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Following riots, alternative social apps and private messengers top the app stores

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Alternative social media apps including MeWe, CloutHub and other privacy-focused rivals to big tech, are topping the app stores following Trump’s ban from mainstream social platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the more recent removal of conservative social app Parler from both the App Store and Google Play. In the days since the Parler ban, “free speech”-favoring social networks are seeing notable numbers of new downloads at a quick pace, data shows.

Next-generation social network MeWe, founded in May 2012, is one of those that’s seeing the largest bump in new installs.

The app has been steadily growing in the days since the U.S. Presidential Elections and the related increases in moderation of misinformation by larger platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Mainstream social networks enforced their policies and even created new ones to moderate content shared by Trump and his allies — including their baseless claims of election fraud that have not be substantiated by U.S. courts, despite dozens of lawsuits.

To date, MeWe has seen over 16 million global lifetime installs, according data from app intelligence firm Apptopia. However, since Wednesday of last week, the app has been downloaded nearly 200,000 times worldwide. A majority of those new downloads are coming from U.S. users, who accounted for nearly 143,000 installs.

Largely, those users came to MeWe following Parler’s ban from app stores. Apple gave Parler the boot late on Saturday, and MeWe popped in the charts as a result. Saturday through Sunday alone, MeWe gained 110,200+ new installs in the U.S.

The company told us it has seen 1 million new members sign up in the last 72 hours and now adds over 20,000 new members per hour.

Because app stores’ Top Charts reflect not just total downloads but also the velocity of those new installs, MeWe has gained a position in the top 10 very quickly due to recent trends.

As of Sunday, MeWe ranked No. 7 in the U.S. App Store’s Top Overall free charts. It’s already moving up today.

This is remarkable growth for the alternative social app, given that as recently as October the app was not ranked on the App Store’s Top Charts at all. (Being unranked means that the app is so far down on the charts, it’s lower than rank No. 1,500 — so its rank is basically untrackable.) MeWe did, however, chart in the Social Networking category at some points during this time.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Another app benefitting from recent events, including the Parler ban, is the relative newcomer, CloutHub.

The app was launched in January 2019 and claims to be a social network for “social, civic, and political networking” with a free speech angle. Its website says it wants to give “everyone a platform to have their voice heard.”

To date, CloutHub has seen just 255,000 total lifetime installs, but 31,000+ of these have come over the past week — or more specifically, since Wednesday. (CloutHub may be struggling with the surge of new users, as we found sign-ups and logins are often timing out). The app as of now ranks No. 11 on the U.S. App Store.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Two other apps that have moved into the top charts are cases of mistaken identity.

As Mashable recently reported, an app called “Parlor” is being mistaken for the now-banned “Parler” app. Its report cited Sensor Tower data that said “Parlor” has seen as many as 40,000 downloads in December alone.

Apptopia says the social chat app, founded in May 2011, has seen 8.6 million lifetime global installs. But from Wednesday through Sunday, it gained 115,846 new users — many who were likely looking for “Parler.” Of those, 99,220+ arrived on either Saturday or Sunday, just as the Parler ban was beginning to roll out. Even though Apple didn’t take action on Parler until later on Saturday, users may have come across “Parlor” by searching for it by this alternative spelling.

As of Sunday, “Parlor” became the No. 4 Top App Overall on iOS in the U.S.

Meanwhile, an app called “Gab News” — which is actually just a local news app for the Georgetown area — is also gaining ground. This is because it’s mistaken for the long since banned app “Gab,” which ex-Parler users are suggesting as an alternative. Apple had declined to host Gab back in 2016, citing its pornographic content and later, due to its policies against hosting apps that include hate speech. Though Gab was able to launch on Google Play in 2017, the app was quickly removed from there as well, also for hate speech.

“Gab News,” however, is currently ranking No. 44 on the App Store’s Top Free Apps Chart in the U.S., as of the time of writing. (Download data was not immediately available.)

Then there is Rumble, a conservative alternative to YouTube. The app has gained 2.4 million total global installs since its January 2020 launch, per Apptopia’s estimates. Since Wednesday, that included 91,916 new downloads, 73,700+ of which were in the U.S. It has also climbed to No. 78 on the U.S. App Store, up from No. 1,484 on December 19, 2020.

The Parler ban is not the only thing triggering these shifts, to be clear.

There’s also a general backlash underway against big tech, which many on both sides feel have become too powerful.

Governments have been examining the business models and practices of companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook over the past year in markets around the world with an eye on antitrust action. Facebook and Google are also being scrutinized by users for their privacy practices — especially as Apple is now forcing companies to add privacy labels to all apps that disclose what they do with user data.

As a result, some people were turning to alternative networking apps not just because they’re conservative, but because they valued privacy. As a result, encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram are booming in recent days, as is the privacy-focused search engine, DuckDuckGo, a Google.com alternative.

These apps have also picked up steam over the past week. Signal is now No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Telegram is No. 2, and DuckDuckGo is No. 8. This is rapid growth. Around mid-October 2020, these apps were ranked No. 618, 79, and 715, respectively, Apptopia says.

That said, it’s also worth noting that some users may be seeking out private messaging platforms in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots, now that the FBI has begun to arrest insurgents. Signal has gained nearly 325,000 new installs since Thursday and Telegram gained 330,600+, for example.

This rapid shift to alternative social and messaging networks is indication of how difficult it may be in the weeks ahead for app stores to enforce their policies. Though the platforms typically crack down on apps hosting hate speech and those allowing incitement of violence, they tend to move slowly than the crowd downloading the next alternative app.

In the meantime, the apps that become popular may struggle with moderation. We’ve already come across examples of both extreme hate speech and calls for assassination on MeWe, for instance. even though the company’s public statements say it investigates and removes this sort of content. (MeWe has been asked to comment).

It’s unclear what the future for these free speech, alternative apps may hold, as platform providers such as Amazon (AWS) are now also declining to host them, and payment providers, like Stripe, which just cut ties with the Trump campaign, may decline to process future online payments. That could leave the networks to ultimately scramble for private funding to build their own infrastructure and stay afloat, as well as to seek out alternative distribution systems, like the web or even sideloading, to reach their users.

 

 

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

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Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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