Category: Europe

The Station: Bird and Lime layoffs, pivots in a COVID-19 era and a $2.2 trillion deal

Hello folks, welcome back (or hi for the first time) to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the all the ways people and packages move around this world. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

I also have started to publish a shorter version of the newsletter on TechCrunch . That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole enchilada — which comes out every Saturday — you can subscribe to the newsletter by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!

Before I get into the thick of things, how is everyone doing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m being earnest. I want to hear from you (note my email below). Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you are doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.

Please reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bird laid off about 30% of its employees due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

In a memo obtained by TechCrunch, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said:

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

The fallout from COVID-19 isn’t limited to Bird. Lime is also reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meanwhile, Wheels deployed e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus. NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.

The upshot to all of this: COVID-19 is turning shared mobility on its head. That means lay offs will continue. It also means companies like Wheels will try to innovate or pivot in hopes of staying alive.

While some companies pulled scooters off city streets, others changed how they marketed services. Some turned efforts to gig economy workers delivering food. Others, like shared electric moped service Revel, are focusing on healthcare workers.

Revel is now letting healthcare workers in New York rent its mopeds for free. To qualify, they just need to upload their employee ID. For now, the free rides for healthcare workers is limited to Brooklyn, Queens and a new service area from upper Manhattan down to 65th street. Revel expanded the area to include hospitals in one of the epicenters of the disease.

Revel is still renting its mopeds to the rest of us out there, although they encourage people to only use them for essential trips. As you might guess, ridership is down significantly. The company says it has stepped up efforts of disinfecting and cleaning the mopeds and helmets. Revel also operates in Austin, New York City, Oakland, and Washington. It has suspended service in Miami per local regulations.

Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, I would highlight a large funding round for a startup in the “deal of the week” section. This week, I have broadened my definition.

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act. President Donald Trump signed it hours later. The CARES act contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TechCrunch has just started what will be a multi-day dive into the 880-page document. And in the coming weeks, I will highlight anything related or relevant to the transportation industry or startups here.

I’ll focus today on three items: airlines, public transit and small business loans.

U.S. airlines are receiving $58 billion. It breaks down to about $25 billion in loans for commercial carriers, $25 billion in payroll grants to cover the 750,000 employees who work in the industry.  Cargo carriers will receive $4 billion in loans and $4 billion in grants. These loans come with some strings attached. Airlines will have to agree not to lay off workers through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.

Public transit has been allocated $24.9 billion. The CARES Act provides almost three times the FY 2020 appropriations for this category, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The funds are distributed through a formula that puts $13.79 billion to urban, $2 billion to rural, $7.51 billion towards state of good repair and $1.71 billion for high-density state transit. APTA notes that these funds are for operating expenses to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 beginning on January 20, 2020.

Amtrak received an additional $1 billion in grants, that directs $492 million of those funds towards the northeast corridor. The remaining goes to the national network.

Small business loans are a critical piece of the bill, and an area where many startups may be focused. There is a lot to unpack here, but in basic terms the act provides $350 billion in loans that will be administered by the Small Business Administration to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. These loans are meant to cover an eligible borrower’s payroll, rent, utilities expenses and mortgage interest for up to eight weeks. If the borrower maintains its workforce, some of the loan may be forgiven.

Venture-backed startups seeking relief may run into problems qualifying. It all comes down to how employees are counted. Normally, SBA looks at a company’s affiliates to determine if they qualify. So, a startup owned by a private equity firm is considered affiliated with the other companies in that firm’s portfolio, which could push employment numbers far beyond 500. That rule also seems to apply to venture-backed startups, in which more than 50% of voting stock is held by the VC.

The guidance on this is still spotty. But Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, said in recent explainer that the rule has the “potential to be problematic for startups because the SBA affiliation rules are highly complex and could cause lenders to group together several otherwise unaffiliated portfolio companies of a single venture capital firm in determining whether a borrower has no more than 500 employees.”

One final note: The SBA has waived these affiliation rules for borrowers in the food services and food supply chain industry. It’s unclear what that might mean for those food automation startups or companies building autonomous vehicles for food delivery.

More deal$

COVID-19 has taken over, but deals are still happening. Here’s a rundown of some of partnerships, acquisitions and fundraising round that got our attention.

  • Lilium, the Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and aspires to run in its own taxi fleet, has raised $240 million in a funding round led by Tencent. This is being couched as an inside round with only existing investors, a list that included participation from previous backers such as Atomico, Freigeist and LGT. The valuation is not being disclosed. But sources tell us that it’s between $750 million and $1 billion.
  • Wunder Mobility acquired Australia-based car rental technology provider KEAZ. (Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but as part of the deal KEAZ founder and CTO Tim Bos is joining Wunder Mobility) KEAZ developed a mobile app and back-end management tool that lets rental agencies, car dealerships, and corporations provide shared access to vehicles.
  • Cazoo, a startup that buys used cars and then sells them online and delivers to them your door, raised $116 million funding. The round was led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
  • Helm.ai came out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. Helm.ai says it developed software for autonomous vehicles that can skip traditional steps of simulation, on-road testing and annotated data set — all tools that are used to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
  • RoadSync, a digital payment platform for the transportation industry, raised a $5.7 million in a Series A led by Base10 Partners with participation from repeat investor Hyde Park Venture Partners and Companyon Ventures. The company developed cloud-based software that lets businesses invoice and accept payments from truck drivers, carriers and brokers. Their platform is in use at over 400 locations nationwide with over 50,000 unique transactions monthly, according to RoadSync.
  • Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale. The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America.

A final word

Remember, the weekly newsletter features even more mobility news and insights. I’ll leave ya’ll with this one chart from Inrix. The company has launched a U.S. traffic synopsis that it plans to publish every Monday. The chart shows traffic from the week of March 14 to March 20. The upshot: COVID-19 reduced traffic by 30% nationwide.

inrix traffic drop from covid

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

Three travel startups tell us how they’re responding to the coronavirus crisis

With the globalized world going into partial or complete lock down over the Covid-19 pandemic, startups in the travel sector are facing a huge stress test and immediate disruption to business as usual as public health concern spirals and entire populations are encouraged or even forced not to travel.

The traditional travel hub of Europe has emerged as a secondary hotspot for the virus, after SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in China late last year.

Italy, France and Spain have all reported thousands of cases apiece, with the latter declaring a state of high alert today. Earlier this week Italy — the hardest hit EU country so far — imposed nationwide travel restrictions, with confirmed cases passing 12,000 as of yesterday. Several other EU countries have also implemented varying quarantine measures. More lockdowns are expected in the coming weeks.

In a further development, US President Trump sent shockwaves through EU institutions earlier this week by unilaterally announcing a 30-day ban on travel from most countries in the bloc.

Today the European Commission came out with its own response — laying out a $37BN package of measures intended to mitigate the socio-economic impact of Covid-19, including bringing forward €1BN out of the EU budget to act as a guarantee to the European Investment Fund to encourage banks to lend to SMEs in affected sectors.

“This is expected to mobilise €8BN of working capital financing and support at least 100,000 small and medium-sized businesses and small mid-cap companies in the EU,” the Commission said, suggesting banks will be in a position to act on the liquidity injection from April 2020.

Of course travel startups with investor capital in the bank aren’t waiting around to react to the coronavirus crisis. They’re already ripping up 2020 roadmaps and thinking again — swapping out marketing plans and doubling down on product and engineering, according to three businesses we spoke to.

We asked three European travel startups how they’re being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and what steps they’re taking to manage a demand crunch combined with ongoing — and potentially long term — uncertainty in the sector.

Berlin-based GetYourGuide, which has built a marketplace selling sightseeing tours and other travel experiences, and last year bagged a $484M Series E round; Omio, another Berlin-based startup that’s built a multi-modal travel aggregator and booking platform, backed by nearly $300M to-date; and Barcelona-based TravelPerk, a fast-growing business travel booking platform that’s pulled in more than $130M in VC funding as it shakes up a legacy space.

“Demand is dropping off a cliff”

All three told us they’ve seen a major drop in bookings combined with a rise in customer service demand as people with existing travel plans seek to get in touch to cancel or reschedule trips.

As of this week GetYourGuide said bookings for new experiences are down nearly 50% globally vs its demand forecasts for the past two weeks. While customer service enquiries have tripled in the past two weeks, and its global cancellation rate has ticked up by 20%.

Those that are still planning trips are doing so closer to home or with less advanced notice than normal — with bookings made within three days of the start time up 15%. 

“It’s the biggest nuclear winter I’ve ever seen in online travel,” co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck told TechCrunch. “Everyone goes and prepares for Easter break and that is not at all happening. All of the European countries seem to be in lockdown.

“None of our Italian customers are booking, the German customers have degraded rapidly. France and Spain have recently followed. The UK has been more stable but seems to follow the same course now. And the US since [Trump announced the travel ban] as well… The US travel ban is now sealing it. So this will be a year of extreme turbulence of the travel market.”

For Omio it’s a similar story — with bookings over the last two weeks down between 30-40% overall across all markets, according to founder and CEO Naren Shaam, and a big spike in demand for customer service as worried customers look to cancel trips.

“The whole company is actually stepping in to help customer service because we’ve seen a spike in cancellations,” he said. “In general the impact is heavy. Demand is dropping off a cliff but it’s not as bad as we thought — but it is definitely heavy.”

It’s seeing similar changes in booking behavior. “Advanced booking has come down drastically,” he noted. “But we see a spike in short term last minute trips when people feel comfortable on the region — so that’s gone up a lot.”

TravelPerk told us it’s currently dealing with a drop in business globally of around 50%. Though co-founder and CEO Avi Meir is braced for further drops if more of the West goes into lockdown forcing more companies to scrap business trips.  

“You would expect that it dropped to zero but right now people are still travelling,” he told us. “Everybody who can avoid traveling right now probably should and does but you have many people who just critically have to keep travelling — so we see around 50% drop right now.”

Regionally of course as expected APACS has been the most affected in terms of our volumes — Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and China down north of 95%. 100% depending on which day you’re looking and what country you’re looking at,” he added. “China is actually starting to open up a little bit but at the peak we looked at 100% — nothing was being booked in terms of destination.

“In terms of the more core markets for us, Italy is 84% down right now… You also see significant impact in Belgium, Netherlands, Holland, Sweden.

“France, Spain and UK are down year-on-year but not significantly yet. In the Western part of the continent and the UK people are still traveling relatively more than other countries.”

Demand for TravelPerk’s customer support has also never been so busy, he also said.

“We actually are switching some of our sales team to customer support in the coming weeks just to support the volume of tickets,” he noted. “We’re very proud that our metrics are not declining — meaning specifically service level; how fast we solve cases; our ‘C-sats’, customer satisfaction. The metrics we really care about.  Are people happy and are we solving their cases fast?

“We’re keeping them although, so far, the past weeks have been the busiest in customer support since we started the company via number of tickets.”

TravelPerk has also seen radical changes to the usual booking window. “Most of the trips we see right now is somebody booking for tomorrow or for two days from now because they for know they can travel or have certainty they can travel,” said Meir. “Which is unusual compared to normal times. In normal times people book  20-21 days ahead on average. So you have a huge decrease in the booking window.”

While of its flagship products is actually seeing high demand in the current crisis situation, per Meir — given it’s designed to offer resilience against unforeseen changes to plans.

“We have this product, FlexiPerk, which allows the users to cancel or change for any reason and if they do they get at least 90% of the money back. FlexiPerk has been really, really on fire over the past few weeks — both in terms of users, those who are already on FlexiPerk and also new sign-ups which is actually driving a lot of our growth in terms of signs ups.

“It gives people the certainty — or it reduces the uncertainty — about the mid- term or long term future. So if you are planning a trip in September or in October it’s reasonable to expect to be able to travel but you don’t really know. And FlexiPerk really plugs this gap because it allows you to book now for September knowing that if you have to change your plans you can do so without losing the money.”

“Right now most of the airlines have changed their cancelation policies so we are able to get full refunds in many cases,” he added. 

All three European businesses said the changes in demand had hit extremely rapidly.

“Up until maybe 2-3 weeks ago we were still growing,” Meir told us. “Because most of our travellers — or at least the headquarters of the travellers — are concentrated in Europe and North America so the impact was kind of delayed.”

“Since we’re more a global business we already started noticing Chinese outbound dropping — because we have an office in China — it hit us already around January, February. So we already saw that in our Chinese outbound dropping by 90+%,” added Omio’s Shaam. 

GetYourGuide’s Reck said it was also forewarned of the looming crunch via their Asian business.

“We had already seen a significant decline in our Asian business,” he told us. “That was still so small and the overall growth in Europe and the US was so strong that it was negligible at that point in time — but it gave us a glimpse.”

Two of its investors, Japan-based Softbank and Singapore-based Temasek, also put GetYourGuide on early “red alert” over the novel coronavirus because other portfolio companies were suffering heavy impacts.

“We had two weeks to prepare which I guess put us ahead of the curve for most other US and European companies,” said Reck. “Then when corona hit, at the end of February, we’ve seen a very rapid decline and now the current global travel demand is roughly 60% down from where it should be at this point in time so we are massively depressed.”

The change is more marked for being set against “a tremendous start to the year” before the virus hit Europe — Reck dubs it “the best time in history of the company” — with January and February seeing it close to doubling business. 

Rerouting resources in a travel crunch

So how are the three founders coping with a sudden revenue crunch combined with spiralling global uncertainty falling over their sector?

All three described being relatively well cushioned — on account of recent financing.

“We are in an incredible position because we’ve raised this massive round last year and we haven’t spent a lot of it,” said GetYourGuide’s Reck. “We’ve been very frugal with it. In the early months after the fund raise SoftBank was very angry with us that we were so disciplined and we weren’t investing more in growth. Now they’re, I think, very, very happy — the new role model for the portfolio.

“The good news is that as we come from a position of strength and we will survive and prevail for sure. That’s the positive news.”

With plenty of capital still in the bank the team has been able to quickly redirect resources on servicing near-term customer needs during the travel crunch.

“The way we’re seeing this internally is with every major crisis comes major opportunity. At this point in time we believe there’s incredible opportunity to make a real different for our customers, our suppliers and our ecosystem broadly,” Reck added. “For instance, for customers we have pushed immediately after we saw the news coming full flexibility on bookings and cancelations.

“Customers can now cancel all of the experiences 24 hours in advance, no questions asked, for a refund. If you go under 24 hours you actually get a gift coupon so you can rebook of the full value in the future. And if you’re affected by a lockdown you will get the full amount back no questions asked.”

“We’ve been doing mass cancellations for Italy. We’re just doing it for France. We’re doing it for the US because of the travel ban now. We refund our customers fully, no questions asked,” he added.

Reck also said it’s doing what it can to support suppliers who will also clearly be struggling from the same demand crunch.

“Wherever there’s an opening where we see demand popping up again we make sure it gets as quickly as possible to our suppliers,” he told us, saying its doubling down on its GetYourGuide Originals in-house short tours product. “We want to be a good partner. We don’t go in now and start to negotiate on commission rates or anything like that.”

Another area it’s spending on right now is localization — in order that it can support suppliers by being able to cater to demand cropping up off the beaten track.

“We’re translating our offering into more languages,” he noted. “We’re making sure the offering itself has better terms for the customers in terms of cancelation policies and we’re educating the suppliers around that — and that will ultimately drive their bookings. So we are doing quite a bit in order to make sure that they survive and that they get the revenue through our platform that they deserve.”

Zooming out, Reck told us he’s taking “a really long term view” on travel.

“The travel landscape through this crisis will inevitably change,” he predicted. “When the corona crisis is over online travel will look very different and just survival is going to be an incredible competitive advantage vs the rest. We believe that a lot of players will go bust. And we see that already as we speak so over the next couple of days you’ll see major layoffs, you’ll see restructurings, you’ll see people scramble.”

“That’s what we always said when we raised the SoftBank round. Ironically I never knew that long term view would actually mean that we freeze down for a year… but if you look at online travel over the course of history and you look at the big dips — like 9/11 was a massive dip and the following recession; the financial crisis was a massive dip — you see overall travel is a long term trend. And I think if you look at a ten year timespan even this corona crisis will just be a small dip in a growth curve.

“So I’m very long on travel over a longer period of time. And that’s where we’re doubling down. So we’re rather taking the opportunity now to really focus on product and engineering — and that’s something really liberating to me. Of not really having a 2020 budget anymore.

“The conversion gains on the margin won’t matter. So we can really double down on significantly improving the product for our customer and that means giving a better search and discovery experience, more personalized, curating more GetYourGuide Originals with our suppliers… So that when we come out of this crisis we come out with a better technology product and a much better supply base.”

“I think, as I said, just surviving will be a competitive advantage. Surviving with a better product and better supply will be magic — and that’s really what we’re betting on.”

Omio, meanwhile, is also in a position to look beyond the current crisis in demand.

“We are lucky to be well funded and have raised a lot of capital,” said Shaam. “We’re lucky to have very long term investors when you think of Kinnevik and Temasek — both of them…. almost like a mutual fund so basically long term capital.”

Nonetheless, the business has responded to plunging demand by trimming variable costs — while also viewing the demand crunch as an opportunity to rechannel investment into the core product.

“We’re cutting all variable costs, managing the costs better, taking precautions — using the crisis as an opportunity… fixing all the systems we could never invest in in scale because every month there’s a metric to meet. And really then rearchitecting for scalability,” he told us.

“Because the main thing is if you think of travel, human inherent desire to travel is never going to go down. Right now what we’re doing is bottling that in for 3-4 months but you’ve got to open the lid at some point — I hope — and when that comes out the demand will grow even faster. And we want to be ready for that. So we’re using this, call it, crisis as an opportunity to really build scalability. All the underlying architecture, campaign structures, whatever data flows were not perfect before, product messaging etc.

“The cash position of course is something we have an eye on, as stewards of capital, but it’s more so that we’re also using this as an opportunity to really think long term and how we actually benefit.”

Duty of care

As a crisis response, Shaam said Omio has put together three internal task forces to respond to immediate challenges — one focused on supporting its customers; another on its own employees; and a third concentrating on business stability and figuring out where to invest and where to pull back during unusual times.

On the customer support side Omio’s suppliers define cancellation policies so there’s only so much it can do but Shaam said it’s been putting out messaging to help users — creating a spreadsheet of cancellation policies listing companies that give refunds and those that don’t, and publishing updates on things like cancelled flights. 

On the employee support side there’s a mix of well-being and practical issues being tackled. 

How can we protect safety regulations? Trigger points. We have clear guidelines… today we triggered that we work from home for 15 days,” he said. “How to protect mental health so nobody goes crazy sitting at home all day? Connectivity, all of that stuff. What if you have school shut down — how do you balance children at home alone with working at the same time? All of this stuff.

“There’s a lot of practical questions that come up — like the design team need to take their chunky monitors home so they can actually design. All of these things are being tackled by that task force.”

“As a startup you can actually bring these together very quickly,” Shaam added. “Today we had a small team — that team is now quite large, 10+ people going at all three workstreams. So let’s see how we survive.

“Again, there’s a lot of uncertainty but I feel that the best thing I can do is bring stability, bring confidence into the organization.”

TravelPerk’s Meir said the business is also most focused on responding to immediate challenges and needs — including keeping up with the demand it’s seeing.

Even though bookings are down new sign ups are up, he told us.

The focus right now as an organization is really on the day by day — we need to make sure we keep providing the service,” he said. “We keep actually selling and a lot of companies are signing up. Sign ups are actually dramatically up. People are signing up they’re just obviously not travelling so we have a lot of short term priorities that are extremely important.

“Maybe if we hadn’t raised a C round last year — $100+ million — we would be in a different situation but right now we are fortunate to be in this position so we have to focus on short term priorities without knowing where it’s going to end.”

The company is also using a moment of plunging sales to direct attention on product. And is hiring more engineers to be able to accelerate product dev — including to build crisis response features.

“I’m sure we’re not unique in the tech world but we’re actually investing more in the product. So we keep hiring — we actually increased our hiring plan for product and engineering. And so far we’re not reducing our burn let’s say but we’re shifting that towards really what matters for our customers.

“We’re already ahead of the curve in product but this is a really good opportunity to keep pushing on our strengths and another one we’re doing is adjusting the business and the business model as well.”

Meir gave the example of a premium concierge service which it’s just decided to provide for free for all its users for the next three months. “Although it’s going to increase dramatically our costs in customer care it’s the right thing to do for our customers,” he said of that particular coronavirus triggered business adjustment.

“You’ll see some really cool stuff coming out,” he added. “The product team, together with the commercial team is changing roadmaps. In a way we threw the roadmap of 2020 to the bin and we started working on a weekly basis.”

Another example he gave is a new feature it’s launched in partnership with medical and travel security company, International SoS, to help companies not only track where in the world their employees are but ensure they have the medical or other crisis expertise support available should the worst happen off-site.

“It’s the best company in the world for duty of care,” said Meir. “It’s one of those topics that in normal times people don’t really like to think about it — but this is probably the highest request we were getting in the past 2-3 weeks from customers.” 

“We went from idea to releasing it in less than 5 days of work,” he added. “So again reducing the risk, reducing the uncertainty piece. This is a thing that we’re going to do more and more as this situation evolves. If we have a request for a feature like ‘duty of care’ — which makes tonnes of sense right now — we’re going to shift the roadmap and do more of these kind of things.”

“This is a moment to be decisive and adaptable but also courageous and to invest in what makes TravelPerk stronger this year, next year and ten years,” he added. “This doesn’t change — we have great investors. We have a good cash position, great team. So we should keep hiring, we should keep investing in the product, we should keep investing in our service — so my biggest worry is that we [don’t] act out of panic or out of confusion — and that’s something we should be aware of and not do. But I’m happy to say that that’s not the case.”

As part of its own pro-active crisis response, TravelPerk has this week switched to 100% remote working — a radical change for Meir, who has deliberately required presence from his staff up to now for workplace culture reasons.

“We don’t do remote work. It’s something that’s one of these trendy things that we decided not to do yet for various reasons. We just think our culture is much stronger when people are physically in the same space and we switched from nobody does remote work to 100% remote,” he told us. 

“We thought that the government — especially in Spain where most of our team is — is not reacting fast enough and aggressively enough [to Covid-19]. This is really unfair for the elderly and those who have previous health conditions…So we decided to take action… And I was just amazed how fast we transitioned from a company that doesn’t do remote to full on remote.”

GetYourGuide has also gone fully remote. “We did that on Monday,” said Reck. “Everyone called me crazy and now on Friday everyone wants to have our best practices playbook.”

“The health and safety of our employees and most importantly of the community around us [is our biggest concern],” he added. “We are in constant contact with everyone — to make sure people feel safe.

“They are now at home, they follow the news all the time. There’s huge psychological pressure — the travel market’s going down, the stock market’s going down — so for me by biggest role is to keep that strong engagement and morale and that people don’t feel threatened by the situation around them.”

As it happens, Reck is a biochemist by education — so likely one of relatively few founders in the travel space with hands-on lab experience of viruses. He’s also braced for the longest ‘nuclear winter’ of business disruption of the three startups we spoke to.

“What we know about this virus is there is no immunity in the population — meaning that this will continue to spread,” he said. “Every potential person is a host. And it’s very infectious and it seems to stick around quite a bit. And it puts a lot of stress on public health systems. So I personally anticipate there will be a very long lockdown in a lot of countries. And there will be only a very slow recovery. If you’d ask me we might see some reopening of the travel landscape in summer but I think that will be far diminished from a typical season. We’ll only see a full recovery towards May, June, July 2021. I don’t think it will be earlier than that.”

“It will get worse,” he added. “We know now it’s very likely there will be a lockdown [across the West]. My biggest wish for the next couple of weeks will be that employees continue to be healthy, safe and continue to be able to work and contribute like they’ve done.” 

Omio’s Shaam is expecting at least several months of disruption to business as usual — pointing to the lack of a swift and coordinated response from governments to implement quarantine measures.

“We need a system-wide [response] like China or Singapore has done beautifully to really prevent it and I don’t believe that’s going to happen so we’re bracing for 3-4 months impact,” he told us. 

“I just went out last night in Berlin with my wife for dinner and the restaurants are full, it’s crowded, the subways are full — full! Like not even 20% lower. Completely full. We had to make a reservation to get a table etc. So unless governments, in a very coordinated way, shut down borders for a period of 4-6 weeks so everybody goes into isolation in one go and everybody comes out — it’s going to drip feed for a long time because people are acting in different points of time on their own means.”

On the question of whether there will be a lasting impact on the travel market as the pandemic undoes global supply chains and routines, Shaam said again that’s likely to depend on how co-ordinated or otherwise the response is. 

“There’s a lot of fixed costs part of travel. So I think the answer to that largely depends on how co-ordinated and how quickly we can contain. If we all actually manage to come back in 3-4 months I think we’re in a good place because it’ll bounce back quite strongly. If it’s drip feeding, and it takes the wind out for a very long time, then there will be a different situation but I hope not.”

In the meanwhile, with so many businesses getting au fait with virtual meetings and videoconferencing tools, the coronavirus crisis could also have a long term impact on demand for business travel — if lots of companies realize quite how much can be done remotely.

On this element of the crisis, TravelPerk’s Meir isn’t concerned. 

“It’s an interesting theory,” he said, deferring from hazarding a guess on whether it will come to pass or not. “It doesn’t really matter for us as a company. Because companies spend $1.6TR a year on business travel. And it’s a market that is growing. Before this crisis predicted growth of 6 or 7% in 2020 — which is huge compared to the size of the market. So even if we’re talking about 10-20%, let’s say, at the edges this doesn’t change the picture. You still will have a tonne of business travel when we come back out of it.”

“If we zoom out a bit from this situation — there is a trend for more sustainable approach to travel,” Meir added. “So if so many things can turn into a Zoom call I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the planet. And we will do well. We’re not worried about a scenario like this.”

Here TravelPerk isn’t worried because the startup has another product for that: GreenPerk — a carbon offset offering it launched earlier this month. It’s been developed in partnership with non-profit Atmosfair, which works on decarbonization via UN-endorsed carbon mitigation projects.

“Many companies asked us to help them offset and reduce the impact that their travel generates and we thought that just reporting on what harm you do is not good enough. We wanted actually to make a difference,” said Meir. “One of the projects that we chose is efficient cooking stoves in Rwanda.”

GreenPerk uses an algorithm to calculate the carbon footprint of a given trip and then applies a per booking fee proportional to the pollution created — with the fee going to fund the carbon offset project.

GreenPerk is an opt in product — and Meir says it’s already had “amazing traction”, with more than 50 companies already signed up and using it.

“It’s unfair for us — people who live in very comfortable counties — to ask people in Rwanda to stop cooking their food but if we can help them transition to efficient and also faster ways of cooking then we should definitely do that… so the project funds efficient cooking stoves to replace the polluting ones.”

“If the world after this crisis looks like we are conscious about how we travel — when we do travel we try not to have an impact — and if, sometimes, making Zoom calls are better than face to face I think it’s not a bad scenario for the world. And we as a travel company will adapt like we always have,” he added. “It’s more interesting to look at the long term implication — rather than ‘is it good for our quarter or not’.”

Tesla ramps up solar tile roof installations in US, eyes China and Europe expansion

Tesla appears to be ramping up installations of its solar tile roofs in the San Francisco Bay area and will eventually roll out to Europe and China, according to CEO Elon Musk, who, in a series of tweets, provided the first substantial update since the company launched the third iteration of its product in October.

The solar tile roof, which Tesla calls Solarglass, is being produced at the company’s factory in Buffalo, N.Y. Musk announced in one of the tweets plans to host a “company talk” in April at the Buffalo factory, an event that will include media and customer tours of the facility.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information about Solarglass, including how many installations have been made to date. We will update the article if Tesla responds.

Four months ago, Musk said the company would begin installations in the “coming weeks” and that it hopes to ramp production to as many as 1,000 new roofs per week.

Tesla’s solar roof tiles are designed to look like normal roof tiles when installed on a house, while doubling as solar panels to generate power. The company first unveiled the solar tiles in 2016 and has been tinkering with them ever since. Tesla has conducted trial installations with the first two generations of the solar tiles and opened up pre-orders in 2017.

In an earnings call last October, Musk suggested that the tiles were ready for a widespread deployment, noting that “version three is finally ready for the big time.”

The solar tile roof will initially be offered in textured black, but Musk reiterated Monday plans to offer other color and finish variants “hopefully later this year.”

A pricing estimator on the Tesla website says a solar tile roof with 10 kW of solar on an average 2,000 square-foot home costs $42,500 before federal tax incentives. It also lists $33,950 as the price after an $8,550 federal tax incentive.

Index Fund’s portfolio is driving long-overdue innovation in femcare

U.K. startup Daye is rethinking female intimate care from a woman’s perspective, starting with a tampon infused with cannabidiol that tackles period pain.

It’s also quietly demolishing the retrograde approach to product design that women are still subjected to in the mass market “femcare” space — an anti-philosophy that not only peddles stale and sexist stereotypes, but also can harm women’s bodies.

Those perfumed sanitary pads stinking out the supermarket shelf? Whomever came up with that idea has obviously never experienced thrush or bacterial vaginosis. Nor spoken to a health professional who could have told them vaginal infections can be triggered by perfumed products.

The missing link: There are few people with a vagina in positions leading product strategy. And that’s the disruptive opportunity female-led femcare businesses like Daye are closing in on.

The Index Ventures-backed startup is shaking up a tired category by selling the flip-side: thoughtfully designed products for period care that first do no harm and second take aim at actual problems women have — starting with dysmenorrhea. The overarching strand is building community — to help women better understand what’s going on with their bodies and reinforce shifting product expectations in the process.

We chatted with Index principal Hannah Seal about the fund’s investment in Daye, and to get her thoughts more broadly on a new generation of female-focused startups that are driving long-overdue innovation.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bird confirms acquisition of Berlin scooter competitor Circ

If you didn’t see this coming, then clearly you didn’t have your eyes on the road. Bird, the LA-founded e-scooter giant, has confirmed that it is acquiring European competitor Circ, the micromobilty company founded by Lukasz Gadowski of Delivery Hero fame.

The deal, for which terms remain undisclosed, was first reported by the FT late last week. Meanwhile, TechCrunch revealed late November that Circ was facing difficulties and had issued a round of layoffs following so-called “operational learnings”.

At the time, Gadowski put on a brave face, telling TechCrunch that Circ needed to learn how to operate a micromobility service across many European markets simultaneously. “Basically figure out how to be more efficient, how to run a micromobility operation; it’s not optimized yet and we learned over the summer,” he said.

He also conceded that, within the micromobility space more generally, there had been something of a land grab strategy that is now perhaps inevitably shifting toward greater emphasis on capital efficiency. “When we started this there was a focus on time to market but now it is not about time to market but efficiency,” he tells me.

We also understand Circ was also in the midst of trying to raises a Series B, which is what prompted talks with Bird. Early last year, the startup closed a Series A north of $60 million, funding it used to push into 12 countries and 43 cities, a spokesperson tells us.

On the funding front, Bird is also taking this announcement as an opportunity to share that they’ve added to their own funding, tacking on another $75 million onto their Series D, which now sits at $350 million.

Micromobility companies have been hard-pressed to cut spending and push towards profitability. One of Bird’s chief competitors, Lime, announced earlier this month they were laying off 100 employees and leaving 12 markets with the goal of becoming profitable in 2020.

300 employees will be added to Bird’s European operations as a result of the deal, the company says.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower reveals new documents showing how Facebook handled the data misuse scandal

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser has released new documents today that suggest Facebook accepted only a simple acknowledgment on email from the firm that it had deleted data associated with 87 million Facebook users’ profiles.

The data was improperly obtained in 2014 by researchers with access to Facebook’s developer platform who were being paid by Cambridge Analytica to obtain and process social media users’ information for the purpose of targeting political ads.

In December 2015 a Guardian article about Cambridge academic Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) outlined how he had acquired the Facebook profiles for research, and that Cambridge Analytica had improperly acquired that data.

In subsequent Washington Senate hearings into the scandal, Mark Zuckerburg apologized for having failed to check that Cambridge Analytica had deleted the information.

At the time he said: “When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica that they had told us that they weren’t using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case. In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it. We’ve updated our policy to make sure we don’t make that mistake again.”

Instead, Facebook let the political consultancy self-certify that it had destroyed the records, which it said had been acquired in violation of the social network’s rules.

Furthermore, for example, in a submission to the UK Parliament, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said: “In late 2015, when we learned Kogan had shared the data, we immediately banned TIYDL [the personality quiz app used to harvest data] from our platform and demanded that he delete all data he obtained from that app. We also demanded deletion from everyone that Kogan identified as having been passed some data, including Cambridge Analytica, and certification from all parties that the deletion had been completed.”

The information Kaiser releases today appears to show a difference between Schroepfer’s account and what the emails actually say – with Facebook only asking the company to “provide us with confirmation” [of the deletion], and no mention of a specific process of certification, as Schroepfer later told the UK parliament.

Today Kaiser revealed exclusively to TechCrunch on stage at the WorldWebForum conference in Zurich that the only acknowledgment from Facebook had come in a simple email exchange with Cambridge Analytica executives.

This ’email exchange’ – which TechCrunch has not been able to independently verify at this point – as never previously been published. Kaiser released to TechCrunch what she claims is a copy of the exchange. We have reached out to Facebook for comment.

According to the document passed to us, writing on Dec 17, 2015, Alex Tayler, Chief Data Officer for Cambridge Analytica, allegedly wrote to Facebook executive Allison Hendrix saying:

“I wanted to confirm that following your inquiry, that Facebook is satisfied that CA has not breached it’s terms of service or stolen data on non-consenting individuals. If you are satisfied this matter is resolved, would it please be possible for us to have a statement from Facebook to disseminate through our PR agency? We are still finding some articles repeating the initial false allegations made by the Guardian, and would like to be able to firmly refute them in order to prevent any further reputational damage to our company. Alternatively, if Facebook would like to issue a joint press release, we would welcome the opportunity to do so.”

A day later on 18 December 2015, Hendrix replied:

“Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me last week and providing additional information into Dr. Kogan’s development of the GSR app which was funded by Cambridge Analytica (via SCL Elections). As discussed, we don’t allow any information obtained from Facebook to be purchased or sold, and we have strict friend data policies that prohibit using friend data for any purpose other than improving a person’s experience in your app. From our conversations, it is clear that these policies have been violated.

“You have told us that you received personality score data from Dr. Kogan that was derived from Facebook data, and that those scores were assigned to individuals included in lists that you maintained. Because that data was improperly derived from data obtained from the Facebook Platform, and then transferred to Cambridge Analytica in violation of our terms, we need you to take any and all steps necessary to completely and thoroughly delete that information as well as any data derived from such data, and to provide us with confirmation of the same.

“We need additional information to complete our review. As an initial matter, did you transfer any data you received from Dr. Kogan to any person or entity other than Ted Cruz’s team? Have you made any other use of the data from Dr. Kogan? If there is any additional information of which you think we should be aware, we thank you in advance for providing us with that information and for your help resolving these issues.

“Please respond at your earliest opportunity confirming when you can complete the above request to delete all data (and any derivative data), and providing the additional information I’ve requested above. As mentioned above, our review is not complete; accordingly, we may have additional questions, requests, or requirements going forward, and this email should not be construed as a waiver of any of Facebook’s rights.”

On December 19, 2015, Tayler replied:

“Dear Allison, There are several incorrect statements in your email. First and foremost, Cambridge Analytica has not transferred the data we received from Dr Kogan to Cruz for President, nor to any other party. The only data we share with our clients are lists of contact information, perhaps with a few tags attached, for target audiences we identify for them (e.g. likely donors, persuadable voters), and models that we have produced under their direction. Secondly, Cambridge Analytica did not fund the development of Dr. Kogan’s app. We did not pay GSR for their time or technology, but rather paid the third party (e.g. survey vendor) costs for the surveys they ran. Please note that GSR was
contractually obliged to us to carry out this research with the consent of the survey respondents and in line with the terms of service of their vendors.

“Having made that clear, the model we received from Dr Kogan wasn’t very accurate (in validation experiments we ran, we found his predictions only slightly better than random). For our goal of extrapolating personality scores across our whole database, his model was simply not accurate enough to use as a training set, or to apply it commercially in any other way.

“Nevertheless, we still considered the project a success in that it provided us with a proof of concept for the personality research we have since undertaken internally (which is in no way connected with Facebook). It is these data that we have collected independently of GSR about which we have built our current business offering. For this reason, and in the spirit of the good-faith relationship we would like to maintain with Facebook, we will comply with your request to delete all data we received from Dr Kogan.

“Please let me know what else you require from us as soon as possible. It is a matter of urgency that we make it clear that Cambridge Analytica has not done anything wrong.”

There was then a time-lag probably due to the break for the holidays. On 5 January 2016, Hendrix replied:

“Thank you for your timely and detailed response, and for agreeing to delete any and all data that was derived from the Facebook Platform. Can you let me know how you were storing the data and what you did to delete it?”

On January 6, 2016, Tayler replied, copying in CA CEO Alexander Nix, saying: “To be clear, we have not yet deleted the data we received from Dr Kogan, but will be happy to do so once Facebook confirms that this will resolve the matter. We are currently storing the data as csv files in an encrypted directory on our file server. When we delete the data we will simply rm -rf the directory.”

Six days later on 12 January, Hendrix: “As a reminder, you received the data inappropriately and are obligated to delete it. You’ve indicated that you would like to maintain a positive relationship with us. Having one will require deletion of the data. In addition to deleting the data from the directory, can you check to see whether your server has any backups which also contain the data? While we don’t anticipate further issues at this time, we reserve our rights and can make no guarantees.”

On Jan 18, 2016 Tayler replied:

“I can confirm that we have now deleted from our file-server the data we received from Dr Kogan in good faith that this resolves our obligation to Facebook. I also confirm that I have checked that the server contains no backups of that data. Our having deleted the data and cooperated in this matter should not be construed as an admission of any kind of wrongdoing on our part.”

On January 18, 2016, Hendrix replied: “Thank you, Alex. I will let you know if we have any follow up questions, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you or your team have any questions on your end. Thanks again. – Ali”

This entire exchange was then forwarded by executives form the N6A PR agency to Cambridge Analytica executives and was, in turn, was obtained by Kaiser on 23 January 2016.

Mobile payment app Lydia raises $45 million round led by Tencent

French startup Lydia is raising a $45 million Series B round (€40 million). Tencent is leading the round with existing investors CNP Assurances, XAnge and New Alpha also participating.

If you live in France, chances are you already know Lydia quite well. The company has become a ubiquitous mobile payment app, especially for people under 30 years old. Think about it as a sort of Square Cash or Venmo, but for France.

“At first, we wanted to raise less but we ended up raising more,” Lydia co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me in a phone interview.

The company has managed to attract 3 million users in France. More impressive, 25% of French people between 18 and 30 years old have a Lydia account — and 5,000 people sign up every day. Lydia currently has 90 employees.

More recently, the company has expanded beyond peer-to-peer payment. First, the company wants to help you manage your money in many different ways with an important value — everything should happen in real time.

You can create multiple Lydia accounts to put some money aside or use money in that sub-account for a specific purpose. That feature alone turns the app into a versatile money management app.

For instance, you can associate a Lydia payment card with a Lydia account and a virtual card with another Lydia account — that virtual card works with Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and more. You can change those settings in real time.

You can share accounts with other Lydia users. And shared accounts are truly shared — everyone can top up and withdraw money from that account. You can spend directly from that account or withdraw money to another account.

You can also turn any Lydia account into a money pot account. In just a few taps, you can generate a link and share it with your friends so that they can add money using their regular payment card or a Lydia account.

More recently, the company has introduced “the market”, a marketplace of other financial products. From the Lydia app, you can borrow up to €1,000 in just a few seconds. You can also insure your phone and other mobile devices. You can get some free credit when you open a bank account, insure your home with Luko, switch to another electricity and gas provider, compare mobile phone and internet providers and more.

And that strategy is going to be key in the future. “We have an ambitious goal, which is turning Lydia into a mobile financial service app,” Chiche said.

He also pointed out that the company that has been the most successful when it comes to creating a mobile marketplace of financial products is Tencent with WeChat.

“Tencent is also the number one player in the video game industry, and there’s no industry with as much user engagement,” Chiche said. Tencent acquired Supercell, bought 40% of Epic Games, acquired Riot Games (League of Legends), invested in Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Discord, etc. Lydia hopes that it can learn from Tencent on the user engagement front.

Compared to many fintech startups, Lydia doesn’t want to replace banks altogether — the company says it wants to build a meta-banking app. Peer-to-peer payments represent the top of the funnel and a great user acquisition strategy thanks to networking effects.

You can then connect your Lydia account with your bank account and your debit card. This way, you can send money back and forth between your Lydia accounts and your bank account. As a user, that strategy slowly pays off over time. After a while, you end up spending money directly from your Lydia account and relying more heavily on Lydia’s native payment features, with your bank account acting as a money back end.

At the bottom of the funnel, Lydia hopes that it can turn active Lydia users into paid customers with a handful of in-house and third-party financial products. In other words, Lydia doesn’t want to become a credit institution like a traditional bank, it wants to become a financial hub. Expanding the marketplace will be a big focus for the company going forward.

While Lydia is available in other European countries, Lydia is still massively used in its home market with other markets lagging behind. With today’s funding round, growth in foreign countries is going to be the second key topic.

The year of the French unicorns

In September 2019, President Emmanuel Macron was about to wrap up a speech on late-stage investment in France. According to a press briefing and some discussions with a source, everything that he was supposed to announce had been announced.

But he dropped an unexpected number. “I’ll leave you with a goal: there should be 25 French unicorns by 2025,” Macron said. A unicorn is a private company with a valuation of $1 billion or more.

When you mention France in a conversation with foreigners, they don’t immediately think about startups. In December 2018, I covered a two-day roadshow of the French tech ecosystem with 40 partners of international venture capital firms, as well as limited partners, from Andreessen Horowitz to Greylock Partners, Khosla Ventures and more.

The same clichés came up again and again — taxes, labor law, long lunches… You name them. But it doesn’t matter if those clichés are true or not (hint: They aren’t), the French tech ecosystem has been thriving. And 2019 has been a remarkable year when it comes to reaching unicorn status and raising late-stage rounds of funding.

A new group of unicorns

According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France. Some of them have been around for years, such as BlaBlaCar (a ride-sharing marketplace for long distance rides), OVHcloud (a cloud hosting company), Deezer (a music streaming service) and Veepee (an e-commerce company formerly known as Vente-privee.com).

But in 2019 alone, a handful of companies have reached unicorn status. Here are a few examples.

Curve, the ‘over-the-top’ banking platform, launches “Curve Send” for P2P payments in 25 currencies

Curve, the so-called “over-the-top” banking platform that lets you consolidate all of your bank cards into a single Curve card and app, is launching new feature to make it possible to send money to friends and contacts.

Dubbed “Curve Send,” the feature lets you send money from any of your bank accounts (via the debit cards you have linked to Curve) to any other account in over 25 different currencies. It does this by utilising the APIs of Visa and Mastercard, essentially turning the card networks into a single money transfer network via Curve as the intermediary.

“Curve Send instantly solves people’s problem of financial fragmentation by consolidating all their cards into one, eliminating the lengthy money transfer process experienced by most customers when they want to send money to their friends or peers using multiple bank accounts or multiple currencies,” says the London-based fintech.

To transfer money via Curve Send, you simply open the Curve app, choose a contact and amount, and then select which of your linked bank cards you want to send the money from. The recipient will then get notified and be asked to take a photo of their bank card, and Curve will send the money directly to their bank via the card network.

Curve says it doesn’t charge fees for sending or receiving payments via Curve Send. It will also handle FX, too, at a claimed “mid-market” rate with no fees (capped at £500 per month for Curve users on its free plan, and unlimited for Curve Black and Curve Metal).

In a brief email exchange with Curve founder and CEO Shachar Bialick, he said that “Curve is basically operating like an exchange” in that it brings Visa and Mastercard together, with Curve powering communication between the two card networks for peer-to-peer payments. “We’ve done tests for the past two months and people love it,” he says.

Adds Diego Rivas, Curve’s Head of OS Product, in a statement: “Customers want to send money to their friends and family with just a few touches. But with so many different options and the rise of challenger banks, the process is unnecessarily complicated and customers end up having 3-4 apps just to send money. We wanted to make this whole process ten times easier for our customers. Now they have one simple, smart platform which can move money from any account to any account, securely and fee free”.