A new Google Assistant feature, ‘Hold for Me,’ waits on hold so you don’t have to

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Google has been pushing forward the capabilities of what a smartphone can do when it comes to one of the device’s most basic — if these days, often overlooked — features: phone calls. In previous years, the company launched Call Screen to vet your incoming calls, Duplex for restaurant reservations, and just this month, a feature called Verified Calls that will tell you who is calling and why. Today, Google introduced one more handy feature for those who still use their devices as an actual phone with the introduction of “Hold for Me.”

At the company’s hardware event this afternoon, where Google introduced its new Pixel smartphones, it also briefly showed off the Pixel’s latest trick. A feature called “Hold for Me,” will stay on the line for you when you’re placed on hold, then alert you when someone picks up.

Image Credits:

Google explained the technology was built on the smarts of its existing Call Screen and Duplex technology — the latter which is an A.I.-based technology focused on how conversations take place over the phone.

In the short demo of “Hold for Me,” Google showed how a Pixel device owner is able to activate the new feature after they’ve been placed on hold. This is done by tapping a new button that appears on the phone screen above the buttons for muting the call, turning on speakerphone, and the other in-call phone controls.

Once activated, you’re alerted with a message that says “Don’t hand up,” where you’re advised that Google Assistant is listening to the call for you, so you can do other things.

A button is also available on this screen that lets you tap to return to the call at any time, and below that an on-screen message says “music playing” to indicate if the Google Assistant is still hearing the hold music. You can also choose to press the red hang up button to end the call from this screen.

When a person comes on the line, the device will alert you it’s time to return to the call.

At a time when people are waiting on hold for hours for help with COVID-19 related government assistance, like unemployment benefits, a “Hold for Me” option could be more than a useful new feature — it could be a literal lifesaver for those in the middle of a financial crisis due to job loss.

Google says the new feature will come to its new Pixel 5 devices, which will soon be followed by its older-generation Pixel phones via the next “Pixel feature drop” roll out.

AOC flagged ‘material risks’ to Palantir investors in letter to SEC

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In a newly released letter, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez issued words of warning to the SEC over Palantir’s efforts to take the company public, cautioning the regulatory body over details the progressive congresswoman says were “omitted” in the company’s disclosures. Illinois Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García co-authored the letter, embedded below, which was submitted to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton on September 17.

Palantir, a secretive data analytics company that provides its software to U.S. agencies, debuted on public markets Wednesday through a direct listing rather than a traditional IPO. The company debuted with an implied valuation of $16 billion.

“Palantir reports several pieces of information about its company – and omits others – that we believe require further disclosure and examination, as they present material risks of which potential investors should be aware and national security concerns of which the public should be aware,” Ocasio-Cortez and García wrote.

Among their concerns, the lawmakers asked for Palantir to disclose how much equity the CIA’s venture capital firm holds in the company.

“In-Q-Tel’s investment in Palantir is not classified information, and
Palantir is currently listed on In-Q-Tel’s website among its portfolio companies,” the representatives wrote. Palantir benefitted from an early investment from In-Q-Tel, but current information about the In-Q-Tel’s holdings is not public.

“Palantir reports that its ‘government work is central to defense and intelligence operations in the United States and its allies abroad,” but does not provide further information on the nature of its work for domestic or foreign intelligence agencies, despite recognizing that public perception of its government contracts represent a material risk to investors,” the representatives wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez and García also raised concerns about risks to investors over the company’s secretive work with foreign governments, including its relationship with Qatar, a nation with documented human rights concerns for migrants and its LGBTQ population.

As we previously reported, Palantir discussed its work with “organizations whose products or activities are or are perceived to be harmful” in the risks section of its S-1 filing. Palantir’s work with the notorious U.S. immigration enforcement agency ICE has attracted unwanted attention in recent years, and the company maintains contracts with ICE worth up to $92 million.

Palantir is currently powering the U.S. government’s COVID-19 tracking software platform HHS Protect Now, a controversial relationship that Democratic lawmakers demanded more transparency around in July.

Ocasio-Cortez and García also raise concerns around Palantir’s corporate governance — an issue we’ve reported on extensively as the company adjusted its S-1 filing.

As of a week ago, Palantir had already updated language in its S-1 five times, mostly making changes to an unusually centralized governance structure designed to ensure that a disproportionate amount of decision making power remains with the company’s three founders Alex Karp, Stephen Cohen and Peter Thiel.

In the letter to the SEC chairman, the representatives accuse Palantir’s board of “lacking the required majority of independent board members,” raising questions about Alexander Moore, who directed operations at the company for its first five years.

While today marks the end of Palantir’s journey to take itself public, the process hasn’t been completely smooth for a company so unused to public attention. Palantir already delayed its direct listing by a week as it reportedly navigated a “protracted back-and-forth” with the SEC and tweaked language over a still glaringly uneven voting structure designed to keep decision making in a few hands — including those of its controversial co-founder Peter Thiel.

Now, with its formal entrance into life as a public company, the public and lawmakers alike are set to learn more about Palantir’s work than ever before.

Google launches the $499 Pixel 4a 5G

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As expected, Google today officially launched the 5G version of its Pixel 4a phone at its annual hardware event.

Given all the previous leaks, there were no real surprises left and Google had already announced the $499 price. We now have a launch date, though. It’ll launch in Japan on October 15 and then come to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States at an unspecified date in November. That’s somewhat of an odd launch schedule, to say the least.

The new phone, together with the new Pixel 5, is now available for pre-order in the Google Store.

The $499 phone is a bit of a mix between the non-5G version of the Pixel 4a and the newly announced Pixel 5. It features a larger edge-to-edge OLED display than both the Pixel 5 and $399 4a, at 6.2-inch, but uses the same mid-range Snapdragon 765G CPU as the Pixel 5, combined with 6GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage (with no other storage options). There are two cameras, including one with an ultrawide lens and yes, there’s still a headphone jack, too.

The phone comes in white and black.

Given that the 5G chips and larger screen are more power-hungry than those on the regular 4a, it’s no surprise that Google bumped up the battery from 3140 mAh to 3885 mAh, too. Google promises a 48-hour battery life with its extreme battery saver mode.

The Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t feature water resistance, which the $699 Pixel 5 does offer.

Overall, the 4a (5G) is a bit of a strange one, with specs closer to the Pixel 5 than the 4a and dual cameras, something the 4a is missing.

“With 5G gaining moment, we wanted to make this technology available at an affordable price,” Google’s product marketing manager for the Pixel line, Maya Lewis, said in today’s announcement.

Google announces the Pixel 5 for $699

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Google has officially taken the wraps off of the $699 Pixel 5, its latest Android flagship. Compared to last year’s Pixel 4, Google is focusing less on dramatic new technology — like the much-hyped Motion Sense gestures on last year’s model — and emphasizing instead the unique features that already help set the Pixel apart, like its stand-out camera software.

Developing. Check out our Pixel 5 event live blog for more news.

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Golden raises $14.5M to build a wiki-style database of tech knowledge

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Golden is announcing that it has raised $14.5 million in Series A funding. The round was led by previous investor Andreessen Horowitz, with the firm’s co-founder Marc Andreessen joining the startup’s board of directors.

When Golden launched last year, founder and CEO Jude Gomila told me that his goal was to create a knowledge base focused on areas where Wikipedia’s coverage is often spotty, particularly emerging technology and startups.

Gomila told me this week that “companies, technologies and the people involved in them” remain Golden’s strength. In that sense, you could see it as a competitor to Crunchbase, but with a much bigger emphasis on explaining and “clustering” information on big topics like quantum computing and COVID-19, rather than just aggregating key data about companies and people. (By the way, both TechCrunch and the author of this post have their own profile pages, though the latter is woefully empty.)

In contrast to Wikipedia, which relies on community editors, Gomila said most of the data in Golden is gathered using artificial intelligence and natural language processing: “We’re using AI to extract information from the news from websites, from public databases.

This is supplemented by Golden staff (former TechCrunch copy editor Holden Page leads the startup’s research team), while the larger community also pitch in by flagging things that are incorrect or need to be updated. (As one example of this “human in the loop” editing process, Gomila showed me a tool where someone could paste in an article link and Golden would automatically summarize it.)

“The ultimate aim is to try and automate as much of this as possible,” Gomila said. “[For now,] this hybrid is the most effective method.”

Golden has also started working with paying customers including private equity firms, hedge funds, VCs, biotechnology companies, corporate innovation offices and government agencies — in fact, it says it signed a $1 million contract with the U.S. Air Force this year. These customers are paying for access to Golden’s research engine, which includes the company’s Query Tool and the ability to request that the startup prepare research on a particular topic.

Golden has now raised a total of $19.5 million. Other investors in the new funding include DCVC, Harpoon Ventures and Gigafund.

“Golden’s knowledge base and research engine aggregates information about emerging technologies and the companies, investors, and the builders behind them,” Andreessen said in a statement. “Human and machine intelligence, working together on Golden’s platform, results in knowledge which gives people the edge in making decisions and navigating uncertainty.”

Biden team encourages early voting with new USPS Snapchat campaign

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Biden-Harris campaign

On Wednesday, the Biden for President team will release a new Snapchat lens encouraging supporters to vote early in key swing states ahead of the US presidential election.

The Biden team will be the first campaign to employ Snapchat’s Marker technology. If users decide to use the lens in selfie mode, they will be covered in aviators and Biden-Harris merchandise, including a T-shirt, hat, and button. Once users flip the camera, they’re directed to aim it at a United States Postal Service logo. The logo could be on a mailer or a nearby mailbox. Once the USPS logo is scanned, fireworks go off with the message “Vote Early for Biden-Harris.”

As of last week, the Biden campaign is spending significantly more money on Snapchat…

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Aurora Labs ramps ‘self-healing’ software with $23M from LG Technology Ventures, Porsche SE, Toyota Tsusho

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The automotive market is grappling with increasingly complex software systems, and in turn greater risks of glitches that can cause costly and unsafe disruptions and damage an automaker’s credibility.

Just look at today’s new cars, trucks and SUVs compared to their counterparts a decade ago. New vehicles coming off assembly lines today contain tens of millions of lines of code, a statistic that continues to rise as automakers invest more in software.

This upward trend has created risks for automakers; it’s also opened up opportunity for burgeoning startups like Aurora Labs, which developed a platform that can spot problems with software in cars and fix it on the fly. The company is now preparing to ramp up operations, even beyond automotive, as software takes a central role in shared mobility, cities and homes.

Aurora Labs developed a platform designed to detect and predict problems and then fix any issues in real-time. The platform also enables automakers to update software in vehicles wirelessly — a feature often referred to as over-the-air software updates that was popularized by Tesla. The ability to conduct OTAs allows automakers to make changes quickly and without requiring owners to visit a dealership for service.

Earlier this month, the Tel Aviv-based startup raised $23 million in a Series B round jointly led by LG Group’s investment arm LG Technology Ventures and Marius Nacht, co-founder of Check Point Software Technologies. Porsche SE, majority owner of the VW group, Toyota Tsusho, a member of Toyota Group and the venture arm of global safety certification company UL also participated. Porsche SE invested $2.5 million and Toyota Tsusho put $1.5 million into Aurora Labs, according to the companies.

The funds will be used to double the size of Aurora Labs’ 30-person team to support going into series production with two of its automotive customers. Aurora Labs is working with a total of four global automakers and an electronics company.

While Aurora Labs’ primary customer base is automotive, the company says it’s also preparing to enter new markets such as connected homes and smart cities with support from its investors that have products across several industries, including Porsche SE, Toyota Tsusho, LG Tech Ventures and UL Ventures.

Dear Sophie: Will October 2020 Visa Bulletin changes expedite my immigration case?

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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.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I’ve been waiting for years for my green card. Is there any way to expedite my case? What does the October shift in Visa Bulletin priority dates mean for me?

—Waiting in Woodside

Dear Waiting:

Thanks! There are a lot of ways to speed up the immigration process. Great news — last week the State Department released the October 2020 Visa Bulletin, which significantly reduces the waiting time for many folks from around the world seeking green cards. Basically final action dates progressed for EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 and are all current now if you can use categories besides being born in India or China! Feel free to check out my recent podcast on seven ways to expedite an immigration case and check out our upcoming free educational webinar on October 8 for the latest on H-1Bs and other immigration updates.

If you were born in India or China, dates for filing for Adjustment of Status and the National Visa Center also sped up significantly for individuals in these categories. Here’s a typical question I receive: “I’m currently in the U.S. in valid nonimmigrant status. If I was born in India or China, can I file my I-485 in October 2020?” See below to check your priority date and talk to an immigration attorney to see what you can file in October 2020!

Is my China/India priority date current in October?

Here’s an overview of how to figure out whether you can file your I-485 this month if you need to use the categories of being born in India or China:

  • Step 1. Double-check your I-140 I-797C approval notice to determine your category and priority date:
    • Sec. 203 (b)(1) → EB-1 Category
    • Sec. 203 (b)(2) → EB-2 Category
    • Sec. 203 (b)(3) → EB-3 Category
  • Step 2. Check out the October Visa Bulletin. To understand the Visa Bulletin in more detail:
    • The number of green cards the U.S. issues each year is capped based on the type of green card and the green card candidate’s country of birth
    • As my podcast on priority dates explains, it is the date your green card petition was submitted or the date your employer submitted your PERM labor certification application.
  • Step 3. Find the date in the cell at the intersection of your category and country.

Online garden shop Bloomscape raises $15M Series B, acquires plant care app Vera

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If you thought to invest in more plants or started growing a small garden during 2020’s coronavirus lockdowns, you weren’t alone. According to Bloomscape, a company that ships live plants straight from greenhouses to customers’ homes, a number of people become interested in plants this year, increasing demand for its already growing service. Today, Bloomscape announced it’s expanding its business with the addition of $15 million in Series B funding as well as the acquisition of plant care app Vera.

The new round of financing was led by General Catalyst, and included participation from Annox Capital’s Bob Mylod; former Chairman of Booking Holdings and Home Depot board member Jeff Boyd; former Seventh Generation and Burt’s Bees CEO John Replogle; along with existing investors Revolution Ventures and Ludlow Ventures.

Joel Cutler, co-founder and Managing Director of General Catalyst and Bob Mylod, Managing Partner at Annox Capital Management will join Bloomscape’s Board of Directors as part of the round. To date, Bloomscape has raised $24 million.

Image Credits: Bloomscape, screenshot via TechCrunch

Bloomscape was founded by Michigan designer and entrepreneur Justin Mast and launched in 2018 with the goal of reinventing how plants move about the country and arrive on customers’ doorsteps.

Today, there are other businesses that ship live plants, including home improvement stores and large e-commerce retailers like Amazon. But what makes Bloomscape different are the steps it has made to ensure a better delivery process and its logistics operations behind-the-scenes.

The company has filed a patent on parts of its plant packaging technology, where plants and pots are held securely at the right temperature. It also uses a proprietary soil mix that has a bonding agent that holds the soil together better during shipping and better protects the roots, explains Boomscape CEO Justin Mast.

In addition, because plants are shipped directly to the customer from the greenhouse, they’re healthier upon arrival than those spend, on average, 4 weeks traveling from a greenhouse to a big box store before being sent to a customer’s home.

The company is also now working to refine its regional fulfillment strategy to include localized centers and systems that will shorten transit times even further.

Image Credits: Bloomscape

Mast stresses that Bloomscape’s success to date wasn’t dependent on any one factor, but rather has been a combination of people, processes and systems.

“Key people on our product and supply chain team have decades of experience in shipping plants around the country through couriers and best in class fulfillment processes,” says Mast. “And now internally we have gathered a massive amount of information about which plants ship well during varying conditions. We are now systematizing this information so we can really optimize our product mixes to really ensure healthy plants, more successful plant parents, and ultimately a much better customer experience,” he notes.

Even before the pandemic, Bloomscape was seeing steadily rising growth. Though the company doesn’t share its specific metrics, Mast would say that his business has grown by 4x since last year and it has more than doubled its staff.

Millennials are Bloomscape’s fast-growing segment, including those outside urban centers in the south and mid-Atlantic regions. Many are also new or recent single-family homeowners, as well.

When COVID-19 hit and lockdowns were in force, Bloomscape had to quickly adapt to not just growing consumer demand but also a remote work lifestyle among employees.

“During a time of immeasurable difficulty for so many people, we are very fortunate that the business was not negatively affected by the pandemic. During the first few months of COVID, along with the rest of the world, we saw a lot of things change,” Mast says. “A lot of people found comfort and became interested in plants. We are incredibly grateful that our plants offer that little bit of solace and joy via nature into the home. We were thrilled to be able to bring something so meaningful to people during that time,” he adds.

The accelerated shift to e-commerce prompted by the pandemic will likely continue to benefit Bloomscape even when the health crisis passes. Plus, as Mast points out, once people dip their toe in with plants, they often don’t stop at one.

As a part of the funding news, Bloomscape also acquired plant care app Vera for an undisclosed sum. The deal was for the tech only, not the team who built the app itself, we’re told.

Image Credits: Bloomscape

Vera today provides customers with plant care tips, content, troubleshooting help, watering reminders and more. Bloomscape plans to leverage the app to better connect with customers and integrate its own plant care content and resources, like its existing Talk to Plant Mom plant care assistance service.

In addition to its expansion of plant care offering with Vera, Bloomscape plans to use the new capital to grow its team, refine its regional fulfillment strategy, and launch new products. One such product is its Edible Garden Shop, where customers can buy small tomato, lavender, sweet pepper, hot pepper, kale mix, mint and chamomile plants.

Next year, the company will move into outdoor plants, the company says.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a team that understands a consumer vertical better than Bloomscape does with home gardening,” said Joel Cutler, co-founder and managing director, General Catalyst, in a statement about his firm’s investment. “The team has found not just excellence in the complicated logistics of cultivating and shipping live plants nationwide, but also a strong resonance with today’s consumer who’s looking to green up their living spaces,” he said.

 

Brands building for scale should look to hypercultural Latinx consumers

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As two female investors who themselves identify as hypercultural (HC) Latinx, we see much potential for brands and startups that invest in this demographic.

For the purpose of this article, we will focus on 13-to-25-year-old individuals who can trace their heritage to a Latin American country who have spent the majority of their lifetime in the U.S. Whether they were born in the U.S. doesn’t matter as much as how much time they have spent immersed in mainstream American culture. This is important to note because this demographic is largely defined by always having one foot in their parents’ native country and another in the United States.

In simplest terms: A Latinx person has origins from a country in Latin America, like Mexico or Brazil, while a Hispanic person has origins from a country where Spanish is the dominant language, such as Mexico or Spain. A Pew Research study found that one in four people who describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the non-gendered “Latinx,” but only 3% of them use the term in everyday life.

So what makes the hypercultural Latinx so unique and worthy of pursuit? It’s not a secret that they have massive purchasing power behind them (a collective $1.9 trillion to be exact). However, they are also different from their mostly white counterparts in the way they vigorously engage with technology, their obsession with being online at all times and their unique shopping habits.

Hypercultural Latinx consumers are accustomed to being early adopters of new technology: 81% of them say they like to learn about the latest technology (overindexing their white counterparts by 36%). Latino households are filled with the latest gadgets and smart tech toys. Although we assume most Gen Zers and young millennials love technology, HC Latinx love tech at astronomical rates and shell out more dollars than their white, mostly monocultural counterparts.

This makes sense given that 60% of HC Latinx grew up in the internet age versus only 40% of their white counterparts. Across levels of HC Latinx income (or their parents’), there is always a budget for technology. In my own Mexican household (Ilse), I grew up prioritizing tech over other (sometimes more important) categories like books or vacations.

The online lives of the HC Latinx can be summed up by one statistic: 24% spend three hours or more on social media per day. compared to only 13% of their white counterparts. So much time is spent online by this Latinx youth that they are able to create a digital comunidad where they thrive socially and intellectually. This comunidad has so much influence in how the HC Latinx thinks about what they purchase and how loyal they are to the brands they buy from.