DHS launches a new cyber hub to coordinate against threats to US infrastructure

Among the many things the current administration has been criticized for is its lack of a unified strategy to combat cyber threats, especially in light of ongoing election interference and psy ops perpetrated by Russia. The Department of Homeland Security is advancing the ball with the creation of the National Risk Management Center, intended on protecting critical infrastructure from attacks and subversion by online adversaries.

The NRMC was announced today at a cyber summit in New York held by the agency, where DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen explained the purpose and justification for this new entity. Remarkably, she directly contradicted the ongoing soft-pedaling by the Executive of Russian operations targeting the country.

“Let me be clear: Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians. It was directed from the highest levels. And we cannot and will not allow it to happen again,” she said.

DHS Secretary Nielsen in 2017.

Thus the creation of the NRMC, which will work directly with various entities and federal agencies to protect infrastructure like banking systems and the power grid (not to mention election systems). These are such obvious targets for foreign intelligence to attack, either for destructive or informative purposes, that they merit special attention from our side as well, and DHS is in fact the one to provide it.

The new center will be online and staffed tomorrow, though it will take some time to spin up completely as DHS allocates space, personnel and resources. Its exact duties, jurisdictions and connections with other units will no doubt be made clear as well.

Vice President Pence spoke at the event too, but naturally chose to lash out at the Obama administration, which he said “often chose silence and paralysis over strength and action.”

This is a strange thing to say when several prominent cybersecurity-related posts and offices have been abandoned and a report by the Office of Management and Budget found agencies around the country are utterly unprepared for even elementary cyberattacks.

One of the major moves to improve cybersecurity, elevating CyberCom to Unified Combatant Command level, was an Obama-era plan, and the president’s overall cyber strategy, announced last year, also cribbed liberally from the previous administration.

That said, the vice president was realistic on other points.

“The fact is Russia meddled in our 2016 elections,” he concurred. “This administration will not tolerate threats from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anyone else.”

The other countries on the list, it bears mentioning, have not been found to have interfered with American elections, though admittedly they might if they had the chance.

Pence also acknowledged states’ prerogative in running their elections how they like, but also said the federal government would be providing additional funding and technology for election security. He mentioned the “Albert sensors” being deployed to help monitor online systems, and a “virtual situation room” many states are already using that connects DHS with state authorities.

“I want to urge, with great respect, every state to take renewed action. Take advantage of the assistance offered by our administration,” Pence said.

That seems like a good idea, as Russian operations have already begun ahead of the 2018 midterms. Perhaps that joint Russo-American cybersecurity group proposed by Putin will help.

Spotify now offers motion comics starring Archie

Spotify has been experimenting with incorporating non-musical formats over the last couple of years, including videos and multimedia podcasts. Next up: Motion comics based on new Archie stories.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping track of the comics incarnations of Archie and his friends, the title was recently rebooted by writer Mark Waid (Kingdom Come) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga). While I was initially skeptical about the need to mess with the characters’ classic designs, I found the first collection to be a perfectly enjoyable combination of teen comedy and soap opera.

Now, as announced in Nerdist, the first six issues have been transformed by digital comics startup Madefire with music and voice acting.

It’s still a comic book, and you can still see Staples’ gorgeous art, but it’s a story that you hit a “play” button to experience, rather than turning any pages. (Madefire and its CEO Ben Wolstenholme prefer the term “motion books” to distinguish the format from the cheesy motion comics of the past, but I suspect the distinction is lost on most readers.)

You can find them on Spotify as Spotlight: Archie — The New Riverdale.

Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater told Nerdist that “Archie has always been about trying to find new ways to get comics to fans and readers,” and said that working with Spotify was “a perfect match.”

Apple Pay is finally coming to CVS and 7-Eleven, and will soon expand to Germany

Longtime Apple Pay holdout CVS will finally be adding support for Apple’s mobile payments platform this fall, along with 7-Eleven, Apple CEO Tim Cook said this afternoon on the company’s earnings call. The news is particularly notable because CVS was one of the first major retailers to snub Apple Pay, choosing instead to launch its own barcode-based mobile payments solution “CVS Pay” back in 2016, following the failure of the retailer-backed Apple Pay rival CurrentC.

CVS Pay had become the first mobile payments solution the pharmacy chain adopted, after having purposefully avoided support for Apple Pay or any other rival NFC (tap to pay) technologies at its register. The company believed there was value in offering its own end-to-end solution to customers that combined both payments and loyalty, it had said.

In addition, CVS had earlier backed an Apple Pay alternative called CurrentC, which was developed by the merchant consortium MCX, led by major retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, Rite Aid and others. The QR code-based payments solution was designed to challenge Apple’s potential dominance in mobile payments. Many of the retailers even blocked Apple Pay at their stores in advance of bringing CurrentC to market.

However, CurrentC eventually failed and the technology was sold off to JPMorgan Chase in 2017. Some of its backers — like Best Buy and Rite Aid — had also relented, by allowing Apple Pay into their stores. But CVS did not. It instead moved forward with its own solution.

That it has now decided to also support Apple Pay is a major win for Apple, as is the addition of 7-Eleven to the list of retailers that will soon offer Apple Pay at checkout.

The retail expansions weren’t the only big Apple Pay news announced on the call.

Cook also said that Apple Pay would launch in Germany — but didn’t offer a timeframe for this launch beyond “later this year.” And he noted that Apple Pay saw more than 1 billion transactions in the third quarter of 2018. That’s triple the number from a year ago, and more mobile transactions than Square and PayPal, he noted.

The news follows a new forecast released by Juniper Research which now estimates Apple’s Pay will account for 1 in 2 contactless mobile wallet users (in OEM-provided wallets) by 2020.

With its expansions, Apple Pay’s global traction is growing. The service is now live in 24 markets worldwide, with more than 4,900 bank partners. Apple Pay will also go live on eBay in the U.S., Cook said, as previously announced by eBay last week.

Four million people are using Apple’s OS betas

For the past few years, Apple has made early versions of its operating systems available to those willing to brave the bugs. Through its beta software program, anyone willing to deal with spotty battery life or a crash or three could load up pre-release builds of iOS, macOS, watchOS or tvOS.

Ever wonder how many actually take advantage of it?

According to Tim Cook on today’s earnings call, more than four million people are currently running on the betas.

Alas, that’s as detailed as he got. He didn’t break down which platforms had the most beta users (though I’d bet iOS or macOS lead the way), nor what percentage of that beta group was developers (accessing the beta to debug their apps before the update) versus consumers (who just want to poke around the new goods early).

For reference: As of February of 2018, Apple had 1.3 billion active devices across Apple TV, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Mac. So if each of the users Tim Cook mentioned is running a beta OS on one device, that’s around 0.3 percent of active devices running on a beta.

While that percentage might not sound huge, having four million people happily stress test your software before you officially ship it is a rare strength that few other companies can claim. Still, Apple has had a few rather glaring bugs slip through the cracks — from the annoying but forgettable bug that borked the letter “i” in iOS for a few days, to more severe security issues like the root user bug discovered in macOS at the end of last year. Could Apple be doing more to encourage pre-release bug hunting?

Uber and Lyft encourage NYC customers to oppose proposed ride-hail cap legislation

Uber is making calls to some of its customers in New York City, offering to connect them to local council members to express their opposition to the proposed legislation that would cap the number of ride-hailing drivers in the city, BuzzFeed first reported. Meanwhile, Lyft is also reaching out to its NYC-based riders, asking them to contact their local officials.

For context, the NYC city council is currently considering legislation that would limit the number of ride-hail drivers on the road. Specifically, the proposal wants to place a one-year hold on the issuance of new for-hire vehicle licenses, unless the vehicles are wheelchair accessible.

This legislation would affect Uber, Lyft, Juno and Via — all of which operate ride-hailing services in the city. The deadline to submit an amended version of the proposal is tonight at midnight, so the clock is ticking.

Anyway, some people seem to be a bit upset about receiving calls from Uber, but Uber Director of Public Affairs Jason Post told TechCrunch the calls are simply one of its tactics that is consistent with its terms of services.

Uber is not calling every single customer in the city, Post said, but the company is making enough calls to yield a few dozen calls per council member. Though, why people are answering calls from unknown numbers is beyond me.

Uber is also employing an in-app takeover that notifies passengers of the legislative landscape in NYC.

“Uber has launched an App takeover so New Yorkers can read the Council’s bills for themselves,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “We believe New Yorkers will join us in supporting living wages for drivers and opposing a cap that will harm outer borough riders who have come to rely on Uber because of the unreliable, or non-existent subway.”

Lyft says the proposals would affect wait times, driver earnings and job opportunities.

“Worst of all, the proposals prioritize corporate medallion owners above the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers,” a Lyft spokesperson said. “And while many are saying that this a cap would not diminish service, based on Lyft’s internal driver attrition trends, we believe the industry’s annual churn rate is at least 25%, meaning available drivers for New York City ride-share would shrink significantly within the next year if a cap were imposed, massively undercutting service levels across the board and in particular in outer-borough neighborhoods.”

Lyft’s VP of public policy, Joseph Okpaku, also noted in a Medium post that the cap would have even worse effects on communities of color.

“For communities of color, who, before the arrival of ridesharing, were denied equal transportation options, the impact will be felt even more strongly,” he wrote. “It will return us to the days when African-American and Latino New Yorkers had to worry whether they would get a ride every time they raised their hand to hail a cab.”

Bird’s electric scooters are going international

Electric scooter startup Bird, the one worth $2 billion, is going international. This does not come as a surprise given TechCrunch’s June report that Bird was looking to expand to Europe. Today, Bird is launching a pilot program in Paris to see how the electric scooter service operates in a city with more than two million people.

“Paris is very forward-thinking on solving congestion issues and is one of the cities that’s dealing with the most congestion and pollution,” Bird Head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa Patrick Studener told TechCrunch.

Bird is also gearing up to deploy some scooters in Tel Aviv, where the company says it’s chatting with Tel Aviv University and some municipalities about making something work in those areas, Studener said. In Tel Aviv, Bird will charge 5 shekels to start and then 50 agorot per minute.

As Bird expands to international markets, it’s worth noting that competitor Lime has operated its bikes and scooters outside of the U.S. for quite some time. Last December, Lime brought its bikes to a number of European cities and then, in June, Lime brought its scooters to Paris. Lime also recently raised a $335 million round and teamed up with transportation behemoth Uber.

In Paris, Bird scooters will cost €1 to start followed by €0.15 per minute, which is exactly how much Lime charges. Bird says Paris city officials know the company is planning to deploy about 100 scooters in the city. But this isn’t an official partnership of sorts, Studener said.

“In both cities we’ve started conversations at the national and city levels with officials,” Studener said. “Our approach is to be very collaborative. Almost every city that I’m speaking to, their north star is very much aligned with our north star — and that’s reducing car ownership.”

Since launching last November in Santa Monica, Calif., Bird hasn’t always had the best relationships with city regulators. Upon deploying some scooters in Santa Monica, the city filed criminal complaints against Bird for the company’s failure to obtain a vendor permit. Fast forward to June, and the city implemented a pilot program to impose some regulations on scooter companies like Bird, Lime and others.

Studener and the rest of the European team is based in Amsterdam, though, Bird has not yet deployed its scooters in the Dutch city. As head of EMEA, Studener has his eyes on a number of markets but for this week, he is focused on “going from just being in the U.S. to going internationally. That’s step one.”

In response to a question about Africa, Studener said Bird is still evaluating which African markets would be ripe for Bird scooters.

He said, “I definitely am keen to get that solution there as well because there is especially a very young and innovative population there that are very quick to adopt new solutions.”

Golden Gate Ventures hits first close on new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

One of the fascinating things about watching an emerging startup ecosystem is that it isn’t just companies that are scaling, the very VC firms that feed them are growing themselves, too. That’s perhaps best embodied by Golden Gate Ventures, a Singapore-based firm founded by three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 2011 which is about to close a huge new fund for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate started out with a small seed investment fund before raising a second worth $60 million in 2015. Now it is in the closes stages of finalizing a new $100 million fund, which has completed a first close of over $65 million in commitments, a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch.

A filing lodged with the SEC in June first showed the firm’s intent to raise $100 million. The source told TechCrunch that a number of LPs from Golden Gate’s previous funds have already signed up, including Naver, while Mistletoe, the firm run by SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son’s brother Taizo, is among the new backers joining.

Golden Gate’s existing LP base also includes Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and South Korea’s Hanwha.

A full close for the fund is expected before the end of the year.

The firm has made over 40 investments to date and its portfolio includes mobile classifieds service Carousell, automotive sales startup Carro, real estate site 99.co, and payment gateway Omise. TechCrunch understands that the firm’s investment thesis will remain the same with this new fund. When it raised its second fund, founding partner Vinnie Lauria told us that Golden Gate had found its match at early-stage investing and it will remain lean and nimble like the companies it backs.

One significant change internally, however, sees Justin Hall promoted to partner at the fund. He joins Lauria, fellow founding partner Jeffrey Paine, and Michael Lints at partner level.

Hall first joined Golden Gate in 2012 as an intern while still a student, before signing on full-time in 2013. His rise through the ranks exemplifies the growth and development within Southeast Asia’s startup scene over that period — it isn’t just limited to startups themselves.

The Golden Gate Ventures team circa 2016 — it has since added new members

With the advent of unicorns such as ride-sharing firms Grab and Go-Jek, travel startup Traveloka, and e-commerce companies like Tokopedia, Southeast Asia has begun to show potential for homegrown tech companies in a market that includes over 650 million consumers and more than 300 million internet users. The emergence of these companies has spiked investor interest, which provides the capital that is the lifeblood for VCs and their funds.

Golden Gate is the only one raising big. Openspace, formerly NSI Ventures, is raising $125 million for its second fund, Jungle Ventures is said to be planning a $150 million fund, and Singapore’s Golden Equator and Korea Investment Partners have a joint $88 million fund, while Temasek-linked Vertex closed a record $210 million fund last year.

Growth potential is leading the charge but at the same time funds are beginning to focus on realizing returns for LPs through exits, which is challenging since there have been few acquisitions of meaningful size or public listings out of Southeast Asia so far. But, for smaller funds, the results are already promising.

Data from Prequin, which tracks investment money worldwide, shows that Golden Gate’s first fund has already returned a multiple of over 4X, while its second is at 1.3 despite a final close in 2016.

Beyond any secondary sales — it is not uncommon for early-stage backers to sell a minority portion of equity as more investment capital pours in — Golden Gate’s exits have included the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of Woomoo, Line’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek.

Google adds new Singapore data center as Southeast Asia reaches 330M internet users

Google is adding a third data center to its presence in Singapore in response to continued internet growth in Southeast Asia.

It’s been three years since it added a second center in Singapore, and during that time the company estimates that something in the region of 70 million people across Southeast Asia have come online for the first time. That takes the region to over 330 million internet users, but with a population of over 650 million, there’s plenty more to come.

The local data centers don’t exclusively serve their immediate proximity — Asia data centers can handle U.S. traffic, and likewise — but adding more local capacity does help Google services, and companies that run their business on Google’s cloud, run quicker for internet users in that specific region. So not only is it good for locals, but it’s important for Google’s business, which counts the likes of Singapore Airlines, Ninjavan, Wego, Go-Jek and Carousell as notable cloud customers.

The search giant also operates a data center in Taiwan. The company had planned to augment Taiwan and Singapore with a center in Hong Kong, but that project was canned in 2013 due to challenges in securing real estate.

Google opened its first Singapore data center in 2011, and this newest facility will take it to around $850 million spent in Singapore to date, the company confirmed, and to over $1 billion when including Taiwan.

Only a few hours left to buy super early-bird passes to Disrupt Berlin 2018

We dedicate this post to all the wafflers, the procrastinators, the vacillators and the chronically undecided. You have less than 24 hours to save money on your tickets to Disrupt Berlin 2018 on November 29-30. How much money? Up to €700. The door slams shut on super early-bird savings on Wednesday August 1 at 11:59 p.m. CEST. It’s do or don’t save, folks. Shake the inertia and buy your super early-bird passes now.

Honestly, Disrupt Berlin 2018 is the must-go destination for anyone interested in the European and international startup scene. How international? Last year’s Disrupt Berlin drew people from more than 50 countries, including all the European Union members, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, India, China and South Korea, to name a few. It’s the EPCOT of the startup world — with better tech.

We expect to host thousands of attendees and present hundreds of exhibitors in Startup Alley, where you’ll see the latest and greatest tech innovation on display. It’s the place to be for high-quality networking of every stripe. And both founders and investors can make the most efficient use of their time by using CrunchMatch, our free, business match-making service that connects founders and investors based on their similar business goals. It’s networking simplified.

Luke Heron, the CEO of TestCard, exhibited in Startup Alley last year and had this to say about his Disrupt Berlin experience.

“We used the CrunchMatch platform to schedule meetings with six or seven VCs on the second day. By and large, they were very positive meetings. If you’re a startup or an entrepreneur, attending Disrupt is a no-brainer.”

And don’t forget Startup Battlefield, our premier startup pitch competition. Since the first Battlefield back in 2007, more than 750 companies have competed and gone on to collectively raise $800 billion in funding — and 100 of them have either gone public or been acquired. Names like Box, Mint, Yammer, Vurb — and many others — might ring a bell.

Last year at Disrupt Berlin 2017, Lia Diagnostics won Startup Battlefield, the Disrupt Cup and the $50,000 grand prize. Could this be your year to win? Why not submit your application and compete?

There’s so much more to experience at Disrupt Berlin: speakers, Q&A sessions, workshops, swag and after parties. The possibilities and opportunities are limitless, but your chance to save money on passes is not.

You have less than 24 hours to take advantage of our super early-bird savings. The price hike goes into effect on Wednesday August 1 at 11:59 p.m. CEST. Don’t waste any more time. Purchase your tickets right now.

Go-Jek kicks off Southeast Asia expansion with Vietnam launch

Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-sharing company valued at $5 billion, has begun its ambitious plan to increase its rivalry with Grab by expanding into three new markets after it opened shop in Vietnam.

The service — which is known as Go-Viet — covers an initial 12 districts in Ho Chi Minh City with a motorbike on-demand service. Rival Grab is in five cities in Vietnam and its services include motorbikes, taxis, private cars and food delivery.

The August 1 Vietnam launch as TechCrunch reported in June. The plan is to then expand into Thailand in September, and the Philippines before the end of this year. Singapore remains a market that Go-Jek would like to enter — it has held partnership talks with taxi operator ComfortDelGro — but it remains unclear whether, and when, that might happen.

Go-Jek expansion plan will put some heat on Grab, which has occupied a near-dominant position across Southeast Asia since it acquired Uber’s local business back in March.

Unlike Grab, though, Go-Jek is taking a very local approach to each market. Not only will it use a local name in each country — in Thailand it will be called “Get” — it has hired local ‘founder’ teams who will be responsible for service offerings and other local business aspects. It isn’t clear how closely they will work with the core Go-Jek team in Indonesia.

That may mean anyone traveling between countries will need to download local Go-Jek apps, which is in contrast to Grab, which offers a single app for eight countries in Southeast Asia.

Valued at $10 billion, Grab has raised over $5 billion from investors, including its most recent $1 billion investment from Toyota. Go-Jek has pulled in just over $2 billion. Tencent, Google, Meituan and others participated in its most recent (estimated) $1.4 billion raise which closed earlier this year.