All posts in “Europe”

Flowbox is a tool that makes it easy to build special effects

What do you get when you connect a bunch of filmmakers with a bunch of programmers? Something like Flowbox.

Flowbox, which began life as a unique object-oriented programming language for visual effects, has grown into something truly powerful in the moviemaking industry. Run by Mikołaj Valencia​, Michał Urbańczyk​, Paweł Pietraszko, and Mat Bujalski, this Polish company is currently working with a number of big studios to add VFX to huge productions.

“Flowbox is an industrial strength image processing platform incorporating many recent innovations in computer graphics field,” said Valencia. “It delivers semi-automated rotoscopy, one of the most tedious manual labor used in 25 precent of all video content processing. It allows for huge time savings.”

The team is working on adding other tools to the toolchain as well including color correction and image composition.

The system is unique in that it uses a visual interface to change the video. It also supports distributed computing which speeds up the compositing system immensely.

The idea was born in 2010 as a reaction to the poor tools available to filmmakers at the time.

“The idea for the Flowbox project was initiated in 2010 by Wojciech Daniło, by this time as Senior Technical Director at Alvernia Studios (the most modern film studio in Poland),” said Valencia. “His job was to design and create solutions for visual effects for international productions like Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Vamps of Sigourney Weaver. That’s when he discovered the problems faced by his associates and how limited and inflexible the leading tools were.”

The company has raised $1 million so far including an infusion from Innovation Nest.

The app’s high-tech approach to rotoscoping could be just the thing filmmakers need to unlock the true potential of their already powerful tools.

Karma raises $12M to let restaurants and grocery stores offer unsold food at a discount

Karma, the Stockholm-based startup that offers a marketplace to let local restaurants and grocery offer unsold food at a discount, has raised $12 million in Series A funding.

Swedish investment firm Kinnevik led the round, with participation from U.S. venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, appliance manufacturer Electrolux, and previous backer VC firm e.ventures. It brings total funding to $18 million.

Founded in late 2015 by Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, Ludvig Berling, Mattis Larsson and Elsa Bernadotte, and launched the following year, Karma is an app-based marketplace that helps restaurants and grocery stores reduce food waste by selling unsold food at a discount direct to consumers.

You simply register your location with the iOS or Android app and can browse various food merchants and the food items/dishes they have put on sale. Once you find an item to your liking, you pay through the Karma app and pick up the food before closing time. You can also follow your favourite establishments and be alerted when new food is listed each day.

“One third of of all food produced is wasted,” Karma CEO Ståhlberg Nordegren tells me. “We’re reducing food waste by enabling restaurants and grocery stores to sell their surplus food through our app… Consumers like you and me can then buy the food directly through the app and pick it up as take away at the location. We’re helping the seller reduce food waste and increase revenue, consumers get great food at a reduced price, and we help the environment redistributing food instead of wasting it”.

Since Karma’s original launch in its home country of Sweden, the startup has expanded to work with over 1,500 restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, cafes and bakeries to help reduce food waste by selling surplus food to 350,000 Karma users. It counts three of Sweden’s largest supermarkets as marketplace partners, as well as premium restaurants such as Ruta Baga and Marcus Samuelsson’s Kitchen & Table, and major brands such as Sodexo, Radisson and Scandic Hotels.

In February, the company expanded to the U.K., and is already working with over 400 restaurants in London. They include brands such as Aubaine, Polpo, Caravan, K10, Taylor St Barista’s, Ned’s Noodle Bar, and Detox Kitchen.

Ståhlberg Nordegren says Karma’s most frequent users are young professionals between the age of 25-40, who typically work in the city and pick up Karma on their way home. “Students and the elderly also love the app as it’s a great way to discover really good food for less,” he adds.

Meanwhile, will use the funding to continue to develop its product range, especially within supermarkets, and to expand to new markets, starting with Europe. The company plans to expand from 35 people based in Stockholm today to over 100 across 5 markets by the end of next year and over 150 by mid 2020.

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Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Femtech hardware startup Elvie inks strategic partnership with UK’s NHS

Elvie, a femtech hardware startup whose first product is a sleek smart pelvic floor exerciser, has inked a strategic partnership with the UK’s National Health Service that will make the device available nationwide through the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare service so at no direct cost to the patient.

It’s a major win for the startup that was co-founded in 2013 by CEO Tania Boler and Jawbone founder, Alexander Asseily, with the aim of building smart technology that focuses on women’s issues — an overlooked and underserved category in the gadget space.

Boler’s background before starting Elvie (née Chiaro) including working for the U.N. on global sex education curriculums. But her interest in pelvic floor health, and the inspiration for starting Elvie, began after she had a baby herself and found there was more support for women in France than the U.K. when it came to taking care of their bodies after giving birth.

With the NHS partnership, which is the startup’s first national reimbursement partnership (and therefore, as a spokeswoman puts it, has “the potential to be transformative” for the still young company), Elvie is emphasizing the opportunity for its connected tech to help reduce symptoms of urinary incontinence, including those suffered by new mums or in cases of stress-related urinary incontinence.

The Elvie kegel trainer is designed to make pelvic floor exercising fun and easy for women, with real-time feedback delivered via an app that also gamifies the activity, guiding users through exercises intended to strengthen their pelvic floor and thus help reduce urinary incontinence symptoms. The device can also alert users when they are contracting incorrectly.

Elvie cites research suggesting the NHS spends £233M annually on incontinence, claiming also that around a third of women and up to 70% of expectant and new mums currently suffer from urinary incontinence. In 70 per cent of stress urinary incontinence cases it suggests symptoms can be reduced or eliminated via pelvic floor muscle training.

And while there’s no absolute need for any device to perform the necessary muscle contractions to strengthen the pelvic floor, the challenge the Elvie Trainer is intended to help with is it can be difficult for women to know they are performing the exercises correctly or effectively.

Elvie cites a 2004 study that suggests around a third of women can’t exercise their pelvic floor correctly with written or verbal instruction alone. Whereas it says that biofeedback devices (generally, rather than the Elvie Trainer specifically) have been proven to increase success rates of pelvic floor training programmes by 10% — which it says other studies have suggested can lower surgery rates by 50% and reduce treatment costs by £424 per patient head within the first year.

“Until now, biofeedback pelvic floor training devices have only been available through the NHS for at-home use on loan from the patient’s hospital, with patient allocation dependent upon demand. Elvie Trainer will be the first at-home biofeedback device available on the NHS for patients to keep, which will support long-term motivation,” it adds.

Commenting in a statement, Clare Pacey, a specialist women’s health physiotherapist at Kings College Hospital, said: “I am delighted that Elvie Trainer is now available via the NHS. Apart from the fact that it is a sleek, discreet and beautiful product, the app is simple to use and immediate visual feedback directly to your phone screen can be extremely rewarding and motivating. It helps to make pelvic floor rehabilitation fun, which is essential in order to be maintained.”

Elvie is not disclosing commercial details of the NHS partnership but a spokeswoman told us the main objective for this strategic partnership is to broaden access to Elvie Trainer, adding: “The wholesale pricing reflects that.”

Discussing the structure of the supply arrangement, she said Elvie is working with Eurosurgical as its delivery partner — a distributor she said has “decades of experience supplying products to the NHS”.

“The approach will vary by Trust, regarding whether a unit is ordered for a particular patient or whether a small stock will be held so a unit may be provided to a patient within the session in which the need is established. This process will be monitored and reviewed to determine the most efficient and economic distribution method for the NHS Supply Chain,” she added.

SenSat, a UK startup that uses visual and spatial data to ‘simulate reality’, picks up $4.5M seed

SenSat, a U.K. startup aiming to use visual and spatial data to “simulate reality” and help computers better understand the physical world, has raised $4.5 million in seed funding — cash it will use to further develop the technology, and invest in its San Francisco office. The round was backed by Force Over Mass, Round Hill Venture Partners, and Zag (the venture arm of global creative agency BBH).

Launched in 2017 by founders James Dean (CEO) and Harry Atkinson (Head of Product), SenSat turns complex visual and spatial data into what is described as “real-time simulated reality” designed to enable computers to solve real world problems.

The idea is to let companies operating in physical domains — starting with the infrastructure construction industry — use AI to help make better informed decisions based on multiple variables, which are large in number and complexity.

But to do this, first the real world needs to be simulated and those simulations injected with data that computers can understand and interact with. And that starts with using new technology to photograph the real world at a level of detail that goes beyond satellite imagery.

“My background is in satellite remote sensing, the science of understanding an object without coming into contact with it,” SenSat CEO Dean tells me. “This actually gave me the initial idea, ‘if everything we do from satellites can be done 200 miles closer using autonomous drones, then the resolution of the corresponding information must be commercially valuable’”.

Dean says the tech that SenSat has since developed is making it possible for computers to understand the real world through the lens of highly detailed simulated realities in order to “learn how things work and to change the way we make decisions”. The company does this by creating digital replicas of real world locations, then infusing real-time spatial data-sets with a high degree of statistical accuracy from both open and proprietary data sources.

“The resulting simulations are realistic and fully digital, allowing large-scale machine learning and data analysis at an unprecedented scale,” he says.

But why has SenSat chosen to initially target infrastructure construction? “On a technical level it allows us to build simulated realities for medium to small physical areas which we have known variables for,” explains Dean. “This means we can check and quantify our results against the real world, helping us build a foundation that can scale in size and complexity… Construction, whilst remaining a fundamental pillar of world economies, is the second least innovative sector on the planet (beaten only by hunting and fishing). As a sector it has seen a zero percent productivity increase since 1970, meaning there are lots of low hanging fruit opportunities for automation”.

In addition, the time and cost for the design phases of large civil infrastructure construction projects can be up to 40 percent of the entire asset value. Because SenSat digitally re-creates the world and teaches its AI to understand it, the startup can automate many manual design tasks.

For example, Dean says that when building a new railway, it might be stipulated that the track can only have a 5 degree gradient, gantries must be placed every 100 metres and tracks must be laid 1.4 metres apart. Traditionally this would take engineers months to painstakingly measure over large distances, hypothesise and test, but SenSat’s AI can run thousands of options, following the exact same design rules, in a matter of minutes. The startup can then produce a fully validated best option design, often representing millions of dollars in savings.

Meanwhile, beyond infrastructure construction, the startup has a number of research streams looking at how else its technology could evolve and be applied. One area being explored is how autonomous vehicles might use the platform to run millions of hours of driverless simulation.

“Our simulated reality replicates exactly what is happening in the real world, and as such it becomes a sensible place to trial developing technologies within ‘real world’ environments, helping the reinforcement learning feedback loop by providing access to real world scenarios,” adds Dean.

“Based on the world’s highest resolution digital representations, including furniture such as street lamps, lane markings and signage, we can simulate millions of hours of driving in real world conditions to train autonomous agents and prove safety use cases. This will be an important step in convincing regulators to transition to free flow AVs on our streets, especially as the technology begins to reach level 4 autonomy and the integration problem becomes the halting factor”.