Flox, an app to help friend groups meet each other, is wooing college students in NYC

There’s nothing like the growing pains of new adulthood, but for college-aged Gen Zers who have spent these formative years in lockdown, it can be even more difficult to form meaningful friendships. While attending Columbia University remotely during the pandemic, first-generation college student Jamie Lee realized how this isolation was affecting her peers, especially those who would travel to school for their sophomore or junior years without having met any classmates in person yet.

“Since I had first downloaded Instagram in middle school, I’ve always just been presenting myself online as an individual, but I felt like I was having a lot of anxiety about not presenting myself authentically online,” Lee told TechCrunch. “I wanted to lean into that idea of, okay, how can we find a way to connect people authentically? And I thought the best way to do that would be with our friends, who we’re most authentic around.”

In summer 2020, Lee launched a no-code beta test for Flox, an idea for an app that would help people meet. It’s like Tinder, Hinge or Bumble, where you create a profile and match with others, only you’re signing up as a group and connecting with other groups of friends.

“People gave me feedback that it was the most fun they’d had online in forever, so that was my turning point where I was like, this could be something super serious, and I knew that it was now or never,” Lee said.

So, she dropped out of Columbia with just a year left of school to charge full-speed ahead on the app.

Screenshot of Flox app

Image Credits: Flox

In February 2021, Lee and two full-time engineers — the extent of her team — conducted an alpha test with around 250 users, which then developed into a private beta test exclusively in New York City for undergrads and recent graduates. By now, their waitlist has over 20,000 users, but Lee says in the next month or so, Flox will begin opening up to college-aged New Yorkers on the waitlist before expanding to other cities later on. Plus, Flox just closed a $1.2 million funding round led by Honeycomb Asset Management, with BBG Ventures and Banana Capital participating.

“I’m not gonna lie, raising my first round was incredibly difficult. I’m Puerto Rican and Chinese, I was 21 at the time, I never had any background in this, and I had just like, dropped out of Columbia,” Lee said. “Going into these conversations, I think people definitely had opinions formed about me before the conversation began. I was told in a pitch meeting to be more like Zuck.”

As a founder developing a platform for people in her own age group, Lee is smart about how she markets the app — she wants to make it feel authentic. So, she’s met her audience where they are on TikTok, posting promotional videos about the app that have gone viral, garnering about 1.8 million views over three posts.

“You can’t even go to the bathroom alone,” Lee says in one TikTok. “So why are you on these dating apps alone?”

Flox isn’t the first app to try group-based social networking — Tinder had this idea with Tinder Social, a feature that let you join groups with your friends and match with other groups. But the feature was discontinued a little over a year after a rocky launch in 2016, when it accidentally revealed who in your contacts had a Tinder profile. Lee said that she thinks Tinder Social didn’t work because Tinder had already branded itself as a dating (or hookup) app — and since you only had one profile, you’d be showing the same version of yourself to potential friends and potential dates.

“We want to move away from the focus on the individual, because I think that points to dating,” Lee said. “We want to really lean into the group identity, so you might see a flock called ‘apartment 11,’ and then you would see who makes up the group, rather than, here are these individuals who form the group. It’s reversing what’s emphasized.” While the focus is on meeting new people, Lee hopes that friends who make a Flox group (a Flock) together will be brought closer too.

Even though Bumble started as a dating app too, it also now has modes for making friends and finding business partners. Lee cites Bumble BFF as an inspiration for Flox, but she said that when she used the app, it seemed like most people said they were looking for roommates, rather than looking to make new friends.

Flox app screenshot

Image Credits: Flox

“Gen Z is the most lonely, anxious, depressed generation, and there’s so many people who need friends,” said Lee. “But there’s a social stigma that [using one-on-one friendship apps] carries with it. Unfortunately, oftentimes, when you’re looking for friends one-on-one, what that implies to the other person, or to anyone who might know that you’re on Bumble BFF, is that you don’t have any friends, and that doesn’t really put you in a desirable position. So our goal with Flox is also to make it way more comfortable, safe and fun, removing that social stigma behind friend finding.”

The app hinges on Lee’s hypothesis that people are most comfortable meeting new people when their existing friends have their back. But the group dynamic adds a built-in layer of safety. Even though Flox isn’t a dating app, Lee knows that some people are going to use it for that purpose — but meeting new people in groups can help mitigate the risks inherent in meeting strangers one-on-one.

“I had a really bad experience on a dating app when I was in the city a couple of years ago, and I remember reporting the incident, and nothing was followed up on, and I just didn’t feel protected on that platform,” Lee said. “One of the first conversations I had with users last year was people said, ‘I’m not comfortable meeting up with other people on dating apps, because I feel unsafe one-on-one.’ So we really want to give people this more comfortable, safe environment to meet people.”

With Flox’s recent seed round, Lee hopes to continue building out the app and letting more and more users in — but she wants to take it slow to make sure that the experience remains positive and authentic for existing users.

Entity Academy, an edtech startup that trains, mentors and places women in tech roles, secures $100M

Women have made great inroads into the tech world in recent years, but there remains a long way to go before we reach a truly equitable state of affairs in workforce numbers, remuneration and product development. An edtech startup called Entity Academy — which provides women with training, in areas like data science and software development; mentoring; and ultimately job coaching — has raised $100 million on the heels of strong growth of its business, and an ambition to improve that ratio.

The financing will be used to help students finance their Entity Academy tuition, which typically costs $15,000. It’s coming from Leif, itself a startup that provides financing services to edtech platforms so that they can offer their students income share agreements (otherwise known as ISAs, arrangements where students are not required to pay back tuition loans until they find jobs).

Jennifer Schwab, the founder and CEO of Entity, has built the business since 2016 on virtually no outside funding, but said that this latest financing is a precursor to the company working on its first, more traditional VC-led equity round.

Entity does not build e-learning content itself but aggregates online courses in data science, software development, fintech engineering and technology sales in “bootcamp” style courses that range from 24 to 33 weeks in length, from providers that range from Springboard and Lambda School through to Columbia University (courses from the universities tend to be presented as created by the institutions, while the others are tailored by Entity itself to its students).

Its technology play is not just related to Entity’s curriculum being focused on tech; as you might expect in an edtech startup, Entity also leans heavily on the data that it has amassed to build its strategy and its business.

That data is based not just on feedback from past and current students and student outcomes, but also other channels. Its “content arm” Entity Mag has quite interestingly gone viral on social media and has more than 1.1 million followers across Instagram and Facebook, which becomes another major channel for engagement (not to mention future students).

Entity uses all this to curate not just what courses it provides and what goes into the curriculum, but also how best to supplement that learning. Today, Entity courses also include targeted mentoring from people working in the tech industry, as well as career coaching en route to finding a job.

Entity’s sweet spot is a bifurcated one, Schwab said in an interview.

It’s women who are either new (typically aged 19-23); or those newly-returning or rethinking their careers (typically aged 30-39, Schwab said). Women in both categories are coming to Entity because they would like to consider tech jobs or more technical promotions, but have found their expertise lacking to do so. Mostly likely, they studied humanities or other non-technical subjects in college, and typically they don’t have the support in their work environments to simply retrain to open the door to those more technical roles.

Added to this is the diversity mix among those women, which also poses a different kind of challenge for that cohort, but also a great boost for Entity for helping them address that. Some 55% of the 19-23 group are women of color; as are 62% of the 30-39 group. Entity aims to provide its tools to address all of these women with all of their different challenges around breaking into tech jobs, in what it describes as a “wraparound” strategy.

“A number of our students would not have pursued STEM programs in the past,” said Schwab, “so we are building skillsets from the ground up.”

With some 80% of students on the courses taking some financing to pay for them, you can see why Entity is now ramping up the means to help them do that.

Since 2016, some 400 students, almost all women, have completed the course. But originally it started as a much shorter (six-week) program, was all in-person and cost $5,000. Now with a number of the courses lasting eight months and all virtual, that spells more costs and more people. Schwab said there are another 300 students going through the course, and it’s on track to have 1,500 next year.

Entity’s growth has dovetailed with bigger edtech and “future of work” trends. Covid-19 foisted a hefty set of expectations on the e-learning industry, with companies building tools to help teach people remotely suddenly finding themselves in unprecedented demand. That was not only because traditional learning environments needed to go virtual, but also because the pandemic led so many — willingly or by force — to rethink what they were doing with their lives, and online education was one key route for doing something about it, at a time when little else could be done.

Entity’s own story fits into both of those story lines.

The company was started originally in Los Angeles by Schwab on the back of her own experiences when she was an advisor at Ernst & Young early in her own career.

“My original goal was to change how women approach careers globally. How to mentor women better was the impetus because I did not have female mentors when I started at Ernst & Young,” she recalled. Feeling “like you are on an island” is bad in itself, she said, but it was a quick evolution into education and job placement alongside that mentoring because “we identified these [as other reasons] why women don’t pursue tech careers.”

The first incarnation of the company in 2016 was as a brick-and-mortar learning center housed in a 1920s building in LA — appropriately enough, formerly a men’s club. That was a compelling sell, with a shorter learning period and being in-person, it saw completion rates of 96% with jobs for more than 90% of the cohorts by the end. “There is a lot more accountability in person,” Schwab said.

The pandemic, of course, forced Entity out of that model, but also became the lever for how it would scale. When it relaunched as a virtual program in 2020, from a new company HQ in Las Vegas, the numbers grew, the company extended the length of the courses, and it increased the tuition to reflect the longer engagements.

And yet that has had a downside, too, with completion rates dipping, something that Schwab said is a priority for the company to work on improving.

The mentors on the program are another aspect of the business that has scaled with the move to virtual. Originally, all mentors were unpaid volunteers who either just wanted to help more women get a leg up in the industry, or more opportunistically use their exposure to the students as a hiring funnel. That, too, is evolving with online engagement.

“Now we pay mentors, and we bring in professional moderators to keep mentor-led discussions at a decent pace,” Schwab said. Often speakers will donate their fees to scholarship and childcare funds, she added. There are some 250 mentors in the Entity network now, with some focused on lectures to groups of students while others work individually with them, usually in connection to the technical subjects they are studying. That number is expected to double to 500 next year, Schwab said.

The job-finding aspect of the role is perhaps the least developed up to now — you can find, in small print, that “job placement is not guaranteed” at the bottom of Entity’s website, alongside the admonition that Entity Academy is a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional education.

But that also speaks to potential opportunities. In that vein, there are others, such as The Mom Project, that are eyeing up the opportunity of specifically targeting the female demographic, speaking not just to the huge female gap in the job market, but also the fact that there just hasn’t been much built to address that. Thankfully, now that appears to be changing.

Journey Clinical raises $3M to allow psychotherapists to prescribe psychedelics

Psychedelics companies are all the rage right now. Compass Pathways is working with the magic mushroom compound psilocybin to treat depression. It’s has raised $290 million in total. Atai Life Sciences — backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel — brought in $258 million from its IPO. In the tech space, this has not gone unnoticed and the same business models that have been used in other platforms for health and wellness startups are coming to psychedelics.

The latest is Journey Clinical, based out of NYC, which has raised a $3 million seed round led by San Francisco VC firm Fifty Years. Also participating were Neo Kuma Ventures, Palo Santo, PsyMed Ventures, Lionheart Ventures, Christina Sass co-founder of Andela, ​​Edvard Engesæth, MD co-founder of Nurx and, Hans Gangeskar co-founder of Nurx.

Journey joins other startups in the space looking at psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, where ketamine is used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and trauma, known as ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP). Miami-based startup NUE Life Health raised a $3.3 million seed round for the same purpose back in June. There is also Field Trip and Mindbloom playing in this space.

These startups are pushing at an open door on depression and anxiety. Pre-COVID-19, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated some 50 million Americans were fighting the afflictions. The pandemic has of course exacerbated this issue, with those figures doubling, by some estimates.

It’s still an early market. Journey says the market landscape for legal psychedelic therapies is very disparate, with over a million licensed mental health professionals lacking the infrastructure to offer these treatments as they lack access to prescribing clinicians. On the flip side, patients struggle to find psychotherapists who can prescribe psychedelics as treatment.

Journey says it has a “decentralized clinic model” that allows psychotherapists to offer legal psychedelic therapy treatments in their practice, starting with ketamine. The way it works is that Journey takes care of the pharmacology side, while psychotherapists that sign up to the platform take care of the psychotherapy of the patient. The treatment plans are then customized to meet the patient’s needs.

Jonathan Sabbagh, co-founder and CEO, was previously diagnosed with PTSD, but after discovering psychedelics, he went back to school to study clinical psychology, and went on to co-found Journey. He said: “We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the field of mental health. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies are one of the most promising new means of treatment available; they will allow clinicians to tackle the growing global mental health crisis we are facing.”

Speaking to TechCrunch he added: “When we asked what was the main bottleneck for therapists to offer KAP to their patients, the #1 response was access to a prescribing doctor. Our alpha test group confirmed that guaranteeing access to a trained medical team and building a robust care management system would solve an essential bottleneck of mainstream adoption for KAP.”

Journey has two revenue streams. Psychotherapists pay them a $200 monthly membership fee which gives them access to a number of services including and access to the prescriber, an EHR (achieved through a white label), a KAP training (training materials created by a specialized training company), a profile on Journey’s directory, and a community of peers. Patients pay journey for medical services. They pay $250 for the intake consultation and $150 for follow-up consultations.

Ela Madej, Founding Partner at Fifty Years, said: “I dream of a world where those of us affected by trauma, anxiety, or depression don’t have to fall into learned helplessness. We’re lucky that powerful psychedelic treatments for the mind exist, but they need to be delivered responsibly, with proper screening, protocols, and follow-up. We’ve been incredibly impressed by Journey Clinical’s ambitious plan to empower psychotherapists to better treat their existing patients.”

The team also comprises Kyle Lapidus MD, Ph.D., who has over 20 years as a board-certified psychiatrist and has extensive experience working with ketamine; and Brigitte Gordon DNP a professor at Columbia University and also works for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS.)

Bringing jobs and health benefits, BlocPower unlocks energy efficiency retrofits for low income communities

Retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and better at withstanding climate change induced extreme weather is going to be a big, multi-billion dollar business. But it’s one that’s been hard for low-income communities to tap, thanks to obstacles ranging faulty incentive structures to an inability to adequately plan for which upgrades will be most effective in which buildings.

Enter BlocPower, a New York-based startup founded by a longtime advocate for energy efficiency and the job creation that comes with it, which has a novel solution for identifying, developing and profiting off of building upgrades in low income communities — all while supporting high-paying jobs for workers in the communities the company hopes to serve.

The company also has managed to raise $63 million in equity and debt financing to support its mission. That money is split between an $8 million investment from some of the country’s top venture firms and a $55 million debt facility structured in part by Goldman Sachs to finance the redevelopment projects that BlocPower is creating.

These capital commitments aren’t charity. Government dollars are coming for the industry and private companies from healthcare providers, to utility companies, to real estate developers and property managers all have a vested interest in seeing this market succeed.

There’s going to be over $1 billion carved out for weatherization and building upgrades in the stimulus package that’s still making its way through Congress

For BlocPower’s founder, Donnel Baird, the issue of seeing buildings revitalized and good high-paying jobs coming into local communities isn’t academic. Baird was born in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood and witnessed firsthand the violence and joblessness that was ripping the fabric of that rich and vibrant community apart during the crack epidemic and economic decline of the 1980s and early 90s.

Seeing that violence firsthand, including a shooting on his way to school, instilled in Baird a desire to “create jobs for disconnected Black and brown people” so they would never feel the hopelessness and lack of opportunity that fosters cycles of violence.

Some time after the shooting, Baird’s family relocated from Brooklyn to Stone Mountain, Georgia, and after graduating from Duke University, Baird became a climate activist and community organizer, with a focus on green jobs. That led to a role in the presidential campaign for Barack Obama and an offer to work in Washington on Obama’s staff.

Baird declined the opportunity, but did take on a role reaching out to communities and unions to help implement the first stimulus package that Obama and Biden put together to promote green jobs.

And it was while watching the benefits of that stimulus collapse under the weight of a fragmented building industry that Baird came up with the idea for BlocPower.

“It was all about the implementation challenges that we ran into,” Baird said. “If you have ten buildings on a block in Oakland and they were all built by the same developer at the same time. If you rebuild those buildings and you retrofit all of those buildings, in five of those buildings you’re going to trap carbon monoxide in and kill everybody and in the other five buildings you’re going to have a reduction in emissions and energy savings.”

Before conducting any retrofits to capture energy savings (and health savings, but more on that later), Baird says developers need to figure out the potential for asbestos contamination in the building; understand the current heating, ventilation, and cooling systems that the building uses; and get an assessment of what actually needs to be done.

That’s the core problem that Baird says BlocPower solves. The company has developed software to analyze a building’s construction by creating a virtual twin based on blueprints and public records. Using that digital twin the company can identify what upgrades a building needs. Then the company taps lines of credit to work with building owners to manage the retrofits and capture the value of the energy savings and carbon offsets associated with the building upgrades.

For BlocPower to work, the financing piece is just as important as the software. Without getting banks to sign off on loans to make the upgrades, all of those dollars from the federal government remain locked up. “That’s why the $7 billion earmarked for investment in green buildings did not work,” Baird said. “At BlocPower our view is that we could build software to simulate using government records… we could simulate enough about the mechanicals, electrical, and plumbing across buildings in NYC so that we could avoid that cost.”

Along with co-founder Morris Cox, Baird built BlocPower while at Columbia University’s business school so that he could solve the technical problems and overcome the hurdles for community financing of renewable retrofit projects.

Right before his graduation, in 2014, the company had applied for a contract to do energy efficiency retrofits and was set to receive financing from the Department of Energy. The finalists had to go down to the White House and pitch the President. That pitch was scheduled for the same day as a key final exam for one of Baird’s Columbia classes, which the professor said was mandatory. Baird skipped the test and won the pitch, but failed the class.

After that it was off to Silicon Valley to pitch the business. Baird met with 200 or more investors who rejected his pitch. Many of these investors had been burned in the first cleantech bubble or had witnessed the fiery conflagrations that engulfed firms that did back cleantech businesses and swore they’d never make the same mistakes.

That was the initial position at Andreessen Horowitz when Baird pitched them, he said. “When I went to Andreessen Horowitz, they said ‘Our policy is no cleantech whatsoever. You need to figure out how software is going to eat up this energy efficiency market’,” Baird recalled.

Working with Mitch Kapor, an investor and advisor, Baird worked on the pitch and got Kapor to talk to Ben Horowitz. Both men agreed to invest and BlocPower was off to the races.

The company has completed retrofits in over 1,000 buildings since its launch, Baird said, mainly to prove out its thesis. Now, with the revolving credit facility in hand, BlocPower can take bigger bites out of the market. That includes a contract with utility companies in New York that will pay $30 million if the company can complete its retrofits and verify the energy savings from that work.

There are also early projects underway in Oakland and Chicago, Baird said.

Building retrofits do more than just provide energy savings, as Goldman Sachs managing director Margaret Anadu noted in a statement.

“BlocPower is proving that it is possible to have commercial solutions that improve public health in underserved communities, create quality jobs and lower carbon emissions,” Anadu said. “We are so proud to have supported Donnel and his team…through both equity and debt capital to further expand their reach.”

These benefits also have potential additional revenue streams associated with them that BlocPower can also capture, according to investor and director, Mitch Kapor.

“There are significant linkages that are known between buildings and pollution that are a public health issue. In a number of geographies community hospitals are under a mandate to improve health outcomes and BlocPower can get paid from health outcomes associated with the reduction in carbon. That could be a new revenue stream and a financing mechanism,” Kapor said. “There’s a lot of work to be done in essentially taking the value creation engine they have and figuring out where to bring it and which other engines they need to have to have the maximum social impact.”

Social impact is something that both Kapor and Baird talk about extensively and Baird sees the creation of green jobs as an engine for social justice — and one that can reunite a lot of working class voters whose alliances were fractured by the previous administration. Baird also believes that putting people to work is the best argument for climate change policies that have met with resistance among many union workers.

“We will not be able to pass shit unless workers and people of color are on board to force the U.S. senate to pass climate change policy,” Baird said. “We have to pass the legislation that’s going to facilitate green infrastructure in a massive way.”

He pointed to the project in Oakland as an example of how climate policies can create jobs and incentivize political action.

“In Oakland we’re doing a pilot project in 12 low income buildings in oakland. I sent them $20K to train these workers from local people of color in Oakland… they are being put to work in Oakland,” Baird said. “That’s the model for how this gets built. So now we need them to call Chuck Shumer to push him to the left on green building legislation.” 


Racial disparity in Chicago cops’ use of force laid bare in new data

Analysis of a trove of data extracted from the Chicago Police Department has revealed major differences between how black and white officers, as well as male and female ones, actually enforce the law. This rare apples-to-apples comparison supports the idea that improving diversity in law enforcement may also improve the quality of policing.

Historically hard data from police departments has been extremely hard to come by, for a variety of reasons. As the authors put it in the paper:

Rigorous evaluation of the effects of police diversity has been stymied by a lack of sufficiently fine-grained data on officer deployment and behavior that makes it difficult or impossible to ensure that officers being compared are facing common circumstances while on duty.

…At present, a patchwork of nonstandard record-keeping and disclosure practices across roughly 18,000 U.S. police agencies has severely impeded broader policy evaluation.

This study by B.A. Ba et al., however, is based on highly detailed CPD records resulting from requests made to the department over a period of three years. It’s a collaboration between researchers from UC Irvine, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Columbia, and was published today in Science (access is free).

The records include millions of shifts and patrols from 2012 through 2015, which the team carefully sorted and pruned until it had a set that would allow the kind of analysis they hoped to do: comparing police work that is similar in all respects except the demographics of the officers doing it.

If on a Monday in March, in the same district at the same time of day, no serious differences could be found between Black officers and white officers, then race could be tentatively ruled out as a major contributor to how police do their work. On the other hand, if there were serious differences found, then that might indicate — as a topic for further study — the possibility of systemic bias of some kind.

As you might expect, the analysis found that there are indeed serious differences that, having isolated all the other variables, only correlate with the race of the officer. This may seem obvious to some and controversial to others, but the point of this work is not to assume or confirm assumptions, but to show plainly with data that there are disparities associated with race that need investigation and explanation.

Some of the specific findings can be summarized as follows:

  • Minority officers (black and Hispanic, self-identified) “receive vastly different patrol assignments,” something that had to be controlled for in order to provide effective comparisons for the other findings.
  • Black officers use force 35 percent less than white officers on average, with most of the difference coming from force used against black civilians.
  • Black officers perform far fewer “discretionary stops” for “suspicious behavior.”
  • Hispanic officers showed similar, but smaller reductions.
  • Female officers use force considerably less often than male ones, again especially when it comes to black civilians.
  • Much of the disparity in stops, arrests, and use of force results from differences in pursuing low-level offenses, especially in majority-black neighborhoods.

The data show (as a sort of inverse image of the above list) that white male officers stop, arrest, and use force more often, especially on people of color, and frequently as a result of minor crimes or “discretionary stops” with vague justifications.

This diagram shows a sampling of the collected data, indicating stops, arrests, and uses of force by officers on a map of the Wentworth District of Chicago.

The researchers are careful to point out that as conclusive as the patterns may appear to be, it’s important to understand that there is no causal mechanism studied or suggested. In fact they expressly point out that the data could be interpreted in two directions:

One explanation for these disparities centers on racial bias, i.e., white officers are more likely than Black officers to harass Black civilians. Technically, it is also possible that Black officers respond more leniently when observing crimes in progress.

More study is required, but they point out that one explanation — leniency by Black officers on minor offenses — has very little effect on public safety (violent crimes are addressed largely the same regardless of race and gender). The other — systemic racism — is significantly more harmful. Though they are “observationally equivalent” in the context of this data specifically, they are not equivalent in consequence. (Nor in likelihood — nor are they entirely incompatible with each other.)

In a valuable commentary on the paper and its implications, Yale’s Philip Atiba Goff notes that its findings are rich in implications that we ignore at our peril:

The magnitude of the differences provides strong evidence that — at least in some cities — the number of officers who identify with vulnerable groups can matter quite a bit in predicting police behavior. Although this does not settle the matter, the work stands alone in its ability to make apples-to-apples comparisons across officers – regardless of how many may be bad apples.

Given that Ba et al. find negligible demographic differences in officers’ responses to community violence, such a large difference in discretionary stops compels a reader to ask: Are any of those excess stops by white officers necessary? Should a department even be making them, given the demonstrated risk for abuse so evident in vulnerable communities?

Are any of those excess use of force incidents by white officers necessary? And if the excess force is not necessary for public safety, why does the department target Black communities for so much physical coercion? These questions are difficult to answer outside a broader engagement with the purpose of policing — and its limitations.

In other words, while it may require further study to get at the core of these issues, police departments may look at them and find that their resources are not necessarily being used to best effect. Indeed they may have to face the possibility — if only to refute it — that much of what officers do has little, no, or even negative value to the community. As Goff concludes:

With violence trending downward the past three decades, mostly troubling small geographic areas, and possibly occupying a small portion of police activity, what should the role of police be? Failing to take seriously the possibility that the answer should be “much less” may end up frustrating both researchers and a public that has been asking the question for far longer than most scientists.

This revealing study was only possible because the authors and legal authorities in Chicago compelled the police there to release this data. As noted above it can be difficult, if it is even possible, to collect large-scale data from any department, let alone from many departments for analysis at a national scale. The authors freely admit that their findings, in their specificity to Chicago, may not apply equally in other cities.

But that’s meant to be a call to action; if when finally given access to real data, researchers find problems of this magnitude, every department in the country should be weighing the benefits and risks of continued obfuscation with those of openness and collaboration.

Twitter, Reddit challenge US rules forcing visa applicants to disclose their social media handles

Twitter and Reddit have filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit challenging a U.S. government rule change compelling visa applicants to disclose their social media handles.

The lawsuit, brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice, and law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, seeks to undo both the State Department’s requirement that visa applicants must disclose their social media handles prior to obtaining a U.S. visa, as well as related rules over the retention and dissemination of those records.

Last year, the State Department began asking visa applicants for their current and former social media usernames, a move that affects millions non-citizens applying to travel to the United States each year. The rule change was part of the Trump administration’s effort to expand its “enhanced” screening protocols. At the time, it was reported that the information would be used if the State Department determines that “such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.”

In a filing supporting the lawsuit, both Twitter and Reddit said the social media policies “unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech” and that the rules violate the First Amendment rights “to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

Twitter and Reddit, which collectively have more than 560 million users, said their users — many of which don’t use their real names on their platforms — are forced to “surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States,” which “violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

“Twitter and Reddit vigorously guard the right to speak anonymously for people on their platforms, and anonymous individuals correspondingly communicate on these platforms with the expectation that their identities will not be revealed without a specific showing of compelling need,” the brief said.

“That expectation allows the free exchange of ideas to flourish on these platforms.”

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s policy chief for the Americas, said the social media rule “infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues.” Reddit’s general counsel Ben Lee called the rule a “intrusive overreach” by the government.

It’s not known how many, if any, visa applicants have been denied a visa because of their social media content. But since the social media rule went into effect, cases emerged of approved visa holders denied entry to the U.S. for other people’s social media postings. Ismail Ajjawi, a then 17-year-old freshman at Harvard University, was turned away at Boston Logan International Airport after U.S. border officials searched his phone after taking issue with social media postings of Ajjawi’s friends — and not his own.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch at the time that Ajjawi’s case was not isolated. A week later, TechCrunch learned of another man who was denied entry to the U.S. because of a WhatsApp message sent by a distant acquaintance.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately comment on news of the amicus brief.

Coursedog lands $4.2 million to make class scheduling smarter

Two years ago, dormmates Justin Wenig and Nicholas Diao struggled to get into a popular computer science class at Columbia University . The duo eventually got into that class, but after the initial frustration around class scheduling, they decided “it was an obvious problem for a computer to solve.”

Wenig and Diao are the founders of Coursedog, a software startup that wants to create an operating system for universities to better schedule classes, professors and sections based on demand and interest. “Think of it,” Wenig said, “as a Superhuman for class scheduling systems.”

Today, Coursedog announced it has raised $4.2 million from a crop of investors, including First Round’s Josh Kopelman. The company did not disclose any other investors, and there were no board seats taken on during the financing round. The Y Combinator graduate’s total known venture capital funding is now $5.7 million. Investors in the company include FoundersX Venture, EFund and Jinal Jhaveri, the former CEO of SchoolMint, a school enrollment startup.

The funding will be used to build out Coursedog’s product line on projecting course demand, the correct number of seats a school should offer per course and student success.

“A lot of people think higher [education] is a slow institution, but institutions are really thinking about how to promote student success,” Wenig said in an interview with TechCrunch. But instead of adopting any technology, universities are careful about sharing protected data, he continued.

Competition-wise, Wenig said that Blackboard, a learning management startup, continues to be one of the two “big software tools within universities.” Coursedog sits on top of the other software tool: the student information system, used by administrators that need to plan student schedules.

After Wenig and Diao cold-called hundreds of colleges, Columbia Law School was the first contract signed. Since then, the startup has landed deals with more than 60 colleges and universities of all sizes.

Coursedog’s clientele fits a range. The smallest client, per Wenig, is the Laguna School of Art and Design, which has roughly 600 students. Wenig also noted they cater to a mix of public and private schools, with public schools often “being the most innovative.”

“A lot of states offer incentive-based funding,” Wenig said. “In Utah, the amount of funds you might get from the state as a public institution is directly proportional to how well you’re using your space on campus.” He claims that Coursedog helps improve graduation rates by getting more students into the right classes.

“Today, we are just building apps on top of the Student Information System to help schools with scheduling, curriculum planning and catalog publishing and are slowly eating away functionality that schools would normally be doing with spreadsheets and native to the SIS,” he noted.

Coursedog plans to scale to 100 more universities in the next year, and will use the new funding to help “grow up” its production.

Kenshō Healthcare publicly launches its “antithesis of Goop”

Last year, when co-founders Danny Steiner and Krista Berlincourt first debuted Kenshō Health, their directory and information service for holistic medicine, Berlincourt called it “the antithesis of Goop”.

While Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand startup serves up a heady mix of unverified pseudo-scientific claims alongside long-standing holistic practices, Steiner and Berlincourt focused on the verified and verifiable claims coming out of the medical community.

The two founders and their Los Angeles-based team amassed a group of healthcare providers hailing from Stanford University,  Harvard University, Columbia University  and others — all with a concentration on accreditation. 

Now the service is publicly available and serving up the latest information on holistic medicine — powered by a partnership with the academic publisher Wiley — and a verified list of local practitioners for consumers seeking treatments.

We have six points of verification,” says Steiner. “We look at accreditation, experience, peer reviews, customer reviews, we speak to the providers themselves to make sure we’re on the same page of what we’re trying to provide and for premiere providers we do a background check.”

That vetting has gone a long way toward providing what the company’s founders say are tens of thousands of beta users with a search and discovery tool for information on holistic health and wellness and direct access to holistic health practitioners. 

While “wellness” is a nebulous term often representing therapies with questionable clinical value, it’s a huge business in the U.S. and around the world. Some estimates from industry organizations like the Global Wellness Institute put the dollar value of the industry at roughly $4.2 trillion, encompassing everything from medical tourism to personalized and complementary medicine.

The complementary medicine component alone is a $360 billion market opportunity, according to the GWI, and it’s there that Berlincourt and Steiner are focusing their attention.

Kenshō Health co-founders Danny Steiner and Krista Berlincourt

“We wanted to create something that acted at the right point of intervention,” says Berlincourt, a former public relations professional who launched the business after turning to holistic medicine to treat her chronic adrenal failure. “So we curated a provider network and made [complementary medicine] easy to understand through research.”

The company encourages providers on its platform to offer their services on a sliding scale to improve accessibility and ensure that “this isn’t only for the wealthy elite,” says Berlincourt.

While the service is currently free, both Berlincourt and Steiner say there are obvious paths to making money that the company will explore after it builds out a solid base of users. Various potential revenue streams involve selling treatment or instructional packages or charging for listings on the site.

Kenshō’s thesis on a broader market embracing the principles of holistic medicine seems to be supported by recent moves from the nation’s largest public healthcare providers. For the first time, Medicare and Medicaid are now officially covering acupuncture as a verified treatment option for certain conditions, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last week.

There’s also a broader recognition of the role that lifestyle and general health and fitness play in most illnesses, says Berlincourt.

“87 percent of deaths are related to lifestyle related disease according to the CDC,” she says. “And 75% of what we’re spending on healthcare is on the conditions associated with these chronic diseases. We don’t treat the root cause and people don’t know that there are other options.”

Now, with the public launch and financial support for investors like CrossCut Ventures, Female Founders Fund and Evolve Ventures, the company is hoping to create the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” for wellness providers, according to Berlincourt.

“Conventional medicine wants to play with holistic medicine, but there’s a lack of connection. Our goal is to provide that connection.”

Max Q: Blue Origin launches a New Shepard and Rocket Lab officially opens U.S. launch site

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space from TechCrunch. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This is it – the very first edition of Max Q: TechCrunch’s space newsletter. Despite approaching the end of the year, it’s been a really busy week in the space industry, too. Between launches real and metaphorical, there’s plenty of activity to catch up on. And if you’ve got any space stuff you want to share for future newsletters, feel free to email me at darrell@techcrunch.com or let me know on Twitter @etherington.

Space enters a bit of a frenzy time at year’s end as a lot of other areas in tech are slowing down – especially over the past few years, as a number of companies push to re-ignite crewed spaceflight in the U.S. It’s common for many of these companies, and NASA itself, to set ambitious, optimistic timelines, and that often also means trying to fit in as much as possible before the year is out to make good on at least some of those promises.

Blue Origin launches and lands 12th New Shepard

Blue Origin launched its 12th New Shepard sub-orbital spacecraft this week, on its second try after bad weather scrubbed the first attempt. The launch was the sixth for the booster stage rocket used on the mission, and it landed perfectly meaning it could potentially serve even more launches in future.

Onboard were experimental and research payloads from Columbia University and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as well as student postcards and art projects from a collaborative contest launched with the band OK Go. This mission is also noteworthy because it’s yet another step in Blue Origin’s progress towards qualifying New Shepard for human flight, after which it’ll start to shuttle tourists to space for a quick, but unbeatable, view.

Rocket Lab’s U.S. launch site is officially open

Rocket Lab, one of few launch startups that’s actually flying payloads to space, has officially opened its second launch pad – this one in the U.S. The company’s original launch site, which will continue to fly missions, is in New Zealand, but its new launch facility on Wallops Island in Virginia will open the doors for a key new customers, the U.S. Air Force. The first launch from this site, designed LC-2, should happen sometime in the first half of next year.

Kepler Communications books SpaceX rideshare missions

Small satellite startup Kepler Communications has booked two batches of nanosatellite launches on board SpaceX’s new rideshare missions. SpaceX announced earlier this year that it would be doing this as a new offering, allowing companies with smaller payloads to book space on a ride that will take up a bunch at once. It’s perfect for startups like Kepler, who wouldn’t be the primary customer on any SpaceX mission, and who might not be able to find a large lead partner to foot the majority of the bill for a mission that works on their schedule.

Near Space Labs uses stratospheric satellites to do what orbital ones can’t

A new startup is looking to produce high-resolution, on-demand and timely imaging for various customers and applications, and it’s using its own custom satellites hat are carried by weather balloons to make it happen. Advantages of taking this approach include cost, as well as access and the ability to capture very detailed pictures without having to use massively expensive and bulky optics, as you would from space.

Northrop Grumman booked a customer for its first OmegA rocket flight

Northrop Grumman’s in-development OmegA launch craft will be able to carry large payloads, and it’ll be doing that mostly on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. defence agencies. But the rocket will first need to qualify to get USAF clearance to operate, and it’s going to be using its first ever launch in pursuit of said qualification to also ferry payloads for paying customers. Two birds, one stone, as they say.

What starfighters would look like if Porsche was in the Star Wars universe

There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out this week, and it’ll definitely feature new ships and other fancy sci-fi gadgets, if previous films are any indication. One you won’t see in the movie is this starfighter, which was designed in collaboration with both Porsche and Lucasfilm . The ship has a distinctive Star Wars vibe, to be sure – but Porsche says it’s also got elements inspired by the 911 and Taycan. Still definitely wouldn’t look out of place berthed next to the Millennium Falcon.

What to watch out for this week

SpaceX has a launch coming up on Monday, and the crucial Boeing/NASA commercial crew capsule test launch is set for Friday, December 20. That launch will be the uncrewed version of the first-ever commercial crew launch for Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, and if all goes well, that will mean we’re closer than ever for U.S. astronauts launching once again from U.S. soil aboard an American launch vehicle.

Top Israeli VC talks cybersecurity, diversity and ‘no go’ investments

It’s no secret that Israel is second only to the U.S. for its leading cybersecurity acumen, talent, startups and successful exits.

Israel is a powerhouse in both offensive and defensive cyber operations, with cybersecurity giants CyberArk, Check Point, Radware, and Illusive Networks all founded in the country in recent years. For more than two decades behind the scenes and powering some of the country’s largest cybersecurity startups was Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), a major venture capital firm in the region with more than $1.4 billion raised to date.

Now, the firm is pushing further into the early stage cybersecurity space. With a $220 million fund dedicated to early stage and pre-seed companies, the venture capital firm has expanded to New York.

Erel Margalit, JVP’s founder and executive chairman, spoke to Extra Crunch about why New York is a prime location for early-stage cybersecurity startups and how Israel became an incubator for some of the world’s biggest cybersecurity companies.

We also discussed why diversity is critical to his firm, how he separates fact from fiction in the security world, ethical investing, and which kinds of companies he would never invest in.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

TechCrunch: Tell me a little about your firm and your current work on early-stage investments.

Erel Margalit: I established JVP 25 years ago. A lot of what we were doing in the beginning was taking defense-related technologies, like wireless and fiber optics and large data systems, and transforming them through the communications world into the commercial world. Now we have 14 companies — some of which have been very successful. We’re now at a different stage where we’ve partnered with New York City to create the biggest hub in the city for the next generation of companies — the sorts that are scaling up with solutions that are not necessarily the big solution today,

Israel as a cybersecurity powerhouse

You’ve seen three or four really successful exits in the last few years from former startups you’ve helped to build out. What does the formula look like that results in these successful exits?

One of the things that we’re trying to do with second-generation entrepreneurs is we’re saying, instead of building a company to be sold for $250 million, why don’t we build a sales organization that would reach $250 million in a few years and instead build a very significant robust sales and marketing organization?

Israel has big ideas, but we’re small country. That’s why North America — especially the U.S. — is a key first go-to market. But it’s not always easy to get it right when you’re trying to get into the U.S. and scale in a big way. However, if you are successful, a lot of Israeli companies are also able to sell into European countries and Asian countries. And so what you get is what I call a “mini-multinational,” which is a small organization that’s able to get its first customers in a bunch of places around the world. So — go forward, and then build a sales and marketing organization that is just as strong as your research and your development organization.

Israel has a conscripted military — one that invests heavily in both cybersecurity and offensive cyber capabilities. That’s one way Israel got a considerable amount of cyber talent in one place. But what else contributes to Israel’s ability to create so many strong cybersecurity startups?

Israel needs to be as strong as the seven countries around it. And the only way to do it was through technology. Cybersecurity today is one of the main means of technologically understanding what’s going on. There are state-backed cyberattacks happening all the time — they’re attacking utilities, they’re attacking the banks, but what’s going on now is they’re also attacking democracy and the individual’s rights for something that’s becoming a national issue. The British didn’t have a fair election on Brexit. The same thing happened in the United States.

I think that a lot of us understand that from just protecting large organizations and countries. Now we’re moving to protecting individual democracies and our free way of living. Everything is online. Everything now is penetrable. And if you don’t have the next-generation of strategies, you’re not going to not going to be able to continue to operate.

On the New York hub

The cybersecurity hub in New York clearly means a lot to you. Why did you choose to build a hub in New York and not somewhere else in North America?