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May 23, 2019
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OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

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OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance”, OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications, and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions, or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar. Image via OpenFin

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now President & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. Openfin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including over 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors, and 15 out of the world’s 20 largest banks.

Over 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

SimbaPay launches Kenya to China payment service via WeChat

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Forging another link between Africa and China’s digital economies, the African-focused money transfer startup SimbaPay and Kenya’s Family Bank are partnering with WeChat to launch an instant payment service from East-Africa to China.

The product partnership is aimed at Kenyan merchants who purchase goods from China—Kenya’s largest import source.

Using QR codes, SimbaPay developed a third-party payment aggregator that enables funds delivery into WeChat’s billion plus user network.

Individuals and businesses can now send funds to China through Family Bank’s PesaPap app, Safaricom’s M-Pesa, or by texting USSD using the code *325#.

The service opens up a faster and less expensive money transfer option between Kenya and China through the TenCent-owned WeChat social media platform.

“Kenya imports about $4 billion goods from China. That’s the total market that we’re getting into. We’re looking at a single digit market share of the transactional volume around that,” SimbaPay Founder and CEO Sagini Onyancha told TechCrunch.

“The users [of the new product] are primary small Kenyan businesses, that import phones, gadgets, electronics…small to medium size traders who import goods from China,” he said.

SimbaPay and Family Bank will generate revenues on the WeChat based transfer service through a fee share arrangement on transactions. “We have a sliding scale of charges [for the service]. For example, to send the equivalent of $80 will cost $3.50,” said Sagini.

This presents a significant reduction of fees and opportunity cost for Kenyan traders who import from China, according to Sagini and Family Bank.

Current available payment methods to China for Kenyan businesses are less secure and more expensive options such as traditional money transmitters (Western Union), SWIFT, and off the grid services, according to Sagini and Family Bank Chief Operation Officer (COO) Godfrey Kariuki Kamau.

“There are informal channels on the street who will take your money, get it paid out to the recipient [in China] one or two days later and take a percentage,” said Sagini.

SimbaPay and Family Bank estimate over seven million customers and businesses will be able to access their China WeChat payment service, based on projections of Kenya’s current SMEs.

Located in Nairobi, Family Bank has a current customer base of 600,000 account holders (including SMEs) across 92 branches, according to COO Kariuki Kamau.

Prior to the SimbaPay-Family Bank China service, he said a number of Family Bank’s small business customers “were taking cash from our counters and pooling with…informal transmitters” to pay Chinese vendors.

Kariuki Kamau estimates the immediate transactional potential for the new SimbaPay WeChat based service will be $1 million in the first three months.

“The businesses in Kenya import over $4 billion from China, so this could be conservative. We could see this grow 4 to 5 times beyond that when people hear they can send money directly,” said Kariuki Kamau.

On regulation of this new service, he confirmed “Family Bank got the approval of the [Kenyan] Central Bank for SimbaPay to move in the market and…we confirmed with the UK financial regulators that SimbaPay is allowed to do this business.

Headquarted in London, SimbaPay launched in 2015 to facilitate more cost effective and efficient transfer of funds across Africa. The platform works as a gateway payment product “for banks and mobile money providers to offer their customers without having to make any major technical integration” to send funds across Africa’s borders, explained Sagini.

“We’ve created the platform in such a way that we’re able to provide this service like a SaaS B2B service to banks and telcos…and our service is available without internet access,” Sagini said—noting the platform’s USSD capabilities.

The startup has focused more on capturing intra-Africa and out-of-Africa payments volumes, compared to a number of fintech companies with an eye on the multi-billion dollar remittance market for funds sent to Africa from regions such as Europe and North America.

SimbaPay transfers funds to 11 countries—9 in Africa then to China and India. “Early next year we’ll increase this to 29 countries,” said Sagini. This includes offering the WeChat China payment service elsewhere in East Africa.

SimbaPay has raised $1 million in seed funds from TechStars, Barclays Accelerator, and local angel investors, according its CEO.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Investors like Walmart and Microsoft back Team8’s cybersecurity venture studio with $85 million

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The Israeli cybersecurity venture studio Team8 has raised $85 million in new financing from a clutch of new and returning strategic investors including Walmart, Airbus, SoftBank, and Microsoft’s investment arm, M-12.

The studio’s plans to raise a larger fund were first reported by PEHub in May.

Team8 has long believed that by combining the strengths and security interests of strategic corporate partners it could develop better cybersecurity solutions (or companies) that would be attractive to its investors and clients.

Indeed, that was the thesis behind the $23 million that Team8 raised in 2016 when it was still proving out the model.

The company’s previous rounds of funding managed to bring Cisco Investments, Bessemer Venture Partners, Innovation Endeavors and Alcatel-Lucent into the fold. Now banks like Scotiabank and Barclays, ratings agencies like Moody’s, and insurers like Munich Re are coming on board to add their voices to the chorus of wants and needs that keep the crack cybersecurity experts from Team8 churning out new companies.

This model, of partnering with the corporate clients who will become the customers of the startups that Team8 creates isn’t confined to the security industry, but it’s where the idea has already created successful outcomes for all parties.

Earlier this month, Temasek (also a Team8 investor) acquired Sygnia, a company from the venture studio’s portfolio that had only emerged from stealth a year ago, for $250 million.

As we’d written at the time, Sygnia was typical of a Team8 investment. The company had only secured $4.3 million in funding and it was staffed by elite security specialists from Israel. Shachar Levy (who was the chief executive), Ariel Smoler, Arick Goomanovsky and Ami Kor, with its chairman Nadav Zafrir, the co-founder and CEO of Team8 and a former commander of Unit 8200.

Zafrir and Sachar are both full-time members of Team8 along with Israel Grimberg, Liran Grinberg, Assaf Mischari, a former technology leader in Unit 8200, and Lluís Pedragosa, former partner at Marker LLC.

The Tel Aviv-based company has invested in four companies that are currently selling their wares on the open market and has another four that are still operating in stealth mode. IN all, the group has raised $260 million to date, and employs 370 people around the world.

What is seemingly unprecedented is the level of cooperation among organizations with the Team8 organizations to identify threats and develop technologies that can respond to them.

According to a statement announcing the fund’s launch, companies investing into Team8 will be required to contribute insights from their Chief Information, Technology, Data and Security Officer to identify problems, develop solutions, and work on sales and marketing services for these new businesses.

“Rogue states, hackers, terrorists and criminals are intent on wreaking physical, financial and societal havoc and catastrophic damage on governments, corporations and individuals,” said Eric Schmidt, Founding Partner of Innovation Endeavors, a lead investor in Team8, in a statement. “As data continues to proliferate and our technical capabilities expand, cyber attacks and wars will increase in number and intensity.”

Vector of Internet Security Systems

Team8 investors are required to nominate a “senior champion” from their business unit in addition to the corporate venture capital or corporate development team, to guide the partnership and provide executive mindshare for the mutual work together.

As shared owners in Team8 companies, these investors are deeply invested in ensuring only the best ideas, technologies and companies are created. Besides meeting in person and as a group throughout the development process of new companies, strategic investors bring their chief executives to Israel as well as host Team8 and its portfolio companies for workshops at their headquarters for continuous knowledge-sharing and strategy building, according to a Team8 spokesperson.

And the company will be expanding its focus beyond just cyberdefense thanks to its latest funding and its new partners.

“Going forward, we will continue to focus on the enterprise, but not necessarily just defense,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “The indirect impact of cyber on the enterprises are the missed opportunities to experiment, integrate and onboard new technologies because of security, compliance and fear of exposure. We’re currently working on zero-trust networks for multi-cloud environments, secure on-ramping of blockchain, safe collaboration on sensitive data; and rethinking how machine learning can significantly impact the business. These are designed with built in security, data science, and intelligence, to allow companies to prosper and not be inhibited by security controls.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

How a Ugandan Prince and a Crypto startup are planning an African revolution

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Crypto and blockchain enthusiasts have been railing for years against the centralized world of banks, but many have been doing so from the privileged vantage point of developed countries. But what if blockchain technology turned out to be most revolutionary in emerging economies?

Take Africa for instance. Consumers in those countries became so frustrated with the banking fees imposed on their transactions every time the wanted to merely top up their mobile airtime, that airtime minutes alone actually became a form of money. Banking in the way it’s been developed for the developed world simply does not work when a transaction to top up a phone can cost more than the airtime itself.

South African-based startup Wala realised this early on. It had developed a smartphone app which acted like a wallet, facilitating customer transactions via the app with existing banking infrastructure. But the high banking fees for nearly every function was hurting Wala’s customer base and the company’s early business model as a mobile wallet for the smartphone generation.

They needed a Zero-fee solution, but the existing financial system just didn’t work. That’s when they realized they could switch to a cryptocurrency and allow payments across a peer-to-peer network for merchants, offering airtime, data, electricity bills – even the ability to pay school fees.

Today Wala, which raised $1.2 million selling ethereum-based “$DALA” tokens in an initial coin offering (ICO) in December last year, is facilitating thousands of transactions in daily accounts across Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with most of those are micropayments under $1.

Since the launch of their $DALA currency in May 2018 (currently accessible through the Wala mobile application) over 100,000 $DALA wallets have been opened and over 2.5 million $DALA transactions have been processed, says the company. The multi-chain crypto asset – at least right now – uses Ether for the wallet and Stellar for transactions, though it is not locked to any one platform.

Through $DALA protocols (Kopa, Soko and Kazi), consumers have access to borderless, low cost, efficient, and unique financial services enabling them to earn, save, borrow, and transact in a new, decentralized, financial system.

But Wala does not plan to stop there.

Today, Dala, announces it has partnered with a  gigawatt-scale solar program for Uganda to create a blockchain-enabled clean energy economy.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

Long-time energy company CleanPath Emerging Markets Uganda (CPEM) is partnering with the Ugandan Government and the Ugandan Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development on the project which will mean Ugandans are able to buy solar energy using $DALA from this massive new infrastructure project.

CPEM will use the DALA blockchain platform to manage its ledger, its vendor contracts, and its partner commitments. The company has over 11,000 MWs of renewable energy experience already under its belt.

The $1.5 billion program aims to create a new clean energy economy in Uganda, not only creating employment and kick-starting a clean energy economy but new economic development in Uganda. Ugandan consumers will be able to buy solar power in $DALA, workers to be paid in $DALA and the program will even run on $DALA.  

Tricia Martinez, Wala cofounder and CEO, told me at the recent Pathfounder event in Oslo: “The numbers we’ve seen since the launch of $DALA have been staggering, and a large portion of our current users are Ugandan, so this partnership is a natural next step to allow users the opportunity to further benefit from using $DALA. The high level of user traffic also shows us that Ugandans are ready to use crypto assets in their day-to-day transactions.”

But the story wouldn’t have come about without an enlightened African Prince who could have stepped straight out of the mythical kingdom of Wakanda, as featured in the recent smash hit Black Panther movie.

For the founder of CPEM is Prince Kudra Kalema of the Bugandan Kingdom (a Ugandan royal family), whose ancestry goes back to at least the 14th Century. Buganda is now a kingdom monarchy with a large degree of autonomy from the Ugandan state.

“We’re truly excited about this program and our partnership with Dala”, says Prince Kudra Kalema of the Buganda Kingdom, who is also Managing Partner and Co-Founder at CP-EM. “By providing Ugandans with an opportunity to access clean energy through $DALA, we’re fostering a more inclusive decentralized financial system not possible with legacy technologies.”

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Prince Kalema told me: “My family considers itself to be the custodian of the land, and I have been searching for about a decade to find solutions that would improve the country. But what could we work on when people couldn’t even switch their lights on?”

It became obvious to him that the biggest issue was affordable electricity. And to do it in a renewable way, and it had to be solar. Microgrids turned out not to be the solution. And it had to be at scale.

But the question is, why did he hit on cryptocurrency?

“We began using the $DALA protocol because it became very clear that the financial structure in Uganda was not adequate. It was clear we needed something. There is no way the Uganda Shilling is stable enough for the type of programme we are doing. Wala was already invested in the same country and wasn’t just about the idea of a running a crypto coin in an emerging market, but was also about creating the best type of financial institutions for the country. That goes hand in hand with what we are doing. It became a no-brainer.”

“Ugandans are saying that what we have right now does not work.” — Prince Kudra Kalema

He says the $DALA crypto combined with his solar project will be much easier to run in Uganda than in countries like the US: “Over 80% of Ugandans are under 35, and very well educated. I don’t like the term leap-frogging, but this is what this is. They don’t have to unlearn anything that was there before. They are eager to figure out and learn about a solution that will help them. When you look at how quickly mobile money was adopted by Ugandans — it became powerful not because it was imposed but because people yearned for it. Ugandans are saying that what we have right now does not work. The banking transaction fees, the cost of remittances… — it’s difficult for them to be enthusiastic about something they know doesn’t work already.”

Uganda continues to be a market hungry to adopt new technology, and the recent announcement that Binance is launching a fiat to crypto exchange in the country is a recent example of this.

He added: “Uganda has always been at the forefront of these types of things. Even before we were a protectorate of the British Empire, Uganda was part of the region where people would travel to find out how to deal with things in Africa. We had an intricate tribal system. The British didn’t invade, they made it a protectorate because of this.”

The details of the plan are ambitious. Prince Kalema’s CPEM plans to create a gigawatt-scale solar power development program in Uganda providing clean energy to 25% of the population and creating 200,000 new jobs in the clean energy economy. 

The program would more than double the current electricity generation capacity in Uganda (equivalent of about 2 average US coal power plants) where 75% of the UG population has no access to energy.

By using $DALA Ugandans will be able to consume energy at zero transaction fees, use it for everyday purchases, and also convert it back to fiat Ugandan currency via agents/merchants and cryptocurrency exchanges.

It will even allow CPEM and the government of Uganda to make grants of free power available to the poorest, while keeping a completely auditable and tamper-proof record of these grants. 

The story of how a small startup came to take African markets by storm begins in 2014.

Initially backed by angel investor and a social-impact VC (Impact Engine) in the US, Tricia Martinez’s Wala (pictured above) joined the Barclays Techstars Accelerator in London in 2016. It later set up shop in Cape Town, South Africa and started growing its team (it’s now at a total of 12 staff).

Not long after, South African VC Newtown Partners invested and Wala then issued the $DALA crypto-asset and set up the Dala foundation. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Newtown is headed-up by Vinny Linghams (of the well-known Civic and ethereum-based, project).

Martinez is passionate that cryptocurrency is going to be the solution emerging markets like Africa have wanted and needed for years: “The fact that the unit of account and store of value for this program is $DALA proves its utility and shows its potential to become a preferred financial system across emerging markets. We’re excited to be involved from the ground-level and look forward to playing our part in creating a just and accessible financial system for consumers.”

She says both the Prince and the Ugandan government “needed a partner that can help drive the financial inclusion to get them into a more efficient digital system. That’s when they heard about us. When we started talking we both saw the opportunity to actually build an entire ecosystem built on a crypto asset.”

“So it’s not just that consumers are buying that energy cryptocurrency, but the workers who are building our energy grids will get paid in it. So they’ve become very passionate about blockchain especially from the energy perspective, to create transparency. Working with the government to create more accountable records of what they’re building out could even reduce the potential for corruption.”

As Martinez points out: “In the hands of over 100,000 users in Uganda, already people are purchasing their electricity needs, products and services. The goal with this project is for people who are getting the energy to be able to then tap into all these other services that we offer. We’re also going to be launching cashing agents so that people can go to those mobile money agents around the corner to cash in and cash out to their wallet.”

It’s clearly a big project. Some observers will see the words ‘Uganda and Cryptocurrency’ in the same sentence and no doubt come out with some kind of trite, dismissive, assessment.

But Wala’s experience on the ground — and it cannot be emphasized enough how important that is, compared to the armchair commentators at most blockchain conferences in the Western world — combined with the hunger of an emerging nation, a passionate Prince and the ingenuity of its people should not be underestimated.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The Amazonization of Whole Foods, one year in

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Amazon promised to breathe new tech into the relationship with Whole Foods after putting a $13.7 billion ring on it one year ago. So how did that promise shake out?

At the time, Amazon said the goal was to make “high-quality, natural and organic food affordable for everyone.” Bananas, avocados and even tilapia was going to be cheaper than before. Prime members would receive increased benefits with discount rewards and Amazon drones would be delivering packages right to your door.

Okay, that last bit was not promised — though we’re not the first to speculate on that possibility in the future.

A bunch of other Amazon offerings involving delivery options were also mentioned, including the getting of Whole Food groceries through a then new Amazon Fresh grocery delivery program and Whole Foods private label products would be made available through Prime Now and Prime Pantry. Further, Amazon lockers would be showing up at select stores to make pick ups and returns easier for Amazon customers. And, of course, new jobs would be created to handle all the new infusion of technology.

Soon customers started to see Amazon Echo devices popping up in stores, urging people to install them in their home for easier grocery ordering through voice command. Echo dots lined the walls and could be found surrounded by produce. Amazon promised to deliver more devices to try in-store ahead of purchase as time went on.

Since the launch, “customers have already saved hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey. “So whether it’s better prices on your weekly shop, saving time through delivery from Prime Now or taking advantage of incredible weekly deals for Prime members, the overall customer experience is richer and more seamless than it’s ever been,” he continued.

I’m not sure the average customer would see the experience as “richer and more seamless” but the changes are noticeable. Walking into my local Whole Foods, the Amazon branding is everywhere from the deep orange lockers off to the side, the large, green Amazon Fresh coolers greeting me at the entrance to the parking lot and rows of bags ready for pickup and delivery via Amazon workers.

A large “Prime Member Deal” sign hangs down from the ceiling, greeting me at the front of the store. Beyond, there’s the produce, once fresh and free of rot with all organic labeling. Now? It’s unclear. I used to argue the “whole paycheck” prices were worth it for the better quality produce. Lately, I’ve had to throw a bunch of stuff out because it just doesn’t last as long or look as good. Not everything is organic.

Other shoppers have noticed the same dip in quality across the U.S., along with missing products or a lot of out of stock items they’d been buying for years at their grocery store.

It’s been called the “conventionalization” of Whole Foods by Wall Street investment bank Barclays, which also noted there had been some comments from Mackey about cultural “clashes” during his appearance at the American Production and Inventory Control society’s annual conference.

On the flip, Amazon has managed to add some nifty integrations for Prime members including club member style sales prices and five percent cash back for those purchasing groceries with their Prime Visa card. You want to do one better, just download the Amazon app to your smartphone, use the code given and then purchase with Apple pay using your Amazon Prime credit card for maximum benefits. Of course, that’s only for those all in with the system.

Adding to that, there’s the super fast two-hour delivery option (in 20 cities for now, with more to come this year, according to Amazon) and grocery pickup so you don’t even have to wander through the store to get everything you need (although, I am one of those who likes picking out my own produce and wandering through the store sometimes),

I’ve also enjoyed using the integrated partnership to order Whole Foods items straight from my Amazon Fresh account (a lifesaver in those early days of postpartum when it was impossible to get out of the house). Before the integration I could use Instacart but had to order from each store separately in different orders. With Amazon, I can order from various stores, including Whole Foods through my Amazon Fresh account all in one order and then choose a time for delivery.

There’s still some bumps with that process — you can’t order every item available in Whole Foods, just what Fresh offers that week through the Amazon platform. The bags are also large and often don’t fill up to their full potential, leaving a lot of waste. But that’s like complaining you can’t get good WiFi on an airplane. It’s frustrating but you are flying through the sky and messaging people on the ground. Similar, you are ordering food through the air waves and it shows up at your door step. In the grand scheme, it’s amazing!

Anyway, yes, there are more conveniences for Amazon Prime members and further integrations with technology to make the shopping experience easier. It does also seem Amazon has hired more workers to fulfill the needs this technology creates. At my own market it seems tough to tell who is an Amazon worker rummaging through the aisles for listed items and who’s just shopping for themselves these days.

Is the marriage working? Tough to tell at this point. Those promised changes may seem exciting for both parties but between disappointed shoppers and a “clash” in culture it may not have been what Whole Foods faithful wanted. Still, at least some vendors have said they’ve seen an increase in sales and volume of products sold since the acquisition, despite the drop in prices. And Mackey, comparing his love for his wife with the relationship said in a recent interview “I don’t love absolutely everything about my wife, either, but on balance I love, like, 98%. That’s a pretty good ratio, based on my previous relationships.”

It might not even matter what loyal Whole Foods customers think. The acquisition gives Amazon an opportunity to introduce its 100 million Prime members to the grocery store it envisions — one that could drop organic, fossil fuel free groceries via drone at their doorstep in the future.

While it’s hard to know how the partnership has impacted Amazon’s bottom line overall, we do know sales going up and to the right is a good thing. We still need to see how this relationship performs over time but one year in looks promising.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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