TikTok inks licensing deal with Merlin to use music from independent labels in videos and new Resso streaming service

TikTok, the fast-growing user-generated video app from China’s Bytedance, has been building a new music streaming service to compete against the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. And today it’s announcing a deal that helps pave the way for a global launch of it. It has inked a licensing deal with Merlin, the global agency that represents tens of thousands of independent music labels and hundreds of thousands of artists, for the use of music from those labels to be used legally on the TikTok platform anywhere that the app is available.

The news is significant because this is the first major music licensing deal signed by the company as part of its wider efforts in the music industry. That includes both its mainstay short-form videos — where music plays a key role (the app, before it was acquired by Bytedance, was even called ‘Musically’) — as well as new music streaming services.

Specifically, a source close to TikTok has confirmed to TechCrunch that this Merlin deal covers its upcoming music subscription service Resso.

Resso was long rumoured and eventually spotted in the wild at the end of last year when Bytedance tested the app in India and Indonesia. Bytedance owns the Resso trademark, and it’s a good bet that it will make its way to more markets soon. (Possibly with features that differentiate it from others in the market: recall Bytedance acquired an AI-based music startup called Jukedeck last year.)

“Independent artists and labels are such a crucial part of music creation and consumption on TikTok,” said Ole Obermann, global head of music for Bytedance and TikTok, in a statement. “We’re excited to partner with Merlin to bring their family of labels to the TikTok community. The breadth and diversity of the catalogue presents our users with an even larger canvas from which to create, while giving independent artists the opportunity to connect with TikTok’s diverse community.”

Music is a fundamental part of the TikTok experience, and this deal covers everything that’s there today — videos created by TikTok users, sponsored videos created for marketing — as well as whatever is coming up around the corner. The music streaming app that TikTok has reportedly been gearing up to launch is one way that the company could help generate revenue. Despite being one of the most popular apps of 2019, monetisation has largely eluded the company up to now.

As of December, TikTok had yet to sign any deals with the “majors” — Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music — and from what we understand Merlin is the first major deal of its kind of the company. There are signs that more such licensing agreements will be around the corner: Obermann, who was hired away from Warner Music last year, in turn hired another former Warner colleague, Tracy Gardner, who now leads label licensing for the company. And just yesterday, the company opened an office in Los Angeles, the heart of the music industry.

The move to bring more licensed music usage to TikTok (and other Bytedance apps) is significant for other reasons, too.

On one hand, it’s about labels trying to evolve with the times, collecting revenues wherever audiences happen to be, whether that is in short-form user-generated video, in advertising that runs alongside that, or in a new music service capitalising on the new vogue for streamed media.

“This partnership with TikTok is very significant for us,” said Jeremy Sirota, CEO, Merlin, in a statement. “We are seeing a new generation of music services and a new era of music-related consumption, much of it driven by the global demand for independent music. Merlin members are increasingly using TikTok for their marketing campaigns, and today’s partnership ensures that they and their artists can also build new and incremental revenue streams.”

The deal is significant also because it underscores how TikTok is increasingly working to legitimise itself in the wider tech and media marketplace. While Bytedance’s acquisition of TikTok continues to face regulatory scrutiny, the company has been working on ways asserting its independence from China’s control, including looking for a new US-based CEO. This should also help the company with the many legal and PR issues that have been hanging over it concerning how it pays out when music is used in its popular app.

Google’s latest user-hostile design change makes ads and search results look identical

Did you notice a recent change to how Google search results are displayed on the desktop?

I noticed something last week — thinking there must be some kind of weird bug messing up the browser’s page rendering because suddenly everything looked similar: A homogenous sea of blue text links and favicons that, on such a large expanse of screen, come across as one block of background noise.

I found myself clicking on an ad link — rather than the organic search result I was looking for.

Here, for example, are the top two results for a Google search for flight search engine ‘Kayak’ — with just a tiny ‘Ad’ label to distinguish the click that will make Google money from the click that won’t…

Turns out this is Google’s latest dark pattern: The adtech giant has made organic results even more closely resemble the ads it serves against keyword searches, as writer Craig Mod was quick to highlight in a tweet this week.

Last week, in its own breezy tweet, Google sought to spin the shift as quite the opposite — saying the “new look” presents “site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded ‘Ad’ label for ads”:

But Google’s explainer is almost a dark pattern in itself.

If you read the text quickly you’d likely come away with the impression that it has made organic search results easier to spot since it’s claiming components of these results now appear more “prominently” in results.

Yet, read it again, and Google is essentially admitting that a parallel emphasis is being placed — one which, when you actually look at the thing, has the effect of flattening the visual distinction between organic search results (which consumers are looking for) and ads (which Google monetizes).

Another eagle-eyed user Twitter, going by the name Luca Masters, chipped into the discussion generated by Mod’s tweet — to point out that the tech giant is “finally coming at this from the other direction”.

‘This’ being deceptive changes to ad labelling; and ‘other direction’ being a reference to how now it’s organic search results being visually tweaked to shrink their difference vs ads.

Google previously laid the groundwork for this latest visual trickery by spending earlier years amending the look of ads to bring them closer in line with the steadfast, cleaner appearance of genuine search results.

Except now it’s fiddling with those too. Hence ‘other direction’.

Masters helpfully quote-tweeted this vintage tweet (from 2016), by journalist Ginny Marvin — which presents a visual history of Google ad labelling in search results that’s aptly titled “color fade”; a reference to the gradual demise of the color-shaded box Google used to apply to clearly distinguish ads in search results.

Those days are long gone now, though.

Now a user of Google’s search engine has — essentially — only a favicon between them and an unintended ad click. Squint or you’ll click it.

This visual trickery may be fractionally less confusing in a small screen mobile environment — where Google debuted the change last year. But on a desktop screen these favicons are truly minuscule. And where to click to get actual information starts to feel like a total lottery.

A lottery that’s being stacked in Google’s favor because confused users are likely to end up clicking more ad links than they otherwise would, meaning it cashes in at the expense of web users’ time and energy.

Back in May, when Google pushed this change on mobile users, it touted the tweaks as a way for sites to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link on a search result page. But it did so while simultaneously erasing a box-out that it had previously displayed around the label ‘Ad’ to make it stand out.

That made it “harder to differentiate ads and search results,” as we wrote then — predicting it will “likely lead to outcry”.

There were certainly complaints. And there will likely be more now — given the visual flattening of the gap between ad clicks and organic links looks even more confusing for users of Google search on desktop. (Albeit, the slow drip of design change updates also works against mass user outcry.)

We reached out to Google to ask for a response to the latest criticism that the new design for search results makes it almost impossible to distinguish between organic results and ads. But the company ignored repeat requests for comment.

Of course it’s true that plenty of UX design changes face backlash, especially early on. Change in the digital realm is rarely instantly popular. It’s usually more ‘slow burn’ acceptance.

But there’s no consumer-friendly logic to this one. (And the slow burn going on here involves the user being cast in the role of the metaphorical frog.)

Instead, Google is just making it harder for web users to click on the page they’re actually looking for — because, from a revenue-generating perspective, it prefers them to click an ad.

It’s the visual equivalent of a supermarket putting a similarly packaged own-brand right next to some fancy branded shampoo on the shelf — in the hopes a rushed shopper will pluck the wrong one. (Real life dark patterns are indeed a thing.)

It’s also a handy illustration of quite how far away from the user Google’s priorities have shifted, and continue to drift.

“When Google introduced ads, they were clearly marked with a label and a brightly tinted box,” said UX specialist Harry Brignull. “This was in stark contrast to all the other search engines at the time, who were trying to blend paid listings in amongst the organic ones, in an effort to drive clicks and revenue. In those days, Google came across as the most honest search engine on the planet.”

Brignull is well qualified to comment on dark patterns — having been calling out deceptive design since 2010 when he founded darkpatterns.org.

“I first learned about Google in the late 1990s. In those days you learned about the web by reading print magazines, which is charmingly quaint to look back on. I picked up a copy of Wired Magazine and there it was – a sidebar talking about a new search engine called ‘Google’,” he recalled. “Google was amazing. In an era of portals, flash banners and link directories, it went in the opposite direction. It didn’t care about the daft games the other search engines were playing. It didn’t even seem to acknowledge they existed. It didn’t even seem to want to be a business. It was a feat of engineering, and it felt like a public utility.

“The original Google homepage was recognised a guiding light of purism in digital design. Search was provided by an unstyled text field and button. There was nothing else on the homepage. Just the logo. Search results were near-instant and they were just a page of links and summaries – perfection with nothing to add or take away. The back-propagation algorithm they introduced had never been used to index the web before, and it instantly left the competition in the dust. It was proof that engineers could disrupt the rules of the web without needing any suit-wearing executives. Strip out all the crap. Do one thing and do it well.”

“As Google’s ambitions changed, the tinted box started to fade. It’s completely gone now,” Brignull added.

The one thing Google very clearly wants to do well now is serve more ads. It’s chosen to do that deceptively, by steadily — and consistently — degrading the user experience. So a far cry from “public utility”.

And that user-friendly Google of old? Yep, also completely gone.

Dfinity launches an open source platform aimed at the social networking giants

When Dfinity raised $102 million in funding in 2018 at a $2 billion valuation in a round jointly led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain Capital, it was thought of as a step change in the world of blockchain technology. In an area that was  synonymous generating a lot of headlines around cryptocurrency speculation, this was a shift in focus, looking instead at the architecture behind Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the rest, and how it could be used for more than just “mining”, distributing and using new financial instruments — with a major, mainstream VC backing the idea, no less.

Dfinity launched with a very lofty goal: to build what it called the “Internet Computer”: a decentralized and non-proprietary network to run the next generation of mega-applications. It dubbed this public network “Cloud 3.0”.

Now, looks like this is Cloud is now about to break.

In Davos this week, Dfinity launched the Bronze edition of its Internet Computer, a limited release that takes the startup one step closer to its full commercial release, expected later this year.

And to prove out the concept of how an application would run on its new network, Dfinity today demonstrated an open social network called LinkedUp.

The start-up has rather cheekily called this “an open version of LinkedIn,” the Microsoft-owned social network for professional. Unlike LikedIn, LinkedUp — which runs on any browser, is not owned or controlled by a corporate entity.

LinkedUp is built on Dfinity’s co-called Internet Computer, its name for the platform it is building to distribute the next generation of software and open internet services.

The software is hosted directly on the internet on a Switzerland-based independent data center, but in the concept of the Internet Computer, it could be hosted at your house or mine: the compute power to run the application — LinkedUp, in this case — is coming not from Amazon AWS, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure, and is instead based on the distributed architecture that Dfinity is building.


Dfinity is open-sourcing LinkedUp for developers to create other types of open internet services on the structure it has built. This ‘open social network for professional profiles’ suggests that, on Difinity’s opensource software, one could create an ‘Open WhatsApp’, ‘Open eBay’, ‘Open Salesforce’, or ‘Open Facebook’.

(Good news, since LinkedIn might not be so happy about a lookalike service with a name and layout that also looks very familiar. “While we can’t comment specifically on any proposed trademark, LinkedIn does monitor and take action as necessary to protect our trademarks,” a spokesperson said.)

“Big tech has hijacked the internet and stifled innovation by owning the proprietary infrastructure and user relationships,” said Dominic Williams, Founder and Chief Scientist at Dfinity in a statement. “As a result, a handful of for-profit companies have created a monopolistic and closed internet. The Internet Computer provides a means to rebuild internet services in open form.”

So perhaps what we should be calling this is not LinkedUp, but more a new sort of “Linux for the cloud”.

Dfinity claims the application was built by “1.5 engineers in three weeks,” thus demonstrating how easy the infrastructure is to use.

The tools include a Canister Software Developer Kit and a simple programming language called Motoko that is optimized for Dfinity’s Internet Computer.

“The Internet Computer is conceived as an alternative to the $3.8 trillion dollar legacy IT stack, and empower the next-generation of developers to build a new breed of tamper-proof enterprise software systems and open internet services. We are democratizing software development,” Williams said. “The Bronze release of the Internet Computer provides developers and enterprises a glimpse into the infinite possibilities of building on the Internet Computer — which also reflects the strength of the Dfinity team we have built so far.”

Dfinity says its “Internet Computer Protocol” allows for a new type of software called autonomous software, which can guarantee permanent APIs that cannot be revoked. When all these open internet services (e.g., open versions of WhatsApp, Facebook, eBay, Salesforce, etc) are combined with other open software and services it creates “mutual network effects” where everyone benefits.

We quizzed Dfinity a little more on all this and asked whether this was an actual launch.

A spokesperson told us: “Since our first major milestone of launching a terminal-based SDK and new programming language called Motoko — by the co-creator of WebAssembly — on 1 November, DFINITY has released 13 new public versions of the SDK, to our second major milestone [at WEF Davos] of demoing a decentralized web app called LinkedUp on the Internet Computer running on an independent data center in Switzerland. Subsequent milestones towards the public launch of the Internet Computer will involve (1) on-boarding a global network of independent data centers, (2) fully tested economic system, and (3) fully tested Network Nervous Systems for configuration and upgrades.”

It also looks like Dfinity will not be raising more money just yet.

But the question is how they plan to woo people to it? “Dfinity has been working with a select group of Fortune 500 companies, strategic consultancies, systems integrators, venture capitalists, and universities,” the company said.

We are not sure that will quite suffice to take out Facebook, LinkedIn and all the other tech giants, but we’re fascinated to see how this plays out.

Language platform Busuu acquires video tutor startup, now plans IPO

Language-learning platform Busuu, which has fast expanded to take on traditional giants like Duolingo, says it has acquired the live video tutoring company Verbling for an undisclosed amount, other than calling it a “double-digit million dollar acquisition.”

As a result, Busuu will now use the Verbling platform to expand into the live video tutoring space for its consumer users and corporate clients.

Busuu says it recently surpassed 100 million users globally, makes it one of the world’s fastest-growing EdTech companies. It says it reach cash flow break-even last year, and plans to generate over $40 million in revenues in 2020.

CEO and cofounder Bernhard Niesner said “we also plan to go public in the future.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, he said: “We are operating in the massive $60bn global language learning market, with digital language learning only representing a tiny 10% market share right now. This digital part will grow fast due to wider consumer adoption driven by better learning outcomes, expected to reach $17bn market value in 2027. Getting access to the capital markets would allow us to accelerate our growth, expand into other learning areas and build a truly globally leading, multi-billion dollar, digital learning business.”

The new Verbling-based ‘Busuu live’ will be a combination of their AI-powered learning content, interaction with other learners plus 1-1 live tutoring with professional teachers.

“We are also excited to leverage our 4bn data points from our learners to provide useful information to our new 10,000+ live teachers about their students. So whenever a teacher starts a live lesson, they will have access to relevant information about the progress of their students within Busuu, so they can fully adapt their lessons to the individual needs of their learners.”

Busuu was originally founded in Madrid in 2008 and in 2012 moved to London, but now plans to open an office back in its ‘home town.’

Niesner said: “The London hiring market has become increasingly more competitive over the last couple of years (also due to Brexit, competition from Facebook and Google etc) while the Spanish startup-ecosystem has made tremendous progress.”

Verbling was founded in San Francisco in 2011 by the Swedish co-founders Mikael Bernstein (CEO) and Gustav Rydstedt (CTO) who met while studying at Stanford University. After attending the Y-Combinator program, Verbling raised over $4.4m from Learn Capital, DFJ and Bullpen Capital. The platform has over 10,000 pre-vetted live teachers and offers interactive 1-1 lessons in nearly 60 different languages.

Mikael Bernstein, Co-Founder and CEO, Verbling said: “We are very excited to be joining forces with Busuu’s talented and experienced team, combining our world-class tutors with Busuu’s AI-powered platform will enable language learners across the globe to reach proficiency even faster.”

Following the acquisition, Verbling’s team members, including co-founders Mikael Bernstein (CEO) and Gustav Rydstedt (CTO) will join Busuu.

For context, the main publicly-listed language learning business is Rosetta Stone but they belong to the old version of language learning and have not yet done their shift to mobile, although they might survive that. There are expectations that both Duolingo and VIPKids (the Chinese English learning unicorn) will go public soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Web Broswers Africa 2019 Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian bike rental startup Bounce raises $105M

Bounce, a Bangalore-based startup that operates over 15,000 electric and gasoline docked bikes and scooters in nearly three dozen cities in India, said today it has raised $105 million in a new funding round as it explores sustainable ways to expand within the nation and build its own electric vehicles.

The new financing round, Series D, was co-led by existing investors Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital and Accel Partners India, said the startup. The new round valued Bounce at a little over $500 million, up from about $200 million in June last year, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

TechCrunch reported in late November that Bounce was in advanced stages of talks to raise $150 million at over $500 million valuation. The new round pushes the startup’s total raise to $194 million.

Bounce, formerly known as Metro Bikes, allows customers to rent a scooter and pay 10.5 Indian rupees (15 cents) for each kilometer of the ride. The startup, which clocks 1.2 million rides each day, allows users to leave the vehicle in any nearby docking station or partnered mom-and-pop store after the ride.

Bounce earlier deployed its own operations team in each city and flooded the market with its scooters, but in recent weeks it has started to explore a new strategy, said co-founder and chief executive Vivekananda Hallekere in an interview with TechCrunch.

“We realized that it was not the smartest move to expand Bounce’s network on our own,” he said. The startup now works with mom-and-pop stores and local merchants in each city and they run their own operations.

To date, Bounce has replicated this model in six cities in India (including Vijayawada and Mangalore) and has partnered with over 250,000 shops and merchants. “We launch in the cities with our own vehicles, but overtime, these micro-entrepreneurs deploy their own bikes and scooters. They are still using our app, and are part of the Bounce platform, but they don’t have to be locked into our scooter ecosystem,” he explained.

The shift in strategy comes as Bounce looks to cut expenses and find a sustainable way to expand. “Otherwise, I would need a billion dollar of debt to launch a million vehicles in India,” he argued. “We wanted a model that is scalable and profitable, and helps us create the most impact.”

Bounce is part of a small group of startups that is attempting to address a market that cab-hailing services Uber and Ola have been unable to address. The startup competes with Vogo, which is backed by Ola, and Yulu, which maintains a partnership with Uber.

Riding these bikes is more affordable than hailing a cab, and also two wheels are much faster in crowded traffic of urban cities than four. These bikes have also proven useful in other ways. Hallekere said female users account for over 30% of all rides on Bounce — a figure that beats the industry estimates, because women feel much more safer with bikes, he said. “They don’t have to worry about how they would commute back from work,” he said.

Bounce is also working on building its own ecosystem of electric vehicles. The startup said it has already built a scooter with metal chassis that can survive for at least 200,000 kilometers. The idea is to build electric scooters that work best for shared mobility, something Hallekere said the ecosystem is currently missing.

“In our tests, we found that even if you threw this bike from the first floor of a building, nothing happens to it. It is also more tech-enabled, so it can tell when the second seat of the bike is in use and can bill users accordingly,” he explained. The startup plans to deploy these vehicles in the coming months.

Kabir Narang, a partner at B Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview that he sees great potential in the shared mobility future in India, and Bounce team’s passion and commitment to solving these challenges made it easy for them to place “long-term” bet on the startup.

Proxyclick raises $15M Series B for its visitor management platform

If you’ve ever entered a company’s office as a visitor or contractor, you probably know the routine: check in with a receptionist, figure out who invited you, print out a badge and get on your merry way. Brussels, Belgium- and New York-based Proxyclick aims to streamline this process, while also helping businesses keep their people and assets secure. As the company announced today, it has raised a $15 million Series B round led by Five Elms Capital, together with previous investor Join Capital.

In total, Proxyclick says it’s systems have now been used to register over 30 million visitors in 7,000 locations around the world. In the UK alone, over 1,000 locations use the company’s tools. Current customers include L’Oreal, Vodafone, Revolut, PepsiCo and Airbnb, as well as a number of other Fortune 500 firms.

Gregory Blondeau, founder and CEO of Proxyclick, stresses that the company believes that paper logbooks, which are still in use in many companies, are simply not an acceptable solution anymore, not in the least because that record is often permanent and visible to other visitors.

Proxyclick’s founding team.

“We all agree it is not acceptable to have those paper logbooks at the entrance where everyone can see previous visitors,” he said. “It is also not normal for companies to store visitors’ digital data indefinitely. We already propose automatic data deletion in order to respect visitor privacy. In a few weeks, we’ll enable companies to delete sensitive data such as visitor photos sooner than other data. Security should not be an excuse to exploit or hold visitor data longer than required.”

What also makes Proxyclick stand out from similar solutions is that it integrates with a lot of existing systems for access control (including C-Cure and Lenel systems). With that, users can ensure that a visitor only has access to specific parts of a building, too.

In addition, though, it also supports existing meeting rooms, calendaring and parking systems and integrates with Wi-Fi credentialing tools so your visitors don’t have to keep asking for the password to get online.

Like similar systems, Proxyclick provides businesses with a tablet-based sign-in service that also allows them to get consent and NDA signatures right during the sign-in process. If necessary, the system can also compare the photos it takes to print out badges with those on a government-issued ID to ensure your visitors are who they say they are.

Blondeau noted that the whole industry is changing, too. “Visitor management is becoming mainstream, it is transitioning from a local, office-related subject handled by facility managers to a global, security and privacy driven priority handled by Chief Information Security Officers. Scope, decision drivers and key people involved are not the same as in the early days,” he said.

It’s no surprise then that the company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its roadmap. Specifically, it’s looking to integrate its solution with more third-party systems with a focus on physical security features and facial recognition, as well as additional new enterprise features.

Yo Facebook & Instagram, stop showing Stories reruns

If I watch a Story cross-posted from Instagram to Facebook on either of the apps, it should appear as “watched” at the back of the Stories row on the other app. Why waste my time showing me Stories I already saw?

It’s been over two years since Instagram Stories launched cross-posting to Stories. Countless hours of each feature’s 500 million daily users have been squandered viewing repeats. Facebook and Messenger already synchronized the watched/unwatched state of Stories. It’s long past time that this was expanded to encompass Instagram.

I asked Facebook and Instagram if it had plans for this. A company spokesperson told me that it built cross-posting to make sharing easier to people’s different audiences on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s continuing to explore ways to simplify and improve Stories. But they gave no indication that Facebook realizes how annoying this is or that a solution is in the works.

The end result if this gets fixed? Users would spend more time watching new content, more creators would feel seen, and Facebook’s choice to jam Stories in all its apps would fee less redundant and invasive. If I send a reply to a Story on one app, I’m not going to send it or something different when I see the same Story on the other app a few minutes or hours later. Repeated content leads to more passive viewing and less interactive communication with friends, despite Facebook and Instagram stressing that its this zombie consumption that’s unhealthy.

The only possible downside to changing this could be fewer Stories ad impressions if secondary viewings of peoples’ best friends’ Stories keep them watching more than new content. But prioritizing making money over the user experience is again what Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized is not Facebook’s strategy.

There’s no need to belabor the point any further. Give us back our time. Stop the reruns.

Babylon Health is building an integrated, AI-based health app to serve a city of 300K in England

After announcing a $550 million fundraise last August, U.K. AI-based health services startup Babylon Health is putting some of that money to use with its widest-ranging project to date. The company has inked a 10-year deal with the city of Wolverhampton in England to provide an integrated health app covering 300,000 people, the entire population of the city.

The financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Babylon confirmed that the NHS is not taking a stake in the startup as part of it. The plan is to start rolling out the first phase of the app by the end of this year.

Babylon Health is known for building AI-based platforms that help diagnose patients’ issues. Babylon’s services are provided as a complement to seeing actual clinicians — the idea being that the interactions and AI can speed up some of the work of getting people seen and into the system. Some of Babylon’s best known work to date has been a chatbot that it built for the NHS in the U.K., and, in addition to working with a number of private businesses on their employee healthcare services, it is also now in the process of rolling out services in 11 countries in Asia. (In August, Babylon said it was delivering 4,000 clinical consultations each day, or one patient interaction every 10 seconds; covering 4.3 million people worldwide; with more than 1.2 million digital consultations completed to date.)

Even with all these milestones passed — milestones that have helped catapult Babylon to a $2 billion valuation — its latest project will be its most ambitious to date: it will be the first time that Babylon works on a project that combines both hospital and primary medical care into an all-in-one app.

“We are extremely proud of this exciting 10-year partnership with RWT which will benefit patients and the NHS as a whole,” said Ali Parsa, CEO and founder of Babylon, in a statement. “We have over 1,000 AI experts, clinicians, engineers and scientists who will be helping to make Digital-First Integrated Care a reality and provide fast, effective, proactive care to patients. Together with RWT, we can demonstrate this works and help the NHS lead healthcare across the world.”

The plan is for Babylon and the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust — the local health authority and body that will oversee the work for the city’s population — to build an app that will not only provide remote diagnoses, but also live monitoring of patients with chronic conditions (using wearables and other monitoring apps) and the ability to connect people with doctors and others remotely.

Other services will include the ability to let patients access their own medical records and review their own consultations; book appointments; renew prescriptions; view a “digital twin” of their own state of health based on medical history and other details; and manage their rehab after a procedure, illness or injury.

The gap in the market that Babylon is tackling is the fact that many countries are seeing populations that are both growing bigger and generally living longer, and that is putting a strain not just on public health services, but also those that are managed completely or partly privately. This has been a particularly painful theme in Babylon’s home market, the U.K., where healthcare is nationalised and is regularly facing budgetary and human capital shortages, but there is no infrastructure (or consumer finance) to supplement that for the majority of people.

The aim, however, goes beyond simply filling NHS gaps; it’s also about trying to build services that fit better with how people live, for example to provide them with certain services at home to save them from coming into, say, a hospital to be treated if the condition merits it.

“We know from our active engagement with patients of all ages and backgrounds that they are keen to use technology that will improve access and give them greater control of their own health, wellbeing and social inclusion,” said Trust Chief Executive David Loughton, CBE, in a statement. “For example, it should be normal for a patient with a long-term condition to take a blood-test at home, have the results fed into their app which alerts the specialist if they need an appointment. The patient chooses a time to meet, has the consultation through the app, works with their specialist to build a care plan, and the app encourages them to complete it whilst assessing the impact it’s having. This is our vision for properly joined-up and integrated care.”

AI has become a major theme in the drive to improve healthcare and medicine overall, primarily through two main areas: providing diagnostic and other services to patients in situations, acting in roles that would otherwise be played by humans; and in research, acting as a “super brain” to help perform complex calculations in the quest for better drug discovery, disease pathology and other areas that would take humans far longer to do on their own.

Well aware of the strains on health systems, startups, investors and other stakeholders have jumped into using AI in the hopes of creating more efficiency and potentially better outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that all the outcomes have actually been better. Google’s DeepMind encountered a lot of controversy around how it handled patient data in its own NHS deals, leading to questions and investigations that have now stretched into years. And BenevolentAI — which has been working on drug discovery — found itself raising money last year in round that devalued the loss-making company by half.

Paul Bate, Babylon’s MD of NHS services, noted in an interview that Babylon is mindful of patient privacy and consent, and notes that the service is opt-in and transparent in its data usage when engaging users. He declined to comment on how and when data will be retained by the NHS or by Babylon (or both) but said it would be made clear in the app when it is launched.

“It’s not a simple answer to say whether one body or another will keep it, but it will be transparent, both for US and the NHS, when it launches,” he added.

This ultrasonic gripper could let robots hold things without touching them

If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.

It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.

This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.

A small electric component, or a tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.

Another, more sinister-looking prototype.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly which combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.

A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.

How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear, but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately, he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.