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February 23, 2019
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On-demand logistics startup Lalamove raises $300M for Asia growth and becomes a unicorn

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Lalamove, a Hong Kong-based on-demand logistics startup, has closed a $300 million Series D round as it seeks expansion across Asia. In doing so, the company has officially entered the unicorn club.

Founded in 2013 by Stanford graduate Shing Chow, Lalamove provides logistics and delivery services in a similar style to ride-hailing apps like Uber but it is primarily focused on business and corporate customers. That gives it more favorable economics and a more loyal customer base than its consumer-focused peers, who face discount wars to woo fickle consumers.

This new round is split into two, Lalamove said, with Hillhouse Capital leading the ‘D1’ tranche and Sequoia China heading up the ‘D2’ portion. The company didn’t reveal the size of the two pieces of the round. Other investors that took part included new backers Eastern Bell Venture Capital and PV Capital and returning investors ShunWei Capital — the firm founded by Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun — Xiang He Capital and MindWorks Ventures .

The deal takes Lalamove to over $460 million raised to date, and it follows a $100 million Series C that closed in late 2017. Lalamove isn’t disclosing a valuation but Blake Larson, the company’s head of international, told TechCrunch that it has been “past unicorn mark for quite some time [but] we just don’t talk about it.” That figures given the size of the round and the fact that Lalamove was just shy of the $1 billion mark for that Series C.

The Lalamove business is anchored in China where it covers over 130 cities with a network of over two million drivers covering vans, cars and motorbikes.

Beyond China, Lalamove is present in its native Hong Kong — where Uber once briefly tried a similar service — Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, where it works with popular chat app Line. All told, it covers 11 cities outside of China and this new capital will go towards expanding that figure with additional city launches in Southeast Asia and entry to India.

“If we do this well, then we are in countries that are more than half the world’s population,” Larsen said in an interview, although he didn’t rule out the potential for Lalamove to expand beyond Asia in the future.

There are also plans to grow the business in mainland China in terms of both geography and new services. Already, Lalamove has begun to offer driver services, starting with financing packages to help drivers with vehicle purchasing, and it is developing dedicated corporate offerings, too.

Lalamove CEO Shing Chow started Lalamove in late 2013, his past roles have included time with Bain & Company, a number of startup ventures — including a Hong Kong-based skin center — and a stint as a professional poker player

Overall, the business claims to have registered 3 million drivers to date and served more than 28 million users across all cities. With its headquarters in Hong Kong, it employs some 4,000 people across its business.

Rival GoGoVan exited through a merger with China-based 58 Suyun in 2017, at a claimed valuation of $1 billion, but Lalamove has remained independent and stuck to its guns. Larson said that already it is profitable in “a significant amount” of cities and typically, he said, the blueprint is to reach profitability within two years of opening a new location.

“The focus has always been on sustainable growth and we’re very strong on the cash flow front,” the former Rocket Internet executive added.

Larson and Lalamove have been very forthcoming in their desire to go public in Hong Kong, noting so publicly as early as 2017 at a TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen. That desire is still evident — “we’re very proud to be from Hong Kong and Hong Kong would be a good place for an IPO,” Larson said this week — but still the company said that it has no particular plan on the cards, despite its consumer-focused peers Uber and Lyft lining up IPOs in the U.S. this year.

“We don’t spend maybe even five minutes a year talking about it,” Larsen told TechCrunch. “The discussion is really ‘Let’s make sure we’re IPO ready’ because sometimes there are macroeconomic conditions you can’t control.”

Clearly, investors are bullish and it is notable that Lalamove’s new round comes at a time when many Chinese companies are downsizing their staff, with the likes of Didi, Meituan and JD.com announcing cuts and refocusing strategies in recent weeks.

“[Lalamove CEO and founder] Shing is a role model for Hong Kong’s new generation of innovative entrepreneurs,” said Sequoia China founder and managing partner Neil Shen. “Raised in Hong Kong and educated at Stanford University, Shing returned and plunged himself in the entrepreneurial wave of ‘Internet Plus,’ becoming a figure of entrepreneurial success.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

‘There’s no way the US can crush us,’ Huawei founder claims

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Huawei’s founder has come out fighting against the U.S. government after he claimed that “there’s no way the US can crush us.”

Ren Zhengfei, who founded the telecom company in 1987, doesn’t often make public statements, but, in a rare interview with the BBC, he defiantly claimed that Huawei’s business is growing stronger amid pressure from the U.S. government, which is pursuing criminal charges over alleged business dealings in Iran. Under those charges, CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested during a trip to Canada.

“The world needs Huawei because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we could just scale things down a little bit,” Ren told the BBC via a translator. “Because the U.S. keeps targeting us and finding fault with us, it has forced us to improve our products and services.”

Ren called the arrest of Meng — his daughter, who may be extradited to the U.S. — a “politically-motivated act [that] is not acceptable.”

“There’s no impact on Huawei’s business due to Meng Wanzhou’s loss of freedom, in fact, we are growing even faster,” he said. “They may have thought that if they’ve arrested her, Huawei would fall but we didn’t fall. We are still moving forward.”

In a rare interview, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei spoke to the BBC about pressure from the US government and the arrest of his daughter, the company’s CEO, in Canada

Legislation bans the government and contractors from using Huawei kit — which includes a range networking equipment and infrastructure tech as well as smartphones — but the U.S. has also sought to convince its international allies to follow suit. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have done so, the latter banned ZTE and Huawei equipment in December, while espionage heads from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. — fellow Five Eyes members — were said to have agreed to do so, too, at the end of 2018.

However, just this week, Huawei won a reprieve in the U.K. this week when the Financial Times reported that British intelligence chiefs believe that concerns around spying — the U.S. has accused Huawei of acting as a proxy to Beijing — can be managed. That could leave U.K. operators free to move ahead and work with the Chinese company to build out their 5G networks.

That apparent vote of confidence, which is in stark contrast to the U.S. position, could see Huawei double down on its efforts and presence in the U.K.

“We will continue to invest in the U.K, we still trust in the U.K. and we hope that the U.K. will trust us even more. We will invest even more in the U.K. because, if the U.S. doesn’t trust us, then we will shift our investment from the U.S. to the U.K. on an even bigger scale,” Ren told the BBC.

The U.K’s about-turn is something of a surprise. Pressure from the U.S. saw Vodafone pause purchases from Huawei while a government panel report published last year could “provide only limited assurance that any risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks have been sufficiently mitigated.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

UK parliament calls for antitrust, data abuse probe of Facebook

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A final report by a British parliamentary committee which spent months last year investigating online political disinformation makes very uncomfortable reading for Facebook — with the company singled out for “disingenuous” and “bad faith” responses to democratic concerns about the misuse of people’s data.

In the report, published today, the committee has also called for Facebook’s use of user data to be investigated by the UK’s data watchdog.

In an evidence session to the committee late last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) suggested Facebook needs to change its business model — warning the company risks burning user trust for good.

Last summer the ICO also called for an ethical pause of social media ads for election campaigning, warning of the risk of developing “a system of voter surveillance by default”.

Interrogating the distribution of ‘fake news’

The UK parliamentary enquiry looked into both Facebook’s own use of personal data to further its business interests, such as by providing access to user data to developers and advertisers in order to increase revenue and/or usage; and examined what Facebook claimed as ‘abuse’ of its platform by the disgraced (and now defunct) political data company Cambridge Analytica — which in 2014 paid a developer with access to Facebook’s developer platform to extract information on millions of Facebook users in build voter profiles to try to influence elections.

The committee’s conclusion about Facebook’s business is a damning one with the company accused of operating a business model that’s predicated on selling abusive access to people’s data.

Far from Facebook acting against “sketchy” or “abusive” apps, of which action it has produced no evidence at all, it, in fact, worked with such apps as an intrinsic part of its business model,” the committee argues. This explains why it recruited the people who created them, such as Joseph Chancellor [the co-founder of GSR, the developer which sold Facebook user data to Cambridge Analytica]. Nothing in Facebook’s actions supports the statements of Mark Zuckerberg who, we believe, lapsed into “PR crisis mode”, when its real business model was exposed.

“This is just one example of the bad faith which we believe justifies governments holding a business such as Facebook at arms’ length. It seems clear to us that Facebook acts only when serious breaches become public. This is what happened in 2015 and 2018.”

“We consider that data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that ‘we’ve never sold anyone’s data” is simply untrue’,” the committee also concludes.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the committee’s report.

Last fall the company was issued the maximum possible fine under relevant UK data protection law for failing to safeguard user data from Cambridge Analytica saga. Although Facebook is appealing the ICO’s penalty, claiming there’s no evidence UK users’ data got misused.

During the course of a multi-month enquiry last year investigating disinformation and fake news, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee heard from 73 witnesses in 23 oral evidence sessions, as well as taking in 170 written submissions. In all the committee says it posed more than 4,350 questions.

Its wide-ranging, 110-page report makes detailed observations on a number of technologies and business practices across the social media, adtech and strategic communications space, and culminates in a long list of recommendations for policymakers and regulators — reiterating its call for tech platforms to be made legally liable for content.

Among the report’s main recommendations are:

  • clear legal liabilities for tech companies to act against “harmful or illegal content”, with the committee calling for a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by a independent regulatory with statutory powers to obtain information from companies; instigate legal proceedings and issue (“large”) fines for non-compliance
  • privacy law protections to cover inferred data so that models used to make inferences about individuals are clearly regulated under UK data protection rules
  • a levy on tech companies operating in the UK to support enhanced regulation of such platforms
  • a call for the ICO to investigate Facebook’s platform practices and use of user data
  • a call for the Competition Markets Authority to comprehensively “audit” the online advertising ecosystem, and also to investigate whether Facebook specifically has engaged in anti-competitive practices
  • changes to UK election law to take account of digital campaigning, including “absolute transparency of online political campaigning” — including “full disclosure of the targeting used” — and more powers for the Electoral Commission
  • a call for a government review of covert digital influence campaigns by foreign actors (plus a review of legislation in the area to consider if it’s adequate) — including the committee urging the government to launch independent investigations of recent past elections to examine “foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learnt for future elections and referenda”
  • a requirement on social media platforms to develop tools to distinguish between “quality journalism” and low quality content sources, and/or work with existing providers to make such services available to users

Among the areas the committee’s report covers off with detailed commentary are data use and targeting; advertising and political campaigning — including foreign influence; and digital literacy.

It argues that regulation is urgently needed to restore democratic accountability and “make sure the people stay in charge of the machines”.

Ministers are due to produce a White Paper on social media safety regulation this winter and the committee writes that it hopes its recommendations will inform government thinking.

“Much has been said about the coarsening of public debate, but when these factors are brought to bear directly in election campaigns then the very fabric of our democracy is threatened,” the committee writes. “This situation is unlikely to change. What does need to change is the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere, to ensure that we know the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us. We need to understand how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data.”

The report calls for tech companies to be regulated as a new category “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher”, but which legally tightens their liability for harmful content published on their platforms.

Last month another UK parliamentary committee also urged the government to place a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect users under the age of 18 — and the government said then that it has not ruled out doing so.

“Digital gangsters”

Competition concerns are also raised several times by the committee.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the DCMS committee writes, going on to urge the government to investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of its business practices towards other developers “to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail”. 

“The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight,” it adds.

The committee suggests existing legal tools are up to the task of reining in platform power, citing privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law — and calling for a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, and a specific antitrust probe of Facebook’s business practices.

“If companies become monopolies they can be broken up, in whatever sector,” the committee points out. “Facebook’s handling of personal data, and its use for political campaigns, are prime and legitimate areas for inspection by regulators, and it should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users across its platforms.”

The social networking giant was the recipient of many awkward queries during the course of the committee’s enquiry but it refused repeated requests for its founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify — sending a number of lesser staffers in his stead.

That decision continues to be seized upon by the committee as evidence of a lack of democratic accountability. It also accuses Facebook of having an intentionally “opaque management structure”.

“By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both the UK Parliament and the ‘International Grand Committee’, involving members from nine legislatures from around the world,” the committee writes.

“The management structure of Facebook is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions. Facebook used the strategy of sending witnesses who they said were the most appropriate representatives, yet had not been properly briefed on crucial issues, and could not or chose not to answer many of our questions. They then promised to follow up with letters, which—unsurprisingly—failed to address all of our questions. We are left in no doubt that this strategy was deliberate.”

It doubles down on the accusation that Facebook sought to deliberately mislead its enquiry — pointing to incorrect and/or inadequate responses from staffers who did testify.

“We are left with the impression that either [policy VP] Simon Milner and [CTO] Mike Schroepfer deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections,” it suggests.

In an unusual move late last year the committee used rare parliamentary powers to seize a cache of documents related to an active US lawsuit against Facebook filed by a developer called Six4Three.

The cache of documents is referenced extensively in the final report, and appears to have fuelled antitrust concerns, with the committee arguing that the evidence obtained from the internal company documents “indicates that Facebook was willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers, to charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of that data, and to starve some developers… of that data, thereby causing them to lose their business”.

“It seems clear that Facebook was, at the very least, in violation of its Federal Trade Commission [privacy] settlement,” the committee also argues, citing evidence from the former chief technologist of the FTC, Ashkan Soltani .

On Soltani’s evidence, it writes:

Ashkan Soltani rejected [Facebook’s] claim, saying that up until 2012, platform controls did not exist, and privacy controls did not apply to apps. So even if a user set their profile to private, installed apps would still be able to access information. After 2012, Facebook added platform controls and made privacy controls applicable to apps. However, there were ‘whitelisted’ apps that could still access user data without permission and which, according to Ashkan Soltani, could access friends’ data for nearly a decade before that time. Apps were able to circumvent users’ privacy of platform settings and access friends’ information, even when the user disabled the Platform. This was an example of Facebook’s business model driving privacy violations.

While Facebook is singled out for the most eviscerating criticism in the report (and targeted for specific investigations), the committee’s long list of recommendations are addressed at social media businesses and online advertisers generally.

It also calls for far more transparency from platforms, writing that: “Social media companies need to be more transparent about their own sites, and how they work. Rather than hiding behind complex agreements, they should be informing users of how their sites work, including curation functions and the way in which algorithms are used to prioritise certain stories, news and videos, depending on each user’s profile. The more people know how the sites work, and how the sites use individuals’ data, the more informed we shall all be, which in turn will make choices about the use and privacy of sites easier to make.”

The committee also urges a raft of updates to UK election law — branding it “not fit for purpose” in the digital era.

Its interim report, published last summer, made many of the same recommendations.

Russian interest

But despite pressing the government for urgent action there was only a cool response from ministers then, with the government remaining tied up trying to shape a response to the 2016 Brexit vote which split the country (with social media’s election-law-deforming help). Instead it opted for a ‘wait and see‘ approach.

The government accepted just three of the preliminary report’s forty-two recommendations outright, and fully rejected four.

Nonetheless, the committee has doubled down on its preliminary conclusions, reiterating earlier recommendations and pushing the government once again to act.

It cites fresh evidence, including from additional testimony, as well as pointing to other reports (such as the recently published Cairncross Review) which it argues back up some of the conclusions reached. 

“Our inquiry over the last year has identified three big threats to our society. The challenge for the year ahead is to start to fix them; we cannot delay any longer,” writes Damian Collins MP and chair of the DCMS Committee, in a statement. “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.

“The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights. Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.”

“These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission. We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people,” he added.

“The age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end. The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by Parliament, and overseen by an independent regulator.”

The committee says it expects the government to respond to its recommendations within two months — noting rather dryly: “We hope that this will be much more comprehensive, practical, and constructive than their response to the Interim Report, published in October 2018. Several of our recommendations were not substantively answered and there is now an urgent need for the Government to respond to them.”

It also makes a point of including an analysis of Internet traffic to the government’s own response to its preliminary report last year — in which it highlights a “high proportion” of online visitors hailing from Russian cities including Moscow and Saint Petersburg…

Source: Web and publications unit, House of Commons

“This itself demonstrates the very clear interest from Russia in what we have had to say about their activities in overseas political campaigns,” the committee remarks, criticizing the government response to its preliminary report for claiming there’s no evidence of “successful” Russian interference in UK elections and democratic processes.

“It is surely a sufficient matter of concern that the Government has acknowledged that interference has occurred, irrespective of the lack of evidence of impact. The Government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of Russian targeting of voters during elections,” it adds.

Three senior managers knew

Another interesting tidbit from the report is confirmation that the ICO has shared the names of three “senior managers” at Facebook who knew about the Cambridge Analytica data breach prior to the first press report in December 2015 — which is the date Facebook has repeatedly told the committee was when it first learnt of the breach, contradicting what the ICO found via its own investigations.

The committee’s report does not disclose the names of the three senior managers — saying the ICO has asked the names to remain confidential (we’ve reached out to the ICO to ask why it is not making this information public) — and implies the execs did not relay the information to Zuckerberg.

The committee dubs this as an example of “a profound failure” of internal governance, and also branding it evidence of “fundamental weakness” in how Facebook manages its responsibilities to users.

Here’s the committee’s account of that detail:

We were keen to know when and which people working at Facebook first knew about the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach. The ICO confirmed, in correspondence with the Committee, that three “senior managers” were involved in email exchanges earlier in 2015 concerning the GSR breach before December 2015, when it was first reported by The Guardian. At the request of the ICO, we have agreed to keep the names confidential, but it would seem that this important information was not shared with the most senior executives at Facebook, leading us to ask why this was the case.

The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

News Source = techcrunch.com

What business leaders can learn from Jeff Bezos’ leaked texts

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The ‘below the belt selfie’ media circus surrounding Jeff Bezos has made encrypted communications top of mind among nervous executive handlers. Their assumption is that a product with serious cryptography like Wickr – where I work – or Signal could have helped help Mr. Bezos and Amazon avoid this drama.

It’s a good assumption, but a troubling conclusion.

I worry that moments like these will drag serious cryptography down to the level of the National Enquirer. I’m concerned that this media cycle may lead people to view privacy and cryptography as a safety net for billionaires rather than a transformative solution for data minimization and privacy.

We live in the chapter of computing when data is mostly unprotected because of corporate indifference. The leaders of our new economy – like the vast majority of society – value convenience and short-term gratification over the security and privacy of consumer, employee and corporate data.  

We cannot let this media cycle pass without recognizing that when corporate executives take a laissez-faire approach to digital privacy, their employees and organizations will follow suit.

Two recent examples illustrate the privacy indifference of our leaders…

  • The most powerful executive in the world is either indifferent to, or unaware that, unencrypted online flirtations would be accessed by nation states and competitors.
  • 2016 presidential campaigns were either indifferent to, or unaware that, unencrypted online communications detailing “off-the-record” correspondence with media and payments to adult actor(s) would be accessed by nation states and competitors.

If our leaders do not respect and understand online security and privacy, then their organizations will not make data protection a priority. It’s no surprise that we see a constant stream of large corporations and federal agencies breached by nation states and competitors. Who then can we look to for leadership?

GDPR is an early attempt by regulators to lead. The European Union enacted GDPR to ensure individuals own their data and enforce penalties on companies who do not protect personal data. It applies to all data processors, but the EU is clearly focused on sending a message to the large US based data processors – Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. In January, France’s National Data Protection Commission sent a message by fining Google $57 million for breaching GDPR rules. It was an unprecedented fine that garnered international attention. However, we must remember that in 2018 Google’s revenues were greater than $300 million … per day! GPDR is, at best, an annoying speed-bump in the monetization strategy of large data processors.

It is through this lens that Senator Ron Wyden’s (Oregon) idealistic call for billions of dollars in corporate fines and jail time for executives who enable privacy breaches can be seen as reasonable. When record financial penalties are inconsequential it is logical to pursue other avenues to protect our data.

Real change will come when our leaders understand that data privacy and security can increase profitability and reliability. For example, the Compliance, Governance and Oversight Council reports that an enterprise will spend as much as $50 million to protect 10 petabytes of data, and that $34.5 million of this is spent on protecting data that should be deleted. Serious efficiencies are waiting to be realized and serious cryptography can help.  

So, thank you Mr. Bezos for igniting corporate interest in secure communications. Let’s hope this news cycle convinces our corporate leaders and elected officials to embrace data privacy, protection and minimization because it responsible, profitable and efficient. We need leaders and elected officials to set an example and respect their own data and privacy if we have any hope of their organizations to protect ours.

News Source = techcrunch.com

SeaBubbles shows off its ‘flying’ all-electric boat in Miami

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We were promised flying cars but, as it turns out, flying boats were easier to build.

SeaBubbles, a “flying” boat startup that uses electric power instead of gas, hit Miami this weekend to show off one of its five prototype boats — or six, if you count an early, windowless white boat they’ve lovingly dubbed the “soapdish.” This innovative boat design combines technology from nautical industries, aviation, and intelligent software to raise the hull of the boat out of the water using foils, which helps it to consume less energy by allowing it to travel on rougher waters with reduced drag, while also keeping the passenger cabin relatively comfortable.

When raised, the boat is “flying” above the water, so to speak.

Founded only three years ago in Paris, the idea for SeaBubbles was dreamed up by Alain Thébault, a sailor who previously designed and piloted the Hydroptère, an experimental hydrofoil trimaran, using a similar system that lifts the boat up in order to reduce drag. That boat went on to break the world record for sailing speed twice, at 50.17 knots. Meanwhile, SeaBubbles co-founder, Anders Bringdal, is a four-times windsurf world champion, who also set a windsurfing world record, at 51.45 knots.

Together, the two have envisioned SeaBubbles as a way for cities to reduce traffic congestion and help the environment by taking advantage of the area’s waterways to move people around in fast water taxis.

“The cities today have one thing in common: pollution and congestion,” explains Bringdal. “Every city has waterways — ones that are fairly unused. Think about having a giant freeway that goes straight down the center of the city, and no one uses it… why is that?,” Bringdal continues.

“You could do this with a normal boat,” he admits. “But with a normal boat with a normal combustion engine, the fuel price you’re paying is between $70 and $130 per hour. With us, it’s $2 dollars,” he says.

The cost savings come from an all-electric design, which means the boat charges at a power station — preferably one that’s solar charged, of course, instead of guzzling gas.

The company has experimented with all sorts of designs and models before settling on its first-to-market SeaBubbles water taxi: a smaller, 4.5-meter version that seats four in addition to the pilot. However, the technology itself is scalable to larger boats or even ferries.

According to SeaBubbles’ U.S. partner, Daniel Berrebi, whose company Baja Ferries has made a “small” investment in SeaBubbles, even larger boats like his could eventually benefit from the technology.

Beyond his obvious business interest on that front, Berrebi is also working with SeaBubbles to help the company make its first U.S. sales. He says he’s sold four boats to private individuals in the area — yes, sold as in “checks in hand, and signed on the dotted line.” These buyers don’t want to be named, but may include well-known names in music and sports. (Of course one has to wonder how much anonymity they will really have when tooling about Miami waterways in one of only a handful of these flying boats currently in existence?)

SeaBubbles has been able to come to market with its technology so soon because it’s not building everything in-house.

The boats’ engines are from Torqeedo, for example, while the fly-by-wire software to control the boat comes from foiling and flight control systems engineer Ricardo Bencatel’s company, 4DC Tech. His software solution also powered America’s Cup teams’ boats, like those from Artemis Racing and Oracle. But the version running on SeaBubbles has customized components to control the boat’s unique features.

“The [SeaBubbles] boat has three main sensors — it has two high altitude sensors to measure the height of the water, then it has a gyroscope — like the one in cell phones,” explains Bencatel.

“The computer combines those measurements from the sensors, then it knows the angles of the boat, the height and the speed,” he says. The software then uses this information to control the flaps on the boat to make adjustments. “For example, the lift — if you want to go higher,” Bencatel says. “Or if it’s rolling to one of the sides, it uses the flaps to turn it to the other side. Or if it’s pitching — bow down or bow up — it uses the front or the rear flaps,” he adds.

And all of these adjusts are being made automatically, by way of software, meaning the boat operator only really has to turn the wheel and drive. They don’t have to think about when to raise or lower the boat — it just happens when the boat reaches a certain speed. Under six knots, the boat is experiencing 100 percent drag, while above eight knots, the boat is ‘flying’ and the drag is reduced to 60 percent. This makes the ride less bumpy, too.

The lithium-ion batteries used by SeaBubbles are IP67 waterproof, and, over time, the boat could make up for its high sticker price — $200,000 at its suggested retail price — with savings on gasoline and reduced maintenance costs.

The prototype version of the SeaBubbles boat has only 1.5 hours autonomy and a five hour battery recharge to show off the technology. But the company claims the versions going into production have 2.5 hours autonomy and a 35 minute recharge. These are the ones they expect to ship this summer to the first purchasers.

In addition to Miami, SeaBubbles also has customers in Russia — a luxury hotel in Moscow and a deal in St. Petersburg — as well as in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. It plans to start building boats for these markets, and hopes to reach Paris by this summer or the next. In Paris, the prototype boats run slower — takeoff speed is six knots, and cruising speed tops out at 15 knots. The production version is faster due to bigger engines, with an average cruising speed of 16 knots and a top speed of 20 knots.

The company is in Miami this week to show off its boat to more buyers, and take meeting with local officials.

Bringdal admits that some of the company’s earlier statements may have been overly ambitious — like having boats in 50 cities by 2024. ”I think, in reality, it’s step by step,” he says  “We’re very happy to be seeing something here in the U.S.”

SeaBubbles, which has seven staff full-time and 25 people including contractors, has raised $14 million to date from investors including the founder of drone maker Parrot, Henri Seydoux; Partech Ventures; the French government-backed BPI fund; MAIF, a French insurance group; as well as friends, family and other angels.

The company is preparing to raise a Series A.

(Photo credits: Alain Thébault and Sarah Perez)

News Source = techcrunch.com

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