Author Archives: Nouri

Amazon makes its music streaming service free with ads



Amazon is making its music streaming service free. The company previously offered free, ad-supported streaming only to customers who owned an Amazon Echo device. Now it’s rolling out free streaming to anyone using the Amazon Music app on iOS, Android, Fire TV and Amazon Music on the web in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

The company has been steadily making its music streaming service more accessible by reducing prices. Earlier this year, for example, Amazon said it would no longer charge the $3.99 per month for streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited to Echo devices or require customers to pay for Amazon Prime in order to gain access to Prime Music’s smaller, 2+ million song catalog. Instead, it rolled out an ad-supported version of Amazon Music for free to Echo owners.

This is basically the same 2 million song catalog that comes with Prime Music, it just includes advertising and doesn’t require Prime membership.

Now, it’s making Amazon Music free for anyone — Echo owner or not — across a range of devices. This will allow users to play thousands of stations based on any song, artist, era, or genre, similar to Pandora. They’ll also gain access to top playlists, like “All Hits” featuring the world’s top songs, or the “Holiday Favorites” station, among others.

The move doesn’t really threaten paid subscription services like Spotify or Pandora’s premium tier or Apple Music, as Amazon’s free service has a much smaller catalog. It’s also not nearly as advanced in terms of its personalization technology, which powers things like Spotify’s Discover Weekly and other custom playlists. These are a big draw for music fans, and a reason they opt for one streaming service over another.

Instead, Amazon’s free music service serves more as a way to upsell consumers by encouraging them to join Amazon Prime in order to remove the ads from their music. (Prime Music’s 2 million songs are an added perk of a Prime subscription.) This is Amazon’s true motive: lock in more customers to Amazon Prime, ensure they realize the value of the free shipping and other benefits, then get them to renew every year. Once a Prime member, people will shop more often from Amazon, which is where the retailer’s profits lie.

The free music service also serves as an entry point into Amazon’s wider music ecosystem. If customers decide they want a larger, ad-free catalog, they can up to join Amazon Music Unlimited instead, which offers 50 million songs at $7.99 per month for Prime members, or $9.99 per month for others. And true audiophiles can upgrade to Amazon Music HD for $12.99 per month for Prime members, or $14.99 per month for non-members.

For the time being, Amazon is offering 4 months of Amazon Music Unlimited for $0.99.

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India says law permits agencies to snoop on citizen’s devices



The Indian government said on Tuesday that it is “empowered” to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital communication “generated, transmitted, received, or stored” on a citizen’s device in the country in the interest of national security or to maintain friendly relations with foreign states.

Citing section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy said local law empowers federal and state government to “intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”

Reddy’s remarks were in response to the parliament, where a lawmaker had asked if the government had snooped on citizens’ WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, and Google calls and messages.

The lawmaker’s question was prompted after 19 activists, journalists, politicians, and privacy advocates in India revealed earlier this month that their WhatsApp communications may have been compromised.

WhatsApp has said that Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO’s tools have been used to send malware to 1,400 users. The Facebook-owned company has in recent weeks alerted users whose accounts had been compromised. The social juggernaut earlier this month sued NSO alleging that its tools were being used to hack WhatsApp users.

NSO has maintained that it only sells its tools to government and intelligence agencies, an assertion that stoked fear among some that the state could be behind targeting the aforementioned 19 people — and perhaps more — in the country.

Reddy did not directly address the questions, but in a blanket written statement said that “authorized agencies as per due process of law, and subject to safeguards as provided in the rules” can intercept or monitor or decrypt “any information from any computer resource” in the country.

He added that each case of such interception has to be approved by the Union Home Secretary (in case of federal government) and by the Home Secretary of the State (in case of state government.)

Last month, the Indian government said it was moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

It told the country’s apex court that it would formulate the rules by January 15 of next year.

A report published today by New Delhi-based Software Law and Freedom Centre (SFLC) found that more than 100,000 telephone interception are issued by the federal government alone every year.

“On adding the surveillance orders issued by the state governments to this, it becomes clear that India routinely surveils her citizens’ communications on a truly staggering scale,” the report said.

The non-profit organization added that the way current laws that enable law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on citizens’ private communications are “opaque” as they are run “solely by the executive arm of the government, and make no provisions for independent oversight of the surveillance process.”

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Adam Driver does his job in intense clip from 'The Report'



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LA-based Maslo pivots to professional services, launching an AI product for executive coaching



When the Los Angeles-based startup Maslo launched its first product in early 2018, the company was focused on a direct-to-consumer tool designed to encourage mindfulness and self-awareness through a machine learning enabled avatar that would respond to individual’s inputs.

Now the company has reframed its offering, raised a fresh round of financing and is coming to market with a refined vision for a training tool for executive coaching.

Like the original Maslo, the new product is a service for journaling and personal growth, but this time it includes dashboards and visualization tools for the life coaches and training professionals that are molding the minds and leadership habits of tomorrow’s executives.

“Most of the products and experiences today are one dimensional,” said Maslo co-founder Ross Ingram. “They’re pulling information from you, but they’re not really reacting or responding.”

Using natural language processing and other machine learning tools, Maslo’s service will process entries by customers from their voice-activated, recorded journals and visualize data on a dashboard so that clients can see their how language patterns, thematic trends, and emotions recur among their customers.

Image courtesy of Maslo

As part of its go-to-market strategy Maslo is partnering with the International Coaching Federation and any coaches who are currently enrolled in an ICF Accredited Coaching Program can access Maslo’s services at no cost.

The new product launch follows a $1 million capital commitment from Saki Georgiadis, who was an early investor in Calm, and Dr. Ray Muzyka, the founder and former chief executive of Bioware.

“I’m quite excited about the opportunity here to transform technology into products and services that help us become holistically, better humans,” said Muzyka, in a statement. “[Maslo’s] recent focus has validated my original interest, which led me to invest.”

Maslo is also currently collaborating with professors from the University of British Columbia and researchers from the Canadian national research organization focused on social innovation, Mitacs, on a stud to assess the efficacy of “empathetic computing”.

Maslo has also been awarded a grant in partnership with The University of British Columbia and Mitacs, a nonprofit national research organization in Canada focused on industrial and social innovation. The grant focuses on “Assessing the Efficacy of Empathetic Computing,” and will be coordinated with a team within Dr. Alan Kingstone’s Brain, Attention, and Reality (BAR) Lab. The research will look to provide insights on the effects of personification in computing products on people and their relationships.

“We are extraordinarily excited to be partnering with Maslo, and we see this as the start of an exciting exploration into a human centric engagement with technology,” said Dr. Alan Kingstone, the head of the Brain, Attention, and Reality (BAR) Lab at UBC.

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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn



What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences. Social audience analytics and ad targeting startup SocialRank chose the latter is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the whole staff are sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to unbundle LinkedIn.

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional networkapart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing their trying to unlock career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

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Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers play extremely silly rapid-fire question game



Sometimes, when people are asked questions under extreme time pressure, they can end up giving surprisingly enlightened responses.

Not Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, though. During a game of “Think Fast!” on The Tonight Show, their answers to a series of rapid-fire questions start of silly, then get progressively more and more ridiculous.

Want to know how big the big monkey is, or what the worst smell is? Well, like it or not, now you do. Read more…

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Heliogen’s new tech could unlock renewable energy for industrial manufacturing



Last Monday a group of millionaires and billionaires took a trip to an industrial site in Lancaster, Calif. to witness the achievement of what could represent a giant leap forward in the effort to decarbonize some of the world’s most carbon intensive industries.

For Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab and brains behind the excursion, the unveiling was simply the latest in a string of demonstrations for new technologies commercialized by his nearly three-decade old startup company incubator. However, it may be the most significant.

What Gross is pursuing with his new company, Heliogen, offers a way forward for renewable energy to be applied to manufacturing processes for cement, lime, coke, and steel — some of the most energy intensive and polluting industries that exist in the world today.

“Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions,” said Bill Gates, a Heliogen backer who has committed millions of dollars to the development of new renewable energy technologies. “These materials are everywhere in our lives but we don’t have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable, zero-carbon versions of them. If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do. I’m pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross’s novel solar concentration technology. Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”

According to Gross, Kittu Kollaru, an investor in Heliogen who is also backing another of Idealab’s incubated companies working on developing an energy storage technology, Energy Vault, said after seeing the demonstration, “Bill… this is even bigger.”

At its core, Heliogen is taking a well-known technology called concentrated solar power, and improving its ability to generate heat with new computer vision, sensing and control technologies, says Gross.

Four high resolution cameras capture real time video of a field of mirrors that are controlled by sensors to focus the sun’s energy on a particular spot. That spot, either at a transmission pipe used to transport gas, or a tower, is heated to over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Previous commercial concentrating solar thermal systems could only reach temperatures of 565 degrees Celsius, the company said. That’s useful for generating power, but can’t meet the needs of industrial processes. 

Achieving temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius gives manufacturing facilities the opportunity to replace the use of fossil fuels in a significant portion of their operations.

A facility hoping to install Heliogen’s technology (Image courtesy of Heliogen)

“They already have a power source/burner that is variable, based on the flow rate of materials, and is servo controlled to have the correct air flow exit temperature,” says Gross of many existing industrial operations. “So when we add heat (when the sun is out) the fossil fuel burner just automatically gets scaled back like a thermostat on a room heater (albeit at much higher temperature).  So it’s a seamless control integration.”

A plant could still operate on a 24-hour production schedule, and could still use fossil fuels, says Gross. But by deploying the Heliogen system, companies could reduce their fossil fuel consumption by up to 60%, according to the serial entrepreneur and investor. Gross believes that Heliogen’s systems will pay for themselves in a two-to-three year timeframe if companies buy the system outright, or Heliogen could manage the installation for a manufacturer and just charge them for the cost of the power.

Gross has been testing smaller versions of Heliogen’s industrial heating technology at a field with an array of 70 mirrors to prove that the super-concentrating technology could work. A full scale facility covers roughly two acres of land with mirrors and a tower where the rays are concentrated. “It’s like a death ray,” Gross said of the concentrated solar beams.

While initial applications for Heliogen’s technology will concentrate on industrial applications, longer term, Gross sees an opportunity to drive down the cost of Hydrogen production at an industrial scale. Long believed to be one of the keys to global decarbonization, Hydrogen’s use as a fuel source has been limited because it’s difficult to make without using fossil fuels.

Hydrogen’s importance to a carbon-free energy future can’t be overstated, according to energy advocates and longtime renewable energy entrepreneurs and investors like Jigar Shah. The founder and former chief executive of solar installation company, SunRun, Shah now invests in renewabel energy projects.

“As we move closer to 100% clean electricity grids, it will be necessary to not just store excess electricity production from the spring and fall, but to turn all of this excess electricity to valuable commodities that can help decarbonize other sectors outside of electricity — transportation, industrial heat, and chemicals,” Shah wrote in an article on LinkedIn. “That’s where hydrogen comes into play.”

Investors in Heliogen include venture capital firm Neotribe and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire Los Angeles-based investor and entrepreneur, who owns the Los Angeles Times and an investment conglomerate. THe investmente was made through Dr. Soon-Shiong’s investment firm, Nant Capital.

“For the sake of our future generations we must address the existential danger of climate change with an extreme sense of urgency,” said Dr. Soon-Shiong, in a statement. “I am committed to using my resources to invest in innovative technologies that harness the power of nature and the sun. By significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating a pure source of energy, Heliogen’s brilliant technology will help us achieve this mission and also meaningfully improve the world we leave our children.”

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BlueVine raises $102.5M more for banking services that target small businesses



When it comes to fintech plays, small and medium businesses are not often the target audience: they’re too small and fragmented compared to big-spending corporates; and they’re too demanding compared to mass-market consumer users. But as a sector, they account for over 99% of all businesses in developed countries like the UK and USA, and that means they cannot be ignored. Today, BlueVine, one of the financial services startups that has built a business specifically catering to SMBs is announcing a big round of funding, underscoring the quiet opportunity and demand that is out there.

“We see a massive gap in the market, with most SMBs still using consumer plus accounts,” said Eyal Lifshitz, Bluevine’s CEO and co-founder. “That is the mission we are on.”

The startup, which offers financing and other banking services to SMBs, today is announcing that it has raised $102.5 million, a Series F round of equity funding that is coming from a mix of financial and notable strategic investors.

Led by ION Crossover Partners, the round also includes existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, Menlo Ventures, 83North, SVB Capital, Nationwide (a major financial services player in the UK), Citi Ventures, Microsoft’s venture fund M12, and private investors; as well as new investors MUFG Innovation Partners Co., Ltd, O.G. Tech (the VC connected to Israeli billionaire and property magnate Eyal Ofer), Vintage Investment Partners, ION Group, Maor Investments and additional private investors.

With this latest round, Silicon Valley-based BlueVine has raised between $240 million and $250 million in equity, with another half a billion dollars in debt financing to fuel its loans platform, Lifshitz said in an interview. The company has never disclosed valuation, and it’s not doing so today, but he added that BlueVine is “doing quite well”, with the valuation “up” compared to its Series E.

“We are not profitable yet, but we’ve grown 100% since last year and will do triple digit revenue this year,” Lifshitz said, noting that the company has now originated some $2.5 billions in loans to date to 20,000 small businesses.

While SMBs are not often the first target for fintech startups, that does not mean they are completely ignored. Others that have built big businesses around these users include Kabbage — the SoftBank-backed startup out of Atlanta that also started out with loans before diversifying also into a wider range of banking services. (Kabbage is currently valued at over $1 billion, as a point of comparison.) Another newer player in the space of SMB-focused banking is Mercury, which also recently raised money; its primary target is a narrower subset of the SMB world, startups.

BlueVine’s service is mainly based around its financing products, where it provides both lines of credit and term loans (both up to $250,000) and “factoring,” where customers can arrange for BlueVine to pay up front for invoices that they select to be paid, a service that translates into credit lines of up to $5 million and means that users don’t need to wait for money to come in before paying for bills.

As with Kabbage, BlueVine’s move into a wider array of banking services — sold as BlueVine Business Banking, which includes checking accounts and other services alongside financing — is a newer, still-growing and expanding business. The checking account, for example, only was announced in October this year.

For business customers, the idea is to give them a one-stop shop for all of their financial services, while for BlueVine, the idea is to create a more complete set of offerings to keep users on its platform and to make better margins on them across more services. Interestingly, this sets BlueVine up to compete not as much with startups — the majority of which still offer single-point services or a small collection of them, but with banks that still provide full suites of services, even if they are often more pricey and less efficient than startups.

My real competitors are the 4,600 banks in the US,” Lifshitz said. “It’s a very long tail in the US. But if you dive into that further, historically SMBs haven’t been serviced well by them.”

The fact that the company is attracting a range of financial services investors inevitably raises the question of how BlueVine might partner with them down the line or even become an acquisition target, but one thing that Lifshitz said that it will not be doing is white-label services (something that Kabbage has explored): “We don’t want to give our tech away,” he said. “We are focused on leveraging our tech to be the best in class.”

“BlueVine has demonstrated a track record of success with their multiple financing products and set themselves apart with their vision of a complete platform of innovative banking products for small businesses,” said Jonathan Kolodny, Partner at ION Crossover Partners, in a statement. “We’ve been following the company closely since its early days, and have witnessed the demand, and frankly the economic need, for BlueVine’s banking services. We believe the company is exceptionally well-positioned, thanks to its world-class management team, to change the way small businesses manage their financial needs today and in the future.”

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This is the one thing you should absolutely buy in November



Have you been feeling SAD? Seasonal Affective Disorder, that is. It’s not as uncommon as you may think. The leaves fall, the sun sets at 5 pm, and the seasonal depression begins. While there’s nothing you can do to change daylight saving time, you can make your inside space a bit brighter. 

Happy lights are a drug-free way to combat seasonal blues. No prescription is needed, just a place to plug in your personal ball of sunshine. 

Of course, a bright lamp is no match for a qualified therapist or medical professional. If you just can’t seem to shake the blues no matter what you do, or if you ever have thoughts of harming yourself or others, know that you are not aloneTake advantage of these resources to get the help you need.  Read more…

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IMAGE: Amazon


OUR TOP PICK

Verilux HappyLight

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IMAGE: Amazon


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Circadian Optics Lattis

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Comenzar Sun Lamp

Get 12,000 LUX for about half the price of other lamps on this list.

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Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0

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IMAGE: Amazon


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Miroco LED Bright White Therapy Light

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IMAGE: Amazon


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FITFIRST Portable Light Therapy Energy Lamp

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Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service



Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw Hill are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

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