Uber tries to reassure customers that it takes safety seriously, following NYTimes book exerpt

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It’s hard at times not to feel sorry for CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, given all that he inherited when he became the ride-share giant’s top boss back in April 2017.

Among his many to-do items: take public a money-losing company whose private-market valuation had already soared past what many thought it was worth, clean-up the organization’s win-at-all-costs image, and win over employees who clearly remained loyal to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, an inimitable figure who Khosrowshahi was hired to replace.

Things are undoubtedly about to get worse, given the upcoming publication of a tell-all book about Uber authored by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac, which comes out in less than two weeks. In just one excerpt published yesterday by the newspaper, Isaac outlines how Uber misled customers into paying $1 more per ride by telling them Uber would use the proceeds to fund an “industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app, and insurance.”

The campaign was hugely successful, according to Isaac, who reports that it brought in nearly half a billion dollars for Uber. Alas, according to employees who worked on the project, the fee was devised primarily to add $1 of pure margin to each trip.

Om Malik, a former tech journalist turned venture capitalist, published a tongue-in-cheek tweet yesterday after reading the excerpt, writing, “Apology from @dkhos coming any minute — we are different now.”

Malik was close. Instead of an apology, Uber today sent riders an email titled, somewhat ominously, “Your phone number stays hidden in the app.” The friendly reminders continues on to tell customers that their “phone number stays hidden when you call or text your driver through the app,” that “[p]ickup and dropoff locations are not visible in a driver’s trip history,” and that “for additional privacy, if you don’t want to share your exact address, request a ride to or from the nearest cross streets instead.”

The email was clearly meant to reassure riders, some of whom might be absorbing negative press about Uber and wondering if it cares about them at all. But not everyone follows Uber as closely as industry watchers in Silicon Valley, and either way, what the email mostly accomplishes is to remind customers that riding in an Uber involves a bit of risk.

Stressing that the company is “committed to safety” is the debating equivalent of a so-called negative pregnant, wherein a denial implies its affirmative opposite. It’s Uber shooting itself in the foot.

Uber

It would have been more on point — too much so, perhaps — for Uber to email riders that when it talks about safety, it means business (and not the kind where it swindles its own customers).

Either way, it underscores the tricky terrain Uber is left to navigate right now. Though campaigns like Uber’s so-called “safe rides fee” was orchestrated under the leadership of Kalanick — who did whatever it took to scale the company — it’s Khosrowshahi’s problem now.

So is the fact that the company’s shares have been sinking since its IPO in early May; that Uber’s cost-cutting measures will be scrutinized at every turn (outsiders especially relished the company’s decision to save on employees’ work anniversaries by cutting out helium balloons in favor of stickers); and that Uber appears to be losing the battle, city by city, against labor activists and its own drivers who want to push up the minimum wage paid to drivers.

And those are just three of many daunting challenges that Khosrowshahi has been tasked with figuring out  (think food delivery, self-driving technologies, foreign and domestic opponents). No doubt Isaac’s book will highlight plenty of others.

How Uber handles the inevitable wave of bad publicity that comes with it remains to be seen. We don’t expect Khosrowshahi to come out swinging; that’s not his style. But we also hope the company doesn’t take to emailing riders directly. It’s great if Uber is taking customer safety more seriously than it might have under Kalanick’s leadership, but reaching out to tell riders how to remain safe from their Uber drivers isn’t the way to do it, especially without acknowledging in any way why it’s suddenly so eager to have the conversation.

Antonio Senzatela to start for Rockies on Sunday in St. Louis, setting up another proving round for the sporadic right-hander

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Call it another proving round for Antonio Senzatela.

With the rotation marred by overall ineptitude and injuries to Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland, Senzatela will be called up to start Sunday’s series finale against the Cardinals in St. Louis. It sets up to be a potential extended chance for the right-hander to regain his major league form and show he has what it takes to be part of the Colorado rotation in 2020.

Senzatela would’ve started 2019 in the rotation, but a blister infection on his right heel landed him on the injured list instead. When the 24-year-old did return to the Rockies on April 14, his performance was sporadic.

The Venezuelan posted a decent 3.93 ERA in three April starts and then regressed with a 6.98 ERA in six outings in May. That trend repeated itself with a solid June (3.44 ERA in six starts) followed by the disastrous July (17.18 in three starts) that got him demoted to the Isotopes.

After debuting in April 2017 with a solid 2.81 ERA over five starts in his first month, Senzatela’s habit of fickle performances has kept him from cementing himself as an everyday big-league starter.

Not coincidentally, his 2019 season to date has been bookended by a pair of contrasting performances: 6 ⅔ innings of one-run ball in his season debut April 15 in San Diego, and a 1 ⅓-inning, six-run implosion at the Yankees on July 20 before he was sent to Albuquerque.

So, Sunday’s series finale at Busch Stadium presents the most recent and relevant case study on the right-hander who had a 5.77 ERA in seven starts for the Isotopes.

Can Senzatela, who has a 93.7-mph-average fastball with a slider, curve and occasional changeup, be a location-based power pitcher with similar velocity and movement to the Cardinals’ promising young right-hander Jack Flaherty, who confounded Colorado through six innings of scoreless ball on Friday?

Or, is Senzatela more in the category of beleaguered former first-round pick Jeff Hoffman — a right-hander with stuff who hasn’t figured out how to effectively pair heat with location and offspeed consistently?

The stretch run will give Colorado a better indication as to where Senzatela is currently falling along the big-league pitching curve. And Senzatela, as manager Bud Black’s indicated, isn’t the only arm auditioning as the last-place Rockies turn their eyes toward 2020. Both right-handers Chi Chi Gonzalez and Tim Melville are with Colorado on one-year deals, and their September outings will impact their chances of returning to the organization next year.


On Deck

Rockies RHP Antonio Senzatela (8-7, 6.29 ERA) at Cardinals RHP Michael Wacha (6-6, 5.22)
12:15 p.m. Sunday, Busch Stadium
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: KOA 850 AM/94.1 FM

Senzatela’s struggled against left-handers this year, as they’re hitting him to the tune of a .341 average with a .956 OPS. The Cardinals’ lineup has also hit him hard with a .320 average in 75 total at-bats. Plus, Senzatela has pitched horribly in day games with an 8.29 ERA in eight starts. Meanwhile, Wacha is coming off four innings of no-run ball against the Brewers last week, and the right-hander has some interesting reverse splits. Righties are mashing him with a .324 average and 14 homers, compared to a .248 average and six homers by lefties. Nolan Arenado and Daniel Murphy have both gone deep off the veteran in their careers.

Trending: With 27 homers entering Saturday, outfielder Charlie Blackmon is only the sixth Rockies player to hit 25 homers or more in four straight seasons. The others are Andres Galarraga (1994-97), Dante Bichette (1994-97), Vinny Castilla (1995-99), Todd Helton (1998-2004) and Nolan Arenado (2015-19).

At issue: The Rockies have given up 93 homers with men on base in 2019, tied for the worst mark in the National League with Milwaukee and tied for second-worst in the majors. Colorado’s been blasted for 203 total homers heading into Sunday, so its pitchers are giving up multi-run jacks on 46 percent of homers allowed.

Pitching probables

Monday: Braves RHP Julio Teheran (8-8, 3.53) at Rockies TBA, 1:10 p.m., ATTRM (Make-up game from April 10)
Tuesday: Red Sox RHP Rick Porcello (11-10, 5.49) at Rockies RHP German Marquez (12-5, 4.76), 6:40 p.m., ATTRM
Wednesday: Red Sox LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (14-5, 4.10) at Rockies RHP Peter Lambert (2-3, 6.55), 6:40 p.m., ATTRM

NASA administrator tours CU Boulder’s new aerospace building

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University officials were joined by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Friday during the first tour of the new Aerospace Engineering Sciences Building at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Bridenstine, a former Oklahoma U.S. representative who was nominated to his position in 2018, visited the Autonomous Systems Lab, the UAS Fabrication Lab, the Payload Operations Center and the Bioastronautics High Bay in the $101 million building, which officially opens Monday.

He focused on the intersection of government, universities and industry, as well as the upcoming Artemis Project that plans a return to the moon in preparation for sending humans to Mars, during the tour.

Bridenstine is touring the country and spending time in several districts, touring facilities and meeting people, he said. At CU Boulder, he said he’s excited to see those intersecting partners working on the same goal while also engaging students preparing for careers in aerospace.

“It’s really what’s going to make sure the United States of America stays in the lead for the next 50 years,” he said.

He also discussed the contributions Colorado has made to space research, saying NASA spends more in the state than anywhere else, “and it doesn’t even have a center.”

“Science books have been rewritten based on what has happened in Colorado,” he said.

Bridenstine, who was joined by CU system President Mark Kennedy and Regent Linda Shoemaker, D-Boulder, first toured a project workspace in the Autonomous Systems Planning, Evaluating and Networking (ASPEN) Lab where students work on creating and testing drones.

Eric Frew, a professor of aerospace at CU Boulder, said the lab has a large, gym-like space with a garage door at one end that allows students to bring mobile command units inside, work on drones and robots, and then drive out to test them.

It’s not just the physical drones CU Boulder works on, Frew said, but also the software and electronics. The workspace visited by Bridenstine displayed several drones made at the university, including those used in Project TORUS, which collects data on storm supercells that can develop into tornadoes, and Project MOSAIC, which will help investigate Arctic climate change. Many of the drones displayed have been deployed in six continents over the past decade or so, Frew told Bridenstine.

Next, Bridenstine visited the fabrication lab, where students presented the various CubeSat devices, which are small satellites, they are working on. Students at CU Boulder are also developing a device to go to the moon on the Artemis Project.

“This is the intersection of education and development that is important for our country,” he said.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, right, tries out augmented reality equipment with help from Abhishektha Boppana, a PhD candidate and Smead Scholar, on Friday during a tour of CU Boulder’s new Aerospace Engineering Sciences Building, which opens Monday.

He next went to the Human Research Lab, where he tried on an augmented reality headset that let him walk around in a spacecraft. Right away, he opened the hatch door, earning laughs from those in attendance.

The technology lets researchers evaluate people’s performance in a simulated space, said Allie Anderson, assistant professor of bioastronautics.

Bridenstine’s final stop was at the Bioastronautics High Bay, where Jim Voss, a scholar in residence at the lab, told him about the infamous mockup of the cockpit of the Dream Chaser craft that was visible during the building’s construction.

After the tour, Bridenstine answered questions from students in the 200-seat auditorium in the new building.

He talked about NASA’s “starts and stops” with previous attempts to go to the moon, gather resources and then go to Mars, saying the country has to approach it in a bipartisan, apolitical way.

A student also asked about International Traffic in Arms Regulations and whether Bridenstine thinks NASA should be more liberal in hiring international students. The regulations generally prohibit foreign people from working with U.S. citizens on projects on the U.S. Munitions List.

While Bridenstine said the rules have led the country to lose out on developing more advanced communications technology, there still needs to be a balance between “openness and security.”

“The nation that controls the technology controls the world,” he said.

Another student asked about the budget request that would give $1.6 billion more to NASA at the expense of the budget for Pell Grants for students. The proposed budget would transfer almost $4 billion in surplus from Pell Grant funds to cover the cost.

Bridenstine responded that NASA can’t “cannibalize” itself to fund Project Artemis, as it tried to do in the past. He also said that it requested more money to speed up the project, and where that money comes from is “above my pay grade.” He added it would be a mistake to attribute any budget cuts to NASA, as doing so could politicize the situation.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center, listens to Steve Borenstein, right, IRISS engineering manager, explain the purpose of the drone they are looking at on Friday during a tour of CU Boulder’s new Aerospace Engineering Sciences Building.

Denver weather: Hot and dry all weekend

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Denverites can expect plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures this weekend.

Highs on Saturday are expected to reach 91 degrees in Denver, according to the National Weather Service in Boulder. Fire danger will increase in the mountains as winds gust up to 30 mph, forecasters said.

Sunday will be even steamier, reaching a high of 97 degrees around the metro area, the NWS said. Winds could reach up to 50 miles per hour in the mountains with very high fire danger.

Startups Weekly: Diamond-encrusted disruption

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Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about the flurry of IPO filings. Before that, I noted the differences between raising cash from angels vs. traditional venture capitalists.

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

What’s new

Venture capitalists look for companies poised to disrupt markets untouched by innovative technology. Believe it or not, a very small percentage of jewelry shopping is done online, which means there’s a big opportunity — for the right team — to bring jewelry buyers and sellers to the 21st century.CVC Stones 02

Enter Pietra, a new startup that’s just raised $4 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen (Substack & Hipcamp investor). Robert Downey Jr.’s VC fund Downey Ventures and Will Smith’s fund Dreamers Fund also participated, as did Hollywood manager Scooter Braun, Michael Ovitz and supermodel Joan Smalls.

I spoke to the founding team, which includes Uber alum Ronak Trivedi and Ashley Bryan, who hails from fashion e-commerce site Moda Operandi. The pair bring a healthy mix of technology and fashion expertise to the mix. Trivedi tells TechCrunch he’s drawn on his Uber experience to recruit engineers from top tech companies and to advocate for fast growth. Meanwhile, Bryan has leveraged her fashion industry connections to establish relationships with luxury designers.

 “Fashion is typically really under-resourced in terms of tech,” Bryan tells TechCrunch. “[The fashion industry] is great at the creativity part but it’s tough, especially with jewelry because you really have to put up a lot of capital.”

Pietra’s plan is to create a high-end marketplace for consumers to connect with jewelry designers. To do this, the team has adopted the standard marketplace approach, taking a 30% marketplace fee from sellers, as well as a 7% fee from buyers commissioning jewelry on the platform.

“Whether you do custom jewelry or engagement jewelry or you do jewelry for celebrities like Drake, you can come on Pietra and connect with a global marketplace,” says Trivedi.

The jewelry market is expected to be worth more than $250 billion by 2020, according to McKinsey research. And where there’s a billion-dollar market, there are VCs. 

“Even though gemstones and jewelry have been at the center of art, commerce, and culture since the dawn of human civilization — going from stone jewelry created 40,000 years ago in Africa to the trade routes between East and West to Fifth Avenue in New York to the Instagram feed on your phone — the technology for discovering, designing, and purchasing jewelry online hasn’t evolved much at all,” writes a16z’s Chen, who overlapped with Trivedi during his Uber tenure.

Pietra completed its official launch this week. It has 100 designers on the platform and counting, along with what the founders say is a lengthy waitlist.

hands signing check 1

In other news

This week I published a long feature on the state of seed investing in the Bay Area. The TL;DR? Mega-funds are increasingly battling seed-stage investors for access to the hottest companies. As a result, seed investors are getting a little more creative about how they source deals. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and everyone wants a stake in The Next Big Thing. Read the story here.

Demo Day

Y Combinator graduated another batch of 200 companies this week. We were there both days, taking notes on each and every company. To make things easy on you, I’ve put together the ultimate YC reading list:

Here’s a look at some of the profiles we’ve written on the S19 companies:

Listen

We recorded two great episodes of Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital podcast, this week. The first was with YC CEO Michael Seibel, in which he speaks to trends at the seed stage of investing, changes at the accelerator program, including its move to San Francisco and more. You can listen to that one here. Plus, we had on Unusual Ventures co-founder and partner John Vrionis, who talked to us about direct listings versus IPOs and the future of DoorDash and Airbnb. You can listen to that one here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast and Spotify.

Tips for B2B startups

Contributors Tyler Elliston and Kevin Barry share advice for B2B companies: “Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of B2B companies apply ineffective demand generation strategies to their startup. If you’re a B2B founder trying to grow your business, this guide is for you. Rule #1: B2B is not B2C. We are often dealing with considered purchases, multiple stakeholders, long decision cycles, and massive LTVs. These unique attributes matter when developing a growth strategy. We’ll share B2B best practices we’ve employed while working with awesome B2B companies like Zenefits, Crunchbase, Segment, OnDeck, Yelp, Kabbage, Farmers Business Network, and many more.” Read the full story here. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize global nutrition — but it might be dangerous

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Proponents of nanotechnology say it will revolutionize farming and global food systems, with applications being explored that could cut waste, make food safer and help create ‘super crops’ that escape the controversial label of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If successful, it could help to overcome poor yields, malnutrition and opposition to GMOs – all of which are still large challenges in the global South. The science of nanotech is cutting-edge but simple enough to be affordable globally. And the development prospect is huge. So it’s no surprise that many developing countries have already embarked on commercializing the technology. But the…

This story continues at The Next Web

Graphcore founder Nigel Toon to talk about AI chips at Disrupt Berlin

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It’s easy to forget that Silicon Valley starts with ‘silicon’, and that there would be no technology innovation without innovation at the silicon level. And Graphcore is well aware of that as the Bristol-based company is designing its own dedicated AI chipset. That’s why I’m glad to announce that Graphcore co-founder and CEO Nigel Toon is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Graphcore has managed to attract a ton of attention from day one. Originally founded in 2016, the startup has raised more than $300 million from top investors, such as Sequoia Capital, BMW, Microsoft, Samsung and a ton of others.

The company last raised a $200 million Series D round led by Atomico and Sofina. It values the company at $1.7 billion.

So what is the magic product behind Graphcore? The startup’s flagship product is an Intelligence Processor Unit (IPU) PCIe processor card combined with a software framework. Essentially, it lets you build your own AI applications more efficiently. Those dedidacted AI chips should perform better than repurposed GPUs.

Tobias Jahn, principal at BMW i Ventures, summed it up pretty well in a statement for the Series D round: “The versatility of Graphcore’s IPU – which supports multiple machine learning techniques with high efficiency – is well-suited for a wide variety of applications from intelligent voice assistants to self-driving vehicles. With the flexibility to use the same processor in both a data centre and a vehicle, Graphcore’s IPU also presents the possibility of reduction in development times and complexity.”

It seems crazy that a tiny startup is competing directly with giant chip companies, such as Nvidia, AMD, Intel, Qualcomm, etc. But this isn’t Nigel Toon’s first company. He has been the CEO of Picochip and Icera, two companies that have been sold to Intel and Nvidia.

Graphcore believes that there’s an underserved niche with a lot of potential. And it feels like there’s a race to create the most efficient AI chip. So I can’t wait to hear Nigel Toon’s take on that race.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.


Graphcore (graphcore.ai) is a new silicon and systems company based in Bristol, UK and Palo Alto, USA that has developed a new type of processor, the Intelligence Processing Unit (IPU), to accelerate machine learning and AI applications. Since its founding in 2016, Nigel has secured over $300m in funding and support for the company from some of the world’s leading venture capital firms including Sequoia Capital, Foundation Capital and Atomico, from major corporations including BMW, Bosch, Dell, Microsoft and Samsung and from eminent Artificial Intelligence innovators.

Nigel has a background as a technology business leader, entrepreneur and engineer having been CEO at two successful VC-backed processor companies XMOS and Picochip (sold to Nasdaq:MSPD, now Intel), a founder at Icera (sold to Nasdaq: NVDA) and VP/GM at Altera (Nasdaq: ALTR, sold to Intel for $17Bn) where he spent over 13 years and was responsible for establishing and building the European business unit that he grew to over $400m in annual revenues. Nigel was a non-executive director at Imagination Technologies PLC until itsacquisition in 2017 and is the author on 3 patents.

The Ezlo Atom is the smallest smart home hub you’ve ever seen

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Ezlo Innovation just announced the Atom, “the smallest, most energy-efficient control hub available on the market.” Available for pre-order starting Wednesday, September 4, this tiny smart home hub uses Z-Wave and USB technology.