The video, published to YouTube on Feb. 23, was awe-inspiring and scary. A two-legged humanoid robot trudges through the snow, somehow maintaining its balance. Another robot with two arms and pads for hands crouches down and lifts a brown box and delicately places it on a shelf — then somehow stays upright while a human tries to push it over with a hockey stick. A third robot topples over and clambers back to its feet with ease.
Tens of millions of people viewed the video over the next few weeks. Google and the division responsible for the video, Boston Dynamics, were seemingly pushing the frontier in robot technology.
But behind the scenes a more pedestrian drama was playing out. Executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc., absorbed with making sure all the various companies under its corporate umbrella have plans to generate real revenue, concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans.
Possible acquirers include the Toyota Research Institute, a division of Toyota Motor Corp., and Amazon.com Inc., which makes robots for its fulfillment centers, according to one person. Google and Toyota declined to comment, and Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Google acquired Boston Dynamics in late 2013 as part of a spree of acquisitions in the field of robotics. The deals were spearheaded by Andy Rubin, former chief of the Android division, and brought about 300 robotics engineers into Google. Rubin left the company in October 2014. Over the following year, the robot initiative, dubbed Replicant, was plagued by leadership changes, failures to collaborate between companies and an unsuccessful effort to recruit a new leader.
At the heart of Replicant’s trouble, said a person familiar with the group, was a reluctance by Boston Dynamics executives to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo and the unit’s failure to come up with products that could be released in the near term.
Tensions between Boston Dynamics and the rest of the Replicant group spilled into open view within Google, when written minutes of a Nov. 11 meeting and several subsequent e-mails were inadvertently published to an online forum that was accessible to other Google workers. These documents were made available to Bloomberg News by a Google employee who spotted them.
The November meeting was run by Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Larry Page and former Google senior vice president, who was temporarily in charge of the Replicant group. In the meeting, Rosenberg said, “we as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take ten years,” and that “there’s some time frame that we need to be generating an amount of revenue that covers expenses and (that) needs to be a few years.”
Aaron Edsinger, director of robotics at Google in San Francisco, said that he had been trying to work with Boston Dynamics to create a low-cost electric quadruped robot and felt “a bit of a brick wall” around the division, according to the minutes of the meeting.
Marc Raibert, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and the founder of Boston Dynamics, said that “I firmly believe the only way to get to a product is through the work we are doing in Boston. (I) don’t think we are the pie in the sky guys as much as everyone thinks we are,” the minutes show.
Raibert didn’t respond to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.
Part of the challenge was that Alphabet, created in 2015, was geared toward making Google inviting to startup founders and entrepreneurial executives who wanted to join companies driving toward products and revenue, which could increase shareholder value for those subsidiaries. Page wanted to invite top-tier engineers to join the companies within Alphabet and entice them with equity.
In December, Google announced that Replicant had been folded into Google’s advanced research group, Google X. In a private all-hands meeting around that time, Astro Teller, the head of Google X, told Replicant employees that if robotics aren’t the practical solution to problems that Google was trying to solve, they would be reassigned to work on other things, according to a person who was at that meeting.
Boston Dynamics, though, was never folded into Google X and was instead put up for sale. After the division’s latest robot video was posted to YouTube, in February, Google’s public-relations team expressed discomfort that Alphabet would be associated with a push into humanoid robotics. Their subsequent e-mails were also published to the internal online forum and became visible to all Google employees.
“There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X.
Hohne went on to ask her colleagues to “distance X from this video,” and wrote, “we don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google.”
“We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers,” she wrote.
Telecoming and Evina Sign a Global Alliance to Enhance Security in DCB Payments
European technology companies Evina and Telecoming have signed a global alliance to work hand in hand in promoting DCB as the safest and most appropriate payment method in the new mobile economy and, in particular, for the fight against fraud.
The agreement deals a body blow to the mobile fraud that cost the African continent over USD 4 billion last year. DCB is the most suitable payment technology for millions of unbanked Africans who appreciate its unparalleled reach and convenience. The agreement between Evina and Telecoming; both with operations in 15 African, Middle Eastern and European countries; now makes mobile-based transacting even safer.
Telecoming is the leading expert in DCB since 2008 and Evina is the reference in the fight against digital fraud. With this alliance, both organizations combine their expertise to develop the industry and boost mobile payment security.
Roberto Monge, COO of Telecoming, states “Direct carrier billing has been growing in the new digital economy. It is a technology with enormous potential that benefits all players in the mobile environment. With this alliance, we want to place DCB at the forefront of the payments industry and reinforce our commitment to the development of a transparent, secure and stable mobile economy“.
David Lotfi, Evina’s CEO: “The potential of DCB is widely underestimated by mobile operators and other market players. This is mainly due to the fact that DCB is currently adversely affected by fraud. By protecting the mobile payment ecosystem, we aim to sustain DCB’s growth and help all players flourish in this ecosystem.”
The alliance aims to educate on the vast potential of direct carrier billing through the DCBMaster service that allows users to measure their exposure to fraud, as well as their market and regulations knowledge.
The alliance will also enable the launch of the first global DCB indicator. This DCB Index will measure the maturity of the DCB market in different regions, based on the analysis of four indicators: Fraud protection, Innovation, Penetration in the Digital Industry and Growth Potential.
Nigerian Fintech Appzone Raises $10M for Expansion and Proprietary Technology
Africa’s fintech space has gained proper attention over the past few years in investments but it is not news that startups still battle with offering high-quality products. However, they seem to be doing quite well compared with traditional banks that face challenges like legacy cost structures and a major lack of operational efficiency.
Appzone is a fintech software provider. It is one of the few companies that builds proprietary solutions for these financial institutions and their banking and payments services. Today, the company is announcing that it has closed $10 million in Series A investment.
Typically, African financial institutions rely on using foreign technology solutions to solve their problems. But issues around pricing, flexibility to innovate, and a lack of local tech support always come up. This is where Appzone has found its sweet spot. The company based in Lagos, Nigeria, was founded by Emeka Emetarom, Obi Emetarom, and Wale Onawunmi in 2008.
Appzone clearly plays a different game from other African fintechs. One clear differentiator is that the company functions as an enabler (at payment rails and the core infrastructure) within banking and payments.
It commenced as a services firm to provide commercial banks with custom software development services. In 2011, the company launched its first core banking product targeting microfinance institutions. The following year, Appzone launched its first product (branchless banking) for commercial banks. It went live with its mobile and internet banking service in 2016 and launched an instant card issuance product in 2017. In 2020, the company launched services catered to end-to-end automation of lending operations for banks and blockchain switching.
“We started Appzone with the intention to build out innovative local solutions for banking and payments on the continent,” CEO Obi Emetarom told TechCrunch. “The focus was to leverage our ability as an enabler to create proprietary technology for both segments.”
Appzone platforms are used by 18 commercial banks and over 450 microfinance banks in Africa. Together, they amass a yearly transaction value and yearly loan disbursement of $2 billion and $300million.
Since its inception, the Google for Startups Accelerator alumnus claims to have led Africa’s fintech sector in some global firsts from the continent. First, the company says it created the world’s first decentralised payment processing network. Second, the first core banking and omnichannel software on the cloud. Third, the first multi-bank direct debit service based on single global mandates.
Emetarom likes to describe Appzone as a fintech product ecosystem with an emphasis on proprietary technology. So far, we’ve touched on two layers of this ecosystem—the digital core banking service providing software that runs financial institutions’ entire operations and interbank processing, which integrates these institutions into a decentralized network powered by blockchain.
Coinciding with this investment is the introduction and scaling of a third layer that focuses on end-user applications. Appzone, having built both banking and fintech layers, wants to connect individuals and businesses to their services. This is where most new-age fintech startups operate, and although Appzone is coming late to the party, it has a bit of an edge, the CEO believes.
“Most of these companies operating in end-user applications have to depend on services from core banking and interbank processing to be able to get their own offerings out there. For us, I think we have an advantage in terms of costs and flexibility because we are already operating in both layers,” Emeratom said in relation to what he thinks of competition.
The company is coming out to blitz scale its products and services after working in stealth mode for more than a decade. One way it wants to carry this out will be to take its pan-African expansion sternly even though a large part of its 450 clients are based in Nigeria. Other countries with a presence include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, Tanzania, and Senegal. Before now, Appzone lacked the resources to push into these markets aggressively even though they showed promise. But having closed its Series A, the plan is to drive growth in these countries and expand across more African countries.
Another means Appzone plans to achieve scale is by growing its engineering team — a department it takes pride in. These engineers make up half of Appzone’s 150 employees and there are plans to double down on this number. Like most Nigerian startups these days, Appzone is big on senior engineers. Still, while it might present a problem to other companies, Emetarom says the company has no issue training promising junior talent to grow in expertise.
“Our proprietary tech allows us to innovate at a fraction of a cost, and they are built by essentially the best local talent available. Because those systems are really complex and the level of innovation required is on another level, we literally seek out the to 1% of talent in Nigeria,” he remarked. “We know that even though the expertise isn’t there, we can accelerate acquiring that expertise when we train the very best talents. The more we train our engineers, the faster they grow in terms of expertise, and they will be able to deliver at the same level of world-class quality we expect.“
Back to the round, a noteworthy event is that most investors who took part are based in Nigeria despite its size. CardinalStone Capital Advisers, a Lagos-based investment firm, led the Series A investment. Other investors based in the country include V8 Capital, Constant Capital, and Itanna Capital Ventures. New York-based but Africa-focused firm Lateral Investment Partners also participated.
Before now, Appzone closed a $2 million from South African Business Connexion (BCX) in 2014. Four years later, it raised $2.5 million in convertible debt and bought back shares from BCX in the process. But overall, the company says it has raised $15 million in equity funding.
Speaking on the investment, Yomi Jemibewon, the co-founder and managing director of Cardinal Stone Capital Advisers, said the firm’s investment in Appzone is further proof of Africa’s potential as the future hub of world-class technology.
“Appzone is building a disruptive fintech ecosystem that will be the backbone of Africa’s finance industry with products across payments, infrastructure and software as a service. The impact of Appzone’s work is multifold — the company’s products deepen financial inclusion across the continent whilst providing best-fit and low-cost solutions to financial institutions. Its emphasis on premium talent also helps stem brain drain, rewarding Africa’s best brains with best in class employment opportunities,” he added.
Appzone’s funding continues the fast-paced investment activities witnessed by Africa’s fintech space after a slow January. In the last two months, more than eight fintech startups have secured million-dollar rounds. This includes very large rounds by South African digital bank TymeBank ($109 million) in February and African payments company, Flutterwave ($170 million) in March.
China Fines Alibaba Record $2.8 Billion After Monopoly Probe
China slapped a record $2.8 billion fine on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. after an anti-monopoly probe found it abused its market dominance, as Beijing clamps down on its internet giants.
The 18.2 billion yuan penalty is triple the previous high of almost $1 billion that U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. had to pay in 2015, and was based on 4% of Alibaba’s 2019 domestic revenue, according to China’s antitrust watchdog. The company will also have to initiate “comprehensive rectifications,” from protecting merchants and customers to strengthening internal controls, the agency said in a statement on Saturday.
The fine — about 12% of Alibaba’s fiscal 2020 net income — helps remove some of the uncertainty that’s hung over China’s second-largest corporation. But Beijing remains intent on reining in its internet and fintech giants and is said to be scrutinizing other parts of billionaire founder Jack Ma’s empire, including Ant Group Co.’s consumer-lending businesses and Alibaba’s extensive media holdings.
Alibaba used its platform rules and technical methods like data and algorithms “to maintain and strengthen its own market power and obtain improper competitive advantage,” the State Administration for Market Regulation concluded in its investigation. The company will likely have to change a raft of practices, like merchant exclusivity, which critics say helped it become China’s largest e-commerce operation.
“The high fine puts the regulator in the media spotlight and sends a strong signal to the tech sector that such types of exclusionary conduct will no longer be tolerated,” said Angela Zhang, author of “Chinese Antitrust Exceptionalism” and director of Centre for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s a stone that kills two birds.”
Alibaba’s practice of imposing a “pick one from two” choice on merchants “shuts out and restricts competition“ in the domestic online retail market, according to the statement.
The government action sends a clear warning to the tech sector as the government scrutinizes the influence that companies like Alibaba and social media giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. wield over spheres from consumer data to mergers and acquisitions.
The investigation into Alibaba was one of the opening salvos in a campaign seemingly designed to curb the power of China’s internet leaders and their billionaire founders. The company has come under mounting pressure from authorities since Ma spoke out against China’s regulatory approach to the finance sector in October. Those comments set in motion an unprecedented regulatory offensive, including scuttling Ant Group Co.’s $35 billion initial public offering.
Alibaba said it will hold a conference call Monday morning Hong Kong time to address lingering questions around the antitrust watchdog’s decree.
“China’s record fine on Alibaba may lift the regulatory overhang that has weighed on the company since the start of an anti-monopoly probe in late December,” Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Vey-Sern Ling and Tiffany Tam said, describing the fine as a small price to pay to do away with that uncertainty.”
Still, it remains unclear whether the watchdog or other agencies might demand further action. Regulators are said for instance to be concerned about Alibaba’s ability to sway public discourse and want the company to sell some of its media assets, including the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper.
The Hangzhou-based firm will be required to implement “comprehensive rectifications,” including strengthening internal controls, upholding fair competition, and protecting businesses on its platform and consumers’ rights, the regulator said. It will need to submit reports on self-regulation to the authority for three consecutive years.
“Alibaba accepts the penalty with sincerity and will ensure its compliance with determination. To serve its responsibility to society, Alibaba will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen its compliance systems and build on growth through innovation,” the company said in a statement on Saturday.
Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang said in a memo to employees on Saturday that Alibaba always reflected and adapted when it faced challenges. He called for unity among staff, saying the company should “make self-adjustments and start over again.”
The Communist Party-run People’s Daily newspaper said in a commentary on Saturday that the punishment involves specific anti-monopoly measures regulatory authorities take to “prevent the disorderly expansion of capital.”
“It doesn’t mean denying the significant role of platform economy in overall economic and social development, and doesn’t signal a shift of attitude in terms of the country’s support to the platform economy,” the newspaper said. “Regulations are for better development, and ‘reining in’ is also a kind of love.”
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