Personal-symptom trackers, digital contact-tracing and exposure-notification tools are under development in the United States and around the world — their adoption could help healthcare workers mitigate the impact of further waves of COVID-19. These technologies also have significant privacy and security issues. The COVID Tech Task Force has a conference scheduled in 10 days to discuss the key issues related to COVID technologies.
As part of our work preparing for that conference, we collected and reviewed the leading apps in the U.S. With the goal of helping the public, and state and local governments, better understand the privacy and security features of leading applications, we’re sharing the information and demos we gathered from the teams building these applications.
We have sorted the demos into three broad categories: (1) contact-tracing/exposure-notification applications using Google/Apple API, (2) contact-tracing/exposure-notification applications not using Google/Apple API, and (3) personal-symptom-tracking applications.
We surveyed teams regarding privacy, security and commercialization of personal data. We’ve made the results of the surveys available here. We encourage you to look through the responses and share your thoughts on how different applications have approached these important issues.
The applications featured in this article were to be demoed at the Contact Tracing and Technology Conference originally scheduled for this week — in light of the significant conversations around racial injustice and police brutality against Black Americans we rescheduled it to ensure we are not taking up unnecessary space. The conference is now rescheduled or June 17th — if you RSVP’d, we look forward to seeing you there; if you haven’t, please do!
The conference will be hosted by the COVID Tech Task Force, in collaboration with TechCrunch, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. The COVID Tech Task Force is composed of a group of volunteers who came together in March to help convene a forum for state and local governments and the tech community to work together to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
Applications using Google/Apple API
Google and Apple have collaborated to create development tools in order to provide a cross-platform way for public health agencies to notify individuals of a potential exposure.
SafePaths is developing free, open-source, privacy-by-design tools for individuals, public health officials and larger communities to flatten the curve of COVID-19, reduce fear and prevent a surveillance-state response to the pandemic.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CoEpi is an open-source project developing a decentralized, privacy-first app for anonymous Bluetooth-based exposure notification based on symptom sharing. Communities of close contacts can begin protecting themselves with CoEpi without requiring widespread adoption among the general population; there is no scale required to achieve benefit to small user groups. CoEpi helps you anonymously alert the people with whom you interact about symptoms of a contagious illness, or alert you if you might have been exposed in an interaction.
If you want further information, reach out to Dana+CoEpi@OpenAPS.org.
COVID Shield is a free exposure notification solution built with privacy as its top priority. It was built by a group of volunteers, many from Shopify, in order to help Canadians and the rest of the world safely return to work.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
The team consists of a group of public health officials, doctors, researchers and engineers based out of the University of Washington and Microsoft who are working together to keep the public safe and to help public health systems in managing the outbreak.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVID Trace is a nonprofit offering a COVID-19 exposure-notification app for iOS and Android using the Apple/Google exposure-notification APIs. People using COVID Trace can expect privacy and simplicity. With COVID Trace, health departments get an app and metrics that are an extension of their efforts. COVID Trace is ready to be used today.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
Zero is a citizen-led nonprofit that leverages technology for pandemic response, focused on facilitating safe social behavior and peace of mind. Their goal is to stem the spread of COVID-19 and give citizens the information they need to feel safe and confident engaging with their local economy.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVID Watch uses the Apple/Google GAEN protocol, which it claims its developers explained to Apple how to build based on their original TCN protocol. The Covid Watch team was founded by researchers from Stanford and Waterloo and claims to be the first in the world to invent, develop and open-source a decentralized Bluetooth exposure alert protocol in early March.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
Applications not currently using Google/Apple API
Note that some of these organizations have indicated they might use the Google/Apple API in the future. Some of them intend to and are waiting on confirmation from Google/Apple.
NOVID claims to be the first (and currently only) completely anonymous contact-tracing app published in the USA that uses no personal information. No GPS, no phone number, no email — it’s completely anonymous. The app utilizes ultrasound to provide extremely accurate measurements of interaction distance, overcoming the known inaccuracies of Bluetooth. The team is led by Carnegie Mellon professor and internationally renowned mathematician, Po-Shen Loh.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Healthy Together is an end-to-end COVID-19 response platform that is fully integrated into public health and the enterprise. Launched in April for the State of Utah, Healthy Together’s mobile applications support self-assessment, COVID-19 testing access and results, and augmented contact tracing, as well as enterprise contact tracing, workflow tools, data integrations and visualizations. Leveraging existing technology that has scaled to millions of users and informed by public health experts, Healthy Together will soon be announcing additional states and enterprise customers that are using the platform to protect the health of residents and employees.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
Sharetrace is a health passport and contact-tracing application that’s privacy-preserving by design. Built on user-owned personal data accounts, pioneering personal data privacy technology, it can safely use sensitive data without the risk of sovereign surveillance by either companies or governments. Sharetrace is a collaboration between U.K. and U.S. universities, including Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Learn more online at sharetrace.org.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coalition Network is a nonprofit whose founders and team have been building and implementing decentralized, Bluetooth-based network solutions on mobile for the past decade. Coalition’s open source Whisper Tracing Protocol has been peer reviewed by cryptographers at MIT, Stanford, USC and Oxford, and adopted by the government of Senegal.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
Safe2 is a COVID-19 exposure warning system for smarter social distancing. The mobile app uses anonymized data from GPS and Bluetooth technology to privately share real-time exposure alerts to help prevent community spread of the virus. Safe2 was founded by Jamison D. Day, Ph.D., data scientist and expert in disaster relief, with an international team specializing in global health, technology and crisis management, with a focus on improving health, economic well-being and privacy.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
VIRI is a contact-tracing platform driven by the ethos of privacy and anonymity, on a mission to allow cross-entity contact tracing without the need to share any personal identifying information. It can be incorporated into an existing enterprise app as an API seamlessly allowing compatibility between enterprises and institutions at a global scale while letting the entities adhere to various healthcare-data regulations. VIRI deploys a hybrid back-end architecture that leverages permissive blockchain technology.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
COVID Near You, a crowdsourced COVID-19 symptom tracker, was created by epidemiologists and software developers within the Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator at Boston Children’s Hospital. The Boston Children’s Hospital team has background and expertise in developing platforms in infectious disease surveillance, and provides technical capacity in building visualization-based tools for public health response efforts. The COVID Near You team aims to support public health surveillance measures of COVID-19 and conduct research using the self-reported data to better understand the impact of this disease across North America.
If you want further information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How We Feel lets you self-report your age, sex, ZIP code and any health symptoms you experience. The app was built by an independent, nonprofit organization called The How We Feel Project. Their tech team includes Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest, and a volunteer group of current and former Pinterest employees. They are working with scientists, doctors and public health professionals from leading institutions including, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
If you want further information, reach out to email@example.com.
To many, planes and hotel rooms won’t be a possibility, owing to continued concerns about the coronavirus (not to mention the expense, which 40 million fewer Americans can likely afford). That leaves perhaps renting a local Airbnb this summer or, for a growing number of people, looking for the first time to rent an RV or camper van.
Last week, we talked with Jeff Cavins, a serial operator and the co-founder and CEO of a company that’s poised to benefit from the latter trend: Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental company that was founded in 2015, bootstrapped by its founders for a couple of years, and has more recently attracted $88 million in venture funding, $13 million of it an extension to a $50 million Series B round that it quietly closed early this year.
We wanted to know what trends the company — which collects fees from both the vehicle owners and the renters on its platform — is seeing, including how its customers are changing, and where they’re looking to park themselves this summer. Below are some excerpts from our chat, edited lightly for length.
TC: How has your model changed because of the coronavirus?
JC: We had typically seen an average rental on our platform would run about six days. That’s now over nine days. With COVID, as with many other companies, we saw a lot of de-bookings on the platform, but then they all roared back and then some. We’ve seen a 2,645% increase in bookings from the low point of COVID, which was late March, to right now.
TC: What percentage of those booking trips are first-time customers?
JC: In the month of May, 88% of our bookings were by first-time renters, which is a record for us. And more than half of them have come back and already booked their second trip. So some booked in May; they went away for the Memorial Day weekend [and] came right back. And they booked another one for, in this case, like the Fourth of July or [trips in] June. As you know, a lot of people are at home with their kids, so everybody in America has this big, long extended summer break. And with the kids, they’re finding this is the safer option for travel.
TC: Are their expectations different? Are they looking for certain things that maybe more seasoned RV campers wouldn’t think to ask?
JC: The big trend that we’re seeing in the RV industry, and this is not unique to America, is the new consumers don’t want those big land barges. What they want are camper vans, because the average user on our platform is under the age of 40, which was a big surprise to this industry because it’s always leaned a little bit towards the Boomer or the retiree demographic. And they like camping off the grid. They like to operate with vehicles that feel comfortable to them, that have a smaller footprint, that are easier on the environment. And so things that have become popular are solar power, potable water that can be transportable, hookups for mountain bikes, sporting gear . . . They also want to be able to head to unique locations where they can build those Instagram mobile moments. So we’re starting to see that trend, and it has become a global phenomenon.
TC: When we last talked, in January of last year, Outdoorsy had around 35,000 vehicles available to rent on the platform. How many are on the platform now?
JC: We have 48,000 peer-to-peer listings; when we add our international users and we have a lot of these mega fleets that are connected to our site via an API like Indies Campers or Jucy, that puts our supply at 68,000 units.
TC: And how are you making sure that these vehicles are free of germs and don’t transmit diseases?
JC: Cleanliness is a big factor for any form of accommodation. In our case, we’ve been producing for our listing community CDC guidelines on cleaning standards. We’ve asked our owners to place additional time between rentals so they can let the vehicles take time to manually disinfect. One of our investors at our company is a molecular biologist [whose] doctoral thesis at Harvard won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and he’s been helping us communicate with our owner community on things like these new ultraviolet radiation lamps that are common. You’ll see them installed in ambulances . . . if you let them set for a while, they will help completely decontaminate the environment.
We’re also encouraging renters to bring cleaning supplies with them. A lot of people will feel much more safe if they’re able to control their environment. And we’ve started a contactless key exchange, [meaning] the owner will deliver the vehicle to a campsite, put up the awning, the camping chairs, and so on. And then the renter will come later.
TC: You mentioned changing user behaviors. Out of curiosity, are you seeing renters who aren’t heading to Yosemite or Yellowstone but instead to an RV down the street so they can, say, work apart from young children?
JC: One of the things that we’ve seen is, I may live in San Diego, for example, and grandma lives in Kansas City, and there’s no way for the kids to go see her. So camper van and RV travel has become that way for families to see those loved ones they haven’t been able to see during quarantine and maintain family connectivity.
TC: You mentioned de-bookings earlier this year. Did you have to lay off staff?
JC: We had about 160 employees prior to COVID. And we did do some right-sizing. Most of the impact in our organization was in our international markets — we had a team in Italy, Germany, France, U.K., Australia, New Zealand [that were cut]. In terms of our domestic employees, rather than cuts, we sat down with the team and said, ‘If everybody is willing to take a salary adjustment, we will reward you with more equity in the business. This could be a period of time where we save those jobs around us.’
I work with no income; I don’t have a salary. And there are a few other executives who elected to [forgo theirs]. So it was a way to align our employees with our investors by compensating them more in equity.
TC: As business picks up again, are you thinking about another round of funding?
JC: There is no plan to [raise more right now]. We were profitable in the month of May. We’ll be profitable again in the month of June. Unless there’s a second wave of COVID and lockdowns, our booking activity is now foretelling a profitable July, August and September, so we’ll possibly produce a year-on-year fiscal profitable year.
The ones we typically get inbound activity from are the late-stage growth investors. We’ll all sit down with the board and we’ll talk about it and decide: Do we want to do something with that or just want to just keep, you know, chopping wood as fast as we can on our own?
In May, more than 75 million users transacted on Google Pay app, ahead of PhonePe’s 60 million users, people familiar with the companies’ figures told TechCrunch. More than 10 million users transact on SoftBank -backed Paytm’s app everyday, according to internal data seen by TechCrunch.
Google still lags Paytm’s reach with merchants, but the Android -maker has maintained its overall lead in recent months despite every player losing momentum due to one of the most stringent lockdowns globally in place in India.
The company is facing an antitrust probe in India over allegations that it is abusing its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country, Reuters reported last month.
Paytm, once the dominant player in India, has been struggling to sustain its user base for nearly two years. The company had about 60 million transacting users in January last year, said people familiar with the matter.
Paytm had over 50 million monthly active users on its app in May, a spokesperson told TechCrunch. After the publication of this story, the spokesperson said more than 50 million users transact on the app each month. The Information reported in January that Paytm had fewer than 40 million transacting users in December.
Data sets consider transacting users to be those who have made at least one payment through the app in a month. It’s a coveted metric and is different from the much more popular monthly active users (MAU), or daily active users (DAU) that various firms use to share their performance. A portion of those labeled as monthly active users do not make any transaction on the app.
India’s homegrown payment firm, Paytm, has struggled to grow in recent years in part because of a mandate by India’s central bank to mobile wallet firms — the middlemen between users and banks — to perform know-your-client (KYC) verification of users, which created confusion among many, some of the people said. These woes come despite the firm’s fundraising success, which amounts to more than $3 billion.
In a statement, a Paytm spokesperson said, “When it comes to mobile wallets one has to remember the fact that Paytm was the company that set up the infrastructure to do KYC and has been able to complete over 100 million KYCs by physically meeting customers.”
Paytm has long benefited from integration with popular services such as Uber, and food delivery startup Swiggy, but fewer than 10 million of Paytm’s monthly transacting users have relied on this feature in recent months.
Two executives, who like everyone else spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, also said that Paytm resisted the idea of adopting Unified Payments Interface. That’s the nearly two-year-old payments infrastructure built and backed by a collation of banks in India that enables money to be sent directly between accounts at different banks and eliminates the need for a separate mobile wallet.
Paytm’s delays in adopting the standard left room for Google and PhonePe, another early adopter of UPI, to seize the opportunity.
Paytm, which adopted UPI a year after Google and PhonePe, refuted the characterization that it resisted joining UPI ecosystem.
“We are the company that cherishes innovation and technology that can transform the lives of millions. We understand the importance of financial technology and for this very reason, we have always been the champion and supporter of UPI. We, however, launched it on Paytm later than our peers because it took a little longer for us to get the approval to start UPI based services,“ a spokesperson said.
Missing from the fray is Facebook, which counts India as its biggest market by user count. The company began talks with banks to enter India’s mobile payments market, estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2023 (according to Credit Suisse), through WhatsApp as early as 2017. WhatsApp is the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million users in the country.
Facebook launched WhatsApp Pay to a million users in the following year, but has been locked in a regulatory battle since to expand the payments service to the rest of its users. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said WhatsApp Pay would roll out nationwide by end of last year, but the firm is yet to secure all approvals — and new challenges keep cropping up. The company, which invested $5.7 billion in the nation’s top telecom operator Reliance Jio Platforms in April, declined to comment.
PhonePe, which was conceived only a year before WhatsApp set eyes to India’s mobile payments, has consistently grown as it added several third-party services. These include leading food and grocery delivery services Swiggy and Grofers, ride-hailing giant Ola, ticketing and staying players Ixigo and Oyo Hotels, in a so-called super app strategy. In November, about 63 million users were active on PhonePe, 45 million of whom transacted through the app.
Karthik Raghupathy, the head of business at PhonePe, confirmed the company’s transacting users to TechCrunch.
Three factors contributed to the growth of PhonePe, he said in an interview. “The rise of smartphones and mobile data adoption in recent years; early adoption to UPI at a time when most mobile payments firms in India were betting on virtual mobile-wallet model; and taking an open-ecosystem approach,” he said.
“We opened our consumer base to all our merchant partners very early on. Our philosophy was that we would not enter categories such as online ticketing for movies and travel, and instead work with market leaders on those fronts,” he explained.
“We also went to the market with a completely open, interoperable QR code that enabled merchants and businesses to use just one QR code to accept payments from any app — not just ours. Prior to this, you would see a neighborhood store maintain several QR codes to support a number of payment apps. Over the years, our approach has become the industry norm,” he said, adding that PhonePe has been similarly open to other wallets and payments options as well.
But despite the growth and its open approach, PhonePe has still struggled to win the confidence of investors in recent quarters. Stoking investors’ fears is the lack of a clear business model for mobile payments firms in India.
PhonePe executives held talks to raise capital last year that would have valued it at $8 billion, but the negotiations fell apart. Similar talks early this year, which would have valued PhonePe at $3 billion, which hasn’t been previously reported, also fell apart, three people familiar with the matter said. Raghupathy and a PhonePe spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s fundraising plans.
As UPI gained inroads in the market, banks have done away with any promotional incentives to mobile payments players, one of their only revenue sources.
At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate without a clear business model in India.
Coronavirus takes its toll on payments companies
The coronavirus pandemic that prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown in late March preceded a significant, but predictable, drop in mobile payments usage in the following weeks. But while Paytm continues to struggle in bouncing back, PhonePe and Google Pay have fully recovered as India eased some restrictions.
About 120 million UPI transactions occurred on Paytm in the month of May, down from 127 million in April and 186 million in March, according to data compiled by NPCI, the body that oversees UPI, and obtained by TechCrunch. (Paytm maintains a mobile wallet business, which contributes to its overall transacting users.)
Google Pay, which only supports UPI payments, facilitated 540 million transactions in May, up from 434 million in April and 515 million in March. PhonePe’s 454 million March figure slid to 368 million in April, but it turned the corner, with 460 million transactions last month. An NPCI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
PhonePe and Google Pay together accounted for about 83% of all UPI transactions in India last month. UPI itself has over 117 million users.
Industry executives working at rival firms said it would be a mistake to dismiss Paytm, the one-time leader of the mobile payments market in India.
Paytm has cut its marketing expenses and aggressively chased merchants in recent quarters. Earlier this year, it unveiled a range of gadgets, including a device that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and USB charger, a jukebox that provides voice confirmations of transactions and services to streamline inventory management for merchants.
Merchants who use these devices pay a recurring fee to Paytm, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of the firm told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. Paytm has also entered several businesses, such as movie and travel ticketing, lending, games and e-commerce, and set up a digital payments bank over the years.
“Everyone knows Paytm. Paytm is synonymous with digital payments in India. And outside, there’s a perceived notion that it’s truly the Alipay of India,” an executive at a rival firm said.
For the past three days, technology company executives and the investors who backed them have issued statements of support for the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Firms like Benchmark, Sequoia, Bessemer, Eniac Ventures, Work-Bench and SaaSTR Fund founder Jason Lemkin all tweeted in support of the cause and offered to take steps to improve the lack of representation in their industry.
But some Black entrepreneurs and investors are questioning the motivations of these firms, given the weight of evidence that shows inaction in the face of historic inequality in the technology and venture capital industry.
“The way to find, hire and fund black people in the tech world is the same as finding, hiring and funding any other group. You build relationships with people in that group, you seek out thought leaders from the community and learn from them, you tell your hiring and investing teams that there’s a hole in the fund’s expertise stack and you fill it. It’s not about tokenizing one person or donating to a one time effort or writing it off as a pipeline problem,” wrote Sarah Kunst, the founding managing partner of Cleo Capital, in a text to TechCrunch. “It’s using the embarrassment of skills and resources these funds have to learn, build relationships and deploy capital.”
Entrepreneurs and investors say steps from investors must boil down to two main actions: hire the people and wire the investment.
In a Medium post today, the New York-based investment firm Work-Bench detailed steps it would take to make sure it is encouraging Black entrepreneurs and investors.
In addition to financial commitments to organizations, including the Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Color of Change, the firm is instituting new steps to ensure that its own operations also work to promote Black entrepreneurs and investors.
The firm detailed a number of other steps it will take “if there is interest,” including collating a public database of Black founders working on enterprise startups for other enterprise VCs, and working with HBCUvc and other Black VC firms.
Some firms are taking steps to go even further — including the creation of dedicated pre-seed investment funds that would focus exclusively on companies coming from historically Black colleges and universities.
These initiatives are in their early stages, and investors are not ready to disclose too much about the steps that they’re taking, but they extend far beyond dedicated funding. Investors are also looking to step up their recruitment at HBCUs and land-grant universities to focus more on diverse candidates and doing internal training from within portfolio companies to create a new generation of minority entrepreneurs through more extensive and robust entrepreneur-in-residence programs.
Firms are also looking to create benchmarks and internal surveys to monitor their progress and find out where their firms and portfolios are falling short. This could start with firms choosing to publish how many Black founders they have invested in to date, with annual follow-ups, for the spirit of transparency and accountability.
The data is accessible to investors internally, though few firms publish such statistics publicly. Initialized Capital disclosed on Monday that 7% of companies in its most recent fund are led by Black founders.
“Investors have been reaching out to me left and right asking what they can do. It’s not complicated: Invest in Black founders. You don’t have to invest in ALL Black founders. You can keep your thesis and yes even your so-called ‘standards’ and find multiple Black founders to invest in,” Hamilton wrote. “If you need help, I have 130 portfolio companies + I can introduce you to a curated list of a dozen Black investors to hire. My email address is ARLAN@BackstageCapital.com. No more excuses.”
Internal recruitment efforts for VC partners can be inherently biased. Think of it as a domino effect: if LPs only fund white GPs, then white GPs can stick to their preexisting networks for looking for other partners to bring on. Unless non-diverse VC firms break their existing networks, either through recruiters or underrepresented founders, this effect will continue.
‘And I do hope to write the check’
Partners at venture firms are committing to doing more themselves to support the community of Black entrepreneurs.
“I don’t do that many investments a year (I am a slow+quiet investor), but please email me your decks and pitches,” wrote Jason Lemkin on Twitter. “I will try to only meet/Zoom with black founders in June.”
Nihal Mehta, the founder of New York-based investment firm Eniac Ventures, announced on Twitter that he was taking no-charge appointments with Black founders via Superpeer, which sells one-to-one video calls. Within 24 hours of Mehta’s tweet, he was booked for the summer: 103 meetings with Black founders.
“This means there is incredible demand, a large gap that needs to be filled, between Black founders and the tech community at large,” Mehta said.
The entire Eniac Ventures team is also opening up free Superpeer consulting slots dedicated to chatting with and investing in Black founders.
Ha Nguyen, a partner at Spero Ventures, is hosting a Black founders breakfast and AMA lunch on Friday. Nguyen also offered Black founders to reach out when they need help with the fundraising process, pitch deck and intros for their next check. “And I do hope to write the check,” Nguyen wrote in a LinkedIn post.
Hustle Fund’s Elizabeth Yin encouraged founders to continue sending the firm cold inbound pitches, noting that 15% of Hustle Fund’s portfolio companies came from outside their network.
Yin also noted that the firm is working to build informal deal flow relationships with founders who have diverse networks, like the firm’s venture associate intern, Jasmin Johnson, who works with Score 3, or Lolita Taub, former principal at Backstage, and her investor-matching program.
Taub has a Google form in her pinned tweet where she reviews startup submissions. Then, if the company is a fit for her she will reach out, and if the company is a fit for other investors (Backstage Capital, Harlem Capital, Hustle Fund, WXR Fund), Taub will connect the two parties.
Taub has a decorated past in tech and venture capital, so her network is broad, but her investing program itself is simple. It is reproducible for any super connector out there in the Valley with a diverse network.
‘The talent has always been there’
As the investment community rushes to voice its support for the Black community, Black investors and startup founders question their motives.
That it has taken a week of protesting and the deaths of countless Black men and women at the hands of police to wake up investors to the problems that the industry — and the country at large — faces is a sign of the depth of the problem.
The Black investor-led firm Precursor released a statement on Sunday:
Investors like Marlon Nichols at MaC Venture Capital and Kobie Fuller at Upfront Ventures have made the development of a diverse group of founders a priority through their own investment activities and the creation of startups like Valence — a network for African American talent.
The data on inequality in the industry is staggering, as Nichols noted in a post earlier today:
- Blacks are underrepresented in the executive ranks of startups by 82%
- More than 75% of all rounds raised go to all White founding teams
- Diverse founding and executive teams generate higher median realized multiples (RMs) on acquisitions and IPOs than all White founding and executive teams (3.3x to 2.5x and 3.3x to 2x respectively)
So, if you are truly opposed to racism and discrimination, something you can start to do immediately is stop making excuses for not investing in startups and funds led by Black men and women. Instead, make the investments, extend your networks, hire us in leadership/ decision making roles, and hold us to the same standards that you do for White led startups and venture funds.
There’s still a long way for the industry to go and plenty of ways investors can improve.
“Every top MBA program has a black student organization, every top tech company has black ERGs, go recruit from those pools to start. There are very visible funds like Ulu, Precursor, my own fund Cleo Capital who are led by black tech leaders. There are very visible investors like Chris Lyons, Ken Chenault, Adrian Fenty and Megan Maloney,” Kunst wrote.
“We are all vocal about where we spend our time finding and supporting black tech people. We speak at events like Culture Shifting Weekend and Black Women Talk Tech, we support orgs like Code2040, HBCUVC and Blck VC…. Simply put, we’ve done the work and the talent has always been there. What’s left is for larger funds to follow that lead and make a real commitment to hiring black VCs as well as funding black founders and encouraging their portfolio companies to hire black people into positions of leadership.”
The efforts announced by large venture capital firms in the last few days should broaden the access that underrepresented founders have to venture capital money and decision-makers and could lead to some checks. But calendar invites and emails will not solve racial injustice. Nor will a dedicated month of talking to Black founders solve the pattern-matching that systemically sits within venture capital.
Therefore, more robust actions are needed by the venture community, because statements are only as powerful as the checks they write and hires they make.
In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called “FM-2030.”
“Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago … The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal,” he offered in explanation.
It didn’t hurt that by 2030 he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.
Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for “Future Man” — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he’d lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country’s basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA, later becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse his “new concepts of the human,” discussing the steps necessary to transition to the age of post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which Homo sapiens became “post-biological organisms,” transcending the limits of their body through technology.
Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle toward a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as “Santa Claus machines” — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping and genetic editing.
Though that suggests the process of post-humanization is well under way, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to identity, labor, health and love. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.
The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize and play during this time, but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood, from the Zoom background used to express a personal interest or make a joke, to the avatars roaming rich, interactive metaverses. Nintendo has seen millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialize, trade virtual assets and host both weddings and conferences, while Travis Scott’s surreal performance inside of Fortnite attracted 12.3 million concurrent views, and 27.7 million unique attendees. We are showcasing even the darker aspects of our nature via these platforms, with some on Animal Crossing bullying and torturing villagers they deem “ugly.”
Tools like Pragli illustrate how this development manifests in the workplace beyond Zoom backgrounds ripped from “Tiger King” or “Love Is Blind.” Rather than hopping onto a video call with co-workers, Pragli offers the ability to connect with anime-style avatars of your officemates. Changing one’s appearance on the platform is determined by the options the company rolls out, with a recent update showcasing the ability for men to sport a bun, braid or ponytail. Set “happy” or “sad” expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.
All of this is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes, something a little less than human. There are indications that this redacted version of ourselves is becoming something of a style. G95’s “biohoodie” features a built-in face-cover, while creative studio Production Club showed off a hazmat suit designed for socializing. Even once the worst is over, we may see a new cautiousness and implied distance expressed in fashion.
“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it,” said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in our labor. COVID-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and toward machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services running and spare us from disease. Neolix, a Chinese manufacturer of driverless vans, has seen a spike in demand since the outbreak and has been trusted to ferry food and medical supplies, and to disinfect streets. Suppliers like AMP, UVD, Nuro and Starship have experienced a similar surge, while the order books of industrial behemoths like Harmonic Drive and Fanuc suggest more universal demand. The latter saw orders increase 7% between Q4 and March.
This insinuation is not limited to manual labor. With customer support and moderation offices closing down, many companies are aggressively employing AI solutions. Facebook and Google have expanded automated moderation, while PayPal used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries in recent weeks, a record for the firm.
Those lucky enough to retain their jobs may face a very different work environment in which they are forced to collaborate with robots and be treated as an increasingly mechanized system themselves. Walmart greeters will stand side-by-side with automated floor-scrubbers, and McDonald’s cooks may soon be joined by a kitchen full of bionic sous-chefs. Amazon warehouse workers — old-hands at human-robot collaboration thanks to the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems — must adapt to being managed more like their pallet-ferrying co-workers, with temperatures monitored by thermal cameras. That is just a small part of the broader surveillance blitz being undertaken around the world and across industries. China is installing more cameras to monitor the comings-and-goings of citizens, while companies dip into budgets to purchase “tattleware,” software designed to surveil employees. Among the beneficiaries are companies like InterGuard, which provide minute-by-minute breakdowns of how workers spend time online. Sneek takes photos of workers as often as once a minute. The company’s CEO joked that the “sneeksnap” command came in particularly handy when a colleague did something embarrassing like picking their nose.
Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. Consumers are turning to immunity-boosting supplements such as Vitamin C and zinc, which have soared in sales, in addition to courting riskier treatments like “rectal ozone insufflations,” peddled by influencers. Spurred on by world-leaders like Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, demand for hydroxychloroquine has grown rapidly, with prescriptions increasing ~500%.
Whatever your opinion of the president or the treatment in question, this represents a rapid, iterative model of medicine more akin to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” than a considered FDA approval process. Biohacking communities, a group with high-tolerance for health-related risks, are teaming up online to research COVID-19 vaccines on their own time. “Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces,” one contributor noted.
Beyond immediate experimentation, we are looking to extend the limits of our bodies in order to accommodate changing plans for the future. Reports suggest that men have turned to at-home sperm collection companies like Legacy during quarantine, motivated by fears of diminished fertility and perhaps the acknowledgment that with life on hold, children may have to wait. That certainly seems to be the case for 1,894 women surveyed by Modern Fertility and SoFi: 31% noted that the pandemic had affected their fertility plans, while 41% stated they are delaying childbearing because of the coronavirus.
“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,” novelist Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
The current state of affairs does not offer many ways to amend that state of misery, prompting some to turn to AI companions. Created in 2015, Replika provides a sympathetic texting partner, designed to serve as a digital therapist. But for many of the company’s 500K monthly active users, Replika is too charming to resist: up to 40% consider the bot a romantic partner. The coronavirus may serve as the ideal catalyst for relationships between humans and artificial personalities to deepen. There are signs we may already prefer their company: research on Microsoft’s XiaoIce indicated that conversations with the chatbot last longer than human-to-human interactions.
For those committed to finding love among creatures of blood and bone, the pandemic has forced a recalibration of what it means to date. Interactions take place almost entirely online, through chat or video calls, changing the necessary criteria for a match. Location matters much less now than availability and responsiveness. When the desire for touch, or “skin hunger” as it is gruesomely called, becomes too much to bear, interested parties must navigate a meeting. In the process, we treat partners as potential threats, owners of a corpus that may endanger us, despite best intentions. In doing so, we view the individual as distinct from their body, a separate being in possession of a liability with which we must negotiate. Depending on the length of the pandemic, we may see this fear harden into an unconscious aversion, reviving the disgust for the corporeal felt by more puritanical eras. These mores may take time to correct.
The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, as love sheds its carnality, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), reengineer physical limits as “biology eats the world” and find affection in new beings. We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.
For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where “people will belong to no specific families or factions … we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal.” Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus appear bleak, some of FM’s vision feels true: We are united as a world, fighting against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM’s dream will be made manifest.
For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he may still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM’s body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Ariz. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.