News & Press

Week-in-Review: Trump’s order takes a hatchet to Huawei’s heart

Last week, Trump signed an executive order that enabled the federal government to prohibit U.S. companies from buying telecom equipment from foreign companies at their discretion.

This week, the full damage began to feel apparent to China’s fastest-growing smartphone powerhouse, Huawei. American companies, at the behest of Trump and company, began turning on the Chinese giant, and what they’re stripping away will undoubtedly impact Huawei in a material way. Huawei may soon have to deal without simple, little things like — I don’t know — access to the non-open-sourced version of Android or possibly the prevailing chip architectures in modern smartphones, or Google’s app store.Here are some of the parties at play that may be leaving Huawei by the wayside. ARM. Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx and Broadcom. Google.

Basically, the past week has stripped away decades of the American smartphone technology backbone and ensured that Huawei is going to have to DIY its future success in these arenas. The ban was placed, officially, because the U.S. government didn’t want America being placed at risk of espionage, but it’s also a clear move in escalating trade war tensions.

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What hangs in the balance is more than just Huawei’s imminent business health, but the fact that China and the U.S. can start taking aim against each other’s tech giants as uniform trade war chess moves. This week it’s Huawei, but if the perfect deal lingers, could Apple be next?

Macbook pro illuminated keyboard

Dünzl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Apple tries another fix for its failing keyboard design
    Apple’s butterfly keyboards have been one of the biggest product embarrassments for the company since the Apple Maps launch, but after already having made design changes that weren’t completely effective, Apple is giving it another go. They’ve made the bold call of not actually saying what it fixed, but the folks at iFixit tore down the new machines and the changes look minimal.
  • Oculus bets the VR farm
    Facebook’s VR promises haven’t quite delivered over the past few years, but this week the company started shipping the Oculus Rift S and, more importantly, the Oculus Quest, which is the best product it has made by far. Whether its quality is enough to bring people into headsets for $399 a pop is a very good question though.
  • Kumbaya OUYA
    Here’s a blast from the past; the OUYA, a $99 open Android gaming system that was one of Kickstarter’s biggest successes ever, is officially dying. The shell of the seven-year-old operation had already been acquired by Razer, but now the OUYA Store itself is sunsetting. Read more about its impending death here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Google commits a cardinal data storage sin:
    [Google says some G Suite user passwords were stored in plaintext since 2005]
  2. EU data regulator takes aim at Google’s adtech:
    [Google’s lead EU regulator opens formal privacy probe of its adtech]
  3. EU gets angry at Facebook too:
    [Facebook found hosting masses of far-right EU disinformation networks]
  4. EU study showcases Facebook still has a lot of work to do in protecting elections:
    [Facebook still a great place to amplify pre-election junk news EU study finds]
  5. Google isn’t keeping a close enough eye on its ad empire:
    [Google updates ad policies following report on misleading anti-abortion ads]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. I added another great interview to my series “The Exit,” where I profiled Jeremy Uzan, a Parisian VC who was an early investor in Drivy, on which Getaround just dropped $300 million. We talked a bit about the future of car ownership and a lot about SoftBank’s king-making abilities.

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

“So right now, there are two kinds of VCs. You have the smart ones, but that’s not me. I’m more the gut-feeling guy. I have to feel that the team is interesting, smart, ambitious, like they’re the smartest people in the room and they’re working on something interesting.”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about Huawei, a bit about AI and a bit about love…

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Equity transcribed: How to avoid an IPO

This week, the Equity duo of Kate Clark and Alex Wilhelm convened to get some quick hits in about Slack’s WORK, Luckin Coffee and Sam Altman’s departure from Y Combinator.

They then dug a bit deeper into the money around food: DoorDash and Sun Basket both raised this week. And what is a discussion about venture in food without mentioning Blue Apron?

And finally, TransferWise illustrates how not to IPO.

In all of this, they considered a world without the word “unicorn” as it relates to billion-dollar valuations — before admitting they are probably responsible for a good amount of its use.

Alex: So I think that the real unicorns now are companies that are growing, and are profitable, while also been worth over a billion dollars. Because we’ve seen very few of these, Zoom famously, was a profitable company. And its S-1, appears TransferWise also is, I can’t name more than two. And that makes them actually as rare as unicorn should be, in my view.

Kate: Yeah, I’m thinking maybe we should just actually stop using the term unicorn unless they’re profitable.

Alex: The problem with that is, it would be a two-person crusade against a wave of usage. I don’t think you and I have that clout. No offense to us.

Kate: I do think you and I are responsible for using that term, at least like 20% of the times that it’s used.

Alex: If that’s true, I’m going to retire. But I hear your point, we should actually get rid of the word unicorn, it’s now effectively meaningless, it means nothing. And profitable growing and worth a billion would be a great constellation of things to actually meet some threshold to be called special, because that is.



This also marks the last time the show was recorded from the only home it’s ever known — because TC SF is moving — so Kate trolling Alex at the tail end is quite fitting. Come back next week for the same great podcast from a different great location.

Want more Extra Crunch? Need to read this entire transcript? Then become a member. You can learn more and try it for free. 


Kate Clark: Hello and welcome back to Equity. I’m TechCrunch’s Kate Clark. This week, I am with Alex Wilhelm of Crunchbase News. How’s it going today, Alex?

Alex Wilhelm: Very, very good. Excited about all this and enjoying the sun out here on the East Coast. And I am missing you in the studio today because it is, I think, the very last one out of 410 Townsend, is that right?

Kate: Yeah, so last week we said it was our last one recording altogether, Chris, Alex and I. But this week is my last recording in the studio as Alex is in Providence. So next week we’ll be with you from a brand new spot. I have not seen the new podcast studio, I have no idea what to expect but hoping it’s nicer than this little cave.

Alex: It is cave-ish. It’s kind of nice. There are chairs and a table.

Kate: There is exposed brick which I really like. So I’ll miss the exposed brick.

Alex: It’s very SOMA rustic, if you will.

Kate: It is, indeed. All right, well, let’s get going, we have a few really good topics to get into today that I’m excited to talk about but first, let’s just do a quick little IPO update. Alex, why don’t you lead the way?

To realize its VR dreams, Facebook needs to kill what Oculus has built

Mark Zuckerberg has poured billions into his virtual reality dream, a new platform that Facebook owns.

Facebook bought Oculus and has spent the last five years killing what it was and reinventing it as a Facebook-scale company. It has dumped most of the co-founders, brought in Zuck loyalists to take over the most important decisions and shifted towards accessibility over appeasing the company’s early supporters.

Facebook’s latest release is the realization of all that.

The company’s Quest product, which they released on Tuesday, offers a streamlined version of high-end virtual reality while leveraging time-honed software to make the process of getting up-and-running immeasurably easier. It’s probably the best VR product that’s been built yet, and one that has the mainstream firmly in view.

Facebook needs to lean in on the new device and move away from what got it there.

With past VR releases, there’s always been a key technology to blame or a key feature that was missing, but if the Oculus Quest fails, Facebook may just have to consider that the whole product category doesn’t hold the mass appeal it hoped for. Of more immediate concern should be why they’re maintaining such a differentiated product line in in pursuit of the mainstream when the Quest is largely alone in appealing to the mainstream customer that they actually want.

As the closing of the Oculus acquisition approaches its fifth birthday, one wonders where Facebook’s 10-year-plan for virtual reality begins to show some signs of critical success. Even as the company has built up a niche group of VR gamers and shipped millions of headsets, the company is still grappling with coaxing a mass audience and recouping what it’s invested.

Whether or not the Quest succeeds, you can only wonder how they’ll aim to streamline their current product line as the blank checks from Facebook start running out.

The underpowered $199 Go proved to be a nice piece of hardware for the price, but the year-old system is still ultimately a very forgettable introduction to the medium for new users. How much does Oculus gain from growing the user base of a product that’s best use case is watching Netflix in isolation? Samsung and Oculus made such a concerted push with the Gear VR, throwing free headsets at users, but ultimately developers aren’t investing in these platforms and that’s only going to grow more true.

Meanwhile the company’s bread-and-butter PC-based headset line could have a murky future as well. The latest Rift S which also launched this week to lesser fanfare is basically a lateral move for Oculus and suggests that the company likely isn’t willing to push boundaries on the high-end while it aims to gain its footing in the mainstream. Whether the Quest succeeds or fails, I would not be surprised to see the company fade the high-end into its standalone line over time. The PC will always drive the most high-end experiences, but it’s no place to stake a platform that still needs to prove itself.

Maintaining three distinct product lines isn’t just expensive from a hardware R&D point-of-view, it vastly complicates the company’s relationship with the developers its backing to build stuff that’s worth playing. The economics for VR game developers is already dodgy at best, if Oculus has determined that PC isn’t somewhere it wants to innovate with hardware it should just let the product class run its course and prioritize using the latest mobile chipsets in future standalone releases.

Oculus is a large org, but it’s more redundant than a company setting the stage for a new platform can afford to be. Facing its prolonged degradation, Nintendo reshaped its mobile and home consoles into a single product. Oculus needs to do the same, and they already have.

In 2014, Facebook bought a company that was promising to shape the future of VR by kickstarting it. Appealing to the high-end earned it millions of passionate early users on PC and millions of mobile users that gained an early taste of the platform. As Facebook has absorbed Oculus deeper into its org structure and promoted its own vision for creating a mass audience, the company has created something great with the Quest, perhaps something worth killing the product lines that got it there.

This is one smart device that every urban home could use

Living in a dense urban environment brings many startup-fuelled conveniences, be it near instant delivery of food — or pretty much whatever else you fancy — to a whole range of wheels that can be hopped on (or into) to whisk you around at the tap of an app.

But the biggest problem afflicting city dwellers is not some minor inconvenience. It’s bad, poor, terrible, horrible, unhealthy air. And there’s no app to fix that.

Nor can hardware solve this problem. But smart hardware can at least help.

For about a month I’ve been road-testing a wi-fi connected air purifier made by Swedish company, Blueair. It uses an Hepa filtration system combined with integrated air quality sensors to provide real-time in-app feedback which can be reassuring or alert you to unseen problems.

Flip to the bottom of this article for a speed take or continue reading for the full review of the Blueair Classic 480i with dual filters to reduce dust, smoke and pollen   

Review

If you’re even vaguely environmentally aware it’s fascinating and not a little horrifying to see how variable the air quality is inside your home. Everyday stuff like cooking, cleaning and changing the sheets can cause drastic swings in PM 2.5 and tVOC levels. Aka very small particles such as fine dust, smoke, odours and mite feces; and total volatile organic compounds, which refers to hundreds of different gases emitted by certain solids and liquids — including stuff humans breathe out by also harmful VOCs like formaldehyde.

What you learn from smart hardware can be not just informative but instructive. For instance I’ve switched to a less dusty cat litter after seeing how quickly the machine’s fan stepped up a gear after clearing the litter tray. I also have a new depth of understanding of quite how much pollution finds its way into my apartment when the upstairs neighbour is having a rooftop BBQ. Which makes it doubly offensive I wasn’t invited.

Though, I must admit, I’ve yet to figure out a diplomatic way to convince him to rethink his regular cook-out sessions. Again, some problems can’t be fixed by apps. Meanwhile city life means we’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, adding to the collectively polluted atmosphere. Changing that requires new politics.

You cannot hermetically seal your home against outdoor air pollution. It wouldn’t make for a healthy environment either. Indoor spaces must be properly ventilated. Adequate ventilation is also of course necessary to control moisture levels to prevent other nasty issues like mould. And using this device I’ve watched as opening a window almost instantly reduced tVOC levels.

Pretty much every city resident is affected by air pollution, to some degree. And it’s a heck of a lot harder to switch your home than change your brand of cat litter. But even on that far less fixable front, having an air quality sensor indoors can be really useful — to help you figure out the best (and worst) times to air out the house. I certainly won’t be opening the balcony doors on a busy Saturday afternoon any time soon, for example.

Blueair sells a range of air purifiers. The model I’ve been testing, the Blueair Classic 480i, is large enough to filter a room of up to 40m2. It includes filters capable of filtering both particulate matter and traffic fumes (aka its “SmokeStop” filter). The latter was important for me, given I live near a pretty busy road. But the model can be bought with just a particle filter if you prefer. The dual filtration model I’m testing is priced at €725 for EU buyers.

Point number one is that if you’re serious about improving indoor air quality the size of an air purifier really does matter. You need a device with a fan that’s powerful enough to cycle all the air in the room in a reasonable timeframe. (Blueair promises five air changes per hour for this model, per the correct room size).

So while smaller air filter devices might look cute, if a desktop is all the space you can stretch to you’d probably be better off getting a few pot plants.

Blueair’s hardware also has software in the mix too, of course. The companion Blueair Friend app serves up the real-time feedback on both indoor air quality and out. The latter via a third party service whose provider can vary depending on your location. Where I live in Europe it’s powered by BreezoMeter.

This is a handy addition for getting the bigger picture. If you find you have stubbornly bad air quality levels indoors and really can’t figure out why, most often a quick tab switch will confirm local pollution levels are indeed awful right now. It’s likely not just you but the whole neighbourhood suffering.

Dirty cities 

From Asia to America the burning of fossil fuels has consequences for air quality and health that are usually especially pronounced in dense urban environments where humans increasingly live. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas — with the UN predicting this will grow to around 70% by 2050.

In Europe, this is already true for more than 70% of the population which makes air pollution a major concern in many regional cities.

Growing awareness of the problem is beginning to lead to policy interventions — such as London’s ultra low emission charging zone and car free Sundays one day a month in Paris’ city center. But EU citizens are still, all too often, stuck sucking in unhealthy air.

 

Last year six EU nations, including the UK, France and Germany, were referred to the highest court in Europe for failing to tackle air pollution — including illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide produced by diesel-powered vehicles.

Around one in eight EU citizens who live in an urban area is exposed to air pollutant levels that exceed one or more of the region’s air quality standards, according to a briefing note published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last year.

It also said up to 96% of EU urban citizens are exposed to levels of one or more air pollutants deemed damaging to health when measured against the World Health Organization’s more stringent guidelines.

There are multiple and sometimes interlinked factors impacting air quality in urban environments. Traffic fumes is a very big one. But changes in meteorological conditions due to climate change are also expected to increase certain concentrations of air pollutants. While emissions from wildfires is another problem exacerbated by drought conditions which are linked to climate change that can also degrade air quality in nearby cities.

Action to tackle climate change continues to lag far behind what’s needed to put a check on global warming. Even as far too little is still being done in most urban regions to reduce vehicular emissions at a local level.

In short, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon — and all too often air quality is still getting worse.

At the same time health risks from air pollution are omnipresent and can be especially dangerous for children. A landmark global study of the impact of traffic fumes on childhood asthma, published recently in the Lancet, estimates that four million children develop the condition every year primarily as a result of nitrogen dioxide air pollution emitted by vehicles.

The majority (64%) of these new cases were found to occur in urban centres — increasing to 90% when factoring in surrounding suburban areas.

The study also found that damage caused by air pollution is not limited to the most highly polluted cities in China and India. “Many high-income countries have high NO2 exposures, especially those in North America, western Europe, and Asia Pacific,” it notes.

The long and short of all this is that cities the world over are going to need to get radically great at managing air quality — especially traffic emissions — and fast. But, in the meanwhile, city dwellers who can’t or don’t want to quit the bright lights are stuck breathing dirty air. So it’s easy to imagine consumer demand growing for in-home devices that can sense and filter pollutants as urbanities try to find ways to balance living in a city with reducing their exposure to the bad stuff.

Cleaner air

That’s not to say that any commercial air purifier will be able to provide a complete fix. The overarching problem of air pollution is far too big and bad for that. A true fix would demand radical policy interventions, such as removing all polluting vehicles from urban living spaces. (And there’s precious little sign of anything so radical on the horizon.)

But at least at an individual home level, a large air purifier with decent filtration technology should reduce your exposure to pollution in the place you likely spend the most time.

If, as the Blueair Classic 480i model does, the filtration device also includes embedded sensors to give real-time feedback on air quality it can further help you manage pollution risk — by providing data so you can better understand the risks in and around your home and make better decisions about, for instance, when to open a window.

“Air quality does always change,” admits Blueair’s chief product officer, Jonas Holst, when we chat. “We cannot promise to our consumers that you will always have super, super, clean air. But we can promise to consumers that you will always have a lot cleaner air by having our product — because it depends on what happens around you. In the outdoor, by your neighbours, if you’re cooking, what your cat does or something. All of those things impact air quality.

“But by having high speeds, thanks to the HepaSilent technology that we use, we can make sure that we always constantly fight that bombardment of pollutants.”

On the technology front, Blueair is using established filtration technology — Hepa and active carbon filters to remove particular matter and gaseous pollutants — but with an ionizing twist (which it brands ‘HepaSilent’).

This involves applying mechanical and electrostatic filtration in combination to enhance performance of the air purifier without boosting noise levels or requiring large amounts of energy to run. Holst dubs it one of the “core strengths” of the Blueair product line.

“Mechanical filtration just means a filter [plus a fan to draw the air through it]. We have a filter but by using the ionization chamber we have inside the product we can boost the performance of the filter without making it very, very dense. And by doing that we can let more air through the product and simply then clean more air faster,” he explains.

“It’s also something that is constantly being developed,” he adds of the firm’s Hepa + ionizing technology, which it’s been developing in its products for some 20 years. “We have had many developments of this technology since but the base technical structure is there in the combination between a mechanical and electrostatical filtration. That is what allows us to have less noise and less energy because the fan doesn’t work as hard.”

On top of that, in the model I’m testing, Blueair has embedded air quality sensors — which connect via wi-fi to the companion app where the curious user can see real-time plots of things like PM 2.5 and tVOC levels, and start to join the dots between what’s going on in their home and what the machine is sniffing out.

The sensors mean the unit can step up and down the fan speed and filtration level automatically in response to pollution spikes (you can choose it to trigger on particulate matter only, or PM 2.5 and tVOC gaseous compounds, or turn automation off altogether). So if you’re really not at all curious that’s okay too. You can just plug it in, hook it to the wi-fi and let it work.

Sound, energy and sensing smarts in a big package

To give a ballpark of energy consumption for this model, Holst says the Blueair Classic 480i consumes “approximately” the same amount of energy as running a lightbulb — assuming it’s running mostly on lower fan speeds.

As and when the fan steps up in response to a spike in levels of potential pollutants he admits it will consume “a little bit more” energy.

The official specs list the model’s energy consumption at between 15-90 watts.

On the noise front it’s extremely quiet when on the lowest fan setting. To the point of being barely noticeable. You can sleep in the same room and certainly won’t be kept awake.

You will notice when the fan switches up to the second or, especially, the third (max) speed — where it can hit 52 dB(A)). The latter’s rushing air sounds are discernible from a distance, even in another room. But you hopefully won’t be stuck listening to level 3 fan noise for too long, unless you live in a really polluted place. Or, well, unless you run into an algorithmic malfunction (more on that below).

As noted earlier, the unit’s smart sensing capabilities mean fan speed can be set to automatically adjust in response to changing pollution levels — which is obviously the most useful mode to use since you won’t need to keep checking in to see whether or not the air is clean.

You can manually override the automation and fix/switch the fan at a speed of your choice via the app. And as I found there are scenarios where an override is essential. Which we’ll get to shortly.

The unit I was testing, a model that’s around two years old, arrived with instructions to let it run for a week without unplugging so that the machine learning algorithms could configure to local conditions and offer a more accurate read on gases and particles. Holst told us that the U.S. version of the 480i is  “slightly updated” — and, as such, this learning process has been eliminated. So you should be able to just plug it in and get the most accurate reads right away. 

The company recommends changing the filters every six months to “ensure performance”, or more if you live in a very polluted area. The companion app tracks days (estimated) remaining running time in the form of a days left countdown.

Looks wise, there’s no getting around the Blueair Classic 480i is a big device. Think ‘bedside table’ big.

You’re not going to miss it in your room and it does need a bigger footprint of free space around it so as not to block the air intake and outlet. Something in the region of ~80x60cm. Its lozenge shape helps by ensuring no awkward corners and with finding somewhere it can be parked parallel but not too close to a wall.

There’s not much more to say about the design of this particular model except that it’s thoughtful. The unit has a minimalist look which avoids coming across too much like a piece of ugly office furniture. While its white and gun metal grey hues plus curved flanks help it blend into the background. I haven’t found it to be an eyesore.

A neat flip up lid hides a set of basic physical controls. But once you’ve done the wi-fi set-up and linked it to the companion app you may never need to use these buttons as everything can be controlled in the app.

Real-time pollution levels at your fingertips

Warning: This app can be addictive! For weeks after installing the unit it was almost impossible to resist constantly checking the pollution levels. Mostly because it was fascinating to watch how domestic activity could send one or other level spiking or falling.

As well as PM 2.5 and tVOC pollutants this model tracks temperature and humidity levels. It offers day, week and monthly plots for everything it tracks.

The day view is definitely the most addictive — as it’s where you see instant changes and can try to understand what’s triggering what. So you can literally join the dots between, for example, hearing a street sweeper below your window and watching a rise in PM 2.5 levels in the app right after. Erk!

Though don’t expect a more detailed breakdown of the two pollutant categories; it’s an aggregated mix in both cases. (And some of the gases that make up the tVOC mix aren’t harmful.)

The month tab gives a longer overview which can be handy to spot regular pollution patterns (though the view is a little cramped on less phablet-y smartphone screens).

While week view offers a more recent snapshot if you’re trying to get a sense of your average pollution exposure over a shorter time frame.

That was one feature I thought the app could have calculated for you. But, equally, more granular quantification might risk over-egging the pudding. It would also risk being mislead if the sensor accuracy fails on you. The overarching problem with pollution exposure is that, sadly, there’s only so much an individual can do to reduce it. So it probably makes sense not to calculate your pollution exposure score.

The app could certainly provide more detail than it does but Holst told us the aim is to offer enough info to people who are interested without it being overwhelming. He also said many customers just want to plug it in and let it work, not be checking out daily charts. (Though if you’re geeky you will of course want the data.)

It’s clear there is lots of simplification going, as you’d expect with this being a consumer device, not a scientific instrument. I found the Blueair app satisfied my surface curiosity while seeing ways its utility could be extended with more features. But in the end I get that it’s designed to be an air-suck, not a time-suck, so I do think they’ve got the balance there pretty much right.

There are enough real-time signals to be able to link specific activities/events with changes in air quality. So you can literally watch as the tVOC level drops when you open a window. (Or rises if your neighbor is BBQing… ). And I very quickly learnt that opening a window will (usually) lower tVOC but send PM 2.5 rising — at least where I live in a dusty, polluted city. So, again, cleaner air is all you should expect.

Using the app you can try and figure out, for instance, optimal ventilation timings. I also found having the real-time info gave me a new appreciation for heavy rain — which seemed to be really great for clearing dust out of the air, frequently translating into “excellent” levels of PM 2.5 in the app for a while after.

Here are a few examples of how the sensors reacted to different events — and what the reaction suggests…

Cleaning products can temporarily spike tVOC levels:

 

Changing bed sheets can also look pretty disturbing…   

 

An evening BBQ on a nearby roof terrace appears much, much worse though:

 

And opening the balcony door to the street on a busy Saturday afternoon is just… insane… 

 

Uh-oh, algorithm malfunction…

After a few minutes of leaving the balcony door open one fateful Saturday afternoon, which almost instantly sent the unit into max fan speed overdrive, I was surprised to find the fan still blasting away an hour later, and then three hours later, and at bedtime, and in the morning. By which point I thought something really didn’t seem right.

The read from the app showed the pollution level had dropped down from the very high spike but it was still being rated as ‘polluted’ — a level which keeps the fan at the top speed. So I started to suspect something had misfired.

This is where being able to switch to manual is essential — meaning I could override the algorithm’s conviction that the air was really bad and dial the fan down to a lower setting.

That override provided a temporary ‘fix’ but the unnaturally elevated ‘pollution’ read continued for the best part of a week. This made it look like the whole sensing capacity had broken. And without the ability to automatically adapt to changing pollution levels the smart air purifier was now suddenly dumb…

 

It turned out Blueair has a fix for this sort of algorithmic malfunction. Though it’s not quick.

After explaining the issue to the company, laying out my suspicion that the sensors weren’t reading correctly, it told me the algorithms are programmed to respond to this type of situation by reseting around seven days after the event, assuming the read accuracy hasn’t already corrected itself by then.

Sure enough, almost a week later that’s exactly what happened. Though I couldn’t find anything to explain this might happen in the user manual, so it would be helpful if they include it in a troubleshooting section.

Here’s the month view showing the crazy PM 2.5 spike; the elevated extended (false) reading; then the correction; followed finally by (relatively) normal service…

 

For a while after this incident the algorithms also seemed overly sensitive — and I had to step in again several times to override the top gear setting as its read on pollution levels was back into the yellow without an obvious reason why.

When the level reads ‘polluted’ it automatically triggers the highest fan speed. Paradoxically, this sometimes seems to have the self-defeating effect of appearing to draw dust up into the air — thereby keeping the PM 2.5 level elevated. So at times manually lowering the fan when it’s only slightly polluted can reduce pollution levels quicker than just letting it blast away. Which is one product niggle.

When viewed in the app the sustained elevated pollution level did look pretty obviously wrong — to the human brain at least. So, like every ‘smart’ device, this one also benefits from having human logic involved to complete the loop.

Concluding thoughts after a month’s use

A few weeks on from the first algorithm malfunction the unit’s sensing capacity at first appeared to have stabilized — in that it was back to the not-so-hair-trigger-sensitivity that had been the case prior to balcony-door-gate.

For a while it seemed less prone to have a sustained freak out over relatively minor domestic activities like lifting clean sheets out of the cupboard, as if it had clicked into a smoother operating grove. Though I remained wary of trying the full bore Saturday balcony door.

I thought this period of relative tranquility might signal improved measurement accuracy, the learning algos having been through not just an initial training cycle but a major malfunction plus correction. Though of course there was no way to be sure.

It’s possible there had also been a genuine improvement in indoor air quality — i.e. as a consequence of, for example, better ventilation habits and avoiding key pollution triggers because I now have real-time air quality feedback to act on so can be smarter about when to open windows, where to shake sheets, which type of cat litter to buy and so on.

It’s a reassuring idea. Though one that requires putting your faith in algorithms that are demonstrably far from perfect. Even when they’re functioning they’re a simplification and approximation of what’s really going on. And when they fail, well, they are clearly getting it totally wrong.

Almost bang on the month mark of testing there was suddenly another crazy high PM 2.5 spike.

One rainy afternoon the read surged from ‘good’ to ‘highly polluted’ without any real explanation. I had opened a patio on the other side of the apartment but it does not open onto a street. This time the reading stuck at 400 even with the fan going full blast. So it looked like an even more major algorithm crash…

Really clean air is impossible to mistake. Take a walk in the mountains far from civilization and your lungs will thank you. But cleaner air is harder for humans to quantify. Yet, increasingly, we do need to know how clean or otherwise the stuff we’re breathing is, as more of us are packed into cities exposed to each others’ fumes — and because the harmful health impacts of pollution are increasingly clear.

Without radical policy interventions we’re fast accelerating towards a place where we could be forced to trust sensing algorithms to tell us whether what we’re breathing is harmful or not.

Machines whose algorithms are fallible and might be making rough guestimates, and/or prone to sensing malfunctions. And machines that also won’t be able to promise to make the air entirely safe to breathe. Frankly it’s pretty scary to contemplate.

So while I can’t now imagine doing without some form of in-home air purifier to help manage my urban pollution risk — I’d definitely prefer that this kind of smart hardware wasn’t necessary at all.

In Blueair’s case, the company clearly still has work to do to improve the robustness of its sensing algorithms. Operating conditions for this sort of product will obviously vary widely, so there’s loads of parameters for its algorithms to balance.

With all that stuff to juggle it just seems a bit too easy for the sensing function to spin out of control.

10-second take

The good

Easy to set up, thoughtful product design, including relatively clear in-app controls and content which lets you understand pollution triggers to manage risk. Embedded air quality sensors greatly extend the product’s utility by enabling autonomous response to changes in pollution levels. Quiet operation during regular conditions. Choice of automated or manual fan speed settings. Filtration is powerful and since using the device indoor air quality does seem cleaner.

The bad

Sensing accuracy is not always reliable. The algorithms appear prone to being confused by air pressure changes indoors, such as a large window being opened which can trigger unbelievably high pollution readings that lead to an extended period of inaccurate readings when you can’t rely on the automation to work at all. I also found the feedback in the app can sometimes lag. App content/features are on the minimalist side so you may want more detail. When the pollution level is marginal an elevated fan speed can sometimes appear to challenge the efficacy of the filtration as if it’s holding pollution levels in place rather than reducing them.

Bottom line

If you’re looking for a smart air purifier the Blueair Classic 480i does have a lot to recommend it. Quiet operation, ease of use and a tangible improvement in air quality, thanks to powerful filtration. However the accuracy of the sensing algorithms does pose a dilemma. For me this problem has recurred twice in a month. That’s clearly not ideal when it takes a full week to reset. If it were not for this reliability issue I would not hesitate to recommend the product, as — when not going crazy — the real-time feedback it provides really helps you manage a variety of pollution risks in and around your home. Hopefully the company will work on improving the stability of the algorithms. Or at least offer an option in the app so you can manually reset it if/when it does go wrong.

Growth, Kubernetes, rocket launches, gender in tech, and more Luckin Coffee

Housekeeping & Extra Crunch 20% event discount reminder

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How to see another company’s growth tactics, and try them yourself

Growth marketer and founder of BellCurve.com Julian Shapiro published his third article on Extra Crunch, exploring how to analyze your startup’s competitors to figure out their growth tactics. He explores how to see a company’s A/B tests, ad spend, keyword optimization and other areas for competitive analysis.

Which public US universities graduate the most funded founders?

A lot of students attend public universities to lessen the financial burden of higher education. At last tally, tuition and fees at American public colleges and universities averaged around $6,800 a year, per the federal government. That’s far below the $32,600 mean price tag for private, nonprofit institutions.

Yet when it comes to public universities, the old adage “you get what you pay for” clearly does not apply. Leading public research universities in particular have a track record of turning out enviably knowledgeable and successful graduates. That includes a whole lot of funded startup founders.

And that leads us to our latest ranking. At Crunchbase News, we’ve been tracking the intersection of alumni affiliation and startup funding for the past few years. In a story published earlier this week, we looked at which U.S. universities graduated the most founders of startups that raised $1 million or more in roughly the past year.

For today’s follow-up, we’re focusing exclusively on public universities. Starting with a list of top-ranking research universities, we looked to see which have graduated the highest number of funded founders.

For the most part, we used the same criteria as the public-and-private list, focusing on startups that raised $1 million or more after May, 2018. The public list, however, does not separate out business school grads.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

Key findings

Looking at the list above, a few things stand out. First, our top ranker, University of California at Berkeley, is multiples above the rest of the field when it comes to graduating funded founders.

Berkeley is a school that’s generally hard to get into, prominent in STEM and located in the VC-rich San Francisco Bay Area. So seeing it top the list isn’t necessarily surprising. However, the magnitude of its lead — with nearly three times the funded founders of runner-up UCLA — does warrant attention.

Big Midwestern schools also did well, with University of Michigan and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign nabbing the third and fourth spots.

More broadly, the list includes schools from all U.S. regions, including the East Coast, West Coast, South, Midwest and Southwest. So no particular region has a lock on graduating funded entrepreneurs. That’s also not surprising. But it’s good to have some more numbers to back up that notion.

Startups Weekly: VCs are drunk on beverage startups

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s most noteworthy venture deals, fundraises, M&A transactions and trends. Let’s take a quick moment to catch up. Last week, I wrote about an alternative to venture capital called revenue-based financing and before that, I jotted down some notes on one of VCs’ favorite spaces: cannabis tech. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

This week, I want to share some thoughts — questions, rather — on beverages. Just as my inbox has been full of cannabis-related pitches, it’s also been packed with descriptions of new…drinks. Perhaps the most noted so far is Liquid Death, canned water for the punk rock crowd, because why not? Liquid Death has attracted nearly $2 million in funding from angel investors like Away co-founder Jen Rubio and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Before I tell you about a few other up-and-coming beverage makers, I must beg the question: Does the beverage industry need disrupting?

Founders say yes. Why? For one, because millennials, according to various studies, are consuming less alcohol than previous generations and are therefore seeking non-alcoholic beverage alternatives. Enter Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, for example. Or Haus, launching this summer, an all-natural apéritif distilled from grapes that has a lower alcohol content than most hard liquors. Haus, like any good consumer startup in 2019, is shipped directly to your door.

Bev, a canned wine business that recently raised $7 million in seed funding from Founders Fund, thinks marketing in the alcohol industry is the problem. Founder Alix Peabody designed a line of female-focused canned rosé. If you’re wondering why alcohol needs to be gendered in such a way, you’re not alone. Peabody explained most alcohol brands cater to men, and that’s a problem.

“The joke I like to make is there’s a go-to type of alcohol for every type of bro and we just don’t have that for women,” Peabody told TechCrunch earlier this year.

Finally, the wellness movement is taking over, driving VCs toward some odd upstarts. From wellness chat and journaling apps to therapy substitutes to fitness companies, stick wellness in a pitch and investors will take a second look. More Labs, for example, is backed with $8 million in VC funding. The company is readying the launch of Liquid Focus, a biohacking-beverage that claims to “solve modern-day stressors without the negative side effects.” Finally, Elements, “an elevated functional wellness beverage formulated with clinical levels of adaptogens to give your body exactly what it needs in four categories (focus, vitality, calm, and rest) for specific cognitive functions” (damn, what copy), recently launched. It doesn’t appear to be funded yet, but let’s just give it a few months.

There’s more where that came from, but I’m done for now. On to other news.

IPO Corner

I almost skipped IPO corner this week because no big-name companies dropped or amended their S-1s or completed a highly anticipated IPO, as has been the case basically every week of 2019. But I decided I better give a quick update on Luckin Coffee’s tough second week on the stock market. Luckin Coffee, if you aren’t familiar, is Starbucks’ Chinese rival. The company raised more than $550 million after pricing at $17 per share a little over a week ago. Immediately the stock skyrocketed 20 percent to a roughly $5 billion market cap; then came concerns of the company’s lofty valuation, major cash burn and uncertain path to profitability.  Luckin has dropped around 25 percent since closing its debut trading day. It closed Friday down 3 percent.

More changes at Y Combinator

Y Combinator, the popular accelerator program and investment firm announced this week that it has promoted longtime partner Geoff Ralston to president. This comes two months after former president Sam Altman stepped down to focus his efforts full-time on OpenAI. The promotion of Ralston is an unsurprising choice for YC, an organization that employs roughly 60 people, many of whom have been affiliated with it in one way or another for years.

M&A

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Shopify quietly acquires Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing 

Streem buys Selerio in an effort to boost its AR conferencing tech

As Amex scoops up Resy, a look at its acquisition history 

Fundraising

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger this week as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announced its sophomore investment fund. Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

Startup capital

DoorDash raises $600M at a $12.7B valuation
TransferWise completes $292M secondary round at a $3.5B valuation
Auth0 raises $103M, pushes its valuation over $1B
Canva gets $70M at a $2.5B valuation
Payment card startup Marqeta confirms $260M round at close to $2B valuation
Modsy scores $37M to virtually design your home
Sun Basket whips up $30M Series E
Zero raises $20M from NEA for a credit card that works like debit
Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another great week of interesting deep dives. This week, TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney went deep on Getaround’s acquisition of Drivy for his latest installment of The Exit, a new series at TechCrunch where we chat with VCs who were in the right place at the right time and made the right call on an investment that paid off. Here are some of the other Extra Crunch pieces that stood out this week:

Equity

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss how startups are avoiding IPOs and VC’s insatiable interest in food delivery startups.

China’s largest chipmaker is delisting from the Nasdaq

The U.S-China trade war is increasingly influencing tech. Huawei has suffered a turbulent past week with key suppliers pausing work with the company, and now China’s largest chipmaker is planning to delist from the New York Stock Exchange.

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) announced in a filing published Friday that it plans to delist next month ending a 15-year spell as a public company in the U.S. The firm will file a Form 25 to delist on June 3, which is likely to see it leave the NYSE around ten days later. SMIC, which is backed by the Chinese government and state-owned shareholders, will focus on its existing Hong Kong listing going forward but there will be trading options for those holding U.S-based ADRs.

In its announcement, SMIC said it plans to delist for reasons that include limited trading volumes and “significant administrative burden and costs” around the listing and compliance with reporting.

What it doesn’t say is that this is linked to the frosty relationship between the U.S. and China, and already the company has played that rationale.

“SMIC has been considering this migration for a long time and it has nothing to do with the trade war and Huawei incident. The migration requires a long preparation and timing has coincided with the current trade rhetoric, which may lead to misconceptions,” a spokesperson told CNBC.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the current context. Huawei’s entry to a U.S. blacklist has paused its relationship with key suppliers including ARM, Qualcomm, Intel and Google, which supplies the Android OS for its phones, so SMIC’s decision to remove its financial links to the U.S. fees into fears of a bifurcation of U.S. and Chinese tech, deliberate or not.

SMIC’s shares dropped 4 percent in Hong Kong on Friday. Trading of its U.S-based ADRs crossed one million on Friday, that’s well above an above 90-day volume of nearly 150,000 per day.

The company is China’s largest chip firm, specializing in integrated circuit manufacturing with clients such as Qualcomm, Broadcom and Texas Instruments. SMIC made a profit of $746.7 million in 2018 on revenues of $3.36 billion. Its most recent Q1 results released earlier this month saw revenue fall 19 percent year-on-year.

There has always been tension around Chinese companies using U.S. public markets to go public, and not just from an American standpoint. Chinese companies are increasingly exploring other options, including Hong Kong — where Xiaomi went public last year — while a-soon-to-launch ‘science and tech’ board in Shanghai is hotly touted as an alternative destination.

The board launches in pilot mode next month, but already Chinese bankers and tech companies have found it challenging to deliver on expectations, as a Reuters report earlier this year concluded.

Business author Julian Guthrie on the biggest difference between ‘alpha’ men and women

If you’ve been out and about in Silicon Valley in the last month or so, chances are you’ve heard of “Alpha Girls,” a new book written by longtime journalist Julian Guthrie about four investors who’ve made a big impact on the world of startup investing. The book recognizes them — Theresia Gouw, MJ Elmore, Sonja Hoel Perkins, and Magdalena Yesil — because they are interesting individuals, each with very different upbringings and skill sets and areas of expertise.

But they also succeeded in the venture industry during a time when they were almost always the only woman in the room, or at the conference, or in the middle of a team-building event. Elmore signed on with IVP in 1982,  becoming a general partner by age 28. Yesil cofounded the dot com high-flier CyberCash before joining USVP as a partner in 1988. Perkins’s star also rose quickly. By age 29, she was a general partner at Menlo Ventures, staying nearly 22 years before launching her own venture fund. Down the street, Gouw was building a track record at Accel, where she spent 15 years before cofounding her own firm in 2014, Aspect Ventures.

We talked with Guthrie earlier today about how these so-called alpha women differ from the many other subjects Guthrie has spent time with across her 20-year reporting career with the San Francisco Chronicle, during which time she also authored books about Larry Ellison and Peter Diamandis. We wondered how much time she spent with each. (“I think they were ready to block my calls and texts,” she laughed.) We wondered how long she worked on the book (roughly two years, including interviews with the women and the colleagues and their partners and the founders they’ve funded, among others).

But what we even more wanted to know was whether after working on the book, Guthrie views the venture industry as any more or less welcoming to women than at the outset of her research. “It is not as bad as it’s portrayed, in my opinion,” Guthrie told us. “There are success stories.” Still, Guthrie noted that each of these investors had to grapple with much that a man might not.

Some of these were mundane but constant considerations, including, “Should you take notes or not? When do you speak up? How do you network? Do you go to these boondoggles when it’s all guys?” Said Guthrie, “Some of these things were shocking to me, coming from my own very gender-neutral experience as a reporter.”

Yet there were other ways they had to alter themselves. She says Elmore quickly learned that if she wore a dress to a board meeting, for example, it would elicit compliments that weren’t necessarily expected, so she soon cut her hair and began wearing suits. Meanwhile, Perkins and Gouw participated in male-dominated events on the theory that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. For Perkins, this meant skiing alongside former Navy Seals when she was still a relative novice on the slopes. For Gouw, it was getting elbowed in the stomach during a competitive game of flag football. It was “not so much about emulating men but steering the spotlight away from their femininity, so it didn’t become a distraction,” Guthrie told us.

Interestingly, one of the more fundamental ways the women seemed to differ from their male colleagues was in their dealings with Guthrie herself, she said. She noted that many of the men she has interviewed — including Ellison, Diamandis, Richard Branson and Elon Musk — have been “happy to talk about their vulnerabilities, because it kind of rounds them out. It softens them in a nice way.” She observed that women who’ve enjoyed success meanwhile have a “much harder time sharing their mistakes, their regrets, their vulnerabilities.” Because women are often provided less room for missteps — or they perceive that they have less room, “I had to tell [the investors] again and again that it was important that we tell the good, bad, and ugly — not because I was seeking scandal but because I wanted these stories to be honest.”

Before we parted ways, we asked Guthrie about women and money, after she volunteered that it’s a “tricky issue for women. If you go after too much, you’re greedy; if you marry someone with money, you’re a gold digger.”

She pointed to a Forbes piece from last summer that called Gouw “America’s richest female venture capitalist.” Gouw apparently felt uneasy about the story and participated in it mostly to draw attention to her work with the advocacy organization she helped cofound, called AllRaise.  But as Gouw told Guthrie, it’s had a somewhat surprising impact. “She was a serious player before, but it kind of gave her street cred” with those who pay attention to Forbes’s Midas List and other forms of score-keeping.

It’s a good thing, suggests Guthrie, who has been promoting her book to women in numerous industries, including in homebuilding and law and in medicine. “You see the same barriers across them all,” Guthrie said. “But you’re also seeing these women’s groups and networks becoming more powerful across all these industries, where women are speaking out and creating these sisterhoods.”

They’re agreeing to more hard-earned self-promotion, too. They see it as an increasingly competitive tool, and, as Guthrie puts it, “It’s not boasting when it’s based on fact.”

Pictured above, left to right: Theresia Gouw, Sonja Perkins, MJ Elmore, Magdalena Yesil, and Julian Guthrie.

Uber’s first employee Ryan Graves resigns from board

Ryan Graves, a longtime Uber employee and former chief executive officer, has resigned from the company’s board of directors, effective Monday.

The newly-public company announced the departure on Friday afternoon. Ron Sugar, the company’s independent chairperson of the board, wrote in the filing that Graves was key in shaping what Uber is today. 

“As a thoughtful and engaged director, Ryan has continued to add value to Uber, offering insights and judgments that have helped us navigate the ups and downs of the business as we have grown over the past decade,” Sugar wrote. “While this is a bittersweet moment, we accept his personal decision that this is the right time for him to step down. Dara and I are grateful for his contributions to Uber’s success and wish him all the best going forward.”

Graves, who currently leads the investment firm Saltwater Capital, joined Uber in 2010 after co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted that he was “Looking 4 entrepreneurial product mgr/biz-dev killer 4 a location based service.” Graves responded to the request and the rest is history.

Graves served as the up-and-coming ridehail business’s CEO for a brief stint in 2010, helping officially launch the service and raise its first round of capital. He was the company’s senior vice president of global operations from 2011 to 2017, before stepping down nearly two years ago, mere months after Kalanick resigned.

News of Graves board resignation comes weeks after Uber completed a long-awaited initial public offering. The business (NYSE: UBER), valued at $72 billion by venture capitalists ahead of its float, priced its stock at $45 apiece in an early May offering. Uber began trading at $42 per share and has since floundered on the stock market. Uber closed down 2.6 percent Friday trading at just over $41 apiece.

According to Business Insider, Graves, a board member for nearly a decade, was expected to take home some $1 billion from the company’s IPO.

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