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Tencent-backed news aggregation app Qutoutiao files for U.S. public offering

Qutoutiao, a news aggregator app backed by Tencent, has filed for an initial public offering of up to $300 million in the United States. In its F-1 form, the company, whose name means “fun headlines,” said it is the number two mobile content aggregator in China. Its main rivals are Jinri Toutiao, China’s top news aggregator, Tencent’s Kuaibao and Yidianzixun. Based in Shanghai, Qutoutiao reportedly reached unicorn status in March, when it raised a Series B of about $200 million led by Tencent. For Tencent, Qutoutiao and Kuaibao represent opportunities to take market share away from Jinri Toutiao, which is owned by ByteDance. ByteDance is reportedly planning a Hong Kong IPO that could value it at over $45 billion. In its SEC filing, Qutoutiao said that since launching in July 2016, it has achieved monthly average users of about 48.8 million and daily average users of about 17.1 million, with the average time users spend on the app each day totaling about 55.6 minutes in July 2018. To compete with Jinri Toutiao and other rivals, Qutoutiao targets users from China’s smaller Tier 3 cities. Despite increasing levels of disposable income, Qutoutiao says Tier 3 cities, many of which are located in the west of China, are still underserved markets. Qutoutiao also said in its filing that its net revenues increased from RMB 58.0 million (about $8.8 million) in 2016 to RMB 517.1 million (about $78.1 million) in 2017, and from RMB 107.3 million (about $16.2 million) in the six months ended June 30, 2017 to RMB 717.8 million (about $108.5 million) in the same period in 2018. The app uses an AI-based content recommendation engine to display articles and videos based on user profiles and plans to use money raised from its IPO to add more content offerings, increase monetization opportunities and look for acquisition and investment opportunities. Qutoutiao plans to list on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol QTT. The IPO will be underwritten by Citigroup Global Markets, Deutsche Bank Securities, China Merchants Securities and UBS Securities and KeyBanc Capital Markets.

Incentivai launches to simulate how hackers break blockchains

Cryptocurrency projects can crash and burn if developers don’t predict how humans will abuse their blockchains. Once a decentralized digital economy is released into the wild and the coins start to fly, it’s tough to implement fixes to the smart contracts that govern them. That’s why Incentivai is coming out of stealth today with its artificial intelligence simulations that test not just for security holes, but for how greedy or illogical humans can crater a blockchain community. Crypto developers can use Incentivai’s service to fix their systems before they go live. “There are many ways to check the code of a smart contract, but there’s no way to make sure the economy you’ve created works as expected,” says Incentivai’s solo founder Piotr Grudzień. “I came up with the idea to build a simulation with machine learning agents that behave like humans so you can look into the future and see what your system is likely to behave like.” Incentivai will graduate from Y Combinator next week and already has a few customers. They can either pay Incentivai to audit their project and produce a report, or they can host the AI simulation tool like a software-as-a-service. The first deployments of blockchains it’s checked will go out in a few months, and the startup has released some case studies to prove its worth. “People do theoretical work or logic to prove that under certain conditions, this is the optimal strategy for the user. But users are not rational. There’s lots of unpredictable behavior that’s difficult to model,” Grudzień explains. Incentivai explores those illogical trading strategies so developers don’t have to tear out their hair trying to imagine them. Protecting crypto from the human x-factor There’s no rewind button in the blockchain world. The immutable and irreversible qualities of this decentralized technology prevent inventors from meddling with it once in use, for better or worse. If developers don’t foresee how users could make false claims and bribe others to approve them, or take other actions to screw over the system, they might not be able to thwart the attack. But given the right open-ended incentives…

Autonomous retail startup Inokyo’s first store feels like stealing

Inokyo wants to be the indie Amazon Go. It’s just launched its prototype cashierless autonomous retail store. Cameras track what you grab from shelves, and with a single QR scan of its app on your way in and out of the store, you’re charged for what you got. Inokyo‘s first store is now open on Mountain View’s Castro Street selling an array of bougie kombuchas, snacks, protein powders and bath products. It’s sparse and a bit confusing, but offers a glimpse of what might be a commonplace shopping experience five years from now. You can get a glimpse yourself in our demo video below: “Cashierless stores will have the same level of impact on retail as self-driving cars will have on transportation,” Inokyo co-founder Tony Francis tells me. “This is the future of retail. It’s inevitable that stores will become increasingly autonomous.” Inokyo (rhymes with Tokyo) is now accepting signups for beta customers who want early access to its Mountain View store. The goal is to collect enough data to dictate the future product array and business model. Inokyo is deciding whether it wants to sell its technology as a service to other retail stores, run its own stores or work with brands to improve their product’s positioning based on in-store sensor data on custom behavior. “We knew that building this technology in a lab somewhere wouldn’t yield a successful product,” says Francis. “Our hypothesis here is that whoever ships first, learns in the real world and iterates the fastest on this technology will be the ones to make these stores ubiquitous.” Inokyo might never rise into a retail giant ready to compete with Amazon and Whole Foods. But its tech could even the playing field, equipping smaller businesses with the tools to keep tech giants from having a monopoly on autonomous shopping experiences. It’s about what cashiers do instead “Amazon isn’t as ahead as we assumed,” Francis remarks. He and his co-founder Rameez Remsudeen took a trip to Seattle to see the Amazon Go store that first traded cashiers for cameras in the U.S. Still, they realized, “This experience…

Credit Karma acquires mortgage platform Approved

Credit Karma, the service best known for providing free credit score monitoring and other financial advice (mostly to millennials), is getting into the mortgage business. The company today announced that it has acquired Approved, a mortgage platform that brings modern technology to a process that even today often still involves faxing documents back and forth. The companies did not disclose the financial details of the transaction. At first glance, this may seem like a bit of an odd acquisition, given that Approved is mostly a service for banks and mortgage brokers. But it also makes perfect sense for Credit Karma to get into the mortgage business. Indeed, Credit Karma Chief Product Officer Nikhyl Singhal told me that he sees this as the natural next step in the company’s evolution. “As we’ve expanded, you’ve seen us move from credit cards as a way to help members with that part of their life to first personal loans to auto — meaning auto loans, auto insurance,” he said. “Today, we’re really talking more publicly about mortgage. Mortgage being for many of our members the most important financial decision they’ll make.” It’s also no secret that Credit Karma’s largest user base is millennials. As they get older and start getting to the point where they consider buying a home (assuming they are in the financial position to do so), the company obviously wants to keep those users engaged on their platform and offer them more services. Singhal also stressed that 80 percent of Credit Karma members are active on the service before they get a new mortgage — and Credit Karma obviously knows all of this because it is able to collect a lot of very detailed financial data about its users. As Singhal noted, Credit Karma has been working on getting deeper into the mortgage business for about 18 months. “The acquisition is just the continuing effort of saying, ‘look, we’re serious about taking our scale and being that trusted destination for our members as it relates to helping them with their mortgage.’” Credit Karma already offers some mortgage brokerage services, and today’s acquisition is meant to help…

Coinbase acquires Distributed Systems to build ‘Login with Coinbase’

Coinbase wants to be Facebook Connect for crypto. The blockchain giant plans to develop “Login with Coinbase” or a similar identity platform for decentralized app developers to make it much easier for users to sign up and connect their crypto wallets. To fuel that platform, today Coinbase announced it has acquired Distributed Systems, a startup founded in 2015 that was building an identity standard for dApps called the Clear Protocol. The five-person Distributed Systems team and its technology will join Coinbase. Three of the team members will work with Coinbase’s Toshi decentralized mobile browser team, while CEO Nikhil Srinivasan and his co-founder Alex Kern are forming the new decentralized identity team that will work on the Login with Coinbase product. They’ll be building it atop the “know your customer” anti-money laundering data Coinbase has on its 20 million customers. Srinivasan tells me the goal is to figure out “How can we allow that really rich identity data to enable a new class of applications?” Distributed Systems had raised a $1.7 million seed round last year led by Floodgate and was considering raising a $4 million to $8 million round this summer. But Srinivasan says, “No one really understood what we’re building,” and it wanted a partner with KYC data. It began talking to Coinbase Ventures about an investment, but after they saw Distributed Systems’ progress and vision, “they quickly tried to move to find a way to acquire us.” Distributed Systems began to hold acquisition talks with multiple major players in the blockchain space, and the CEO tells me it was deciding between going to “Facebook, or Robinhood, or Binance, or Coinbase,” having been in formal talks with at least one of the first three. Of Coinbase the CEO said, they “were able to convince us they were making big bets, weaving identity across their products.” The financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Coinbase’s plan to roll out the Login with Coinbase-style platform is an SDK that others apps could integrate, though that won’t necessarily be the feature’s name. That mimics the way Facebook colonized the web with its SDK and…

HQ Trivia downloads spiral downward as it hits Apple TV

HQ Trivia’s app store ranking has continued to sink the past three months, but it’s hoping a new version on your television could revitalize growth. HQ today launched an Apple TV app that lets users play the twice-daily live quiz game alongside iOS Android players. “Everything about the game is still the same – same questions, same time, same rules,” says a spokesperson, except you’ll play with the Apple TV remote instead of your phone’s screen. But that might not be enough to get HQ’s player count rapidly growing again. According to App Annie’s app store ranking history, on iOS HQ has fallen from the No. 1 U.S. trivia game to No. 10, from the No. 44 game to No. 196, and from the No. 151 overall app to No. 585. It’s exhibited a similar decline on Android. Analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates HQ has seen 12.5 million lifetime installs by unique users, with about 68 percent on iOS. “Installs have been on the decline. For last month, we estimate them with about 560K, which is down from their height of more than two million per month back in February,” Sensor Tower’s head of mobile insights Randy Nelson tells TechCrunch.   The question is whether this is just a summer lull as people spend time outside and students aren’t locked in the schedule of school, or if HQ is in a downward spiral beyond seasonal fluctuations. But if we zoom out, you can see that HQ has been dropping down the charts through the school year since peaking in January. At one point it climbed as high as the No. 3 game and No. 6 overall app. The app’s record high of concurrent players has also declined from a peak of 2.38 million in late March. [Update: The CEO of HQ Trivia parent company Intermedia Labs and the former co-founder of Vine, Rus Yusupov, weighed in on the decline in downloads and HQ’s plans. He says, “Games are a hits business and don’t grow exponentially forever,” signalling the drop-off was expected and the team is still optimistic. But he also notes that…

The FDA OK’d an app as a form of birth control

Don’t want to get pregnant? There’s a Food and Drug Administration approved app for that. The FDA has just given the go ahead for Swedish app Natural Cycles to market itself as a form of birth control in the U.S. Natural Cycles was already in use as a way to prevent pregnancy in certain European countries. However, this is the first time a so-called ‘digital contraceptive’ has been approved in America. The app works using an algorithm based on data given by women using the app such as daily body temperature and monthly menstrual cycles. It then calculates the exact window of days each month a woman is most fertile and therefore likely to conceive. Women can then see which days the app recommends they should avoid having sex or use protection to avoid getting pregnant. Tracking your cycle to determine a fertile window has long been used to either become pregnant or avoid conceiving. However, Natural Cycles put a scientific spin on the age-old method by evaluating over 15,000 women to determine its algorithm had an effectiveness rate with a margin of error of 1.8 percent for “perfect use” and a 6 percent failure rate for “typical use.” What that means is almost two in every 100 women could likely conceive on a different date than the calculated fertile window. That’s not exactly fool-proof but it is higher than many other contraceptive methods. A condom, for instance, has an 18 percent margin of error rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And though the app makers were able to convince the FDA of its effectiveness, at least one hospital in Stockholm has opened an investigation with Sweden’s Medical Products Agency (MPA) after it recorded 37 unwanted pregnancies among women who said they had been using the app as their contraception method. “Consumers are increasingly using digital health technologies to inform their everyday health decisions, and this new app can provide an effective method of contraception if it’s used carefully and correctly,” assistant director for the health of women in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health Terri…

Facebook buys Vidpresso’s team and tech to make video interactive

Zombie-like passive consumption of static video is both unhealthy for viewers and undifferentiated for the tech giants that power it. That’s set Facebook on a mission to make video interactive, full of conversation with broadcasters and fellow viewers. It’s racing against Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat to become where people watch together and don’t feel like asocial slugs afterward. That’s why Facebook today told TechCrunch that it’s acqui-hired Vidpresso, buying its seven-person team and its technology but not the company itself. The six-year-old Utah startup works with TV broadcasters and content publishers to make their online videos more interactive with on-screen social media polling and comments, graphics and live broadcasting integrated with Facebook, YouTube, Periscope and more. The goal appears to be to equip independent social media creators with the same tools these traditional outlets use so they can make authentic but polished video for the Facebook platform. Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but it wouldn’t have taken a huge price for the deal to be a success for the startup. Vidpresso had only raised a $120,00 in seed capital from Y Combinator in 2014, plus some angel funding. By 2016, it was telling hiring prospects that it was profitable, but also that, “We will not be selling the company unless some insane whatsapp like thing happened. We’re building a forever biz, not a flip.” So either Vidpresso lowered its bar for an exit or Facebook made coming aboard worth its while. For now, Vidpresso clients and partners like KTXL, Univision, BuzzFeed, Turner Sports, Nasdaq, TED, NBC and others will continue to be able to use its services. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that customers will work with the Vidpresso team at Facebook, who are joining its offices in Menlo Park, London and LA. That means Facebook is at least temporarily becoming a provider of enterprise video services. But Facebook confirms it won’t charge Vidpresso clients, so they’ll be getting its services for free from now on. Whether Facebook eventually turns away old clients or stops integrating with competing video platforms like Twitch and YouTube remains to be seen.…

Taiwan startup FunNow gets $5M Series A to help locals in Asian cities find last-minute things to do

“Instant booking” apps that let tourists sign up for activities on very short notice have been in the news a lot lately, partly because of Klook’s new unicorn status, but also because of the proliferation of startups in the space, especially in Asia. With so many instant booking apps, are there any niches left to fill? FunNow thinks so. Instead of targeting tourists, FunNow serves locals who want to find new things to do in their cities. The Taipei, Taiwan-based startup announced today that it has raised a $5 million Series A led by the Alibaba Entrepreneur Fund, with participation from CDIB, a returning investor, Darwin Venture and Accuvest. The capital will be used to expand FunNow into Southeast Asian and Japanese cities. Along with a pre-A round closed last July, its newest funding brings FunNow’s total raised since its launch in November 2015 to $6.5 million. FunNow currently claims 500,000 members and 3,000 vendors, who provide more than 20,000 activities and services daily. Co-founder and CEO T.K. Chen says the startup will focus on building its presence in Hong Kong, Okinawa, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Osaka and Tokyo. One noteworthy fact about its Series A is the participation of Alibaba, which is beefing up its online-to-offline (or O2O, the business of enabling users to book and pay for offline services) offerings as competitor Meituan-Dianping prepares to go public in Hong Kong. A roster of Alibaba apps, including Koubei for local bookings, food delivery platform Ele.me and travel app Feizhu, compete against Meituan-Dianping, which describes itself as a “one-stop super app” because it offers all those services. A not-for-profit initiative, the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund supports startups that might eventually contribute to the tech giant’s ecosystem. While Alibaba’s O2O apps are focused on capturing a bigger share away from Meituan-Dianping in China, Chen says future synergies may include listing FunNow’s activities on Koubei so Chinese tourists can continue using the app when they travel. (Chen added that Alibaba wants FunNow to expand in Southeast Asia as soon as possible.) Even with a backer like Alibaba, however, the obvious question is how does…

Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter. There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course. This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality. And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook. The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy. Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers. There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked…

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