FDA clears COVID-19 vaccines for children under 5

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized user of the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, and from Moderna, for kids between 6 months and 5 years of age. The FDA’s decision follows a length review process, and the dosage for children under 5 is greatly reduced relative to those for older children and adults.

While Pfizer’s vaccine was previously authorized in the U.S. for people 5 and up, Moderna’s inoculation was limited to those aged 18 or above. The new authorization clears use of Moderna for children aged 6 months to 17 years.

This isn’t the final step before inoculation programs begin for the new age groups: The Centers for Disease Control will offer additional guidance and a recommendation, which is a step not strictly required, but usually followed, by doctors and pharmacists who perform the inoculations. Still, vaccinations for those under 5 in the U.S. could begin rolling out as soon as Monday.

The FDA’s decision is based on tests of more than 4,526 volunteer participants, while Moderna’s is based on a study involving over 6,300 children.

Caught COVID-19 abroad? Good luck, you might get stuck

The idea of being stranded on a Caribbean island might not sound like the worst thing in the world after two years of a global pandemic, but speaking from experience, it’s not as fun as it sounds.

I caught COVID-19 while on vacation overseas. Somehow, my partner did not. But for us to get back to the United States we both had to provide negative tests as required by federal rules on international arrivals, or we wouldn’t even be allowed to board the flight home. What followed was a logistical mess that left us largely without help and at the mercy of our own decision making, and a good reminder that we’re still a long way away from whatever the new normal is supposed to be.

For the past year we’ve been encouraged to go about our regular business as the world began to recover from the worst pandemic in a century. Governments around the world have dropped their mask mandates, reopened their borders, and international entry rules loosened. Many countries, including the U.K. and Canada, lifted their COVID-19 testing requirements to encourage travel for vaccinated visitors.

But the U.S. remains an outlier, with no public plans to change its testing requirements any time soon. Since the start of the Omicron wave in December, federal rules have required all travelers, including Americans, obtain a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery document no more than a day before boarding an international flight to the United States.

And so we went on vacation. We’re vaccinated, boosted, and still took all of the precautions to keep ourselves and other people safe. We tested negative before the flight using the free at-home tests sent by the U.S. government and we wore masks on the plane — the majority of the flight did not. When we arrived at our Caribbean destination, the government had no entry requirements and we crossed the border in a matter of minutes and started our vacation.

I tested positive a couple of days later using another at-home COVID-19 test that we had brought in our luggage. Although my symptoms were mild, the stress was not. We were stuck here until we both tested negative — at least five days in isolation per the local government’s advice — which was longer than we were due to stay. Flights would have to change, our accommodation would need extending, and this was already starting to get expensive.

Our first thought was how to get home to our two cats, who were blissfully unaware that over a thousand miles away their humans were suddenly trapped on vacation. Our second thought was figuring out how to get home safely. With no clear guidance, we called the U.S. consulate and asked what we should do next, but were told to call the local government instead, which said we should isolate for five days and to hope that we test negative in time for our flights home. Fantastic.

An infuriating fact about requiring a negative test before boarding an inbound international flight to the United States is that the rules are easily skirted. Some are taking advantage of heading home through the “backdoor” — by flying to Canada or Mexico, which do not require negative tests on arriving flights — and then crossing into the U.S. by land, which also does not require a negative test. There is also no requirement for a negative test before flying domestically within the United States. Even if we wanted to, it wasn’t practical to fly to either Canada or Mexico without risking the health of other people.

My next call was to my U.S. health insurance provider to ask what to do if my symptoms get worse or if my partner gets sick. They recommended since I was abroad that I should use a telehealth service that they partner with. I downloaded the app they recommended, but the doctor who connected refused to talk with me because I was outside of the state he was licensed to practice.

We chose to ride it out and hope we both test negative sooner rather than later so we could get flights home. That meant accommodation became the next major hurdle.

We were staying in an Airbnb, but the guidance about what happens when you get COVID-19 during your stay is vague and unclear. There are horror stories of Airbnb guests who found themselves in similar circumstances. One couple staying in an Airbnb in Buenos Aires tried to extend their stay after one of them caught coronavirus, but they said that Airbnb blocked their account — and the account of their host — leaving them stranded without accommodation.

Not wanting to get flagged by an algorithm and find ourselves equally stranded, my editor contacted Airbnb through press channels and asked if Airbnb could put me in touch with customer support to understand what the process was for extending our stay. We didn’t hear back, which suggests either Airbnb was unwilling to help or it does not have a cohesive policy on what happens if someone gets sick abroad. Instead we were left at the mercy of people being reasonable and not kicking us out on the spot.

After the five days of isolation, we both tested negative at a local testing site, and we hurried to reschedule our flights back to the U.S. the next day before the test results expired.

My partner and I got lucky, but we came prepared. If you travel overseas, you should bring enough COVID-19 at-home kits to periodically test during your trip. It would have been magnitudes worse had we found out on our last day that we had to scramble to extend our trip by at least another week. We also had travel insurance that specifically included COVID-19 coverage in case we got sick and stranded while we were away. That might help us recoup the costs of extending our trip down the line. But you should still be prepared to do much of the legwork and pay out of pocket to extend your stay and rebook your flights since much of the responsibility and decision making will fall on you — even if you’re sick. As to how she didn’t get sick, we kept the windows open at all times and were fortunate to have an outside balcony where we spent most of our time. And inside the room, we both wore KN-95 masks — even at night when we slept — and cleaned regularly.

We are not the only ones who have been effectively trapped overseas, unable to get home because of the pandemic. One couple got stuck in the Maldives at the start of the pandemic on what became their “eternal honeymoon” but soon found themselves at the center of a logistical nightmare of trying to get home. A similar story with a British woman who was forced to stay in the remote island nation of Tonga because of travel restrictions.

The difference here is that we’re two years in, most of the restrictions are lifted, but COVID-19 remains a real and constant risk and yet the logistical difficulties remain the same.

The early signs of startup layoffs to come

Hello and welcome back to Equity, a podcast about the business of startups, where we unpack the numbers and nuance behind the headlines.

This is our Wednesday show, where we niche down to a single topic, think about a question and unpack the rest. As the team takes a break this week, we decided to replay an old yet prescient episode from earlier this week. In February, Natasha and Alex asked: What can startups learn from the rise, and now struggles, of Hopin? For companies that grew like weeds, what’s next?

Hopin was one of the first tech companies to conduct layoffs in 2022; and as we said then, while it is is perhaps a very visible canary, it is hardly the only startup that rode COVID-19’s economic disruptions to new heights. Tell us how the episode aged, and if you’re on team reckoning or team re-correction?

The market is changing. And while Hopin grew rapidly in 2021, a host of companies that thrived during COVID-19 are now resetting both internal, and external expectations. New year, new market.

Equity drops every Monday at 7 a.m. PDT and Wednesday and Friday at 6 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify and all the casts.

For mental health startups, happiness is in niches

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

Last April, Alex and I reported CB Insights data showing that venture investment into mental health startups had dropped sharply in Q1 2022 compared to the preceding quarter. But in the last couple of weeks, I have heard about several venture-backed deals into the subsector of health tech. They got me curious: In which areas of mental health are VC firms still willing to invest? Let’s explore. — Anna

Mood swings

The more the pandemic seemed to subside, the less venture capital investors seemed willing to commit to companies and sectors that had initially benefited from strong tailwinds when most of the world started staying at home. On public markets, the pandemic trade is over, with former darlings like Peloton and Zoom experiencing whiplash. Similarly, we saw a net decline in private investment into telehealth and mental health startups.

Market corrections after a period of hype are part of the investing game. But it would be hard to argue that mental health needs have decreased. According to the World Health Organization, incidents of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of COVID-19. Just because we are now hopefully leaving the worst of the pandemic behind us doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly feeling better — which is why a few recent funding rounds in the mental health space raised my attention.

Of course, a few mental health–related deals are anecdata. And since we are talking mostly about early-stage deals, this doesn’t mean that the investment decline has been reversed. In aggregate, we will only have more clarity once Q2 numbers are available. But what’s interesting is that these startups hint at some novel approaches to mental health in which VCs are still willing to invest. Or, dare I say, show us where their mind is at.

No longer underserved?

VCs might have no headspace left for the next Headspace. The broad-ranging mental health-focused platform and its most direct competitor, Calm, seem to have captured most of the mainstream market for bite-sized mindfulness. But there are still gaps in the mental health market to address — at least, some startups think so.

How femtech startup Inne rebooted its hardware launch after COVID-19 chaos

It’s been a tough few years for Berlin-based femtech hardware startup Inne which came out of stealth R&D in the fall of 2019, shortly before COVID-19 hit Europe. By January 2020, founder and CEO Eirini Rapti tells us she was busy making final inspections ahead of the launch of its debut product — a connected device it calls a “minilab” for at-home, saliva-based hormone testing to support fertility and cycle tracking — but then, in just a few weeks, the region was plunged into lockdown and everything changed.

Hardware startups are rarely smooth sailing at the best of times. But the coronavirus pandemic created a cascade of new challenges for Rapti and her team around supply chain and logistics — upsetting their careful calculations on unit economics. The pandemic also called a halt to a major piece of research work the startup had lined up with a US university to study its hormone-tracking method for a key contraceptive use-case — a product it had intended to prioritize but could not bring to market ahead of the study which is required to gain regulatory approval.

In a matter of weeks, Inne was forced to freeze its big launch as it tried to figure out how best to move forward — and, indeed, whether it should launch the product at all in such a challengingly reconfigured environment.

“Due to COVID-19 we’ve had to really shift around our plans,” says Rapti, talking to TechCrunch via video chat. “We had loads of unpredicted supply chain issues… There were so many fuck-ups that came up with COVID-19! It’s unbelievable what happened.

“I remember our last interview [in October 2019], I was super optimistic — I’m still very optimistic — sort of really looking forward to get all of our tech out to the world. We were setting up our production line when I spoke to you. We had John Hopkins [research university] agreeing to our contraceptive study. Like, the world was my oyster… And then I came back from a last inspection of the goods coming off the production line in January 2020 and we were hearing about what was happening in China but we were not really conscious of it and then we were so busy with pre-sales and whatever.

“And then of course a month later we didn’t know if we were going to get raw materials from China. We didn’t know if the factories that were working within Europe were going to even be able to have people in the factory. ”

The start of the planned contraception study also kept being postponed, as the US research institution which had agreed to conduct it, pre-pandemic, understandably prioritized work related to COVID-19 itself.

The upshot for Inne was a shock freeze on its best laid plans — plans Rapti had been working towards since 2017 when she founded the business and kicked off R&D to get the at-home hormone testing product to market.

“2020 for me started on this big high — we had our final products, we got our approval [to sell the device in Europe], we are launching pre-sales. I think we had 200 people buy the product and then we kind of had to stop because we didn’t know if we were even able to deliver these 200… This is how bad it was,” she adds.

As well as having shelled out to set up a production line it suddenly had to suspend, Inne had also doubled the size of its team to prepare for scaling. But suddenly the message from the investment world was ‘slow everything down’, recounts Rapti. “So I was like why didn’t you tell me two months ago?!… My whole strategy came crumbling down.”

The supply chain and logistics disruption — some of which has lingered even while pandemic lockdowns have eased — also forced Inne to concentrate most of its effort on the German market in Europe — “because we wanted to contain, as much as possible, the logistical nightmare”, as she puts it.

“Electronic chip shortages of course are affecting everyone… but it’s also as simple as backlog on logistics,” she explains, discussing how COVID-19 has dialled up difficulties for the fledgling hardware business. “Your shipments take longer or your air freight is much more expensive and all of a sudden your price per unit becomes really high — and for a small company like us, for a startup, if you cannot demonstrate your unit economics and your growth what can you demonstrate? And quite frankly I was sitting there for a few months — and I think it was the first time I froze in my career where I felt I have no idea what I will be able to show in the next six months!”

By summer 2020, Rapti was facing a big decision over how to move forward while the business was still mired in uncertainties around supply chain resilience and with no new date on when it would be able to launch contraception as it still hadn’t found a replacement partner to do the study.

Additionally, it was unclear when the startup would be able to raise more funding in such a challenging climate. Yet, given the expanded team Rapti had put in place ahead of the 2020 launch, she needed to consider burn rate — which meant deciding whether she had to let staff go to give the startup the best chance of surviving so much disruption.

The choice boiled down to two options, per Rapti: Either cut everything right back, keeping only a bare minimum of staff to extend the runway and find another, probably European-based institution to carry out the contraceptive study; or reduce cash burn a bit but go ahead and launch the minilab with only fertility and cycle tracking — meaning there could be no user messaging on natural contraception, limiting the product’s utility to (only) women trying to get pregnant or those looking for help with an irregular cycle.

In the event, Rapti went for the second choice — saying she was, above all, keen to keep the team she’d built up. She also saw an opportunity to use a partial launch to at least learn about the market, even though continuing supply chain constraints meant Inne had to limit the number of devices shipped to make sure they could provide the full service to the first buyers (its subscription-based progesterone testing service works with packs of single-use daily testing strips to gather the user’s saliva sample, with testing performed by inserting the moistened strip into the minilab for analysis).

“The first year we could circulate — I think — 500 devices, or very little, without having delays. And I think we closed last year with close to 2,000 customers,” Rapti adds.

Outside Germany, Inne also has some early users in Austria, Switzerland and the U.K. — but the launch has clearly been a very different and more painstaking process than Rapti had envisaged from her high in fall 2019.

Another cloud she may not have expected to see looming on the horizon now is the prospect of the US Supreme Court overturning constitutional protections for abortion in the US — which, followed a leaked opinion on Roe v Wade earlier this month, is already causing consternation over the risks that digital services like period tracking apps could pose to US women if their data can be used to track them or to try to build prosecutions around their reproductive health.

“I’m horrified by what is happening to the US,” says Rapti when asked whether she is concerned about this risk. “The reality is we are not right now in a position where, legislatively wise, someone could ask for this data to be used against women in court — as of today. So what I truly believe is it would be counterproductive to go backwards and, instead of giving women access to and understanding of their own data, to say actually we need to scrap all that because it could be used against them.

“I think this would be really a step backwards. But rather I think what our job is — as female health companies — is to defend the rights of our users and also make the data as anonymous as possible so it cannot be traced back to the actual user.”

Rapti argues there is a clear way to separate profile data that is used for marketing from health data generated by usage of the product — and says Inne’s approach for the latter is currently to use double encryption and split usage data and also where it’s processed (some of which she says happens on the user’s device) so that it’s not all sitting in a single repository which it could be easily ordered to hand over.

But she also says the startup would be prepared to create further protections for user data in response to any changes to the law that threaten women’s rights.

“We need to be legally on top of things and make sure that whenever there is a law that is passed we change our product fast in order to guarantee this anonymity as much as possible,” she tells TechCrunch. “And I would rather we invest in that legal capacity on our side than to say we stay away from having women tracking their data because the government could use it. But I definitely see it as our job. We need to be on top of legislative lobbying, if I can put it that way, and make fast changes to our product in the way that data is structured so that we can protect [our users] as much as possible.”

Series A expansion

Today, Inne has better news: An extension to that $8.8M Series A round it closed back in 2019. It’s taking an addition $10M now so it can stock up on raw materials and retool its production line to unplug any remaining production bottlenecks. The expansion to the Series A is led by DSM Ventures, with Borski Fund and Calm Storm Ventures also participating, along with a number of angels, including Taavet Hinrikus (Wise), Dr Fiona Pathiraja and Rolf Schromgens (Trivago).

But not only that — Rapti says it’s planning to expand its product offering to include another hormone test — for cortisol (aka, the stress hormone; tracking cortisol can be useful for athletic performance, as well as for links to wider women’s health issues).

It is also set to its first steps outside Europe later this summer, via a US partnership with a women’s health brand called Phenology. The tie-up will be exclusively focused on perimenopause — so Inne will be getting a toe in the water in that major market while it waits on regulatory clearance for its digital contractive.

The US partner will offer Inne’s device to a subset of its users as a way to track changes in their hormones during the early stage of the menopause — supplementing the services it offers them, which includes personalized wellness programs and  supplements. (Notably, Phenology’s parent, a company called Hologram Sciences, shares an investor with Inne — DSM Ventures, aka the venture arm of Dutch vitamin giant DSM — so you can see the investment synergies at work there.)

“It was clear there was a synergy and a very clear geographical separation also — US and then Europe — and they’re not interested in contraception which I always wanted us to own fully globally,” notes Rapti. “And that’s kind of how, through seeing that Hologram Sciences would actually be a great partner for expanding our use-cases to the US, we decided on DSM Ventures being an investor in this round.”

She confirms Inne has finally been able to get a contraceptive study underway this year with a new partner in Europe, saying she expects the work to be completed around November — paving the way for Inne to be able to launch a contraceptive product in Q1 next year. That will put it into competition with the likes of Natural Cycles‘ basal-temperature based ‘digital contraceptive’ (which got regulatory clearance in Europe back in 2017); and period tracking app Clue’s more recent cycle-tracking system which gained FDA clearance for contraception in March 2021, to name two existing products.

So, demand willing, the pieces needed to scale Inne’s hormone-tracking femtech business do finally look to be slotting into place.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” adds Rapti, returning to her decision to go ahead and launch in the middle of the pandemic — to “see who buys the product” and “connect with the customers” — even if that choice meant delaying the launch of the contraceptive product.

Femtech hardware startup Inne's team pictured in a group photo

Image credits: Inne

“It took me a long time to find especially the science and data science team that losing them over a crisis like this would have been, in the longer term, the worse ordeal,” she adds. “Because you find scientists, you make them product people and product thinking and then to let them go… It’s our core competence so that’s the first thing that I thought.”

Certainly Inne will face more competition when it finally launches its rival contraception. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in such a novel space where women must be convinced they can trust new entrants’ methods over more tried and tested products for avoiding pregnancy like the pill and condoms.

Going ahead and launching with just fertility and cycle tracking also, of course, allowed Inne to road-test its team as it switched into commercial operations, serving those early customers. So it had a chance to iron out operational and service wrinkles with a small customer base, ahead of what it hopes will be wider scaling — as it expands both its production capacity and the product’s feature set with the help of the extra Series A funding.

Hormone tracking for the quantified self

So who are Inne’s early adopters? “We attract women who are on the less regular side of the cycle, so either have had several miscarriages or have had hormonal issues or have had very fluctuating cycles. So our data is biased towards irregularity,” says Rapti, also noting that users tend to be computer savvy and active on social media, where it does much of its marketing.

Ages of users range from 18 to mid 50s — but with a “peak” between 28 to 38, per Rapti.

Tracking progesterone means Inne can tell users whether they have ovulated or not — which, in turn, could help them detect a month when they have not ovulated, which (for people seeking to get pregnant) could help them understand challenges they may be having. For others, hormone tracking may be helpful to navigate patterns in an irregular menstrual cycle.

Other femtech products can rely on different approaches to try to predict fertility — such as temperature measurements or algorithmic analysis of cycle tracking data — but, as Rapti puts it, “the beauty of progesterone is it can really tell you has it happened or not”, so it’s offering a binary confirmation.

She says the majority of Inne’s users at present are using it for fertility tracking to help them get pregnant, with a smaller proportion (30% last year; but so far this year it’s getting closer to 40%, per Rapti) using it for cycle tracking to manage irregular periods. But she emphasizes that usage is “fluid” and “a bit of a journey” as women’s needs also change.

“We have two modes in the app: You can choose it either to cycle track, basically, but with hormones or to get pregnant,” she explains, adding: “It is such a fluid journey for a women in our product because the data tells me that some women are starting to track their cycle and then they will change their goal in a couple of months so it looks like maybe they’re preparing or they just came off the pill etc.”

Rapti’s wider vision is for the product to be able to “offer something all the way from the first period to the last period” — which is why she’s so keen to get the contraception product launched (asked if she thinks it’ll be the bigger market she says she’s not sure — but, just in pure numbers terms, there are obviously more women of fertile age seeking to avoid pregnancy than wanting to get pregnant at any given moment); as well as to build out utility elsewhere, such as by expanding into cortisol tracking.

The forthcoming cortisol test will provide users with the ability to understand whether they are going through a prolonged period of stress that has chemically affected their body, per Rapti — which she says may in turn be impacting their fertility or sports performance.

Users will be able to specify whether they want to include cortisol tracking in their Inne subscription and, if so, they will be sent a mix of progesterone and cortisol testing strips. But while the former is typically a daily test (which should be taken within a ~three hour window in the morning), the cortisol test is different; it’s not intended to be taken daily but when it is performed it needs to be done multiple times per day (and then that process repeated at intervals).

“You build the profile daily, with cortisol,” explains Rapti. “You do five measurements in one day and you do them every month for example, or every two weeks. But it’s not about, you know, ‘I do a test today and I do a test tomorrow and I see how my stress is’. No, it’s really that you’re building a chemical profile of your day and then you look at that over a period of time to try and understand if you really are under sustained stress and it has chemically affected your body or not.”

The thinking behind adding a second hormone test is not to address a broader range of users but rather to give women more reasons to get the minilab into their lives, per Rapit, by encouraging them to “trust these hormonal insights”.

Inne founder and CEO Eirini Rapti

Inne founder and CEO, Eirini Rapti (Image credits: Inne)

A major update to the next release of Inne’s app will bring a raft of self-reporting options — around what it’s calling “symptoms and events” — which is intended to help users link their daily activity/feelings with hormonal changes they can track using the product.

“We are launching 41 symptoms and events that people have asked for but which will also help us give more specialist insights because we will correlate them with hormones in the coming months,” she says. “They fall in different categories — about exercise, nutrition, certain things such as headache or migraines which are related to hormones; skin conditions, hydration/dehydration. They go from exercise to lifestyle to food to skin. And different types of body pain.”

“The beauty of being able to do that with hormones is you really see [the chemical change] — the opportunity we have here is we know the chemical role of hormones, can we truly related them to self-reported symptoms? And to what extent can we do that,” she adds, confirming: “It’s a long term correlation project. We didn’t want to start with it because we wanted to make sure that hormonal data were always going to take the center stage so we needed a large data pool first to establish what we’re doing and then try to see if it can correlate.”

Here Inne’s products looks as if it could push into ‘quantified self’ territory — with potential utility overlap with a recent wave of biosensing startups and companies that are seeking to commercialize continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) hardware for a more general health/sports performance use-case (i.e. beyond the management of blood glucose for people with diabetes or prediabetes for which the CGM sensing tech was originally developed). And where there are similar question marks over the wider consumer utility of that sort of biosensing (i.e. whether the average consumer can usefully interpret all this real-time biological feedback).

But one built-in advantage Inne’s approach has vs CGM startups is it’s non-invasive. And a consumer may feel more inclined to try something experimental on the off-chance they could discover a helpful correlation if it only requires them to moisten a some test strips in their mouth a few times a month, rather than — in the case of CGM-based glucose tracking — having to live with a biowearable and its metal filament under the skin of their arm for weeks at a time.

Rapti says Inne’s plan is not to break out a totally separate service around cortisol tracking — although she stresses the test itself does involve a completely different user experience — rather the goal is to serve users who want to gain a deeper understanding of how hormones affect their bodies.

“Instead of selling new strips to a different woman what I’m trying to say is this is going to be your subscription and then you tell us what you’re interested in. And if you’re interested in both stress and cycle tracking or fertility then we will send you every month strips of both and we will instruct you what to do when. So we’re not looking to make upselling with new strips but more deeper hormonal understanding so the price will remain the same. And you’ll just get a combination of strips for that same monthly price,” she says.

“I had so many people in this raise who said oh that would be amazing for men, why don’t you sell it to men! Do you know what, I think it would be amazing for men but how about we wait a minute and just offer it to women!” she adds.

There is clearly lots more Inne could do and add. So an obvious challenge is how to create a clear marketing message around such a multifaceted product?

On that Rapti says they’ve got one big takeaway: Women want to get specific about the benefits — which means finding fora where they can discover the product but also get to ask their own questions.

“It is a very early market. I feel that women know that there’s so much they can learn about their bodies and quite frankly we are giving a new angle where we’re like — hey, look, we should be able to track our hormones because [women] have been excluded from research for all those years and if only we had been included we would have known so much more about medication, our bodies, everything around that. So let’s bridge that gap — that’s our mission. And at the same time they’re like this is great but what exactly can you do for me?” says Rapit.

“So the way we’ve been approaching it — what I can tell you works — is to be very precise on what benefit they can get. And that’s why Instagram and influencer marketing works because women get the chance to ask questions and to really understand if this will serve them or not.”

How will tech companies cope with an office-free future?

What’s to become of the tech company office, and how do companies function without the structure that working together in the same building has traditionally provided us? That’s a monumental question facing tech companies today as they struggle to define their approach to work in a post-pandemic world.

Sure, there have been fully remote companies like GitLab for some time now, but the conventional wisdom prior to the pandemic was that you mostly needed to be in the same place to get serious work done.

This was certainly true for larger tech companies. Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, Meta, Amazon and Apple didn’t build sprawling campuses or skyscrapers across the world just to abandon them for no reason. They built them to house their workers and show off their sheer economic power. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, it changed how we think of work, possibly forever.

Suddenly, we had a giant laboratory to experiment with everyone working from home, and while there are certainly some problems, depending on your business, your job, and, frankly, your living situation, it showed that whole categories of workers didn’t need to be sitting in a cubby farm inside a big building to get their jobs done — certainly not five days a week.

I spoke to a variety of people in the tech world, from consultants and investors to startup founders, to try and get a grip on exactly what the next phase of work is going to look like, and without a doubt, tech companies have at least become a lot more flexible when it comes to face time at the office.

Company policies are evolving

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here, but there are enough examples to suggest some shift away from the traditional office setup, even for well-established companies.

Airbnb will no longer offer COVID-19-related refunds beginning May 31

Airbnb today announced that it will soon no longer offer refunds for COVID-19-related circumstances, including cases where a guest or host becomes sick with COVID-19 — reflecting an update to the company’s extenuating circumstances policy. Beginning May 31, Airbnb hosts’ cancellation terms will apply “as usual,” Airbnb said, although certain reservations made before May 31 may still be eligible for a refund if they qualify under the company’s policy.

Airbnb — which just yesterday committed to a fully remote workplace — said that the change was made in consultation with its medical advisors.

“Some in the travel industry stopped this type of policy months ago, while others didn’t provide one at all,” the company wrote in a blog post. “[W]e feel the time is now right to take the same step.”

Early in the pandemic, Airbnb extended its extenuating circumstances policy to cover risks pertaining to the novel coronavirus, allowing guests to cancel and receive a full refund as well as hosts to cancel upcoming reservations penalty-free. The company also committed $250 million to help cover cancellations due to COVID-19, paying hosts 25% of what they’d normally receive through their cancellation policy.

The company’s IPO filing in November 2020 revealed the dramatic extent of the impact, including a 72% decline in revenue leading to 1,800 job cuts in May 2020.

Cost cutting and a doubling down on “experiences” and long-term stays helped Airbnb inch toward recovery. The company beat Wall Street estimates in Q4 2021, reporting $1.53 billion in revenue — up 78% from the $3.89 billion net loss it posted a year earlier. But nights and experiences bookings were down nearly 8% from the prior quarter, a figure which Airbnb is no doubt eager to turn around.

“[A]lmost two thirds of the world’s population have received at least one dose of a vaccination against COVID-19. And many countries have now implemented living with COVID-19 plans, as it becomes part of our world,” the company wrote in the post published today.

Spurred by economic and political pressures, some companies and policymakers have called for a “return to normal.” But health experts warn against prematurely lifting mitigation measures. While Uber and Lyft ended mask mandates in ride-shares and a federal judge in Florida struck down the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s mask rules, caseloads in New York City and Washington, D.C. rose. Just this week, a Princess Cruise Lines ship docked in San Francisco with 143 cases of COVID-19.

When contacted for clarification, an Airbnb spokesperson said that they didn’t have anything to share beyond the post.

COVID rapid tests available on e-commerce in China for the first time

China is allowing the public to take COVID-19 rapid antigen self-tests for the first time as infection numbers hit a two-year high in recent days. Online marketplaces including JD.com and Meituan are now taking pre-orders for home test kits from government-approved manufacturers, including Shenzhen-based gene giant BGI. The products will also be available through drugstores nationwide.

For the past two years, China has upheld a “zero-COVID” containment policy that has kept its case numbers low, but the strategy is increasingly tested by the more contagious Omicron variant. China has relied exclusively on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, a type of molecular/nucleic acid test, to identify cases, unlike Western countries that have adopted rapid antigen tests as a commercially available alternative.

PCR tests, while widely recognized as more accurate than antigen tests, require healthcare professionals to collect samples which will then be sent to a lab for results. Antigen tests, in comparison, can be carried out at home and generate results in under an hour.

China’s drug regulator approved five COVID-19 antigen self-test products on Saturday, just a day after the country’s National Health Commission announced antigen detection had been added as an option of public testing.

The introduction of self-test kits is not to be taken as a signal that China is relaxing its zero-COVID strategy anytime soon. The health authority stated that rapid tests are aimed at aiding the early discovery of COVID infections while nucleic acid tests remain the benchmark standard for case confirmation.

At best, home kits will help take some pressure off an overwhelmed PCR testing regime. Local authorities in China usually order mass PCR testing whenever a few locally transmitted cases hit a city. In dense neighborhoods, residents often have to queue up hours for their swabs. The results from their PCR tests will then be digitally synced to a national “health code” on their phones, without which they’d be turned away by apartment compounds, restaurants, office buildings, or public transport.

Exactly how China will regulate the use of these self-test kits remain to be seen; for example, how does the government ensure residents will voluntarily inform the local authority when they receive a positive result at home? At least from what the preliminary government instructions say, home testing will still be monitored by “relevant administrative departments.”

Welcome to the it’s-so-subtle pivot season

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

As late-stage tech startups face the changing environment in the public markets, their early-stage counterparts are in a different world altogether. The cohort has had access to ample capital in recent quarters, giving them a bubble of venture capital that somewhat protects them from rapid changes in the greater economy.

But while the bubble is not popping, it’s changing shape.

While we may not see early-stage startups go through aggressive rounds of layoffs or experience immediately slashed valuations due to shifting market conditions, there’s a different signal worth tracking: pivots. Pivots — a change in business strategy based on a new insight or market trend — are somewhat inevitable for young companies still chasing product-market fit. I’d argue that pivots are more important to track than a financing round because they give a snapshot of a startup reacting to a new tension in the market. Plus, unlike a funding round, a pivot is a definite signal that something is changing, a tension other than a cadre of investors affirming that a founder is onto something big.

After having conversations with a number of investors and founders, it’s clear that the coming weeks and months will include a lot of subtle shifts in how early-stage startups do business. Some may re-prioritize objectives to reduce risk, while others may pursue new, more near-term business models to finally get some revenue in the door.

For my full take on this topic, check out my TechCrunch+ column: “It’s pivot season for early-stage startups.” In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about an Epic deal, fintech going full stack and why one firm is going self-funded. As always, you can support me by sharing this newsletter, following me on Twitter or subscribing to my personal blog.

Deal of the week

Epic, the gaming creator of Fortnite, bought Bandcamp, a music marketplace where any musician can sell their music and keep 82% of the profits. The acquisition comes amid a broader conversation of the role (and power) of platforms in creators’ lives, making platforms like Bandcamp stand out simply due to alignment of incentives. Now that it is within Epic’s comfortable embrace, there’s a new chapter to analyze.

Here’s why it’s important, via Amanda Silberling:

“When artists see that a platform they use to make a living is being acquired, their usual reaction isn’t, ‘Oh, cool, they will have more funds to produce better features to help me monetize my creative work!’ They think, ‘Oh shit, not again.’

It happened when Google bought YouTube, and when Spotify bought Anchor. Artists recognize that when a platform changes ownership, even the smallest tweaks can impact their livelihoods. Why would artists trust Big Tech companies when Spotify payouts are dismal, OnlyFans temporarily made career-endangering decisions for sex workers, and Patreon flirts with the idea of crypto payments, a move many of its creators are strongly against?”

I wonder, of course, if the buy is in light of community, or just in pursuit of capitalism. We’ll talk about it on Equity next week, so tweet us your suggestions!

Honorable mentions:

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Is fintech playing offense or defense today?

On Equity this week, I spoke with Alex and Mary Ann about the state of fintech. It was partially inspired by Ramp’s expansion into travel, and Pipe’s acquisition of an, um, entertainment company (?!).

Here’s why it’s important: Beyond continuing the conversation of fintech going full stack, we worked through our biggest questions on fintech’s maturation at the moment. For example, if all fintechs become the same company over time, how do you differentiate when initially fighting for the same user cohort? The market made the conversation even more relevant, as public market repricings may be one trigger for fintech’s to pursue more proven revenue streams.

So what, SoFi?

Multi Colored Bling Bling Dollar Sign Shape Bokeh Backdrop on Dark Background, Finance Concept.

Image Credits: MirageC / Getty Images

Homebrew goes self-funded

Homebrew has a new cup of tea (or coffee, or beer, or beverage of your choosing). The venture capital firm is leaving its strictly seed-stage roots — and its traditional venture structure — and pursuing a more stage-agnostic evergreen model that is funded solely by Satya Patel and Hunter Walk, Homebrew’s general partners.

Here’s why it’s important: Homebrew’s pivot is happening at a crucial market moment for tech startups. Public tech stocks are being hammered regardless of sector. And while early-stage private startups seemingly remain largely unscathed, owing to an influx of venture capital, later-stage companies are finding themselves in a tougher position right now.

The move is also notable in a market where raising larger and larger (and larger) funds has become routine. Of course, the perennial challenge that comes when raising more capital is that an investor then has more pressure to deliver on those outcomes. You may have been able to provide outcomes at a 5x rate on a $15 million fund, but can you still hit venture-like targets when you ask them to back a $150 million fund? What about $1.5 billion?

Returns on returns:

Image Credits: Cometeer

Across the week

We get to hang out in person! Soon! Techcrunch Early Stage 2022 is April 14, aka right around the corner, and it’s in San Francisco. Join us for a one-day founder summit featuring GV’s Terri Burns, Greylock’s Glen Evans and Felicis’ Aydin Senkut. The TC team has been fiending to get back in person, so don’t be surprised if panels are a little spicier than usual.

Here’s the full agenda, and grab your launch tickets here.

​​Also, follow our newest producer for Equity: Maggie Stamets!

Seen on TechCrunch

Putting the autonomous cart before the robotic horse

YC-backed Blocknom wants to become the ‘Coinbase Earn of Southeast Asia’

Snowflake acquires Streamlit for $800M to help customers build data-based apps

Carl Pei’s Nothing is working on a smartphone

Seen on TechCrunch+

After 2 rejected deals, Zendesk considers its next steps

Corporations are scrambling to get into the venture game

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun on the importance of differentiating your startup

Just how wrong were those SPAC projections?

What US startup founders need to know about the R&D tax credit

Until next time,