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Google offers not to put News Showcase into search results in Germany as antitrust probe rolls on

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Google offers not to put News Showcase into search results in Germany as antitrust probe rolls on

In the latest bit of regulatory woe for Big Tech in Europe, Google is trying to settle a German antitrust investigation into its news licensing product by offering not to expand the display of News Showcase “story panels” into general search results.

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) announced today that the company has proposed several measures in response to its antitrust concerns — which also include taking steps to put clear blue water between News Showcase contracts and ongoing negotiations with publishers related to copyright licensing obligations around so called neighbouring rights for news.

Under EU and German law Google must pay copyright fees to news publishers for displaying snippets of their content — following a 2019 EU copyright reform which was transposed into German law in May 2021.

Unilateral attempts by German lawmakers — around a decade ago — to force Google to pay licensing fees to local publishers for displaying snippets of their content in Google News were easily thwarted by the tech giant switching to an opt-in model for the aggregator in the market.

Ultimately it’s taken a pan-EU directive — combine with local antitrust intervention — to force Google’s hand on this issue so it can’t simply change how it operates to circumvent payments.

Although the tech giant’s compliance with EU copyright law remains a work in progress, to put it mildly. (Its activity in the region on this front has already attracted a fine of over half a billion dollars in France, for instance, where Google’s approach to news licensing also remains under close regulatory watch.)

Germany is also scrutinizing Google’s negotiations with local news publishers — as well as, as of today, extracting operational concessions from it on how it operates News Showcase.

The FCO said it’s concerned that if Google integrates News Showcase into general search results, as Google has previously said it intends to, it will result in the company self-preferencing its own services or “impeding services offered by competing third parties”.

Other concerns it has focus on whether the News Showcase contractual terms “unreasonably disadvantage” the participating publishers — including by making it “disproportionately difficult for them to enforce their general ancillary copyright when participating in Google News Showcase”.

The regulator also said it is reviewing Google’s conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service — to examine whether non-discriminatory access is ensured for publishers.

It’s likely no accident that just last week the FCO confirmed its ability to apply special measures to Google’s business, under powers to tackle digital market giants which were passed by local lawmakers at the start of last year. That shrinks the timeframe for regulatory action and squeezes how much room Google has to try to wiggle around any FCO orders.

Similar Big Tech-focused copyright reforms are underway in the UK, too. While ex ante rules for gatekeeping giants are well on their way to being adopted at an EU level (aka, the Digital Markets Act). So the operational leash for Big Tech in Europe is only set to shorten.

As well as offering not to expand the showcasing of licensed content to general search results in Germany, the FCO said today that Google has “already changed some of the practices under examination and declared its willingness to address any remaining ambiguities and concerns by modifying the Showcase contracts and providing clarifying statements”.

“In particular, Showcase contracts are to be clearly separated from the ongoing negotiations regarding other ancillary copyright payments between Google and the publishers or their collecting societies,” it added.

The tech giant announced the global News Showcase product back in October 2020 — when it said it would pay participating publishers $1BN collectively to licence their news content to appear in so-called “story panels” (see below examples from Google’s product marketing) across Google products.

Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

At the time Google was facing rising legal requirements in a number of jurisdictions over remuneration for displaying news content (Australia came up with its own legislative template targeting Google and Facebook to pay for news reuse in August 2020, for example).

So the News Showcase gambit always looked like a naked attempt by Google to limit a looming revenue hit while simultaneously leveraging its market power to generate as much upside for its ad-monetizing Internet content business as possible.

Closed door commercial deals for News Showcase offered Google the chance to dangle a carrot of licensing payments and play publishers off against each other — pressuring them to agree to its terms and shrink legally mandated licensing fees.

Initially, Google said content licensed under News Showcase would appear in story panels on the Google News app on mobile devices. It went on to expand where participating publishers’ content appeared to include its News aggregator product on the desktop and a personalized content feed on mobile devices, called Google Discover.

Evidently, it hoped to be able to further expand where across its online real-estate the licensed content appears — including by adding News Showcase into search results.

However, in Europe, where Google’s search engine remains dominant, its plan quickly landed it in regulatory hot water over competition concerns.

As its name suggests, the News Showcase product provides the prospect of raised visibility for participating publishers by featuring their content to Google users across a number of touchpoints — including giving mobile users the ability to follow publishers so that more of their content gets threaded into personalized feeds. So there is a strong incentive for publishers to cut deals with Google — giving it leverage over content licensing negotiations.

For example, publishers may feel incentivized to cut deals with Google for News Showcase in order not to miss out on the prospect of extra traffic being sent their way (especially if competitors have already cut deals) — putting commercial pressure on them to agree to broad licensing terms that might waive or reduce copyright-based licensing fees.

The problem for Google is that European competition regulators have not been taken in by its attempt to use a proprietary news display product and commercial terms to smudge copyright compliance by co-mingling News Showcase negotiations and contacts with legally required licensing fees — and have instead listened to publisher complaints that Google is not playing fair. (The FCO probe, for example, was opened followed a complaint filed by the collecting society Corint Media.)

Issuing a hefty sanction last summer, the French competition watchdog said Google had sought to unilaterally impose its global news licensing product in negotiations with publishers — pushing for the legal neighbouring right to be incorporated as “an ancillary component with no separate financial valuation”.

Its investigation continues — but has already landed Google with a $592M fine for breaching an earlier order.

Germany hasn’t issues any sanctions yet but, with the FCO flush with new powers to tackle abusive digital giants, the threat is clearly there. Hence Google’s alacritous offer of tweaks to how it operates the News Showcase product in Germany (the FCO only began probing the T&Cs last summer).

Google’s dominance in Europe in the market for general search means the company has faced a number of antirust enforcements in recent years — both at an EU and national level. But it’s fair to say that EU Member States’ competition watchdogs have been quickest to respond to news publishers’ concerns.

Germany was one of the first markets to get News Showcase which has likely fed the FCO’s relatively quick scrutiny of the product. Although France was faster to transpose the EU copyright reform into national law — and its competition watchdog has been keenly focused on Google’s compliance with the neighbouring right requirement, and with the detail of how it has negotiated fees with news publishers over reuse of their content.

In December, the French regulator announced Google had made a series of commitments around negotiating in good faith — which it proposed should apply for a period of five years.

France’s watchdog is consulting on Google’s proposal until the end of this month — after which it will make a decision whether to accept them or require additional measures.

The German FCO is also now consulting locally on Google’s operational offers around News Showcase.

In a statement, president Andreas Mundt said: “Google has proposed measures to respond to our competition concerns relating to Google News Showcase. The company no longer plans to include Showcase content in the general search results. The conditions for participating in Google News Showcase are not intended to prevent publishers from enforcing their general ancillary copyright. Access to Google News Showcase is based on objective criteria. We rely on the assessment of the market players affected to ensure that the measures proposed by Google are effective. In view of the wide variety of interests the publishers may have we are thus conducting broader consultations in the sector.”

He further noted that the regulator is keeping a close eye on how Google negotiates with publishers over copyright fees, adding: “Parallel to the Google News Showcase proceeding we are closely monitoring the negotiations on ancillary copyright fees.”

In yet another recent regulatory intervention triggered by publisher (and adtech) complaints, Google’s plan to deprecate support for third party tracking cookies and move to a suite of new ad targeting technologies (aka Privacy Sandbox) is under close supervision of the UK’s competition watchdog — and that process has also led Google to propose a series of commitments in order to be allowed to proceed.

Separately last summer, France’s competition watchdog hit Google with a $268M fine for self preferencing its adtech — leading to yet another behavioral offer from the tech giant, in that case a set of interoperability commitments.

 

Source: Tech

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This Week in Apps: Commission battles, Twitter NFTs and Epic’s appeal begins

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. App Annie says global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year-over-year to reach $295 billion.

In addition, consumers are spending more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue, App Annie noted. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Epic Games kicks off its appeal

Both Epic Games and Apple appealed the original ruling of the lawsuit where Epic had sought to prove Apple was behaving in an anti-competitive manner by not allowing alternative payments or other means of distributing apps outside the App Store. Although Apple largely won that case, as the judge ruled it was not a monopolist, it was instructed to stop preventing app developers from adding links to third-party purchasing mechanisms — a decision it didn’t agree with, prompting its appeal. Apple was also given permission to hold off on the App Store changes until the appeal’s ruling, in another blow to Epic. Meanwhile, Epic appealed the case since it wanted another shot at making its arguments before the court.

This week, Epic Games filed its opening brief appealing the District Court’s decision in the Epic v. Apple case. In it, the company attempts to lay out why it thinks the District Court erred in its original decision, noting again how Apple reduces innovation, prevents alternative app stores from competing with its own, extracts “supracompetitive” commissions while making minimal investments in the App Store, and more. It also wants the appeals court to reconsider the market definitions for deciding the case. The lower court determined the case was about the “digital mobile game transactions” market, but Epic’s brief points out that Apple’s restrictions apply to both game and non-game developers alike. And it argues the court based its market definition on a misreading of Amex, by treating two separate transactions — consumers’ app downloads on the App Store and the in-app purchase itself — as a single transaction.

Epic’s Opening Brief by TechCrunch on Scribd

OK, we’ll just call it a “platform fee” then  

When the Netherlands’ regulator ordered Apple to allow dating apps on the App Store to be able to process third-party payments, it looked like it might be a small win for a more open ecosystem that would allow alternatives to Apple’s own payment systems and its commissions. But anyone celebrating this did so too soon. Apple has now clarified that while it will adhere to the letter of the law, by offering entitlements to the dating apps looking to process payments on their own, it won’t adhere to the spirit. Not only will the developers have to publish a separate binary for their app they want it distributed to the Netherlands App Store, they’ll still have to pay Apple a commission on those third-party payments. And yet developers won’t be able to take advantage of any platform advantages, like getting Apple to assist with refunds, payment history, subscription management or other issues related to the purchases — as those will now take place outside its App Store. So what’s the platform fee for? I guess access to users?

Wrote Apple on its developer documentation page: “Consistent with the ACM’s order, dating apps that are granted an entitlement to link out or use a third-party in-app payment provider will pay Apple a commission on transactions.” But Apple didn’t say how much that commission will be. Likely, Apple will take the course that Google did in South Korea, where it dropped the commission rate for external payments by a mere 4%.

Twitter gets into NFTs

Image Credits: Twitter

It’s official, Twitter has embraced NFTs. Users on Twitter’s iOS app who also subscribe to Twitter Blue will be the first to take advantage of a new feature that lets them authenticate with their crypto wallet to use an NFT as their profile pic on the service. The new NFT hexagon-shaped pics will help to differentiate the crypto-enthusiasts from the rest of Twitter.

To use the feature as a Twitter Blue subscriber, you’ll go to your profile to change your profile photo as you would normally. Here, you’ll be presented with the new option to choose an NFT instead. You then connect with your crypto wallet.

At launch, Coinbase Wallet, Rainbow, MetaMask, Ledger Live, Argent and Trust Wallet are supported. After authenticating, you’ll select the NFT you want to showcase. Twitter says that, currently, JPEG and PNG NFTs minted on the Ethereum (ERC-721 or ERC-1155 tokens) can be used as NFT Profile Pictures. In a later update, Twitter said it was looking into adding support for SVGs, but can’t render them right now.

It’s worth noting the Twitter Blue subscription service is not yet globally available, which will limit the adoption of NFT Profile Pictures to the early markets where the offering is now live — the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Not everyone is happy with the update, which is receiving mixed reactions. Some people are trolling the hexa-profiles, others are blocking people and some artists claim the feature has encouraged more people to steal their art and mint it as an NFT (which to be fair, could have happened before).

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple developers can now create custom codes for subscriptions in App Store Connect, each with a unique name you choose (like SPRINGPROMO, for example). The codes can be redeemed through a direct URL or with the app.
  • Apple released iOS 15.3 RC to developers and beta testers on Thursday, which includes a fix for a Safari bug that could have led to the leaking of users’ browsing history and Google ID. It has also now stopped signing iOS 15.2, preventing further downgrades. And it’s begun pushing iOS 14 users to upgrade to iOS 15.
  • Apple announced it’s expanding its App Store Foundation program to 29 countries in Europe. Already available in select European markets including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden, the program offers developers support on app development, marketing and monetization with help from Apple employees.
  • Apple says it’s updating the App Store submission experience starting January 25, 2022. The new App Store Connect experience will allow developers to submit multiple items, submit without needing a new app version, view past submissions and more.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: Google

  • Google Play Games for PC enters beta testing. The downloadable app, which brings Android games to Windows PC users, is launching to beta testers in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Among the more than 25 titles available at launch are “Mobile Legends: Bang Bang,” “Summoners War,” “State of Survival: The Joker Collaboration” and “Three Kingdoms Tactic.”

E-commerce/Food delivery

  • TikTok kids are boosting toy retailer Learning Express’ sales. The company’s online sales increased 25% in 2021, compared with massive 233% growth in 2020, amid the pandemic. Interestingly, the retailer hasn’t spent money on TikTok marketing and advertising, noting that kids are starting to find them on their own. Over the past years, the TikTok toy trends have turned toys into viral hits like Pop Its, Squishmallow, fidget spinners and more, thanks to kids sharing videos on the social app. The retailer, where individual stores are franchises, is also benefitting from some of its owners’ own TikTok presence — like the Birmingham location, which has 2.3 million followers and its most popular video received 62 million views.
  • Consumers may be swapping food delivery apps for grocery delivery, Apptopia research shows. Food delivery apps in Q2 2021 saw total sessions fall 10% from March, and the rest of the year showed no real gains. Meanwhile, in December, grocery delivery apps posted a 20% increase in downloads from the month prior. And DoorDash and Uber Eats adapted, the former by adding grocery and convenience stores to its app, and the latter by removing the word “restaurant” from its app’s title.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Fintech

  • British digital banking app Revolut expanded into U.S. stock trading. The company already let British users buy and sell shares, but is now licensed as a U.S. broker-dealer. Users will be able to trade 1,100 securities, including shares on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, as well as gain access to 200 ETFs.
  • Investing app Acorns scrapped its $2.2 billion merger agreement with SPAC Pioneer Merger Corp. The deal, announced last May, would have allowed Acorns to list on the Nasdaq, and the merger was valued at $1.5 billion pre-money. Acorns will pay $17.5 million in termination fees through December 15. The company said that “given market conditions,” it was pivoting to a private capital raise at a higher pre-money valuation instead.

Social

  • TikTok fired its marketing chief, Nick Tran, a former Hulu exec, after kicking off a series of marketing stunts without approval. These included the TikTok Kitchen service, which would use ghost kitchens to promote popular TikTok creators’ recipes in partnership with Virtual Dining Concepts; as well as new business lines involving NFTs and TikTok Resumes.
  • Instagram and TikTok have begun testing support for paid creator subscriptions. Instagram officially announced its alpha test of subscriptions, offering creators eight price points between 99 cents and $99.99 which they can charge users. Subscribers gain access to exclusive live videos and stories, and receive a special badge elevating them in the comments section and the DM inbox. Meanwhile, TikTok also confirmed it has begun testing subscriptions, but wouldn’t share details.

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram also launched an expanded version of “remix,” which now allows anyone to remix any public video on the platform going forward, unless the creators opt out.
  • Snapchat is trying to make it harder for kids to buy drugs on the app after an NBC News investigation found the app was linked to the sale of fentanyl-laced pills that led to the deaths of teenagers and young adults in over a dozen states. The app now prevents 13 to 17-year-old users from showing up in Quick Add search results, unless they have friends in common with the person searching — a feature aimed at preventing users from adding people they don’t know to deter drug transactions.
  • Facebook and Instagram are working on NFT features that will allow users to display their NFTs on their social profiles. Instagram head Adam Mosseri had previously said the company was looking into NFT support. This week, a report from The FT added Meta is considering its own NFT marketplace, but noted the efforts were in early stages. This is not entirely new information, as Mosseri had said the company was considering a marketplace. It has also invited NFT artists to offer feedback through panel discussions, which was discussed in the press last year when some artists were upset about being asked to advise the social giant on the matter without compensation. But the report indicates the investment may extend to Facebook as well.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is rolling out in-app chat support as an alternative to email. The feature had previously been available in beta testing, but has begun showing up for non-beta users.
  • Meta’s Workplace service for businesses will integrate with WhatsApp later this year. The service, which now has more than 7 million users, will integrate with the messaging app so Workplace customers can share announcements with front-line employees, including deskless workers.
  • Messenger Kids introduced new “internet safety” activities to teach young children how to use Messenger and be safe online. In each episode of “Pledge Planets,” kids learn to make healthy decisions, stay safe online, learn to use blocking and reporting tools, and build resilience.

Image Credits: Meta

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Spotify is still the top streaming music service but its market share has slipped a bit, according to new research from MIDiA, as the streaming market has grown. In Q2 2021, 523.9 million people subscribed to a music streaming service globally, up 26.4% from the same time last year. Spotify’s market share, meanwhile, dropped from 34% in 2019 to 31% today, followed by Apple, then Amazon Music. YouTube Music grew by more than 50% year-over-year, making it the only Western streamer to have increased market share.
  • YouTube’s app is testing “smart downloads,” a feature that automatically downloads videos when an Android device is connected to Wi-Fi, in order to be ready when there’s either weak coverage or no signal at a later point. The feature is already supported in YouTube Music.

Gaming

Image Credits: Netflix

  • Netflix expanded its growing gaming lineup this week with the launch of two more games: Arcanium: Rise of Akhan, an open-world single-player card strategy game developed by Rogue Games; and puzzle game Krispee Street developed by Frosty Pop. The additions bring Netflix’s gaming catalog to 12 titles, including Bowling Ballers, Shooting Hoops, Teeter Up, Asphalt Xtreme, Stranger Things 1984, Stranger Things 3, Card Blast, Dominos Cafe, Wonderputt Forever and Knittens.
  • During its less-than-stellar earnings, Netflix’s COO Greg Peters also said the company is open to licensing “large game IP” that people would recognize as it expands its gaming business. “I think you will [see] some of that happen over the year to come,” Peters noted.
  • In addition to the major news of Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard deal, the company also announced this week that its Xbox Game Pass service has grown to 25 million subscribers, up from 18 million in January 2021.
  • Wordle!, an iOS game that existed before the rise of the popular web-based game by the same name, has benefitted from the latter’s popularity leading to a surge in downloads. The developer, Steven Cravotta, hadn’t been updating the game, which first launched in 2017 but never really took off, until it jumped to 200,000 downloads per week from those likely looking for the other Wordle game. So Cravotta reached out to Wordle’s developer (Josh Wardle) to note he was donating the proceeds to charity, which has totaled $2,000+ so far.
  • U.S. consumer spending in mobile action games jumped up 68.9% in 2021, driven by almost entirely Genshin Impact, reported Sensor Tower. Spending for the year reached $966.8 million, making Action the fastest-rising gaming genre and Open World Adventure the largest Action subgenre. MiHoYo’s Genshin Impact earned $406.3 million in the U.S. in 2021, followed by Marvel Contest of Champions by Kabam and Dragon Ball Legends from Bandai Namco.
  • Mobile gamers who use TikTok play for longer, play more genres and spend more money, according to a new report from NewZoo. TikTok gamers are 66% more likely to pay for games, and are 40% more likely to pay for add-ons. They’re also more likely to watch gaming content, often on TikTok. The group also tends to use social platforms to find new games (45% versus 32% for those who don’t use TikTok). They play on average 7.1 genres versus 4.2 genres for non-TikTok users, and are more likely to notice ad types.

Productivity/Utilities 

  • Read-it-later app Instapaper on iOS introduced new features, including public folders, which allow users to share their saved reading lists with others via web or mobile. The app also added custom app icons in a variety of neutral tones for its premium users, and a “read now” feature for web users that lets you click the Instapaper logo immediately after saving an article to read it immediately. The company said it can’t offer the feature on iOS due to technical limitations.

Health & Fitness

  • MY2022, an app mandated for use by all attendees of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, was found to have technical flaws allowing encryption to be sidestepped, according to The Citizen Lab’s research. The flaw means users’ voice audio and file transfers could be accessed and health forms containing passport details, demographic info, and medical and travel history, are also vulnerable.

Government & Policy

  • Another bill in the works, this time in Illinois, wants to force Apple and Google to allow alternative payments in apps distributed in their app stores. Senators in the state have filed the “Freedom to Subscribe Directly Act” which is being supported by Illinois-based Apple critic Basecamp, which faced a number of issues getting its subscription email app HEY into the App Store. The Senators support the bill because they see it as a way for the state to tap into lost tax revenues that are redirected to California today.

Funding and M&A

Indonesia-based startup BukuKas, which has now rebranded as Lummo, raised $80 million in Series C funding led by Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital India. The company offers two apps, an e-commerce enabler solutions LummoShop (previously Tokko) and bookkeeping app BukuKas. The company has 300 employees and focuses on the SMB market.

African mobile games publisher Carry1st raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). The round marks a16z’s first investment in an African-headquartered company. The three-year-old startup has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st launched in Africa. Other partners include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel.

Indian startup INDmoney raised $75 million in Series D funding for its super finance app that aims to be a one-stop shop for investments and expenses. Tiger Global, Steadview Capital and Dragoneer co-led the round, valuing the startup at $600 million.

InFlow, a science-backed app to address ADHD symptoms using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) raised $2.3 million in seed funding led by Hoxton Ventures. The app offers users short exercises and challenges aimed at helping them create healthy habits, and is being downloaded 15,000 times per month, the company said.

Istanbul-based Spyke Games, a mobile games startup, raised $55 million in a seed round from Griffin Gaming Partners, a VC focused on gaming startups. Spyke aims to combine casual gaming with multiplayer functionality and other social elements. Its first title, Royal Riches, is launching globally this month after a more limited release.

Istanbul-based Dream Games, the casual gaming developer behind top-grossing game Royal Match, raised $255 million in Series C funding led by Index Ventures. The round values the startup at $2.75 billion, up from $1 billion six months ago.

Appcues, a startup developing technology for better user onboarding across platforms, including mobile, raised $32.1 million in Series B funding. The company offers analytics and no-code tools to fix onboarding issues.

Public.com acquired HyperCharts, a data visualization platform that shows financial and biz metrics for publicly traded companies. Deal terms were not disclosed.

Big Health, the maker of cognitive-behavioral therapy apps Sleepio and Daylight, raised $75 million in Series C funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 to launch six new digital mental health therapeutics by 2024. To date, the company has more than 10 million users and has raised just under $130 million from investors.

Global spam call blocking platform Truecaller acquired Israeli company CallHero, which had developed a digital assistant, SmartAgent, which helps its users verify and identify calls. Following the close of the $4.5 million deal (cash + stock), Truecaller will integrate CallHero’s technology into its own platform.

Western & Southern Financial Group acquired Fabric Technologies Inc. and its subsidiary, Fabric Insurance Agency LLC, a digital life insurance platform and mobile app that has over 60,000 families as customers, and has placed billions in life insurance coverage.

 

Source: Tech

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Data wants to disrupt your deal flow (again)

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Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.

AngelList’s recently closed early-stage venture fund brings back one of my favorite conversations within the world of early-stage startup fundraising: to data, or not to data. The $25 million fund bases all of its investments off of one key metric that AngelList has been tracking for years: a startup’s ability to hire.

When I spoke to Abraham Othman, head of the investment committee and of data science at AngelList Venture, he told me they win deals because they are less adversarial to portfolio companies than other firms. “Our approach? This is our data set, let’s see if we can put money into them,” he said. No further due diligence? No problem.

Of course, there are some challenges with leaning on such signals to make investments. As history often reminds us, due diligence matters from a human perspective — and vetting a founder beyond their ability to attract talent can save firms from headaches or legal woes. Additionally, a startup could get a ton of applicants due to pay, location or even recent coverage in a Well Known Tech Blog — which can bode well for success, but could also just be a result of great marketing. In AngelList’s case, they believe that hiring demand’s fluidity adds to its importance.

As you can probably tell, I think the future of data-driven investments will bring a double-edged sword into our Zoom rooms (or lack thereof, perhaps). Traditional investment that prioritizes pedigree and culture, or the “art” of a founder, has left out an entire class of historically overlooked individuals. But that same process, in which you spend five hours in conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur, brings a layer of humanity to decision-makers before they get millions to execute on a vision.

I don’t want to get into the due diligence conversation yet again, and investors leaning on data to dictate their investment decisions is anything but a new strategy. This is the song of late-stage investors, of private equity analysts and your brilliant aunt who loves a good earnings report. Early-stage startups and investors, from ClearCo to SignalFire, have spent years building up advice atop algorithms atop assumed returns.

However, in a bull market for even the most bullish among us, the premise of an unbiased, data-based check feels somewhat more hopeful than before. Money certainly doesn’t solve all woes — the top reason startups fail today is still due to failure to raise new capital. Add in the gender fundraising gap and a more automated decision-making process suddenly doesn’t sound unromantic, it sounds inevitable.

For my full take on this topic, check out my TechCrunch+ column: Is algorithmic VC investment compatible with due diligence?

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about a new graduate-friendly fund, lawyer tech and Plaid’s growing patchwork of startups. As always, you can follow my thoughts on Twitter @nmasc_ or listen to me on Equity, a podcast about the business of startups, where we unpack the numbers and nuance behind the headlines.

$1 million lasts a million times longer than before

Led by Flybridge founding partner Jeff Bussgang, Harvard Business School professors put together a $7 million fund to invest in recently graduated students from the university. This is the third installment of the Graduate Syndicate, which officially closed this week per SEC filings.

Here’s what to know: The syndicate started a few years ago when business school professors realized that young talent within their classes was looking for activation capital. To limit conflict of interest, such as favoritism or power imbalance, Bussgang said that the syndicate only invests in founders after they graduate from school. So far, the syndicate has invested in 60 companies, with 41% of them being led or co-led by a female founder.

Bussgang on what changed in pre-seed:

A pre-seed round, which is typically around a million dollars, is happening in a moment in time where you can make a ton of progress with just a million dollars, given the no-code, low code platforms, the cloud and reduction in costs for starting things up. The biggest trend I’ve seen is that these companies can just do so much with so little [and] because of these no code platforms…business founders can be builders, they don’t have to be software developers and that’s a great tailwind for the HBS community.

Advice and other bits:

Image Credits: tomertu (opens in a new window) / Shutterstock (opens in a new window) (Image has been modified)

And the startup of the week is…

Lawtrades. When it comes to our newly distributed world of work, flexibility is a key but elusive term. Lucky for Raad Ahmed and Ashish Walia, the co-founders of Lawtrades, defining the term has been a conversation that’s been in the works since 2016. Lawtrades wants to change how enterprise companies utilize legal resources,and give lawyers a chance at more flexible, remote work.

Here’s what to know: The startup raised a $6 million Series A round, led by Four Cities Capital, with participation from Draper Associates and 500 Startups. More than $11 million was earned on the platform to date by the lawyer network and over 60,000 hours of work was logged on the platform in 2021, a 200% boost from 2020, our own Christine Hall reports.

Ahmed on the moonshot:

As a company, you’re basically meeting internet strangers and hiring them for hundreds of thousands of dollars and trusting that they’re going to do a good job. So there’s a solid amount of betting that happens on the supply side. We let about 5% to 6% of [lawyers into the platform] – but the actual hard part is how does this day look operationally? Other platforms…there isn’t a lot of work transparency, so that’s what we’re trying to work on.

We have this simple tool, a time tracking app, once you get hired for an engagement, you’re basically logging in every hour of work. We basically make this transparent to clients so they see what’s the equivalent of a Facebook newsfeed but it’s a work feed. So it updates on who’s working on what or how long, what project and you can react to that, comment on it and we’re coming up with more and more clever ways for us to sort of capture the data with minimal work from like our network of lawyers.

It actually allows you to gain even more transparency and even more detail into someone’s productivity than you would if you were side by side right.

Honorable mentions:

Image Credits: Mawardi Bahar / EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Plaid went in on Cognito

Fintech giant Plaid acquired verification platform Cognito for around $250 million, TC’s Alex Wilhelm reported this week. Plaid has been actively growing from the fabric that helps fintechs communicate, to a patchwork of services built atop those key connections.

Here’s what to know: The deal comes months after Plaid’s own acquisition, which would have seen it be owned by Visa, fell apart and landed it a lofty new valuation. As we spoke about on the latest Equity, Plaid has matured to host a growing startup accelerator, acquire companies and clearly expand its strategic ambitions.

Cuffing season:

Image Credits: Manuta / Getty Images

Around TechCrunch

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

The first big tech antitrust bill lumbers toward reality

A hard rain is coming for UK’s crypto boom

How many unicorns are just piñatas filled with expired candy?

Open source developers, who work for free, are discovering they have power

Crypto.com CEO admits hundreds of customer accounts were hacked

Peloton CEO acknowledges corrective actions, denies ‘halting all production’ of bikes and treadmills

Seen on TechCrunch+

Will quantum computing remain the domain of the specialist VC?

Dear Sophie: How do I successfully expand my company to the US?

How to build a product advisory council for your startup

5 areas where VCs can play an outsized role in addressing climate change

Until next time,

N

Source: Tech

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Tech

Get in, nerds, we’re going to the metaverse

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Welcome to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by the daily TechCrunch+ column where it gets its name. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

Hello friends, I hope you are well and warm and healthy and happy and good. If not, some of those things. If you are none, well there’s a reason we invented ice cream.

In good news I have a few tasty nuggets for you this fine Saturday. We’re talking the metaverse, a venture capital story that I’ve watched from its genesis, and a funding round for a very cool startup that I accidentally blanked this week, so we’re talking about it here. Ready? Let’s have some fun.

The most fun that I had this week was a visit to Decentraland. In short, I was in edit and trying to distract myself so that I wouldn’t bother the editing team while they worked, so I fired up the social-crypto environment – metaverse, in other words – and went for a tour. Rocking a mohawk and some pretty cool pants I managed to get lost, visit an NFT gallery, and fail to gain access to an arena.

Look, the metaverse as it exists today looks a lot like Runescape. That’s not that big a diss, given the sheer historical footprint that the online RPG has built for itself. But what I don’t really need is a less featured MMORPG that includes, oddly, a more financial angle than I tend to like in my games.

I am neutral at the moment, and open to the metaverse becoming sufficiently cool that I log in daily. But today it seems that some Web 2.0 properties that include community creation and social interaction are superior to what we’ve yet seen from the crypto team.

Amplify’s newest general partner

Roughly 1,000 years ago, a startup named Mattermark hired me to build an independent news room for their company. It was a great learning experience, frankly, and had the added edge of introducing me to some lifetime friends. Kevin Liu now of TechStars, for example.

Sarah Catanzaro was another standout from the Mattermark team. Her work on the company’s data team was later translated into work in venture, first at Canvas Ventures, and later Amplify Partners. Amplify, for reference, last announced a fund in late 2020 worth $275 million. Given that timeframe, I expect the group to announce a new capital vehicle in short order.

At Amplify, Catanzaro went from principal, to partner, to, most recently, general partner. Her journey from the lowest ranks of the VC world to its top-tier has been enjoyable to watch. And, she told TechCrunch during a call the other week, she’s the first woman to reach her level at Amplify. I highlight that to remind myself that promotions in the yet-cottage industry of venture capital are unlike startup level gains in their pace.

Regardless, Catanzaro told us something that I wanted to write down here, so that we can circle back to it later on. We discussed her firm’s investment approach, check size targets, and how often they enter companies at seed versus Series A maturity levels. Per the newly minted GP, Series A rounds have gotten much bigger without a commensurate decrease in risk. This is something that I have had as a hunch for some time, but hadn’t heard someone say out loud before.

This means that Series A risk, from a venture perspective, is going up as more capital is put to work at the startup stage. The math could work out in the end, provided that enough mega-exits are made in the coming years. But with the market in free-fall, and Concern now getting more column inches than Unbridled Enthusiasm, well, I wonder a bit.

The pride of Rhode Island

Living as I do in the Ocean State, I am slightly afield from the best-known technology hubs in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that fascinating tech companies are being built here in my small state. TechCrunch has spilt ink, to pick an example, on Pangea, a startup founded in Providence that is building a freelance labor marketplace for college kids.

Another startup in Lil Rhody is The Wanderlust Group, which has built Dockwa, a software platform for marinas and boaters. In short, the world of managing boat slip reservations was stuck floating in the world of pen and paper, and Wanderlust decided to to modernize it through software.

We last touched on the company in 2020 when it raised $14.2 million. At that time, CEO Mike Melillo told TechCrunch that his company had merely been on the hunt for $7 million, a figure that it doubled.

So I was not surprised to hear from the company recently that it has raised again. This time Wanderlust has raised a $30 million Series C at a $150 million pre-money valuation. The funding event was led by Thursday Ventures.

Happily for you and I, Wanderlust was willing to share ARR growth for 2021, which came in at 71%. More fun, after moving to a four-day workweek, the company saw its ARR expand 100% from June 2020 to June 2021; there’s a real datapoint for one of the more interesting labor experiments I am tracking in startup-land.

But most interesting from the company is that it’s building a fund. Not another corporate venture capital fund, but something else. Called Wanderfund, the company is funding the vehicle with $300,000 this year for what it describes as “environmental causes at the national and local level.” It’s starting, in part, with putting money in its local Boys & Girls Club to help kids get out of the house and into nature.

The company is building a Dockwa-like product for camping, so the “go outside” theme is pretty core to what the aptly named Wanderlust Group is building.

Miscellania and Various

  • The Acorns SPAC deal is off, which caught our eye. It’s not a huge shock given how poor some SPACs have performed post-combination, but we had honestly been looking forward to Acorns as a public company.
  • Acorns S-1, please.
  • And the Robinhood experiment with making the financial market more open to regular folks through IPO access and corporate democracy has good sides, and sharper edges worth keeping in mind.

Ok that’s enough for now. Chat you all next week!

Alex

Source: Tech

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