R&D Roundup: Supercomputer COVID-19 insights, ionic spiderwebs, the whiteness of AI

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups. This week: supercomputers take on COVID-19, beetle backpacks, artificial spiderwebs, the “overwhelming whiteness” of AI and more.

First off, if (like me) you missed this amazing experiment where scientists attached tiny cameras to the backs of beetles, I don’t think I have to explain how cool it is. But you may wonder… why do it? Prolific UW researcher Shyam Gollakota and several graduate students were interested in replicating some aspects of insect vision, specifically how efficient the processing and direction of attention is.

The camera backpack has a narrow field of view and uses a simple mechanism to direct its focus rather than processing a wide-field image at all times, saving energy and better imitating how real animals see. “Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects,” said Gollakota. You can watch the critters in action below — and don’t worry, the beetles lived long, happy lives after their backpack-wearing days.

The health and medical community is always making interesting strides in technology, but it’s often pretty niche stuff. These two items from recent weeks are a bit more high-profile.

One is a new study being conducted by UCLA in concert with Apple, which especially with its smartwatch has provided lots of excellent data to, for example, studies of arrhythmia. In this case, doctors are looking at depression and anxiety, which are considerably more difficult to quantify and detect. But by using Apple Watch, iPhone and sleep monitor measurements of activity levels, sleep patterns and so on, a large body of standardized data can be amassed.


Source: Tech Crunch

Federal judge approves ending consent decrees that prevented movie studios from owning theaters

A federal judge has approved the Department of Justice’s efforts to end the Paramount Consent Decrees — 70-year-old court orders that prevented movie studios from engaging in a variety of anticompetitive behaviors, including ownership of movie theaters.

U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres cited the rise of streaming services like Netflix as one of the reasons for her decision:

Motion picture distributors that are not subject to the Decrees have entered the market since the 1940s — most significantly, The Walt Disney Company, the leading movie distributor in 2018 with about $3 billion in domestic box office revenues … Other motion picture distributors not subject to the Decrees include Lionsgate (20 films released in 2018), Focus Features (13 films), Roadside Attractions (12 films), and STX Entertainment (10 films). …None of the internet streaming companies — Netflix, Amazon, Apple and others — that produce and distribute movies are subject to the Decrees. Thus, the remaining Defendants are subject to legal constraints that do not apply to their competitors.

It’s not clear whether this decision will have any impact on the big streaming services. Torres acknowledged the argument that even when the decrees did not apply to a given studio, they “serve as a yardstick of acceptable behavior, exerting a normative effect on industry actors who are not parties to them.”

But it’s hard to imagine anyone in 2020 thinking it’s a good idea to seriously get into the theatrical business. Domestic attendance was on the decline, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced most theaters to close.

Netflix and Amazon have shown some interest in owning theaters before this. Amazon was reportedly in the running to acquire in the Landmark theater chain a couple years ago, and rumors that it might acquire AMC sent the theater chain’s stock shooting up earlier this year — but no acquisition has been announced, and in the meantime AMC appears to have stabilized its finances.

Netflix, meanwhile, signed a long-term lease for New York City’s Paris Theatre last year, and it may also have been interested in the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. However, these seem less like the first steps in a broader theatrical strategy and more like one-off deals designed to give the streamer access to locations that it can use for fancy premieres and other screenings.

The real impact of the ruling may be in other areas, like the elimination (after a two-year sunset period) of restrictions on block booking and circuit dealing. Without those restrictions, studios could potentially require theaters that want access to a lucrative franchise title to screen their less popular films as well.


Source: Tech Crunch

How to pick the right Series A investors

Early-stage startup founders who are embarking on a Series A fundraising round should consider this: their relationship with the members of their board might last longer than the average American marriage.

In other words, who invests in a startup matters as much — or more — than the total capital they’re bringing with them.

It’s important for founders to get to know the people coming onto their board because they’ll likely be a part of the company for a long time, and it’s really hard to fire them, Jake Saper of Emergence Capital noted during TechCrunch’s virtual Early Stage event in July. But forging a connection isn’t as easy as one might think, Saper added.

The fundraising process requires founders to pack in meetings with numerous investors before making a decision in a short period of time. “Neither party really gets to know the other well enough to know if this is a relationship they want to enter into,” Saper said.

“You want to work with people who give you energy,” he added. “And this is why I strongly encourage you to start to get to know potential Series A leads shortly after you close your seed round.”

Here are the best methods to meet, win over and select Series A investors.

Identify industry experts

Saper recommends extending the typically short Series A time frame by identifying a handful of potential leads as soon as a founder has closed their seed round. Founders shouldn’t just pick any one with a big name and impressive fund. Instead, he recommends focusing on investors who are suited to their startup’s business category or industry.


Source: Tech Crunch

IoT and data science will boost foodtech in the post-pandemic era

Even as e-grocery usage has skyrocketed in our coronavirus-catalyzed world, brick-and-mortar grocery stores have soldiered on. While strict in-store safety guidelines may gradually ease up, the shopping experience will still be low-touch and socially distanced for the foreseeable future.

This begs the question: With even greater challenges than pre-pandemic, how can grocers ensure their stores continue to operate profitably?

Just as micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs), dark stores and other fulfillment solutions have been helping e-grocers optimize profitability, a variety of old and new technologies can help brick-and-mortar stores remain relevant and continue churning out cash.

Today, we present three “must-dos” for post-pandemic retail grocers: rely on the data, rely on the biology and rely on the hardware.

Rely on the data

Image Credits: Pixabay/Pexels (opens in a new window)

The hallmark of shopping in a store is the consistent availability and wide selection of fresh items — often more so than online. But as the number of in-store customers continues to fluctuate, planning inventory and minimizing waste has become ever more so a challenge for grocery store managers. Grocers on average throw out more than 12% of their on-shelf produce, which eats into already razor-thin margins.

While e-grocers are automating and optimizing their fulfillment operations, brick-and-mortar grocers can automate and optimize their inventory planning mechanisms. To do this, they must leverage their existing troves of customer, business and external data to glean valuable insights for store managers.

Eden Technologies of Walmart is a pioneering example. Spun out of a company hackathon project, the internal tool has been deployed at over 43 distribution centers nationwide and promises to save Walmart over $2 billion in the coming years. For instance, if a batch of produce intended for a store hundreds of miles away is deemed soon-to-ripen, the tool can help divert it to the nearest store instead, using FDA standards and over 1 million images to drive its analysis.

Similarly, ventures such as Afresh Technologies and Shelf Engine have built platforms to leverage years of historical customer and sales data, as well as seasonality and other external factors, to help store managers determine how much to order and when. The results have been nothing but positive — Shelf Engine customers have increased gross margins by over 25% and Afresh customers have reduced food waste by up to 45%.


Source: Tech Crunch

How to access ‘America’s Seed Fund,’ the $3 billion SBIR program

One of the best-kept secrets in the world of capital is that the federal government has billions of dollars it’s dying to give away to early-stage founders and inventors — and all you have to do is ask. Well, there’s a bit more to it than that, so here’s a guide to getting in the door of the massive Small Business Innovation Research program.

First, as a bit of background: SBIR is a large network of programs, spread across a dozen federal agencies and the military, established some 40 years ago as a way to help out any American with a great idea but little access to capital.

Over time it has grown to impressive proportions, with a total award budget in 2019 of nearly $3.3 billion. To be clear, this is money intended to be essentially given away to qualified recipients, and not as license fees, or orders, or equity; these cash awards, which range from hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars, come with remarkably few strings attached.

That said, it’s not as if you just reach into the SBIR cookie jar and pull out a million bucks. As with anything involving the federal government, there’s a process — and not a short or simple one. There are extensive official tutorials for later, but this article (informed by tips from officials in the program) should help get you up and running.

It should be noted that this is not the only tech-related government grant program by a long shot, but it is the largest, broadest and arguably the most accessible to small business entrepreneurs and inventors like you — or it will be once you read this guide. Just be ready to put in a little work.

Step 1: Check yourself

Image Credits: Maskot / Getty Images

The first thing you should know is that the SBIR program operates with a specific (though not uncommon) type of entrepreneur in mind: Someone who needs money to develop and commercialize a new technology or intellectual property, but isn’t yet at the stage where they can attract traditional investment, and the risk or cost is too high for an ordinary loan.

SBIR awards (some agencies offer “grants,” others “contracts,” but you can just say “awards”) are basically cash to bring something from idea to commercialization. They are not for footing manufacturing down payments, repaying earlier loans or other miscellaneous operating costs.

If your company or invention needs help to cover R&D to get from experiment to working prototype, or prototype to commercialization, you might be a good fit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s software or hardware, your first product or your tenth — just as long as you’re a self-owned, U.S.-based small business and you’re building a new technology that needs some cash to get started.

A second, lesser-known benefit of the program is that if you get selected, your company is eligible to skip the line for some government procurement processes that would otherwise require competitive offers. If you picture the U.S. government as a potential client down the road, this benefit alone may be worth the toil.

The program is generally divided into phases, which you’ll probably want to do in order.

Phase I is for people demonstrating proof of concept — anywhere on the line from whiteboard to prototype. Awards range from tens of thousands to over $200,000, over a period of six to 12 months, depending on what is warranted for the specific development costs.

Phase II is for those doing deeper R&D on a proven concept and may be more than a million dollars over a two-year period; as you can see, this is a long-term play, not a quick cash grab.

Phase III is where a project may transition to actual paid contracts and purchases — but you can worry about that when you get there.

In other words, while the money has few catches once you get it, the program isn’t a free-for-all. If it sounds like a match and you’re willing to do a little legwork, proceed.

Step 2: Figure out where to apply

Image Credits: Imaginima / Getty Images

Here’s where it starts getting complicated. There isn’t actually just one SBIR program, there are a dozen, spread across as many federal agencies, from Defense and Energy to NASA and NOAA. Each has its own budget and application process — making this already complex enough that many a grant-seeker has bounced right off it (or closed this tab). But don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. You’ve got three things going for you.

First, not every technology or business is a fit for every agency.

This is actually a good thing. Think about who the “customer” is for your technology: Your rocket engine isn’t going to be of much use to Health and Human Services; a collision avoidance system for a drone might be good for the Defense Department, but it also might be helpful to the Department of Energy in a different way. What specifically does your tech enable, and why would it be helpful to the work of specifically one agency? That should help narrow it down considerably — but don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little. You might be surprised what some of these departments get up to.

Second, each agency has specific things it’s looking for, both right now and perennially.

This means there’s not much in the way of guesswork. These numerous and various “solicitations” range from general areas of interest to highly detailed requests, are listed publicly (see the links below) and can usually be searched through or sorted by topic. Once you’ve decided that your tech might be useful to either the EPA or NOAA, for example, look through their solicitations — they’re updated regularly, though the schedule differs by agency — and see if one is already asking for what you’re offering or uses similar keywords. You can and should also search through previous years to see if they’ve requested something like your tech in the past.

Third, there are people whose job it is to help businesses through this process.

Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, or PTACs, exist in every state, as well as D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. These are staffed with people whose job it is to help small businesses navigate the complexities of government grant programs. You can find your local office by selecting it from the list here.

PTACs are more focused on contracts, however, and for these awards you may want to look up your local Small Business Development Center instead. These SBA-funded organizations are also here to help, and there are several in and around most cities (select them in the drop-down menu here and hit search).

Though each program has its own requirements and solicitations, they’re all public. Here are the agencies with active SBIR programs, starting with the largest, with links to their starting pages for SBIR applicants. The second link is to their solicitations page (though it may use different terminology), which should list or itself link to current topics of interest.

Current solicitations are also centrally listed here in a different format. Please note that these addresses may at any time be rendered obsolete, as the government has no standard format for these programs or websites. Even the promotional materials I was given directly by SBIR officials were already out of date. But a little hunting around should get you to the right place. (And feel free to tell us in the comments if something seems off.)

Some of the programs are more similar than others, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. The NSF, for instance, has more open-ended solicitations for basic research rather than development. But NASA and Defense are definitely the most complicated.

NASA’s SBIR program is divided up among its various research centers — Ames, Goddard, etc. — each of which specializes in different technologies. While the specifics are too many and various to list here, a good way to get started is to look at a list of recent awards for similar or related technologies to your own, and find which center is the lead for it — for example robotic sampling is led by JPL, but small satellite propulsion is at Glenn. Then you can reach out to the SBIR contact for that center.

NASA also has a particularly robust Phase II program, with extended and expanded options for space-based work that necessarily takes longer or costs more money.

Defense has numerous grant programs under several umbrellas, including each branch of the military. To be honest, it’s kind of a mess, but they are working to simplify and accelerate the process. The actual DoD SBIR program, however, overlaps the most with the others and as such should be considered alongside them. You may want to rely on your PTAC or SBA representative to point the way.

Others will have their own idiosyncrasies, but getting started looks similar for all of them.

Step 3: Paperwork

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Once you’ve decided to apply, you’ll want to register at SBIR.gov first thing — you have to get in the system in the first place to be eligible for participation in the process.

The SBIR officials I spoke to emphasized that while understanding the program and finding the right agency or agencies to submit to are important steps, it all falls down if you phone in the actual application — something they’ve seen over and over, apparently.

The applications differ agency to agency, and different topics demand different information, naturally. But in all of them you should be ready to articulate at least the following:

  • Detailed but concise explanation of the technology you’re developing
  • Company budget, financials and investors
  • Commercial applications and plan to achieve them

Although the applications may only be 10 or so pages long, companies should budget at least 80 full-time hours to complete them. For companies with little experience with this sort of thing, hiring a professional grant writer is a perfectly valid option, but by no means required. This is also something that PTACs and SBDCs can help with.

It’s important, officials said, not to focus just on selling the technology or science itself — you must also show that there is a viable path forward for the team and company that the government’s funding will enable. They may not want much in return, but they’d like some assurance that they’re not throwing money down a well.

There is nothing stopping you from applying to multiple programs, though be aware that you probably won’t be able to copy-paste your application from one to the other. You can also apply year after year or quarter after quarter if you like, or to multiple solicitations within the same agency. It’s not uncommon for a company to be accepted only after multiple attempts.

Lastly, if you have any questions about any of this, find and contact the SBIR representative for the agency you’re applying to. These folks are there to liaise and connect you with the right resources, so don’t hesitate to reach out. Just don’t try to pitch them directly — it won’t work.

As you can see, applying to SBIR is not a simple process, but if you know the basic steps and resources, you can frontload the hard work while your project is still at an early stage. And while it may sound like a lot of winnowing is being done, recall that there really is a ton of money going into these programs and the whole point is to support American small businesses. That’s you!


Source: Tech Crunch

Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Tyler Mitchell to talk Imagine Impact at Disrupt 2020

The world is changing quickly. It seems to be growing more complicated by the minute.

Throughout the centuries, humans have used storytelling to make sense of the world around them. That is perhaps more true today than it ever was, as we have access to more stories (via the internet) than we ever have in history. But with this proliferation, it’s critical that the very best storytellers — a diverse group of storytellers — have access to the broadest audiences.

Imagine Impact, a content accelerator founded and led by Tyler Mitchell, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, aims to provide storytellers with the tools and access they need to reach as many people as possible. That’s why we’re thrilled to have Mitchell, Grazer and Howard join us at Disrupt 2020 on September 14-18.

Tyler Mitchell is a producer, writer and entrepreneur who has previously held the role of Executive Vice President at Imagine Entertainment, where he oversaw a slate of live action films as well as launching Imagine’s animation division. He has also produced films in his own right, including The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Lucky Number Slevin, and Maudie. Producer and writer for primetime shows Kidnapped and My Own Worst Enemy, Mitchell also has experience in the world of television.

Brian Grazer is an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning producer, racking up 43 Oscar nominations and 198 Emmy nominations, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards for A Beautiful Mind. He’s also a NYT bestselling author twice over and was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” He cofounded Imagine Entertainment alongside Ron Howard in the 80’s, and has now gone on to cofound Imagine Impact alongside Mitchell and Howard.

Ron Howard needs no introduction. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker has been a creative force in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films, including A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Splash. Alongside his illustrious film career, Howard has also executive produced a variety of award-winning television shows, including the Emmy-winning series “Arrested Development” and the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon”.

These three launched Imagine Impact two years ago to bring Silicon Valley-style mentorship, a model cultivated by Y Combinator and various VCs in the tech world, to Hollywood. As Netflix democratizes storytelling through its global platform for talent, Imagine Impact offers a place to vet that talent from the outset and nurture it through to the networks, studios and media platforms.

Netflix and Imagine Impact struck a deal in June to identify and develop film ideas across four genres, through a global submission process, that they will bring to Netflix for production and distribution.

Imagine Impact vets submissions with both experienced readers and a natural language processing system that was developed internally at the accelerator.

Since the first Impact program, the incubator has accepted 65 writers and paired them with industry experts (such as A Beautiful Mind‘s Akiva Goldsman. Thus far, 62 developed projects have come out of the process with 22 being sold or set up with major studios, networks and/or streaming services.

We’re thrilled to have Mitchell, Grazer and Howard join us at Disrupt 2020 to talk about how they’re mixing Silicon Valley tech and mentorship with the traditional Hollywood creative process and what the future of storytelling has in store for us. Get your pass today to hear this fantastic session – you can even save a cool $300 in the process!

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Source: Tech Crunch

The tale of 2 challenger bank models

Accelerated by the pandemic and its economic fallout, the tale of retail challenger bank models across the world has been diverging. In the Americas, Albo, Chime, and Uoala have all reported record user numbers as consumers adapted to a “no-touch” economy. Aspiration and Varo announced successful equity fund raising rounds. In Europe, by contrast, Revolut had to lay off people, Monzo was forced to accept new funding at a 40% lower valuation and N26 had shut its U.K. operations already. What’s going on?

As always, market environment, business model, industry structure, and economics and regulatory context matter. The U.S. has a big domestic market with large, attractive customer segments: Millennials, for example, who have come of age after the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and rely on the debit card as their primary spending vehicle, unlike older and wealthier consumers, who leverage their credit cards. Or issues-conscious consumers, who want to align their savings and spending decisions with their broader values.

Chime has successfully tapped into the former segment, offering a free checking account with no hidden fees and attractive features such as an immediate crediting of paychecks, forgoing the 2-3 days float that mainstream banks benefit from at the expense of their customers. Aspiration is going after the green customer segment, with features such as planting a tree for any rounded-up debit card purchase or offsetting customer carbon footprint at the gas pump.

Average debit card interchange fees in the U.S. at 1.2% of transaction value are high enough to pay for the tech platform. Both Chime and Aspiration function essentially as bank accounts for the customers at the front-end interface but have been able to structure themselves capital-efficiently. Chime’s actual deposit balances are held by back-end banking partners. Aspiration’s core vehicle is a cash management account under a FINRA brokerage license, also administered by a bank partner at the back-end. Varo in the U.S. has been the exception to these capital-light models by pursuing a federal, deposit-taking bank charter from the get-go, which was approved after three years in early 2020.

Similarly, In Latin America, Albo in Mexico or Neon in Brazil target a younger, lower-income segment that is willing to make the challenger bank cards their primary spending vehicle, and the debit interchange fee is high enough to make the economics work.

This is not the case in Europe. With near-instant retail payment settlement among bank current accounts and under tighter regulatory caps, debit card interchange fees are much lower at 0.2% of transaction value. To pay for their platforms, European challenger banks need other sources of revenue. Many are betting on credit — that’s why a number of them, such as Atom and Tandem, acquired full banking licenses before launching, despite the costly and lengthy process. Others, like Starling Bank and Tide, have set their sights on the more lucrative SME banking segment.

By contrast, Monzo and Revolut started with a prepaid card before obtaining a deposit-taking bank license. Both have focused largely on the younger, affluent, cosmopolitan customer segment, who use them as a secondary service to pay friends, spend abroad (at favorable exchange rates) and set budgets. Only 20% of Monzo’s customers use it exclusively, most of the rest rely on traditional banks for their primary account, which may also be why it is difficult to get customers to pay for premium services. Discretionary spending in this target segment, which constituted a bulk of the transactions on Monzo and Revolut, collapsed during the height of the COVID crisis and shutdown, putting relatively more pressure on these two London-based challenger banks.

Asia, Africa and other emerging markets have not seen yet the emergence of challenger banks at meaningful scale. The Monetary Authority of Singapore is currently narrowing a shortlist of applications for digital banking licenses from a variety of players, including a consortium of logistics platform Grab and Singtel, as well as gaming company Razer. In India, open banking is emerging along the lines of distinctive user segments.

SME neobanking is the most advanced with the likes of Bankopen (Open Technologies). On the consumer side, startups are focusing on segments such as blue-collar workers or rural populations addressing pain points encountered with traditional banking such as small transaction sizes or low account balances and catering to needs such as domestic remittances or goal-based savings. In Africa, the first wave of digital banks, like Carbon and FairMoney are emerging in Nigeria.

These emerging market challenger banks will have to look carefully at the market conditions, possible target segments, a sustainable revenue source, the initial product offerings that could lead to engagement and rapid growth, and the regulatory structure that best supports the desired business model.

The acceleration of the world moving toward a “no-touch” economy has provided a new impetus. However, the economics challenge seems to be closer in nature to the European starting point rather than the American industry context.

Flourish Ventures has investments in Albo, Aspiration, Chime, FairMoney, Neon and Tandem.   


Source: Tech Crunch

Casa pivots to provide self-custody services to secure bitcoin

Casa, a Colorado-based provider of bitcoin security services, is launching a managed service allowing customers to buy and hold their own bitcoin, rather than using an external custodian like Coinbase.

“With self-custody using Casa it’s impossible to be hacked and nearly impossible to have your bitcoin stolen,” wrote chief executive Nick Neuman in an email. “Leaving bitcoin on an exchange (e.g. Coinbase or many others) opens it up to theft; there is a long history of bitcoin theft and hacks from exchanges.”

Just last year, the major cryptocurrency exchange Binance was hacked and thieves made off with bitcoin that was worth $40 million at the time.

Before the upgrade with the new product offering, bitcoin traders had to buy their bitcoin at an exchange and then move their bitcoin off the exchange to increase security. They can now be secure by default using Casa, according to Neuman.

Bitcoin can now be purchased through Casa and deposited directly into a user’s wallet on the service where they control the funds. Casa never has custody of the user’s bitcoin at any point in the process, which the company said eliminates the risk of using an exchange.

“With the dollar declining in value and a new era of potential inflation on the horizon, consumers are naturally looking for a safe asset class that’s outside the turbulence of the existing financial system,” said Neuman in a statement. “Traditionally, if investors wanted the security and control of Bitcoin self-custody, they had to jump through multiple hoops to register with an exchange, deposit funds for trading, and then move bitcoin to their wallet. As new users begin their Bitcoin journey, they have a much simpler and faster option for buying and securing their first bitcoin with Casa.”


Source: Tech Crunch

Can learning pods scale, or are they widening edtech’s digital divide?

Lucia, a six-year old, hides from Zoom calls and has rejected every edtech tool from Seesaw to Khan Academy. She will spend all of first grade in quarantine.

Her mother, Claire Díaz-Ortiz, says her daughter fits squarely into the “distance learning death zone.” The idea is that younger children are too young to do distance learning solo, even with tools meant to make it easier. Here’s one kindergartner’s remote fall class schedule:

“And unfortunately for my daughter, I’m a VC, not a Zoom mom,” Díaz-Ortiz said.

The impact of the distance learning death zone, as Díaz-Ortiz calls it, is one of the reasons why many wealthy families with young children are considering a new solution: learning pods.

Learning pods are small clusters of children within the same age range who are paired with a private instructor. Depending on a parent’s preferences, learning pods could be an in-home or virtual experience and be either a full-time school replacement or supplemental learning.

In recent weeks, the concept has taken off all across the country, from suburbs to cities. There’s a Facebook group for Boulder, Colorado school districts; organizers launched Pandemic Pod San Diego to “connect families looking for in-home, teacher-led learning groups.” Some households are offering teachers a retainer. Among working mom groupchats, pods are taking off as a sanity lifesaver, especially as childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women.

Startups are pivoting to keep up with the demand for private teachers. But because of high costs, only affluent families are able to form or join learning pods, which may limit the model’s ability to reach scale while extending the existing digital divide.


Source: Tech Crunch

macOS 11.0 Big Sur preview

I honestly can’t remember when I first started writing about the mobile creep in macOS. It has happened little by little, update after update. My earlier fears that it would fully surrender to the influence of iOS have thus far not come to fruition, but the iPhone’s operating system continues to be the clearest indicator of future desktop updates.

It’s clear, of course, why one of Apple’s OSes would borrow so liberally from another. The iPhone has been top dog at the company for well over a decade now, and continues to monopolize resources and serve as a proving ground for its most cutting-edge experiences. Even as the Mac braces for its most radical update in recent memory with the switch from Intel to custom ARM processors, the shadow of iOS looms large over Big Sur.

There are a million reasons why this year’s WWDC was a strange one. One of the more unsung instances was the surprise reveal that the next version of macOS would be 11.0. The fact was never explicitly mentioned during the keynote, though the number was flashed on screen during a demo. It certainly seems worth mentioning the first primary number upgrade in 20 years, but who can ultimately say why Apple does the things it does?

What we can say for sure is that Big Sur does, indeed, represent a big step forward in macOS’ evolution in a couple of ways. The first and arguably most important is the aforementioned hardware update. Those first systems are set to arrive toward the end of the year, likely in the form of new iMac and MacBooks. The second and arguably more symbolic is one of the more radical design changes in the operating system’s recent memory.

For those less familiar with the operating system, the design changes likely feel subtle. For those of us who basically spend all day, every day staring at the operating system, they’re unavoidable. Big Sir borrows liberally from the iOS design language. The familiar circle icons are gone, making way for the squircle variety you’ll find on the iPhone. As ever, it’s up to third-party developers to decide if they want to join in on the fun. Right now, my app folder is a mix of circles and rounded squares. There are fun little touches throughout, like this address on the Mail icon envelope: 

Another iOS influence comes in the form of the push toward more translucence throughout the UI, most notably in the form of the menu bar, which is a closer match to the drop-down menus themselves. Those are larger, meanwhile, and offer a bit more room to breathe. Spacing in general is a big thing throughout the update.

That includes the new Finder windows, which also adopt more translucent elements and rounded corners. The dock, meanwhile, hovers ever so slightly above the bottom of the screen. Default sound updates might take me the longest to get used to. I only discovered that while taking a screenshot for this review — the familiar camera shutter sound having been swapped out for a bit of a plunk. Not sure how I feel about that one, if I’m being honest.

Perhaps the biggest update to Finder is also the most blatant lift from iOS. Joining other elements like Notification Center and Launchpad is Control Center. As with iOS, it’s a translucent drop-down menu that offers quick access to settings. Here it’s accessible by way of an icon in the menu bar, but every element here screams touchscreen. Seriously, the Display Brightness and Sound sliders beg to be adjusted by hand. A clear hint into plans for future Macs? Apple has long insisted that PCs and touchscreens are like oil and water, but there are some indications that the company’s stance could be softening.

Other control panel options include a Do Not Disturb mode, media playback, WiFi, Bluetooth and Airdrop. The available controls are customizable, and you can also drag an option off the panel and pin it to the menu bar.

Speaking of the Notification Center, there’s an update there as well. It’s free-floating, like other new design elements, and features a lot more information options, including weather, stocks and calendar events, along with upcoming third-party widgets. Like the Control Center, it’s customizable, both in terms of content and widget size. Certain forms of content like emails and new podcasts can also be interacted with directly from the Notification Center.

A number of updates to the Messages app itself are also worth noting here. Conversations can easily be pinned to the top of the list with a drag and drop. Group messaging has been beefed up, with the ability to comment on specific messages in line — a feature that’s simultaneously rolling out in iOS 14, as well. Specific members can be directly mentioned with an “@“ symbol and a photo can be set to designate the group.

Also of note is an improved search. Honestly, search has long been an annoyance on the desktop version of the app. Here it groups together links, photos and other highlights. There are a bunch of new message effects here, à la iOS, with things like balloons, confetti and lasers for celebration. Memojis can now be edited on the desktop, and Apple has also added Memoji stickers for quicker reactions.

Safari always seems to get the most love in the updates. It’s clear that Apple really wants its browser to remain competitive with the likes of Chrome and Firefox. Key updates include the ability to set a background image and customizable start page, manually adjust favorites and support for more extensions.

Tabs have been redesigned and favicon now appear by default, while hovering over a tab will show a preview of the hidden page — a genuinely useful addition. Rending speeds have improved and the company says the browser is overall more power-efficient than earlier versions. Apple’s also found another way to directly take on Google with the addition of a new translate feature that’s currently in beta with seven languages: English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese.

A handful of new maps features warrant mention here. Look Around brings a new Street View-style feature, making it easy to get to where you’re going — or simply live vicariously in this time of immobility. Clicking “Look Inside” on select locations like airports and malls, meanwhile, will show you an overhead view of the indoor map. Cycling directions have been added to a handful of cities (they don’t quite appear to have rolled out for NYC on the beta I’m using), along with an Electric Vehicle direction feature that shows you the route with the most charging station access.

The Big Sur public beta is out today. The final version of the software is set to release this fall.


Source: Tech Crunch