Southern California needs to find its hub for it to develop its own tech ecosystem

Recognizing the tens of billions of dollars that the Southern Californian region leaves on the table, because it hasn’t taken its rightful place in the American technology industry, a new group called  the Alliance for Southern California Innovation has just released a report to analyze how SoCal can work to assume its pole position.

Through interviews with 100 leaders of the technology ecosystem and an analysis of venture capital funding for the region, the organization has concluded (with the help of the Boston Consulting Group) that the promise of a regional rival to Northern California’s silicon valley won’t be fulfilled without the establishment of a geographic hub and a willingness to overcome regional differences.

Founded by Steve Poizner last year to accelerate the growth of a startup entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southern California, The Alliance is building a network of investors, entrepreneurs and universities to provide ballast in the south to the dominance of the Northern California tech industry.

The Alliance estimates that Southern California’s tech community could be one-third the size of Silicon Valley’s by supporting or further developing the six pillars it already has for innovation to occur.

The potential impact making these changes could have is an added 200,000 new jobs and growth of $100 billion for the whole economic region.

“Over the past several years we have observed a significant decrease in startups leaving SoCal,” said Greg Becker, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank . “We’ve also seen a substantial inflow of venture capital from all over the world.”

In fact, as is well-reported, the luster of Silicon Valley is fading. As BCG writes in its report:

The good news for SoCal and any region with tech ambitions is that the Bay Area has in some ways been too successful. Our research revealed a saturation level causing unprecedented challenges, starting with exorbitant housing prices and runaway operating costs that accelerate a startup’s “burn rate”—its monthly spending.

Los Angeles investor Mark Suster, a general partner with Upfront Ventures, has been beating the drum for Los Angeles as a new tech hub for a while — and billion dollar exits for Ring and Dollar Shave Club, in addition to the public offering for Snap, lend credence to his position.

Suster has also noted for years that the region produces more technology doctorates than any other geography in the United States. Caltech generates more patents than any other university while UCLA boasts more startups founded by its graduate than any other school in the nation. Meanwhile, UCSD in San Diego has a deep bench of biotechnology expertise stemming from its proximity to the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, the Salk Institute, and the Scripps Research Institute.

However, to thrive, BCG recommends taking six steps to bolster the the ecosystem and its chances to begin to catch up to Silicon Valley.

The consulting firm says that Southern California needs more local venture capital; the individual geographies need to work to promote their regional strengths; regions need to collaborate more closely with each other; founders need to start gunning for that IPO slot instead of taking acquisition offers; the region’s commitment to diversity needs to be emphasized; and finally the embarrassment of entrepreneurial riches needs to be promoted abroad.

“Southern California is a region of extreme innovation; however, it is so spread-out, making it hard to navigate,” said Steve Poizner founder and board chair of the Alliance, in a statement. “We believe by finding, filtering and aggregating exciting startups from top universities, research institutes, and incubators/accelerators, we can demonstrate the combined strength of SoCal in a compelling way to top investors and thought leaders.”

John Bolton is Trump’s new National Security Advisor

With one fell swoop, President Trump just swapped out the “warrior scholar” for the warmonger.

Today Trump tweeted that General H.R. McMaster will step down as John Bolton, a deeply controversial former U.S. ambassador, steps into the role of national security advisor. Bolton will move into the high-ranking foreign policy advisor position just as the U.S. is approaching talks with North Korea, an extremely delicate diplomatic maneuver between two volatile leaders. 

Last month, Bolton argued the legal case for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea — an extreme position in which even the best case scenario could result in broad carnage for the U.S. and its allies.

Bolton established his extreme and hawkish reputation during his tenure as the undersecretary of state for arms control during the Bush administration. In that advisory position, Bolton argued strongly in favor of the Iraq war, tying his justification to the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction.

If most people could agree that McMaster was a respectable choice for national security advisor, just as many seem to oppose Bolton becoming a prominent figure in shaping Trump’s foreign policy. When Bolton’s name was floated just after the election, Republican Senator Rand Paul penned an op-ed denouncing Bolton as “hell-bent on repeating virtually every foreign policy mistake the US has made in the last 15 years.”

While McMaster was sometimes characterized as a cautious futurist, Bolton’s record on tech is less clear. We’re sure to learn more about the new advisor’s various postures quickly, as Bolton stirs up bipartisan anxiety around U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Iran and North Korea.

After the swift fall of Michael Flynn in early 2017 and the quick appointment of McMaster, Bolton will become Trump’s third national security advisor in less than two years.

Snapchat’s new feature is aiming to turn Snap Map into a next-gen newsfeed

Snapchat may still be getting a lot of heat for their redesign, but the company is continuing to devote resources to build out Snap Map, the map-based feature it introduced last year.

A new feature called Map Explore will let you thumb through Snap Map updates in a more methodical way, so that you can see where your friends are and where they’re traveling. These statuses are generated by your friends’ movements rather than them physically typing out something on their own. Snap Map is importantly an opt-in feature, so if you’re understandably creeped out by the privacy implications, carry on.

The feature, first noted by The Verge, is furthering Snapchat’s idea of a map-based feed in Snap Map, but Map Explore integrates some more conventional UI elements and notifications to call users’ attention to items of interest that might otherwise get lost in the expanse. It’s just a start, but it’s definitely a necessary move. Expecting users to pan around a map is daunting enough for the immediate surrounding area, but when you’re trying to get users to see where your friends are vacationing or doing other cool stuff, it’s a lot more difficult.

The feed can give updates on the jet-setting habits of friends who are going on trips; it also can give location updates when they’re off to the beach or at another noteworthy spot. What’s perhaps most interesting is that Snapchat says they’ll be using the feature to push updates or breaking news updates to users based on areas of the Snap Map that are seeing a lot of traffic tied to news events.

The feature is going to be rolling out globally in the next few weeks.

Sheryl Sandberg says Facebook leadership should have spoken sooner, is open to regulation

The days of silence from Facebook’s top executives after the company banned the political advisory service Cambridge Analytica from its platform were a mistake, according to Sheryl Sandberg.

In a brief interview on CNBC, Sandberg said that the decision for her and company chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg to wait before speaking publicly about the evolving crisis was a mistake.

“Sometimes we speak too slowly,” says Sandberg. “If I look back I would have had Mark and myself speak sooner.”

It was the only significant new word from the top level of leadership at Facebook following the full-court press made by Mark Zuckerberg yesterday.

The firestorm that erupted over Facebook’s decision to ban Cambridge Analytica — and the ensuing revelations that the user data of 50 million Facebook users were accessed by the political consulting and marketing firm without those users’ permission — has slashed Facebook stock and brought calls for regulation for social media companies.

Even as $60 billion of shareholder value disappeared Zuckerberg and Sandberg remained quiet.

The other piece of information from Sandberg’s CNBC interview, was her admission that the company is “open” to government regulation. But even that formulation suggests what is a basic misunderstanding at best and cynical contempt at worst for the role of government in the process of protecting Facebook’s users.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Facebook is open to regulation or not. If the government and U.S. citizens want more controls, the regulations will come.

And it looks like Facebook’s proposed solution will end up costing the company a pretty penny as well, as it brings in forensic auditors to track who else might have abused the data harvesting permissions that the company had put in place in 2007 and only sunset in 2015. 

Before the policy change, companies that aggressively acquired data from Facebook would come in for meetings with the social media company and discuss how the data was being used. One company founder — who was a power user of Facebook data — said that the company’s representatives had told him “If you weren’t pushing the envelope, we wouldn’t respect you.”

Collecting user data before 2015 was actually something that the company encouraged, under the banner of increased utility for Facebook users — so that calendars could bring in information about the birthdays of friends, for instance.

Indeed, the Obama campaign used Facebook data from friends in much the same way as Cambridge Analytica, albeit with a far greater degree of transparency.

The issue is that users don’t know where their data went in the years before Facebook shut the door on collection of data from a users’ network of friends in 2015.

That’s what Facebook — and the government is trying to find out.


Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams who can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists.

The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” Is that even possible?!

For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250K “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order:

Hydro Harvest: This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity.

JMCC Wing: This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy.

Skydra: Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.”

The Veragon & Thinair: Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. UK collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals.

Uravu: Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though.

The first round of testing took place in January, and round 2 comes in July, at which point the teams’ business plans are also due. In August there should be an announcement of the $1M grand prize winner. Good luck to all involved and regardless of who takes home the prize, here’s hoping this tech gets deployed to good purpose where it’s needed.

Why achieving diversity in tech requires firing the industry’s ‘cultural fit’ mentality

If you have interviewed for a technology job, there’s a good chance the words “culture” and “fit” made an appearance during the phone-screen phase, or in early rounds of interviews. It is no longer enough for a candidate — especially early to mid-career — to arrive to job interviews with a stellar resume and relevant technical skills. They might also have to come with their best “I’m normal and will fit into the overall team culture of this company” outfit on.

Over the past decade, the idea of hiring for “cultural fit” has become as important as, and at times superseded, hiring to fit a job description across forward-looking industries, from tech to transportation. The nuance of this shift may be a cause for concern — especially for a global tech sector in search of a clear route to workforce diversity.

Many of today’s tech human resources teams are tasked with recruiting a diverse group of people and retaining star employees. However, they still tend to supplement those pursuits with cultivating a unified office culture. While the industry has largely moved on from using ping pong tables as a recruiting tool, hiring people who pass the Beer Test — an applicant that hiring managers could work with in the office and hang with at happy hour — remains commonplace.

Further, hiring based on a hiring manager’s own narrow set of requirements needed to fit their idea of a relatable person opens the door to all sorts of unconscious biases. Taking this recruiting shortcut also raises the bar for candidates from already under-represented groups, including minorities and women. The main casualties: the pursuit of diversity and business bottom lines.

Separation of work and play

It is true that research-backed conventional wisdom suggests happy workplaces are productive workplaces. What that line of thinking doesn’t account for is the fact that exclusively hiring talent for interpersonal compatibility can negatively impact the quality of work and focus of employees. In other words, employee camaraderie does not equal workplace compatibility. It definitely does not equal workforce diversity. And while a company may benefit from a general aspect of like-mindedness, there’s a great chance that the actual work is suffering due to the lack of diversity — both in people and ideas.

Here in Toronto, hiring managers still focus heavily on likeability, which at times can be seen as more important than technical skills. My team and I recently began to see to potential impacts of “cultural fit” as we started to dive into the findings of our new report on the state of talent in Toronto’s emerging tech sector.

So, how did we get here? While academic and real-world evidence is piling up supporting the claim that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, some hiring managers may be taking mental shortcuts when considering candidates for open posts. These interviewers are interpreting personnel alignment with the company’s needs to mean sharp alignment with their own personalities; and there are real opportunity costs to this assumption.

People from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds bring new ideas to the table. In the fast-paced world of tech, they can deliver fresh thinking that helps companies locate, prioritize and capitalize on new market opportunities. Hiring people from different backgrounds and disciplines to tackle startup and product scaling challenges also helps tech-focused ventures in export-focused countries like Canada stand out from competitors.

Moving away from one culture fits all mentality

Research conducted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management suggests diversity boosts creative debate that prevents teams from falling into the groupthink trap and leads to more explored, informed decisions. Equally as important, a diverse workforce can quickly flag when a company does something culturally insensitive — and, honestly, prevent the company from nearing those situations entirely. Why do you think H&M appointed a global diversity manager to drive inclusivity in its workforce following its recent monkey-hoodie debacle? While some may see the move as too little and/or too late, hiring a diverse workforce can contribute significantly to a company’s growth and scale, maintaining a company’s social conscience and, more importantly, demanding accountability from the organization.

The pursuit of diversity in tech is not all doom and gloom. There are some technology companies beginning to emerge from the syndrome of overemphasizing cultural fit. Facebook has banned the term ”cultural fit” from the company’s interview process entirely. Shopify, a growing e-commerce company, openly talks about the company’s efforts to incorporate diversity into hiring practices and ongoing career development within the organization.

Here in Canada, artificial intelligence-oriented companies like Plum and Knockri develop talent recruitment products that screen job applicants objectively. These platforms are built without the often bias-heavy elements of gender, culture and ethnic background entering the picture until final stages of interviewing. Their ultimate goal: to boost representation of minorities, women and people from diverse backgrounds on interview shortlists for tech jobs and in workforces fueling the global economy.

After all, the best person for a tech job may be the candidate who stands the farthest out from a tech company’s crowd.

The founder of business banking startup Tide plans to step down as CEO

Changes are afoot at Tide, the U.K. fintech startup that offers banking services for small businesses. TechCrunch has learned that founder George Bevis is planning to step down as CEO, and that the nearly three-year old company is actively headhunting for his replacement.

It comes at a time when Tide — which counts 30,000 small business sign ups — is said to be entering ‘scale-up’ mode, with a headcount approaching 100 employees, and ambitions to expand internationally. Earlier this week the service saw a rebrand, including a new ‘vertical’ design for the Tide card and the slogan “Do Less Banking,” a reference to the startup’s mission to make the lives of small business owners easier.

The company also announced that it had got a regulatory upgrade and is now authorised as an electronic money institution by U.K. regulator the FCA. This gives Tide more direct access to banking infrastructure and means that over time it will be less reliant on third-party providers and can have more flexibility in how it serves customers, although it still hasn’t (yet?) chosen to apply for a fully fledged bank license.

Confirming that Tide is recruiting a new CEO, founder Bevis gave TechCrunch the following statement:

“I’m a small business-focussed guy who’s had the privilege of building an amazing company serving small businesses. Now our own business isn’t small any more it’s time for me to think about bringing in someone who knows at least as much about international scale-ups as I know about U.K. startups. Tide will stay focussed on saving small business owners time — in future all across the world. I’m looking forward to continuing to play a key role, both inside the business and on the board”.

I’m told that the decision to start recruiting for a new CEO was instigated by Bevis in discussion with the Tide board, who are fully supportive. The thinking from the Tide founder is that now is a good time to look for a CEO experienced in scaling a company as the early-stage founding job is materially complete, including developing the core Tide product and finding market fit.

Meanwhile, I understand that the new CEO will be tasked with executing Tide’s growth plans, which, along with international expansion, will include evolving the startup to a full SMB banking platform play that will see it continue to plug into providers of other bank related services for small business and further commercializing through revenue-share deals. The idea is that by creating a Tide ecosystem, the company “can scale far beyond the size of any single individual provider”.

To that end, Tide has secured over $16 million in funding to date from VCs including Creandum, LocalGlobe, Passion Capital and fintech specialist, Anthemis, as well as well-known angel investors including Errol Damelin (Wonga), Alex Chesterman (Zoopla/ZPG) and William Reeve (Lovefilm, Graze, and currently CEO of Goodlord).

Get the latest TC stories read to you over the phone with BrailleVoice

For the visually impaired, there are lots of accessibility options if you want to browse the web — screen readers, podcast versions of articles and so on. But it can still be a pain to keep up with your favorite publications the way sighted app users do. BrailleVoice is a project that puts the news in a touch-tone phone interface, reading you the latest news from your favorite publications (like this one) easily from anywhere you get a signal.

It’s from SpaceNext, AKA Shan, who has a variety of useful little apps he’s developed over the years on his page — John wrote up one back in 2011. Several of them have an accessibility aspect to them, something that always piques my interest.

“Visually challenged users will find it difficult to navigate using apps,” he wrote in an email. “I thought with text to speech readily available… they would be able to make a call to a toll free number to listen to latest news from any site.”

All you do is dial 1-888-666-4013, then listen to the options on the menu. TechCrunch is the first outlet listed, so hit 1# and it’ll read out the headlines. Select one (of mine) and it’ll jump right in. That’s it! There are a couple of dozen sites listed right now, from LifeHacker (hit 15#) to the Times of India (hit 26#). You can also suggest new sites to add, presumably as long as they have some kind of RSS feed. (This should be a reminder why you should keep your website or news service accessible in some like manner.)

“More importantly,” he continued, “this works even without internet even in the remotest of places. You can listen to your favorite news site without having to spend a dime or worry about internet.”

Assuming you can get a voice signal and you’ve got minutes, anyway. I quite like the idea of someone walking into the nearest town, pulling out their old Nokia, dialing this up and keeping up to date with the most news-addicted of us.

The text to speech engine is pretty rudimentary, but it’s better than what we all had a few years back, and it’ll only get better as improved engines like Google’s and Apple’s trickle down for general purpose use. I’m going to ask them about that, actually.

It’s quite a basic service, but what more does it need to have, really? Shan is planning to integrate voice controls into the likes of Google Home and Alexa, so there’s that. But as is it may be enough to provide plenty of utility to the vision-impaired. Check out TextOnly too. I could use that for desktop.