After inking its OpenAI deal, Shutterstock rolls out a generative AI toolkit to create images based on text prompts

When Shutterstock and OpenAI announced a partnership to help develop OpenAI’s Dall-E 2 artificial intelligence image-generating platform with Shutterstock libraries to train and feed the algorithm, the stock photo and media giant also hinted that it would soon be bringing its own generative AI tools to users. Today the company took the wraps off that product. Customers of Shutterstock’s Creative Flow online design platform will now be able to create images based on text prompts, powered by OpenAI and Dall-E 2.

Key to the feature — which does not appear to have a brand name as such — is that Shutterstock says the images are “ready for licensing” right after they’re made. 

This is significant given that one of Shutterstock’s big competitors, Getty Images, is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against Stability AI — maker of another generative AI service called Stable Diffusion — over using its images to train its AI without permission from Getty or rightsholders.

In other words, Shutterstock’s service is not only embracing the ability to use AI, rather than the skills of a human photographer, to build the image you want to discover, but it’s setting the company up in opposition to Getty in terms of how it is embracing the brave new world of artificial intelligence.

Stability AI has been backed with significant funding, but as of yesterday, not as much as OpenAI, which closed a massive, $10 billion round and extended partnership with Microsoft.

In addition to Shutterstock’s work with OpenAI, the company earlier this month also announced an expanded deal with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp parent Meta, which will be (similar to OpenAI) using Shutterstock’s photo and other media libraries (it also has video and music) to build its AI datasets and to train its algorithms. You can expect more generative AI tools to be rolling out as a result.

What’s interesting is that while we don’t know the financial terms of those deals with OpenAI, Meta or another partner, LG, there is a clear commercial end point with these services. Shutterstock’s bet seems to be that it’s worth jumping in and getting involved with these new technologies, and try to build a business around them, rather than stand by and let itself get cannibalized by those tools.

The big question will be whether what Shutterstock offers will have a clear enough differentiation, and unique selling point, from others offering generative AI tools for making images. Yes the licensing is currently one aspect that will be compelling, but longer term, if all are built on the same platform, what will set one apart from the other? In image libraries the idea is that one might simply have a better selection, better pricing, better discovery, and overall better experience, for the paying customer (and for the photographer uploading images). Will those parameters remain the same in the AI world or be obliterated?

To be fair, Shutterstock is pitching itself as an “ethical” partner here, with promises of paying out to artists whose images have been used to feed these new services. Again, though, the issue will be whether these payouts be anywhere near the compensation those artists and photographers might have gotten for supplying the images themselves.

“Shutterstock has developed strategic partnerships over the past two years with key industry players like OpenAI, Meta, and LG AI Research to fuel their generative AI research efforts, and we are now able to uniquely bring responsibly-produced generative AI capabilities to our own customers,” said Paul Hennessy, Chief Executive Officer at Shutterstock, in a statement today. “Our easy-to-use generative platform will transform the way people tell their stories — you no longer have to be a design expert or have access to a creative team to create exceptional work. Our tools are built on an ethical approach and on a library of assets that represents the diverse world we live in, and we ensure that the artists whose works contributed to the development of these models are recognized and rewarded.”

After inking its OpenAI deal, Shutterstock rolls out a generative AI toolkit to create images based on text prompts by Ingrid Lunden originally published on TechCrunch

Shutterstock to integrate OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 and launch fund for contributor artists

Stock image giant Shutterstock has announced a major push into AI generated imagery today in partnership with OpenAI, expanding on a strategic tie-up the pair announced last year.

The partnership between Shutterstock and OpenAI will see the latter’s DALL-E 2 image-generating AI system integrating with Shutterstock content and made available to Shutterstock users worldwide — with the integration slated to launch “in the coming months”.

AI generated imagery refers to machine learning technology that’s been trained on visual data so it can respond to text-based prompts with a picture reflecting the description. The quality of the results can vary wildly but these AI systems has been coming on in leaps and bounds lately — causing equal parts awe and anger; with many tech users celebrating the ‘democratization’ of art, while visual artists, whose work may have been appropriated as training fodder for these AIs, can be left feeling ripped off.

Unsurprisingly, given these sensitivities, Shutterstock’s push into generative AI is being framed as an “ethical” action plan — which includes the launch of a fund to “compensate artists for their contributions”, as its press release puts it.

It also says it will be focusing R&D efforts on “gathering and publishing insights related to AI-generated content” — with the goal of positioning itself “at the forefront of the emerging technology”.

So, er, RIP stock photographers? Or will the work of stock photographers’ end up being largely redirected towards capturing training data for honing AI models? (‘AI doesn’t kill jobs it changes them’ is the usual mantra applied to the rise of automation — albeit, oftentimes AI replaces lots of jobs with fewer, more specialist jobs so the ratio of winners to losers isn’t necessarily equal, nor is the wealth typically equally distributed…)

Shutterstock says contributors will be “compensated” for the role their content played in the development of this technology — which raises plenty of questions, such as how will contributors be identified and how much will they be paid; how will their contribution be quantified exactly; and how will they know if they’re getting fair payment for their contribution or not? Who will audit these compensation frameworks? And, er, where was the consent from artists to becoming contributors to these AI systems in the first place?

“Shutterstock believes that AI-generated content is the cumulative effort of its contributing artists. In an effort to create a new industry standard and unlock new revenue streams for the Company’s artist community, Shutterstock has also created the framework to provide additional compensation for artists whose works have contributed to develop the AI models,” Shutterstock writes — dubbing its framework “ethical and equitable”; and saying it will also “aim” to compensate contributors (“in the form of royalties”) when their intellectual property is used.

Commenting in a statement, Paul Hennessy, Shutterstock’s CEO, added: “The mediums to express creativity are constantly evolving and expanding. We recognize that it is our great responsibility to embrace this evolution and to ensure that the generative technology that drives innovation is grounded in ethical practices. We have a long history of integrating AI into every part of our business. This expert-level competency makes Shutterstock the ideal partner to help our creative community navigate this new technology. And we’re committed to developing best practices and experiences to deliver on our purpose, which is to empower the world to create with confidence.”

“The data we licensed from Shutterstock was critical to the training of DALL-E,” confirmed Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, in another supporting statement, before adding: “We’re excited for Shutterstock to offer DALL-E images to its customers as one of the first deployments through our API, and we look forward to future collaborations as artificial intelligence becomes an integral part of artists’ creative workflows.”

Shutterstock is operating a wait list for getting access to the forthcoming integration of its content with OpenAi’s DALL-E 2 image generator — the list is available on its website.

Shutterstock to integrate OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 and launch fund for contributor artists by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch

Nue Life Health raises $23M Series A Led by Obvious Ventures for psychedelics platform

Last year we covered the $3.3 million seed round for NUE Life Health, a US-based telemedicine startup in the US, which was building out a mental wellness platform that combined psychedelic-assisted therapies and a graph database-driven app. This at-home ketamine therapy – considered a radically new way to treat depression – also combines music therapies and a data-led, ‘quantified self’ approach.

It’s now raised a $23 million Series A equity financing led by Obvious Ventures (co-founded by Ev Williams, Co-founder of Twitter), which also includes additional venture debt financing from Western Technology Investment. TechCrunch understands the lion share for the round was in equity.

The financing follows Nue Life’s November 2021 Nue.App and Nue.Portal launch, the company’s proprietary technologies serving patients and providers.

New Life competes with Mindbloom, which raised a total of $3.2M and was later acquired by Welltok. Another is Field Trip Health which also has actual treatment centers.

The new round of funding will support its new services in service in New York, as well as the existing locations of Florida, Texas, California, Colorado, and Washington State. In April, the service will expand to Georgia and Massachusetts, and twenty additional states are planned by the end of the year.

Juan Pablo Cappello, Nue Life co-founder and CEO said in a statement: “650 million people struggle with mental health worldwide, and there is a vital need for helping women, veterans, and other folks experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD that have not been helped by traditional treatments.”

“We’re thrilled to be a part of Nue Life’s efforts to create a new paradigm for mental health— one focused on healing the root cause of suffering,” added James Joaquin, co-founder and Managing Director of Obvious Ventures.

The equity financing also included a number of existing and new investors including Magic Venture Capital, Myelin VC, Palm Drive Capital, some Getty family investors, Jon Oringer, founder and executive chairman of Shutterstock, Brent L. Saunders, chairman of Vesper Healthcare and former chairman and president of Allergan, and Andrey Ostrovsky, MD, who also joins Nue Life’s advisory board.

Phil Wolfson, MD, has also joined the company’s advisory board to develop its care programme. Dr. Wolfson is the CEO of the non-profit Ketamine Research Foundation and the author of The Ketamine Papers, and the the principal investigator of the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) study on MDMA treatment for patients with life-threatening illnesses.

Nvidia expands its Omniverse

Omniverse is Nvidia’s platform for allowing creators, designers and engineers to collaboratively build virtual worlds. It’s the company’s platform that brings together design tools and assets from first- and third-party applications into a single hardware and software ecosystem. Until now, Omniverse and the various Nvidia tools that support it were in beta, but at CES today, the company took off the beta label and made Omniverse generally available to creators.

The company says Omniverse has already been downloaded by almost 100,000 creators and with today’s update, it is bringing a number of new features to the platform, too. These include the Omniverse Nucleus Cloud, a service for sharing large Omniverse 3D scenes that will make it possible for creators and clients to collaborate on scenes in a way that’s similar to working on a cloud-shared document (and without having to move a ton of data for every small change).

Image Credits: Nvidia

At the core of Omniverse is the Universal Scene Description format, which makes it easy to import assets from a wide variety of existing tools. But sometimes, you just want a basic 3D asset and are willing to pay for it, so Nvidia also now added support for 3D marketplaces and libraries from the likes of TurboSquid by Shutterstock, CGTrader, Sketchfab and Twinbru in the Omniverse Launcher. Reallusion’s ActorCore, Daz3D and e-on software’s PlantCatalog will soon launch their own Omniverse-ready assets, too.

Image Credits: Nvidia

For free assets, Omniverse is expanding its set of Omniverse Machinima assets with new characters and objects from games like Shadow Warrior 3 and Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.

And when you need your character to speak, Omniverse Audio2Face, an existing AI-enabled app that animates 3D faces with the help of an audiotrack, now features blendshape support and the ability to export directly to Epic’s MetaHuman Creator app.

Read more about CES 2022 on TechCrunch

TechCrunch+ roundup: VCs rate pitch decks, IPO analysis, Techstars’ expansion plans

No one’s going to tell you when your startup has reached product-market fit — there are no flashing lights, no siren, no balloons falling from the ceiling.

“Especially for first-time founders, assessing product-market fit at a stage where it’s mostly anticipation can be as much art as science,” writes News Editor Darrell Etherington, who interviewed three VCs about the topic for TechCrunch Disrupt:

  • Heather Hartnett, Human Ventures
  • David Thacker, Greylock
  • Victoria Treyger, Felicis

“In the early days and the ideas phase, founders lean a little bit heavier into what’s happening in the world in macro and in your industry that really makes this problem,” said Treyger.

Full TechCrunch+ articles are only available to members.
Use discount code TCPLUSROUNDUP to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.

Thacker said entrepreneurs should be open to raising as much as possible during the concept phase to make sure they have freedom to tinker and iterate.

“I’ve seen some founders — as a VC, this is gonna sound self-serving me saying this — but I’ve seen some founders that raise way too little capital in their pre-seed round or their seed round. And they don’t give themselves enough time or enough runway to experiment.”

As with the other Disrupt recaps, there’s also a complete video of their conversation. We’re planning to post the remaining rundowns next week, so watch this space.

Thanks very much for reading TechCrunch+ this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch+

Global startups raise $158B in Q3, an all-time record

Image of businesspeople climbing ladders up an arrow toward three increasingly tall piles of cash.

Image Credits: sorbetto (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

This year, investors pumped a record amount of venture capital into the world’s startups: In Q2 2021, VCs invested $156 billion, upping that to $158 billion in Q3.

“The numbers are effectively a tie, meaning that we’ve just lived through the two strongest periods for investment into private companies in the history of startups,” write Anna Heim, Ryan Lawler, Mary Ann Azevedo and Alex Wilhelm.

Udemy files to go public on back of growing B2B incomes

Udemy filed to go public this week in the wake of Duolingo’s successful flotation earlier this year, and Alex Wilhelm’s read of its S-1 is that the edtech firm will likely price above its final private-market valuation.

“Udemy is a somewhat stable consumer edtech offering inside a recurring-revenue B2B product,” he writes.

“If we only valued Udemy on its business revenues, at its final private-market valuation, it would be worth 4.5x its Q2 2021 ARR. That’s incredibly cheap. And its consumer business has value as well.”

After a proxy fight victory, it’s time for Box to make some bold moves

Aaron Levie CEO of Box on stage in front of Box logo.

Image Credits: Box

The last few years included a delayed IPO filing and a proxy battle with a major shareholder, but events are unfolding nicely for Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie these days.

Enterprise reporter Ron Miller says this is “a pivotal moment for the cloud content management company,” so he interviewed Levie to learn more about his plans, particularly in light of the company’s recent revenue growth.

For balance, Ron also spoke to Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis.

“The next year is pivotal for Box,” he said. “It has to prove that it was right to win the proxy fight. To do that, it has to evolve the Box platform and grow steadily but surely and continue to carve out a niche for itself in the market.”

VCs say there are more startup opportunities to chase in Latin America

Ahead of Q3 venture capital numbers pouring in, Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim tried to identify potential gaps in the funding market for Latin American startups, discovering that while more tech companies in the region are raising funds, there are still ample opportunities for intrepid investors.

Here’s who they spoke with:

  • Nathan Lustig, managing partner, Magma
  • Julio Vasconcellos, managing partner, Atlantico
  • Antonia Rojas, partner, ALLVP

Why emerging technology founders should tackle the hardest problems first

A step ladder standing in an empty domestic room mid renovation.

Image Credits: Keep It 100 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Rebecca Bellan interviewed Sila Nano founder Gene Berdichevsky about how founders who work on emerging tech should think about scaling, should approach funding and why they should go after the hardest problem first.

“Don’t be afraid to just go for the teeth of the dragon, so to speak,” said Berdichevsky, who led the development of the Tesla Roadster’s battery pack.

“Because if you get knocked out, you can get back up and hopefully you still have the motivation to do it again.”

What Rent the Runway’s IPO filing says about the business of loaner garments

As he looked at Q4’s cohort of IPO candidates, Alex Wilhelm examined Rent the Runway’s recently filed S-1 to see how well a company that offers gowns on loan has performed in an era where formal wear is more likely to mean a pair of sweatpants than a strapless Monique Lhuillier.

The pandemic has been a tough time for the company, he found. Additionally, “the gap between gross profit and gross profit excluding the cost of clothing depreciation is huge.”

Stephanie Zhan walks through the Rec Room pitch deck that won Sequoia’s investment

Image Credits: Rec Room

In a recent episode of TechCrunch Live, Sequoia partner Stephanie Zhan reviewed the earliest pitch deck for social gaming company Rec Room with Nick Fajt, its founder and CEO.

Since Sequoia placed its bet on Rec Room, the company has raised nearly $150 million.

“I think Nick did a wonderful job of setting the tone for the type of social platform Rec Room wanted to be from the start,” said Zhan.

“What type of social identity do we want people to have? What type of interactions do we want people to be able to have? I think it’s been a huge differentiator for Rec Room from the start.”

The Athletic’s numbers look fine actually?

After a report from The Information stating The Athletic “hemorrhaged” $100 million between 2019 and 2020 inspired lots of Twitter chatter, Alex Wilhelm studied the subscription sports media site’s publicly available metrics and failed to find much of a problem.

“A company doing nine figures of recurring subscription revenues is valuable, even if we presume that The Athletic has far lesser gross margins than your average software outfit,” he wrote.

Getting the details right in your pitch deck

Man cutting wheatgrass with scissor, close-up

Image Credits: PM Images (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For the Pitch Deck Teardown at TechCrunch Disrupt, Managing Editor Danny Crichton reviewed two decks, “one consumer and one enterprise,” with three VCs:

  • Maren Bannon, co-founder and managing partner, January Ventures
  • Vanessa Larco, partner, NEA
  • Ben Ling, founder and general partner, Bling Capital

Only the most exceptional pitch decks will receive more than a few minutes of attention, so Danny selected four slides “that provoked our panelists to show how VCs can have radically different views on the same material.”

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong might not be having fun at work, you guys

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong posted a Twitter thread this week suggesting that the U.S. could be at risk of stifling its future CEO talent because “the number of rounds of attacks from press, politicians and trolls on CEOs (and rounds of congressional testimony) makes the job not fun.”

After reviewing Armstrong’s thoughts, Alex Wilhelm had a few of his own:

“There are a great many things to discuss in the above. As far as hot takes go, this is a collection of scorchers.”

Why Techstars is doubling down on Europe

Anna Heim and Alex Wilhelm interviewed Techstars CEO Maëlle Gavet to learn more about why the accelerator is launching new European programs in Paris and one in Stockholm.

After noting that Techstars isn’t yet present in every European national capital, she said that “there is enough space for some of [those] cities to have six, seven, eight, up to 10 programs per year,” and that “there are multiple cities in Europe that [could] easily accommodate between 50 and 100 pre-seed investments by Techstars every year.”

Nordetect’s system to monitor soil and water for indoor agriculture raises seed funding

As indoor farming expands, a number of new companies are cropping up to provide better data and monitoring tools for the businesses aimed at improving efficiencies and quality of indoor crops. 

One of these companies, the Copenhagen-based Nordetect, is entering the U.S. market with around $1.5 million in funding from government investment firms and traditional accelerators like SOS V, with a tech that the company claims can give vertical farms a better way to monitor and manage nutrients and water quality.

Controlled agriculture, whether in greenhouses or warehouses, benefits from its ability to administer every aspect of the inputs to ensure that plants have the optimal growing conditions. It is, however, far more expensive than just seeding the ground.

Proponents say that these farms can overcome the additional expense by improving efficiency around water use, reducing the application of pesticides and fertilizer, and cultivating for better, tastier produce.

That’s where Keenan Pinto and Palak Sehgal’s Nordetect comes in. The two co-founders have known each other since they were undergraduates in India eight years ago. They went on to do their masters work together and after working in bioengineering plants — Sehgal focused on flowering systems in plants and Pinto focused on roots — they both went into more digital fields — but maintained their fascination with plants and kept in touch with each other.

Professional work in medical diagnostics for Sehgal and lab instrumentation for Pinto kept both busy, but they continued their discussions around plant science and soil health.

Roughly three years ago, the two hit on the idea for a combined toolkit for water quality monitoring and soil health. Sehgal left the India Institutes of Technology, where she had been working, and joined Pinto in Copenhagen to begin developing the tech that would form the core of Nordetect’s business proposition full time.

The company’s technology consists of an analyzer and a cartridge, a microfluidic chip that users can insert into their water tank to take a sample. From the data that the device collects, farmers can control the nutrients they put into the water to optimize for traits like color and flavor, Pinto said.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Francesco83

The company was accepted into SOSV’s Hax accelerator in 2017 and the two first time founders moved from Denmark to Shenzhen to begin developing the business. In late 2018 the company moved back to Denmark and raised a small amount of additional capital from SOSV and Rockstart.

By 2020, watching the expansion of vertical farming, the company took what had initially been a soil monitoring tool and added water quality monitoring features to support indoor farming. That’s when the business started taking off, according to Pinto.

“One of the interesting things is when i consider the outdoor vs. the indoor markets. The outdoor felt a bit conservative… the indoor seems much more forthcoming… and that traction allowed us to pull together this funding round $1.5 million,” Pinto said. 

The new round came from Rockstart, Preseed Ventures, SOSV, the government of Denmark’s growth fund, and Luminate, a Rochester, NY-based accelerator that focuses on optical electronics technology.

Luminate’s participation is one reason why Nordetect is coming to the U.S., but it’s hardly the only reason. There’s also the capital that has come in to finance indoor ag companies. The two largest vertical farming companies in the U.S., Plenty and Bowery Farming have raised $541 million and $167 million between them.

“The vertical movement has put people into the position where they are what I call data farmers,” said Pinto. “Each batch of produce is being used to learn and the data is more important than the output. We used this market as a beachhead.”

3D model provider CGTrader raises $9.5M Series B led by Evli Growth Partners

3D model provider CGTrader, has raised $9.5M in a Series B funding led by Finnish VC fund Evli Growth Partners, alongside previous investors Karma Ventures and LVV Group. Ex-Rovio CEO Mikael Hed also invested and joins as Board Chairman. We first covered the Vilnius-based company when it raised 200,000 euro from Practica Capital.

Founded in 2011 by 3D designer Marius Kalytis (now COO), CGTrader has become a signifiant 3D content provider – it even claims to be the world’s largest. In its marketplace are 1.1M 3D models and 3.5M 3D designers, service 370,000 businesses including Nike, Microsoft,, Crate & Barrel, and Staples.

Unlike photos, 3D models can also be used to create both static images as well as AR experiences, so that users can see how a product might fit in their home. The company is also looking to invest in automating 3D modeling, QA, and asset management processes with AI. 

Dalia Lasaite, CEO and co-founder of CGTrader said in a statement: “3D models are not only widely used in professional 3D industries, but have become a more convenient and cost-effective way of generating amazing product visuals for e-commerce as well. With our ARsenal enterprise platform, it is up to ten times cheaper to produce photorealistic 3D visuals that are indistinguishable from photographs.”

CGTrader now plans to consolidate its position and further develop its platform.

The company competes with TurboSquid (which was recently acquired for $75 million by Shutterstock) and Threekit.

RWDC Industries is a new startup hoping to become a bioplastics giant in Athens, Ga.

Daniel Carraway spent his entire career working in paper and bioplastics.

The serial entrepreneur began his career at International Paper working in their research division before founding two previous companies which became cornerstones of the bioplastics industry. His latest venture, RWDC Industries, has raised $133 million in a recent financing to build a new sustainable manufacturing juggernaut in the small city of Athens, Ga.

With offices in Athens and Singapore, RWDC is the fruit of a partnership between Carraway and Roland Wee, an engineer with decades of experience in the chemicals and construction business across Asia.

The two men met through mutual connections as Carraway sought new opportunities to pursue his longtime vision of commercializing bioplastics.  The serial entrepreneur had just stepped away from his work with  Meredian Holdings Group and its subsidiary, Danimer Scientific — companies that sprung from work Carraway started at his kitchen table with his wife back in 2004, he said.

In 2019, bioplastics represented a $95 million opportunity according to a report in Market Data Forecast, but the small size of the current market belies how big the opportunity can be, according to Carraway.

RWDC, Danimer, and Kaneka are all pursuing an opportunity to replace plastic packaging, which was a $234.14 billion market, according to GrandViewResearch. It’s that potential market for plastics that has drawn countless companies over the years — including Carraway’s own — to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

Several of those companies failed. Perhaps the most successful of the early high-flyers was Metabolix, which had a public offering before the financial crisis hit in 2008. That company sold its bioplastics division to CJ CheilJedang for roughly $10 million and pivoted to crop science.

Carraway insists that the market has changed over the last few decades and the time is finally right for biology to supplant chemistry in industrial manufacturing.

“If you look back at the history of new materials development… especially polymers.. There has never been a new polymer that had been invented that didn’t take twenty to thirty years for it to make wide scale adoption,” said Carraway. “When a polymer is first developed it takes a while to get the manufacturing right to get it at wide scale. [And] it takes time for polymer converters to understand how to use a new material… it’s not that technologically it’s not viable it’s about figuring out how to use the new material.”

Scale is important too, said Carraway. “You have to reach a certain critical availability in metric tons available in the global market to create a situation where people can use the new material,” he said.

RWDC can already make about 5,000 tons of PHA and expects to grow its capacity to make half a million tons of material, but that barely scratches the surface of available capacity for traditional plastics. “For the next decade we’re going to be in a mad scramble to grow production capacity because we’re going to be behind the demand curve,” said Carraway.

Industry observers have seen this story before. Because the new material Carraway is talking about isn’t actually all that new. For at least the past twenty years companies have been working on ways to cheaply manufacture polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). The material is produced by the fermentation of oil or sugars and serve as a replacement for the chemicals that are made from cracking ethane (a product of oil processing) to make plastic.

However, as concerns continue to mount over the environmental degradation caused by plastic pollutants and the contributions the plastics industry makes to emissions causing global climate change, the push for replacing plastics with more sustainable products has gained momentum.

Regulations in Europe will ban many single use plastic products next year forcing companies to build out their supply of bioplastic alternatives or abandon the use of plastics altogether.

Market moves like these have the potential to spur the bioplastics industry and shift production into high gear. Carraway said demand hasn’t been effected by the collapse of oil prices which has driven down the costs of chemicals and plastics.

“Even though our materials are initially more expensive… the amount that they cost over the commodities in normal circumstances isn’t that much,” Carraway said. “Every customer we’re working with has asked us to speed up and give them more. No one has said we want to slow down or scale back or change our plans.”

And propelling the industry forward could provide a lift to local economies that have been financially ravaged by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

At least, that’s what Carraway is hoping will happen in Athens, Ga.

The company is using some of the money it raised from international and US-based investors including the Singapore-based venture capital firm Vickers Venture Partners; IKEA’s investment company; a Swiss pension fund; a Northeastern energy provider; and an industrial chemical company owned by Koch Industries to revive an old factory in the city as its new production plant. 

RWDC said the new facility will bring in 200 jobs to northeastern Georgia.

“We are excited to see RWDC expand its operations in Athens and add a substantial number of new well-paying jobs,” said Athens-Clarke County Mayor, Kelly Girtz. “Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, and we have a long record of supporting innovation and industry. Like communities across America and the world, we want to see a reduction in plastic pollution, and we have high hopes that RWDC, with the help of the Athens community at their new facility, will be able to solve that problem.”

Shutterstock founder and CEO Jon Oringer steps down after 16 years

It’s an end of an era — and you might just want to snap a photo of it, and just maybe upload it for others to purchase

Jon Oringer, who founded New York City-based Shutterstock in 2003, announced today that he would be stepping away from his duties as CEO at the photo sharing and commerce company, effective in April. He will move on to be Executive Chairman of the board, and says in a letter posted this morning that he intends “to continue to be involved in the strategy and direction of the business including yearly planning, regular off-sites, M&A, capital allocation, and other large initiatives.”

Shutterstock, a publicly-traded company that debuted on NYSE in October of 2012, has grown prodigiously from its humble origins as a startup. The company today has a market cap of just under $1.5 billion, and has seen reasonable revenue growth over the past few years, expanding from just shy of $500 million in 2016 to $623 million in 2018. The company has been profitable, posting a full-year net income of $31 million in 2018, according to Yahoo Finance.

In his letter this morning, Oringer says that his proudest accomplishment though was disbursing more than $1 billion in earnings to freelance photographers and other creatives through the platform since its founding.

The timing of the announcement coincided with Shutterstock’s Q4 and 2018 financial results yesterday, which were a mixed bag. Overall revenue increased by 4% compared to a year ago, but net income sank 63%, and net income per share also declined by nearly 22%.

Those middling results were in line with the company’s trajectory over the past few years. The company’s market cap peaked in early 2014 at nearly $3.5 billion but has since hovered between $1 billion and $2 billion since 2015. Oringer says in his letter that he is the largest shareholder today in the company.

In addition to the company’s somewhat lackluster financial results, Shutterstock has also gotten into hot water recently over its censorship of search results in China. Sam Biddle at The Intercept showed in November last year that the company plowed over internal employee concerns in its pursuit of additional revenues from the Middle Kingdom.

Challenges around censorship, representation, and ultimately business fundamentals like revenue growth and profit will be on the mind of Stan Pavlovsky, who has moved up through a number of roles at the company and will assume the CEO title upon Oringer’s departure.

Google has little choice to be evil or not in today’s fractured internet

Well, we got to January 2nd before the latest angry resignation published by a tech executive on Medium.

Today’s installment comes from Ross LaJeunesse, who was head of international relations at Google and served for more than a decade in various roles at the company. He denounces what he sees as Google’s increasingly failed ambitions to be a company principled on human rights, and poses a series of questions about the future of tech and capitalism:

I think the important question is what does it mean when one of America’s marque’ companies changes so dramatically. Is it the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility? Is it in some way related to the corruption that has gripped our federal government? Is this part of the global trend toward “strong man” leaders who are coming to power around the globe, where questions of “right” and “wrong” are ignored in favor of self-interest and self-dealing? Finally, what are the implications for all of us when that once-great American company controls so much data about billions of users across the globe?

The whole read is interesting, and covers Google’s China operations, its Project Dragonfly censored search crisis, Saudi Arabia’s apps in Google Cloud, and his own personal experience with Google HR.

It’s a manifesto of sorts, and perhaps that isn’t surprising given that LaJeunesse is also running for the Democratic primary in Maine’s senatorial election to compete against Republican incumbent Susan Collins. His critiques of Big Tech seem to be channeling Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley, and that makes it a fascinating political strategy.

But let’s focus in on the key question at the heart of this debate: does Google have the ability to be “good” or “evil” when it comes to tech’s influence on society? Does it have agency to make a difference on human rights in countries around the world?

My answer is: Google used to have a lot of agency, which is unfortunately declining very, very rapidly.

I’ve talked about the fracturing of the internet into different spheres of influence for quite literally years. Countries like China in particular, but also Russia, Iran and others are seizing more and more exacting control of the internet’s plumbing and applications, subsuming the original internet’s spirit of openness and freedom and placing this communications medium under their iron fists.

As this fracturing has occurred, companies like Google, or Shutterstock, or even the NBA have increasingly faced what I’ve called an “authoritarian straddle” — they can either work with these countries and follow the local rules, or they can just get out, with serious ramifications for their home markets.

Those are the extent of the choices these companies have. Shutterstock is not going to change China’s policy toward photos of the Tiananmen Square protests, any more than Google can try to launch a search engine on the mainland or change Saudi Arabia’s deplorable women’s rights.

To have any agency here at all, you need a monopoly on a product or service so important that the dictatorship has to accept the terms you offer. In other words, these companies need extreme leverage, essentially the ability to go to the regimes and say, “No, fuck you, here’s how it is going to work, we’re going to follow human rights, and you have no choice in the matter.”

What tech companies are discovering — even massive giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft — is that they really, truly don’t have that kind of leverage in these countries anymore. Not even Apple, which employs hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers through its subcontractors in China, can move the needle in that country anymore. Iran shut off the internet for a period of time to dampen the intensity of political protests in that country. Russia last week tested shutting off the internet to make sure it can just pull the plug when it wants.

If whole countries can just flip the switch and turn off “tech,” exactly what leverage do any of these companies have in the first place?

And that diminution of power is a trend that tech companies, and particularly American tech companies, haven’t fully grappled with. They don’t really get a choice anymore in the decisions here. China has its own search engine, and increasingly, its own mobile phone ecosystem unencumbered by U.S. patents and therefore U.S. policy. If Azure leaves Saudi Arabia, Alibaba Cloud is more than willing to step into the gap and make the money instead.

So when you get to LaJeunesse’s comments that he pushed Google internally to formalize some of its values:

My solution was to advocate for the adoption of a company-wide, formal Human Rights Program that would publicly commit Google to adhere to human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements, and formalize the use of Human Rights Impact Assessments for all major product launches and market entries.

… one can’t help but feel solace for an optimistic world where a better product design review process might have once improved global human rights.

The issue is far simpler though than it was in the past. You don’t need a human rights protocol, or some sort of review process for market entry. You are either in, or you are out. You either launch in these countries and deal with the inevitable human rights abuses and concomitant consumer protests in the home market, or you maintain your values and you walk away, ignoring the profit mirage from these regimes in the process.

That’s why I recently argued that Google and the NBA should just walk away. I still hold that belief. It’s also why I called on Shutterstock to leave China and return to its more open and free values. No U.S. tech company today has the leverage to make a dent on human rights the way that they did a decade ago. The internet has fractured, data sovereignty is on the rise, and there’s a binary choice to be made whether to engage or to flee. Ultimately, I take LaJeunesse’s side — these companies should walk, because there really isn’t much choice otherwise.