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India is betting on glitchy software to inoculate 300 million people by August

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On January 28, a physician at a hospital in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad received an SMS with the date and time for his first shot of a covid-19 vaccine. He’d been toiling away in the covid ward, where he’d watched many breathe their last since April, and the vaccine was the one thing he was looking forward to. 

But he wasn’t thrilled when he read the message: it wasn’t addressed to him. It was like receiving a winning ticket with someone else’s name on it.

“I was confused,” says the doctor, who requested anonymity because his employer will not allow him to speak to the media. Worried, he rushed to his hospital, unsure whether he was really being summoned to get the vaccine or not. It turned out to be a software glitch, and his name wasn’t being called after all.

India, which has had the second-highest number of covid-19 cases in the world, has launched one of Asia’s most ambitious vaccination drives, aiming to inoculate 300 million people by August. To make it happen, the government is using a vaccine management system called Co-WIN. For now, the focus is on getting 30 million health-care and frontline workers vaccinated. 

These workers will receive one of two vaccines approved for emergency use: the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine—known locally as Covishield and being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India—and Bharat Biotech’s indigenous vaccine, called Covaxin. 

Co-WIN is the backbone of the vaccination drive, so to speak. It handles registrations, creates vaccination schedules, informs the recipients through text messages, sends people to the right vaccination center, and also creates a vaccination certificate after they’ve received two doses. Although it’s starting with health-care workers, it’s expected to be used for the general public, too, and people will be asked to self-register through the app. 

But owing to multiple technical glitches of different kinds, the number of people being vaccinated in India is already significantly lower than was hoped. Several Indian states have not been able to meet their vaccination targets, delaying the overall drive. 

These malfunctions have pushed vaccinators to switch to simpler methods of managing distribution. For instance, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, doctors were missing messages about getting their vaccine because of software issues. The hospital’s workaround: get in line. It said doctors could visit the vaccine site, and if their name was registered and a dose was available, they could get the shot.

“Every day there is learning with the app and how to roll out in a more efficient way,” says Randeep Guleria, director of AIIMS and one of the first Indians to have been inoculated. He’s one of the foremost doctors in India, and his shot was televised in an effort to win people’s trust. 

India’s difficulties aren’t unique—other countries are experiencing trouble distributing covid vaccines, including the US. China also seems to be falling behind on its internal target of inoculating 50 million people by February 11.But a glitchy rollout for India’s health-care professionals and frontline workers could indicate that the country isn’t prepared for the much larger task ahead. 

As of February 8, almost 6 million people had been given the first dose, a rate of around 250,000 per day. To meet the ambitious target of 300 million doses by August, India will have to administer more than five times that number: 1.4 million doses each day. Speed is critical, because these vaccines need to be administered within the approved shelf life of six months. AIIMS is looking at setting up more vaccination centers to make up for lost time. 

“Incomplete registration will lead to incomplete vaccination”

Of all the major countries to roll out vaccines, India could have planned the smoothest, most time-tested process, because the behemoth task of mass vaccination isn’t something new. Each year, the government administers vaccines against polio and measles to 55 million infants and pregnant women by visiting each home and making a list of who needs the shots. Using a technological solution like Co-WIN is a departure from the norm, and it’s meant to be an upgrade. The government has told the press that Co-WIN will make real-time vaccine-related data available to officials monitoring the rollout, and that the app will make it harder for people to use proxies. It’s also an attempt to keep doses from going to waste.

But experts suggest that India may need to fall back on the old, proven methods if it wants to administer 600 million doses of covid-19 vaccine in less than seven months. 

Giridhar Babu, an epidemiologist and part of the Covid-19 Technical Task Force in India, believes that reaching the country’s goals will require creating a comprehensive list of people to be vaccinated—the method used in previous campaigns. “As of now, health workers and frontline workers [are being vaccinated]: these are the easiest ones to capture,” says Babu. “But once we start going beyond this to the population, there is not a single list which has people with all the comorbidities, elderly people, their [medical] history.” 

He says that list should be created by officials going door to door and signing people up. Babu believes that self-registration through Co-WIN may only work for the urban and educated and not for people in rural areas, and that “incomplete registration will then lead to incomplete vaccination.” He acknowledges, though, that making a list of people to be vaccinated “is a phenomenally large exercise which requires a lot of planning.”

“It’s dangerous to have it just on an app”

Experts worry not only that the drive will fall short of its targets, but that it will be used as a way to gather citizens’ private health data. In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of a national health ID—a way to centralize the health-care data of Indians. Later the health ministry said that citizens being inoculated would have the option to create a unique health ID through their Aadhaar number—India’s controversial 12-digit national ID, which is linked to people’s fingerprints and iris scans. 

“When a beneficiary shares their Aadhaar details at the vaccine center for the purpose of ID verification, the Aadhaar data gets shared with Co-WIN at the back end, which is then being used to create a health ID of that person,” says Srikanth Lakshmanan, a tech researcher who has been studying the documents around Co-WIN. “While the government says it’s voluntary, not many people even know that it’s being created.”

There are privacy concerns, too. The Co-WIN app, which for now has over 100,000 downloads in Google’s Play Store, does not have a proper privacy policy, and there is no data protection law that would appropriately cover this data. Lakshmanan says, “My bigger concern is that while the government is building the digital health infrastructure for sharing health data with the insurance and pharma industry, there isn’t investment by the government in expanding the real health infrastructure we need.”

“While the government says it’s voluntary, not many people even know that it’s being created.”

Digital policy experts say using an app for the vaccination drive reflects India’s love of techno-solutionism but is fraught with potential difficulties. “It’s not easy to make an app-only solution when the infrastructure is not good—people not only need mobile phones, they need connectivity, internet, they need to be able to use the phone,” says Shweta Mohandas, a policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society, a think tank. “Especially with regard to medical services, it’s dangerous to have it just on an app … it limits the number of people who can use it.”

Meanwhile, the doctor who received the misaddressed vaccine invitation was able to get the first dose when he showed up at the hospital to inquire about it. He feels thankful, he says, because if it hadn’t been for that SMS addressed to a stranger, he wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine so soon. 

But the Co-WIN snags continued. 

Days after he got the first shot, he received two more text messages addressed to two other people, with details of the time and location for their first doses. “I wonder,” he said, “if those people have gotten this message or missed their first dose.” 

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

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

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UK challenger bank Starling raises $376M, now valued at $1.9B

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Challenger banks continue to see huge infusions of cash from investors bullish on the opportunity for smaller and faster-moving tech-based banking startups to woo customers from their larger rivals. In the latest development, UK-based Starling announced that is has closed £272 million ($376 million at current rates), at a pre-money valuation of £1.1 billion.

This means that the round, a Series D, values the company at £1.372 billion ($1.9 billion) post-money.

Starling — which competes against incumbent banks, as well as other challengers like Monzo and Revolut — said it will be using the money to continue its growth. The bank is already profitable. In updated financials posted today, Starling said it generated revenue of £12 million ($16.6 million) in January of this year, up 400% compared to a year ago, with an annualized revenue run rate of £145 million. It posted operating profits for a fourth consecutive month, and net income currently exceeds £1.5 million per month.

Starling, founded in 2017, has now pased 2 million accounts, with 300,000 business accounts among them. It’s not clear how many of those accounts are active: the figures are for opened accounts, Starling said. Gross lending has passed £2 billion, with deposits at £5.4 billion.

Starling said it plans to use the funding both to expand its lending operations in the UK, to expand into other parts of Europe, and make some strategic acquisitions.

“Digital banking has reached a tipping point,” said Anne Boden, founder and CEO of Starling Bank, in a statement. “Customers now expect a fairer, smarter and more human alternative to the banks of the past and that is what we are giving them at Starling as we continue to grow and add new products and services. Our new investors will bring a wealth of experience as we enter the next stage of growth, while the continued support of our existing backers represents a huge vote of confidence.”

The round is being led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, with Qatar Investment Authority (QIA); RPMI Railpen (Railpen), the investment manager for the £31 billion Railways Pension Scheme; and global investment firm Millennium Management also participating, and it comes on the heels of us reporting in November that it was raising at least £200 million.

The funding comes at a critical time in consumer banking. The trend in the UK — the market where Starling is active — for the last several year has been a gradual shift to online and mobile banking, with those trends rapidly accelerating in the last year of lock-downs and enforced social distancing to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

Challenger (neo) banks have been some of the biggest winners of evolving consumer habits. Using rails provided as white-label services by way of APIs from banking infrastructure providers (another startup category in itself with companies like Rapyd, Plaid, Mambu, CurrencyCloud and others all involved) they will offer the same basic services such as checking and deposit, but they will typically do so with considerably  more flexibility, and additional savings and financial tips, and savings services to customers — all carried out over digital platforms.

Big, incumbent banks have scrambled to keep up with innovation, but newer generations of users are less beholden to their brands and incumbency, not least a result of the banking crisis last decade that revealed many of them to be cosiderably less competent and solid than many might have assumed.

That bigger market picture has also meant a surge of many neobanks, and so Starling competes with more than just the incumbents. Others include Monese, Revolut, Tide, Atom and Monzo — the latter a particularly acute competitor, founded by the ex-CTO of Starling.

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Deliveroo posted narrowed loss of $309M, with gross transactions surging to $5.7B in 2020, EITF shows

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The clock has officially started ticking on Deliveroo’s plans to go public in April. After announcing last week that it planned to list on the London Stock Exchange, today the on-demand food delivery company backed by Amazon and others published selected updated financials for the previous fiscal year, along with its Expected Intention to Float (EITF) — a more formal document that marks the two-week period until the company publishes its prospectus and, at the start of April, embarks on its subsequent IPO.

The bottom line is that Deliveroo is still unprofitable. It posted a 2020 underlying loss of £223.7 million ($309 million), but that figure was down by nearly £100 million from 2019, when it chalked up a loss of £317 million ($438 million). It did not disclose revenues (sometimes called turnover) in today’s statement.

The company said that it now serves some 6 million customers, with its three-sided marketplace also including more than 115,000 restaurants, takeaways and grocery stores, and 100,000 riders in 800 locations among 12 markets.

At the same time, Deliveroo showed some clear momentum in a year where many restaurants had to close their doors and shift operations to take-away models because of Covid-19.

It notes that it has been profitable on an “Adjusted EBITDA basis” over two quarters, with underlying gross profit up by 89.5% to £358 million ($495 million) compared to £189 million in 2019.

Its gross transaction volume (total amount spent by consumers ordering food) grew by 64% to £4.1 billion ($5.67 billion) with the run-rate in Q4 surging to £5 billion. This figure is unsurprising when you consider that Q4 represented the holiday period, and additionally the UK market (Deliveroo’s primary market and its home) went through not one but two different periods of being locked down in that quarter (the second of these is still in place).

It also notes that gross profit margin as a percentage of GTV has grown from 5.8% in 2018 to 8.8% in 2020, with some markets getting to 12%.

“The company remains focused on investing in driving growth in a nascent online food market,” it noted in the EITF, although I’m not sure nascent is exactly the word I’d use. Its drivers are easily the most visible of the many delivery services that exist in London. Deliveroo estimates that the restaurant and grocery sectors represent an addressable market of £1.2 trillion ($1.66 trillion) across the 12 regions where it offers services. In that figure, it says that just 3% of sales are estimated to be online, “equivalent to less than 1 out of the 21 weekly meal occasions being online.”

The company was valued at over $7 billion in it last fundraising, a $180 million round from Durable, Fidelity and others, as recently as January of this year.

It’s a huge leap that is the stuff that tech myths are made of (with untold hours of blood, sweat and tears, and a lot of luck too). I met Will Shu, the CEO and founder, when he was just really getting started at Deliveroo, and he seemed somewhat bewildered by how fast the startup was growing and where it was leading him. It’s interesting that he himself hasn’t forgotten those early days, either, which surely help keep the company focused at a time when there are a lot of opportunities, and therefore a lot of potential for focus unravelling.

“I never set out to be a founder or a CEO. I was never into start-ups, I didn’t read TechCrunch. I’m not one of those Silicon Valley types with a million ideas,” he noted in his letter published in the EITF. “I had one idea. One idea born out of personal frustration. An idea that I was fanatically obsessed with: I wanted to get great food delivered from amazing London restaurants.”

The prospectus will tell us how much the company intends to raise in its IPO so we’ll know those numbers soon. In the meantime, Deliveroo said that it plans to “invest in its long-term proposition by developing its core marketplace, enhancing its superior consumer experience, providing restaurant and grocery partners with unique tools to help them grow their businesses, and providing riders with the flexible work they value alongside security.”

It’s also going to continue building out “dark kitchens” (which it brands Editions); Signature, a white-label service for restaurants to offer delivery via their own online channels; Plus, a Prime-style loyalty subscription service; and on-demand grocery — which is also shaping up to be a huge market in Europe and the rest of the world.

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Porsche raises stake in electric car and components maker Rimac Automobili

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Rimac Automobili, the Croatian company known for its electric hypercars and battery and powertrain development, has gained yet another investment from Porsche AG.

Porsche said Monday it has invested 70 million euros ($83.3 miilion) into Rimac, a move that increases its stake from 15% to 24%.

This is the third time Porsche has invested into Rimac. The German automaker made its first investment into Rimac in 2018. Porsche increased its equity stake into Rimac in September 2019. A few months earlier, Hyundai Motor Company and Kia Motors jointly invested €80 million ($90 million at the time) into Rimac.

Rimac was founded by Mate Rimac in 2009 and is perhaps best known for its electric hypercars, such as the two-seater C Two that it debuted in 2018 at the Geneva International Motor Show. The vehicle produces an eye-popping 1,914 horsepower, has a top speed of 256 miles per hour and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 1.85 seconds. Rimac plans to unveil C Two in its final form in 2021.

However, Rimac does more than produce hypercars. The company, which employs 1,000 people, also focuses on battery technology within the high-voltage segment, engineers and manufactures electric powertrains and develops digital interfaces between humans and machines.

Porsche is most interested in Rimac’s development of components, according to comments made by Lutz Meschke, the deputy chairman of Porsche AG’s executive board. Meschke noted that Rimac is “excellently positioned in prototype solutions and small series” and “is well on its way to becoming a Tier 1 supplier for Porsche and other manufacturers in the high-tech segment.”

Porsche has already placed its first orders with Rimac for the development of highly innovative series components, according to Meschke.

Despite its continued investments, Porsche said it doesn’t have a controlling stake in Rimac.

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