Kids Court, the grand prize winner from Amazon’s developer contest, disappears from the Alexa Skills Store

What does winning the Alexa Skills Challenge earn you from Amazon? Apparently, in addition to the $20,000 Grand Prize, you might also have your skill yanked from the Amazon Skill Store without warning. At least, that’s what seems to have happened to the grand prize winner from the recent Alexa’s kids competition, Pretzel Labs. Its winning submission, a fun skill called “Kids Court” where parents and kids settle arguments together using Alexa, has disappeared from Amazon’s Skills store.

There’s no update provided on the developer’s website or social media about the removal – and as a recent grand prize winner, one would have to assume a removal was unplanned.

Above: The page for the Kids Court skill

The problem also doesn’t appear to be one with the developer’s account, as other skills by Pretzel Labs – like “Freeze Dancers” – are still available, as of the time of writing.

That seems to indicate the skill was pulled for some other reason – like a content violation or a violation of terms. It’s not clear what would have triggered this, however, as the skill had not been substantially updated since it won Amazon’s contest.

Amazon is looking into it the matter, but has not yet provided a comment.

Above: The Kids Court skill, from Google’s cache

Thousands of developers from 30 countries had registered for the Alexa Skills kid’s challenge, where they competed for a grand prize of $20,000, five bonus prizes ranging from $7,500 to $10,000, and a $5,000 prize for each of the 20 finalists. The competition was meant to help seed Alexa’s ecosystem with skills that would be popular with children and families, now that Alexa supports parental consent and COPPA compliance for skills.

Kids Court won the competition for its silly, family-friendly skill that helps kids get over their disagreements.

“I decided to address one of the most agonizing parts of family life – kids fighting – and created Judge Lexy, which is an objective, quirky judge that helps kids settle their battles,” explained Pretzel Labs founder Adva Levin, in Amazon’s blog post about the winners.

The Alexa skill puts the dispute through a mock trial process and renders a verdict. (Kids might not fully understand words it uses like “plaintiff” and “defendant,” however, so it might be a better skill to use with mom or dad present.) The “judge” then issues a goofy punishment, like “try to stand on your hands.”

While it’s not unusual for an app of any kind – including a voice app – to get pulled from the app store when in violation of the store’s terms, it is odd that Amazon would pull a Grand Prize winner without at least trying to work out the problem in question with the developer first.

Otherwise, it could just look…you know…embarrassing for Amazon.

Even if the skill was pulled by accident, it signals there’s perhaps a bit of a disconnect between Amazon’s ability to grow its voice app marketplace to now over 30,000 skills in the U.S. and the abilities of its app review team to properly handle the issues that arise.

Pretzel Labs says Amazon told them it was a “misunderstanding” and Amazon is working to get the skill returned to the Skill Store.

We’re still awaiting word from Amazon to find out what went wrong.

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Uber has reportedly rescinded its job offer for the Amazon exec that was its potential product lead

Uber appeared set to hire Assaf Ronen, the former vice president of Amazon’s voice and natural user interface shopping, to lead its products — but it looks like that isn’t going to happen due to a discrepancy in his working history, according to Recode.

Uber discovered a discrepancy related to his tenure at Amazon, where the company appeared to be under the assumption he was working at Amazon at the time of offering him the job, and rescinded its offer, according to Recode. Ronen had actually left Amazon at the very end of 2017 and was not actually working at Amazon at the time, according to Recode, which posted a memo of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s explanation of what happened. Ronen was brought in to take over the lead product role following the departure of former Twitter product lead and Google Maps exec Daniel Graf.

Since taking over, Khosrowshahi has tried to distance himself from the Uber under former CEO Travis Kalanick . Often times, CEOs will tell you that their number-one job is recruiting. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has mentioned it on a quarterly earnings call at least once a year for the past three years, for example, usually something to the extent of “my primary focus is on recruiting.” That’s obviously going to be a big tenet that will determine Khosrowshahi’s vision for the company and, ultimately, his legacy.

Current product VP Manik Gupta will be running the company’s product operations in the mean time, according to the memo obtained by Recode. Ronen would have been a marquee hire for Uber, but as the company has gone through a myriad of blunders under Kalanick, in addition to one of its autonomous vehicles being involved in an accident with a pedestrian on Monday, it looks like Uber is facing another hiccup in its turnaround at the top.

We reached out to Uber for additional comment and will update the story when we hear back.

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Here are the top states and cities for startups in the South

The American South may not be the first region that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “hotbed of tech entrepreneurship,” but, slightly misguided perceptions aside, it’s home to a diverse and growing collection of startups.

Here, we’re going to take a deep dive into the startup funding data for the region.

What is “the South?”

Just like it’s a common pastime for many city dwellers to argue about the precise boundaries of neighborhoods, there’s often some disagreement about the exact contours of the U.S.’s various regions. To quash rabble-rousing from the get-go, we’re using the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of “the South” on its official map of the United States. Below, we display a map of the states we’re going to look at today.

Much like barbecue, the South is not a monolithic concept. So to incorporate some regional flavor into the following analysis, we’re also going to use the same regional divisions that the U.S. Census Bureau uses.

By doing this, we’ll be able to get a better idea of the relative contribution states from each sub-region make to startup activity in the South overall.

The ebb and flow of deal and dollar volume

As is the case with most of the country, the South appears to be experiencing a shift in startup funding as we move toward the latter half of a bull run in entrepreneurial activity. The chart below shows a divergence in overall deal and dollar volume over time.

Much like in the rest of the U.S., reported deal and dollar volume are heading in different directions. Part of this may be due to reporting delays — it can sometimes take a few years for seed and early-stage rounds to get added to databases like Crunchbase’s . Nonetheless, there is a slow and generally upward creep in round sizes at most stages of funding. And that’s not just a Southern thing; it’s a country-wide trend.

Let’s disaggregate these figures a bit. We’ll start with deal counts and move on to dollar volume from there.

A closer look at southern venture deal and dollar volume

In the chart below, you’ll see venture deal volume broken out by sub-region.

Over the past several years, reported venture deal volume has been on the downswing. From a local maximum in 2014 through the end of 2017, it’s down almost 35 percent overall. But that’s not the whole picture. The relative share of deal volume has changed, as well.

Although it’s not immediately clear just by looking at the chart above, startups in the South Atlantic sub-region have accounted for an increasingly large share of the funding rounds. For example, in 2012, South Atlantic startups attracted 54 percent of the deal volume. In 2017, that grows to 64 percent. Startups in the West South Central sub-region have pretty consistently pulled in between 28 and 30 percent of the deals, so where’s the loss coming from? Startups headquartered in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama pulled in just 8 percent of deals in 2017, compared to 18 percent in 2012.

It’s a similar story with dollar volume.

In general, dollar volume follows the same pattern, albeit with a bit more variability. Regardless, startups in the South Atlantic sub-region are hoovering up an ever-larger share of venture dollars, and there’s little to indicate that trend will reverse itself any time soon.

Where are the regional hotspots for deal-making in the south?

Let’s see which states accounted for most of the deal volume. The chart below shows the geographic distribution of deal-making activity by startups in each Southern state from the beginning of 2017 through time of writing. It should come as no surprise that much of the activity is concentrated in states with higher populations.

And here’s the distribution of dollar volume among southern states.

Despite some variation in which states are at the top of the ranks, the share of deal and dollar volume raised by startups in the top three states is remarkably similar, coming in at between 52 and 53 percent for both metrics.

The top startup cities in the south

We started by looking at the South as a whole and then drilled into its sub regions and states. But there’s one layer deeper we can go here, and that’s to rank the top startup cities in the South.

In the interest of keeping our rankings fresh and timely, we’re covering activity from the past 15 months or so, from the start of 2017 through mid-March 2018. But before highlighting some of the more notable hubs, let’s take a look at the numbers.

In the chart below, you’ll find the top 10 metropolitan areas where Southern startups closed the most funding rounds.

The chart below shows reported dollar volume over the same period of time.

Much like we saw at the state level, the top five startup cities — ranked by both deal and dollar volume — are the same, although there’s some variation between where each one ranks. In order, the D.C., Austin and Atlanta metro areas rank in the top three for each metric, while Dallas and Raleigh, NC switch off between fourth and fifth place.

Startups capitalize on the nation’s capital

To be frank, Washington, D.C.’s top-shelf ranking was a bit of a surprise. It may be the fact that Austin, TX plays host to South By Southwest, a somewhat more relaxed culture and/or a preponderance of excellent breakfast taco and barbecue joints, but to many — ourselves included — the city feels like it would have a more active startup scene than the nation’s capital. But that’s not exactly the case. The D.C. metro area had more venture deal and dollar volume than Austin for seven out of the last 10 years, and startups based in the nation’s capital have raised more than twice as much money so far in 2018.

D.C.-area startups have recently raised some notable rounds. Just a couple of weeks prior to the time of writing, Viela Bio raised $250 million in a Series A round (in late February 2018) to continue funding research and testing of its treatments for severe inflammation and autoimmune diseases. And on the later-stage end of things, education technology company Everfi raised $190 million in a Series D round that had participation from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, former Alphabet executive Eric Schmidt and Medium CEO Ev Williams. Other D.C. companies, including Mapbox,, Afiniti and ThreatQuotient, have all raised late-stage rounds within the past 15 months.

Startup ecosystems in Southern cities may pale in comparison to places like New York and San Francisco, but it wouldn’t be wise to discount the region entirely. A large number of interesting companies call the lower half of the Lower 48 home, and as the cost of living continues to rise on the east and west coasts, don’t be surprised if many current and would-be founders opt to stay down home in the South.

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Anker’s Nebula Capsule portable projector is a pocket powerhouse

Anker is a device maker that’s rapidly become a go-to brand for affordable, quality accessories include cables, chargers and backup batteries. More recently, it’s started to branch out into additional areas, including projectors through its Nebula brand. The Nebula Capsule is the latest product from that line, a super portable projector with an Android-based OS, a built-in battery and the ability to double as a Bluetooth speaker.

The Nebula Capsule is the smaller sibling to the Nebula Mars portable cinema projector, which is actually far less portable than the newer Capsule. The Mars is more of a home theater projector that you’re also technically able to take with you if you want, whereas the Capsule is roughly the size of a can of Coke, and easy to stash in even smaller bags, or, if you’re not worries bout some bulging, even in a jacket pocket.

Anker initially launched the Capsule on Indiegogo, but now it’s made its way to Amazon where it retails for $349. The projector can extend an image up to 100 inches in diameter, with 100 ANSI lumens of brightness, and it can mange four hours of video playback on its built-in power source. There’s a 360-degree speaker integrated into the base, and it comes with built-in Wi-Fi and Android 7.1, with its own app store to run popular apps like Netflix, Plex, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

The device has micro USB OTG input, and can read from USB drives formatted in FAT32, plus a full-sized HDMI for attaching basically anything. Its native 854×480 resolution isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s hardly important when you’re catching up on a show on the road or playing Switch in your backyard on a stretched out bed sheet. And the trade-off, in terms of portability and versatility, its worth it.

On top of the device, there are arrows that help you adjust volume, and there’s a button to turn it on, as well as a mode switch so you can use it as a Bluetooth speaker I you want. Focus adjustment is handled via a wheel mounted into the side, and this is a bit tricky because it involves a little hunting to get it just right, but the minimal interface options, but again, it’s a practical way of doing it and works given the form factor of the device.

In the box, you also get a remote control, which works via IR (there’s a receiver built into the back of the device). Here, it’d be nicer to have some kid of RF-based remote instead, but the IR version works well enough, and there’s a companion mobile app for both controlling the projector and for mirroring your content. You can’t mirror content-protected media, which is a bit of a pain, but the fact that the Capsule supports streaming media from built-in apps mostly makes up for this.

The speaker is surprisingly powerful, and can fill a small room easily. It’s not going to compete with 5.1 audio systems, or with something like the HomePod, but it’s plenty good enough that watching a show or movie on the Capsule is pleasant, and never falls down on the back of bad sound. Plus, I almost always pack a dedicated Bluetooth speaker on my trips away, anyway – the Capsule doubles as one, and takes up as little or even less space than most, with equivalent sound quality. Acting just as a Bluetooth speaker, the capsule’s battery life extends out to 30 hours.

Considered as a two-for-one combo that includes a great travel projector and a terrific portable Bluetooth speaker, the Anker Nebula Capsule is a hard bargain to pass up.

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