Decrypted: Grayshift raises $47M, Apple bugs under attack, video game maker hacked

The election is over, but not without a hitch or two. Some voters in Georgia and Ohio had to use paper ballots after hand sanitizer leaked into voting machines — an unexpected casualty of the pandemic. And a slew of robocalls across a number of swing states urged voters to “stay safe and stay home,” in an effort to disenfranchise voters from going to the polls. With record voter turnout, there’s little evidence to show it worked.

But we saw nothing like the hack-and-leak operations like we did four years ago, which delivered an “October surprise” that derailed the election for Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote by three million votes.

Government officials and cybersecurity firms said there were no significant or damaging cyberattacks during Election Day. One Homeland Security official called it “another Tuesday on the internet,” but conceded there was still cause for concern in the election aftermath.

With the bulk of the votes counted, government officials pointed to the threat of “foreign influence” campaigns — or misinformation — that would try to cast doubt on the election results. In reality, much of the false and misleading claims ended up coming from inside the White House as the Trump administration tried to cling onto power. After being caught out four years ago, the social media giants put into place measures and policies that limited the spread of false news — including Trump’s repeated attempts to claim victory.

Fears that the 2020 election could turn into a national, or even an international security matter did not come to fruition. The U.S. is in a better place than it was four years ago by simply learning the lessons from Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election. Imagine where we could be in another four?

Since you, like us, were glued to the television screens last week, here’s more from the week you might have missed.


THE BIG PICTURE

Grayshift, the maker of phone unlocking tech, raises a Series A round

Grayshift, the secretive startup behind the U.S. government’s favorite phone unlocking technology, has raised $47 million in fresh funding. The Series A round was led by PeakEquity Partners, and — as first reported by Forbes — is a huge round for a little-known phone forensics firm.

One of only a few photos of the mysterious GrayKey phone unlocking devices. Image Credits: Malwarebytes

Grayshift exploded onto the mobile forensics scene in 2018, months after the company began quietly selling its proprietary GrayKey technology to federal agencies for about $15,000 each. The FBI and other agencies use their purchased GrayKey devices to break into encrypted phones without needing the passcode.

The PlayStation 4 will be able to play PlayStation 5 games remotely

Well, isn’t this a nice little surprise? This morning some PlayStation 4 owners are reporting the sudden and unexpected arrival of a new “PS5 Remote Play” app. While the app doesn’t do much yet (the PS5 isn’t out yet, after all), it seems meant to let you keep a PlayStation 5 in one room and stream it to (and control it from) a Playstation 4 in another.

Now, that’s not quite the same as actually having another PS5 in that other room; Remote Play tends to introduce a little bit of lag into the mix, so you probably won’t want to turn to it for twitchy games where every millisecond counts. But given that last gen’s console tends to eventually find itself gathering dust or tucked into another room as a wildly overpowered BluRay/Netflix player, this is a pretty great way to extend the PS4’s lifespan. IGN spotted the app this morning, and it appears to be rolling out to users in batches

Sony hasn’t said much about how it’ll all work, so there are still plenty of questions to be had about compatibility — will all games work, or just some? Will PS4 controllers work on PS5 games via Remote Play, whereas Sony has otherwise said they’ll only work on the PS5 when playing backwards compatible PS4 titles? An FAQ on the PlayStation blog does confirm that it’s meant for playing PS5 games on the PS4, but doesn’t go any deeper than that:

We’re updating PS4’s Remote Play feature. Now, in addition to being able to access your PS4 from a PC or a mobile device, your PS4 can access other consoles via Remote Play too, right on your TV. This includes the ability to connect to your PS5 and stream a PS5 game to your PS4 so you can play it there.

Sony also notes the PS5 will support multiple remote play users simultaneously, allowing you to play local multiplayer games with friends who aren’t actually, you know, local.

5 UX design research mistakes you can stop making today

A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine listed “inadequate testing” as the top reason why startups fail. Inadequate testing essentially means inadequate or sub-par user research that leads to poor UX design which, not surprisingly, usually ends in failure. While working with startups and tech companies, I have also seen how even when people know how important user research is, they may not necessarily know how to conduct it in optimal ways.

Let’s look, then, at some of the biggest UX research mistakes companies make and what I wish I had known when I first started.

Conduct UX research early and throughout product development

When considering any potential product or service, it’s best to get certain questions answered as soon as possible. Is it actually going to be something useful and feasible for the target users and their organizations? Are your initial; assumptions correct? Ideas that seem good at first may not seem so great after research, and many commonly criticized failures were likely results of insufficient research. This is why it’s vital to begin user research early before product development has even begun.

While it is important to conduct foundational research early on, you also want to make sure to conduct evaluative research by continuously testing your product as you build or upgrade it. One of the reasons why Google products product like Gmail or YouTube are relatively easy to use for most people is that Google has teams continuously testing their products, making sure that their users know where to find what they’re looking for.

Don’t do all of the user research yourself

One of the mistakes I see many startups and entrepreneurs make (and that I myself made early on) is doing all of the UX research themselves. In some ways, books like Lean Startup” have bolstered this tendency by stressing the need to “get out of the building” and get to know your users. In itself this isn’t a bad idea—it’s good to know who your users are and to build empathy for their experiences. Likewise, this isn’t to say that you should not do any research yourselves.

However, you also want to be sure to complement that by having professional, third party UX researchers do research for you as well. When you are heavily invested in your research, as you invariably would be if it is your own product, it is difficult to conduct it in an unbiased way. And when your research participants know that you are asking them about your own project, they are not likely to provide you with good signal that can actually help you improve your product.

‘Free speech’ social network Parler tops app store rankings following Biden’s election win

Chafing at new misinformation safeguards and a lost election, dejected Trump supporters flocked to the alternative social network Parler over the weekend.  Parler’s homepage promises that users can “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”

Parler shot up the charts across Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store in the days following official election results. An Android app called “Parlor” was also trending Monday, likely due to misspelled searches for Parler.

Joe Biden prevailed on Saturday, picking up the critical state of Pennsylvania to become president-elect. Biden’s win followed a tense five days of vote tallying, as Trump repeatedly attacked the U.S. election process.

Parler sat at #7 in the App Store on Saturday, November 7, according to mobile app market analysis from Sensor Tower. By the next day, it shot up to #1 — a first for the app. It remains in the top slot now, in contrast to its position a week ago as the 1023th most downloaded app.

The story is similar in Google’s own app marketplace, where Parler climbed from #51 on Saturday to #5 on Sunday, topping out in the #1 slot today. The Fox News competitor Newsmax TV and the self-described “next-gen social network” MeWe also sat in Google’s top 5.

Parler’s ascent is notable but not totally new. Accounts anticipating a ban have been pointing their followers toward Parler and other far-right havens with every new platform policy change that Twitter and Facebook make. Gab, which describes itself as “the free speech social network” is also vying for Trump loyalists.

“It’s crazy to believe that only a handful of Silicon Valley companies will have complete control over the flow of information, communication, and news forever,” Gab CEO Andrew Torba wrote in a blog post Sunday.  Torba was booted from Y Combinator’s alumni network for threatening comments and harassment shortly after the 2016 election.

But in spite of calls for a mass exodus, many prominent conservative figures accusing Twitter and Facebook of censorship have maintained their presences on the platforms, knowing that their reach would be dramatically limited on the alternative social networks.

Fox News contributor and Trump enthusiast Dan Bongino called for his own supporters to move to Parler last week, warning that “Fakebook” might act against his page. On Facebook, Bongino’s content regularly ranks in the top performing posts on the platform and his page has nearly four million followers. Notably, Bongino announced an ownership stake in Parler earlier this year.

Over on Parler, the Trump campaign is raising donations for an “election defense task force,” but according to the fine print half of every donation will go toward existing debt. The campaign doesn’t appear to have made much original content on the niche social network lately, instead reposting very similar messages over and over.

For the many Trump supporters pushing dangerous false claims about the election, the writing was on the wall. Facebook made a rapid-fire series of policy changes in the months preceding the election, banning QAnon, cracking down on violent militias and introducing new tools to slow the spread of misinformation, which metastasized on the social network over the last four years.

As it became clear that Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election was picking up steam, Facebook cracked down. The company began hiding search results for the #StopTheSteal hashtag and removed one of its popular groups over “calls for violence” made by some members.

In spite of his loss, President Trump has refused to concede the election. But by Monday, Biden’s transition team had already kicked into high gear, announcing members of a coronavirus task force that will seek to rein in the deadly virus where Trump has failed.

With election results settled, the vast machinery of the U.S. government moved steadily toward January’s transfer of power, as it has in every other election.

Get fast money for your space startup at TC Sessions Space this December

One of the most challenging aspects of running your space startup is access to capital. At TC Sessions Space (December 16 & 17), we’re bringing together some of the top space funding programs to help founders discover how they can tap into grant money to fuel their startups. Each grant program will have 30 minutes for founders to find out how to get access to their funds. And afterward, you can set up individual meetings with their representatives via CrunchMatch to talk about your proposal.

Here are just a few of the programs you’ll be able to attend:

The Space Force Accelerators Learn how the Hyperspace Challenge, Catalyst Space Accelerator, and other government accelerators can connect you to the U.S. Space Force

Advancing Space Technology with NASA SBIR Learn about the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs powered by NASA.

NAVWAR SBIR/STTR Primer The SBIR/STTR is a robust program designed to help small businesses address government needs while promoting commercialization. This session is dedicated to providing a primer on the program with tips on getting involved and getting engaged with the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR).

Introduction to In-Q-Tel’s investing activities in the commercial space sector In-Q-Tel is a strategic investment firm that works with the national security community of the United States. For 20 years, In-Q-Tel has served one mission: to deliver the most sophisticated strategic technical knowledge and capabilities to the U.S. government and its allies through its unique investment model. Over the past decade, In-Q-Tel has been one of the most active investors in the commercial space sector, with a broad investment thesis that touches many aspects of the sector. This session will provide an overview of In-Q-Tel as a whole, as well as a discussion of the firm’s activities in the commercial space sector.

Plus more to be announced in the coming days…

To get a head-start on your fundraising efforts, you can get your early-bird tickets right now, and save $100 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision-makers, you can even exhibit for the day and pitch for just $360. We hope you’ll join us!

Is your company interested in presenting at TC Sessions: Space 2020Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

Early bird savings ends this Friday for TC Sessions Space 2020

Could there be a tech sector more thrilling and daunting than space? We think not. If that’s your orbit, don’t miss TC Sessions: Space 2020 on December 16-17. It’s where you’ll find the industry’s greatest thinkers, makers, shakers and investors.

More on that in a minute. Right now, a reminder that the $125 admission price remains in play for just five more days. Buy your early-bird ticket — and keep $100 in your wallet — before November 13 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

We have an impressive slate of presenters ready to talk about the current state of space tech, what the future holds, investment strategies and what it takes to build successful cosmic startups.

Here are just some of the luminaries you’ll hear from and engage with during main stage interviews, panel discussions, breakout sessions and interactive Q&As.

  • Lockheed Martin VP, Lisa Callahan
  • Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck
  • Lt. General John F. Thompson, U.S. Space Force
  • Will Roper, assistant secretary, U.S. Air Force
  • Relativity Space CEO, Tim Ellis

Check out some of the topics and find more in the event agenda.

Building Up a Business Looking Down at Earth: Earth observation is one of the real moneymakers in the space category. See what’s ahead for the industry.

Bridging Today and Tomorrow’s Tech: Corporate VC funds are a key source of investment for space startups, in part because they often involve partnerships that help generate revenue, and because they understand the timelines involved. We’ll discuss how they fit with more standard ventures to power the ecosystem.

We offer discount ticket options for students ($50) and for government, military and nonprofits ($95). Buy yours before November 13 at 11:59 p.m. PST. Bonus: Extra Crunch subscribers receive a 20% discount on passes.

Strut your right stuff: Want to increase your exposure to event attendees around the world? Buy a Startup Exhibitor Package. The $360 package includes three tickets, digital exhibition space and ability to generate leads. Bonus: exhibiting founders get five minutes to pitch their company — live — to thousands of attendees.

TC Sessions: Space 2020 takes place on December 16-17. Whether you’re a founder, investor, engineer, student or an aspiring entrepreneur, it’s where you’ll find the space industry’s most important people across public, private and defense sectors. Buy your pass before November 13 at 11:59 p.m. (PT) and save $100.Could that be any more exciting?

Is your company interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

MSCHF’s Push Party raises an unconventional seed round at a $200 million valuation

As part of its latest stunt, MSCHF, a venture-backed creative studio that’s smarter and more audacious than most, is poking a little fun on the venture industry itself and perhaps publications like TechCrunch too. The startup has spun out a rather simplistic app into a separate company and raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from a very real venture capital at an eye-popping $200 million valuation.

For the time being, the actual completion of the legal paperwork to cement this valuation seems like a more complex hurdle than the technical challenges of building the app itself. Push Party is by all means a Gen-Z Yo, it does one thing and one thing only, allows people to push a button which sends a push notification to every user of the app. There are no friends, no groups, no influencers. It’s a big button that fires off an awful lot of notifications.

Image via MSCHF

Like everything else MSCHF does, the app is designed with virality in mind. The startup’s last application they shipped, “Finger on the App” launched a huge online contest that ended after multiple winners who spent several days with their finger sitting on their phone screen. The fun with this rollout is that there’s no telling who pushed the button especially when users can set their own user names and unsurprisingly seem keen to pick celebrity names.

If the app Push Party takes some heavy inspiration from Yo, it’s also taking a page from what helped make it famous, namely a quizzically high early valuation for a product that did almost nothing. Back in simpler times, 2014, Yo raised $1.5 million on $10 million. But fast forward to 2020 and earning a $10 million valuation for a half-baked conceptual take doesn’t mean quite as much, it’s been normalized to a degree. As a result, MSCHF upped the ante and banked a $200 million valuation for Push Party in this raise.

It used to be that a $200 million valuation was a sign of late-stage traction rather than early-stage hype, but high valuations have grown increasingly common for investors racing to win the most competitive deals. Earlier this summer, audio startup Clubhouse raised eyebrows when it banked a $100 million early valuation, and just a few months ago, Roam, a note-taking app with a cult following raised a seed round on $200 million.

Push Party’s round was financed by Founders Fund with Principal Trae Stephens driving the deal. If you’re puzzled how the MSCHF team bagged a real investor from a real firm for a dubiously real project, the mystery fades when you find Stephens is unsurprisingly a backer of MSCHF itself. Stephens is by all means, in on the joke.

In a tongue-in-cheek press release, Stephens notes that, “We were a bit concerned by the valuation at first, but I told my people to run toward gunfire for anything less than $250 million.”

Is any of this real? Well, MSCHF insists that they went through all of the legal steps of incorporating Push Party and raising this round. How much the startup actually raised is perhaps more suspect, it’s unclear whether this was a $10 million investment or $1 million or $10,000, the team wasn’t too keen to go into details there, though I did ask someone from MSCHF whether the round was more than $100, and they confirmed that it was definitely more than $100.

Though the company refused to dissect what exactly it’s trying to communicate here, I think a good part of it is just poking at the idea that in today’s climate of ridiculous valuations there’s a tendency for some fairly nebulous numbers to signal value or innovation where this isn’t quite as much. And that often times a high valuation from a prestigious firm is a vote of confidence that drives Silicon Valley watchers to drive downloads while other investors toss in checks, engineers send in job applications and, yes, journalists write stories.

YouTube copies Spotify’s ‘Daily Mixes’ with its new ‘My Mix’ feature

YouTube Music is taking another cue from Spotify with today’s launch of a set of personalized playlists that are essentially YouTube Music’s own take on Spotify’s “Daily Mixes.” Each of these new “My Mix” playlists will feature a different aspect of a user’s tastes and interests, allowing users to dive in to a particular vibe or music genre.

Up to seven of these new “My Mix” playlists will be featured on the Home tab, the company says, and will include a combination of favorite tunes as well as potential new favorites for discovery purposes.

With the launch, YouTube is also rebranding its personalized playlist previously called “Your Mix.” To better clarify its purpose and eliminate possible confusion with the new “My Mix” playlists, this playlist will now be called “My Supermix,” and will combine all of a user’s music tastes into one playlist, like Spotify’s “Discover Weekly.”

YouTube is making other changes to its Home tab and personalized selections, too, it says.

Image Credits: YouTube

Now, the Home tab will feature an activity bar offering easy access to four activity types, including Workout, Focus, Relax, and Commute. These will take the user to a dedicated personalized homepage with a variety of playlists suited to the activity in question. The Workout tab, in particular, has been updated to include up to four new personalized mixes that feature music you already like as well as new recommendations. These tabs will also include a “Supermix” of the different playlists.

Personalization has become a key battleground for music streaming services, which aim to use technology to better cater to users by creating unique mixes and delivering more targeted recommendations. YouTube and Apple have both mimicked Spotify’s features on this front, offering their own variations on personalized playlists like Spotify’s flagship playlist, “Discover Weekly,” and others.

YouTube Music, though, has not had as much success in gaining a following, perhaps due to Google’s confusing and overlapping music strategy over the past several years, where it offered two different music apps.

Google has finally begun to correct his, and has started the transition that will shift users off its older service, Google Play Music, and over to YouTube Music. The latter, to date, has struggled with gaining a sizable share in the competitive music market, where Spotify and Apple dominate.

According to a MIDiA report in June, Google is in fifth place with a 6% share, behind Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and Tencent. However, the report suggested that YouTube Music’s appeal to a younger demographic could help Google turn things around, as its share had grown from just 3% in Q1 2018 to Q1 2019.

YouTube says the new changes to its playlists will arrive today.

Spora Health launches primary care network for Black people and people of color

A number of healthcare disparities exist for Black people in America, but they can oftentimes go unaddressed due to the lack of education and understanding among medical professionals. Spora Health, which launches today for patients in Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Florida, aims to fix that.

“An equitable healthcare system has never existed in America, especially for Black folks and that is the goal,” Spora Health founder and CEO Dan Miller told TechCrunch.

Spora Health is a primary care provider for Black people and people of color. Initially, Spora Health is taking a telemedicine approach but eventually plans to open physical locations.

Spora Health patients get access to its care delivery platform and care team that consists of doctors, nurse practitioners, nutritionists and more. Its machine learning-driven technology also can predict risk profiles for patients and look for chronic conditions like pre-diabetes, hypertension, emphysema and more.

Image Credits: Spora Health

Spora Health costs $9.99 per month. On the first visit, patients pay their normal co-pay. For those without insurance, they pay a one-time $99 fee on their first visit. You can think of it almost as a One Medical, which charges $199 per year, but with the specific needs of Black people and people of color in mind.

“Being a young startup, we can compete on price,” Miller said. “For us, we can make the offering more affordable because we have less overhead as well as tech that allows us to be more thoughtful.”

While the goal is to better serve Black people and people of color, not all of Spora Health’s providers fall into those demographics.

“We want to overindex on providers of color but supply and demand doesn’t match up,” Miller said. “There’s a shortage of providers of color becoming physicians. So we need to invest in the reeducation of providers.”

In order to become a provider on Spora Health, medical professionals must go through an interview process and participate in the Spora Institute. The Spora Institute serves to reeducate providers and help them understand their implicit biases.

“Within med school, there is a curriculum around health equity but that only happens in the first year of the program,” Miller said. “What tends to happen by the end of residency is that a lot of these implicit biases tend to surface again because the training curriculum and environment does not incorporate equity and doesn’t think about disparities in certain populations.”

Spora Health is actively raising a $1.2 million seed round. So far, the company has closed $1 million of that round.

Autonomous delivery startup Nuro hits $5 billion valuation on fresh funding of $500 million

Nuro, the autonomous delivery startup founded by two former Google engineers, has raised $500 million, suggesting that investors still have an appetite for long-term pursuits such as robotics and automated vehicle technology. Nuro now has a post-money valuation of $5 billion.

The Series C round was led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., with participation from new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company and Baillie Gifford. The round also includes existing investors such as SoftBank Vision Fund 1 and Greylock.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by former Google engineers Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu. While the startup was initially bootstrapped by Ferguson and Zhu, it has never struggled to attract investors. Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China in 2016, a deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million. But it was the monster $940 million investment made by the SoftBank Vision Fund in February 2019 that catapulted Nuro ahead of numerous other startups attempting to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology. Nuro had a $2.7 billion valuation following the Softbank investment, meaning its value doubled in about 18 months. That money has helped it grow to more than 650 employees.

Unlike many other startups in the AV industry, Nuro has focused its effort designing a low-speed electric self-driving vehicle that transports packages, not people. Some of Nuro’s first tests and pilots were with Toyota Prius vehicles equipped with its self-driving system. Nuro partnered in 2018 with with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned to its R1 delivery bot. Nuro has also partnered with companies like CVS, Domino’s and Walmart.

The company has since developed a second generation vehicle, known as the R2. This delivery bot, which is designed for local delivery service for restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, received an exemption from the federal government earlier this year that allows it to operate as a driverless vehicle.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented shift in consumer demand for safe and affordable local delivery services,” said Zhu, CEO and co-founder of Nuro said in a statement. “This funding, which brings us together with many of the world’s top investors, positions Nuro confidently toward a future where our world-class technology is adopted into people’s everyday lives.”

The company, which is testing and operating R2 on public roads in Arizona, California and Texas, told TechCrunch that the new funding will allow it to “confidently grow for years to come, with multi-year runway to build in multiple cities and scale across multiple markets.” Nuro’s near-term focus is on scaling its service in Houston and implementing R2 into commercial service.