Factmata gets backed by eyeo, maker of Adblock Plus, and takes over its Trusted News app

“Fake news” — news content that either misleads people with half-truths, or outright lies — has become a permanent fixture of the internet. Now, as tech and media platforms continue to search for the best way to fight it, Factmata — a London startup backed by Biz Stone, Craig Newmark, Mark Cuban, Mark Pincus, and more to build a platform to detect when false information is shared online — is announcing a new investor and partnership that will see it expanding its scope.

The company is picking up an investment from eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, and as part of it, Factmata is taking on the running of Trusted News, the Chrome extension that eyeo launched last year to give a nudge to those browsing content on the web to indicate whether a story is legit or shit.

Dhruv Ghulati, the CEO of Factmata — who co-founded the company with Sebastian Riedel, and Andreas Vlachos (Riedel’s other fake-news-fighting startup, Bloomsbury AI, was acquired by Facebook last year) — said that the financial terms of the deal were not being disclosed. He added that “eyeo invested both cash and the asset” and that “it’s a significant amount that strategically helps us accelerate development.” He points out that Factmata has yet to raise money from any VCs.

Trusted News today — an example of how it looks is in the screenshot above — has “tens of thousands” of users, Ghulati said, and the aim will be to continue developing and taking those numbers to the next level, hundreds of thousands of users by changing up the product. The plan will be to build extensions for other browsers — “You can imagine a number of platforms across browsers (eg Brave) search engines (eg Mozilla), hosting companies (eg Cloudflare) could be interested but we haven’t engaged in discussions yet,” he said — as well as to expand what Trusted News itself provides.

“The goal… is to make it a lot more interactive where users can get involved in the process of rating articles,” he said. “We found that young people especially surprisingly really want to get involved in debating how an article is written with others and engaging in rating systems, rather than just being handed a rating to trust.”

Ghulati said that eyeo’s decision to hand off running Trusted News to Factmata was a case of horses for courses.

“They are giving it to us in return for a stake because we are the best placed and most focused natural language understanding company to make use of it, and progress it forward fast,” he said. “For Factmata, we partner with a company that has proven ability to generate large, engaged community growth.”

“Just as eyeo and Adblock Plus are protecting users from harmful, annoying ads, the partnership between Factmata and Trusted News gets us one step closer to a safer, more transparent internet. Content that is harmful gets flagged automatically, giving users more control over what kind of content they trust and want to read,” said Till Faida, CEO & Co-Founder, eyeo, in a statement.

Factmata has already started thinking about how it can put some of its own technology into the product, for example by adding in the eight detection algorithms that it has built (detailed in the screenshot above that include clickbait, hate speech, racism, etc.). Ghulati added that it will be swapping out the way that Trusted News looks up information. Up to now, it’s been using a tool from MetaCert to power the app, a database of information that’s used to provide a steer on bias.

“We will replace MetaCert and make the system work at the content level rather than a list lookup, using machine learning,” he said, also noting that Factmata plans to add other signals “beyond just if the content is politically hyperpartisan or hate speech, and more things like if it is opinionated, one-sided, and or could be deemed controversial. “We won’t deploy anything into the app until it reaches 90% accuracy,” Ghulati said. “Hopefully from there, humans get it more accurate, per a public testing set we will make available for all signals.”

Ghulati himself is a machine learning specialist and while we haven’t heard a lot from Factmata in the last year, part of that is likely because building a platform from scratch to detect a problem that seems to have endless tentacles (like the web itself) can be a challenge (just as Facebook, which is heavily resourced and still seems to let things slip through).

He said that the eight algorithms it’s built “work well” — which more specifically he said are rating at more than 90 percent accuracy on Factmata’s evaluation sets on US English language news articles. It’s been meanwhile refining the algorithms on short form content using YouTube video transcripts, Tweets, Blog posts, and a move into adding more languages, starting with French.

“The results are promising on the expanded types of content because we have been developing proprietary techniques to allow the models to generalise across domains,” he said.

Factmata has also been working with ad exchanges — as we noted back when Factmata first raised $1 million, this was one of the big frontiers it wanted to tackle, since ad networks are so often used to disseminate false information. It’s now completed case studies with 14 major ad exchanges, SSPs and DSPs and found that up to 4.92 percent of a sample of pages served in some ad exchanges contain high levels of hate speech or hyperpartisan language, “despite them thinking they were clean and them using a number of sophisticated tools with bigger teams than us.”

“This for us showed us there is a lot of this type of language out there that is being inadvertently funded by brands,” he noted.

It’s also been gathering more training data to help classify content, working with people who are “experts in the fields of hate speech or journalistic bias.” He said that Factmata has “proven our hypothesis of using ‘expert driven AI’ makes sense for classifying things that are inherently subjective.” But that is in conjunction with humans: using experts leads to inter-annotator agreement rates above 68 percent, whereas using non experts the agreement of what is or is not a claim or what is or is not bias is lower than 50 percent.

“The eyeo deal along with other commercial partnerships we’re working on are a sign: though the system is not 100 percent accurate yet, within a year of building and testing our tech is ready to start commercialisation,” Ghulati added.

Asto, the bookkeeping app from Santander, adds invoice financing for freelancers and SMEs

Asto, the Santander owned “upstart” developing financial tools for freelancers and SMEs, is adding invoice financing to its bookkeeping app.

The new offering, which potentially opens up so-called “micro-financing” to a much broader business market, comes hot on the heels of Santander Group acquiring Albert, an invoicing and expenses app for freelancers and micro-businesses. Albert’s functionality has now been integrated into Asto, with Albert co-founder Ivo Weevers becoming Asto’s Chief Product and Design Officer.

In a call, Weevers described Asto’s mission as wanting to create a “full-stack of financial services for self-employed people [and other micro businesses]. Financial services for SMEs is a “huge, fast-growing market,” he says, adding that Asto is innovating on the bookkeeping side, [while] other players on the market are working on the bank account side”.

“A lot of people are struggling with trying to understand and get access to finances that might help them in growing their business or overcoming certain periods of their business where extra cash would be really handy,” he tells me.

“What we’re doing now is providing a comprehensive solution where we help people with their daily tasks around bookkeeping and understanding where they are financially, but also connecting dots seamlessly with a financial solution. This is what this new micro-financing solution is all about”.

In a demo I’m given of the new invoice financing feature, it all feels relatively painless. After signing up to Asto and applying for the micro-finance option, you’re given an estimated pot of credit from which to drawn down on per invoice financed.

Invoices can be issued simply within the mobile app (or uploaded to it), which in itself is quite a time saver. Anyone who freelances knows that writing invoices and tracking them is a pain. Even more so is waiting to be paid.

Next to each invoice is a finance button. Clicking on it initiates the micro loan, with clear signposting on how much you’ll need to pay back and when. The timeframe is based on the payment terms of your issued invoice with a bit of extra leeway if needed.

“Micro-financing used to be accessible only for the larger SMEs, people with financial knowledge and have the time to go into a branch and talk to an account manager and wait for a few weeks to get a decision,” explains Weevers.

“One of the innovate steps we are trying to do here is we are making this option available for the smaller end of the SME market, which is by far the biggest and by far the most unserved. By doing it on mobile, which is their favourite device, and also doing it in a matter of minutes rather than having to wait for weeks,” he adds.

Meanwhile, I’m told that the credit itself is provided by Asto via owner Santander. Noteworthy, the invoice financing feature doesn’t for the time being use transaction data pulled in from bank accounts you have linked to the app. Instead, Asto is using a range of other data points and info you provide when first applying for the micro-financing option.

Consumers get another digital home health offering as Tyto Care and Best Buy launch TytoHome

Best Buy is partnering with the Israeli technology Tyto Care to become the official retailer for the company’s all-in-one digital diagnostics kit through its physical stores in California, the Dakotas, Ohio and Minnesota and through its online store.

Tyto previously sold its technology through healthcare plans, making its handheld examination device with attachments that act as a thermometer, a stethoscope, an otoscope and a tongue depressor available to families with insurance that wanted to reduce the cost of checkups through remote monitoring. The company’s handheld device comes with an exam camera so it can prompt users on where to position the device to get the most accurate readings.

 

Now, through Best Buy, consumers can buy the company’s kit for $299.99. Through a partnership with American Well, users of the TytoHome kit have access to the company’s LiveHealth Online consultation service (if they live outside of Minnesota or the Dakotas). Which means patients can use the device to perform a medical exam and send the information to a physician for a diagnosis any time of the day or night.

As part of the deal, Tyto Care is partnering with additional regional health care systems to provide medical care to consumers throughout the country. The first is Sanford Health, a Minnesota-based not-for-profit health system operating in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

For Best Buy the move builds on the company’s attempts to move quickly into providing digital healthcare services just like it provides technical support through its Geek Squad.

Last year the company bought GreatCall, which sells connected health and emergency response services to the AARP crowd.

“We’re excited to partner with Best Buy, LiveHealth Online, American Well and regional health systems to extend our on-demand telehealth platform across the U.S., enhancing primary care delivery,” said Dedi Gilad, the chief executive and co-founder of Tyto Care, in a statement.

The company, based in Herzliya, Israel, has raised $56.7 million to date from investors including Sanford Health, the Japanese Itochu Corp., Shenzhen Capital Group, Ping An, LionBird, Fosun Group, Orbimed and Walgreens.

The company said at the time that it would use the cash to expand in the U.S. and to other international markets in Asia and Europe.

“These strategic partnerships will enable us to gain further momentum and accelerate our growth, deepening our foothold in the U.S. and other new strategic markets,” said GiladTyto Care said in a statement at the time.

Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

Daimler and BMW invest $1.1 billion in urban mobility services

Daimler AG and BMW Group officially agreed to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company back in March 2018 with a 50 percent stake each. And now, they want to unify their services under five categories by creating five joint ventures — Reach Now, Charge Now, Park Now, Free Now and Share Now.

Both automakers plan to invest $1.1 billion (€1 billion) to foster these urban mobility services over the coming years. There are already 60 million people using one of the 14 services currently available.

Let’s go through the details. Free Now is the name of the ride-hailing company, which includes mytaxi, Kapten, Clever Taxi and Beat. Those services combined operate in 130 cities in 17 countries. Hive, a new e-scooter company, is also part of Free Now.

mytaxi, a popular app that lets you hail a taxi from your phone, already sent an email to its customers saying that the company will rebrand its service to Free Now later this year. It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the other brands. Chauffeur-Privé recently rebranded to Kapten, so it sounds like apps and services won’t merge overnight.

Charge Now already exists and is a network of public charge points for electric cars. It provides a white label service for car manufacturers as well. So nothing is changing there.

Park Now combines an existing service called ParkNow (I know, it’s confusing), ParkMobile, RingGo and Park-line. As the names suggest, they all operate parking services.

Share Now is all about free-floating services. Daimler and BMW each had its own service, DriveNow and Car2Go; they’re now under the same roof.

The new Reach Now combines moovel with an existing service called ReachNow. This one is a bit weird as moovel lets you access various transportation methods from a single app. You can find your itinerary, and book and pay for various services through the app. The old ReachNow is different as it’s a ride-hailing service in Seattle and Portland.

That wasn’t easy to unpack. It’s clear that things are still moving and plans aren’t set in stone when it comes to integrations and brand simplification. Eventually, BMW CEO Harald Krüger hopes that all of those services will converge and form an end-to-end service.

“We have a clear vision: these five services will merge ever more closely to form a single mobility service portfolio with an all-electric, self-driving fleet of vehicles that charge and park autonomously and interconnect with the other modes of transport,” he said in the release.

While it sounds like a wild dream, it’s interesting to see that Daimler and BMW are both very serious about mobility services. They know that they can’t just be car manufacturers, and must expand beyond their traditional role.

It’s a competitive industry with well-funded giants, such as Uber and Didi. And if Daimler and BMW want to remain relevant, they need to invest and develop these services.

Daimler and BMW invest $1.1 billion in urban mobility services

Daimler AG and BMW Group officially agreed to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company back in March 2018 with a 50 percent stake each. And now, they want to unify their services under five categories by creating five joint ventures — Reach Now, Charge Now, Park Now, Free Now and Share Now.

Both automakers plan to invest $1.1 billion (€1 billion) to foster these urban mobility services over the coming years. There are already 60 million people using one of the 14 services currently available.

Let’s go through the details. Free Now is the name of the ride-hailing company, which includes mytaxi, Kapten, Clever Taxi and Beat. Those services combined operate in 130 cities in 17 countries. Hive, a new e-scooter company, is also part of Free Now.

mytaxi, a popular app that lets you hail a taxi from your phone, already sent an email to its customers saying that the company will rebrand its service to Free Now later this year. It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the other brands. Chauffeur-Privé recently rebranded to Kapten, so it sounds like apps and services won’t merge overnight.

Charge Now already exists and is a network of public charge points for electric cars. It provides a white label service for car manufacturers as well. So nothing is changing there.

Park Now combines an existing service called ParkNow (I know, it’s confusing), ParkMobile, RingGo and Park-line. As the names suggest, they all operate parking services.

Share Now is all about free-floating services. Daimler and BMW each had its own service, DriveNow and Car2Go; they’re now under the same roof.

The new Reach Now combines moovel with an existing service called ReachNow. This one is a bit weird as moovel lets you access various transportation methods from a single app. You can find your itinerary, and book and pay for various services through the app. The old ReachNow is different as it’s a ride-hailing service in Seattle and Portland.

That wasn’t easy to unpack. It’s clear that things are still moving and plans aren’t set in stone when it comes to integrations and brand simplification. Eventually, BMW CEO Harald Krüger hopes that all of those services will converge and form an end-to-end service.

“We have a clear vision: these five services will merge ever more closely to form a single mobility service portfolio with an all-electric, self-driving fleet of vehicles that charge and park autonomously and interconnect with the other modes of transport,” he said in the release.

While it sounds like a wild dream, it’s interesting to see that Daimler and BMW are both very serious about mobility services. They know that they can’t just be car manufacturers, and must expand beyond their traditional role.

It’s a competitive industry with well-funded giants, such as Uber and Didi. And if Daimler and BMW want to remain relevant, they need to invest and develop these services.

Daimler and BMW invest $1.1 billion in urban mobility services

Daimler AG and BMW Group officially agreed to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company back in March 2018 with a 50 percent stake each. And now, they want to unify their services under five categories by creating five joint ventures — Reach Now, Charge Now, Park Now, Free Now and Share Now.

Both automakers plan to invest $1.1 billion (€1 billion) to foster these urban mobility services over the coming years. There are already 60 million people using one of the 14 services currently available.

Let’s go through the details. Free Now is the name of the ride-hailing company, which includes mytaxi, Kapten, Clever Taxi and Beat. Those services combined operate in 130 cities in 17 countries. Hive, a new e-scooter company, is also part of Free Now.

mytaxi, a popular app that lets you hail a taxi from your phone, already sent an email to its customers saying that the company will rebrand its service to Free Now later this year. It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the other brands. Chauffeur-Privé recently rebranded to Kapten, so it sounds like apps and services won’t merge overnight.

Charge Now already exists and is a network of public charge points for electric cars. It provides a white label service for car manufacturers as well. So nothing is changing there.

Park Now combines an existing service called ParkNow (I know, it’s confusing), ParkMobile, RingGo and Park-line. As the names suggest, they all operate parking services.

Share Now is all about free-floating services. Daimler and BMW each had its own service, DriveNow and Car2Go; they’re now under the same roof.

The new Reach Now combines moovel with an existing service called ReachNow. This one is a bit weird as moovel lets you access various transportation methods from a single app. You can find your itinerary, and book and pay for various services through the app. The old ReachNow is different as it’s a ride-hailing service in Seattle and Portland.

That wasn’t easy to unpack. It’s clear that things are still moving and plans aren’t set in stone when it comes to integrations and brand simplification. Eventually, BMW CEO Harald Krüger hopes that all of those services will converge and form an end-to-end service.

“We have a clear vision: these five services will merge ever more closely to form a single mobility service portfolio with an all-electric, self-driving fleet of vehicles that charge and park autonomously and interconnect with the other modes of transport,” he said in the release.

While it sounds like a wild dream, it’s interesting to see that Daimler and BMW are both very serious about mobility services. They know that they can’t just be car manufacturers, and must expand beyond their traditional role.

It’s a competitive industry with well-funded giants, such as Uber and Didi. And if Daimler and BMW want to remain relevant, they need to invest and develop these services.

Everything you need to know about Facebook, Google’s app scandal

Facebook and Google landed in hot water with Apple this week after two investigations by TechCrunch revealed the misuse of internal-only certificates — leading to their revocation, which led to a day of downtime at the two tech giants.

Confused about what happened? Here’s everything you need to know.

How did all this start, and what happened?

On Monday, we revealed that Facebook was misusing an Apple-issued enterprise certificate that is only meant for companies to use to distribute internal, employee-only apps without having to go through the Apple App Store. But the social media giant used that certificate to sign an app that Facebook distributed outside the company, violating Apple’s rules.

The app, known simply as “Research,” allowed Facebook unparalleled access to all of the data flowing out of a device. This included access to some of the users’ most sensitive network data. Facebook paid users — including teenagers — $20 per month to install the app. But it wasn’t clear exactly what kind of data was being vacuumed up, or for what reason.

It turns out that the app was a repackaged app that was effectively banned from Apple’s App Store last year for collecting too much data on users.

Apple was angry that Facebook was misusing its special-issue enterprise certificates to push an app it already banned, and revoked it — rendering the app unable to open. But Facebook was using that same certificate to sign its other employee-only apps, effectively knocking them offline until Apple re-issued the certificate.

Then, it turned out Google was doing almost exactly the same thing with its Screenwise app, and Apple’s ban-hammer fell again.

What’s the controversy over these enterprise certificates and what can they do?

If you want to develop Apple apps, you have to abide by its rules — and Apple expressly makes companies agree to its terms.

A key rule is that Apple doesn’t allow app developers to bypass the App Store, where every app is vetted to ensure it’s as secure as it can be. It does, however, grant exceptions for enterprise developers, such as to companies that want to build apps that are only used internally by employees. Facebook and Google in this case signed up to be enterprise developers and agreed to Apple’s developer terms.

Each Apple-issued certificate grants companies permission to distribute apps they develop internally — including pre-release versions of the apps they make, for testing purposes. But these certificates aren’t allowed to be used for ordinary consumers, as they have to download apps through the App Store.

What’s a “root” certificate, and why is its access a big deal?

Because Facebook’s Research and Google’s Screenwise apps were distributed outside of Apple’s App Store, it required users to manually install the app — known as sideloading. That requires users to go through a convoluted few steps of downloading the app itself, and opening and trusting either Facebook or Google’s enterprise developer code-signing certificate, which is what allows the app to run.

Both companies required users after the app installed to agree to an additional configuration step — known as a VPN configuration profile — allowing all of the data flowing out of that user’s phone to funnel down a special tunnel that directs it all to either Facebook or Google, depending on which app you installed.

This is where the Facebook and Google cases differ.

Google’s app collected data and sent it off to Google for research purposes, but couldn’t access encrypted data — such as the content of any network traffic protected by HTTPS, as most apps in the App Store and internet websites are.

Facebook, however, went far further. Its users were asked to go through an additional step to trust an additional type of certificate at the “root” level of the phone. Trusting this Facebook Research root certificate authority allowed the social media giant to look at all of the encrypted traffic flowing out of the device — essentially what we call a “man-in-the-middle” attack. That allowed Facebook to sift through your messages, your emails and any other bit of data that leaves your phone. Only apps that use certificate pinning — which reject any certificate that isn’t its own — were protected, such as iMessage, Signal and additionally any other end-to-end encrypted solutions.

Facebook’s Research app requires Root Certificate access, which Facebook gather almost any piece of data transmitted by your phone (Image: supplied)

Google’s app might not have been able to look at encrypted traffic, but the company still flouted the rules — and had its separate enterprise developer code-signing certificate revoked anyway.

What data did Facebook have access to on iOS?

It’s hard to know for sure, but it definitely had access to more data than Google.

Facebook said its app was to help it “understand how people use their mobile devices.” In reality, at root traffic level, Facebook could have accessed any kind of data that left your phone.

Will Strafach, a security expert with whom we spoke for our story, said: “If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps – including photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed.”

Remember: this isn’t “root” access to your phone, like jailbreaking, but root access to the network traffic.

How does this compare to the technical ways other market research programs work?

In fairness, these aren’t market research apps unique to Facebook or Google. Several other companies, like Nielsen and comScore, run similar programs, but neither ask users to install a VPN or provide root access to the network.

In any case, Facebook already has a lot of your data — as does Google. Even if the companies only wanted to look at your data in aggregate with other people, it can still hone in on who you talk to, when, for how long and, in some cases, what about. It might not have been such an explosive scandal had Facebook not spent the last year cleaning up after several security and privacy breaches.

Can they capture the data of people the phone owner interacts with?

In both cases, yes. In Google’s case, any unencrypted data that involves another person’s data could have been collected. In Facebook’s case, it goes far further — any data of yours that interacts with another person, such as an email or a message, could have been collected by Facebook’s app.

How many people did this affect?

It’s hard to know for sure. Neither Google nor Facebook have said how many users they have. Between them, it’s believed to be in the thousands. As for the employees affected by the app outages, Facebook has more than 35,000 employees and Google has more than 94,000 employees.

Why did internal apps at Facebook and Google break after Apple revoked the certificates?

You might own your Apple device, but Apple still gets to control what goes on it.

Apple can’t control Facebook’s root certificates, but it can control the enterprise certificates it issues. After Facebook was caught out, Apple said: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.” That meant any app that relied on Facebook’s enterprise certificate — including inside the company — would fail to load. That’s not just pre-release builds of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp that staff were working on, but reportedly the company’s travel and collaboration apps were down. In Google’s case, even its catering and lunch menu apps were down.

Facebook’s internal apps were down for about a day, while Google’s internal apps were down for a few hours. None of Facebook or Google’s consumer services were affected, however.

How are people viewing Apple in all this?

Nobody seems thrilled with Facebook or Google at the moment, but not many are happy with Apple, either. Even though Apple sells hardware and doesn’t use your data to profile you or serve you ads — like Facebook and Google do — some are uncomfortable with how much power Apple has over the customers — and enterprises — that use its devices.

In revoking Facebook and Google’s enterprise certificates and causing downtime, it has a knock-on effect internally.

Is this legal in the U.S.? What about in Europe with GDPR?

Well, it’s not illegal — at least in the U.S. Facebook says it gained consent from its users. The company even said its teenage users must obtain parental consent, even though it was easily skippable and no verification checks were made. It wasn’t even explicitly clear that the children who “consented” really understood how much privacy they were really handing over.

That could lead to major regulatory headaches down the line. “If it turns out that European teens have been participating in the research effort Facebook could face another barrage of complaints under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — and the prospect of substantial fines if any local agencies determine it failed to live up to consent and ‘privacy by design’ requirements baked into the bloc’s privacy regime,” wrote TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas.

Who else has been misusing certificates?

Don’t think that Facebook and Google are alone in this. It turns out that a lot of companies might be flouting the rules, too.

According to many finding companies on social media, Sonos uses enterprise certificates for its beta program, as does finance app Binance, as well as DoorDash for its fleet of contractors. It’s not known if Apple will also revoke their enterprise certificates.

What next?

It’s anybody’s guess, but don’t expect this situation to die down any time soon.

Facebook may face repercussions with Europe, as well as at home. Two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal, have already called for action, accusing Facebook of “wiretapping teens.” The Federal Trade Commission may also investigate, if Blumenthal gets his way.