Lyft’s dockless e-bikes have made their way to SF, but it wasn’t easy

When tech companies sue cities, it’s rare to see a resolution — albeit a temporary one — in favor of the tech company happen so quickly, if at all. Lyft sued San Francisco in early June, claiming the city was in violation of a 10-year contract that would give Lyft exclusive rights to operate bike-share programs.

Now, the city has granted Lyft an interim permit to deploy its dockless e-bikes, and is holding off on granting to permits to other operators. Lyft officially deployed its bikes on Friday.

“We’re thrilled to share our new ebikes with riders in San Francisco,” Lyft Head of Micromobility Policy Caroline Samponaro said in a statement. “We’ll be rolling out bikes starting today and appreciate our riders’ patience as we waited for the green light from SFMTA.”

In its lawsuit, Lyft sought a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order to prevent the city from issuing permits to operators for stationless bike-share rentals. While the court denied Lyft’s request for a TRO, it did approve a preliminary injunction to temporarily stop the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency from issuing dockless permits to operators other than Lyft, without at least giving Lyft the first opportunity to submit a proposal.

The whole process, called “Right of First Offer,” may take months, according to the SFMTA. That’s why it decided to offer Lyft an interim permit to operate up to 1,900 of its dockless, hybrid e-bikes in addition to its classic bikes offered through its station-based service, once known as Ford GoBike.

“These new bikes will allow Lyft to address the severe bicycle availability issues that Bay Wheels has faced since Lyft removed e-bikes from service in April,” the SFMTA wrote in a blog post. “Essentially, the interim permit allows the existing system to return to functionality even as we negotiate with Lyft for a potential future expansion.”

The lawsuit was in light of SF announcing it would take applications for operators seeking permits to deploy additional stationless bikes. San Francisco, however, said the contract does not apply to dockless bike-share, but only station-based bike-share. Well, a judge sided with Lyft, saying the agreement did “not draw a distinction between docked/stationed and stationless/dockless bikes…Plaintiff therefore is entitled to unconditional exclusivity for stationed or stationless ‘traditional’ bikes during the term of the agreement.”

While the process continues in court, the SFMTA has also extended JUMP’s permit for up to 500 stationless bikes in order to ensure more reliable services.

I’ve reached out to Uber/JUMP and will update this story if I hear back.

Don’t hold your breath for the moon

In the house in which I grew up, a single framed newspaper front page loomed over us. “MAN ON MOON“, it declared jubilantly, in an enormous, suitably momentous typeface. Subheadings included “‘It’s very pretty up here … a fine, soft surface’” and, of course, “A giant leap for mankind.”

One leap forward, three steps back. That newspaper was dated fifty years ago today, as I type this. Apollo 17 — “the most recent time humans have travelled beyond low Earth orbit” — took place in December 1972, a date at which a large majority of humanity today was not yet born.

Space travel is not the stuff of science fiction. It is the stuff of history books, of yesteryear, of scratchy black-and-white TV, of that yellowing newspaper cover of my youth.

What happened? I mean, lots, but ultimately the costs were too high, the tangible benefits too nonexistent, and the Space Shuttle was too much of an unmitigated disaster from start to finish in every way.

What happens next? Well, there we have a quick answer: we’re going back! America is going to land the first woman on the moon by 2024! Absolutely!

…you’re absolutely right to be very skeptical.

There are a numerous “lunar exploration architectures,” or ways to return to the Moon. My friend Casey Handmer, a physicist, space enthusiast, and former levitation engineer, itemizes them in this excellent blog post from a few months ago. One of them is NASA’s proposed Lunar Gateway, which will place a space station into high Moon orbit, from and to which lunar landings will descent and return.

Is this a good idea? …Well, it’s an idea. But it’s better to have a plan and to be making progress on it that not, right? Right? …Except the last few months have seen a bewildering flurry of chaos and confusion which makes NASA’s lunar program more closely resemble a headless chicken than a smoothly oiled machine.

First, an unsigned five-page document, riddled with spectacular grammar and spelling errors such as

There is no feasible means to redesign it or any other heavy left rocket to more transport the lunar landing elements

(!) was shared by “the Gateway program office at Johnson Space Center in Houston,” reported Ars Technica. (Casey wrote an exegesis of this dubious document, if you want to see it deconstructed in detail.) Then, earlier this month, NASA demoted and replaced its executives in charge of human space exploration.

Does this sound like the behavior of a lunar project accelerating to an on-target, on-time landing? Or more like a bureaucratic catastrophe thrashing frantically while failing to get anywhere at all? “As it stands, few experts believe NASA’s plan for returning to the moon in 2024 is feasible,” says Vox mordantly. You don’t say.

I’d be so delighted to see a woman walk on the moon in 2024. But I’m not exactly holding my breath. By 2032 we will have gone sixty years, three generations, between human lunar excursions. Some people think we shouldn’t go back at all, that there is too much of more importance to do here on Earth. I disagree, strongly, but I think even they might still agree that it would be sad beyond belief if, if and when we next land on the Moon, there’s no one around who remembers the last time.

Week in Review: The one-way web and Elon Musk’s Neuralink

Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I offered up some mildly interesting takes on how Waymo was shaping the future of autonomous vehicles inside of a virtual space rather than wholly on physical roads.


The big story

There are two internets. There’s the one where we click through interfaces and hit menu buttons and dive down predictable lines of inquiry and find predictable ends. And then there are ads. We don’t understand why we get what we get but we the content flows from platform to user with asymmetric information of the “how?”.

Advertising is the economic backbone of the free consumer web, but users are haplessly oblivious to where that generated content comes from and why. What intrigues me here is that a few days ago Instagram announced that it was further rolling out a test to hide like counts from users and that it has been further minimizing the prominence of follower counts on profiles.

It’s an (admittedly small) step in the evolution but it hinges a bit more on how internet giants have come to realize UX transparency can actually lead to some negatives.

There’s of course the ethical argument where you think about the responsibility that Facebook has not to make people feel shitty about themselves by offering a dopamine-hit conveyor belt as a platform, but a more fascinating idea is what a change like this opens up to the company in terms of returns and what it means for how platforms portray the nebulous idea of “engagement.”

One of the easy returns I bet Instagram finds as they expand this test is that by eliminating the conforming social pressures inherent to seeing what other users are enjoying, Instagram might paint a clearer picture of its users. Without giving users a groupthink crutch to influence their own decisions on what to click the heart button on, a web of content less-focused on stats might lead them to things that actually break into.

What’s the most interesting — that this change sort of lightly grazes across — is that we’ve spent the past few decades with the necessary evil of a web predicated on a cause and effect interface. We’ve had a decent idea of why we’re coming across some piece of content and the statistics of why are often user-facing. But do we need to know how the internet works? Do we need to know why we’re seeing anything?

We’ve been thrust fully into this world of algorithmic feeds and while we’re seeing variation across platforms, we’re seeing the potential and pitfalls of the various platforms. Instagram has flirted with serving users content more boldly outside of things they’ve specifically followed with the Explore feed, but the question is when that smartly-sourced content that will come to dominate a user’s central feed and be their main touchpoint with the platform.

We’ve also seen the dangers of algorithmic content where the “why” is invisible to users, YouTube’s platform has grown immensely based off  ad-like invisibly sourced “watch next” suggestions, but can social platforms pull this off as well or are the fundamentals of today’s algorithmic feeds based around user actions and follows going to stay true down the road?

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

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

  • Musk’s Neuralink makes its first promises
    The SpaceX founder is known for his moonshots, but this one kind of takes the cake. On Tuesday, Musk spoke about the progress and long-term goals of the company he hoped would allow humans to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” Read more about the promises made in our report.
  • FaceApp goes viral, again
    If you used the internet at all this week, chances are that you saw somebody posting an old-looking photo of themselves that was algorithmically generated by an app called FaceApp. There was an awful lot of backlash to the app’s Russian ties and its user permissions, but we tried to break down what was actually happening.
  • SpaceX’s ‘Starhopper’ bursts into flames
    It was only a test vehicle, but uncontrolled explosions generally aren’t the best sign when it comes to testing components for space flight. Check out the video and the company’s explanation here.

GAFA Gaffes

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

  1. Libra shortcomings:
    [Congressional testimony reveals some faults in Facebook’s digital currency plans]
  2. Facebook continues to contradict itself:
    [Facebook accused of contradicting itself on claims about platform policy violations]

GettyImages 1091991690

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. This week, we showcased the beginning of our deep dive on Roblox, the wildly popular kids gaming platform that has grown beyond unicorn status.

How Roblox avoided the gaming graveyard and grew into a $2.5B company

“…In some ways, Roblox stayed trendy: for instance, it launched sales of its Robux currency in 2008 and virtual goods for developers in 2013, adding microtransactions at a time that much of the game industry was still trying to come to grips with the idea of free gaming. It also supported and nourished a community of unpaid content creators during a time that few other companies had done so, with a few exceptions like YouTube.

Still, the activity taking place in gaming was a philosophical threat. When a company in Roblox’s space hit it big, years before Roblox itself had any hope to, that winning strategy became a temptation. “There are friends, acquaintances, competitors chattering in your ear and saying, maybe you can just do that,” says Dusek…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked about seed stage dilution and startup profitability.

We’re excited to announce The Station, a new TechCrunch newsletter all about mobility. Each week, in addition to curating the biggest transportation news, Kirsten Korosec will provide analysis, original reporting and insider tips. Sign up here to get The Station in your inbox beginning in August.

Watch Patrick Stewart grow bored of his winery in first ‘Star Trek: Picard’ trailer

Yes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is indeed coming back. We knew this from previous announcements, but CBS All Access turned heads at this year’s San Diego Comic Con with an actual trailer of Sir Patrick Stewart Picarding his heart out. He says “engage!” for god’s sake.

From what I can grasp from this trailer, the plot of this Picard-centric follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation is that Jean-Luc has retired to a quiet life running a winery but quickly realizes that he’s not through adventuring. For some reason, he has Data stored in pieces in a drawer. He’s convinced to come out of retirement with what looks like a fairly rag-tag crew. Then Data is back somehow.

All of which is to say that this looks awesome and I wish it was here now instead of its “early 2020” release date on the CBS streaming service.

NASA’s Orion crew capsule is officially complete and ready to prep for its first Moon mission

NASA’s 50th anniversary celebrations weren’t limited to just remembrances of past achievements – the space agency also marked the day by confirming that the Orion crew capsule that will bring astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program is ready for its first trip to lunar orbit, currently set for sometime after June 2020.

Orion won’t be carrying anyone for its first Moon mission – instead, as part of Artemis 1, it’ll fly uncrewed propelled by the new Space Launch System, spend a total of three weeks in space including six days orbiting the Moon, and then return back to Earth. Once back, it’ll perform a crucial test of high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, to demonstrate the efficacy of the Orion capsule’s thermal shielding prior to carrying actual crew for Artemis 2 in 2022, and ultimately delivering astronauts back to the lunar surface with Artemis 3 in 2024.

This isn’t Orion’s first trip to space, however – that happened back in 2014 with Exploration Flight Test 1, another uncrewed mission in which Orion spent just four-hours in space, orbiting the Earth twice and then returning to ground. This mission used a Delta IV rocket instead of the new SLS, and was meant to test key systems prior to Artemis.

NASA contractor Lockheed Martin, which is responsible for the Orion spacecraft’s construction, also noting that the combined crew module and service module are currently being properly integrated, and then will undergo a series of tests before returning to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of the year to begin the final preparations before launch.

Elon Musk says Starship prototypes will have first test flights in ‘2 to 3 months’

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that both the Texas and Florida Starship prototype rockets being developed by the private space company will fly “in 2 to three months,” which is an aggressive timeline considering the planned untethered flight of its Starhopper demonstration prototype missed its target of running this past week.

SpaceX is developing two Starship prototypes in parallel, at both its Texas and Florida facilities, in what is sometime referred to in the technology industry as a ‘bake-off.’ Both teams develop their own rockets independently, in an attempt to spur a sense of internal competition and potentially arrive at combined progress that wouldn’t be possible with just a single team working together on the task.

Earlier this month, Musk stated that the inaugural untethered test of its Starhopper (Hopper for short) Starship tech demo prototype would happen this past Tuesday, July 16. Those plans were derailed when a preliminary test firing of its engines resulted in a large fireball captured on camera by many local observers. Musk later said on Twitter that this was the result of a “post test fuel leak” but added that there was actually no significant damage to the sub-scale Starhopper itself.

The SpaceX CEO then continued with a new timeline for the untethered test, saying it should happen sometime this coming week instead. That’s definitely a required step for the company to take ahead of any test flights of the more complete Starhopper prototypes.

Those initial test will be sub-orbital flights, Musk said on Friday, with orbital tests to follow some “2 to 3 months” after those first test flights 2 to 3 months from today – so, that puts the earliest orbital test flights for Starship at just 4 to 6 months from now. Based on how Musk’s stated timelines match up with reality, you should definitely consider that an extremely optimistic assessment.

Musk also shared some detail about how Starship will launch – it’ll use a launch structure, which is currently under construction at another site, much like Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy does today.

Hold the first Moon rock ever collected with your smartphone

NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in a variety of ways today, but here’s one you can experience no matter where you are, provided you have a modern smartphone. NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) department has released a fully detailed model of the first ever sample of lunar soil and rock, bagged by Astronaut Neil Armstrong during humanity’s first-ever trip to the Moon’s surface.

The rock is fully manipulable provided you visit this link on a smartphone with the capability to display interactive 3D field on the web, so you can twist and turn it using touch to get a better look. It has an incredible level of detail, (“research-grade,” in fact, according to ARES, and is part of a larger effort to make more of the organization’s larger library of lunar and antarctic meteroite samples available to more people, both for research and for education.

3d models verticalThese 3D models are created using extremely high resolution photography that captures high megapixel images of the actual samples from 240 different angles, which can offer resolution as detailed as just 30 to 60 microns (doubt the width of a human hair).

But that’s just a start – software uses computer vision to ensure the 3D image provides accurate volume and text true information, and a process that involves the use of X-rays to get a cross-section image without actually slicing up the samples is also employed to ensure fully accurate representation.

If somehow you don’t have a smartphone but you do have those basic red/blue 3D glasses, then you can also view the image below in eye-popping detail. Meanwhile, NASA’s also opening up its lab of Moon rock samples to geologists for the first time, so they can study them directly in person, after years of keeping them under strict lock and key.

Startups Weekly: The opportunities & challenges for mental health tech

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Zoom and Superhuman’s PR disasters. Before that, I noted the big uptick in VC spending in 2019.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.

Now let’s talk about mental health startups. VCs may be confident in the potential of teletherapy, but struggling companies in the space tell another story.

Nine months ago Basis launched a website and app for guided conversations via chat or video with pseudo-therapists or people trained in research-backed approaches but who lack the same certifications as a counseling or clinical psychologist. I wrote a story noting that the company, led by former Uber VP Andrew Chapin, had raised a $3.75 million round from Bedrock, Wave Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

But last month, things took a turn for the worse. Basis quietly shut down its website and app, its co-founder and chief science officer, Lindsay Trent, a former research psychologist at Stanford, exited and a good chunk of eight-person team went out the door.

Basis was one of many startups to benefit from VCs’ growing appetite for innovative businesses in the mental health sector. As the stigma associated with seeking mental health support has dwindled and technology developments have allowed for personalized mental health tools and practices, more entrepreneurs have entered the space. Basis, despite having many of the ingredients needed for startup success, couldn’t achieve success with its direct-to-consumer approach to therapy.

Basis Team

Basis co-founder and CEO Andrew Chapin (center) with the founding team last year

When asked why the Basis app and website were no longer active, Chapin said the company is in the process of “shifting business models.” He declined to provide further details. Lightspeed declined to comment. Wave Capital and Bedrock did not respond to requests for comment.

Basis, which did not claim to treat diagnosable conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, charged $35 per 45-minute phone call with its paraprofessionals. Its use of unlicensed therapists sparked concern in the mental health provider community. Harley Therapy founder Sheri Jacobson, an accredited counselor and psychotherapist, noted flaws with the service: “For me, replacing professional therapists and all of their lived experience and empathy with telepsychiatry administered by novice advisers could be potentially dangerous,” Jacobson said in a statement. “Would you let a learner driver navigate an oil tanker?”

Consumer mental health startups continue to attract capital from private market investors. Workplace mental health service Unmind, Blackthorn Therapeutics (a neurobehavioral health company using machine learning to create personalized medicine for mental health) and Talkspace (a leader in the online counseling space) have all closed funding rounds in 2019.

Whether Basis will find its footing is TBD. What’s clear is VCs are still willing to dole out checks as they experiment with the mental health space, but if startups don’t start proving viable business models and learn to navigate the complex adoption curve, we’ll see additional startups cease operations and mental health tech’s moment in the sun will end all too soon.

Now for a quick look at the top VC and startup news of the week:

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Adam Neumann did what?

The eccentric co-founder and CEO of the international real estate co-working startup WeWork has reportedly cashed out of more than $700 million from his company ahead of its upcoming IPO. According to Axios, a majority of that capital came in the form of loans while the remaining $300 million came from stock sales. The size and timing of the payouts is unusual, considering that founders typically wait until after a company holds its public offering to liquidate their holdings. But even with the big sale, Neumann remains the single largest shareholder in WeWork.

Medallia soars

The customer experience management platform priced shares of its stock at $21 apiece Thursday, closing up Friday a whopping 76%. Money left on the table? I think so, and I bet Bill Gurley does too. The nearly two-decades-old company sold a total of 15.5 million shares in its IPO, raising $326 million at a $2.5 billion valuation in the process. Medallia’s $268 million in VC funding came from Sequoia Capital — which owned a roughly 40% pre-IPO stake — Saints Capital, TriplePoint Venture Growth and Grotmol Solutions.


Uber finally sets diversity and inclusion goals

Within the next three years, Uber aims to increase the percentage of women at levels L5 and higher (manager and above) to 35% and increase the percentage of underrepresented employees at levels L4 and higher to 14%. Currently, Uber is 9.3% black and 8.3% Latinx compared to just 8.1% black and 6.1% Latinx last year. Uber’s tech team, however, is just 3.6% black, 4.4% Latinx and 2.7% multi-racial. Unsurprisingly, there’s little representation of black and brown people in leadership roles. While Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi commented that he’s proud the promotion rates for women have improved over the last couple of years, he added, “I can’t yet say the same for promotions for people of color.”

Email platforms and productivity apps and subscription tools, oh my!

Startups focused on improving productivity and email are unstoppable this year. The latest to close VC rounds are Substack and Notion. Andreessen Horowitz is betting that there’s still a big opportunity in newsletters, leading a $15.3 million Series A in Substack. The company, which consists of just three employees working out of a living room, says that newsletters on the platform have now amassed a total of 50,000 paying subscribers (up from 25,000 in October) and that the most popular Substack authors are already making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. As for Notion, The Information reported this week that it raised $10 million at an $800 million valuation. Notion is a note-taking and task management app that hasn’t sought much VC funding and, as a result, VCs have been desperately knocking at its door.

Other notable funding events of the week:

The trouble with blitzscaling

Silicon Valley has many dreams. One dream — the Hollywood version anyway — is for a down-and-out founder to begin tinkering and coding in their proverbial garage, eventually building a product that is loved by humans the world over and becoming a startup billionaire in the process. But when it comes to that Silicon Valley dream of a nice house from a decent return on exit, it’s getting narrower and less widely distributed. Blitzscaling is making a lot of people a lot of wealth, but early employees? Not so much.

Read more from TechCrunch editor Danny Crichton.

TechCrunch’s senior transportation reporter Kirsten Korosec.

Get ready for … The Station

TechCrunch senior transportation reporter Kirsten Korosec has something great in the works. All of us here at TechCrunch are very excited to announce The Station, a new TechCrunch newsletter all about mobility. Each week, in addition to curating the biggest transportation news, Kirsten will provide analysis, original reporting and insider tips on the fast-growing industry. Sign up here to get The Station in your inbox beginning in August.

~Extra Crunch~

While we’re on the subject of amazing TechCrunch #content, it’s probably time for a reminder for all of you to sign up for Extra Crunch. For a low price, you can learn more about the startups and venture capital ecosystem through exclusive deep dives, Q&As, newsletters, resources and recommendations and fundamental startup how-to guides. Here are some of my personal favorite EC posts from the past week:

#EquityPod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm and I debate Forbes’ latest next billion-dollar startups list.

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That’s all, folks.