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Backed by Mr. Beast and Nadeshot, Backbone One could finally crack mobile gaming

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I get to play with a lot of new hardware from startups and it runs the gamut from super polished to barely working, neither of which is a value judgement! But every once in a while I get to mess with a new piece of kit that is just so fully realized that I am literally shocked. 

The Backbone One controller is one of those situations. It’s a game controller for iPhones that has slick ergonomics, solid button feel, sensitive analog triggers and great build quality. But what makes Backbone One special is the companion app and service that ships with it and enables a truly clever software layer enabling cross-app multiplayer, game recording, highlight editing and quick swap. 

Designers from Ideo and Astro Studios helped realize Backbone and the pedigree of people who have crafted devices like the Xbox 360 controller really show here. Wide L1/R1 buttons make it easy to tap on mobile. Analog L2/R2 triggers feel deep but tight. The latest Lightning connector standard means extremely low latency for control signals. 

The controller is around 7” long in its compact state and uses a clever sliding mechanism to expand outwards to up to 10” in size. It easily fits Apple’s “Plus” sized phones and when you’re using one of those it feels like a full on game console for the first time I can remember.

There are acoustic tunneling scoops at the inside edges that direct sound forward from the phone speakers and there is work being done behind the scenes to cancel out the specific sounds the Backbone One’s buttons make so that you don’t hear those while you’re playing. 

But it’s the software that makes Backbone One really special.

To co-opt a biblical phrase, hardware without software is dead. And the Backbone One is really, really alive.

Behind the Backbone One is Backbone itself, which is a ‘companion app’ but is really a live gaming service. It has integrated cross-game voice chat, game switching, parties and a friends list. It lets you get push notifications when your friends are on and slide right into a game with them with a single tap. It’s remarkably slick and feels as first-party as you could make something that is literally not first-party feel.

Backbone was founded by Maneet Khaira in the summer of 2018 while interning at YouTube and wrapping up at Columbia. 

Khaira notes that one of the biggest issues in mobile gaming is that there is a ton of activation energy when it comes to jumping in and playing with friends. The major games are there: Call of Duty, Fortnite (eventually, again), PUBG — but the last mile issue is major. 

Khaira points out that while there are plenty of examples of top-tier gaming titles on iPhone, there is just a desert of content created on these platforms available to watch on Twitch or YouTube. He likens it to a hysteresis — a lagging behind of an effect from its cause. There are so many mobile gamers that there should be a ton of mobile content shared, but because the mechanisms to do so have been so poor and so under-crafted, we have next to nothing. 

Backbone changes that completely. 

Here are the basic pillars of Backbone:

  1. Gameplay has to feel good. The Backbone controller had to be best-in-class hardware.
  2. Content creation. It had to be easy and seamless to capture highlights, clips and footage and share them to your preferred platform. 
  3. Playing with friends has to be instantaneous. Backbone uses notifications about when friends start playing across any game and you can do so from one central friends list. 

Because Backbone is a support app, it gets a bunch of special privileges that would normally not be granted to a ‘regular’ class of app. Backbone One is always on while it’s attached, which means that the app can do whatever it needs to do no matter what app you’re in or for how long. This is huge because it enables the Backbone button on the controller to add games to your dashboard, swap easily between them and lets you get at your friends list contained in Backbone.

The stopwatch time for attaching the Backbone One to your phone and beginning to play a game in multiplayer is measured in seconds, not minutes. It’s exactly what you need in the mobile context.

It also enables any-time recording of clips and highlights that store locally on your device but can be uploaded anywhere at 1080p/30fps HEVC. When you’re in game you can just smash the Capture button to start recording and tap it to screenshot. The Backbone app also has some ML work going on to identify highlight-worthy clips and mark them automatically. You can also tag them yourself while you play.

And Backbone One does this on less power than the crap earbuds that (used to) come in an iPhone box. You won’t notice any major power drain from the accessory itself. 

If Backbone can manage to get a partnership with one or two majors to have a built-in control scheme that takes advantage of the proper dead zones and timing it could be a real watershed moment for mobile gaming. 

But right now it works with most games that have controller support right out of the box. No game needs to do anything special to take advantage of the majority of Backbone features. This basically adds on a layer of inter-game social and clip sharing. 

It’s all of the basic features of Game Center, Twitch, PSN and Xbox Live rolled into one — but on iPhone. And, of course, the BackBone one works just fine with Xbox and PlayStation remote play apps.

Sometimes a list of investors can tell you a lot about how serious a company is about getting the right kind of money. For a company building a gaming service and peripheral hardware, Backbone couldn’t have a more solid column. Backbone is backed by MrBeast, Preston, Kwebbelkop, Typical Gamer, Night Media, Nadeshot, and Ludlow Ventures, as well as Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures. Pretty much exactly the profile I would want to see for a company serious about social and mobile gaming. 

In many ways, Backbone feels like a spiritual successor to OpenFeint. If you’re not familiar, OpenFeint was the first modern mobile gaming network. It launched the year after the iPhone App Store and was part of a game called Aurora Feint. It enabled multiplayer, scoreboards and messaging. The founder of OpenFeint? Jason Citron. Jason’s current startup, that also shares a lot of spiritual luggage with OpenFeint? Discord.

It’s hard to overstate how important OpenFeint was at the time. As the app ecosystem was emerging it was clear that games would be a big part of what made the iPhone successful and this was the first cross-game network that allowed people to take advantage of one of the first phones to have a persistent, high-quality (ish) internet connection. Apple launched Game Center as a basic response to this need but it has never put any real investment behind it since. Backbone is so good that I could actually see Apple hauling out the repo and assigning engineering talent to get it working well again. The time has come for this idea and Backbone’s execution is so top notch here that it makes the case open and shut.

I’ve been testing the controller for a few weeks now with a variety of games. I played a quick match of Call of Duty Warzone with Khaira and even though we didn’t secure the dub it was massively more playable than running with touch controls. My very first session of CoD I had a 28 kill game in cod mobile and, even though I was put into a lobby that prioritizes controller users the other players had like 5 kills each. Though you can now pair console controllers to iPhone, the Backbone is so much better than any of the other integrated controllers on the market that it will quickly become a must have for any mobile player that actually wants to be competitive. I have spent as much time with Apple mobile hardware and the people that have created it as probably anyone on the planet so please understand that I don’t say this lightly but this really feels like the game controller and network Apple would have made if it understood competitive games.

The Backbone One controller runs $99 and can be purchased via the free Backbone app today.

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Cultured meat has been approved for consumers for the first time

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The first lab-grown, or cultured, meat product has been given the green light to be sold for human consumption. In the landmark approval, regulators in Singapore granted Just, a San Francisco–based startup, the right to sell cultured chicken—in the form of chicken nuggets—to the public. 

Just had been working with the regulators for the past two years and was formally granted approval on November 26. Singapore’s regulatory body assembled a panel of seven experts in food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology, public health policy, food science, and food technology to evaluate each stage of Just’s manufacturing process and make sure the chicken is safe to eat. “They didn’t just look at the final product; they looked at all the steps that led to that product,“ says Josh Tetrick, Just’s cofounder and CEO. “We were impressed with how thoughtful and rigorous they were.”  

An as-yet-unnamed restaurant in Singapore will soon be the first to have Just’s cultured chicken on the menu, but Tetrick says he plans to expand after that. “We’ll go from a single restaurant to five to 10 and then eventually into retail and then after that, outside Singapore,” he says. 

Most cultured meat is made in a similar way. Cells are taken from an animal, often via a biopsy or from an established animal cell line. These cells are then fed a nutrient broth and placed in a bioreactor, where they multiply until there are enough to harvest for use in meatballs or nuggets. A slew of startups have been founded using variations on this approach, in the belief that cultured meat will appeal to flexitarians—people who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat for ethical or environmental reasons, but don’t want to give it up entirely.

The budding industry has progressed a long way since a $330,000 burger was famously cooked on TV in 2013, driven by the idea that if it’s done right, meat could be produced with far lower greenhouse-gas emissions and zero animal suffering. But cost is still a hurdle: the high price of the growth factors required to develop the cells mean the price tags for pure cultured meat products are still measured in hundreds of dollars per pound, far too expensive to compete with regular meat. So Just’s first chicken products will be chicken “bites” that use cultured chicken cells mixed with plant protein—although Tetrick wouldn’t say in what proportion. “Chicken nuggets are already blended—this one wont be any different,” he says. The bites will be labeled as “cultured chicken” on the restaurant’s menu.

Singapore’s decision could kick-start the first wave of regulatory approvals around the world.

“We are hoping and expecting that the US, China, and the EU will pick up the gauntlet that Singapore just threw down,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works in meat alternatives. “Nothing is more important for the climate than a shift away from industrial animal agriculture.”

While Just has beaten them to the punch, many big firms are already working with regulators to get their own products to market. This is not something to be rushed, Friedrich says: “It is critical for cultivated meat companies to be extra careful and to go beyond consumer expectation in ensuring consumer comfort with their products.”  

Memphis Meats, which counts Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and traditional meat manufacturer Tyson Foods among its many investors, has teamed up with a number of other firms, including Just and cultured-seafood makers BlueNalu and Finless Foods, to form a lobbying group that is working with US regulators to get their products approved.

The way that might actually happen was only hammered out relatively recently. In March 2019, it was announced that the FDA would regulate the early stages of the cultured-meat process, including cell banks and cell growth. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will then take over at the cell harvesting stage and will inspect production facilities and approve labels used on cultured-meat products. In Europe, companies must apply for authorization and meet the European Union’s regulation on novel foods. The process is likely to take at least 18 months, and no cultured-meat company has yet applied.

Both Singapore and Israel have actively made themselves welcoming to startups in plant and cultured meat, Freidrich says. Governments should follow their lead and start treating this like initiatives in renewable energy and global health, he says.

“We need a space-race-type commitment toward making meat from plants or growing it from cells,” he says. “We need a Manhattan Project focused on remaking meat.”

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Longtime investor and operator Adam Nash says he just launched a new fintech startup

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Adam Nash, a Silicon Valley-born-and-bred operator and investor, is back at it again.

Today, on his personal blog, he announced that he has started a consumer fintech company that has already garnered initial funding from Ribbit Capital, along with other “friends and angels” who appear to have also pitched into the round, including Box CEO Aaron Levie, Mighty Networks founder Gina Bianchini, Superhuman founder Rahul Vohra, and Amy Chang, who sold her startup Accompany to Cisco in 2018.

Nash didn’t reveal many details in the post or later on Twitter, saying he’ll have more to say when the company is closer to launching. All we really know at this point is that he cofounded the company with Alejandro Crosa, an Argentinian software engineer who most recently spent five months at Slack but logged more than three years at both Twitter and LinkedIn before that.

Nash said on Twitter that the two met at LinkedIn, where Nash was himself VP of product management for four years beginning in 2007. It’s a good detail to know, considering that Nash has logged time at a wide variety of tech outfits over the years, making it hard to guess at whom he knows and from where.

A computer science graduate of Stanford, where he later nabbed a master’s degree, Nash began his career interning at NASA, HP, and Trilogy before landing his first big job as a software engineer at Apple in 1996 (when former PepsiCo exec, John Sculley, was briefly running the place).

After moving on to a bubble-era company that no longer exists, Nash tried his hand at VC for the first time, joining Atlas Venture as an associate. To get more operating experience, he then jumped to eBay, where he was a director; LinkedIn, where he met Crosa; then Greylock, where he spent just over a year as an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) before joining the wealth-management startup Wealthfront as its president and CEO, a job that the company’s original CEO and founder, Andy Rachleff, reclaimed in 2016.

Nash didn’t disappear from the scene. Instead, he rejoined Greylock as an EIR for another year before joining Dropbox shortly after it went public in 2018 as its VP of product and growth, leaving that post back in February to start his own thing, he said at the time.

That Nash would start a fintech company specifically isn’t surprising, considering his involvement with Wealthfront, as well as some of the personal investments he has made in recent years.

In 2018, for example, he wrote a check to LearnLux, a five-year-old, Boston-based educational startup that helps employees better understand their 401k, health savings accounts, and stock options. He is also an investor in Human Interest, a five-year-old, San Francisco-based startup that offers automated, paperless 401(k) plans.

Nash is also riding a very big wave.  According to Pitchbook, consumer fintech is on pace to attract a record amount of venture funding in 2020, at least in North America and Europe.

We’ll let you know more about what Nash is building as soon as he’s ready to share more. The little that Nash is saying publicly for now is that he and Crosa believe there is “still a lot more to do in consumer fintech, and that through software we can help bring purpose to the way people approach their financial lives.”

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Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger is now available

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Back in October Apple announced the MagSafe Duo, a folding travel charger capable of charging both the iPhone and either an Apple Watch or AirPods simultaneously/wirelessly. In an unusual move, the company didn’t specify exactly when it’d start shipping — or even when it’d go up for sale. Some rumors suggested late December, while others were uncertain it would even make it out before the end of the year. When was this thing actually going to be released?

The answer, it seems, is today. The MagSafe Duo just appeared on Apple’s own store and, with delivery estimates as soon as this week, it looks like they’re shipping them immediately.

TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino gave the charger a spin a few weeks ago, calling it “useful, but expensive and underwhelming” while noting that it feels like something that should cost around $70 rather than $129.

 

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