Maryland and Montana have become the first U.S. states to pass laws that make it tougher for law enforcement to access DNA databases.
The new laws, which aim to safeguard the genetic privacy of millions of Americans, focus on consumer DNA databases, such as 23andMe, Ancestry, GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, all of which let people upload their genetic information and use it to connect with distant relatives and trace their family tree. While popular — 23andMe has more than three million users, and GEDmatch more than one million — many are unaware that some of these platforms share genetic data with third parties, from the pharmaceutical industry and scientists to law enforcement agencies.
When used by law enforcement through a technique known as forensic genetic genealogy searching (FGGS), officers can upload DNA evidence found at a crime scene to make connections on possible suspects, the most famous example being the identification of the Golden State Killer in 2018. This saw investigators upload a DNA sample taken at the time of a 1980 murder linked to the serial killer into GEDmatch and subsequently identify distant relatives of the suspect — a critical breakthrough that led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo.
While law enforcement agencies have seen success in using consumer DNA databases to aid with criminal investigations, privacy advocates have long warned of the dangers of these platforms. Not only can these DNA profiles help trace distant ancestors, but the vast troves of genetic data they hold can divulge a person’s propensity for various diseases, predict addiction and drug response, and even be used by companies to create images of what they think a person looks like.
Ancestry and 23andMe have kept their genetic databases closed to law enforcement without a warrant, GEDmatch (which was acquired by a crime scene DNA company in December 2019) and FamilyTreeDNA have previously shared their database with investigators.
To ensure the genetic privacy of the accused and their relatives, Maryland will, starting October 1, require law enforcement to get a judge’s sign-off before using genetic genealogy, and will limit its use to serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, and human trafficking. It also says that investigators can only use databases that explicitly tell users that their information could be used to investigate crimes.
In Montana, where the new rules are somewhat narrower, law enforcement would need a warrant before using a DNA database unless the users waived their rights to privacy.
The laws “demonstrate that people across the political spectrum find law enforcement use of consumer genetic data chilling, concerning and privacy-invasive,” said Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “I hope to see more states embrace robust regulation of this law enforcement technique in the future.”
The introduction of these laws has also been roundly welcomed by privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the EFF, described the restrictions as a “step in the right direction,” but called for more states — and the federal government — to crack down further on FGGS.
“Our genetic data is too sensitive and important to leave it up to the whims of private companies to protect it and the unbridled discretion of law enforcement to search it,” Lynch said.
“Companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA have allowed and even encouraged law enforcement searches. Because of this, law enforcement officers are increasingly accessing these databases in criminal investigations across the country.”
A spokesperson for 23andMe told TechCrunch: “We fully support legislation that provides consumers with stronger privacy protections. In fact we are working on legislation in a number of states to increase consumer genetic privacy protections. Customer privacy and transparency are core principles that guide 23andMe’s approach to responding to legal requests and maintaining customer trust. We closely scrutinize all law enforcement and regulatory requests and we will only comply with court orders, subpoenas, search warrants or other requests that we determine are legally valid. To date we have not released any customer information to law enforcement.”
Ancestry said it worked with lawmakers in Maryland to craft a law “that achieves their public policy goals while ensuring the privacy of our consumers.”
“Protecting our customers’ privacy and being good stewards of their data is Ancestry’s highest priority and we do not voluntarily work with law enforcement. Ancestry will not share any information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant,” a company spokesperson said.
GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, both of which opt users into law enforcement searches by default, told the New York Times that they have no plans to change their existing policies around user consent in response to the new regulation.
Updated with comment from Ancestry.
Nuclear waste recycling is a critical avenue of energy innovation
No single question bedevils American energy and environmental policy more than nuclear waste. No, not even a changing climate, which may be a wicked problem but nonetheless receives a great deal of counter-bedeviling attention.
It’s difficult to paint the picture with a straight face. Let’s start with three main elements of the story.
First, nuclear power plants in the United States generate about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) per year. Due to its inherent radioactivity, it is carefully stored at various sites around the country.
Second, the federal government is in charge of figuring out what to do with it. In fact, power plant operators have paid over $40 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund so that the government can handle it. The idea was to bury it in the “deep geological repository” embodied by Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but this has proved politically impossible. Nevertheless, $15 billion was spent on the scoping.
Third, due to the Energy Department’s inability to manage this waste, it simply accumulates. According to that agency’s most recent data release, some 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel—hundreds of thousands of fuel assemblies containing millions of fuel rods—is waiting for a final destination.
And here’s the twist ending: those nuclear plant operators sued the government for breach of contract and, in 2013, they won. Several hundred million dollars is now paid out to them each year by the U.S. Treasury, as part of a series of settlements and judgments. The running total is over $8 billion.
I realize this story sounds a little crazy. Am I really saying that the U.S. government collected billions of dollars to manage nuclear waste, then spent billions of dollars on a feasibility study only to stick it on the shelf, and now is paying even more billions of dollars for this failure? Yes, I am.
Fortunately, all of the aggregated waste occupies a relatively small area and temporary storage exists. Without an urgent reason to act, policymakers generally will not.
While attempts to find long-term storage will continue, policymakers should look towards recycling some of this “waste” into usable fuel. This is actually an old idea. Only a small fraction of nuclear fuel is consumed to generate electricity.
Proponents of recycling envision reactors that use “reprocessed” spent fuel, extracting energy from the 90% of it leftover after burn-up. Even its critics admit that the underlying chemistry, physics, and engineering of recycling are technically feasible, and instead assail the disputable economics and perceived security risks.
So-called Generation IV reactors come in all shapes and sizes. The designs have been around for years—in some respects, all the way back to the dawn of nuclear energy—but light-water reactors have dominated the field for a variety of political, economic, and strategic reasons. For example, Southern Company’s twin conventional pressurized water reactors under construction in Georgia each boast a capacity of just over 1,000-megawatt (or 1 gigawatt), standard for Westinghouse’s AP 1000 design.
In contrast, next-generation plant designs are a fraction of the size and capacity, and also may use different cooling systems: Oregon-based NuScale Power’s 77-megawatt small modular reactor, San Diego-based General Atomics’ 50-megawatt helium-cooled fast modular reactor, Alameda-based Kairos Power’s 140-megawatt molten fluoride salt reactor, and so on all have different configurations that can fit different business and policy objectives.
Many Gen-IV designs can either explicitly recycle used fuel or be configured to do so. On June 3, TerraPower (backed by Bill Gates), GE Hitachi, and the State of Wyoming announced an agreement to build a demonstration of the 345-megawatt Natrium design, a sodium-cooled fast reactor.
Natrium is technically capable of recycling fuel for generation. California-based Oklo has already reached an agreement with Idaho National Laboratory to operate its 1.5-megawatt “microreactor” off of used-fuel supplies. In fact, the self-professed “preferred fuel” for New York-based Elysium Industries’ molten salt reactor design is spent nuclear fuel and Alabama-based Flibe Energy advertises the waste-burning capability of its thorium reactor design.
Whether advanced reactors rise or fall does not depend on resolving the nuclear waste deadlock. Though such reactors may be able to consume spent fuel, they don’t necessarily have to. Nonetheless, incentivizing waste recycling would improve their economics.
“Incentivize” here is code for “pay.” Policymakers should consider ways that Washington can make it more profitable for a power plant to recycle fuel than to import it—from Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia, and other countries.
Political support for advanced nuclear technology, including recycling, is deeper than might be expected. In 2019, the Senate confirmed Dr. Rita Baranwal as the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE). A materials scientist by training, she emerged as a champion of recycling.
The new Biden administration has continued broadly bipartisan support for advanced nuclear reactors in proposing in its Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request to increase funding for the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy by nearly $350 million. The proposal includes specific funding increases for researching and developing reactor concepts (plus $32 million), fuel cycle R&D (plus $59 million), and advanced reactor demonstration (plus $120 million), and tripling funding for the Versatile Test Reactor (from $45 million to $145 million, year over year).
In May, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced a new $40 million program to support research in “optimizing” waste and disposal from advanced reactors, including through waste recycling. Importantly, the announcement explicitly states that the lack of a solution to nuclear waste today “poses a challenge” to the future of Gen-IV reactors.
The debate is a reminder that recycling in general is a very messy process. It is chemical-, machine-, and energy-intensive. Recycling of all kinds, from critical minerals to plastic bottles, produces new waste, too. Today, federal and state governments are quite active in recycling these other waste streams, and they should be equally involved in nuclear waste.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin auctions off seat on first human spaceflight for $28M
Blue Origin has its winning bidder for its first ever human spaceflight, and the winner will pay $28 million for the privilege of flying aboard the company’s debut private astronaut mission. The winning bid came in today during a live auction, which saw 7,600 registered bidders, from 159 countries compete for the spot.
This was the culmination of Blue Origin’s three part bidding process for the ticket, which included a blind auction first, followed by an open, asynchronous auction with the highest bid posted to the company’s website whenever it changed. This last live auction greatly ramped up the value of the winning bid, which was at just under $5 million prior to the event.
This first seat up for sale went for a lot more than what an actual, commercial spot is likely to cost on Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which flies to suborbital space and only spends a few minutes there before returning to Earth. Estimates put the cost of a typical launch at someone under $1 million, likely closer to $500,000 or so. But this is the first, which is obviously a special distinction, and it’s also a trip that will allow the winning bidder to pretty much literally rub elbows with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is going to be on the flight as well, along with his brother Mark, and a fourth passenger that Blue Origin says it will be announcing sometime in the coming “weeks,” ahead of the July 20 target flight date.
As for who won the auction, we’ll also have to wait to find that out, since the winner’s identity is also going to be “released in the weeks following” the end of today’s live bidding. And in case you thought that $28 million might represent a big revenue windfall for Blue Origin, which has spent years developing its human spaceflight capability, think again: The company is donating it to its Club for the Future non-profit foundation, which is focused on encouraging kids to pursue careers in STEM in a long-term bid to help Bezos’ larger goals of making humanity a spacefaring civilization.
You can re-watch the entire live bidding portion of the auction via the stream below.
How many opinions does it take to hit the $100M ARR Club?
In a world of talking points and corporate jargon, opinions are refreshing — and Expensify CEO and founder David Barrett is full of them. One of his earliest lessons in life, for example, was that basically everyone is wrong about basically everything. If instilling that at a young age doesn’t force you to become an entrepreneur, I don’t know what does.
Barrett’s ethos has, as reporter Anna Heim puts, led to Expensify having “its own take on almost everything” from hiring without job titles and resumes, to going distributed before it was cool, to having an almost non-existent sales team.
And before you roll your eyes at the unconventional, here’s a factoid for you: Today, the 130-person expense management business has reached more than 10 million users and hit $100 million in annual revenue.
Heim has spent months working on the Expensify EC-1 to connect dots and give us a full picture into an anything-but-conventional company as it heads toward an IPO. The final installment published this week so you can read the whole series in one straight shot:
In the rest of this newsletter, I’ll walk you through a refresh of some new investment vehicles and two fintech mega-rounds to know. I also want to give a shout out to our mobility team, with transportation editor Kirsten Korosec and reporters Aria Alamalhodaei and Rebecca Bellan, who led efforts to put on a fantastic event at TC Sessions: Mobility this week.
Ok, into the news!
More money, more representation?
Image Credits: Black_Kira / Getty Images
As I discussed last month, venture capital is going through yet another unbundling process. But, for every savvy fintech syndicate out there, I don’t see the same level of explicitness when it comes to the tools that help the communityless, undernetworked and underestimated access opportunities.
Here’s what to know: Two new efforts this week give me hope. Ten venture capitalists teamed up to launch Screendoor, which Forbes reports is a $50 million fund-of-funds to back emerging fund managers from diverse backgrounds. The partners, which include Charles Hudson, Kirsten Green, Aileen Lee and Hunter Walk, will not take any fee or carry in the fund.
Speaking of cross-fund collaboration, Utah-based startup incubator Altitude Lab had similar news to share. The incubator, which spun out of Recursion and the University of Utah, has launched a 13-investor coalition to back underrepresented health tech founders. This week, it announced a $50 million commitment in funding and mentorship.
And if you want to have more fun(ds):
The Fintech twins
Three is a trend, but two means twins, and that matters too! Riddles aside, we saw two fintech giants raise massive tranches of capital within days of each other.
Here’s what to know: Klarna raised $639 million at a $45.6 billion valuation, and Nubank raised $750 million at a $30 billion valuation. Both fintech companies are based outside of the United States, but Klarna attests some of its rapid growth to a growing consumer base in the United States. More than 18 million American consumers are now using Klarna, which is up from 10 million at the end of last year’s third quarter. Meanwhile, Nubank is staying focused on its primary market of Brazil, with some expansion in Colombia and Mexico.
The huge TAM of fake breaded chicken bits
Another week, another spicy Equity episode for you. And this week, we mean it literally: Simulate, the company behind those sometimes spicy fake chicken nuggets, raised a ton of money.
Here’s what to know: Beyond fake meat, topics in this week’s episode include worker empowerment, culture in startups, eldercare and a $900 million exit.
Across the week
Seen on TechCrunch
Seen on Extra Crunch
Talk next week,
Inside Marqeta’s fintech mega-IPO
Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.
Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.
A small programming note: The Exchange column and newsletter are off next week (6/14-6/19), returning to regular service 6/21 after I get some sleep and come up with some new ideas! — Alex
The Exchange dug into the mostly bullish IPO market earlier this week, noting that Monday.com and Marqeta put up some pretty big points over the last few days. The unicorn market is looking reasonably healthy, in other words, which itself bodes well for Q3 liquidity.
But today, instead of taking a broader view, I want to niche down to just the Marqeta offering. For fintech companies, the company’s successful pricing and strong share-price performance is a welcome result. But how does the company itself feel about its debut?
To get a handle on just that, The Exchange chatted with the company’s founder and CEO Jason Gardner after his company priced its IPO and started to trade. To annoy my dear friend and TechCrunch superior Henry Pickavet, we’ll proceed in bullet points so that we can cover lots of ground and stay within word count:
- Gardner said that he spent 34 hours doing Q&A during the Marqeta roadshow. And that he loved it. This detail has little to do with the company’s IPO but does provide a little perspective on the CEO himself. That’s a lot of hours of answering the same 13 questions. I would have gone insane.
- Marqeta priced above-range, raising more money than it might have anticipated. Per Gardner, the company will pursue inorganic growth (acquisitions) especially in markets outside the United States as they make sense, with the caveat that he has a high bar for technology quality; Gardner said that he won’t buy companies with lesser tech, as you’d just have to rebuild them after buying them. Shade.
- Marqeta started talking internally about its IPO 18 months before it occurred, which made the transition to being a public company easier. I suppose Gardner’s point here that going public is a cultural lift as well as an accounting job. Which makes SPACs appear slightly cavalier, if I can take the point one step further.
- What’s changed for Gardner as his company has matured and now gone public? His perspective has pushed farther out, from months to years; I presume that this will continue as Marqeta expands even more.
Shares of Marqeta are up another 6% as I write to you Friday afternoon.
What’s up with Embroker?
As The Exchange reported Friday morning, the global insurtech market is more than hot both in the United States and Europe. Evidence of the fact is not hard to find, but one good indication of the insurtech market’s present climate is Embroker’s $100 million round from earlier in the week.
Embroker is a San Francisco-based insurtech company that sells business insurance. Its products include cyber coverage, business-owner coverage, professional liability and the like. It’s perhaps related to Next Insurance, another insurtech provider with a business focus that recently raised a huge round.
The Exchange crew, fascinated as we are by insurtech as a larger category, wanted to get some questions in front of the Embroker crew. Here’s a Q&A that was conducted via email. Bolding via TechCrunch. Questions have been gently edited for clarity:
From a high level, are the loss ratios that the business insurance products that Embroker offers better/worse/comparable to those that we are familiar with in, say, consumer auto insurance?
Yes, our loss ratios are substantially better than other insurance products like consumer auto or homeowners insurance. And our loss ratios thus far compare favorably to other established small business commercial carriers.
When the company was negotiating valuation for the new round, did recent insurtech IPOs come into the pricing discussion?
The recent insurtech IPOs have provided valuation benchmarks in the public market, which is great for the space overall. But we didn’t use them as direct comps because our loss ratio, retention, and sales and marketing efficiency are all substantially better than other insurtechs currently in the public markets.
We found it interesting that Embroker offers “cyber risk insurance.” Given growth in market concerns regarding ransomware, is that product in higher demand than before? And is it as economically lucrative as other insurance lines at the company?
Given the recent number of high profile cyber claims we expect cyber to be a rapidly growing line of insurance both in terms of demand and in terms of pricing. While claims activity will likely continue to rise, our models for cyber have been effective at pricing the risk appropriately and we expect that the investments we’re making in our platform will allow us to continue to do so.
For startups specifically, we also currently bundle tech E&O and cyber insurance as many founders were under covered by stand alone E&O or cyber policies when it came to these emerging threats.
Finally, we’re curious what the company’s marketing spend has looked like over time — are you finding similarly efficient S&M avenues as you did when Embroker was smaller?
While we’ve been growing our marketing spend materially each year, it has actually been decreasing as a percentage of revenue consistently as we get to larger market share within the verticals we target, as that drives significant organic growth for us. For example, we currently insure a large enough percentage of all active U.S. venture-backed companies that so many companies just know to come to us for insurance when they raise funding.
Sure, that’s a lot of words. But inside of the bloc are key nuggets. That Embroker considers its economics better than what we can see in most public comps is notable; the fact implies that there is a wider economic spread amongst insurtech companies than we have been led to believe by the few IPOs we’ve seen.
And that Embroker has operating leverage, at least regarding its S&M spend. That could indicate that the insurtech marketplace is not so crowded as to make intelligent business operations impossible. Surely that terrible turn of events can be solved with a few hundred million more from Tiger and its rivals.
Chat with you in around ten days. — Alex
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