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The Station: A special CES galaxy brain edition

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers and Happy New Year (I was gone last week): Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

Welp, CES 2022 came and went. And while other news did happen this week, we’re gonna give you the ultimate CES breakdown. Hang on for this galaxy brain adventure.

And nope, I did not attend. This was the second year in a row — after years and years of walking the packed convention center and the rows of startups jammed in at Eureka Park — that I didn’t go in person. It was sad, as I do love to meet up with founders and test out new tech, but then again …

Perhaps, next year.

Before you jump in this CES 2022 wonderland. Sec. Pete Buttigieg wrote an op-ed that TechCrunch ran last week — the same day he made prepared remarks (virtually) at CES 2022.

What did he overlook? What did he get right? And what did he get wrong? Let me know!

Oh and one final note, Jim Motavalli, an author and EV expert, wrote a weekend feature for us that ties in perfectly with all of the tech shown off at CES. It’s all about what he describes as “feature bloat.”

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec

Micromobbin’

It’s micro CES time. Whoop.

Here’s a snippet from a lengthy roundup that Rebecca Bellan and I put together. The upshot? Smarter, connected, more powerful ebikes and scooters were the top micromobility trends of CES 2022.

We also noticed that a lot of the products that were show, weren’t actually new. But even most of those EV products included more powerful onboard computers that are synced up to apps that can help riders do things like find their vehicle, track fitness goals and control bike functions like locks and lights.

Some of the highlights:

Bosch showed up with its connected smart e-bike system, which isn’t exactly new, but it was awarded honoree status at the CES Innovation Awards.

Cake announced new updates to its Ridecake connectivity app, including features to allow professional fleet managers to monitor and manage their vehicles.

Delfast, the American-Ukrainian startup, rolled out an upgraded model of its electric Top 3.0 bike, which the company claims can go up to 200 miles on a single charge.

Moonbikes showed off its electric snow vehicle. And while it is not exactly new, this was really the first time people really got to check it out in person. It’s a single-track snowmobile that has a 3 kW (4hp) electric motor and reaches a 26 mile-per-hour top speed.

Niu showed up this year with its new BQi-C1 e-bike, a vehicle the Chinese e-scooter company has already teased but finally shared pricing and tech specs at CES. The step-through bike is powered by a 500W continuous and 750W Bafang hub motor in the rear and can reach top speeds of 28 miles per hour in the U.S.  The BQi, priced at $1,499, will also be app-connected and feature many smart security features.

Okai, another Chinese manufacturer that supplies vehicles to many big-name shared operators, came to CES with five products, including a smart helmet and a smart backpack.

Segway, the electric micromobility manufacturer that not only sells personal vehicles but also supplies a number of the world’s shared operators with vehicles, came to CES with a new kick scooter line, the P-Series, and a new moped-type e-scooter, the E11a.

Vehicle tech at CES

Image Credits: Qualcomm Technologies

There was a lot of “vehicle tech” this year. I will provide a roundup below, but first some themes.

CES 2022 was not a showcase of autonomous vehicle technology — at least not compared to years past. I base this “observation” on feedback from industry experts who were on the ground as well as examining what companies attended and their announcements.

It wasn’t absent, mind you. But it was overshadowed by a lot of advanced driver assistance system technology, services and experiences that drivers and passengers can have inside vehicles and the compute power needed to deliver it all. When automated driving did pop up, it often came in the form of future promises, narrowly defined autonomous features like parking — or both.

We have a nice long 3,000 word article on all the weird and cool vehicle tech we took note at CES 2022. Here are a few of those items.

The automotive chip game was on

Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm all showed up in force. There were two areas where “compute” was talked about the most. The first was to provide the power to deliver digital services and content like Qualcomm’s Spandragon Digital Chassis. The other area that compute showed up was in support of automated driving features and advanced driver assistance systems. Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm also made announcements, including Intel subsidiary Mobileye announcing plans to bring a new supercomputer to market designed to give passenger cars, trucks and SUVs autonomous driving powers.

Connected everything

Another big theme was connectivity. Sure, sure, that’s old news, right? This year it wasn’t just talking about what might come from an internet connected vehicle with the right underlying operating system and processing power; companies also showcased the products and services that will be in cars imminently.

Amazon, Blackberry, Cerence, Google, Stellantis and Volvo were some of the companies that introduced new connected features or systems. Amazon kicked off its effort in the fourth quarter last year when it announced Stellantis would became the first automaker to integrate Fire TV for in-car entertainment with its new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer. At CES, Amazon said it will bring the entertainment experiences to Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler Pacifica, as well. In addition, Fire TV will come built-in on Ford Explorer and Lincoln Navigator’s 2022 models.

Google and Volvo talked about how car owners would be able to download YouTube into the vehicle’s infotainment system via the Google Play Store and Cerence and Blackberry made announcements about their “digital co-pilots.”

ADAS and AD

I won’t get too deep into the weeds because you’d be here all day, but companies like GM, Volvo, TuSimple and Gentex made announcements about autonomous driving and ADAS.

Oh and how can I forget, Mobileye is partnering with Chinese automaker Zeekr to develop an all-electric autonomous vehicle for consumers. The vehicle will be sold in China starting in 2024 and eventually roll out to other markets.

Other wacky stuff

You probably saw BMW showed off a color-changing car. But did you hear that Vietnamese automaker Vinfast will issue the first customers to pre-order a vehicle a “VinFirst” certificate on the blockchain platform in NFT form, which the company says is a completely transparent way to prove ownership of an order number?

NFTs and the term digital twins popped up a few times in the automotive sector at CES 2022, including an announcement from Cerence and Vinfast.

The gist is this: Cerence has cloud-based software that allows Vinfast (or any other company intrigued by the product) to create a virtual representation of its entire car, including software, mechanics, electrics and physical behavior, along with driver data and environmental data.

CES: It’s electric

CES has been used as a platform for automakers to launch new electric vehicles since at least the middle of the last decade. And this year was no different, although maybe even more than in the past. Even Sony came back with its Vision S concept electric car, and announced that the Sony Group is starting a new division — the Sony Mobility Inc — which will start commercializing its electric vehicles.

General Motors CEO and Chair Mary Barra, who introduced the  Chevy Bolt EV on the CES stage back in 2016, came back virtually again with a bevy of announcements related to its electric vehicle plans.

First up was the reveal of the Chevy Silverado EV. GM introduced two trims, a basic work truck called at WT that has a range of 400 miles, up to 664 horsepower and a starting price of $39,900. Then there is the RST First Edition, a fully loaded, four-wheel steering truck that will start at $105,000.

The Silverado EV is the third electric truck announced by GM, following the Hummer EV and the Sierra Denali. Little is known about the Denali — GM teased it just last month — but it appears the Silverado shares the majority of its parts with the impressive Hummer EV. Don’t mistake the Silverado EV as an afterthought, editor Matt Burns noted in his report. The Silverado EV is the most important of the bunch.

The Chevy Silverado has long been the main competitor with the top-selling Ford F-150 pickup. Side note: Last week Ford said it was doubling production capacity of the new all-electric F-150 Lightning.

Barra also confirmed — and showed pictures of — an electric Chevy Equinox as well as a Chevy Blazer that will both come in 2023.

What might have been missed during the splashy event (there were a number of announcements) was an image of a pontoon boat that flashed behind Barra as she spoke.

Image Credits: GM

I got confirmation from GM that this is the newest boat from Pure Watercraft, which separately revealed the new product at CES 2022 and opened up pre-orders. If you recall, the automaker took a 25% stake in the Seattle-based electric boat company last November.

This is the first product to come from GM’s investment in Pure Watercraft. The boat uses GM EV components. What makes this so interesting, beyond the EV boat, is that this illustrates GM’s broader push into EV component strategy, which the company thinks has an addressable market of $20B by 2030. This includes marine applications, along with EV crate motors for historic vehicles and converting equipment like airport ground support vehicles to electric propulsion.

I chatted with Travis Hester, GM’s VP of EV growth operations so stay tuned this coming week for insights on this strategy.

Other major automakers that showed off electric vehicle concepts included Stellantis with its Airflow concept and Mercedes-Benz with the EQXX.

Stellantis actually had a bunch of news, including that it will turn Chrysler into an all-electric brand. The big overall announcement was the tip-to-tail agreement Stellantis now has with Amazon that covers a cloud computing contract, software development and supplying the e-commerce company with its upcoming all-electric Ram Promaster vans.

I interviewed Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares and am saving the good stuff for this coming week.

And then there is Mercedes-Benz and its EQXX concept. This isn’t meant to be your typical we”ll-never-see-this-again concept car.

The EQXX is meant to showcase what the automaker’s electric future will look like and includes a ton of tech and features, which Markus Schäfer, a board member of Daimler AG and CTO of Mercedes-Benz AG, told me will show up in vehicles beginning in 2024. 

There were lots of smaller players as well that I want to briefly mention.

ElectraMeccanica showed off a few of its single occupant EVs, including the SOLO “O2” Oxygen, which has a redesigned dashboard and the SOLO Cargo, a modified version of the flagship vehicle, designed to accommodate a wide range of commercial applications.

Then there was Triggo, a fun-looking single occupant electric vehicle that can actually get slimmer if needed.

Image Credits: Triggo/screenshot

OK folks, that’s it. Thanks for hanging in there for the CES information dump. This coming week I plan to feature interviews with Stellantis’ Tavares, GM’s Hester and Toyota chief scientist Dr. Gill Pratt.

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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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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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