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Dedicated commercial human in-space operations are coming sooner than you may realize

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If you’ve ever heard someone refer to the idea of ‘working in space,’ you’d be forgive for thinking they were describing a science fiction plot. But the number of humans actively working beyond Earth’s atmosphere – and living significant chunks of their lives there, too – is about to start growing at a potentially exponential rate. Given how small that population is now, the growth might look slow at first – but it’s happening soon, and plans are in place to help it start ramping up quickly.

The main company leading those plans in the near-term is Axiom Space, a private space station service provider, and eventual operator. Axiom is founded and led by people with International Space Station experience and expertise, and the company already operates R&D missions on behalf of private clients on the ISS with the help of NASA astronauts. It’s planning to begin shuttling entire flights of private astronauts to the station starting in 2021, and it’s also building a new, commercial space station to ultimately replace the ISS on orbit once that one is decommissioned.

Axiom Space’s Chief Business Office Amir Blachman joined us at TC Sessions: Space last week, on a panel that included NASA Chief of Exploration and Mission Planning, Sierra Nevada Corporation Senior Vice President and former astronaut Janet Kavandi, as well as Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+) co-founder Melodie Yashar. The panel was focused on how public and private entities are preparing for a (relatively near) future in which humans spend more time off Earth – and further away from it, too.

“It’s now it’s, it’s been now for a couple years already,” Blachman said, in response to a question about how far off humans beyond NASA astronauts living in space actually is. “Axiom, sends crews to the International Space Station today on our own missions, while we’re building the new commercial space station that will succeed ISS when it’s decommissioned. Our first mission with a crew of four astronauts launches 12 months from now, and the four crew members have already gone through medical, they’ve done their suit fittings, we’ve already integrated our medical operations and training team with our launch provider. We’ll launch that crew in 2021, another crew in 2022, two crews and 2023, four in 2024 – and it grows from there.”

Both Blachman and Meranci talked about the importance of automation and robotic systems on both Axiom’s future commercial space stations, and on NASA’s future habitats on the lunar surface, and on the lunar Gateway that will remain in orbit around the Moon and act as a staging ground for lunar missions.

“ISS was meant to be tended all the time,” Meranci said. “It’s not meant to be an uncrewed station. And while the flight controllers on the ground do a lot of the actual operation of it, it’s meant to have people there to perform maintenance. We don’t have that luxury, when you start talking about the lunar architecture, the Gateway will be tended only when the crew arrives, and the stuff on the surface will be tended only for, you know, a week at first and then longer over time. But you still want to have all of those things be capable of doing useful science or useful exploration even without the crew. So the ability to do tele robotics, maintain things via ground command and things like that so that when the crew arrives, they can just throw the hatch open and get to work would be the ideal state.”

We’ve been working under the assumption that these habitats and critical infrastructure on Mars, and now more recently on the Moon should be constructed, and should be thought of as being constructed, as autonomously as possible,” Yashar added. “So we typically design for precursor missions, which would happen even before a crew arrives, hoping that almost all of the systems through construction, materials, excavation, materials handling, and all of the other systems that we’ve been looking at would more or less happen as autonomously as possible.”

Kavandi, too, echoed the sentiments of the others with regards to the degree to which modern human space systems will incorporate automation. I asked whether that would introduce complexity, but she said that rather, it should accomplish the opposite. Somewhat ironically, the path forward for human activity in space actually involves a lot less human activity – at least when it comes to the business of operating and maintaining in-space infrastructure.

“Advanced technology thing can sometimes add simplicity,” “As we’ve increased our capabilities over the years, with computers, for instance, they’ve become easier to use, not harder to use. The objective is to try to minimize crew time and crew maintenance so that you can concentrate your time, your time for doing research, or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do up there, whatever your mission happens to be. So the more we can simplify the interfaces, the more that we can have automation, where the crew only has to intervene when something is going wrong, but generally thingsgo smoothly, and they don’t have to do anything, that is an ideal situation. And in that case, you have a lot more free time available to then actually do the work that you’re up there for.”

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

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Eco raises $26M in a16z-led round to scale its digital cryptocurrency platform

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‍Eco, which has built out a digital global cryptocurrency platform, announced Friday that it has raised $26 million in a funding round led by a16z Crypto.

Founded in 2018, the SF-based startup’s platform is designed to be used as a payment tool around the world for daily-use transactions. The company emphasizes that it’s “not a bank, checking account, or credit card.”

“We’re building something better than all of those combined,” it said in a blog post. The company’s mission has also been described as an effort to use cryptocurrency as a way “to marry savings and spending,” according to this CoinList article.

Eco users can earn up to 5% annually on their deposits and get 5% cashback on when transacting with merchants such as Amazon, Uber, and others. Next up: the company says it will give its users the ability to pay bills, pay friends and more “all from the same, single wallet.” That same wallet, it says, rewards people every time they spend or save.

After a “successful” alpha test with millions of dollars deposited, the company’s Eco App is now available to the public.

A slew of other VC firms participated in Eco’s latest financing, including Founders Fund, Activant Capital, Slow Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Tribe Capital, Valor Capital Group, and more than one hundred other funds and angels.  Expa and Pantera Capital co-led the company’s $8.5 million funding round.

CoinList co-founder Andy Bromberg stepped down from his role last fall to head up Eco. The startup was originally called Beam before rebranding to Eco “thanks to involvement by founding advisor, Garrett Camp, who held the Eco brand,” according to Coindesk. Camp is an Uber co-founder and Expa is his venture fund.

For a16z Crypto, leading the round is in line with its mission.

In a blog post co-written by Katie Haun and Arianna Simpson, the firm outlined why it’s pumped about Eco and its plans.

“One of the challenges in any new industry — crypto being no exception — is building things that are not just cool for the sake of cool, but that manage to reach and delight a broad set of users,” they wrote. “Technology is at its best when it’s improving the lives of people in tangible, concrete ways…At a16z Crypto, we are constantly on the lookout for paths to get cryptocurrency into the hands of the next billion people. How do we think that will happen? By helping them achieve what they already want to do: spend, save, and make money — and by focusing users on tangible benefits, not on the underlying technology.”

Eco is not the only crypto platform offering rewards to users. Lolli gives users free bitcoin or cash when they shop at over 1,000 top stores.


Early Stage is the premier “how-to” event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product-market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion.


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Early-stage investor Mayfield shows how to scale up your biotech startup at TC Early Stage in April

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Founders in the earliest stages of startup life face a hefty learning curve. Just some of the core competencies you need to lock down include how to raise VC funding, recruiting the right people, finding product-market fit and building a killer go-to-market team. The list goes on and on…and on. You’ll learn about all those topics and more at TechCrunch Early Stage Operations & Fundraising taking place on April 1-2. 

Do you science? Are you inspired to use biology as technology? If your entrepreneurial interests lean toward the scientific side of the startup equation, you don’t want to miss this special session — brought to you by Mayfield — at TC Early Stage 2021 on April 1-2.

Scientist Entrepreneurs — Scaling Breakout Engineering Biology Companies 

Arvind Gupta and Ursheet Parikh, early-stage investors, company builders and Mayfield partners, along with Po Bronson, NYT bestselling author and managing director of IndieBio, will discuss scaling startups and touch upon three seminal areas that influence trajectory: fundraising, hiring and product design. Their insights draw on their experience with companies including ingredients-as-service leader Geltor (which raised a $91 million Series B in 2020); CRISPR platform Mammoth Biosciences (its dream team includes co-founder and Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna); and Endpoint Health (started by GeneWEAVE’s founding team and former YC Bio Partner Diego Rey).

Whether you’re a biotech entrepreneur, a researcher or a scientist tackling the daunting challenges of human and planetary health, this session will help you build a stronger, more successful startup as you take your product to market.

Mayfield will follow up this session with even more content at Disrupt 2021 in September. These sessions will reveal company-building insights from entrepreneurs, investors, industry leaders and policymakers. Mayfield invests in exceptional people whose mission in life is to create a better world — not just for our generation  but for future generations as well. If you science, don’t miss your opportunity to learn from leading investors who have partnered with iconic biotech and health IT entrepreneurs — from Amgen and Genentech to Mammoth Biosciences.

Get your ticket for the April TC Early Stage event here. Or get a dual-event ticket for the April and July events for double the knowledge across operations, marketing, recruiting and fundraising — and save up to $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 — Operations & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you

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Every day, your life leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tech giants use to track you. You send an email, order some food, stream a show. They get back valuable packets of data to build up their understanding of your preferences. That data is fed into machine-learning algorithms to target you with ads and recommendations. Google cashes your data in for over $120 billion a year of ad revenue.

Increasingly, we can no longer opt out of this arrangement. In 2019 Kashmir Hill, then a reporter for Gizmodo, famously tried to cut five major tech giants out of her life. She spent six weeks being miserable, struggling to perform basic digital functions. The tech giants, meanwhile, didn’t even feel an itch.

Now researchers at Northwestern University are suggesting new ways to redress this power imbalance by treating our collective data as a bargaining chip. Tech giants may have fancy algorithms at their disposal, but they are meaningless without enough of the right data to train on.

In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:

  • Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
  • Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
  • Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.

People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.

What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.

There may have already been a few examples of this. In January, millions of users deleted their WhatsApp accounts and moved to competitors like Signal and Telegram after Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. The exodus caused Facebook to delay its policy changes.

Just this week, Google also announced that it would stop tracking individuals across the web and targeting ads at them. While it’s unclear whether this is a real change or just a rebranding, says Vincent, it’s possible that the increased use of tools like AdNauseam contributed to that decision by degrading the effectiveness of the company’s algorithms. (Of course, it’s ultimately hard to tell. “The only person who really knows how effectively a data leverage movement impacted a system is the tech company,” he says.)

Vincent and Li think these campaigns can complement strategies such as policy advocacy and worker organizing in the movement to resist Big Tech.

“It’s exciting to see this kind of work,” says Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics, who was not involved in the research. “It was really interesting to see them thinking about the collective or holistic view: we can mess with the well and make demands with that threat, because it is our data and it all goes into this well together.”

There is still work to be done to make these campaigns more widespread. Computer scientists could play an important role in making more tools like AdNauseam, for example, which would help lower the barrier to participating in such tactics. Policymakers could help too. Data strikes are most effective when bolstered by strong data privacy laws, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives consumers the right to request the deletion of their data. Without such regulation, it’s harder to guarantee that a tech company will give you the option to scrub your digital records, even if you remove your account.

And some questions remain to be answered. How many people does a data strike need to damage a company’s algorithm? And what kind of data would be most effective in poisoning a particular system? In a simulation involving a movie recommendation algorithm, for example, the researchers found that if 30% of users went on strike, it could cut the system’s accuracy by 50%. But every machine-learning system is different, and companies constantly update them. The researchers hope that more people in the machine-learning community can run similar simulations of different companies’ systems and identify their vulnerabilities.

Alkhatib suggests that scholars should do more research on how to inspire collective data action as well. “Collective action is really hard,” he says. “Getting people to follow through on ongoing action is one challenge. And then there’s the challenge of how do you keep a group of people who are very transient—in this case it might be people who are using a search engine for five seconds—to see themselves as part of a community that actually has longevity?”

These tactics might also have downstream consequences that need careful examination, he adds. Could data poisoning end up just adding more work for content moderators and other people tasked with cleaning and labeling the companies’ training data?

But overall, Vincent, Li, and Alkhatib are optimistic that data leverage could turn into a persuasive tool to shape how tech giants treat our data and our privacy. “AI systems are dependent on data. It’s just a fact about how they work,” Vincent says. “Ultimately, that is a way the public can gain power.”

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