Uber’s first self-driving cars will start picking up passengers this month

Uber’s first self-driving cars will start picking up passengers this month
It’s been a while since news broke in early 2015 that Uber was working on self-driving cars. Earlier this year, the company openly admitted it was testing cars in Pittsburgh, but we haven’t heard much more over the last 18 months.
With Google, the self-driving car leader, slowly making progress with its autonomous cars, you’d be forgiven for thinking Uber’s efforts are far behind and barely visible in its frenemy‘s rearview mirror.
Well think again!
It turns out Uber has been making very rapid progress on its plan to replace its one million-plus drivers with computers. Bad news if you’re an Uber driver…
In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Travis Kalanick revealed that the company is preparing to add self-driving cars to its fleet of active drivers in Pittsburgh as soon as this month.
The company will deploy around 100 modified Volvo XC90s outfitted with self-driving equipment. Each vehicle will be staffed by one engineer, who can take the wheel as/when needed, and a co-pilot to observe and take notes. There will also be a “liquid-cooled” computer sitting in the trunk recording trip and map data.
That will mean that regular Uber punters in the city have a chance of getting an autonomous vehicle for their ride — their trip will be free if so.
Precious little was known of Uber’s plans for self-driving cars, but the company told Bloomberg that it will outfit cars with autonomous driving kits rather than develop its own vehicles as Google is doing.
To do that, Uber has quietly snapped up Otto, a promising startup that launched this year to bring self-driving technology to trucks. Otto’s technology can be fitted to existing trucks, and, according to Bloomberg, the technology will be adapted to create a lidar — laser detection — system to power autonomous Uber vehicles.
The Otto acquisition is hugely notable, not only for the technology but the personnel involved.
The company was founded by former Googlers Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay. Levandowski led Google’s self-driving car efforts, Ron was an executive on Google Maps and Motorola, while other staff have spent time with Apple, Tesla and other notable automotive firms.
The deal is set to close as soon as this month, after which Levandowski will lead Uber’s driverless car efforts. In addition, two new R&D centers will open up to speed the technology’s development.
“We were really excited about building something that could be launched early,” Levandowski told Bloomberg of why he left Google.
His additional comments — which include calling Kalanick a “brother from another mother” — hint at frustrations with the slow speed of development from Google’s self-driving project. Uber, it seems, is more willing to move forward with self-driving at a faster pace.
Time will tell how that plays out, but we’ll get our first glimpse soon enough.

Gartner: Android’s smartphone marketshare hit 86.2% in Q2

Gartner: Android’s smartphone marketshare hit 86.2% in Q2
What growth there is left in the smartphone market continues to center on emerging markets where consumers are upgrading from feature phones.
And that ongoing transition is helping boost Android’s global marketshare, which Gartner pegs at 86.2 per cent in Q2 in its latest mobile market figures.
But the analyst says Android is not just winning buyers at the mid- to lower-end smartphone segments in emerging markets — with sales of premium smartphones powered by Android up 6.5 per cent in Q2 too.
Gartner points to premium devices from key Android OEMs, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S7, as helping to lift the platform’s fortunes at the high end, along with affordably priced premium smartphones from Chinese OEMs such as Huawei and Oppo.
It notes Samsung improving its own performance too, clawing back some marketshare it recently lost in emerging markets to take a 22.3 per cent slice of sales in the quarter, vs 8.9 per cent for Huawei and 5.4 per cent for Oppo. Xiaomi fared less well, losing share in the quarter.
Meanwhile, on the platform front, Apple’s iOS shed nearly two percentage points, sliding from 14.6 per cent in the year ago quarter to 12.9 per cent. Only Microsoft’s Windows smartphone platform saw a worse decline.
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Overall, Gartner said smartphone shipments grew 4.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2016, year over year. It pegs global sales of smartphones at 344 million units in the quarter.
With smartphones winning over more buyers in emerging markets sales of feature phones were down 14 per cent in the quarter, which Gartner said contributed to a drop in overall sales of mobile phones during the quarter.
All mature markets except Japan saw slowing demand for smartphones during Q2, according to the analyst, while all emerging markets except Latin America saw growth in smartphones. Smartphone sales in the latter regions were up by 9.9 per cent vs a 4.9 per cent decline in mature markets.
Gartner notes that the top five smartphone manufacturers collectively continued to gain market share in the quarter — up from 51.5 per cent to 54 per cent year on year — with the biggest individual winners being Oppo, Samsung and Huawei.
Apple’s smartphone marketshare declined 7.7 per cent, year on year, with the worst sales decline in Greater China and mature Asia/Pacific regions — where iPhone sales dropped 26 per cent.
Conversely, the iPhone’s best performing regions in Q2 were Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, where sales grew more than 95 per cent, year on year.

Nokia’s Ozo VR camera now more affordable, heading to China

Nokia’s Ozo VR camera now more affordable, heading to China
Nokia has reduced the price of its high end VR camera Ozo by $15,000. The new global price-tagfor the teardrop-shaped device, which captures 360° spherical video and 360×360 surround sound to create immersive content for viewing via virtual reality devices, is $45,000.
Nokia is also expanding availability of Ozo, announcing it will be launching in the Chinese market — taking pre-orders from next month with a scheduled ship date of October. It’s partnering with Chinese online video company LeEco in the market, to distribute Ozo content via its VR division, LeVR.
Ozo was unveiled by Nokia last December, with a $60,000 pre-order price-tag and a ship date of Q1, initially targeting the US and European markets. The camera is aimed at professional content makers such as filmmakers and broadcasters wanting to expand their output into a nascent format — with Nokia pushing for a first mover advantage in the professional production VR space.
It’s not breaking out any sales data for Ozo but couches the price cut as an “aggressive move” to drive penetration globally and “advance the Virtual Reality business” — so it seems safe to assume the market for high end VR cameras has yet to catch fire.
There’s a clear chicken and egg problem with VR at this nascent stage, with content producers needing an installed base of VR users to be incentivized to make content, yet consumers needing to convinced of the worth of buying a VR headset by seeing compelling content… Cheaper pro camera hardware to produce more compelling VR content to drive general consumer interest is Nokia’s thinking here.
Back in April Facebook, which owns the Oculus Rift VR headset maker, also announced an open source design for a virtual reality camera, called “Surround 360” — with the intention of giving it away for free. The company said it would be putting the hardware designs and video stitching algorithms on Github, as it seeks to accelerate an ecosystem of content and drive sales of its Rift VR headset. All the parts for Facebook’s open source VR camera can apparently be bought online for $30,000.

Uber ups its focus on India with new booking options exclusive to the country

Uber ups its focus on India with new booking options exclusive to the country
Many have speculated that India is the next battleground for Uber after it agreed to sell its China business last month, and the U.S. company hasn’t wasted time in increasing its focus on the country after it launched two new features that, while subtle, could help it capture a larger slice of the market.
Uber today announced that users in India can now book rides for other people, while it has alsointroduced a mobile web booking option for ride-hailing without the need for its app. Both features are live in India only, an Uber representative clarified to TechCrunch. Uber indicated that it may look to expand them to other markets in the future.
Requesting rides for other people is actually an extension of an existing service that allows hotels and other businesses to book cars on the service for guests — “Uber Central”. It could be a useful option in India for those who want to arrange transportation for family members, significant others, or anyone who may be less tech savvy or unaware of the ride-railing service.
It works just like a regular Uber booking, except that you drop the pin for collection at the other person’s location — obviously — after which the app prompts you to share their contact details via their entry in your phone’s address book. You also select a payment type, which includes cash if your generosity doesn’t extend to covering the other person’s fare.
uber for others
Once booked, the passenger receives a text message with the trip details, including a URL to track the driver who is on route to collect them.
The second new feature is Uber’s web booking platform, which is located at dial.uber.com and it is also an India-only play for now.
The process is pretty straight forward as Uber explained in a blog post:
Navigate to dial.uber.com on your mobile phone
Enter your phone number to quickly login or sign-up
View pricing information, get a fare estimate, and request for your ride with a single tap
After requesting, we will instantly connect you with your driver over call to coordinate pickup
Once the trip is completed, you can pay your driver in cash
This could be a neat alternative for first time Uber users, perhaps those with a basic smartphone, limited storage on their device (and therefore limited space for apps) or just someone who is taking a tentative first look at an Uber ride.
The fact that it is focused on UberGo, the company’s budget ride category in India, and takes cash for payment is indicative that it is focused on going beyond the core Uber audience and into the mass market.
Obviously having users download your app is the primary goal for any company since that helps keep engagement high and bookings regular, but offering an alternative is necessary to cover the bases.
Ola, the company that is leading Uber in India, has long offered a web-based booking option and a hotline for taking requests over the phone. Uber doesn’t do the latter, but it is certainly widening its options to reach as many potential customers as possible.
Uber is reported to have redeployed 150 engineers across India and Southeast Asia in a bid to rival Ola and Grab, its local enemies in those respective markets. (It created a dedicated engineering team in India earlier this year.) It has also bolstered its Indian business with a number of high profile hires. No doubt these features are just the first of many for both India and Southeast Asia as the global ride-hailing giant gets serious about winning these two emerging markets.

Meesho wants to make selling through WhatsApp more efficient and less painful

Meesho wants to make selling through WhatsApp more efficient and less painful
WhatsApp may have over one billion active users each month but it continues to frustrate the many small businesses that rely on it for sales but suffer for its lack of advanced features.
Messaging services like Line, WeChat and even Facebook Messenger have become platforms that let business users get dedicated usernames and accounts, manage group chats, set up stores and use bots for communication, all while WhatsApp remains basic. The company only added a web-based interface last year, for example. Prior to that, businesses tapping into its popularity had to literally key in all updates on a phone. That doesn’t scale when dealing with hundreds of potential customers.
The problem is particularly acute in India, where WhatsApp is estimated to have over 100 million users. As the country’s most popular app, WhatsApp is unparalleled as a distribution channel for selling online or retaining customers, despite being largely ill-suited to the role. That’s whereMeesho, a startup in Y Combinator’s latest batch, is hoping to change things and empower WhatsApp sellers.
The company is a ‘Shopify for mobile’ for India at the most basic level, Meesho co-founder Vidit Aatrey told me in an interview. Essentially, it adds commerce features to WhatsApp to allow businesses to engage with customers and sell product more efficiently.
“Small businesses in India use WhatsApp groups a lot, posting details of their products daily, and then using cash or bank transfer to collect payment” Aatrey explained.
“But the whole model has many challenges, especially for the buyer who can’t search, while the seller can’t categorize products. If you’re looking for a sari, for example, you need to keep scrolling through chats — but there are hundreds of photos [in a group] per day — customers are spammed to hell, photos get downloaded to their device so they need to clean their phone regularly, and there is no [formalized] way to collect payment.”
Given that Facebook, the company that owns WhatsApp, is testing social commerce solutions of its own, Meesho has identified a genuine problem here.

Meesho aims to soothe some of the WhatsApp commerce pain points by moving much of the buying experience to its dedicated mobile shopping app.
There, customers can browser ‘carousels’ of product, ask questions to the buyer, and make an online payment via a clickable URL if they prefer that to cash or bank transfer. (That’s powered by Razorpay, a fellow YC graduate from India that we wrote about last year.)
Beyond the transaction itself, Meesho also alerts sellers when potential customers are viewing their store on the platform — giving them a chance to interact — while it condenses new product listing alerts into one message per day which is sent via a Facebook Messenger bot. Yes, that is yet another app, but it removes the irritating WhatsApp spam — since only a fraction of products are relevant to a customer — and could deliver a more qualitative interaction and, ultimately, sales.
Meesho and Messenger are also important mechanisms for outreach, too, Aatrey said.
“Facebook is generally used by small businesses for customer acquisition, but they do not keep their customers there because they can’t push messages to all users,” he explained. “If 100 people like a Page, for example, maybe 10 will see each message in their Timeline.”
That’s important given that small businesses in India which Meesho targets don’t tend to invest money in Facebook ads, boosting their posts or pretty much any marketing activity at all.
Aatrey said the sign-up process is easy, deliberately so because Meesho is working with people who may not be particularly tech savvy. Retailers simply provide a Facebook page URL, which the service uses to pull product info and images and create a Meesho shop automagically.
Meesho claims over 1,000 businesses on its platform right now but it is not monetizing its service at this point. Aatrey said there are no plans to make money at this point, but his current thinking is that, when the time is right, Meesho will take a commission from sales it helps facilitate. That again ties back to a reluctance to spend on the marketing side.
The company raised an undisclosed seed round last year which, in addition to the money it took for its place at Y Combinator, gives it sufficient capital to “sustain ourselves for a long time,” according to Aatrey.
That makes YC demo day, one of the premier gatherings of investors worldwide, a less pressured situation.
“We had raised before YC, so we have money,” Aatrey said. “If something good comes our way that’s fine, but it isn’t like we need to raise.”
Following the end of the YC batch, Aatrey and fellow co-founder Sanjeev Barnwal will head back to India to rejoin the six other people on the Bangalore-based team. Meesho is planning a number of updates, which will eventually include discoverability options to enable customers inside one store to find products from other Meesho-powered retailers.
While he admitted that being in the U.S. is a challenge since his business runs on India time, Aatrey highly recommended other Indian founders to consider a stint at YC.
“We have learned to talk to our users better and understand their needs,” he said of the program. “YC helps you learn a few habits that are important, for example focusing on one thing at a time and talking to customers every day. When you start doing that, you’ll see positive results.”
“For someone who hasn’t worked in U.S., I’d definitely recommend YC — even if they need to be in India for operations,” he added.

NextHealth raises $8.5M from Norwest to drive down medical costs

NextHealth raises $8.5M from Norwest to drive down medical costs
One of the few remaining universal truths is that healthcare costs are too high. Insurance companies are bucking under the pressure from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and they are willing to try almost anything if it means reducing costs.
With a shiny $8.5 million Series A from Norwest Venture Partners, NextHealth will be making that exact promise of reducing healthcare costs to U.S. insurance companies over the coming months.
NextHealth’s pitch to insurance companies is very similar to OPower’s pitch to utility companies. If you can target customers most likely to be overspending, you can generate efficiencies that make the entire ecosystem money. Whereas OPower’s rise was fueled by the regulatory environment, NextHealth is being supported by both the failings of the ACA and the innate properties of the insurance industry.
The company is using a mix of behavioral science and predictive analytics to project out specific customers, in a post-ACA world, that could save a lot on healthcare with just a few relatively simple lifestyle changes. While a dramatic drop has occurred in the number of uninsured Americans, a rush of new customers has broken many of the traditional predictive models in the industry.
“Insurers were very surprised by the staggering losses from new members because they were uninsured before,” said Casper de Clercq, General Partner at Norwest Venture Partners.
Fortunately, new patient behavior does still follow identifiable patterns. For example, a New England Healthcare Institute report estimated that U.S. patients waste nearly $38 billion dollars every year on unnecessary emergency room visits. That’s almost enough money to give one Chipotle burrito bowl to every man, woman, and child on the planet. NextHealth wants to nudge these people into more sustainable healthcare habits.
NHT Nudge Examples
To solve the problem, NextHealth has to combine effective targeting with smart applications of existing data-sets. The platform parses through membership data, demographic data, lifestyle data, and geospatial data to pick out specific individuals with a likelihood of a successful intervention. For example, a young mother might have little experience with the emergency room. She may have heard about long wait times, but feel that the ER is the only option for after hours support. A gentle informational nudge could save her and her insurance company money.
Once NextHealth decides to move forward, a case-specific campaign is developed that can involve a telephone call, email, letter, and even refrigerator magnet with information about location-specific healthcare options like telemedicine and urgent care clinics. To ensure intervention accuracy, NextHealth regularly performs statistical analysis against control groups. To date, 25 percent of patients targeted have accepted the nudge and abandoned the ER for all but critical needs.
“We can use machine learning to know what worked and easily turn off what isn’t working,” said Eric Grossman, CEO of NextHealth.
Common sense would tell us that every dollar of reduction in claims means a dollar of additional profit for insurers, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Insurers are required to spend 85 percent of revenue on claims and are limited to 15 percent to cover administrative overhead and generate profit. However, because NextHealth is classified as an operational expense, it is counted in the first 85 percent bucket for regulators. This is a big deal for cash-strapped insurers on the fence about trying the service.
Once a partnership starts, insurers have two options. They can use NextHealth as a standalone service, or they can turn over full access to member outreach with native branding to NextHealth.
NextHealth is currently working with eight insurance companies and half have opted to give the company marketing power in exchange for a promise to return fees at 2.5X. The company puts about half its fees at risk in the process and gains when insurers gain.
While the platform already monitors about 2 million members, Grossman is constantly brainstorming new use cases, like targeted outreach to remind people to get cancer screenings.

Engaging kids in design-based learning

Engaging kids in design-based learning
While most kids their age are glued to various digital devices, often wasting hours playing mindless games or watching cat videos, 164 fourth and fifth graders, along with eight elementary school teachers, have been using those same devices to explore new paths to learning. In 15 classrooms across Texas and Virginia, students are using manufacturing design and digital fabrication processes to create physical models, learning the underlying mathematical concepts and using them in meaningful contexts.
The FabLab Classroom pilot is a National Science Foundation project focusing on the “E” in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The project started at the University of North Texas and is based on a scaled-down version of Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab Lab, which originated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Students design their projects in 3D on a computer, then make the item using simple materials.
A wide range of digital tools and facilities available to students and their teachers are transforming the K-12 education system. Fab Labs and makerspaces provide creative areas where kids can design, invent and learn. Video games (e.g. Minecraft) and virtual reality (VR) are being employed as design-based learning tools. 3D printers are more readily available — in schools, in collaborative spaces and at home. All these tools and the widespread commitment to STEM education are introducing kids to 3D design at a very young age.
The focus should be on how schools can help children realize they are not just consumers.
There is no shortage of national interest and enthusiasm for STEM. President Obama believes that more STEM-focused curricula can help rectify America’s education woes and the decline of the American manufacturing industry. Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education Jim Shelton says, “STEM education is important for every student, no matter what they want to do in life.”
STEM advocates believe this new generation of young people is being inspired by increased access to new kinds of tools, machines and methods. Is it simply the democratization of manufacturing? Or is the maker mindset and further enablement of hands-on, design-based education driving a seismic shift in mentality — from consumer to producer?

Driven by a “sense of agency”

With the shift to offering these tools earlier in a child’s academic journey, we’re not just providing great access to design-based learning, we’re also instilling in students a “sense of agency,” helping them develop their ability to confidently design and create. According to The Harvard Graduate School of Education Agency by Design project:
“A key goal of maker-centered education is to help young people and adults feel empowered to build and shape their worlds. Acquiring this sense of maker empowerment is strongly supported by learning to notice and engage with the designed dimension of one’s physical and conceptual environment — in other words, by having a sensitivity to design. This sensitivity develops when young people and adults have opportunities to: look closely and reflect on the design of objects and systems, explore the complexity of design, and understand themselves as designers of their worlds.
I see and hear these themes echoed every day in conversations with 3D CAD customers, especially with recent college graduates, but also from our education team that works in the K-12 segment.
Whether it’s labeled STEM or the more encompassing STEAM (add A for Art), students get truly engaged with learning. It’s encouraging to see students inspired by initiatives that bring educational lessons to life, like the new and rapidly expanding Google Expeditions pioneer program, which helps teachers engage students with VR and Google Cardboard. This immersive, 3D experience enables virtual journeys, from the bottom of the sea to the surface of Mars.
Through FIRST Robotics competitions, more than 78,000 students in the U.S. are active participants in what the Agency by Design espouses as “sensitivity to design.” These students make real-world calculations to build robots that are capable of scooping up and shooting balls, jumping over obstacles or making other seemingly impossible moves, all in a maker spirit that weaves together the numerous disciplines of STEM learning.

Kids at the Bricolage Academy, along with those 164 students in Texas and Virginia, are just the tip of the iceberg. That iceberg is upending and bringing millions more students to the surface as they start to experience the power of STEM, the maker movement and new methods of teaching like blended and personalized learning.According to The 74, a nonprofit, non-partisan news site covering education in America, the Bricolage Academy of New Orleans has something missing in its classroom: chairs. In his recent piece, The Maker Movement Is About More Than Science and Math — But Is All This Tinkering Really Effective?, Mark Keierleber writes, “Instead of sitting with paper and pencils at desks, students stand at work tables and tinker with LEGOs, robots, wooden blocks, and circuit boards.”
These students and teachers may not use the same language as President Obama, the Department of Education or the Agency by Design project, but the message is the same: “I want to learn how to create something amazing.”
It isn’t just technology, or a STEM focus, or even a maker mindset; instead, the focus should be on how schools can help children realize they are not just consumers — they are designers, creators, makers and producers. Today’s fifth graders will be lifelong STEM learners.

Reigns is a medieval game of life or death (mostly death)

Reigns is a medieval game of life or death (mostly death)
Reigns is a new gaming app, currently featured as a favorite by Apple. You are a king and the answer to whether you live or die — and how — is in the cards. Quite literally. As ruler, you are presented with a deck. Each card is someone in your kingdom who is asking for help or notifying you of a problem on the rise. How you answer determines your fate.
A swipe to the left is one answer, the right another. But the tricky part is you need to juggle resources. You must keep the people and the church happy, while having enough money and troops to keep your kingdom safe. It is really easy to splurge your resources in one area, for a good reason, but it will cost you — your life and your reign. Layered on top of this delicate dance of power is the objective you need to fulfill: meet a witch, recruit a minstrel and have an heir — and other kingly duties. Each time you fulfill an objective you are rewarded with new cards in the deck to make the game more interesting and hopefully less deadly.
reign-giph2
The motive behind this game is to extend your reign (i.e. stay alive) for as long as possible. An interesting dynamic is that every game you play is kept in a timeline and each new play uses the decks you have built out in your past lives. As you browse your timeline, for each reign you are given a name and title that best describes what type of ruler you were, like Henry the Blessed, George the Sorcerer or James the Wicked. This naming convention strangely helps you remember past games and the mistakes you’ve made.
Overall, I found the game to be quite clever. There are fun dynamics between certain recurring characters in your deck, like the doctor and the witch. As you build trust, certain characters tattle and make fun of each other to you, their trusted ruler. There are mythical elements like witches, werewolves and even the threat of polyamory in your kingdom, which lend the occasional giggle — particularly in this rather odd stretch of the game, where you are making decisions while clearly on some sort of weird drug trip. I also enjoyed the well-designed variations within the game. You might be lost in a dungeon, impaired with old age or dueling a foe. All serve as a welcomed break from the standard swipe-right decision making.
But, what stands out the most in this game is the artwork. It is simple, but haunting. It is done in a modern geometric style that leaves a lot to the imagination. It is simple, moody and not what you’d expect from a medieval or card-based game.

Reigns is a dark and weird game, but entertaining and worth it if you’re looking for something different to play. Right now it sits at the No. 3 game overall, paid or not. And for good reason. It’s a great game. It launched last week and has been featured 281 times on the iTunes home page worldwide. Reigns is $2.99 on the App store and Google Play.

Picture This Clothing turns your kid’s crayon art into a sweet dress

Picture This Clothing turns your kid’s crayon art into a sweet dress
It’s a magical world we live in, people. Where once our brilliant crayon drawings were condemned to live forever two-dimensionally on a piece of dog-eared construction paper, now they can be given the life they deserve — either as an endearingly grotesque plush doll or, with this new service, an awesome dress.
Picture This Clothing is from MartianCraft’s Jaimee Newberry, who announced the service on Twitter earlier today.
Sure, you could get stuff printed on the front of a CafePress shirt or something, but be honest: that’s weak sauce. Look at the dress! Full bleed, knees to shoulders. The same design appears on the back, too.
dress_paperAll you do is pick a size, download and print the template, then color away. When you’re done — and by you, I mean your child, of course — you take a picture of the finished design and upload it — voila! You should receive your finished dress in a couple weeks. I love this cat on a scooter one. I’d rock that in a hot heartbeat.
You can also add some doll-sized dresses to your cart that will fit a Barbie, Ken, or compatible format. Picture This isn’t associated with Mattel or anything, though — I asked, because I was suspicious.
Newberry also mentioned that we can expect more designs if the dress takes off.
“In essence, this is a proof of concept,” she wrote. “We focused on something really targeted (girls dresses, sizes 2-12), but absolutely have growth plans if this baseline concept proves to have a place in the market. The response from our launch this morning has been incredibly positive!”
If your kid isn’t so into dresses, remember there are other options: Budsies and Imaginables both turn drawings into toys, and other services produce wrapping paper, flags, and so on.

Social investing site Instavest raises $1.7M in seed funding

Social investing site Instavest raises $1.7M in seed funding
Part of YC’s Winter 2015 class, Instavest is a startup trying to turn investing — an activity most of us are used to doing privately — into a social activity.
The site launched about a year and a half ago with the goal of helping average retail investors learn from others who have more experience in investing and the stock market.
Today the startup announced they closed a $1.7 million seed round with participation from Y Combinator, Skype co-founder Jaan TallinnCherubic Ventures and more.
The original version of Instavest allowed experts to share their stock trades (and rationale) for others to see and potentially duplicate. If the stock did well, the service then let the users offer a portion of their profit to the expert as a “donation.”
But the site was missing something — it lacked direct integration to a user’s brokerage account, so traders would have to manually navigate to their broker to execute each trade, then go back to Instavest to log it into their profile. This was definitely a hassle, and was an extra step that stood in the way of users seamlessly buying stocks shown on the platform.
But this is now changing, as Instavest has also announced they have integrated with 10 of the most popular online brokerage firms, so customers can buy and sell stock directly from Instavest’s site. These firms include popular platforms like E*Trade and OptionsHouse, plus about 8 more. The site connects with these firms via their individual APIs, and after a one-time authentication you can buy and sell stock with your preferred brokerage without leaving Instavest.
This direct integration soft-launched about two weeks ago, and the startup says the total value of stock held by users has already grown 10x, or 1,000 percent. This crazy growth shows just how important it is for startups to provide users with a frictionless experience — prior to the direct brokerage integration, most users probably just gave up on purchasing a stock because of the hassle it was to navigate to their brokerage firm and actually execute a trade.
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The company also is launching a new way for experts to make money on the platform. While the optional donation method worked (and will be kept), it also had some friction — mainly because users could just decide not to reward an expert for a stock tip.
So now the startup is letting experts create their own paid subscription newsletter to send their stock tips to any user willing to pay somewhere between $50-100 per month. While these tips will be released to Instavest’s general (non-paying) user base a few days after the expert’s newsletter is sent, paying users can potentially gain a huge advantage by buying or selling a stock before the general public.
Offering this additional way for experts to generate revenue is an essential step in growing the platform. Just like how on-demand services like Uber and Postmates need to provide enough steady income to convince partners to quit their full-time jobs for the gig economy, Instavest needs to attract and retain successful investors if they want to become the place to go for great investment advice.

Blockai’s new tool combines tweeting and claiming copyright

Blockai’s new tool combines tweeting and claiming copyright
Blockai is supposed to help photographers and artists defend their intellectual property. Now it’s launching a new feature to make that process easier — or at least better-integrated with Twitter.
Previously, Blockai users would go to the startup’s website to upload their work, creating a record in a public database (namely, the blockchain) stating that they’re the creator.
However, CEO Nathan Lands said, “We don’t imagine artists are sitting on Blockai all day,” so it’s also trying to integrate with other tools, starting with Twitter. Just tweet the image that you want to register and include the hashtag #blockai; the image will automatically be registered (assuming you’ve already got a Blockai account — otherwise it’ll ask you to set one up).
Blockai-Tweet
As Lands explained when the service first launched, the idea is to offer users a way to create proof of their copyright without going through the trouble of registering with the Library of Congress.

The service is free for artists to use. The plan, eventually, is to charge other customers, such as media companies.
Then if you see someone reusing your photo or your artwork without permission, you can send them a copy of the Blockai certificate, which would seem “a lot more serious” than sending a screenshot from social media. (Lands has said the certificate could also serve as evidence in a court of law, although that’s untested so far.) Blockai will also search the web for similar images, so you can be proactive in watching out for copyright violations.
The ultimate goal, Lands added, is “to answer, for every file on the web: Who owns the copyright?”