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Former Disney and Discovery execs to launch Struum, a ‘ClassPass for streaming services’

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Former Disney and Discovery execs are teaming up to launch a new streaming service called Struum, arriving in the spring, that aims to take the Classpass model and apply it to the streaming landscape. That is, Struum’s plan is to aggregate content from smaller video on demand services, then provide that under its own subscription.

The idea for Struum comes from founders Lauren DeVillier, the former Head of Product for Discovery Ventures; Eugene Liew, former Vice President of Product and Technology at Disney+; Paul Pastor, former Executive Vice President of Strategy, Revenue and Operations at Discovery Networks; and Thomas Wadsworth, the former lead Advanced Product Development for Walt Disney Imagineering.

The service is backed by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner through his investment firm, Tornante Company. Firstlight Media, a company that provides technology to power video services, is also an investor and collaborator on the new effort. A third investor, Gaingels, focuses on backing LGBT+ founders and allies.

The team at Struum believes there’s potential for its service, despite the market being saturated by larger subscription players, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, YouTube, HBO Max, and Disney+, who today have a combined 75% share of the streaming video distribution landscape, according to 2020 Nielsen data.

It argues that there is still a long tail of over 250 niche and speciality services it can work with to grow its content library, while also helping those partners connect with potential customers.

The model it’s using to go about this, however, is unique for streaming businesses — and very much inspired by the ClassPass service for sampling fitness classes from local gyms and studios.

“I was a huge user of ClassPass and I love that model,” explains DeVillier. “And we just started noodling on this idea of offering this aggregated service using that model.” The founders would talk about ways they could help address the underserved market of streamers, who were “trying to find space and voice,” she says.

Struum will work by charging customers a single monthly subscription to provide a range of services, accessed through the Struum app. However, instead of getting a full buffett of content within the app, the consumer is given a number of “credits” they can used to sample and consume content, just like ClassPass did with gym classes.

Then, if Struum sees the customer is routinely accessing content from one service, it will suggest they may be better managed by a managed service. The customer can choose to subscribe to that service from within the Struum app directly.

In other words, Strumm acts a customer acquisition engine for its partners, too, in addition to hosting their content.

For consumers, this means they don’t have to keep subscribing and unsubscribing to various services just to watch particular shows or movies. And for content providers, it allows them to find an audience without having to spin up their own standalone subscription app.

Struum generates revenue from its subscriptions, which it shares with its content partners. These may include what Pastor describes as “aspirational tier one” brands, that may be those from the traditional pay TV world that are now looking for a new, streaming audience. And they may also include vertical media brands and others who are currently operating an ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) service but want to enter the subscription video on demand market.

Image Credits: Struum

The company has already completed deals with nearly three dozen yet-to-be-named streaming partners, and now has over 20,000 TV series, movies, and shorts, as a result. It will serve up this content on a platform built in collaboration with Firstlight Media, which runs on Microsoft Azure architecture.

The startup’s co-founders have not been working on Struum that long, having only come together around the beginning of the year, just ahead of the pandemic’s outbreak in the U.S.

The pandemic, of course, accelerated the streaming market as consumers stuck at home tapped into video services to stay entertained.

But for Struum, it helped the startup speed its time to launch, too.

“The ability to be introduced to people — financiers and content partners and talent — within a matter of 24 to 48 hours by getting on the phone through Zoom, not having to fly across the country to do the pitches, not having to drive across town in Los Angeles to do pitches — we were able to more quickly accelerate our business from that aspect,” notes Pastor.

Struum also tapped into the ability to hire outside of its base in L.A., as remote work became more of the norm. On its team of ten, it has staff from elsewhere in the U.S. and even the U.K., and it aims to continue as a remotely distributed operation for the near future, even when the pandemic is over.

 

Struum has correctly identified a problem in the modern streaming landscape, in terms of large amount of untapped content now distributed across hundreds of smaller services, much of which lingers in obscurity. However, the approach it’s taking to address the problem — by aggregating the content under its ClassPass-like subscription/credit model — will still force the  service into competition with AVOD players, as this is where consumers turn when they can’t find anything else to watch on Netflix and elsewhere.

That means the challenge Struum faces will be convincing those consumers to essentially change their TV habits.

“Today, those habits and rituals are built around first going to a Netflix…and the next thing is to go to Amazon,” explains Pastor. Consumers might then turn to Disney+ or HBO Max as a third option, he says, depending on whether they’re looking for family fare or more adult content.

“What we’re hoping to be able to do, by aggregating these pieces together, is to say, listen: your third or fourth choice should be Struum. It’s a place where you can manage one subscription and explore all these [other} services,” Pastor adds.

After launching, Struum plans to quickly iterate on the customer data it has — another advantage of the aggregational model — to optimize its content library and help guide its future partnerships.

“We come from a very strategic background approach. And we come from a discipline of listening to consumers — that’s so much the history of the Discovery and the Disney brand. That’s very much the near-term focus,” Pastor says.

The company plans to launch in the spring with support for web, mobile and TV platforms. An international expansion is also on the roadmap further down the road.

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

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InSight’s heat probe has failed on Mars. Is the mission a failure?

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For two years now, NASA’s InSight probe has sat on the surface of Mars, attempting to dig 5 meters (16 feet) deep in order to install the lander’s heat probe. The instrument was going to effectively take the planet’s temperature and tell scientists more about the internal thermal activity and geology of Mars. 

InSight never even got close to realizing that goal. On January 14, NASA announced that it was ending all attempts to place the heat probe underground. Affectionately referred to as “the mole,” the probe is designed to dig underground with a hammering action. But after the first month of its mission, it  was unable to burrow more than 14 inches into the ground before getting stuck. NASA has been working since to come up with some kind of solution, including using InSight’s robotic arm to pin the mole down with added weight to help it loosen up some dirt and get back to burrowing.

It never really worked. The Martian dirt has proved to be unexpectedly prone to clumping up, diminishing the sort of friction the mole needs to spike its way deeper and deeper. Ground crews came up with a last-ditch effort recently to use InSight’s arm to scoop some soil onto the probe to tether it down and provide more friction. After attempting 500 hammer strokes on January 9, the team soon realized there was no progress to be had. 

It’s discouraging news, given that NASA just recently decided to extend InSight’s mission to December 2022. During that time, there won’t be much of a role for the heat probe. Bruce Banerdt, the InSight principal investigator, says that the planet’s temperature could still be measured at the surface and a few inches below the surface using some of the instruments on InSight that still work. “This will allow us to determine the thermal conductivity of the near surface, which might vary with season due to changing atmospheric pressure,” he says.

An illustration of how InSight’s mole was supposed to be deployed on Mars.
DLR

And while the mole was unable to accomplish what was expected, it’s not accurate to see this as a failure. “We have encountered new soil properties that have never before been encountered on Mars, with a thick, crusty surface layer that decreases its volume substantially when crushed,” says Banerdt. “We do not yet understand everything we have seen, but geologists will be poring over this data for years to come, using it to tease out clues to the history of the Martian environment at this location.”

InSight will continue on with some of its other investigations, especially the measurement of seismic activity on Mars. It turns out the Red Planet is rocked by quakes all the time.

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Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020

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The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined, with super late-stage startups reaching new valuation thresholds at a record pace, and total venture capital funding in the United States recording its second-best result of all time.

That’s according to data released recently by CB Insights, which complements our look back at 2020’s venture capital year in America from yesterday.

At the time, we noted that American startups raised an average of $428 million each day last year, a sum that helps illustrate how rapid the private markets moved during the odd period.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But a peek at aggregate results for the world’s largest VC market provides only part of the picture. We need to narrow our lens and peer more deeply into standout categories to understand how the U.S. venture capital market managed to post its biggest year ever in terms of dollars invested, despite seeing deal volume slip for a second consecutive year.

This morning, we’re scraping data together to better understand.

First, we want to how unicorns performed in Q4 2020. This column noted in late December that it felt like unicorn creation was rapid in the quarter; how did that hold up?

And then we’ll take a look dig into PitchBook data concerning the fintech sector, a huge recipient of venture capital time, attention and money.

Fintech’s 2020 is a good perspective to view both the year and its wild final quarter. So this morning, as America itself resets, let’s take a moment to understand last year just a little bit better as we get into this new one.

Unicorns

One of the most curious things about the unicorn era is the rising bet it represents. I’ve written about this before so I will be brief: Nearly every quarter, the number of unicorns — private companies worth $1 billion or more — goes up.

The private market is able to create more unicorns than it has been historically able to exit them.

Some of these companies exit, sometimes in group fashion. But, quarter after quarter, the number of unexited unicorns rises. This means that the bet on expected future liquidity from venture capitalists and other private investors keeps ratcheting higher.

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MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

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Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

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