Microsoft will pay hourly workers regular wages even if their hours are reduced because of COVID-19 concerns

As more COVID-19 cases are identified in the United States, some companies are asking employees to work from home if possible. But that impacts the jobs of people who work in on-site operations, including many who are paid by the hour. Today Microsoft said that it will continue paying all vendor hourly service providers in Puget Sound and Northern California their usual wage, even if their work hour are reduced.

The announcement specifically refers to Microsoft workers in the Puget Sound region and Northern California, but the company said it will “[explore] how to best move forward in a similar way in other parts of the country and the world that are impacted by COVID-19.”

In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote that employees in those regions who can work from home have been asked to do so.

“As a result, we have reduced need in those regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs,” he said. “We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.”

Smith added, “While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making pubic health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and social impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have asked employees in places where COVID-19 cases have been identified to work from home, like Washington state and California, including Google, Lyft and Square. Concerns about the COVID-19 have also led to the cancellations of major events, like Mobile World Congress and Google’s I/O developer conference.

Google recommends Washington State employees work from home, citing coronavirus risk

Google this week issued a recommendation for all Washington State employees to work remotely, citing growing fears around the spread of COVID-19. A spokesperson confirmed the recommendation in an email with TechCrunch. The move comes after a consultation with local health officials.

The software giant has not closed the offices outright, nor is it planning to make an official statement regarding the recommendation, but the news certainly points to broader trend of serious precautions around the novel coronavirus outbreak. The move follows a similar decision by Lyft, which sent home employees in its San Francisco office.

Google maintains a number of different offices throughout the state. Washington has become a major concentration for the spread of the virus in the U.S. Seventy cases have been reported, resulting in 10 deaths. The majority have been in King County, which includes both Seattle and Kirkland — both homes to Google offices.

The decision seems likely to be the first of many, as COVID-19 continues to spread to other major cities that serve as technology hubs. Earlier this week, the company announced that it was closing down the in-person element of its developer conference, I/O, over similar concerns. I/O is only one of several tech conferences that have been sidetracked by the disease, beginning with Mobile World Congress last month.

Lyft is the latest tech company to send employees home over coronavirus

Ridesharing company Lyft has advised its San Francisco employees to go home after learning one staff member was in contact with someone exposed to coronavirus, or COVID-19. The team member has not exhibited any symptoms and is in touch with medical professionals, Lyft spokesperson Alexandra LaManna told TechCrunch.

“We are basing every step of our response process on CDC guidance, and out of an abundance of caution are encouraging our San Francisco headquarters employees to work from home for the remainder of this week,” Lyft shared in a statement. 

LaManna also said that Lyft HQ will be having an “enhanced cleaning process overnight.” 

The response is another in a slew of tech companies sending employees home to limit the chance of coronavirus spreading among staff. Earlier this week, Twitter encouraged all staff members to work from home. Amazon, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Google also have advised some staff to work remotely based on fears of exposure. 

The ripple effect of COVID-19 on tech doesn’t stop at employees. A number of high-profile conferences have been canceled, including Facebook’s F8 conference  and Google’s physical part of Cloud Next. SXSW and Y Combinator Demo Day have not yet disclosed whether or not their independent conferences, which garner thousands of people, will stay on.

Coronavirus has also started to impact the market, with Microsoft citing the outbreak as the reason for having supply-chain issues and impact earnings.

Kinnos, which makes colorizes disinfectant to ensure surfaces are covered, just landed $6 million in funding

Kinnos, a New York-based startup, was founded six years ago, but what the five-person company produces is suddenly top of mind — and a new round of funding reflects as much.

To wit, Kinnos, which makes additives that causes disinfectants to turn blue long enough to ensure a surface has actually been covered, just closed on $6 million in funding, a major chunk of which came from Prolog Ventures, though it was joined by Allston Venture Fund, Partnership Fund for New York City, Golden Seeds, MEDA Angels, and numerous individual investors.

We talked with cofounder and CEO Jason King, who started the company while still a biomedical engineering student at Columbia University, this morning about the impact of the coronavirus on his business, possible competition from the likes of Clorox, and whether Kinnos, which currently works mostly with hospital systems, is thinking about a consumer offering, too. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: Why start this company?

JK: My cofounders, Catherine and Kevin, and myself, were all undergrads at Columbia University in our junior year, and this was October 2014 during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Columbia had this design challenge to help the healthcare workers there and they actually brought nurses and doctors in from the field. And one of the biggest problems they mentioned, over and over again was that ineffective decontamination and human errors were literally killing them. If only there was some way they could see what they were doing. And that’s really how we came up with idea of colorize disinfection.

The disinfectants that people are using — bleach, alcohol — is transparent. So when you apply to the surface. It’s actually quite difficult to make sure you’ve covered everything. A lot of the disinfectants also have a contact time, which is the time it needs to sit on the surface to inactivate the pathogens. If you touch a wet spot too early or you wipe it off too early, the pathogen can still be active and that’s how infections can also spread.

TC: How many products are you selling?

JK: Two. The first one is called Highlight powder; it’s a patented color additive platform that’s meant to be combined with existing disinfectants that hospitals and healthcare settings are already using, so we’re not competing or replacing these disinfectants but rather combining our products with them so that they can be used more effectively. Highlight is a powder that you dissolve into bulk liquid solutions of bleach and colorized blue, so when you apply it to a surface you [be sure you] don’t miss a spot and the color will actually then fade from blue to colorless after a few minutes. It was really designed to target epidemic outbreaks, so we’ve sold to humanitarian organizations that have deployed the product in Liberia and Guinea, Haiti, DR Congo and Uganda, and we recently had a couple shipments go to China for the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Our second product, Highlight wipes, is really designed more for hospitals here in the US, and the reason being that a lot of hospitals tend to use wipes and not sprays. You don’t see a lot of people hosing down patient rooms. And so the way that technology works it’s actually a physical little device that attaches on top of existing white canisters like a bucket of bleach wipes. We have our lids go on top of that, and as the wipes get fed through our lid, they’ll get impregnated with our Highlight color chemistry, then you have this colorized wipe that you can use to wipe down the bedside tables, bedrails, bathrooms, countertops and so on.

TC: Did you have have to go through myriad tests to ensure the product was safe in a healthcare setting?

JK: With any product being used in a medical or healthcare setting, you do a very rigorous battery of tests to make sure that you know it’s safe and effective, especially when lives are on the line, so we did have to do a lot of third-party testing to make sure that adding our highlight additive to the disinfectants wouldn’t reduce the potency of the disinfectant itself.

TC: How does the thoroughness of cleaning translate into savings for your customers?

JK: It’s not a direct correlation [to dollars] but studies have shown that about 50% of surfaces and healthcare settings are missed or not cleaned properly, and that if you are able to improve thoroughness of cleaning and cleaning techniques, you can reduce infections by up to 80%. At hospitals right now, it’s a $45 billion annual problem in terms of medical costs, reimbursement penalties, and so on. So if you are able to effectively reduce 80% of infections, that’s on the scale of billions of dollars saved.

TC: It’s a huge market. Are you thinking about creating a consumer-facing product, as well?

JK: Definitely. We’re starting with hospitals right now because this is a big problem that happens every day. Around one out of every 25 people who stay in a hospital will actually get an infection from the hospital — which is pretty ironic considering that, you know, you go to hospital to get care and treatment, not to become more sick. Once we have established a foothold in the hospital market, the next most obvious use case would be consumer. Especially with the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, prevention and effective hygiene is kind of top of mind for everyone.

TC: This seems like a no-brainer, your product. Why aren’t companies like Clorox selling the same thing?

JK: I think that it’s definitely been on their radar. The challenge is that it’s very difficult to get a color to last in a container of disinfectant at the point of manufacture and to get it to fade on the surface at point of use, especially within a certain amount of time.

The way that we got around that is by creating a point-of-use additive, so, for example for our wipes device, only as the wipe goes through our lid, right before you use, does it get impregnated with the chemistry. That way we have much more control over how the color is dispensed, the intensity of the color, and the color fading time.

TC: What about with the other product, into which the additive is added directly?

JK: We’re very proud to say that when you add our powder to a bucket of bleach, for example, it’ll last in the bucket for five hours. And then when you use on a surface, it’ll fade in about three minutes. Getting that separation of time was actually really, really hard.

Facebook fact-check feud erupts over Trump virus “hoax”

Who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Did Trump call coronavirus the Democrat’s “new hoax”?

Those the big questions emerging from a controversial “false” label applied to Politico and NBC News stories by right-wing publisher The Daily Caller. Its Check Your Fact division is a Facebook fact-checking partner, giving it the power to flag links on the social network as false, demoting their ranking in the News Feed as well as the visibility of the entire outlet that posted it.

Critics railed against Facebook’s decision to admit The Daily Caller to the fact-checking program last April due to its history of publishing widely debunked articles. Now some believe their fears of politically biased fact-checks are coming true.

Image via Judd Legum

This week, Check Your Fact rated two stories as false. “Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax’ from Politico, and “Trump calls coronavirus Democrats’ ‘new hoax'” from NBC News, as highlighted by Popular Information’s Judd Legum. The fact-check explanation states that “Trump actually described complaints about his handling of the virus threat as a “hoax”.

Trump had said at a rally that (emphasis ours):

Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs . . . They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning, they lost, it’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We’re 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that . . . we’ve lost nobody, and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.

It’s hard to tell exactly what Trump means here. He could be calling coronavirus a hoax, concerns about its severity a hoax, or Democrats’ criticism of his response a hoax. Reputable fact-checking institution Snopes rated the claim that Trump called coronavirus a hoax as a mixture of true and false, noting “Despite creating some confusion with his remarks, Trump did not call the coronavirus itself a hoax.”

Image via Judd Legum

Perhaps Politico and NBC News’ headlines went too far, or perhaps the headlines fairly describe Trump’s characterization of the situation.

But the bigger concern is how Facebook has designed its fact-checking system to prevent other fact-checking partners from auditing the decision of The Daily Caller.

When asked about this, Facebook deflected responsibility, implying that audit process wouldn’t be necessary because all of its fact-checking partners have been certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. This group publishes ethics guidelines that include an accuracy standard that requires checkers “maintain high standards of reporting, writing, and editing in order to produce work that is as error-free as possible.” Checkers are also supposed to follow criteria for determining story accuracy, and can apply  mid-point labels like “Partly False” or “False Headline” which The Daily Caller didn’t use here.

Facebook tells me that because it doesn’t think it’s appropriate for it to be the arbiter of truth, it relies on the IFCN to set guidelines. It also noted that there’s an appeals process where publishers can reach out to directly to a fact-checker to dispute a rating. But when I followed up, Facebook clarified that publishers can only appeal the fact-checker that labeled them, and can’t appeal to other fact-checkers for a second decision or audit of the original label.

fb arbiter of truth

That leaves very little room for controversial or inaccurate labels to be rolled back. A fact-checker would have to be formally rejected by the IFCN for violating its guidelines to lose its status as a Facebook partner.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be the arbiter of truth, it should still establish a process for a quorum of its fact-checking partners to play that role. If consensus amongst other partners is that a label was in accurate and a story might instead warrant a lesser label or none at all, that new decision should be applied. Otherwise, mistakes or malicious bias from a single fact-checker could suppress the work of entire news outlets and deprive the public of the truth.

Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from Apri 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they got canceled, too.

Stocks partially reverse last week’s slide in early-morning trading

Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq have reversed course after a week of losses. The Dow was up 570.50 points to 25,979.86 and the Nasdaq was up 112.96 to 8680.33 near midday trading.

The two major bellwethers of investor sentiment had a rough week last week as the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and the response from governments that it engendered cut into supply chains and corporate earnings. Over the weekend news from the United States regarding the disease wasn’t winsome, making the market moves stronger than they might otherwise appear.

Microsoft was one of several companies which issued guidance indicating that their financial results would be affected by the shutdown of Chinese manufacturers. Indeed, supply chains for industries from pharmaceuticals to technology are going to see production curtailed by a lack of basic components.

Equally as concerning for the markets was the spread of the virus beyond China to nearly every continent. Brazil, Italy, Nigeria, and the U.S. all reported new cases last week and the U.S. reported the first two deaths attributed to the illness.

Now, less than a week after the worst single-day drop by the Dow in its history, both markets are looking up. This could clear the air for the IPOs currently on the sidelines (DoorDash, Airbnb, Asana, and Procore, more here), and help generate more room for other companies to prep their own debuts.

However, a partial day’s gains is more stabilization than recovery. A welcome respite from a terrible week is good, but nothing like what is needed to bolster confidence. And, with more testing kits for COVID-19 going out around the country, the United States is far from out of the woods. But, hey, we covered the downs, so let’s talk about the recoveries, too.

Hell, even bitcoin is up 3% in the last 24 hours.

Public markets fall yet again as venture deal counts appear to slip

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

All around, this has been a tough week. The coronavirus is spreading and worry is running high as infections mount. In economic terms, global markets were repeated declines last night (domestic results here), and the U.S. indices are off again this morning.

There’s been plenty of bad news to read, even in our private market, startup-focused world. Yesterday the impact of COVID-19 on earnings became more apparent, bringing what has, for months, been an external concern to domestic technology companies. The problems are now. The past week’s market collapse into correction territory hasn’t helped,.

But the story so far has largely been public-market focused and with good reason: You can see the public markets contract in real-time. It’s far harder to see into the shifting dynamics of the private market. Today, however, we are going to try, all the same, by digging into some preliminary venture capital data.

I realize that the last few days have been awful. So, at the end of this piece, I’ve excerpted a quote from a recent interview I held with the CEO of Smartsheet, Mark Mader, about tech cycles, downturns, and getting through tough times. It’s perhaps useful today as the downward trend appears to continue.

Let’s start with a brief reminder of how elevated stock prices remain and what that means for tech multiples, and then look at early February VC results from the U.S., China and Europe. With that, in Sanskrit: अभिमुखी करोति.

Multiples, Markets

Before we dig into the venture capital data, a reminder that, even with recent declines, we’re still in warm waters as far as tech valuations go.

Vice President Mike Pence will lead the US response to the COVID-19 outbreak

In an early-evening press conference, President Donald Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak that has spread through Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The new coronavirus strain, which has infected about 81,000 people around the world and killed 3,000, has already wrought havoc on the global economy. The Centers for Disease Control warned yesterday that the U.S. will likely not be able to escape the spread of the virus.

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Dr. Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a press conference given by the Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

Speaking alongside Pence; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci; and principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Anne Schuchat, the President stressed that the U.S. government was “very, very ready” to respond to the disease.

Vice President Pence said that the White House would continue to work closely with state and local officials, add additional personnel and work with Congress to ensure that the necessary resources are available. “The threat to the American public remains low,” Pence said.

The White House is asking Congress for $2.5 billion to support efforts to stop the spread of the virus in the U.S. while Senate Democrats led by Chuck Schumer have put an $8.5 billion price tag on the coronavirus fight.

Secretary Azar outlined five areas where the government would look to spend money including: monitor the spread of the virus, cooperate with local governments, develop therapeutics, develop vaccines, and manufacture and purchase personal protective equipment.

Diagnosing the illness has been a particular problem for the U.S. According to multiple reports, the CDC isn’t prepared to test for a potentially rapidly expanding number of cases in the U.S.

Only 12 of the 100 public health labs in the U.S. are able to diagnose the coronavirus because of problems with a test developed by the CDC, according to a Politico report.

Better diagnostics tools are going to be one of the critical areas where startups could play a role in combating the spread of the virus.

“Where startups are going to make contributions is in detection, monitoring, epidemiological predictions, sequencing, supply chain [and] distribution logistics,” wrote James Birch, an entrepreneur and former researcher with the American College of Surgeons.

Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration chief and an investor with New Enterprise Associates, has advocated for the expansion of Emergency Use Authorizations from the organization he used to lead as a way to respond to the need for more, better diagnostic tests.

The lack of effective tests available to public health facilities calls into question exactly how prepared the government is for the potential health crisis. In fact, the White House got rid of the pandemic response group in the Administration in a cost-cutting measure in 2018.

Also troubling to some healthcare observers is Pence’s own track record when it comes to healthcare crises.

As governor of Indiana, Pence’s inaction led to an outbreak of HIV in one of the state’s more rural counties, according to a report in HuffPost. As drug use soared in the state during the opioid crisis, addicts in the county were also becoming infected with the virus because they were sharing needles. Pence opposed a needle-sharing program, which could have limited the spread of the virus.

Fears about how the new coronavirus would impact the economy rattled stock markets earlier this week as news of the disease’s spread to Europe were confirmed. The market’s slide and the political response in Washington played a role in the president’s decision to hold a press conference today, judging by the president’s own Twitter account.