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After Essential’s failure, OSOM plans a new privacy-first handset

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After Essential’s failure, OSOM plans a new privacy-first handset

Last year’s Essential implosion marked one of the most high-profile consumer electronics startup failures in recent memory. Launched in 2017 with $330 million, a killer pedigree and some truly grand ambitions, the company sputtered through a combination of industry issues, disappointment and troubling allegations against founder Andy Rubin.

The firm’s IP was eventually purchased by Carl Pei for his new company. But the executive eventually bucked the name in favor of “Nothing.” “[B]efore we were called Nothing, ‘Essential’ was one of the names we were brainstorming, internally,” he told me earlier this year “So that’s why we’ve acquired the trademark. We don’t have any plans to do anything with Essential.”

Something far closer to a spiritual successor arrives in the form of OSOM. The company, founded by ex-Essential employees, has had a smattering of press coverage over the past several months, but has largely kept quiet. Today, however, the Cupertino, California-based firm confirmed what many long suspected: OSOM (pronounced “awesome”) is working on a phone.

Its planned OV1 device is, at least aesthetically, very clearly the work of the same team that gave the world the Essential PH1. But rather than features like modularity, the product is designed with one core thing in mind: Privacy. Specifically, it’s designed to give users greater control over data privacy.

Beyond that, details are scarce, ahead of its planned MWC 2022 launch. We sat down with co-founder and CEO Jason Keats for more information on OSOM and its upcoming handset.

TC: We’re about two months out from the announcement?

JK: Yeah, we’re a couple of months out from sharing the fine details. We’re planning the give the full announcement at MWC, and then shipping summer 2022. Right now we’re ready to announce that we are building a phone. People are really excited. We wanted to give our fans something this year, and we’re coming in under the wire.

What constitutes a fan at this point, given that the company has been under lock and key?

It’s been really surprising. Essential fans were very, very supportive early on, and they’ve continued to be supportive and excited about what we’re building for the future. I think we’re going to pick up quite a few traditional Android fans. Right now there aren’t a lot of flagship phones outside of Pixel that are vanilla Android. We’re going to continue that, and we’ve already built and are continuing to refine some privacy-centric software.

How many of the existing team have come over from Essential?

When we built PH1 at Essential, we were maybe 30 people total. We have maybe 15 people from that team. It’s really the core group of people; design, engineer, product design and software engineering.

How large is the team in total?

Around 30 people […] We’re more than two-thirds engineering.

How did you begin the process of building up one company from, effectively, the ashes of another?

For all of the shortcomings and incidences that happened at Essential, one thing that I will praise [Rubin] forever for is his ability to recruit. He brought on some incredible talent. When he told me that the company was going under, I said, what I am going to do next? I don’t want to work for Google or Apple or go to Amazon, but there’s this incredible team there that has built stuff and worked together so closely. It’s been through the trenches together[…]

We realized that probably the biggest issue [with Essential] was a lack of focus. We realized we needed to have a purpose. What are we trying to solve for? It became obvious to us that privacy really wasn’t being addressed coherently, particularly in 2020.

Does the world need another phone company?

Yes, absolutely I think they do. One that’s actually focused on protecting privacy. And there’s a big reason for that. If we were just a software company building privacy software, we could trhow it on the Play Store, people could install it, whatever. But if it’s just an app sitting on someone’s phone, it’s easily bypassed, it’s easily turned off, because it’s not built into the system. It’s not integrated into the device. That’s what we’re doing. Because we’re an OEM, because we have access to Qualcomm’s TrustZone, because we have access to the system software, we can build some real privacy-centric software that the user can use or not use, if they chose. But it’s all about giving them a choice.

How difficult will it be to get someone to jump over to this phone with privacy as a main selling point?

In the U.S., I’m not trying to go after Apple users. We’re going after Android users. And in that scenario, there isn’t a tremendous amount of brand loyalty within the Android space. People are willing to take a lot more shots. For privacy, we’ve already lined up quite a few partners that have shared some high-level demgraphic data about who is using their software or hardware for privacy. The numbers are astonishing to us. They really indicate that there is a demand for privacy and that people are currently spending their money today on privacy.

What’s a realistic expectation in terms of units? You’re casting a wide net [to the U.S., Canada and throughout Europe]. It seems ultimately the Essential numbers weren’t what people were hoping for.

It’s funny. When we started Essential, the goal was 100,000 units in the first year. We sold just shy of 300,000 units to end users the first year. The biggest issue is because [Rubin] raised so much money, the expectation was to ship two million units. When you go into expecting 100,000 units and sell 300,000 units, that’s a huge success. It all depends on what metric you’re using. For [OSOM], I would be absolutely thrilled with 200,000 units in the first year. We would be here for a very, very long time.

Were the external expectations so intense as to cause things to fall apart [at Essential]?

I can fill up a book on what went wrong. And there were a bunch of little things.

Give me the CliffsNotes.

Some decisions made at the very top were counterintuitive to us being successful.

On the note of capital, it was reported that the company raised $5.6 million. What has the fundraising been so far.

So, we secured $20 million. Some of it investor, and a chunk of it was pre-order from a channel partner. We’ve already got orders that are close to the number that we can support in the first year. We did have the bulk of our investors come from myself and my co-founder Wolfgang and our external VCs were all primarily Canadian companies.

Has there been a Series A on top of the initial seed funding?

We are currently in the middle of a Series A.

Was Playground involved?

No. We had a nice long chat with them. The team over there — Bruce, Matt and Peter — are still very good friends. I still use them as sounding boards for ideas.

When was the company officially launched?

The articles of incorporation were officially filed on 4 20 2020.

The name is pronounced “awesome?” Which was first, the name or the acronym?

Twenty minutes after [Rubin] told me that Essential was going under, I’m like, “Alright, I’m gonna do my own thing.” I hate stuff that’s super overt. I hate all the wires and plugs and this and that all over your house, and it drives me nuts. And I had this idea for a different product, which we may or may not eventually build. It has nothing to do with the phone, but just some crazy idea. But the idea was out of sight, out of mind. I think what the people, what the average consumer really pictures when we talk about the future technology in Star Trek, and the sense of speaking and something answers out of the ether. It’s not a thing sitting on my desk that has a cable that’s nine feet long, but it’s only eight inches from the wall. The idea was this thing that comes out of ether, and the idea was “out of sight out of mind. Oh, OSOM, we’ll just call it awesome.” I registered it from the hotel in Hong Kong.

Any of those initial ideas being applied here? Obviously, privacy is the thing.

That’s certainly the mentality, because of the way we’re building our software. The idea is that, again, it maintains an out of sight, out of mind; you should just trust that your devices are keeping you safe when you want to be safe.

For the time being it’s an American company?

Yes. We’re a Delaware C Corp. Like every other tech company, probably all registered at the exact same address.

You’ve talked to the Canadian government about incentives… but you’re going to continue to be headquartered in Cupertino?

Right now, that’s up in the air. OSOM Products, the U.S. company, will continue to exist. But we may move our headquarters up to Canada.

What are the common threads between Essential and OSOM? Philosophical? Aesthetic?

Aesthetically, 100%. Even though it’s the same designer, Dave Evans and myself doing the industrial design, we didn’t really think about it as an obvious successor to the PH1, until we had the first prototype it was like, “this was clearly designed by the same team”. Both in a material standpoint and an appearance standpoint it’s a continuation of the same crew. Our software team, particularly when it comes to Android and security updates, the team that was responsible for the super, super-fast updates at Essential are here at OSOM.

Let’s talk about advertising. How will you differentiate the brand from 800 other phone makers?

I don’t want to give anything away, because I’m super excited about it. I will put it this way: When we show the broader team the campaign ideas and the first drafts, people who have been at Essential from the very beginning, they’re like, “why didn’t we do that before?” We have to spend on marketing to differentiate. A big chunk of that money that we raised is going towards marketing.

What can we expect on the spec-side?

This is a flagship device, both in terms of hardware and software.

Is it difficult keeping the price down for a first piece of hardware?

Not really. The team that I brought over from Essential, when it comes to supply chain, is some of the best in the world. Our partners have been astonishingly supportive. We’ve gotten some amazing rates. Literally going into a couple of meetings like, “I just want the same price to give Apple and Google.”

So, comparably priced with other flagships.

We’re gonna be well under $1,000.

Source: Tech

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Boston Dynamics’ warehouse robot gets a $15M gig working for DHL

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Back in March of last year, Boston Dynamics unveiled its second commercial robot, Stretch. The system, built from its impressive box-moving Handle concept, is designed to bring the company’s advanced robotics technologies into a warehouse/logistics setting – easily one of the hottest categories in robotics, these days.

Today the Hyundai-owned firm announced its first commercial customer – and it’s a big one. Logistics giant DHL has committed to a multi-year, $15 million deal (or “investment” as the parties are referring to it) set to bring the robot to its North American facilities. Specific details on the number of robots being purchased haven’t been revealed, but Boston Dynamics says it’s going to be bringing a “fleet” of the robots to DHL logistics centers over the next three years.

Stretch will get to work unloading trucks to start – a feature its creators have highlighted as a key part of its initial rollout. Additional tasks will be added, over the course of the roll out, in an effort to further automate the package handling process.

Says CEO Robert Playter, “Stretch is Boston Dynamics’ newest robot, designed specifically to remedy challenges within the warehouse space. We are thrilled to be working with DHL Supply Chain to deliver a fleet of robots that will further automate warehousing and improve safety for its associates. We believe Stretch can make a measurable impact on DHL’s business operations, and we’re excited to see the robot in action at scale.”

The partnership will be a key proving ground for Boston Dynamics’ commercial ambitions beyond its on-going Spot deployment. Package handling is an intensive, highly repetitive job that requires long hours, strain and multiple points of failure. This will be a major test for the company under Hyundai, which has sought to further its commercial ambitions.

For DHL, meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to automate some logistics roles during a time when blue collar jobs have proven difficult to keep staffed. It’s also a chance to more fully embrace automation as it competes with the likes of Amazon, which has begun steadily encroaching on the package delivery space.

Source: Tech

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Polly snags $37M in Menlo-led Series B to automate workflows for mortgage lenders

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Polly, a SaaS technology startup aiming to “transform” the mortgage capital markets, announced today that it has raised $37 million in a Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures.

New backers Movement Mortgage, First American Financial and FinVC joined existing investors 8VC, Khosla Ventures and Fifth Wall in participating in the round. The latest financing brings the San Francisco-based startup’s total funding raised to $50 million.

Adam Carmel, founder and CEO of Polly, says the company has increased its customer count by nearly 3x over the past year, including “several of the country’s top 100 lenders.”

He founded the company in 2019 under the premise that while many industries have undergone digital transformation initiatives, the mortgage industry is still largely reliant on “the same expensive and cumbersome processes and tasks that have been in use for decades,” Carmel said. 

Polly’s mission is to fundamentally change the way lenders and loan buyers operate by giving them the ability to make data-driven decisions. The company’s software is “uniquely configured to automate customer workflows and improve execution — from rate lock to loan sale and delivery,” Carmel said.

Carmel previously founded Ethos Lending (which sold to Fenway Summers in 2014) and it was that experience that helped him conclude there were serious gaps in the market for automating workflows for lenders.

The need certainly seems to be there. For example, one company in the space is Optimal Blue, which was purchased by Black Knight for $1.8 billion in 2020. 

Carmel believes Polly stands out from others in the industry in that it is helping create a fourth category in the mortgage sector — capital markets.

“I viewed it as a sizable opportunity to build a vertically integrated software platform that would automate workflows for a mortgage company,” Carmel told TechCrunch. “My view is that over time consumers are going to expect not only a digital experience but also a mortgage product, loan and associated pricing that are customized and tailored for specific purposes.”

To that end, he added, Polly is laser focused on doing just that so that its customers “can configure individual loans as dynamically as they would like.”

“The goal is that ultimately, they are able to deliver a lower mortgage price to their consumers or to their customers while increasing their own profitability,” Carmel said. “We want to help these lenders move away from spreadsheets and telephony and email as a transaction medium, and instead do everything in the cloud. Over time, we want to be able to transition into a system of record for the customers themselves.”

Polly, he said, is able to help configure loans on a multi-dimensional basis.

The startup has increased its customer count by nearly “3x” over the past year and signed several of the country’s top 100 lenders. While it invested mostly on its product in 2021, it plans to put some of its new capital toward its go to market strategy while continuing to be “heads down focused on product.” That includes expanding its product and engineering teams and investing in AI and machine learning capabilities. 

“The next year or two is going to be a really exciting time for us,” Carmel said. “We see this as a compelling window and opportunity to really help transform the market.”

Menlo Ventures partner Tyler Sosin, who is joining Polly’s board of directors as part of the financing, believes the startup is “taking on a sector held back by sclerotic incumbents with dated, disconnected and dragging solutions” and “driving transformation and winning customers at an impressive rate.”

He said Menlo was interested in leading the company’s Series A round but “was a little bit too slow.” Impressed with Polly’s traction even at that point, the firm still participated in that financing with a smaller check and stayed close to the company.

We’ve gotten to know Adam and seen how the customers and the product and the team had evolved, so we leaned into the lead this round,” Sosin told TechCrunch.

Source: Tech

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Tinder updates its approach to handling reports of serious abuse and harassment

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As a result of its ongoing partnership with nonprofit and anti-sexual assault organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Tinder today announced a handful of product improvements as well as training for internal teams at the dating app maker designed to better support survivors of abuse and harassment. Soon, Tinder also says its members will have access to background checks on their matches through Garbo, a nonprofit the dating app maker invested in last spring.

One key aspect of the partnership with RAINN involved training Tinder’s customer care team. Through the training, staff learned how survivors may report abuse and harassment, and how to spot reports of serious abuse — even if the reports use vague language to describe the events. The training, which is now also a mandatory part of Tinder’s onboarding and training curriculum, additionally provides instructions on how team members should respond to these types of reports when they occur.

Meanwhile, in the Tinder app, survivors will gain access to a more direct way to report someone they’ve unmatched with, even if they’ve waited some time before making their report. And they can now opt whether or not they want to receive follow-up information about actions taken, as some prefer to receive updates and others do not.

The app will also provide alternative support options, as not everyone will feel comfortable making a direct report. Through the Tinder Safety Center, a dedicated Crisis Text Line will be provided as well as the upcoming feature offering access to background checks on matches from Garbo. Tinder invested a seven-figure sum into New York-based Garbo in March 2021, which offers an alternative to traditional background checks that surface a wide variety of personal information — like drug offenses or minor traffic violations. Garbo instead focuses on whether or not someone’s background indicates a history of violence. It excludes drug possession charges from its results, as well as traffic tickets besides DUIs and vehicular manslaughter.

The Tinder Safety Center is now also accessible from anywhere in the app, reducing the number of taps it takes for a user to locate the resource.

“Our members are trusting us with an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable part of their lives, and we believe we have a responsibility to support them through every part of this journey, including when they have bad experiences on and off the app,” said Tracey Breeden, VP of Safety and Social Advocacy for Tinder and Match Group, in a statement about the changes. “Working with RAINN has allowed us to take a trauma-informed approach to member support for those impacted by harassment and assault,” she added.

Breeden, who held a similar position at Uber, joined Tinder in September 2020 as Match Group’s first-ever head of safety and social advocacy, tasked with overseeing the company’s safety policies across its apps, including Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish.

Tinder and other dating apps have put a higher focus on member safety features after a 2019 report revealed how dating apps run by Tinder parent Match Group allowed known sexual predators to use its apps, due to the lack of background check features. Other reports have highlighted the very real safety concerns that accompany the dating app market, particularly those impacting young women — a key dating app demographic.

In early 2020, Tinder invested in Noonlight to help it power new safety features inside Tinder and other Match-owned dating apps, ahead of its investment in Garbo.

But Tinder’s changes aren’t only about protecting dating app users — they’re about protecting Tinder’s business, as well.

Tinder’s top U.S. competitor, Bumble has marketed itself as being more women-friendly, launching a number of features designed to keep users safe from bad actors, like one that prevents abusers from using the “unmatch” option to hide from victims, for example. Tinder has followed suit, launching new safety features of its own.

The company has also felt the pressure to get ahead of coming regulations impacting tech companies, like those operating social media apps and dating services. Tinder, which dominates the dating app market, today plays in social networking as well, with additions like quick chat features, an interactive video series, and other additions to its new Explore hub in the app.

“By adopting more trauma-informed support practices, Tinder will be better positioned to support members who may have experienced harm and take faster, more transparent action on bad actors,” noted Clara Kim, Vice President of Consulting Services at RAINN, in a statement.

Source: Tech

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