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Monthly Archives: February 2019

India’s Ola spins out a dedicated EV business — and it just raised $56M from investors



Ola, Uber’s key rival in India, is doubling down on electric vehicles after it span out a dedicated business, which has pulled in $56 million in early funding.

The unit is named Ola Electric Mobility and it is described as being an independent business that’s backed by Ola. TechCrunch understands Ola provided founding capital, and it has now been joined by a series of investors who have pumped Rs. 400 crore ($56 million) into Ola Electric. Notably, those backers include Tiger Global and Matrix India — two firms that were early investors in Ola itself.

While automotive companies and ride-hailing services in the U.S. are focused on bringing autonomous vehicles to the streets, India — like other parts of Asia — is more challenging thanks to diverse geographies, more sparse mapping and other factors. In India, companies have instead flocked to electric. The government had previously voiced its intention to make 30 percent of vehicles electric by 2030, but it has not formally introduced a policy to guide that initiative.

Ola has taken steps to electrify its fleet — it pledged last year to add 10,000 electric rickshaws to its fleet and has conducted other pilots with the goal of offering one million EVs by 2022 — but the challenge is such that it has spun out Ola Electric to go deeper into EVs.

That means that Ola Electric won’t just be concerned with vehicles, it has a far wider remit.

The new company has pledged to focus on areas that include charging solutions, EV batteries, and developing viable infrastructure that allows commercial EVs to operate at scale, according to an announcement. In other words, the challenge of developing electric vehicles goes beyond being a ‘ride-hailing problem’ and that is why Ola Electric has been formed and is being capitalized independently of Ola.

An electric rickshaw from Ola

Its leadership is also wholly separate.

Ola Electric is led by Ola executives Anand Shah and Ankit Jain — who led Ola’s connected car platform strategy — and the team includes former executives from carmakers such as BMW.

Already, it said it has partnered with “several” OEMs and battery makers and it “intends to work closely with the automotive industry to create seamless solutions for electric vehicle operations.” Indeed, that connected car play — Ola Play — likely already gives it warm leads to chase.

“At Ola Electric, our mission is to enable sustainable mobility for everyone. India can leapfrog problems of pollution and energy security by moving to electric mobility, create millions of new jobs and economic opportunity, and lead the world,” Ola CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal said in a statement.

“The first problem to solve in electric mobility is charging: users need a dependable, convenient, and affordable replacement for the petrol pump. By making electric easy for commercial vehicles that deliver a disproportionate share of kilometers traveled, we can jumpstart the electric vehicle revolution,” added Anand Shah, whose job title is listed as head of Ola Electric Mobility.

The new business spinout comes as Ola continues to raise new capital from investors.

Last month, Flipkart co-founder Sachin Bansal invested $92 million into the ongoing Series J round that is likely to exceed $1 billion and would value Ola at around $6 billion. Existing backer Steadview Capital earlier committed $75 million but there’s plenty more in development.

A filing — first noted by paper.vc — shows that India’s Competition Commission approved a request for a Temasek-affiliated investment vehicle’s proposed acquisition of seven percent of Ola. In addition, SoftBank offered a term sheet for a prospective $1 billion investment last month, TechCrunch understands from an industry source.

Ola is backed by the likes of SoftBank, Tencent, Sequoia India, Matrix, DST Global and Didi Chuxing. It has raised some $3.5 billion to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

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'Hellboy' unleashes apocalyptic trailer with monsters and blood aplenty



Well, looks like some kind of apocalypse is here in the latest look at the forthcoming Hellboy film starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour.

Set to a cover of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” the trailer offers up a pretty hectic look at the Dark Horse Comics-based film, with more than a few monsters for our pal to take care of. 

Plus, there’s some kind of sexy blood shower, who knows?

Directed by Neil Marshall and starring Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Penelope Mitchell, and Daniel Dae Kim, the film sees our main dude Hellboy attempting to thwart a powerful fifth century sorceress (Jovovich) with plans to y’know, destroy humankind. Classic. Read more…

More about Trailers, David Harbour, Hellboy, Entertainment, and Comic Culture

Was John Mulaney's neighbor a cannibal? Pete Davidson and Jimmy Fallon try to guess.



Was John Mulaney’s neighbor arrested by the FBI for cannibalism? Did Pete Davidson go to Jamaica with Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels over New Year’s?

See if you can guess what’s real and made-up, as the two comedians joined Jimmy Fallon for a game of “True Confessions” on The Tonight Show Thursday night. 

The game works by each person revealing a random story, to which the others must guess whether it’s true or fake. But first, they must interrogate each other, and with these three, of course it’s hilarious. Read more…

More about Comedy, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, and Pete Davidson

'Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution' is a CGI remake of the first Pokémon film



You too may have fond memories of Pokémon: The First Movie, and because it is 2019, the beloved film is getting a remake.

Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution, as it’ll be called when it releases in Japanese cinemas on Jul. 7, is a CGI remake of the film, which dropped its first teaser on Friday. There is no release date for Western audiences just yet, so you’ll have to hold tight.

It’s of course unrelated to the Ryan Reynolds-voiced Detective Pikachu, which is set for release on May 10. But it’s good timing. Read more…

More about Entertainment, Film, Movies, Pokemon, and Entertainment

Jimmy Fallon and Weezer cover 'Take on Me' with classroom instruments



Ed Sheeran‘s done it. So has Shawn Mendes, Metallica, and the Backstreet Boys. Now, Jimmy Fallon’s handed the banana shakers to Weezer.

For one of The Tonight Show‘s most beloved recurring segments, Weezer joined Fallon and The Roots to perform a cover of A-ha’s classic “Take on Me” using classroom instruments. 

We’re talking mini tambourines, wood blocks, kazoos — the works, all with that iconic animated overlay from A-ha’s music video. And huge respect for frontman Rivers Cuomo in particular, who hits those impossible high notes.

It’s not the only fun performance we’ve seen from Weezer this week, with the group joining Fallon’s barbershop quartet, The Ragtime Gals, for a rendition of their own classic track, “Buddy Holly.” Read more…

More about The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Fallon, Weezer, The Roots, and The Tonight Show

Tiger Global and Ant Financial lead $500M investment in China’s shared housing startup Danke



A Chinese startup that’s taking a dorm-like approach to urban housing just raised $500 million as its valuation jumped over $2 billion. Danke Apartment, whose name means “eggshell” in Chinese, closed the Series C round led by returning investor Tiger Global Management and newcomer Ant Financial, Alibaba’s e-payment and financial affiliate controlled by Jack Ma.

Four years ago, Beijing-based Danke set out with a mission to provide more affordable housing for young Chinese working in large urban centers. It applies the coworking concept to housing by renting apartments that come renovated and fully furnished, a model not unlike that of WeWork’s WeLive. The idea is by slicing up a flat designed for a family of three to four — the more common type of urban housing in China — into smaller units, young professionals can afford to live in nicer neighborhoods as Danke takes care of hassles like housekeeping and maintenance. To date, the startup has set foot in ten major Chinese cities.

With the new funds, Danke plans to upgrade its data processing system that deals with rental transactions. Housing prices are set by AI-driven algorithms that take into account market forces such as locations rather than rely on the hunches of a real estate agent. The more data it gleans, the smarter the system becomes. That layout is the engine of the startup, which believes an internet platform play is a win-win for both homeowners and tenants because it provides greater transparency and efficiency while allowing the company to scale faster.

“We are focused on business intelligence from day one,” Danke’s angel investor and chairman Derek Shen told TechCrunch in an interview. Shen was the former president of LinkedIn China and was instrumental in helping the professional networking site enter the country. “By doing so we are eliminating the need to set up offline retail outlets and are able to speed up the decision-making process. What landlords normally care is who will be the first to rent out their property. The model is also copiable because it requires less manpower.”

“We’ve proven that the rental housing business can be decentralized and done online,” added Shen.

Photo: Danke Apartment via Weibo

Danke doesn’t just want to digitize the market it’s after. Half of the company’s core members have hailed from Nuomi, the local services startup that Shen founded and was sold to Baidu for $3.2 billion back in 2015. Having worked for a business of which mission was to let users explore and hire offline services from their connected devices, these executives developed a propensity to digitize all business aspects including Danke’s day-to-day operations, a scheme that will also take up some of the new funds. This will allow Danke to “boost operational efficiency and cut costs” as it “actively works with the government to stabilize rental prices in the housing market,” the company says.

The rest of the proceeds will go towards improving the quality of Danke’s apartment amenities and tenant experiences, a segment that Shen believes will see great revenue potential down the road, akin to how WeWork touts software services to enterprises. The money will also enable Danke, which currently zeroes in on office workers and recent college graduates, to explore the emerging housing market for blue-collar workers.

Other investors from the round include new backer Primavera Capital and existing investors CMC Capital, Gaorong Capital and Joy Capital.

China’s rental housing market has boomed in recent years as Beijing pledges to promote affordable apartments in a country where few have the money to buy property. As President Xi Jinping often stresses, “houses are for living in, not for speculation.” As such, investors and entrepreneurs have been piling into the rental flat market, but that fervor has also created unexpected risks.

One much-criticized byproduct is the development of so-called “rental loans.” It goes like this: Housing operators would obtain loans in tenants’ names from banks or other lending institutions allegedly by obscuring relevant details from contracts. So when a tenant signs an agreement that they think binds them to rents, they have in fact agreed to take on loans and their “rent” payments become monthly loan repayments.

Housing operators are keen to embrace such practices for the loans provide working capital for renovation and their pipeline of properties. On the other hand, the capital allows companies like Danke to lower deposits for cash-strapped young tenants. “There’s nothing wrong with the financial instrument itself,” suggested Shen. “The real issue is when the housing operator struggles to repay, so the key is to make sure the business is well-functioning.”

Danke alongside competitors Ziroom and 5I5J has drawn fire for not fully informing tenants when signing contracts. Shen said his company is actively working to increase transparency. “We will make it clear to customers that what they are signing are loans. As long as we give them enough notice, there should be little risk involved.”

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TikTok just locked out a ton of users, and people can't take it



When life gives you lemons, make sure to squeeze all that lemon juice straight into your eyes and then rage about it on Twitter.

That seems to be the thinking of scores of TikTok users who, on Feb. 27, found themselves suddenly locked out of the looping video app following the company’s FTC-inspired effort to temporarily suspend accounts belonging to people under the age of 13. 

What no one appears to have first considered, however, is the fact that some now-exiled users entered fake birthdays when creating their accounts — meaning many of those suspended accounts belong to actual adults. 

Or, if not adults, at least not kids.  Read more…

More about Tiktok, Tech, and Social Media Companies

Facebook admits 18% of Research spyware users were teens, not



Facebook has changed its story after initially trying to downplay how it targeted teens with its Research program that a TechCrunch investigation revealed was paying them gift cards to monitor all their mobile app usage and browser traffic. “Less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch and many other news outlets in a damage control effort 7 hours after we published our report on January 29th. At the time,  Facebook claimed that it had removed its Research app from iOS. The next morning we learned that wasn’t true, as Apple had already forcibly blocked the Facebook Research app for violating its Enterprise Certificate program that supposed to reserved for companies distributing internal apps to employees.

It turns out that wasn’t the only time Facebook deceived the public in its response regarding the Research VPN scandal. TechCrunch has attained Facebook’s unpublished February 21st response to questions about the Research program in a letter from Senator Mark Warner, who wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”

In the response from Facebook’s VP of US public policy Kevin Martin, the company admits that (emphasis ours) “At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.” So 18 percent of research testers were teens. It was only less than 5 percent when Facebook got caught. Given users age 13 to 35 were eligible for Facebook’s Research program, 13 to 18 year olds made of 22 percent of the age range. That means Facebook clearly wasn’t trying to minimize teen involvement, nor were they just a tiny fraction of users.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Warner asked Facebook “Do you think any use reasonable understood Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes includingto track competitors?” Facebook response indicates it never told Research users anything about tracking “competitors”, and instead dances around the question. Facebook says the registration process told users the data would help the company “understand how people use mobile apps,” “improve . . . services,” and “introduce new features for millions of people around the world.”

Facebook had also told reporters on January 29th regarding teens’ participation, “All of them with signed parental consent forms.” Yet in its response to Senator Warner, Facebook admitted that “Potential participants were required to confirm that they were over 18 or provide other evidence of parental consent, though the vendors did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.” In some cases, underage users merely had to check a box to claim they had parental consent, and there was no verification of users’ ages or that their parents actually approved.

So to quickly recap:

Facebook targeted teens with ads on Instagram and Snapchat to join the Research program without revealing its involvement

The contradictions between Facebook’s initial response to reporters and what it told Warner, who has the power to pursue regulation of the the tech giant, shows Facebook willingness to move fast and play loose with the truth when it’s less accountable. It’s no wonder the company never shared the response with TechCrunch or posted a blog post or press release about it.

Facebook’s attempt to minimize the issue in the wake of backlash exemplifies the trend of of the social network’s “reactionary” PR strategy that employees described to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac. The company often views its scandals as communications errors rather than actual product screwups or as signals of deep-seeded problems with Facebook’s respect for privacy. Facebook needs to learn to take its lumps, change course, and do better rather than constantly trying to challenge details of negative press about it, especially before it has all the necessary information. Until then, the never-ending news cycle of Facebook’s self-made disasters will continue.

Below is Facebook’s full response to Senator Warner’s inquiry, followed by Warner’s original letter to Mark Zuckerberg..

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Dr. Bronner's is the only good brand on Twitter



Whether it’s Lil Debbie shilling out relationship advice or Sunny D igniting a conversation about depression, contemporary brand Twitter can be a depressing and dark place. 

Nothing feels more cynical than when a brand appropriates the standardized millennial voice — ironic, detached, dejected — and uses it to hock their emulsified meat products and drinkable corn syrups. There’s no commitment to justice here, there’s just marketing. So I’d love to call for a mass ban of corporations from Twitter, with one exception: Dr. Bronner’s, one of the country’s most popular organic, fair trade soap producers. Read more…

More about Brands, Culture, Brand Twitter, Dr. Bronner S, and Culture

The $35,000 Tesla Model 3 has arrived — but it comes with a price



The long-awaited $35,000 Tesla Model 3 has finally arrived, three years after CEO Elon Musk promised to bring the electric vehicle to market at that price point. But that cheaper Model 3 comes with a dramatic shift for Tesla. 

Tesla said that to achieve this lower price it will shift all sales globally to online only, meaning the company will be closing many of its stores over the next few months. The stores that remain, in high-traffic locations, will be turned into information centers, Musk said on a call with reporters.

“Shifting all sales online, combined with other ongoing cost efficiencies, will enable us to lower all vehicle prices by about 6% on average, allowing us to achieve the $35,000 Model 3 price point earlier than we expected,” the company wrote in a post.

Tesla announced Thursday that the $35,000 version will have a 220 miles of range and be able to reach a top speed of 130 miles per hour. 

“This is the lowest we could possibly make this car,” Musk

“and still be financially sustainable.”

The company also said it’s introducing a Model 3 Standard Range Plus version, which offers 240 miles of range, a top speed of 140 mph, and 0-60mph acceleration of 5.3 seconds as well as most premium interior features at $37,000 before incentives.

“I’m excited to finally meet this goal, which has been insanely difficult,” Musk said on a call with reporters.

Tesla will continue to offer its mid range, long range all-wheel drive, and Model 3 Performance vehicles in the U.S. The company is also bringing back its original Model 3 long range rear-wheel drive vehicle in the U.S. All Model 3 come standard with a tinted glass roof with ultraviolet and infrared protection, auto dimming, power folding, heated side mirror, and driver profiles via the center screen.

Just hours before the announcement, the “order” webpages for the Model 3, Model S and Model X vehicle redirected to show message that read “The wait is almost over.” Below the main message, it read “Great things are launching at 2 pm.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Feb. 27 “Some Tesla news,” followed by equally vague tweets “2 pm” and “California.”

The tweets had led to widespread speculation of what Musk would announce. Others argued that the teasing tweets were merely a tactic to distract investors and the media from his recent scuffle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission .

The SEC asked a judge Feb. 25 to hold Musk in contempt for violating the settlement agreement reached with the agency last year. The SEC argued that a tweet sent by Musk on February 19 violated their agreement. Musk is supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors.

A U.S. judge issued an order Feb. 26 that gives Musk until March 11 to explain why he should not be held in contempt for violating a settlement agreement with the SEC.

This is a developing story.

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