Cleo, the ‘digital assistant’ that replaces your banking apps, picks up $10M Series A led by Balderton

When Cleo, the London-based ‘digital assistant’ that wants to replace your banking apps, quietly entered the U.S., the company couldn’t have expected to be an instant hit. Many better funded British startups have failed to ‘break America’. However, just four months later, the fintech upstart counts 350,000 users across the pond — claiming more than 600,000 active users in the U.K., U.S. and Canada in total — and says it is adding 30,000 new signups each week. All of which hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors.

Already backed by some of the biggest VC names in the London tech scene — including Entrepreneur First, Moonfruit founder Wendy Tan White, Skype founder Niklas Zennström, Wonga founder Errol Damelin, TransferWise founder Taavet Hinrikus, and LocalGlobe — Cleo is adding Balderton Capital to the list.

The European venture capital firm, which has previously invested in fintech unicorn Revolut and the well-established GoCardless, has led Cleo’s $10 million Series A round, in which I understand most early backers, including Zennström, also followed on. One source told me the Series A gives the hot London startup a post-money valuation of around £30 million (~$39.7m), although Cleo declined to comment.

In a call with co-founder and CEO Barney Hussey-Yeo, he explained that the new capital will be used to continue scaling the company, with further international expansion the name of the game. Hussey-Yeo says Cleo will be targeting Western Europe, the Americas, and Australasia, aiming to launch in a whopping 22 countries in the next 12 months, as Cleo bids to become the “default interface” for millennials interacting and managing their money.

Primarily accessed via Facebook Messenger, the AI-powered chatbot gives insights into your spending across multiple accounts and credit cards, broken down by transaction, category or merchant. In addition, Cleo lets you take a number of actions based on the financial data it has gleaned. You can choose to put money aside for a rainy day or specific goal, send money to your Facebook Messenger contacts, donate to charity, set spending alerts, and more.

However, in the context of traction and Cleo’s broader global ambitions, it is the decision not to become a bank in its own right, that Hussey-Yeo feels is really beginning to bear fruit. His argument has always been that you don’t need to be a bank to become the primary way users interface with their finances, and that without the regulatory and capital burden that becoming a fully licensed bank brings, you can scale much more quickly. I have a feeling that strategy — and its pros and cons — has a long way to play out just yet.

‘Brotopia’ inspired OODA Health to raise its $40.5M round only from firm’s with female partners

It’s never particularly easy to raise a round of venture capital — but I think most experienced founders will tell you its not quite as bad the second or third time around, when you’ve got some experience under your belt and a track record to present to VCs.

It helps if you’re male too, at least according to all the data out there on the gender funding gap in VC.

The leadership team at OODA Health, a startup developing technology to make the U.S. healthcare payment system more efficient, is both male and experienced. But unlike most companies of that nature, OODA decided to raise money for the business only from VC firms that have at least one female leader, a solution to one of tech’s greatest problems that is oft suggested and rarely executed.

“‘Brotopia’ really hit me hard,” OODA Health co-founder and CEO Giovanni Colella told TechCrunch.

Colella is the founder and former CEO of Castlight Health, which raised nearly $200 million in VC funding before going public on the NYSE in 2014. Co-founder and COO Seth Cohen is Castlight’s former VP of sales and alliances and co-founder and CTO Usama Fayyad is the former global chief data officer at Barclays and Yahoo .

The trio ultimately landed on lead investors Annie Lamont of Oak HC/FT and Emily Melton of DFJ, both of which have joined the company’s board of directors.

We have a responsibility of setting an example,” Colella said. “There is no machismo in what we’ve done. We are not better than you because we did it. We were blessed. We had more investors that wanted to invest than we could accommodate.”

Though the company’s c-suite is occupied by men, Cohen and Colella were quick to clarify that the rest of their founding team, head of operations Julie Skaff, head of product Sophie Pinkard and director of product strategy Midori Uehara, are women.

The team began working on OODA Health last year after Colella and Cohen agreed to build something that would upend the healthcare industry. Healthcare, they realized, is at least 20 years behind the advances in financial tech.

The pair said their real aha moment was when they learned even insurance companies — the real laggards — are ready to be rid of the slow, futile billing and payment methods that accompany any and every doctor and hospital visit.

“The idea of submitting a claim and not knowing when you are going to get reimbursed or get a bill, that has been the same for decades,” Cohen told TechCrunch. “Imagine, today, if you took a Visa card and you went to a restaurant … and then a month later received a bill, that’s how healthcare works.”

If OODA has their way, paying for a doctor’s visit will be more like paying for a hotel. You’re told upfront what you owe and you work exclusively with the insurance company to make that payment. And in this idyllic future, you won’t receive an “explanation of benefits” notice in the mail as well as a bill and subsequently fall into a downward spiral of confusion, stress and frustration.

Headquartered in San Francisco, OODA has teamed with several big-name insurance providers, including Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, Blue Shield of California, Zaffre Investments, Dignity Health and Hill Physicians to make this happen.

As far as lifting up women in VC, that’s purely been a side benefit of the overall operation.

“At the end of the day, we found two of the best investors to back us,” Cohen said.

Inside the pay-for-post ICO industry

In a world where nothing can be trusted and fake news abounds, ICO and crypto teams are further muddying the waters by trying – and often failing – to pay for posts. While bribes for blogs is nothing new, sadly the current crop of ICO creators and crypto projects are particularly interested in scaling fast and many ICO CEOs are far happier with scammy multi-level marketing tricks than real media relations.

The worst part of this spammy, scammy ecosystem is the service providers. A new group of media organizations are appearing where pay-to-post is the norm rather than the rare exception. I’ve been looking at these groups for a while now and recently found a few egregious examples.

But first some background.

Oh yeah, Mr. Smart Guy? How do I get press?

Say you’re trying to publicize a startup. You’ve emailed all the big names in the industry and the emails have gone unanswered. Your product is about to flounder on the market without users and you can’t get any because, in perfect chicken-or-egg fashion, you can’t get funding without users and you can’t get users without funding. So isn’t it a good idea to pay a few dollars for a little press?

No.

And isn’t most PR just pay-for-post anyway?

No.

PR people are consummate networkers and are paid to reach out to media on your behalf and their particular set of skills, honed over long careers, are dedicated to breaking down the forcefield between the journalist and the outside world. They are your surrogate hustlers, dedicated to getting you more exposure. A good PR person is worth their weight in gold. They can call up a popular journalist and make a simple pitch: “This cool new thing is happening. Can I put you in touch?”

If a journalist’s mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, a good PR person makes the comfortable look slightly afflicted in order to give the journalist a better story. Also, like velociraptors, they are tenacious and will follow up multiple times on your behalf.

A bad PR person, on the other hand, will cold-call hundreds of journalists and read a script that is half the length of Moby Dick. They produce little more than spam and their efforts begin and end with pressing the “Send” button. It’s also interesting to note that many bad PR people, of late, have found new life as ICO specialists.

Now meet the pay-for-post hucksters. As I wrote before, there is now a subset of the PR world that offers to get your press release or story on the top of various websites for the low, low price of between $500 and $13,000. For example, one set of hucksters created a small business selling posts on Harvard.edu by creating garbage WordPress blogs and posting press releases to increase SEO coverage. Further, I received a document that outlined the prices for placement in various blogs including this one. While it is impossible to buy a post on TechCrunch this way, it doesn’t stop many from trying.

What’s the difference between that price list and the job a PR person will do for you? The difference is trust. A pay-for-post huckster is dependent on convincing poorly paid freelance writers to add links and other dross to their posts in order to get a “placement.” I get requests like this almost every day and almost all the journalists I talked to reported the same.

Some entrepreneurs are savvy enough to avoid these scams. Even more aren’t.

“I’ve never paid since I think it’s almost always a waste of money but I’ve been offered this type of coverage many times,” said Rick Ramos, of HealthJoy.com. “The last offer was for Kathy Ireland’s Worldwide Business… A TV show that I’ve never heard of in my life. I’ve also been approached by niche publications like InsuranceOutlook and HealthCareTechOutlook that want $3,000 for a ‘reprint branding package.’ A quick Alexa.com search shows their rank as 1,725,207 and 1,054,501 globally. I think I get pitched at least every six months for one of these types of packages.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations hide their request for payment until the last minute. That said, how do you know when it’s someone selling pay-for-play vs. a real editor? It’s usually obvious.

“It’s usually pretty easy to sniff out based on their email blast. It’s pretty untargeted with no reference to what your company does or how it related to a story. Some people are up front about the payment but others want a ’15 min call to discuss.’ A quick LinkedIn search always shows them as a sales person versus a reporter or editor,” said Ramos.

It’s getting worse

This is a document I received from a company attempting an ICO. This sort of menu was quite uncommon until fairly recently when the “on-demand” economy melded with PR scammers. The completeness of the document is unique – you could feasibly plan your own PR efforts just by reaching out to journalists who work at all of these places. But you’ll also note that each spot has its own price, often in the low hundreds of dollars, which means that those spots are mostly pay-for-play anyway.


ICOLists by on Scribd


No PR company can promise coverage. In fact, many pay-for-play folks mention this in their communications, hiding it in plain sight. This snippet of text appeared in a contract for work from one of the pay-for-play providers. In short, you’re paying for something they cannot guarantee to get. Interestingly, the PR company below calls their product an IO – an insertion order – which is language used in ad sales. Further, they take great pains in explaining that it is almost impossible to achieve what they promise.

None of the pay-for-post folks I mentioned here would respond to my requests for comment.

Counter-point: Journalists are also at fault

Journalists should never expect money for coverage.

Yet many do.

“Lately I have worked on a number of blockchain technology pieces and I have encountered a wide variety of these asks,” said Brittany Whitmore, CEO at Exvera Communications. “A lot of the new, smaller blockchain-focused outlets seem to do a lot of pay-to-play, likely trying to capitalize on the ICO gold rush. The strangest request that I received was that the outlet would do a an article about the news for free but only if we paid them over $1,000 to promote the article with ads. I did not proceed.”

In one very detailed article on The Outline, Jon Christian explored this world and found that many writers received small sums for a single brand mention in a story, a sort of SEO flogging that rarely helps. He wrote:

An unpaid contributor to the Huffington Post, also speaking on condition of anonymity because, in his words, “I would be pretty fucked if my name got out there,” said that he has included sponsored references to brands in his articles for years, in articles on the Huffington Post and other sites, on behalf of six separate agencies. Some agencies pay him directly, he said, in amounts that can be as small as $50 or $175, but others pay him through an employee’s personal PayPal account in order to obfuscate the source of the funds. In a statement, Huffington Post said “Using the HuffPost Contributors Network to self-publish paid content violates our terms of use. Anyone we discover to be engaging in such abuse has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.”
The Huffington Post writer also described specific brands he’d written about on behalf of one of the agencies, which ranged from a popular ride-hailing app, to a publicly-traded site for booking flights and hotels, to a large American cell phone service provider.
“This is a classic example of payola,” he said of the brand mentions, invoking a term that’s been used to describe radio DJs who accept payments from record companies in order to play certain artists on the air.

Further, many influencers – folks who sell their Internet fame to the highest bidder – masquerade as journalists, asking for outrageous sums to flog an ICO on their YouTube channel or Instagram page. Pay-for-play services can also put out organic content like this in hopes of appearing in the news.

The rule of thumb? Paid posts and native advertising are not journalism. Ultimately, journalists who charge for coverage are marketers. No one at any reputable news organization will ask for cash but, sadly, there are a number of disreputable news organizations making the rounds.

ICO spamming/Don’t do it

All this still doesn’t answer the question: Should you pay-to-post?

“The short answer is no,” said Kevin Bourke of BourkePR. “I get asked all the time, and in fact, turned down another request just today. And I advise my clients to decline these offers as well.”

Pay-for-post disrupts journalism in a way that should be familiar and desirable to any modern-day entrepreneur. Middlemen are being knocked out everywhere and brands are approaching consumers from every angle including native ads in Instagram and Twitter. But the value of coverage – real coverage – from a journalists perspective is the opportunity to explain complex ideas to a ready audience. While posting a picture of a blockchain on Facebook and hoping for clicks is one strategy, explaining your views, opinions, and insights is far more important even if you approach it from a mercenary position.

“When you start paying for placement, you remove objectivity and credibility, and in my opinion, this is the reason you look for coverage of your company/products in the first place. That’s what influences readers/viewers. But I understand the temptation for startups. You come to believe that ‘all visibility is good visibility.’ I just can’t agree with that,” said Bourke. “I see the trend toward paid placements (now called sponsored content), paid awards and I can’t stand it – especially with the trade show awards in high tech. They’ve completely devalued the Best of Show awards in so many cases. Typically, only the big companies with budgets can afford them, so many of the smaller guys with no money but amazing products get left out. I understand that the publishing industry needs to figure out new revenue streams – these are very difficult times for them. But they need to figure out smarter business models and maintain the integrity of editorialized content, built on the opinions and perspectives of journalists and influencers.”

Ostrichpillow Hood, the latest product from Studio Banana, is no joke

I’m not going to lie, when Studio Banana released the original Ostrichpillow back in 2012, despite breaking all Kickstarter records at the time, I thought the whole thing might be an elaborate joke. Or, worse still, since the sleep-at-your-desk styled product had found popularity amongst people who worked at startups, Silicon Valley was now parodying itself.

Except that “transformative” design company Studio Banana is based in Europe, with offices based in London, Lake Geneva and Madrid. And 500,000 sales and five products later, the joke is arguably on its critics. As I’m fond of telling founders who ask for validation, ultimately it is the market that decides.

Enter the latest Ostrichpillow creation: the aptly named Ostrichpillow Hood. Aptly named because, well, it’s a hood. However, unlike the previous products in the range, which were designed to facilitate sleep in non-traditional places, the Ostrichpillow Hood, we’re told, is to be used in “everyday waking life”.

Specifically, by reducing the ability to see activity in the edges of your field of vision, it is intended to help you focus on the task at hand and/or reduce overstimulation, such as the kind induced by open plan co-working spaces.

The Ostrichpillow Original

“The product we’re launching now is the sixth of the different products that have emerged in the Ostrichpillow family and they’re catering to different needs,” Ali Ganjavian, co-founder of Studio Banana, tells me in a video call yesterday. “Ostrichpillow was really about complete isolation and it was really a statement product… So different products have different use-cases and different functions, and also different social acceptances”.

I suggest that the Ostrichpillow Hood may turn out to be broadly socially acceptable, not least for anyone already familiar with the original Ostrichpillow, but also because asking work colleagues to respect the need to focus is a lot different to asking them to ignore your need to take a nap at your desk. Ganjavian doesn’t degree, even though there is no doubt the two products share the same design heritage.

“A lot of the stuff we are thinking about now is about the state of mind,” he says, noting that throughout the working day we are bombarded with stimuli and information, from messaging apps, emails, social media, meetings and even something as innocuous as having to say hello to work mates. “[The Ostrichpillow Hood] is really about sheltering. It is not only a physical movement, there is psychology in the way it shelters you… it’s about shifting your mood”.

Next Ganjavian demonstrates the three positions the Ostrichpillow Hood is designed to be worn.

The ‘Hood’ position is for when you need to concentrate on something in public, for example when commuting or in an open plan office or coffee shop. Like wearing a pair of visually loud headphones, it also has the added effect of signalling to colleagues that you’d rather not be disturbed or are “wired in“.

The ‘Eclipse’ position, where the hood can be turned around to cover your face completely, is for when you need to truly switch off from your surroundings, such as to deeply think, take a short break or meditate. “If I’ve got my headphones on in that posture then what it allows me to do is to totally isolate myself in the same way I would with an Ostrichpillow but in a much more acceptable way,” says Ganjavian.

Finally, the ‘Hoop’ position, with the hood worn down around your neck, is designed to feel warm and cozy and turns the Ostrichpillow Hood into attire more akin to a fashion accessory.

Adds the Studio Banana co-founder: “What I find really exciting about this moment is that I currently work in between three different geographies, there is so much going on, and how do we create a tool or object that makes me feel good, helps me perform better, and helps me become more efficient, and also feeds that overall well-being that I’m looking for in my workplace. At the same time, I can just walk out into the street with it on and just go home and feel good about it”.

Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”

Blippar picks up $37 million hoping to become profitable in the next year

Blippar, the AR startup that launched in 2011, has today announced the close of a $37 million financing led by Candy Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures.

The company started out by offering AR experiences for brand marketers through publishers and other real-world products, letting users unlock AR content by scanning a tag called a “Blipp”.

Blippar then transitioned to a number of different AR products, but took a particular focus on computer vision, launching a consumer-facing visual search engine that would let users identify cars, plants, and other real-world objects.

Most recently, Blippar has introduced an indoor positioning system that lets commercial real estate owners implement AR mapping and other content from within their buildings.

The AR industry has been in a state of evolution for the past few years, and Blippar has constantly reshifted and re-positioned to try and take advantage of the blossoming market. Unfortunately, several pivots have put the company in a tough spot financially.

BI reports that Blippar posted revenue of £8.5 million ($11.2 million) in the 16-month period up to March 31 2016, with losses of £24 million ($31.5 million). These latest rounds have essentially let Blippar keep the lights on while trying to pick up the pace on revenues.

The company says that this latest round is meant to fuel the company’s race to reach profitability in the next 12 months. Blippar has raised more than $137 million to date.

Uber fires up its own traffic estimates to fuel demand beyond cars

If the whole map is red and it’s a short ride, maybe you’d prefer taking an Uber JUMP Bike instead of an UberX. Or at least if you do end up stuck bumper-to-bumper, the warning could make you less likely to get mad mid-ride and take it out on the driver’s rating.

This week TechCrunch spotted Uber overlaying blue, yellow, and red traffic condition bars on your route map before you hail. Responding to TechCrunch’s inquiry, Uber confirmed that traffic estimates have been quietly testing for riders on Android over the past few months and the pilot program recently expanded to a subset of iOS users. It’s already live for all drivers.

The congestion indicators are based on Uber’s own traffic information pulled from its historic trip data about 10 billion rides plus real-time data from its drivers’ phones, rather than estimates from Google that already power Uber’s maps.

If traffic estimates do roll out, they could make users more tolerant of longer ETAs and less likely to check a competing app since they’ll know their driver might take longer to pick them up because congestion is to blame rather than Uber’s algorithm. During the ride they might be more patient amidst the clogged streets.

Uber’s research into traffic in India

But most interestingly, seeing traffic conditions could help users choose when it’s time to take one of Uber’s non-car choices. They could sail past traffic in one of Uber’s new electric JUMP Bikes, or buy a public transportation ticket from inside Uber thanks to its new partnership with Masabi for access to New York’s MTA plus buses and trains in other cities. Cheaper and less labor intensive for Uber, these options make more sense to riders the more traffic there is. It’s to the company’s advantage to steer users towards the most satisfying mode of transportation, and traffic info could point them in the right direction.

Through a program called Uber Movement, the company began sharing its traffic data with city governments early last year. The goal was to give urban planners the proof they need to make their streets more efficient. Uber has long claimed that it can help reduce traffic by getting people into shared rides and eliminating circling in search of parking. But a new study showed that for each mile of personal driving Uber and Lyft eliminated, they added 2.8 miles of professional driving for an 180 percent increase in total traffic.

Uber is still learning whether users find traffic estimates helpful before it considers rolling them out permanently to everyone. Right now they only appear on unshared UberX, Black, XL, SUV, and Taxi routes before you hail to a small percentage of users. But Uber’s spokesperson verified that the company’s long-term goal is to be able to tell users that the cheapest way to get there is option X, the quickest is option Y, and the most comfortable is option Z. Traffic estimates are key to that. And now that it’s had so many cars on the road for so long, it has the signals necessary to predict which streets will be smooth and which will be jammed at a given hour.

For years, Uber called itself a logistics company, not a ride sharing company. Most people gave it a knowing wink. Every Silicon Valley company tries to trump up its importance by claiming to conquer a higher level of abstraction. But with advent of personal transportation modes like on-demand bikes and scooters, Uber is poised to earn the title by getting us from point A to point B however we prefer.

In Bad Blood, a pedestrian tale of heuristics and lies

In a world where thousands and thousands of startups are started in the Bay Area every year, becoming a name that everyone recognizes is no small feat.

Theranos reached that summit, and it all came crashing down.

The story of the fraudulent rise and precipitous fall of the company and its entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes, is also the singular story of the journalist who chronicled the company. John Carreyrou’s tenacious and intrepid reporting at the Wall Street Journal would ultimately expose one of the largest frauds ever perpetrated in Silicon Valley.

Bad Blood is the culmination of that investigative reporting. The swift decline of Theranos and its protective legal apparatus has done this story a lot of good: many of the anonymous sources that underpinned Carreyrou’s WSJ coverage are now public and visible, allowing the author to weave together the various articles he published into a holistic and complete story.

And yet, what I found in the book was not all that thrilling or shocking, but rather astonishingly pedestrian.

Part of the challenge is Carreyrou’s laconic WSJ tone, with its “just the facts” attitude that is punctuated only occasionally by brief interludes on the motivations and psychology of its characters. That style is appreciated by this subscriber of the paper daily, but the book-length treatment suffers a bit from a lack of charisma.

The real challenge though is that the raw story — for all of its fraud — lacks the sort of verve that makes business thrillers like Barbarians at the Gate or Red Notice so engaging. The characters that Carreyrou has to work with just aren’t all that interesting. One could argue that perhaps the book is too early — with criminal charges filed and court trials coming, we may well learn much more about the conspiracy and its participants. But I don’t think so, mostly because the fraud seems so simple in its premise.

At the heart of this story is the use of heuristics by investors and customers to make their largest decisions. Theranos is a story of the snowball effect blown up to an avalanche: a retired and successful venture capitalist seeds the company, leading to other investors to see that name and invest, and onwards and upwards for more than a decade, eventually collecting a cast of characters around the table that includes James Mattis, the current Secretary of Defense, and Henry Kissinger.

Take Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire owner of News Corporation (and by extension the Wall Street Journal), who invested $125 million into Theranos near the end of the company’s story. He met Holmes at a dinner in Silicon Valley:

During the dinner, Holmes came over to Murdoch’s table, introduced herself, and chatted him up. The strong first impression she made on him was bolstered by [Yuri] Milner, who sang her praises when Murdoch later asked him what he thought of the young woman.

….

But unlike the big venture capital firms, he did no due diligence to speak of. The eighty-four-year-old mogul tended to just follow his gut, an approach that had served him well …

He made one call before investing $125 million.

To some readers, that might be a breathtaking sum, but it really is something of a pittance for Murdoch, whose reported net worth today is roughly $17 billion. In the denouement of the Theranos story, Carreyrou notes that, “The media mogul sold his stock back to Theranos for one dollar so he could claim a big tax write-off on his other earnings. With a fortune estimated at $12 billion, Murdoch could afford to lose more than $100 million on a bad investment.”

For Murdoch, a bad heuristic around the company cost him roughly 1% of his net wealth, and with the tax loss, may not have cost him much of anything at all.

That’s the challenge of the book: for all the fraud committed by Theranos and its founder, its financial losses were ultimately borne by the ultra-rich. This is not the 2008 Financial Crisis, where millions of people are thrown out of their homes due to the chicanery of Wall Street fat cats.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that the right heuristics would have helped these investors to an extraordinarily degree. Take for example the rapid turnover of Theranos’ workforce, which could have been checked on LinkedIn in minutes and would have signaled something deeply wrong with the company’s culture and leadership. It doesn’t take many questions to discover the fraud here if they are the right questions.

Beyond the investors and workers though, the harm is even hard to track to patients. There are perhaps no more serious consequences around Theranos’ fraud than for patients, who took tests on the company’s proprietary Edison machines and received inaccurate and at times faked results. Yet, Carreyrou strangely hasn’t compiled a compelling set of patients for whom Theranos caused morbidity. If any industry comes out positively in this book, it is the doctors of patients who reorder tests and ask additional questions when results didn’t make sense.

Ultimately, Bad Blood is a complete book about an important story. I’m reminded a bit of the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, in which the filmmakers travel to Indonesia to have the killers of the 1965 communist genocide recreate the murders they perpetrated. The director’s cut is long and at times remarkably tedious, and yet, that is in many ways precisely the point. As a viewer, you become inured to the murder, bereft of emotion while waiting for the ending credits to roll.

Bad Blood is the same: its direct, to the point, and relatively sparing in any deep thrills. And that is its point. The book gives us a pinprick in our belief that Silicon Valley’s vaunted investors and founders are immune to stupidity. If you didn’t already know that before, you certainly now have a one-word household name of a startup to reference.