Crime tracking app Citizen acquires Harbor, a disaster prep app

The controversial crime watch app Citizen announced today that it will acquire Harbor, a disaster preparedness app and tech firm. This is Citizen’s first acquisition, though financial details of the deal were not disclosed. TechCrunch reached out to Citizen for more information but hasn’t received a response.

“Transforming public safety is a massive undertaking and requires an incredible team and set of products to accelerate our mission globally. We’re excited with this acquisition of harbor, along with their technology, products and team,” said Citizen founder and CEO Andrew Frame in a press release.

In the 60 U.S. cities where it operates, the company says it delivers over 20 million alerts, sourced from public 911 blotters and verified by staff, each day. Users used to be able to report incidents directly to Citizen, but now its website encourages them to call 911 instead.

Harbor, which raised a $5 million seed round about a year and a half ago, gamifies the process of preparing for crises like fires and earthquakes. The app, which launched in October 2020, asks users to enter their zip code. Then, they’re told what disasters are most likely to befall them (which sounds a little terrifying).

From week to week, Harbor provides users with preparedness tasks that only take a few minutes, rather than bombarding them with a massive emergency list to handle all at once. These tasks can include checking smoke detectors or stocking a go-bag at first — later on, users might be encouraged to take on more time-intensive safety measures, like learning CPR.

“I couldn’t be happier for our team to join Citizen and its mission to make your world a safer place,” said Dan Kessler, the CEO of harbor, who will join Citizen as Chief Business Officer. “There’s so much we will do together to continue building our new technology category around mobile safety.”

This acquisition could help Citizen give users ways to stay safe that don’t involve anxiety-inducing alerts about nearby incidents. Citizen also recently launched Protect, a $20/month service that lets users contact a Citizen agent if they feel unsafe, but don’t want to call 911.

Now with 10 million users, Citizen has been embroiled in various controversies over the years. Starting in 2016, the app — previously called Vigilante — was removed from the App Store for encouraging activities that could lead to risk or physical harm (this iteration of the app suggested that average people should approach the problem of crime “as a group,” the company wrote at launch).

The app has also come under fire for offering to pay users $30,000 for information about a suspected arsonist who turned out to be innocent, as well as trying to deploy private security workers to examine the scene of reported crimes.

 

Activision Blizzard won’t voluntarily recognize the historic Raven Software QA union

Last week, quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard division Raven Software formed the first union at a major U.S. gaming company, comprising their 34-member unit. But last night, the gaming giant — which is slated to be acquired by Microsoft for $67.8 billionannounced that it will not voluntarily recognize this union.

Now, the newly formed Game Workers Alliance must file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. The union, working with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), responded to the news with the following statement:

We, the supermajority of workers at Raven QA, are proud to be confidently filing our petition with the NLRB for our union election. We are deeply disappointed that Raven Software and Activision Blizzard refused to uplift workers rights by choosing to not voluntarily recognize our union in spite of our supermajority support.

This was an opportunity for Activision Blizzard to show a real commitment setting new and improved standards for workers. Instead, Activision Blizzard has chosen to make a rushed restructuring announcement to try and hinder our right to organize. Once again, when management is given a choice, they always seem to take the low road.

However, we are proud to file with the NLRB as we enjoy supermajority support for our union and know that together, we will gain the formal legal recognition we have earned.

Since the union represents a supermajority of Raven Software quality assurance testers, unit member Onah Rongstad told TechCrunch last week that the union was confident that they would win their election. But now, even though the employees formed this union to represent the 34 quality assurance testers, Activision Blizzard thinks “all employees at Raven should have a say in the decision.” That’s about 350 people.

“Across the company, we believe that a direct relationship between managers and team members allows us to quickly respond and deliver the strongest results and opportunities for employees,” the company said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch. “As a result of these direct relationships, we’ve made a number of changes over the past couple years including raising minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extending paid time off, expanding access to medical benefits for employees and their significant others, and transitioning more than 60% of temporary Raven QA staff into full-time employees. We look forward to continuing a direct dialogue with our team and working together to make our workplace better.”

Before announcing their union, Raven Software QA testers — who mostly work on “Call of Duty” — had been on strike for five weeks, protesting the early termination of twelve contractors, or about a third of the department.

“This was coming off of a five-week stretch of overtime, consistent work. And we realized in that moment that our day-to-day work and our crucial role in the games industry as QA was not being taken into consideration,” Rongstad told TechCrunch last week.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the working conditions across Activision Blizzard, which employs around 10,000 people. CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly knew for years about sexual misconduct and rape allegations at his company, but he did not act. Kotick has been rumored to step down amid ongoing SEC investigations and sexual harassment scandals in his company, but that may not happen until after the Microsoft acquisition closes in 2023, if at all.

But systemic issues don’t begin and end with one CEO. Following a two-year investigation, the state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard in July, alleging that the company fostered a “‘frat boy’ workplace culture,” calling it “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.”

Unions can help workers guarantee their protections in many situations, from mitigating workplace harassment to ensuring severance pay in the event of sudden layoffs. But the CWA, which represents the new Game Workers Alliance, thinks that Activision Blizzard is employing tactics to “thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize.” Three days after Raven Software QA’s union announcement, Activision Blizzard announced its intent to restructure Raven Software QA in order to bring the group “into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios,” the CWA relayed in an emailed statement.

“When Management uses meaningless buzzwords like ‘alignment, ‘synergy,’ and ‘reorganization,’ they are sending a message to workers: ‘we make all the decisions, we have all the power.’ Workers organize to have a voice at work to rectify these power imbalances,” the CWA said in its statement. “This is why big tech mergers that could increase and further concentrate corporate power, like Microsoft’s proposed Activision Blizzard acquisition, deserve real oversight. This scrutiny is even more important when a company like Activision Blizzard impedes its workers from exercising rights that are protected under U.S. law.”

But Activision Publishing told TechCrunch that this move has been under consideration for months.

“Raven Software shared an organizational update that continues the work the studio began in November which will transition Quality Assurance teams to work directly alongside Animation, Art, Design, Audio, Production and Engineering teams within Raven. This change will enhance the collaborative work our teams do to support our games and players and make the opportunities for our talented QA staff even stronger,” the company told TechCrunch. “This is the next step in a process that has been carefully considered and in the works for some time, and this structure brings Raven into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios. It is also a milestone in our broader plan to integrate QA more into the development process as our teams strive to deliver best in class coordination in real-time, live service operations.”

Amid months of internal activism at Activision Blizzard, Rongstad said that the news of the pending Microsoft acquisition doesn’t change workers’ desire to build a safer workplace. But Microsoft historically has not been welcoming of worker unions, so it’s up in the air how this historic move to unionize will shake out. If the election goes through, the Game Workers Alliance would be just the second recognized North American gaming union, following the December unionization of the 13-member indie gaming studio Vodeo Games.

Tinder updates its approach to handling reports of serious abuse and harassment

As a result of its ongoing partnership with nonprofit and anti-sexual assault organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Tinder today announced a handful of product improvements as well as training for internal teams at the dating app maker designed to better support survivors of abuse and harassment. Soon, Tinder also says its members will have access to background checks on their matches through Garbo, a nonprofit the dating app maker invested in last spring.

One key aspect of the partnership with RAINN involved training Tinder’s customer care team. Through the training, staff learned how survivors may report abuse and harassment, and how to spot reports of serious abuse — even if the reports use vague language to describe the events. The training, which is now also a mandatory part of Tinder’s onboarding and training curriculum, additionally provides instructions on how team members should respond to these types of reports when they occur.

Meanwhile, in the Tinder app, survivors will gain access to a more direct way to report someone they’ve unmatched with, even if they’ve waited some time before making their report. And they can now opt whether or not they want to receive follow-up information about actions taken, as some prefer to receive updates and others do not.

The app will also provide alternative support options, as not everyone will feel comfortable making a direct report. Through the Tinder Safety Center, a dedicated Crisis Text Line will be provided as well as the upcoming feature offering access to background checks on matches from Garbo. Tinder invested a seven-figure sum into New York-based Garbo in March 2021, which offers an alternative to traditional background checks that surface a wide variety of personal information — like drug offenses or minor traffic violations. Garbo instead focuses on whether or not someone’s background indicates a history of violence. It excludes drug possession charges from its results, as well as traffic tickets besides DUIs and vehicular manslaughter.

The Tinder Safety Center is now also accessible from anywhere in the app, reducing the number of taps it takes for a user to locate the resource.

“Our members are trusting us with an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable part of their lives, and we believe we have a responsibility to support them through every part of this journey, including when they have bad experiences on and off the app,” said Tracey Breeden, VP of Safety and Social Advocacy for Tinder and Match Group, in a statement about the changes. “Working with RAINN has allowed us to take a trauma-informed approach to member support for those impacted by harassment and assault,” she added.

Breeden, who held a similar position at Uber, joined Tinder in September 2020 as Match Group’s first-ever head of safety and social advocacy, tasked with overseeing the company’s safety policies across its apps, including Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish.

Tinder and other dating apps have put a higher focus on member safety features after a 2019 report revealed how dating apps run by Tinder parent Match Group allowed known sexual predators to use its apps, due to the lack of background check features. Other reports have highlighted the very real safety concerns that accompany the dating app market, particularly those impacting young women — a key dating app demographic.

In early 2020, Tinder invested in Noonlight to help it power new safety features inside Tinder and other Match-owned dating apps, ahead of its investment in Garbo.

But Tinder’s changes aren’t only about protecting dating app users — they’re about protecting Tinder’s business, as well.

Tinder’s top U.S. competitor, Bumble has marketed itself as being more women-friendly, launching a number of features designed to keep users safe from bad actors, like one that prevents abusers from using the “unmatch” option to hide from victims, for example. Tinder has followed suit, launching new safety features of its own.

The company has also felt the pressure to get ahead of coming regulations impacting tech companies, like those operating social media apps and dating services. Tinder, which dominates the dating app market, today plays in social networking as well, with additions like quick chat features, an interactive video series, and other additions to its new Explore hub in the app.

“By adopting more trauma-informed support practices, Tinder will be better positioned to support members who may have experienced harm and take faster, more transparent action on bad actors,” noted Clara Kim, Vice President of Consulting Services at RAINN, in a statement.

PQShield raises $20M for its quantum-ready, future-proof cryptographic security solutions

Quantum computing promises to unlock a new wave of processing power for the most complex calculations, but that could prove to be just as harmful as it is helpful: security specialists warn that malicious hackers will be able to use quantum machines to break through today’s standards in cryptography and encryption. Today, a startup called PQShield that is working on “future-proof” cryptographic products — software and hardware solutions that not only keep data secure today, but also secure in anticipation of a computationally more sophisticated tomorrow — is announcing some funding as it finds some significant traction for its approach.

The startup, spun out of the research labs at Oxford, has raised $20 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue its research and, in conjunction with partners and customers, product development. The startup is already staffed with an impressive number of PhDs and other researchers across the UK (its base remains in Oxford), the U.S., France and the Netherlands, but it will also be using the funds to recruit more talent to the team.

Addition, the investment firm founded by Lee Fixel, is leading this round with Oxford Science Enterprises (formerly known as OSI) and Crane also participating. The latter two are previous backers from PQShield’s $7 million seed round in 2020.

If machine learning is shaping up to be one of the more popular (and perhaps most obvious) applications for quantum computing, security is perhaps that theme’s most ominous leitmotif.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. identified the risks of using quantum computing for malicious security intent some eight years ago and has been receiving research submissions globally in search of coming up with some standards to counteract that threat. (PQShield is one of the contributors.) Based on signals from other government bodies like the Department of Homeland Security — coupled with a memo from the White House just earlier this month mandating that the government’s intelligence and defense services make the switch to “quantum-resistant” algorithms in 180 days — it looks like the standards process will be completed this year, getting the wheels in motion for companies that are building solutions to address all this.

“One memo can change everything,” PQShield’s CEO and founder Ali El Kaafarani said in an interview.

PQShield (the PQ stands for “post-quantum”) has been working with governments, OEMs and others that are part of the customer base for this technology — adopting it to secure their systems, or building components that will be going into products that will secure their data, or in some cases, both. Its customers includes both private and public organizations impacted by the threat. Bosch is one OEM name that it has disclosed, and El Kaafarani said more will be revealed when PQShield announces its first commercially available solutions. (Other sectors it’s working with include automotive OEM, industrial IoT, and technology consulting, it says.)

PQShield’s solutions, meanwhile, are currently coming in three formats. There is a system on a chip that is designed to sit on hardware like smartcards or processors. It also is making software by way of a cryptographic SDK that can be integrated into mobile and server apps and technologies used to process data or run security operations. And thirdly, in a new addition since it raised its seed round, it’s making a toolkit aimed at communications companies designed specifically to secure messaging services. This latter is perhaps the one that might most immediately touch the consumer market, which has been fertile ground for malicious hackers, and has increasingly become a focus for regulators and ordinary people concerned about how and where their data gets used.

All of these, El Kaafarani said, are designed to work together, or separately as needed by a would-be customer, with the key being that what it is building now can be used today, as well as in a quantum computing future.

The idea of a “quantum threat” might sound remote to most people, considering that we’re still some years away from quantum computing becoming a commercial, scalable industry, but the reality is that malicious hackers have been collecting data that will help them “solve” current cryptographic keys using those machines for years at this point. Some of this data has been publicly shown off, and much has not. All of this has been leading, El Kaafarani noted, to an “inflection point where people are now ready to think about the next phase of public key infrastructure,” which he summed up in layman’s terms as the difference between “math that is still easy to solve, and math that will still be very difficult to solve, even on a quantum computer,” due to particular combinations of math problems and aspects of complexity theory.

Quantum computing, even at its still largely nascent stage, has been fueling a lot of startup and big-tech activity. Atom Computing (which designs quantum computing systems) and Terra Quantum (building quantum-computing-as-a-service, given the likely high cost of these machines) each raised $60 million earlier this month. Intel, IBM and Amazon are among those that have making significant investments in quantum servers and processors for years now. There are others also working specifically on quantum security.

In that context, PQShield groundbreaking role in helping develop standards, and its existing network of customers and partners, spells a clear opportunity and promise for investors:

“Thanks to an industry-leading team, decades of combined experience and a best-in-class product offering, PQShield has quickly emerged as a front runner and true authority in post-quantum cryptography for hardware and software, a field with enormous market potential,” said Fixel in a statement. “PQShield is already helping to define the future of information security, and we are excited to support their ongoing growth.”

Maybe creator funds are bad

In the summer of 2020, TikTok set aside $200 million to pay U.S. creators in what it called a “creator fund.” This wasn’t a common practice at the time. The more seasoned platform YouTube paid creators by distributing funds through its partner program, established in 2007, which enables revenue sharing on the advertisements that play on creators’ uploads. But over the last few years, as every social media company has tried to compete with TikTok’s growing popularity, these platforms all created their own creator programs: YouTube established a $100 million creator fund for Shorts, Snapchat is offering cash prizes for submissions to Spotlight challenges, and Instagram is showering Reels creators with gamified cash bonuses.

Objectively, it should be a good thing for creators when big tech companies funnel large sums of money to them, right? But, as VidCon founder/recent TikTok star/longtime YouTuber Hank Green pointed out in a recent video essay, creator funds may not be all they’re cracked up to be. It’s possible that these funds function better as a way to make the companies look good — “Hey! We’re paying independent artists!” — than they do as a way for creators to make money.

While the YouTube Partner Program distributes a percentage of ad revenue to creators, creator funds like TikTok’s pay out from a static pool of money. So, as YouTube grows, the total amount of money paid out to creators will grow — over the last three years, the platform paid creators $30 billion. (Through YouTube’s partner program, creators get 55% of the money generated through ads on their videos). But as TikTok grows, the size of its creator fund does not.

So, Green claims, TikTok creators are making less money as a result of the platform growing — and we know it’s growing fast. Plus, you could argue that the platform is growing, in part, because users are posting good content on it. And those users don’t seem to be getting properly compensated for the value they bring to these massive tech companies.

“The Creator Fund is one of many ways that creators can make money on TikTok,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch, in response to our inquires about Green’s video and the creator fund.

They pointed to new initiatives like the TikTok Creator Marketplace, which helps brands easily connect with content creators, and last month’s launch of a feature that lets creators receive tips at any point, not just during livestreams. Of course, YouTube has monetization features like these as well.

“We continue to listen to and seek feedback from our creator community and evolve our features to improve the experience for those in the program,” TikTok told TechCrunch.

Green, who has meticulously tracked his TikTok earnings for over a year, says he used to make 5 cents per thousand views, but over the last few months, he’s made 2 cents per thousand views. He claims this is because there are more views on the platform, since it’s growing, meaning that creator payouts are shrinking.

Sure, these programs aren’t intended to fund a full-time creator’s entire business, but the payout amounts undervalue the actual contribution that creators give to social platforms. We don’t know if the creator fund is TikTok’s longterm creator monetization plan — for Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, these funds are basically just incentives to get creators to use their platforms as much as TikTok — but the short form video race is getting a bit exhausting for creators.

Other full-time creators back up Green’s observation. British tech YouTuber Safwan AhmedMia tweeted that he earned £112.04 (about $150) from amassing over 25 million views on TikTok since April 2021. YouTube’s top US creator, MrBeast responded to the tweet saying that he made $14,910.92 for “prob over a billion views.” Their calculations are less exact than Green’s — TikTok doesn’t show you how many total views you have unless you manually count them. But by their estimations, MrBeast and AhmedMia both would be making less than two cents per thousand views.

Generally, creators make more money through brand deals than through sheer video impressions, whether they’re on YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat or wherever else. But creators still want to see payment for the value that they bring to the platforms they make content for.

“When TikTok makes more, creators make less — the slogan writes itself,” Green said in his video. “If the fund were a percentage of revenue rather than a static pool, that would be very bad for TikTok’s bottom line […] But it would be very good for creators! TikTok can get on PRNewswire and be like, ‘over the next three years, we’re sending a billion dollars to creators,’ and that sounds like a huge amount of money, right? But they remain entirely in control of how much they pay, and as more creators join the fund, and as the app continues to succeed, creators make less money per view.”

Though we don’t know exactly how much the TikTok app itself raked in, its parent company ByteDance made $58 billion last year, which makes the $200 million creator fund — deployed almost two years ago — feel small.

Comparing TikTok and YouTube is like comparing apples and oranges, though. A thirty-second TikTok will inherently pay out less than a twenty-minute YouTube video. Plus, ads are served differently on these platforms — YouTube has pre-roll, mid-roll, and end-roll ads, while TikTok ads appear between videos (and advertisers are getting smart, making their content look like it’s just an ordinary TikTok, iterating on the same viral trends as everyone else, until suddenly you realize the video is trying to sell you a face wash or something). But an advertisement will never play in the middle of a TikTok, offering a less intrusive user experience — but by contrast, YouTube also offers its ad-free YouTube Premium plan for $11.99/month.

TikTok could follow YouTube’s playbook, interspersing more ads to generate more revenue to fund greater creator payouts. But that would be really annoying, and it would be hard to believe that TikTok is really hurting for money. Again: ByteDance made $58 billion in 2021. TikTok’s Creator Fund is $200 million. That’s 0.3% of TikTok’s parent company’s revenue spent on its Creator Fund, which straddles multiple fiscal years.

Maybe creator funds are bad

In the summer of 2020, TikTok set aside $200 million to pay U.S. creators in what it called a “creator fund.” This wasn’t a common practice at the time. The more seasoned platform YouTube paid creators by distributing funds through its partner program, established in 2007, which enables revenue sharing on the advertisements that play on creators’ uploads. But over the last few years, as every social media company has tried to compete with TikTok’s growing popularity, these platforms all created their own creator programs: YouTube established a $100 million creator fund for Shorts, Snapchat is offering cash prizes for submissions to Spotlight challenges, and Instagram is showering Reels creators with gamified cash bonuses.

Objectively, it should be a good thing for creators when big tech companies funnel large sums of money to them, right? But, as VidCon founder/recent TikTok star/longtime YouTuber Hank Green pointed out in a recent video essay, creator funds may not be all they’re cracked up to be. It’s possible that these funds function better as a way to make the companies look good — “Hey! We’re paying independent artists!” — than they do as a way for creators to make money.

While the YouTube Partner Program distributes a percentage of ad revenue to creators, creator funds like TikTok’s pay out from a static pool of money. So, as YouTube grows, the total amount of money paid out to creators will grow — over the last three years, the platform paid creators $30 billion. (Through YouTube’s partner program, creators get 55% of the money generated through ads on their videos). But as TikTok grows, the size of its creator fund does not.

So, Green claims, TikTok creators are making less money as a result of the platform growing — and we know it’s growing fast. Plus, you could argue that the platform is growing, in part, because users are posting good content on it. And those users don’t seem to be getting properly compensated for the value they bring to these massive tech companies.

“The Creator Fund is one of many ways that creators can make money on TikTok,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch, in response to our inquires about Green’s video and the creator fund.

They pointed to new initiatives like the TikTok Creator Marketplace, which helps brands easily connect with content creators, and last month’s launch of a feature that lets creators receive tips at any point, not just during livestreams. Of course, YouTube has monetization features like these as well.

“We continue to listen to and seek feedback from our creator community and evolve our features to improve the experience for those in the program,” TikTok told TechCrunch.

Green, who has meticulously tracked his TikTok earnings for over a year, says he used to make 5 cents per thousand views, but over the last few months, he’s made 2 cents per thousand views. He claims this is because there are more views on the platform, since it’s growing, meaning that creator payouts are shrinking.

Sure, these programs aren’t intended to fund a full-time creator’s entire business, but the payout amounts undervalue the actual contribution that creators give to social platforms. We don’t know if the creator fund is TikTok’s longterm creator monetization plan — for Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, these funds are basically just incentives to get creators to use their platforms as much as TikTok — but the short form video race is getting a bit exhausting for creators.

Other full-time creators back up Green’s observation. British tech YouTuber Safwan AhmedMia tweeted that he earned £112.04 (about $150) from amassing over 25 million views on TikTok since April 2021. YouTube’s top US creator, MrBeast responded to the tweet saying that he made $14,910.92 for “prob over a billion views.” Their calculations are less exact than Green’s — TikTok doesn’t show you how many total views you have unless you manually count them. But by their estimations, MrBeast and AhmedMia both would be making less than two cents per thousand views.

Generally, creators make more money through brand deals than through sheer video impressions, whether they’re on YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat or wherever else. But creators still want to see payment for the value that they bring to the platforms they make content for.

“When TikTok makes more, creators make less — the slogan writes itself,” Green said in his video. “If the fund were a percentage of revenue rather than a static pool, that would be very bad for TikTok’s bottom line […] But it would be very good for creators! TikTok can get on PRNewswire and be like, ‘over the next three years, we’re sending a billion dollars to creators,’ and that sounds like a huge amount of money, right? But they remain entirely in control of how much they pay, and as more creators join the fund, and as the app continues to succeed, creators make less money per view.”

Though we don’t know exactly how much the TikTok app itself raked in, its parent company ByteDance made $58 billion last year, which makes the $200 million creator fund — deployed almost two years ago — feel small.

Comparing TikTok and YouTube is like comparing apples and oranges, though. A thirty-second TikTok will inherently pay out less than a twenty-minute YouTube video. Plus, ads are served differently on these platforms — YouTube has pre-roll, mid-roll, and end-roll ads, while TikTok ads appear between videos (and advertisers are getting smart, making their content look like it’s just an ordinary TikTok, iterating on the same viral trends as everyone else, until suddenly you realize the video is trying to sell you a face wash or something). But an advertisement will never play in the middle of a TikTok, offering a less intrusive user experience — but by contrast, YouTube also offers its ad-free YouTube Premium plan for $11.99/month.

TikTok could follow YouTube’s playbook, interspersing more ads to generate more revenue to fund greater creator payouts. But that would be really annoying, and it would be hard to believe that TikTok is really hurting for money. Again: ByteDance made $58 billion in 2021. TikTok’s Creator Fund is $200 million. That’s 0.3% of TikTok’s parent company’s revenue spent on its Creator Fund, which straddles multiple fiscal years.

Crypto startup Syndicate looks to demystify DAOs with ‘Web3 Investment Clubs’ product

Over the past year, crypto acolytes have aimed to sell the world on an internet transformed by tokens and NFTs. All the while, a smaller subsection has pushed DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, as a way to transform democracies and revamp stodgy organizations for an online age. Both groups have struggled with messaging and stateside legal guidelines, but the technical challenges for onboarding new users has been particularly strong for those looking to build their own DAO.

Syndicate, a DAO services startup which raised $20 million from Andreessen Horowitz last year, is looking to simplify the DAO creation process (as much as legally possible) with the launch of their new product called “Web3 Investment Clubs.” The tooling allows users to spin up a group of up to 99 participants, pool their capital and vote as a group on where to invest those funds.

Syndicate co-founder Ian Lee tells TechCrunch that the product offers users the ability to form a DAO with the “peace of mind to help maintain compliance and do the right thing for their their members.” The startup’s wider goal is to make forming these groups and investing in tokens and NFTs collectively as “easy as a group chat.”

The “investment club” branding is part of an effort to demystify DAOs for a broader group of users — in this case investors — and create an alternative path for users that may have been considering the formation of a similar investment vehicle using more traditional non-crypto financial services. The startup’s step-by-step guide to setting up a DAO showcases just how complicated the weave of services still can be for those less familiar with crypto best practices, but also how quickly one can form one of the groups if they can breeze through the technical onboarding.

In addition to the setup guidelines, Syndicate offers a dashboard where users can peruse the holdings of their club and past activity.

Image via Syndicate

Syndicate is aiming to make these clubs flexible for users depending on their specific situations and tolerance for legal ambiguities. Certain guidelines exist for accredited and non-accredited users as well as DAOs that have members in the United States. The startup offers up basic guidelines that prospective club admins should be aware of — for clubs comprised of unaccredited investors in the U.S., every member most vote on every decision — but leaves the implementation up to end users. Syndicate’s suite of smart contracts can walk users through the process of formalizing their club with a legal entity and handling things like setting up a bank account and getting tax forms to ensure stuff stays above-board.

Syndicate is looking to position itself at the center of the DAO infrastructure ecosystem and get as many curious users familiar with their offerings. As such, this new service is free and Syndicate isn’t charging any fees for setup or maintenance.

Eleven Ventures closes new fund at $67.6M to invest in South-Eastern European startups

Bulgarian venture capital is experiencing something of a renaissance. Last year LAUNCHub Ventures raised a €70 million find aimed at South Eastern Europe, while Vitosha Venture Partners raised a €26 million ($30 million) fund for startup out of Bulgaria.

Now Eleven Ventures, another Bulgarian VC focused on pre-seed and seed investing in South-Eastern Europe (SEE) has closed its ‘Eleven Fund III’ at €60 million ($67.6 million).  This is 10x the size of its previous fund in 2018.
 
SEE is reportedly doing well, with some €2.25Bn estimated to have been raised by regional companies in 210 deals over the last 12 months.

Eleven has a growing track record. It was the first institutional investor in Payhawk (raised a $112m at a $570 million valuation in November 2021); it was also early into Gtmhub (raised a $120m Series C last year), and is the only VC SMSbump (acquired by US e-commerce marketing platform Yotpo in 2020).

New instruments out this new fund include Romanian Frisbo (Ecomtech), ProductLead (Ecomtech) and SuperOkay (Future of Work), the Greek Biopix (Healthcare) and the Bulgarian PlanDelta (Future of Work), Metasim (Future of Work) and BeMe (Healthcare). 

The majority of LPs in the new fund are repeat investors, including the European Investment Fund, as well as 60 individual investors from the tech industry. Eleven dis an IPO in March 2020 on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange, with 20 portfolio companies, under the Eleven Capital public entity. 

Ivalyo Simov, founding partner at Eleven Ventures said: “Our job is to seek out the local heroes in Southeast Europe and give everything we have to support their growth and global outreach. We’re trying to inspire the local entrepreneurial community to look beyond the region’s ecosystem and have more daring aspirations. It is incredible to see that the once early-stage founders, currently running mature businesses, are becoming investors in our fund and now supporting the next generation of up-and-coming entrepreneurs to help them become even more successful.”

Alain Godard, Chief Executive at EIF (the European Investment Fund) commented: “Fostering innovation is a priority for the European Union in order to improve well-being and drive prosperity. We are pleased to continue our partnership with Eleven Ventures and proud to back their third fund which invests in the next generation of technology innovators and entrepreneurs of South Eastern Europe.”

Eleven Ventures was established in 2012 by Daniel Tomov and Ivaylo Simov, initially as an accelerator in the region. Tomov and Simov were later joined by Vassil Terziev, a successful Bulgarian tech entrepreneur. Terziev is a co-founder of Telerik, which was acquired by Progress Software in one of the biggest exits of a software company in the region. In 2018 Eleven raised its second Fund, one of the first entirely private VC funds in Eastern Europe, and has since been focused on pre-seed and seed investments. 

Eleven Ventures’ portfolio includes the unmanned cargo drone manufacturer and operator Dronamics, the leading Kanban platform Kanbanize, the online resume builder Enhancv, the telehealth platform Healee, and the aforementioned Payhawk, SMSbump, and Gtmhub.  Also Nitropack, eBag, Econic, and Ondo.

eBay will now authenticate trading cards worth $750 or more

Online marketplace eBay is once again expanding its authentication service, this time to include support for authenticating valuable trading cards. The service will now be able to authenticate cards worth at least $750 from collectible card games, as well as sports and other non-sports cards, the company said. By the middle of this year, this service will grow to include graded, autograph, and patch cards sold for $250 and higher, as well. These additions broaden eBay’s ability to assure its customers of the authenticity of high-value items, including the sneakers, watches, and handbags the company is already able to authenticate.

Like other verticals where authentication is available, eBay saw the value in adding support for trading cards due to the volume of activity in the category on its site. The company said the trading cards category is growing “significantly faster” than its total marketplace, and the category saw $2 billion in transactions in the first half of 2021. That’s equal to all of the trading card transactions that took place in 2020, for comparison.

To date, nearly 4 million cards purchased on and off eBay have been added to customers’ Collections — a tool added last year that allows trading card collectors to keep track of their portfolios on the site. Here, people can view and manage their card collection, and monitor the real-time market valuation changes that impact their portfolio. On the flip side, nearly a quarter-million buyers on eBay have used the Price Guide tool in search to visualize trends for their favorite trading cards, eBay said.

The card categories which saw the most growth during the first half of last year included tennis (growing by 1797%), soccer (852%), Pokémon (536%), Marvel (437%), and golf (436%).

Image Credits: eBay

“Our trading cards business has been growing for the past six years, and the recent surge speaks to the immense cultural significance of the category,” said Dawn Block, VP Collectibles, Electronics and Home at eBay, in a statement about the launch. “As hobbies turn into investments, authentication services in categories of high value have become a priority for collectors. With the introduction of Authenticity Guarantee for trading cards, we’re giving enthusiasts exactly what they want, while continuing to improve confidence in the marketplace,” she added.

The eBay website notes the trading card authentications are being handled by experts at the Certified Collectibles Group’s affiliates, CGC Trading Cards and Certified Sports Guaranty (CSG).

In the face of increased competition for the buying and selling of everyday items from services like Facebook Marketplace and other local buying apps, eBay has been working to better establish itself as a place where people can seek out harder-to-find collectibles and secondhand luxury items online.

After launching its Authenticate program in 2017 for handbags, it later expanded to include things like luxury jewelry and watches. In November, it invested further in this strategy with the acquisition of the sneaker authentication business from its existing partner, Sneaker Con Digital. Adding authentication is also good for business. After adding the Authenticity Guarantee to the buying and selling of high-value sneakers, the company saw quarter-over-quarter category growth, topping 1.55 million sneaker authentications by the time it decided to bring the sneaker authentication service in-house.

As of Q3 2021, the company noted its U.S. sneaker business was growing at double-digit rates, and luxury handbag sales were outperforming the total U.S. site at double-digits.

As with the other categories, items eligible for the eBay Authenticity Guarantee are automatically added to the program, with no opt-in or out available. When a buyer then makes a purchase, the seller ships to the authenticator’s address provided by eBay. The authenticator has 2 days to authenticate watches or trading cards and 3 business days for sneakers or handbags. If the item passes, it’s shipped to the buyer with 2-day secure delivery. If not, it’s sent back to the seller and the buyer is refunded. eBay is currently covering the costs associated with authentication, but that could change in the future.

The company believes attracting an enthusiast consumer to its marketplace will ultimately lead to cross-category purchases of a higher value. As CEO Jamie Iannone explained during eBay’s Q3 earnings, “…part of our strategy is to drive enthusiasts to new trusted experiences and then leverage those buyers across our vast supply in other categories. The average buyer who purchases sneakers and luxury watches spends approximately $2,000 and $8,000, respectively, in other categories… One of the reasons our growth has improved in luxury categories is the improvement in buyer and seller trust,” he said.

But with trading cards, eBay faces new competition from a variety of dedicated trading card apps and services, like Alt, Whatnot, Loupe, Topps, and others, including those that serve to help collectors determine what their cards are worth, like WorthPoint or CollX.

The company has now authenticated over 1.4 million items across categories since relaunching its authentication program as the “authenticity guarantee” over a year ago, and customer satisfaction with the program tops 90%, Iannone had said.

Starship Technologies picks up €50M from the EU’s investment arm to expand its fleet of autonomous delivery robots

Starship Technologies, one of the bigger names in the world of autonomous delivery robots — those little caboose-like, boxy delivery vehicles that self-drive around cities — has been on a roll during Covid-19, providing extra (unmanned) horsepower to distribute food and other goods between stores or restaurants and consumers, at a time when consumers were either reluctant or being ordered to stay at home to minimize the spread of the virus. Now it’s picking up some funding along with an endorsement Europe to further its growth.

The startup has received €50 million (just under $57 million at today’s rates) from the European Investment Bank, the funding arm of the European Union. Starship Technologies is describing this as a “quasi-equity facility”, meaning there is a venture loan involved in the mix.

It is not disclosing its valuation with this investment, but Alastair Westgarth said that this doesn’t rule out raising further funding from investors. Starship raised $40 million Series A led by Morpheus Ventures back in 2019, and last January according to Pitchbook data also raised a further $17 million with strategic backers TDK Ventures (the investment arm of the Japanese electronics giant) and Goodyear Ventures among the investors. It has now made more than 2.5 million commercial deliveries (up from 2 million in October 2021) and travelled over 3 million miles globally. Westgarth said that on average, its fleet is making 10,000 deliveries per day.

Based out of Los Angeles, Starship initially made its name, back in 2017, running pilots with delivery companies in the U.S. — Doordash and Postmates (now part of Uber) — and then deployments in closed campus environments. It also butted heads around that time with city regulators in San Francisco, and it has yet to return to that city. It’s also had a significant presence in Europe, with its primary R&D operation based out of Tallinn, in Estonia (hence the financial endorsement from the EU), and its first substantial city deployment in Milton Keynes in the UK. Prices for the service can vary by city and location, but as an example a service that it provides to grocery chain Coop in Milton Keynes is made for a flat fee of 99 pence.

In the last two years, Starship’s name has been coming up a lot as a delivery partner helping companies get food order to customers at a time when delivery drivers were in shorter supply, people wanted to move around less, and generally come into less contact with humans. The Milton Keynes service alone saw hundreds of thousands of deliveries, and Starship started to sign on some significant partners. In the UK, the list includes the grocery chains Tesco, Coop and Budgens, which partner with Starship primarily as a delivery vehicle not for its mega grocery stores, but for its centrally-located, smaller-format shops, which act as ‘dark stores’ stocking the items that Starship delivers to smaller radiuses around them. People order Starship deliveries via the startup’s iOS and Android apps.

Today the campus deployments are a majority of Starship’s business — some 70% — but the signs are pointing to a likely shift, Westgarth said.

“Grocery will be larger in a year to 18 months,” he said. The addressable market for campuses that would likely use Starship’s services is around 400-500, he said, “but grocery is billions of dollars. We are chasing delivery services around the world. We can deliver like anyone on a bike, scooter or car, but we’re cheaper, and our robots get cheaper each year.” The average battery life is 18 hours and a typical robot can travel around 40km/day. 

The company now operates its fleet as a level 4 autonomous system, meaning humans are monitoring at an operations center for issues, and can if need be take over if a vehicle finds itself in an unexpected pickle, but that is not the default.

“99% of the time our robots have nobody involved. We make many deliveries without anyone involved,” Westgarth said.

 

The funding from the EIB ticks a couple of different boxes for the EU. First, it has been looking to promote more sustainable forms of transportation, both to reduce emissions and to reduce traffic on the roads. Second, it’s had a long-term goal of backing tech startups to further its standing in the digital economy.

“Electric vehicles in all shapes and sizes will be part of our future, and can be a key part in the sustainable transport puzzle,” said EIB VP Thomas Östros in a statement. “Starship’s delivery robots are already proving their worth, and we are glad to support the company so that they can continue to develop their technology and scale-up their production.”