and billed as a conference that will “cut through the hype around AI”.

So it looks to be no accident that their attack press release was timed to follow hard on the heels of a presentation it would have known (since at least last December) was coming that day — and in which Watkins argued where AI chatbots are concerned “validation is more important than valuation”.

Last summer Babylon announced a $550M Series C raise, at a $2BN+ valuation.

Investors in the company include Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, an unnamed U.S.-based health insurance company, Munich Re’s ERGO Fund, Kinnevik, Vostok New Ventures and DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis, to name a few helping to fund its marketing.

“They came with a narrative,” said Watkins of Babylon’s message to the Royal Society. “The debate wasn’t particularly instructive or constructive. And I say that purely because Babylon came with a narrative and they were going to stick to that. The narrative was to avoid any discussion about any safety concerns or the fact that there were problems and just describe it as safe.”

The clinician’s counter message to the event was to pose a question EU policymakers are just starting to consider — calling for the AI maker to show data-sets that stand up its safety claims.

VCs bet millions on Microverse, a Lambda School for the developing world

The student loan crisis in the U.S. has left venture capitalists searching for novel approaches to financing higher education, but can the same systems designed for helping coders in Silicon Valley get jobs at Google help underserved students in developing countries become part of a global work force?

Similar to the buzzy San Francisco startup Lambda School, Microverse is a coding school that utilizes ISAs, or Income Share Agreements, as a means of allowing students to learn now and pay later with a fixed percentage of their future salary. Microverse isn’t aiming to compete heavily with Lambda School for U.S. students, however, they are looking more heavily at courting students in developing countries. The startup currently has students in 96 countries, with Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and India among their most represented, CEO Ariel Camus tells TechCrunch.

The pitch of bringing the ISA model worldwide has attracted investor interest. The startup tells TechCrunch it has just closed $3.2 million in seed funding from venture capitalists including General Catalyst and Y Combinator.

Lambda School and its ilk have excited plenty of investors. There has also been plenty of scrutiny and some questions on whether quickly scaling to venture-sized returns or building revenue by selling off securitized ISAs ends up pushing these startups toward cutting corners.

Microverse, for its part, is already built quite lean. The program has no full-time instructors. The entire curriculum is a self-guided English-only lesson plan that relies on students that are just months ahead in the program serving as “mentors.” Students are expected to spend eight hours per day pushing through the curriculum with assigned study partners and peer groups, graduating in about eight months on average, Camus says.

“The average starting salary for us — it’s of course lower and that’s expected,” said Camus. “The only way we can offer as good or better learning experience as Lambda or any other campus-based education in the U.S. — with salaries that will usually be lower — is if our costs are lower, and that’s why we have designed the entire system to allow us to scale faster. We don’t have to hire teachers, we don’t have to create content and that allows us to adjust to changes in the market and new technologies much much faster.”

While Lambda School’s ISA terms require students to pay 17% of their monthly salary for 24 months once they begin earning above $50,000 annually — up to a maximum of $30,000, Microverse requires that graduates pay 15% of their salary once they begin making more than just $1,000 per month, though there is no cap on time, so students continue payments until they have repaid $15,000 in full. In both startups’ cases, students only repay if they are employed in a field related to what they studied, but with Microverse, ISAs never expire, so if you ever enter a job adjacent to your area of study, you are on the hook for repayments. Lambda School’s ISA taps out after five years of deferred repayments.

Without much of the nuance in how Lambda School or Holberton School have structured their ISA terms, Microverse’s structure seems less amenable, but Camus defends the terms as a necessary means to getting around under-reporting.

“When you use a cap, you’re using a perverse incentive for under-reporting,” Camus says. “In the U.S. where you can enforce tax reviews, there’s no need to worry about that and I think it’s better if you can cap it, but in most of the developing countries where there is not a strong tax system, it isn’t a possibility.”

For students that qualify for terms for repaying this ISA, they are, again, on the hook for $15,000. Charging such a hefty fee for an online course without full-time instructors geared toward students in developing countries could be controversial for a venture-backed startup, but it will also put a heavy burden on the school to keep their students satisfied and help them find employment via its network of career counselors.

The CEO acknowledges the high price of Microverse’s instruction. “It is huge,” but he says that the premium is necessary to build a business around getting students in developing countries careers in the global workforce. Microverse is keeping its total number of admitted students small early on so that it can ensure it’s meeting their needs, Camus says, noting that Microverse accepts just 1% of applicants, adding 70-80 students to the program per month.

“This conversation around the ISA in the U.S. is so hot that you have to frame it in such a different way when you’re talking about students in developing and emerging countries. Like, there are no alternatives,” Camus says. “…if you can find a value proposition that aligns with their goals and gives them some international and professional exposure, that gives them a world-class education… that’s a very compelling proposition.”

Salesforce grabs Vlocity for $1.33B, a startup with $1B valuation

It’s been a big news day for Salesforce. It announced that co-CEO Keith Block would be stepping down, and that it had acquired Vlocity for $1.33 billion in an all-cash deal.

It’s no coincidence that Salesforce targeted this startup. It’s a firm that builds six industry-specific CRMs on top of Salesforce — communications, media and entertainment, insurance and financial services, health, energy and utilities and government and nonprofits — and Salesforce Ventures was also an investor. This would appear to have been a deal waiting to happen.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says Salesforce saw this as an important target to keep building the business. “Salesforce has been beefing up their abilities to provide industry-specific solutions by cultivating strategic ISV partnerships with companies like Vlocity and Veeva (which is focused on life sciences). But this move signals the importance of making these industry capabilities even more a part of the platform offerings,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, also liked the deal for Salesforce. “It’s a great deal. Vlocity gives them the industries platform they need. More importantly, it keeps Google from buying them and [could generate] $10 billion in additional industries revenue growth over next four years,” he said.

Vlocity had raised about $163 million on a valuation of around $1 billion as of its most recent round, a $60 million Series C last March. If $1.33 billion seems a little light, given what Vlocity is providing the company, Wang says it’s because Vlocity needed Salesforce more than the other way around.

“Vlocity on its own doesn’t have as big a future without Salesforce. They have to be together. So Salesforce doesn’t need to buy them. They could keep building out, but it’s better for them to buy them now,” Wang said.

Still, the company was valued at $1 billion just under a year ago, and sold for $1.33 billion after raising $163 million. That means it received 8.2x total invested capital ($1.33 billion/ $163 million invested capital), which isn’t a bad return.

In a blog post on the Vlocity website, founder and CEO David Schmaier put a positive spin on the deal. “Upon the close of the transaction, Vlocity — this wonderful company that we, as a team, have created, built, and grown into a transformational solution for six of the most important industries in the enterprise — will become part of Salesforce,” he wrote.

Per usual, the deal will be predicated on regulatory approval and close some time during Salesforce’s second quarter in fiscal 2021.

Checkout.com acquires payment optimization startup ProcessOut

Checkout.com, the quiet London-based payment platform, has acquired its first startup, ProcessOut. Checkout.com surprised everyone last year when it announced a gigantic $230 million Series A round. It turns out the payment processing boom is not over yet.

Checkout.com focuses on enterprise clients with customers all around the world. It provides a full-stack payment service, from accepting transactions, processing them and detecting fraud. It helps with reconciliation thanks to an API and a reporting hub.

The startup is particularly efficient when it comes to supporting multiple currencies and payment methods. You can accept payments in more than 150 currencies. Checkout.com supports debit and credit cards, Apple Pay and Google Pay, as well as local payment methods such as Klarna, iDEAL and Giropay, and e-wallets such as PayPal and Alipay.

ProcessOut is a French startup that realized e-commerce companies have been leaving money on the table by relying on a single payment provider. The company built a smart routing checkout module that works with dozens of payment providers.

When you enter your card number, ProcessOut can select the best payment provider when it comes to fees and acceptance rate. For instance, a local payment provider can be a lot cheaper than Stripe, but transactions get declined a lot more often. The startup can figure out whether a transaction will go through before selecting an obscure payment provider.

The company then shows you dashboards so you can visualize payment data in a single location. You can generate report and match transactions on your bank account with transactions on different payment providers.

That combination of data visualization and smart routing helped them score some big clients, such as Glovo, Veepee, Rakuten.fr and Dashlane. In 2019, ProcessOut tracked 10% of online transactions in France. Transactions representing $20 billion have been analyzed by ProcessOut over the past 12 months.

With today’s acquisition, ProcessOut’s team of 14 employees are joining Checkout.com’s team of 600 employees. Checkout.com isn’t disclosing the terms of the transaction. Checkout.com is getting a ton of insight on different payment providers. It can learn from ProcessOut’s technology to optimize its internal payment workflows, as well.

Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is a lot of phone for a lot of money

Let’s talk about money. More specifically, let’s talk about how much things cost. A few years back, the price of flagship smartphones leapt above the $1,000 threshold, owing largely to the cost of screen technology. It’s a tough calculus, but that’s the price of innovation.

The rising cost of smartphones is largely regarded as a major contributing factor to flagging smartphone sales. Phones have gotten better and last longer, and with four-digit prices, users are far less compelled to upgrade every two years or so.

Samsung knows this as well as anyone. Along with its usual array of budget phones, the company’s gone to great lengths to offer “budget flagships,” a relatively new category that aims to find the sweet spot between high-end features and less-impressive components, first through the S10e and now its new lite devices.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is decidedly not that. It’s a picture of smartphone opulence in an era of declining smartphone sales. It’s yet another new tier in the company’s ballooning flagship smartphone line(s) designed to reestablish Samsung’s place in the bleeding edge of mobile technologies, while appealing to those with a little extra money to spend in order to future-proof their devices.

“A little more” here being defined as starting at $1,399. Or $1,599, if you’re, say, feeling extra flush after your tax returns and looking to upgrade to 512GB from the default 128GB. As for what top of the line means these days, that, too, has changed. Samsung was ahead of the curve by introducing multiple 5G phones last year. At the time, the handsets were, understandably, confined to the top tier, due to both cost of hardware and the general lack of global coverage.

For 2020, it’s 5G across the board, on all S20 models, so the kitchen sink Ultra needs to find ways to further set itself apart from the S20+. There are a few keys areas in which the Ultra sets itself apart. First and most immediate is size. Along with increased prices, the other thing you can count on, like clockwork, is bigger displays. The good news is that Samsung’s hardware advances have kept the footprint roughly the size of the last generation of devices.

Samsung continues to impress on that front, this time sneaking a roomy 6.9-inch display into a 166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm; compare that to the 162.6 x 77.1 x 7.9 mm on the 6.7-inch S10 5G. The thick profile is almost certainly due to a larger battery. The 4,500 mAh found on last year’s device and this year’s S20+ is upgraded to a beefy 5,000 mAh.

Samsung remains conservative with its own expected battery life, owing to power-hungry features like the big AMOLED with a 120Hz refresh rate and the 5G radio. The company rates the phone as “all-day battery.” It’s a pretty nebulous phrase, all things considered. I suspect there’s still research to be done on the adverse impact of next-gen radios on battery life. With the default settings on (and little to no 5G, owing at least somewhat to some network issues), I found I got about 28 total hours on a charge.

That certainly qualifies for the “all-day” mark, even if it’s a bit disappointing given the massive battery size. But it should definitely get you through a day and then some, with no issues. The other good news on that front is super-fast charging if you use the included wall adapter. I was able to go from zero to fully charged in just under an hour.

The design language is pretty much identical on all three S20s, and honestly, largely unchanged from last year’s model, though Samsung has moved to a hole-punch camera (a generous 40 megapixels for selfies) up front. Flip it around and the biggest difference is immediately apparent. The camera module on the Ultra is, well, ultra. There are four cameras back there, in a lip that occupies about a sixth of the phone’s total surface area.

The S20+’s more than adequate 12MP, 64MP telephoto, 12MP ultra wide and time of flight sensor have been bumped up to a 108MP main, 48MP 10x telephoto, 12MP ultra wide and time of flight. The ToF, mind you, is absent on the plain-old S20, bringing an added sense of depth for bokeh effects and fun tricks like 3D scanning. One also gets the sense that Samsung is very much laying the groundwork for an even stronger play in the AR world, extending beyond the current selection of AR emoji. Though, as with the rest of the industry, mainstream implementation is still slow going.

The biggest thing here — both figuratively and literally — is the telephoto. The camera features a folded telephoto, which is essentially turned on its side to fit the form factor. The camera is capable of a solid 10x hybrid zoom. Using a combination of the hardware and software, the company is able to achieve the 100x “Space Zoom,” versus the other models’ 30x max. It’s impressive all around, but important to note that the claims of “losslessness” only extend to 10x.

Beyond that, things start to degrade. And honestly, by the time you get to 100x, things start looking like a digital Monet painting. You can generally make out the objects, but in most cases, it’s probably not something you’re going to rush out to share on Instagram. For things like nosebleed seats at concerts or sporting events, however, sometimes it’s just enough to remember you’re there.

Honestly, though, I think Samsung is laying the groundwork for future updates, as it is with the ToF sensor. It’s easy to imagine how a 100x zoom coupled with some future imaging AI could lead to some pretty impressive telephoto shots, without the need for an external, optical lens. For now, however, it feels like more of a novelty. Honestly, a number of the upgrades over the S20+ feel a bit like excesses, and none but true devotees need to go all in with the Ultra.

My only momentary hesitation in recommending one of the lower-tier devices over the Ultra are questions of what happens to battery life when you dip below 5,000 mAh. The 120Hz screen is great for things like gaming, but for most users, I’d recommended keeping it off most of the time. That should buy you an extra couple of hours of life, switching to 120Hz when needed and back to 60 the rest of the time.

Ditto for the 108-megapixel camera. For most photos it makes sense to utilize pixel binning, which makes for a small 12-megapixel shot, but allows for a lot more light to be let in on a per pixel basis. Photo are brighter and sharper and the phone does better in low light. Also, the image isn’t gigantic — I forgot to swap the setting for a few photos and didn’t realize how massive they were until I sent them.

The best new photo feature, however, isn’t hardware at all. I’ve long posited that the key to a good imaging feature is simplicity. Cameras keep getting better and offer more features for those who want to shoot more professional photos on their mobile devices. That’s great, and if you’re Google, it means that the legendary Annie Leibovitz will show up to your launch event and sing your device’s praises.

But unless something works out of the box, it’s going to be of little use to a majority of consumers. Single Take is a clever addition to default camera settings that takes a whole bunch of different types of photos at once (provided you can stand still for 10 seconds). You get Live Focus, Timelapse and Ultra-Wide all at once. The camera saves everything to the roll, where you can choose the best image. It’s a larger file, but not huge in the grand scheme of things. For those who don’t want to be a digital hoarder, you can always just go in and manually delete them.

The biggest updates to the S20 line feel like future-proofing. Elements like like 5G, 100x zoom and 8K video record don’t always make a ton of sense as of this writing, but much of Samsung’s biggest plays have been centered around getting out in front of the curve. With 5G, for example, there are still coverage barriers, but with users holding onto their handsets for longer, it’s almost certain that the next-gen wireless technology will be ubiquitous before the time comes for many users to upgrade.

In its current state, however, charging $1,399 and up for the Ultra is a pretty hard ask. Thankfully, however, Samsung has more than enough options for users looking for something a little cheaper. It’s a list that now includes the S10 Lite line and newly discounted standard S10 devices. Features like 100x, on the other hand, are novel, but it’s hard to justify the premium.