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Why Denmark’s “corona passport” is more of a promise than a plan



When acting Danish finance minister Morten Bødskov announced last week that Denmark would soon launch a digital “corona passport,” the news spread rapidly around the world. For many, the promise of an app that would enable people to prove they were vaccinated against covid-19 or otherwise immune was exciting: it suddenly put international travel, restaurant meals, nights at movie theaters, and even massive music festivals within reach once again.

Bødskov was bullish about the prospects for such a system. “We are taking the first steps,” he said, so that “in three to four months, a digital corona passport will be ready for use for things like business trips.”

The initiative seemed to be in keeping with Denmark’s relatively decisive approach to the pandemic. In March 2020 it was one of the first countries in Europe to institute a lockdown to try to contain the virus, and in November it was quick to order a cull of farmed minks when a new variant spotted in the animals was linked to 12 cases in humans. In truth, though, the “corona passport” announcement was more a statement of intent than an actual launch. 

The Danish government may have an aggressive timeline, but it has released few details of its plans. It has not specified what information the passport will contain, nor has it even issued a call for tenders yet. And once it does, say experts, it will have to grapple with the same thorny health and ethical issues that have stymied similar certification efforts around the world. 

“Ready in a week”

The corona passport is intended to speed a return to normal, but what it will look like is still under discussion.

“Our suggestion is that it work digitally, like an app,” says Henriette Søltoft, deputy director of the Confederation of Danish Industry, which is partnering with the government to develop the project. “And that it will be automatically updated. If you get a new test result, it will show up there.” 

Technologically, the passport isn’t terribly complicated. Phones already carry health information, and for months companies have been working to develop the required software—and lobbying for it to be used. Martin Petersen Lennards, the Danish public sector leader for IBM Global Business Services, says his company’s tool is pretty much ready to go. 

“It will combine data on tests and vaccination, depending on local government rules,” he says. “You as a citizen just download the app and consent that the data be shared. Then, when you enter an airplane or a concert or a restaurant, it generates a QR code for the business to scan. From the front end, it’s rather simple.”

The back end, however, is a little more complicated. Because it entails exchanging sensitive data securely, both privacy and fraud are important concerns. IBM is using the blockchain to manage this; other providers, such as The Commons Project, propose different solutions.

Overall, what Denmark is aiming for sounds a lot like other systems that have been suggested but not yet released. But given the country’s small size and high degree of centralization—to say nothing of specific cultural values—it is better positioned than most to eventually carry it out. 

Lennards says IBM could have a pilot passport ready to go within a week and could easily roll the project out nationally in months, largely thanks to the country’s combination of centralized health information and a single online identity authentication system, called NEM-ID, that citizens already use for banking, taxes, and communication with the government. 

Working out exactly how the passport will be deployed promises to be stickier, however. In order to fully reopen the economy, business leaders like Søltoft are pressing for the passport to include more than just vaccination status—that is, to treat covid negativity or prior infection on an equal footing with immunization. “People have to understand that a corona passport is not just for vaccine certification. It should also include negative test results and note if you have immunity because you’ve had the virus and recovered,” she says. 

“Concerned with tech, not with health”

But the public health implications of such a move worry some scientists. Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist at the University of Copenhagen, thinks the passport is a good idea generally, but he’s concerned about treating a negative test as equivalent to a vaccine—as well as other aspects of the plan. 

“So far, [the initiative] has mostly been concerned with the tech, and not with the health limitations,” he says. “But as a virologist, I can see there are holes.” 

“I know business has a vested interest… but it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.”

Even with a high degree of effectiveness, for example, vaccines leave a significant segment of the inoculated vulnerable to infection. “A passport can help open a medium-size venue like a theater, but it’s much riskier with a music festival like Roskilde,” he says, referring to an annual event that is one of the biggest such festivals in Europe. “Maybe it’s 90% effective, but if there are 100,000 people there, there are still 5,000 people who won’t be protected, even though they have the passport.” 

He is also worried about escape variants like the South African and Brazilian strains, which are proving resistant to some vaccines; not all inoculations are the same, and covid is constantly evolving. “In some cases, the vaccine should be combined with a negative test,” he says. “And in case of travel to countries with certain variants, I still wouldn’t rule out isolation. I know business has a vested interest in that not happening, and that some will say these are a minority of cases. But it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.” 

And even if the corona passport is rolled out, Denmark can’t act alone. If normality is to be restored to international travel, other countries will have to accept the document—and perhaps launch certifications of their own. On Monday, Greece and Israel signed a deal that allows vaccinated citizens to travel between the two countries; both Sweden and the UK have announced certification programs to enable their citizens to travel over the summer, and the European Union has said it hopes to generate a uniform set of standards for certification among member states. But France and Germany have so far opposed passports on privacy grounds, and in places like the US, any such plans may be thwarted by a lack of centralized health information. 

As a tiny country with a high degree of digital literacy, Denmark doesn’t face all the same challenges. But as Danish Industry’s Søltoft points out, less tangible values are also working in its favor. For one thing, she says, “people have a high level of trust in each other. We trust our authorities and each other.” It also helps that when it comes to global issues like climate change and gender equality, Denmark has gotten used to positioning itself at the forefront. “We’re so open to the rest of the world,” Søltoft adds. “So if we can lead the way, we’d like to.”

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



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



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



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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