Po.et launches lab for developers to build apps on publishing blockchain

Po.et is an open source, not-for-profit publishing network built on the blockchain with the broad ambition of changing how we distribute, license and monetize content on the internet. Today, it announced it was opening the Po.et Development Labs, a place for developers to experiment with new ideas on the po.et platform.

It also announced the first company to launch an app out of the lab called Inkrypt. It’s an application designed to provide a way to publish content in a distributed fashion, meaning the article doesn’t live on any particular server. That makes it nearly impossible for sensors to block it.

“The first project to build on Po.et is Inkrypt, a global decentralized system providing a censorship-resistant solution for journalism hosting and delivery that will render journalism content permanent and immutable,” Po.et CEO Jarrod Dicker wrote in a blog post announcing the launch of Po.et Development Labs.

Dicker, who formerly ran the innovation team at the Washington Post, says the company wants developers to see po.et in a similar manner to Ethereum, a place where they can build applications making use of the underlying blockchain technology.

“Think of what Ethereum did for the spawn of new applications on the blockchain. We want to do the same for media applications on the blockchain by allowing them to leverage the protocol to build and push the media industry in the right direction,” Dicker told TechCrunch.

Po.et Development Labs offers a mechanism for developers to work with the po.et blockchain protocol. “With Po.et Development Labs, we’re introducing an innovation marketplace for all creators to build products on the blockchain. Companies can leverage Po.et and build vertically to introduce new innovations or solve problems in the space on top of that foundation,” Dicker explained.

Dicker says Inkrypt is just a starting point. “Inkrypt is an example and many more will come, especially as we invest and push more features that others can leverage and build [upon].”

Dicker points out that po.et is not just a platform for developers though. It’s also for media companies to define how they want to share and license their content, giving them a platform outside of advertising to monetize it. “Where it gets real interesting is that media companies can start taking advantage of it as well,” he said.

If you think about Creative Commons licensing, it provides a way for publishers to decide how they want to share their content, but it doesn’t give the content producers any way to enforce that license beyond the good will of users. Po.et takes that licensing concept one step further, giving content owners a marketplace to sell their content on the blockchain, creating an enforceable and immutable way to license the content.

Instagram now lets you mute accounts

Instagram today introduced a way to mute accounts, giving users a way to continue following accounts without seeing their posts all the time.

Muted accounts will not be made aware that they’ve been muted, and users can unmute accounts at any time. Users can still see posts on the muted account’s profile page and get notified about comments or posts they’re tagged in.

Users can mute accounts by tapping the “…” in the corner of the post and choosing between muting posts, stories, or posts and stories.

First and foremost, this continues Instagram’s effort to block bullying and harassment on the social network. While users have had the ability to block accounts for a long time, muting is a next step in blocking out someone without any of the consequences that might come from blocking them.

This could also come in handy for folks going through a break-up or some other social split, as they don’t necessarily want to see every single post from their ex but don’t want to be seen unfollowing them either.

Of course, the broader demographic will simply have more control over Instagram’s algorithmic feed, which prioritizes accounts and posts it thinks you will like (read: promotes engagement at all costs).

The algorithmic feed has added a layer of complexity to Instagram, making users think more cautiously about the way they throw around likes. Posts, and accounts, that you like may very well get top billing in your feed because of it, even if you only liked the post to show friends some love.

Muting gives users a bit more control over what they see regardless of what they’ve liked or what Instagram’s algorithm deems relevant.

OpenPath raises $7M to help you access your office with your phone

If you’ve ever worked in an office building, chances are somebody issued you a keycard or NFC-enabled badge to open the doors to the building. Those cards and badges do their job, but they can be both cumbersome and prone to problems. OpenPath wants to do away with all of these issues and add a new level of convenience to this whole process by replacing these access cards with the phone you already have.

Until today, OpenPath, which currently has about 20 employees, remained in stealth mode since it was founded by Edgecast co-founders Alex Kazerani (CEO)and James Segil (President), together with a number of other former Edgecast execs. The founders are putting their own money into this startup and are leading a $7 million seed round. A number of institutional investors also participated in this round, though, including Upfront Ventures, Sorenson Ventures, Bonfire Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Fika Ventures.

Over the course of the last few years, the team developed — and patented — both the hardware and software for allowing employees to securely open doors and for security teams to manage their access. Instead of NFC, the company’s so-called SurePath Mobile technology uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and LTE to authenticate the user. The system integrates directly with G Suite and Office 365 so that users and IT teams don’t have to create multiple user accounts to give employees access to their spaces.

Segil argues that employees have come to expect a certain level of convenience in the workplace and while our homes are getting smarter, most offices aren’t. During our conversation ahead of today’s announcement, Kazerani also stressed that the company’s platform had to be enterprise-grade and ready to be used thousands of times a day.

The OpenPath team developed its own reader hardware, which businesses have to install at their doors. The hardware uses the same wiring as existing services, though, making it easy to replace a legacy system with this new solution.

Crexi raises $11 million to bring commercial real estate out of the Dark Ages

Managing, buying, and selling commercial real estate is a fairly primitive process. Crexi founder Mike DeGiorgio remembers one experience in 2014 when he was required to fax and mail details about an urgent transaction to the leasing office, a move that made him think he was back in the era of Pogs and MTV’s Real World Season 1.

“There simply was no great industry solution for researching markets, finding comps, transacting, connecting with key stakeholders, purchasing or investing in properties, renting or leasing space, getting a loan, finding partners to purchase properties with, marketing yourself or the properties you own, sell, or lease etc,” he said. “I started thinking about technology solutions for the commercial real estate industry to solve many of these inefficiencies in the CRE space. I could not figure out why it hadn’t been done and set out to build CREXi to help industry stakeholders be more efficient and to make the industry more liquid, transparent, and easier to access.”

Crexi – the CRE stands for “commercial real estate” – has been around since 2015 but recently announced an $11 million Series A as well as some interesting user numbers. Key investors include Jackson Square Ventures, Manifest Investment Partners, Lerer Hippeau, Freestyle Capital, TenOneTen Ventures, and Founder Collective. The company has managed over 100,000 “properties brought to market” on its platform and they have 200,000 users per month. They see more than 6,000 properties listed on the site each month.

The service is a suite of tools that streamlines the entire CRE processing.

“We give brokers the ability to find, manage and qualify leads, market their properties with customizable emails, and communicate with interested parties through in-app messaging. Additionally, our features help brokers interact with the industry and its stakeholders; solicit, make, accept, counter, and negotiate offers; run competitive bidding processes; run escrow and closing processes; research markets and sold properties etc,” said DeGiorgio.

While CRE isn’t very sexy, it’s clear that the industry can use all the help it can get. Considering Crexi manages $450 billion in property value, it’s also clear that this is a lucrative market ripe for disruption.

“We are the first platform to take the entire commercial real estate transaction process online with a simple to use and intuitive interface,” said DeGiorgio. “We collaborate with brokers and principals to blend technology with the fundamentals of CRE transactions, addressing the shifting needs of industry professionals to maximize revenue and minimize time spent on administrative tasks.”

Now he just has to get everyone to throw away their postal scales and fax machines and he help CRE enter the era of Honey Boo Boo and leave the era of the Olsen Twins.

Whisk, the smart food platform that makes recipes shoppable, acquires competitor Avocando

Whisk, the U.K. startup that has built a B2B data platform to power various food apps, including making online recipes ‘shoppable’, has acquired Avocando, a competitor based in Germany.

The exact financial terms of the deal remain undisclosed, although TechCrunch understands it was all-cash and that Whisk is acquiring the tech, customer base, integrations, and team. Related to this, Avocando’s founders are joining Whisk.

“The team is joining Whisk to help scale a joint global vision to help leading businesses create integrated and meaningful digital food experiences using cutting-edge technology,” says Whisk in a statement.

To that end, Whisk’s “smart food platform” enables app developers, publishers and online supermarkets/grocery stories to do a number of interesting things.

The first relates to making recipes shoppable i.e. making it incredibly easy to order the ingredients needed to cook a recipe listed online or in an app. Specifically, Whisk’s platform parses ingredients in a recipe, and matches it to products at local grocery stores based on user preferences (e.g. “50g of butter, cubed” matched to “250g Tesco Salted Butter”). It then interfaces with the store to fill the users basket with the needed items.

The second is recipe personalisation. Based on user preferences (e.g. disliked ingredients, diet, previous behaviour, deals at a favourite store, and trending recipes based on location), Whisk is able to create personalised recipe feeds, search results, and meal plans.

The third aspect is an Internet-of-Things play. This is seeing Whisk’s data power experiences that connect IoT devices with different parts of a user’s journey. Think: smart fridges connected to recipes.

“As the e-commerce grocery market quickly accelerates across Europe, players are increasingly looking for ways to connect recipe content to grocery retailers and provide consumers with personalized nutrition, planning and purchase options right from the comfort of their kitchen,” says the startup.

Whisk says its platform powers experiences for over 100,000,000 monthly users through the applications of its clients. They include retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Instacart, and Tesco who use Whisk to enable online grocery shopping via recipes. On the IoT front, Samsung is using Whisk to build smart food applications that take user preferences, what’s in their fridge, what offers are in the supermarket, and recommends recipes. Other customers include publishers, such as the BBC, and food brands like McCormick, Nestle, Unilever, and General Mills.

Meanwhile, Whisk says it is currently focused on the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and with today’s acquisition will expand services across Europe. “Together, Germany, France and Spain represent a larger e-commerce grocery market than both the U.S. and U.K. individually, with the largest online recipe usage per capita figures in the world,” adds the company.

Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.

In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.

In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.

Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

Bail reform has a complex relationship with tech

On any given day in the United States, more than 450,000 people are behind bars awaiting their constitutionally mandated fair trial. None of them have been convicted of a crime — they’ve been accused of committing a crime, but no formal ruling of guilt or innocence has been made. That means these hundreds of thousands of people are incarcerated simply because they don’t have the financial means to post bail. 

Bail was originally designed to incentivize people to show up for their court dates, but it has since evolved into a system that separates the financially well-off from the poor. It requires arrested individuals to pay money in order to get out of jail while they await trial. For those who can’t afford bail, they wind up having to sit in jail, which means they may be at risk of missing rent payments, losing their jobs and failing to meet other responsibilities. 

Money bail is all too often a common condition to secure release from jail while a case is in progress. Cash bail systems result in leaving many people incarcerated, even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime. 

The cash bail system in the United States is one of the greatest injustices in the criminal justice system, ACLU Deputy National Political Director Udi Ofer tells TechCrunch. Bail reform, Ofer says, is a “key way to achieve” the goals of challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration. 

As we explored in “The other pipeline,” the criminal justice system in the United States is deeply rooted in racism and a history of oppression. Black and Latino people comprise about 1.5 million of the total 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. adult correctional system, or 67 percent of the prison population, while making up just 37 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the Sentencing Project.

With a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color, it’s no wonder why the cash bail system does the same. For one, people of color are 25 percent more likely than white people to be denied the option of bail, according to a pre-trial study by Dr. Traci Schlesinger. And for the black people who are given the option to pay bail, the amount is 35 percent higher on average than bail for white men, according to a 2010 study.

The national felony bail median is $10,000. For those who can’t afford it, they have to rely on bail bond agencies, which charge a non-refundable fee to pay the required bail amount on the person’s behalf. The bail bond companies, which are backed by insurance companies, collect between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion a year, according to the ACLU and Color of Change.

And if bail bond companies are out of reach, those who are sitting in jail awaiting trial are more likely to be convicted of the crime they were charged with. The non-felony conviction rate rose from 50 percent to 92 percent for those jailed pre-trial, according to a study by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. Along the way, leading up to the trial, some prosecutors incentivize people to plead guilty to the charges even if they’re innocent.

“It’s time to end our nation’s system of cash bail that lets the size of your wallet determine whether you are granted freedom or stay locked up in jail,” Ofer says. “Money should never decide a person’s freedom yet that’s exactly what happens every day in the United States.”

Pre-trial detention is also costly to local cities, counties and taxpayers. It costs about $38 million a day to keep these largely nonviolent people behind bars, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute. Annually, that comes out to about $14 billion to jail unconvicted people.

“The only people benefiting from bail is the for-profit bail industry,” Ofer said. “If we’re ever going to end mass incarceration in the United States, then we need to end cash bail.”

Bail reform is coming

Across the nation, bail reform has made its way into a handful of states. New Jersey’s bail reform law took effect last January; since then, its daily jail population has dropped 17.2 percent, and courts have imposed cash bail on just 33 defendants out of 33,400, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU itself is working on bail reform in 38 states, including California, where Ofer says he is optimistic reform will happen this year. Right now, a pre-trial release bill, Senate Bill 10, is up for consideration in the Assembly. The bill argues California should ensure people awaiting trial are not incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. The bill also advocates for counties to establish pre-trial services agencies to better determine if people are fit to be released.

The bill, introduced by Senators Bob Hertzberg and others, is backed by the ACLU and Essie Justice Group, an Oakland-based organization that advocates for actual justice in the criminal justice system.

“Today we have a system that allows for people to be released pre-trial if they have enough money to afford their bail,” Essie Justice Group founder Gina Clayton tells TechCrunch. “Everyone else is required to sit inside of a cage without any way out.”

Essie Justice Group works mostly with and for women who have incarcerated loved ones. Often, the only way out for people is help from family or a plea deal, Clayton says.

“When we see people making the bail, we see that women are going into tremendous debt and are also beholden to an industry that has time and time again been cited and known to practice in quite an incredibly despicable way in terms of coercing and harassing their customers,” Clayton says. “When we think about who are the people who know about what’s going on with bail, it’s black and brown women in this country.”

For the past two years, Essie Justice Group held an action around Mother’s Day, with the goal of bailing moms out of jail or immigration detention. Last year’s action led to release of 30 women.

Photo via Essie Justice Group

Can tech help?

The short the answer is maybe. Earlier this month, Google banned ads for bail bonds services, which Clayton says is the largest step any corporation has taken on behalf of people who have loved ones in jail. But while tech can help in some ways, Clayton has some concerns with additional for-profit entities entering the criminal justice system.

“There are definitely tech solutions that I’m very against,” Clayton said, but declined to comment on which ones in particular. “I will say that my energy around this doesn’t come from an imagined place. I’m seeing it happen. One of the things we’re seeing is companies who are interested in bail reform because they see another opportunity to make money off of families. Like, ‘let this person out, but have them, at a cost, check in with people I hire to do this fancy but expensive drug testing three times a week, pay for an ankle shackle or bracelet and GPS monitoring.’ I think the companies that are making money off of those types of things are the ones we need to be wary of.”

There is, however, one for-profit company that immediately jumped to Clayton’s mind as being one doing actual good in the criminal justice space. That company is Uptrust, which provides text message reminders to people regarding court dates.

“I think that is a really great addition to the landscape,” Clayton says. “The reason I’m a proponent of theirs is because I understand their politics and I know what they won’t do, which is take it a step further or get involved with getting incentivized to add on bells and whistles that look less like freedom for people but more revenue for them.”

Uptrust, founded by Jacob Sills and Elijah Gwynm, aims to help people make their court dates. While the movies like to depict flight risks and people skipping town ahead of their court dates, failure to appear in court often comes down to a lack of transportation, work conflicts, not receiving a reminder, childcare or poor time management, Sills tells TechCrunch.

That’s where the idea came to humanize the system a bit more, by enabling public defenders to more easily connect with their clients. Uptrust is two-way in nature and reminds people on behalf of the public defender about court dates. Clients can also communicate any issues they may have about making it to court.

“If the public defender knows the client has an issue, they can usually get court moved,” Sills says. “But if they don’t have the information, they’re not going to lie on behalf of clients.”

Because public defenders don’t make much money, Uptrust doesn’t charge very much, Sills says.

“But they really care about the client and one of the things we saw with this was we needed to change the whole front end of the system to be less adversarial and more human,” Sills says.

In addition to text reminders, Uptrust enables public defenders to assist with other needs clients may have.

“A lot of stuff around bail reform is around risk assessment rather than need assessment,” Sills tells me. “But we saw a lot of these individuals have needs, like helps with rides, child care or reminders.”

Public defenders who are invested in the care of their clients can remind them via Uptrust to do things like ask for time off work or schedule child care.

For the end-user, the client, Uptrust is all text-based. For the public defenders, Uptrust offers a software solution that integrates into their case management systems.

Since launching in the summer of 2016 in California’s Contra Costa County, the court appearance rate improved from 80 percent to 95 percent, Sills says. To date, Uptrust has supported 20,000 people with a five percent FTA rate.

“As we improve product, if we can get [the FTA rate] down to 3 percent, you really can start taking that data and pushing forth major policy change,” Sills says.

Uptrust’s goal is to shift from risk assessment to needs assessment and ensure people are supported throughout their interactions with the criminal justice system.

“Our view is in terms of bail reform, we need to make sure there’s not a proliferation of things like ankle monitors and whatnot,” Sills says. “For us, success is really being a subcontractor to the community as well as working with the government. I think there’s a huge risk in bail reform as it relates to technology because people see it as a big business opportunity, If a company replaces the government, they may not have the community’s best interest in mind. So it’s important to keep in mind they have the community’s best interest in mind.”

Similar to Uptrust, a tech organization called Appolition works by operating within the confines of the system. Appolition, founded by Dr. Kortney Ryan Zieger, enables people to funnel their spare change into the National Bail Out fund. As of April, Appolition has facilitated over $130,000 to go toward bail relief. Ziegler was not available for comment for this story.

Promise, on the other hand, aims to provide an alternative to the cash bail system. In March, Promise raised a $3 million round led by First Round Capital with participation from from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

The idea is to offer counties and local governments an alternative approach to holding people behind bars simply because they can’t afford bail. With Promise, case managers can monitor compliance with court orders and better keep tabs on people via the app. GPS monitoring is also an option, albeit a controversial one.

Let’s say you get arrested and end up having a bail hearing. Instead of asking you to pay bail, the public defender could suggest a pre-trial release with Promise. From there, Promise would work with the public defender and your case manager to determine your care plan.

“It’s clear that our values are about keeping people out of jail,” Promise CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins told me on an episode of CTRL+T. “Like, we’re running a company but we fundamentally believe that not just it’s more cost effective but that it’s the right thing to do.”

Instead of a county jail paying $190 per day per person, Ellis-Lamkins said, Promise charges some counties just $17 per person per day. In some cases, Promise charges even less per person.

It’s that for-profit model that worries Clayton.

“Whenever you bring in the for-profit ethos in a criminal justice space, I think we need to be careful,” Clayton says.

She didn’t explicitly call out any companies. In fact, she said she doesn’t feel ready to make a judgment on Promise just yet. But she has a general concern of tech solutions that “dazzle and distract system actors who we really need to hold accountable and see operate in more systemic, holistic ways.”

Solutions, Clayton says, look like social safety nets like hospitals and clinics instead of jails.

“If we want to really move ourselves away from this path we’ve been on,” Clayton says, “which is towards normalizing state control of people then we should be really careful that our system that once looked like slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration doesn’t then become tech surveillance of all people.”

La Belle Vie wants to compete with Amazon Prime Now in Paris

French startup La Belle Vie announced a new funding round of $6.5 million earlier this week (€5.5 million). Julien Mangeard, Thibaut Faurès Fustel de Coulanges, Louis Duclert, Kima Ventures and Shake-Up Factory participated in the founding round.

Online grocery shopping is becoming quite competitive in Paris. You can order groceries from Amazon using Amazon Prime Now. And all the traditional supermarkets are launching or relaunching services to order and receive groceries within a couple of hours — Carrefour Livraison Express, Franprix’s mobile app, etc.

But all those services aren’t necessarily designed for this kind of offering. With Franprix’s app for instance, a rider is going to pick up your groceries in the nearest store and bring them to you. With Amazon Prime Now, Amazon has a big warehouse in the North of Paris filled with Kindles, books and tomatoes.

La Belle Vie wants to focus exclusively on your groceries and optimize all the steps. It starts with a big inventory. La Belle Vie sells you basic groceries, organic stuff, meat, fish and vegetables. Last year, the company acqui-hired 62degrés to sell fresh prepared meals too.

La Belle Vie has developed all its tools from scratch, including its ERP, a warehouse management service and a delivery management service. In 2017, the startup generated $3.5 million in sales (€3 million) in sales.

With this funding round, the company plans to launch a second warehouse in Paris and new cities, starting with Lyon. But the best part is that you can order croissants without going to the boulangerie — finally a croissants-as-a-service startup.