Human Capital: Amazon and CZI face labor disputes as Biden promises gig workers better protections

Welcome back to Human Capital. In this week’s edition of HC, you’ll read about the latest labor struggles at Amazon and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, President-Elect Joe Biden’s promises to gig workers, a primary care network for Black people and people of color and more. Lastly, I pulled out some nuggets from DoorDash’s S-1 that are relevant to DEI and labor.

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Former Amazon warehouse worker sues company alleging failure to provide PPE to workers during pandemic

Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse employee, filed a lawsuit against the company today alleging Amazon failed to provide personal protective equipment to Black and Latinx workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The class action suit alleges Amazon failed to properly protect its warehouse workers and violated elements of New York City’s human rights law, as well as federal and state laws.

“I was a loyal worker and gave my all to Amazon until I was unceremoniously terminated and tossed aside like yesterday’s trash because I insisted that Amazon protect its dedicated workers from COVID-19,” Smalls said in a statement. “I just wanted Amazon to provide basic protective gear to the workers and sanitize the workplace.”

Center for Black Innovation gets $2.1 million

The Knight Foundation, Surdna Foundation and Comcast NBCUNiversal put $2.1 million into the Center for Black Innovation. The plan is to support Black entrepreneurs and increase the number of Black founders in Miami and throughout the U.S. The money will go toward investor education, facilitating matchmaking sessions between founders and investors, offering courses to founders and more.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative faces racial discrimination complaint

BERLIN, GERMANY – FEBRUARY 25: (r-l) Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of the social media platform Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan pose for a photo before the Axel-Springer-Award on February 25, 2016 in Berlin. Mark Zuckerberg got this first time awarding price for special innovations. (Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

Ray Holgado, a former employee of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, recently filed a racial discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Holgado, who is Black, worked at CZI from September 2018 through August 2020.

“Despite its social justice rhetoric, CZI is not a welcoming environment for Black employees,” Holgado’s complaint states. “Black employees are underpaid, undervalued, denied growth opportunities, and marginalized. Black employees who want to advance within the organization are shut down and labeled as too assertive or aggressive, while non-Black employees are favored and encouraged. When Black employees have communicated these concerns to CZI leadership, CZI has responded defensively and failed to address the underlying issues. CZI has utterly failed to ‘build a more inclusive, just, and healthy future’ for its Black employees.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, CZI denied the claims.

“While we take any allegation of discrimination seriously and will do so here, this former employee’s specific allegations were previously raised internally, independently investigated, and found to be unsubstantiated,” the spokesperson said. “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is committed to fair treatment, access, and advancement for all members of the CZI team. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, full stop.”

DEI nuggets from DoorDash’s S-1

Food delivery company DoorDash filed its paperwork to go public today. It’s a long document, so I’ve pulled out the relevant items related to DEI and labor.

DoorDash says it’s committed to diversity and inclusion in its S-1, despite never having released a diversity report

At DoorDash, we are committed to growing and empowering inclusive communities in our company, our industry, and the cities we serve. We believe that a diverse and inclusive workforce is critical to helping us attract and retain the talent necessary to grow our business. We also believe we will be a more successful company if we amplify the voices of those who have not always been heard, and when everyone has ‘room at the table’ and the tools, resources, and opportunities to succeed.

DoorDash also seems to be proud of the fact that none of its 3,279 employees have unionized:

None of our employees are represented by a labor union. We have not experienced any work stoppages, and we believe that our employee relations are strong.

DoorDash, like other gig economy companies, is also gearing up to pursue Prop 22-like legislation in other states:

As such, the passage of the 2020 California ballot initiative is likely to have an adverse impact on our results of operations. In addition, several other states where we operate may be considering adopting legislation similar to the 2020 California ballot initiative, which we would expect to increase our costs related to Dashers in such jurisdictions and could also adversely impact our results of operations.

Spora Health launches primary care provider network for Black people and POC

Image Credits: Spora Health

Spora Health launched its One Medical-like primary care provider network for Black people and people of color.

“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, which recently closed a $1.2 million seed round, 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.

Lyft on passage of Prop 22

“As we look to the future, the win on Proposition 22 in California was a landmark achievement and a major victory for drivers, our industry and the broader Lyft community,” Lyft President John Zimmer said in Lyft’s earnings report this week. “The campaign was successful because it ultimately reflected the desires and priorities of drivers. More than 120,000 drivers signed up to be part of the effort to pass Prop 22 – they rallied, they volunteered, they shared their stories. Voters saw that and stood in solidarity with them. We look forward to continuing our conversations with policymakers across the country.”

Similar to Uber, Lyft is also looking to explore similar legislation across the country. On the earnings call, Lyft CEO Logan Green said Prop 22 provides a model for other states.

Uber and Lyft request rehearing on case that upheld preliminary injunction

Uber and Lyft both filed a petition for rehearings in the case brought forth by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Last month, an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that would force Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees. But now that Proposition 22 has passed, Uber and Lyft want the court to determine if the injunction is still appropriate.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft will likely still face lawsuits over worker classification in California since the recently-passed proposition can not be applied retroactively. According to Bloomberg Law, those legal options, however, will be limited and damages will be capped.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Prop 22

In a joint statement, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called Prop 22 a “devastating blow to the rights” of gig workers.

Here’s a snippet:

No worker should face exploitative or otherwise abusive work conditions, but many app-based workers do. We urge app-based companies to bring their wage and labor policies and practices in line with international human and labor rights standards. We urge the government of California to explore other legal avenues for holding companies accountable for respecting workers’ rights. Finally, we urge the United States Congress and the United States Department of Labor to protect the rights of app-based workers, such as through legislative and regulatory action that helps ensure a living wage, paid sick and family leave, and workers’ compensation for illness and injury.

As COVID surges, what can data tell us about Airbnb’s recovery?

This is The TechCrunch Exchange, a newsletter that goes out on Saturdays, based on the column of the same name. You can sign up for the email here.

DoorDash filed to go public on Friday, meaning we’ll have at least one more unicorn IPO before 2020 comes to a close. For a high-level look at its numbers, I wrote this, Danny covered who will profit from the deal, and I noodled on the impact of COVID-19 on its business.

I bring all that up because there is another COVID-19 impacted unicorn that we are expecting to see go public in very short order: Airbnb.

When Airbnb filed to go public in August, it seemed like a solid plan. The company was widely reported to be on an upswing from its COVID-doldrums, the public markets were hot for growth and tech shares, and the pandemic’s caseload in the United States was coming down from its summer highs. It looked great for Airbnb to wrap its Q3, drop its public S-1 with the new numbers, and laugh all the way to the bank after showing investors that even a global pandemic and travel industry depression couldn’t stop it.

And yet. The United States and world at large are now in the midst of the worst COVID-19 spike yet, and consumer spend is going down right before we get the company’s S-1. November feels less winsome for an Airbnb recovery than August or September did. Still, when Airbnb files — next week, the scuttlebutt indicates, so get ready — we’ll only have a look at its numbers through the third quarter.

That’s effectively the same timeframe for a dataset that the folks at Cardify sent over and I dug through. Per the company, which tracks real-time consumer spend data, here’s a look at how well Airbnb recovered ahead of its larger industry after the initial recession in pandemic lodging spend:

Impressive, right? Sadly for Airbnb, the initial boom of demand through late June into July tapered as time continued.

Zooming in somewhat, here’s Airbnb spend data from July 2020 through the end of October, the first month of Q4, compared to the same period of 2019:

Declines, then, but still an encouraging set of data for the company regardless. I would not have expected Airbnb spend — via third-party, admittedly — to be this strong.

The trend of folks renting a house for a month seems to have diminished somewhat, in case you are factoring that into your mental math concerning Airbnb revenues from the above charts. Cardify told TechCrunch that after peaking at around +70% in the March-April timeframe, “average booking sizes have now normalized and are approximately 30% higher on a YTD basis.”

There is weakness in October, the charts show, but that appears to be at least partially seasonal given the 2019 line, so I don’t want to over-ascribe rising COVID cases as the cause. The drooping line, however, was echoed in similar SimilarWeb data that was also shared with The Exchange. The dataset concerned accommodation booking volume around the world for a number of travel services, including Airbnb. Its data tracking the US market showed that a bookings recovery through September that made up some ground on March lows was undercut by October declines. Europe’s bookings’ recovery peaked in July and has been falling ever since. Asian volume is creeping higher, but down sharply from prior levels.

It was a mixed picture, but as Airbnb is doing better than its broader industry per Cardify, the aggregated data could be leading us to be more pessimistic than we otherwise need to be. We’ll see shortly what the real numbers are, but I couldn’t help but share what I was reading with you. On to the S-1!

Before DoorDash filed, we were going to talk about Brex today in this space after Airbnb. But, since we got extra busy, expect those notes early next week on The Exchange.

Market Notes

The week was super busy with earnings, so I’ve collected a few notes from calls with select companies after they reported. Apologies to everyone’s’ favorite reporting firm, but we’re space-limited.

Appian crushed earnings expectations. What drove the low-code application development services’ growth forward? According to CEO Matt Calkins, it wasn’t a single thing. Instead, the company’s performance was driven by a long ramp he said, though he did also state that the concept of low-code has reached the public consciousness in new, higher levels during the last few quarters.

Why? The year’s chaos pushed companies into new patterns faster than they had anticipated. Chalk this result up to the accelerating digital transformation being real, which is good news for startups. (For more on Appian and the low-code space, head here.)

Alteryx gave The Exchange an earnings first, providing both its newly former CEO Dean Stoecker and its new CEO Mark Anderson to chat results. The company crushed Q3 expectations, but its Q4 projections did not excite investors. What was up? Anderson argued that ARR growth, not forward GAAP revenue projections, is the most transparent and clear view of an expanding software company, to paraphrase his thinking. You can’t ignore revenue, he said, but given the nuances in how revenue is counted, pay attention to ARR.

Alteryx has a solid ARR target for 2021. We’ll see how investors view its Q4 results and if they align their thinking to that of the new CEO. Alteryx’s former CEO is bullish, saying that in time the market will realize that analytics is at the epicenter of digital transformation. And his company will be there with code to sell.

Moving along, earlier this week I asked a number of VCs about the software venture capital market in the wake of Monday’s sharp selloff and my question about what might happen to public and private software companies if other stocks suddenly became more attractive — strong vaccine news on Monday was later overwhelmed by surging cases as the week went along, but on Monday Zoom lost billions in value as investors fled.

One set of responses came in late, but I wanted to share them all the same as they were more bullish than I anticipated. In the view of Laela Sturdy, a general partner at Alphabet Capital G, “private software investors are unlikely to change their investing patterns much as a result of fluctuations in the public market,” adding later that “public market changes would have to be very extreme — as in 30 percent or more — in order to impact growth stage valuations.”

The connection between public valuations and trading patterns and private capital deployment exists, but how closely the two are linked depends on what’s happening at any given moment, and it appears that at the moment private investor excitement about software is durable.

Sturdy explained why that may be: “Long-term secular trends around cloud adoption, automation and AI, data, security, fintech infrastructure, and the ongoing rapid acceleration of digital transformation will help tech companies maintain their status as the darlings of growth investors in both the private and public markets.”

Various and Sundry

And finally, the rest of the stuff that I couldn’t get to this week. Here we go:

  • Chatted with Cambridge Innovation Capital, a neat venture capital firm from Cambridge in the U.K. — not the Cambridge on the American East Coast. More to say here, but the good news is that hubs of innovation really are maturing into startup factories the world around.
  • I got my hands on an early copy of a survey of LPs put together by Allocate. It comes out Monday I think, but it said that “only 20% of [LP] respondents said COVID had slowed their investment activities,” which helps explain all the funds we’ve seen in the past few months.

Closing with something fun, remember that look we did of the performance of various startups in Q3? That was fun. Anyhoo, no-code “online form builder” JotForm told The Exchange that its revenue is up 50% from its 2019 results, that its enterprise customer base is up 620%, and that it expects to reach “100,000 total paid users by end of year.” Neat!

Alex

DoorDash IPO bets that the pandemic has accelerated change

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7 a.m. PT). Subscribe here.

DoorDash has become the go-to delivery choice for millions of people cooped up during the pandemic this year. Now it has filed an S-1, revealing its financials as it nears a long-intended IPO. These innards show an exciting business — and a larger story about how the year is going for tech companies in general.

When the company filed initial public offering paperwork back in February, it was coming off of an expensive year of growth in 2019. The California state legislature was passing laws, meanwhile, that directly targeted its gig-economy labor model. Then the pandemic hit. More from Alex Wilhelm:

DoorDash has grown incredibly rapidly, scaling its revenues from $291 million in 2018 to $885 million in 2019. And more recently, from $587 million in the first nine months of 2019 to $1.92 billion in the same period of 2020. That is 226% growth in 2020 thus far… How high-quality is DoorDash’s revenue? In the first three quarters of 2019, the company had gross margins of 39.9%, and in the same period of 2020 the figure rose to 53.1%, a huge improvement for the consumer consumable delivery confab.

The other jolt of good news for the company arrived last week. A California ballot proposition passed that preserved the contractor model it relies on for deliveries.

World events did not take a breath, though. A COVID-19 vaccine appeared on the horizon this week, and could lead to the pandemic ending as soon as next year. Will this be bad for DoorDash’s business? Alex took another look at the numbers for Extra Crunch, and didn’t come away with a clear answer. On the one hand, the company has been making ongoing investments in its delivery platform technology, which has helped to drive the success this year already. On the other hand, the S-1 is open about post-pandemic reality — profitability is going to decline. Alex:

To buy into the DoorDash IPO, especially at its currently floated $25 billion price, you have to believe that the company’s revenue growth will slow modestly at most. Otherwise the price makes no sense. Bearish investors who might expect the company to post negative growth in Q3 2021 won’t pay any price for DoorDash shares, but in between the two camps is a mess of vaccine timings, shifts in consumer behavior and macroeconomic questions that could determine how many American families can afford delivery. All of which will impact DoorDash’s future growth rates.

For those looking further out, DoorDash stock is about how you think the pandemic is going to change the world for the long term, or not. Are we going to be using DoorDash more often now for deliveries? Are we going to be at home as much in the first place? Or are we going to go back to offices, stores and restaurants like we did before?

Speaking of investors, Danny Crichton illustrates why it pays to bet on the world changing. The company has raised nearly $2.5 billion over the years. Today that includes an 18.2% ownership stake by Sequoia, 22.1% by the SoftBank Vision Fund, and 9.3% by Singapore’s GIC. As he writes for Extra Crunch, the founding executives Tony Xu, Andy Fang and Stanley Tang each own around 5% — smallish wedges of a growing pie. Maybe that is too much dilution? Or maybe, considering all of the other delivery companies that have failed or gone sideways, this is the pinnacle of success in the sector.

A health care worker holds an injection syringe of the phase 3 vaccine trial, developed against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by the U.S. Pfizer and German BioNTech company, at the Ankara University Ibni Sina Hospital in Ankara, Turkey

(Photo by Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Vaccine

We all knew that at some point solutions would be figured out. But as COVID-19 cases have climbed this season, and as anxiety built around elections, it was hard to believe that the vaccine was right around the corner. The initial success reported Monday by BioNTech and Pfizer may mean that these two companies are close to success. But many other companies are attempting to use the same experimental gene-based vaccines so we may see others winners soon.

The stock market is already repricing tech stocks, in any case. Besides the timely arrival of the DoorDash S-1, here are a few other headlines about the impact of the news:

Positive vaccine news punishes pandemic-boosted companies like Zoom, Peloton, Etsy

What happens to high-flying startups if the pandemic trade flips? (EC)

As public investors reprice edtech bets, what’s ahead for the hot startup sector? (EC)

5 VCs discuss the future of SaaS and software after Pfizer’s vaccine breakthrough (EC)

Image Credits: John Artman

Tencent’s fintech business is the size of an Ant

In other news about political turbulence and the tech world, Rita Liao inspects Tencent’s quietly huge fintech empire and concludes that it “will need to tread more carefully on regulatory issues.”

Here’s why, for those trying to understand this global company and its place across markets:

As Ant Group seizes the world’s attention with its record initial public offering, which was abruptly called off by Beijing, investors and analysts are revisiting the fintech interests of Tencent, Ant’s arch rival in China. It’s somewhat complicated to do this, not least because they are sprawled across a number of Tencent properties and, unlike Ant, don’t go by a single brand or operational structure — at least, not one that is obvious to the outside world. However, when you tease out Tencent’s fintech activity across its wider footprint — from direct operations like WeChat Pay through to its sizeable strategic investments and third-party marketplaces — you have something comparable in size to Ant, and in some services even bigger.

How one founder combined edtech and gaming

Serial founder Darshan Somashekar writes that if you want to build a great edtech product, then perhaps it should be a game. Here’s more, from his guest column for Extra Crunch this week:

Earlier this year, we launched Solitaired, a casual gaming platform that ties card games to educational experiences and brain training. We’re still early, but signs are encouraging: Our average time on site is 30 minutes, more than three times that of our earlier business. Even better, users come back often, on average returning more than five times per month. Since we’re now in the gaming space, we should have expected these metrics, but they still blew our expectations away. We’ve also found that the downsides can be mitigated. For example, high engagement has led to strong virality, driving down our CAC and increasing our growth. In-app purchase abuses can be tempting for game developers, but by focusing on user growth KPIs, we don’t have the desire to go down those routes. Lastly, the threat of Big Tech is there, but at present most of their attempts have yet to strike a chord among users. More importantly, that’s why choosing a market so massive that even individual Big Tech players can’t dominate is key: With a market this size, you can shoot for the stars, miss the moon and still do well for yourself.

Around TechCrunch

Pioneers of in-space refueling and manufacturing join TC Sessions: Space 2020

NASA’s head of human spaceflight, Kathryn Lueders, will join us at TC Sessions: Space

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

Across the week

TechCrunch

This startup is betting that you want to binge remote-work content

Calling Dublin VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

Human Capital: The gig economy in a post-Prop 22 world

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

Renewable power represents almost 90% of total global power capacity added in 2020

Extra Crunch

Square and PayPal earnings bring good (and bad) news for fintech startups

What I wish I’d known about venture capital when I was a founder

Conflicts in California’s trade secret laws on customer lists create uncertainty

What we’ve learned about working from home 7 months into the pandemic

Dear Sophie: What does Biden’s win mean for tech immigration?

#EquityPod

From Alex:

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

The full Equity crew was on hand to debate the current venture capital market, curious about how risk-on, or risk-off things really are today. DannyNatasha and I framed the conversation around a number of news items from the week, including:

  • Wrkfrce has launched, and we wanted to chat more about the future of niche media, bringing The Juggernaut’s own recent round and the Quartz shakeup into the conversation.
  • And on the media front — always a risky venture capital investing domain — Spotify has snapped up another podcasting company, this time paying $235 for Megaphone. Our take? A string of small exits probably won’t encourage VCs to take on more risk in the space (Hunter Walk said the same thing here.)
  • Turning to risk more generally, I asked Natasha to weigh in on the earlier stages of the venture market, and Danny on its later tranches. There’s still lots of money, but it appears more focused on chasing winners than bolstering or supporting less-obvious startups.
  • That market is not slowing a risk-on move toward more venture capital players, as the Spearhead news showed a new focus for the firm to invest in emerging fund managers.
  • And there’s still plenty of risk tolerance in remote-work solutions like Hopin, which just raised $125 million at a $2+ billion valuation. We’re torn on the round, but Danny likes it and he’s a former VC.
  • And we wrapped with a chat about upcoming IPOs, and the recent SoftBank results. If DoorDash, Airbnb and others are going to go this year, they need to go soon. So far, no dice.

It was a busy week, despite the month. Expect more of the same next week.

Finally, don’t forget that our own Chris Gates is cutting Equity videos out of every episode that you can find over on YouTube. He does a great job and it’s great to be on video, as well as audio platforms.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

This Week in Apps: Conservative apps surge, Instagram redesigned, TikTok gets ghosted

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Trump administration backs down on TikTok ban

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The Trump administration seemingly forgot it had banned the TikTok app in the U.S., as the president focused this week instead on sowing doubt over the integrity of the U.S. elections — which the Dept. of Homeland Security just called the “most secure in American History,” by the way.

The inaction on the Trump administration’s part revealed what many suspected all along: that the TikTok ban was largely performative.

Earlier this week, TikTok went public with the fact that it hadn’t heard anything about its ban for weeks, despite the fact that it had a deadline of November 12 to divest its U.S. assets. The company filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, calling for a review of actions by CFIUS (Trump’s committee on foreign investment in the United States).

TikTok had earlier asked for an extension, but never heard back, it said.

Or, as the winning headline put it, courtesy of The Verge: “TikTok says the Trump administration has forgotten about trying to ban it, would like to know what’s up.”

In a statement, TikTok said:

“For a year, TikTok has actively engaged with CFIUS in good faith to address its national security concerns, even as we disagree with its assessment. In the nearly two months since the President gave his preliminary approval to our proposal to satisfy those concerns, we have offered detailed solutions to finalize that agreement – but have received no substantive feedback on our extensive data privacy and security framework.

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order. Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US. We remain committed to working with the Administration — as we have all along — to resolve the issues it has raised, but our legal challenge today is a protection to ensure these discussions can take place.”

After getting the reminder, the Commerce Dept. on Thursday said it wouldn’t enforce the order that required TikTok to shut down, citing a preliminary injunction against the shutdown last month that came about as a result of the lawsuit by TikTok stars, who claimed the app’s closure would impact their ability to make an income. However, it also appealed that same ruling, leading to further confusion.

The question now is how will the incoming Biden administration proceed with regard to the Trump TikTok ban. Though Biden has criticized Trump’s China policy, concern over TikTok was one that saw bipartisan support. Biden even said during a campaign stop in September that it was worrisome that a Chinese operation would have access to over 100 million young people in the U.S.

Election results send conservative apps up the charts

After a nerve-wracking week of election results which devolved into political chaos as Trump rallied his base to believe baseless claims of fraud, a number of right-wing Trump supporters turned to alternative apps for social media and news.

The App Store’s top charts, which are determined by a combination of downloads and velocity, among other factors, soon featured a new set of alternative apps, led by free speech network Parler, which found itself in the No. 1 spot. (It’s since slipped thanks to Walmart’s Black Friday sales, which sent the retailer’s app flying up to No. 1.)

Image Credits: Screenshot from App Store

According to one estimate, Parler saw 980K downloads from November 3 through November 8. Other apps also benefitted from the election drama, including social network MeWe (now No. 10 on the iPhone Top Free Apps chart in the U.S. and right-wing news network Newsmax TV (No. 7).

Unlike Facebook and Twitter — which increasingly use fact-checking services to label or, in extreme cases, hide false claims behind an extra click — alternative apps do not. But they are not neutral platforms by any means. The verified account from “Team Trump” was among those that automatically greeted new Parler users, for example. Right-wing politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes as well as other conservative personalities have set up shop on Parler, too.

As a result, the community is lopsided. Users are posting to amplify their beliefs among those who largely feel the same as they do. And, because Parler does not combat misinformation and conspiracy theories with fact-checking, it’s already been targeted by a conspiracy theory of its very own. A Photoshopped image of a Fox News ticker spread confusion on Parler this week, as the modified image claimed that George Soros owned the social network. The conspiracy got enough traction that Parler founder John Matze had to post that it was not true. But Parler’s true origins and ownership are still being discussed.

It’s unclear to what extent the conservative apps represent a new wave of social media with long-term staying power, given that any relative newcomer to the space will still ultimately have to compete with very large networks, like Facebook’s 2 billion users. Though smaller than Facebook, Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users is still much larger than Parler’s monthly active user base of about 4 million (its active users are around half of its registered users, which is now 8 million.)

Larger platforms have resources to pour into more than just the basics of keeping the servers running. And, to date, that’s led to the demise of numerous other would-be Facebook rivals. The few apps that manage to grow a following these days are those that get a majority of younger, mainstream users, like TikTok and Snapchat.

Regardless of your political leanings, I think we can all agree there was a lot of this going on this week:

Instagram Redesign

Image Credits: Instagram

Instagram this week put its TikTok competitor Reels front-and-center in a redesigned version of its app by giving it the center position on its new navigation bar. The update also replaced the Activity tab (heart icon) with the Shop tab, following a test that had changed this aspect of the app’s home screen earlier this summer. And it revamped the Camera interface and did away with the IGTV button.

In the redesigned app, both the Compose button and the Activity tab have been relocated to the top-right of the home screen, while the center middle button now belongs to Reels.

Image Credits: Instagram

The redesign is an aggressive attempt on Instagram’s part to direct users to its short-form video feed, Reels, which has so far seen only a lukewarm reception from reviewers, who have called it stale, lacking in effects and another contributor to Instagram bloat.

The changes were also a big push to make the Instagram app more of an online shopping destination at a critical time for the e-commerce market. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by at least five years, according to some analysts. That means any plans Instagram had to become a major player in online commerce were also just expedited.

Both moves signal a company that’s worried about the impact TikTok may have on the long-term future of its business. TikTok is now projected to top 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021. And as its recent partnership with Shopify on social commerce indicates, it could be a new home for social commerce soon too.

Platforms

  • Apple at its Mac event detailed that its new Apple Silicon Macs would be able to run iOS apps. The news was first announced at WWDC, but is now officially going to roll out with Big Sur and the new Macs. Apple showed off Among Us and HBO Max apps during a demo, but it’s unclear if others are being allowed to opt out.
  • Apple’s TestFlight beta testing app now supports automatic updates. At last!
  • iOS 14.3 and iPadOS 14.3 beta 1 releases arrived.
  • Android added support for PyTorch for on-device AI processing.
  • Epic Games scores a point in the App Store legal battle over in-app purchase fees. A judge dismissed Apple’s claims that Epic’s actions were wrong, which reduces the potential risk of its lawsuit, limiting Apple’s counterclaims to breach of contract. (Punitive damages have not yet been discussed.)
  • Apple to suggest third-party apps during setup, with iOS 14.3, according to details found in the app’s code. This appears to be there for compliance with local laws in select countries where antitrust issues are a concern.
  • Android Enterprise Recommended program adds Samsung and others. The program, launched in 2018, helps enterprise customers evaluate and approve devices that meet Google’s requirements for hardware, software and updates. This change brings Samsung Galaxy devices and others into the fold.
  • Time to vote for Google Play’s “Best of 2020.” You can vote through November 23 to help pick Google’s Users’ Choice winners.

Security & Privacy

  • Zoom settled with FTC after making deceptive security claims. The company had claimed its video calls were protected by “end-to-end” encryption that made it impossible for anyone, including Zoom to listen in. This wasn’t true, as Zoom maintained the cryptographic keys that could allow it to access the content of its customers’ meetings.

Apps in the News

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook copies Snapchat…again. Messenger and Instagram are getting a new “Vanish Mode” feature that lets you enable disappearing messages from within a conversation. The upgrade on Instagram is only part of the big messaging update that unifies the inbox with Facebook.
  • Apple cracked down on iOS terminal apps. a-Shell and iSH, two terminal apps popular with developers, were blocked from the App Store because they…drum roll…execute scripts. Oh c’mon, Apple. iSH appealed and was returned to the App Store. a-Shell has appealed as well. Apple ended up apologizing.
  • No more free storage for your Google Photos. Google this week said all your photo uploads will now count towards your Google account’s 15GB of free storage. Get ready to pay for Google One.
  • TikTok expands fundraising features. The company already allowed users to fundraise from donation stickers. Now you can do so directly from your profile, too.
  • Disney+ app reaches 100M+ global downloads, with 62% coming from the U.S., according to Apptopia data. 
  • TikTok to top 1.2B MAUs by 2021, per App Annie’s forecast.
  • Bumble’s new feature prevents bad actors from using “unmatch” to avoid being reported for harassment and other issues. The change came following reports of victims of harassment and crime, including rape, were unable to report their abusers because they had unmatched their victims.
  • Zynga recorded a 46% rise in revenue in Q3 2020, to reach $503 million, an increase in DAUs of 53% to 31 million, and a 23% increase in MAUs to 83 million.

Trends

Image Credits: Netflix/TechCrunch

  • Netflix tries a TikTok-like feature. Netflix experiments with a full-screen vertical video feed featuring comedy clips. The company says the goal is to help users discover new shows and add them to their watch list.
  • U.S. Elections boosted mental wellness app installs by 30%. According to Sensor Tower data, the top five meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Pray.com, Breethe and Insight Timer) saw their installs collectively grow 30% week-over-week in the period from November 3 to November 5 as compared to October 27 to October 29.
  • App Annie 2021 forecast: Remote business apps (e.g. Zoom) are expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% and remote learning apps will see 62% growth in 2021. Total time in mobile banking and finance apps will surpass 31 billion hours annually in 2021, representing a four-year CAGR of 35%. Fitness and e-commerce will grow as well, at +23% and +40%, respectively.
  • Chinese e-commerce platforms are gamifying Single’s Day, the world’s largest shopping festival, to keep consumers in their apps longer. Friends can join each other’s teams to get even bigger deals. Some people, however, criticize.
  • JumpCloud raises $75M in Series E funding for its cloud directory and Apple MDM expansion
  • Nigeria’s Kuda raises $10M to be the mobile-first challenger bank for Africa.
  • Food delivery app and website DoorDash filed to go public. The company has raised $2.5 billion in capital to date.
  • Personal finance app Truebill raises $17M. The app and website help users track down subscriptions they no longer want to pay for, negotiate to lower bills and more.

HBO’s “His Dark Materials: My Daemon”



HBO teamed up with creative studio Framestore to create a new iOS and Apple Watch app that lets fans of the show “His Dark Materials” interact with their own “daemons” — the magical animal companions that serve as an extension of characters’ souls, TechCrunch reported. The app uses AR to allow the daemon to interact with the world around you.

NightWare for Apple Watch treats PTSD

Image Credits: NightWare

The FDA approved an Apple Watch app for the treatment of PTSD. The app, NightWare, is only available with a prescription, and uses Apple Watch sensors to track body movements and the heart rate during sleep to create a profile. When it detects a PTSD nightmare, the watch vibrates to disrupt the the user’s sleep and bring them out.

OmniFocus launches iOS 14 widgets 

Image Credits: OmniFocus

Productivity app OmniFocus launched new iOS 14 widgets this week, including a forecast widget with a calendar view for today and the days ahead and a perspective items widget with a list of upcoming items in a perspective of your choice. The widgets are available in small, medium, and large sizes, and can have their font size customized.

These Stanford students are racing to get laptops to kids around the U.S. who most need them

The digital divide is not a new phenomenon. Still, it largely took Americans by surprise when, as the U.S. began to shut down to slow the spread of Covid-19 in March, schools grappled with how to move forward with online classes.

It wasn’t just a matter of altering students’ curriculum. Many lacked either internet access or home computers — and some lacked both. According to USAFacts, a non-partisan organization funded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer,  4.4 million households with children have not had consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic.

It’s a problem that two Stanford students, Isabel Wang and Margot Bellon, are doing everything in their power to address, and with some success. Through their six-month-old 501(c)(3) outfit, Bridging Tech, they’ve already provided more than 400 refurbished laptops to children who need them most — those living in homeless shelters — beginning with students in the Bay Area where there are an estimated 2,000 homeless students in San Francisco alone.

Unsurprisingly, it began as a passion project for both, though both sound committed to building an enduring organization. They always cared about the digital divide; now they’ve seen too much to walk away from it.

Wang, for her part, grew up in the affluent Cleveland, Oh., suburb of Shaker Heights, which has “always had racial tensions,” she notes. (The best-selling novel “Little Fires Everywhere” is set in the same place, for the same reason.) Partly as a result of “racism in our community,” Wang became involved early on in public health initiatives that address those from underserved backgrounds, and part of that focus centered on equitable access to education.

Bellon, a biology major who met Wang at Outdoor House, a student-initiated outdoors-themed house at Stanford, had similar interests early on, she says. Growing up in San Mateo, Ca., she volunteered in homeless shelters in high school and in college, experiences that made her aware of the challenges created by a lack of access to technology. For many, just getting WiFi can mean having to linger outside a Starbucks, she notes; for many, the only computer available is inside a library.  As the world shut down in the spring, Bellon realized these options were no longer available to the many people desperately needing them.

As it happens, as both moved away from campus earlier this year, they managed to also come together to address at the problem and now, 30 other volunteers, almost all fellow Stanford students, are also contributing to the effort.

Still, the outfit could use more help.

So far, Bridging Tech has been most focused on securing laptops for students lacking access to tech. Citrix Systems and Genetech have been among the bigger donors, but it’s easy to imagine that the nascent organization could use far more help from the region’s many tech giants.

Once it has lightly used computers are in hand, they are handed to a handful of refurbishers with which Bridging Tech has partnered. All guarantee their work for a year. One of these partners, Computers 2 Kids in San Diego, further provides clear instructions so that children can get up and running without much assistance.

Asked if other kids might be left with a tool they can’t use, Bellon says that homeless shelters in the Bay Area typically have tech volunteers who help children turn on the computers and get set up, and that organizations like ShelterTech have partnered with Bridging Tech to ensure these young computer recipients also have access to WiFi.

In the meantime, Bridging Tech has also launched a tutoring program, as well as a mentorship program based on more skill-based activities like computer science.

It’s a lot of moving pieces for two college students who not so long ago were primarily focused on getting through the next assignment. That’s not keeping them from barreling ahead into other geographies based on the traction they’ve seen in Northern California. Bellon says that they’ve already talked with shelters in New York, L.A. Boston, Washington, Atlanta, and a handful of other cities and that, based on their same needs, are looking to find ways to work with them, too.

They have to try, suggests Bellon. As they’re made more aware by the day, all around the country, disadvantaged kids who’ve been forced into distance learning because the pandemic are falling further behind their peers.

It’s seemingly not an issue that the federal or state governments are going to solve alone without more resolve. Consider that about one in five teenagers in America said in a 2018 Pew Research Center survey that they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they don’t have reliable access to a computer or internet connection. In the same survey, one quarter of lower-income teens said they did not have access to a home computer.

If Wang and Bellon are feeling urgent about expanding Bridging Tech’s reach, it’s because the problem requires urgency. The question is how they scale their ambitions. Right now, for example, the computers being refurbished by Bridging Tech are being delivered to shelters directly by volunteers who drive them there. Bridging Tech doesn’t yet have the network or infrastructure elsewhere to ensure that the same happens in other cities.

Both founders are aware of their limitations. Wang says very explicitly that Bridging Tech needs not only more device donations but that, for starters, it could use the skills of a grant writer, a marketer, and a development professional who can help introduce the outfit to other potential partner organizations. “We’re college students, so anything people can teach us is very valuable,” she says.

She also readily concedes that that Bridging Tech “doesn’t have the process nailed down for in-kind donations in other cities, so we’re mostly beginning to purchase those devices.” (One way it’s doing this is via an organization called Whistle that pays users for their old devices but also enables them to donate their proceeds.)

In the meantime, they’re still doing more than most, including by gifting these devices permanently. (Most children are asked to return school-issued devices at the end of the year.)

The two want to keep at it, too, even after Wang returns to school and Bellon moves on next year to a master’s program.

“For a more equitable society,” says Bellon, tech clearly needs to be equitable. “Covid has exacerbated these issues, but you need tech for everything and that’s not going away.”

Bonus: An extra week to save on tickets to TC Sessions: Space 2020

When you’re laser-focused on reaching beyond the stars, it’s hard to remember more earthly, mundane tasks. That’s why we’re giving you an extra week to score early bird savings to TC Sessions: Space 2020 (December 16-17). So, to all you harried, procrastinating visionaries: take a breath, relax a bit and buy your pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Join the two-day online conference to hear from and connect with the leading forces within the space industry. Learn how to secure grants for your space company, how and where the Air Force plans to spend $60 billion on R&D, what savvy space investors think and where they might place their bets. And that’s just the tip of the rocket.

Presentations range from asteroid mining, extra-planetary robotic research and the future of space exploration to human spaceflight, manufacturing in space and supply-chain issues. Here are just two stellar examples, and you’ll find many more in the event agenda. Start planning your time now.

Bridging Two Eras of Human Spaceflight: When Kathryn Lueders started working at NASA in 1992, it was the peak of the Space Shuttle era. As she begins her leadership of the Human Spaceflight Office this year, a new and exciting era is just beginning. Lueders will discuss the possibilities and challenges of the new systems and technologies that will put the first woman and the next man on the surface of the Moon…and perhaps Mars.

Crafting the Kuiper Constellation: Amazon is set to create its own global constellation of LEO satellites — a very different type of gadget from what Amazon SVP of Device & Services Dave Limp is used to overseeing. He’ll tell us how Project Kuiper fits in with Amazon’s grand plans.

Looking for more ways to save? Bring the whole team with a group discount. Tickets cost $100 each — bring four team members and get the fifth one free. Discount passes for students cost $50, while current government, military and non-profit employees pay $95. Plus, Extra Crunch subscribers get a 20 percent discount.

Step into a virtual spotlight and showcase your startup in our expo. An Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package ($360 gets you three tickets, digital exhibition space and the ability to generate leads). Bonus: Exhibiting startups each get five minutes to pitch live to attendees around the world.

As you reach for the stars, connect with the experts and opportunities at TC Sessions: Space 2020 to help make your galactic dreams a reality. You have an extra week. Now, breathe, relax and buy your early bird pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

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

NextView Ventures closes its fourth fund with $89 million

NextView Ventures, a Boston-based venture capital fund, has raised an $89.6 million fund, according to SEC filings. The firm’s fourth fund, its largest to date, is oversubscribed, with early documents indicating a $70 million goal. The NextView Ventures team did not immediately respond to request for comment.

NextView Ventures was launched in 2010 by Rob Go, a former partner at Spark Capital; Dave Beisel, who clocked time at Venrock and Masthead Venture Partners; and Lee Hower, a former investor at Point Judith Capital. Most recently, the fund brought on former journalist and chief brand manager Leah Fessler as an investor.

The fund, which has offices in New York as well as Boston, invests in consumer and software-as-a-service enterprise startups at the pre-seed and seed stage. Its portfolio includes Ellevest, an investing platform for women; Grove Collaborative, a sustainable goods subscription platform; and ThredUp, which has confidentially filed for IPO. In April, NextView launched a virtual accelerator for startups to build a more robust pipeline for deal flow. The firm invested $200,000 for an 8% equity stake in a number of pre-seed and seed startups focused on “the everyday economy.

Despite the pandemic, Boston’s startup scene has continued to attract record numbers in venture capital volume. In fact, according to PitchBook data, Boston-area startups raised more private capital during summer 2020 than they did in summer 2019, suggesting that the pandemic has been a boon to startups in aggregate.

More recently, my colleague Alex Wilhelm and I wrote about how the Boston area is growing its demographic footprint in venture capital. In Q3 2019, New England drove 9.3% of U.S. venture deals, and 10.3% of U.S. venture dollars. In Q3 2020, those numbers were 9.3% of U.S. venture deals, and 12.7% of U.S. venture dollars. The percentage change is notable, especially amid volatile times.

NextView’s new fund is yet another signal of the city’s ability to attract institutional investment. Its previous fund was raised in 2017 at a $50 million close.

Google pulls the plug on Expeditions VR app, migrates tours to Arts & Culture

Google today announced that it is ending support for Expeditions. The VR app will also be pulled from its own Play Store and Apple’s App Store in June of next year. In a blogpost somewhat confusingly titled, “Expanding Google Arts and Culture with Expeditions,” the company notes the 360-degree tours captured for the project will survive — but will be moved to Google Arts & Culture.

Director of Program Management, Education, Jennifer Holland, says the decision was made to make the content more accessible to students and educators.

“Engaging students in the classroom has taken on an entirely different meaning this year. As schools around the world reimagine education from the ground up for a hybrid world, we’ve also been thinking deeply about how to adjust our tools to meet the moment and simultaneously build for the future,” she writes. “We’ve heard and recognize that immersive experiences with VR headsets are not always accessible to all learners and even more so this year, as the transition to hybrid learning has presented challenges for schools to effectively use Expeditions.”

The content will be included alongside Arts & Culture’s museum tours and other content, available for free to all users. That, at least, is a small win for teachers and parents who have struggled to keep up kids’ education in the face of a pandemic that has contributed to major school closures.

Notably, the news comes a little over a month after Google announced it would be ending support for the ill-fated Daydream VR platform. Launched four years ago, the project was an effort to bring low-cost virtual reality that failed to reach its potential.

Uber in talks to sell ATG self-driving unit to Aurora

Eighteen months ago, Uber’s self-driving car unit, Uber Advanced Technologies Group, was valued at $7.25 billion following a $1 billion investment from Toyota, DENSO and Softbank’s Vision Fund. Now, it’s up for sale and a competing autonomous vehicle technology startup is in talks with Uber to buy it, according to three sources familiar with the deal.

Aurora Innovation, the startup founded by three veterans of the autonomous vehicle industry who led programs at Google, Tesla and Uber, is in negotiations to buy Uber ATG. Terms of the deal are still unknown, but sources say the two companies have been in talks since October and it is far along in the process.

An Uber spokesperson declined to comment, citing that the company’s general policy is not to comment on these sorts of inquiries. An Aurora spokesperson said it doesn’t comment on speculation.

The talks could falter. But if successful, they have the potential to triple Aurora’s headcount and allow Uber to unload an expensive long-term play that has sustained several controversies in its short life.

Uber has ‘been shopping’

Shedding Uber ATG would follow a string of spin offs or other deals in recent months that has narrowed Uber’s focus and costs into core areas of ride-hailing and delivery. Two years ago, Uber’s business model could be described as an “all of the above approach,” a bet on generating revenue from all forms of transportation, including ride-hailing, micromobility, logistics, package and food delivery and someday even autonomous robotaxis.

That strategy has changed since Uber went public and has further accelerated as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the economy and fundamentally changed how people live. In the past 11 months, Uber has dumped shared micromobility unit Jump, sold a stake in its growing but still unprofitable logistics arm, Uber Freight and acquired Postmates. (The Postmates acquisition is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020).

Uber ATG has been the company’s last big, expensive holding. Uber ATG holds a lot of long-term promise and high present-day costs; Uber reported in November that ATG and “other technologies” (which includes Uber Elevate) had a net loss of $303 million in the nine months that ended September 30, 2020. In its S-1 document, Uber said it incurred $457 million of research and development expenses for its ATG and “other Technology Programs” initiatives.

Four sources within the industry told TechCrunch that Uber “has been shopping” ATG to several companies, including automakers this year. Sources have also told TechCrunch that Uber ATG was facing a potential down round, which might have been an additional motivator behind the talks with Aurora.

Aurora, which was founded in 2017, is focused on building the full self-driving stack, the underlying technology that will allow vehicles to navigate highways and city streets without a human driver behind the wheel. Aurora has attracted attention and investment from high-profile venture firms, management firms and corporations such as Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital, Amazon and T. Rowe Price, in part because of its founders Sterling Anderson, Drew Bagnell and Chris Urmson.

Urmson led the former Google self-driving project before it spun out to become the Alphabet business Waymo. Anderson is best known for leading the development and launch of the Tesla Model X and the automaker’s Autopilot program. Bagnell, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, helped launch Uber’s efforts in autonomy, ultimately heading the autonomy and perception team at the Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.

Aurora has grown from a small upstart to a company with 600 employees and operations in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Texas and Bozeman, Montana, home of Blackmore, the lidar company it acquired in 2019. About 12% of Aurora’s current workforce previously worked at Uber, according to records on LinkedIn.

Despite that growth, Aurora is still dwarfed by Uber ATG, the self-driving subsidiary that is majority owned by Uber. Uber ATG has more than 1,200 employees with operations in several locations, including Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Uber holds an 86.2% stake (on a fully diluted basis) in Uber ATG, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Its investors hold a combined stake of 13.8% in Uber ATG.

Uber’s public leap into autonomous vehicle technology began in earnest in early 2015 when the company announced a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Center. The agreement to work on developing driverless car technology resulted in Uber poaching dozens of NREC researchers and scientists. A year later, with the beginnings of an in-house AV development program, Uber, then led by co-founder Travis Kalanick, acquired a self-driving truck startup called Otto.

The acquisition was troubled almost from the start. Otto was founded earlier that year by one of Google’s star engineers Anthony Levandowski, along with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.

Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed not to incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That was calculated at the time to be about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

In the early days of the Otto acquisition, Uber estimated it could have 75,000 autonomous vehicles on the roads by 2019 and be operating driverless taxi services in 13 cities by 2022, according to court documents unsealed and first reported on by TechCrunch. To reach those ambitious goals, the ride-hailing company was spending $20 million a month on developing self-driving technologies.

Uber never came close to hitting those targets, a mission that was derailed by technical hurdles as well as the lawsuit with Waymo, its troubled relationship with Lewandowski and the fatal crash in March 2018 involving one of its self-driving test vehicles in Tempe, Arizona.

Uber halted all testing following the crash and has been slowly ramping up its more public-facing operations over the past 18 months. The expensive undertaking of developing autonomous vehicles prompted Uber to spin out the company in spring 2019 after it closed $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto parts maker Denso and Softbank’s Vision Fund.

The spin out, which occurred about one month before Uber’s debut as a publicly traded company, had been the subject of speculation for months. It was seen as a way for Uber to share the expensive load with other investors and allow it to focus on its core competencies and nearer term profit goals.

What Aurora gains

Troubles aside, Uber ATG has two important and critical features that make it attractive to Aurora: talent and Toyota.

The Japanese car giant had already invested $500 million into Uber prior to the 2019 injection of cash. At the time, the two companies announced their intention to bring pilot-scale deployments of automated Toyota Sienna-based ridesharing vehicles to the Uber ridesharing network in 2021, “leveraging the strengths of Uber ATG’s self-driving technology alongside the Toyota Guardian advanced safety support system.”

The 2019 investment into the Uber ATG unit deepened Toyota’s relationship with the company.

“While Uber was facing off against Waymo in the trade secrets lawsuit, Aurora launched with a bang. Within 18 months, Auora had secured several kinds of partnerships with Hyundai, Byton and VW Group. Some have fizzled, while there have been new gains, notably with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The musical chair-like changes underscores the sheer number of hopeful players in the self-driving business — a market that is still full of commercial and technical unknowns — and the fickleness of incumbent car makers in search of the best tech and deal.”

VW Group, which had touted its Aurora partnership in January 2018, confirmed to TechCrunch in June 2019 that “activities under our partnership have been concluded.” VW Group ultimately put its capital behind Argo AI, another autonomous vehicle technology developer that had locked up backing and a customer deal with Ford.

While Hyundai does have a minority stake in Aurora, it also went ahead and locked in a joint venture in fall 2019 with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv. Under the deal with Aptiv, both parties took a 50% ownership stake in the new joint company that is now called Motional. The combined investment in Motional from both companies will total $4 billion in aggregate value (including the value of combined engineering services, R&D and IP).

Still, Aurora has had its wins. The company raised $530 million last spring in a Series B round led by Sequoia with “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price. Aurora’s post-money valuation at the time was $2.5 billion. More recently, sources in the industry say that Aurora is abuzz with activity, particularly around the office of David Maday, the company’s new vice president of business development who led General Motors’ corporate development and mergers and acquisitions team for 21 years.

Aurora has always stated that its full driving stack — the combined suite of software and hardware that provides the brains for an AV — would be vehicle agnostic, but some of its early testing and partnerships suggested it was focused on robotaxi applications, not logistics. Aurora started talking more openly last year about applying its technology to long-haul trucking and has become more bullish on that application, particularly following its Blackmore acquisition.

Aurora announced in July 2020 that it was expanding into Texas and planned to test commercial routes in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area with a mix of Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Class 8 trucks. A small fleet of Pacificas were expected to arrive first. The trucks will be on the road in Texas by the end of the year, according to the company.

The Jump precedent

What’s unclear is how an acquisition of Uber ATG might be structured; and more importantly, if it will retain any interest in the enterprise. Even with the expected depletion in Uber ATG’s valuation, it would be seemingly out-of-range for Aurora unless it was able to secure additional outside investment or structure the deal in a way that would allow Uber to keep some equity. 

There is precedent for the latter. Earlier this year, Uber led a $170 million investment round into Lime. As part of the complex arrangement, Uber offloaded Jump, the bike and scooter-sharing unit, to Lime.

Rumors that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was keen to get rid of Uber ATG have popped up from time to time in the past year. But as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Khosrowshahi and other executives began to focus on its core competency of ride-hailing and double down on delivery. In addition to its micromobility unit and the Uber Freight spinoff, it has divested itself internationally of a number of regional operations that were proving too costly to grow in competition with strong local rivals.

It was on the heels of the Jump deal that interest in selling off Uber ATG ramped up, according to two sources.

One investor in the industry described it as an interesting plan b for Uber, a deal that would allow the company to take ATG off the books, while potentially getting to benefit from a little of upside.

Extra Crunch roundup: Inside DoorDash’s IPO, first-person founder stories, the latest in fintech VC and more

One of my favorite series of Monty Python sketches is built around the concept of surprise:

Chapman: I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

[JARRING CHORD]

[Three cardinals burst in]

Cardinal Ximénez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I was reminded of this today when I needed to reschedule a few stories so we could cover DoorDash’s S-1 filing from multiple angles. First, Managing Editor Danny Crichton looked at how well the company’s co-founders and many investors stand to make out. Alex Wilhelm covered the IPO announcement in depth on TechCrunch before writing an Extra Crunch column that studied the role the COVID-19 pandemic played in the home-delivery platform’s recent growth.

Our all-hands-on-deck coverage of DoorDash’s S-1 is a good illustration of Extra Crunch’s mission: timely analysis of current and future technology trends that serves founders and investors. We have a talented team, and as today’s coverage shows, they’re just as good as they are fast.

The stories that follow are an overview of Extra Crunch from the last five days. The full articles are only available to members, but you can use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one or two-year subscription. Details here.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week. I hope you have a great weekend!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


What I wish I’d known about venture capital when I was a founder

Why I left edtech and got into gaming

Young woman jumping on white sand through door frame at desert during sunny day. Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

We frequently run posts by guest contributors, but two stories we published this week were written in the first person, which is a bit of a departure.

In Why I left edtech and got into gaming, Darshan Somashekar brought us inside his decision to pivot away from a sector that’s been growing hotter in 2020.

His post is a unique take on two oft-discussed categories, but it also examines one founder/investor’s thought process when it comes to evaluating new opportunities.

Andy Areitio, a partner at early-stage fund TheVentureCity, wrote What I wish I’d known about venture capital when I was a founder, a reflection on the “classic mistakes” founders tend to make when it’s time to fundraise.

“Error number one (and two) is to raise the wrong amount of money and to do it at the wrong time,” he says. “They can also put all their eggs in one basket too early. I made that mistake.”

You can find business writing that explores best practices anywhere, which is why we hunt down stories that are firmly rooted in data or personal experience (which includes success and failure).

How COVID-19 accelerated DoorDash’s business

doordash dasher bicycle delivery person

Image Credits: DoorDash

The coronavirus pandemic looms large in DoorDash’s S-1 filing.

According to the food-delivery platform, “58% of all adults and 70% of millennials say that they are more likely to have restaurant food delivered than they were two years ago,” and “the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated these trends.”

As in other sectors, the pandemic didn’t wave a magic wand — instead, it hastened trends that were already in play: consumers love convenience, which means DoorDash’s gross order volume and revenue were tracking well before the virus started to shape our lives.

“It’s your call on how to balance the factors and decide whether or not to buy into the IPO, but this one is going to be big,” writes Alex Wilhelm in a supplemental edition of today’s The Exchange.

The VC and founder winners of DoorDash’s IPO

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 05: DoorDash CEO Tony Xu speaks onstage during Day 1 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 5, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

None of us knew DoorDash would release its S-1 filing today, but Danny Crichton jumped on the story “so we can see who is raking in the returns on the country’s delivery startup champion.”

After estimating the value of the respective ownership stakes held by DoorDash’s four co-founders, he turned to the investors who participated in rounds seed through Series H.

Some growth funds are about to look very good after this IPO, and each founder is looking at hundreds of millions, he found.

But even so, their diminished haul of about $1.3 billion is “a sign of just how much dilution the co-founders took given the sheer amount of capital the company fundraised over its life.”

Fintech VC keeps getting later, larger and more expensive

Investors sent stacks of cash to late-stage fintech companies in Q3 2020, but these sizable rounds may also point to shrinking opportunities for early-stage firms, reports Alex Wilhelm in this morning’s edition of The Exchange.

2020 could be a record year for fintech VC in Europe and North America, but are these “huge late-stage dollars” actually “a dampener for new fintech startups trying to get off the ground?”

Accelerators embrace change forced by pandemic

Devin Coldewey interviewed the leaders of three startup accelerators to learn more about the adaptations they’ve made in recent months:

  • David Brown, founder and CEO, Techstars
  • Cyril Ebersweiler, founder HAX, venture partner at SOSV
  • Daniela Fernandez, founder, Ocean Solutions Accelerator

Due to travel bans, shelter-in-place orders and other unknowns, they’ve all shifted to virtual. But accelerators are intensive programs designed to indoctrinate founders and elicit brutally honest feedback in real time.

Despite the sudden shift, that boot-camp mindset is still in effect, Devin reports.

“Cutting out the commute time in a busy city leaves founders with more time for workshops, mentor matchmaking, pitch practice and other important sessions,” said Fernandez. “Everybody just has more flexibility and tranquility.”

Said Ebersweiler: “People are for some reason more participative and have more feedback than physically — it’s pretty strange.”

Greylock’s Asheem Chandna on ‘shifting left’ in cybersecurity and the future of enterprise startups

Asheem Chandna

Image Credits: Greylock

In a recent interview with Greylock partner Asheem Chandna, Managing Editor Danny Crichton asked him about the buzz around no-code platforms and what’s happening in early-stage enterprise startups before segueing into a discussion about “shift left” security:

“Every organization today wants to bring software to market faster, but they also want to make software more secure,” said Chandna.

“There is a genuine interest today in making the software more secure, so there’s this concept of shift left — bake security into the software.”

Square and PayPal earnings bring good (and bad) news for fintech startups

If you missed Wednesday’s The Exchange, Alex scoured earnings reports from PayPal and Square to see what the near future might hold for several fintech startups currently waiting in the wings.

Using Square and PayPal’s recent numbers for stock purchases, card usage and consumer payment activity as a proxy, he attempts to “see what we can learn, and to which unicorns it might apply.”

Conflicts in California’s trade secret laws on customer lists create uncertainty

Concept of knowledge, data and protection. Paper human head with pad lock.

Concept of knowledge, data and protection. Paper human head with pad lock. Image Credits: jayk7 (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

In California, non-competition agreements can’t be enforced and a court has ruled that customer contact lists aren’t trade secrets.

That doesn’t mean salespeople who switch jobs can start soliciting their former customers on their first day at the new gig, however.

Before you jump ship — or hire a salesperson who already has — read this overview of California’s trade secret laws.

“Even without litigation, a former employer can significantly hamper a departing salesperson’s career,” says Nick Saenz, a partner at Lewis & Llewellyn LLP, who focuses on employment and trade secret issues.

As public investors reprice edtech bets, what’s ahead for the hot startup sector?

light bulb flickering on and off

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

News of a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine appeared to drive down prices of the three best-known publicly traded edtech companies: 2U, Chegg and Kahoot saw declines of about 20%, 10% and 9%, respectively after the report.

Are COVID-19 tailwinds dissipating, or did the market make a correction because “edtech has been categorically overhyped in recent months?”

Dear Sophie: What does a Biden win for tech immigration?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

What does President-elect Biden’s victory mean for U.S. immigration and immigration reform?

I’m in tech in SF and have a lot of friends who are immigrant founders, along with many international teammates at my tech company. What can we look forward to?

— Anticipation in Albany