Daily Crunch: Twitter tightens security ahead of election

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Twitter takes preemptive steps to avoid election-related hacks, we check out the new Apple Watches and Facebook launches new business tools. This is your Daily Crunch for September 17, 2020.

The big story: Twitter tightens security ahead of election

Twitter said today that “high-profile, election-related” accounts in the United States will be receiving notifications telling them they’re required to adopt strong passwords. The company will also be enabling password reset protections for those accounts, and encouraging them to adopt two-factor authentication.

And on top of the steps that it’s requiring candidates to take, Twitter also said it’s adopting additional “proactive internal security safeguards,” such as more sophisticated alerts.

This comes after Twitter was hacked in July, resulting in many high-profile accounts tweeting out a cryptocurrency scam. The company probably wants to avoid an election-related repeat.

The tech giants

A closer look at the new Apple Watches — This isn’t our full review, but rather Brian Heater’s first impressions of the Series 6 and SE.

Facebook launches Facebook Business Suite, an app for managing business accounts across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger — The app offers combined access to a business’s key updates and priorities across Facebook and Instagram.

Amazon makes Alexa Routines shareable — In the U.S., Alexa users will be able to visit the Routines section in the Alexa app, then click on the routine they want to share and grab a shareable URL.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Connected fitness startup Tonal raises another $110 million — It’s a pretty massive round for the strength training company, especially as the space has become increasingly crowded in recent years.

Amazon’s first five climate fund investments include Tesla co-founder JB Straubel’s startup Redwood Materials — Redwood Materials is a recycling startup aiming to create a circular supply chain.

With Goat Capital, Justin Kan and Robin Chan want to keep founding alongside the right teams — Goat Capital is a hybrid incubator, as opposed to a pure seed investment firm.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra asks 6 VCs how to raise funding when the sky is falling — Deal velocity has gone up!

Startup founders must overcome information overload — Entrepreneurs share their tips for weighing advice and data.

Does early-stage health tech need more ‘patient’ capital? — Steve O’Hear interviews Dr. Fiona Pathiraja of early-stage health tech fund Crista Galli Ventures.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jennifer Doudna sees CRISPR gene-editing tech as a Swiss Army knife for COVID-19 and beyond — Doudna is one of the pioneers of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, and she discussed its potential at Disrupt.

Hulu tests its co-viewing feature ‘Watch Party’ with ad-supported viewers — Hulu Watch Party was initially only available for subscribers on the service’s ad-free tier.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Benchmark’s Peter Fenton: “10 to 20 years of innovation just got pulled forward”

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Earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt, venture capitalist Peter Fenton joined us to talk about a variety of issues. Among them, we discussed how he’s putting his stamp on Benchmark now that, 15 years after joining the storied firm, he’s its most senior member.

Fenton said that he’s mostly focused on ensuring that firm doesn’t change. It wants to remain small, with no more than six general partners at a time. It wants to keep investing funds that are half a billion dollars or less because its small team can only work closely with so many founders. He also made a point of noting that Benchmark’s partners still divide their investment profits equally, unlike at other, more hierarchical venture firms, where senior investors reap the biggest financial benefits.

We also talked about diversity because (hint hint) Benchmark — which is currently run by Fenton, Sarah Tavel, Eric Vishria and Chetan Puttagunta — is hiring one to two more general partners. We talked about why Benchmark, a Series A investor in both Uber and WeWork, seemingly took so long to address cultural issues within both companies. And we talked about the opportunities that has Benchmark, and Fenton specifically, most excited right now.

If you’re curious about any of these things, read on or check out our full conversation below.

On whether Benchmark, which historically had all white male partners and now counts Fenton among its only white partner, might hire a Black partner on his watch, given the dearth of Black investors in the industry and, at the same time, the changing demographics of the U.S.:

“That’s a personal issue for me, which is going to be measured in the outcomes, just like we have companies that take on initiatives that matter and then measure them and hold themselves accountable. I won’t feel good about our failure if we don’t continue to tilt towards diversity. It’s not enough that I’m the only white male partner. The industry is so systematically skewed in the wrong direction, and we’ve gotten so good at rationalizing how it ended up here, that I don’t think we can tolerate it anymore.”

Benchmark is looking to reinvent itself through “three interfaces” he continued. “It’s who are we talking with and spending time with in terms of [who we might invest in] — that has to change; who are the people making investment decisions, [meaning] the partnership; and then what’s the composition of the companies we’ve invested in, meaning the executives and the boards.

“Before I’m done with the venture business, I want to be able to point to empirical outcomes . . .”

As for why Benchmark waited for the public to rally against its portfolio companies Uber and WeWork before taking action to address cultural issues (in Uber’s case, in reaction to former engineer Susan Fowler’s famous blog post and, in the case if WeWork, in reaction to its S-1 filing):

“I can’t give you a crisp answer because ultimately, what happens in the public eye isn’t the whole story of what was going on between Benchmark and those CEOs.” It’s  “far more complicated, far more nuanced, far more engaged.”

Said Fenton: “What you start with in any partnership is this idea that we’re all flawed and providing what feels like unconditional support to a founder to nurture them and help them to understand in ways they might be able to from their direct reports where they are going to get in trouble, where they’re going to fall short, and then buttress them.

“I can say, having watched both [Benchmark investors] Bruce [Dunlevie] and Bill [Gurley] in those roles that they give their heart and soul to enable to full potential of those entrepreneurs and in each case, it wasn’t enough.

“I don’t know what to say other than, I don’t envision another individual in that [board] role being able to do a better job because what they gave was everything, and those companies built enormous organizations, great success, delight and joy for customers, and they had, in each of their cases, pathologies in their culture. A number of companies that I’m involved with have pathologies in their culture. Every organization can build them. What motivated both Bill and Bruce was the constituencies that go beyond the CEO, the employees, the customers, and in the case of Uber, the drivers . . .

“You could say Susan Fowler was the reason it all happened; I can assure you that the work that was being done far preceded [the publication of her blog post]. Could we have done more, more quickly? You always look back and say, ‘Yeah.’ I think you learn as an organization. We’re not perfect.”

As for the trends that Fenton is watching most closely right now, he suggested a world of opportunities have opened up in the last six months, and he thinks they’ll only gain momentum from here:

“What I’m most excited about is, we’re not going back to normal. What’s so amazing is this shock to the system is really a big opportunity for entrepreneurs to come and say, ‘What do we need to build to recreate and unlock all these things we lost when we stopped going into workplaces?’

“So I think this opportunity to build the tools for a world that’s ‘post place’ has just opened up and is as exciting as anything I’ve seen in my venture career.You walk around right now and you see these ghosts towns, with gyms, classes you might take [and so forth] and now maybe you go online and do Peloton, or that class you maybe do online. So I think a whole field of opportunities will move into this post-place delivery mechanism that are really exciting. [It] could be 10 to 20 years of innovation that just got pulled forward into today.”

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Schools are closing their doors, but OpenDoor isn’t

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha Mascarenhas, Danny Crichton and myself hosted a live taping at Disrupt for a digital reception. It was good fun, though of course we’re looking forward to bringing the live show back to the conference next year, vaccine allowing.

Thankfully we had Chris Gates behind the scenes tweaking the dials, Alexandra Ames fitting us into the program, and some folks to watch live.

What did we talk about? All of this (and some very, very bad jokes):

And then we tried to play a game that may or may not make it into the final cut. Either way, it was great to have Equity back at Disrupt. More to come. Hugs from us!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.



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Meet the five startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt 2020

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TechCrunch hosted an unusual Startup Battlefield this week — the founders, judges, audience and moderator (me) were all in different locations, doing our best to interact over WebEx.

But the 20 startups still demonstrated their products and explained their visions, then were grilled by expert judges. And those judges helped the TechCrunch team select our five finalists.

Those finalists will be presenting tomorrow at 10:40 a.m. Pacific for a whole new set of judges and you can watch the live stream by logging into TechCrunch. (Also: It’s not too late to sign up for the full Disrupt experience.) Those judges will choose a runner-up and a winner, and the winner will take home $100,000 equity-free.

Here are the finalists:

Canix

Canix has built a robust enterprise resource planning platform designed to reduce the time it takes cannabis growers to input data. It integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software, as well as Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform. You can read more about Canix here.

Firehawk Aerospace

Hybrid rockets aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Firehawk Aerospace is building a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel engine that employs industrial-scale 3D printing to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous designs. You can read more about Firehawk Aerospace here.

HacWare

Tiffany Ricks founded HacWare in Dallas, Texas, in 2017 to help bring better email security awareness to small businesses. The technology sits on a company’s email server and uses machine learning to categorize and analyze each message for risk. You can read more about HacWare here.

Jefa

Jefa is building a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. It focuses on solving the problems that women face when opening a bank account and managing it. You can read more about Jefa here.

Matidor

Matidor is building a project platform for consultants and engineers to keep track of projects and geospatial data in a single dashboard. It offers an all-in-one data visualization suite for customers in the energy and environmental services fields. You can read more about Matidor here.

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Boston Robotics delivers plan for logistics robots as early as next year

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Boston Dynamics is just months away from announcing their approach to logistics, the first real vertical it aims to enter, after proving their ability to build robots at scale with the quadrupedal Spot. The company’s new CEO, Robert Playter, sees the company coming into its own after decades of experimentation.

Playter, interviewed on the virtual main stage of Disrupt 2020, only recently ascended from COO to that role after many years of working there, after longtime CEO and founder Marc Raibert stepped aside to focus on R&D. This is his Playter’s first public speaking engagement since taking on the new responsibility, and it’s clear he has big plans for Boston Robotics.

The recent commercialization of Spot, the versatile quadrupedal robot that is a distant descendant of the famous Big Dog, showed Playter and the company that there is a huge demand for what they’re offering, even if they’re not completely sure where that demand is.

“We weren’t sure exactly what the target verticals would be,” he admitted, and seemingly neither did the customers, who have collectively bought about 260 of the $75,000 robots and are now actively building their own add-ons and industry-specific tools for the platform. And the price hasn’t been a deterrent, he said: “As an industrial tool this is actually quite affordable. But we’ve been very aggressive, spending a lot of money to try to build an affordable way to produce this, and we’re already working on ways to continue to reduce costs.”

boston dynamics spot

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The global pandemic has also helped create a sense of urgency around robots as an alternative to or augmentation of manual labor.

“People are realizing that having a physical proxy for themselves, to be able to be present remotely, might be more important than we imagined before,” Playter said. “We’ve always thought of robots as being able to go into dangerous places, but now danger has been redefined a little bit because of COVID. The pandemic is accelerating the sense of urgency and, I think, probably opening up the kinds of applications that we will explore with this technology.”

Among the COVID-specific applications, the company has fielded requests for collaboration on remote monitoring of patients, and automatic disinfection using spot to carry aerosol spray through a facility. “I don’t know whether that’ll be a big market going forward, but we thought it was important to respond at the time,” he said. “Partly out of a sense of obligation to the community and society that we do the right thing here.”

The “Dr Spot” remote vitals measurement program at MIT.

One of the earliest applications to scale successfully was, of course, logistics, where companies like Amazon have embraced robotics as a way to increase productivity and lower labor costs. Boston Dynamics is poised to jump into the market with a very different robot — or rather robots — meant to help move boxes and other box-like items around in a very different way from the currently practical “autonomous pallet” method.

“We have big plans in logistics,” Playter said. “we’re going to have some exciting new logistics products coming out in the next two years. We have customers now doing proof of concept tests. We’ll announce something in 2021, exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have product available in 2022.”

The company already offers Pick, a more traditional, stationary item-picking system, and they’re working on the next version of Handle, a birdlike mobile robot that can grab boxes and move them around while taking up comparatively little space — no more than a person or two standing up. This mobility allows it to unload things like shipping containers, trucks, and other confined or less predictable spaces.


In a video shown during the interview (which you can watch above), Handle is also shown working in concert with an off-the-shelf pallet robot, and Playter emphasized the need for this kind of cooperation, and not just between robots from a single creator.

“We’ll be offering software that lets robots work together,” he said. “Now, we don’t have to create them all. But ultimately it will take teams of robots to do some of these tasks, and we anticipate being able to work with a heterogeneous fleet.”

This kinder, gentler, more industry-friendly Boston Dynamics is almost certainly a product of nudging from Softbank, which acquired the company in 2018, but also the simple reality that you can’t run a world-leading robotics R&D outfit for nothing. But Playter was keen to note that the Japanese tech giant understands that “we’re only in the position we’re in now because of the previous work we’ve done in the last two decades, developing these advanced capabilities, so we have to keep doing that.”

One thing you won’t likely seeing doing real work any time soon is Atlas, the company’s astonishingly agile humanoid robot. It’s just not practical for anything just yet, but instead acts as a kind of prestige project, forcing the company to constantly adjust its sights upward.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

“It’s such a complex robot, and it can do so much it forces us to create tools we would not otherwise. And people love it — it’s aspirational, it attracts talent,” said Playter.

And he himself is no exception. Once a gymnast, he recalled “a nostalgic moment” watching Atlas vault around. “A lot of the people in the company, including Marc, have inspiration from the athletic performance of people and animals,” Playter said. “That DNA is deeply embedded in our company.”

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Ron Howard and Brian Grazer say that their accelerator can help diversify Hollywood

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Impact Creative Systems (formerly Imagine Impact) is bringing a startup accelerator-style approach to finding fresh creative talent, and it announced this morning that, with funding from venture capital firm Benchmark, it’s spinning out from Imagine Entertainment — the production company founded by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer.

Right after the news broke, the accelerator’s founders — Howard, Grazer and CEO Tyler Mitchell — joined us at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference to discuss their vision. Grazer (whose films with Howard include “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and the upcoming “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix) recalled the Hollywood of 25 years ago, which he described as an “opaque” system where original writers often struggled to break in, and he felt that Impact could “democratize access to Hollywood.”

“How can we create opportunity to have access to epicenter of employment in the media business, which is Hollywood?” he said.

For starters, Mitchell described what he claimed is a scalable system for evaluating 2,000 script submissions every week.

“We were able to build a system that leverages both technology as well as expert systems evaluating not just the writers, but the readers — almost like financial analysts — and try to come up with metrics in world where there aren’t stats,” he said.

Mitchell also noted that in Impact’s first cohort of 87 writers, 39% were BIPOC, 10% were LGBTQ and it was split 50-50 between men and women, with 11 different countries represented.

“If you try to find the most talented writers in the world, they’re going to look like the world,” he said.

Howard made a similar point, saying that this diversity results from an interest in “fresh new voices” with “no statistical goals or agendas in mind — it’s just happening in a really honest way.”

Asked whether they’re interested in finding new talent from social media, Howard pointed to Grazer as the one who’s always encouraging him to “know what’s going on up north” (a.k.a. in Silicon Valley).

“Right now we’re in a creative renaissance with podcasts and Instagrams … finding their way into the center of the narrative,” Howard said.

Grazer said he often looks at YouTube in particular. At the same time, he cautioned that creating content for these online platforms requires a different skillset than writing movies or TV.

“It doesn’t reduce the likelihood of their success necessarily, but it’s a different art form,” he said. “Because writing a teleplay or a screenplay, even the greatest playwrights can’t do that particular thing — you have to be trained.”

Still, Imagine found at least one idea in an Instagram Story, developing a comedic show around an actor (Grazer didn’t want to say who it was, but it’s probably Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a donkey named Lulu and a miniature horse named Whiskey. Apparently the show has attracted multiple bidders, and as for where it will end up, Grazer said, “It sort of seems like Amazon. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

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Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn on getting funding for crazy ideas

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It’s not easy getting funding for any startup, but when Cloudflare launched at one of our early events ten years ago, most investors sure thought its idea was a bit out there. Today, Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn joined us at our virtual Disrupt event to talk with our enterprise reporter Ron Miller about those early days and how the team managed to get investors on board with its plan.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, what were we thinking? But really, I hope — as other entrepreneurs listen — that you do think, ‘hey, how can I be more bold?’ Because actually, that’s where a lot of greatness comes from,” Zatlyn said.

It’s maybe no surprise then that she found that when the team went to the Bay Area in the summer of 2009, trying to sell a product that democratized a service that was previously only available to the internet giants of that time, not everybody was ready.

“A lot of eyes glazed over,” she said. They kind of brushed us aside because we really had a big vision — we certainly did not lack in vision. So that was a lot of the conversations, but there were some conversations where people really leaned in and they’re like: ‘Oh, wow, tell me more.’ And maybe they knew a lot about cybersecurity or maybe they were really worried about the democratization of the internet and going behind guarded walls. And those people really got excited. And that’s how we found kind of our initial investors or initial teammates.”

Over time, the team found investors and an initial set of employees, but it wasn’t easy. “It was bold then and not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some people looked at us like we’re crazy, but I’d like to say that when people look at you like you’re crazy, you’re probably onto something big.”

While a lot of people looked at Cloudflare as a CDN in its early days, it was always meant to be a security product that needed the CDN to work (the company sometimes describes itself as an ‘accidental CDN’ because of that). Ten years ago, the focus was mostly on web spammers and because that was something everybody could relate to, it made its ability to combat that very explicit in its pitch deck.

“We literally had a slide in our pitch deck that had quotes from real-life IT administrators from some medium-sized businesses, small businesses and developers, explaining in their own words — and their very hard-hitting words — how much they despise like these cyber threats that were online. […] Even if you knew nothing about cybersecurity or global performance, you could all understand wow, there’s something here, right?” And of course, it helped that there was no real protection against these threats available at the time.

Still, getting early customers didn’t come easy, either, Zatlyn noted, because some just didn’t understand what the company was doing. But the team took that as feedback and improved how it explained itself.

“Early on as an entrepreneur, you got to try a lot of things. And you don’t need to know every single corner of your business, but you need ave to really have a high rate of learning. Actually, that’s an entrepreneur’s best friend. How fast can you learn, how fast can you take the feedback and iterate on it?”

You can watch the rest of the conversation, including Zatlyn’s thoughts about going public, below:

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Fabletics eyes what’s next for its activewear empire

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Like plenty of other modern direct-to-consumer companies, influencer marketing has been an essential part of Fabletics’ journey. Actress Kate Hudson co-founded the company and co-CEO Adam Golderberg believes that its network of spokespeople has been key to the company’s growth.

We were joined on our virtual TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 stage by Goldenberg and comedian Kevin Hart who has been working as a brand partner for Fabletics.

“You can have the best product, which we believe we have, but if you can’t get it out there then you’re not going to be the leader that you want to be,” Goldenberg told us. “By having a very broad and diverse ambassador and influencer network, it allows us to become a very inclusive brand.”

Hart joined the company as an official brand partner earlier this year just as the pandemic took hold stateside and the company launched a menswear line. For Hart, the partnership is one of many relationships with brands and startups, but fits into his own lifestyle and thus made a lot of sense for him to work with, he says. 

“[A company I invest in] has to coincide with myself and my lifestyle. If I’m going to talk about it, I have to be true to it,” Hart told TechCrunch. “There’s a plethora of things that I’m involved with that people would be shocked to know I was a part of, but it’s because I have the eyesight for it and a love for it.”

The Fabletics menswear line that Hart has advertised, and served as a brand spokesman for, has seen major growth amid a broader spike in athleisure wear sales. Goldenberg is bullish on just how much growth Fabletics will see from its men’s line so early in its lifecycle.

“It’s a big goal, but I think we could do $75-100 million in sales next year with Fabletics Men, which is our first full year with this line, which would be very, very fast growth,” Goldenberg says.

As the company firms up its offering in activewear, they’re also keeping an eye on what trends will help them grow. Fabletics has already been building out technology trying to connect online and offline user habits in its stores. On the heels of Lululemon’s major acquisition of Mirror, which it announced in late June, moderator Jordan Crook inquired whether Fabletics had its own interests in expanding its footprint beyond activewear.

“We really believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle, so we’re not ready to share it yet, but we’re going to be doing something very large incorporating fitness into Fabletics,” Goldenberg said.

Check out the interview with Hart and Goldenberg below.

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Here are the 19 companies presenting at Alchemist Accelerator Demo Day XXV today

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When Alchemist Accelerator shifted its Demo Day to virtual earlier this year, Alchemist director and founder Ravi Belani told me it was a move he expected the team to stick with for some time. Nearly half a year later it’s time for another Demo Day — and sure enough, with the pandemic still ongoing, it’s another virtual one.

As an enterprise accelerator, Alchemist focuses primarily on seed stage companies that make their money from other companies rather than those that sell to consumers. This latest cohort (the accelerator’s 25th) saw nearly 20 companies go through the program, with focuses ranging from physical therapy devices, to an AI “coach” for sales reps, to productivity tools for software developers.

Care to see the companies make their debut to the world? Alchemist will be streaming its Demo Day on YouTube, with programming set to begin at 2pm pacific.

Don’t have time to watch the whole thing? Here’s an alphabetized list of all the companies scheduled to present, along with some notes about what each is working on:

Image Credits: Anda Technologies

Anda Technologies: A simplified smartwatch with built-in GPS, calling, and a quick symbol-based messaging system, meant to help parents and caretakers stay in touch in situations where a full smartphone might be too much. They initially focused on Latin America, and are now expanding support to US and Europe.

Botco.ai: A “conversational marketing platform” — in other words, marketing chatbots meant to increase sales and conversions. Potential customers can chat with these bots over SMS, messaging apps, and their AI will use its growing understanding of what it knows about your business to respond.

BreachRX: A platform meant to help streamline your company’s response when a security breach happens. They provide response playbooks, help assign tasks to the correct team members, and help capture records of how and when your company took action.

ClearQuote: Computer vision-based vehicle inspections. The company says it can scan an entire vehicle for damage using a smartphone camera in around 60 seconds, calculating cost of repair on the fly. Focusing on end-of-lease inspections, used car inspections, and rental car return inspections first.

CoPilot: An AI-powered “coach” for sales reps. As reps make phone/video calls, CoPilot analyzes the conversation and generates “cue cards” with relevant information.

Evolution Devices: A wearable electrical stimulation device meant to help in the rehabilitation process for those with lower limb weaknesses (including stroke survivors or individuals with multiple sclerosis.) The device adapts to each user’s own walking pattern, and helps with remote care by reporting data (such as step counts) back to the patient’s therapist.

Faucetworks: An “artificial neurologist”, meant to help more quickly identify neurological emergencies while a patient is in an ambulance en route to a hospital, or at hospitals where no neurologist is on site. Their hardware system asks patients a series of questions, then walks them through a physical exam.

HR Messenger: An HR/onboarding chatbot built to work over Whatsapp/Facebook Messenger, helping to automate things like pre-screening questions, interview scheduling, and referral requests. The company says it’s working with clients including KFC and H&M.

Hopthru: Data analysis platform for public transit agencies. Hooks into the data these agencies already collect, cleans it up, then pipes it into a dashboard to help these transit agencies find ways to improve their routes and ridership.

Image Credits: Hubly

Hubly Surgical: Building a smarter drill for neurosurgeons performing “skull puncture” operations. The company says that many surgeons still use basic, standard (hand-cranked!) drills, which can lead to high complication rates; Hubly’s drill helps to precisely angle the drill and is built to prevent the surgeon from drilling too deep. Expects to see FDA clearance in 2021, and launch in US hospitals in 2022.

HyPoint: Working on high-power, high-density hydrogen fuel cell systems for aviation, meant to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions from air transportation.

Mobiz: A platform for sending personalized marketing messages to your established customer base via SMS, building “personalized micro-sites” for each user based on the brand’s existing data. The company says it’s already working with companies like Burger King and Woolworths, and is currently seeing $6MM in ARR.

Nano Diamond Battery: NDB is aiming to build a self-charging, sustainable battery. This one is perhaps a bit too complex to capture in a sentence or two, so see our previous coverage of NDB here.

Node App: A marketplace for connecting brands with influencers. Node helps to verify each influencer’s audience, then connects brands with these influencers with pre-negotiated deal terms.

Rectify: A tool meant to automatically detect and redact sensitive information when sharing documents outside of an organization. Focusing on the insurance market at first. Founder Melissa Unsell-Smith says the Rectify founding team previously worked together for 15 years in AT&T’s corporate legal department.

RubiLabs Inc: A platform focusing on making on-demand deliveries of medical products (vaccines, medications, etc) to hospitals and pharmacies in Africa via drones, motorcycles, and other dedicated vehicles. The company estimates that it has already saved 7,000+ lives.

Seventh.ai: Pitching itself as “Carta for intellectual property”, Seventh.ai helps founders identify which parts of their business can/should be patented, to better understand what the competition has patented, and to work through the patenting process. The company says it’s currently seeing around $250k in ARR. Founder Alex Polyansky says he spent 10 years as a patent examiner at the USPTO.

Tocca: A platform meant to help B2B companies throw branded virtual sales events, providing things like virtual lobbies, stages, breakout rooms, and person-to-person networking tools. Integrates into tools like HubSpot and Salesforce to make post-event followups more efficient.

Image Credits: Veamly

Veamly: A “unified inbox” feed for developers that brings threads and messages from Slack, GitHub, Jira into one view, as well as a unified search that can dig in across these tools. Founder Emna Ghariani says the company’s “proprietary prioritization engine” helps to sort tasks and tickets by importance, and to analyze the time they’re spending in each tool throughout the week.

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Jennifer Doudna sees CRISPR gene-editing tech as a Swiss Army knife for COVID-19 and beyond

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Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, thinks the biotech tool could be an essential one for combating COVID-19 and future pandemics. Due to its capacity to be “reprogrammed” like software, CRISPR could eventually be integral to countless tests and treatments.

In an interview at Disrupt 2020, Doudna was all optimism for the technique, which has already proven to be extremely useful in less immediately applicable situations.

“One thing that’s so intriguing about the whole CRISPR technology, it’s a toolbox and there’s many ways to repurpose it for manipulating genomes, but also for detection, even getting virus materials and the kinds of reagents that you need for an effective vaccine,” she explained.

This is all because of CRISPR’s main asset: its ability to home in on incredibly specific sequences or structures and manipulate them. Certainly one way to use that is to snip out a potentially harmful bit of DNA, but that bit could also be amplified for easy detection.

“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and re-purposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” Doudna said.

The advantages CRISPR offers are threefold, Doudna explained: first, it’s a “direct” method of detection. Current tests rely on enzymes and proteins that are indirect evidence of infection, which limits their reliability and timing — you can’t, for instance, detect the virus before it starts producing that secondary evidence. CRISPR detects RNA from the viral genome itself.

“We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus,” she said.

Second, the sequence that the CRISPR complex searches for can easily be changed. “That means that scientists can reprogram the CRISPR system trivially, to target different sections of the Coronavirus to make sure that we’re not missing viruses that have mutated,” Doudna said. “We’re already working on a strategy to co-detect influenza and coronavirus; As you know it’s really important to be able to do that, but also to pivot very quickly to detect new viruses that are emerging.”

Very long GIF of a CRISPR Cas-9 protein seeking, finding, and snipping out a piece of DNA. Image credits: UC Berkeley

“I don’t think any of us thinks that viral pandemics are going away,” she continued. “The current pandemic is a call to arms, we have to make sure that scientifically we’re ready for the next attack by a new virus.”

And third, a CRISPR-based test wouldn’t be manufactured the same materials as other tests, making it easier to manufacture alongside them. Managing supply chains effectively will be crucial for getting vaccines, tests, and treatments to people as quickly as possible.

The barrier to CRISPR however is not theoretical but practical: It’s still more or less lab-bound because therapies using the technology are still very much under review. It is in clinical trials in some forms and COVID-19-related applications could be fast tracked but its novelty means it will be slower to reach those who need it. Not to mention the cost.

“This underscores what I think is one of the key challenges that we face in this in this age of advancing biotechnologies,” said Doudna. “That is, how do we make a technology like like CRISPR affordable and accessible to a lot of people? I’d like to see a day when CRISPR is the standard of care for treating a rare genetic disease, and it’s going to take some real R&D to get there.”

Perhaps one of the avenues for advancement will be the newly discovered sibling technique, CRISPR Cas-Φ (that’s a “phi”), which works similarly but is much more compact, owing to its origin as, apparently, a countermeasure by viruses that invade CRISPR-bearing bacteria. “Who knew they carried around their own form of CRISPR?” mused Doudna. “But they do, and it’s a very interesting protein, because it’s very small compared to the original formats for CRISPR that allow that allows a much, much smaller protein to be able to do [this] kind of editing.”

Doudna had much more to say about the possibilities for the technique of which she was one of the chief creators. You can see watch the rest of the interview below.

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