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SpaceX’s Starship prototype once again flies to great heights, and again explodes on landing

SpaceX has once again flown its Starship spacecraft, a still-in-development space launch vehicle it’s building in south Florida. This test was a flight of SN9, the ninth in its current series of prototype rockets. The test involved flying SN9 to an altitude of around 10 km (just over six miles, or nearly 33,000 feet). After reaching that apogee, the SN9 spacecraft altered its attitude to angle for re-entry (simulated, since it didn’t actually leave Earth’s atmosphere) and then descended for a controlled landing.

This is the second test along these lines, with the first happening in December using its SN8 prototype, the one before this in the current series. Today’s test saw SN9 reach its target altitude as intended, and saw a successful “belly flop” maneuver, as well as the required propellant hand-off. This was also a successful test of the flaps on Starship, which control its angle as it moves through the air, and which alter their angle via on-board motors to do so. The landing portion didn’t go as smoothly — the spacecraft attempted to re-orient itself to go vertical for landing, but didn’t make it quite straight up-and-down, and also had too much speed going into the touchdown, so it exploded rather spectacularly when it hit the ground.

Image Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX had a very similar test the first time around, with things going mostly smoothly up until the landing portion of the mission. During SN8’s flight, the Starship prototype appeared to be better-oriented for landing before touching down too hard, but it’s difficult to say too much about which was more or less successful without access to the data and the testing parameters.

Starship is designed to perform this crucial maneuver as part of its approach to reusability — the spacecraft is intended to be fully reusable, and will accomplish this with a powered landing that includes, obviously, not the exploding component. As the company noted, however, the rest of this test looks pretty much like what they wanted to happen.

This kind of early testing isn’t expected to go exactly to plan, and the point is primarily to collect data that will help improve further attempts and spacecraft development. Of course, you’d hope to get things exactly right upon your first attempts, but it never actually works that way in rocketry. What is unusual is how public SpaceX is with its development program at this stage of testing.

The company will be back at it with another try soon. It already has its SN10 prototype set up on its launch site at its Texas facility, which is the other spaceship you see in the early part of the animation above.

SpaceX is aiming to fly the first all-civilian human space mission by the end of 2021


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SD Times Open-Source Project of the Week: PennyLane

PennyLane is an open-source, cross-platform Python library for differentiable programming of quantum computers. Differentiable programming refers to a programming paradigm that leverages automatic differentiation. PennyLane tries to bridge the gap between quantum computing and machine learning. According to the project’s GitHub page, PennyLane enables users to train quantum computers much like neural networks. 

Xanadu, the company behind PennyLane, explained: “We’re entering an exciting time in quantum physics and quantum computation: near-term quantum devices are rapidly becoming a reality, accessible to everyone over the Internet. This, in turn, is driving the development of quantum machine learning and variational quantum circuits.”

RELATED CONTENT: How quantum computing will impact software development

The project’s key features include:

Machine learning on quantum hardware through PyTorch, TensorFlow, JAX, Keras or NumPy
Ability to run the same quantum circuit on different quantum backends
Hardware-friendly automatic differentiation of quantum circuits.
Built-in tools for quantum machine learning, optimization, and quantum chemistry. 

AWS recently announced it would be joining the project’s steering council for variational quantum computing and quantum machine learning. “Our goal is to help build better tools for developers and researchers by bringing together ideas and concepts from machine learning (ML) and quantum computing (QC). Together with our partner Xanadu, we want to continue to evolve PennyLane as an open, community-driven project, and we are inviting contributors from QC, ML, and other fields to join us,” the company wrote in a post

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Google details three common mainframe modernization mistakes

As more organizations embark on mainframe modernization journeys, Google wants to make sure they head down the right path. The company outlined common pitfalls and antipatterns businesses face when migrating or modernizing their workloads. 

“Migrating or modernizing your mainframe workloads is complex and challenging, even under ideal conditions,” Travis Webb, solutions architect at Googe, wrote in a blog post. “If you avoid the antipatterns discussed in this document, you increase the odds of a successful transformation.”

RELATED CONTENT: Mainframe for DevOps puts an end to silos

While these approaches may work for some circumstances, Webb warns against them because “they have a high probability of failure.”

According to Webb, the three most common antipatterns are: 

 

Big bang rewrite applications: Rewriting or re-architecting your legacy mainframe code into a more modern language or design patterns can help speed of application development and future-proof solutions, but it’s a capital-intensive and time-consuming endeavor, Webb explained. Risks include budget overruns, unanticipated complexity and staff turnover. “Even for companies that have the tenacity to see through a multi-year transformation effort, the raw cost of a rewrite is often prohibitive. When compared to all other approaches, a big bang rewrite is the costliest way to modernize your mainframe software,” Webb wrote. 

Lift-and-shift migration antipatterns: Organizations are often tempted to move an application from one system to another, for instance moving the mainframe into the cloud. This can be a quick way to get away from an on-premise environment, but organizations still remain locked into the mainframe ecosystem and dependent on an emulation layer. “That dependency can result in a new set of technical challenges. Challenges that are often unfamiliar to the teams maintaining the mainframe software. Unfamiliarity can lead to additional reliance on a new, single-vendor cloud ecosystem,” according to Webb. 

In-place modernization antipatterns: With this antipattern, instead of rewriting and re-architecting mainframe code, you focus on the quality, maintainability and testability of software — but you still are subjected to the same risks of a big bang approach. “Any approach involving manually updating your mainframe software can have budget and time constraints. These efforts also often suffer from the second-system effect. Performance and correctness issues inevitably arise because rewriting business logic in a new language requires extensive testing before it aligns with the previous functionality,” Webb wrote. 

 

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Dear Sophie: What’s the recipe for an H-1B?

Sophie Alcorn
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Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

More posts by this contributor

Dear Sophie: How can I sponsor my mom and stepdad for green cards?
Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.

Dear Sophie:

I want to sponsor a potential employee for an H-1B but the process for an H-1B petition seems pretty complex.

What goes into an H-1B petition? How has it changed in recent weeks? Is the lottery going to be wage-based or random?

— Hungry to Learn in Hillsborough

Dear Hungry:

This is a great time to get started on the H-1B lottery process — the time is fast approaching. In my most recent podcast episode about H-1Bs on Immigration Law for Tech Startups, we covered planning for the H-1B lottery.

For all those foodies out there, in this column, I include a recipe for making your very first H-1B, plus the latest on lottery timing, whether the lottery will be wage-based and pay-to-play, the end of Buy American, Hire American, and changes in how H-1B wage levels are calculated.

New to the H-1B?

To get started, if you’re a newbie looking to whet your appetite with what’s involved in the H-1B process, there’s no need for the H-1B lottery season to feel complex or daunting. In fact, I wrote out a recipe so you can easily understand how to cook up an H-1B petition. 😉

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Composite image credits: Joanna Buniak (opens in a new window) / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Alcorn H-1B Petition Recipe
Ingredients

1 hungry employer seeking top global talent
> 1 motivated job seeker(s) from around the world
> 1 experienced business immigration attorney
> 1 compassionate business immigration paralegal
1 package clear communication
1 gallon legal strategy; add more to taste
1 gallon hard work, divided
4 cups enthusiasm and dedication
2 questionnaires
1 Labor Condition Application (LCA)
4 forms for USCIS, 5 if you want to broil the case and eat sooner
1 robust letter of support from the company
To taste: Job seekers’ supporting documents, as needed
For startup flavor: sprinkling of company formation documents

Directions

It’s important to start off the H-1B with a solid legal strategy. Start by combining the employer and job seeker with at least one business immigration attorney and at least one business immigration paralegal. Add communication, half gallon of legal strategy and 1 cup of enthusiasm and dedication.
After the legal strategy has been prepped, separate the rest of the ingredients into separate containers (there will be some overlap).
Take the two questionnaires and distribute evenly between the employer and job seeker. Add to pan over medium-low heat or high heat depending on how soon everyone wants to eat.
Once the questionnaires are evenly browned, remove from heat and examine to make sure everything is cooked properly.
Once the questionnaires are reviewed, use some of the flavors to prepare the Labor Condition Application (LCA). Add in 1 cup of legal strategy and 1 quart of hard work. Let simmer for 7-10 days.
While the LCA is simmering, prep your forms one at a time. Add ½ cup of legal strategy and 2 cups of hard work.
After the forms are prepped, use the remaining legal strategy (more if necessary), 2 quarts of hard work, and 1 cup of enthusiasm and dedication to prepare the letter of support.
Once that’s ready, and the LCA is fully cooked, use ½ quart of hard work to add the glazed forms, LCA and letter of support into a bowl (preferably Adobe Acrobat). After adding the letter of support, fold in the job seekers’ supporting documents. Add 1 cup of enthusiasm and dedication. Add startup sprinkles if desired.
Finally, use the remaining 2 cups of enthusiasm and dedication to bake the case with USCIS!
Allow to cool for 15 calendar days if famished, or 4-6 months if you’re not that hungry.
Enjoy!

For those experts out there hungering for the latest H-1B updates, here’s a rundown of what we’ve been seeing over the last two weeks since the Biden Administration took office:

Lottery timing

We expect an imminent announcement regarding the details of the upcoming FY2022 H-1B lottery registration process for cap-subject nonimmigrant visa petitions. The electronic registration period lasts at least 14 days, and the latest possible start date will be March 18, 2021. We’re also awaiting details on when the initial registration period will begin; last year it lasted from March 1 to 20. Feel free to listen back to Get Ready for the H-1B FY2022 Lottery for more details on how this worked last year and please stay tuned if you’re planning on filing an H-1Bs this year: Following these dates is crucial.

Will the lottery be pay-to-play?

A final rule called “Modification of Registration Requirement for Petitioners Seeking To File Cap-Subject H–1B Petitions” issued under Trump is currently scheduled to take effect on March 9, 2021. It would change the lottery from being random to being allocated based on highest to lowest relative wage. On January 20 the Biden administration instructed all agencies to consider delaying the effective date of certain rules not yet in effect, such as this one.

We’re all waiting with bated breath to see if this new change will go through. So far USCIS has not published any rule in the Federal Register indicating that the wage-based H-1B lottery will be delayed until after the scheduled start date. Also, over the past few days, there are some preliminary indications that the system will go forward as Trump planned, even under the Biden administration. This includes changes to the H-1B registration online tool and the form.

Although a wage-based allocation might make H-1B salaries more expensive for some employers, it would also dramatically increase immigrant security and employer predictability. As we all wait to see what USCIS will decide to do here, you can also access our free H-1B guide for more information on H-1Bs.

The end of Buy American, Hire American

On January 25, President Biden issued Executive Order 14005, “Ensuring the Future Is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers.” This ends Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order and ensures a broader focus of helping American businesses “compete in strategic industries” and helping “America’s workers thrive.” We anticipate that this change will probably lead to higher rates of U.S.-business-based visas and green cards being approved in the future.

Changes in wage-level calculations

There are changes to the way that prevailing wages are calculated for visas such as H-1Bs and the PERM portion of the green card process. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain indicated that new rules may be withdrawn or delayed. We’ve already seen the Department of Labor withdraw the Office of Foreign Labor Certification H-1B Program Bulletin and a Wage and Hour Division Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) on LCAs, so it is no longer in effect. Additionally, DOL announced this week that it will delay the rule regarding prevailing wage levels, to not take effect until May 14, 2021.

We’re tracking all the major H-1B changes here, so stay tuned to Dear Sophie for all the latest!

All my best,

Sophie

Have a question? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!


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Checkmarx debuts new Keeping Infrastructure as Code Secure solution

In an effort to better secure cloud-native apps, software security company Checkmarx has launched a new open-source static analysis solution. The new Keeping Infrastructure as Code Secure (KICS) solution enables developers to write secure infrastructure as code (IaC) by automatically detecting issues from the start.

According to the company, as organizations move to the cloud they are utilizing IaC to provision infrastructure faster and provide scalability. However, developers are struggling to manage IaC’s security, compliance and configuration risks.

KICS aims to address this by automatically detecting issues, hard-coded keys, passwords, compliance issues, and misconfigurations.

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The modern risks of open-source code
Developers take a larger role in security

“As development processes evolve and organizations accelerate their cloud adoption, developers are taking on more security responsibility while also delivering software faster than ever before. This is an impossible balance to strike by solely relying on manual, time-consuming code reviews,” said Maty Siman, CTO and founder of Checkmarx. “KICS was built with this in mind, enabling development teams to automatically identify IaC issues when fixing is quickest, cheapest, and easiest. As the newest addition to the Checkmarx product portfolio, developers now have a single destination for securing all components that make up today’s complex applications.”

The solution offers a large library of queries which are fully customizable. As an open-source project, the scanning engine and queries are open to a community of DevOps experts. And the solution provides seamless integration with CI/CD pipelines including GitHub Actions and GitLab CI. In addition, it supports Terraform, Kubernetes, Docker, AWS CloudFormation, and Ansible.

“Checkmarx is a strong advocate of open source projects, and creating KICS in this manner gives the community the opportunity to steer its direction and foster innovation across the industry. We’re excited to watch this passionate community embrace and contribute to KICS as it becomes an essential addition to every developer’s cloud-native security toolkit,” said Siman.

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Prime Movers Lab raises $245 million for second fund to invest in early stage science startups

After revealing its first fund just last year, a $100 million pool of investment capital dedicated to early stage startups focusing on sustainable food development, clean energy, health innovation and new space technologies, Prime Movers Lab is back with a second fund. Prime Movers Lab Fund II is larger, with $245 million committed, but it will pursue the same investment strategy, albeit with a plan to place more bets on more companies, with an expanded investment team to help manage the funds and portfolio.

“There are a lot of VCs out there,” explained founder and general partner Dakin Sloss about the concept behind the fund. “But there aren’t many VCs that are focused exclusively on breakthrough science, or deep tech. Even though there are a couple, when you look at the proportion of capital, I think it’s something like less than 10% of capital is going to these types of companies. But if you look at what’s meaningful to the life of the average person over the next 30 years, these are all the companies that are important, whether it’s coronavirus vaccines or solar energy production, or feeding the planet through aquaponics. These are the things that are really meaningful to to making a better quality of life for most people.”

Sloss told me that he sees part of the issue around why the proportion of capital dedicated to solving these significant problems is that it requires a lot of deep category knowledge to invest in correctly.

“There’s not enough technical expertise in VC firms to choose winners intelligently, rather than ending up with the next Theranos or clean tech bubble,” he said. “So that’s the first thing I wanted to solve. I have a physics background, and I was able to bring together a team of partners that have really deeply technical backgrounds.”

As referenced, Sloss himself has a degree from Stanford in Mathematics, Physics and Philosophy. He was a serial entrepreneur before starting the fund, having founded Tachyus, OpenGov and nonprofit California Common Sense. Other Partners on the team include systems engineer Dan Slomski, who previously worked on machine vision, electro-mechanical systems and developing a new multi-phase flow fluid analyzer; Amy Kruse, who holds a PhD in neuroscience and has served as an executive in defence technology and applied neuroscience companies; and Carly Anderson, a chemical engineer who has worked in biomedicine and oil & gas, and who has a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering. In addition to core partners with that kind of expertise, Prime Movers Lab enlists the help of venture partners and specialist advisors like former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Having individuals with deep field expertise on the core team, in addition to supplementing that with top-notch advisors, is definitely a competitive advantage, particularly when investing in the kinds of companies that Prime Movers Lab does early on in their development. There’s a perception that companies pursuing these kinds of hard tech problems aren’t necessarily as viable as a target for traditional venture funding, specifically because of the timelines for returns. Sloss says he believes that’s a misperception based on unfortunate past experience.

“I think there are three big myths about breakthrough science or hard tech or deep tech,” he said. “That it takes longer, that it’s more capital intensive, and that it’s higher risk. And I think the reason those myths are out there is people invested in things like Theranos, and the clean tech bubble. But I think that there were fundamental mistakes made in how they underwrote risk of doing that.”

Image Credits: Momentus

To avoid making those kinds of mistakes, Sloss says that Prime Movers Lab views prospective investments from the perspective of a “spectrum of risk,” which includes risk of the science itself (does the fundamental technology involve actually work), engineering risk (given the science works, can we make it something we can sell) and finally, commercialization or scaling risk (can we then make it and sell it at scale with economics that work). Sloss says that if you use this risk matrix to assess investments, and allocated funds to address primarily the engineering risk category, concerns around timeframes to return don’t really apply.

He cites Primer Movers Lab’s Fund I portfolio, which includes space propulsion company Momentus, heading for an exit to the public markets via SPAC (the company’s Russian CEO actually just resigned in order to smooth the path for that, in fact), and notes that of the 15 companies that Fund I invested in, four are totally on a path to going public. That would put them much faster to an exit than is typical for early stage investment targets, and Sloss credits the very different approach most hard science startups take to IP development and capital.

“The inflection points in these types of companies are actually I think faster to get to market, because they’ve spent years developing the IP, staying at relatively low or attractive valuations,” he said. “Then we can kind of come in, at that inflection point, and help them get ready to commercialize and scale up exponentially, to where other investors no longer have to underwrite the difference between science and engineering risk, they can just see it’s working and producing revenue.”

Companies that fit this mold often come directly from academia, and keep the team small and focused while they’re figuring out the core scientific discovery or innovation that enables the business. A prime example of this in recent memory is Wingcopter, a German drone startup that developed and patented a technology for a tilt-wing rotor that changes the economics of electric autonomous drone flight. The startup just took its first significant startup investment after bootstrapping for four years, and the funds will indeed be used to help it accelerate engineering on a path towards high-volume production.

While Wingcopter isn’t a Prime Movers Lab portfolio company, many of its investments fit the same mold. Boom Aerospace is currently working on building and flying its subscale demonstration aircraft to pave the way for a future supersonic airliner, while Axiom Space just announced the first crew of private tourists to the International Space Station who will fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for $50 million a piece. As long as you can prove the fundamentals are sound, allocating money turning it into something marketable seems like a logical strategy.

For Prime Movers Lab’s Fund II, the plan is to invest in around 30 or so companies, roughly doubling the number of investments from Fund I. In addition to its partners with scientific expertise, the firm also includes Partners with skill sets including creative direction, industrial design, executive coaching and business acumen, and provides those services to its portfolio companies as value-add to help them supplement their technical innovations. Its Fund I portfolio includes Momentus and Axiom, as mentioned, as well as vertical farming startup Upward Farms, coronavirus vaccine startup Covaxx, and more.


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Spotify hints toward plans for podcast subscriptions, à la carte payments

Spotify again signaled its interest in developing new ways to monetize its investments in podcasts. In the company’s fourth-quarter earnings, chief executive Daniel Ek suggested the streaming media company foresees a future where there will be multiple business models for podcasts, including, potentially, both ad-supported subscriptions and à la carte options.

The company, which also revealed its podcast catalog has grown to now 2.2 million programs, said it’s seen increasing demand for the audio format in recent months.

For example, 25% of Spotify’s monthly active users now engage with podcasts, up from 22% just last quarter. Podcast consumption is also increasing, with listening hours having nearly doubled year-over-year in the fourth quarter.

Today, podcasts on Spotify’s platform are available to both free and paid users and are monetized with ads. This is still a key focus for the company — Spotify even recently acquired a podcast hosting and monetization platform, Megaphone, to help make streaming ad insertion technology available to its third-party publishers while also growing its targetable podcast inventory.

Spotify buying podcast hosting and ad company Megaphone for $235M

But Spotify recently put its feelers out about different means of monetizing podcasts, too.

Late last year, for instance, the company was spotted running a survey that asked its customers if they would be willing to pay for a standalone podcast subscription, and if so what would it look like and how much would it cost?

At the time, the survey offered a few different concepts.

At the low end, a subscription could offer ad-supported exclusive episodes and bonus content for $3 per month. This would be similar to Stitcher Premium, which today provides exclusives from top shows and other bonus episodes. But Spotify’s suggested version included ads, while Stitcher Premium is ad-free.

A middle option suggested a plan that would be even closer to Stitcher Premium, with exclusive shows and bonus material but no ads. This even matched Stitcher Premium’s price of $5 per month. And at the high-end, subscribers could get early access to ad-free interviews and episodes for $8 per month.

Looks like the premium podcast plan would be ad-free and some mix of exclusive extra content at price points somewhere between $3-$8. pic.twitter.com/ArK8xYg0CM

— Andrew Wallenstein (@awallenstein) November 6, 2020

A survey, of course, is only meant to gauge consumer demand for such a subscription, and doesn’t indicate that Spotify has a new product in the works. (Spotify said the same when asked to comment on the news at the time.)

However, it’s clear that investors also want to know what Spotify is thinking when it comes to recouping its sizable investments in podcasts.

Asked if Spotify thought customers would be willing to pay for podcasts, Ek on the earnings call responded that he believed there were several new models that could be explored.

“I think we’re in the early days of seeing the long-term evolvement of how we can monetize audio on the internet. I’ve said this before, but I don’t believe that it’s a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “I believe, in fact, that we will have all business models, and that’s the future for all media companies — that you will have ad-supported subscriptions and à la carte sort of in the same space, of all media companies in the future.”

“And you should definitely expect Spotify to follow that strategy and that pattern,” Ek added, more definitively.

The answer seemed to indicate that Spotify is considering some of the ideas in that recent survey — of getting consumers to pay for some podcasts, instead of accessing them all for free or having them bundled into their music subscription.

Of course, that would change the meaning of the word “podcasts,” which today refers to freely distributed, serialized audio programs that get distributed via RSS feeds.

If Spotify chooses to paywall podcasts behind subscriptions or à la carte payments, then they’re no longer really podcasts — they’re a new sort of premium audio program.

This is an area where Spotify has plenty of room to grow, considering the significant investment it has made in podcasts over the years. To date, that’s included buying up content producers like Gimlet Media, The Ringer and Parcast, as well as signing top creators like Joe Rogan, Addison Rae, Kim Kardashian West, DC Comics, Michelle Obama and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, among others. Spotify also bought podcast tools like Anchor and other ad technology and hosting services.

Spotify signs ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ to an exclusive multi-year deal

The advantage with podcasts is that Spotify has the ability to monetize them in multiple ways at once — with ads and subscriptions or direct payments, if it chose. And, of course, there are no licensing fees or royalties to contend with, as with streaming music.

Spotify could also adjust the podcast payments model as needed to fit its different geographies and the way customers around the world prefer to consume and pay for podcast content.

None of this thinking was about near-term launches, Ek also clarified.

“I think it’s early days, though, to specifically kind of look at how that could play out,” he said, talking about how the different models could take shape. “But, obviously, if that were to be the case, that revenue profile would be different than how we do music.”


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Hong Kong startup ICW eyes supply chain diversification demand amid trade war

For American importers, finding suppliers these days can be challenging not only due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The U.S. government’s entity list designations, human rights-related sanctions, among other trade blacklists targeting Chinese firms have also rattled U.S. supply chains.

One young company called International Compliance Workshop, or ICW, is determined to make sourcing easier for companies around the world as it completed a fresh round of funding. The Hong Kong-based startup has just raised $5.75 million as part of its Series A round, boosting its total funding to around $10 million, co-founder and CEO Garry Lam told TechCrunch.

ICW works like a matchmaker for suppliers and buyers, but unlike existing options like Alibaba’s B2B platform or international trade shows, ICW also vets suppliers over compliance, product quality, and accreditation. It gathers all that information into its growing database of over 40,000 suppliers — 80% of which are currently in China — and recommends them to customers based on individual needs.

Founded in 2016, ICW’s current client base includes some of the world’s largest retailers, including Ralph Lauren, Prenatal Retail Group, Blokker, Kmart, and a major American pharmacy chain that declined to be named.

ICW’s latest funding round was led by Infinity Ventures Partners with participation from Integrated Capital and existing investors MindWorks Capital and the Hong Kong government’s $2 billion Innovation and Technology Venture Fund.

Supply chain shift

In line with the ongoing shift of sourcing outside China, in part due to the U.S.-China trade war and China’s growing labor costs, ICW has seen more customers diversifying their supply chains. But the transition has limitations in the short run.

“It’s still very difficult to find suppliers of certain product categories, for example, Bluetooth devices and power banks, in other countries,” observed Lam. “But for garment and textile, the transition already began to happen a decade ago.”

In Southeast Asia, which has been replacing a great deal of Chinese manufacturing activity, each country has its slight specialization. Whereas Vietnam abounds with wooden furniture suppliers, Thailand is known for plastic goods and Malaysia is a good source for medical supplies, said Lam.

When it comes to trickier compliance burdens, such as human rights sanctions, ICW relies on third-party certification institutes to screen and verify suppliers.

“There is a [type of] qualification standard that verifies whether a supplier has fulfilled its corporate social responsibility… like whether the factory fulfills the labor law, the minimum labor rights, or the payroll, everything,” Lam explained.

ICW plans to use the fresh proceeds to further develop its products, including its compliance management system, product testing platform, and B2B sourcing site.


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Android 12 first preview includes new tools for improving user experience

The Android Development team has announced the release of the first preview for Android 12. Android 12 will introduce new tools for building improved user experiences, such as compatible media transcoding, along with privacy and performance optimizations. 

“With each version, we’re working to make the OS smarter, easier to use, and better performing, with privacy and security at the core. In Android 12 we’re also working to give you new tools for building great experiences for users,” Dave Burke, vice president of engineering for Android at Google, wrote in a post.

In addition to compatible media transcoding, which helps apps work with the latest video formats, Android 12 will introduce AVIF image support, foreground service optimizations, rich content insertion, audio-coupled haptic feedback, multi-channel audio, immersive mode API improvements for gesture navigations, improved Binder IPC calls, updates to the notifications UI, and faster, more responsive notifications. 

To improve privacy on Android devices, there are a number of new controls being introduced in this preview, with more to come in later preview releases, according to the Android team. New enhancements include adding SameSite cookie behaviors to WebView to give better transparency over how cookies are used across sites, restricted access to Netlink MAC, safer exporting of components, and safer handling of Intents. 

Android 12 also features advances in app compatibility. The Android team has invested more into doing more updates directly through Google Play system updates, so that it can make improvements without requiring a full system update. It is also working on making testing easier, restricting certain non-SDK interfaces, and optimizing Android for tablets, foldables, and TVs. 

Developers can test out Android 12 on any Pixel 3 / 3 XL, Pixel 3a / 3a XL, Pixel 4 / 4 XL, Pixel 4a / 4a 5G, or Pixel 5 device, or by using the Android Emulator in Android Studio. 

“Every day, Android apps help billions of people work, play, communicate, and create on a wide range of devices from phones and laptops to tablets, TVs, and cars. As more people come to rely on the experiences you build, their expectations can rise just as fast. It’s one of the reasons we share Android releases with you early: your feedback helps us build a better platform for your apps and all of the people who use them,” Burke wrote. 

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Early Snapchat employee debuts Yoni Circle, a social storytelling app for womxn

An early Snapchat employee who once architected the “Our Stories” product, Chloë Drimal, has now launched her own social app, Yoni Circle. Described as a membership-based community, the app aims to connect womxn using storytelling — including through both live video chat sessions as well as with pre-recorded stories that are available at any time.

The company has been quietly operating in beta since April 2020, but is now making its public launch.

Drimal came up with the idea for a social storytelling app, in part, because she saw the potential when working on the Snapchat “Our Stories” product.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle; founder Chloë Drimal

“I got to see that storytelling connects us,” she explains. “I got to peer into global experiences like New Year’s Eve or witnessing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and I just saw firsthand how connected we are as people,” Drimal continues. “I got to see how that was affecting our Snapchat users and making them feel more connected to the world because of this art of storytelling,” she adds.

But another inspiration came from Drimal’s personal experience in being taken off the “Our Stories” product to work on other projects at Snap — a difficult time in her career that started to make her feel very alone. She later ended up having conversations with other women — often older women who shared their own experiences — who helped her realized that she wasn’t as alone as she first thought.

“Their stories empowered me to write my next chapter, and know that this wasn’t the end of my career as I dramatically thought as a twenty-five or twenty-four year-old. It really was just the beginning and it helped me see the healing of storytelling — but also the importance of what strangers being vulnerable can do,” she says.

After leaving Snap, where she had later run women’s initiatives, Drimal began hosting an in-person community focused around more structured storytelling circles. The community evolved to become what’s now the Yoni Circle app, whose beta version was built with help from former Snap engineer Akiva Bamberger, now a Yoni Circle advisor.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

Today, the app has two main features: the interactive Storytelling Circles component and the more passive Yoni Radio.

The former allows members to join 60-minute moderated live video chat sessions with up to six womxn who connect with one another by listening to each others’ stories. During the Circle, a trained “Salonniere” guide will first lead the group through introductions, a breathing exercise, and will then introduce a storytelling prompt based on a specific theme, like “Stories on Gratitude,” or “Stories on Surprise,” for example.

The Salonnieres are not volunteers, but rather paid contractors who have undergone specific training to lead these sorts of sessions. Over time, they’ll also be able to gather members to paid web-based events, which could be things like yoga classes, book clubs, cooking classes and more.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

The Circle sessions have a basic rule: take the stories with you, and leave the names behind. In other words, what’s shared in circles is meant to remain confidential, unless the member chooses to share it publicly. Anyone violating that rule will be banned.

Members are also advised to speak simply, leave their egos at the door, and respect differences. No one receives the topic beforehand, either, so members can’t rehearse their speeches and put on a “performance.” The act of participating is meant to be about authenticity and vulnerability.

During the session, each participant takes their turn to share their own story and will listen to the others’ in return. Users only speak when they have the “talking piece,” and they can react to another story with snaps, or by clicking a snap icon.

While the sessions may uplift members the way that group therapy does, they’re not really focused on addressing psychological issues. Instead, Drimal says members compare them to “a slumber party combined with a mindfulness class.”

Still, she says, members feel like participating is an act of self-care.

“You just feel lighter,” Drimal explains. “It’s hard not to listen to other stories, to see yourself and just be reminded that you aren’t alone in the highs and lows of life.”

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

Members can also opt to record their own stories and then set them as either public or private on their Yoni Circle profile. The team then curates the public stories to share as highlights on the app’s homepage, allowing users to listen at any time. This also powers the Yoni Radio feature.

Recently, the company had been testing a weekly broadcast of these recorded stories, but will soon trial a new “story of the day” feature instead.

The Yoni Circle app first launched into beta last April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. had begun. That led to people isolating themselves at home away from friends, extended family, and other social interactions — driving demand for new social experiences.

But Yoni Circle doesn’t quite fit into the new live, interactive mobile market that’s developed as of late, led by apps like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

“I like to think we’ve carved out something different,” says Drimal. “It is intimate because we’re creating a safe space to be vulnerable…the things that I share in any circle I would never share on Clubhouse,” she says. “I think that’s also why we’ve been so focused on the way we grow our community. Yes, we’re looking to have millions of members, but we need to get there carefully.”

Currently, Yoni Circle is open to people who identify as womxn, and it involves an application process where you have to share who you are and what you’re looking to gain from the experience. Longer-term, the goal is to evolve the platform into a safe space that’s open to all.

Though the pandemic helped generate initial interest in the app  — it now has members from 1,000 cities across 80 countries — the startup sees a future in the post-pandemic market with in-person events that further connect its members.

Yoni Circle today is available on iOS for free. It will later monetize through an Audible-like credits model which provides access to the Circle sessions.

The L.A. and New York-based team of seven is backed by $1.3 million in pre-seed funding, led by BoxGroup. Investors include Cassius Family, Advancit, and angels including Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss, Mirror founder and CEO Brynn Putnam, Beme CTO Matt Hackett, early Snap engineer Daniel Smith.

Yoni Circle plans to raise a seed round in a few weeks.


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