News & Press

Facebook to supply free Portals to some care home residents under NHS scheme

The UK government is pulling in tech firms to connect isolated residents and patients in care with family and friends via video call devices and services during the COVID-19 crisis. First to join is Facebook, which is supplying up to 2,050 of its Portal video-calling devices for free to hospitals, care homes and other settings including hospices, in-patient learning disability and autism units. The logistical rollout will be supported Accenture.

Fifty of the devices have already been deployed to pilot sites in Surrey with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow,

Iain O’Neilm, NHSX Digital Transformation Director, said in a statement: “Technology companies big and small continue to pledge their resources and expertise to support our NHS and social care system in these unprecedented times. We are working hard to find and develop services that meet people’s equally unprecedented needs. Technology has never been so important to providing one of life’s most essential things – the ability to communicate with the people we love regardless of where they are.”

The NHSX said it is working with “a range of technology companies to support the NHS and social care system.”.

Freddy Abnousi, MD, Head of Health Technology, Facebook said in s statement: “We designed Portal to give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones…That’s why we are piloting a program with NHSX to provide Portal devices in hospitals and other care settings to support patients and help reduce social isolation.”

Additional solutions to be deployed under the scheme include enabling health and care staff to work remotely if needed; improving communication between clinical and care teams; shifting hospital outpatients to virtual appointments; and accelerating the use of online and video consultations within GP and primary care services.

Commenting, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is great to see Facebook giving care home residents and patients the devices they need to connect with their family and friends at such a challenging time. The technology sector is rising to the challenge at this moment of national emergency and we in government are working closely with them to help people stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Facebook and NHSX have agreed that the care homes and care settings involved in the pilot will be able to keep the devices free of charge, and use as they see fit, following the pilot phase.

Where the Portal devices go will be chosen on the basis of their wifi connectivity and ability to run devices in residents’ rooms or another private location.

At the same time, NHSX said it is exploring connectivity options for care homes without wifi, including the use of 4G hotspots or data-enabled tablets.

The venues for the portals will be advised on how to set them up by the NHSX, as well as infection control and data protection. Concerns about privacy will be addressed by completing a factory reset on the portal before passing the device to a new user.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Residents/patients will be supported by care staff to initiate calls to family/friends. Each care home/care setting will be free to make their own decisions on how best to manage this; for example, whether to pre-arrange specific call times with families in advance. Staff will be supported with easy-to-use setup guidance, device instructions and guidance on infection control. Care homes will also be asked to assist residents who do not wish to use their own personal accounts by setting up a new, generic personal account to be used instead. Where residents or patients wish to use a personal account, the care home will complete a factory reset before passing the device to a new user.

NASA seeks miniature scientific payload concepts for robotic Moon rover scouts

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is seeking ideas from the public around what kind of scientific equipment they could use to outfit tiny lunar rovers to help with Artemis and other Moon missions. The call, issued via crowdsourcing platform HeroX and called ‘Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload’ in a very contemporary nod to a movie that came out 31 years ago, seeks payloads with maximum dimensions of no more than 4″ x 2″, or “similar in size to a new bar of soap.”

Why the need for instruments so small? NASA wants to be able to perform the kind of science that has, in the past, required large launch vehicles, large orbiters and large launch vehicles, but with much greater frequency and at much lower costs than has been possible before. In order to pave the way for long-term lunar human presence and eventual habitation, NASA says it needs “practical and affordable ways to use lunar resources,” in order to defray the costs of resupply missions – already an expensive undertaking when just traveling to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, and astronomically more so when going as far afield as the Moon .

The goal is for these to be pretty much immediately available for service, with the hope that they can be shipped out to the Moon over the course of the next one to four years. JPL is looking to tap the expertise and experience of the global community to see what’s possible with existing materials and technologies, and while this idea challenge is primarily about concept phase designs (with $160,000 in prize money payouts available), the longer-term goal is to use it as a jumping off point for a pipeline of actual tech that will be incorporated into future rovers and sent on lunar missions.

Taking part in the challenge is fairly easy, and you actually retain all rights to anything you submit in terms of IP, with the proviso that if you make it to the finals, you have to sign a new agreement in which you also grant the U.S. government essentially a perpetual, royalty-free license to use your creation in whatever way they deem appropriate.

If you think you’ve got an idea about how to miniaturize environmental sensors and data gathering equipment for use on what amounts to a space Roomba, there’s probably no better opportunity to contribute to NASA’s deep space exploration efforts – short of landing a JPL gig, which might happen if your idea is good enough.

Report: Apple’s iOS 14 contains code that would let you sample apps before download

Apple has under development a feature that would allow iOS users to interact with a third-party app, even if the app wasn’t yet installed on your device, according to a report from 9to5Mac. The report is based on information discovered in the iOS 14 code, which is not necessarily an indication of launch plans on Apple’s part — but rather an insight into some of Apple’s work in progress.

The feature is referenced internally as the “Clips” API — not to be confused with Apple’s video editing app of the same name. Based on 9to5Mac’s analysis, the new API works in conjunction with the QR Code reader, allowing a user to scan a code linked to an app, then interact with that app from a card that appears on their screen.

Described like this, the feature sounds like a marketing tool for app publishers as it would offer a way for users to try out new apps before they download them to get a better feel for the experience than a banner ad would allow. In addition to offering some interactivity with an app before it’s downloaded, the card could also be used to redirect users to the App Store if they choose to download the full version. The card could also be used to open the app directly to the content, in the case of apps the user already had installed.

Google’s Android, the report noted, offers a similar feature called “Slices,” launched in 2018. While Google had already introduced a way to interact with small pieces of an app in an experience called Instant Apps, the newer Slices feature was meant to drive usage of apps — like booking a ride or hotel room, for example, without having to first locate the app and launch it. On iOS, perhaps, these app “clips” could be pulled up by Siri or in Spotlight search — but that functionality wasn’t demonstrated by the code the report referenced today.

It’s unclear what Apple intentions are with the Clips API or how experimental its efforts are at this time.

However, the report found the feature was being tested with OpenTable, Yelp, DoorDash, Sony (the PS4 Second Screen app), and YouTube. This could indicate a plan to demo examples of the app’s functionality in a future reveal to developers.

On the heels of its NTWRK investment, FaZe Clan looks at global expansion despite pandemic

FaZe Clan, the esports mega-franchise worth more than $240 million, is still planning on moving forward with its international expansion this year on the heels of a multi-million-dollar funding round backed by investors including Jimmy Iovine and the startup shopping network, NTWRK.

Backed by Drake, Live Nation and Iovine, NTWRK is not just an investor in FaZe Clan, the startup will also be the home for the esports entertainment hub’s future merchandising efforts.

Part of the capital could go toward planned international expansion efforts, which would see FaZe Clan set up a global network of FaZe houses for its entertainers. Already a cornerstone of the culture that’s sprung up around online gaming and streaming entertainment, FaZe is doubling down on its production and distribution, according to chief executive Lee Trink.

While ad dollars and spending are plummeting across the entertainment world, demand for placement on FaZe Clan’s streams continues to grow, said Trink.

“We’re not experiencing that [decline] right now (not as far as our sponsorship and brand deals),” Trink said. “There’s been a massive constriction for that capital around advertising, but there’s been greater restriction around avenues to deploy that capital.”

Lee Trink, chief executive of FaZe Clan (Photo courtesy of FaZe Clan)

FaZe remains unfazed by those constraints because there’s no entertainment that’s more epidemic-proof than watching a bunch of folks play video games alone (or in a socially distant group) in a house. It’s the perfect entertainment for pandemic times.

TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon inked a deal with the FaZe Clan team to promote a tournament, and the company’s Fight 2 Fund raised money for organizations working to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re one of the last shows in show-business that are still going on,” says Trink. 

Trink’s statement is a simple fact. Interest in streaming is skyrocketing and even traditional celebrities are embracing the FaZe Clan’s work-from-home aesthetic (pioneered by the original YouTube streamers who paved the way for vlogging as entertainment).

The company’s roster of talent is showcased on the newly launched subscription service, Quibi, and has partnered with NTWRK to create promotions in the past.

And the company is still looking for new capital to fund its activities. On the heels of the Series A close, which Trink said happened in December and included a slew of celebrities on top of Iovine and NTWRK, the company will be going back out to market this year to raise another $10 million to $15 million.  

Some of that cash would likely be used to fund the expansion that Trink says is a part of FaZe Clan’s future growth plans — despite the pandemic.

“We’re looking to do a lot of interesting moves regarding houses,” said Trink. “There are some exciting conversations going on around international expansion during this time. The chances of there being FaZe houses around the world is likely.”

Android gets a built-in Braille keyboard

Android has received a wealth of accessibility features over the last couple of years, but one that has been left to third-party developers is a way for blind users to type using braille. That changes today with Android’s new built-in braille keyboard, which should soon be available as an option on all phones running version 5 and up of the OS.

Braille is a complex topic in the accessibility community, as in many ways it has been supplanted by voice recognition, screen readers and other tools. But many people are already familiar with it and use it regularly — and after all, one can’t always chat out loud.

Third-party braille keyboards are available, but some cost money or are no longer in development. And because the keyboard essentially has access to everything you type, there are security considerations as well. So it’s best for the keyboard you use to be an official one from a reputable company. Google will have to do!

The new keyboard, the company writes in a blog post, was created as a collaboration with various users and developers of braille software, and should be familiar to anyone who’s used something like it in the past.

The user holds the phone in landscape mode, with the screen facing away from them, and taps the regions corresponding to each of the six dots that form letters in the braille alphabet. It works with Android’s TalkBack function, which reads off words the user types or selects, so like any other writing method errors can be quickly detected and corrected. There are also some built-in gestures for quickly deleting letters and words or sending the text to the recipient or selected field.

Instructions for activating the braille keyboard are here. Right now it’s only available in English, but more languages will likely be added in the near future.

Double emerges from stealth with $6M to pair CEOs with remote assistants

CEOs often rely on executive assistants to handle the less glamorous logistics of their day so they can focus on managing a company, but hiring a full-time assistant isn’t always easy to justify, especially at a budding startup.

Double is aiming to cater to busy C-suite execs who probably don’t need a full-time assistant but could still use some help managing their email, arranging travel, scheduling meetings and balancing their endless work with a personal life. They’re pitching a service to startup CEOs and investors that matches them up with contracted remote assistants to help free up their schedules.

“At the end of the day, these people are spending hours a day doing the things they aren’t best at,” CEO Alice Default told TechCrunch in an interview.

Double’s contracted assistants are all based in the US and have years of previous experiences as EAs, Double says. When an exec signs up for the service, they are guided through an onboarding call where they can share some of their needs before being paired up with a dedicated assistant. Double says its assistants are generally working with about 4-5 clients at a time and in some cases are assisting multiple execs at the same company.

The New York startup has been building their product under wraps and has raised some $6 million in funding from VCs including Index Ventures and Paris-based Daphni. The team previously helped build the popular Sunrise calendar app, which Microsoft bought in 2015 only to later discontinue.

One of Double’s big initiatives is honing the effectiveness of combining human efforts and software automation. The team hasn’t pushed too heavily on the latter, but Default says that they see plenty of room to augment how assistants handle tasks by letting automation get the ball rolling.

“We are thinking about automation quite a bit, for us this relationship with [human labor] can be much better,” Default says.

Double has spent the last couple years developing software to facilitate the connection between assistants and executives. The team now offers desktop and mobile apps as well as a Chrome extension that can allow execs to push updates to their assistants with ease.

“What we realized pretty early on is that one of the things that’s hard about delegating is giving the proper context,” Default says.

The service charges hourly rates with a minimum rate of $250 per month for 5 hours of assistant work. Default says early CEOs that have been onboarded to the service in beta pay on average about $800 month for a bit less than an hour of assistance per day.

Launching a premium service for executives in the midst of a pandemic crisis where a good deal of startups are thinking about layoffs is far from perfect launch timing for Double, but Default believes the service can provide a lot of value to busy executives scrambling to adapt their businesses. Default says the service has already seen some early users pause their subscriptions but notes that the month-to-month structure is flexible by design and makes it easy for users to pick things back up when their firms (hopefully) emerge from crisis mode.

Quibi is the anti-TikTok (that’s a bad thing)

It takes either audacious self-confidence or reckless hubris to build a completely asocial video app in 2020. You can decide which best describes Quibi, Hollywood’s $1.75 billion-funded attempt at a mobile-only Netflix of 6 to 10 minutes micro-TV show episodes. Quibi manages to miss every trend and tactic that could help make it app popular. The company seems to believe it can succeed on only its content (mediocre) and marketing dollars (fewer than it needs).

I appreciate that Quibi is doing something audaciously different than most startups. Rather than iterating towards product-market fit, it spent a fortune developing its slick app and buying fancy content in secret so it could launch with a bang.

Yet Quibi’s bold business strategy is muted by a misguided allegiance to the golden age of television before the Internet permeated every entertainment medium. It’s unshareable, prescriptive, sluggish, cumbersome, and unfriendly. Quibi’s unwillingness to borrow anything from social networks makes the app feel cold and isolated, like watching reality shows in the vacuum of space.

Quibi

In that sense, Quibi is the inverse of TikTok, which feels fiercely alive. TikTok is designed to immediately immerse you in crowd-vetted content that grabs your attention and inspires you to spread your take on it to friends. That’s why TikTok has almost 2 billion downloads to date while Quibi picked up just 300,000 on the day of its big splash into market.

Here’s a breakdown of the major missteps by Quibi, why TikTok does it better, and how this new streaming app can get with the times.

What Hollywood Thinks We Want

Quibi feels like some off-brand cable channel, with a mix of convoluted reality shows, scripted dramas, and news briefs. Imagine MTV at noon in the mid-2000s. Nothing seemed must-see. There’s no Game Of Thrones or Mandalorian here. While the production value is better than what you’ll find on YouTube, the show concepts feel slapdash with novelty that quickly fades. Chrissy Teigen as a small claims court judge and a cooking show where blindfolded chefs have to guess what food was just exploded in their faces…

The catalog feels like the product of TV writers being told they have 10 seconds to come up with an idea. “What would those idiots watch?” The shows remind me of old VR games that are barely more than demos, or an app built in a garage without ever asking prospective users what they need. Co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may have produced The Lion King and Shrek, but the app’s content feels like it was greenlit by, well, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s leader Meg Whitman who indeed is Quibi CEO.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Despite being built for a touch-screen interface, there’s little Bandersnatch-style interactive content so far, nor are the creators doing anything special with the 6 to 10 minute format. The shows feel more like condensed TV programs with episodes ending when there would be a commercial break. There’s no onboarding process that could ask what popular TV shows or genres you’re into. As the catalog expands, that makes it less likely you’ll find something appealing within a few taps.

TikTok comes from the opposite direction. Instead of what Hollywood thinks we want, its content come straight from its consumers. People record what they think would make them and their friends laugh, surprised, or enticed. The result is that with low to zero production budget, random kids and influencers alike make things with millions of Likes. And as elder millenials, Gen X, and beyond get hooked, they’re creating videos for their peers as well. The algorithm monitors what you’re hovering over and rapidly adapts its recommendations to your style.

TikTok is fundamentally interactive. Each clip’s audio can borrowed to produce remixes that personalize a meme for a different demographic or subculture. And since its stars are internet natives, they’re in constant communication with their fan base to tune content to what they want. There’s something for everyone. No niche is too small.

TikTok Screenshots

The Fix: Quibi should take a hint from Brat TV, the Disney Channel for the YouTube generation that gives tween social media stars their own premium shows about being a grade school kid to create content with a built-in fan base. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman is a Brat co-founder).

Take the Chrissy’s Court model, and shift it to stars who are 20 years younger. Give TikTok phenoms like Charli D’Amelio or Chase Hudson Quibi shows and let them help conceptualize the content, and they’ll bring their legions of fans. Double-down on choose-your-own-adventures and fan voting gameshows that leverage the phone’s interactivity. Fund creators that will differentiate Quibi by making it look like anything other than daytime TV. And ask users directly what they want to see right when they download the app.

No Screenshots

This is frankly insane. Screenshots of Quibi appear as a blank black screen. That means no memes. If people can’t turn Quibi scenes into jokes they’ll share elsewhere, its shows won’t ever become fixtures of the cultural zeitgeist like Netflix’s Tiger King has. Yes, other mobile streaming apps like Netflix and Disney+ also block screenshots, but they have web versions where you can snap and share what you want. Quibi never should have structured its deals to license content from producers in a way that prevented any way to riff on or even let friends preview its content.

TikTok on the other hand defaults to letting you download any video and share it wherever you please — with the app’s watermark attached. That’s fueled TikTok’s stellar growth as clips get posted to Twitter and Instagram, and drive viewers back to the app. It’s spawned TikTok compilations on YouTube, and a whole culture of remixing that expands and prolongs the popularity of trending jokes and dances.

The Fix: Quibi should allow screenshots. There’s little risk of spoilers or piracy. If its deals prohibit that, then it should offer pre-approved screenshots and video clips/trailers of each episode that you can download and share. Think of it like an in-app press kit. Even if we’re not allowed to set up the perfect screenshot for making a meme, at least then we could coherently discuss the shows on other social networks.

Sluggish Pacing

On mobile, you’re always just a swipe away from something more interesting. It’s like if you watched TV with your finger permanently hovering over the change channel button. Ever noticed how movie trailers now often start with a fast-forward collage of their most eye-catching scenes? Quibi seems intent on communicating prestige with its slow-building dramas like The Most Dangerous Game and Survive, which both had me bored and fast-forwarding. And that’s watching Quibi at home on the couch. While on the go where it was designed to be consumed, slow pacing could push users with a minute or two to spare to open Instagram or TikTok instead.

None of this is helped by Quibi not auto-playing a trailer or the first episode the moment you scroll past a show on the homescreen. Instead, you see a static title card for two seconds before it starts playing you an excerpt of the program. That makes it more cumbersome to discover new shows.

Where TikTok wins is in immediacy. Creators know users will swipe right past their video if it’s not immediately entertaining or obviously revving up to a big reveal. They grab you in the first second with smiles, costumes, bold captions, or crazy situations. That also makes it easy for viewers to dismiss what’s irrelevant to them and teach the TikTok algorithm what they really want. Plus, you know that you can score a dopamine hit of joy even if you only have 30 seconds. TikTok makes Quick Bites feel like an understaffed sit-down restaurant.

The Fix: Quibi needs to teach creators to hook viewers instantly by previewing why they should want to watch. Since tapping a show’s card on the Quibi homepage instantly plays it, those teasers need to be built into the first episode. Otherwise, Quibi needs to a button to view a trailer from its buried dedicated show pages to the preview card most people interact with on the homescreen. Otherwise, users may never discover what Quibi shows resonate with them and teach it what to show and make more of.

Anti-Social Video Club

Quibi neglects all its second-screen potential. No screenshotting makes it tough to discuss shows elsewhere, yet there’s no built-in comments or messaging to discuss or spread them in app. Pasting an episode link into Twitter doesn’t even display the show’s name in the preview box. Nor do shows have their own social accounts to follow to remind you to keep watching.

There’s no way for friends to follow what you’re watching or see your recommendations. No leaderboards of top shows. Certainly no time-stamped, livestream style crowd annotations. No synced-up co-watching with friends, despite a lack of TV apps preventing you from watching with anyone else in person unless you crowd around one phone.

It all feels like Quibi figured advertising would be enough. It could run contests where winners get a Cameo-esque message or chat with their favorite stars. Quibi could let you share scenes with your face swapped onto actors’ heads, Deepfake-style like Snapchat’s (confusingly named) Cameos feature. It could host in-app roundtables with the casts where users could submit questions. It’s like if web 2.0 never happened.

TikTok meanwhile harnesses every conceivable social feature. Follow, Like, comment, message, go Live, duet, remix, or download and share any video. It beckons viewers to participate in trending challenges. And even when users aren’t itching to return to TikTok, notifications from these social features will drag them back in, or watermarked clips will follow them to other networks. Every part of the app is designed to make its content the center of popular culture.

The Fix: Quibi needs to understand that just because we’re watching on mobile, doesn’t make video a solo experience. At first, it should add social content discovery options so you can see what friends opt in to share that they’re watching or view a leaderboard of the top programs. Shows, especially ones dripping out new episodes, are more fun when you have someone to chat about them with.

Eventually, Quibi should layer on in-app second screen features. Create a way to share comments at the end of each episode that people read during the credits so they feel like they’re in a viewing community.

Can Quibi Be More?

What’s most disappointing about Quibi is that it has the potential to be something fresh, merging classically produced premium content with the modern ways we use our phones. Yet beyond shows being shot in two widths so you can switch between watching in landscape or portrait mode at any time, it really is just a random cable channel shrunk down.

Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence in Hyderabad on February 14, 2020. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the few redeeming opportunities for Quibi is using the daily episode release schedule to serialize content that benefits from suspense, as InternetRyan notes. Binging via traditional streaming services can burn through thrillers before they can properly build up suspense and fan theories or let late-comers catch up while a show is still in the zeitgeist. Cliffhangers with just a day instead of a week to wait could be Quibi’s killer feature.

Suspense is also one thing TikTok fails at. Within a single video, they’re actually often all about suspense, waiting through build up for a gag or non-sequitur to play out. But creators try to rope in followers by making a multi-minute video and splitting it into parts so people subscribe to them to see the next part. Yet since TikTok doesn’t always show timestamps and surfaces old videos on its homescreen, it can often be a chore to find the part two, and there’s no good way for creators to link them together. TikTok could stand to learn about multi-episode content from Quibi.

But today, Quibi feels like a minitiaturized and degraded version of what we already get for free on the web or pay for with Netflix. Quibi charging $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 without seems like a steep ask without delivering any truly must-see shows, novel interactive experience, or memory-making social moments.

Quibi’s success may simply be a test of how bad people are at cancelling 90-day free trials (hint: they’re bad at it!). The bull case is that absent-minded subscribers amongst the 300,000 first-day downloads and some diehard fans of the celebs it’s given shows will bring Quibi enough traction to raise more cash and survive long enough to socialize its product and teach creators to exploit the format’s opportunities. But the bear case is already emerging in Quibi’s rapidly declining App Store rank, that fell from #4 overall when it launched Monday to #21 yesterday. Lackluster content and no virality means it might never become the talk of the town, leading top content producers to slink away or half-ass their contributions, leaving us to dine on short video elsewhere.

Let’s give tech philanthropists the benefit of the doubt on COVID-19

Tuesday afternoon saw two big announcements from the tech world in the fight against COVID-19.

First, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, announced he would give $1 billion to COVID-19-related causes. A few hours later, a group of tech billionaires, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe’s Collison brothers, Y Combinator’s Paul Graham and venture capitalist Chris Sacca, announced a rapid-response grant program for researchers working on COVID-19. These two announcements come on the heels of an initiative led by Bill Gates to build factories for the most promising COVID-19 vaccines and a host of smaller efforts by tech industry leaders, including importing and donating personal protective equipment (PPE), building ventilators and supporting local businesses.

Even as tech philanthropists ramp up their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic though, critics of philanthropy lament the need for philanthropy to fulfill a role that should be played by government. Meanwhile, other commentators criticize it as a power grab. As Theodore Schleifer wrote in Recode this week:

And yet the critique of billionaire philanthropy revolves around the idea that these donations are an expression of private power. Indeed, philanthropists like Moskovitz are some of the most important people in determining the shape of America’s response to an unprecedented crisis. They are imbued with unaccountable, untransparent, and undemocratic influence. Power grabs can happen. And their donations can legitimize the philanthropists as heroes, which can discourage scrutiny of their business practices.

But this is the wrong premise. Even if the government had fully funded a pandemic response, and even if tech leaders’ COVID efforts were a power grab (of which there is no evidence), there would still be a role for the tech sector — and tech philanthropists — to play.

The question we should be asking is whether or not their efforts are properly leveraging tech’s unique capabilities and resources. If Tesla (or GM) can make ventilators, software companies can help public health officials, programmers can help state labor departments update their outdated unemployment systems and philanthropists can rush money to researchers more quickly than the government can, then they should. It’s no different than hotels supplying empty rooms for first responders or the homeless to stay in during this tragedy.

Invoking the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce masks and ventilators was uncontroversial precisely because everyone knew that capacity rested exclusively with private industry; why wouldn’t we expect the tech sector to similarly contribute in this moment of national emergency? And in the absence of a fully-funded national medical research establishment, the more resources going toward rapidly developing a vaccine, the better.

Which brings me to the oft-cited, variably defined concept of “impact” that I’ve tried to focus on throughout my interviews at TechCrunch. How do you know when charitable giving is making a difference? How do you discern the difference between a PR stunt and a well-designed program? How do you know that the right problem is even being solved?

I’ve found that even the most earnest, data-driven philanthropists don’t always ask the right questions. Just because there is a measurable outcome doesn’t mean that it should define success. And just because a company or foundation is doing some good doesn’t mean it is maximizing the social impact it can have.

After all, sometimes maximizing social impact simply means a company is performing its core competency. If tech companies — and the billionaire philanthropists they create — happen to have a skill set that is useful in a public emergency, then the responsible thing to do is to do it and do it well.

We’ve spent so long asking tech to turn its attention to real-world problems. Let’s not complain when they do so now. 

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize tech firms when they fall short, of course. People have rightly criticized firms like Amazon (and Whole Foods), Instacart, Seamless and DoorDash for their deficiencies in protecting their front-line staff. Tech companies still must be held accountable even when they are fulfilling essential functions.

It’s clear though that beyond keeping the supply chain going, technology will play a central role in implementing any strategy to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. Moving PPE around the world requires the logistical expertise companies like Flexport and Apple have mastered. Mass testing will require the rapid rollout of new devices from biotech firms like Gilead Sciences. A tracing regime will require massive data collection and analysis like that done by Verily or Palantir. And of course we’ll have to manufacture and distribute vaccines and other treatments at scale. Like Amazon or not, I suspect it might have a role to play.

Which brings me to Bill Gates, whose announcement that he will start building factories for promising vaccines now has made him the most central tech figure in responding to COVID-19. Bill Gates isn’t just a tech philanthropist. He is — after years of study — one of the world’s leading experts on pandemic preparedness. When we look to him for guidance, we’re not asking for a tech billionaire to assert his power. We’re embracing the leadership of someone who has a proven track record bringing his engineering and project management skills to bear on some of the most intractable public health problems of the last few decades.

Of course in an ideal world, the void Gates is filling would already be filled by the government. It’s inexcusable that it isn’t. But good democracy also means asking for all of society to contribute. And good public policy means looking for the best solutions wherever they are found.

Sometimes that means an anonymous bureaucrat in the suburbs of DC. And sometimes it means a billionaire public health nerd tech mogul.

TikTok pledges $250M in COVID-19 relief efforts, plus another $125M in ad credits

Short-form video app TikTok announced today it’s committing more than $250 million to support front-line workers, educators and local communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an additional $125 million in advertising credits to public health organizations and businesses looking to rebuild. Some of these funds are being directed toward major health organizations, like the CDC and WHO, while other funds are aimed at helping individuals or smaller businesses.

The $250 million includes three separate efforts: the TikTok Health Heroes Relief Fund, TikTok Community Relief Fund and TikTok Creative Learning Fund.

The first is the most significant effort, as it provisions $150 million in funds for things like medical staffing, supplies and hardship relief for healthcare workers. Included in these distributions is $15 million to the CDC Foundation to support surge staffing for local response efforts through state and local governments, and $10 million for the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. 

In addition, TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, said its employee matching program will deliver aid to organizations like the Red Cross and Direct Relief.

TikTok also said it’s working with global and local partners to deliver masks and other personal protective equipment to hospitals in India, Indonesia, Italy, South Korea and the U.S., among others. Earlier this month, TikTok announced it had donated 400,000 hazmat medical protective suits and 200,000 masks to protect doctors and front-line medical staff in India, for example.

The TikTok Community Relief Fund, meanwhile, is focused in particular on vulnerable communities impacted by COVID-19.

This effort involves allotting $40 million in cash for local organizations that serve representatives of TikTok’s user community — including musicians, artists, nurses, educators and families. The fund has already been used to donate $3 million to After-School All-Stars, which is providing food for families who had previously relied on school lunches, and $2 million for MusiCares, which supports artists, songwriters and music professionals whose livelihoods have been disrupted.

As a part of the Community Relief Fund, TikTok will also be matching $10 million in donations from its community.

The third effort, TikTok’s Creative Learning Fund, will provide $50 million in grants to educators, professional experts and nonprofits working on distance learning efforts. TikTok sees itself as a potential home for creative remote learning efforts, but didn’t announce any specific plans on this front.

Outside of the funds themselves, TikTok is extending ad credits to health organizations and SMBs.

The company is providing $25 million in prominent “in-feed” advertising space for NGOs, trusted health sources and local authorities, allowing them to share their important messages with millions of people, it said. Other major tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have done the same on their own platforms.

TikTok noted it has worked to spread educational information in other ways, as well, having hosted live streams from representatives of WHO, IFRC and other popular voices in public health and science, including Bill Nye the Science Guy. There’s also a dedicated section in TikTok with other resources: the COVID-19 Resources Page on TikTok’s Safety Center. And it has partnered with creators on campaigns like #HappyAtHome, which airs live programming at 8:00 PM ET/ 5:00 PM PT on Fridays and has other themed experiences planned during weekdays.

TikTok will also offer $100 million in advertising credits to small and medium-sized businesses trying to get back on their feet in the months ahead. This effort hasn’t yet started, as it will depend on the decisions made by public health authorities about the re-opening of businesses, the company explained.

“We understand that these are challenging times for everyone,” wrote TikTok president, Alex Zhu, in an announcement. “Alongside businesses, governments, NGOs, and ordinary people across the globe stepping up in this critical moment, we are committed to offering the very best that we can to help out humanity. Together, we will persevere through this time of crisis and emerge a better community and part of a world that we fervently hope will be more united in common purpose than it was before,” Zhu added.

With $23 million for its plant-based, liquid meals, Kate Farms pushes into consumer and healthcare

Kate Farms, the supplier of a plant-based liquid meal formula used by hospitals and healthcare providers around the country as a nutritional supplement for patients who cannot process solid foods, has raised $22 million in a round of funding.

The new money will allow the company to ramp up its production as it looks to meet significant new demand from both consumers and healthcare providers, according to chairman and chief executive, Brett Matthews.

Founded by Richard and Michelle Laver, who initially developed the formula for their daughter, Kate, a child whose cerebral palsy meant that she couldn’t eat solid foods or process the tube-feeding formulas available on the market, Kate Farms has grown into a business that serves hospitals around the country.

Matthews, whose son suffered from upper respiratory and autoimmune issues, was first introduced to the company as a customer. “My son was very sick… and food was really critical to his healing. I knew a lot about the products and food as medicine and really jumped in and invested.”

From that initial investment, Matthews’ responsibilities with the company expanded, first as chairman of the Kate Farms board and then, eventually, stepping in to become chief executive of the company.

Throughout its history Kate Farms has raised capital from individual, rather than institutional, investors, and the new financing is no different. Capital came from a slew of heavyweight investors, including: David Roux, the co-founder of Silver Lake; John Hammergren, former chairman and chief executive of McKesson; Gregg Engles, former chairman and chief executive of the plant-based dairy replacement company, WhiteWave Foods; and William and Kristin Loomis, the former chief executive of Lazard and the founder and executive director of HHV-6 Foundation, respectively.

That clutch of high-powered founders and executives joins backers including Pete Nicholas, the founder and former chief executive of Boston Scientific; Robert Zollars, the former President of Baxter International, chairman of Diamond Foods and EVP of Cardinal Health; and Celeste Clark, the former executive team management member at Kellogg’s Global Nutrition.

The money, which closed late last year, is being used to ramp production as the company races to meet increasing demand caused by the COVID-19 epidemic and the government’s response. Kate Farms is donating $1 million worth of meals to Meals on Wheels programs across Southern California. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company said that would equate to roughly 225,000 meals for people who need it.

The company’s plant-based, non-GMO meal replacements have been clinically proven to improve nutrition among children and adults who need tube-fed meals. One study was published in the journal of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition based on clinical trials conducted with Atlanta Gastroenterology Associates, according to Matthews.

We can improve weight gain in the pediatric market,” Matthews said. “And we can improve tolerance.”

The market for medical conditions that require tube feeding numbers around 700,000 in the U.S., with another 150 million people who could use the company’s products for less severe nutritional issues, Matthews said. It’s a roughly $3 billion market in the U.S., and $10 billion globally.

But Kate Farms has its eyes on a much bigger prize. As the company noted in a statement, the consumer market for plant-based dairy replacements was $21 billion in 2017 and is expected to top $37.5 billion by 2024. And over the next decade, meat alternatives are expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030, according to UBS Investments

“Our focus right now is on the medical side of it, but you could see where this could evolve,” said Matthews. 

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