Clearview AI told to stop processing UK data as ICO warns of possible fine

Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI is facing a potential fine in the UK.

It has also been handed a provisional notice to stop further processing of UK citizens’ data and to delete any data it already holds as a result of what the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) described as “alleged serious breaches” of national data protection law.

The ICO has been looking into the tech company — which sells AI-powered identity matching to law enforcement and other paying customers via a facial recognition platform that it trained covertly on photos harvested from Internet sources (like social media platforms) — in a joint investigation with the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

The OAIC already, earlier this month, issued an order to Clearview to delete data after finding it broke national laws down under. So the ICO has been the laggard of the two regulators.

But today it issued the notification of a provisional intention to fine Clearview over £17 million (~$22.6M) — citing a range of suspected breaches.

Among the raft of violations the ICO suspects — following what it describes as “preliminary enquiries with Clearview AI” — are failures to process people’s information fairly or in a way they expect, in line with requirements to have a valid legal basis for processing personal data and to provide adequate information to those whose data is processed; along with a failure to have a process in place to prevent data being retained indefinitely; a failure to meet higher standards required for processing biometric data — which is considered special category data under the European standard (the GDPR) that’s transposed into UK law; and also for applying problematic processes when people object to its processing of their information — such as asking for more personal data (“including photographs”) in response to such objections.

Clearview was contacted for comment on the ICO’s provisional findings.

A spokesperson sent this statement (below), attributed to its London based attorney, Kelly Hagedorn (a partner at Jenner & Block London LLP) — who describes the ICO’s provisional finding as “factually and legally incorrect”; says Clearview is considering an appeal and “further action”; and claims the company does not do business in the UK (nor have any UK customers currently).

Here’s Clearview’s statement in full:

“The UK ICO Commissioner’s assertions are factually and legally incorrect. The company is considering an appeal and further action. Clearview AI provides publicly available information from the internet to law enforcement agencies. To be clear, Clearview AI does not do business in the UK, and does not have any UK customers at this time.”
Whether the ICO’s preliminary sanction will go the distance and turn into an actual fine and data processing cessation order against Clearview remains to be seen.

For one thing, the ICO’s notification is timed a few weeks ahead of the departure of sitting commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is set to be replaced by New Zealand’s privacy commissioner John Edwards in January.

So a new broom will be in charge of deciding whether the provisional findings hold up in the face of Clearview’s objections (and potential legal action).

In its statement today, the ICO is careful to note that Clearview will have the opportunity to make representations — which it says it will consider before any final decision is reached, and which it furthermore suggests may not happen until mid-2022.

Under Denham, it’s also notable that the ICO has substantially shrunk a number of provisional penalties it handed out in relation to other breach investigations (such as those to British Airways; and Marriott).

The ICO also settled with Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal after the tech giant appealed its provisional sanction.

And while Facebook agreed to pay the ICO’s £500k fine in full in that case it did so without admitting any liability and also got the ICO to agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement over the arrangement (which has limited what the commissioner can say in public about its correspondence with Facebook). So, in all, that ended up looking like a sweet deal for Facebook — agreed to by a regulator apparently concerned at being challenged in the courts over its decision-making processes.

There is fresh complexity on the horizon around enforcement of the UK’s data protection regime too, now — in that the government is in the process of consulting on making changes to national law that could see ministers reduce protections wrapping people’s data — such as by removing or altering requirements around transparency, fairness and what constitutes a valid legal basis for processing people’s data — as part of a claimed ‘simplification‘ of the current laws.

So the ICO’s caveat on its provisional “view to fine” Clearview — which it specifies may be “subject to change or no further formal action” — looks like more than just a reminder to recall its own recent history of enforcements not standing up to its earlier convictions.

Why is it acting at all now if there’s a risk of ministers moving the goalposts? Denham may have an eye on amplifying her legacy as she departs for pastures new. Or she may hope to try and bind the hands of her successor — and limit the reformist zeal of DCMS to downgrade UK data protection — or, indeed, a little of all of the above.

In a statement, the outgoing commissioner said: “I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking. UK data protection legislation does not stop the effective use of technology to fight crime but to enjoy public trust and confidence in their products technology providers must ensure people’s legal protections are respected and complied with.”

“Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously,” she added.

On the investigation findings itself, the regulator’s press release on its provisional view and potential fine offers only tentative conclusions, with the ICO writing that: “The images in Clearview AI Inc’s database are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms.”

It adds that it “understands that the service provided by Clearview AI Inc was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies”, and further specifying that this trial “was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK” — without offering any details on when the tech was being used and when usage stopped.

Clearview has faced regulatory pushback elsewhere around the world too.

Earlier this year Canada’s privacy watchdog concluded its own investigation of the AI firm — finding multiple breaches of national law and also ordering it to cease processing citizens’ data.

Clearview rejected the findings — but also said it no longer offered the service to Canadian law enforcement.

Update: The company has now sent an additional statement on the ICO’s provisional findings, attributed to CEO Hoan Ton-That, in which he expresses “deep” disappointment at what he claims is a misinterpretation of the technology — and goes on to imply that Clearview AI might have been useful for UK law enforcement investigations into child sexual abuse (an area where the UK government is currently spending taxpayer money to try to encourage the development of novel detection technologies).

Here’s Ton-That’s statement [emphasis his]:

“I grew up in Australia and have long viewed the UK as an important, majestic place—one about which I have the deepest respect.  I am deeply disappointed that the UK Information Commissioner  has misinterpreted my technology and intentions. I created the consequential facial recognition technology known the world over.  My company and I have acted in the best interests of the UK and their people by assisting law enforcement in solving heinous crimes against children, seniors, and other victims of unscrupulous acts. It breaks my heart that Clearview AI has been unable to assist when receiving urgent requests from UK law enforcement agencies seeking to use this technology to investigate cases of severe sexual abuse of children in the UK. We collect only public data from the open internet and comply with all standards of privacy and law.  I am disheartened by the misinterpretation of Clearview AI’s technology to society.  I would welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with leaders and lawmakers so the true value of this technology which has proven so essential to law enforcement can continue to make communities safe.”

Student media giant Chegg acquires language learning startup Busuu for $436M

Chegg, the NYSE listed student media learning platform is acquiring Busuu, the online language learning startup established in Europe in 2008, for approximately $436 million (€385 million) in an all-cash transaction.

At its exit Busuu had raised only $16.1m in total, a tiny amount even I in European terms, and testament to the sheer grit of the founders who, by the end, had built a business that had reached over 120 million learners to date across more than 160 countries. Busuu provides courses in 12 different languages to over 500,000 paying subscribers.

The company’s last funding round was May 27, 2020 for $2m from GP Bullhound and ultra-high net worths. Prior to that the previous investors had consisted of Harold Primat, McGraw-Hill Education, PROfounders Capital, Martin Varsavsky and Johann “Hansi” Hansmann (according to CrunchBase).

Dan Rosensweig, President and CEO of Chegg said: “The addition of Busuu gives Chegg the unique opportunity to expand our business while also adding tremendous value to our existing users. It will allow us to drive further into international markets, as well as accelerate Busuu’s growth in the US market. Busuu’s team, who we have known for many years, are a great cultural fit. They have built an incredible learning service for the serious language learner, and we are excited to have them as part of Chegg.”

Chegg says it expects Busuu’s full-year 2021 revenue to be approximately $45 million with year-over-year growth of greater than 20%. The $17 billion digital language market is expected to triple in size in the next five years, said a statement by Chegg.

Founded in 2008 by Bernhard Niesner and Adrian Hilti, with offices in London, UK, and Madrid, Spain, Busuu has made a point of finessing its language-learning model and iterating every aspect of the platform, to the point where a study by ann academic at the University of Maryland, showed that users of Busuu needed only 13 hours of study in a two-month period to move up one college semester (typically 90-105 hours of instruction). The company offers free and paid subscriptions on a monthly, annual, and bi-annual basis.

Busuu is used by individuals but also offers corporate language training. Last year it added live language tutoring after acquiring Verbling.

Bernhard Niesner, CEO & Co-founder of Busuu, said: “We are proud and excited to be joining the Chegg family, a world-leading edtech company that puts students first. This partnership will give us an opportunity to leverage Chegg’s tremendous reach to fuel our expansion, particularly in the US. Our vision is to empower everyone in the world through languages, and we believe our relationship with Chegg will enable us to achieve this goal even faster.”

Particular Audience takes in $7.5M to give retailers way to take on Amazon

Being in control of customer data is one of the ways retailers, like Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, are able to tap into consumer behavior and create customized experiences whenever a user logs in.

Those are some of the reasons Amazon, in particular, is poised to grab 50% of the U.S. e-commerce market this year, and why Sydney-based Particular Audience wants to break down the data silos going on within e-commerce to give any retailer a chance to gather similar data on their customers to personalize experiences.

Particular Audience provides product discovery tools for retailers that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. In fact, the company wants to go further and offer personalization based on anonymity and without compromising personal data, CEO James Taylor told TechCrunch.

Taylor launched Particular Audience in 2019 after taking a few years to work out the technology. The global pandemic threw a wrench in some plans, with Taylor and a handful of executives taking a pay cut so as to not have to let any employees go. However, with the e-commerce industry growing over the past 18 months, the company was able to get back to where it was, he said.

The company has now amassed a real-time data set on product search, sales, pricing and availability from across the internet, from its browser plugin SimilarInc.com, which gathers the data from its online shopper community without tracking or cookies. Retailers can analyze that data to tell them, for example, how better to promote high-margin or overstocked items.

“Data IP is the current frontier,” he said. “It is data that is going to improve predictions to personalize inventory and reduce waste while also helping with supply chain management. The goal is to create website data visibility that would benefit all of the other merchants other than Amazon.”

To continue developing its technology, the company secured $7.5 million in Series A funding in a round led by Equity Venture Partners and that included existing investors Carthona Capital and a group of angel investors. This latest investment gives the company $9.5 million in total funding raised to date, which includes $1.3 million in seed funding raised in 2019.

Particular Audience

How Particular Audience works on a website. Image Credits: Particular Audience

Particular Audience is working with approximately 100 websites currently. In addition to Sydney, the company also has an office in London. Europe makes up more than 50% of Particular Audience’s global revenue, and the new funding enables the company to open a new office in Amsterdam next year.

North America is also a growth territory for the company, where it has already opened an office in Vancouver, with plans to open a New York office in 2022 as well. The company has 60 employees, up from 20 last year, and Taylor expects to add 40 more in the next year, including rounding out its leadership team with a head of product.

The funding will also be invested into building out an API-first product suite and retail media platform so retailers can gain a revenue stream from cost per clicks. Meanwhile, the company saw 460% year over year in revenue growth and expects to hit $100 million in gross merchandise value through its products this year, up 19 times in the last two years, Taylor said.

As part of the investment, Daniel Szekely, partner at Equity Venture Partners, will join the board.

“Personalization of the internet is a critical frontier for e-commerce retailers, and in a world of growing online shopping options and diminishing consumer attention spans, delivering an experience that meets individual consumers’ needs is absolutely critical,” he said in a written statement. “James and his outstanding team have tackled this issue in a novel way, and the important need for their solution has been made obvious as the business gets pulled into multiple geographies. We’re thrilled to back them in their Series A and know this is just the beginning of the journey.”

 

Bolt makes first acquisition with Tipser, launches ‘Remote Checkout’

The ability to purchase something at the point of discovery from digital content exists, but checkout technology company Bolt has the opportunity to give that its “one-click” treatment. It announced Monday that it made its first acquisition in Tipser, a Swedish-based technology company enabling direct checkout on any digital surface.

San Francisco-based Bolt is fresh off of raising $393 million in Series D funding in October, bringing total capital raised to date to $600 million. And though the Tipser acquisition is in line with the company’s plans of what it wanted to do with the new capital, Ryan Breslow, founder and CEO of Bolt, told TechCrunch the deal “had been in the works for a while.”

Tipser’s technology enables consumers to purchase products natively from sites like online publications, mobile marketplaces, price comparison sites, social media platforms or search engines. The company is led by Marcus Jacobsson, co-founder and CEO, who started the company in 2012 with Axel Wolrath and Jonas Sjöstedt.

In fact, when Bolt initially began talking to Tipser, the company was not in a place to sell, and was actually working on their next investment round (they raised just over $14 million), but the two companies ended up going into deeper conversations and found their cultural resonances worked better together, Breslow said.

“We saw how significant Tipser could be for Bolt,” he added. “They had been perfecting their embedded commerce technology for a decade and were the only formidable player. They were stronger than us in areas where we were weaker. It is very strategic to have them on our team.”

Exact transaction figures were not disclosed, but Breslow did reveal to TechCrunch that the acquisition, which was an all-stock deal, came in “just shy of $200 million.” The entire Tipser team is staying put, so Bolt will be adding 100 more people to its team. Tipser’s presence in Sweden will now also serve as Bolt’s European headquarters to go with the company’s recent announcement of expanding into Europe.

In addition to the acquisition, Bolt is launching Remote Checkout, a tool for shoppers to make a purchase from the exact point of discovery. Instead of seeing something on social media — where 84% of shoppers look for reviews, according to Pew Research Center — then going to another website to make the purchase,

The new tool is one that Bolt was working on internally for over a year and was inspired by Instagram Checkout, also a tool where you can discover a product and check out directly from the app, Breslow said.

“With the death of tracking and cookies, we could see the need for native checkout so retailers can track conversion,” he added. “It’s better for consumers to not have to click a million things.”

Bolt’s Remote Checkout features include the direct one-click checkout, engagement with Bolt’s network of shoppers and the ability for merchants to boost conversion rates while receiving orders through multiple channels and building direct relationships with visitors. It also turns anonymous visitors into logged-in account holders and monetizes traffic on-site.

The added feature of publishers and creators being able to monetize traffic coming to their sites was one that Jason Wagenheim, president and CRO at media publisher BDG (formerly known as Bustle Digital Group), found particularly interesting. BDG’s brands include Bustle, EliteDaily and Fatherly.

He was a bystander of sorts for the merger, having signed up with Tipser in January as the company’s first U.S. publisher, going live with the product in April on two of BDG’s 13 sites, Wagenheim said in an interview.

“What I love most about this acquisition is that we can accelerate the onboarding of hundreds of more merchants onto our platform,” he said. “This is a marriage of content and commerce.”

Before social media and companies like Bolt and Tipser, shopping directly from a magazine page meant utilizing QR codes, but that didn’t take off like people thought it would, Wagenheim said.

Other publishers tried to crack the code, and he noted Goop being one of the few able to do it. Now with these new technologies, any publisher or creator can close the gap between the upper and lower funnels and drive awareness because its commerce is shoppable and one click away.

He considers BDG’s project with Tipser still in the beta phase, but there are plans to roll out the technology on all of its sites next year. The company already had its audience engage in over 25 million sessions with people, on average, seeing 10 products per session, a metric Wagenheim says means the process is working: people are spending time with the products, are engaged and adding products to carts.

“With hundreds more merchants for editors to write about, and the one-click transaction happening, that is a game-changer,” he added.

Thought Machine closes $200M for its cloud native banking SaaS and becomes a unicorn

Thought Machine, a 2014 (Xoogler) founded startup that sells cloud-based b2b banking services, has closed a $200 million Series C round and announced that it’s achieved unicorn status (aka, passing a $1BN valuation).

The new funding follows an $83M Series B round last year — when it described its market cap as “increasing healthily”.

The Series C is led by New York- and San Francisco-based Nyca Partners, with other new investors including ING Ventures, JPMorgan Chase Strategic Investments and Standard Chartered Ventures — the investment arms of some of its global tier one banking clients.

Lloyds Banking Group, which led Thought Machine’s Series A, has also participated in the latest raise.

Other existing investors also returning for the Series C are British Patient Capital, Eurazeo, SEB, Molten Ventures (formerly Draper Esprit), Backed, and IQ Capital.

Thought Machine describes itself as a “cloud native core banking technology” firm — and is selling cloud-basked banking infrastructure to old and new banks as they look to offer their customers services via the cloud, moving away from mainframe, legacy banking tech (in the case of old school banks) or offering cloud-based services from the get-go in the case of challenger banks and fintech startups.

The startup’s Series C follows a period of accelerated growth, with Thought Machine noting it’s added 200+ employees since 2020 and relocating into a larger London HQ to accommodate its expanded headcount.

The new funding will be used to continue development and expansion of its flagship SaaS product Vault — a cloud-native platform which its b2b customers rely on to provide a range of retail banking services, from checking accounts, savings accounts, loans and credit cards to mortgages.

Vault is built around APIs, using a microservice architecture and a system of Smart Contracts — hosted on a cloud service of the customer’s choosing (the likes of Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and IBM Cloud are supported) — with touted benefits including increased flexible and more scalable infrastructure, as well as reduced running costs vs maintaining legacy technology.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Paul Taylor, CEO and founder of Thought Machine said: “We are delighted to have earned the support of our new and existing investors as we continue to move the world’s leading banks into the cloud. We set out to eradicate legacy technology from the industry and ensure that all banks deployed on Vault can succeed and deliver on their ambitions. These new funds will accelerate the delivery of Vault into banks around the world who wish to implement their future vision of financial services.”

In another supporting statement, Hans Morris, managing partner at Nyca Partners, added: “Thought Machine is the leading technology among the new generation of cloud native core platforms, and as a result it has become the top choice for tier one banks looking to upgrade their core architecture. These institutions tell us that Thought Machine’s engineering approach is unrivalled; Vault is highly configurable, flexible, scalable, and specifically designed for the complex environment and requirements of tier one banks. Investing in Thought Machine is an investment in the future of banking and we are very energized to be working with them as they build a new standard for core banking technology.”

Co-working and EdTech company Talent Garden acquires Hyper Island to scale online courses globally

Talent Garden is a sort of ‘European-WeWork-meets-General-Assembly’ in that its business model is a combination of co-working spaces (in places like Italy, Austria, Romania, among others) plus online/offline digital courses. It’s also a post Series B company (its last round was $73.5 million), having raised from investors such as 500 Startups and Social Capital. It’s now upping its game further with the acquisition of a majority (54%) stake in Hyper Island a place some Europeans regard as the continent’s ‘Digital Harvard University’.

Hyper Island emerged in the 90s as a school of excellence in the emerging world of UX and games design and has gone on to produce an enormous range of talent, which is routinely hoovered-up by the biggest tech players.

The combination of the two will no doubt expand both’ ability to scale their online courses (and offline, where applicable).

For instance, Talent Garden offers a myriad of business training courses for the digital world, processing around 20,000 students a year. Likewise, Hyper Island has traditionally been best known for its online education, but with Talent Garden, that inline component will no-doubt be expanded. Talent Garden also has 20 campuses across Europe.

Talent Garden Co-founder Rasa Strumskyte told me: “Over 60% of our courses are online and the rest on campus and we will work to expand existing courses to more markets and create new ones, especially online.”

It’s estimated that some 97 million new digital jobs will emerge in the next few years, with the global digital education market estimated to grow from $8.4 billion in 2020 to $33.2 billion by 2025, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the post-pandemic era.

Hyper Island has a global presence operating in Europe, Asia-Pacific, North and South America through physical establishments in the UK, Singapore, USA and Brazil.

The combined entity says it will have expected revenues of €50 million in 2022, 20,000 professionals trained a year, 5,000 students placed on the job market “with a 98% placement rate and more than 4,500 start-ups and digital innovators as teachers and community members.”

Davide Dattoli, Talent Garden’s Co-Founder and Executive President said: “Through joining forces with Hyper Island, our project is making a new leap forward. In such an important but fragmented market, we are readier as ever before to act as aggregators and game-changers. We will expand our training offering for the benefit of many current and future workers who are living through this time of digital transition.”

Irene Boni, new CEO of Talent Garden said: “Talent Garden has an opportunity to grow considerably in the in the digital education market in Europe, also by training individuals as well as large companies that want to take advantage of the benefits of digitization — which is certainly a technological issue, but most of all a question of human capital.”

Before joining Talent Garden, Boni had been working for the past ten years in the unicorn Yoox Net a Porter (today part of Richemont luxury group) as CoGeneral Manager. Before that she worked at McKinsey.

Fredrik Mansson, Chairman of Hyper Island said: “Through the alliance with Talent Garden we will jointly get a substantial increase in the resources to accelerate both companies growth and impact in the world.”

Digital regulation must empower people to make the internet better

As COVID-19 spread rapidly across the world in 2020, people everywhere were hungry for reliable information. A global network of volunteers rose to the challenge, consolidating information from scientists, journalists and medical professionals, and making it accessible for everyday people.

Two of them live almost 3,200 kilometers away from one another: Dr. Alaa Najjar is a Wikipedia volunteer and medical doctor who spends breaks during his emergency room shift addressing COVID-19 misinformation on the Arabic version of the site. Sweden-based Dr. Netha Hussain, a clinical neuroscientist and doctor, spent her downtime editing COVID-19 articles in English and Malayalam (a language of southwestern India), later focusing her efforts on improving Wikipedia articles about COVID-19 vaccines.

Thanks to Najjar, Hussain and more than 280,000 volunteers, Wikipedia emerged as one of the most trusted sources for up-to-date, comprehensive knowledge about COVID-19, spanning nearly 7,000 articles in 188 languages. Wikipedia’s reach and ability to support knowledge-sharing on a global scale — from informing the public about a major disease to helping students study for tests — is only made possible by laws that enable its collaborative, volunteer-led model to thrive.

As the European Parliament considers new regulations aimed at holding Big Tech platforms accountable for illegal content amplified on their websites and apps through packages like the Digital Services Act (DSA), it must protect citizens’ ability to collaborate in service of the public interest.

Lawmakers are right to try to stem the spread of content that causes physical or psychological harm, including content that is illegal in many jurisdictions. As they consider a range of provisions for the comprehensive DSA, we welcome some of the proposed elements, including requirements for greater transparency about how platforms’ content moderation works.

But the current draft also includes prescriptive requirements for how terms of service should be enforced. At first glance, these measures may seem necessary to curb the rising power of social media, prevent the spread of illegal content and ensure the safety of online spaces. But what happens to projects like Wikipedia? Some of the proposed requirements could shift power further away from people to platform providers, stifling digital platforms that operate differently from the large commercial platforms.

Big Tech platforms work in fundamentally different ways than nonprofit, collaborative websites like Wikipedia. All of the articles created by Wikipedia volunteers are available for free, without ads and without tracking our readers’ browsing habits. The commercial platforms’ incentive structures maximize profits and time on site, using algorithms that leverage detailed user profiles to target people with content that is most likely to influence them. They deploy more algorithms to moderate content automatically, which results in errors of over- and under-enforcement. For example, computer programs often confuse artwork and satire with illegal content, while failing to understand human nuance and context necessary to enforce platforms’ actual rules.

The Wikimedia Foundation and affiliates based in specific countries, like Wikimedia Deutschland, support Wikipedia volunteers and their autonomy in making decisions about what information should exist on Wikipedia and what shouldn’t. The online encyclopedia’s open editing model is grounded in the belief that people should decide what information stays on Wikipedia, leveraging established volunteer-developed rules for neutrality and reliable sources.

This model ensures that for any given Wikipedia article on any subject, people who know and care about a topic enforce the rules about what content is allowed on its page. What’s more, our content moderation is transparent and accountable: All conversations between editors on the platform are publicly accessible. It is not a perfect system, but it has largely worked to make Wikipedia a global source of neutral and verified information.

Forcing Wikipedia to operate more like a commercial platform with a top-down power structure, lacking accountability to our readers and editors, would arguably subvert the DSA’s actual public interest intentions by leaving our communities out of important decisions about content.

The internet is at an inflection point. Democracy and civic space are under attack in Europe and around the world. Now, more than ever, all of us need to think carefully about how new rules will foster, not hinder, an online environment that allows for new forms of culture, science, participation and knowledge.

Lawmakers can engage with public interest communities such as ours to develop standards and principles that are more inclusive, more enforceable and more effective. But they should not impose rules that are aimed solely at the most powerful commercial internet platforms.

We all deserve a better, safer internet. We call on lawmakers to work with collaborators across sectors, including Wikimedia, to design regulations that empower citizens to improve it, together.

Robotics startup FJDynamics raises $70M to make manual labor easier

FJDynamics, founded by DJI’s former chief scientist Wu Di, just closed a Series B round of $70 million as it advances its goal to empower workers in the harshest environment with robotic technologies.

When I asked Wu what’s special about his company’s farming robots, he gave an answer that would make any publicist sweat: “I don’t think our technology is that special.” The startup’s vision, he said, is to make useful and affordable robots for the most labor-intensive industries.

“You can have the most advanced AI algorithms,” he continued, “But if the technology doesn’t work on the production line or the farm, because you don’t have any industry experience, then how does your technology benefit people?”

The technologies that Wu worked on before FJDynamics were cutting-edge in every sense. At DJI, he served as the chief scientist and oversaw the drone giant’s acquisition of the 180-year-old Swedish format camera maker Victor Hasselblad AB in 2017. Before returning to China, he spent a decade in Sweden, during which he earned a PhD in domain-specific processor design. He also worked as a vice principal at fabless semiconductor company Coresonic AB and a director at the Swedish luxury sports car maker Koenigsegg AB.

“After seeing all these first-class technologies, it’s a stretch to say we [FJDynamics] are a high-tech company,” said the founder, who donned a slightly faded checkered shirt and a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on the morning of our interview.

We were sitting in a makeshift meeting room, a partition comprising a few desks separated from the rest of the open-plan office by movable walls. The company, located in Shenzhen’s bustling tech hub Shenzhen, was fast expanding and approaching 1,000 employees.

Wu Di, founder and CEO of FJDynamics

In 2019, Wu left DJI to start FJDynamics. The company set out with a focus on agricultural robots, building tools like unmanned lawnmowers, orchard sprayers and feed pushing machines. It has since ventured into other fields that depend heavily on manual work, such as construction and manufacturing.

As Beijing invokes a digital upgrade in the country’s traditional industries, Chinese companies like FJDynamics are in hot demand by investors. FJDynamics itself has attracted a rank of heavyweight financiers, including Tencent and state-owned automaker Dongfeng Asset Management. DJI had a stake in the company early on but has since sold off its shares.

It declined to name its sole investor in its latest Series B round and only said it is a major internet firm in China. The funding, the company said, will allow it to “grow its suite of robotics automation technology across agriculture, facility management, construction and gardening, along with supporting the increasing demand of the company’s ESG product offerings in over 60 countries.”

Over the years, a handful of engineers have left DJI to set up their own shops or join others’ fledgling projects. Portable battery maker EcoFlow, hairdryer Zuvi, electric toothbrush brand Evowera are among the most high-profile ones. For Wu, what drove him away from a prestigious position at the world’s largest drone company was a sense of disconnection he felt making “luxury” hardware.

“If you look at how robotic technology is being applied, there are a lot of companies using drones and autonomous vehicles. But the majority of people on earth aren’t benefiting from it.”

“Agriculture, construction, gardening… Work conditions in these sectors are physically demanding and there are still a lot of us doing this kind of job. The question is how we use robotic technology to improve their work environment, and that doesn’t mean simply replacing them with robots,” said the founder.

Image Credits: FJDynamics’ cow feed pusher, printed with the logo of Sveaverken, a Swedish farming company it acquired

One of FJDynamics’ popular products is the automated feed pusher. To produce high-quality milk, cows need to be fed about ten times throughout the day. The routine requires farms to have staff on-site 24 hours. A farm with 500 cows, for example, needs about three grass feeders to take shifts. But in poorer countries, farms can’t afford to have as many workers and staff could be out tending to the cows all day even in the coldest season.

FJDynamics aims to make farmers’ work easier. Its vision-guided feeder, which costs about 20,000 euros each, can feed up to 500 cows a day. In 2019, it acquired the 110-year-old Swedish farming company Sveaverken, which has helped put the Chinese firm’s feed pushing robots to work.

“I never talk about technology to my customers. The farmer is more interested in whether my product can help improve the crop yield,” said Wu. “Every farmer is an economist.”

Because of the company’s vision in “making tech affordable”, margins are “modest” and the management is vigilant about operational costs.

At the moment, about 40% of the startup’s sales happen outside China across some 60 countries. Many Chinese companies expanding overseas are increasingly cagey about their origin, fearing hostility against anything labeled “Chinese”. Wu takes a more proactive approach.

“Even though I’ve lived in Europe for ten years, I can’t rip off my skin. I don’t think that’s important — whether it’s a Chinese, American or Swedish entrepreneur… As long as you build great products and bring benefits to my customers, there will be users.”

Data compliance is especially key to a company’s global expansion. FJDynamics provides the hardware and software while its local partners help deploy the “system” using the data. Microsoft Azure is its main cloud partner outside China to allow “elastic deployment while meeting data privacy requirements such as GDPR.”

“Our culture is that we don’t want the data,” Wu said.

Unlike smartphones or drones that require sophisticated processors, FJDynamics’ products use relatively simple chips that could be found in China, so the firm is likely immune from the recent supply chain disruptions, the founder reckoned.

While Wu may not be working on the most advanced technology anymore, he looks for ways to impart his knowledge. When he’s not developing the next farming robot, he lectures at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

“I live a simple life that focuses on two things — product [FJDynamics] and education,” the founder said. “I’ve seen a lot and realized that money can’t change you or make you happier. So you need a simple goal, and achieving the simple goal makes your life happier.”

Second-hand car auction platform Motorway hits Unicorn status after $190M raise with Index, ICONIQ

It was only in June that Motorway – a U.K. platform on which professional car dealers can bid in an auction for privately owned cars for sale – raised $67.7 million in a Series B round. It’s now raised a $190m Series C funding round led by Index Ventures and ICONIQ Growth, a leading Silicon Valley technology growth investment firm. Existing investors Latitude, Unbound, and BMW i Ventures also participated in the round. The startup is now claiming a valuation of over $1bn.

Part of the reason is the impact of the COVID pandemic on supply chains. Second-hand cars have boomed in price because new cars are being made in smaller numbers due to the lack of supply of computer chips and other essential equipment from China.

On Motorway consumers can sell their car via a smartphone app that also uses computer vision to assess the state of the car. The cars are then bid on by professional car dealers in a daily online auction, with the car collected for free by the winning dealer within 24 hours. Given it’s also a “contactless” process, dealers and car owners increasingly seeking to buy and sell cars online.

Motorway says it now has a network of 4,000 professional car dealers using the platform and claims it has booked a 300% uplift in third-quarter sales to $411 million compared with $105 million last year. Some 100,000 used cars have been sold on Motorway since launch, with over 8,000 cars currently being sold a month, with over $2bn projected completed sales over the next year.

Motorway is also announcing the appointment of James Wilson, former Director of Marketplace Fulfillment for Amazon UK, as Chief Operating Officer.

Tom Leathes, CEO of Motorway, said: “8,000 car sales a month is still less than one percent of UK used car sales – so there’s a massive opportunity ahead.”

Danny Rimer, Partner at Index Ventures, said: “Since joining the board, following our initial investment in June, I have experienced first-hand just how fast Motorway is growing and how agile the team is in scaling the business to support this incredible growth.”

Yoonkee Sull, Partner at ICONIQ Growth said: “The used car market’s move online is only accelerating and we believe Motorway is delivering the best consumer experience and the most differentiated supply to dealers in the UK.”

This latest investment brings Motorway’s all-time raise to $273m since it was founded by Leathes, Harry Jones and Alex Buttle in 2017.

In a call with me Leathes added: “There’s no connection with BMW particularly, but they are automotive specialists so they bring quite a lot of knowledge to the white broader market and trends that are happening. They were also part of the B along with Latitude and Unbound.”

“What motorway does differently to a lot of competitors is that we are we’re not a retailer. We don’t own inventory. We’re a marketplace. And so that that allows us to scale much more quickly,” he said.

Paris asks scooter sharing services to restrict speed to 10km/h

Riding a scooter in Paris will soon feel incredibly… slow. The City of Paris has announced that scooter sharing services should restrict the maximum top speed to 10km/h (that’s 6.2mph). That decision comes following a number of pedestrian injuries that involved a scooter.

Paris has been an important market for scooter sharing companies. It’s a dense city with an important network of bike lanes. There are also a lot of tourists looking for different ways to explore the city.

For those reasons, the situation used to be a bit out of control. At some point, 16 different scooter startups wanted to operate a fleet of scooters in Paris. Paris ended up selecting three companies and implementing a set of rules. Dott, Lime and Tier won permits to operate shared electric scooters for two years.

Since then, things have been going well for those three companies. This year alone, Dott raised $85 million in a mix of equity and asset-backed debt financing, Tier recently raised $200 million in debt and equity, and Lime closed a $523 million raise in convertible debt and term loan financing. Except that scooters became a public safety issues for riders, but also for people just walking down the street. According to the AFP, scooters have been involved in 298 accidents in 2021 alone. 329 people have been injured and two persons died.

In particular, a dramatic event occurred back in June 2021. Two women were riding a scooter near the Seine at night. They hit a pedestrian and left her there. A couple of days later, she passed away at the hospital.

The relationship between the City of Paris and scooter startups never really went back to normal following the accident. On July 1st, Paris listed a dozen areas with a high density of pedestrians, such as the Tuileries and Palais Royal gardens or the Bastille and République squares. Scooter sharing companies agreed to limit the maximum speed to 10km/h in these areas using real-time geolocation.

In September, the City of Paris asked each arrondissement administration to list areas where the top speed of scooters should be limited to 10km/h. The result was a patchwork of 700 slow zones. And scooter startups agreed to implement those zones in their respective service.

But the City of Paris wants to go even further than that. The entire city is now a slow zone for scooter startups, except a couple of streets that have wide lanes for bikes, scooters and other micromobility vehicles. Of couse, if you have your own scooter, those restrictions won’t apply to your personal device. The new restrictions on scooter sharing services will be implemented during the first half of December.

The only good news is that the scooter tender has been extended by six months. Dott, Lime and Tier will keep their scooter permits until February 2023. But today’s new rules could have some significant consequences on usage in Paris.

Regulating mopeds

In other news, the City of Paris is also going to regulate free-floating electric mopeds. There are currently five companies operating in Paris — Cityscoot, Cooltra, Lime, Yego and Troopy. Other companies are also working on a launch in Paris.

Paris wants to regulate mopeds with permits. It’ll work a bit like scooter permits, except that those permits will last five years. Only two or three companies will be able to operate a fleet of mopeds in Paris. The new system will start on September 1st, 2022.