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Cyber Monday scams? Fakespot says it can identify fraudulent reviews and sellers online

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The pandemic has made it all but impossible for a retail company without an online presence to survive. Yet while companies heavily dependent on foot traffic like J.Crew and Sur la Table have filed for bankruptcy this year, companies that are expert in e-commerce have thrived, including Target and Walmart.

Amazon has gained perhaps the most steam in 2020, attracting roughly one quarter of all dollars spent online by U.S. shoppers throughout the year.

Unfortunately, as more shopping moves online, fraud is exploding, too. The problem is such that startups working with enterprises on the problem — flagging transactions for banks, for example — are raising buckets of funding. Meanwhile, one New York-based startup, Fakespot, is taking a different approach. It’s using AI to notify online shoppers when the products they’re looking to buy are fake listings or when reviews they’re reading on marketplaces like Amazon or eBay are a fiction.

We talked earlier today with founder and Kuwaiti immigrant Saoud Khalifah about the four-year-old business, which got started in his dorm room after his own frustrating experience in trying to buy nutritional supplements from Amazon. After he’d nabbed his master’s degree in software engineering, he launched the company in earnest. Like many other companies,

Like many other companies, Fakespot was originally focused on helping enterprise customers identify counterfeit outfits and fake reviews. When the pandemic struck, company spied an “opening crack on the internet,” as Khalifah describes it, and began instead catering directly to consumers who are increasingly using platforms that are struggling to keep up — and whose solutions are often more focused on protecting sellers from buyers and not the other way around.

The pivot seems to be working. Fakespot just closed on $4 million in Series A funding led by Bullpen Capital, which was joined by SRI Capital, Faith Capital and 500 Startups among others in a round that brings the company’s total funding to $7 million.

The company is gaining more attention from shoppers, too. Khalifah says that a Chrome browser extension introduced earlier this year has now been downloaded 300,000 times — and this on the heels of “millions of users” who have separately visited Fakespot’s site, typed in a URL of a product review, and through its “Fakespot analyzer,” been provided with free data to help inform their buying decisions.

Indeed, according to Khalifah, since Fakespot’s official founding it has amassed a database of more than 8 billion reviews — around 10 times as many as the popular travel site Tripadvisor — from which its AI has learned. He says the tech is sophisticated enough at this point to identify AI-generated text; as for the “lowest-hanging fruit,” he says it can easily spot when reviews or positive sentiments about a company are posted in an inorganic way, presumably published by click farms. (It also tracks fake upvotes.)

As for where shoppers can use the chrome extension, Fakespot currently scours all the largest marketplaces, including Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, Walmart, and Sephora. Soon, says Khalifah, users will also be able to use the technology to assess the quality of products being sold through Shopify, the software platform that is home to hundreds of thousands of online stores. (Last year, it surpassed eBay to become the No. 2 e-commerce destination in the U.S., according to Shopify.)

Right now, Fakespot is free to use, including because every review a consumer enters into its database helps train its AI further. Down the road, the company expects to make money by adding a suite of tools atop its free offering. It may also strike lead-generation deals with companies whose products and reviews it has already verified as real and truthful.

The question, of course, is how reliably the technology works in the meantime. While Khalifah understandably sings Fakespot’s praises, a visit to the Google Play store, for example, paints a mixed picture, with many enthusiastic reviews and some that are, well, less enthusiastic.

Khalifah readily concedes that Fakespot’s mobile apps need more attention, which he says they will receive. Though Fakespot has been focused predominately on the desktop experience, Khalifah notes that more than half of online shopping is expected to be conducted over mobile phones by some time next year, a shift that isn’t lost on him, even while it hinges a bit on the pandemic being brought effectively to an end (and consumers finding themselves on the run again).

Still, he says that “ironically, a lot of [bad] reviews are from sellers who are angry that we’ve given them F grades. They’re often mad that we revealed that their product is filled with fake reviews.”

As for how Fakespot moves past these to improve its own rating, Khalifah suggests that the best strategy is actually pretty simple.

“We hope we’ll have many more satisfied users,” he says, adding: “No one else really has consumers’ backs.”

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

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What Musk’s $100 million carbon capture prize could mean

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk, now the world’s richest person with a net worth north of $180 billion, announced on Twitter that he plans to give away $100 million of it as a prize for the “best carbon capture technology.”

He added in a subsequent tweet that he’ll provide more details next week, so it’s not yet clear how such a contest will work or even what technologies might qualify. Carbon capture can refer to methods that prevent greenhouse gas pollution escaping from power plants and factories, or various ways of pulling it out of the atmosphere.

Some startups are developing so called direct-air capture machines that pluck carbon dioxide molecules from the air; these can then be stored underground or used to create carbon-neutral fuels. Other groups are exploring ways of using minerals, trees, plants and soil to pull down the greenhouse gas.

Neither on-site carbon capture or air removal are happening on large scales today, however, principally because they’re highly expensive and there’s limited value for the captured gas right now. But more money and attention is flowing into both areas as the dangers of climate change grow.

Climate models show that vast amounts of carbon removal will be necessary to prevent really dangerous levels of global warming, given how much we’ve emitted and how slowly we’re moving away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, on-site carbon capture tools may offer promising ways of cleaning up certain tricky sectors, like cement and steel production, or to provide carbon-free electricity from natural gas plants when intermittent solar and wind sources flag.

The number of nations and corporations banking on some level of carbon capture removal is rising sharply as they plan to zero out emissions in the coming decades, creating a growing reliance on expensive or unproven approaches—and thus an imperative to accelerate progress in these spaces.

Musk is far from the first to offer up funds to the field, either as an award or a more direct investment. A year ago, Microsoft announced plans to create a $1 billion fund for “carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies,” as it looks to cancel out its entire historic emissions. Direct-air capture startups such as Climeworks, Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat have all raised at tens of millions of dollars of investment. And the CarbonX prize has offered $20 million to companies developing ways to incorporate carbon dioxide into products, in an effort to create bigger markets and greater value for the gas.

Another $100 million could certainly help whatever venture, or ventures, clinch Musk’s prize. But it will also only go so far. Carbon Engineering, for instance, has previously said just one full-scale direct-air capture plant could cost between $300 and $500 million.

Money aside, however, one thing Musk is particularly talented at is drawing attention. And this is a space in need of it.

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Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

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Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

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Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

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eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International, and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

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