Category Archives for "NEWS"

Trump administration is readying tighter regulations on e-cigarettes, including ban on flavorings

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration are readying tough new requirements on e-cigarettes — including a potential ban on flavorings for vaping products.

The FDA compliance policy would mean that all non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes would have to be cleared by the FDA before they could be sold. The regulations could effectively remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market until they go through the testing required for FDA approval.

In August 2016, e-cigarette companies were required to file premarket tobacco product applications with the FDA over a two-year period. Those companies whose products have not received FDA approval are now considered to be marketed illegally, according to the HHS statement.

“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in a statement. “We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”

Over the past year, the e-cigarette industry has faced a steady stream of criticism related to the health effects of vaping and the ways in which companies marketed their products to minors.

A new version of the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows the continued rise in rates of youth e-cigarette use, especially through non-tobacco flavors, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 25% of high school students were e-cigarette users in 2019, and the bulk of those kids cited fruit and mint flavors as their pods of choice.

Earlier in September, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning against vaping as several deadly instances of lung-related illnesses cropped up among vape users (although no solid link between the lung condition and vaping has been identified). As we reported at the time:

The first death was reported in late August in Indiana, but other suspected cases have turned fatal in Illinois, Minnesota, California and Oregon — as reported by The Washington Post, though the CDC said three are confirmed and one is under investigation. The number of reported cases has skyrocketed, though this is likely a consequence of better information coming from state health authorities and hospitals, rather than a sudden epidemic.

The FDA is now working on a compliance policy that will be announced in the coming weeks to address the flavored e-cigarette issue.”Once finalized, this compliance policy will serve as a powerful tool that the FDA can use to combat the troubling trend of youth e-cigarette use. We must act swiftly against flavored e-cigarette products that are especially attractive to children. Moreover, if we see a migration to tobacco-flavored products by kids, we will take additional steps to address youth use of these products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, in a statement.”Earlier this week, the FDA sent a warning letter to the leading e-cigarette company, Juul Labs. With a reported 70% of the U.S. e-cigarette market and more than $14 billion in financing, Juul is the largest private company operating in the vaping space.

The government’s mobilization efforts come just one day after former New York City mayor and billionaire philanthropist Mike Bloomberg announced a $160 million effort to combat youth vaping.

Blomberg actually called out the federal government in the announcement, saying:

The federal government has the responsibility to protect children from harm, but it has failed – so the rest of us are taking action. I look forward to partnering with advocates in cities and states across the country on legislative actions that protect our kids’ health. The decline in youth smoking is one of the great health victories of this century, and we can’t allow tobacco companies to reverse that progress.

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All the weird stuff that happens to you after you close your round

We just closed our $11 million Series A financing, and within 15 minutes of the news hitting the wire, the weirdness began. It turns out that once you announce to the world that you have money, everyone wants a piece. Some want to earn your business, some actually want your business, some want you to move your business, and others just want to straight-up steal your business.

These are the weird things that no one tells you will happen after you close your round that I’m hoping you will find helpful, insightful and maybe spare you a headache or two.

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The CEO of Naspers — one of the world’s most powerful and lowest-flying investment firms — is coming to Disrupt

In 2001, Naspers, a media company that launched in 1915 and later evolved into a media holding company with pay TV interests, agreed to invest $32 million for a 46.5% stake in Tencent. The China-based company had been founded just three years earlier, and, as Quartz notes in a 2014 story about the deal, Tencent wasn’t a brand that many aside from users of its instant messaging platform, QQ, knew at the time.

Of course, given Tencent’s wild growth, it has largely come to define Naspers . Consider that today, Tencent is a roughly $410 billion company, and though Naspers has sold off some of its holdings in the company over the years, it still owns a little more than 30% of Tencent for a stake currently worth roughly $120 billion.

The story is not so unlike that of SoftBank, which made an early, $20 million bet on a nascent China-based company called Alibaba in 2000. Though SoftBank has sold some of its ownership in the company, including to fund an acquisition of acquisition of the British chip designer ARM in 2016, it maintains a 26% stake worth roughly $100 billion.

The bets have proved a blessing but also a challenge for both companies as they work to create valuable portfolios that correlate less closely with these home runs.

For its part, Naspers is finding a number of ways to buffer itself, including, most notably, carving out a new holding company called Prosus NV that’s due to list in Amsterdam this week and that features Nasper’s stakes in the online classifieds business OLX, the Craigslist competitor Letgo, as well as Nasper’s massive piece of Tencent.

Prosus also holds stakes in numerous social networking, food delivery, payments, online travel bookings, and other companies, packaging together its shares in roughly 20 different companies altogether.

It’s a huge deal for Naspers, which is spinning off Prosus to lessen its own dominance of Johannesburg’s stock exchange where it trades, and to minimize the valuation gap between itself and its stake in Tencent. It’s also a highly unusual listing, including because the value of the shares is largely established already (given that they currently trade within Naspers).

Luckily, CEO Bob Van Dijk is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt in early October to talk about Naspers and Prosus and to help us understand this fairly novel and important effort for the company.

Yet that’s not all we want to know.  We want to better understand how the company thinks about new investments, including how it views different sectors and different geographies.

We want to hear what Naspers thinks of the SoftBank’s investing strategy. (Among other things, the two coinvested in Flipkart, which proved a lucrative bet for both. Naspers sold an 11% stake in the company last year for $2.2 billion after investing $616 million. SoftBank sold its 20% stake for roughly $4 billion after investing $2.5 billion into the company.)

We also want to learn more about Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, the recently appointed CEO of Nasper’s South African unit — and the company’s first female and first black chief executive.

For these reasons and many others, we can’t wait to sit down with Van Dijk during our upcoming show. If you’re curious about where the big money is moving around the world, this is one conversation you won’t want to miss. Disrupt SF runs October 2-4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Tickets are available here.

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Would we miss the Media Lab if it were gone?

A friend and MIT grad wrote to me yesterday, “I don’t know if the Media Lab is redeemable at all.” This in the wake of the bombshell Ronan Farrow piece in the New Yorker, reporting that the Media Lab under its director Joi Ito had covered up a much closer relationship with Jeffrey Epstein than previously revealed. Ito promptly resigned.

The Media Lab has always occupied a curious place in the tech world. According to itself, it “transcends known boundaries and disciplines by actively promoting a unique, antidisciplinary culture that emboldens unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas … In its earliest years, some saw the Media Lab as a house of misfits. Here, the emphasis was on building; the Lab’s motto was “demo or die.””

It ceased being viewed as a house of misfits a long time ago. Instead it has become perceived as a hyper-prestigious, creme-de-la-creme entity, a weird mixture of counterculture and patrician, seen as home to the best (and coolest) of the best, whose annual budget has tripled from $25 million in 2009 to $75 million in 2019. It seems fair to estimate that roughly a billion inflation-adjusted dollars have been spent on it since its birth in 1986.

While it’s an academic institution it has always been exceptionally business-oriented. “At first glance, much of the Media Lab’s research may seem tangential to current business realities, but for more than 30 years, the Lab has demonstrated that seemingly “far out” research can find its way into the most conventional—and useful—applications … The Media Lab has spawned dozens of new products by our members, and over 150 start-up companies,” to quote, again, them.

And yet. One can’t help but notice. Consider its basic ingredients:

  1. founded in 1986, as Moore’s Law began to hit us all, and tech began the exponential growth that has made it the world’s dominant force
  2. at the most prestigious technical university on the entire planet
  3. in a position to pick and choose from the brightest minds of its generation
  4. allotted $1 billion to spend over those thirty years of hockey-stick growth

Given all that, wouldn’t you have expected … well … a whole lot more than what it has actually accomplished?

Because that list of accomplishments is surprisingly scrawny. Take its spin-off companies. Here’s its list. Trivia question: how many Media Lab spinoffs have gone public, without merging or being acquired, in its 33 years of existence? As far as I can tell, the answer is one, and even that comes with a sizable asterisk: the Art Technology Group, which didn’t start building products until six years after it spun out (it was a consultancy), IPOd during the first dot-boom, and was eventually acquired by Oracle.

There are companies you’ll recognize on that list. Well, there’s one: BuzzFeed. Yes, really. There are a few others of note. Harmonix, makers of Rock Band. Makani Power, acquired by Alphabet six years ago. Elance, which became Upwork and then had its platform phased out. Jana. Formlabs, Otherlab, The Echo Nest, all of which I think are great, but none of which I would have heard of if not for some personal connections. One Laptop Per Child, a bad idea a decade ago and a forgotten one now. And, notably, E Ink, the Media Lab’s one definite, unambiguous big win … back in 1996.

It’s not nothing, but it’s so much less than you’d expect, given its ingredients. It’s certainly no Bell Labs, or Xerox PARC, or even Y Combinator, and I say that as someone who is less of a YC enthusiast than most of the Valley.

OK, I hear you arguing, but they’re a basic research facility! Spinoff companies are not their true measure of success! Sure. Fine. So let’s take a hard look at their own list of their top 30 tech products or platforms (PDF). Aside from E Ink — which, again, was 23 years ago — doesn’t that look a lot like a list of occasionally interesting, but fundamentally limited and/or niche, technologies? Doesn’t it seem rather utterly devoid of any significant impact on the world?

Wouldn’t you have expected so, so much more?

Criticisms that the Lab is more about style and sizzle than serious substance are not exactly new. Nor are they old: here’s a piece condemning its recent “personal food computer” as smoke and mirrors that doesn’t actually work. This “Hunter S. Negroponte” piece dates back to the 1990s. It’s satire, but if you read it, you’ll likely find you can’t help but raise your eyebrows and wonder just how far back the Media Lab’s systemic problems go.

Maybe if it hadn’t been a “plutocratic friendocracy,” to quote former Media Lab faculty, and it had actually systemically favored the best and brightest and most innovative, regardless of background or personal connection — maybe then things would have been very different. Maybe it would actually have been what it pretended to be for all this time.

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Original Content podcast: Amazon’s ‘Carnival Row’ mixes fairies, politics and murder

“Carnival Row” offers an unlikely mix of genres, laying out a murder mystery in a world of fairies and other mythical creatures, while also delivering a healthy dose of allegorical politics.

And as we explain in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, the show (recently released on Amazon Prime Video) does take some getting used to. There’s a certain clumsiness in the way the opening episode insists on its grittiness and adult themes — and most viewers will probably need some time before they stop gawking at the fairy sex and focus instead on the story and characters.

Once they do, though, “Carnival Row” offers plenty of rewards. Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne star as Philo and Vignette — a police investigator and a “fae” refugee, respectively, who have a complicated romantic past together. Bloom and Delevingne may not be entirely up to the task of creating complex and memorable characters, but the world that creators Travis Beacham and René Echavarria have built around them is rich, detailed and strange.

The pair is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes Jared Harris (“The Crown”) and Indira Varma (“Game of Thrones”) — and ultimately, the fantasy, the politics and the mystery do come together in satisfying ways.

In addition to reviewing “Carnival Row,” we also discuss YouTube’s settlement with the FTC and listener response to last week’s review of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.”

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Introduction
2:11 “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” listener response
15:03 “Carnival Row” review (minor spoilers for the first episode)
33:47 “Carnival Row” spoiler discussion

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Apple doesn’t want Google ‘stoking fear’ about serious iOS security exploits

Apple has issued a tart response to an extensive report by Google of a serious security flaw in iOS. The flaw, which let an attacker gain root access to a device visiting a malicious website, was reported last week. Apple wants to “make sure all of our customers have the facts,” which is funny, because it’s likely we wouldn’t have any of the facts if Google had not so rigorously documented this issue.

In a brief news post, Apple says that it has heard concerns from its customers and wants to make sure they know they are not at risk.

The attack, Apple says, was “narrowly focused” and not an exploit “en masse.” “The attack affected fewer than a dozen websites that focus on content related to the Uighur community,” Apple wrote.

While it’s true that only a small number of websites were affected, Google said that those websites were visited thousands of times per week — and the attacks were active for about two months. Even a conservative estimate based on these numbers suggests more than a hundred thousand devices could easily have been probed and, if vulnerable, infected. If only 1 in 100 were iPhones, that would be root access to a thousand of the target population. That rock bottom estimate already sounds pretty “en masse” to me.

Furthermore, while it may make the non-Uighurs among us feel better that we were not the targets of this campaign, it’s cold comfort as the targeted demographic could just as easily have been a political or religious institution we do take part in.

Apple takes issue with Google’s suggestion that this offered “the capability to target and monitor the private activities of entire populations in real time.” This was, according to Apple, “stoking fear among all iPhone users that their devices had been compromised.”

Yet Google’s warning in this case seems relevant. An undetectable root exploit for current iPhones deployed via website popular among a targeted population? That should stoke fear among all iPhone users, since it seems clear that they very well could have been compromised before now. After all, there’s no evidence this Uighur-targeted attack was the only one.

Apple points out that “when Google approached us, we were already in the process of fixing the exploited bugs.” That’s great. But who then wrote up a long technical discussion of the issue so that other security researchers, along with consumers, will be aware?

It’s a bit troubling for Apple to say that “iOS security is unmatched” during the discussion of an incredibly dangerous and powerful exploit that was apparently deployed successfully against an ethnic minority by, almost certainly, the only nation-state that has any interest in doing so. Has Apple explained to the Uighurs whose phones were invisibly and completely taken over by malicious software that it’s okay because “security is a never-ending journey”?

Had Google’s Project Zero researchers not documented this problem, we probably would never have heard about it except as an anonymous “security fixes” decimal point in our mobile operating systems.

Journey or no journey, this was a serious security failure that appears to have been successfully and maliciously exploited in the wild. Apple’s sour grapes and defensive language are out of place here, and a mea culpa would have behooved the company better.

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Upflow grabs $2.7 million to streamline payment processes

French startup Upflow has raised a $2.7 million funding round (€2.5 million) from Kima Ventures, eFounders and various business angels. The company tracks your outstanding invoices and makes sure you get paid on time.

If you’re running a small company, chances are you’re using Excel spreadsheets to enter invoice information, check your company’s bank account every day and manually tag invoices that have been paid.

Microsoft Excel has been such a powerful tool for so many different use cases that plenty of startups are trying to replace it — I call this phenomenon The Great Unbundling of Excel. And Upflow is one of those startups.

If you want to replace a system that works well, you need to make it radically better. In order to do that, Upflow has created a payment brick that sits between your bank account and your customers.

Every time you send an invoice, you can write an email from the Upflow interface so that the entire sales team is on the same page. Making this experience collaborative with a software-as-a-service approach is already a big improvement over Excel spreadsheets.

Your invoice features banking information for your Upflow account. When your customer transfers the money, Upflow can instantly mark an invoice as paid. The startup transfers money back to your company’s bank account every day.

Over time, you get insights about your recurring customers, you can see how much money your clients collectively owe you and you can send reminders to late clients.

If you want to read more about Upflow, you can read my profile of the company.


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Trump not interested in talking Huawei with China

During an Oval Office press conference this week, the President told reports that the United States is currently not interesting in broaching the subject of Huawei as part of increasingly heated trade conversations with China. The statement appears to run counter to pat suggestions that he was willing to discuss the U.S. government’s blacklist of the electronics giant during trade talks.

“It’s a national security concern,” Trump said. “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei. And we’ll see what happens with respect to China, but Huawei has been not a player that we want to talk about right now.”

Huawei’s U.S. blacklisting stems from both concerns over potential links to security and spying, as well as alleged sanctions violations. Trump has, however, previously conflated those issues brewing trade war between the superpowers, suggesting that a ban could be lifted with a new U.S.-China deal.

Recent discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping helped ease restrictions against the company, which could be faced with devastating consequences if a full ban on partnerships with U.S. companies like Google is enacted. Trump also used the question to once again suggest that the toll of tariffs could be avoided if U.S. companies no longer relied on Chinese components and manufacturing.

The new comments appear to find Trump temporarily closing the door to discussions about Huawei in future meetings with the Chinese President, though he did not elaborate further.

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Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer on focus and opportunity in autonomous delivery

Starship Technologies is fresh off a recent $40 million funding round, and the robotics startup finds itself in a much-changed market compared to when it got its start in 2014. Founded by software industry veterans including Skype and Rdio co-founder Janis Friis, Starship’s focus is entirely on building and commercialization fleets of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots.

Starship invented this category when it debuted, but five years later it’s one of a number of companies looking to deploy what essentially amounts to wheeled, self-driven coolers that can carry small packages and everyday freight including fresh food to waiting customers. CEO Lex Bayer, a former sales leader from Airbnb, took over the top spot at Starship last year and is eager to focus the company’s efforts in a drive to take full advantage of its technology and experience lead.

The result is transforming what looked, to all external observers, like a long tail technology play into a thriving commercial enterprise.

“We want to do 100 universities in the next 24 months, and we’ll do about 25 to 50 robots in each campus,” Bayer said in an interview about his company’s plans for the future.

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Revolut ramps up customer support with plans to hire 400 people in Porto

Fintech startup Revolut has been growing like crazy and now has 6 million customers. The company has to scale its support team accordingly. That’s why Revolut just announced plans to open a customer operations centre in Porto, Portugal.

There are already 70 people working for Revolut in Porto. Eventually, Revolut plans to hire 400 people in the country. They’ll work on customer support, complaints, investigations and compliance.

And Revolut has been quite successful in Portugal so far. There are currently 250,000 Revolut customers in Portugal, and the company is adding 1,000 new customers per day in the country.

It should help when it comes to hiring local talent. The company is also hiring a growth manager, a communication and PR lead and a community manager in Portugal. Ricardo Macieira, the new growth manager, is the former country manager for Airbnb in Portugal. Rebeca Venâncio, the communication and PR lead, has worked for Microsoft in Portugal. And Miguel Costa, the community manager, has worked for Mog and Nomad Tech.

Earlier this summer, Revolut also announced plans to open a tech hub in Berlin. Originally founded in London, Revolut is slowly building multiple offices across the U.K. and Europe in order to attract local talent.

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