Eight Roads Ventures targets Southeast Asia deals

Eight Roads Ventures, the investment arm of financial giant Fidelity International, is moving into Southeast Asia where it sees the potential to plug the later stage investment gap.

The firm has funds across the world including the U.S, China and Europe, and it has invested nearly $6 billion in deals over the past decade. The firm has been active lately — it launched a new $375 million fund for Europe and Israeli earlier this year — and now it has opened an office in Singapore, where its managing partner for Asia, Raj Dugar, has relocated to from India.

The firm said it plans to make early-growth and growth stage investments of up to $30 million, predominantly around Series B, Series C and Series D deals. The focus of those checks will be startups in the technology, healthcare, consumer and financial services spaces. Already, it has three investments across Southeast Asia — including virtual credit card startup Akulaku, Eywa Pharma and fintech company Silot.

There’s a huge amount of optimism around technology and startups in Southeast Asia, where there’s an emerging middle-class and access to the internet is growing. A report from Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek forecasted that the region’s ‘online economy’ will grow to reach more than $200 billion. It was estimated to have hit $49.5 billion in 2017, up from $30.8 million the previous year.

Despite a growing market, investment has focused on early stages. A number of VC firms have launched newer and larger funds that cover Series B deals — including Openspace Ventures and Golden Gate Ventures — but there remains a gap further down the funding line and Eight Roads could be a firm that can help fill it.

“Southeast Asia has several early-stage and late-stage funds that cater well to the start-ups and more mature companies. The growth-stage companies, looking at raising Series B/C/D rounds have had limited access to capital given the lack of global funds operating in the region. We see phenomenal opportunity in this segment, and look forward to helping entrepreneurs as they scale their business, providing access to our global network of expertise and contacts,” Eightroad’s Dugar said in a statement.

Amazon makes offline retail push in India

Amazon unleashed a flurry of new products this week at a U.S. press event, but halfway across the world, it is getting deeper into physical retail in the Indian market.

The U.S. e-commerce giant is buying up 49 percent of More in a deal that sees Amazon partner and PE firm Samara Capital pick up the remaining 51 percent. Amazon and Samara have created an entity called Witzig Advisory Services Private Limited which will hold the ownership stake through the deal, which is reportedly worth around $585 million according to Indian media. Regulation prevents Amazon from owning the business entirely, hence it requires a local partner to take a majority stake.

The deal is significant because it represents a major move for Amazon in brick and mortar retail in India, which is one of the up-and-coming global markets. It did, of course, jumped into offline sales in the U.S. when it gobbled up Whole Foods for some $16 billion last year and this India-based acquisition is similarly strategic.

Amazon is battling Flipkart for dominance in India’s e-commerce market, which is tipped to grow four-fold to reach $150 billion by 2022, according to a recent report from PWC. The India rival got a huge boost when it was bought by Walmart, Amazon’s chief rival in the U.S, in a $17 billion deal earlier this year.

That acquisition got Walmart into India’s e-commerce space and it also presents an opportunity to go further and move into other emerging markets using Flipkart’s tech and experience, which is something that Walmart has said it is keen to explore.

Now, this More deal gives Amazon a strong position in Walmart’s core business — to date, Amazon operates a limited number of fulfilment centers in India. It also comes hot on the heels of another investment which saw Amazon take control of fintech startup Tapzo in a move that boosts its own payment service in India.

Google tells Congress approved third-party apps can scan Gmail data

In a letter to members of the Senate Commerce Committee, Google acknowledged that it allows app developers to scan and compile details from Gmail messages, including details about purchases, travel, and which other people users interact with. Google says as long as apps clearly disclose this collection they are free to request access to and use Google user data elsewhere.

“Developers may share data with third parties so long as they are transparent with the users about how they are using the data,” Susan Molinari, the company’s vice president for public policy and government affairs for the Americas, wrote in the letter. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Google delivered the letter in July. Users are prompted to review and approve data access requests before installing apps, the company said.

According to its policies, apps must meet key requirements to pass Google’s review process: “Before a non-Google app can access your Gmail messages, it goes through a multi-step review process that includes automated and manual review of the developer, assessment of the app’s privacy policy and homepage to ensure it is a legitimate app, and in-app testing to ensure the app works as it says it does.”

Why you should care

The spread of misinformation, the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have put tech firms in the legislative spotlight. In response, Google, Facebook and other online companies have made changes to privacy settings and controls over the use of personal information and data available to tailor ads, among other things. Google itself stopped scanning Gmail content for ad targeting in 2017.

There is still skepticism on both sides of the political spectrum that these companies are operating in users’ best interests. The prospect of regulation is putting pressure on their common business model of leveraging user data to sell ads. That could have further repercussions for the ways advertisers target campaigns.

Next week, the Senate Commerce Committee will have a hearing on data privacy practices with privacy officials from Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications. Google’s Gmail disclosures are certain to be among the topics discussed.

More on Google’s third-party data access

  • Per Google’s policies, apps cannot misrepresent their identities, must be clear about how they are using data and must have clear and prominent privacy disclosures. They are to ask only for the data needed for their specific functions and state what they do with it.
  • In most cases users must either accept everything an app requests permission to do — such as view, manage and permanently delete your mail in Gmail, create, update and delete labels, compose and send new email — or cancel the installation.
  • Once users agree, it’s nearly impossible to audit what data is being shared with apps as they use them, let alone what else is being done with the data or who it is being shared with.
  • In Google Account settings, users can view a list of apps with account access and opt to remove access for individual apps.


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AdGuard resets all user passwords after account hacks

Popular ad-blocker AdGuard has forcibly reset all of its users’ passwords after it detected hackers trying to break into accounts.

The company said it “detected continuous attempts to login to AdGuard accounts from suspicious IP addresses which belong to various servers across the globe,” in what appeared to be a credential stuffing attack. That’s when hackers take lists of stolen usernames and passwords and try them on other sites.

AdGuard said that the hacking attempts were slowed thanks to rate limiting — preventing the attackers from trying too many passwords in one go. But, the effort was “not enough” when the attackers know the passwords, a blog post said.

“As a precautionary measure, we have reset passwords to all AdGuard accounts,” said Andrey Meshkov, AdGuard’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

AdGuard has more than five million users worldwide, and is one of the most prominent ad-blockers available.

Although the company said that some accounts were improperly accessed, there wasn’t a direct breach of its systems. It’s not known how many accounts were affected. An email to Meshkov went unreturned at the time of writing.

It’s not clear why attackers targeted AdGuard users, but the company’s response was swift and effective.

The company said it now has set stricter password requirements, and connects to Have I Been Pwned, a breach notification database set up by security expert Troy Hunt, to warn users away from previously breached passwords. Hunt’s database is trusted by both the UK and Australian governments, and integrates with several other password managers and identity solutions.

AdGuard also said that it will implement two-factor authentication — a far stronger protection against credential stuffing attacks — but that it’s a “next step” as it “physically can’t implement it in one day.”

Cleo, the ‘digital assistant’ that replaces your banking apps, picks up $10M Series A led by Balderton

When Cleo, the London-based “digital assistant” that wants to replace your banking apps, quietly entered the U.S., the company couldn’t have expected to be an instant hit. Many better-funded British startups have failed to “break America.” However, just four months later, the fintech upstart counts 350,000 users across the pond — claiming more than 600,000 active users in the U.K., U.S. and Canada in total — and says it is adding 30,000 new signups each week. All of which hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors.

Already backed by some of the biggest VC names in the London tech scene — including Entrepreneur First, Moonfruit founder Wendy Tan White, Skype founder Niklas Zennström, Wonga founder Errol Damelin, TransferWise founder Taavet Hinrikus and LocalGlobe — Cleo is adding Balderton Capital to the list.

The European venture capital firm, which has previously invested in fintech unicorn Revolut and the well-established GoCardless, has led Cleo’s $10 million Series A round, in which I understand most early backers, including Zennström, also followed on. One source told me the Series A gives the hot London startup a post-money valuation of around £30 million (~$39.7m), although Cleo declined to comment.

In a call with co-founder and CEO Barney Hussey-Yeo, he explained that the new capital will be used to continue scaling the company, with further international expansion the name of the game. Hussey-Yeo says Cleo will be targeting Western Europe, the Americas and Australasia, aiming to launch in a whopping 22 countries in the next 12 months, as Cleo bids to become the “default interface” for millennials interacting and managing their money.

Primarily accessed via Facebook Messenger, the AI-powered chatbot gives insights into your spending across multiple accounts and credit cards, broken down by transaction, category or merchant. In addition, Cleo lets you take a number of actions based on the financial data it has gleaned. You can choose to put money aside for a rainy day or specific goal, send money to your Facebook Messenger contacts, donate to charity, set spending alerts and more.

However, in the context of traction and Cleo’s broader global ambitions, it is the decision not to become a bank in its own right that Hussey-Yeo feels is really beginning to bear fruit. His argument has always been that you don’t need to be a bank to become the primary way users interface with their finances, and that without the regulatory and capital burden that becoming a fully licensed bank brings, you can scale much more quickly. I have a feeling that strategy — and its pros and cons — has a long way to play out just yet.

Watch how Tesla Model 3 earned NHTSA’s top safety rating

The Tesla Model 3 has had its share of struggles, from CEO Elon Musk’s well-documented production hell to more recent logistic “nightmares” that have slowed deliveries to customers.

There’s one area where the Tesla shines: crash safety tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the Tesla Model 3 is no exception. Check out the videos below to watch the crash tests.

The rear-wheel-drive version of the Tesla Model 3 earned an all-around five-star safety rating from NHTSA, the highest possible issued by the agency. These tests cover frontal, side and rollover crashes. The Model 3 received five stars in each category, as well as sub categories such as side barrier and pole crashes.

Tesla’s crash rating is buoyed by the absence of an internal combustion engine. For instance, without a motor in the hood, there’s more room for a forward crumple zone. Tesla vehicles also tend to be resistant to rollovers because the battery pack is located at the bottom of the vehicle, giving it a low center of gravity. The risk of a rollover in a Tesla Model 3 is 6.6 percent, according to NHTSA.

Tesla Model 3 is not the only vehicle to earn the highest rating. There are other 2018 model year vehicles that have earned a five-star rating from NHTSA, including the Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry four-door hybrid. It’s also worth noting, as Musk did Thursday, that five-star ratings only mean the vehicle meets a certain threshold. Injury probability stats, which are expected soon, indicate by how much.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also conducts crash tests on vehicles to determine safety ratings. The IIHS, which represents automobile insurers, has not published ratings on the Model 3.

Audible brings its audiobook library to the Apple Watch

Didn’t get your fill of Amazon news among the 70 or so announcements at today’s Alexa event? Good news, Audible’s got something to add to the deluge. The Amazon-owned audiobook site just announced the availability of its Apple Watch app.

The offering brings pretty much what you’d expect. You can listen to audiobooks and manage your library directly from the small screen. It’s a pretty logical next step for the service, given the focus Apple has put on smartwatch audio, between last year’s addition of an LTE version of the watch and the recent announcement of a native podcasting app for the platform.

This also goes a ways toward justifying the recent addition of Aaptiv fitness routines, which Audible added a few weeks back. The offering made some sense on the phone, but bringing the course directly to a fitness/health-focused product like the Apple Watch helps complete that vision. Those workout and meditation offerings are free to Audible users through September of next year.

Scientists have moved one step closer to RNA editing, which could be the next stage of CRISPR

Researchers at the prestigious Salk Institute are reporting that they have managed to map the molecular structure of a CRISPR enzyme that could allow scientists to more precisely manipulate functions within cells.

Over the past several years, CRISPR-Cas9 has seized the public imagination for its ability to edit genetic code in a way that may correct defects inside individual cells — potentially healing mutations and preventing the advent of may illnesses.

Specifically Cas9 enzymes act sort of like scissors, snipping away pieces of genetic code and swapping them out with a replacement. But these enzymes target DNA, which is the fundamental building block for the development of an organism, and there are growing concerns that using the enzyme to essentially reprogram the DNA of a cell may cause more harm than good.

As this report in Scientific American illustrates:

Research published on Monday suggests that’s only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg: CRISPR-Cas9 can cause significantly greater genetic havoc than experts thought, the study concludes, perhaps enough to threaten the health of patients who would one day receive CRISPR-based therapy.

The results come hard on the heels of two studies that identified a related issue: Some CRISPR’d cells might be missing a key anti-cancer mechanism and therefore be able to initiate tumors.

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. The Cas9 nuclease protein uses a guide RNA sequence to cut DNA at a complementary site. Cas9 protein: white surface model. DNA fragments: blue ladder cartoon. RNA: red ladder cartoon. Photo courtesy Getty Images

The new findings from the Salk Institute, published in the journal Cellprovide the detailed molecular structure of CRISPR-Cas13d, an enzyme that can target RNA instead of DNA.

Once thought to just be the delivery mechanism for instructions encoded in DNA for cell operations, RNA is now known to carry out biochemical reactions like enzymes; and serve their own regulatory functions in cells. By identifying an enzyme that can target the mechanisms by which cells operate, rather than the overall plan for cellular function, scientists should be able to come up with even more highly refined treatments with fewer risks.

Put more simply, having editing tools can allow scientists to modify a gene’s activity without making permanent — and potentially dangerous — changes to the gene itself seems like a good option to explore.

“DNA is constant, but what’s always changing are the RNA messages that are copied from the DNA,” says Salk Research Associate Silvana Konermann, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna Gray Fellow and one of the study’s first authors, in a statement. “Being able to modulate those messages by directly controlling the RNA has important implications for influencing a cell’s fate.”

Researchers at Salk first identified the family of enzymes they’re calling CRISPR-Cas13d earlier this year and suggested that this alternate system could recognize and cut RNA. Their first work was around dementia treatment and the team showed that the tool could be used to correct protein imbalances in cells of dementia patients.

“In our previous paper, we discovered a new CRISPR family that can be used to engineer RNA directly inside of human cells,” said Helmsley-Salk Fellow Patrick Hsu, who is the other corresponding author of the new work. “Now that we’ve been able to visualize the structure of Cas13d, we can see in more detail how the enzyme is guided to the RNA and how it is able to cut the RNA. These insights are allowing us to improve the system and make the process more effective, paving the way for new strategies to treat RNA-based diseases.”

The paper’s other authors were Nicholas J. Brideau and Peter Lotfy of Salk; Xuebing Wu of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research; and Scott J. Novick, Timothy Strutzenberg and Patrick R. Griffin of The Scripps Research Institute, according to a statement.

uBeam wireless power’s CEO Meredith Perry steps aside amidst B2B pivot

After repeatedly missing self-imposed deadlines for progress on its wireless charging-at-a-distance phone case, uBeam’s CEO Meredith Perry has decided to shift out of the CEO position and into a board member and senior advisor role. She’d founded the company in 2011 from her dorm room and brought in over $40 million in funding by selling a wide range of elite investors on her vision for a cordless future, including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, CrunchFund (disclosure: started by TechCrunch’s founder), Marissa Mayer and Mark Cuban.

Now rather than trying to build its own consumer products like wireless power transmitters and receivers that could charge your phone from across the room using ultrasound frequencies, uBeam is pivoting to licensing its technology for use in other companies’ products.

“Meredith made the decision to step down as CEO. She wanted the company to hire a CEO who had experience in overseeing the rollout of a b2b electronics product,” tweeted one of the startup’s lead investors, Mark Suster of Upfront Capital. Axios’ Dan Primack reported the news earlier today. TechCrunch spoke to Perry but she declined to comment on the record.

For the interim, uBeam’s head of HR and finance Jacqueline McCauley, who joined in 2016, will lead the company. In a blog post today, she announced that “Meredith felt it was time to bring on a seasoned executive in the electronics field to lead the company through its commercialization phase. The company has begun a search for this new CEO.”

uBeam had wowed investors and AllThingsD conference attendees in 2011 with a demo showing it could deliver at least some power over a distance of a few feet. A source at one point said uBeam was holding talks with top retail and dining chains, and insinuated one of the world’s top phone makers might build on its technology.

But the startup made big promises about public demonstrations and the efficiency of its technology it couldn’t keep. In 2015 Perry had told TechCrunch real-life public demos would be ready the next year, which came and went.

In 2016, things started to fall apart. The startup’s former VP of Engineering Paul Reynolds wrote a series of blog posts accusing uBeam’s technology of not working, and noted that “When I left it was an ugly departure, but was reported to the investors as ‘the VP Engineering left for personal reasons’ — personal reasons being ‘sick of putting up with this bullshit.’” He also revealed that uBeam’s original CTO and new CFO had left the company, and that Perry’s co-founder Nora Dweck had sued her over an unfair equity split (and settled).

It wasn’t until 2017 that uBeam gave two limited public demonstrations at the Upfront Ventures conference and to USA Today. It proved that an impractically large uBeam transmitter could deliver enough power over the distance of four to 10 feet to make multiple phones signal they were charging. But the company never opened itself up to more scrutiny regarding just how much power it was delivering, how fast a phone would actually charge and whether the tech could surmount practical issues like phones moving or being blocked by clothing.

Questions began to mount about whether uBeam’s approach could produce a marketable product in a palatable form factor with real utility. In the meantime, larger competitors like WattUp-maker Energous and COTA-maker Ossia have started to make real progress on over the air wireless charging. A recent deep-dive by PC Mag revealed how these two companies are starting to be able to deliver 1 watt of power across a room. But Energous and Ossia executives were careful to be realistic in their predictions about the hurdles to delivering rapid phone charging at a distance and how many years they’d need to get there.

Now with Perry stepping down, uBeam will shift gears and move to the same B2B licensing model Energous and Ossia use. They’ll now be directly competing to get their wireless power transmitters and receivers built into other products such as televisions, sound bar speakers, phone cases and more. But the industry is taking a while to mature. Energous, a public company that had raised $117 million, is trading at $10.62, down from a peak above $22 earlier this year and $15 in mid-2017. Ossia has only raised $25 million.

A bulky early uBeam transmitter prototype

Apple last year announced it was building a less ambitious AirPower near-field wireless charging pad that could juice up an AirPods case sitting on it. That was supposed to arrive in “early 2018,” but there was no mention of it onstage at the recent iPhone XS launch event. Today’s Qi-standard wireless charging pads require direct contact with devices and some fidgeting to get them to connect.

uBeam’s stumbles may make it tough to hire or retain talent, and the organizational disruption amidst direct competition could cost it valuable time as it strives to get its tech ready for licensing. The startup’s audacious idea for a world without wires may still one day come to fruition. There remains big potential in the more technically feasible over the air charging of Internet of Things devices that don’t need much power. But uBeam could serve as a reminder to fellow startups that grand visions might make it easier to secure funding, but can raise expectations that are much harder to fulfill.

Adobe to acquire Marketo for $4.75 billion

Adobe has confirmed it is acquiring Marketo Inc. for $4.75 billion, with the deal expected to close during the fourth quarter of Adobe’s 2018 fiscal year. Last week, unnamed sources had revealed to Reuters that Adobe was in negotiations to purchase Marketo, but neither company would comment at the time.

Why marketers should care

Adobe’s Creative Cloud services has long been part of the marketing industry standard for creating and managing media-rich assets. Now with the addition of Marketo’s B2B marketing automation platform, Adobe will be able to deliver a full-scale marketing solution, allowing marketers — and their marketing technology teams — to unify costs within a single layer of their martech stack.

“The acquisition of Marketo widens Adobe’s lead in customer experience across B2C and B2B and puts Adobe Experience Cloud at the heart of all marketing,” says Adobe executive vice president and general manager Brad Rencher.

Marketo CEO Steve Lucas said there is no better home for Marketo to continue to rapidly innovate than Adobe. After the acquisition is complete, Lucas will join Adobe’s senior leadership team, reporting to Rencher.

According to Anita Brearton, the CEO and co-founder of CabinetM — a marketing technology management platform — among CabinetM clients using Adobe, Marketo is the fourth most popular product in those clients’ marketing stacks, following Google Analytics, LinkedIn and Twitter. When rumors broke last week that a deal may be in the works, Brearton told Martech Today that it would be hard to know whether the acquisition would change much for marketers other than offering a purchasing efficiencies.

“We’ll have to wait and see if this impacts product functionality and direction,” said Brearton.

More on the acquisition

  • Marketo’s ecosystem includes nearly 5,000 customers, 500 partners and a marketing community of more than 65,000 members.
  • Upon close of the deal, Marketo CEO Steve Lucas will continue to lead the Marketo team as part of Adobe’s Digital Experience business.
  • At $4.75 billion dollars, Adobe is purchasing Marketo for more than 2.5 times what it spent on the Magento acquisition in May.