Original Content podcast: Netflix goes to the Oscars

When this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced on Monday, Netflix received 24 nominations — the most of any Hollywood studio.

That’s thanks in large part to “The Irishman,” which received 10 nominations, and “Marriage Story,” which received six (both films were nominated for Best Picture). As a result, Darrell finally watched Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour gangster epic — and he wasn’t impressed by the results.

He explains why on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, in we discuss our reactions to the nominations, including the eyebrow-raising 11 nods for “Joker.” This leads to a broader discussion of why the nominations were so disappointing from a diversity perspective, and what exactly we want from awards like the Oscars anyway.

In addition, we recap the latest details about NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service Peacock, and Jordan offers a spoiler-y review of the second season of Netflix’s “You.”

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
1:01 Peacock discussion
14:21 Oscars discussion
53:17 “You” season 2 spoiler review

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Startups Weekly: Plaid’s $5.3B acquisition is a textbook Silicon Valley win

Hi everyone, my name is Eric Eldon and I’m the new writer of the Startups Weekly newsletter. 

I’ll be picking my favorite explicitly startup-focused articles of the week for you from Extra Crunch (where I’m the editor now), as well as TechCrunch (where I was the co-editor years ago… long story). 

Some people tell us that TechCrunch doesn’t cover startups like it used to. I don’t know if that is true, but it is definitely hard to keep track of our startup coverage mixed in with the rest of our news.

This newsletter will highlight the best startup coverage on TechCrunch and Extra Crunch to help fix that.

I probably hate reading bad startup advice and analysis even more than you do, and not only because I’ve had to read a lot of it over the years as an editor. I’ve also started a few companies myself, and I’ve had the chance to experience exits, failures and venture backing.

I’ll be highlighting articles that I think address something significant about building a company, and I’ll tell you why each one is worth a read. 

There will also be some experiments. Thanks for reading!

Everybody loves Plaid

Plaid’s product is beyond boring to most people, but it is already a name brand to its enterprise users and across the greater startup world, as its stats and funding rounds have grown. The $5.3 billion outcome announced this week cements its status as a top SaaS/fintech startup story of this era, in addition to being a popular platform for developers who need to sync user payment data.

Alex Wilhelm was all over the news. He dug into Visa’s presentation explaining the purchase on Extra Crunch — it paid more than twice Plaid’s last valuation — and found the classic tale of a large, slow-moving incumbent strategically buying a hot younger company in order to grow into newer markets. Then he got comments for Extra Crunch from a range of analysts… who basically said the same thing. 

You can now tune into the latest TechCrunch Equity episode to hear him talk about it with our resident former VC Danny Crichton.

Atrium gets out of the human law firm business

Closely watched Atrium is shutting down the law firm to focus on the tech company. Founder Justin Kan tells Josh Constine on TechCrunch that this is part of the evolution toward providing a better tech service.

The law firm had been designed to provide the human touch in a way that machines couldn’t, but Kan says that lawyers do that great as third parties.

Many SaaS startups are trying to take on the back office processes of the 20th century. Atrium’s change will be another reason for them to go all-in on software, with humans not included.

brooke hammerling

PR expert says maybe don’t do PR right now

One of the most loved and feared people in tech communications today, Brooke Hammerling has been in the middle of key stories of the decade with founders young and old. And sometimes on the opposite side of me.

 She knows her stuff. Here’s one of my favorite gems from the full interview with Jordan Crook over on Extra Crunch:

If you’re an early-stage company, and you’re an unknown founder, and you’re coming out with your own take on something, you don’t want to spend your money on PR too early.

You want to spend that money on product development and engagement and engineering and so forth.

Big funds do the small funding rounds now

That’s the word on the street from our resident former VC, who was recently out in San Francisco visiting his many friends and professional acquaintances. Danny put his notes together for TechCrunch back in the comfort of his New York apartment, and found that everyone is raising huge rounds [emphasis his] — and it’s all about being there for the future. Plaid’s cap table is a good example.

One of my favorite quotes:

As one VC explained to me last week (paraphrasing), “What’s weird today is that you have firms like Sequoia who show up for seed rounds, but they don’t really care about … anything. Valuation, terms, etc. It’s all a play for those later-stage rounds.” I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration to be clear, but ultimately, those one million-dollar checks are essentially a rounding error for the largest funds. The real return is in the mega rounds down the road. 

He also noticed for TechCrunch that VCs today seem to be especially tired. You can tell him what you think about these observations at danny@techcrunch.com.

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Home robots are making moves at CES

I have never been to CES and don’t plan to go, but Brian Heater always goes and this year he came back thinking that the home robot sector is getting serious.

His takeaway for Extra Crunch: 

There’s a cynical (and probably at least partially correct) view that these sorts of deals are publicity stunts — big companies using CES to demonstrate how forward-thinking they are about new technologies. But there’s something to be said for the show’s position at the forefront of such technologies. The products are real, even if wider use is hypothetical. And in an era when Amazon has deployed more than 100,000 robots across its U.S. fulfillment centers to enable next and same-day delivery, we’re well into the realm of real-world use.

Brian is also hosting a one-day TechCrunch conference focused on robotics startups at UC Berkeley in early March, for those who are focused on this space. The event last year was a huge hit and we’re looking forward to the next one. Follow the link to learn more. 

Will Silicon Valley win at weed?

Eaze has been one of the highest-profile cannabis distributors, but now it might be running out of cash, report Ingrid Owen and Josh Constine. There are many structural reasons why any cannabis business is very hard, legal or otherwise. 

But it’s interesting to take a look at who is succeeding in the consumer cannabis market and why.

One local example is Berner, a high school dropout in San Francisco who became a budtender and partnered with cannabis geneticists to create and promote the Girl Scout Cookies strain, and also became an international rap star (the main topic is his weed) and clothing designer.  

These days, he’s opening more and more Cookies retail cannabis outlets, including in Oakland and L.A., and cutting licensing and certification deals with a broad network of partners, (and claims to be turning down huge acquisition offers). Basically, his cannabis is also his modern multi-platform brand and the cool kids are into it. He does not appear to be running out of cash.

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The last radio station

North of Silicon Valley, protected by the Point Reyes National Seashore, is the only operational ship-to-shore maritime radio station. Bearing the call sign KPH, the Point Reyes Station is the last of its kind.

KPH is divided between two physical stations: one, knows as the voice, is responsible for transmitting; the other half of the station, known as the ears, was where human operators listened for incoming messages. The voice is located 11 miles north of Point Reyes in the small town of Bolinas, Calif., and the ears reside within the Point Reyes National Seashore boundary nestled in pastures full of cattle and backdropped by the Pacific Ocean.

Stations like this once riddled the California coastline as part of a radio communication network. The operators who ran them were charged with watching over the Pacific Ocean airways, relaying messages to the sailors at sea.

“These guys and women were the best there were, and they had to be,” says Richard Dillman, chief operator at the Maritime Radio Historical Society. “On the ships, you could get away with anything. You could send slow, you could send fast, you could send like you were drunk, you could send like you are beating two spoons together. At the shore side, you had to be able to say, ‘fine, I got it, you can send fast, no problem. Send slow, I’llwait. Send like you are drunk, I can understand you.’ Because every word is revenue for the company because you were charging by the word.”

Dillman, who was never an employee of KPH, but rather a self-described “groupee and radio-obsessed person,” says the operators had to adapt to anything. “They were the best there were. They are our heroes and heroines.” 

But once satellite communication became cheaper than paying radio operators, telegraphy became obsolete, and the network of radio stations became all but lost, as they were abandoned, sold and scavenged for parts. 

Marin County Congressman Clem Miller saved KPH from this fate by writing and introducing the bill for the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore. The bill preserved the land from development after operations ended. 

Historical Photo of KPH

A telegraphic timeline

The communications industry in the U.S. has seen several waves of disruption. The first significant innovation was sending a message by transmitting electrical signals over a wire.

In 1843, Samuel Morse, the father of Morse code, received funding from Congress to set up and test his new communication wire from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Upon completion, he sent the first official telegraph saying, “What hath God wrought.” What it wrought was money.

Morse received enough funding to string wire across an unsettled American landscape. From 1843 to 1900, wired telegraphy reigned until a new technology disrupted the communication monopoly of Western Union. 

On June 2, 1896, Guglielmo Marconi patented a system of wireless telegraphy that would utilize radio waves to transmit Morse’s dits and dahs, making wired communication seem infrastructure-heavy. Plus, wireless telegraphy made maritime and transcontinental communication a lot more simple.

For almost 100 years, Morse code was used to communicate with ships at sea. By 1999 the industry had switched over to the cheaper and more efficient satellite communication systems.

The Point Reyes KPH station ended operations on June 30, 1997. The last day of U.S. commercial use of Morse code was July 12, 1999. The final message sent was the same as Morse’s first: “What hath God wrought.” 

KPH Point Rayes Station

‘This was the end’

“It’s just beeps in the air,” says Dillman. “That is all Morse code is. And yet it was so impactful and emotional to these people,” he says about the operators and sailors he was with during the last day of Morse. “Because here they are seeing their career, their way of life, their skills disappearing. This was the end of the line. It used to be that you could take your license and telegraph key and move onto the next station, get a job, no problem. This was the end.”

After the last day of Morse in 1999, two years after KPH shut down, Richard and a few other radiomen drove up to the shuttered KPH station to assess how harsh the elements had been in the two years since it closed.

“Here it was, our life’s work, just handed to us,” Dillman says. “Because here are the ears, in Point Reyes, still living. The voice in Bolinas — dark and cold, but existing. So all we had to do was convince the park service that [restoring the station] was worth doing, and we were the guys to do it. And we are still amazed that they bought our story, and we have not turned back.” 

Dillman and the rest of the radio squirrels that hang around KPH can be found every Sunday and more than welcome visitors.

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LaunchDarkly CEO Edith Harbaugh explains why her company raised another $54M

This week, LaunchDarkly announced that it has raised another $54 million. Led by Bessemer Venture Partners and backed by the company’s existing investors, it brings the company’s total funding up to $130 million.

For the unfamiliar, LaunchDarkly builds a platform that allows companies to easily roll out new features to only certain customers, providing a dashboard for things like “canary launches” (pushing new stuff to a small group of users to make sure nothing breaks) or launching a feature only in select countries or territories. By productizing an increasingly popular development concept (“feature flagging”) and making it easier to toggle new stuff across different platforms and languages, the company is quickly finding customers in companies that would rather not spend time rolling their own solutions.

I spoke with CEO and co-founder Edith Harbaugh, who filled me in on where the idea for LaunchDarkly came from, how their product is being embraced by product managers and marketing teams and the company’s plans to expand with offices around the world. Here’s our chat, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

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Compound’s Mike Dempsey on virtual influencers and AI characters

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 1 of 3: the investor perspective

In a series of three interviews, I’m exploring the startup opportunities in both of these spaces in greater depth. First, Michael Dempsey, a partner at VC firm Compound who has blogged extensively about digital characters, avatars and animation, offers his perspective as an investor hunting for startup opportunities within these spaces.

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Microsoft says it will fix an Internet Explorer security bug under active attack

Microsoft has confirmed a security flaw affecting Internet Explorer is currently being used by hackers, but that it has no immediate plans to fix.

In a late-evening tweet, US-CERT, the division of Homeland Security tasked with reporting on major security flaws, tweeted a link to a security advisory detailing the bug, describing it as “being exploited in the wild.”

Microsoft said all supported versions of Windows are affected by the flaw, including Windows 7, which after this week no longer receives security updates.

The vulnerability was found in how Internet Explorer handles memory. An attacker could use the flaw to remotely run malicious code on an affected computer, such as tricking a user into opening a malicious website from a search query or a link sent by email.

It’s believed to be a similar vulnerability as one disclosed by Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser, earlier this week. Both Microsoft and Mozilla credited Qihoo 360, a China-based security research team, with finding flaws under active attack. Earlier in the week, Qihoo 360 reportedly deleted a tweet referencing a similar flaw in Internet Explorer.

Neither Qihoo, Microsoft, nor Mozilla said how attackers were exploiting the bug, who the attackers were, or who was being targeted. The U.S. government’s cybersecurity advisory unit also issued a warning about current exploitation.

Microsoft told TechCrunch that it was was “aware of limited targeted attacks” and was “working on a fix,” but that it was unlikely to release a patch until its next round of monthly security fixes — scheduled for February 11.

Microsoft assigned the bug with a common vulnerability identifier, CVE-2020-0674, but specific details of the bug have yet to be released.

When reached, a Microsoft spokesperson did not comment.

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Instagram drops IGTV button, but only 1% downloaded the app

At most, 7 million of Instagram’s 1 billion-plus users have downloaded its standalone IGTV app in the 18 months since launch. And now, Instagram’s main app is removing the annoying orange IGTV button from its home page in what feels like an admission of lackluster results. For reference, TikTok received 1.15 billion downloads in the same period since IGTV launched in June 2018. In just the US, TikTok received 80.5 million downloads compared to IGTV’s 1.1 million since then, according to research commissioned by TechCrunch from Sensor Tower.

To be fair, TikTok has spent huge sums on install ads. But while long-form mobile video might gain steam as the years progress, Instagram hasn’t seemed to crack the code yet.

“As we’ve continued to work on making it easier for people to create and discover IGTV content, we’ve learned that most people are finding IGTV content through previews in Feed, the IGTV channel in Explore, creators’ profiles and the standalone app. Very few are clicking into the IGTV icon in the top right corner of the home screen in the Instagram app” a Facebook company spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “We always aim to keep Instagram as simple as possible, so we’re removing this icon based on these learnings and feedback from our community.”

Instagram users don’t need the separate IGTV app to watch longer videos, as the IGTV experience is embedded in the main app and can be accessed via in-feed teasers, a tab of the Explore page, promo stickers in Stories, and profile tabs. Still, the fact that it wasn’t an appealing enough destination to warrant a home page button shows IGTV hasn’t become a staple like past Instagram launches including video, Stories, augmented reality filters, or Close Friends.

One thing still missing is an open way for Instagram creators to earn money directly from their IGTV videos. Users can’t get an ad revenue share like with YouTube or Facebook Watch. They also can’t receive tips or sell exclusive content subscriptions like on Facebook, Twitch, or Patreon.

The only financial support Facebook and Instagram have offered IGTV creators is reimbursement for production costs for a few celebrities. Those contracts also require creators to avoid making content related to politics, social issues, or elections, according to Bloomberg‘s Lucas Shaw and Sarah Frier.

“In the last few years we’ve offset small production costs for video creators on our platforms and have put certain guidelines in place,” a Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg. “We believe there’s a fundamental difference between allowing political and issue-based content on our platform and funding it ourselves.” That seems somewhat hypocritical given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s criticism of Chinese app TikTok over censorship of political content.

Now users need to tap the IGTV tab inside Instagram Explore to view long-form videoAnother thing absent from IGTV? Large view counts. The first 20 IGTV videos I saw today in its Popular feed all had fewer than 200,000 views. BabyAriel, a creator with nearly 10 million Instagram followers that the company touted as a top IGTV creator has only post 20 of the longer videos to date with only one receiving over 500,000 views.

When the lack of monetization is combined with less than stellar view counts compared to YouTube and TikTok, it’s understandable why some creators might be hesistant to dedicate time to IGTV. Without their content keeping the feature reliably interesting, it’s no surprise users aren’t voluntarily diving in from the home page.

In another sign that Instagram is folding IGTV deeper into its app rather than providing it more breathing room of its own, and that it’s eager for more content, you can now opt to post IGTV videos right from the main Instagram feed post video uploader. AdWeek Social Pro reported this new “long video” upload option yesterday. A Facebook company spokesperson tells me “We want to keep our video upload process as simple as possible” and that “Our goal is to create a central place for video uploads”.

 

IGTV launched with a zealotish devotion to long-form vertical video despite the fact that little high quality content of this nature was being produced. Landscape orientation is helpful for longer clips that often require establishing shots and fitting multiple people on screen, while vertical was better for quick selfie monologues.

Yet Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom described IGTV to me in August 2018, declaring that “What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Now it doesn’t exist on Instagram at all since May 2019 when IGTV retreated from its orthodoxy and began allowing landscape content. I’d recommended it do that from the beginning, or at least offer a cropping tool for helping users turn their landscape videos into coherent vertical ones, but nothing’s been launched there either.

If Instagram still cares about IGTV, it needs to attract more must-see videos by helping creators get paid for their art. Or it needs to pour investment into buying high quality programming like Snapchat Discover’s Shows. If Instagram doesn’t care, it should divert development resources to it’s TikTok clone Reels that actually looks very well made and has a shot at stealing market share in the remixable social entertainment space.

For a company that’s won by betting big and moving fast, IGTV feels half-baked and sluggish. That might have been alright when Snapchat was shrinking and TikTok was still Musically, but Instagram is heading into an era of much stiffer competition. Quibi and more want to consume multi-minute spans of video viewing on mobile, and the space could grow as adults familiarize with the format. But offering the platform isn’t enough for Instagram. It needs to actively assist creators with finding what content works, and how to earn sustainable wages marking it.

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This Week in Apps: App trends from 2019, Pinterest tops Snapchat, Disney+ hits No. 1 in Q4

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 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.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you to keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we dig into App Annie’s new “State of Mobile 2019” report and other app trends. We’re also seeing big gains for TikTok in 2019 and Disney+ in Q4. Both Apple and Google announced acquisitions this week that have implications for the mobile industry, as well.

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Amazon partners with thousands of mom-and-pop stores in India

Neighborhood stores dot tens of thousands of cities, towns and villages in India. They have survived — and thrived, despite — retail giants’ billions of investment in the country. So now, Amazon is beginning to embrace them.

Amazon said on Saturday it has partnered with thousands of neighborhood stores — locally known as kirana stores — across India to use them as delivery points for goods.

The company said it’s a win-win scenario for all stakeholders. “It’s good for customers, and it helps the shop owners earn additional income,” tweeted Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos .

Bezos’ announcement today, as he concludes his fourth India trip, underscores just how vital neighborhood stores remain for shoppers in the country despite the world’s largest e-commerce giant’s major push into the country and an emergence of heavily backed ecosystem of shopping startups.

These mom-and-pop stores offer all kinds of items, pay low wages and little to no rent. Since they are ubiquitous (there are more than 10 million neighborhood stores in India, according to industry estimates), no retail giant can offer a faster delivery. And on top of that, their economics is often better than most. E-commerce is still at an early stage in India, accounting for just 3% of total retail sales, according to industry estimates.

Walmart -owned Flipkart has also arrived at the same conclusion. Last month, it invested $30 million in four-year-old Bangalore-based startup ShadowFax, which works with neighborhood stores in 300 cities to use their real estate to store inventory, and utilize their large network of freelancers for the delivery.

Any alliance with neighborhood stores would come in handy to Amazon India and Flipkart as a new contender readies its e-commerce play. India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani late last month started signing up customers for a soft launch of JioMart in suburban Mumbai.

JioMart is a joint venture between Ambani’s Reliance Jio, which reshaped the country’s telecom market with ultra-cheap mobile data, and his Reliance Retail, the nation’s largest retail chain with over 10,000 outlets in 6,500 Indian cities and towns.

The new venture is courting shopkeepers in many parts of India to use a handheld Jio terminal to help them better manage their inventory and order new stock from Reliance’s network of wholesalers. (Amazon, on its part, is slowly deepening its partnership with Future Retail, the second largest retailer in India.)

“Jio and Reliance Retail will launch a unique new commerce platform to empower and enrich our 12 lakh (1.2 million) small retailers and shopkeepers in Gujarat,” Ambani said last year.

Today’s announcement caps what could easily be one of the most remarkable weeks for Amazon in India, a market it entered six and a half years ago. Earlier this week, India’s anti-trust watchdog announced a probe into alleged predatory practices by Amazon India and Flipkart.

It was followed by Bezos’ arrival in India. At an event in New Delhi, he announced the company was investing a fresh $1 billion to its India operations and said it would work to help millions of small merchants come online for the first time. (This is on top of $5.5 billion the company has previously committed to its India business.)

Not far from the event venue, dozens of merchants assembled to protest the alleged anticompetitive practices of Amazon and Flipkart. On top of that, India’s trade minister Piyush Goyal chimed in on Amazon’s new investment to India, and said the investment was not a big favor to the nation. A day later, he backtracked on his comment.

On Friday, Amazon said it would create a million jobs in India by 2025, and ran a letter signed by Bezos on Amazon India website and app. Bezos had also sought to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a request that was not fulfilled.

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Deep tech VCs on what they view as some of the most impactful young startups right now

During this week’s Democratic debate, there was a lot of talk, unsurprisingly, about ensuring the future of this country’s children and grandchildren. Climate change was of particular interest to billionaire Tom Steyer, who said repeatedly that addressing it would be his top priority were he elected U.S. president.

As it happens, earlier the same day, we’d spent time on the phone with two venture capitalists who think of almost nothing else every day. The reason: they both invest in so-called deep tech, and they meet routinely with startups whose central focus is on making the world habitable for generations of people to come — as well as trying to produce outsize financial returns, of course.

The two VCs with whom we talked know each other well. Siraj Khaliq is a partner at the global venture firm Atomico, where he tries to find world-changing startups that are enabled by machine learning, AI, and computer vision. He has strong experience in the area, having cofounded The Climate Corporation back in 2006, a company that helps farmers optimize crop yield and that was acquired by Monsanto in 2013 for roughly $1 billion.

Seth Bannon is meanwhile a founding partner of Fifty Years, a nearly five-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage fund whose stated ambition is backing founders who want to solve the world’s biggest problems. The investors’ interests overlap so much that Khaliq is also one of Fifty Years’s investors.

From both, we wanted to know which companies or trends are capturing their imagination and, in some cases, their investment dollars. Following are excerpts from our extended conversation earlier this week. (We thought it was interesting; hopefully you will, too.)

TC: Seth, how would you describe what you’re looking to fund at your firm?

SB: There’s a Winston Churchill essay [penned nearly 100 years ago] called “Fifty Years Hence” that describes what we do. He predicts genomic engineering, synthetic biology, growing meat without animals, nuclear power, satellite telephony.  Churchill also notes that because tech changes so quickly that it’s important that technologists take a principled approach to their work. [Inspired by him] we’re backing founders who can make a ton of money while doing good and focusing on health, disease, the climate crisis . . .

TC: What does that mean exactly? Are you investing in software?

SB: We’re not so enthusiastic about pure software because it’s been so abstracted away that it’s become a commodity. High school students can now build an app, which is great, but it also means that competitive pressures are very high. There are a thousand funds focused on software seed investing. Fortunately, you can now launch a synthetic biology startup with seed funding, and that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. There are a lot of infrastructural advancements happening that makes [deep tech investing even with smaller checks] interesting.

TC: Siraj, you also invest exclusively on frontier, or deep tech, at Atomico . What’s your approach to funding startups?

SK: We do Series A [deals] onward and don’t do seed stage. We primarily focus on Europe. But there’s lot of common thinking between us and Seth. As a fund, we’re looking for big problems that change the world, sometimes at companies that won’t necessarily be big in five years but if you look out 10 years could be necessary for humanity. So we’re trying to anticipate all of these big trends and focus on three or four theses a year and talk as much as we can with academics and other experts to understand what’s going on. Founders then know we have an informed view.

Last year, we focused on synthetic biology, which is a becoming so broad a category that it’s time to start subdividing it. We were also doing AI-based drug discovery and quantum computing and we started to spend some time on energy as well. We also [continued an earlier focus on ] the future of manufacturing and industry. We see a number of trends that make [the latter] attractive, especially in Europe where manufacturing hasn’t yet been digitized.

TC: Seth, you mentioned synthetic biology infrastructure. Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing that’s interesting on this front?

SB: You’ve maybe heard of directed evolution, technology that allows biologists to use the power of evolution to get microbes or other biological machines to do what they want them to do that would have been impossible before. [Editor’s note: here, Bannon talked a bit about Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was awarded the prize in 2018 for developing the technique.]

So we’re excited to back [related] startups. One, Solugen, enzymatically makes industrial chemicals [by combining genetically modified enzymes with organic compounds, like plant sugars]. Hydrogen peroxide is a $6 billion dollar industry, and it’s currently made through a petroleum-based process in seven-football-field-long production plants that sometimes explode and kill people.

TC: Is this then akin to Zymergen, which develops molecules in order to create unique specialty materials?

SB: Zymergen mainly works as a kind of consultant to help companies engineer strains that they want. Solugen is a vertically integrated chemicals company, so it [creates its formulations], then sells directly into industry.

TC: How does this relate to new architectures?

SB: The way to think about it is that there’s a bunch of application-level companies, but as synthetic biology companies start to take off, there’s a bunch of emerging infrastructure layer companies. One of these is Ansa Biotechnologies, which has a fully enzymatic process or writing DNA. Like Twist, which went public, they make DNA using a chemical process [to sell to clients in the biotechnology industry. [Editor’s note: More on the competition in this emerging space here.]

Also, if you look at plant-based alternatives to meat, they’re more sustainable but also far more expensive than traditional beef. Why is that? Well plant-based chicken is more expensive because the processing infrastructure being used is more than 10 years behind real chicken processing, where you’ll see robot arms that cut up chicken so efficiently that it looks like a Tesla factory.

[Alternative meat] companies are basically using these extruders built in the ’70s because the industry has been so small, and that’s because there’s been a lot of skepticism from the investment community in these companies. Or there was. The performance of Beyond Meat’s IPO ended it. Now there’s a rush of founders and dollars into that space, and whenever you have a space where the core infrastructure has been neglected, there’s opportunity. A former mechanical engineer with Boeing has started a company, Rebellyous Foods, to basically build the AWS for the plant-based food industry, for example. She’s using [the machines she’s building] to sell plant-based chicken nuggets, [but that’s the longer-term plan].

TC: Siraj, you say last year you started to spend time on energy. What’s interesting to you as it relates to energy?

SK: There’s been some improvement in how we capture emissions, but [carbon emissions] are still very deleterious to our health and the planet’s health, and there are a few areas to think about [to address the problem]. Helping people measure and control their consumption is one approach, but also we think about how to produce new energy, which is a shift we [meaning mankind] need to undertake. The challenge [in making that shift] is often [capital expenditures]. It’s hard for venture investors to back companies that are [building nuclear reactors], which makes government grants the best choice for early innovation oftentimes. There is one company, Seaborg, that has figured out a clever reactor. It’s not a portfolio company but it’s [compelling].

SB: We also really like what Seaborg is doing. These [fourth generation] nuclear companies have a whole host of approaches that allow for smaller, safer reactors that you wouldn’t mind having in your backyard. But Siraj put his finger on it: as an early-stage deep tech investor, we have to consider the capital plan of a company, and if it needs to raise billions of dollars, early investors will get really diluted, so early-stage venture just isn’t the best fit.

TC: There are other areas you like, though, because costs have fallen so much.

SB: Yes. Satellite telephony used to be one of those areas. Some of the satellites in space right now cost $350 million [to launch] and took three to four years to build, which would be really hard for any early-stage investor to fund. But now, a new generation of companies is building satellites for one-tenth of the cost in months, not years. That’s a game changer. They can iterate faster. They can build a better product. They don’t have to raise equity to build and launch either; they can raise from a debt financier [from whom they can] borrow money and pay it back over time. That model isn’t available to a company like Uber or Lyft, because those companies can’t say, ‘X is going to cost us Y dollars and it will pay back Z over time.’

TC: What of concerns that all these cheap satellites are going to clog up the sky pretty quickly?

SB: It’s a real concern. Most [of today’s satellites] are low earth satellites, and the closer to the earth they are, the brighter they are; they reflect the sun more, the more satellites we’re seeing instead of stars. I do think it’s incumbent on all of these companies to think about how they are contributing to the future of humanity. But [when you can transmit more information from satellites], the stability of governments improves, too, so maybe the developed world needs to sacrifice a bit. I think that’s a reasonable tradeoff. If on the other hand, we’re putting up satellites to help people buy more crap . . .

TC: It’s like the argument for self-driving cars in a way. Life becomes more efficient, but they’ll require far more energy generation, for example. There are always second-order consequences.

SK: But think of how many how many people are killed in driving accidents, versus terrorist attacks. Humans have many great qualities, but being able to drive a lethal machine consistently isn’t one of them. So when we take that into perspective, it’s really important that we build autonomous vehicles.

You [voice] a legitimate concern, and often when there are step changes, there are discontinuities along the way that lead to side effects that aren’t great. That comes down to several things. First, infrastructure will have to keep up. We’ll also have to create regulations that don’t lead to the worst outcomes. One our investments, Lilium in Munich, has built an entirely electric air taxi service that’s built on vertical takeoff. It’s nimble. It’s quiet enough to operate in city environments.

On roads, cars are constrained by 2D terrain and buildings, but [in the air] if you can do dynamic air traffic control, it opens up far much efficient transport. If you can get from downtown London to Heathrow [airport] in five minutes versus 50 minutes in a Tesla? That’s far more energy efficient.

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