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Deep Science: Alzheimer’s screening, forest-mapping drones, machine learning in space, more

Research papers come out far too rapidly for anyone to read them all, especially in the field of machine learning, which now affects (and produces papers in) practically every industry and company. This column aims to collect the most relevant recent discoveries and papers — particularly in but not limited to artificial intelligence — and explain why they matter.

This week, a startup that’s using UAV drones for mapping forests, a look at how machine learning can map social media networks and predict Alzheimer’s, improving computer vision for space-based sensors and other news regarding recent technological advances.

Predicting Alzheimer’s through speech patterns

Machine learning tools are being used to aid diagnosis in many ways, since they’re sensitive to patterns that humans find difficult to detect. IBM researchers have potentially found such patterns in speech that are predictive of the speaker developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The system only needs a couple minutes of ordinary speech in a clinical setting. The team used a large set of data (the Framingham Heart Study) going back to 1948, allowing patterns of speech to be identified in people who would later develop Alzheimer’s. The accuracy rate is about 71% or 0.74 area under the curve for those of you more statistically informed. That’s far from a sure thing, but current basic tests are barely better than a coin flip in predicting the disease this far ahead of time.

This is very important because the earlier Alzheimer’s can be detected, the better it can be managed. There’s no cure, but there are promising treatments and practices that can delay or mitigate the worst symptoms. A non-invasive, quick test of well people like this one could be a powerful new screening tool and is also, of course, an excellent demonstration of the usefulness of this field of tech.

(Don’t read the paper expecting to find exact symptoms or anything like that — the array of speech features aren’t really the kind of thing you can look out for in everyday life.)

So-cell networks

Making sure your deep learning network generalizes to data outside its training environment is a key part of any serious ML research. But few attempt to set a model loose on data that’s completely foreign to it. Perhaps they should!

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden took a model used to identify groups and connections in social media, and applied it (not unmodified, of course) to tissue scans. The tissue had been treated so that the resultant images produced thousands of tiny dots representing mRNA.

Normally the different groups of cells, representing types and areas of tissue, would need to be manually identified and labeled. But the graph neural network, created to identify social groups based on similarities like common interests in a virtual space, proved it could perform a similar task on cells. (See the image at top.)

“We’re using the latest AI methods — specifically, graph neural networks, developed to analyze social networks — and adapting them to understand biological patterns and successive variation in tissue samples. The cells are comparable to social groupings that can be defined according to the activities they share in their social networks,” said Uppsala’s Carolina Wählby.

It’s an interesting illustration not just of the flexibility of neural networks, but of how structures and architectures repeat at all scales and in all contexts. As without, so within, if you will.

Drones in nature

The vast forests of our national parks and timber farms have countless trees, but you can’t put “countless” on the paperwork. Someone has to make an actual estimate of how well various regions are growing, the density and types of trees, the range of disease or wildfire, and so on. This process is only partly automated, as aerial photography and scans only reveal so much, while on-the-ground observation is detailed but extremely slow and limited.

Treeswift aims to take a middle path by equipping drones with the sensors they need to both navigate and accurately measure the forest. By flying through much faster than a walking person, they can count trees, watch for problems and generally collect a ton of useful data. The company is still very early-stage, having spun out of the University of Pennsylvania and acquired an SBIR grant from the NSF.

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“Companies are looking more and more to forest resources to combat climate change but you don’t have a supply of people who are growing to meet that need,” Steven Chen, co-founder and CEO of Treeswift and a doctoral student in Computer and Information Science (CIS) at Penn Engineering said in a Penn news story. “I want to help make each forester do what they do with greater efficiency. These robots will not replace human jobs. Instead, they’re providing new tools to the people who have the insight and the passion to manage our forests.”

Another area where drones are making lots of interesting moves is underwater. Oceangoing autonomous submersibles are helping map the sea floor, track ice shelves and follow whales. But they all have a bit of an Achilles’ heel in that they need to periodically be picked up, charged and their data retrieved.

Purdue engineering professor Nina Mahmoudian has created a docking system by which submersibles can easily and automatically connect for power and data exchange.

A yellow marine robot (left, underwater) finds its way to a mobile docking station to recharge and upload data before continuing a task. (Purdue University photo/Jared Pike)

The craft needs a special nosecone, which can find and plug into a station that establishes a safe connection. The station can be an autonomous watercraft itself, or a permanent feature somewhere — what matters is that the smaller craft can make a pit stop to recharge and debrief before moving on. If it’s lost (a real danger at sea), its data won’t be lost with it.

You can see the setup in action below:

https://youtu.be/kS0-qc_r0

Sound in theory

Drones may soon become fixtures of city life as well, though we’re probably some ways from the automated private helicopters some seem to think are just around the corner. But living under a drone highway means constant noise — so people are always looking for ways to reduce turbulence and resultant sound from wings and propellers.

It looks like it’s on fire, but that’s turbulence.

Researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology found a new, more efficient way to simulate the airflow in these situations; fluid dynamics is essentially as complex as you make it, so the trick is to apply your computing power to the right parts of the problem. They were able to render only flow near the surface of the theoretical aircraft in high resolution, finding past a certain distance there was little point knowing exactly what was happening. Improvements to models of reality don’t always need to be better in every way — after all, the results are what matter.

Machine learning in space

Computer vision algorithms have come a long way, and as their efficiency improves they are beginning to be deployed at the edge rather than at data centers. In fact it’s become fairly common for camera-bearing objects like phones and IoT devices to do some local ML work on the image. But in space it’s another story.

Image Credits: Cosine

Performing ML work in space was until fairly recently simply too expensive power-wise to even consider. That’s power that could be used to capture another image, transmit the data to the surface, etc. HyperScout 2 is exploring the possibility of ML work in space, and its satellite has begun applying computer vision techniques immediately to the images it collects before sending them down. (“Here’s a cloud — here’s Portugal — here’s a volcano…”)

For now there’s little practical benefit, but object detection can be combined with other functions easily to create new use cases, from saving power when no objects of interest are present, to passing metadata to other tools that may work better if informed.

In with the old, out with the new

Machine learning models are great at making educated guesses, and in disciplines where there’s a large backlog of unsorted or poorly documented data, it can be very useful to let an AI make a first pass so that graduate students can use their time more productively. The Library of Congress is doing it with old newspapers, and now Carnegie Mellon University’s libraries are getting into the spirit.

CMU’s million-item photo archive is in the process of being digitized, but to make it useful to historians and curious browsers it needs to be organized and tagged — so computer vision algorithms are being put to work grouping similar images, identifying objects and locations, and doing other valuable basic cataloguing tasks.

“Even a partly successful project would greatly improve the collection metadata, and could provide a possible solution for metadata generation if the archives were ever funded to digitize the entire collection,” said CMU’s Matt Lincoln.

A very different project, yet one that seems somehow connected, is this work by a student at the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de Pernambuco in Brazil, who had the bright idea to try sprucing up some old maps with machine learning.

The tool they used takes old line-drawing maps and attempts to create a sort of satellite image based on them using a Generative Adversarial Network; GANs essentially attempt to trick themselves into creating content they can’t tell apart from the real thing.

Image Credits: Escola Politécnica da Universidade de Pernambuco

Well, the results aren’t what you might call completely convincing, but it’s still promising. Such maps are rarely accurate but that doesn’t mean they’re completely abstract — recreating them in the context of modern mapping techniques is a fun idea that might help these locations seem less distant.

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New Oxford machine learning-based COVID-19 test can provide results in under 5 minutes

Oxford scientists working out of the school’s Department of Physics have developed a new type of COVID-19 test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 with a high degree of accuracy, directly in samples taken from patients, using a machine learning-based approach that could help sidestep test supply limitations, and that also offers advantages when it comes to detecting actual virus particles, instead of antibodies or other signs of the presence of the virus which don’t necessarily correlate to an active, transmissible case.

The test created by the Oxford researchers also offer significant advantages in terms of speed, providing results in under five minutes, without any sample preparation required. That means it could be among the technologies that unlock mass testing – a crucial need not only for getting a handle on the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also on helping us deal with potential future global viral outbreaks, too. Oxford’s method is actually well-designed for that, too, since it can potentially be configured relatively easily to detect a number of viral threats.

The technology that makes this possible works by labelling any virus particles found in a sample collected by a patient using short, fluorescent DNA strands that act as markers. A microscope images the sample and the labelled viruses present, and then machine learning software takes over using algorithmic analysis developed by the team to automatically identify the virus, using differences that each one produces in terms of its fluorescent light emitted owing to their different physical surface makeup, size and individual chemical composition.

This technology, including the sample collection equipment, the microscopic imager and the flourescence insertion tools, as well as the compute capabilities, can be miniaturized to the point where it’s possible to be used just about anywhere, according to the researchers – including “businesses, music venues, airports,” and more. The focus now is to create a spinout company for the purposes of commercializing the device in a format that integrates all the components together.

The researchers anticipate being able to form the company, and start product development by early next year, with the potentially of having a device approved for use and ready for distribution around six months after that. It’s a tight timeline for development of a new diagnostic device, but timelines have changed already amply in the face of this pandemic, and will continue to do so as we’re unlikely to see if fade away anytime in the near future.

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Healthcare entrepreneurs should prepare for an upcoming VC/PE bubble

While many industries are taking a major hit due to the ongoing pandemic, the healthcare technology market continues to grow. In fact, total healthcare-related innovation funding for H1 2020 hit $9.1 billion, up nearly 19% compared to the same period in 2019, according to StartUp Health’s 2020 Midyear Funding Report.

As the virus continues to pose new challenges for the industry, investors are rushing to pump money into startups addressing healthcare sub-sectors ranging from telemedicine to patient financial engagement.

The inefficiencies and frustrations of the U.S. healthcare system make it a tempting target for disruption-oriented VCs. But here’s the hard truth: Healthcare is unlike any other industry. It has a morass of regulations that a “move-fast-and-break-things” startup can’t handle over the long term.

Healthcare is also a sensitive, personal issue. As such, patients are inherently reluctant to adapt to new technologies, even when they’re dissatisfied with the status quo. Consequently, it’s crucial that startup technology leaders in this space understand how to wade through these unpredictable waters in order to thrive and deliver a strong ROI for investors.

But here’s the hard truth: Healthcare is unlike any other industry. It has a morass of regulations that a “move-fast-and-break-things” startup can’t handle over the long term.

Entering health technology

VCs are seeing all the latest headlines about COVID-19 and spying a potential money-making opportunity to invest capital into innovative startups. However, they must overcome barriers to entry when offering patient-focused, technology-centric solutions before they can compete with legacy players. As the saying goes, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and, within the healthcare startup space, COVID-19 presents an opportunity for those who stood ready to offer a solution to the market before the situation became a crisis.

Therefore, VC and PE investors should focus on the problem the potential startup is trying to solve as recent times have rapidly refashioned the need for certain solutions. Are there other key players leading the market, or is the startup a duplicative offering that is currently available? If the value proposition is unique, it may be interesting. If it’s not, investors may want to think twice.

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CDC removes updated guidelines around COVID-19 aerosol transmission, but this expert explains why it should reverse the reversal

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Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, I got the chance to speak to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist who is a Senior Fellow of the Federation of American Scientists. Dr. Feigl-Ding has been a frequent and vocal critic of some of the most profound missteps of regulators, public health organizations and the current White House administration, and we discussed specifically the topic of aerosol transmission and its notable absence from existing guidance in the U.S.

At the time, neither of us knew that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would publish updated guidance on its website over this past weekend that provided descriptions of aerosol transmission, and a concession that it’s likely a primary vector for passing on the virus that leads to COVID-19 — or that the CDC would subsequently revert said guidance, removing this updated information about aerosol transmission that’s more in line with the current state of widely accepted COVID research. The CDC cited essentially an issue where someone at the organization pushed a draft version of guidelines to production — but the facts it had shared in the update lined up very closely with what Dr. Feigl-Ding had been calling for.

“The fact that we haven’t highlighted aerosol transmission as much, up until recently, is woefully, woefully frustrating,” he said during our interview last Wednesday. “Other countries who’ve been much more technologically savvy about the engineering aspects of aerosols have been ahead of the curve — like Japan, they assume that this virus is aerosol and airborne. And aerosol means that the droplets are these micro droplets that can float in the air, they don’t get pulled down by gravity […] now we know that the aerosols may actually be the main drivers. And that means that if someone coughs, sings, even breathes, it can stay in the air, the micro droplets can stay in the air anywhere from, for stagnant air for up to16 hours, but normally with ventilation, between 20 minutes to four hours. And that air, if you enter into a room after someone was there, you can still get infected, and that is what makes indoor dining and bars and restaurants so frustrating.”

Dr. Feigl-Ding points to a number of recent contact-tracing studies as providing strong evidence that these indoor activities, and the opportunity they provide for aerosol transmission, are leading to a large number of infections. Such studies were featured in a report the CDC prepared on reopening advice, which was buried by the Trump administration, according to an AP report from May.

“The latest report shows that indoor dining, bars, restaurants are the leading leading factors for transmission, once you do contact tracing,” he said, noting that this leads naturally to the big issues around schools reopening, including that many have “very poor ventilation,” while simultaneously they’re not able to open their windows or doors due to gun safety protocols in place. Even before this recent CDC guideline take-back, Dr. Feigl-Ding was clearly frustrated with the way the organization appears to be succumbing to politicization of what is clearly an issue of a large and growing body of scientific evidence and fact.

“The CDC has long been the most respected agency in the world for public health, but now it’s been politically muzzled,” he said. “Previously, for example, the guidelines around church attendance — the CDC advised against church gatherings, but then it was overruled. And it was clearly overruled, because we actually saw it changed in live time. […] In terms of schools, gatherings, it’s clear [that] keeping kids in a pod is not enough, given what we know about ventilation.”

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The Peloton effect

How much more connected fitness VC activity are we seeing in 2020?

During the most recent quarter, only a few earnings reports stood out from the rest. Zoom’s set of results were one of them, with the video-communications company showing enormous acceleration as the world replaced in-person contact with remote chat.

Another was Peloton’s earnings from the fourth quarter of its fiscal 2020, which it reported September 10th. The company’s revenue and profitability spiked as folks stuck at home turned to the connected fitness company’s wares.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Shares of Peloton have rallied around 4x since March, roughly the start of when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact life in the United States, driving demand for the company’s at-home workout equipment. In late June, the leisure company Lululemon bought Mirror, another connected fitness company aimed at the home market for around $500 million.

With Peloton’s 2019 IPO and its growth along with Mirror’s exit in 2020, connected fitness is demonstrably hot, and private-market investors are taking notice. A recent Tweet from fitness tech watcher Joe Vennare detailing a host of recent funding rounds raised by “digital fitness” companies made the point last week, piquing our curiosity at the same time.

Is there really some sort of Peloton effect driving private investment into lots of connected fitness startups? How hot is the more nascent side of connected fitness?

This morning let’s take a look through some recent funding rounds in the space to get a feel for what’s going on. (If you’re a VC who cares about the sector, feel free to email in your own notes, subject line “connected fitness” please.) We’ll then execute the same search for Q3 2019 and see how the data compares.

Hot Wheels

To start with the current market I pulled a Crunchbase query for all Q3 funding rounds for companies tagged as “fitness” and then filtered out the cruft to get a look at the most pertinent funding events.

Here’s what I came up for for Q3 2020, to date:

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Daily Crunch: Peloton might expand its product lineup

Peloton’s product lineup is both getting cheaper and more expensive, Nintendo announces a new retro device and Palantir reveals more about its governance plans. This is your Daily Crunch for September 4, 2020.

The big story: Peloton might expand its product lineup

Peloton is preparing to add new products at both ends of its pricing range, according to a report in Bloomberg.

Specifically, it’s planning to add an entry-level treadmill that would retail for less than $3,000, as well as a higher-end bike, called the Bike+, which could serve as a centerpiece for a home gym that also supports strength training and other workouts. Meanwhile, Peloton would also drop the price for its existing bike to under $1,900.

Altogether, this sounds like a smart way to both lower the price of entry while also creating new products for people who don’t feel safe going to the gym (assuming it’s open at all) during the pandemic.

The tech giants

Nintendo is remaking the first portable gaming system it ever built —  For nearly a decade before Nintendo released the iconic Game Boy, it was making the Game & Watch, which it’s now planning to re-release in a limited edition.

WhatsApp reveals six previously undisclosed vulnerabilities on new security site — The vulnerabilities are being reported on a new, dedicated security advisory website.

Google pushes Europe to limit ‘gatekeeper’ platform rulesGoogle has made its pitch to shape the next decades of digital regulation across the European Union.

Startups, funding and venture capital

In amended filing, Palantir admits it won’t have independent board governance for up to a year — Palantir’s model is unique in allowing founders to have a commanding vote even if they were to sell their shares.

Yandex spins out self-driving car unit from its Uber JV, invests $150M into new company — The move comes amid reports that Yandex and Uber were eyeing up an IPO for their joint venture MLU last year.

Teemyco creates virtual offices so you can grab a room and talk with colleagues — The company wants to foster spontaneous interactions and casual collaboration with a room-based interface.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

3 views on the future of geographic-focused funds — Natasha Mascarenhas, Danny Crichton and Alex Wilhelm of the TechCrunch Equity crew discuss the future of geographic-focused funds, given the uptick of remote investing.

Brands that hyper-personalize will win the next decade — Personalizing the experience is a start, but it isn’t the end.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Stocks are selling off again, and SaaS shares are taking the biggest lumps — Stocks, it turns out, can go down, and they can do so very quickly.

Low-cost fitness bands see a resurgence in interest amid the pandemic — While wearable fitness devices saw an uptick in shipments in North America for Q2, the overall dollar amount of the market remained steady, according to new numbers out of Canalys.

NSA’s Anne Neuberger to talk cybersecurity at Disrupt 2020 — Neuberger took the helm at the NSA’s newly created Cybersecurity Directorate a year ago.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Low-cost fitness bands see a resurgence in interest amid the pandemic

While wearable fitness devices saw an uptick in shipments in North America for Q2, the overall dollar amount of the market remained steady, according to new numbers out of Canalys. The discrepancy can be chalked up to a decline in the average selling price of the products.

Continuing an overall trend for 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in wearable devices, as consumers look to both monitor their health and track step counts, as mass closings have made many more sedentary. Perhaps owing to large unemployment figures and a massive economic downturn, the decisions customers have been making are trending toward the more frugal end of the spectrum.

Image Credits: Canalys

“Americans invested heavily in sub-US$50 trackers during the pandemic to stay accountable for the greater amount of time spent at home,” analyst Vincent Thielke said in a comment tied to the figures’ release.

The numbers buck larger ongoing wearable trends, which have found smartwatches starting to utterly dominate the conversation. Of course, results that can be tied directly to the pandemic ought not be viewed as indicators of broader, ongoing trends. They do, however, seem to open up a perhaps temporary opportunity to low-cost device makers. Amazon is striking while the iron is hot with the Halo band, and a number of companies that have had continued success in Asia could potentially find an opening in the market. Subscription services appear to be the key way forward for monetizing relatively low-cost devices.

Apple continues to dominate the category overall. That’s helped along by a bump in shipments for the Apple Watch Series 3. As a $200 alternative to Apple’s higher-end devices, the three-year-old smartwatch saw a 30% year-over-year growth.

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10 Berlin-based VCs discuss how COVID-19 has changed the landscape

A breeding ground for European entrepreneurs, Berlin has a knack for producing a lot of new startups: the city attracts top international, diverse talent, and it is packed with investors, events and accelerators. Also important: it’s a more affordable place to live and work when compared to many other cities in the region.

Berlin ranked 10th place in the 2019 Global Ecosystem Report, trailing behind only two other European cities: London and Paris. It’s home to unicorns such as N26, Zalando, HelloFresh and pioneers of the scene such as SoundCloud.

Top VCs include Earlybird, Point Nine, Project A, Rocket Internet, Holtzbrinck Ventures and accelerators such as Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator, hub:raum and The Family.

To get a sense of how the novel coronavirus has changed the landscape, we asked ten investors to give us an insight into their thinking during these pivotal times:

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Generally, we believe in a future in which we can leverage technology to free up humans from repetitive and tedious work and to empower them to shift their focus to what they consider more meaningful and impactful: that is creative and interpersonal activities. Thus, we are excited about founders working towards that future and finding answers across multiple industries, such as manufacturing or logistics, across all working-classes, and across different eras – before, during and after COVID.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
One of the recent additions of our new fund is Luminovo, a Munich-based company that develops a solution in the electronics industry to reduce the time and resources needed to go from an idea to a market-ready circuit board.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
So far, we have only scratched the surface of the kind of efficiency gains that can potentially be achieved – particularly in industries that were considered to be boring and sluggish in the past, such as insurance or logistics. Even small improvements driven by technology can have a massive direct impact on P&L.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
In general, we love to back visionary founders in the seed-stage that tap into giant industries with a high potential for digitization across Europe and the US.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
COVID has sprung a myriad of companies in the communication and collaboration space into existence. While we believe in a future in which products and processes will be inherently remote-first, we will see a consolidation of that space that only allows for an oligopolistic market structure similar to how there is only one Zoom and Google Meet in the video communication space today.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We have always considered ourselves as one of the few funds in Germany with a significant investment footprint both in Europe and the US. COVID has emphasized that we are able to invest entirely remotely and hence we will continue and even increase our activities across multiple hubs, such as Munich, Paris, or London.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Germany’s economy relies on wealthy traditional companies sitting on top of capital to be unlocked which new entrants can make use of. This has been true before 2020, and COVID will only demand more and accelerated innovation across these traditional industries ranging from automotive, manufacturing, to the chemical industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Berlin and other German cities have consistently proven to develop and grow new leaders across multiple categories such as banking (N26), mobility (Flixbus and Lilium), or data analytics (Celonis). This is certainly driven by a mix of talents coming out of world-class educational institutions, the relative low cost of living in tech hubs, and large local incumbents with massive capital to invest and spend.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
While COVID has accelerated remote-first products and processes, we still believe that people will flock back to startup hubs such as Berlin or Munich, especially given the relatively low cost of living compared to other tech hubs like San Francisco. Nevertheless, we will continue to see an increasing number of companies scattered across multiple time zones building products that are inherently remote first, regardless where the general work environment will shift into.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We are lucky in that our investment focus has been on sector verticals such as Logistics, Supply chain, manufacturing or the future of work, which have all captured significant tailwind from Covid.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
While our investment strategy on a high level will not change, we are putting longer sales cycles into consideration as potential customers of our portfolio companies now are focusing on capital efficiency which also holds true for our founders. Thus, we advise them to focus on extending the runway both by increasing capital efficiency as well as taking on additional funding.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
As our economy is still in the midst of dealing with the effects of COVID, it is too early to tell, but we definitely see positive indications driven by efforts of portfolio companies that could adapt quickly and shipped features catered to the current needs. One example is Personio, which extended their HR offerings with features that solve the need of customers who shifted to short-time work.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gave me hope was the cohesion of the German economy that fought together for solutions and support during these difficult times. One positive example was the German Startup Association that helped achieve additional governmental financial aid for German SMEs.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Similar to how the past financial crisis allowed companies such as Stripe or Shopify to become ubiquitous parts of our daily life, these unprecedented times now will also give birth to new forms and shapes in which new ideas will grow into large businesses and we are excited to partner up with founders willing to take a bet on that future.

Jorge Fonturbel, Target Global

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IFA’s executive director discusses why the tech show must go on

In June, the CTA announced that CES 2021 would go forward in-person. The event was set to have slipped under the wire — having narrowly avoided a COVID-19-related shutdown two years in a row. A month later, however, its organizers reversed course, announcing the January show was going virtual. Disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising.

The past five months have seen one in-person show cancellation after another, from MWC to E3, from WWDC to Computex to our own Disrupt, which is going online-only for the first time. One major consumer electronics trade show, on the other hand, has long planned to buck that trend. On September 3, IFA will kick off in-person in Berlin. Though this year’s event will look dramatically different.

“Usually, we have more than 40 halls serving IFA . This year, at the moment, we have two halls for the press conference with the stages, one exhibition hall, one press center hall and one hall for IFA Next and Shift Mobility,” the organization’s executive director Jens Heithecker explains on the phone from Germany. “We will have around 170-180 exhibitors, compared to 2,300 last year.”

Heithecker doesn’t mask the melancholy in his voice when discussing this year’s version of the show. “To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” he says. “This year for me, the air’s the same, but whenever I see the halls, the area of our exhibition site, it’s empty, more or less.”

I’ve attended IFA several times over the years, and have always been struck by the organizational chaos. Every tech trade show has some element of this, of course, but IFA opens itself up the public, filling the maze like halls of the Messe Berlin convention center with a peculiar mix of industry professionals and local families with small children. It’s alternately amusing and maddening, depending on how much time you give yourself to get from point A to point B.

This year’s show has been designated IFA 2020 Special Edition. It’s essentially a nice way of noting that the show will be significantly smaller than in years past. Heithecker notes that some 1,100 members of the press have registered for the show, all from a limited invite list. I was on the invite list as well, but, like many, simply opted not to go. Frankly, the idea of flying to German to stand inside an event hall with exhibitors and fellow journalists sounds far less appealing than following along from home.

I’m sure my own sense of safety is colored by my home country’s less-than-ideal handling of the pandemic. But with 24.5 million global cases and 833,000 deaths to date from the virus, there’s still cause for concern, as numbers continue to rise around the globe. Germany has, of course, largely done well in its own handling of the novel coronavirus, but there’s cause for concern even there. With numbers rising, the country has put reopening plans on pause while other European countries like Norway have added German travelers to a quarantine list.

“By end of March, we started to create our statistics on our own, to understand the situation a better way than in the public media only,” says Heithecker. “The rising number in Germany — at least in the northern part of Germany — is created mainly by the double number of tested people. This means the ratio of positively tested people is the same like before. So we will find more people by the situation, the general situation is not going worse in the northern part. We have more tested because the German government is fearing, at the moment, all the people coming back from their holidays in the south, especially, in the south of Europe. That’s the main reason at the moment that we are following so close all the figures every day.”

The nature of the limited guest list means that social distancing will be significantly easier for attendees to practice than they have been in past years, when members of the press have been elbowing small children out of the way in order to get a good show of the latest ASUS gaming laptop. Of course, simply having more space doesn’t necessarily mean that guests will keep to the mask and social distance requirements (1.5 meters) that IFA posts.

“We have so many additional people watching out for our attendees, that they will wear masks, that they will keep the distances,” Heithecker explains. He adds that attendees will be removed from the premises for refusing to adhere to such social safety rules, but that such a move, understandably, is a last resort.

The organization notably pulled the plug on the Global Markets portion of the show, citing “persistent travel restrictions prevent Asian companies from joining the live event.” The event, launched in 2016 for OEMs/ODMs, retailers and distributors, drew a significant portion of exhibitions and attendees from Asian countries. In late June, Samsung announced that it would be pulling out of the show, opting instead for its own Unpacked event just ahead of IFA.

Heithecker believes that Samsung’s decision was based on word from the hardware giant’s U.K. offices. “Two months, three months ago, they couldn’t imagine that any journalist would attend IFA,” he tells TechCrunch. “And even if you told them, ‘Hey, we have all the registrations already, they will come,’ they didn’t believe.”

He adds that he thinks the company is essentially riding the show’s presence to add views, but that Samsung will ultimately regret not directly taking part in the show. “Samsung is doing the press conference in front of this year’s IFA, using the attention we create for the industry, for new products, using the power, the activity of IFA as well, even if they’re not inside our show,” Heithecker says. “We create this and we will bring the proof that whoever is attending or using our new platform, even for online presentations, will see a bigger impact and much more viewers and much more investment than if you do it on your own.”

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LG is releasing a ‘wearable air purifier’

Frankly, the most surprising thing about the PuriCare is that more tech companies haven’t launched a similar product in recent months. LG is showing it off as part of the upcoming IFA press conference in Berlin — though the company is opting for a virtual presence at this year’s show.

There’s a lot going on in the press release for the “wearable air purifier.” As it notes, “LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier resolves the dilemma of homemade masks being of inconsistent quality and disposal masks being in short supply. The PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier employs two H13 HEPA filters, similar to the filters used in the company’s home air purifier products.”

The company seemingly goes out of its way not to mention COVID-19. After all, specific health claims are often subject to different regulations. It’s true, of course, that masks have, at various points, been in short supply during the pandemic. And likely that was the case when LG really started pushing the idea in earnest.

That said, it’s also worth noting that even professionally made masks offer a pretty wide range of efficacy against the virus’s transmission. There are plenty of questions here. For starters, the filter and the question of how effective it might potentially be for both the wearer and the people around them. The latter, after all, is the real argument for wearing masks — to protect the people around.

LG’s response to the COVID-19 question defers to potential future approval; “We’re waiting until further testing is complete before we’re able to share full details.” Hopefully we’ll get some more concrete answers before it goes on sale in “the fourth quarter in select markets.” Though there are certainly non-coronavirus-related reasons to wear a mask, including pollution and other environmental contaminants.

Image Credits: LG

Also worth asking is what happens when the battery runs down. The mask is capable of running eight hours on “low” and two hours on “high,” courtesy of an on-board 820mAh battery, according to figures from LG. But stuff happens. Sometimes you’re out longer than expected, or maybe you just forgot to charge it in full before leaving the house.

There are two H13 HEPA filters on-board, similar in nature to the kind the company uses for its in-home air filtration system. There are also UV-LED lights designed to kill bacteria — an added level of protection beyond the filtration system. In addition to the aforementioned home filtration systems, LG also manufacturers UV light wands for disinfecting purposes. The company has been working on a lot of this stuff already and clearly saw an opportunity to capitalize on it in mask form.

There’s a fair bit of on-board technology, including the ability to regulate the speed of the filtration based on the wearer’s breath. Overkill? Almost certainly. From the looks of the images, it’s also potentially cumbersome. And then there’s the matter of the still unknown price.

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