Spotify alums create Canopy content suggester that won’t steal your data

Personalization comes at a steep price. All your data gets sucked up into a company’s servers where they can do whatever they want with it. But Canopy is a new content discovery startup that’s invented impressive technology that lets it learn about you anonymously while all your data stays on your device. Built by the co-founder and CTO of Echo Nest, the music data startup Spotify acquired to power its recommendations, Canopy wants to turn privacy into a competitive advantage. It plans to equip any content app with its tech that crunches your biographical and behavior data on your phone or computer so all it sends along are clues to what you want to see or hear next.

But first, Canopy will launch its own proof of concept app early next year that suggests long-form articles and podcasts based on your taste and activity. “There hasn’t been a great solution to private discovery. We think the reason people haven’t been excited about privacy is that they haven’t seen the opportunities” says Canopy founder and CEO Brian Whitman. “We are totally changing the value exchange of the internet” adds Canopy’s head of product strategy and former Spotify Director Of Music Publishing Annika Goldman. Matrix Partners is betting on Canopy’s privacy-safe vision for the future, leading a $4.5 million seed round for the startup.

That seems wise considering Whitman built one of the world’s most beloved content recommendation engines: Spotify’s Discover Weekly. “I’ve been doing music recommendation stuff since 2000” Whitman tells me. He left in 2015, and started to become disallusioned about “how much power we had put in algorithmic decision making and personalization. All your information goes to their servers.” Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal only confirmed his views. “All this data is now being used against people. You’re getting bad recommendations, bad ads, and people are being radicalized.”

A year or two ago he started discussing the idea of building a content recommendation engine that didn’t require your actual data as inputs. He came up with a solution where “Instead of sending thousands of data points to the server we can keep all that personal data on your phone” Goldman explains. “Take Spotify for example. You listen to a song. It knows where you listened to that, it know how long you listened to it, it knows what you did next — all this stuff they don’t need to know to make music recommendations. We condense and summarize all that information and send it as a single vector – a effectively a summary of things you might like and we make it impossible to reverse engineer the vector to understand the data behind it.”

She likens the system to a model of the content world on Canopy’s servers. Rather than sending it your past activity, personal info, and intentions, it just sends a set of coordinates of where you want the recommendations to go next. The 11-person Canopy team is now building out its app that will ask you questions and watch your consumption behavior to tune its suggestions. Since podcasts and longer articles aren’t owned by any one service, they’re an easy starting point for Canopy, though it eventually hopes to be content agnostic. And since it never has to suck up your data, there’s no risk of it being stolen in a breach.

That’s a big selling point for Canopy’s software-as-a-service it plans to license its tech to other apps.”Being able to build a platform that can understand your data without the liability of user data is gamechanging” Whitman declares.

Still, the biggest question facing the company is “Do people really care about privacy?” Every day we learn of a new hack attack, data exposure, or company selling our private info, but we go right on surfing. Even Facebook’s growth rate has only dipped slightly in the wake of all its privacy troubles. But Goldman believes that’s because it’s become so overwhelming that people “have a head in the sand view on privacy. ‘Hh my god, all my data is out there. I’m at risk. What do I do about it?’ Well I want to give people a way to do something about it”. Namely, trust Canopy instead of the data grabbers.

But if people can’t be tought the value of privacy, it’s hard to see partners going to the trouble of buidling in Canopy’s system. Whitman admits that services would take a modest hit to their recommendation accuracy if they adopt Canopy. He’s hoping the long-term goodwill of users will offset that. On the horizon, he predicts “there’s a great awakening of awareness.”

Standard Cognition raises $40M to replace retailers’ cashiers with cameras

The Amazon Go store requires hundreds of cameras to detect who’s picking up what items. Standard Cognition needs just 27 to go after the $27 trillion market of equipping regular shops with autonomous retail technology.

Walk into one of its partners’ stores and overhead cameras identify you by shape and movement, not facial recognition. Open up its iOS or Android app and a special light pattern flashes, allowing the cameras to tie you to your account and payment method. Grab whatever you want, and just walk out. Standard Cognition will bill you. It even works without an app. Shop like normal and then walk up to kiosk screen, the cameras tell it what items you nabbed, and you can pay with cash or credit card. That means Standard Cognition stores never exclude anyone, unlike Amazon Go.

“Our tagline has been ‘rehumanizing retail’” co-founder Michael Suswal tells me. “We’re removing the machines that are between people: conveyor belts, cash registers, scanners…”

The potential to help worried merchants compete with Amazon has drawn a new $40 million Series A funding round to Standard Cognition, led by Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan’s Initialized Capital . CRV, Y Combinator, and Draper Associates joined the round that builds on the startup’s $11 million in seed funding. Just a year old, Standard Cognition already has 40 employees, but plans to hire 70 to 80 more over the next 6 months so it can speed up deployment to more partners. Suswal wouldn’t reveal Standard Cognition’s valuation but said the round was roughly in line with the traditional percentage startups sell in an A round, That’s usually about 20 to 25 percent, indicating the startup could be valued around $160 million to $200 million pre-money.

Instead of some lofty tech solution that requires a whole new store to be built around it, Standard Cognition gets retailers to pay for the capital expenditures to install its low number of ceiling cameras and a computer to run them. They can even alter their store layout without working with an engineer as they pay a monthly SAAS fee based on their store’s size, SKUs, and product changes.

Standard Cognition’s founding team

Amazon Go uses thousands of cameras to track what you pick up

Suswal tells me “Retailers’ two biggest complaints are long lines and poor customer service.” Standard Cognition lets stores eliminate the lines and reassign cashiers to become concierges who make sure customers find the perfect products. “It’s already fun to shop, but I think it’s going to become a lot more fun in the future” Suswal predicts.

Having seven co-founders is pretty atypical for startups, but it’s helped Standard Cognition move quickly. The crew came together while all working at the SEC. They’d meet up as part of a technology research group, discussing the latest findings on computer vision and machine learning. Suswal recalls that “After about a year, we said ‘if we were going to productize this somehow, what would we do?” They settled on retail, and narrowed it down to autonomous checkout. Then a bombshell dropped. Amazon Go, the first truly signficant cashierless store, was announced.

“We initially thought ‘oh no, this is bad.’ And then we quickly came to our senses that this was the best thing that could happen” Suswal explains. Retailers would be desperate for assistance to fight off Amazon. So the squad quit their jobs and started Standard Cognition.

In September, Standard Cognition opened a 1,900 sq ft flagship test store on Market St in San Francisco, besting Amazon to the punch. Customers can stuff items in their bags, reconsider and put some back, and stroll out of the store with no stop at the cashier. Standard Cognition claims its camera system is 99 percent accurate, and is trained to identify the suspicious movements and behavior of shoplifters.

The store is part of a sudden wave of autonomous retail startups including Zippen that opened the first one in SF, fellow Y Combinator startup Inokyo that launched a bare-bones pop-up in Mountain View, and Trigo Vision which is partnering with Israeli an grocery chain for more than 200 stores.

Now with plenty of capital and eager customers, Standard Cognition is equipping stores for its first four partners — all public companies. Three refuse to be named but include US grocery, drug store, and convenience store businesses. The fourth is Japan’s pharmacy chain Yakuodo. Standard Cognition is already working on its store mapping for its cameras and will begin camera installation next month, though it will be a little while until it opens.

Japan is the perfect market for Standard Cognition because their aging population has produced a labor shortage. “They literally can’t find people to work in their stores” Suswal explains. Autonomous checkout could keep Japanese retailers growing. And because 70 percent of transactions in Japan are cash-based, it also forced the startup to learn how to handle payments outside of its app. That could make Standard Cognition appealing for retailers that want to embrace the future without abandoning the past.

Getting long-running retail businesses to invest in evolving may be the startup’s biggest challenge. Since they have to pay up front for the installation, they’re gambling that the system will reliably increase sales or at least decrease labor costs. But if it makes their stores too confusing, they could see an exodus of customers instead of an influx.

As for Standard Cognition’s impact on the labor class, Suswal admits that “the major chains will have some reduction . . . no one is going to get fired but fewer people will get hired.” He believes his tech could actually save some jobs too. “I was walking around NYC talking to (small chains and mom-and-pop) retailers about problems they face, and an alarming number of them told me ‘we’re closing in a year. We’re closing in 6 months.’ And it was all tied to the next minimum wage hike” Suswal tells me.

Reducing labor costs could keep those shops viable. “These stores can stay open with a reduction of labor so people are keeping their jobs, not losing them” he claims. Whether that proves true will take some time, but at least Standard Cognition’s tech could incentivize merchants to retrain their clerks for more fulfilling roles as concierges.

Sweet Escape connects travelers to photographers for truly Insta-worthy holiday pics

The rise of smartphone cameras and social media in recent years has fuelled a new level of marking and sharing memories using photos, but one startup is betting that people are prepared to go the next level and spend money to hire professional photographers to make their photos even better.

Focused on travel, Sweet Escape is an Indonesia-based startup that to work with over 2,000 photographers across over 400 cities in some 100 countries. The idea is simple. If you’re traveling — overseas or locally — and want high quality photos of your trip, or just part of it, you can use Sweet Escape to find and book out a local snapper for you and your group.

Photo shoots last for two hours and are charged at $300, Sweet Escape founder David Soong told TechCrunch in an interview, while activities vary from regular holiday snaps, to weddings and honeymoons, proposals, anniversaries, family get-togethers, graduations and more. While he didn’t disclose revenue, Soong said the three-year-old business has seen its revenue grow by 8X over the last year.

Sweet Escape has raised $1 million to date, including a recent seed round in August. Now it is aiming to raise its Series A to broaden its global focus, starting with more offices in Southeast Asia, and go beyond travel customers.

Though the thought of forking out $500 for photos doesn’t immediately appeal to me — the ultimate social media humbug — it isn’t hard to imagine a large demographic of travelers are open to it. Particularly when that cost is shared across a group and the photos are far higher quality than your average camera or selfie stick-mounted phone.

Already, Sweet Escape claims to have served 10,000 customers. It encourages users to book in advance but it also offers last-minute matching to photographers, all of whom are tightly vetted, with the photos themselves returned within three days. That’s a figure that Soong said will drop to 24 hours next year thanks to Sweet Escape’s in-house team, which handles all editing for the photographers.

But travel is just the starting point for Sweet Escape.

“Behavior has changed dramatically in the last 10 years,” Soong said. “We were more private but social media has changed the way people share — now, if you don’t have a picture of the trip then it isn’t real. But photos are an investment”

“More and more people are booking us for occasions like birthdays, holidays, graduations and others events, and we increasingly see more use cases than we originally envisaged. The travel angle allows us to scale much faster — if you look at Airbnb, you have to go global right away — but once we have a good amount of usage in a city, we can go deeper,” added COO and co-founder Emile Etienne.

Soong and his team of 70 are primarily in Jakarta with some staff located in the Philippines, but he is aiming to expand the on-the-ground presence in travel spots in Southeast Asia. That’s likely to include Singapore, Thailand and beyond, although the business isn’t just present in Asia — Sweet Escape already has a network of photographers covering 40 cities in the U.S. The idea is to help raise awareness of the service among consumers and photographers and explore more local services that the platform could host.

For photographers, Sweet Escape seems appealing because it can help remove the toil of having to bring clients in. Those for whom photography is a part-time hobby, in particular, can build it in and around their working and daily lives, Soong argued. Beyond taking quality photos — all photographers provide samples for assessment to join the platform — Soong said that would-be Sweet Escape snappers need to know their city, be proud of it and able to host guests who visit.

Facebook Messenger starts rolling out Unsend; here’s how it works

Facebook secretly retracted messages sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TechCrunch reported seven months ago. Now for the first time, Facebook Messenger users will get the power to unsend too so they can remove their sent messages from the recipient’s inbox. Messages can only be unsent for the first 10 minutes after they’re delivered so that you can correct a mistake or remove something you accidentally pushed, but you won’t be able to edit ancient history. Formally known as “Remove for Everyone,” the button also leaves a “tombstone” indicating a message was retracted. And to prevent bullies from using the feature to cover their tracks, Facebook will retain unsent messages for a short period of time so if they’re reported, it can review them for policy violations.

The Remove feature rolls out in Poland, Bolivia, Colombia and Lithuania today on Messenger for iOS and Android. A Facebook spokesperson tells me the plan is to roll it out globally as soon as possible, though that may be influenced by the holiday App Store update cut-off. In the meantime, it’s also working on more unsend features, potentially including the ability to preemptively set an expiration date for specific messages or entire threads.

“The pros are that users want to be in control . . . and if you make a mistake you can correct it. There are a lot of legitimate use cases out there that we wanted to enable,” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me in an exclusive interview. But conversely, he says, “We need to make sure we don’t open up any new venues for bullying. We need to make sure people aren’t sending you bad messages and then removing them because if you report them and the messages aren’t there we can’t do anything.”

Zuckerberg did it; soon you can, too

Facebook first informed TechCrunch it would build an unsend feature back in April after I reported that six sources told me some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages had been silently removed from the inboxes of recipients, including non-employees with no tombstone left in their place. We saw that as a violation of user trust and an abuse of the company’s power, given the public had no way to unsend their own messages.

Facebook claimed this was to protect the privacy of its executives and the company’s trade secrets, telling me that “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger.” But it seems likely that Facebook also wanted to avoid another embarrassing situation like when Zuckerberg’s old instant messages from 2004 leaked. One damning exchange saw Zuckerberg tell a friend “if you ever need info about anyone at harvard . . . just ask . . . i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns.” “what!? how’d you manage that one?”  the friend replied. “People just submitted it . .  i don’t know why . . . they ‘trust me’ . . . dumb fucks” Zuckerberg replied.

The company told me it was actually already working on an Unsend button for everyone, and wouldn’t delete any more executives’ messages until it launched. Chudnovsky tells me he felt like “I wish we launched this sooner” when the news broke. But then six months went by without progress or comment from Facebook before TechCrunch broke the news that tipster Jane Manchun Wong had spotted Facebook prototyping the Remove feature. Then a week ago, Facebook Messenger’s App Store release notes accidentally mentioned that a 10-minute Unsend button was coming soon.

So why the seven-month wait? Especially given Instagram already allows users to unsend messages no matter how old? “The reason why it took so long is because on the server side, it’s actually much harder. All the messages are stored on the server, and that goes into the core transportation layer of our how our messaging system was built,” Chudnovsky explains. “It was hard to do given how we were architected, but we were always worried about the integrity concerns it would open up.” Now the company is confident it’s surmounted the engineering challenge to ensure an Unsent message reliably disappears from the recipient.

“The question becomes ‘who owns that message?’ Before that message is delivered to your Messenger app, it belongs to me. But when it actually arrives, it probably belongs to both of us,” Chudnovsky pontificates.

How Facebook Messenger’s “Remove for Everyone” button works

Facebook settled on the ability to let you remove any kind of message — including text, group chats, photos, videos, links and more — within 10 minutes of sending. You can still delete any message on just your side of the conversation, but only messages you sent can be removed from their recipients. You can’t delete from someone else what they sent you, the feature’s PR manager Kat Chui tells me. And Facebook will keep a private copy of the message for a short while after it’s deleted to make sure it can review if it’s reported for harassment.

To use the unsend feature, tap and hold on a message you sent, then select “Remove.” You’ll get options to “Remove for Everyone” which will retract the message, or “Remove for you,” which replaces the old delete option and leaves the message in the recipient’s inbox. You’ll get a warning that explains “You’ll permanently remove this message for all chat members. They can see that you removed a message and still report it.” If you confirm the removal, a line of text noting “you [or the sender’s name] removed a message” (known as a tombstone) will appear in the thread where the message was. If you want to report a removed message for abuse or another issue, you’ll tap the person’s name, scroll to “Something’s Wrong” and select the proper category such as harassment or that they were pretending to be someone else.

Why the 10-minute limit specifically? “We looked at how the existing delete functionality works. It turns out that when people are deleting messages because it’s a mistake or they sent something they didn’t want to send, it’s under a minute. We decided to extend it to 10, but decided we didn’t need to do more,” Chudnovsky reveals.

He says he’s not sure if Facebook’s security team will now resume removing executive messages. However, he stresses that the Unsend button Facebook is launching “is definitely not the same feature” as what was used on Zuckerberg’s messages. If Facebook wanted to truly respect its users, it would at least insert the tombstone when it erases old messages from executives.

Messenger is also building more unsend functionality. Taking a cue from encrypted messaging app Signal’s customizable per thread expiration date feature, Chudnovsky tells me “hypothetically, if I want all the messages to be deleted after six months, they get purged. This is something that can be set up on a per thread level,” though Facebook is still tinkering with the details. Another option would be for Facebook to extend to all chats the per message expiration date option from its encrypted Secret messages feature.

“It’s one of those things that feels very simple on the surface. And it would be very easy if the servers were built one way or another from the very beginning,” Chudnovsky concludes. “But it’s one of those things philosophically and technologically that once you get to the scale of 1.3 billion people using it, changing from one model to another is way more complicated.” Hopefully in the future, Facebook won’t give its executives extrajudicial ways to manipulate communications… or at least not until it’s sorted out the consequences of giving the public the same power.

With ‘Rivals Week,’ Tinder tests an expansion of its well-performing Tinder U

Starting this weekend, Tinder will allow college students on its Tinder U service to match with others outside their own university for the first time. The dating app is positioning this market test of a potential Tinder U expansion as the  “Rivals Week” – a way to match users with those who attend a rival university for a limited period of time.

Tinder U’s Rivalry Week starts November 17 in the U.S. for students attending 4-year, degree-granting colleges and universities. It ends November 24, Tinder says.

Tinder U itself is still a relatively new feature, having only launched a few months ago as a way to attract more younger users to its service and re-engaged lapsed users.

College students can choose to opt into Tinder U by signing up with their “.edu” email address. Once enrolled, the users can switch over to Tinder U using a toggle switch at the top of the app.

Until now, however, Tinder U limited users to matching only with those who attend their same school.

That changes with “Rivals Week,” as Tinder will now let students match with others at nearby schools – or even cross-country – just so long as those schools are considered a “rival.”

Tinder is not, of course, calling out the move as anything more than just a bit of fun. But the week-long event could return valuable data to the dating app maker, in terms of consumer demand for a Tinder U product that was less restrictive in terms of its catalog of potential matches.

The launch also notably fits in with Tinder’s new strategy to position itself as a dating app for younger users who are less interested in settling down into long-term relationships. The company is investing in a marketing campaign across the U.S. where it promotes the “single lifestyle” Tinder offers.

Essentially, the company is embracing Tinder’s reputation as the “hook-up app,” but in a way that brands short-term dating – if you can call it that – as a more positive thing.

Tinder is able to do this because its parent company, Match Group, now owns a majority stake in Hinge. It says it simultaneously plans to invest in growing that app’s user base along with its reputation for serious relationships.

Meanwhile, Tinder sees Tinder U as a possible growth engine for the young adult-oriented service.

“We created Tinder U to both attract new college students to the Tinder experience and re-engage students who have been part of the Tinder community in the past. Ultimately, we see it as a way to deliver more value to the college user by providing more relevant recommendations, which helps to increase engagement,” said Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg. “We’ve seen strong early traction with Tinder U, both in terms of driving higher swipe rates and higher retention,” she noted.

The Tinder U product is live in over 1,200 colleges across the U.S.

 

No display for your Mac Mini? No problem.

Astropad’s Luna Display isn’t just for your MacBook. It turns out that you can take advantage of that tiny little red dongle to turn your iPad into your one and only Mac Mini display.

The Luna Display was designed to extend your laptop display. Many desktop users who travel tend to feel limited with a 13-inch or 15-inch display. That’s why the Luna Display turns any iPad into a second monitor. It works wirelessly and pretty well.

But the team behind the device tried a fun experiment. Many Mac Mini users tend to use the Mac Mini as a headless server. It sits below your TV, near your router or in a closet. In that case, there’s no display connected to your Mac Mini.

You can control it using screen sharing or a VNC client. And, of course, you can also enable SSH access to control it using the command line or even an SSH app on your phone.

But it also works as expected with the Luna Display. After plugging the dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can launch the Luna app on your iPad and see what’s happening on your Mac. If your Mac Mini is connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’ll see your actions on the screen.

And because Luna’s dongle works over Wi-Fi, you can even control your Mac Mini from your couch. It’ll feel like you’re running macOS on an iPad. The Luna adapter was first released on Kickstarter and is now available for $80.

This isn’t the ideal setup if you plan to use your Mac Mini for multiple hours per day. But if you just need to quickly fix something, that could be enough.

Netflix is testing a mobile-only subscription to make its service more affordable

Netflix is testing a cut-price mobile-only subscription as it explores new packages aimed at widening its appeal in Asia and other emerging markets.

CEO Reed Hastings told Bloomberg last week that the company would test lower-priced packages and it hasn’t taken long for those experiments to come to light. The first reports are from Malaysia, where Netflix quietly rolled out a mobile-only tier priced at RM17, or around $4, each month. That’s half the price of the company’s next cheapest package — ‘Basic’ — which retails for RM33, or around $7.90, per month in Malaysia.

A Netflix spokesperson confirmed the Malaysia trial. They added that similar trials are “running in a few countries” although they declined to provide details. It remains to be seen if this new subscription tier will roll out to other parts of the world.

The mobile-only trial cuts the price of Netflix in Malaysia by around 50 percent

The move makes sense for Netflix. While it has added plenty of international users — those outside of the U.S. represent 79 million of its total base of 137 million customers — I have argued in the past that it is missing out on even more customers because its rigid pricing is too expensive in many parts of the world. Indeed, to prove that point, a number of rivals in Asia price their services more aggressively.

Rivals including fast-growing Hotstar in India, iFlix — which is backed by Sky and covers 28 countries — HOOQ and Viu are priced from $3 upwards per month. While it isn’t clear how many users they are pinching from Netflix, there’s clearly a pricing disparity which this new mobile-only offering goes some way to addressing. It also hones on millions of mobile-only users in India and other parts of Asia.

Aside from offering cheaper options, Netflix is also doubling down on local content in Asia. India is a key focus and the company this month revealed a slate of eight new Netflix Original movies and one new series from India.

The mobile-only package isn’t the first time Netflix has tinkered with its pricing strategy.

The company tested a strategy to bypass Apple’s App Store with its own web-based payment system over the summer. Rather than using in-app payments for billing, and in turn paying Apple a 30 percent share of the spoils, this approach enabled Netflix to collect all the money for itself. More money is better, of course, but the cost is that the user experience is clunkier without the App Store and that may put some prospective customers. It isn’t clear how well the test performed for Netflix.

Discover the next messaging giant at Disrupt Berlin

Truecaller may already be a familiar name, but many of you probably don’t know that it’s slowly becoming a significant messaging app. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Truecaller co-founder and CEO Alan Mamedi will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Truecaller first started as a call screening app. Some countries are more affected than others. But it’s clear that text and call spam is the most intrusive form of spam.

The Swedish company then leveraged this user base to quietly turn the app into a full-fledged messaging app with one focus in particular — India.

With the acquisition of Chillr, the company shows that it wants to recreate a sort of WeChat for India. The company launched payment features — Truecaller Pay lets you pay other Truecaller users as well as pay your bills.

Eventually, Truecaller wants to open up its platform to third-party services. Back in April, the company reported that it had 100 million daily active users.

If you’re impressed by Truecaller’s growth strategy, you should buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Alan Mamedi

CEO & Co-founder, Truecaller

Alan Mamedi is the CEO and Co-founder of Truecaller. Truecaller is one of the leading communication apps in the world with services in messaging, payment, caller ID, spam detection, dialer functionalities, and has more than 300 million users globally. In this position, Alan focuses on product development and innovation, and charting the strategic roadmap for the company’s success. To date, Truecaller has raised 80 million USD from Sequoia Capital, Atomico, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.