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Substack explains its ‘hands-off’ approach to content moderation

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Content moderation has been a thorny topic in 2020. And when I say “thorny,” I mean in the sense of having multiple congressional hearings on the subject. Twitter and Facebook in particular have been mired in concerns around the subject, fielding complaints that they both haven’t done enough to weed out problematic content and suggestions that they’re a censorship-happy, shadow-banning enemy of the First Amendment.

The latter appears to be the sole reason for the existence of the right wing-focused Twitter competitor, Parler.

As Substack grows in popularity, the newsletter platform is going to face some tremendously difficult questions around content moderation. Today it published a lengthy blog post hoping to nip some of those concerns in the bud. The write-up offers some caveats, but largely espouses the platform’s commitment to free speech, noting:

In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.

The stance reflects Substack’s commitment to a subscription-based model, rather than the ads that currently keep the lights on for services like Twitter and Facebook. Instead, it takes a 10% cut of writers’ subscription revenue. Certainly that frees it up from sponsorship boycotts to some degree. The subscription model also means that users have to opt into specific content more so than on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where content boundaries are far more fluid.

“We are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with more controls on speech’ just as we are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with advertising,’ ” the company writes.

Of course, there are financial considerations — there always are. Substack has a vested interest in supporting right-wing and conservative voices who have decried Facebook and Twitter’s practices. Notably, The Dispatch is at the top of the service’s politics leaderboard. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, editor Stephen Hayes called the service, “unapologetically center-right,” while its current blurb refers to it as “conservative.”

“None of these views are neutral,” Substack writes. “Many Silicon Valley technology companies strive to make their platforms apolitical, but we think such a goal is impossible to achieve.” There’s no doubt some truth in that. Any position on content moderation can be viewed as a political one to some degree. And equally, none will make everyone — or even most people — completely happy.

But it’s also easy to see the service facing some major tests of its current hands-off approach as the service continues to grow in popularity. The service’s approach has involved putting its name out there in front of consumers, meaning it won’t be viewed as a kind of invisible publishing platform.

Substack is quick to add that there is, naturally, content that crosses the line in spite of this. “Of course, there are limits,” it writes. “We do not allow porn on Substack, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment.”

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GSV Ventures doubles assets managed with new fund focused on global edtech

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GSV Ventures, co-founded by Deborah Quazzo and Michael Cohn, has raised $180 million in its second fund, exclusively focused on backing edtech startups across the globe. The startup now manages $277 million in cumulative assets, inclusive of its debut fund that was closed in 2016.

The new fund will let GSV invest in 13 core holdings, with an average check size of $15 million. The firm reserves up to $20 million per position for follow-on capital. It will invest in seed, Series A and late growth-stage opportunities.

While edtech was certainly spotlighted by the pandemic’s impact on the adoption of remote education, GSV Ventures is a case study in what happens when you invest in a category before it has generalist eyes on it. The first fund had three of its largest positions in Coursera, which is planning to go public this year; Course Hero, which was valued at $1.1 billion last year; and ClassDojo, which finally hit profitability after spending eight years focusing on customer growth instead of monetization.

The firm was also an early believer in Nearpod, which exited for $650 million in an all-cash deal in February 2021. Quazzo, who contributed her angel portfolio into the fund, says that this gives the firm 10 exits under its belt to date.

GSV Ventures began around the same time as other exclusively-edtech funds launched, such as Reach Capital, Learn Capital and Owl Ventures. These funds have all closed new capital in the wake of the coronavirus, with $165 million, $132 million and $585 million, respectively.

The biggest change between GSV Ventures’ debut fund and Fund II is the opportunity that Quazzo seeds internationally. Fund 1 only had one investment outside the United States, and Fund II already has holdings in Capetown, Croatia, Jordan, as well as, Quazzo confirms, six incoming investments split between Indonesia and India.

“There are very important businesses being built in these markets with missions to democratize and improve the delivery of learning at scale to all people,” Quazzo tells TechCrunch. To date, GSV Ventures’ portfolio has 37% female founders and 43% people of color.

While there was a four-year gap between Fund I and Fund II, GSV’s ability to back edtech startups with an ambitious trajectory hasn’t gone unnoticed. Its third fund, already mid-raise, will have its first close in the next few months.

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From the ashes of nearly a billion dollars, Ample resurrects Better Place’s battery swapping business model

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A little over thirteen years ago, Shai Agassi, a promising software executive who was in line to succeed the chief executive at SAP, then one of the world’s mightiest software companies, left the company he’d devoted the bulk of his professional career to and started a business called Better Place.

That startup promised to revolutionize the nascent electric vehicle market and make range anxiety a thing of the past. The company’s pitch? A network of automated battery swapping stations that would replace spent batteries with freshly charged ones.

Agassi’s company would go on to raise nearly $1 billion (back when that was considered a large sum of money) from some of the world’s top venture capital and growth equity firms. By 2013 it would be bankrupt and one of the many casualties of the first wave of cleantech investing.

Now serial entrepreneurs John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are reviving the battery swapping business model with a startup called Ample and an approach that they say solves some of the problems that Better Place could never address at a time when the adoption of electric vehicles is creating a far larger addressable market.

In 2013, there were 220,000 vehicles on roads, according to data from Statista, a number which has grown to 4.8 million by 2019.

Ample has actually raised approximately $70 million from investors including Shell Ventures, the Spanish energy company Repsol, and the venture capital arm of the $10 billion money manager, Moore Capital Management. That includes a $34 million investment first reported back in 2018, and a later round from investors including Japan’s energy and metals company, Eneos Holdings that closed recently.

“We had a lot of people that either said, I somehow was involved in that and was suffering from PTSD,” said de Souza, of the similarities between his business and Better Place. “The people who weren’t involved read up about it and then ran away.”

For Ample, the difference is in the modularization of the battery pack and how that changes the relationship with the automakers that would use the technology.

“The approach we’ve taken… is to modularize the battery and then we have an adapter plate that is the structural element of the battery that has the same shape of the battery, same bolt pattern and same software interface. Even though we provide the same battery system.. .it’s same as replacing the tire,” said Hassounah, Ample’s co-founder and chief executive. “Effectively we’re giving them the plate. We don’t modify the car whatsoever. You either put a fixed battery system or an Ample battery plate. We’re able to work with the OEMS where you can make the battery swappable for the use cases where this makes a lot of sense. Without really changing the same vehicle.”

Ample’s currently working with five different OEMs and has validated its approach to battery swapping with nine different car models. One of those OEMs also brings back memories of Better Place.

It’s clear that the company has a deal with Nissan for the Leaf thanks to the other partnership that Ample has announced with Uber. Ample’s founders declined to comment on any OEM relationships.

It’s clear that Ample is working with Nissan because Nissan is the company that inked a deal with Uber earlier this year on zero-emission mobility. And Uber is the first company to use Ample’s robotic charging stations at a few locations in the Bay Area, the company said. This work with Nissan echoes Better Place’s one partnership with Renault, another arm of the automaker, which proved to be the biggest deal for the older, doomed, battery swapping startup.

Ample says it only takes weeks to set up one of its charging pods at a facility and that the company’s charging drivers on energy delivered per mile. “We achieve economics that are 10% to 20% cheaper than gas. We are profitable on day one,” said Hassounah.

Uber is the first step. Ample is focused on fleets first and is in talks with multiple, undisclosed municipalities to get their cars added to the system. So far, Ample has done thousands of swaps, according to Hassounah with just Uber drivers alone.

The cars can also be charged at traditional charging facilities, Hassounah said, and the company’s billing system knows the split between the amount of energy it delivers versus another charging outlet, Hassounah said.

“So far, in the use cases that we have, for ride sharing it’s individual drivers who pay,” said de Souza. With the five fleets that Ample expects to deploy with later this year the company expects to have the fleet managers and owners pay for. charging.

Some of the inspiration for Ample came from Hassounah’s earlier experience working at One laptop per child, where he was forced to rethink assumptions about how the laptops would be used, the founder said.

“Initially i worked on the keyboard display and then quickly realized the challenge was in the field and developed a framework for creating infrastructure,” Hassounah said.

The problem was the initial design of the system did not take into account lack of access to power for laptops at children’s homes. So the initiative developed a charging unit for swapping batteries. Children would use their laptops over the course of the day and take them home, and when they needed a fresh charge, they would swap out the batteries.

“There are fleets that need this exact solution,” said de Souza. But there are advantages for individual car owners as well, he said. “The experience for the owner of a vehicle is after time the battery degrades. With ours as we put new batteries in the car can go further and further over time.” 

Right now, OEMs are sending cars without batteries and Ample is just installing their charging system, said Hassounah, but as the number of vehicles using the system rises above 1,000, the company expects to send their plates to manufacturers, who can then have Ample install their own packs.

Currently, Ample only supports level one and level two charging, but won’t offer fast charging options for the car makers it works with — likely because that option would cannibalize the company’s business and potentially obviate the need for its swapping technology.

At issue is the time it takes to charge a car. Fast chargers still take between 20 and 30 minutes to charge up, but advances in technologies should drive that figure down. Even if fast charging ultimately becomes a better option, Ample’s founders say they view their business as an additive step to faster electric vehicle adoption.

“When you’re moving 1 billion cars, you need everything… We have so many cars we need to put on the road,” Hassounah said. “We think we need all solutions to solve the problem. As you think of fleet applications you need a solution that can match gas in charge and not speed. Fast charging is not available in mass. The challenge will not be can the battery be charged in 5 minutes. The cost of building  charges that can deliver that amount of power is prohibitive.”

Looking beyond charging, Ample sees opportunities in the grid power market as well, the two founders said.

“Time shift is built into our economics… that’s another way we can help,” said de Souza. “We use that as grid storage… we can do demand charge and now that the federal mandate is there to feed into the grid we can help stabilize the grid by feeding back energy.. We don’t have a lot of stations to make a significant impact. As we scale up this year we will.”

Currently the company is operating at a storage capacity of tens of megawatts per hour, according to Hassounah.

“We can use the side storage to accelerate the development of swapping stations,” de Souza said. “You don’t have to invest an insane amount of money to put them in. We can finance the batteries in multiple ways as well as utilize other sources of financing.” 

Ample co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah. Image Credit: Ample

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Cables could help soft robots transform into harder structures

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The sub-category of soft robotics has transformed the way many think about the field. Oft-influenced by natural phenomenon, the technology offers a dramatically different approach than the sort of rigid structures we traditionally think of when we discuss robots.

Soft designs offer a number of benefits, including compliance, which has already seen a number of real-world applications in manufacturing and fulfillment. But like their more rigid cousins, soft robots have their limitations. As such, designers generally choose between one or the other for a given job — or, best-case scenario, design swappable parts.

A team at MIT’s CSAIL lab is exploring a technology that could make choosing less of a trade-off. The project has been in the works since 2017, though it’s still in the somewhat early stages — still largely the realm of computer simulation, though the details have been outlined in a new paper.

“This is the first step in trying to see if we can get the best of both worlds,” CSAIL post-doc James Bern said in a release.

In the project (or the simulated version, at least), the robot is controlled by a series of cables. Pulling on them in the right combination turns the soft structure into a hard one. The team uses the analogy of a series of muscles controlling the human arm — if the right ones are flexed, you can effectively lock a position in place.

The team will present their findings at a conference next month. For the time being, they’re currently working on a prototype to showcase how it operates in a real-world setting. Combining the two fields could go a ways toward building safer collaborative robots for interacting with human workers.

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