Coinbits launches as a passive investment app for bitcoin

Erik Finman is a twenty-something bitcoin maximalist as famous for his precocity as he is for his $12 bet on the currency a few years ago.

Now, Finman, who built his first company while still in High School, is launching a new startup called Coinbits, which allows users to passively invest in bitcoin.

The idea, according to Finman, is to democratize access to the currency by letting everyday folks invest nominal sums through well-known mechanisms like roundups on transactions made with a credit or debit card or through regular transactions from a customer’s savings or checking account to bitcoin through Coinbits.

Every transaction also helps Finman’s own bitcoin holdings grow and makes the young entrepreneur a little wealthier himself through his bitcoin holdings.

Users can make one-time investments of $10, $25, $50, or $100 dollars through the web-based platform and can establish a level of risk for their holdings.

Finman’s app collects no commissions on transactions and 98% of the Bitcoin is stored offline — for safety.

“Overall, investing in Bitcoin is complicated and can feel almost impossible,”. said Finman. “Coinbits allows you to put that spare change in Bitcoin. For example, if you spend $1.75 on French fries, that remaining 25 cents is invested automatically.”

Withdrawals are handled by CoinBits which will give users same-day processing for a 50 cent-fee and offers an easily downloadable record for accountants to deal with any gains or losses associated with bitcoin.

Given the fractional nature of these investments, and the volatility of bitcoin, it’s hard to know what real value investors can reap from these small transactions, but it’s a less risky way to experiment with building bitcoin holdings than take a huge flyer on the market.

 

 


Source: Tech Crunch

Livekick raises $3M to use live video for one-on-one training

Livekick, a startup that gives customers access to one-on-one personal training and yoga from their home (or hotel room, or elsewhere), is announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding.

The company was founded by entrepreneur Yarden Tadmor and fitness expert Shayna Schmidt. Tadmor said that with all his travel for work, his fitness routine “really eroded,” so he contacted Schmidt and asked her to train him remotely — they’d connect via FaceTime, he’d mount his phone at the gym and she’d supervise his workout.

“We trained this way for a while, and then we realized: Hey, this is something that other people can really benefit from,” Tadmor said.

So with Livekick, users can sign up for one, two or three live, 30-minute sessions with a remote trainer, who they’ll connect with via the Livekick iOS app or website. (After a two-week trial, pricing starts at $32 per week.) The workouts will be tailored to the space and equipment that you have access to, and the trainers will also assign other workouts for the rest of the week.

Tadmor and Schmidt contrasted this approach with companies like Peloton and Mirror, which are bringing new exercise equipment and classes into the home, but which don’t offer one-on-one interaction with a trainer. Tadmor said this individualized approach is not just better tailored to each user’s needs, but also more effective at keeping them motivated. And Schmidt said the live interaction also ensures that people are doing their workouts correctly and safely.

Livekick screenshot

As for the trainers, Schmidt said this gives them a new way to find clients, particularly during their off-hours.

“For trainers, the hours that user are never booked are usually noon to 4pm — they never get a client because people are at work, obviously,” she said. “So we can give trainers in London those hours because for a user in New York, that’s morning. We can really fill their schedules [and] help them make some more income.”

Beyond consumer subscriptions, Livekick also offers a corporate program called Livekick for Travelers. And just to be clear, the service isn’t just for frequent travelers, as Tadmor noted: “If you live in New York, you have access to a lot of fitness options, but most people don’t. You’ve got to do a lot of commuting to get to a studio with great trainers, and so part of what we’re trying to bring is really let you do that from the comfort of your home.”

And while we recently covered the launch of a similar service called Future, Livekick actually launched in September, and Tadmor said the average retention rate has been over six months.

The round was led by Firstime VC, with participation from Rhodium and Draper Frontier.

“With its leading technology and ethos to make exercise accessible and affordable, we believe Livekick has the capacity to improve the lives and health of millions,” said Firstime’s Nir Taralovsky in a statement.


Source: Tech Crunch

SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the Star Tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 few miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year. In the meantime I’ve asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back.


Source: Tech Crunch

CFIUS Cometh: What this Obscure Agency Does and Why It Matters to Your Fund or Startup

On January 12, 2016, Grindr announced it had sold a 60% controlling stake in the company to Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese gaming firm, valuing the company at $155 million. Champagne bottles were surely popped at the small-ish firm.

Though not at a unicorn-level valuation, the 9-figure exit was still respectable and signaled a bright future for the gay hookup app. Indeed, two years later, Kunlun bought the rest of the firm at more than double the valuation and was planning a public offering for Grindr.

On March 27, 2019, it all fell apart. Kunlun was putting Grindr up for sale instead.

What went wrong? It wasn’t that Grindr’s business ground to a halt. By all accounts, its business seems to actually be growing. The problem was that Kunlun owning Grindr was viewed as a threat to national security. Consequently, CFIUS, or the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, stepped in to block the transaction.

So what changed? CFIUS was expanded by FIRRMA, or the Foreign Risk Review Modernization Act, in late 2018, which gave it massive new power and scale. Unlike before, FIRRMA gave CFIUS a technology focus. So now CFIUS isn’t just an American problem—it’s an American tech problem. And in the coming years, it will transform venture capital, Chinese involvement in US tech, and maybe even startups as we know it.

Here’s a closer look at how it all fits together.

What is CFIUS?

Image via Getty Images / Busà Photography

CFIUS is the most important agency you’ve never heard of, and until recently it wasn’t even more than a committee. In essence, CFIUS has the ability to stop foreign entities, called “covered entities,” from acquiring companies when it could adversely affect national security—a “covered transaction.”

Once a filing is made, CFIUS investigates the transaction and both parties, which can take over a month in its first pass. From there, the company and CFIUS enter a negotiation to see if they can resolve any issues.


Source: Tech Crunch

Daily Crunch: Assange faces Espionage Act charges

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. WikiLeaks’ Assange charged under the Espionage Act in a ‘major test case’ for press freedom

Julian Assange, founder of whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, is facing more than a dozen additional charges from U.S. federal prosecutors.

According to the newly unsealed indictment, Assange faces 17 new charges — including publishing classified information — under the Espionage Act, a law typically reserved for spies working against the U.S. or whistleblowers and leakers who worked for the U.S. intelligence community.

2. Lime’s founding CEO steps down as his co-founder takes control

Lime announced co-founder and chief executive officer Toby Sun will transition out of the C-suite to focus on company culture and R&D. Brad Bao, a Lime co-founder and longtime Tencent executive, will assume CEO responsibilities.

3. The US Senate is coming after ‘loot boxes’

A new Senate bill asserts that “pay-to-win” transactions that give users a nominal advantage for a fee, or loot boxes, which allow users to essentially play a slot machine for rare and important items, are bad for minors and need to be banned.

4. Best Buy cancels Samsung Galaxy Fold pre-orders

A note from Best Buy cites “a plethora of unforeseen hiccups,” and adds, “Because we put our customers first and want to ensure they are taken care of in the best possible manner, Best Buy has decided to cancel all current pre-orders for the Samsung Galaxy Fold.”

5. Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Among other things, Prospress has developed WooCommerce Subscriptions, a recurring payment solution specifically designed for WooCommerce.

6. Instagram’s vertical IGTV surrenders to landscape status quo

Following lackluster buy-in from creators loathe to shoot in a proprietary format that’s tough to reuse, IGTV is retreating from its vertical-only policy.

7. Shopify quietly acquired Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing

Handshake is a New York startup that offers a commerce platform for businesses that sell wholesale goods.


Source: Tech Crunch

Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb has rejoined the venture world — but he hasn’t forgotten Juul

Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration chief, became known during his tenure for his efforts to regulate the tobacco and e-cigarette industries — and for his particular focus on Juul, the fast-growing e-cigarette company that Gottlieb squarely blames for creating a “youth epidemic” of e-cigarette use by teenagers.

Indeed, when he announced that he would be stepping down from his post in early March, it seemed Gottlieb had dealt the tobacco industry a winning hand. There was even talk that he’d been pressured to leave by conservative groups along with some Republicans politicians, including Senator Richard Burr, who’d blasted Gottlieb on the Senator floor in January over a plan to ban menthol cigarettes. (Burr’s home state of North Carolina produces more tobacco than any other state.)

But Gottlieb isn’t giving up so easily, he says. In an interview this morning, Gottlieb said there was nothing more to his resignation than his stated reason at the time: his family. “I was commuting from Westport (Connecticut) to Washington every Friday night; I was only home with my three young kids on Saturdays,” he told us. “After two years, that got difficult.”

Gottlieb, who just rejoined the venture firm New Enterprise Associates as a special partner focused on healthcare, further suggests that he will continue to bang the drum when it comes to e-cigarette usage as a private citizen. To wit, in addition to his work at NEA, where he previously served as a venture partner from 2007 until joining the FDA in 2017, Gottlieb is becoming a regulator contributor at CNBC, where he will appear both on television and in print. He also anticipates contributing to the Wall Street Journal and to the Washington Post and to writing deeper dives in medical journals. (“I was publishing on an almost weekly basis” before joining the FDA, Gottlieb notes.)

Indeed, though Gottlieb will have plenty of demands on his time — he has also resumed an earlier role as a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank — he says he’s not done with the work he started in Washington, noting that he’s “very efficient” when it comes to both his writing and policy work and insisting that he will “still be actively engaged.”

Partly that owes to Gottlieb’s concerns that Juul — which hitched its wagon to tobacco giant Altria in December by  selling it a 35 percent stake in its business for $38 billion — is only becoming more pervasive owing to the tie-up.

Gottlieb still very much believes that the company “bears an outsized responsibility for this public health crisis” wherein one in five people in the U.S. now vapes occasionally, and a growing percentage of those users are teenagers. With Altria’s marketing muscle and much bigger retail footprint, says Gottlieb, Juul adoption could well erase a generation of gains in the fight against nicotine addiction.

As for whether Gottlieb’s public campaign will have real teeth, that remains to be seen. It also isn’t yet clear how aggressively or not the acting FDA commissioner, Ned Sharpless, will be when it comes to battling big tobacco, particularly considering the 80-plus lobbyists employed by Juul in Washington and that, according to the New York Times, have three primary goals: fighting proposals to ban flavored e-cigarette pods, pushing legislation that includes provisions denying local governments the right to adopt strict vaping controls, and working to make sure that bills to discourage youth vaping do not have stringent enforcement measures.

Gottlieb says he’s optimistic. His successor is “a cancer doctor,” he notes. “He has certainly expressed interest in advancing [the] policies [the FDA has already set in motion].”

At the very least, at an all-hands meeting last month, Commissioner Sharpless suggested that fighting nicotine addiction remains a priority. Among his other comments, he said the agency will “maintain our focus on ending the use of combustible cigarettes among adults, and on preventing kids from ever starting.

“That includes undertaking vital research to ensure we have the data necessary to make informed regulatory decisions on electronic cigarette products, so that we can reverse the growing epidemic of youth ENDS [electronic nicotine delivery systems] use. We simply won’t tolerate misleading marketing or selling tobacco products to children.”


Source: Tech Crunch

Microsoft’s new language learning app uses your phone’s camera and computer vision to teach vocabulary

Eight Microsoft interns have developed a new language learning tool that uses the smartphone camera to help adults improve their English literacy by learning the words for the things around them. The app, Read My World, lets you take a picture with your phone to learn from a library of over 1,500 words. The photo can be of a real-world object or text found in a document, Microsoft says.

The app is meant to either supplement formal classroom training or offer a way to learn some words for those who didn’t have the time or funds to participate in a language learning class.

Instead of lessons, users are encouraged to snap photos of the things they encounter in their everyday lives.

“Originally, we were planning more of a lesson plan style approach, but through our research and discovery, we realized a Swiss army knife might be more useful,” said Nicole Joyal, a software developer intern who worked on the project. “We wound up building a tool that can help you throughout your day-to-day rather than something that teaches,” she said.

Read My World uses a combination of Microsoft Cognitive Services and Computer Vision APIs to identify the objects in photos. It will then show the word’s spelling and speak the phonetic pronunciation of the identified vocabulary words. The photos corresponding to the identified words can also be saved to a personal dictionary in the app for later reference.

Finally, the app encourages users to practice their newly discovered words by way of three built-in vocabulary games.

The’s 1,500-word vocabulary may seem small, but it’s actually close to the number of words foreign language learners are able to pick up through traditional study. According to a report from the BBC, for instance, many language learners struggle to learn more than 2,000 to 3,000 words even after years of study. In fact, one study in Taiwan found that after 9 years of learning a foreign language, students failed to learn the most frequently-used 1,000 words.

The report also stressed that it was most important to pick up the words used day-to-day.

Because the app focuses on things you see, it’s limited in terms of replacing formal instruction. After gathering feedback from teachers and students who tested an early version, the team rolled out a feature to detect words in documents too. It’s not a Google Lens-like experience, where written words are translated into your own language — rather, select words it can identify are highlighted so you can hear how they sound, and see a picture so you know what it is.

For example, the app pointed at a student’s school supply list may pick out words like pencils, notebooks, scissors, and binders.

The app, a project from Microsoft’s in-house incubator Microsoft Garage, will initially be made available for testing and feedback for select organizations. Those who work with low literacy communities at an NGO or nonprofit, can request an invitation to join the experiment by filling out a form.

 


Source: Tech Crunch

Fresh off a $530M round, Aurora acquires lidar startup Blackmore

Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, is in an acquiring mood. The company, founded in early 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, announced Thursday that it acquired lidar company Blackmore.

The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. 7D, founded by former software engineer from Pixar animation Magnus Wrenninge, is a simulation startup that makes photorealistic synthetic dataset for street scenes. Aurora confirmed the acquisition.

Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition come on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. It’s considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry — with the exception of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a handful of others — as a critical and necessary sensor for self-driving vehicles.

Blackmore, which has 70 employees, might not be a household name. And its base of operations in Bozeman, Montana makes it a seeming oddball amongst the Silicon Valley scene.

But in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention.

Blackmore CEO Randy Reibel, noted in a recent interview, a highlight was getting a chance to see the look on Urmson’s face when he first saw the lidar in action.

Not all lidar is the same, both Urmson and Reibel noted. The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell AM lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then track how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.

Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low power and continuous wave, a bit like keeping a flashlight on, the company’s CTO and co-founder Stephen Crouch explained. The upshot is FMCW lidar can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It’s also “immune” to interference from sun or other other sensors, Crouch added.

The big win, Urmson and Reibel echoed, is that it is optimized with the perception stack. In other words, this lidar is technically compatible in a way that will improve perception of Aurora’s “driver.”

The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two months of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. In 2017, Cruise acquired Strobe and Argo AI bought Princeton Lightwave.

That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” AV companies are particularly protective of their tech and opening the door to an outside lidar company takes convincing.

Despite the acquisition, Urmson reiterated, as he has in the past, that Aurora is not interested in manufacturing hardware whether it’s cars or lidars. The company will work with automotive Tier 1 suppliers and other partners as it scales.

For now, Aurora is focused on integrating Blackmore’s lidar into its self-driving stack and isn’t necessarily planning to sell lidar sensors as a standalone product. But, Urmson added, “We’re open minded about the future.”


Source: Tech Crunch

Cruise says its AV successfully completed 1,400 unprotected left hand turns

Unprotected left hand turns are tough for robots and humans alike. The compounding variables of crossing in front of oncoming traffic make it one of the toughest maneuverers in driving. It’s one of the toughest challenges for self-driving platforms — even more so as drivers often look for non-verbal cues from other drivers to when it’s safe to cross.

Cruise, the self-driving division within General Motors, today released a video reporting it successfully completed 1,400 such turns within a 24 hour period. The test took place on the busy and hilly streets of San Fransisco. Some of the examples on the video show a vehicle cautiously entering an intersection only to wait for another vehicle to pass before making the turn. Other times, the vehicle is assertive and enters the turn without delay. Only four examples are shown, though Cruise insists they have video proof of all 1,400. None of the videos show the Cruise vehicle navigating around crossing pedestrians.

“In an unpredictable driving environment like SF, no two unprotected left-turns are alike,” Kyle Vogt, president & CTO, Cruise said in a released statement. “By safely executing 1,400 regularly, we generate enough data for our engineers to analyze and incorporate learnings into code they develop for other difficult maneuvers.”

Self-driving companies often rely on data collected from its vehicles. Successful or not, both instances will give the engineers data that can be added to existing models to make future rides more successful. In this case, having successfully completed 1,400 in a short amount of time will give Cruise’s engineers loads to work with.

Cruise is permitted to test about 180 Generation 3 on public roads in Califorina. It didn’t state how many vehicles were needed to complete this test.


Source: Tech Crunch

From launch to launch: Peter Beck on building Rocket Lab’s orbital business

Breaking into the launch industry is no easy task, but New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has done it without missing a step. The company has just completed its third commercial launch of 2019, and is planning to increase the frequency of its launches until there’s one a week. It’s ambitious, but few things in spaceflight aren’t.

Although it has risen to prominence over the last two years at a remarkable rate, the appearance of Rocket Lab in the launch market isn’t exactly sudden. One does not engineer and test an orbital launch system in a day.

The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2006, and for years pursued smaller projects while putting together the Rutherford rocket engine, which would eventually power its Electron launch vehicle.

Far from the ambitions of the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, which covet heavy-launch capabilities to compete with ULA to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, Rocket Lab and its Electron LV have been laser-focused on frequent and reliable access to orbit.

Utilizing 3D printed engine components that can be turned out in a single day rather than weeks, and other manufacturing efficiencies, the company has gone from producing a rocket a year to one a month, with the goal of one a week, to match or exceed its launch cadence.

Seem excessive? The years-long backlog of projects waiting to go to orbit disagrees. There’s demand to spare and the market is only growing.

Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO, sat down with us to talk about the process of building a launch provider from scratch, and where the company goes from here — other than up.

Devin: To start with, why don’t we talk about the recent launches? Congratulations on everything going well, by the way. Any thoughts on these most recent ones?

Peter: Thanks, it’s great to be hitting our stride. We wanted electron to be an accurate vehicle and we’re averaging within around 1.4 kilometers. When you get into what that means, at those speeds it takes 180 milliseconds to travel 1.4 km, so we’ve got the accuracy down pat.


Source: Tech Crunch