Pennsylvania governor opposes tax dollars for refinery restart

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf does not support using public funds to help save the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex from permanent closure after a massive fire last month, the governor’s spokesman said on Wednesday.

Exclusive: New chemical weapons team to launch first Syria investigations

A new team established by the global chemical weapons watchdog to attribute blame for the use of banned munitions in Syria will investigate nine alleged attacks during the country’s civil war, including in the town of Douma, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.

Second judge blocks Justice Dept. bid for new legal team in census case

A U.S. judge in Maryland on Wednesday rejected a Department of Justice request to replace its legal team in cases concerning the 2020 census, the second time in two days a federal judge has stymied the government’s attempt to bring in new lawyers.

Virgin Orbit performs a successful drop test of its LauncherOne rocket launch system

Richard Branson-backed space startup Virgin Orbit has completed a key step along its path to launching satellites for commercial customers. The company held a successful “drop test” of its LauncherOne rocket, in which the crucial piece of its launch system was released in a free fall from its Boeing 747-based launch aircraft (nicknamed “Cosmic Girl”).

LauncherOne was released from a height of 35,000 feet, which is a typical cruising altitude for commercial aeroplanes, which is where it would be during an actual launch. Virgin Orbit’s model flies its rocket to this altitude before engaging the engine, which is a lot more energy and cost-efficient versus launching the rocket from the ground (which is what SpaceX does, for instance).

During this test, the LauncherOne rocket did not engage its engine (and in fact, it’s a full-scale dummy rocket rather than a real one) once it detached from the wing of the modified 747, which is what it would do if this was an actual launch. Instead, it fell 35,000 feet to the ground, where it impacted in a planned drop zone at Edward’s Air Force Base in the Mojave desert.

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All of this was to plan, as the main focus of this drop test was to study the separation of the rocket from the launch aircraft’s wing, and to gather a number of sensor readings about how the rocket behaves when it’s falling freely through the air.

Virgin Orbit is part of Virgin’s duo of space companies, which also includes Virgin Galactic (which announced its intention to become a publicly traded company earlier this week). Orbit’s specific focus is offering an affordable option for smallsat launches, a market where it’ll compete with Rocket Lab, which is using a more traditional ground-based rocket launch model.

Fintech in Latin America continues to draw big dollars as Softbank invests $231 million in Creditas

As investors continue to move more aggressively into Latin America’s startup scene, there’s one industry that seems to be drawing more attention than any others — financial services.

As wealth across the region continues to rise, access to adequate financial services — specifically debt — has become a pain-point for an upwardly mobile middle class that wants to be more entrepreneurial and have more financial tools than straight cash at their disposal.

That’s what’s driven companies like Nubank, the Brazilian consumer credit card behemoth, to valuations of roughly $4 billion; and it’s also what contributed to Creditas, a provider of secured loans, raking in $231 million in new financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund and SoftBank Group. Previous investors Vostok Emerging Finance, Santander InnoVentures and Amadeus Capital also participated in the round. 

Founded by Sergio Furio in 2012, the company started as an originator of loans to Brazilian customers who were willing to offer up collateral in exchange for lower interest rates on their debt. Back in 2017, the company became more of a fully integrated lender for the entire process.

Thanks to investments from local and international investment firms including Kaszek Ventures, Quona’s Accion Frontier Fund, Redpoint eVentures, QED Investors, Naspers Fintech, International Finance Corporation and Endeavor’s Catalyst fund, the company became one of Brazil’s largest new financial services startups.

Expect the company to use the new cash to expand its product portfolio and try to offer new lines of credit that it would issue itself — perhaps by trying to enter new businesses like unsecured consumer lending and credit cards.

If it does make its way into unsecured side of the lending market, that would put the company squarely in competition with Nubank (which was reportedly in discussions with Creditas’ lead investor, SoftBank, about an investment earlier this year).

“At Creditas we relentlessly focus on creating an amazing experience that provides efficiency and lower prices to democratize the access to low-cost lending in Brazil. With these investments, we plan to accelerate this process and expand our business model in order to improve the lives of the Brazilian population,” said Sergio Furio, Founder and CEO of Creditas, in a statement.

As a result of the investment, representatives from the SoftBank Vision Fund and SoftBank Latin America Fund will join Creditas’ Board of Directors.

Mysterious illness that paralyzes healthy kids prompts plea from CDC

13-year-old boy recovering in a Denver hospital from a suspected case of human enterovirus 68 during a 2014 outbreak.

After a record number of cases in 2018 of a rare, puzzling illness that causes paralysis in otherwise healthy kids, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging doctors to hasten reporting and boost data collection before the next big wave of illness hits—which is expected in 2020.

The illness is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, and is marked by the sudden onset of limb weakness (usually upper limb), paralysis, and spinal lesions seen on MRI scans. It most often occurs in children. It’s unclear what causes it and why instances are increasing—though officials suspect that a relative of poliovirus is involved. There is no specific treatment, and doctors can’t predict how affected patients will fare; some regain muscle strength and recover full use of paralyzed limbs over time, some don’t. In rare cases, AFM can cause respiratory failure and death.

AFM first gained attention in 2014, when health officials noted a spike in the polio-like condition nationwide and began carefully documenting cases. Since then, health officials have seen a distinct every-other-year pattern to the illness.

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Waymo has now driven 10 billion autonomous miles in simulation

Alphabet’s Waymo autonomous driving company announced a new milestone at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility on Wednesday: 10 billion miles driving in simulation. This is a significant achievement for the company, because all those simulated miles on the road for its self-driving software add up to considerable training experience.

Waymo also probably has the most experience when it comes to actual, physical road miles driven – the company is always quick to point out that it’s been doing this far longer than just about anyone else working in autonomous driving, thanks to its head start as Google’s self-driving car moonshot project.

“At Waymo, we’ve driven more than 10 million miles in the real world, and over 10 billion miles in simulation,” Waymo CTO Dmitri Dolgov told TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec on the Sessions: Mobility stage. “And the amount of driving you do in both of those is really a function of the maturity of your system, and the capability of your system. If you’re just getting started, it doesn’t matter – you’re working on the basics, you can drive a few miles or a few thousand or tens of thousands of miles in the real world, and that’s plenty to tell you and give you information that you need to know to improve your system.”

Dolgov’s point is that the more advanced your autonomous driving system becomes, the more miles you actually need to drive to have impact, because you’ve handled the basics and are moving on to edge cases, advanced navigation and ensuring that the software works in any and every scenario it encounters. Plus, your simulation becomes more sophisticated and more accurate as you accumulate real-world driving miles, which means the results of your virtual testing is more reliable for use back in your cars driving on actual roads.

This is what leads Dolgov to the conclusion that Waymo’s simulation is likely better than a lot of comparable simulation training at other autonomous driving companies.

“I think what makes it a good simulator, and what makes it powerful is two things,” Dolgov said on stage. “One [is] fidelity. And by fidelity, I mean, not how good it looks. It’s how well it behaves, and how representative it is of what you will encounter in the real world. And then second is scale.”

In other words, experience isn’t beneficial in terms of volume – it’s about sophistication, maturity and readiness for commercial deployment.

House Speaker Pelosi tells her Democrats to kill the tweets

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday urged unity among fellow Democrats in the face of battles over the direction of the party and warned members to ditch Twitter and keep their disagreements private.