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TravelPerk launches an API for COVID-19 restrictions

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About a month after outting an open API platform for its customers to augment their apps, business trip SaaS startup TravelPerk has launched a standalone API product aimed at helping the wider travel industry provide up-to-date information on travel restrictions and risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The TravelSafe API is a monthly subscription product that lets travel providers integrate pandemic-related information on point to point restrictions between destinations during the booking process — with the service pulling data from official sources and local governmental websites that TravelPerk says is cross referenced by its own customer care agents.

It’s also calculating the risk level for travel to a particular country which it says is based on real-time analysis of the reproductive rate of the epidemic (R0).

The API launch follows TravelPerk’s acquisition of risk management startup Albatross in July, as the pandemic has pushed it to build out its travel risk management offerings.

Travel startups have of course been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with the virus decimating demand for international trips and wiping out huge swathes of the business travel market. And, while domestic staycationing does appear to have offset some of the vacation-related demand crunch, it’s still a tough outlook for business tips — as scores of information workers Zoom into meetings from home.

TravelPerk’s response to the COVID-19 demand shock has been to focus on product development — and today’s launch of a subscription API looks like an attempt to find a business opportunity amid the travel crisis, while also offering a service it hopes will support the wider industry to reboot stalled demand.

The API has also been developed out of necessity, with TravelPerk initially putting the service together for its own customers, as it sought to provide them with the reassurance they needed to make a booking.

Now it’s opening access to the wider ecosystem of airlines, travel agents and booking platforms as a standalone product available via monthly subscription (without the need to lock into a contract).

“Access to TravelSafe is not dependent upon being a pre-existing TravelPerk customer. The TravelSafe API is a standalone product available to any company,” confirms CEO and co-founder Avi Meir. “We built this technology for our own platform initially, because we knew that in such an uncertain time our customers and travelers really needed accurate, up-to-date information. However, we quickly realised that this same need exists across the sector and that what we’d built for ourselves could be really valuable across the travel industry.”

“Our goal is to become the most open travel management platform, and this is the first step towards us building an ecosystem of travel services that lets other travel companies, and the industry as a whole, benefit from our technology investments,” he adds.

Meir says TravelPerk is expecting the strongest demand to come from mid-sized travel management companies — given the “developer-friendly” nature of the product (he touts ease and speed of integration as big draws) — and also because the content is “unique to TravelSafe and updated in real-time”. (That said, when we ask about the risk scoring element he confirms the information the TravelSafe API offers is “an aggregation of the best data and information available, rather than our subjective assessment”.)

“This is vital given the pace of change in the travel industry at the moment,” he adds.

Keeping travel guidance up-to-date with a highly volatile pandemic that’s complicated by a lack of access to data (and/or good quality data) about how the virus is spreading in different regions is clearly a major challenge.

Nonetheless Meir reckons technology can help an inherently uncertain situation via tools that collate and surface the best of the information that’s out there. (He also disputes there’s any tension in a travel company offering risk assessment advice on travel, arguing its incentives are aligned with ensuring safe travel.)

“We cannot improve the quality or the accuracy of the data that exists on Covid-19 globally, but we can make it much easier for travelers to access and understand the information that is available,” says Meir. “Currently, travelers are really struggling to find clear, digestible, and accurate information on the rules that apply to them. People often have to read multiple articles and go to many different sources just to understand what the local guidelines are, the risk-level, whether they must quarantine upon return and so on.

“To solve this problem, we invested in developing advanced information processing tools, automated daily updates of risk levels using R-rates computation, and internal tools to facilitate the checking and updating of this data by our policy analysts. This allows the TravelSafe API to offer safe, concise, and accurate information even amongst so much change and uncertainty.”

Asked about TravelPerk’s own API-based platform — following the launch last month — he describes the market response as “phenomenal”. “Since we launched three weeks ago, we saw 50 new partners reach out to begin building integrations, one full integration with Payhawk went live, and a number of other partners coming close to finishing their integration and getting ready to go live with the platform,” he says, adding: “We’re really pleased with both the level of interest so far and how easy our partners have found it to use the API.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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YC-backed LemonBox raises $2.5M bringing vitamins to Chinese millennials

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Like many overseas Chinese, Derek Weng gets shopping requests from his family and friends whenever he returns to China. Some of the most wanted imported products are maternity items, cosmetics, and vitamin supplements. Many in China still uphold the belief that “imported products are better.”

The demand gave Weng a business idea. In 2018, he founded LemonBox to sell American health supplements to Chinese millennials like himself via online channels. The company soon attracted seed funding from Y Combinator and just this week, it announced the completion of a pre-A round of $2.5 million led by Panda Capital and followed by Y Combinator .

LemonBox tries to differentiate itself from other import businesses on two levels — affordability and personalization. Weng, who previously worked at Walmart where he was involved in the retail giant’s China import business, told TechCrunch that he’s acquainted with a lot of American supplement manufacturers and is thus able to cut middleman costs.

“In China, most supplements are sold at a big markup through pharmacies or multi-level marketing companies like Amway,” Weng said. “But vitamins aren’t that expensive to produce. Amway and the likes spend a lot on marketing and sales.”

Inside LemonBox’s fulfillment center

LemonBox designed a WeChat-based lite app, where users receive product recommendations after taking a questionnaire about their health conditions. Instead of selling by the bottle, the company customizes user needs by offering daily packs of various supplements.

“If you are a vegetarian and travel a lot, and the other person smokes a lot, [your demands] are going to be very different. I wanted to customize user prescriptions using big data,” explained Weng, who studied artificial intelligence in business school.

A monthly basket of 30 B-complex tablets, for instance, costs 35 yuan ($5) on LemonBox. Amway’s counterpart product, a bottle of 120 tablets, asks for 229 yuan on JD.com. That’s about 57 yuan ($9) for 30 tablets.

Selling cheaper vitamins is just a means for LemonBox to attract consumers and gather health insights into Chinese millennials, with which the company hopes to widen its product range. Weng declined to disclose the company’s customer size, but claimed that its user conversion rate is “higher than most e-commerce sites.”

With the new proceeds, LemonBox is opening a second fulfillment center in the Shenzhen free trade zone after its Silicon Valley-based one. That’s to provide more stability to its supply chain as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts international flights and cross-border trade. Moreover, the startup will spend the money on securing health-related certificates and adding Japan to its sourcing regions.

Returnees adapt

Screenshot of Lemonbox’s WeChat-based store

In the decade or so when Weng was living in the U.S., the Chinese internet saw drastic changes and gave rise to an industry largely in the grip of Alibaba and Tencent. Weng realized he couldn’t simply replicate America’s direct-to-customer playbook in China.

“In the U.S., you might build a website and maybe an app. You will embed your service into Google, Facebook, or Instagram to market your products. Every continent is connected with one other,” said Weng.

“In China, it’s pretty significantly different. First off, not a lot of people use web browsers, but everyone is on mobile phones. Baidu is not as popular as Google, but everybody is using WeChat, and WeChat is isolated from other major traffic platforms.”

As such, LemonBox is looking to diversify beyond its WeChat store by launching a web version as well as a store through Alibaba’s Tmall marketplace.

“There’s a lot of learning to be done. It’s a very humbling experience,” said Weng.

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Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170 million fund and expands into Asia

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OTV (formerly known as Olive Tree Ventures), an Israeli venture capital firm that focuses on digital health tech, announced it has closed a new fund totaling $170 million. The firm also launched a new office in Shanghai, China to spearhead its growth in the Asia Pacific region.

OTV currently has a total of 11 companies in its portfolio. This year, it led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health, and its other investments include genomic machine learning platform Emedgene; microscopy imaging startup Scopio; and at-home cardiac and pulmonary monitor Donisi Health. OTV has begun investing in more B and C rounds, with the goal of helping companies that already have validated products deal with regulations and other issues as they grow.

OTV focuses on digital health products that have the potential to work in different countries, make healthcare more affordable, and fill gaps in overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Jose Antonio Urrutia Rivas will serve as OTV’s Head of Asia Pacific, managing its Shanghai office and helping its portfolio companies expand in China and other Asian countries. This brings OTV’s offices to a total of four, with other locations in New York, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Before joining OTV, Rivas worked at financial firm LarrainVial as its Asian market director.

OTV was founded in 2015 by general partners Mayer Gniwisch, Amir Lahat and Alejandro Weinstein. OTV partner Manor Zemer, who has worked in Asian markets for over 15 years and spent the last five living in Beijing, told TechCrunch that the firm decided it was the right time to expand into Asia because “digital health is already highly well-developed in many Asia-Pacific countries, where digital health products complement in-person healthcare providers, making that region a natural fit for a venture capital firm specializing in the field.”

He added that OTV “wanted to capitalize on how the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the internationalized and interconnected nature of the world’s healthcare infrastructures into the limelight, even though digital health was a growth area long before the pandemic.”

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WH’s AI EO is BS

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An executive order was just issued from the White House regarding “the Use of Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence in Government.” Leaving aside the meritless presumption of the government’s own trustworthiness and that it is the software that has trust issues, the order is almost entirely hot air.

The EO is like others in that it is limited to what a president can peremptorily force federal agencies to do — and that really isn’t very much, practically speaking. This one “directs Federal agencies to be guided” by nine principles, which gives away the level of impact right there. Please, agencies — be guided!

And then, of course, all military and national security activities are excepted, which is where AI systems are at their most dangerous and oversight is most important. No one is worried about what NOAA is doing with AI — but they are very concerned with what three-letter agencies and the Pentagon are getting up to. (They have their own, self-imposed rules.)

The principles are something of a wish list. AI used by the feds must be:

lawful; purposeful and performance-driven; accurate, reliable, and effective; safe, secure, and resilient; understandable; responsible and traceable; regularly monitored; transparent; and accountable.

I would challenge anyone to find any significant deployment of AI that is all of these things, anywhere in the world. Any agency claims that an AI or machine learning system they use adheres to all these principles as they are detailed in the EO should be treated with extreme skepticism.

It’s not that the principles themselves are bad or pointless — it’s certainly important that an agency be able to quantify the risks when considering using AI for something, and that there is a process in place for monitoring their effects. But an executive order doesn’t accomplish this. Strong laws, likely starting at the city and state level, have already shown what it is to demand AI accountability, and though a federal law is unlikely to appear any time soon, this is not a replacement for a comprehensive bill. It’s just too hand-wavey on just about everything. Besides, many agencies already adopted “principles” like these years ago.

The one thing the EO does in fact do is compel each agency to produce a list of all the uses to which it is putting AI, however it may be defined. Of course, it’ll be more than a year before we see that.

Within 60 days of the order, the agencies will choose the format for this AI inventory; 180 days after that, the inventory must be completed; 120 days after that, the inventory must be completed and reviewed for consistency with the principles; plans to bring systems in line with them the agencies must “strive” to accomplish within 180 further days; meanwhile, within 60 days of the inventories having been completed they must be shared with other agencies; then, within 120 days of completion, they must be shared with the public (minus anything sensitive for law enforcement, national security, etc.).

In theory we might have those inventories in a month, but in practice we’re looking at about a year and a half, at which point we’ll have a snapshot of AI tools from the previous administration, with all the juicy bits taken out at their discretion. Still, it might make for interesting reading depending on what exactly goes into it.

This executive order is, like others of its ilk, an attempt by this White House to appear as an active leader on something that is almost entirely out of their hands. To develop and deploy AI should certainly be done according to common principles, but even if those principles could be established in a top-down fashion, this loose, lightly binding gesture that kind-of, sort-of makes some agencies have to pinky-swear to think real hard about them isn’t the way to do it.

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