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Daily Crunch: Biden’s labor secretary says gig workers should be reclassified




The Biden administration hints at gig economy changes, Blue Origin will be taking passengers and we interview Jim Belushi about weed. This is your Daily Crunch for April 29, 2021.

The big story: Biden’s labor secretary says gig workers should be reclassified

The Biden administration’s labor secretary Marty Walsh recently said in an interview with Reuters that he’s “looking at” the gig economy.

“In a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees,” Walsh said. “In some cases they are treated respectfully and in some cases they are not and I think it has to be consistent across the board.”

For now, this is just talk, but it suggests that new regulations and gig work reclassification could be a priority for the new administration.

The tech giants

Google Pay update adds grocery offers, transit expansions and spending insights — Through partnerships with Safeway and Target, Google Pay users will now be able to browse their store’s weekly circulars showcasing the latest deals.

Zynga and Rollic acquire the hyper-casual game studio behind High Heels — The company said High Heels (or, if you insist, High Heels!) has been downloaded more than 60 million times since it launched in January.

IBM is acquiring cloud app and network management firm Turbonomic for up to $2B — Turbonomic provides tools to manage application performance, along with Kubernetes and network performance.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Blue Origin will start selling tickets for New Shepard space tourism flights on May 5 — The “when and how much” are the two burning questions that remain around the Jeff Bezos-backed space company’s first commercial passenger flights.

TravelPerk raises $160M in equity and debt after a year of derailed business trips — TravelPerk lets users compare, book and invoice trains, cars, flights, hotels and apartments from a range of providers.

MoviePass co-founder’s PreShow Interactive raises $3M to expand into gaming — The startup will give PC and console gamers a new way to earn in-game currency in exchange for watching ads.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Healthcare is the next wave of data liberation — David Jegen and Carl Byers of F-Prime Capital argue that the winners of the healthcare data transformation will look different than they did with financial data.

Fintech startups set VC records as the 2021 fundraising market continues to impress — New data indicate Q1 2021 was the biggest fintech VC quarter ever.

How to fundraise over Zoom more effectively — A year ago, many of us probably thought that virtual fundraising would be impossible.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jim Belushi is chasing the magic in cannabis — We interviewed Belushi about his new greenhouses, supplied in part by GrowGeneration.

U.S. video game spending increased 30% in Q1 — Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%, according to NPD.

Sequoia’s Shaun Maguire and Vise’s Samir Vasavada will talk success in fintech on Extra Crunch Live — Join us on May 19 to discuss what brought the pair together, key tips for fundraising and how to be successful in the fintech space.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Short seller says Lemonade website bug exposed insurance customers’ account data




An activist short seller has written a letter to the chief executive of insurance giant Lemonade with details of an “accidentally discovered” security flaw that exposes customers’ account data.

Carson Block, founder of investment research firm Muddy Waters Research, sent the letter to Lemonade co-founder and chief executive Daniel Schreiber on Thursday, describing the bug that allowed anyone to inadvertently access personally identifiable data from customers’ accounts as “unforgivably negligent.”

Block’s letter said: “By clicking on search results from public search engines, we shockingly found ourselves logged in to and able to edit Lemonade customers’ accounts without having to provide any user credentials whatsoever.”

Lemonade launched in 2015 and offers renters’, homeowners’ and pet insurance policies across the U.S. and Europe. The company went public last year and saw its shares rocket by more than 130% on the day of its initial public offering. Lemonade this week reported a $49 million quarterly loss, deeper than what Wall Street was expecting.

The bug was co-discovered by Muddy Waters Research and Wolfpack Research, Block said. In a tweet, Wolfpack lead analyst Reed Sherman said one of Muddy Waters’ security experts “was able to send me a PDF of my renter’s insurance policy less than 15 minutes after this was first discovered.”

Block told TechCrunch that his firm is shorting the company’s stock, per his letter, “because it is clear Lemonade does not give a fuck about securing its customers’ sensitive personal information.” Block said in his letter that Lemonade should “shut down its website, APIs, and mobile application” until the issue is fixed, which he says may date back to July 2020.

Block published his letter to Lemonade with redactions as to not give away specific details of the bug. In a call, Block provided more details about the bug to TechCrunch in order to verify the vulnerability. One indexed search result let us log into a person’s Lemonade account and view their name, address, and quote details without ever asking for the user’s password.

A short time later, some of the indexed results stopped working. TechCrunch asked Lemonade for comment but did not hear back prior to publication. We’ll update when we do.

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Sylvera grabs seed backing from Index to help close the accountability gap around carbon offsetting




UK-based startup Sylvera is using satellite, radar and lidar data-fuelled machine learning to bolster transparency around carbon offsetting projects in a bid to boost accountability and credibility — applying independent ratings to carbon offsetting projects.

The ratings are based on proprietary data sets it’s developed in conjunction with scientists from research organisations including UCLA, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and University College London.

It’s just grabbed $5.8M in seed funding led by VC firm Index Ventures. All its existing institutional investors also participated — namely: Seedcamp, Speedinvest and Revent. It also has backing from leading angels, including the existing and former CEOs of NYSE, Thomson Reuters, Citibank and IHS Markit. (It confirms it has committed not to receive any investment from traditional carbon-intensive companies when as ask.) And it’s just snagged a $2M research contract from Innovate UK.

The problem it’s targeting is that the carbon offsetting market suffers from a lack of transparency.

This fuels concerns that many offsetting projects aren’t living up to their claims of a net reduction in carbon emissions — and that ‘creative’ carbon accountancy is rather being used to generate a lot of hot air: In the form of positive sounding PR which sums to meaningless greenwashing and more pollution as polluters get to keep on pumping out climate changing emissions.

Nonetheless the carbon offset markets are poised for huge growth — of at least 15x by 2030 — as large corporates accelerate their net zero commitments. And Sylvera’s bet is that that will drive demand for reliable, independent data — to stand up the claimed impact.

How exactly is Sylvera benchmarking carbon offsets? Co-founder Sam Gill says its technology platform draws on multiple layers of satellite data to capture project performance data at scale and at a high frequency.

It applies machine learning to analyze and visualize the data, while also conducting what it bills as “deep analytical work to assess the underlying project quality”. Via that process it creates a standardised rating for a project, so that market participants are able to transact according to their preferences.

It makes its ratings and analysis data available to its customers via a web application and an API (for which it charges a subscription).

“We assess two critical areas of a project — its carbon performance, and its ‘quality’,” Gill tells TechCrunch. “We score a project against these criteria, and give them ratings — much like a Moody’s rating on a bond.”

Carbon performance is assessed by gathering “multi-layered data” from multiple sources to understand what is going on on the ground of these projects — such as via multiple satellite sources such as multispectral image, Radar, and Lidar data.

“We collate this data over time, ingest it into our proprietary machine learning algorithms, and analyse how the project has performed against its stated aims,” Gill explains.

Quality is assessed by considering the technical aspects of the project. This includes what Gill calls “additionality”; aka “does the project have a strong claim to delivering a better outcome than would have occurred but for the existence of the offset revenue?”.

There is a known problem with some carbon offsets claimed against forests where the landowner had no intention of logging, for example. So if there wasn’t going to be any deforestation the carbon credit is essentially bogus.

He also says it looks at factors like permanence (“how long will the project’s impacts last?”); co-benefits (“how well has the project incorporated the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals?); and risks (“how well is the project mitigating risks, in particular those from humans and those from natural causes?”).

Clearly it’s not an exact science — and Gill acknowledges risks, for example, are often interlinked.

“It is critical to assess these performance and quality in tandem,” he tells TechCrunch. “It’s not enough to simply say a project is achieving the carbon goals set out in its plan.

“If the additionality of a project is low (e.g. it was actually unlikely the project would have been deforested without the project) then the achievement of the carbon goals set out in the project does not generate the anticipated carbon goals, and the underlying offsets are therefore weaker than appreciated.”

Commenting on the seed funding in a statement, Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, partner at Index Ventures, said: “This is a phenomenally strong team with the vision to build the first carbon offset rating benchmark, providing comprehensive insights around the quality of offsets, enabling purchase decisions as well as post-purchase monitoring and reporting. Sylvera is  putting in place the building blocks that will be required to address climate change.”

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The fulfilling world of warehouse robotics




With the pandemic finish line in sight — at least for some — now is a good time to start assessing which segments have been most impacted by the events of the past year and a half. In terms of robotics, investments have been all over the place — and for good reasons. COVID-19 seems destined to have a profound and lasting impact on work, and more than ever, robots and automation are going to play a part in that.

Food has been a big target. Manufacturing and health, as well — all for pretty clear reasons. When we come out of this, however, we may end up seeing that the most immediate and profound impact was on warehouse and fulfillment. Not that it needed much help, but online retail had a huge moment — led, naturally, by Amazon.

As the company butted heads with workers and union organizers at one fulfillment center in Alabama, the company has been readying additional fulfillment centers. Shreveport, Louisiana is the latest, with Governor John Bel Edwards referring to the new warehouse as a “robotics fulfillment center.”

As with all of these, that means a combination of humans and robots. There are, of course, questions with regard to what the balance will be, going forward. And, of course, it’s no surprise that pro-union Amazon workers frequently cited being treated like a robot among their biggest workplace concerns.

Attempting to stay afloat in the world of Amazon is a big part of why so many warehouses are particularly interested in robotics at the moment. After all, the tech has not only given the retailer a competitive advantage, it’s helped keep them running amid a global pandemic.

Berkshire-Grey has been one of the bigger players in the category, thanks in no small part to some massive raises. To date, the Boston-area company has raised $263 million, before announcing a SPAC last year. Today, it announced that it’s using some of that money to further expand into markets including Canada and Japan.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

“2020 was a pivotal time for eCommerce companies, retailers, grocers and package handling logistics providers – and it continues into this year. The need to automate to meet consumer needs was already pronounced and the pandemic accelerated the changes and increased the need,” founder and CEO Tom Wagner said in a release. “Many of these changes in consumer behaviors are here to stay and that means, businesses need to adapt and improve operations with robotic automation to fulfill those needs. We’re honored to work with companies who have enlisted our AI-enabled robotic solutions to help meet business goals and consumer expectations.”

The already-hot China market continues to gain momentum, as well. Youibot this week announced a $15 million raise, led by Softbank Ventures. The Shenzhen company is a HAX grad that produces manufacturing robots.

Image Credits:

Here’s Rita on the company:

Founded by a group of PhDs from China’s prestigious Xi’an Jiaotong University, Youibot develops solutions for factory automation and logistics management, as well as inspection and maintenance for various industries. For example, its robots can navigate around a yard of buses, inspect every tire of the vehicles and provide a detailed report for maintenance, a feature that helped it rack up Michelin’s contract.

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Framework’s repairable laptop is up for preorder, starting at $999




Repairability has been a big sticking point for consumer electronics over the past several years. As devices have gotten thinner — and companies have pushed to maintain control over proprietary systems — many devices have become near impossible for an every-day person to repair.

It’s an issue for a number of reasons — not the least of which is an inability to upgrade a system instead of scrapping it altogether. In a world where human impact on the environment is increasingly top of mind, forced obsolescence is an understandably important issue for many.

Framework is one of an increasing number of companies working to address these issues. It’s a list that also includes products like Fairphone on the mobile side. It’s a niche versus the overall market, to be sure, but it’s one that could well be growing. Announced in January, the Framework Laptop is up for preorder today. The 13.5-inch notebook starts at $999 and will start shipping at the end of July.

The SF-based company had initially targeted spring shipping, but ongoing chip supply problems have delayed the product. The system actually doesn’t look half-bad for a product and company that are clearly repair/upgrade-first.

There are three basic configurations — Base, Performance and Professional, ranging from $999 to $1,999, upgrading from an Intel Core i5, 8GB of Ram and 256GB of storage to a Core i7 and 32GB/1TB. Windows also gets upgraded from Home to Pro at the top level. At $749, the company offers a barebones shell, where users can plug in their own internals.

Image Credits: Framework

Other upgrades include:

On top of that, the Framework Laptop is deeply customizable in unique ways. Our Expansion Card system lets you choose the ports you want and which side you want them on, selecting from four at a time of USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD, ultra-fast 250GB and 1TB storage, and more. Magnetic-attach bezels are color-customizable to match your style, and the keyboard language can be swapped too.

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