Cleo, the ‘digital assistant’ that replaces your banking apps, picks up $10M Series A led by Balderton

When Cleo, the London-based “digital assistant” that wants to replace your banking apps, quietly entered the U.S., the company couldn’t have expected to be an instant hit. Many better-funded British startups have failed to “break America.” However, just four months later, the fintech upstart counts 350,000 users across the pond — claiming more than 600,000 active users in the U.K., U.S. and Canada in total — and says it is adding 30,000 new signups each week. All of which hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors.

Already backed by some of the biggest VC names in the London tech scene — including Entrepreneur First, Moonfruit founder Wendy Tan White, Skype founder Niklas Zennström, Wonga founder Errol Damelin, TransferWise founder Taavet Hinrikus and LocalGlobe — Cleo is adding Balderton Capital to the list.

The European venture capital firm, which has previously invested in fintech unicorn Revolut and the well-established GoCardless, has led Cleo’s $10 million Series A round, in which I understand most early backers, including Zennström, also followed on. One source told me the Series A gives the hot London startup a post-money valuation of around £30 million (~$39.7m), although Cleo declined to comment.

In a call with co-founder and CEO Barney Hussey-Yeo, he explained that the new capital will be used to continue scaling the company, with further international expansion the name of the game. Hussey-Yeo says Cleo will be targeting Western Europe, the Americas and Australasia, aiming to launch in a whopping 22 countries in the next 12 months, as Cleo bids to become the “default interface” for millennials interacting and managing their money.

Primarily accessed via Facebook Messenger, the AI-powered chatbot gives insights into your spending across multiple accounts and credit cards, broken down by transaction, category or merchant. In addition, Cleo lets you take a number of actions based on the financial data it has gleaned. You can choose to put money aside for a rainy day or specific goal, send money to your Facebook Messenger contacts, donate to charity, set spending alerts and more.

However, in the context of traction and Cleo’s broader global ambitions, it is the decision not to become a bank in its own right that Hussey-Yeo feels is really beginning to bear fruit. His argument has always been that you don’t need to be a bank to become the primary way users interface with their finances, and that without the regulatory and capital burden that becoming a fully licensed bank brings, you can scale much more quickly. I have a feeling that strategy — and its pros and cons — has a long way to play out just yet.

Cult classic TV show Veronica Mars is Hulu’s latest resurrection

Article intro image

Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix seem to have all settled on one recipe for success: rebooting cult classic TV series that didn’t quite hit it big in their original broadcast runs. Netflix grabbed Arrested Development (for better or worse), Amazon picked up The Expanse, and Hulu saved Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Now Variety reports that Hulu is going for an even deeper cutVeronica Mars.

The cult-classic feminist crime drama premiered on UPN in 2004 and continued for three seasons. The last ran on The CW. Between its ties to struggling new broadcast networks and the fact that it was way too smart and had way too much social commentary for its own good—especially for a series that was framed as a teen show but that in a lot of ways really wasn’t—the series met an early mid-season demise with low ratings.

It found a cult following on DVD before the streaming hype hit full volume, and in 2013, creator Rob Thomas, star Kristen Bell, and others banded together to launch a Kicksarter campaign to follow it up with a feature film. That campaign raised $5.7 million compared to its target of $2 million and was, at the time, one of the most successful Kickstarters yet.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Scientists have moved one step closer to RNA editing, which could be the next stage of CRISPR

Researchers at the prestigious Salk Institute are reporting that they have managed to map the molecular structure of a CRISPR enzyme that could allow scientists to more precisely manipulate functions within cells.

Over the past several years, CRISPR-Cas9 has seized the public imagination for its ability to edit genetic code in a way that may correct defects inside individual cells — potentially healing mutations and preventing the advent of may illnesses.

Specifically Cas9 enzymes act sort of like scissors, snipping away pieces of genetic code and swapping them out with a replacement. But these enzymes target DNA, which is the fundamental building block for the development of an organism, and there are growing concerns that using the enzyme to essentially reprogram the DNA of a cell may cause more harm than good.

As this report in Scientific American illustrates:

Research published on Monday suggests that’s only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg: CRISPR-Cas9 can cause significantly greater genetic havoc than experts thought, the study concludes, perhaps enough to threaten the health of patients who would one day receive CRISPR-based therapy.

The results come hard on the heels of two studies that identified a related issue: Some CRISPR’d cells might be missing a key anti-cancer mechanism and therefore be able to initiate tumors.

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. The Cas9 nuclease protein uses a guide RNA sequence to cut DNA at a complementary site. Cas9 protein: white surface model. DNA fragments: blue ladder cartoon. RNA: red ladder cartoon. Photo courtesy Getty Images

The new findings from the Salk Institute, published in the journal Cellprovide the detailed molecular structure of CRISPR-Cas13d, an enzyme that can target RNA instead of DNA.

Once thought to just be the delivery mechanism for instructions encoded in DNA for cell operations, RNA is now known to carry out biochemical reactions like enzymes; and serve their own regulatory functions in cells. By identifying an enzyme that can target the mechanisms by which cells operate, rather than the overall plan for cellular function, scientists should be able to come up with even more highly refined treatments with fewer risks.

Put more simply, having editing tools can allow scientists to modify a gene’s activity without making permanent — and potentially dangerous — changes to the gene itself seems like a good option to explore.

“DNA is constant, but what’s always changing are the RNA messages that are copied from the DNA,” says Salk Research Associate Silvana Konermann, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna Gray Fellow and one of the study’s first authors, in a statement. “Being able to modulate those messages by directly controlling the RNA has important implications for influencing a cell’s fate.”

Researchers at Salk first identified the family of enzymes they’re calling CRISPR-Cas13d earlier this year and suggested that this alternate system could recognize and cut RNA. Their first work was around dementia treatment and the team showed that the tool could be used to correct protein imbalances in cells of dementia patients.

“In our previous paper, we discovered a new CRISPR family that can be used to engineer RNA directly inside of human cells,” said Helmsley-Salk Fellow Patrick Hsu, who is the other corresponding author of the new work. “Now that we’ve been able to visualize the structure of Cas13d, we can see in more detail how the enzyme is guided to the RNA and how it is able to cut the RNA. These insights are allowing us to improve the system and make the process more effective, paving the way for new strategies to treat RNA-based diseases.”

The paper’s other authors were Nicholas J. Brideau and Peter Lotfy of Salk; Xuebing Wu of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research; and Scott J. Novick, Timothy Strutzenberg and Patrick R. Griffin of The Scripps Research Institute, according to a statement.

As coal stalls, Wyoming considers new environmental clean-up rules

Dumptruck full of coal drives through strip mining area.

On Wednesday, Wyoming’s Land Quality Advisory Board voted to limit so-called “self-bonding” in the state, a practice that allows coal and other mining companies to avoid putting up any collateral to reclaim land when the company is done with the mine. The new proposed rules will go through a public comment period and then need to be signed by the governor of the state to take effect, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

The board’s passage of the proposed rules is somewhat surprising in a coal-heavy state, because it could potentially raise the cost of coal mining in Wyoming for some companies. However, there is political support for more stringent environmental rules after a number of coal companies filed for bankruptcy in recent years. Although no companies ended up abandoning mine cleanup to the state, the specter of hundreds of millions of dollars of cleanup in the event of another coal downturn has left regulators eager to limit how much damage the state could be on the hook for. The five-person advisory board voted 4-1 in favor of limiting self-bonding. The board member who voted against limits to self-bonding works for Peabody Energy, a major coal producer in the state.

The limits wouldn’t do away with self-bonding in Wyoming. Instead, to qualify for self-bonding, a coal company would have to have a strong credit-rating and would be expected to run the mine for at least five more years. The Star-Tribune notes that credit ratings for coal firms also factor in the health of the market, so the state of Wyoming wouldn’t have to independently evaluate the larger economic risks to a mine going under.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Amazon introduces APL, a new design language for building Alexa skills for devices with screens

Along with the launch of the all-new Echo Show, the Alexa-powered device with a screen, Amazon also introduced a new design language for developers who want to build voice skills that include multimedia experiences. Called Alexa Presentation Language, or APL, developers will be able to build voice-based apps that also include things like images, graphics, slideshows, and video, and easily customize them for different device types – including not only the Echo Show, but other Alexa-enabled devices like Fire TV, Fire Tablet, and the small screen of the Alexa alarm clock, the Echo Spot.

In addition, third-party devices with screens will be able to take advantage of APL through the Alexa Smart Screen and TV Device SDK, arriving in the months ahead.

Voice-based skill experiences can sometimes feel limited because of their lack of a visual component. For example, a cooking skill would work better if it just showed the steps as Alexa guided users through them. Other skills could simply benefit from visual cues or other complementary information, like lists of items.

The new language was built from the ground-up specifically for adapting Alexa skills for different screen-based, voice-first experiences.

At launch, APL supports experiences that include text, graphics, and slideshows, with video support coming soon. Developers could do things like sync the on-screen text and images with Alexa’s spoken voice. Plus, the new skills built with this language could allow for both voice commands as well as input through touch or remote controls, if available.

The language is also designed to be flexible in terms of the placement of the graphics or other visual elements, so companies can adhere to their brand guidelines, Amazon says. And it’s adaptable to many different types of screen-based devices, including those with different sized screens or varying memory or processing capabilities.

When introducing the new language at an event in Seattle this morning, Amazon said that APL will feel familiar to anyone who’s used to working with front-end development, as it adheres to universally understood styling practices and using similar syntax.

Amazon is also providing sample APL documents to help developers get started, which can be used as-is or can be modified. Developers can choose to build their own from scratch, as well.

These APL documents are JSON files sent from a skill to a device. The device will then evaluate the document, import the images and other data, then render the experience. Developers can use elements like images, text, and scrollviews, pages, sequences, layouts, conditional expressions, speech synchronization, and other commands. Support for video, audio and HTML5 are coming soon.

“This year alone, customers have interacted with visual skills hundreds of millions of times. You told us you want more design flexibility -in both content and layout – and the ability to optimize experiences for th growing family of Alexa devices with screens,” said Nedium Fresko, VP of Alexa Devices and Developer Technologies, in a statement. “With the Alexa Presentation Language, you can unleash your creativity and build interactive skills that adapt to the unique characteristics of Alexa Smart Screen devices,” he said.

A handful of skills have already put APL to use, including a CNBC skill that show a graph of stock performance; Big Sky that shows images to accompany its weather forecasts; NextThere, which lets you view public transit schedules; Kayak, which shows slideshows of travel destinations, Food Network, which shows recipes, and several others.

Alexa device owners will be able to use these APL-powered skills staring next month.

Top drone: Reaper scores drone kill in air-to-air missile test

Article intro image

The US Air Force has revealed that an MQ-9 Reaper uncrewed aircraft successfully shot down a smaller drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile in a test last November. The details, provided by Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing, came in an interview with Military.com at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in Washington, DC, yesterday.

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command has been exploring ways to arm the MQ-9 with air-to-air weapons since 2003. That was when the Air Force was preparing to issue a contract to General Atomics for the uncrewed aircraft, which was known at the time as the Predator-B. Much of the problem has been that the MQ-9, which is flown over a satellite communications link by Air Force operators, lacks the kind of sensors a fighter aircraft would use to track and target other aircraft. Its Lynx multimode radar is a synthetic aperture radar intended for tracking surface targets on land and sea and for providing ground imaging—but not for searching for other aircraft. Its other sensors (other than navigational cameras) were intended for tracking things below as well. And the MQ-9 lacks the sort of electronic-warfare sensors and countermeasures of crewed combat aircraft.

However, the Reaper’s Multispectral Targeting System (MTS) has proven to be usable for tracking some types of flying targets. In 2016, the latest version of MTS, the MTS-C, successfully tracked missile launches in a test conducted by the Missile Defense Agency. The MTS-C added long-wave infrared to the short and medium infrared wavelength sensors used in previous versions, allowing the sensor to track “cold body” objects.

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Hulu is making a new season of ‘Veronica Mars’

It’s official: Hulu is reviving the cult mystery series “Veronica Mars”.

The show originally ran from 2004 to 2007 on UPN and the CW, with the titular high school sleuth played by Kristen Bell. Last month, there were reports that Hulu was in talks to bring the show back. Now it looks like a deal is in place, with Bell confirming the news on Instagram.

Hulu says it’s placed a straight-to-series order for eight more episodes of the show, with Bell returning as Veronica and serving as executive producer alongside creator Rob Thomas (who’s writing the first episode) and writers Diane Ruggiero-Wright and Dan Etheridge.

Apparently the story will return viewers to the Southern California town of Neptune, where spring breakers are getting murdered, fueling conflict between the town’s haves and have nots and ultimately pulling Mars Investigations onto the case.

Hulu also says it’s picked up the rights to the three existing seasons of “Veronica Mars”, along with the feature film, to start streaming in summer 2019. If you haven’t watched the show, I highly recommend it — especially the first season, which offers a near perfect combination of noir-ish mystery, class conflict and personal drama.

I was less impressed by less impressed by the Kickstarter-funded movie, which suffered from trying to stuff everything fans might possibly want into a two-hour runtime. Hopefully, Thomas and his team learned from the experience. Plus, these eight episodes should give them a lot more room to tell their story.

Senate can’t protect senators, staff from cyber attacks, Wyden warns

Photograph of US Capitol building.

Sen. Ron Wyden has been a squeaky wheel about the US Senate’s weak security posture for a while. In April, the Oregon Democrat raised objections over the lax physical security measures for Senate staff—including ID badges that just have pictures of smart chips like those on other access cards used across government agencies, rather than actual chips, and provide no access controls. Now, as the November mid-term election approaches, Wyden has written a letter to Senate leadership decrying the lack of assistance that the Senate’s own information security team can provide in protecting senators’ accounts and devices from targeted attacks, even as evidence mounts that such attacks are being staged.

According to Wyden, his office had discovered that “at least one major technology company” had recently detected targeted attacks against members of the Senate and their staffers—and that these attacks had apparently been staged by groups tied to foreign intelligence agencies.

Microsoft reported thwarting spear-phishing attacks staged by a group tied to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) against members of the Senate in August. And the US Senate’s own systems have been targeted in the past, including a June 2017 effort by the same GRU group (known as “Fancy Bear,” “Pawnstorm,” and “Sofacy”) that created a server spoofing the Senate’s own Windows Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS), according to a report from Trend Micro.

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments