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Starling Bank founder Anne Boden says new book ‘isn’t a memoir’

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Penguin Business describes Starling Bank founder Anne Boden’s “Banking On It” as the “first-hand account of one woman’s quest to rebuild Britain’s broken banking system.” Written with the help of a ghost writer, Boden relates how she came up with the idea to found a challenger bank and the many obstacles she faced along the way.

Fewer than 300 pages, the book parachutes the reader immediately into a cab journey in Ireland that Boden is taking post-financial crisis, when bankers weren’t exactly close to the public’s heart. Everything had changed. Yet, concludes the future Starling founder, the big banks had learned nothing and were determined to continue with business as usual. Thus, the scene is set for why a woman in her fifties would be ambitious enough to start a bank of her own.

I wouldn’t characterize Boden’s story as a page-turner in its entirety, but from then on in there’s more than enough narrative drive to get any fintech aficionado to where they want to go, including an account of Boden’s split with former Starling CTO Tom Blomfield, who left with other early members of the management and engineering team to found rival challenger bank Monzo.

As someone who has had the pleasure of speaking to and spending time with a number of people on both sides who were there when the alleged “coup” took place, this section made for uncomfortable reading. And, of course, it’s worth remembering that Boden’s book shares just one side — her side — of the story, which she has every right to own. However, we are yet to get Blomfield’s version of events directly (and may never), while others who were there have already reportedly disputed Boden’s account following the publication of an abbreviated extract in the Sunday Times two weekends ago.

Although the book presented very few surprises for a journalist who has spent the last five years obsessively covering Europe’s fintech industry, there were still one or two “a ha” moments, not least that Boden’s first contact with Harald McPike, the wealthy hedge fund manager who would go on to back Starling, came via a cold inbound message from a member of McPike’s team.

The Starling founder nearly ignored the message completely, but what followed was an offer not just to invest in Starling’s seed round but to do a mega-round released in tranches. This meant that Boden, who had struggled to raise traditional venture capital from VCs in London and beyond, could focus on recruiting a new team and building out the infrastructure required to launch an actual bank.

She paid a high price, giving away a majority stake in the process. As one former Starling employee told me, having diverted from the VC playbook, lower-ranking staff at the challenger bank would sometimes scratch their heads as the money taps kept running without the numerous fundraising rounds typically required. Now we know how.

This is not my memoir, right. You know, people at the end of their career write memoirs. I’m at the beginning.

There is also the £1 million in debt that Boden racked up employing management consultant firms to help her with the bank license application process. The issue of that debt, and who should take responsibility for it, would add further complications and conflict during the founding team’s split amid Starling’s fundraising woes.

What we don’t always get is a tremendous amount of introspection, with Boden telling me that “Banking On It” is not a memoir but a business book, even thought it often reads like one. “This is not my memoir, right. You know, people at the end of their career write memoirs. I’m at the beginning,” she says, in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch.

Boden said she isn’t going to retire any time soon and that Starling isn’t planning to sell to a big bank. Instead, her sights are set on an IPO. “I’ve had a long career, which is full of interesting things. And the next challenge is in front of me,” she says, with Starling aiming to be profitable by Christmas or early next year.

During our conversation, Boden dispelled one media myth (which my own sources confirm): There was never any kind of gagging order or confidentiality agreement prohibiting parties from talking about the Starling-Monzo split. Instead, by both camps, the media were sold a line designed to avoid a “he said, she said” scenario, creating the clear space needed for each bank to develop its own narrative. If everyone involved was free to talk after all, it seems that Boden has grabbed first-mover advantage.

It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but in the Starling-Monzo split story, it’s still not clear which bank will be victorious, while a less emotional assessment points to both upstarts having already won. For the real enemy was never “Anne” nor “Tom,” but an incumbent banking industry that had grown not just too big to fail but too big to listen and respond to a generation of digital-savvy customers who wanted a more modern banking experience. And it’s within this context that, regardless of who chooses next to disclose their account of events, the real Starling-Monzo story is still being written.

Below is a transcript of Boden’s interview with TechCrunch, lightly edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: Why publish a memoir, and why now?

Anne Boden: As you know, I’ve already done another book, “The Money Revolution.” I like words and I like being able to write things down and convey ideas. So I suppose I always knew that I would write a book. And I spend a lot of time and get inspiration from listening to audiobooks from other entrepreneurs, reading entrepreneurial books, anything about other people’s experiences, I take that information to try to help me on this journey.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that I also had something to give. And I really wanted to do my best to put down and describe the journey of being an entrepreneur, the journey of a startup, and it’s not easy. I think that I come across lots of people asking me for advice, so I wanted to do that, I wanted to put it all down into a book about entrepreneurship. And of course, there’s no point in having a book about entrepreneurship, that’s sort of academic, you have to put a lot of your own experience into it.

Why now? Well, you know, Starling is going to be profitable by Christmas. And last year, and the year before, I just didn’t have enough bandwidth to do it. I thought the time was right, where I had enough to say about sharing my experiences.

I think the first thing is, never give up. And I think the lesson is that you’ll have ups and downs in any particular venture, and you have to recover, you have to be resilient.

Somebody asked me, “does this mean Anne is planning to retire?”

This is really putting down on paper where we are at the moment. It’s been written over several years, and I’m hoping to use this to inspire a generation of entrepreneurs. But also quite excited about the next phase of Starling, of fintech, of tech. I’m still excited by technology, I still get the real buzz about what it can do. I’ve been very, very fortunate to work in some interesting places, and do some interesting things, [and] I think the world could really, really change in the next 10 years, and I think that fintech could really be part of it. So I’m excited about the future. And to you maybe interviewing me in five years’ time about the next book, and in 10 years’ time about the next book after that. This is all about really passing on the knowledge to date.

So you’re not planning to sell or to try and sell Starling anytime soon?

No, no. Look, I didn’t do all this to sell out to a big bank. And I’ve got my sights on an IPO. I’d very much like to do that. I’ve been very, very fortunate, I’ve had a long career, which is full of interesting things. And the next challenge is in front of me. And no, this is setting my sights on the next challenge. And there’s lots going on.

At times during the book — aside from perhaps the chapter dedicated to the alleged “coup” — it’s not entirely clear what you want the reader to take away from the book. If you could pick your top three takeaways, be that business lessons or things people might not know about you or your thought process, what would they be?

I think the first thing is, never give up. And I think the lesson is that you’ll have ups and downs in any particular venture, and you have to recover, you have to be resilient. And every single entrepreneur gets a near death experience, and you have to come back from it. It’s all about recovery and resilience and using that for the next phase.

I think the second thing is that you can’t do it on your own, you have to do it with lots of different types of people and different sources of knowledge. I read a lot, whether they are Paul Graham essays or Stanford podcasts. I reached out to lots of different people through this process that helped me along the way, and I think that you have to figure out where those resources are and bring them all together.

And I think the third thing is, you’ve got to change. People talk about the project and the product iterating and pivoting, but you have to add your own personality and your own learnings have to do that as well. Because as an entrepreneur, as a leader, you are part of the product, you have to think, you have to absorb things and you have to evolve. I was mid-fifties when I decided that I was no longer working for a big bank, but I was going to be an entrepreneur with a startup. And that was a huge transition. But we all can do transitions, and we can do transitions throughout our life. And I hope that people take away that from the book.

It’s interesting you say that. I guess one of the aspects in the book that I felt was slightly missing was, I didn’t get a sense of what that transition was for you personally, whether that be in your management style, your understanding of the difference between corporate life and startup life etc. Was that on purpose; you didn’t want to do too much personal development and [instead] stick with the business side of the story?

I think that this is a business book. You know, I was quite surprised that people started calling it a memoir. And it’s doing really well in the memoir section of Amazon at the moment, so I’m quite flattered. But this isn’t a memoir. This is much more of a practical book about, you want to be an entrepreneur, you want to do a startup, you want to build something that’s never been done before. And the ‘me’ part of it all is to illustrate what happens. This is not my memoir, right. You know, people at the end of their career write memoirs. I’m at the beginning.

I think the pivotal moment in the non-memoir memoir is when Harald McPike said I’m not going to do a seed round, I’m going to do three tranches, so like a mega round, based on very specific and well-aligned milestones tied to the banking license application process.

From my understanding, that allowed you to have some breathing space to get to the stage of a licensed bank. Instead, it could have been, especially when you lost the team, that if you’d got a seed round but then had to almost immediately focus again on trying to raise another round, that may have also been the death of Starling. Do you think I’m over-egging the significance of that funding round coming in tranches and being committed up front?

It is very, very unusual. But it was [also] quite unusual for a startup to have so much documentation, to have so much that had been thought through. I’d been working on Starling for two years, I had a lot of information, lots of research, and I really, really understood the business I was going to build, and I hadn’t raised money. So the first money in was Harald McPike’s money, and I was two years into it all. I had an application for a banking license in three boxes, basically stacked up because they only take boxes and physical paper.

Therefore, I could really define what would be in the three stages, I could really define what you’d get for 3 million, what you’d get for 15 million, what you get for 30. So then I just had to hit those milestones. And hitting those milestones is really, really tough. But I had a lot of experience in running really big projects that are costing hundreds of millions, so I knew very well I could hit those deadlines; I could deal with having to hit the deadline by a certain date and releasing the money. So it was a big advantage that I didn’t have to go back out and fundraise. That was an advantage. But it was also an advantage and a disadvantage that I was two years in. If I advise anybody in a startup, it’s raise money early on and try something. It’s much easier to do that than wait two years whilst you have everything ready, and then raise a big round.

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The election is over, but voter fraud conspiracies aren’t going away

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President Trump’s conspiracy-theory-fueled plan to overturn his defeat in the 2020 elections targeted six states that President-elect Joe Biden narrowly won: Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia. All six of those states have now certified their vote counts—with recounts sometimes even increasing the victory margin for Biden. 

The confirmation of the results has correlated with a decrease in election disinformation. But according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company, while fraud-related claims have dropped in volume, they haven’t exactly gone away. In fact, they’re still getting widely shared: Zignal’s database of social media, broadcast, traditional media, and online sites recorded more than 1.9 million mentions of voter fraud claims over the past seven days. And tweets from prominent right-wing figures and elected officials, such as this one from Senator Rand Paul, are still getting tens of thousands of shares. So what will happen next?

It’s not going away

“I don’t think that the unrest will stop,” says Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science. If anything, she says, voters who believe the election was stolen from Trump will act with “increasing resolve” in the coming months. 

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, points out that it’s not just the volume of content disputing the result that we should be worried about. Instead, she’s concerned about the long-term impact this moment could have on how Trump-supporting voters view democracy. “It’s going to decrease trust in the process for a long time to come,” she says. “Perpetuating these narratives is going to make it more difficult for Trump supporters to trust the democratic process in the future.”  

And while Trump may have lost his reelection bid, the political movements that have harnessed misinformation for their own benefit have not been voted out of office as a whole. One prominent QAnon promoter even won a seat in Congress

There is a danger, especially on a local level, of conspiracy theories and other falsehoods about the 2020 elections translating into legislation, says Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher who runs the Stop Digital Voter Suppression Project. “Imagine something that’s a complete disinformation campaign becoming a law,” she said. “Someone’s going to be in a policy position, trying to commit policy based on these conspiracy beliefs.”

Partly because it’s been around for a while 

Trump didn’t suddenly start talking conspiracy theories about a stolen election in November; he’s been tweeting out baseless claims that the election was going to be stolen for months. Likewise, the infrastructure that helps spread these claims predates the 2020 election, as does the history of questioning whose votes should count in America. 

“‘Stop the Steal’ is an evolution of an old argument used to disenfranchise predominantly people of color and indigenous communities,” says Brandi Collins-Dexter, a disinformation researcher. “So, is the fundamental argument ever going to go away completely? As long as voting and participation in our democracy is not embraced by the country as a fundamental human right, I have doubts.” 

Tripodi’s work has involved following Facebook groups devoted to spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. Those groups, which previously played a role in helping introduce QAnon conspiracies to a wider audience, are also hotbeds of election misinformation. And “reopen” campaigns are themselves partially funded and influenced by some right-wing super-PACs and media outlets.

Preventing the spread of misinformation

There are so many aspects to the story of misinformation and American power: the companies that built networks incentivizing the spread of misinformation; the impact those narratives have on vulnerable and oppressed communities; the labor of content moderation, often causing trauma to the workers paid to do it; the money that funds the misinformation campaigns; the network of news-adjacent publications and organizations that help spread them; the impact of misinformation on our daily lives and relationships. It is important, say experts, that the media covering this problem gets it right.

“If I’m reading a story about white nationalist violence and the main person being directly quoted and discussed is a white nationalist, then that, to me, is romanticizing the abuser,” says Collins-Dexter. “But if you’re talking to and about the community that was impacted by white nationalism—if your experts are those from impacted communities, and not ‘reformed’ Nazis or active Nazis—that’s a different story and experience for the reader that does a public service.” 

Journalists can cover this effectively if they can cover climate change effectively,” says Ryan Hagen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. “The wrong answer is that there’s good truth on both sides of every issue.” 

These same considerations are also important for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where conspiracy theories about the election still gain large audiences, despite some temporary and permanent moderation policies that were designed to limit their reach. 

For Collins-Dexter, the companies’ approach to misinformation remains inadequate. “Even with the most vigilant of moderating, this would be a hard job. But content moderators are undertrained, underpaid, and under-resourced on a number of fronts. And the companies want to do the bare minimum,” she says. 

Tripodi, meanwhile, called on platforms to provide more transparency to researchers outside the company. “I think they, in some ways, don’t want to be held responsible for the degradation of democracy in the US,” she says. “But if they repeatedly keep data inaccessible to social scientists, then there’s no way to adequately combat this problem.”

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our weekly email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.

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The UK has granted emergency approval for Pfizer/BioNTech’s covid-19 vaccine

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The news: The UK’s regulator has approved Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, making it the first country in the world to provide emergency authorization for a covid-19 vaccine. The UK had already signed an agreement to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine due to be delivered this year and in 2021, with the first batch set to arrive in the coming days. As the vaccine requires two doses, that is enough for 20 million people. The vaccine will be delivered in stages to each country that has bought it, in order to make sure the doses can be allocated fairly, the two companies said. The US and EU are expected to provide emergency authorizations for vaccines in December too.

The basis for the decision: The UK’s Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) studied Pfizer and BioNTech’s data on a rolling basis as it came in from the trials, including data from the Phase 3 clinical trial, which found the vaccine to be 95% effective. Pfizer said it recorded 170 covid-19 cases (in 44,000 volunteers), with just 162 recorded in the placebo group versus 8 in the vaccine group. Pfizer reported that there were no serious safety concerns related to the vaccine in its study. Side effects included fatigue and headache, but these were not severe and seemed to mostly affect younger participants. “We believe that the rollout of the vaccination program in the UK will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO and cofounder of BioNTech. The vaccine is the fastest to ever be developed, taking just 10 months as opposed to the many years development usually requires.

A project like no other: Now the vaccine has been approved, the enormous task of distribution can start. A particular challenge posed by the vaccine is its need to be kept at -70°C. Pfizer and BioNTech have developed containers which use dry ice to keep the vaccine at these ultra-cold temperatures. The UK is on the precipice of the biggest vaccination campaign in its history. Its government has drawn up plans to start immunizing elderly and vulnerable patients within days. It has drafted a priority list which starts with care home residents, people over 80, and health and social care workers. When more stocks become available, the UK will start vaccinating everyone over 50, and younger people with pre-existing conditions. Its National Health System will contact people to invite them for the shot when it is their turn.

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Genesis Therapeutics raises $52M A round for its AI-focused drug discovery mission

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Sifting through the trillions of molecules out there that might have powerful medicinal effects is a daunting task, but the solution biotech has found is to work smarter, not harder. Genesis Therapeutics has a new simulation approach and cross-disciplinary team that has clearly made an impression: the company just raised a $52 million A round.

Genesis competed in the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt last year, impressing judges with its potential, and obviously others saw it as well — in particular Rock Springs Capital, which led the round.

Over the last few years many companies have been formed in the drug discovery space, powered by increased computing and simulation power that lets them determine the potential of molecules in treating certain diseases. At least that’s the theory. The reality is a bit messier, and while these companies can narrow the search, they can’t just say “here, a cure for Parkinson’s.”

Founder Evan Feinberg got into the field when an illness he inherited made traditional lab work, as an intern at a big pharma company, difficult for him. The computational side of the field, however, was more accessible and ended up absorbing him entirely.

He had dabbled in the area before and arrived at what he feels is a breakthrough in how molecules are represented digitally. Machine learning has, of course, accelerated work in many fields, biochemistry among them, but he felt that the potential of the technology had not been tapped.

“I think initially the attempts were to kind of cut and paste deep learning techniques, and represent molecules a lot like images, and classify them — like you’d say, this is a cat picture or this is not a cat picture,” he explained in an interview. “We represent the molecules more naturally: as graphs. A set of nodes or vertices, those are atoms, and things that connect them, those are bonds. But we’re representing them not just as bond or no bond, but with multiple contact types between atoms, spatial distances, more complex features.”

The resulting representation is richer and more complex, a more complete picture of a molecule than you’d get from its chemical formula or a stick diagram showing the different structures and bonds. Because in the world of biochemistry, nothing is as simple as a diagram. Every molecule exists as a complicated, shifting 3D shape or conformation where important aspects like the distance between two carbon formations or bonding sites is subject to many factors. Genesis attempts to model as many of those factors as it can.

“Step one is the representation,” he said, “but the logical next step is, how does one leverage that representation to learn a function that takes an input and outputs a number, like binding affinity or solubility, or a vector that predicts multiple properties at once?”

That’s the work they’ve focused on as a company — not just creating a better model molecule, but being able to put a theoretical molecule into simulation and say, it will do this, it won’t do this, it has this quality but not that one.

Some of this work may be done in partnerships, such as the one Genesis has struck up with Genentech, but the teams could very well find drug candidates independent of those, and for that reason the company is also establishing an internal development process.

The $52M infusion ought to do a lot to push that forward, Feinberg wrote in an email:

“These funds allow us to execute on a number of critical objectives, most importantly further pioneering AI technologies for drug development and advancing our therapeutics pipeline. We will be hiring more top notch AI researchers, software engineers, medicinal chemists and biotech talent, as well as building our own research labs.”

Other companies are doing simulations as well and barking up the same tree, but Feinberg says Genesis has at least two legs up on them, despite the competition raising hundreds of millions and existing for years.

“We’re the only company in the space that’s working at the intersection of modern deep neural network approaches and biophysical simulation — conformational change of ligands and proteins,” he said. “And we’re bringing this super technical platform to experts who have taken FDA-approved drugs to market. We’ve seen tremendous value creation just from that — the chemists inform the AI too.”

The recent breakthrough of AlphaFold, which is performing the complex task of simulation protein folding far faster than any previous system, is as exciting to Feinberg as to everyone else in the field.

“As scientists, we are incredibly excited by recent progress in protein structure prediction. It is an important basic science advance that will ultimately have important downstream benefits to the development of novel therapeutics,” he wrote. “Since our Dynamic PotentialNet technology is unique in how it leverages 3D structural information of proteins, computational protein folding — similar to recent progress in cryo-EM — is a nice complementary tailwind for the Genesis AI Platform. We applaud all efforts to make protein structure more accessible such that therapeutics can be more easily developed for patients of all conditions.”

Also participating in the funding round were T. Rowe Price Associates, Andreessen Horowitz (who led the seed round), Menlo Ventures, and Radical Ventures.

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